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Posts Tagged ‘books’

26 JUNE, 2015

Proust on What Art Does for the Soul and How to Stop Letting Habit Blunt Our Aliveness

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“Artists are people who strip habit away and return life to its deserved glory.”

“There are few things humans are more dedicated to than unhappiness,” philosopher Alain de Botton writes in the opening sentence of the intensely rewarding How Proust Can Change Your Life (public library). Among the key culprits in our spiritual doldrums, he argues, are “the deadening effects of habit” — something Kierkegaard had also arrived at a century and a half earlier in contemplating our greatest source of unhappiness. Indeed, although habit may be how we give shape to our lives, it can also lull us into a mindless trance in which we glide across the surface of existence.

How Proust can help us snap out of our habitual unhappiness is what De Botton explores in this animated essay chronicling how the events of Proust’s own life translated into the “systematic exploration of the three possible sources of the meaning of life” in his great novel In Search of Lost Time (which, at 1,267,069 words, is officially the longest novel of all time, twice the length of Tolstoy’s War and Peace).

For Proust, the great artists deserve acclaim because they show us the world in a way that is fresh, appreciative, and alive… The opposite of art, for Proust, is something he calls habit. For Proust, much of life is ruined for us by a blanket or shroud of familiarity that descends between us and everything that matters. It dulls our senses and stops us appreciating everything, from the beauty of a sunset to our work and our friends.

Children don’t suffer from habit, which is why they get excited by some very key but simple things — like puddles, jumping on the bed, sand, and fresh bread. But we adults get ineluctably spoiled, which is why we seek ever more powerful stimulants, like fame and love.

The trick, in Proust’s eyes, is to recover the powers of appreciation of a child in adulthood, to strip the veil of habit and therefore to start to look upon daily life with a new and more grateful sensitivity.

This, for Proust, is what one group in the population does all the time: artists. Artists are people who strip habit away and return life to its deserved glory.

This film is part of a wonderful series of animated meditations by The School of Life, founded by De Botton, exploring such facets of our quest for meaning as what great books do for the soul, how to find fulfilling work, what philosophy is for, and what comes after religion.

Complement How Proust Can Change Your Life with De Botton on harnessing the seven psychological functions of great art and what Nietzsche can teach us about true fulfillment.

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25 JUNE, 2015

Why Dogs Have Wet Noses: An Irreverent Illustrated Reimagining of Noah’s Ark

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Forty days and forty nights of loyalty and love.

The dog is an amazing creature — a frequent muse to an entire canon of art, a whole collection of Mary Oliver verses, and some excellent metaphors for beauty and aging, and . But its nose — which is how the dog actually “sees” the world — is a particularly miraculous pinnacle of its amazingness, and now the inspiration for a most fanciful alternative mythology.

In the immensely wonderful Why Dogs Have Wet Noses (public library), Scottish poet, novelist, and children’s book author Kenneth Steven and celebrated Norwegian illustrator Øyvind Torseter — the artist behind the existential allegory The Hole and the bittersweet My Father’s Arms Are a Boat — offer an irreverent and utterly heartwarming modern reimagining of Noah’s Ark.

Steven sets the stage:

A long, long time ago, not long after the world began, it started to rain. It was the kind of rain that really soaks you, pouring down from the sky like it will never stop.

We meet Noah, a man “both watchful and wise,” who looks like a lovable aging hipster from the maker movement. He begins building an enormous lifeboat — the Ark — then sets out to recruit “as many creatures as he could remember,” emanating a kind of indiscriminate Buddhist love for all, even “slugs, spiders, and other creepy-crawlies.”

The last to board is a mutt so odd-looking that Noah can’t quite tell what kind of a dog it is, but the soft black nose assures him that it is one.

With a great big groan and a terrifying tilt, the Ark sets sail as Noah wonders whether his strange company will survive this plunge into the unknown.

Steven’s writing, to be sure, is absolutely exquisite — the kind you might find in a Henry Beston masterpiece or an Annie Dillard classic rather than a typical children’s book (but this, of course, isn’t a typical children’s book):

They sailed away. Land had long since vanished. Only sea and sky remained. The rain fell heavier and heavier, and lightning shot from the black clouds, gleaming like snakes’ tongues. But apart from the crashing sounds of rain and thunder, it was completely quiet. As though there were no other sounds left in the whole wide world.

And yet inside the Ark, it was a completely different story — creatures of all shapes, sizes, and appetites clamored day and night. In a scene familiar to parents raising multiple small children — and perhaps good training for Noah himself, whose equally hipster-looking wife grows increasingly pregnant throughout the voyage — he labors tirelessly to feed each animal its favorite food, having “no peace and not a wink of sleep.”

No sooner had the last animal had dinner and gone to sleep, then it was time for the first to have breakfast again.

And yet Noah manages to hold the floating fort for twenty days until, suddenly, disaster strikes — the Ark springs a leak. Although the hole is “no bigger than a chestnut,” water begins to gush in, spelling dread and doom.

With his now beloved dog by his side, Noah brainstorms for a plan. At last, lightning of the more welcome and metaphorical kind strikes.

Just like that, the supreme testament to the dog’s dogness — its soft black nose — plugs the hole and saves the Ark.

All other creatures rejoice as the loyal dog sits there for forty days and forty nights, keeping their lifeboat from sinking amid the seemingly endless ocean.

And then one morning, just as the dog smells an unfamiliar scent, another violent disruption rattles their nautical rhythm — the Ark hits something hard.

Land! Hills rose up through the mist and behind them there was a tiny bit of blue sky. The rain had stopped at last and a magnificent rainbow stretched across the sky.

One by one, the creatures disembark onto the long-awaited shore, marveling at the lush life covering the land. But just as Noah, the last to climb out, joins the marveling bunch, he is seized with a shocking realization: His beloved dog is still down in the belly of the boat, nose faithfully plugging the hole.

Noah rushes to the rescue.

Noah gently stoked his dog’s tummy.

“Good boy,” he whispered.

“Woof!” the dog replied, leaping up to give his master a kiss wit his wet nose.

Never again would Noah’s dog have to go to sea. But from then on, every dog in the world would have a wet nose.

And that, you see, is why dogs have wet noses.

Why Dogs Have Wet Noses comes from Brooklyn-based independent children’s book powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, makers of such intelligent and imaginative treasures as Beastly Verse, The Lion and the Bird, and the illustrated biography of E.E. Cummings.

Complement this particular gem with Torseter’s philosophical take on a different hole and another magnificent tale of the sea by way of an illustrated love letter to the blue whale, then revisit the far less fanciful actual science of the dog’s amazing nose.

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23 JUNE, 2015

Beloved Composer Leonard Bernstein on the Importance of Believing in Each Other and How Art Fortifies Our Mutual Dignity

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“We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspirational side of man… We must believe, without fear, in people.”

“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their prescient 1970 conversation on race, “because we are still each other’s only hope.” It is in such troubled times as ours — times of shootings, beatings, and the only kind of violence there is: the senseless kind — that we most need to heed Baldwin, to be reminded of who we can be to each other, of the tender and tenacious common humanity that undergirds all surface otherness.

Count on legendary composer Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918–October 14, 1990) — one of the most lucid and luminous minds of the past century, a man of immense insight into the creative impulse, deep capacity for gratitude, and complex emotional life — to do the reminding.

A decade before the assassination of JFK prompted Bernstein to write his unforgettable speech on the only true antidote to violence, he penned a beautiful and elevating short essay for NPR’s This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (public library) — the same altogether magnificent compendium that gave us Thomas Mann on time and features other ennobling reflections from beloved luminaries like Eleanor Roosevelt, John Updike, Errol Morris, Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, and Andrew Sullivan.

Leonard Bernstein by Jack Mitchell

Bernstein writes:

I believe in people. I feel, love, need, and respect people above all else, including the arts, natural scenery, organized piety, or nationalistic superstructures. One human figure on the slope of a mountain can make the whole mountain disappear for me. One person fighting for the truth can disqualify for me the platitudes of centuries. And one human being who meets with injustice can render invalid the entire system which has dispensed it.

A century after Thoreau wrote that there is “no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor,” Bernstein kisses awake our capacity for self-transcendence, from which our capacity to change the world springs:

I believe that man’s noblest endowment is his capacity to change. Armed with reason, he can see two sides and choose: He can be divinely wrong. I believe in man’s right to be wrong. Out of this right he has built, laboriously and lovingly, something we reverently call democracy. He has done it the hard way and continues to do it the hard way — by reason, by choosing, by error and rectification, by the difficult, slow method in which the dignity of A is acknowledged by B, without impairing the dignity of C. Man cannot have dignity without loving the dignity of his fellow.

I believe in the potential of people. I cannot rest passively with those who give up in the name of “human nature.” Human nature is only animal nature if it is obliged to remain static. Without growth, without metamorphosis, there is no godhead. If we believe that man can never achieve a society without wars, then we are condemned to wars forever. This is the easy way. But the laborious, loving way, the way of dignity and divinity, presupposes a belief in people and in their capacity to change, grow, communicate, and love.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Neruda’s exquisite metaphor for why we make art, Bernstein considers the power of art as a medium of love that confers dignity upon existence — our own and each other’s:

I believe in man’s unconscious mind, the deep spring from which comes his power to communicate and to love. For me, all art is a combination of these powers; for if love is the way we have of communicating personally in the deepest way, then what art can do is to extend this communication, magnify it, and carry it to vastly greater numbers of people. Therefore art is valid for the warmth and love it carries within it, even if it be the lightest entertainment, or the bitterest satire, or the most shattering tragedy.

Exhorting us to believe “in one another, in our ability to grow and change, in our mutual dignity,” Bernstein echoes John Steinbeck’s memorable assertion that “the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world” and adds:

We must encourage thought, free and creative. We must respect privacy. We must observe taste by not exploiting our sorrows, successes, or passions. We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspirational side of man. We must not enslave ourselves to dogma. We must believe in the attainability of good. We must believe, without fear, in people.

Complement the wholly wonderful This I Believe with Bernstein on motivation, his beautiful letter of gratitude to his mentor, and his electrifying tribute to JFK, then revisit Viktor Frankl on why it pays to believe in each other.

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22 JUNE, 2015

Desert Solitaire: An Uncommonly Beautiful Love Letter to Solitude and the Spiritual Rewards of Getting Lost

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“Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.”

“As the desert offers no tangible riches, as there is nothing to see or hear in the desert,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in his exquisite memoir of what the Sahara Desert taught him about the meaning of life, “one is compelled to acknowledge, since the inner life, far from falling asleep, is fortified, that man is first animated by invisible solicitations.” No one captures this invisible animation of inner life more bewitchingly than Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire (public library) — a miraculously beautiful book, originally published in 1968, which I discovered through a passing mention by the wonderful Cheryl Strayed. (How right Laurence Sterne was to call digression “the sunshine of narrative,” and Calvino to consider it, even, a hedge against mortality.)

In the late 1950s, Abbey took a job as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Monument in Utah’s Moab desert. “Why I went there no longer matters; what I found there is the subject of this book,” he writes. Between April and September, between the canyons and the pages of his journal, he found a great many of the things we spend our lives looking for — a Thoreau of the desert, mapping the maze of the interior landscape as he wanders the expanse of the exterior.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince. Click image for more.

Abbey writes:

The time passed extremely slowly, as time should pass, with the days lingering and long, spacious and free as the summers of childhood. There was time enough for once to do nothing, or next to nothing, and most of the substance of this book is drawn, sometimes direct and unchanged, from the pages of the journals I kept and filled through the undivided, seamless days of those marvelous summers. The remainder of the book consists of digressions and excursions into ideas and places that border in varied ways upon that central season in the canyonlands…

Abbey’s digressions, to be sure, are oases of meaning — he writes about the ideas that animate his spirit with unsentimental sincerity and deep respect for the aliveness of language itself:

In recording my impressions of the natural scene I have striven above all for accuracy, since I believe that there is a kind of poetry, even a kind of truth, in simple fact… Language makes a mighty loose net with which to go fishing for simple facts, when facts are infinite… Since you cannot get the desert into a book any more than a fisherman can haul up the sea with his nets, I have tried to cecate a world of words in which the desert figures more as medium than as material.

He begins with what is possibly the most charming, disarming disclaimer in all of literature:

I quite agree that much of the book will seem coarse, rude, bad-tempered, violently prejudiced, unconstructive — even frankly antisocial in its point of view. Serious critics, serious librarians, serious associate professors of English will if they read this work dislike it intensely;. at least I hope so. To others I can only say that if the book has virtues they cannot be disentangled from the faults; that there is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right.

But make no mistake — his are reflections undergirded not by grouchiness but by immense grace and generosity of spirit. Take, for instance, how he cushions against the potential complaint that the book is too concerned with the appearance of the landscape. (It is not.)

I am pleased enough with surfaces — in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of friend or lover, the silk of a girl’s thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind — what else is there? What else do we need?

There is, however, something else that we need — each of us, Abbey observes, longs for that most beautiful and sacred place where we feel wholly at home. His is this canyon-strewn desert, but these personal idyls are deeply subjective and as varied as our individual interior landscapes:

Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome—there’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment. Theologians, sky pilots, astronauts have even felt the appeal of home calling to them from up above, in the cold black outback of interstellar space.

Astronauts, in fact, have since come to describe this peculiar feeling as “the overview effect” — remember, Abbey is writing shortly before the first human foot touched the cratery desert of the moon — but Abbey himself finds this most beautiful of earthly places in the canyonlands, in “the red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky.” He describes one of his first mornings there:

I awake before sunrise, stick my head out of the sack, peer through a frosty window at a scene dim and vague with flowing mists, dark fantastic shapes looming beyond. An unlikely landscape.

[…]

The sun is not yet in sight but signs of the advent are plain to see. Lavender clouds sail like a fleet of ships across the pale green dawn; …the last fogbanks left over from last night’s storm are scudding away like ghosts, fading into nothing before the wind and the sunrise.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince. Click image for more.

It is, indeed, an unlikely landscape — one even unlikelier today, itself scudding away like a ghost. Abbey, writing more than half a century ago, rightly describes his book as “not a travel guide but an elegy” — as he recounts getting lost twenty miles into the interior of the desert, completely alone in the 33,000 acres of which he was the “sole inhabitant, usufructuary, observer and custodian,” one is left wondering how many such earthly interiors are left in which to get lost in order to find ourselves, how many such unlikely landscapes in the sacred solitude of which to access our own interiors. One is reminded of Wendell Berry, writing more than two decades later: “True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible… In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.” Or of Thoreau, writing a century earlier: “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit… I cannot easily shake off the village.”

Abbey captures this with piercing profundity:

Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not. In the second place most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock. Don’t drop it on your foot — throw it at something big and glassy. What do you have to lose?

And yet the tombstone Abbey thrusts into our hands is almost uncontainably vitalizing, emanating an uncommon sense of communion between his humanity — our humanity — and the inanimate yet deeply animating presence of the land; between his smallness — our smallness — and the grandeur of Earth. Over and over, he surrenders to the land’s rhythms and wishes — a great act of faith that requires, manyfold more so now than it did then, relinquishing the many small violences by which we seek to bend nature to our will.

Illustration from 'Flashlight' by Lizi Boyd. Click image for more.

Four decades after Henry Beston’s beautiful love letter to darkness, Abbey considers one such form of surrender:

I have a flashlight with me but will not use it unless I hear some sign of animal life worthy of investigation. The flashlight, or electrical torch as the English call it, is a useful instrument in certain situations but I can see the road well enough without it. Better, in fact.

There’s another disadvantage to the use of the flashlight: like many other mechanical gadgets it tends to separate a man from the world around him. If I switch it on my eyes adapt to it and I can see only the small pool of light which it makes in front of me; I am isolated. Leaving the flashlight in my pocket where it belongs, I remain a part of the environment I walk through and my vision though limited has no sharp or definite boundary.

[…]

The night flows back, the mighty stillness embraces and includes me; I can see the stars again and the world of starlight. I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation.

Abbey is writing two generations before the iPhone, and I find myself wondering whether when we point the illuminating Night Sky app into the night sky — and point it I blissfully do — we might be learning a great deal more about this lowercase marvel but inevitably communing with it a great deal less.

Landscape Arch, in the Devil's Garden Section of Arches National Park, is believed to be the longest stone arch in the world

Public domain photograph by David Hiser, The U.S. National Archives

With great sensitivity to our tendency to mistake grandeur for godliness, Abbey reminds us of the quiet causality with which nature inches toward its most miraculous creations — like the very arches after which his temporary dominion is named:

These are natural arches, holes in the rock, windows in stone, no two alike, as varied in form as in dimension … formed through hundreds of thousands of years by the weathering of the huge sandstone walls, or fins, in which they are found. Not the work of a cosmic hand, nor sculptured by sand-bearing winds, as many people prefer to believe, the arches came into being and continue to come into being through the modest wedging action of rainwater, melting snow, frost, and ice, aided by gravity…

Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman. An insane wish? Perhaps not — at least there’s nothing else, no one human, to dispute possession with me.

Through this possessiveness of the landscape Abbey arrives at what he has gone there to find — a kind of spiritual self-repossession:

I am here not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.

This is what makes Desert Solitaire so powerful, so enduring, so fiercely necessary today: Abbey’s writing is both a form of spiritual sustenance and a feat of conservation — for, being human and thus solipsistic, unless we appreciate the value of these experiences to our inner lives, we are rarely moved to honor their sacred value to all life.

Complement this treasure of a book, this packet of loveliness and quiet exultation, with Rebecca Solnit on how we find ourselves by getting lost, Georgia O’Keeffe on the singular mesmerism of the Southwestern sky, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s wonderful meditation on the spiritual rewards of the desert.

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