Brain Pickings

This I Believe: Thomas Mann on Time and the Soul of Existence

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“The perishableness of life … imparts value, dignity, interest to life.”

“The best thing about time passing,” Sarah Manguso wrote in her magnificent meditation on ongoingness, “is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know.” More than half a century earlier, the great German writer, philanthropist, and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann (June 6, 1875–August 12, 1955) articulated this idea with enchanting elegance in NPR’s program-turned-book This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (public library) — a compendium of wisdom from eighty contributors ranging from a part-time hospital worker to a woman who sells Yellow Pages advertising to luminaries like Eleanor Roosevelt, John Updike, Errol Morris, Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, and Andrew Sullivan.

NPR’s invitation was simple yet enormously challenging: Each contributor was asked to capture his or her personal credo — that essential set of guiding principles by which life is lived — in just a few hundred words. In an era long before people were being asked to capture their convictions in 140 characters, this was a radical proposition — particularly for writers used to exploring such matters in several hundred pages.

Answering in the 1950s — decades after his touching correspondence with young Hermann Hesse and a few years before his death — Mann writes:

What I believe, what I value most, is transitoriness.

But is not transitoriness — the perishableness of life — something very sad? No! It is the very soul of existence. It imparts value, dignity, interest to life. Transitoriness creates time — and “time is the essence.” Potentially at least, time is the supreme, most useful gift.

Time is related to — yes, identical with — everything creative and active, with every progress toward a higher goal. Without transitoriness, without beginning or end, birth or death, there is no time, either. Timelessness — in the sense of time never ending, never beginning — is a stagnant nothing. It is absolutely uninteresting.

What is interesting, of course, is that Mann’s work — his words, his wisdom — is very much timeless, as is even his antagonism toward timelessness itself. And yet even as he scoffs at timelessness, he remains keenly attuned to this duality — the eternal dance between transitoriness and the tenacity of existence:

Life is possessed by tremendous tenacity. Even so, its presence remains conditional, and as it had a beginning, so it will have an end. I believe that life, just for this reason, is exceedingly enhanced in value, in charm.

Discus chronologicus, a depiction of time from the early 1720s, found in 'Cartographies of Time.' Click image for details.

The privilege of this experience, Mann argues, is a centerpiece of the answer to the age-old question of what it means to be human:

One of the most important characteristics distinguishing man from all other forms of nature is his knowledge of transitoriness, of beginning and end, and therefore of the gift of time.

In man, transitory life attains its peak of animation, of soul power, so to speak. This does not mean man alone would have a soul. Soul quality pervades all beings. But man’s soul is most awake in his knowledge of the inter-changeability of the terms “existence” and “transitoriness.”

To man, time is given like a piece of land, as it were, entrusted to him for faithful tilling; a space in which to strive incessantly, achieve self-realization, move onward and upward. Yes, with the aid of time, man becomes capable of wresting the immortal from the mortal.

This I Believe is a timelessly glorious read in its entirety. Complement Mann’s contribution with Alan Lightman on reconciling our longing for immortality with an impermanent universe and Claudia Hammond on the psychology of why time slows down when you’re afraid, speeds up as you age, and gets warped while you’re on vacation.

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What Power Really Means: Cheryl Strayed Reads Adrienne Rich’s Homage to Marie Curie

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A poetic and precise formulation of what it means to be a great artist, a great woman, and a great human being.

“Stories are a meal,” one wise father told his eight-year-old daughter a long time ago. “But poetry is a glass of water, perhaps even a single drop that will save your life.” That’s precisely what poetry became for Cheryl Strayed as she hiked a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail to put herself in the way of truth and beauty in a thoroughly transformative experience that became the magnificent memoir Wild that then became a major motion picture.

In her New York Public Library conversation with Paul Holdengräber, which also gave us her no-nonsense advice to aspiring writers, Strayed recounts her brush with this life-saving power of poetry and reads the first poem from Adrienne Rich’s 1977 masterwork The Dream of a Common Language (public library), titled “Power.” Folded into this nuanced homage to Marie Curie — a woman who died a “martyr to science” after a lifetime of crusading for curiosity and — is an exquisite meditation on what power really means:

POWER

Living in the earth-deposits of our history

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power

What Strayed observes of Rich is perhaps the single most beautiful and precise formulation of what it means to be a great artist:

Adrienne Rich … did not die a woman who denied that her wounds came from the same source as her power. In fact, she spent her life making power from those wounds [but] Marie Curie… didn’t have that luxury — she had to deny that in order to be who she was in her time. But we don’t. And I think so much of the work I’ve done … and the work I hope I continue to do, is about writing into those wounds.

Complement The Dream of a Common Language, which remains a culturally vital and personally vitalizing masterpiece, with Rich on how love refines our truths, what “truth” really means, and her spectacular commencement address on claiming an education delivered months before this extraordinary book was published, then treat yourself to Rich’s own reading of another piercing poem from the same volume.

Subscribe to the New York Public Library’s always-excellent podcast here and join me in supporting the library in making such fantastic free public programming possible — you know Thoreau and Neil Gaiman would approve.

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Tell Me What to Dream About: An Illustrated Nocturnal Adventure of Imaginative Possibility

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Because who doesn’t want to be eating teeny-tiny waffles surrounded by teeny-tiny animals?

“Something nameless hums us into sleep,” Mark Strand wrote in his bewitching ode to dreams — perhaps the same nameless something that has compelled us, for as long as the written record of human thought has existed, to seek an explanation for why we dream at all, what actually happens when we sleep, and how dreaming relates to our waking lives.

Nearly a century after Freud’s eccentric niece named Tom explored the fascination of dreams in a most unusual children’s book, no doubt influenced by her famous uncle’s foundational treatise on the subject, one of the finest children’s-book illustrators of our time tackles that alluring nameless something from a different and immeasurably delightful angle.

In Tell Me What to Dream About (public library), third-generation artist Giselle Potter — who has previously illustrated such treasures as Gertrude Stein’s posthumous alphabet book and Toni Morrison’s darkly philosophical allegory for freedom — offers a whimsical take on lucid dreaming, that irresistible longing to choose our own nocturnal adventures.

Potter tells the story of two sisters who, at bedtime, offer each other ideas for possible things to be dreamt that night — a tree-house town, a world where everything is furry, a fluffy world where clouds are worn as sweaters and eaten as treats, teeny-tiny animals feasting on teeny-tiny waffles. What emerges is a colorful celebration of children’s minds — that mecca of metaphor where the imagination is born.

Complement the wholly delightful Tell Me What to Dream About with Argentinian cartoonist Liniers’s darker but no less delightful pictorial exploration of nightmares. For a grownup primer on the subject, see the science of controlling your dreams and how dreaming regulates our negative emotions, then devour Strand’s magnificent poem “Dreams” and Freud’s 1922 gem David the Dreamer.

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Thoreau on Libraries and His Ideal Sanctuary for Books

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“Those old books suggested a certain fertility … as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in.”

“We have an obligation to support libraries,” Neil Gaiman asserted in contemplating our responsibilities to the written word, adding: “If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.”

More than a century and a half earlier, another great man of letters extolled the value of libraries with equal wholeheartedness. From The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — that timeless trove of wisdom on such matters as the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success — comes a beautiful recollection 35-year-old Thoreau penned before sunrise on March 16, 1852:

Spent the day in Cambridge Library.

The Library a wilderness of books. The volumes of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries, which lie so near on the shelf, are rarely opened, are effectually forgotten and not implied by our literature and newspapers. When I looked into Purchas’s Pilgrims, it affected me like looking into an impassable swamp, ten feet deep with sphagnum, where the monarchs of the forest, covered with mosses and stretched along the ground, were making haste to become peat. Those old books suggested a certain fertility, an Ohio soil, as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in. I heard the bellowing of bullfrogs and the hum of mosquitoes reverberating through the thick embossed covers when I had closed the book. Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils.

The New York Public Library reading room by Robert Dawson from his photographic love letter to public libraries. Click image for more.

And yet despite his reverence for these traditional bastions of literature, Thoreau sees something insufficiently alive in the physicality of the library. In another entry, having just returned from a quest to find works by fellow naturalists and poets at the Boston and Cambridge libraries, he marvels at the curious disconnect of the proposition and imagines a wholly different home for these books — a place more akin to a sanctuary, imbued with the aliveness the books themselves:

How happens it that I find not in the country, in the fields and woods, the works even of like-minded naturalists and poets. Those who have expressed the purest and deepest love of nature have not recorded it on the bark of the trees with the lichens; they have left no memento of it there; but if I would read their books I must go to the city, — so strange and repulsive both to them and to me, — and deal with men and institutions with whom I have no sympathy. When I have just been there on this errand, it seems too great a price to pay for access even to the works of Homer, or Chaucer, or Linnæus. I have sometimes imagined a library, i.e. a collection of the works of true poets, philosophers, naturalists, etc., deposited not in a brick or marble edifice in a crowded and dusty city, guarded by cold-blooded and methodical officials and preyed on by bookworms, in which you own no share, and are not likely to, but rather far away in the depths of a primitive forest, like the ruins of Central America, where you can trace a series of crumbling alcoves, the older books protecting the most modern from the elements, partially buried by the luxuriance of nature, which the heroic student could reach only after adventures in the wilderness amid wild beasts and wild men. That, to my imagination, seems a fitter place for these interesting relics, which owe no small part of their interest to their antiquity, and whose occasion is nature, than the well-preserved edifice, with its well-preserved officials on the side of a city’s square. More terrible than lions and tigers these Cerberuses.

Illustration by D. B. Johnson from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau remains a secular bible for every thinking, feeling human being. Complement it with Thoreau on the the spiritual rewards of walking and what it really means to be awake.

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