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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

24 APRIL, 2015

This I Believe: Thomas Mann on Time and the Soul of Existence

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“The perishableness of life … imparts value, dignity, interest to life.”

“The best thing about time passing,” Sarah Manguso wrote in her magnificent meditation on ongoingness, “is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know.” More than half a century earlier, the great German writer, philanthropist, and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann (June 6, 1875–August 12, 1955) articulated this idea with enchanting elegance in NPR’s program-turned-book This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (public library) — a compendium of wisdom from eighty contributors ranging from a part-time hospital worker to a woman who sells Yellow Pages advertising to luminaries like Eleanor Roosevelt, John Updike, Errol Morris, Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, and Andrew Sullivan.

NPR’s invitation was simple yet enormously challenging: Each contributor was asked to capture his or her personal credo — that essential set of guiding principles by which life is lived — in just a few hundred words. In an era long before people were being asked to capture their convictions in 140 characters, this was a radical proposition — particularly for writers used to exploring such matters in several hundred pages.

Answering in the 1950s — decades after his touching correspondence with young Hermann Hesse and a few years before his death — Mann writes:

What I believe, what I value most, is transitoriness.

But is not transitoriness — the perishableness of life — something very sad? No! It is the very soul of existence. It imparts value, dignity, interest to life. Transitoriness creates time — and “time is the essence.” Potentially at least, time is the supreme, most useful gift.

Time is related to — yes, identical with — everything creative and active, with every progress toward a higher goal. Without transitoriness, without beginning or end, birth or death, there is no time, either. Timelessness — in the sense of time never ending, never beginning — is a stagnant nothing. It is absolutely uninteresting.

What is interesting, of course, is that Mann’s work — his words, his wisdom — is very much timeless, as is even his antagonism toward timelessness itself. And yet even as he scoffs at timelessness, he remains keenly attuned to this duality — the eternal dance between transitoriness and the tenacity of existence:

Life is possessed by tremendous tenacity. Even so, its presence remains conditional, and as it had a beginning, so it will have an end. I believe that life, just for this reason, is exceedingly enhanced in value, in charm.

Discus chronologicus, a depiction of time from the early 1720s, found in 'Cartographies of Time.' Click image for details.

The privilege of this experience, Mann argues, is a centerpiece of the answer to the age-old question of what it means to be human:

One of the most important characteristics distinguishing man from all other forms of nature is his knowledge of transitoriness, of beginning and end, and therefore of the gift of time.

In man, transitory life attains its peak of animation, of soul power, so to speak. This does not mean man alone would have a soul. Soul quality pervades all beings. But man’s soul is most awake in his knowledge of the inter-changeability of the terms “existence” and “transitoriness.”

To man, time is given like a piece of land, as it were, entrusted to him for faithful tilling; a space in which to strive incessantly, achieve self-realization, move onward and upward. Yes, with the aid of time, man becomes capable of wresting the immortal from the mortal.

This I Believe is a timelessly glorious read in its entirety. Complement Mann’s contribution with Alan Lightman on reconciling our longing for immortality with an impermanent universe and Claudia Hammond on the psychology of why time slows down when you’re afraid, speeds up as you age, and gets warped while you’re on vacation.

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23 APRIL, 2015

Thoreau on Libraries and His Ideal Sanctuary for Books

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“Those old books suggested a certain fertility … as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in.”

“We have an obligation to support libraries,” Neil Gaiman asserted in contemplating our responsibilities to the written word, adding: “If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.”

More than a century and a half earlier, another great man of letters extolled the value of libraries with equal wholeheartedness. From The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — that timeless trove of wisdom on such matters as the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success — comes a beautiful recollection 35-year-old Thoreau penned before sunrise on March 16, 1852:

Spent the day in Cambridge Library.

The Library a wilderness of books. The volumes of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries, which lie so near on the shelf, are rarely opened, are effectually forgotten and not implied by our literature and newspapers. When I looked into Purchas’s Pilgrims, it affected me like looking into an impassable swamp, ten feet deep with sphagnum, where the monarchs of the forest, covered with mosses and stretched along the ground, were making haste to become peat. Those old books suggested a certain fertility, an Ohio soil, as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in. I heard the bellowing of bullfrogs and the hum of mosquitoes reverberating through the thick embossed covers when I had closed the book. Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils.

The New York Public Library reading room by Robert Dawson from his photographic love letter to public libraries. Click image for more.

And yet despite his reverence for these traditional bastions of literature, Thoreau sees something insufficiently alive in the physicality of the library. In another entry, having just returned from a quest to find works by fellow naturalists and poets at the Boston and Cambridge libraries, he marvels at the curious disconnect of the proposition and imagines a wholly different home for these books — a place more akin to a sanctuary, imbued with the aliveness the books themselves:

How happens it that I find not in the country, in the fields and woods, the works even of like-minded naturalists and poets. Those who have expressed the purest and deepest love of nature have not recorded it on the bark of the trees with the lichens; they have left no memento of it there; but if I would read their books I must go to the city, — so strange and repulsive both to them and to me, — and deal with men and institutions with whom I have no sympathy. When I have just been there on this errand, it seems too great a price to pay for access even to the works of Homer, or Chaucer, or Linnæus. I have sometimes imagined a library, i.e. a collection of the works of true poets, philosophers, naturalists, etc., deposited not in a brick or marble edifice in a crowded and dusty city, guarded by cold-blooded and methodical officials and preyed on by bookworms, in which you own no share, and are not likely to, but rather far away in the depths of a primitive forest, like the ruins of Central America, where you can trace a series of crumbling alcoves, the older books protecting the most modern from the elements, partially buried by the luxuriance of nature, which the heroic student could reach only after adventures in the wilderness amid wild beasts and wild men. That, to my imagination, seems a fitter place for these interesting relics, which owe no small part of their interest to their antiquity, and whose occasion is nature, than the well-preserved edifice, with its well-preserved officials on the side of a city’s square. More terrible than lions and tigers these Cerberuses.

Illustration by D. B. Johnson from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau remains a secular bible for every thinking, feeling human being. Complement it with Thoreau on the the spiritual rewards of walking and what it really means to be awake.

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22 APRIL, 2015

Wendell Berry on Our Contempt for Small Places and the Perils of Our “Rugged Individualism”

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“The extent of our knowledge will always be… the measure of the extent of our ignorance.”

Novelist, poet, farmer, and environmental activist Wendell Berry (b. August 5, 1934) is the closest thing our era has to Thoreau — a magnificent writer whose poems and essays remind us, over and over, what it means to be awake to the world, inner and outer. Whether he is contemplating solitude and the two great enemies of creative work or examining how poetic form illuminates the secret of marriage, Berry breaks through even our most hardened ego-shells and beams into the cracks enormous warmth and wisdom.

That’s precisely what he does in The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays (public library) — a masterwork of luminous lucidity on our civilizational shortcomings, delivered with the intelligent hope necessary for doing better.

Wendell Berry (Photograph: Guy Mendes)

In the introduction, penned years before Stuart Firestein’s manifesto for “thoroughly conscious ignorance” and a decade before astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser’s elegant modern case for living with mystery in the age of knowledge, Berry clarifies the misunderstood value of ignorance:

There are kinds and degrees of ignorance that are remediable, of course, and we have no excuse for not learning all we can. Within limits, we can learn and think; we can read, hear, and see; we can remember. We don’t have to live in a world defined by professional and political gibberish.

But… our ignorance ultimately is irremediable… Do what we will, we are never going to be free of mortality, partiality, fallibility, and error. The extent of our knowledge will always be, at the same time, the measure of the extent of our ignorance.

Because ignorance is thus a part of our creaturely definition, we need an appropriate way: a way of ignorance, which is the way of neighborly love, kindness, caution, care, appropriate scale, thrift, good work, right livelihood…

The way of ignorance, therefore, is to be careful, to know the limits and the efficacy of our knowledge. It is to be humble and to work on an appropriate scale.

Illustration from 'The River' by Alessandro Sanna. Click image for details.

In a beautiful essay titled “Contempt for Small Places,” Berry — a lifelong celebrator of the grandeur of smallness, and a self-described “small writer” and “small farmer” — reflects:

The health of the oceans depends on the health of rivers; the health of rivers depends on the health of small streams; the health of small streams depends on the health of their watersheds. The health of the water is exactly the same as the health of the land; the health of small places is exactly the same as the health of large places…

We cannot immunize the continents and the oceans against our contempt for small places and small streams. Small destructions add up, and finally they are understood collectively as large destructions.

Berry points to the coal industry as a major culprit in this accretion of small destructions — and now, a decade later, one can’t help but wonder whether almonds are the new coal, with so many of the same commercial and political dynamics at play. With an eye to “the contradictions in the state’s effort ‘to balance the competing interests,’” Berry quotes Kentucky Appalachian Commission director Ewell Balltrip’s perfect articulation of the interdependencies at stake:

If you don’t have mining, you don’t have an economy, and if you don’t have an economy you don’t have a way for the people to live. But if you don’t have environmental quality, you won’t create the kind of place where people want to live.

He revisits the complexities surrounding these conflicting interests in another essay from the same collection, titled “Rugged Individualism”:

The career of rugged individualism in America has run mostly to absurdity, tragic or comic. But it also has done us a certain amount of good. There was a streak of it in Thoreau, who went alone to jail in protest against the Mexican War. And that streak has continued in his successors who have suffered penalties for civil disobedience because of their perception that the law and the government were not always or necessarily right. This is individualism of a kind rugged enough, and it has been authenticated typically by its identification with a communal good.

The tragic version of rugged individualism is in the presumptive “right” of individuals to do as they please, as if there were no God, no legitimate government, no community, no neighbors, and no posterity. This is most frequently understood as the right to do whatever one pleases with one’s property. One’s property, according to this formulation, is one’s own absolutely.

Illustration from 'Once Upon an Alphabet' by Oliver Jeffers. Click image for details.

To be sure, Berry’s “rugged individualism” is simply a more poetic term for our common complaint of “entitlement” — an accusation usually aimed at the young, which upon closer inspection reveals itself as a major undercurrent of capitalist society itself. Contemplating how we got there, Berry points to the aberrant evolution of property rights — something that originated as protection of the private individual and mutated into destruction of the public good:

Rugged individualism of this kind has cost us dearly in lost topsoil, in destroyed forests, in the increasing toxicity of the world, and in annihilated species.

When property rights become absolute they are invariably destructive, for then they are used to justify not only the abuse of things of permanent value for the temporary benefit of legal owners, but also the appropriation and abuse of things to which the would-be owners have no rights at all, but which can belong only to the public or to the entire community of living creatures: the atmosphere, the water cycle, wilderness, ecosystems, the possibility of life.

What has only exacerbated the situation, Berry argues, is the growing tendency toward granting brands and companies the status of “persons,” who then exercise their own “rugged individualism” by further abusing these property rights as permission to do as they please. Berry writes:

Because of the overwhelming wealth and influence of these “persons,” the elected representatives and defenders of “the people” … become instead the representatives and defenders of the corporations.

It has become ever more clear that this sort of individualism has never proposed or implied any protection of the rights of all individuals, but instead has promoted a ferocious scramble in which more and more of the rights of “the people” have been gathered into the ownership of fewer and fewer of the greediest and most powerful “persons.”

Illustration from 'Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times.' Click image for details.

Once again, it’s hard not to think about the almond-farming predicament and other such modern manifestations of this corporate anthropomorphism of property rights as Berry concludes:

“Every man for himself” is a doctrine for a feeding frenzy or for a panic in a burning nightclub, appropriate for sharks or hogs or perhaps a cascade of lemmings. A society wishing to endure must speak the language of care-taking, faith-keeping, kindness, neighborliness, and peace. That language is another precious resource that cannot be “privatized.”

Under the tyranny of “rugged individualism,” this profound disconnect between our personal interests and our world’s wellbeing is a rift rooted in pitting the wilderness as an antagonist to human progress and seeing the welfare of the two as mutually exclusive — a pie fallacy which began at least as early as the Industrial Revolution and which Bertrand Russell bemoaned in his 1930 classic, observing that we’ve come to measure our progress by our “separation from the life of Earth.” How we ended up with this rift is what Berry examines in another essay from the volume, titled “Compromise, Hell!”:

Since the beginning of the conservation effort … conservationists have too often believed that we could protect the land without protecting the people… If conservationists hope to save even the wild lands and wild creatures, they are going to have to address issues of economy, which is to say issues of the health of the landscapes and the towns and cities where we do our work, and the quality of that work, and the well-being of the people who do the work.

Governments seem to be making the opposite error, believing that the people can be adequately protected without protecting the land… If we know that coal is an exhaustible resource, whereas the forests over it are with proper use inexhaustible, and that strip mining destroys the forest virtually forever, how can we permit this destruction? If we honor at all that fragile creature the topsoil, so long in the making, so miraculously made, so indispensable to all life, how can we destroy it?

[…]

The general purpose of the present economy is to exploit, not to foster or conserve.

The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays is a spectacular read in its entirety. Complement it with Berry on pride and despair and form, faith, and freedom, then revisit Jon Mooallem on rediscovering the larger value of small places.

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21 APRIL, 2015

Charlotte Brontë’s Beautiful and Heartbreaking Love Letters of Unrequited Affection

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“When one does not complain … one pays for outward calm with an almost unbearable inner struggle.”

Four years after English novelist and poet Charlotte Brontë (April 21, 1816–March 31, 1855) turned down a suitor’s marriage proposal with her assertive yet generous masterwork of the it’s-not-you-it’s-me model, the tables turned and she found herself on the opposite end of unrequited love.

In 1842, Charlotte and her sister Emily moved to Brussels to teach English and music, respectively, in exchange for board and tuition. When their aunt died suddenly that October, the sisters had to leave the boarding school and take care of the family crisis. The following January, 28-year-old Charlotte traveled back to Brussels by herself and fell madly in love with Constantin Héger, the founder of the school and her personal tutor in French. She returned home to Haworth a year later but remained besotted with Héger — a married man with children — and began writing him letters of extraordinary emotional intensity, at times as frequently as twice a week. Héger, who barely responded, finally let his wife take over the situation. Madame Héger wrote to Brontë instructing her that she may write once every six months at most. Héger tore up Brontë’s letters, but his prudent wife fished them out of the garbage and stitched them together for preservation purposes.

In 1894, four decades after Brontë’s death, Héger’s daughter showed the recovered letters to another former pupil of her father’s, Frederika Macdonald. Originally, Macdonald advised secrecy in light of the missives’ emotional complexities, fearing that the public wouldn’t understand that the now-famous novelist’s feelings for her former tutor weren’t an “ordinary improper affection” but “a consuming sentiment burning down self-respect and self-restraint.” But the letters changed Macdonald’s own view of Brontë, infusing her previous image as a wholesome Victorian goddess of feminine domestic duty with an air of romantic recklessness — a shift that seemed significant enough in shaping posterity’s understanding of this complex woman that Héger’s own children donated the four surviving letters to the British Library in 1913, seven decades after Brontë had penned them.

They were published in The Times on July 29 of that year and were eventually included in the British Library’s altogether delectable volume Love Letters: 2,000 Years of Romance (public library), which also features passionate missives by Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, and Henry VIII.

Page from Charlotte Brontë's letter to Constantin Héger (British Library)

In a letter to Héger from early January of 1845, 29-year-old Brontë relays her deep disappointment of finding no mail from him and writes:

I said to myself, what I would say to someone else in such a case: “You will have to resign yourself to the fact, and above all, not distress yourself about a misfortune that you have not deserved.” I did my utmost not to cry not to complain —

But when one does not complain, and when one wants to master oneself with a tyrant’s grip — one’s faculties rise in revolt — and one pays for outward calm with an almost unbearable inner struggle.

Day and night I find neither rest nor peace — if I sleep I have tormenting dreams in which I see you always severe, always saturnine and angry with me —

Forgive me then Monsieur if I take the step of writing you again — How can I bear my life unless I make an effort to alleviate its suffering?

Despite the lucid awareness that Héger would likely “lose patience” with her for writing the letter, which she even acknowledges in the letter itself, Brontë is gripped with the all-consuming mania familiar to those whose composed ordinary selves have ever been colonized by the psychic parasite of extraordinary infatuation. She implores:

I do not seek to justify myself, I submit to all kinds of reproaches — all I know — is that I cannot — that I will not resign myself to the total loss of my master’s friendship — I would rather undergo the greatest bodily pains than have my heart constantly lacerated by searing regrets. If my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely I shall be absolutely without hope — if he gives me a little friendship — a very little — I shall be content — happy, I would have a motive for living — for working.

Illustration from 'Jane, the Fox and Me,' a graphic novel inspired by Jane Eyre. Click image for more.

That Brontë voices the pitiful internal bargaining of those desperate with desire is only, perhaps, to her credit — to stand by one’s feelings with such openhearted vulnerability even in the face of clear and imminent rejection is one of the greatest acts of courage:

Monsieur, the poor do not need a great deal to live on — they ask only the crumbs of bread which fall from the rich man’s table — but if they are refused these crumbs — they die of hunger — No more do I need a great deal of affection from those I love — I would not know what to do with a whole and complete friendship — I am not accustomed to it — but you showed a little interest in me in days gone by when I was your pupil in Brussels — and I cling to the preservation of this little interest — I cling to it as I would cling on to life.

In accordance with our pathological allergy to uncertainty — the same strange psychology that leads those awaiting a diagnosis to almost prefer bad news to no news — she beseeches:

Perhaps you will say to me — “I no longer take the slightest interest in you Miss Charlotte — you no longer belong to my household — I have forgotten you.”

Well Monsieur tell me so candidly — it will be a shock to me — that doesn’t matter — it will still be less horrible than uncertainty.

She ends with a plea for sympathy disguised as a damning admonition — perhaps to Héger’s wife, who ultimately handled the letters, and perhaps in part to posterity, to those of us reading her heart today:

I don’t want to reread this letter — I am sending it as I have written it — Nevertheless I am as it were dimly aware that there are some cold and rational people who would say on reading it — “she is raving” — My sole revenge is to wish these people — a single day of the torments that I have suffered for eight months — then we should see whether they wouldn’t be raving too.

One suffers in silence so long as one has the strength and when that strength fails one speaks without measuring one’s words much.

The following year, the Brontë sisters self-published their pseudonymous joint collection of poems that catapulted them into literary stardom and Charlotte began writing Jane Eyre — one of the greatest novels of all time, which centers on a young woman’s sincere love for a man set to marry someone else; in the novel, unlike in Brontë’s own life, once the otherwise rational and collected heroine professes her love in an openhearted declaration, the byronic hero forsakes his romantic commitment to the other woman and proposes marriage to Jane.

For more beautifully heartbreaking love letters, see those from Franz Kafka to Felice Bauer and Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, then restore your faith in requited love with the passionate correspondence of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, and Vladimir and Véra Nabokov.

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