Brain Pickings

Why We Hurt Each Other: Tolstoy’s Letters to Gandhi on Love, Violence, and the Truth of the Human Spirit

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“Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills.”

In 1908, Indian revolutionary Taraknath Das wrote to Leo Tolstoy, by then one of the most famous public figures in the world, asking for the author’s support in India’s independence from British colonial rule. On December 14, Tolstoy, who had spent the last twenty years seeking the answers to life’s greatest moral questions, was moved to reply in a long letter, which Das published in the Indian newspaper Free Hindustan. Passed from hand to hand, the missive finally made its way to the young Mahatma Gandhi, whose career as a peace leader was just beginning in South Africa. He wrote to Tolstoy asking for permission to republish it in his own South African newspaper, Indian Opinion. Tolstoy’s letter was later published in English under the title A Letter to a Hindu (free download; public library).

The exchange sparked an ongoing correspondence between the two that lasted until Tolstoy’s death — a meeting of two great minds and spirits, eventually collected in Letters from One: Correspondence (and more) of Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas Gandhi and rivaled only by Einstein’s correspondence with Freud on violence and human nature.

Tolstoy’s letters issue a clarion call for nonviolent resistance — he admonishes against false ideologies, both religious and pseudo-scientific, that promote violence, an act he sees as unnatural for the human spirit, and advocates for a return to our most natural, basic state, which is the law of love. Evil, Tolstoy argues with passionate conviction, is restrained not with violence but with love — something Maya Angelou would come to echo beautifully decades later.

Gandhi’s introduction to the original edition, in which he calls Tolstoy “one of the clearest thinkers in the western world, one of the greatest writers,” offers a pithy caveat to the text, as perfect today as it was a century ago:

One need not accept all that Tolstoy says … to realize the central truth of his indictment.

[...]

There is no doubt that there is nothing new in what Tolstoy preaches. But his presentation of the old truth is refreshingly forceful. His logic is unassailable. And above all he endeavors to practice what he preaches. He preaches to convince. He is sincere and in earnest. He commands attention.

Tolstoy opens each “chapter” of his missive — for the letter’s length, indeed, puts in glaring perspective the nuanceless and hasty op-eds of our time, contrasting the truly reflective with the merely reactive — by quoting a passage from Krishna as a backdrop for his political, moral, and humanistic arguments. His words bear extraordinary prescience today, as we face a swelling tide of political unrest, ethnic violence, and global conflict. He writes:

The reason for the astonishing fact that a majority of working people submit to a handful of idlers who control their labour and their very lives is always and everywhere the same — whether the oppressors and oppressed are of one race or whether … the oppressors are of a different nation.

[...]

The reason lies in the lack of a reasonable religious teaching which by explaining the meaning of life would supply a supreme law for the guidance of conduct and would replace the more than dubious precepts of pseudo-religion and pseudo-science with the immoral conclusions deduced from them and commonly called “civilization.”

It’s worth pausing here to note that Tolstoy’s notion of “religious teaching” is perhaps best regarded as “spiritual direction,” for he dedicated a great portion of his life trying to discern precisely such spiritual direction for himself by selectively culling wisdom from all the major religious and philosophical traditions. Indeed, he speaks to that aspect directly further along in the letter:

In every individual a spiritual element is manifested that gives life to all that exists, and that this spiritual element strives to unite with everything of a like nature to itself, and attains this aim through love… The mere fact that this thought has sprung up among different nations and at different times indicates that it is inherent in human nature and contains the truth. But this truth was made known to people who considered that a community could only be kept together if some of them restrained others, and so it appeared quite irreconcilable with the existing order of society.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Tolstoy's 'Nikolenka's Childhood.' Click image for more.

He considers how political ideologies hijacked this basic law of love at various times in human history and tried to replace it with a law of violent submission:

This truth was made known to people who considered that a community could only be kept together if some of them restrained others, and so it appeared quite irreconcilable with the existing order of society… The dissemination of the truth in a society based on coercion was always hindered in one and the same manner, namely, those in power, feeling that the recognition of this truth would undermine their position, consciously or sometimes unconsciously perverted it by explanations and additions quite foreign to it, and also opposed it by open violence. Thus the truth — that his life should be directed by the spiritual element which is its basis, which manifests itself as love, and which is so natural to man—this truth, in order to force a way to man’s consciousness, had to struggle not merely against the obscurity with which it was expressed and the intentional and unintentional distortions surrounding it, but also against deliberate violence, which by means of persecutions and punishments sought to compel men to accept religious laws authorized by the rulers and conflicting with the truth.

[...]

The recognition that love represents the highest morality was nowhere denied or contradicted, but this truth was so interwoven everywhere with all kinds of falsehoods which distorted it, that finally nothing of it remained but words. It was taught that this highest morality was only applicable to private life — for home use, as it were — but that in public life all forms of violence — such as imprisonment, executions, and wars — might be used for the protection of the majority against a minority of evildoers, though such means were diametrically opposed to any vestige of love. And though common sense indicated that if some men claim to decide who is to be subjected to violence of all kinds for the benefit of others, these men to whom violence is applied may, in turn, arrive at a similar conclusion with regard to those who have employed violence to them, and though the great religious teachers … foreseeing such a perversion of the law of love, have constantly drawn attention to the one invariable condition of love (namely, the enduring of injuries, insults, and violence of all kinds without resisting evil by evil) people continued — regardless of all that leads man forward — to try to unite the incompatibles: the virtue of love, and what is opposed to love, namely, the restraining of evil by violence. And such a teaching, despite its inner contradiction, was so firmly established that the very people who recognize love as a virtue accept as lawful at the same time an order of life based on violence and allowing men not merely to torture but even to kill one another.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Tolstoy's 'Nikolenka's Childhood.' Click image for more.

He distills this idea to one “old and simple truth”:

It is natural for men to help and to love one another, but not to torture and to kill one another.

In addition to the false interpretations of religion, Tolstoy takes equal issue with scientific reductionism — something that undoubtedly felt like a great threat at the dawn of the twentieth century, when science was just beginning break to down the material universe into its basic atomic units, a discovery that many feared might be reduced to the hollowing belief that a human being is nothing more than physical “stuff.” Both science and religion, Tolstoy argues, could result in dangerous dogma that blinds us to the basic law of love, if taken at face value and stripped of nuance — the danger of, as he puts it, “scientific superstition replacing the religious one”:

But by the term “scientific” is understood just what was formerly understood by the term “religious”: just as formerly everything called “religious” was held to be unquestionable simply because it was called religious, so now all that is called “scientific” is held to be unquestionable… The unfortunate majority of men bound to toil is so dazzled by the pomp with which these “scientific truths” are presented, that under this new influence it accepts these scientific stupidities for holy truth, just as it formerly accepted the pseudo-religious justifications.

(How easy it is even today for laypeople to be “dazzled by the pomp” of questionable science journalism that prioritizes clickbait sensationalism — something else about which Tolstoy held passionate, prescient opinions — over clarity and rigor.)

He returns to the central point, affirming Gandhi’s advocacy of nonviolent resistance:

Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills, and in it you too have the only method of saving your people from enslavement… Love, and forcible resistance to evil-doers, involve such a mutual contradiction as to destroy utterly the whole sense and meaning of the conception of love.

Considering the British colonization of India, Tolstoy marvels at how “a commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred millions” and argues that this was only made possible by people, both the oppressors and the oppressed, failing to contact “the eternal law of love inherent in humanity.” He writes:

As soon as men live entirely in accord with the law of love natural to their hearts and now revealed to them, which excludes all resistance by violence, and therefore hold aloof from all participation in violence — as soon as this happens, not only will hundreds be unable to enslave millions, but not even millions will be able to enslave a single individual.

Reflecting on the process of reawakening to that “eternal law,” Tolstoy offers a developmental metaphor:

What is now happening to the people of the East as of the West is like what happens to every individual when he passes from childhood to adolescence and from youth to manhood. He loses what had hitherto guided his life and lives without direction, not having found a new standard suitable to his age, and so he invents all sorts of occupations, cares, distractions, and stupefactions to divert his attention from the misery and senselessness of his life. Such a condition may last a long time.

When an individual passes from one period of life to another a time comes when he cannot go on in senseless activity and excitement as before, but has to understand that although he has outgrown what before used to direct him, this does not mean that he must live without any reasonable guidance, but rather that he must formulate for himself an understanding of life corresponding to his age, and having elucidated it must be guided by it. And in the same way a similar time must come in the growth and development of humanity. I believe that such a time has now arrived — not in the sense that it has come in the year 1908, but that the inherent contradiction of human life has now reached an extreme degree of tension: on the one side there is the consciousness of the beneficence of the law of love, and on the other the existing order of life which has for centuries occasioned an empty, anxious, restless, and troubled mode of life, conflicting as it does with the law of love and built on the use of violence. This contradiction must be faced, and the solution will evidently not be favorable to the outlived law of violence, but to the truth which has dwelt in the hearts of men from remote antiquity: the truth that the law of love is in accord with the nature of man.

But men can only recognize this truth to its full extent when they have completely freed themselves from all religious and scientific superstitions and from all the consequent misrepresentations and sophistical distortions by which its recognition has been hindered for centuries.

To save a sinking ship it is necessary to throw overboard the ballast, which though it may once have been needed would now cause the ship to sink.

Sensing that global tensions were brewing, Tolstoy added the prescient admonition that “in our time all these things must be cleared away in order that mankind may escape from self-inflicted calamities that have reached an extreme intensity.” World War I broke out less than five years later. One of humanity’s grimmest self-inflicted calamities offered evidence, as modern wars do, that we still have a long way to go before reaching that return to the basic nature of love Tolstoy envisioned — which is why Tolstoy’s closing words to Gandhi ring with amplified urgency today:

What are wanted for the Indian as for the Englishman, the Frenchman, the German, and the Russian, are not Constitutions and Revolutions, nor all sorts of Conferences and Congresses, nor the many ingenious devices for submarine navigation and aerial navigation, nor powerful explosives, nor all sorts of conveniences to add to the enjoyment of the rich, ruling classes; nor new schools and universities with innumerable faculties of science, nor an augmentation of papers and books, nor gramophones and cinematographs, nor those childish and for the most part corrupt stupidities termed art — but one thing only is needful: the knowledge of the simple and clear truth which finds place in every soul that is not stupefied by religious and scientific superstitions — the truth that for our life one law is valid — the law of love, which brings the highest happiness to every individual as well as to all mankind. Free your minds from those overgrown, mountainous imbecilities which hinder your recognition of it, and at once the truth will emerge from amid the pseudo-religious nonsense that has been smothering it: the indubitable, eternal truth inherent in man, which is one and the same in all the great religions of the world.

(Twelve years earlier, Tolstoy found far more than “childish and for the most part corrupt stupidities” in art in his sublime essay on the “emotional infectiousness” of art.)

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Writing to Gandhi again on September 7, 1910 — eight weeks before he took his final breath — Tolstoy revisited the subject with even more heartfelt conviction:

The longer I live — especially now when I clearly feel the approach of death — the more I feel moved to express what I feel more strongly than anything else, and what in my opinion is of immense importance, namely, what we call the renunciation of all opposition by force, which really simply means the doctrine of the law of love unperverted by sophistries. Love, or in other words the striving of men’s souls towards unity and the submissive behavior to one another that results therefrom, represents the highest and indeed the only law of life, as every man knows and feels in the depths of his heart (and as we see most clearly in children), and knows until he becomes involved in the lying net of worldly thoughts… Any employment of force is incompatible with love.

A Letter to a Hindu is well worth a read in its entirety, and it’s available as a free download. Complement it with Tolstoy on finding meaning in a meaningless world, his timeless Calendar of Wisdom, and a rare recording of the author reading from it shortly before his death, then revisit another extraordinary exchange of Eastern and Western ideas in Einstein and Tagore’s 1930 conversation about Truth and Beauty.

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Why the Sky and the Ocean Are Blue: The Color of Distance and Desire

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“Something is always far away… After all we hardly know our own depths.”

“To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats,” the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote after Apollo 8′s legendary “Earthrise” photograph made its debut in 1968, “is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold…” Its unprecedented perspective of distance seemed, paradoxically enough, to bring us earthlings closer together, to desire connection to one another more strongly than ever before. Nearly three decades earlier, Simone Weil touched on another aspect of this paradoxical relationship between spatial remoteness and emotional closeness when she wrote in a letter to a friend: “Let us love this distance, which is thoroughly woven with friendship, since those who do not love each other are not separated.” So much of “the aggregate of our joy and suffering” that takes place on our Pale Blue Dot seems to stem from this eternal tug-of-war between distance and desire.

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost (public library) — that sublime meditation on how we find ourselves in the unknownRebecca Solnit examines the color blue and its relationship to desire in an exquisite essay that begins with the scientific and blossoms into the poetic:

The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.

For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.

Trampolining off former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass‘s memorable formulation that “desire is full of endless distances,” Solnit dives into the pooling of the physical and the metaphysical:

Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world.

This relationship between desire and distance, Solnit argues in one of the most poignant passages in this altogether brilliant book, is also the root of our deep-seated unease with desire — a state we approach with a single-minded quest for its eradication. We seek to demolish it either with grasping action, through consummation, or with restless resistance, through denial and suppression. We can’t, it seems, just be with desire — bear witness to it, inhabit it fully, approach it with what John Keats memorably termed “negative capability.” With extraordinary elegance and sensitivity, Solnit offers a remedy for this chronic anxiety:

We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.

Playing off Simone Weil’s bittersweet paean to distance and separation, Solnit writes:

The far seeps in even to the nearest. After all we hardly know our own depths.

Artwork from Ralph Steadman's illustrated biography of Leonardo. Click image for more.

Blue, it turns out, has long been used as a symbolic demarcation of distance. Solnit cites Leonardo da Vinci’s philosophy on painting buildings:

To make one appear more distant than another, you should represent the air as rather dense. Therefore make the first building . . . of its own color; the next most distant make less outlined and more blue; that which you wish to show at yet another distance, make bluer yet again; and that which is five times more distant make five times more blue.

Solnit considers the role of temporal and psychological distance in the architecture of memory — that singular human faculty that keeps the horizons of our lived experience, however distant and blurry, in sight — by recounting the disintegration of a vivid childhood memory:

When I was two, we lived in Lima, Peru, for a year, and all of us, mother, father, brothers, and I, went up into the Andes once, and then sailed across Lake Titicaca, from Peru to Bolivia. Lake Titicaca, one of those high-altitude lakes, Tahoe, Como, Constance, Atitlán, like blue eyes staring back at the blue sky.

One day a few years ago my mother took out of her cedar chest the turquoise blouse she bought for me on that trip to Bolivia, a miniature of the native women’s outfits. When she unfolded the little garment and gave it to me, the living memory of wearing the garment collided shockingly with the fact that it was so tiny, with arms less than a foot long, with a tiny bodice for a small cricket cage of a ribcage that was no longer mine, and the shock was that my vivid memory included what it felt like to be inside that brocade shirt but not the fact that inside it I had been so diminutive, had been something utterly other than my adult self who remembered. The continuity of memory did not measure the abyss between a toddler’s body and a woman’s.

When I recovered the blouse, I lost the memory, for the two were irreconcilable. It vanished in an instant, and I saw it go… Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we like to think. And some things cannot be moved or owned. Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.

Solnit closes with a return to the overpowering duality of distance, at once destructive and generative:

The blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy, of loss, the texture of longing, of the complexity of the terrain we traverse, and with the years of travel. If sorrow and beauty are all tied up together, then perhaps maturity brings with it not … abstraction, but an aesthetic sense that partially redeems the losses time brings and finds beauty in the faraway.

[...]

Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost is spectacular in its entirety and remains one of the best books I’ve ever devoured.

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Werner Herzog on Creativity, Self-Reliance, Making a Living of What You Love, and How to Turn Your Ideas Into Reality

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“If your project has real substance, ultimately the money will follow you like a common cur in the street with its tail between its legs.”

Werner Herzog is celebrated as one of the most influential and innovative filmmakers of our time, but his ascent to acclaim was far from a straight trajectory from privilege to power. Abandoned by his father at an early age, Herzog survived a WWII bombing that demolished the house next door to his childhood home and was raised by a single mother in near-poverty. He found his calling in filmmaking after reading an encyclopedia entry on the subject as a teenager and took a job as a welder in a steel factory in his late teens to fund his first films. These building blocks of his character — tenacity, self-reliance, imaginative curiosity — shine with blinding brilliance in the richest and most revealing of Herzog’s interviews. Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (public library) — not to be confused with E.F. Schumacher’s excellent 1978 philosophy book of the same title — presents the director’s extensive, wide-ranging conversation with writer and filmmaker Paul Cronin. His answers are unfiltered and to-the-point, often poignant but always unsentimental, not rude but refusing to infest the garden of honest human communication with the Victorian-seeded, American-sprouted weed of pointless politeness.

Herzog’s insights coalesce into a kind of manifesto for following one’s particular calling, a form of intelligent, irreverent self-help for the modern creative spirit — indeed, even though Herzog is a humanist fully detached from religion, there is a strong spiritual undertone to his wisdom, rooted in what Cronin calls “unadulterated intuition” and spanning everything from what it really means to find your purpose and do what you love to the psychology and practicalities of worrying less about money to the art of living with presence with an age of productivity. As Cronin points out in the introduction, Herzog’s thoughts collected in the book are “a decades-long outpouring, a response to the clarion call, to the fervent requests for guidance.”

And yet in many ways, A Guide for the Perplexed could well have been titled A Guide to the Perplexed, for Herzog is as much a product of his “cumulative humiliations and defeats,” as he himself phrases it, as of his own “chronic perplexity,” to borrow E.B. White’s unforgettable term — Herzog possesses that rare, paradoxical combination of absolute clarity of conviction and wholehearted willingness to inhabit his own inner contradictions, to pursue life’s open-endedness with equal parts focus of vision and nimbleness of navigation.

A certain self-reliance that permeates his films and his mind, a refusal to let the fear of failure inhibit trying — a sensibility the voiceover in the final scene of Herzog’s The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz captures perfectly: “Even a defeat is better than nothing at all.” He tells Cronin:

There is nothing wrong with hardships and obstacles, but everything wrong with not trying.

Illustration by Tove Jansson from 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

Herzog reflects on failure as a prerequisite for creative mastery:

The bad films have taught me most about filmmaking. Seek out the negative definition. Sit in front of a film and ask yourself, “Given the chance, is this how I would do it?” It’s a never-ending educational experience, a way of discovering in which direction you need to take your own work and ideas.

He takes this notion of self-reliance — as he does most things he believes — to an almost religious degree:

I did as much as possible myself; it was an article of faith, a matter of simple human decency to do the dirty work as long as I could… Three things — a phone, computer and car — are all you need to produce films. Even today I still do most things myself. Although at times it would be good if I had more support, I would rather put the money up on the screen instead of adding people to the payroll.

Indeed, having grown up without money and earned every penny himself, Herzog considers this self-reliance closely intertwined with the question of financial struggle — a circumstance he always refused to mistake for a fatal roadblock to the creative drive. His wisdom on the subject extends beyond film and applies just as perceptively to almost any field of endeavor in today’s creative landscape:

The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not to wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. If you can’t afford to make a million-dollar film, raise $10,000 and produce it yourself. That’s all you need to make a feature film these days. Beware of useless, bottom-rung secretarial jobs in film-production companies. Instead, so long as you are able-bodied, head out to where the real world is. Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Drive a taxi for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a film. Walk on foot, learn languages and a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema. Filmmaking — like great literature — must have experience of life at its foundation. Read Conrad or Hemingway and you can tell how much real life is in those books. A lot of what you see in my films isn’t invention; it’s very much life itself, my own life. If you have an image in your head, hold on to it because — as remote as it might seem — at some point you might be able to use it in a film. I have always sought to transform my own experiences and fantasies into cinema.

He later revisits the subject even more pointedly:

A natural component of filmmaking is the struggle to find money. It has been an uphill battle my entire working life… If you want to make a film, go make it. I can’t tell you the number of times I have started shooting a film knowing I didn’t have the money to finish it. I meet people everywhere who complain about money; it’s the ingrained nature of too many filmmakers. But it should be clear to everyone that money has always had certain explicit qualities: it’s stupid and cowardly, slow and unimaginative. The circumstances of funding never just appear; you have to create them yourself, then manipulate them for your own ends. This is the very nature and daily toil of filmmaking. If your project has real substance, ultimately the money will follow you like a common cur in the street with its tail between its legs. There is a German proverb: “Der Teufel scheisst immer auf den grössten Haufen” [“The Devil always shits on the biggest heap”]. So start heaping and have faith. Every time you make a film you should be prepared to descend into Hell and wrestle it from the claws of the Devil himself. Prepare yourself: there is never a day without a sucker punch. At the same time, be pragmatic and learn how to develop an understanding of when to abandon an idea. Follow your dreams no matter what, but reconsider if they can’t be realized in certain situations. A project can become a cul-de-sac and your life might slip through your fingers in pursuit of something that can never be realized. Know when to walk away.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from 'The Wizard of Oz.' Click image for more.

This question of money parlays into what’s perhaps Herzog’s most urgent and piercing point — a testament to the idea that anything worthwhile takes a long time:

Perseverance has kept me going over the years. Things rarely happen overnight. Filmmakers should be prepared for many years of hard work. The sheer toil can be healthy and exhilarating.

Although for many years I lived hand to mouth — sometimes in semi-poverty — I have lived like a rich man ever since I started making films. Throughout my life I have been able to do what I truly love, which is more valuable than any cash you could throw at me. At a time when friends were establishing themselves by getting university degrees, going into business, building careers and buying houses, I was making films, investing everything back into my work. Money lost, film gained.

Ultimately, this notion of doing what you love is rooted in defining your own success, which often requires the bravery of not buying into the cultural template. Herzog captures this elegantly:

Even if I went broke, I wouldn’t be able to sell anything to the highest bidder. What makes me rich is that I am welcomed almost everywhere. I can show up with my films and am offered hospitality, something you could never achieve with money alone… For years I have struggled harder than you can imagine for true liberty, and today am privileged in the way the boss of a huge corporation never will be.

Illustration by Gaëtan Dorémus from 'Bear Despair,' a wordless story about obsession and perseverance. Click image for more.

Observing that happiness and meaningfulness are not necessarily the same thing — something researchers have since confirmed — Herzog echoes artist Agnes Martin’s assertion that doing what you were born to do is the secret of happiness and tells Cronin:

I find the notion of happiness rather strange… It has never been a goal of mine; I just don’t think in those terms.

[...]

I try to give meaning to my existence through my work. That’s a simplified answer, but whether I’m happy or not really doesn’t count for much. I have always enjoyed my work. Maybe “enjoy” isn’t the right word; I love making films, and it means a lot to me that I can work in this profession. I am well aware of the many aspiring filmmakers out there with good ideas who never find a foothold. At the age of fourteen, once I realized filmmaking was an uninvited duty for me, I had no choice but to push on with my projects. Cinema has given me everything, but has also taken everything from me.

(This calls to mind a line Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in March of 1979: “There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work.”)

Herzog describes his ideation process in almost violent terms, framing the creative act as an inherently ambivalent one, oscillating between creation, destruction, and purging:

The problem isn’t coming up with ideas, it is how to contain the invasion. My ideas are like uninvited guests. They don’t knock on the door; they climb in through the windows like burglars who show up in the middle of the night and make a racket in the kitchen as they raid the fridge. I don’t sit and ponder which one I should deal with first. The one to be wrestled to the floor before all others is the one coming at me with the most vehemence. I have, over the years, developed methods to deal with the invaders as quickly and efficiently as possible, though the burglars never stop coming. You invite a handful of friends for dinner, but the door bursts open and a hundred people are pushing in. You might manage to get rid of them, but from around the corner another fifty appear almost immediately… Finishing a film is like having a great weight lifted from my shoulders. It’s relief, not necessarily happiness. But you relish dealing with these “burglars.” I am glad to be rid of them after making a film or writing a book. The ideas are uninvited guests, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t welcome.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I’ll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss, 1954. Click image for more.

Channeling T.S. Eliot’s notion of the mystical quality of creativity and Bukowski’s assertion that true creative work “comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut,” Herzog — who, like Maira Kalman, sees walking as a creative catalyst — considers how his ideas arise:

My films come to me very much alive, like dreams, without explanation. I never think about what it all means. I think only about telling a story, and however illogical the images, I let them invade me. An idea comes to me, and then, over a period of time — perhaps while driving or walking — this blurred vision becomes clearer in my mind, pulling itself into focus.

[...]

When I write, I sit in front of the computer and pound the keys. I start at the beginning and write fast, leaving out anything that isn’t necessary, aiming at all times for the hard core of the narrative. I can’t write without that urgency. Something is wrong if it takes more than five days to finish a screenplay. A story created this way will always be full of life.

In that creative act, Herzog argues, lies the artist’s broader cultural responsibility to continually reinvent the established forms:

We need images in accordance with our civilization and innermost conditioning, which is why I appreciate any film that searches for novelty, no matter in what direction it moves or what story it tells… The struggle to find unprocessed imagery is never-ending, but it’s our duty to dig like archaeologists and search our violated landscapes. We live in an era when established values are no longer valid, when prodigious discoveries are being made every year, when catastrophes of unbelievable proportions occur weekly. In ancient Greek the word “chaos” means “gaping void” or “yawning emptiness.” The most effective response to the chaos in our lives is the creation of new forms of literature, music, poetry, art and cinema.

And yet being preoccupied with form can be limiting — it should emerge from the story organically rather than seek to shape it:

I don’t consciously reflect on aesthetics before making a film because, for me, the story always dictates such things. Of course, aesthetics do sometimes enter unconsciously through the back door, because whether we like it or not our preferences always somehow influence the decisions we make. If I were to think about my handwriting while writing an important letter, the words would become meaningless. When you write a passionate love letter and focus on making sure your longhand is as beautiful as possible, it isn’t going to be much of a love letter. But if you concentrate on the words and emotions, your particular style of longhand – which has nothing to do with the letter per se — will somehow seep in of its own accord. Aesthetics, if they even exist, are to be discovered only once a film has been completed.

Herzog doesn’t shy away from touching on the existential:

We can never know what truth really is. The best we can do is approximate… Truth can never be definitively captured or described, though the quest to find answers is what gives meaning to our existence.

In one of his most endearingly characteristic proclamations, Herzog tells Cronin why he has never taken vacation:

It would never occur to me… I work steadily and methodically, with great focus. There is never anything frantic about how I do my job; I’m no workaholic. A holiday is a necessity for someone whose work is an unchanged daily routine, but for me everything is constantly fresh and always new. I love what I do, and my life feels like one long vacation.

Above all, however, Herzog reveals himself as a rare master of prioritizing presence over productivity:

I work best under pressure, knee-deep in the mud. It helps me concentrate. The truth is I have never been guided by the kind of strict discipline I see in some people, those who get up at five in the morning and jog for an hour. My priorities are elsewhere. I will rearrange my entire day to have a solid meal with friends.

Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss captures Herzog’s singular spirit in the afterword:

The Werner Herzog I have come to know is not the wild man of his press clippings. He is a caring, thoughtful, playful and essentially gentle human being. Possessing a restless mind, with a fertile and creative imagination, he is a man interested in all aspects of the human experience. Self-taught, he is widely read and deeply knowledgeable. I like to think that one of the reasons we enjoy each other’s company is that we both share a deep excitement in the human experience.

Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed is a spectacular read in its hefty 600-page totality, offering a rare glimpse of one of the most ravenously imaginative minds of our time. Complement it with other spectacular interviews with David Foster Wallace, Jeanette Winterson, Leonard Cohen, Seth Godin, Dani Shapiro, William Faulkner, Bob Dylan, Adam Phillips, Pablo Picasso, Malcolm Gladwell, and Susan Sontag.

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How We Know What We Know: The Art of Adaequatio and Seeing with the Eye of the Heart

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A timeless guide to “understanding the truth that does not merely inform the mind but liberates the soul.”

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry memorably wrote in The Little Prince. Indeed, in our quest to perfect thinking, could we be neglecting those deeper, more intuitive gateways to accessing the essential? Susan Sontag memorably argued that the false polarity of intuition vs. intellect imprisons us, but the question remains — how do we really know what we know? By what mechanism can we truly make sense of the world and our place in it?

A decade after his influential clarion call for prioritizing people over goods and creativity over consumption, British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher turned to this delicate subject in his 1977 essay collection A Guide for the Perplexed (public library) — not to be confused with this Werner Herzog gem of the same title — in which Schumacher also explored how to map the meaning of life.

Schumacher considers the concept of adaequatio:

What enables man to know anything at all about the world around him? … Nothing can be known without there being an appropriate “instrument” in the makeup of the knower. This is the Great Truth of “adaequatio” (adequateness), which defines knowledge as adaequatio rei et intellectus — the understanding of the knower must be adequate to the thing to be known.

Building upon his notion of the five Levels of Being, Schumacher bridges the physical and the metaphysical:

Our five bodily senses make us adequate to the lowest Level of Being — inanimate matter. But they can supply nothing more than masses of sense data, to “make sense” of which we require abilities or capacities of a different order. We may call them “intellectual senses.” Without them we should be unable to recognize form, pattern, regularity, harmony, rhythm, and meaning, not to mention life, consciousness, and self-awareness. While the bodily senses may be described as relatively passive, mere receivers of whatever happens to come along and to a large extent controlled by the mind, the intellectual senses are mind-in-action, and their keenness and reach are qualities of the mind itself.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky from 'On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein' by Jennifer Berne. Click image for more.

He illustrates the spectrum of human ability as it relates to our capacity for adaequatio:

As regards the bodily senses, all healthy people possess a very similar endowment, but no one could possibly overlook the fact that there are significant differences in the power and reach of people’s minds… Beethoven’s musical abilities, even in deafness, were incomparably greater than mine, and the difference did not lie in the sense of hearing; it lay in the mind. Some people are incapable of grasping and appreciating a given piece of music, not because they are deaf but because of a lack of adaequatio in the mind. The music is grasped by intellectual powers which some people possess to such a degree that they can grasp, and retain in their memory, an entire symphony on one hearing or one reading of the score; while others are so weakly endowed that they cannot get it at all, no matter how often and how attentively they listen to it. For the former, the symphony is as real as it was for the composer; for the latter, there is no symphony: there is nothing but a succession of more or less agreeable but altogether meaningless noises. The former’s mind is adequate to the symphony; the latter’s mind is inadequate, and thus incapable of recognizing the existence of the symphony.

This spectrum plays out over and over in every domain of the human experience and, Schumacher argues, making sense of the world in an intelligent way requires that we understand where we fall on the spectrum of adaequatio in every domain of knowledge. Ignorant attitudes, he implies, result from assuming that something is not true or not valuable simply because we lack the adaequatio to grasp it:

For every one of us only those facts and phenomena “exist” for which we posses adaequatio, and as we are not entitled to assume that we are necessarily adequate to everything, at all times, and in whatever condition we may find ourselves, so we are not entitled to insist that something inaccessible to us has no existence at all and is nothing but a phantom of other people’s imaginations.

This pulls into question the notion of capital-T Truth as commonly used and pursued:

People say: “Let the facts speak for themselves”; they forget that the speech of facts is real only if it is heard and understood. It is thought to be an easy matter to distinguish between fact and theory, between perception and interpretation. In truth, it is extremely difficult.

In a sentiment that Philip K. Dick would echo mere months later in asserting that “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away,” Schumacher adds:

When the level of the knower is not adequate to the level (or grade of significance) of the object of knowledge, the result is not factual error but something much more serious: an inadequate and impoverished view of reality.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Click image for more.

But the most important determinants of our access to knowledge, Schumacher argues, are our direction of interest and our existing beliefs — something even truer today, not to mention more dangerous, in our age of filter bubbles, when we have an ever-harder time changing our minds. Schumacher writes:

The level of significance to which an observer or investigator tries to attune himself is chosen, not by his intelligence, but by his faith. The facts themselves which he observes do not carry labels indicating the appropriate level at which they ought to be considered. Nor does the choice of an inadequate level lead the intelligence into factual error or logical contradiction. All levels of significance up to the adequate level — i.e., up to the level of meaning … — are equally factual, equally logical, equally objective, but not equally real.

It is by an act of faith that I choose the level of my investigation; hence the saying “Credo ut intelligam” — I have faith as to be able to understand. If I lack faith, and consequently choose an inadequate level of significance for my investigation, no degree of “objectivity” will save me from missing the point of the whole operation, and I rob myself of the very possibility of understanding.

Our existing beliefs and baseline assumptions, on which our entire capacity for understanding is predicated, is very much a product of our era, cultural context, and what William Gibson so memorably termed our “personal microculture.” Schumacher writes:

The observer depends not only on the adequateness of his own higher qualities, perhaps “developed” through learning or training; he depends also on the adequateness of his “faith” or, to put it more conventionally, of his fundamental presuppositions and basic assumptions. In this respect he tends to be very much a child of his time and of the civilization in which he has spent his formative years; for the human mind, generally speaking, does not just think: it thinks with ideas, most of which it simply adopts and takes over from its surrounding society.

And yet, Schumacher urges, our greatest responsibility in cultivating true understanding is to question precisely those assumptions, directing at them the types of critical-thinking tools Carl Sagan advocated in his timelessly necessary Baloney Detection Kit and Lewis Carroll outlined in his four rules for digesting information. Schumacher notes:

There is nothing more difficult than to become critically aware of the presuppositions of one’s thought. Everything can be seen directly except the eye through which we see. Every thought can be scrutinized directly except the thought by which we scrutinize. A special effort, an effort of self-awareness, is needed: that almost impossible feat of thought recoiling upon itself — almost impossible but not quite. In fact, that is the power that makes man human and also capable of transcending his humanity.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince. Click image for more.

Echoing the Little Prince’s memorable assertion that “what is essential is invisible to the eye,” Schumacher writes:

Only through the “heart” can contact be made with the higher grades of significance and Levels of Being.

Cautioning against scientific reductionism, he adds:

For anyone wedded to the materialistic Scientism of the modern age … higher levels of Reality simply do not exist, because his faith excludes the possibility of their existence. He is like a man who, although in possession of a radio receiver, refuses to use it because he has made up his mind that nothing can be obtained from it but atmospheric noises.

Turning to the timeless question of how science and spirituality relate to one another — a question previously addressed by such monumental minds as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Ada Lovelace, Alan Lightman, Buckminster Fuller, and Jane Goodall — Schumacher writes:

Faith is not in conflict with reason, nor is it a substitute for reason. Faith chooses the grade of significance or Level of Being at which the search for knowledge and understanding is to aim. There is reasonable faith and there is unreasonable faith. To look for meaning and purpose at the level of inanimate matter would be as unreasonable an act of faith as an attempt to “explain” the masterpieces of human genius as nothing but the outcome of economic interests or sexual frustration.

Citing 13th-century Persian poet and philosopher Rumi‘s famous line — “the eye of the heart, which is seventy-fold and of which these two sensible eyes are only the gleaners” — Schumacher revisits the notion of perceiving with something other than the intellect:

The power of “the Eye of the Heart,” which produces insight, is vastly superior to the power of thought, which produces opinions.

[...]

This is the process of gaining adaequatio, of developing the instrument capable of seeing and thus understanding the truth that does not merely inform the mind but liberates the soul.

[...]

Ideas produce insight and understanding, and the world of ideas lies within us. The truth of ideas cannot be seen by the senses but only by that special instrument sometimes referred to as “the Eye of the Heart,” which, in a mysterious way, has the power of recognizing truth when confronted with it.

A Guide for the Perplexed is a magnificent read in its entirety, the kind that gives more every time, the more you bring to it upon each new rereading. Complement it with Schumacher on how to stop prioritizing goods over people, then revisit Alan Watts on becoming who you really are and John Locke on understanding and the folly of our borrowed opinions.

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Happy Birthday, Ray Bradbury: The Beloved Author on the Secret of Life, Work, and Love

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“I don’t put off to tomorrow doing what I must do, right now, to find out what my secret self needs, wants, desires with all its heart.”

Ray Bradbury (August 22, 1920–June 5, 2012) was not only one of the most celebrated writers of the past century and an invaluable source of practical advice on the craft, such as the creative benefits of list-making and the secret to a fruitful daily routine, but also a modern sage with a seemingly bottomless well of quotable wisdom on everything from failure to space exploration to the interplay of emotion and intelligence to the importance of working with love.

In this wonderful short clip for CBC’s 1968 documentary The Illustrated Man, titled after Bradbury’s 1951 sci-fi collection of the same name, the beloved author shares his pithy wisdom on the secret of life, work, and love — a vivid manifestation of his contagious “hereness and nowness,” as CBC host Fletcher Markle elegantly puts it.

In the instance of getting an idea, I go act it out on paper — I don’t put it away. I don’t delay, I don’t put off to tomorrow doing what I must do, right now, to find out what my secret self needs, wants, desires with all its heart. And then it speaks, and I have enough brains to get out of the way and listen.

[...]

We act out these tensions continually — we keep cleansing the stream. Just as any impurity running downhill in a river, by the time it travels nine miles, is purified, so the life of a man traveling to the sea — which is our inevitable death someday — purifies itself. It must — because if you do not purify, these tensions remain in — and turn in on yourself — and destroy you.

[...]

The farmer who farms creatively and happily is a man that knows every stalk of wheat or corn that comes up on his land because he has tilled these fields, because he has planted the seed, because he has picked the fruit, because he has painted the barn… So we belong only by doing, and we own only by doing, and we love only by doing and knowing. And if you want an interpretation of life and love, that would be the closest thing I can come to.

Complement with Story of a Writer, the superb 1963 documentary about Bradbury and his philosophy of storytelling.

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Maurice Sendak’s Rare, Sensual Illustrations for Herman Melville’s Greatest Commercial Failure and Most Personally Beloved Book

By:

“The strongest and fieriest emotions of life defy all analytical insight.”

Something magical happens when a great artist interprets a great author — one need only look at William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost, Picasso’s 1934 drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, Matisse’s 1935 etchings for Ulysses, and Salvador Dalí’s literary illustrations for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne. But one of the most extraordinary such “collaborations” across creative culture’s space-time continuum came in the form of a now-rare 1995 Kraken edition of Herman Melville‘s controversial 1852 novel Pierre; or, the Ambiguities (public library), illustrated by none other than Maurice Sendak.

The story of the book itself — an absolute disaster for Melville both critically and financially, and yet one he considered his “kraken book,” a book eclipsing Moby-Dick in its profound potency like the mythic kraken outshines the whale in might — is at least as scandalous as its plot.

In 1850, Melville wrote in a letter that “a book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism.” The following year, when Moby-Dick was published, the critical reception validated his fear — reviewers eviscerated the book, which Melville considered his greatest work to date, as irreverent and blasphemous. Though Melville’s style was praised by some for its ingenuity, most critics issued scathing remarks about it, including one prominent British reviewer’s assertion that it was an “ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact.”

As the reviews were pouring in, Melville wrote in a letter to his friend and great champion Nathaniel Hawthorne in June of 1851:

Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.

He proved heartbreakingly right: It took more than seventy years after Melville died a penniless customs agent for Moby-Dick to be extolled as one of the greatest books of all time.

So when Melville walked into the Harper & Brothers publishing office on January 2, 1852, with a copy of his Pierre manuscript, he was doubly embittered by how deftly reviewers had validated his prior grim fears about criticism. For their part, the Harper brothers were less than eager to publish a new book by an author whose most recent novel had done so dismally. Too polite and political to give Melville an outright rejection, they instead channeled their reservations by offering him a humiliating contract — instead of their standard author royalty rate of 50 cents on the dollar, they offered him 20 cents. This automatically meant that Pierre would have to sell 2.5 as many copies as his other books in order to yield Melville the share he had previously gotten — a share, no less, with which he had still run into considerable debt to the firm.

Desperate and resigned, Melville decided not to pitch the book to other publishers and signed the Harper & Row contract on February 20, 1852.

But then he did something even crazier — something that would seal the book’s tragic fate: He decided to enlarge the original 360-page manuscript with an additional 150 pages, in which he took the already extravagant plot to preposterous lengths. After book XVI, he inserted a section titled “Young America in Literature,” lacing it with his satirical, thinly veiled personal gripes against the literary establishment. (In one particularly vivid passage, he envisioned “the highly improbable event of the near approach of the Millennium, which might establish a different dynasty of taste, and possibly eject the editors.”)

The book all but perished, both in sales and in critical reception. Critics dismissed it as “perhaps, the craziest fiction extant” (The Boston Post) and “a confused phantasmagoria of distorted fancies and conceits, ghostly abstractions and fitful shadows” (New York Literary World) — the latter being the most burning of the bunch, as it was penned by editor Evert Duyckinck, the very friend with whom Melville had shared his prescient lament about criticism two years earlier.

But in the twentieth century, Pierre found its two greatest champions — Melville scholar Herschel Parker and the great Maurice Sendak, who considered it Melville’s greatest novel and who had previously illustrated another literary titan. So when Parker approached the beloved artist about the Kraken edition, Sendak was thrilled — doubly so because the book’s unabashed blend of sensuality, nightmarishness, and ambiguity mirrored his own aesthetic and paralleled the sensibility of his greatest lifelong influence, William Blake.

In fact, Sendak had independently begun working on drawings for Pierre after attending the 1991 Melville Centennial Conference. He found in this unusual, extravagant, almost ludicrous yet remarkably layered text the perfect canvas for equally over-the-top pictorial representation. The resulting drawings — by far the most sexually expressive of any of his work, featuring 27 discernible nipples and 11 male “packages,” three of which unclothed — are unlike anything Sendak created before or since. Bold, unapologetic, and incredibly sensual, the illustrations are also subtly subversive in their treatment of gender identity and stereotypes, from Pierre’s effeminate body-choreography to Isabel’s scrumptiously muscular back à la Venus with Biceps. This subversion was a subject close to Sendak’s heart, as a gay man who came of age decades before marriage equality and shared the last half-century of his life with his partner, Eugene Glynn, but it was nonetheless a subject he never explored directly.

The Kraken edition, however, is remarkable not only in inviting Sendak’s striking drawings, but also in restoring the Melville text to its original form, before his embittered 150-page addition. It is intended, as Parker notes in the introduction, “to supplement (not to rival) the text Harper published.” He writes:

[This edition] will at last make it feasible for lovers of Melville to comprehend his original design for the book and his original achievements in it.” Equally important, this version of Pierre will illuminate Moby-Dick. Even readers who have long loved Moby-Dick will perceive its psychological stature more clearly in the light shed by the book Melville wrote next — the short version of Pierre, surely the finest psychological novel anyone had yet written in English.

Indeed, Pierre‘s psychoemotional subtlety is perhaps best captured in a meta way, in this exquisite Melville line from Book IV of the novel:

In their precise tracings-out and subtile causations, the strongest and fieriest emotions of life defy all analytical insight.

The Kraken edition of Pierre; or, the Ambiguities is currently out of print but is oh-so-much worth the hunt. Complement it with Sendak’s rarest, most defining illustrations, his little-known posters celebrating books and the love of reading, and his posthumous love letter to the world.

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