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13 MAY, 2015

From Dream to Nightmare: John Steinbeck on the Perils of Publicity and the Dark Side of Success

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“It is so hard to know anything. So impossible to trust oneself. Even to know what there is to trust.”

As much as we may aspire to adopt Thoreau’s luminous definition of success and seek to reap the intrinsic rewards of creative labor rather than its extrinsic material manifestations, we live in an era where creativity and commerce are harder and harder to disentangle. And yet, as Amanda Palmer aptly observed in considering the sticky question of success, “part of the struggle of actually finding happiness as an artist is the daily fight to not define success the way the rest of the world defines success.”

But this is hardly a modern problem.

Wedged in time between Thoreau and Palmer, and a generation before Joni Mitchell bemoaned the dark side of success, another icon of creative culture brushed up against the harsh reality of how personally and creatively trying public and commercial triumph can be. Having just attained significant critical acclaim, financial profit, and public recognition for the 1937 novella Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) found himself in an unfamiliar and surprisingly uncomfortable position.

“I beat poverty for a good many years and I’ll be damned if I’ll go down at the first little whiff of success,” he wrote in an extraordinary letter of creative courage as he all but destroyed a manuscript that didn’t live up to his standards of style and integrity, setting out to rework it into what became The Grapes of Wrath — the novel that earned Steinbeck a Pulitzer in 1940 and paved the way for his Nobel Prize two decades later. But even as he labored at his masterpiece, the demons of fame, publicity, and commercial success kept beckoning from the sidelines.

Writing in Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (public library) — his magnificent testament to the power of the diary as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt — Steinbeck laments in an entry from early 1938:

People I liked have changed. Thinking there is money, they want it. And even if they don’t want anything, they watch me and they aren’t natural any more… I’m tired of the struggle against all the forces that this miserable success has brought against me. I don’t know whether I could write a decent book now. That is the greatest fear of all. I’m working at it but I can’t tell. Something is poisoned in me.

So animated is Steinbeck by this inner tumult that he addresses his pages directly, casting them at once as the sin and the salvation:

You pages — ten of you — you are the dribble cup — you are the cloth to wipe up the vomit. Maybe I can get these fears and disgusts on you and then burn you up. Then maybe I won’t be so haunted. Have to pretend it’s that way anyhow.

When Of Mice and Men became a bestseller, Hollywood approached Steinbeck for a film adaptation — but he wasn’t without ambivalence about an offer the payoff of which would have dazzled most. If anything, he viewed it with double disgust, for he felt that the superficiality of such commercial courtship took him away from the deeper problems at the heart of his work: his profound concern with the fate of the destitute migrant workers who inspired The Grapes of Wrath.

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Movie poster for the Hollywood adaptation of 'Of Mice and Men.'

Over and over, Steinbeck makes clear that he sees working for profit as a failure of the imagination on behalf of the artist — a smallness of ambition that distracts from the larger human concerns that creative work ought to address. In the same diary entry, he winces at the gaping disconnect between Hollywood’s motives and his, underpinned by the vulnerable trepidation that engaging with such commercial work might gradually poison his own reasons for creating:

I really don’t care about the moving picture. Really don’t — but those people who are starving — what can be done? And the people with panaceas of all kinds. Will you lend your name to this and to this? What do I care about my name? It is battered and completely out of shape anyway. It hasn’t any meaning and I haven’t any meaning. “Seen about your luck.” I got no luck. “Send one hundred dollars.” Luck! He thinks it is luck. He is poor and he thinks I am rich. And he seen about my luck. In the cheap welter, he seen about my luck. He seen about my destruction only he couldn’t understand that. The Greeks seem to have known about this dark relationship between luck and destruction. It is so hard to know anything. So impossible to trust oneself. Even to know what there is to trust.

Although Steinbeck seems gladdened, however self-consciously, at the perks of fame — “Got the iron gate [in exchange] for an autograph,” he notes in one diary entry — by the fall he observes with contemptuous fascination the effect his public success has on his private life. In an entry from October 11, he writes:

Letter from my cousin Grace — first in 22 years… And the interest is solely because of the publicity. Seems to affect every one. She’ll be denying the relationship before long now. Every one will. To work.

A couple of days later, in an entry that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s admonition that “publicity in general is a very destructive thing, for any artist,” Steinbeck resolves with disgruntlement on par with Kierkegaard’s:

The mail this morning — just a mass of requests. Driving me crazy… It becomes increasingly apparent that I must make a stand against joining things as I have against speaking. The mail is full of requests to use my name. Another request to be a clay pigeon. I won’t do any of these public things. Can’t. It isn’t my nature and I won’t be stampeded. And so the stand must be made and I must keep out of politics. Now these two things are constantly working at me.

It’s hard not to think of C.S. Lewis who, in contemplating the ideal daily routine, pointed his warm wit at the issue and observed: “It is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail.” But for Steinbeck this became less a matter of happiness than one of spiritual survival.

In a supreme twist of irony, the very pestilence of publicity requests he so bemoaned as a distraction during the months he spent writing The Grapes of Wrath swelled to towering proportions once the novel was published — it sold feverishly, bringing the author fame and notoriety beyond his wildest expectations. “I don’t think I ever saw so much [money] in one place before,” he wrote to his friend Elizabeth Otis during the initial wave of excitement as he witnessed the fruition of a dream he had dreamt, however warily. But then excitement festered into resentment as the dream darkened into a nightmare.

So Sisyphean was the barrage of requests — invitations to countless committees, speaking offers, strangers asking for money — that it prompted Steinbeck to exclaim in an Associated Press interview a few months after the book’s publication:

Why do they think a writer, just because he can write, will make a good after-dinner speaker, or club committeeman, or even a public speaker? I’m no public speaker and I don’t want to be. I’m not even a finished writer yet, I haven’t learned my craft.

This, perhaps, is what Sontag meant in her admonition — that extraneous engagements of any kind are invariably at the expense of the very craft which rendered the artist desirable for whatever is being requested in the first place; that every yes to such publicity requests ripples into a thousand little no’s to the daily demands of the dogged labor upon which all great art is built. It takes enormous clarity of conviction and creative purpose to recognize that “busy is a decision” and remember that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Steinbeck’s Working Days remains the immensely inspiring record of how an artist of rare genius and integrity chose to spend his days — fighting self-doubt with discipline and finding joy not in extrinsic acclaim but in rewards as intimate as the pleasure of the perfect pen. Complement it with Steinbeck’s equally elevating and idealistic wisdom on falling in love and his meditation on the creative spirit and the meaning of life.

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12 MAY, 2015

Wendell Berry on How to Be a Poet and a Complete Human Being

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“Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet. You must depend upon affection, reading, knowledge, skill…”

“When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” John F. Kennedy proclaimed in his touching tribute to Robert Frost, celebrating poetry as “the means of saving power from itself.” And although poetry itself exerts a singular power over the human spirit, as one of the greatest poets of all time observed, it is hardly a power that comes easily to the poet: “Writing poetry is an unnatural act,” Elizabeth Bishop wrote when she was only twenty-three. So how, then, does one come to master this unnatural power — how does one become a Poet?

That’s what the wise and wonderful Wendell Berry (b. August 5, 1934) — a man of great wisdom on solitude, love, and our “rugged individualism” — explores in a marvelous poem titled “How to Be a Poet (to remind myself),” found in his New Collected Poems (public library).

Wendell Berry (Photograph: Guy Mendes)

In this recording from the consistently transcendent On Being, Berry brings his beautifully aged voice to the poem — which is in many ways not only about how to be a poet, but also about how to be an artist of any kind. With its insistence on the vitalizing power of silence and stillness and self-refinement, it is perhaps, above all, about how to be a complete human being.

HOW TO BE A POET
(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill — more of each
than you have — inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

For more of Berry’s enduring wisdom, see his meditations on the two great enemies of creative work and what poetic form reveals about the secret of marriage, then treat yourself to Derek Walcott’s stirring ode to being at home in ourselves and subscribe to On Being here.

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12 MAY, 2015

Bright Sky, Starry City: An Illustrated Love Letter to Our Communion with the Cosmos, Celebrating Women Astronomers

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A warm and wonderful ode to the universe for the modern urban astronomer.

When trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell began teaching at Vassar in the 1860s, where she was the only woman on the faculty, the university’s official handbook forbade female students from going outside after dark — a dictum of obvious absurdity in the context of teaching astronomy. Although the rule was overturned and Mitchell went on to pave the way for women in science, a century and a half later a different civilizational absurdity obstructs aspiring astronomers of any gender — light pollution in cities is making it increasingly difficult to peer into the starry sky and take, to paraphrase Ptolemy, our fill of cosmic ambrosia.

In Bright Sky, Starry City (public library), author Uma Krishnaswami and illustrator Aimée Sicuro take on both of these issues — the expanding horizons for women in astronomy, the modern constrictions of light pollution — with great warmth and wonderment for the eternal allure of communing with the cosmos, of feeling our tininess and the enormity of life all at once, by the simple act of looking out into the glimmering grandeur of space.

This is the story of Phoebe, a little girl whose father owns a telescope shop in a bustling city. Enchanted by the planets, Phoebe likes to draw the Solar System on the sidewalk outside her dad’s store. One particularly exciting day, when Saturn and Mars are expected to appear in the sky that night, Phoebe worries that the city lights, which “always turned the night sky gray and dull,” would render her beloved planets invisible.

Just as she closes her eyes and wishes those dreadful urban lights away, another obstacle emerges — a mighty storm sets in, so Phoebe and her dad pack in their telescopes and retreat indoors.

But as they sit in the store and the wind rages outside, Phoebe’s wish is miraculously granted — the storm shuts down the city’s power grid and, if only for a little while, all the lights go out just as the sky clears of clouds.

Above the newly washed city,
with the power still out,
glowing, sparkling, gleaming lights
painted the night — some faint, some brilliant,
some clustered together
and some scattering fiercely
through the inky darkness.

And then, suddenly, they appear — Saturn and Mars, “right where they should be.”

People milled around,
talking, pointing, laughing, looking
all at once, all together
under the stars.

A nonfiction postscript offers a pithy primer on the Solar System, making the story a fine addition to these intelligent and imaginative children’s books celebrating science.

Bright Sky, Starry City comes from Canadian indie powerhouse Groundwood Books, who have previously celebrated the history of astronomy with the wonderful picture-book biography of Ibn Sina and have given us such thoughtful treasures as a Sidewalk Flowers and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress.

Complement this particular astro-treat with You Are Stardust, which teaches kids about the universe in breathtaking dioramas, then revisit of story of how Galileo’s astronomy influenced Shakespeare.

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12 MAY, 2015

How to Make Use of Our Suffering: Simone Weil on Ameliorating Our Experience of Pain, Hunger, Fatigue, and All That Makes the Soul Cry

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“To make use … of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us is better than inflicting discipline upon oneself.”

Long before scientists had empirical evidence of the astounding ways in which our minds affect our bodies, French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) — one of the most remarkable thinkers of the past century, whom Albert Camus aptly proclaimed “the only great spirit of our times” — examined the delicate relationship between our physical and spiritual suffering, between the anguish of the material body and that of the soul.

A few months before her painful yet stoic death from tuberculosis — despite her diagnosis and her doctor’s explicit orders to eat heartily, Weil consumed only what was rationed to her compatriots under the German Occupation in a remarkable gesture of solidarity, ultimately resulting in fatal malnutrition — she turned to the problem of pain in First and Last Notebooks (public library), the same out-of-print treasure that gave us Weil on temptation and the key to discipline.

In an entry from late 1942, Weil considers how our instinctive reaction to suffering often only amplifies our pain:

The way to make use of physical pain. When suffering no matter what degree of pain, when almost the entire soul is inwardly crying “Make it stop, I can bear no more,” a part of the soul, even though it be an infinitesimally small part, should say: “I consent that this should continue throughout the whole of time, if the divine wisdom so ordains.” The soul is then split in two. For the physically sentient part of the soul is — at least sometimes — unable to consent to pain. This splitting in two of the soul is a second pain, a spiritual one, and even sharper than the physical pain that causes it.

There is almost a Buddhist undertone to Weil’s insistence on accepting everything that is, as it is, without compounding pain with “the second arrow” of our tendency to resist any unpleasantness and judge it as a kind of personal failure, which in turn precipitates an even graver sense of dissatisfaction. One is reminded at once of the Chinese philosophy of wu-wei and of Rilke’s famous words — “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.”

Indeed, Weil’s philosophy of suffering embraces Rilke’s everythingness — she extends it beyond physical pain and into other forms of bodily and spiritual discomfort that we habitually exacerbate by stiffening with resistance to the unpleasantness:

A similar use can be made of hunger, fatigue, fear, and of everything that imperatively constrains the sentient part of the soul to cry: I can bear no more! Make it stop! There should be something in us that answers: I consent that it should continue up to the moment of death, or that it should not even finish then, but continue for ever. Then it is that the soul is as if divided by a two-edged sword.

To make use in this way of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us is better than inflicting discipline upon oneself.

Weil’s First and Last Notebooks, hard though it may be to find, is a perennially profound read from cover to cover — an intensely intimate glimpse of one of the most significant minds of the twentieth century, whose ideas influenced such luminaries as Susan Sontag, Iris Murdoch, Flannery O’Connor, and Cornel West. Complement this particular passage with C.S. Lewis on how suffering confers agency upon life and Nietzsche on why a full life requires embracing rather than running from suffering.

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