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There are words, and there are meanings, and there are stories. Usually the mark of a story is to obliterate the appearance and sound of the words, to make the page disappear as the story comes to life before the mind’s eye. But occasionally, even in the greatest of stories, the words return to the forefront--because they’re so startlingly beautiful. I’m starting to collect instances of this wherever I find them. Here’s one:

All war is a thing of terror, and there is no choice in it. The musketry of the besiegers, though confined and embarrassed by being directed from below upwards, was deadly. The rim of the hole in the ceiling was speedily surrounded by heads of the slain, whence dripped long, red and smoking streams, the uproar was indescribable; a close and burning smoke almost produced night over this combat. Words are lacking to express horror when it has reached this pitch. There were no longer men in this conflict, which was now infernal. They were no longer giants matched with colossi. It resembled Milton and Dante rather than Homer. Demons attacked, spectres resisted.
That’s from Les Miserables. It’s about the battle on the barricades. Why use such beautiful words to describe such a barbaric scene? “The musketry of the besiegers.” “Red and smoking streams.” “Close and burning smoke.” “Demons attacked, spectres resisted.” Yes, it’s horrible, but the words are beautiful, more beautiful than poetry; they have a natural rhythm that lifts their meaning to new heights and makes them unforgettable. The paragraph leaves me breathless with its passion. (It’s even better in the original French.) I don’t even need to understand a passage in order to feel this about the words, though. I don’t understand this next passage at all, and I’ve been unable to find it in context, so I don’t think I’ll ever be able to truly understand it:
Is it science? Is it glory? Do you want to refresh your eyes on moist jasmine leaves? Do you want to feel your body sink as on a swell of a wave into the soft flesh of rapturous women?*
“Is it science? Is it glory?” Oh, how I love to say those words to a mirror, with nuances of feeling. I found the passage in a transcript of the trial of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. It suddenly quotes this passage, as an example of sensuous and colorful prose. Is what science? Is what glory? Are the questions seriously inquiring, or mocking, or meant to tantalize? The transcript says that this passage was written by “Apollinaire” to “Saint Anthony.” That hasn’t helped me find where it came from, but it’s perfect as it is. Read it aloud, quietly to yourself! Or watch yourself read it in a mirror! Or have a friend or lover read it to you! It’s a delightful experience like drinking dessert wine.

Sometimes context can be helpful, though. This next wonderful passage is from My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk. The speaker is a picture of a tree, drawn for an illuminated manuscript by a royal miniaturist, but stolen by a thief before it could be installed in the volume for which it was intended. Even I am surprised at how much I adore this passage, because I usually can’t stand any recent writing. But this is beautiful:

I was meant to be among the pages of this illuminated manuscript that I sadly heard was completed today. Unfortunately, on a cold winter’s day, the Tatar courier who was carrying me as he crossed a rocky mountain pass was ambushed by thieves. First they beat the poor Tatar, then they robbed him and raped him in a manner befitting thieves before mercilessly killing him. As a result, I know nothing about the page I’ve fallen from. My request is that you look at me and ask: “Were you perhaps meant to provide shade for Menjun disguised as a shepherd as he visited Leyla in her tent?” or “Were you meant to fade into the night, representing the darkness in the soul of a wretched and hopeless man?” How I would’ve wanted to complement the happiness of two lovers who fled from the world, traversing oceans to find solace on an island rich with birds and fruit! I would’ve wanted to shade Alexander during the final moments of his life on his campaign to conquer Hindustan as he died from a persistent nosebleed brought on by sunstroke. Or was I meant to symbolize the strength and wisdom of a father offering advice on love and life to his son? Ah, to which story was I meant to add meaning and grace?
Don’t worry, poor tree. You add meaning and grace to anything touched by your story.

I love picking passages like these out of novels and other prose. They’re like secret poetry, only for me, hidden art within art, nuggets of gratuitous beauty in unexpected places.


*A little over a year later (May 2010), I have read Flaubert's Temptation of Saint Anthony and have found the missing context. But I prefer to leave this disembodied quote in the mysterious isolation I enjoyed so much when I found it.

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