It was at least twenty-five years ago that I came upon a quote which grabbed me by the scruples. It was from John Moore Cornwell (alias John le Carré). I printed it out on a decorative sheet of paper, and since then it’s been posted on the wall of whichever room I considered my office, staring at me so continuously that, as can happen with the familiar and the frequently-encountered, it slipped out of focus. It was there, but it no longer spoke to me. Or rather, it spoke to me non-stop, but I stopped listening.
Then a couple days ago I saw it again — really saw it — and once again listened.
So what can you do when the world around you, the one you thought you understood, the one you assumed would be the world around you for all time, suddenly begins to disintegrate? You want to reach out, take hold of it, keep it safe and close. But your reach is small and your hand is weak. You cannot, it seems, do anything big enough, powerful enough, to rescue that world, all at once to pull it back close.
For — call it hope, call it opportunity, call it challenge — here’s a passage from All the Light We Cannot See, which won the Pulitzer Prize a couple years back. It’s about people in Europe during World War II, ordinary people trying to hold onto their world.
Madame Manec snaps open the door of the icebox. Marie-Laure can hear her rummage through a drawer. A match flares; a cigarette lights. Soon enough a bowl of undercooked potatoes appears before Marie-Laure. She feels around the table for a fork but finds none.
“Do you know, Etienne,” says Madame Etienne from the other side of the kitchen, “what happens when you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water?”
“You will tell us, I am sure.”
“It jumps out. But do you know what happens when you put the frog into a pot of cool water and then slowly bring it to a boil? You know what happens then?”
Marie-Laure waits. The potatoes steam.
Madame Manec says, “The frog cooks.”