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06 MAY, 2015

James Baldwin and Margaret Mead on Reimagining Democracy for a Post-Consumerist Culture

By:

“Democracy should not mean the leveling of everyone to the lowest common denominator. It should mean the possibility of everyone being able to raise himself to a certain level of excellence.”

NOTE: This is the third installment in a multi-part series celebrating Mead and Baldwin’s historic yet forgotten conversation. Part 1 focused on forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility; part 2 on identity, race, and the immigrant experience; part 3 on changing one’s destiny.

Three years before E.F. Schumacher laid out his seminal vision for a Buddhist approach to economics, urging us to stop prioritizing products over people and consumption over creative fulfillment, two other titans of thought shone their luminous intellects on the dark underbelly of capitalism and consumer culture. When Margaret Mead and James Baldwin sat down for their remarkable public conversation in August of 1970, the transcript of which was eventually published as A Rap on Race (public library), they explored with great insight and dimension the many factors that shape the forces of equality and inequality in our world — the world of 1970 and doubly so the world of today, for such was the prescience produced by cross-pollinating these two formidably fertile minds.

Art by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

As Mead and Baldwin weave in and out of the subject of capitalism throughout the conversation, they reserve especial criticism for the mainstream models of success we’ve bought into — models that continue to shackle us to social Shoulds as we race on the hedonic treadmill of consumerism:

BALDWIN: I have never accepted the notion that you keep a Cadillac or a yacht or anything at all, except perhaps for convenience. I have always had a quarrel with this country not only about race but about the standards by which it appears to live. People are drowning in things. They don’t even know what they want them for. They are actually useless. You can’t sleep with a yacht. you can’t make love to a Cadillac, though everyone appears to be trying to… I think the great emotional or psychological or effective lack of love and touching is the key to the American or even the Western disease.

Mead considers the origin of this compulsive consumption and how the pursuit of privilege over happiness poisoned the American dream:

MEAD: But most people who came here were terribly poor and wanted things.

BALDWIN: To prove they existed.

MEAD: To prove they could get them all. They had been eating the black bread of poverty, so they came over here and they wanted to eat the white bread that was eaten in the castle. So they instead of eating good, nourishing, whole wheat bread —

BALDWIN: They started eating white bread. Yes, indeed, look at the results.

MEAD: They began eating too much sugar too; thats what the people in the castle had… Old Americans were frugal… I was brought up to untie each package carefully, untie the knots in the string and roll it up and put it away to use again.

BALDWIN: Yes, I still do that too. And I hate myself for it.

Having grown up in Bulgaria during communism, I too had an acute experience of this bread-as-status-symbol phenomenon, as well as of the conflicted self-loathing it produced and still produces. And yet, as Baldwin and Mead both acknowledge, such fallibility is a profoundly human reaction to the oppressive forces of adversity — a testament to the notion of force and counterforce:

BALDWIN: The dream of the starving is to be fed.

MEAD: Yes, that’s it. And the dream of the people who have nothing is to have things…

Echoing Martin Luther King’s famous proclamation that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere [and] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” Baldwin adds:

BALDWIN: The great revolution … that one has dared… The dream of the starving is not only to be fed… One has got to arrive at the point where one realizes that if one man is hungry everyone is hungry.

Illustration from 'We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy,' Maurice Sendak's darkest, most controversial, yet most hopeful children's book. Click image for more.

Indeed, this conversation took place at the height of the New Age movement and the hippie counterculture — a time when Alan Watts admonished that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others.” In this call for unity, Mead sees as a model for a better dream of our shared human future — a vision resurrected by the sustainability movement of our own age. Today, Mead’s vision seems remarkably prophetic as we enact a great many of her hopes and some of her fears:

MEAD: What I hope is going to happen in the world is a demand similar to the one in this country, the demand for a simpler form of life. Coming up from the kids of the affluent middle class who say, “We don’t want to live like this. We don’t want to over-capitalize the individual home this way. We want to make things much more collective.” Then maybe we can invent a style in this country that is viable for other countries. because otherwise what is happening is that other countries are copying this style, so the few educated and elite can get themselves some Cadillacs and big houses. Then all of the rest of the people are miserable. Also we are bleeding the world of its resources and we can’t do that.

This, too, I experienced acutely while growing up in Bulgaria — my mother used to rinse out empty yogurt containers and even previously-used plastic bags, which she reused for various purposes. I was tremendously embarrassed by this practice, which didn’t signify resourcefulness but a lack of resources. And yet by the time I was in my twenties, reusing shopping bags became a status symbol for the conscientious consumer who could, but chose not to, afford disposability. Indeed, recycling today is primarily a political act of the privileged, not a coping mechanism of the poor.

Mead peers backward and forward in time to examine the origin and outcome of these cultural forces:

MEAD: So what is the American dream? The American dream has been the dream of the immigrant. The dream of old Commodore Vanderbilt. What did he borrow? Two hundred dollars from his mother and started bringing potatoes over from Staten Island — who ended up building palaces. But they were not palaces of kings. They were palaces of people who had had nothing and wanted things. And then I go back to my Manus people in New Guinea, who said, “When you have plenty, then you can afford to begin to think about human beings. And when you don’t have, you don’t think about human beings.”

BALDWIN: Well that is both true and not true. I don’t want to be sentimental about poverty, which is a hideous condition. I once flew from Istanbul to Switzerland. Istanbul is exceedingly poor. But the people will give you anything they have, and there is a kind of human warmth which you do not find on the streets of Lausanne.

MEAD: Where everybody is well off.

BALDWIN: Yes. And you wouldn’t dream of asking anybody for the time of day.

MEAD: Well, you can produce a kind of private-property-oriented society, where they also have the private property, where they don’t have any free energy for anyone else at all.

Illustration from 'We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy,' Maurice Sendak's darkest, most controversial, yet most hopeful children's book. Click image for more.

Later in the conversation, Mead and Baldwin revisit the general problem of capitalism and the particular problem of our consumerist dependence on cars, once again presaging the buildup of brokenness that would lead, decades later, to the success of solutions like Tesla:

BALDWIN: Mass production has made human life impossible.

MEAD: No, not really. We never could have things for everybody until we got mass production.

BALDWIN: And what are we going to do with it now?

MEAD: Well, something else. You know, just because the Ford car and the idea of Mr. Ford did give enormous freedom to people in this country, it doesn’t mean that we have to —

BALDWIN: It didn’t give them any freedom, it gave them tremendous mobility.

MEAD: Well, Americans think mobility and freedom are very close together. If you take Detroit, now… A study has just been made that compares somebody without a car only a few blocks away from somebody with a car. The one with a car is not twice as mobile, he is over ten times as mobile.

BALDWIN: This I discovered to my horror when I was living in Hollywood… Human feet have suddenly become obsolete. There’s no point in having feet, except to drive the car. I guess I am badly placed in this society, in many ways. But I see what you mean. I know we had to have these things, we had to have them. I know that it was at one point in human history a tremendous advance for the human race. But now mass production, the consumer society, seems to be one of the things that menace us the most, because we have become so dependent upon it.

MEAD: The automobile in its present shape is a monster. But to envisage a society without automobiles, with the number of people that we have, is also very difficult, We will have to make some new inventions.

BALDWIN: Then we have got to find a way to control this… this monster we have created.

MEAD: That’s right. We have to find different kinds of automobiles, set them up differently.

BALDWIN: And keep them out of the cities.

Illustration by Paul Rogers from the picture-book adaptation of Bob Dylan's 'Forever Young.' Click image for more.

And yet changes of this magnitude, Mead and Baldwin agree, require that we unmoor ourselves from some of our most basic assumptions about how the world works. They consider the exploitive models upon which capitalism is built and envision a more just alternative:

BALDWIN: It is very difficult to ask people to give up the assumptions by which they have always lived, and yet that is the demand the world has got to make now of everybody.

[…]

BALDWIN: One has been avoiding the word capitalism and one has been avoiding talking about matters on that level. But there is a very serious flaw in the profit system which is implicit in the phrase itself. And, in some way or another, one can even say at this moment, sitting in this room, that the Western economy is due to the fact that in a way every dime I earn, the system which earns it for me — I don’t mean the fact that I write books, but the way the system works, the base — is standing on the back of some black miner in South Africa, and he is going to stand up presently. Now, if we don’t anticipate that, we will be in terrible trouble. Because he is not going to be bending under his weight ten years from now. And if we don’t understand that and let him stand up, the whole thing is going to be a shambles.

MEAD: I agree. But I also think … that if the systems, whether they call themselves private power or public planning, don’t learn to think ahead further and include all human beings more, they are contributing to the shambles.

Ultimately, such a shift away from exploitive profit requires — then and, even more urgently so, now — that we reimagine what democracy itself might look like if all human beings are to be elevated and none exploited:

BALDWIN: It demands — especially here and now because we are here and now — a vast amount of passion and some courage to attack the forces which menace everybody’s life. The life of everybody on this planet is menaced by, to put it too simply, the extraordinary and even willful ignorance of people in high places. If the democratic notion has led us to where we now find ourselves, some kind of radical revision of the democratic notion is needed.

[…]

Democracy should not mean the leveling of everyone to the lowest common denominator. It should mean the possibility of everyone being able to raise himself to a certain level of excellence.

A Rap on Race is a tremendous read in its entirety. Explore other threads of this historic conversation in the three previousparts, then revisit Alan Watts on the difference between money and wealth.

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05 MAY, 2015

The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning: The Extraordinary Edible Record of Two Women Explorers’ Journey to the End of the World

By:

“In Antarctica, everything is stripped down… It is only who you are and what you do that counts.”

“Housekeeping, the art of the infinite, is no game for amateurs,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in 1982 in a fictional piece full of truths, a New Yorker short story about an all-female crew of polar explorers titled “Sur: A Summary Report of the Yelcho Expedition to the Antarctic,” later included in the short story collection The Unreal and the Real.

The pioneering polar explorer Ernest Shackleton would’ve been well-advised to heed Le Guin’s admonition. In 1914, as he was readying to embark upon his heroic Antarctic expedition, he posted the following recruitment ad in the wanted section of a London newspaper:

MEN WANTED for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, nor and recognition in case of success.

Among the responses was one from a young woman named Peggy Pergrine, writing on behalf of a female trio:

We ‘three spotty girls’… beg for you take us with you on your expedition to the South Pole. We are … willing to undergo any hardships that you yourselves undergo. If our feminine garb is inconvenient, we should just love to don masculine attire… We do not see why men should have all the glory … especially when there are women just as brave and capable.

Shackleton replied dryly:

There are no vacancies for the opposite sex on the expedition.

Shackleton expedition photographer Frank Hurley working under the bows of the Endurance, 1915. Before abandoning the ship, Shackleton and Hurley chose 120 glass plates to keep, including this rare color one. They smashed 400 plates; Shackleton feared Hurley would endanger himself by even thinking of returning for them.

Whether the great explorer and his crew survived by merit or miracle remains unknown, but survive they did — however narrowly — not without attention to cuisine. (A year later, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his crew, who gave us the most enchanting photographic record of early polar exploration, weren’t so lucky — the entire crew perished in the grip of starvation and extreme cold.)

Menu prepared by Frank Hurley for Midwinter Day dinner, June 22, 1912

Courtesy Mitchell Library State Library of New South Wales

Shackleton’s return from Antarctica was the catalyst for a new era of polar exploration — over the course of the century since his voyage, countless expeditions have taken to this 90-percent glaciated island of mystery and magic, which occupies a tenth of our planet and holds most of the world’s fresh water but has remained unknown for most of human history. In the mere century that humans have inhabited the continent, several nations — including Russia, Chile, China, Uruguay, Poland, and Argentina — have set up research stations, which quickly sprouted the most prolific byproduct of our civilization: human mess.

Project Antarctica, VIEW Foundation pilot cleanup at the Polish research station, Carol Devine in center, 1995

In June of 1994, one woman was tasked with the very endeavor Shackleton had so bluntly denied young Peggy Pergrine exactly eight decades earlier: Humanitarian Carol Devine received a handwritten letter from the Polish Academy of Sciences, inviting her to spearhead what would become Project Antarctica — the world’s first major collaborative environmental initiative to clean up the debris that had accumulated since researchers first set foot on this icy wonderland.

It was a singular job that required the marriage of science and housekeeping, and it was — as Le Guin had observed a decade earlier — no game for amateurs.

Photograph by Jean-Baptiste Charcot from the first French expedition to the Antarctic, 1903–1905

As the expedition leader, Devine set out to recruit volunteers — in an era, it should be noted for perspective, when efforts of this sort were coordinated via fax and derailed by such disasters as blowing a slide projector. In addition to a program manager, an Antarctic veteran, and a biologist, she hired Wendy Trusler — a visual artist and chef renowned for cooking at tree-planting camps throughout Northern Canada.

So began a most unusual and vitalizing collaboration between the two women, which would become, twenty years later, The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning: A Polar Journey (public library) — an extraordinary tome blending the enchantment of Thoreau-like journaling (“A brilliant morning. Sun turns berg in bay into gold.”), the fascination of scientific observation and philosophical reflection (“[The Chilean Commandante] said you can’t write about something of which you are not a part. I disagreed, and agreed.”), and the pure delight of delicious, immensely inventive recipes for meals cooked with minimal ingredients and maximal imagination (“sea cabbage salad made with laminaria [fresh kelp]”).

Carol Devine (right) and Wendy Trusler, Bellingshausen, 1995

Photograph by Lena Nikolaeva

Devine writes in the introduction:

How do you start to clean up some 28 years worth of accumulated rubbish and encourage long-term commitment to cleanup?

[…]

This book is an invitation to experience our and others’ passions, doubts, victories, disasters, concerns, joys, heartbreaks, discoveries, recipes, warnings and encouragement for crossing stormy passages and being (or at least trying to be) good citizens of the world. It’s a call for earth stewardship. Why should future generations have to clean up our collective mess and inherit a planet depleted of biodiversity and resources?

Food is life, food is culture. It shaped old expeditions and shaped ours, and we’re going to use it to tell you this story.

And indeed Trusler’s recipes, written with great warmth and subtle humor, offer a living record of this singular experience.

Fisherman's Fish

Photograph by Sandy Nicholson

No dishes. No forks, You eat Fisherman’s Fish with your hands using your fingers to pull the tender flesh away from the bone. I make it at home using the whitefishes our local fishmonger brings in. Freshly caught bass, trout, pickerel or perch would be even more delectable.

2 whole fish about 1 pound each (whitefish, cleaned, with the skin on) // ¼ cup all-purpose flour // coarse salt // vegetable oil

Cut the fish into ½- to ¼-inch steaks and pat dry. Put the flour on a shallow plate and sprinkle with salt — a few pinches should do. Add enough oil to a large skillet to cover the bottom and place it over medium-high heat.

Dredge the fish steaks in flour on all sides and place them in the pan when the oil is hot, but not smoking. Cook until the fish is golden brown underneath, then turn the steaks and fry the other side until crisply. This should take about two minutes per side.

Serve straight from the pan with wedges of lemon, apples and pears. Have plenty of sweet lemony tea made (vodka shots if it is a special occasion) and be prepared for people to drop by once word gets out.

Makes a meal for six; more if you are serving it as a snack or starter.

The recipes pay homage to the national cuisines of the various research stations — Ukrainian cabbage rolls, Great Wall dumplings, spiced Russian tea. Tucked into them is also a taste of the changing legal and moral conventions surrounding our relationship with nature. Trusler offers a pause-giving appendix to the Fisherman’s Fish recipe:

We strongly encourage using sustainable seafood for this recipe. The Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection, signed in 1991 and entered into force in 1998, prohibits disrupting wildlife. While the kind of small-scale fishing a few of us did was not yet a breach in 1996, we are aware it was a grey zone and in hindsight are uncomfortable.

Rosemary Maple Borscht

Photograph by Sandy Nicholson

Vladimir the Russian cook made his borscht using a meat stock. My version kept the vegetarian volunteers in camp happy and even got the thumbs up from the Russians. To make vegan Rosemary Maple Borscht just substitute olive oil for butter and hold back on the dollop of crème fraiche or sour cream.

2 pounds beets (around 5 medium) // 3 medium potatoes // 2 tablespoons butter // olive oil // 2 onions // 2 cloves of garlic // 1 celery stalk // 2 large carrots // 1 small cabbage(about 5 cups chopped) // 1 tablespoon caraway seeds // 8 cups water // 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar // 3 tablespoons maple syrup // 1 can crushed tomatoes (28 ounces) // 1 tablespoons sea salt // pepper // fresh rosemary

Peel and cube the beets and potatoes and put them aside. Heat the butter in a large pot set over medium heat and add the beets and potatoes, tossing to coat them with butter. Reduce the heat and sauté, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon and being careful not to bruise or break the cubes. After about 5 minutes add enough water to cover the vegetables and gently simmer until tender, around 10 minutes.

While the beets and potatoes are cooking, mince the garlic and onions and chop the remaining vegetables. Put the caraway seeds into a large Dutch oven or stock pot and toast them over low heat, pushing them around the pan from time to tie so they don’t burn. When you begin to smell the aroma of the caraway add enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom of the pot. Stir in the onions, garlic and celery, sprinkle with salt and cook over medium heat until the vegetables are soft and translucent. Next mix in the carrots and cabbage and sauté for about 5 minutes before adding the remaining water. Bring briefly to a boil and reduce the heat before making the final additions.

Add the beets and potatoes in their cooking liquid, along with the vinegar, maple syrup, crushed tomatoes and a large sprig of fresh rosemary. Cover and simmer for at least 40 minutes to bring the flavors together. Season to taste and make adjustments to the thickness of the soup by adding water as you see fit. Garnish with rosemary and a dollop of crème fraiche or sour cream and sere with freshly baked bread.

Makes enough for ten to twelve people.

Cooking for small teams of volunteers on King George Island meant I had to scale back my recipes from my bush cook days, but only so far. I love that I can get a few meals from this soup. It keeps for five days and freezes well even if you aren’t in Antarctica.

All-In Pizza

Photograph by Sandy Nicholson

Pizza is a personal thing, so it’s often best to let people make their own. When I recognized the ice-breaking potential for this hands-on meal, I stated to serve it the first night of each camp.

I put out a stack of partially baked pizza crusts with a variety of toppings and let the volunteers and dinner guests do the rest. Make-your-own pizza night encourages creativity, shapes conversation (even when there is little) and is a fabulous way to turn around leftovers.

Pizza Bases

1 batch Honey Oatmeal Bread dough (page 81) made through the first rising // Cornmeal for the pan

When the dough has doubled in size, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface, punch it down and cut it into four equal pieces. Knead each piece a few turns, roll them into uniform balls, and set aside to rest, covered, for about 5 minutes while you grease your baking sheets and preheat your oven to 350° F.

To make pizza crusts that are the same shape and size, roll out a ball of dough into a 14×14 inch square about 1/4-inch thick. Cut four rounds from the dough using a 7-inch pot lid or a bread and butter plate as a template. Continue with the remaining dough. Sprinkle the prepared baking sheets with cornmeal. Transfer the rounds to the baking sheets.

Bake until the bases begin to brown slightly around the edges, 8–10 minutes. Turn out onto racks immediately to cool and repeat with the rest of the dough as baking sheets become available.

If you prefer the look of a more free-form pizza, divide your dough into sixteen pieces and shape each of them into a ball. Proceed with a rolling pin or use your hands to press and pull one of the balls of dough into a pleasing shape. Continue until you have formed and baked all of your pizza crusts.

If you are going to use your bases later that day, they can sit out. If not, airtight container or wrap them in plastic and freeze them until ready to use.

Makes bases for sixteen pizzas.

Paging through the journals of Shackleton and other pioneering explorers, Devine gasps at how they capture “the beauty of our shared humanity, records of the weather and heart, humor and hardship, the shifting inside and outside world, the value of knowledge transfer and a hearty stew” — all things that her own cookbook-cum-travelogue offers in ample portions.

Russian scientist Sasha Diesel serving tea in the watchman's room, Bellingshausen, 1996. 'Sasha Diesel made the best tea,' Trusler writes. 'He spoke less english than I did Russian so we'd default to Spanish, which was equally dubious. Mostly we'd sit in companionable silence making things.'

Photograph by Wendy Trusler

For much of the expedition, Devine and Trusler were the only women amid troves of male researchers — in one emblematic extreme, on the Russian station, they were surrounded by five Sashas and four Vladimirs. This often made for tragicomic encounters bespeaking at once how far we’ve come since Shackleton’s dismissal of the female trio and how far we have yet to go. Devine recounts one such experience on a Russian scientific ship in December of 1995:

Two ship staff were at a table beside us and three others at another, dining with the captain and first mate. We were shocked when the man selling red roses pushed two onto us. I looked over at Tomas’s table and he smiled. Tomas — the macho Polish-Argentinian penguin specialist. Who sent us the flowers? Adorable and ridiculous at the same time. Then Andy walked over to us and said, “Do you ladies want us to chaperone you home?” Was he serious? Is it still 1900?

Indeed, Devine points to the long tradition of pioneering women who had ventured to Antarctica since 1900 — botanist Jeanne Baret, who became the first woman to work in the region’s Falkland Islands in 1766, disguised as a man; Caroline Mikkelsen, a Norwegian whaler’s wife, the first woman to set foot on the actual continent in 1935; marine biologist Maria Klenova, the first Russian woman in Antarctica, who helped map the first Soviet Antarctic atlas in 1956 — the year Admiral George Dufek, the first commanding officer of the U.S. Operation Deep Freeze, declared that women would join the U.S. Antarctic program “over [his] dead body”; geochemist Lois Jones, who led the first all-female scientific team to the continent in 1969; retired nurse Barbara Hillary, who became the first African American woman to reach both poles — the North Pole at the age of 75 and the South Pole at 79.

Jackie Ronne, the first female working member of a U.S. expedition, and Sig Gutenko wrapping pemmican, 1947

Courtesy of Karen Ronne Tupek

Devine considers women’s evolving role in polar research, however glacial the pace of that evolution:

Women are respected scientists, artists, activists, explorers, support staff and more. Today they represent one-third of staff at Antarctic bases, lead and participate in game-changing research, such as Susan Solomon and team who helped identify the cause of the ozone hole. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were depleting the ozone layer protecting life from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet light. Scientists and politicians acted following the discovery: The Montreal Protocol (1987) was a landmark environmental treaty banning CFCs.

Devine and Trusler soon began to observe the questionable behaviors of the male scientists with an anthropologist’s detached fascination rather than with personal indignation. Devine writes in another journal entry:

Late at night: Sergey told Lena that the guys told Maxim and Yuri that they had to “stay away from our girls.” They had noticed them flirting with us. Group dynamics.

And yet, for all the limitations of extreme weather, paltry supplies, and dated gender norms, Devine and Trusler approached the expedition with an air of expansive possibility — something Trusler captures beautifully in a journal entry shortly after they cast off:

I have this feeling, a strange sense of something unfolding, opening in front of me.

Photograph by Sandy Nicholson

In an entry from the following day, Devine marvels at the gift of the experience:

It is a privilege to live here, get insight into the scientists’ and staff’s Antarctic life and routines.

In one particularly wonderful entry — wonderful for its fusion of science and humanity, for embodying how we think with animals, for its sheer exuberance of being-in-the-worldness — Devine writes:

The seal colony. They stared at us at first but carried on as if we were irrelevant. Scratching their “arms” with their cur-covered “hands.” Two seals were hugging each other. one put its arm over the other’s back and made like a kiss. Then some seals scrapped — males with teeth-marks in their skin, chopped-up fur. We are all seals perhaps.

We moved from the seal colony to a hut of the biologists. Another exquisite experience. The shack was a wagon-like trailer now held not on rocks, but whalebones! It was a shabby hut with green oil paint chipping off in big chunks — sundried cracks all over. Inside were two beds.

Nature mirrors nature. A rock sitting high on another rock looked like an elephant seal.

This is a lesson on minimalism. Every hut is a treasure, is useful. Recycled.

There is also an invigorating geopolitical peacemaking undertone to the project. In one of several wonderful essays accompanying the recipes and journal entires, Devine reflects on the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, which declared the continent “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science” and was signed by 49 countries by 2012. Remarking what “a rare achievement in a world beset by conflict” it is, she echoes Einstein on the common language of science and marvels:

I love that science is an Antarctic currency and tool of diplomacy.

In another essay, exploring where the garbage collected by the Antarctic cleanup volunteers goes, she examines our ambivalent attitudes toward earth-stewardship:

Maybe there is no morally superior place for garbage.

[…]

I had no idea exactly what we would be doing … but only that we were part of some kind of greater movement. All people who came on our project were willing to work but a few still thought nature was there for them. I had a volunteer from New York in the pilot cleanup at the Polish station the year before who wrote on her feedback form: “Not enough penguins.”

But perhaps most powerful of all is the almost allegorical quality of the project — the way it distills the human experience to its absolute essence, which Devine captures elegantly in the book’s postscript, written nearly twenty years after the expedition:

In Antarctica, everything is stripped down. You have what you have and even less than that materially. It is only who you are and what you do that counts.

Complement The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning, unsynthesizably dimensional and deeply gratifying in its totality, with Rachel Sussman’s photographic journey in Shackleton’s footsteps and this lovely illustrated chronicle of his famous expedition, then treat yourself to more unusual cross-disciplinary cookbooks: The Modern Art Cookbook, The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook, The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, The Futurist Cookbook, and Found Meals of the Lost Generation.

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05 MAY, 2015

Kierkegaard on Popular Opinion, the Petty Jealousies of Criticism, and the Only Cure for Embitterment in Creative Work

By:

“I need the enchantment of creative work to help me forget life’s mean pettinesses.”

“Publicity in general is a very destructive thing, for any artist,” Susan Sontag admonished in 1969. More than a century earlier, another sage of the ages and one of Sontag’s greatest influences made the same point in far less ambiguous terms in The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (public library) — the same fantastic volume that gave us the Danish philosopher’s prescient insights on why haters hate and why we conform to peer pressure.

Writing in 1843, long before our present age of relentless self-promotion and its tyranny of the “personal brand,” Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) laments:

Really, an author’s lot has gradually deteriorated to be the most wretched state of all. An author ordinarily must present himself … hat in hand, bowing and cringing, recommending himself with fine letters of introduction. How stupid: one who writes must understand that about which he writes better than he who reads; otherwise he would not write.

Or one must manage to become a shrewd little pocket-lawyer proficient at gulling the public. — That I will not do, no I won’t; no I won’t — no, the Devil take the whole caboodle. I write the way I want to, and that’s the way it’s going to be; the rest can do what they like, they can stop buying, stop reading, stop reviewing, etc.

Reviewers, in fact, had a special place in Kierkegaard’s heart — if he viewed self-appointed critics with pity, he reserved only the utmost contempt for the professional kind:

I loathe a literary critic as much as an ambulant barber-journeyman who runs after me with his shaving-bowl, which he uses for the beards of all his clients, and then dabs my face all over with his wet fingers.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from 'Enormous Smallness' by Mathhew Burgess a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

But the greatest threat to the written word, Kierkegaard believed, were writers themselves. One can only imagine what he would have made of today’s listicles and content-farmed mediocrity as he bemoans the business of letters:

In our day and age book-writing has become so poor, and people write about matters which they have never given any real thought, let alone experienced.

[…]

Everyone today can write a fairly decent article about all and everything; but no one can or will bear the strenuous work of following through a single solitary thought into the most tenuous logical ramifications. Instead, writing trivia is particularly appreciated today, and whoever writes a big book almost invites ridicule. In former days people read big books, and if they did read pamphlets or periodicals they did not quite like to admit it. Now everyone feels duty bound to read what is printed in a periodical or a pamphlet, but is ashamed to have read a big book through to the end, and he fears he may be considered weak in the head.

He arrives at the only logical conclusion, resolving:

I therefore have decided to read only the writings of men who have been executed or have risked their lives in some way.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

In another diary entry from 1846, Kierkegaard finds himself once again appalled by the business of literature and returns to the subject with renewed dismay:

Today the fees even for authors of repute are very small, whereas the tips being dropped in the hats of literary hacks are very considerable. The more contemptible a man of letters is today, the more money he earns.

And yet for Kierkegaard — as for anyone as deeply bestirred by the commercial assault on the written word — the only antidote to this deplorable commodification of creativity is the “spiritual electricity” of creative work itself. In an other entry from 1846, he writes:

I need the enchantment of creative work to help me forget life’s mean pettinesses.

A year later, he revisits this insight with rekindled passion:

Only when I write do I feel well. Then I forget all of life’s vexations, all its sufferings, then I am wrapped in though and am happy. If I stop for a few days, right away I become ill, overwhelmed and troubled; my head feels heavy and burdened.

[…]

It is hard and depressing that as a result of all this toil one becomes the butt of the craven jealousy of the aristocracy and of the mockery of the populace! … [But] being an author … is not self-chosen; it is concomitant with everything in my individuality and its deepest urge.

The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard remains a spectacular read, brimming with the Danish philosopher’s enduring ideas on writing, melancholy, anxiety, spirituality, science, and the creative experience. Complement it with Kierkegaard on the power of the minority, the benefits of boredom, and our greatest source of unhappiness.

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05 MAY, 2015

The Crossroads of Should and Must: An Intelligent Illustrated Field Guide to Finding Your Bliss

By:

“Should is how other people want us to live our lives… Choosing Must is the greatest thing we can do with our lives.”

“Does what goes on inside show on the outside?,” young Vincent van Gogh despaired in a moving letter to his brother while floundering to find his purpose. “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.” A century later, Joseph Campbell stoked that hearth of the soul with his foundational treatise on finding your bliss. And yet every day, countless hearths and hearts grow ashen in cubicles around the world as we succumb to the all too human tendency toward choosing what we should be doing in order to make a living over what we must do in order to feel alive.

How to turn that invisible inner fire into fuel for soul-warming bliss is what artist and designer Elle Luna explores in her essay-turned-book The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion (public library) — an intelligent and rousing illustrated manifesto that picks up where Campbell left off, in the spirit of Parker Palmer’s emboldening guide to letting your life speak and Debbie Millman’s visual-essay-turned-commencement-address on courage and the creative life.

Distinguishing between a job (“something typically done from 9 to 5 for pay”), a career (“a system of advancements and promotions over time where rewards are used to optimize behavior”), and a calling (“something that we feel compelled to do regardless of fame or fortune”), Luna recounts the pivotal moment in her own life when she was suddenly unable to discern which of these she had. As an early employee at a promising startup, she was working tirelessly on a product she deeply believed in, and yet felt disorientingly unfulfilled. She found herself before a revelatory crossroads: the crossroads between Should and Must.

Luna writes:

Should is how other people want us to live our lives. It’s all of the expectations that others layer upon us.

Sometimes, Shoulds are small, seemingly innocuous, and easily accommodated. “You should listen to that song,” for example. At other times, Shoulds are highly influential systems of thought that pressure and, at their most destructive, coerce us to live our lives differently.

Echoing Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous admonition — “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity,” the longest-serving First Lady wrote in contemplating conformity and the secret of happiness, “[and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.” — Luna adds:

When we choose Should, we’re choosing to live our life for someone or something other than ourselves. The journey to Should can be smooth, the rewards can seem clear, and the options are often plentiful.

She offers a counterpoint:

Must is different. Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self. It’s that which calls to us most deeply. It’s our convictions, our passions, our deepest held urges and desires — unavoidable, undeniable, and inexplicable. Unlike Should, Must doesn’t accept compromises.

Must is when we stop conforming to other people’s ideals and start connecting to our own — and this allows us to cultivate our full potential as individuals. To choose Must is to say yes to hard work and constant effort, to say yes to a journey without a road map or guarantees, and in so doing, to say yes to what Joseph Campbell called “the experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

Choosing Must is the greatest thing we can do with our lives.

And yet as simple as Luna’s elegant prose makes it sound, anyone who has lived through this crossroads — she has; I have — will attest that it is anything but easy; the road is strewn with difficult choices. Luna considers the osmotic relationship between Should and Must, even as we turn away from one and toward the other:

If you want to know Must, get to know Should. This is hard work. Really hard work. We unconsciously imprison ourselves to avoid our most primal fears. We choose Should because choosing Must is terrifying, incomprehensible. Our prison is constructed from a lifetime of Shoulds, the world of choices we’ve unwittingly agreed to, the walls that alienate us from our truest, most authentic selves. Should is the doorkeeper to Must. And just as you create your prison, you can set yourself free.

One of the most common ways in which we imprison ourselves is by comparing ourselves to others and, upon finding our situation inferior, placing blame — on circumstances that we feel are unfair, on the people we believe are responsible for those circumstances, or on some abstract element of fate we think is at play. The self-defeating catch is that we often end up judging our circumstances against others’ outcomes, forgetting that hard work and hard choices are the transmuting agent between circumstance and outcome.

Joseph Brodsky captured this with piercing precision in the greatest commencement address of all time, cautioning: “A pointed finger is a victim’s logo… No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, childhood, toilet training, etc. The menu is vast and tedious, and this vastness and tedium alone should be offensive enough to set one’s intelligence against choosing from it. The moment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything.”

Luna touches on this perilous tendency as she considers the origin of Should:

How often do we place blame on the person, job, or situation when the real problem, the real pain, is within us? And we leave and walk away, angry, frustrated, and sad, unconsciously carrying the same Shoulds into a new context — the next relationship, the next job, the next friendship — hoping for different results.

How to get to know Should in the most intimate way possible, so that we can begin to swivel toward different results by moving toward Must, is what Luna examines in the remainder of The Crossroads of Should and Must. In this wonderful Design Matters conversation with one of her creative heroes and influences, Debbie Millman, Luna discusses how the book came to be, the unusual journey that precipitated it, and why her original essay resonated — beyond her wildest expectations — with so many people across so many walks of life:

Must is fantastic, and Must is just on the other side of Should. Should is this world of expectations — it’s like a camouflaged force. That’s one of the tricky things about Should — it can kind of creep in there when you’re not looking. It’s easier — it’s this invisible force moving against us [and] it often comes very early on in life. It can come from the time into which we’re born, the society or the community into which we’re born, the body into which we’re born… It can be a lot of different things that happen early in life [which] really take on that trajectory … and have us often running a different race than the one we were intended to run.

Subscribe to Design Matters on iTunes, then explore these ten favorite episodes from a decade of conversations with creative icons.

Illustrations courtesy of Elle Luna / Workman

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.