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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

12 MAY, 2015

Wendell Berry on How to Be a Poet and a Complete Human Being

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“Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet. You must depend upon affection, reading, knowledge, skill…”

“When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” John F. Kennedy proclaimed in his touching tribute to Robert Frost, celebrating poetry as “the means of saving power from itself.” And although poetry itself exerts a singular power over the human spirit, as one of the greatest poets of all time observed, it is hardly a power that comes easily to the poet: “Writing poetry is an unnatural act,” Elizabeth Bishop wrote when she was only twenty-three. So how, then, does one come to master this unnatural power — how does one become a Poet?

That’s what the wise and wonderful Wendell Berry (b. August 5, 1934) — a man of great wisdom on solitude, love, and our “rugged individualism” — explores in a marvelous poem titled “How to Be a Poet (to remind myself),” found in his New Collected Poems (public library).

Wendell Berry (Photograph: Guy Mendes)

In this recording from the consistently transcendent On Being, Berry brings his beautifully aged voice to the poem — which is in many ways not only about how to be a poet, but also about how to be an artist of any kind. With its insistence on the vitalizing power of silence and stillness and self-refinement, it is perhaps, above all, about how to be a complete human being.

HOW TO BE A POET
(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill — more of each
than you have — inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

For more of Berry’s enduring wisdom, see his meditations on the two great enemies of creative work and what poetic form reveals about the secret of marriage, then treat yourself to Derek Walcott’s stirring ode to being at home in ourselves and subscribe to On Being here.

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12 MAY, 2015

Bright Sky, Starry City: An Illustrated Love Letter to Our Communion with the Cosmos, Celebrating Women Astronomers

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A warm and wonderful ode to the universe for the modern urban astronomer.

When trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell began teaching at Vassar in the 1860s, where she was the only woman on the faculty, the university’s official handbook forbade female students from going outside after dark — a dictum of obvious absurdity in the context of teaching astronomy. Although the rule was overturned and Mitchell went on to pave the way for women in science, a century and a half later a different civilizational absurdity obstructs aspiring astronomers of any gender — light pollution in cities is making it increasingly difficult to peer into the starry sky and take, to paraphrase Ptolemy, our fill of cosmic ambrosia.

In Bright Sky, Starry City (public library), author Uma Krishnaswami and illustrator Aimée Sicuro take on both of these issues — the expanding horizons for women in astronomy, the modern constrictions of light pollution — with great warmth and wonderment for the eternal allure of communing with the cosmos, of feeling our tininess and the enormity of life all at once, by the simple act of looking out into the glimmering grandeur of space.

This is the story of Phoebe, a little girl whose father owns a telescope shop in a bustling city. Enchanted by the planets, Phoebe likes to draw the Solar System on the sidewalk outside her dad’s store. One particularly exciting day, when Saturn and Mars are expected to appear in the sky that night, Phoebe worries that the city lights, which “always turned the night sky gray and dull,” would render her beloved planets invisible.

Just as she closes her eyes and wishes those dreadful urban lights away, another obstacle emerges — a mighty storm sets in, so Phoebe and her dad pack in their telescopes and retreat indoors.

But as they sit in the store and the wind rages outside, Phoebe’s wish is miraculously granted — the storm shuts down the city’s power grid and, if only for a little while, all the lights go out just as the sky clears of clouds.

Above the newly washed city,
with the power still out,
glowing, sparkling, gleaming lights
painted the night — some faint, some brilliant,
some clustered together
and some scattering fiercely
through the inky darkness.

And then, suddenly, they appear — Saturn and Mars, “right where they should be.”

People milled around,
talking, pointing, laughing, looking
all at once, all together
under the stars.

A nonfiction postscript offers a pithy primer on the Solar System, making the story a fine addition to these intelligent and imaginative children’s books celebrating science.

Bright Sky, Starry City comes from Canadian indie powerhouse Groundwood Books, who have previously celebrated the history of astronomy with the wonderful picture-book biography of Ibn Sina and have given us such thoughtful treasures as a Sidewalk Flowers and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress.

Complement this particular astro-treat with You Are Stardust, which teaches kids about the universe in breathtaking dioramas, then revisit of story of how Galileo’s astronomy influenced Shakespeare.

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12 MAY, 2015

How to Make Use of Our Suffering: Simone Weil on Ameliorating Our Experience of Pain, Hunger, Fatigue, and All That Makes the Soul Cry

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“To make use … of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us is better than inflicting discipline upon oneself.”

Long before scientists had empirical evidence of the astounding ways in which our minds affect our bodies, French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) — one of the most remarkable thinkers of the past century, whom Albert Camus aptly proclaimed “the only great spirit of our times” — examined the delicate relationship between our physical and spiritual suffering, between the anguish of the material body and that of the soul.

A few months before her painful yet stoic death from tuberculosis — despite her diagnosis and her doctor’s explicit orders to eat heartily, Weil consumed only what was rationed to her compatriots under the German Occupation in a remarkable gesture of solidarity, ultimately resulting in fatal malnutrition — she turned to the problem of pain in First and Last Notebooks (public library), the same out-of-print treasure that gave us Weil on temptation and the key to discipline.

In an entry from late 1942, Weil considers how our instinctive reaction to suffering often only amplifies our pain:

The way to make use of physical pain. When suffering no matter what degree of pain, when almost the entire soul is inwardly crying “Make it stop, I can bear no more,” a part of the soul, even though it be an infinitesimally small part, should say: “I consent that this should continue throughout the whole of time, if the divine wisdom so ordains.” The soul is then split in two. For the physically sentient part of the soul is — at least sometimes — unable to consent to pain. This splitting in two of the soul is a second pain, a spiritual one, and even sharper than the physical pain that causes it.

There is almost a Buddhist undertone to Weil’s insistence on accepting everything that is, as it is, without compounding pain with “the second arrow” of our tendency to resist any unpleasantness and judge it as a kind of personal failure, which in turn precipitates an even graver sense of dissatisfaction. One is reminded at once of the Chinese philosophy of wu-wei and of Rilke’s famous words — “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.”

Indeed, Weil’s philosophy of suffering embraces Rilke’s everythingness — she extends it beyond physical pain and into other forms of bodily and spiritual discomfort that we habitually exacerbate by stiffening with resistance to the unpleasantness:

A similar use can be made of hunger, fatigue, fear, and of everything that imperatively constrains the sentient part of the soul to cry: I can bear no more! Make it stop! There should be something in us that answers: I consent that it should continue up to the moment of death, or that it should not even finish then, but continue for ever. Then it is that the soul is as if divided by a two-edged sword.

To make use in this way of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us is better than inflicting discipline upon oneself.

Weil’s First and Last Notebooks, hard though it may be to find, is a perennially profound read from cover to cover — an intensely intimate glimpse of one of the most significant minds of the twentieth century, whose ideas influenced such luminaries as Susan Sontag, Iris Murdoch, Flannery O’Connor, and Cornel West. Complement this particular passage with C.S. Lewis on how suffering confers agency upon life and Nietzsche on why a full life requires embracing rather than running from suffering.

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11 MAY, 2015

Richard Feynman on Science vs. Religion and Why Uncertainty Is Central to Morality

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“It is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong.”

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his timeless treatise on science and spirituality, “we will have failed.” Perhaps because, as Krista Tippett has astutely observed, science and religion “ask different kinds of questions altogether, probing and illuminating in ways neither could alone,” some of humanity’s greatest scientific minds have contemplated the relationship between these two modes of inquiry — Galileo in his legendary letter to the Duchess of Tuscany; Ada Lovelace in her meditation on the interconnectedness of everything; Einstein in his answer to little girl’s question about whether scientists pray; Jane Goodall in her poetic take on science and spirit; Sam Harris in his elegant case for spirituality without religion; and physicist Margaret Wertheim in turning to Dante for an answer.

Among the tireless investigators of this duality is legendary physicist and science-storyteller Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988), who explores this very inquiry in the final essay in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library) — the same spectacular compendium that gave us the Great Explainer on good, evil, and the Zen of science, the universal responsibility of scientists, and the meaning of life.

Feynman writes:

I do not believe that science can disprove the existence of God; I think that is impossible. And if it is impossible, is not a belief in science and in a God — an ordinary God of religion — a consistent possibility?

Yes, it is consistent. Despite the fact that I said that more than half of the scientists don’t believe in God, many scientists do believe in both science and God, in a perfectly consistent way. But this consistency, although possible, is not easy to attain, and I would like to try to discuss two things: Why it is not easy to attain, and whether it is worth attempting to attain it.

Clarifying that by “God” he means the personal deity typical of Western religions, “to whom you pray and who has something to do with creating the universe and guiding you in morals,” Feynman considers the key difficulties in reconciling the scientific worldview with the religious one. Building on his assertion that the universal responsibility of the scientist is to remain immersed in “ignorance and doubt and uncertainty,” he points out that the centrality of uncertainty in science is incompatible with the unconditional faith required by religion:

It is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding, we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer. And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.

That is, if we investigate further, we find that the statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known to different degrees of certainty… Every one of the concepts of science is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but at neither end of, absolute falsity or absolute truth.

Piece from Richard Feynman's little-known sketches, edited by his daughter. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Wendell Berry on the wisdom of ignorance, Feynman adds:

It is necessary, I believe, to accept this idea, not only for science, but also for other things; it is of great value to acknowledge ignorance. It is a fact that when we make decisions in our life, we don’t necessarily know that we are making them correctly; we only think that we are doing the best we can — and that is what we should do.

Befriending uncertainty, Feynman argues, becomes a habit of mind that automates thought to a point of no longer being able to retreat from doubt’s inquiry. The question then changes from the binary “Is there God?” to the degrees-of-certainty ponderation “How sure is it that there is a God?” He writes:

This very subtle change is a great stroke and represents a parting of the ways between science and religion. I do not believe a real scientist can ever believe in the same way again. Although there are scientists who believe in God, I do not believe that they think of God in the same way as religious people do… I do not believe that a scientist can ever obtain that view — that really religious understanding, that real knowledge that there is a God — that absolute certainty which religious people have.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, from Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

A believing scientist, then, is one from whom the degree of certainty outweighs but doesn’t displace the degree of doubt — in the scientist, unlike in the religious person, doubt remains a parallel presence with any element of faith. Feynman illustrates this sliding scale of uncertainty by putting our human existence in cosmic perspective:

The size of the universe is very impressive, with us on a tiny particle whirling around the sun, among a hundred thousand million suns in this galaxy, itself among a billion galaxies… Man is a latecomer in a vast evolving drama; can the rest be but a scaffolding for his creation?

Yet again, there are the atoms of which all appears to be constructed, following immutable laws. Nothing can escape it; the stars are made of the same stuff, and the animals are made of the same stuff, but in such complexity as to mysteriously appear alive — like man himself.

With an eye to the immutable mystery at the heart of all knowledge — something Feynman memorably explored in his now-iconic ode to a flower — he adds:

It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe beyond man, to think of what it means without man — as it was for the great part of its long history, and as it is in the great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to see life as part of the universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is rarely described. It usually ends in laughter, delight in the futility of trying to understand. These scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged simply as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems to be inadequate.

But even if one comes to doubt the factuality of divinity itself, Feynman argues that religious myths remain a valuable moral compass, the basic ethical tenets of which can be applied to life independently of the religious dogma:

In the end, it is possible to doubt the divinity of Christ, and yet to believe firmly that it is a good thing to do unto your neighbor as you would have him do unto you. It is possible to have both these views at the same time; and I would say that I hope you will find that my atheistic scientific colleagues often carry themselves well in society.

Having grown up in communist Bulgaria — a culture where blind nonbelief was as dogmatically mandated by the government as blind belief is by the church elsewhere — I find Feynman’s thoughts on the dogma of atheism particularly insightful:

The communist views are the antithesis of the scientific, in the sense that in communism the answers are given to all the questions — political questions as well as moral ones — without discussion and without doubt. The scientific viewpoint is the exact opposite of this; that is, all questions must be doubted and discussed; we must argue everything out — observe things, check them, and so change them. The democratic government is much closer to this idea, because there is discussion and a chance of modification. One doesn’t launch the ship in a definite direction. It is true that if you have a tyranny of ideas, so that you know exactly what has to be true, you act very decisively, and it looks good — for a while. But soon the ship is heading in the wrong direction, and no one can modify the direction anymore. So the uncertainties of life in a democracy are, I think, much more consistent with science.

He revisits the ethical aspect of religion — its commitment to guiding us toward a more moral life — and its interplay with our human fallibility:

We know that, even with moral values granted, human beings are very weak; they must be reminded of the moral values in order that they may be able to follow their consciences. It is not simply a matter of having a right conscience; it is also a question of maintaining strength to do what you know is right. And it is necessary that religion give strength and comfort and the inspiration to follow these moral views. This is the inspirational aspect of religion. It gives inspiration not only for moral conduct — it gives inspiration for the arts and for all kinds of great thoughts and actions as well.

Noting that all three aspects of religion — metaphysical divinity, morality, and inspiration — are interconnected and that “to attack one feature of the system is to attack the whole structure,” Feynman zeroes in on the inescapable conflict between the empirical findings of science and the metaphysical myths of faith:

The result … is a retreat of the religious metaphysical view, but nevertheless, there is no collapse of the religion. And further, there seems to be no appreciable or fundamental change in the moral view.

After all, the earth moves around the sun — isn’t it best to turn the other cheek? Does it make any difference whether the earth is standing still or moving around the sun?

[…]

In my opinion, it is not possible for religion to find a set of metaphysical ideas which will be guaranteed not to get into conflicts with an ever-advancing and always-changing science which is going into an unknown. We don’t know how to answer the questions; it is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong. The difficulty arises because science and religion are both trying to answer questions in the same realm here.

On the other hand, I don’t believe that a real conflict with science will arise in the ethical aspect, because I believe that moral questions are outside of the scientific realm.

Another 16th-century painting by Francisco de Holanda from 'Cosmigraphics.'Click image for more.

And so we get to the most enduring challenge — the fact that, in Tippett’s words, “how we ask our questions affects the answers we arrive at.” Arguing that science isn’t aimed at the foundations of morality, Feynman writes:

The typical human problem, and one whose answer religion aims to supply, is always of the following form: Should I do this? Should we do this? Should the government do this? To answer this question we can resolve it into two parts: First — If I do this, what will happen? — and second — Do I want that to happen? What would come of it of value — of good?

Now a question of the form: If I do this, what will happen? is strictly scientific. As a matter of fact, science can be defined as a method for, and a body of information obtained by, trying to answer only questions which can be put into the form: If I do this, what will happen? The technique of it, fundamentally, is: Try it and see. Then you put together a large amount of information from such experiences. All scientists will agree that a question — any question, philosophical or other — which cannot be put into the form that can be tested by experiment … is not a scientific question; it is outside the realm of science.

I claim that whether you want something to happen or not — what value there is in the result, and how you judge the value of the result (which is the other end of the question: Should I do this?), must lie outside of science because it is not a question that you can answer only by knowing what happens; you still have to judge what happens — in a moral way. So, for this theoretical reason I think that there is a complete consistency between the moral view — or the ethical aspect of religion — and scientific information.

But therein lies the central friction — because of the interconnectedness of all three parts of religion, doubt about the metaphysical aspect invariably chips away at the authority of the moral and inspirational aspects, which are fueled by the believer’s emotional investment in the divine component. Feynman writes:

Emotional ties to the moral code … begin to be severely weakened when doubt, even a small amount of doubt, is expressed as to the existence of God; so when the belief in God becomes uncertain, this particular method of obtaining inspiration fails.

He concludes, appropriately, like a scientist rather than a dogmatist — by framing the right questions rather than asserting the right answers:

I don’t know the answer to this central problem — the problem of maintaining the real value of religion, as a source of strength and of courage to most [people], while, at the same time, not requiring an absolute faith in the metaphysical aspects.

Western civilization, it seems to me, stands by two great heritages. One is the scientific spirit of adventure–the adventure into the unknown, an unknown which must be recognized as being unknown in order to be explored; the demand that the unanswerable mysteries of the universe remain unanswered; the attitude that all is uncertain; to summarize it — the humility of the intellect. The other great heritage is Christian ethics — the basis of action on love, the brotherhood of all men, the value of the individual — the humility of the spirit.

These two heritages are logically, thoroughly consistent. But logic is not all; one needs one’s heart to follow an idea. If people are going back to religion, what are they going back to? Is the modern church a place to give comfort to a man who doubts God — more, one who disbelieves in God? Is the modern church a place to give comfort and encouragement to the value of such doubts? So far, have we not drawn strength and comfort to maintain the one or the other of these consistent heritages in a way which attacks the values of the other? Is this unavoidable? How can we draw inspiration to support these two pillars of Western civilization so that they may stand together in full vigor, mutually unafraid? Is this not the central problem of our time?

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is a trove of the Great Explainer’s wisdom on everything from education to integrity to the value of science as a way of life. Complement it with Feynman on why everything is connected to everything else, how his father taught him about the most important thing, and his little-known drawings, then revisit Alan Lightman — a Great Explainer for our day — on science and the divinity of the unknowable.

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11 MAY, 2015

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Writers on the Choice Not to Have Children

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“It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption — and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness.”

“A human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions,” Italo Calvino wrote in his magnificent letter on reproductive rights, “but through an act of will and love on the part of other people.” Thirty-five years earlier, in 1940, Anaïs Nin made the same point with even greater precision and prescience when she wrote in her diary: “Motherhood is a vocation like any other. It should be freely chosen, not imposed upon woman.” And yet here we are decades later, with millennia of human civilization under our belt — aspirin to Austen, Guggenheim to Google, bicycle to Bach — still subscribing to the same primitive biological imperative that a life unprocreated is a life wasted; still succumbing to the tyrannical cultural message that opting out of parenthood is a failure of ambition or magnanimity or social duty, or simply the symptom of a profound character flaw. Being childless by choice — like being alone, like living alone — is still considered by unspoken consensus the errant choice.

A potent and sorely needed antidote to this toxic myth comes in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (public library), edited by the brilliant Meghan Daum — a writer of rare aptitude for articulating the unspeakable. The contributions — sometimes witty, sometimes wistful, always wise — come from such celebrated authors as Geoff Dyer, Anna Holmes, and Sigrid Nunez, whose reasons for going not having children range from the personal trauma of difficult childhoods to political convictions about everything from reproductive rights to overpopulation and income inequality to the increasingly hard-to-meet requirement of undivided attention that is the hallmark of great parenting.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from 'Sidewalk Flowers' by JonArno Lawson. Click image for more.

With an eye to Tolstoy’s famous line from the opening of Anna Karenina“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Daum writes in the introduction:

Of course, [Tolstoy’s] maxim isn’t exactly true, since happy families come in all varieties, and unhappy families can be miserable in mind-numbingly predictable ways. And since most people eventually wind up becoming parents, whether by choice, circumstance, or some combination thereof, my version isn’t necessarily an airtight theory either. Still, in thinking about this subject steadily over the last several years, I’ve come to suspect that the majority of people who have kids are driven by any of just a handful of reasons, most of them connected to old-fashioned biological imperative.

Those of us who choose not to become parents are a bit like Unitarians or nonnative Californians; we tend to arrive at our destination via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths. Contrary to a lot of cultural assumptions, people who opt out of parenthood … are not a monolithic group. We are neither hedonists nor ascetics. We bear no worse psychological scars from our own upbringings than most people who have kids. We do not hate children (and it still amazes me that this notion is given any credence). In fact, many of us devote quite a lot of energy to enriching the lives of other people’s children, which in turn enriches our own lives.

Daum considers the many ways in which one can come to stand in one’s truth as a nonparent — an act, essentially, of standing at the crossroads of Should and Must, in the eye of a sociocultural hurricane, with the absolute stillness of deep self-knowledge — Daum writes:

For some, the necessary self-knowledge came after years of indecision. For others, the lack of desire to have or raise children felt hardwired from birth, almost like sexual orientation or gender identity. A few actively pursued parenthood before realizing they were chasing a dream that they’d mistaken for their own but that actually belonged to someone else — a partner, a family member, the culture at large.

Illustration from 'Little Boy Brown,' a vintage ode to childhood's loneliness. Click image for more.

And yet despite the wide array of paths to the willfully childless life, the cultural narrative about this choice remains strikingly myopic. In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s admonition that polarities invariably impoverish the nuances of life, Daum points to the primary purpose of the anthology:

I wanted to lift the discussion out of the familiar rhetoric, which so often pits parents against nonparents and assumes that the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living large on piles of disposable income. I wanted to show that there are just as many ways of being a nonparent as there are of being a parent. You can do it lazily and self-servingly or you can do it generously and imaginatively. You can be cool about it or you can be a jerk about it.

[…]

It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption — and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness.

This begs the necessary question of gender balance — in the larger cultural conversation as well as in the particularity of this volume — which Daum addresses with no-nonsense elegance:

There are notably more women than men here — a thirteen to three ratio, to be exact. That ratio felt to me more or less proportionate to the degree to which men devote serious thought to parenthood (at least before it happens) compared to women, who are goaded into thinking about it practically from birth. Still, I thought it was essential that the collection include male voices. Too often, this subject is framed as a women’s issue. But men who are disinclined toward fatherhood must contend with their own set of prejudices; for instance, assumptions that they can’t commit to a partner, that they wish to prolong adolescence indefinitely, or that they’ll be intractably (and gratefully) domesticated as soon as the right partner reels them in.

But for all its diversity of perspectives on and paths to nonparenthood, the anthology is underpinned by one obvious self-selection bias — all sixteen contributors are writers, and as Martin Amis memorably observed, “the first thing that distinguishes a writer is that he is most alive when alone.” What’s more, in addition to a greater need for solitude and higher tolerance for financial uncertainty, artists and writers have in common one other key differentiator from the general population: We tend to measure legacy in memetics rather than genetics — in the ideas rather than the infants we seed into society. (In one extreme, writers who do choose to procreate end up designating their children like they do their works — with a byline: Take F. Scott Fitzgerald and his daughter, Scottie.)

To be sure, Daum counters this disclaimer by pointing out that if the choice were as simple as “writing versus children,” writers “wouldn’t have much to say on the subject” — and they have a great deal to say, with a great deal of dimension.

Geoff Dyer (Photograph: Jason Oddy)

In one of the funniest essays, Geoff Dyer brings all of his wonderful, curmudgeonly, self-deprecating Englishness to the subject and writes:

In a park, looking at smiling mothers and fathers strolling along with their adorable toddlers, I react like the pope confronted with a couple of gay men walking hand in hand: Where does it come from, this unnatural desire (to have children)?

[…]

By a wicked paradox, an absolute lack of interest in children attracts the opprobrium normally reserved for pedophiles. Man, you should have seen what happened a couple of years ago when a friend and I were playing tennis in Highbury Fields, London, next to the children’s area where kids were cavorting around under the happily watchful eyes of their mums. It’s quite a large area, but it is, needless to say, not big enough. A number of children kept coming over to the tennis courts, rattling on the gate, and trying to get in. The watching middle-class mums did nothing to restrain them. Eventually my friend yelled, “Go AWAY!” Whereupon the watching mums did do something. A mob of them descended on us as though my friend had exposed himself. Suddenly we were in the midst of a maternal zombie film. It was the nearest I’ve ever come to getting lynched — they were after my friend rather than me and though, strictly speaking, I was his opponent, I was a tacit accomplice — and a clear demonstration that the rights of parents and their children to do whatever they please have priority over everyone else’s.

Illustration by Tomi Ungerer from 'Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls.' Click image for more.

Summoning Virginia Woolf in her own most curmudgeonly Englishness — “A child is the very devil,” she wrote in a letter, “calling out, as I believe, all the worst and least explicable passions of the parents.” — Dyer adds:

Certainly at that moment, the threatened love these mums felt for their children seemed ferocious and vile, either a kind of insanity or, at the very least, a form of deeply antisocial behavior. I stress this because it’s often claimed that having kids makes people more conscious of the kind of world they’re creating or leaving for their offspring. That would be why, in London, a city with excellent public transportation, parents have to make sure they have cars. Many of these cars come speeding along my street on their way to the extremely expensive private school on the corner. You can see, from the looks on these mums’ faces as they drop off their kids at this little nest of privilege, that the larger world — as represented by me, some loser on his bike — doesn’t exist, is no more than an impediment to finding a parking space. Parenthood, far from enlarging one’s worldview, results in an appalling form of myopia. Hence André Gide’s verdict on families, “those misers of love.”

Dyer turns a skeptical eye toward the most common case for having children:

Of all the arguments for having children, the suggestion that it gives life “meaning” is the one to which I am most hostile — apart from all the others. The assumption that life needs a meaning or purpose! I’m totally cool with the idea of life being utterly meaningless and devoid of purpose. It would be a lot less fun if it did have a purpose — then we would all be obliged (and foolish not) to pursue that purpose.

Okay, if you can’t handle the emptiness of life, fine: have kids, fill the void. But some of us are quite happy in the void, thank you, and have no desire to have it filled.

It’s worth pausing here to circle back to Tolstoy and point out that although he filled his existential void with fourteen children, he quickly found them to be insufficient filler and spiraled into his now-legendary search for meaning. But Dyer is equally skeptical of turning to “the writing life” for such existential filler as he is of the pro-procreation dogma:

Any exultation of the writing life is as abhorrent to me as the exultation of family life. Writing just passes the time and, like any kind of work, brings in money. If you want to make sure I never read a line you’ve written, tell me about the sacrifices you’ve made in order to get those lines written… Sacrifice is part of the parent’s vocabulary.

[…]

After a couple of years of parenthood people become incapable of saying what they want to do in terms of what they want to do. Their preferences can only be articulated in terms of a hierarchy of obligations — even though it is by fulfilling these obligations (visiting in-laws, being forced to stay in and baby-sit) that they scale the summit of their desires.

Unmasking this charade of “sacrifice,” Dyer pounces at the jugular of the anti-childlessness tyrant:

Does this mean, as parents might claim, that I’m just too selfish? Now, there’s a red herring if ever there was one. Not having children is seen as supremely selfish, as though the people having children were selflessly sacrificing themselves in a valiant attempt to ensure the survival of our endangered species and fill up this vast and underpopulated island of ours. People raise kids because they want to, but they always emphasize how hard it is.

Anna Holmes (Photograph: Victor Jeffries)

Jezebel founder and epistolary heartbreak-hunter Anna Holmes addresses another facet of the Me-First myth, considering the choice not to have children as an act of self-caring — of knowing intimately the singular, un-peer-pressured needs of one’s inner life and honoring them — rather than one of selfishness:

Herein lies the rub: as it stands now, I suspect that my commitment to and delight in parenting would be so formidable that it would take precedence over anything and everything else in my life; that my mastery of motherhood would eclipse my need for — or ability to achieve — success in any other arena. Basically, I’m afraid of my own competence.

[…]

Some might call my trepidation at the idea of motherhood “selfishness” — I would call it “agency” — but those people are probably either (1) dudes or (2) self-satisfied professional parents, and I’m not sure I care enough about their opinions that I wouldn’t just agree with them and shrug my shoulders in shared chagrin. [My choice] has nothing to do with a distaste for kids, who, along with animals, I like and identify with more than I do with most adults.) But the fact is, it is never far from my mind that the means of reproduction — and its costs — are beasts of burden borne, historically, by the fairer sex.

[…]

As I enter my forties, I find that I am only now beginning to feel comfortable in my own skin, to find the wherewithal to respect my own needs as much as others’, to know what my emotional and physical limits are, and to confidently, yet kindly, tell others no. (No, I cannot perform that job; no, I cannot meet you for coffee ; no, I cannot be in a relationship in which I feel starved for emotional and physical connection.) … The irony is that if and when I reach the point where I feel able to give my all to another human being and still keep some semblance of the self I’ve worked so hard to create, I will probably not be of childbearing age. Them’s the breaks.

Sigrid Nunez (Photograph: Marion Ettlinger)

In one of the most somber, sobering, and intense essays in the volume, Sigrid Nunez explores the complex variables that go into that choice — the wanting, the not-wanting, the wanting-to-want — through the lens of her own life as well as those of yesteryear’s prominent childless women writers.

Nunez is among those of us unafraid to acknowledge that one’s childhood shapes one’s disposition to being a parent in adulthood. She reflects on her mother — a woman who was decidedly unmaternal and to whom “a child, any child, was a brat”:

The circumstances of her own youth (the war, the too-early pregnancy, the immigration to America with a husband who was in all ways an unsuitable match and whom she considered beneath her) ensured that she would always see herself as unlucky, as someone who had been cheated. Whatever good might come her way from having had a family (and that good would not come before the children were grown), it was the bad that marked her, that made her life what it was.

Nunez grew up in a community of families made up of people like her mother — “people whose lives were harder than most, people with low-paying jobs or dependent on welfare, people with limited education, foreign accents, poor English, bad teeth, dark skin — people who were all too aware of being at the bottom of the ladder” — and experienced the direct results of that anguishing awareness:

Their inevitable frustrations were, inevitably, taken out at home. Husbands beat wives; parents beat children; big children beat little children.

“Don’t let’s think about the pets,” she adds parenthentically, and those of us who grew up in such homes instantly know what she means. Worse yet, this acting-out of frustrations wasn’t confined to the home — it was condoned by the community:

The dominant emotion toward children, from mothers and fathers both, seemed to be anger. It was part of the chaos of that place and time: you never knew when some grown-up was going to fly off the handle. Children were forever being screamed at, sworn at, slapped around, or worse… The berating or whipping of a child in public, often before a smirking crowd, was nothing rare. And the suffering of anyone subjected to that particular humiliation was so obvious and so dreadful that it was hard to believe the parent inflicting it could possibly also love that child.

Much of what Nunez endured calls to mind Kafka’s relationship with his abusive father — most of all, perhaps, the way in which children who grow up in such environments come to mistake such parenting for the norm; when our pain is consistently invalidated and dismissed, we come to believe that there is something wrong with us for experiencing that pain, rather than with our parents for inflicting it. Nunez considers the complexities of the issue and the psychological aftershocks, which never quite leave us:

At some point, of course, I came to understand that not all children had been unwanted, and that, like people everywhere, most of the parents I knew, the mothers in particular, had counted having a family among their life’s sweetest dreams. The problem for many of them arose from being unable to prevent having more children than they’d wanted, or from having them come along at times when they couldn’t help being more burden — Another mouth to feed! Where’s he gonna sleep? — than blessing. And I began to understand how a person could love his or her children and at the same time deeply resent them… But I have known many whose lives were formed — or deformed, perhaps I should say — by having been made to feel guilty for all the trouble they caused by coming into the world.

[…]

Once, when I was six or seven, walking with my mother down a certain mean Brooklyn street, we passed a group of surly-looking boys gathered on a stoop. As my mother quickened her steps, dragging me along, one of the boys threw something at me: the wooden stick from an ice-cream pop he’d just finished eating . I tugged my mother’s hand. “Mommy, that boy hit me!” Marching on, staring grimly ahead, she addressed me in a voice that was like a slap: “And what do you think I can do about it?” At which a certain knowledge sank into my bones, and with that knowledge a fear that would never wholly leave me.

[…]

As a child, I never felt safe. Every single day of my entire childhood I lived in fear that something bad was going to happen to me. I live like that still. And so the big question: How could a person who lived like that ever make a child feel safe? The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that there was nothing harder to accomplish in life than being a good parent. The store of patience and wisdom and kindness that seemed to be required was truly daunting; I wasn’t sure that I myself possessed even the minimum to prevent catastrophe.

As a counterpoint to her early and enduring doubt as to what kind of parent she’d make, Nunez grew up with absolute clarity and certainty about being a writer. This she discusses in a way that makes clear the anthology’s greatest feat: its testament to what we intuitively understand but refuse to accept — that many of those willingly childless were themselves the children of unwilling (and thus unloving, unpresent, unskilled) parents; that parenting is a tradeoff with creative and intellectual achievement. Nunez writes:

Although in my youthful, naive way I gravely underestimated how difficult such a life would be, I stuck to it, and I was steadfast in not letting other things distract me. No young woman aspiring to a literary career could ignore the fact that the women writers of highest achievement, women like Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, did not have children… Doris Lessing declared herself “not the best person” to raise the two young children she left behind when she moved from southern Africa to London to pursue her career. Why? “There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children.”

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for 'The Juniper Tree: And Other Tales from Grimm.' Click image for more.

To be fair, this is perhaps a matter more selectively anecdotal than representative of empirical evidence — one imagines, for instance, Zadie Smith reading this as she cradles her second baby and raises an intelligent and unbored eyebrow.

Still, Nunez points to Sylvia Plath as a woman who had wanted it all with blazing ambition — the immortality of a creative genius, but also the feminine ideal of the family — only to crash and burn in the grip of deadly mental illness. (The direction of causality is left wanting: Did the desire to have it all, without resigning to the fact of any tradeoff, precipitate Plath’s mental illness, or was the desire itself a symptom of her mental illness? I err on the side of the latter, and Nunez seems to suggest the former.) Nunez returns to her own reality:

That there could be something in the world that a woman could want more than children has been viewed as unacceptable. Things may be marginally different now, but, even if there is something she wants more than children, that is no reason for a woman to remain childless. Any normal woman, it is understood, wants — and should want — both.

A graduate student of mine tells me, with some heat, “I do plan to have kids one day, but I certainly hope they won’t be the most important thing in my life!”

Am I wrong to think that perhaps, if this is how she feels and continues to feel, she ought at least to consider not having kids?

I can hear her respond, with equal heat, “But that’s not fair. You wouldn’t say that to a man.”

In any case, she will learn soon enough that her honesty isn’t likely to be met with understanding. When Michelle Obama (to name just one prominent, accomplished woman) announces, “I’m a mother first,” she is of course saying what most people want to hear. (It is inconceivable that any woman running for public office today could get away with explaining that although she loves her children dearly, for her, being a leader comes first. President Obama has often been heard to say, meaningfully, “I am a father.” No one leans in expecting to hear first.)

Illustration by Hilary Knight from 'When I Have a Little Girl / When I Have a Little Boy' by Charlotte Zolotow. Click image for more.

Nunez illustrates the social judgment to which a woman’s priorities are inevitably subjected with Nobel-winning writer Alice Munro’s uncompromisingly candid Paris Review interview:

“I think I married to be able to write, to settle down and give my attention back to the important thing. Sometimes now when I look back at those early years I think, ‘This was a hard-hearted young woman.’” Munro confesses to not having been there for her small children and knowing that they suffered for it. “When my oldest daughter was about two, she’d come to where I was sitting at the typewriter, and I would bat her away with one hand and type with the other.… This was bad because it made her the adversary to what was most important to me.”

Back to the important thing. What was most important to me. Make no mistake, this was a writer first.

[…]

Here’s my question: Is there any way for a woman in the young Munro’s position to escape being judged — by herself, by the world — as hard-hearted?

It’s worth wondering, perhaps, how Nunez’s question may have been shaped by her relationship with the son of one of the greatest writers of all time — Susan Sontag — who seems to have raised her child with an attitude similar to Munro’s. It’s hard to imagine that being in intimate proximity to this complex dynamic of love and resentment, and witness its enduring aftershocks, wouldn’t color one’s view of the parenthood-versus-writing tradeoff, to say nothing of seeding the baseline assumption that it is a tradeoff only the nuances — not the existence — of which are to be debated.

But for Nunez, the choice was ultimately not so much about sparing herself the resentment toward a child that distracts from her literary career as about sparing a child the lifelong trauma of being resented as a distraction — a decision based on compassionate realism rather than selfish idealism. It is, essentially, a question of deciding for oneself — as Munro did — what “the most important thing” is:

Can I be the kind of mother I would have wanted to have? Just give them lots and lots of love — oh, this I believed I could do. But I also believed that writing had saved my life and that if I could not write, I would die. And so long as this was true, and so long as writing continued to be the enormously difficult thing it has always been for me, I didn’t think I could be a real mother. Not the kind I would have wanted for my child. The kind to whom he or she was the most important thing, object of that unconditional love for which I had desperately yearned as a child myself and the want of which I have never gotten over. “Children detect things like that,” acknowledged Munro.

[…]

To forgo motherhood was the right thing to do. But whether it was a choice I made or one that was made for me is perhaps another question.

[…]

But let me say this: the idea of having it all has always been foreign to me. I grew up believing that if you worked incredibly hard and were incredibly lucky, you might get to have one dream in life come true. Going for everything was a dangerous, distracting fantasy. I believe I have been incredibly lucky.

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is a nuanced and necessary read in its totality. Complement it with some thoughts on another socially frowned-upon personal choice — that of being alone — then revisit Meghan Daum on why we romanticize our own imperfect younger selves.

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