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07 NOVEMBER, 2014

Anaïs Nin on Inner Conflict, the Connectedness of All Things, and What Maturity Really Means

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“Any experience carried out deeply to its ultimate leads you beyond yourself into a larger relation to the experience of others.”

“We are all one question,” Mary Ruefle wrote in her sublime essay on why we read, “and the best answer seems to be love — a connection between things.” And yet, so often, we forget — we disconnect.

Decades before Parker Palmer’s beautiful meditation on the elusive art of wholeness, modernity’s most prolific and perceptive diarist, Anaïs Nin, contemplated with great elegance and insight the self-inflicted violence of our internal conflicts. From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939–1944  public library) — which gave us Nin on real love, Paris vs. New York, the secret of successful mass movements, and her pioneering venture in self-publishing — comes a gorgeous entry from October of 1943, in which Nin considers how we deny ourselves such vitalizing integration and what we can do to attain it.

She writes:

When we are in conflict we tend to make such sharp oppositions between ideas and attitudes and get caught and entangled in what seems to be a hopeless choice, but when the neurotic ambivalence is resolved one tends to move beyond sharp differences, sharply defined boundaries and begins to see the interaction between everything, the relation between everything.

Three decades before Susan Sontag admonished that buying into polarities imprisons us, Nin contemplates how we can bridge our anguishing inner divides by embracing the interconnectedness of all things — the true mark of maturity:

I opposed subjective to objective, imagination to realism. I thought that having gone so deeply into my own feelings and dramas I could never again reach objectivity and knowledge of others. But now I know that any experience carried out deeply to its ultimate leads you beyond yourself into a larger relation to the experience of others. If you intensify and complete your subjective emotions, visions, you see their relation to others’ emotions. It is not a question of choosing between them, one at the cost of another, but a matter of completion, of inclusion, an encompassing, unifying, and integrating which makes maturity.

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3 remains an endlessly revisitable trove of wisdom on the creative life and the human journey. Complement it with Nin on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, why emotional excess is essential to creativity, and the elusive nature of joy.

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06 NOVEMBER, 2014

Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World

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“In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?”

If you’re lucky, on a few occasions in your lifetime you will come upon an author in whose writing you experience a rare kind of homecoming, a spiritual embrace. For me, such singular homecomings have taken place in the arms of only a handful of writers — to wit, Virginia Woolf, Ursula K. Le Guin, Italo Calvino, Susan Sontag, Rebecca Solnit, Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, E.B White, and, most recently, Mary Ruefle.

It is doubly exulting when one of those rare writers finds the words and rhythms with which to convey what it is, exactly, that transpires in one of those rare moments of homecoming — what reading, at its best, does for the human soul. That’s precisely what Ruefle does in the gorgeously titled 2003 piece “Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World,” found in the altogether unputdownable Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures (public library).

One of Maurice Sendak's little-known vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading. Click image for more.

Ruefle — a prolific poet and voracious reader herself, having read an estimated 2,400 books in her life — reflects on “the mirrored erotics of this compulsive activity, reading”:

We don’t often watch people very closely when they read, though there are many famous paintings of women reading (none that I know of men) in which a kind of quiet eroticism takes place, like that of nursing. Of course, it is we who are being nursed by the books, and then I think of the reader asleep, the open book on his or her chest.

[…]

We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love — a connection between things. This arcane bit of knowledge is respoken every day into the ears of readers of great books, and also appears to perpetually slip under a carpet, utterly forgotten.

'A Young Woman Reading' by Gustave Courbet, ca. 1866–1868

In one pause-giving anecdote, Ruefle illustrates the way that reading ignites the miraculous alchemy of associations that is the hallmark of the human mind. She recalls encountering on “page 248″ of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn an interview with an English farmer who at one point says to Sebald, “I have always kept ducks, even as a child, and the colours of their plumage, in particular the dark green and snow white, seemed to me the only possible answer to the questions that are on my mind.”

Ruefle found it “an odd thing to say,” but made nothing of it, attributing it to the general quality of Sebald’s book as “a long walk of oddities.” But a few hours later, as she was perusing the dictionary,* she remembered the passage with a jolt as she read the multiple definitions of the word speculum — among them, “a medieval compendium of all knowledge” and “a patch of color on the secondary wings of most ducks and some other birds.”

Illustration by Jon Klassen from 'What’s Your Favorite Animal?' Click image for more.

She marvels at the serendipitous alignment of words and worlds:

Did Sebald know that a compendium of all knowledge and the ducks’ plumage were one and the same? Did Abrams? Or was I the only one for whom the duck passage made perfect, original sense? I sat in my chair, shocked. I am not a scholar, but for the imaginative reader there can be discoveries, connections between books, that explode the day and one’s heart and the long years that have led to the moment.

Imagine my own shock, then, as a mere sentence later I came upon a passage that bears a striking resemblance to Alain de Botton’s recent meditation on the value of reading, and predates it by more than a decade. Ruefle:

In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single lifespan, to watch the great impersonal universe at work again and again, to watch the great personal psyche spar with it, to suffer affliction and weakness and injury, to die and watch those you love die, until the very dizziness of it all becomes a source of compassion for ourselves, and our language, which we alone created, and without which the letter that slipped under the door could never have been written, or, once in a thousand lives—is that too much to ask?—retrieved, and read.

Then, De Botton:

It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.

Did De Botton plagiarize the passage, consciously or not, perhaps in a bout of cryptomnesia? Or is this an honest case of the same idea occurring independently to two minds unaware of each other’s existence? Whatever the case, the very ability to ask such unanswerable questions is a gift granted by the mental cross-connections that books alone make possible.

Painting from 'My Favorite Things' by Maira Kalman. Click image for more.

But Ruefle’s most evocative point has to do with reading’s role as a dual gateway to our inner wholeness and our connectedness with the universe:

That is why I read: I want everything to be okay. That’s why I read when I was a lonely kid and that’s why I read now that I’m a scared adult. It’s a sincere desire, but a sincere desire always complicates things — the universe has a peculiar reaction to our sincere desires. Still, I believe the planet on the table, even when wounded and imperfect, fragmented and deprived, is worthy of being called whole. Our minds and the universe — what else is there? Margaret Mead described intellectuals as those who are bored when they don’t have the chance to talk interestingly enough. Now a book will talk interestingly to you. George Steiner describes the intellectual as one who can’t read without a pencil in her hand. One who wants to talk back to the book, not take notes but make them: one who might write, “The giraffe speaks!” in the margin. In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?

From cover to cover, Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures is the kind of book that beckons the pencil to its margins. Complement it with Rebecca Solnit on the shared intimacy of reading and writing, then revisit Kafka — whom Ruefle quotes in the same essay — on what books do for the human spirit.

* Ruefle isn’t merely the type of person who reads the dictionary, but also the type who spends years planning a theoretical course called “Footnotes,” which would require students to read every book mentioned in the footnotes of a definitive text.

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06 NOVEMBER, 2014

Bill Nye Reads a Brilliant, Creationism-Busting Passage from His New Book on Evolution

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An intelligent antidote to propaganda’s chronic line of unreasonable reasoning.

“Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much,” Carl Sagan wrote in his now-legendary Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking. Since 1993, former mechanical engineer turned actor Bill Nye “The Science Guy” — for who Sagan was a personal hero — has been testing and demonstrating the pillars of science, from the everyday to the existential, for kids and grownups alike as a television host, comedian, writer, and one of the most important science educators of our time. In Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation (public library | IndieBound), Nye sets out to undo the immeasurable cultural damage done by anti-science propaganda by exploring why evolution is not only one of the most important ideas in the history of science but also the most meaningful creation story humanity has ever known.

Nye writes in the opening chapter:

Once you become aware — once you see how evolution works — so many familiar aspects of the world take on new significance. The affectionate nuzzling of a dog, the annoying bite of a mosquito, the annual flu shot: All are direct consequences of evolution. As you read this book, I hope you will also come away with a deeper appreciation for the universe and our place within it. We are the results of billions of years of cosmic events that led to the cozy, habitable planet we live on.

But the capacity for such appreciation in science requires the same thing that Oscar Wilde believed was necessary for appreciating art — a “temperament of receptivity.” Nothing stifles that capacity, especially in a young mind only beginning to learn the tools of understanding, more surely than dogma. In one particularly punchy passage, which he read on a recent episode of The New York Times’ Science Times podcast in his characteristic animated style, Nye addresses the creationist reader directly with equal parts humor and intellectual rigor:

But for certain people who hold a creationist point of view, life’s common chemistry paints a completely different picture. They claim it indicates that we are all the product of a designer who made everything according to the same plan, all at once.

That line of reasoning also leads to questions — but they’re the exasperating kind. If there was a designer, why did he or she or it create all those fossils of things that aren’t living anymore? Why did the designer put all these chemical substitutions of radioactive elements in with nonradioactive elements? Why did a designer program in this continual change that we observe in the fossil record, if he or she assembled the whole system at once? In short, why mess around with all this messiness? If you’re a creationist reading this, and you want to remark something like, “Well, that’s the way he did it,” I’ll tell you right back, that is just not reasonable, nor is it satisfactory. If we were playing on a team right now, I’d say, “Get your head in the game.”

Illustration from ‘Evolution: A Coloring Book’ by Annu Kilpeläinen. Click image for more. 

 

In the book itself, he goes on to write:

Another thing: If there were a designer, I’d expect some better results. I’d expect no common cold viruses, for example. Or, if viruses are an unavoidable or accidental consequence of a designer designing with DNA molecules, I would hope that we’d be immune to those accidental viruses. If the argument is, “Well, that was all part of the plan,” then I have to ask: How can you take the lack of evidence of a plan as evidence of a plan? That makes no sense.

Undeniable is a cultural necessity. Complement it with Neil deGrasse Tyson on why intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance and Baba Brinkman’s rap guide to evolution, then treat your (inner) child to this wonderful coloring book about evolution.

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