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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

09 JUNE, 2015

The Dalai Lama’s Daily Routine and Information Diet


“To understand the Dalai Lama … perhaps it’s most useful to see him as a doctor of the soul.”

I think a great deal about the difference between routine and ritual as a special case of our more general and generally trying quest for balance — ripped asunder by the contrary longings for control and whimsy, we routinize daily life in order to make its inherent chaos more manageable, then ritualize it in order to imbue its mundanity with magic, which by definition violates the predictable laws of the universe. I suspect that our voracious appetite for the daily routines of cultural icons is fueled by a deep yearning to glean some insight on and practical help with this impossible balancing act, from people who seem to have mastered it well enough to lead happy, productive, creatively fruitful, and altogether remarkable lives.

Perhaps the most unexpected yet brilliant master of this elusive modern equilibrium is the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama by Manuel Bauer

In the altogether magnificent The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (public library), writer Pico Iyer — who has known the beloved spiritual leader since adolescence and, by the time he began writing this book, had visited him in his exile home for nearly thirty years — describes how the Dalai Lama begins each day:

[By] nine a.m. … the Dalai Lama himself had already been up for more than five hours, awakening, as he always does, at three-thirty a.m., to spend his first four hours of the day meditating on the roots of compassion and what he can do for his people, the “Chinese brothers and sisters” who are holding his people hostage, and the rest of us, while also preparing himself for his death.

Compressed into this humble and humbling morning routine is the entire Buddhist belief that life is a “joyful participation in a world of sorrows.” This daily rite of body and spirit is the building block of the Dalai Lama’s quiet and steadfast mission to, as Iyer elegantly puts it, “explore the world closely, so as to make out its laws, and then to see what can and cannot be done within those laws.” He writes:

To understand the Dalai Lama … especially if (as in my case) you come from some other tradition, perhaps it’s most useful to see him as a doctor of the soul.

As someone deeply invested in the crucial difference between information and wisdom, I was particularly fascinated by the Dalai Lama’s information diet — that is, what daily facts he chooses to fuse with ancient wisdom in his dedication to unraveling the nature of reality and making use of it in fortifying the soul. Iyer writes:

As a longtime student of real life, ruler of his people before the age of five, he listens every morning to the Voice of America, to the BBC East Asian broadcast, to the BBC World Service — even while meditating — and devours Time and Newsweek and many other news sources (I think of how the Buddha is often depicted with one hand touching the earth, in what Buddhists call the “witnessing the earth” gesture).

And yet the Dalai Lama approaches his information diet like he does his meditation — as a deliberate practice. In that sense, “meaning diet” is far more accurate a term, for he is remarkably deliberate about which aspects of the Information Age to fold into his meaning-making mission and which to sidestep. He chooses, for instance, to avoid one of the most perilous byproducts of our era, which Susan Sontag presaged in 1977 in her famous admonition against “aesthetic consumerism.” Iyer writes:

In the Age of the Image, when screens are so much our rulers, anyone who wishes to grab our attention — and to hold it — does so by converting himself into a “human-interest story,” translating his life into a kind of fable…. Those who long to be entrusted with real consequences in our lives acquire that power increasingly by presenting themselves as fairy tales.

The Dalai Lama, by nature and training, is in the odd position of trying to do the opposite: he comes to us to tell us that he is real, as real as his country, bleeding and oppressed, and that he lives in a world far more complex than a two-year-old’s cries of “Good Tibetans, bad Chinese” (the Dalai Lama would more likely say, “Potentially good Tibetans, potentially good Chinese”).

The Dalai Lama by Manuel Bauer

At the heart of this message is a larger testament to the most essential characteristic of reality — something Alan Watts, who began popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West when the Dalai Lama was still a teenager, captured memorably when he wrote: “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others.”

Indeed, contacting this interconnectedness of all beings and all lives is the very impetus for the Dalai Lama’s morning routine and his information diet — a beautiful assurance that beneath our obsession with routine and ritual lies a deeper, more expansive longing for meaning, for orienting ourselves in this vibrating universe of interconnectedness that we call reality.

Iyer articulates this elegantly:

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a body (not difficult to do, since in part that is what you are). You have eyes, ears, legs, hands, and, if you are lucky, all of them are in good working order. You never, if you are sane, think of your finger as an independent entity (though you may occasionally say, “My toe seems to have a mind of its own”). You are never, in your right mind, moved to hit your own foot, let alone sever it; the only loser in such an exercise would be yourself.


This is all simplistic to the point of self-evidence. But when the Buddhist speaks of “interdependence” (the central Buddhist concept of shunyata, often rendered as “emptiness,” the Dalai Lama has translated as “empty of independent identity”), all he is really saying is that we are all a part of a single body, and to think of “I” and “you,” of the right hand’s interests being different from the left’s, makes no sense at all. It’s crazy to impede your neighbor, because he is as intrinsic to your welfare as your thumb is. It’s almost absurd to say you wish to get ahead of your colleague — it’s like your right toe saying it longs to be ahead of the left.


Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is famous for his laughter, the sudden eruption of almost helpless giggles or a high-pitched shaking of the body. Seen from the vantage point of one who meditates several hours a day, traveling to the place where everything is connected, much of our fascination with surface or with division seems truly hilarious… Talking about friends and enemies is a little like holding on to this hair on your arm and claiming it as a friend, because you see it daily, and calling the hair on your back an enemy, because you never see it at all. Talking of how you are a Buddhist and therefore opposed to the Judeo-Christian teaching is like solemnly asserting that your right nostril is the source of everything good, and your left nostril a place of evil. The doctrine of “universal responsibility” is not only universal but obvious: it’s like saying that every part of us longs for our legs, our eyes, our lungs to be healthy. If one part suffers, we all do.

Suddenly, the Dalai Lama’s morning routine and his information diet are revealed in a whole new light of meaning — they are a form of self-empowerment in the journey toward shedding self-centeredness. (Lest we forget, as another great Buddhist teacher has put it, “you first need to have an ego in order to be aware that it doesn’t exist.”)

Iyer writes:

Buddhists do not (or need not) seek solutions from outside themselves, but merely awakening within; the minute we come to see that our destinies or well-being are all mutually dependent, they say, the rest naturally follows (meditation sometimes seems the way we come to this perception, reasoning the way we consolidate it). If you believe this, human life offers you many more belly laughs daily, as the Dalai Lama exemplifies.

And there, with a good-humored smirk, Iyer reminds us that his perspective isn’t perched on a holier-than-thou branch in the tree of life but grounded in his reality as a Westerner and a writer, and thus a creature of ego trying to learn the very lesson he is channeling:

Why despair, indeed, when you can change the world at any moment by choosing to see that the person who gave your last book a bad review is as intrinsic to your well-being as your thumb is?

The Open Road is an illuminating read in its totality, propelled by Iyer’s deeply pleasurable prose. Complement it with Iyer on what Leonard Cohen knows about the art of stillness and his superb On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, in which he recounts the experience of shadowing the Dalai Lama in order to capture his inner light:

On Being is one of these nine favorite podcasts for a fuller life — do your soul a favor and subscribe.

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08 JUNE, 2015

On Being Too Much for Ourselves: Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on Balance and the Necessary Excesses of Life


“There are situations in which it is more dangerous to keep your balance than to lose it.”

“Something is always born of excess,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in June of 1945 as she contemplated the value of emotional excess, adding: “Great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.” And yet our compulsive pursuit of balance — take, for instance, the tyrannical notion of work/life balance — is predicated on eradicating “excess,” pitting it as a counterpoint rather than a complement to equilibrium and inner wholeness.

That paradoxical relationship is what the celebrated psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips examines in On Balance (public library) — a marvelous collection of essays on “the balancing acts that modern societies involve us in,” exploring the many myths that bedevil our beliefs about balance and impede our pursuit of it.

With an eye to John Stuart Mill’s 1834 proclamation that “there seems to be something singularly captivating in the word balance, as if, because anything is called a balance, it must, for that reason, be necessarily good,” Phillips writes:

The people we fall in love with we find singularly captivating, as are any of the people (or ideas) that inspire us, for better or for worse. What is strange about Mill’s simple observation is that it is the singularly captivating that tends to make us lose our balance. Mill intimates with his peculiar logic that the idea of balance can unbalance us.

Like anger, beneath which David Whyte has so poetically observed lies an indication of what really matters to us, these unbalancing acts, Phillips argues, are a vital and indicative part of our aliveness:

We should not, perhaps, underestimate our wish to lose our balance, even though it’s often easier to get up than to fall over. Indeed, the sign that something does matter to us is that we lose our steadiness.

Phillips considers the necessary excess of optimism and why an artificial balance is sometimes more dangerous than surrendering to such “singularly captivating” loss of steadiness:

We can only be really realistic after we have tried our optimism out. It is not always clear in which areas of our lives it is realistic (or even optimistic) to aspire to the balanced view; or indeed in which parts of our lives the balanced view helps us to get the lives that we want. Balancing acts are entertaining because they are risky, but there are situations in which it is more dangerous to keep your balance than to lose it.

Illustration by Olimpia Zagnoli from 'Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical' by Noémie Révah. Click image for more.

In one of the most rousingly and rewardingly unbalancing essays in the book, titled “On Being Too Much for Ourselves,” Phillips considers an especially anguishing aspect of our relationship with excess, fueled largely by our pathological busyness. Phillips, who has previously explored the crucial role of “fertile solitude” in cultivating self-reliance, writes:

It is not unusual for us to feel that life is too much for us. And it is not unusual to feel that we really should be up to it; that there may be too much to cope with — too many demands — but that we should have the wherewithal to deal with it. Faced with the stresses and strains of everyday life it is easy now for people to feel that they are failing; and what they are failing at, one way or another, is managing the ordinary excesses that we are all beset by: too much frustration, too much bad feeling, too little love, too little success, and so on. One of the things people most frequently say in psychoanalysis is, ‘Perhaps I am overreacting, but . . .’; and one of the commonest complaints today is about feeling too much or feeling too little. I want to suggest that we are simply too much for ourselves, but that this too-muchness is telling us something important… My proposition is that it is impossible to overreact. That when we call our reactions overreactions what we mean is just that they are stronger than we would like them to be. In other words, we sometimes call ourselves and other people excessive as a way of invalidating or tempering the truths we tell ourselves or that other people tell us. It is impossible to overreact.

Our choice of language often betrays our repressed reactions more than we realize, but never more so than in Freudian slips — those awkward moments when our words inadvertently reveal what we mean but didn’t intend to say. Phillips considers this particularly common and colorful example of overreaction:

When we make Freudian slips we try to cover our tracks by claiming that we have said more than we mean, when in fact we have meant more than we had wanted to say… We may feel like we are saying too much, but we may be saying just the right amount; adding things to the conversation that are worth talking about and trying out. We can’t decide not to make Freudian slips; but even when we use ordinary language intentionally, we often say more than we intend. If I say to you that I am a great admirer of your work, I am telling you about my greatness as well as yours; when I say, “See you tomorrow,” I am assuming I know what isn’t going to happen in the interim. Our language, without which we couldn’t imagine our lives, is too much for us in the sense that it can surprise us: we hear in it — and we say in it — more than we intend to. And more than we attend to.

Phillips looks at how our early childhood — those “years of intense feeling” — shapes our aversion to excess and gives rise to our compulsive quest for composure, control, and intentional organization with which to disguise our deep inner shame of being seen as “overreacting”:

We have all had the experience, as children, of being too much for someone; of making someone feel things that they didn’t want to feel… Everyone starts with the experience of being too much for someone else; not only with that experience, but with that experience somewhere in the mix of who one is. Before we acquire the limiting and limited excesses of language we have lived with the excesses of need. If, even only occasionally as a child, you are too much for your parents — which then means you are too much for yourself — what can you do?

Illustration by Emily Hughes from 'Wild.' Click image for more.

What we do, Phillips points out, is begin to see this excess as badness — we aren’t simply “too much,” but too much of something undesirable, uncomfortable-making, and ultimately dangerous:

The child who experiences himself as being too much for his parents — all children to some extent — experiences himself as in some way harming them. And as the child’s survival depends upon his parents, or those who look after him, this puts him in mortal danger. For this reason alone it is very difficult for the child — and for the adult that he will become — to think of his too-muchness as anything other than a problem. And yet, of course, parents are there to absorb, and be absorbed in, their children’s excesses (and vice versa). Indeed, people know that they are in a relationship when they become a problem to each other (or, to put it slightly differently, if you want to have a relationship with someone you have to become a problem for them).

Nin, it turns out, was right after all — great excess is necessary for great works of art, and what greater an art than that of human relationships? Phillips captures this necessary too-muchness beautifully:

We are too much for ourselves because there is far more to us — we feel more — than we can manage.

The piercing precision of insight in the example with which Phillips illustrates this took my breath away, for one of my most vivid childhood memories is a newscast in my grandparents’ living room announcing the death of Princess Diana, which instantly sent me into an inexplicable spiral of sobbing grief for a stranger’s tragic fate. Phillips, however, argues this experience is quite explicable for the very same reasons — it bespeaks the uncomfortable too-muchness of our emotional capacity:

People didn’t overreact to the death of Diana; through the death of Diana they recognized just how much grief they were bearing, how much loss they had suffered in their lives, how they felt about the fate of young women in our culture. Indeed, grief, rather like sexuality, reminds us just how much we are too much for ourselves, how intense our loves and longings really are.


We are too much for ourselves — in our hungers and our desires, in our griefs and our commitments, in our loves and our hates — because we are unable to include so much of what we feel in the picture we have of ourselves. The whole idea of ourselves as excessive exposes how determined we are to have the wrong picture of what we are like, of how fanatically ignorant we are about ourselves.

It is in adolescence, Phillips argues, that we first begin to play with the boundaries of excess, feeling out what we might be capable of and contemplating — sometimes experiencing — its consequences. Indeed, that precipice of maturity is itself “singularly captivating” in both promise and peril. Phillips writes:

Adolescence — when children begin to have the physical capacity to murder and conceive — is our more conscious initiation into those very excesses that make us who we are; and, of course, who we might become. Adolescents are excessive compared with the children they once were and the adults they are supposed to become. But adolescence, at least for modern people, seems to be peculiarly difficult to grow out of.

Instead of growing out of it, Phillips argues, we come to fetishize it — something glaringly evident in our youth-centric, youthfulness-obsessed culture, where a dignified relationship with aging is increasingly elusive. That cult, Phillips suggests, springs from envying the very excesses of adolescence:

The contemporary idealization of adolescence is telling us something about how we manage our complicated feelings about being too much for ourselves.


Excessive behavior, in other words, is not so much something we grow out of as something we grow into.

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

And with this he returns to the essential what-to-do question of living with our all too human, all too vital imbalances:

Perhaps “excess” is a word we use to reassure ourselves that we can be something other than excessive. If we start off by being, at least some of the time, too much for other people, and become, in adolescence, definitively too much for other people, so much so that we have to leave them, and then become adults who are unavoidably too much for ourselves, what is to be done? Well, one thing that can be done is to find someone we are not too much for…

On Balance is a pleasurably discombobulating read in its totality. Complement it with Phillips on why the capacity for boredom is essential for a full life, Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility, and David Whyte on the true meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak.

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08 JUNE, 2015

The Beauty of Uncertainty: How Heisenberg Invented Quantum Mechanics, Told in Jazz


Quantum mechanics and the combinatorial nature of creativity, set to song.

Seven decades after Henry David Thoreau explored the limits of knowledge and the value of “useful ignorance,” a very different intellectual titan, in a very different era, applied this philosophy to a very different field: In 1927, the German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg (December 5, 1901–February 1, 1976) formulated the tenet for which his name is best known today — Heinsenberg’s uncertainty principle, which points out the limits of our knowledge by stating that the more precisely we know the position of a given particle, the less precise our measurement of its momentum, and vice versa.

This principle was the natural progression of a groundbreaking paper Heisenberg had published two years earlier, which paved the way for the field that would eventually titillate the popular imagination more strongly than any other branch of science: quantum mechanics. Indeed, Heisenberg received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1932 “for the creation of quantum mechanics” and his work went on to influence generations of scientists.

Heisenberg’s legacy comes to life in a most unusual and wonderful celebration by Portland-based jazz pianist, songwriter, and children’s music maverick Lori Henriques in her song “Heisenberg’s Aha!” — a kind of musical counterpart to the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books celebrating great artists and scientists. It is found on her altogether infectious record How Great Can This Day Be (iTunes).

Beyond Heinsenberg contribution to quantum mechanics and the field’s general mesmerism, Henriques — who has previously celebrated Jane Goodall — explores broader themes bridging science and philosophy, from the importance of embracing the unknown to the combinatorial nature of creativity and the notion that all discovery builds on what came before, complete with a a delicious allusion to Richard Feynman’s famous insistence on the value of uncertainty.

Electrons are highly mysterious,
this topic indeed is quite serious
It’s starting to feel so imperious,
I think I’m becoming delirious.
I wanted to finally grasp
The quantum mechanics at last.
I stayed up for half the night reading
and by morning I felt like retreating.

I hardly could see how this thing could be
a concept I could comprehend.
It’s as if I’d come to the point I was numb,
all the way to my mind’s bitter end.
After all those hours of thinking,
just as I felt I was sinking,
I was saying things like “Aye yigh yigh yeynman”
when I heard the voice of Dr. Feynman.

He gave some advice that sounded quite nice —
he talked about imagination:
We must “stretch it out to the utmost,”
a companion to our concentration.
When we open our minds and calmly let go
of needing things to be familiar,
we can then head on face them and gladly embrace them
and celebrate how they’re peculiar.

An electron looks like a particle,
and it also acts like a wave,
and once I began to accept this
that electron began to behave.

This is called complementarity
when a concept that seems a disparity
is the very best way we can show
how a set of phenomena go.

He went on to say how he learned this one day
while studying dear Werner Heisenberg,
who walked after dark to his neighborhood park
just to keep his blood pressure from risin'(berg)

As he walked on in his torment,
questioning waves versus particles,
he encountered his own aha moment,
which is now found in hundreds of articles.

More than eighty years ago,
Werner Heisenberg managed to show
probability and uncertainty
both exist, we must agree.
The future’s unpredictable
no matter how well we see.
Dear Heisenberg embraced this,
the beauty of uncertainty.

You can either know where the electron is,
or where the electron is going —
but you can’t know both at the very same time
’cause the measuring affects what you’re knowing.

Again, it’s called complementarity
when a concept that seems a disparity
is the very best way we can show
how a set of phenomena go.
The very act of observing
changes an electron’s location.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say this
was a bit of a collaboration.
The ideas that all came together
for Heisenberg to have his zinger
were inspired by studies before
that came from Niels Bohr and Schrödinger.

And, indeed, Schrödinger and Bohr
were inspired by who came before
like Pascal and Coulomb and Newton
and Maxwell and Einstein and more.
There’s a path from all of this knowledge
and it’s leading directly to you
to pick-up where others left off
and discover a concept that’s new.

And remember your imagination
is a voice inside that can help you
to understand quantum mechanics
and so many more things about you.

These particle waves are so active,
in each atom they’re racing around;
they’re all taking up so much room
and they really and truly astound.
The vast spaces where electrons roam
mean we’re not as solid as we thought —
so, actually, when you sit down to tea
you’re levitating on the spot!

The wilder the concept the more fun it is
I feel scientifically brave
And thanks to dear Heisenberg’s aha we know
an electron is both a particle and a wave!

How Great Can This Day Be comes on the heels of Henriques’s previous record, The World Is a Curious Place to Live — seventeen marvelous jazz odes to various branches of science, from mathematics to linguistics, including a particularly delightful astronomy mashup of “Saint James Infirmary.” Complement her celebration of Heisenberg with Alice in Quantumland, a marvelous allegory for quantum mechanics inspired by the Lewis Carroll classic.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

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.

08 JUNE, 2015

Love, Forgiveness, the Pride of the Protest, and What Makes a Compelling Heroine: Dostoyevsky’s Beautiful Eulogy for George Sand


A warm celebration of the art of crafting “characters of the most sincere forgiveness and love.”

On June 8, 1876, the great French novelist, memoirist, and playwright Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand, took her last breath five weeks before her seventy-second birthday. Over the course of her long and prolific career, she had touched millions of readers and influenced generations of writers. Among them was beloved Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky — a young man at the time of Sand’s literary debut, which had profoundly shaped his sensibility as a writer.

When he read about Sand’s death in the newspaper, Dostoyevsky was moved to write one of the warmest eulogies in literary history, on par with Susan Sontag’s remembrance of Borges and JFK’s of Robert Frost. It was eventually included in A Writer’s Diary (public library) — the same superb collection that gave us Dostoyevsky on why there are no bad people and his arrival at the meaning of life in a dream. Despite a certain patina of datedness — this was an era when a woman writer was always a “poetess” — the eulogy emanates a tenacious timelessness, not only in celebrating Sand but also in serving as a genial testament to the circles of influence ripping through creative culture.

With the intention “merely to say a few farewell words to the deceased at her fresh grave,” Dostoyevsky laments that the most recent issue of his periodical had gone to press just before the announcement of Sand’s death:

I had no time to say even a word about this death. And yet, only having read about it, I understood what that name has meant in my life; how many delights, how much veneration this poetess has evoked in me at the time, and how many joys, how much happiness she has given me! I am putting down every one of these words unhesitatingly because this was literally the case.

With an eye to Sand’s idealism as a “service rendered to mankind as a whole,” Dostoyevsky considers how many others were as touched by her work and spirit as he was:

I imagine that much as I, then a young lad, everybody in those days was impressed with the chaste, sublime purity of the characters and of the ideals, and the modest charm of the austere, reserved tone of the narrative — and such a woman wears trousers and engages in debauch!

Pointing out that Sand become more popular with the Russian public than even Dickens, Dostoyevsky — who had served eight years in a Siberian prison camp for reading banned books — considers her singular allure to the national spirit at a time of severe ideological despotism in Russia:

The reader managed to extract even from novels everything against which he was being guarded… George Sand was one of the most brilliant, stern and just representatives of that category of the contemporaneous Western new men who, when they appeared, started with a direct negation of those “positive” acquisitions which brought to a close the activities of the bloody French — more correctly, European — revolution of the end of the past century.

Sand’s work, he argues, attested to the idea that “the renovation of humanity must be radical and social” and was a centerpiece not only of women’s emancipation but of the broader socialist movement toward freedom:

Her sermons were by no means confined to woman alone… George Sand belonged to the whole movement, and not to the mere sermons of women’s rights. True, being a woman herself, she naturally preferred to portray heroines rather than heroes, and, of course, women of the whole world should now don mourning garb in her memory, because one of their loftiest and most beautiful representatives has passed away, and, in addition, an almost unprecedented woman by reason of the power of her mind and talent — a name which has become historical and which is destined not to be forgotten…

George Sand by Nadar, 1864

In a sentiment triply poignant against the contemporary fact that books featuring female protagonists rarely receive literary acclaim, Dostoyevsky considers the compassionate idealism that made Sand’s heroines so widely resonant and bewitching:

Her heroines represented a type of such elevated moral purity that it could not have been conceived without an immense ethical quest in the soul of the poetess herself; without the confession of the most complete duty; without the comprehension and admission of most sublime beauty and mercy, patience and justice. True, side by side with mercy, patience and the acknowledgement of the obligations of duty, there was the extraordinary pride of the quest and of the protest; yet it was precisely that pride which was so precious because it sprang from the most sublime truth, without which mankind could never have retained its place on so lofty a moral height. This pride is not rancor quad même, based upon the idea that I am better than you, and you are worse than me; nay, this is merely a feeling of the most chaste impossibility of compromise with untruth and vice, although — I repeat — this feeling precludes neither all-forgiveness nor mercy.


In a contemporary peasant girl she suddenly resurrects before the reader the image of the historical Joan of Arc, and graphically justifies the actual possibility of that majestic and miraculous event. This is typically Georgesandesque task, since no one but she among contemporary poets bore in the soul so pure an ideal… A straightforward, honest, but inexperienced, character of a young feminine creature is pictured, one possessing that proud chastity which is neither afraid of, nor can even be contaminated by, contact with vice — even if that creature should accidentally find herself in the very den of vice. The want of magnanimous sacrifice (supposedly specifically expected from her) startles the youthful girl’s heart, and unhesitatingly, without sparing herself, disinterestedly, self-sacrificingly and fearlessly, she suddenly takes the most perilous and fatal step. That which she sees and encounters does not in the least confuse or intimidate her; on the contrary, it forthwith increases courage in the youthful heart which, at this juncture, for the first time, realizes the full measure of its strength — the strength of innocence, honesty and purity; it doubles the energy, reveals new paths and new horizons to a mind which up to that time had not known itself, a vigorous and fresh mind not yet soiled with the compromise of life.

To be sure, Dostoyevsky points out, Sand’s archetype of the courageous and independent woman-protagonist was not met without resistance by those who admonished against “the future poison of woman’s protest, of woman’s emancipation.” But her very devotion to unsettling the era’s limiting norms and envisioning a more expansive version of humanity is also what rendered Sand immortal:

George Sand … was one of the most clairvoyant foreseers (if this flourishing term be permitted) of a happy future awaiting mankind, in the realization of whose ideals she had confidently and magnanimously believed all her life — this because she herself was able to conceive this ideal in her soul. The preservation of this faith to the end is usually the lot of the lofty souls, of all genuine friends of humanity… She based her socialism, her convictions, her hopes and her ideals upon the moral feeling of man, upon the spiritual thirst of mankind and its longing for perfection and purity, and not upon “ant-necessity.” All her life she believed absolutely in human personality … elevating and broadening this concept in each one of her works.


As to the pride of her quests and of her protest — I repeat — this pride never precluded mercy, forgiveness of offense, or even boundless patience based upon compassion for the offender himself. On the contrary, time and again, in her works George Sand has been captivated by the beauty of these truths and on more than one occasion she has portrayed characters of the most sincere forgiveness and love.

A Writer’s Diary contains much more of Dostoyevsky’s warmth, idealism, and compassionate genius. Complement this particular piece with John F. Kennedy’s eulogy to Robert Frost and Susan Sontag’s breathtaking remembrance of Borges.

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