Brain Pickings

Chinua Achebe on the Meaning of Life and the Writer’s Responsibility in Society

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The difference between blind optimism and the urge to improve the world’s imperfection.

“A writer,” E.B. White asserted in a fantastic 1969 interview, “should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” A quarter century later, another literary titan articulated the same sentiment even more beautifully, a remarkable feat in my book, where dear old Elwyn Brooks reigns supreme.

In a 1994 conversation with Canadian broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel, found in the altogether excellent More Writers & Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel (public library), the great Nigerian novelist, poet, and critic Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930–March 21, 2013) echoes White’s wisdom with his own bend of poetic conviction — conviction all the more urgent in our age of increasingly despairing clickbait “journalism.”

Chinua Achebe (photograph by Mike Cohea courtesy of Brown University)

When Wachtel asks how the prominent South African writer and political activist Nadine Gordimer’s description of Achebe as “a moralist and an idealist” has fared after years of political and personal struggle, he answers:

[My idealism is] still alive and well because without it the business of the writer would be meaningless. I don’t think the world needs to be told stories of despair; there is enough despair as it is without anyone adding to it. If we have any role at all, I think it’s the role of optimism, not blind or stupid optimism, but the kind which is meaningful, one that is rather close to that notion of the world which is not perfect, but which can be improved. In other words, we don’t just sit and hope that things will work out; we have a role to play to make that come about. That seems to me to be the reason for the existence of the writer.

Achebe builds on this thought in his response to Wachtel’s inquiry about how he convinces people of “the redemptive power of fiction”:

Good stories attract us and good stories are also moral stories. I’ve never seen a really good story that is immoral, and I think there is something in us which impels us towards good stories. If we have people who produce them, we are lucky…

I feel that there has to be a purpose to what we do. If there was no hope at all, we should just sleep or drink and wait for death. But we don’t want to do that. And why? I think something tells us that we should struggle. We don’t really know why we should struggle, but we do, because we think it’s better than sitting down and waiting for calamity. So that’s my sense of the meaning of life. That’s really how I would put it, that we struggle, and because we struggle, that struggle has to be told, the story of that struggle has to be conveyed to another generation. You have struggle and story, and these two are quite enough for me.

Illustration from 'Beneath the Rainbow,' a collection of mystical children's stories featuring motifs and characters from traditional African myths reimagined by contemporary writers and artists. Click image for more.

One of Achebe’s novels, Anthills of the Savannah, features a poignant fable that illustrates his point about the meaningfulness of the struggle itself, which he relays to Wachtel:

The leopard had been looking for the tortoise and hadn’t found him for a long time. On this day, on a lonely road, he suddenly chanced upon Tortoise, and so he said, “Aha! At last, I’ve caught you. Now get ready to die.” Tortoise of course knew that the game was up and so he said, “Okay, but can I ask you a favor?” and Leopard said, “Well, why not?” Tortoise said, “Before you kill me, could you give me a few moments just to reflect on things?” Leopard thought about it — he wasn’t very bright — and he said, “Well, I don’t see anything wrong with that. You can have a little time.” And so Tortoise, instead of standing still and thinking, began to do something very strange: he began to scratch the soil all around him and throw sand around in all directions. Leopard was mystified by this. He said, “What are you doing? Why are you doing that?” Tortoise said: “I’m doing this because when I’m dead, I want anybody who passes by this place to stop and say, ‘Two people struggled here. A man met his match here.

Wachtel’s More Writers & Company, a sequel to her first compendium of interviews, is a treasure trove of wisdom from cover to cover, featuring remarkably wide-ranging and dimensional conversations with such literary icons as Harold Bloom, Oliver Sacks, Isabel Allende, Alice Walker, and John Berger.

For more meditations on the meaning of life, see these timeless reflections by Maya Angelou, David Foster Wallace, Milton Glaser, Viktor Frankl, Leo Tolstoy, Carl Sagan, Anaïs Nin, Richard Feynman, Henry Miller and John Steinbeck.

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David Bowie Answers the Famous Proust Questionnaire

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“Q: What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? A: Living in fear.”

In the 1880s, long before he claimed his status as one of the greatest authors of all time, teenage Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871–November 18, 1922) filled out an English-language questionnaire given to him by his friend Antoinette, the daughter of France’s then-president, as part of her “confession album” — a Victorian version of today’s popular personality tests, designed to reveal the answerer’s tastes, aspirations, and sensibility in a series of simple questions. Proust’s original manuscript, titled “by Marcel Proust himself,” wasn’t discovered until 1924, two years after his death. Decades later, the French television host Bernard Pivot, whose work inspired James Lipton’s Inside the Actor’s Studio, saw in the questionnaire an excellent lubricant for his interviews and began administering it to his guests in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1993, Vanity Fair resurrected the tradition and started publishing various public figures’ answers to the Proust Questionnaire on the last page of each issue.

In 2009, the magazine released Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life (public library) — a charming compendium featuring answers by such cultural icons as Jane Goodall, Allen Ginsberg, Hedy Lamarr, Gore Vidal, Julia Child, and Joan Didion. Among the most wonderful answers, equal parts playful and profound, are those by David Bowie — himself a vocal lover of literature — published in the magazine in August of 1998.

Portrait of David Bowie by Robert Risko for Vanity Fair

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Reading.

What is your most marked characteristic?
Getting a word in edgewise.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Discovering morning.

What is your greatest fear?
Converting kilometers to miles.

What historical figure do you most identify with?
Santa Claus.

Which living person do you most admire?
Elvis.

Who are your heroes in real life?
The consumer.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
While in New York, tolerance.
Outside New York, intolerance.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Talent.

What is your favorite journey?
The road of artistic excess.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Sympathy and originality.

Which word or phrases do you most overuse?
“Chthonic,” “miasma.”

What is your greatest regret?
That I never wore bellbottoms.

What is your current state of mind?
Pregnant.

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
My fear of them (wife and son excluded).

What is your most treasured possession?
A photograph held together by cellophane tape of Little Richard that I bought in 1958, and a pressed and dried chrysanthemum picked on my honeymoon in Kyoto.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Living in fear.

Where would you like to live?
Northeast Bali or south Java.

What is your favorite occupation?
Squishing paint on a senseless canvas.

What is the quality you most like in a man?
The ability to return books.

What is the quality you most like in a woman?
The ability to burp on command.

What are your favorite names?
Sears & Roebuck.

What is your motto?
“What” is my motto.

Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire is a treat in its colorful totality. For a similar compendium of wisdom from cultural icons, see LIFE Magazine’s 1991 volume The Meaning of Life, then revisit Bowie’s 75 must-read books.

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30 Days of “Quantum Poetry” Celebrating the Glory of Science

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From black holes to DNA to butterfly metamorphosis, bewitching verses on the magic of nature.

“The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper,” the influential biologist E.O. Wilson said in his spectacular recent conversation with the former Poet Laureate Robert Hass, exploring the shared creative wellspring of poetry and science. A beautiful embodiment of it comes from 30 Days, an unusual and bewitching series of “quantum poetry” by xYz — the pseudonym of British biologist and poet Joanna Tilsley, who began writing poetry at the age of eight and continued, for her own pleasure, until she graduated college with a degree in biology. In April of 2013, while undergoing an emotional breakdown, Tilsley took a friend up on a dare and decided to participate in NaPoWriMo — an annual creative writing project inviting participants to write a poem a day for a month. Immersed in cosmology and quantum physics at the time, she found herself enchanted by the scientific poetics of nature as she strolled around her home in North London. Translating that enchantment in lyrical form, she produced a series of thirty poems on everything from DNA to the exoplanet Keppler-62F, a “super-Earth-sized planet orbiting a star smaller and cooler than the sun,” to holometabolism, the process by which the caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly, to the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human being to see Earth from space.

Tilsley’s choice of pseudonym is itself remarkably poetic — besides the scientific sensibility, XYZ was the pen name of her grandfather, the late British novelist and war correspondent Frank Tilsley.

Tilsley wrote and illustrated her quantum poems simultaneously, using her vast collection of scanned vintage paper ephemera, old typewriter fonts, and 19th-century artwork (I recognize Benjamin Betts’s “geometrical psychology” illustrations), which she manipulated digitally into beautiful backdrops for her verses. Not unlike the work of William Blake, text and image work together to channel a cohesive atmosphere.

It’s also interesting that Tilsley chose to capitalize nouns and pronouns in the style of religious texts — a poignant juxtaposition with the scientific sensibility of the poems, hinting, consciously or not, at the spiritual element of science.

This beautiful self-published book is available on Etsy, along with prints of the individual poems, as well as on Amazon UK. Complement it with E.O Wilson and Robert Hass on why poetry and science belong together, then revisit Diane Ackerman’s breathtaking poems for the planets.

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