At the recent Nonfictionow 2012 Conference I attended in Melbourne, a well known American writer, David Shields, used this quotation in his presentation. He was attempting to illustrate his purpose in writing his book “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto”, a bestselling nonfiction book that takes as its theme among many, man’s search for meaning.
The quote comes from Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral” and is an astoundingly succinct and humorous summary of how, despite our best intentions, being human foils us time and again. I love it.
“You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. … The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.”
― Philip Roth, American Pastoral