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03 AUGUST, 2015

Simone Weil on True Genius and the Crushing Illusion of Inferiority

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“When one hungers for bread one does not receive stones.”

“Many of the tenets of sainthood are also to be cultivated in the committed writer,” Melissa Pritchard observed in her beautiful meditation on art as a form of active prayer. But for French philosopher, political activist, and mystic Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) — one of the most lucid, luminous, and gravely underappreciated thinkers in human history — sainthood was more than a metaphor for her approach to writing. Weil endures as a rare kind of modern saint — a person who lived with absolute conviction and lived that conviction absolutely, not merely as a detached intellectual abstraction but as practical concreteness into which she threw all of herself, frail body and formidable mind.

To better understand the struggles of the working class, 24-year-old Weil — who had graduated with a degree in philosophy after placing first in the competitive national university entrance exam; Simone de Beauvoir placed second — quit her teaching job and labored incognito in a car factory for more than a year, despite having a rare neuropathy that gave her frequent debilitating headaches. Although she was a proponent of nonviolence and was in poor health for the entirety of her short life, she volunteered in the Spanish Civil War and beseeched an anti-fascist commander to let her assist in a mission to rescue a political prisoner, knowing it might cost her her life. Upon returning to Paris, she continued to write passionately about war and peace, labor rights, the moral responsibilities of science, and countless other subjects the ultimate aim of which was a more exalted humanity.

As she lay dying of tuberculosis, exiled in a British hospital, she defied the doctors’ orders by refusing to eat more than the rations her compatriots in Nazi-occupied France were given — a solidary self-sacrifice akin to a saint’s, and one that accordingly resulted in her death. Albert Camus proclaimed her “the only great spirit of our times.” The influential Canadian philosopher George Grant considered her “the supreme teacher of the relation of love and intelligence,” a singular spirit marked by the rare combination of a “staggeringly clear intellect with something that is beyond the intellect — namely, sanctity.”

In the spring of 1942, a year before she fell mortally ill, Weil penned a long letter to a dear friend and confidante, the theologian Father Perrin, which she considered a sort of “spiritual autobiography.” It was later included in the posthumously published Waiting for God (public library) — one of the most ennobling texts our civilization ever produced.

In a particularly poignant passage from the letter, Weil looks back on her life and contemplates the nature of genius. Although she had a great reverence for giftedness — having witnessed it since a young age in her brother, the influential mathematician André Weil — she believed genius was not a passive function of talent but an active and transcendent search for truth:

At fourteen I fell into one of those fits of bottomless despair that come with adolescence, and I seriously thought of dying because of the mediocrity of my natural faculties. The exceptional gifts of my brother, who had a childhood and youth comparable to those of Pascal, brought my own inferiority home to me. I did not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides. I preferred to die rather than live without that truth.

In a sentiment that cals to mind young Vincent van Gogh’s touching letter on finding one’s purpose“Does what goes on inside show on the outside?” he wrote to his brother. “Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” — Weil adds:

After months of inward darkness, I suddenly had the everlasting conviction that any human being, even though practically devoid of natural faculties, can penetrate to the kingdom of truth reserved for genius, if only he longs for truth and perpetually concentrates all his attention upon its attainment. He thus becomes a genius too, even though for lack of talent his genius cannot be visible from outside…

Under the name of truth I also included beauty, virtue, and every kind of goodness, so that for me it was a question of a conception of the relationship between grace and desire. The conviction that had come to me was that when one hungers for bread one does not receive stones.

Complement the immeasurably enriching Waiting for God with Weil on making use of our suffering, science and our spiritual values, and how to be a complete human being.

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03 AUGUST, 2015

Two Nine-Year-Olds’ Magnificent Open Letter to Disney About Racial and Gender Stereotypes

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“Like most people we love your attractions, but we found some problems with some of them and those problems are stereotypes.”

In the spring of 2015, a nine-year-old boy named Dexter went to Disneyland with his family and found himself deeply unsettled — not by a scary ride or the unpleasantness of waiting in line, but by some of the most unsettling cultural issues of our time: racial and gender stereotypes. Disney, the world’s most prolific purveyor of pink plastic, has a long history of perpetuating gender stereotypes and feeding our unconscious biases, but what Dexter so astutely observed seemed like a particularly acute symptom of a larger cultural malady.

I’ve known Dexter since he was a peanut — the son of my dear friends Jake Barton and Jenny Raymond, he is the smartest, most sensitive child I know — so I was hardly surprised by what happened next: Upon returning to New York, Dexter conferred with his classmate Sybilla, who had just had a similar experience while visiting Disney World in Orlando with her family; with the disarming sincerity and simplicity of which only children are capable, the two third graders wrote a magnificent, precocious, immensely insightful open letter to Disney, calling out the problematic treatment of race and gender, and suggesting more intelligent and culturally sensitive alternatives.

Dexter (left) with his mother, little sister, and Minnie Mouse

Dexter and Sybilla go to The Cathedral School of St. John the Divine in Harlem — one of those New York City schools proactive about teaching kids about white privilege and its consequences — and their teacher, Ms. Elena Jaime, had instilled in them a deep concern with social justice around identity. But beyond that foundation, out of which their disappointment with Disney sprang, there was no adult hand in the letter — the kids dreamt it up, drafted it, revised it, and mailed it all by themselves.

Dear Disney,

Like most people we love your attractions, but we found some problems with some of them and those problems are stereotypes. Stereotypes are something that some people believe are true but sometimes may not be true. For example say somebody said “girls only like pink,” that’s a stereotype, some girls might like yellow and not pink. You can never really judge.

We are third graders from New York City at The Cathedral School. We learn about stereotypes, and the impact they have on people’s identities. For instance, in the jungle cruise, all the robotic people have dark skin and are throwing spears at you. We think this reinforces some negative associations, we think you should replace them with monkeys throwing rotten fruit.

We noticed that on our trips to Disneyland and Disneyworld that all the cast members call people Prince, Princess, or Knight, judging by what the child “looks like” and assuming gender. We think some feelings could get hurt, say by accident you called someone a Prince who wasn’t a Prince or a Princess, or a Knight, or who was identifying differently than what they were called. We suggest you say “Hello, Your Royalty” instead.

With the Princess Makeovers, we think you are excluding other people who might want a makeover to be something else, including boys and transgender people. When we went to the Princess Castle, the characters only greeted the people they thought were visiting girls, not the visiting boys and again said “Hi Princess.”

We hope you know we had an awesome time at Disney and these are suggestions to make it more inclusive and magical for everyone. Please reply and let us know your thoughts.

Sincerely,

Sybilla and Dexter, The Cathedral School

The robotic attackers in the Jungle Cruise (Photograph: Loren Javier)

Dexter and Sybilla mailed the letter to Bob Chapek, chairman of Walt Disney Parks, in June of 2015. They are yet to hear back.

Complement with a fantastic and culturally necessary read on how unconscious biases afflict even the best-intentioned of us.

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03 AUGUST, 2015

Bukowski on Writing, True Art, and the Courage to Create Outside Society’s Forms of Approval

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“Art is its own excuse, and it’s either Art or it’s something else. It’s either a poem or a piece of cheese.”

“There are contradictory impulses in everything,” Susan Sontag observed in lamenting how our inability to sit with duality makes us fall into perilous polarities. Few creators exorcised those contradictory impulses more intensely than Charles Bukowski (August 16, 1920–March 9, 1994) — a writer of uncommon attentiveness to the rawness of life, to both its pain and its beauty, with an unselfconscious capacity for sincerity, a crazy daily routine, and zero tolerance for creative pretensions. His enormous inner tumult and strong opinions often came off as bitterness, but he was at heart far from embittered, always in self-conscious — and sometimes self-destructive — search for that which nourishes the spirit. Unifying all of his writing — his poetry, his prose, his correspondence — is an electrifying and unapologetic aliveness.

On Writing (public library), edited by Abel DeBritto, collects Bukowski’s thoughts on the craft — sometimes wild, often wise, always impassioned to a point of ferocity — culled from his prolific letters to friends and comrades on the trying yet tremendously rewarding creative path.

The question of what poetry is and isn’t has been addressed by some of humanity’s greatest poets, from Wordsworth to Elizabeth Alexander. But in a 1959 letter to his friend Anthony Linick, 29-year-old Bukowski argues that the only thing of importance when it comes to poetry is not what it is but that it is — a notion that gets at the heart of all great art:

I should think that many of our poets, the honest ones, will confess to having no manifesto. It is a painful confession but the art of poetry carries its own powers without having to break them down into critical listings. I do not mean that poetry should be raffish and irresponsible clown tossing off words into the void. But the very feeling of a good poem carries its own reason for being… Art is its own excuse, and it’s either Art or it’s something else. It’s either a poem or a piece of cheese.

In a letter to another friend, he laments the something-elseness of most of what tries to pass for Art:

Almost all poetry written, past and present, is a failure because the intent, the slant and accent, is not a carving like stone or eating a good sandwich or drinking a good drink, but more like somebody saying, “Look, I have written a poem … see my POEM!”

In another letter to the same friend a few months later, Bukowski revisits this problematic charade:

It’s when you begin to lie to yourself in a poem in order to simply make a poem, that you fail. That is why I do not rework poems but let them go at first sitting, because if I have lied originally there’s no use driving the spikes home, and if I haven’t lied, well hell, there’s nothing to worry about.

Bukowski traces his distaste for restrictive rules back to his days as a community college student in L.A., when he received a D in English, and writes in a letter to Linick:

I didn’t pay a hell of a lot of attention to grammar, and when I write it is for the love of the word, the color, like tossing paint on a canvas, and using a lot of ear and having read a bit here and there, I generally come out ok, but technically I don’t know what’s happening, nor do I care.

In his next letter to Linick, he revisits the subject:

I think some writers do suffer this fate mainly because at heart they are rebellious and the rules of grammar like many of the other rules of our world call for a herding in and a confirmation that the natural writer instinctively abhors, and, furthermore, his interest lies in the wider scope of subject and spirit… Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Saroyan were a few that reshaped the rules, especially in punctuation and sentence flow and breakdown. And, of course, James Joyce went even further. We are interested in color, shape, meaning, force… the pigments that point up the soul.

Illustration from R. Crumb's collaboration with Bukowski. Click image for more.

Above all, Bukowski was especially contemptuous of the literary establishment, its pomposity, and its self-important arbiters of merit, which he saw as the seedbed of the unimaginative grayness robbing art of those soul-pigments. In a characteristically indignant 1959 letter to a fellow poet, 29-year-old Bukowski scoffs:

I do not feel it is pedantic or ignoble to demand freedom from the opiate of clannishness and leech-brotherhood that dominates many many of our so-called avant-garde publications.

Bemoaning what he considered to be the inexorable creative blandness of commercial publications, he adds:

If this be writing, if this be poesy, I ask a helminthagogun: I’ve earned $47 in 20 years of writing and I think that $2 a year (omitting stamps, paper, envelopes, ribbons, divorces and typewriters) entitles one to the special privacy of a special insanity and if I need hold hands with paper gods to promote a little scurvy rhyme, I’ll take the encyst and paradise of rejection.

With an eye to a magazine he found particularly full of pseudo-poetry, he adds:

When you flip the pages, nothing but butterflies, near bloodless butterflies. I am actually shocked when I go through this magazine because nothing is happening. And I guess that’s what they think a poem is. Say, something not happening. A neat lined something, so subtle you can’t even feel it. This makes the whole thing intelligent art. Balls! The only thing intelligent about a good art is if it shakes you alive, otherwise it’s hokum.

And although he believed that poetry is its own manifesto, in a particularly animated letter to the poet, novelist, and film and television writer John William Corrington, 31-year-old Bukowski sets down what is essentially a magnificent manifesto not only for poetry but for creative freedom in all its permutations and for the courage to create outside the formulaic conventions of How It’s Done:

The sanctuary of the rule means nothing to the pure creator. There is an excuse for poor creation if we are dithered by camouflage or wine come down through staring eyes, but there isn’t any excuse for a creation crippled by directives of school and fashion, or the valetudinarian prayer book that says: form, form, form!! put it in a cage!

Let’s allow ourselves space and error, hysteria and grief. Let’s not round the edge until we have a ball that rolls neatly away like a trick. Things happen — the priest is shot in the john; hornets blow heroin without arrest; they take down your number; your wife runs off with an idiot who’s never read Kafka; the crushed cat, its guts glueing its skull to the pavement, is passed by traffic for hours; flowers grow in the smoke; children die at 9 and 97; flies are smashed from screens… the history of form is evident.

[…]

Really, we must let the candle burn—pour gasoline on it if necessary. The sense of the ordinary is always ordinary, but there are screams from windows too … an artistic hysteria engendered out of breathing in the necropolis … sometimes when the music stops and leaves us 4 walls of rubber or glass or stone, or worse — no walls at all — poor and freezing in the Atlanta of the heart. To concentrate on form and logic … seems imbecility in the midst of the madness…

Creation is our gift and we are ill with it. It has sloshed about my bones and awakened me to stare at 5 a.m. walls.

By that point, with his passion amplified by a drink or a dozen, he does away with even the most basic convention of capitalization and wanders off, as if deeper into his own marvelous mind:

rub your hands and prove that you are alive. seriousness will not do. walk the floor. this is the gift, this is the gift…

Complement On Writing, densely insightful in its totality, with Bukowski on the meaning of life, his beautiful letter of gratitude to the man who helped him quit his soul-sucking day-job to become a full-time writer, and a breathtaking animated adaptation of his poem “Bluebird.”

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31 JULY, 2015

Michelangelo on Struggle and Creative Integrity

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“I do not know which is better, the ill that helps or the good that harms.”

Italian Renaissance sculptor, painter, poet, architect, and engineer Michelangelo (March 6, 1475–February 18, 1564) is celebrated as one of the greatest and most influential artists of all time. In 1505, thirty-year-old Michelangelo was commissioned to build a tomb for the newly elected Pope Julius II in Rome. It was an arduous process marred by constant interruption and interference by the pope, a bona fide micro-manager. Today, as scientists are finding that it takes our brains 23 minutes to recover from an interruption, Michelangelo’s tenacity and his ability to carry out his creative vision despite the maddening meddling seems triply worthy of awe.

Indeed, he knew value of undisturbed creative labor and protected it fiercely, unafraid to stand up to the most powerful man in Europe. Unable to bear the interruptions any longer and determined to do his work on his own terms, he left Rome and returned to Florence, where he could work on his sketches and sculptures for the project in peace. In one of the missives collected in Poems and Letters: Selections, with the 1550 Vasari Life (public library) — an invaluable glimpse of the inner workings of Michelangelo’s genius, from his daily struggles to his most elemental creative credos — he writes to the pope’s head architect, defending his departure:

If I stayed in Rome, my own tomb would be made before the pope’s. And this was why I left so suddenly.

Now you write to me on the pope’s behalf, so you can read the pope this: let His Holiness understand that I am more willing than ever to carry on with the work; and if he wants the tomb come what may, he shouldn’t be bothered about where I work on it, provided that, at the end of the five years we agreed on, it is set up in St Peter’s, wherever he likes; and that it is something beautiful, as I have promised it will be: for I’m sure that if it’s completed, there will be nothing like it in the world.

Michelangelo makes an impassioned, even indignant, case for what we now call remote work, half a millennium before cars and commuter rail and Skype:

Now if His Holiness wants to go on with it, he should place the deposit for me here in Florence and I’ll write to tell him where. And I have many marbles on order in Carrara which I shall have brought here along with those I have in Rome. Even if it meant a serious loss to me, I shouldn’t mind so long as I could do the work here; and I would forward the finished pieces one by one so that His Holiness would enjoy them just as much as if I were working in Rome — or even more, because he would just see the finished pieces without having any other bother. For the money and for the work I shall pledge myself as His Holiness desires and give him whatever security he requires here in Florence. Whatever it is, I’ll give him that security before all Florence. Enough.

Although the project was scheduled to last five years, Michelangelo labored at it for four decades and never completed the tomb to his satisfaction — no doubt in large part due to the pope’s unrelenting meddling. But as is often the case in creative culture, a small side project assigned to him shortly after the original tomb commission ended up becoming Michelangelo’s most timeless legacy and one of the greatest works of art ever created: the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, on which he worked almost incessantly between 1508 and 1512. And as is also often the case in art, Michelangelo’s compensation was a pittance compared to the magnitude of his enduring gift to humanity.

In a letter to his father penned in September of 1512, as the Sistine Chapel project was drawing to a close, he writes:

I must warn you that I don’t have a penny and that I’m barefoot and naked, so to speak, and I can’t get the balance owed to me until I’ve finished the work; and I suffer the worst of hardships and toil. So, when you have to put up with some hardship yourself, don’t be distressed, and as long as you can help yourself with your own money.

A month later, he sends his father a most understated, matter-of-fact, even wistful report on what is substantially one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of art:

I have finished the chapel I was painting: the pope is very happy with it, but other things haven’t turned out as well as I hoped. I blame the times, which are so unfavorable to our art… I don’t have what I need in order to do what I want to do.

Later that month, he writes to his father again:

I live in penury and think nothing of life or honors, that is of the world; and I live with immense toil and a thousand cares. And I have been like this for about fifteen years, without an hour of joy… I’m ready to do the same again for as long as I live or as long as I can.

It should be noted that Michelangelo tended to dramatize his poverty — he was actually made quite a lot by the era’s standards. The Pope agreed to pay him 3,000 ducats for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Even though Michelangelo was to buy his own materials, which cost about 1,000 ducats, the remaining 2,000 was a substantial amount — historians equate it to about $52,000 in today’s money. (For a comparative reference point, his contemporary Leonardo — who died with 600 ducats in the bank — kept a careful log of expenditures in his notebooks and often listed the prices of common commodities: 11 ducats for a haircut, 13 for a shirt, 20 for a pair of glasses, 1 for a salad.)

Still, in the relative context of his cultural contribution, Michelangelo was practically robbed — consider, for instance, the exorbitantly greater sums contemporary architects are paid to build, say, a World Cup stadium where a very different form of modern worship takes place.

Separation of Light from Darkness: Michelangelo's fresco of The First Day of Creation, located above the altar of the Sistine Chapel

In a supreme twist of irony, Pope Julius II died just a few months later and was succeeded by a pope from the Medici family, history’s greatest patrons of the arts — and yet Michelangelo’s most enduring and beautiful work was done under financial strain and creative limitation. One is reminded of Kierkegaard, who observed that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.” Indeed, despite his complaints, Michelangelo was unperturbed by practical constraints and was carried forward by the truth of his creative vision, an “agent of transcendent power.” He captured this universal credo of creative geniuses with simple sincerity in another letter:

What counts is that I shall do what I promised, come what may, and with God’s help, I shall create the finest work ever made in Italy.

To be able to do that, Michelangelo continued to defend his creative autonomy. In 1524, while still working on the tomb, he wrote directly to the Medici pope Clement VII. However piously and humbly worded, his letter is essentially a telling-off, insisting on freedom from interference and interruption in his creative process:

Since intermediaries often cause serious misunderstandings, I make bold to write directly to Your Holiness about the tombs here in San Lorenzo. I must say I do not know which is better, the ill that helps or the good that harms. Witless and unworthy I may be, but I am certain that if I had been allowed to carry on as I started, all the marbles for these works would be in Florence today, blocked out as I need them and costing much less than they have so far; and they would be of admirable quality like the others I brought here.

Now I see that it is set to be a long business and I do not know how it will go on. If, therefore, something happens that displeases Your Holiness, I beg pardon, for I do not feel that I can be guilty where I have no authority. And if Your Holiness wants me to achieve something, I beg that you should not set other men over me in my own art, but have faith in me and give me a free hand; then Your Holiness will see what I can do and what account of myself I shall render.

That power of the artist’s free hand, and the resoluteness with which Michelangelo defended it all his life, remains his greatest legacy. Befittingly, he depicted God separating light from darkness with his hands on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — and what is the artist’s role in human life if not to separate, with his free hand, light from darkness?

Michelangelo’s Poems and Letters is a magnificent read in its totality. Complement it with the illustrated life of Leonardo, Picasso on not compromising in your art, Jane Austen on defending your creative vision against commercial pressures, and Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson on creative integrity.

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