When art gives you goosebumps.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to see the singer/songwriter Abby Mott in concert. I first became aware of Abby’s music through a glowing review in Baltimore Magazine, bought her CD (yes, this was a while ago), and was blown away by her voice, her writing, and the fact that she played every single freaking instrument on the album.
I became an instant fan, so much so that the lyrics to one of her songs were mentioned in my first novel, and she created the music for that novel’s animated trailer. Abby and I became sort-of friends, trading sporadic emails after she moved from this area. She returned to DC several months ago and told me about a concert she was doing in Mt. Pleasant. I’d only seen her perform one other time, so my wife and I discussed it and decided to give her the highest honor we could bestow: We deemed it babysitter-worthy.
Abby hadn’t lost a step. Her voice was still filled with emotion, the lyrics with unsentimental honesty. It was a pretty evening, listening to her (and the singer Dan Schramm) among strangers in a small, intimate environment. And there was a point, right around her song “Wild Desire,” when goosebumps lifted on my arm. Maybe because “Wild Desire” was one of the first songs of Abby’s I’d ever heard, or maybe it was the sense of abandon underneath the music.
I was thinking about those goosebumps the other day, and the transformative nature of art, and I remembered a passage that’s stuck with me for years. It’s the closing lines of Faulkner’s The Unvanquished:
“And then for a long moment I thought it was the verbena in my lapel which I still smelled. I thought that until I had crossed the room and looked down at the pillow on which it lay — the single sprig of it (without looking she would pinch off a half-dozen of them and they would be all of a size, almost all of a shape, as if a machine had stamped them out) filling the room, the dusk, the evening with that odor which she said you could smell alone above the smell of horses.”
I just retyped that line and felt breath on my neck.
I can’t really explain why it moves me, and I won’t pretend to understand everything Faulkner did in his work. But I remember when I originally read that line, and how it shook me. How it seemed to provide a line of meaning to my life, to the sense of sad romance I was stuck in back then, the confusion of delineating past and present, the longing from a lost love that strikes all your senses (except, heartbreakingly, touch).
I could have listed other lines, but the act of reading (of engaging with any art) is a shared experience, and I want to see what others had to say. So, I asked a variety of DMV-based writers to share the lines from literature that have most moved them:
"He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves."
– Carolyn Forche, "The Colonel"
"He knew well that the greatest happiness that has been known since Eden is the happiness of the unhappy."
– GK Chesterton, Charles Dickens: A Critical Study
“Shiloh isn’t haunted; men are haunted. Shiloh doesn’t care.”
– Thomas Harris, Red Dragon
"The world is a fine place and worth fighting for and I hate very much to leave it."
– Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."
– Gabriel García Marquez, 100 Years of Solitude
“The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips.”
– Raymond Chandler, The Lady in the Lake
"Why should I explain to him that it was Pyle who had met me? I had seen him last September coming across the square towards the bar of the Continental: an unmistakably young and unused face flung at us like a dart. With his gangly legs and his crew-cut and his wide campus gaze he seemed incapable of harm."
– Graham Greene, The Quiet American
“On the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons.”
– Douglass Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Got a line that shakes you like a wet dog? Leave it in the comments.