I've discovered that I don't require goodness but strangeness—strangeness and beauty.
By strangeness I don't mean eccentricity, which, like Montaigne, I find irritating. I mean unexpectedness in the movement of a mind, as when Zachary said: "I like fish because they are interesting." Zachary is not eccentric but he is strange, to my unending delight.
I also mean formal strangeness: the way a poem, for example, or a face is assembled. Beyond all other qualities strangeness is what we look for in art, and in love. It's what the French call je ne sais quoi—that certain I-don't-know-what that escapes, in both French and English, the scope of a single word.
As with beauty, we recognize strangeness immediately—so we always fall in love at at first sight.
I remember that discovery: I was seven years old and sitting in Sunday School in Lafayette, Indiana. Just in front of me: a girl's long brown hair, its streams of curls, its luxurious resplendence. At a particular moment she glanced toward the back of the room—her name, I soon learned, was Denise—and her eyes caught mine, and I was finished.
Even now, remembering that moment, I can feel her strangeness, her difference from anything else, anyone else I'd ever encountered. To my new mind she was indecipherable.
She proved to be a girl who took pleasure in kicking my shins, not unlike most girls at that time, but she was also possessed of a strange quietness, so long ago. She still had that quietness when I saw her twelve years later, in college. But our time, I knew immediately, had passed.
Great artists are like great loves: Homer, the swift-footed poet of friendship, grief, and life's on-goingness; Shakespeare, who is so strangely all-encompassing as to make everyone else seem narrow-minded; Dickinson and her dashes; Kafka; Billie Holliday; Radiohead. Borges, Bolaño, Cézanne, and Chagall. Ravenous Petronius. Cartier-Bresson, Vallejo, Gombrowicz, Bjork. The list is, thank goodness, long enough for a lifetime.
Occasionally the world itself summons us from our slumber. The fog this morning, butting up against a radiant sky to the east, enshrouds Half Moon Bay in strangeness. I'm a small animal pulsing inside the sky. And for the first time in a long time—these things can't be explained—anything seems possible.
That's the gift of strangeness: like beauty, it opens the world, transforming everything, if only for a moment, into real—not fantastical—mystery.