Brain Pickings

A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus on Our Search for Meaning and Why Happiness Is Our Moral Obligation

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Why “the demand for happiness and the patient quest for it” isn’t a luxury or a mere need but our existential duty.

“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” Albert Camus wrote in his 119-page philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942. “Everything else … is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.” One of the most famous opening lines of the twentieth century captures one of humanity’s most enduring philosophical challenged — the impulse at the heart of Seneca’s meditations on life and Montaigne’s timeless essays and Maya Angelou’s reflections, and a wealth of human inquiry in between. But Camus, the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature after Rudyard Kipling, addressed it with unparalleled courage of conviction and insight into the irreconcilable longings of the human spirit.

In the beautifully titled and beautifully written A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (public library), historian Robert Zaretsky considers Camus’s lifelong quest to shed light on the absurd condition, his “yearning for a meaning or a unity to our lives,” and its timeless yet increasingly timely legacy:

If the question abides, it is because it is more than a matter of historical or biographical interest. Our pursuit of meaning, and the consequences should we come up empty-handed, are matters of eternal immediacy.

[...]

Camus pursues the perennial prey of philosophy — the questions of who we are, where and whether we can find meaning, and what we can truly know about ourselves and the world — less with the intention of capturing them than continuing the chase.

Reflecting on the parallels between Camus and Montaigne, Zaretsky finds in this ongoing chase one crucial difference of dispositions:

Camus achieves with the Myth what the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty claimed for Montaigne’s Essays: it places “a consciousness astonished at itself at the core of human existence.”

For Camus, however, this astonishment results from our confrontation with a world that refuses to surrender meaning. It occurs when our need for meaning shatters against the indifference, immovable and absolute, of the world. As a result, absurdity is not an autonomous state; it does not exist in the world, but is instead exhaled from the abyss that divides us from a mute world.

Camus himself captured this with extraordinary elegance when he wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus:

This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together.

To discern these echoes amid the silence of the world, Zaretsky suggests, was at the heart of Camus’s tussle with the absurd:

We must not cease in our exploration, Camus affirms, if only to hear more sharply the silence of the world. In effect, silence sounds out when human beings enter the equation. If “silences must make themselves heard,” it is because those who can hear inevitably demand it. And if the silence persists, where are we to find meaning?

This search for meaning was not only the lens through which Camus examined every dimension of life, from the existential to the immediate, but also what he saw as our greatest source of agency. In one particularly prescient diary entry from November of 1940, as WWII was gathering momentum, he writes:

Understand this: we can despair of the meaning of life in general, but not of the particular forms that it takes; we can despair of existence, for we have no power over it, but not of history, where the individual can do everything. It is individuals who are killing us today. Why should not individuals manage to give the world peace? We must simply begin without thinking of such grandiose aims.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton based on my highlights from Albert Camus's journals. Click image for details.

For Camus, the question of meaning was closely related to that of happiness — something he explored with great insight in his notebooks. Zaretsky writes:

Camus observed that absurdity might ambush us on a street corner or a sun-blasted beach. But so, too, do beauty and the happiness that attends it. All too often, we know we are happy only when we no longer are.

Perhaps most importantly, Camus issued a clarion call of dissent in a culture that often conflates happiness with laziness and championed the idea that happiness is nothing less than a moral obligation. A few months before his death, Camus appeared on the TV show Gros Plan. Dressed in a trench coat, he flashed his mischievous boyish smile and proclaimed into the camera:

Today, happiness has become an eccentric activity. The proof is that we tend to hide from others when we practice it. As far as I’m concerned, I tend to think that one needs to be strong and happy in order to help those who are unfortunate.

This wasn’t a case of Camus arriving at some mythic epiphany in his old age — the cultivation of happiness and the eradication of its obstacles was his most persistent lens on meaning. More than two decades earlier, he had contemplated “the demand for happiness and the patient quest for it” in his journal, capturing with elegant simplicity the essence of the meaningful life — an ability to live with presence despite the knowledge that we are impermanent:

[We must] be happy with our friends, in harmony with the world, and earn our happiness by following a path which nevertheless leads to death.

But his most piercing point integrates the questions of happiness and meaning into the eternal quest to find ourselves and live our truth:

It is not so easy to become what one is, to rediscover one’s deepest measure.

A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning comes from Harvard University Press and is a remarkable read in its entirety. Complement it with Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons, then revisit the story of his unlikely and extraordinary friendship with Nobel-winning biologist Jacques Monod.

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Greil Marcus on What the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll Teaches Us about Innovation and the Art of Self-Reinvention

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How to continually experience “the satisfaction that only art, only the act of putting something new into the world, can bring.”

“All of us, we’re links in a chain,” Pete Seeger said in an altogether wonderful 1988 interview, capturing with elegant economy of words the notion that creativity is combinatorial — that we create, we contribute to the world, by taking a variety of existing bits of knowledge, memories, impressions, influences, experiences, and other material floating around our minds, and recombining them into “new” ideas that we call our own. Mark Twain spoke to this concept with unforgettable wit in his letter to Helen Keller, renouncing the myth of originality. But in The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs (public library), Rolling Stone music critic Greil Marcus — whose School of Visual Arts commencement address on the false divide between “high” and “low” culture is among the greatest graduation speeches of all time — argues there might be more to the story of how truly groundbreaking creative work comes to be.

Marcus writes:

Whole intellectual industries are devoted to proving that there is nothing new under the sun, that everything comes from something else — and to such a degree that one can never tell when one thing turns into something else. But it is the moment when something appears as if out of nowhere, when a work of art carries within itself the thrill of invention, of discovery, that is worth listening for. It’s that moment when a song or a performance is its own manifesto, issuing its own demands on life in its own, new language — which, though the charge of novelty is its essence, is immediately grasped by any number of people who will swear they never heard anything like it before — that speaks. In rock ’n’ roll, this is a moment that, in historical time, is repeated again and again, until, as culture, it defines the art itself.

Greil Marcus by Michael Macor (SF Gate)

Although Marcus is concerned with the history of rock ’n’ roll, he invariably puts in perspective the larger narrative of creative culture, particularly the way we mythologize creative breakthroughs, package those constructed stories, and disseminate them to a point of propaganda, warping or suppressing the reality of the creative experience. Marcus offers an illustrative example:

What if your memories are not your own, but are, rather, kidnapped by another story, colonized by a larger cultural memory? “It gets dark, you know, very late in Boise, Idaho, in the summer,” David Lynch once said of 9 September 1956, when Elvis Presley first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show — a show supposedly watched by 82.6 percent of all Americans watching TV that night. Lynch was ten. “It was not quite dark, so it must have been, like, maybe nine o’clock at night, I’m not sure. That nice twilight, a beautiful night. Deep shadows were occurring. And it was sort of warm. And Willard Burns came running towards me from about three houses down the street, and he said, ‘You missed it!’ and I said, ‘What?’ and he said, ‘Elvis on Ed Sullivan!’ And it just, like, set a fire in my head. How could I have missed that? And this was the night, you know. But I’m kind of glad I didn’t see it; it was a bigger event in my head because I missed it.” … In the history of rock ’n’ roll … Lynch’s story might count for more than whatever happened on TV that night. Records that made no apparent history other than their own, the faint marks they left on the charts or someone’s memory, might count for more than any master narrative that excludes them.

In a way, this is a concept scientists and inventors have not only accepted but even celebrate — the entire canon of scientific innovation and technological breakthrough is woven of a multitude of incremental innovations, seemingly useless ideas upon which scientists subsequently built until the cumulative innovation reached a tipping point and became a so-called breakthrough. Both the tragedy and triumph of this creative lineage, of course, is that the ideas folded into this incremental groundswell, like the records that “made no apparent history other than their own,” were in fact radically innovative in their own right but were overshadowed by the “breakthroughs” built on their backs.

Marcus speaks to this in considering these unsung heroes of popular song, citing Maurice Williams’s 1950s South Carolina doo-wop group, the Zodiacs, as an example:

It was the invention in the music that was so striking — the will to create what had never been heard before, through vocal tricks, rhythmic shifts, pieces of sound that didn’t logically follow one from the other, that didn’t make musical or even emotional sense when looked at as pieces, but as a whole spoke a new language.

But because this music was pioneering a new language, its challenge was to tickle, then speak to, then find a market in “the audience that it at once revealed and created.” To do that successfully, Marcus argues, required — as it does today, in music and in all creative endeavors that create their own market — nothing short of purposeful self-invention and perpetual self-reinvention, the vital and vitalizing cycle of self-renewal which John Gardner memorably championed in the 1960s. With his unmistakable dynamic lyricism, Marcus writes:

The ear of the new audience was fickle, teenagers knowing nothing of where the music came from and caring less, and why should they care? It was new, it was different, and that was what they wanted: out of a nascent sense that the world in which their parents had come of age had changed or in some deeper, inexpressible manner disappeared, a sound that made the notion of a new life a fact, even if that fact lasted only a minute and a half. To make that fact — to catch that ear, to sell your record, to top the charts, if only in your dreams — you had to try something new. You had to find something new. You had to listen to everything on the market and try to understand what wasn’t there — and what wasn’t there was you. So you asked yourself, as people have been asking themselves ever since, what’s different about me? How am I different from everybody else — and why am I different? Yes, you invent yourself to the point of stupidity, you give yourself a ridiculous new name, you appear in public in absurd clothes, you sing songs based on nursery rhymes or jokes or catchphrases or advertising slogans, and you do it for money, renown, to lift yourself up, to escape the life you were born to, to escape the poverty, the racism, the killing strictures of a life that you were raised to accept as fate, to make yourself a new person not only in the eyes of the world, but finally in your own eyes too. A minute and a half, two minutes, maybe three, in the one-time, one-take fantasy that takes place in the recording studio, whatever it might be … or forever, even a year, even a few months, in the heaven of the charts, where one more hit means the game isn’t over, that you don’t have to go back to the prison of fate, that you can once again experience the satisfaction that only art, only the act of putting something new into the world, can bring.

Citing Albert Camus’s famous 1947 proclamation — “There is always a social explanation for what we see in art. Only it doesn’t explain anything important.” — Marcus turns to another record emblematic of the same dynamic, Joy Division’s iconic 1979 album Unknown Pleasures, and reflects on the osmosis between creative vision and cultural context:

The songs were art, which by definition escapes the control, the intentions, and the technique of the people who make it.

Art doesn’t explain itself.

Much later in the book, having examined some of the twentieth century’s most influential songs and musicians, Marcus revisits the subject of that osmosis with a luminous sidewise gleam:

Regardless of who writes it, no successful song is a memoir, a news story, and no such song does exactly what its author — and that can be the writer, the singer, the accompanist, the producer — wants it to do. One must draw on whatever new social energies and new ideas are in the air — energies and ideas that are sparking the artist, with or without his or her knowledge, with or without his or her consent, to make greater demands on life than he or she has ever made before.

This seems to be Marcus’s overarching message, presented with great subtlety and nuance — the idea that the most enduring and influential music, like the most enduring and influential artifacts of creative culture at large, springs from the artist’s courage to surrender to the currents of the time not by relinquishing his or her identity but by inhabiting it boldly, to translate the private story into the language of the public’s longing and to make that common language sing with shimmering honesty.

Midway through the book, he captures this elegantly in an aside that might just be his most piercing point, adding to history’s finest definitions of art:

Any work of art [is] a fiction that bounce[s] back on real life, maybe the author’s, maybe not.

The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs is a beautiful read in its entirety, Marcus’s writing nothing short of enchanting. (The section on Etta James in particular is an exquisite masterwork of prose.) Complement it with David Byrne on music and how creativity works, then John Gardner on the art of self-renewal.

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Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space: Imaginative and Illuminating Children’s Book Tickles Our Zest for the Cosmos

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Rocket fuel for the souls of budding Sagans.

In reflecting on the story of the Golden Record, Carl Sagan, in his infinite poetic powers, celebrated our destiny as “a species endowed with hope and perseverance, at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.” Given how gravely space exploration has plummeted down the hierarchy of cultural priorities in the decades since Sagan’s time, how can we hope to imbue the hearts of the next generation of astronauts, policy makers, and cosmic explorers with the passionate poetics of Sagan’s conviction, with the same exhilarating longing to reach for and embrace the stars?

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space (public library), written by quantum computer scientist Dominic Walliman and designed and illustrated by Ben Newman, is a heartening step in the direction of an answer. Both modern in its scientific spirit and with a sensibility modeled after the delightful mid-century children’s books from the Golden Age of space exploration, it tickles young readers — as well as their space-enchanted parents — into precisely that “palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.”

From clever visualizations of the scale of the universe to an illuminating primer on how stars are born to an illustrated anatomy of NASA’s Curiosity Rover, the book combines solid science (pause for a moment to consider the size of the gaseous giant Jupiter, inside which 1,300 Earths can fit) with curious untrivia (I find poetic symbolism in the fact, previously unknown to me, that Venus spins in the opposite direction to all other planets in the Solar System, and how neat to know that the surface of the moon equals the size of Africa), binding it all together with subtle humor and wholehearted joy in learning.

What makes the book particularly wonderful is that it refuses to do the great disservice to science that textbooks often do, which is to insinuate having all the answers. Instead, it embraces the awareness that science thrives on “thoroughly conscious ignorance” and dedicates a good portion of the story to as-yet unanswered questions, like whether there is other intelligent life in the universe and what the human future in space might look like if we transplanted our civilization on other planets.

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space comes from the treasure chest of British indie children’s book press Flying Eye Books, which also gave us that sweet celebration of connection and inner softness, the delightful field guide of mythic monsters, and the illustrated chronicle of Shackleton’s historic polar expedition.

Complement it with this remarkable vintage children’s book, which envisioned gender equality and ethnic diversity in space exploration decades before either became a reality, then revisit the wonderful You Are Stardust, which teaches kids about the universe in lyrical illustrated dioramas.

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Marie Curie on Curiosity, Wonder, and the Spirit of Adventure in Science

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A short manifesto for the vitalizing power of discovery.

“Few persons contributed more to the general welfare of mankind and to the advancement of science than the modest, self-effacing woman whom the world knew as Mme. Curie.” So read the obituary for Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only person to date to win a Nobel in two different sciences, published the day after her death in 1934. Three years later, her younger daughter, Eve Curie Labouisse, captured her mother’s spirit and enduring legacy in Madame Curie: A Biography (public library).

Among the ample anecdotes of the great scientist’s life and the many direct quotations of her humbly stated yet fiercely upheld convictions is one particularly poignant passage that speaks to the immutable resonance between science and wonder, the inextinguishable causal relationship between childhood’s innate curiosity and humanity’s greatest feats of discovery. Eve Curie quotes her mother, adding to history’s greatest definitions of science:

I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale. We should not allow it to be believed that all scientific progress can be reduced to mechanisms, machines, gearings, even though such machinery also has its beauty.

Neither do I believe that the spirit of adventure runs any risk of disappearing in our world. If I see anything vital around me, it is precisely that spirit of adventure, which seems indestructible and is akin to curiosity.

Complement with this excellent 1964 meditation on what children can teach us about risk, failure, and discovery, then revisit artist Lauren Redniss’s sublime illustrated cyanotype biography of Curie, one of the best art books of 2011.

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