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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

16 OCTOBER, 2014

A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated by Oscar Wilde

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“Public opinion exists only where there are no ideas.”

Oscar Wilde (October 16, 1854–November 30, 1900) was not only the twentieth century’s first pop-culture celebrity, but also arguably the most tragic one — at the height of his literary celebrity, his strong opinions and the socially unacceptable romance behind his exquisite love letters led to a protracted series of trials, the last of which landed Wilde in prison to serve two years of “hard labor” for charges of libel and “gross indecency.”

During the trials, Defense Attorney Edward Carson cross-examined 41-year-old Wilde (who, in making a characteristically Wildean complete mockery of the testimony, stated that he was 39 but had “no wish to pose as being young”) about two of his most controversial public texts, particularly a short collection of maxims and aphorisms titled “A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated” — the origin of the famous Wilde remark that Steven Pinker quoted in his excellent modern guide to elegant writing. The piece was first published anonymously in the November 17, 1894, issue of the Saturday Review and eventually included in the posthumous tome The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Stories, Plays, Poems & Essays (public library).

The aphorisms in the piece, while decidedly witty, are not merely so — from behind the veneer of satirical pomp, they also shine a wise sidewise gleam on such immutable issues as the tyranny of public opinion, why friendship eclipses romantic love, the usefulness of “useless” knowledge, and the gift of imperfection.

A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated

Education is an admirable thing. But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.

Public opinion exists only where there are no ideas.

The English are always degrading truths into facts. When a truth becomes a fact it loses all its intellectual value.

It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information.

The only link between Literature and Drama left to us in England at the present moment is the bill of the play.

In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.

Most women are so artificial that they have no sense of Art. Most men are so natural that they have no sense of Beauty.

Friendship is far more tragic than love. It lasts longer.

What is abnormal in Life stands in normal relations to Art. It is the only thing in Life that stands in normal relations to Art.

A subject that is beautiful in itself gives no suggestion to the artist. It lacks imperfection.

The only thing that the artist cannot see is the obvious. The only thing that the public can see is the obvious. The result is the Criticism of the Journalist.

Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious.

To be really medieval one should have no body. To be really modern one should have no soul. To be really Greek one should have no clothes.

Dandyism is the assertion of the absolute modernity of Beauty.

The only thing that can console one for being poor is extravagance. The only thing that can console one for being rich is economy.

One should never listen. To listen is a sign of indifference to one’s hearers.

Even the disciple has his uses. He stands behind one’s throne, and at the moment of one’s triumph whispers in one’s ear that, after all, one is immortal.

The criminal classes are so close to us that even the policemen can see them. They are so far away from us that only the poet can understand them.

Those whom the gods love grow young.

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Stories, Plays, Poems & Essays remains the most comprehensive selection of Wilde’s wit and wisdom ever published or publishable. Complement it with Wilde’s spectacular love letters to Sir Alfred “Bosie” Taylor, undoubtedly among history’s most enchanting queer love letters.

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16 OCTOBER, 2014

The History Manifesto: How to Eradicate the Epidemic of Short-Termism and Harness Our Past in Creating a Flourishing Future

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A beautiful case for why our flourishing requires that we move from pursuing value to cultivating values.

I spend a significant amount of time on ideas at the intersection of the timeless and the timely, something I find to be of growing urgency in a culture such as ours, where the tyrannical reverse-chronology of newsfeeds implies that the latest, being literally at the top, is also of the greatest importance and meaning. We often lump the thinkers of the past under the grab-bag term “history” — a term that has come to be increasingly dismissive as irrelevant amid our novelty-fetishism. And yet some of humanity’s greatest thinkers, who have been dead for decades or centuries or millennia, have explored with remarkable prescience and insight issues of intense importance today — be it Seneca on busyness two thousand years before our present cult of productivity or Susan Sontag on the dynamics of visual culture online decades before the modern social web existed or Kierkegaard on the psychology of bullying and cybertrolling in 1847 or Tolstoy and Gandhi on the truth of the human spirit. Asking the eternal questions — about happiness, about justice, about how to live a meaningful life — is an immutable part of the human experience. To presume that we and we alone, perched atop our tiny slice of history, have the most valid answers is to cheat ourselves of the rich and ennobling record of human experience upon which our civilization is founded.

That’s precisely what Brown University history professor Jo Guldi and Harvard historian David Armitage explore in The History Manifesto (public library) — a beautifully argued case for why we need to eradicate the present epidemic of short-termism, a disease that “has many practitioners but few defenders,” and shift to long-view narratives that ensure not only the survival but also the creative, intellectual, political, environmental, and spiritual flourishing of our civilization. (Although the manifesto may celebrate the value of the past, it isn’t beholden to yesteryear’s baggage — the book is also available as a free digital text under a Creative Commons license.)

Guldi and Armitage open unambiguously:

A specter is haunting our time: the specter of the short term.

We live in a moment of accelerating crisis that is characterized by the shortage of long-term thinking… Almost every aspect of human life is plotted and judged, packaged and paid for, on time-scales of a few months or years. There are few opportunities to shake those projects loose from their short-term moorings. It can hardly seem worthwhile to raise questions of the long term at all.

'The Histomap' by John Sparks (1931) from 'Cartographies of Time.' Click image for details.

They cite legendary futurist Steward Brand’s founding statement for The Long Now Foundation, of which I am a proud supporter:

Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed — some mechanism or myth that encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where “the long term” is measured at least in centuries.

A proper relationship with the past, Guldi and Armitage argue, empowers the essential elasticity of time that is so central to free will and to our ability to make sound decisions, in business and in life:

Nimble people, whether activists or entrepreneurs … depend on an instinctual sense of change from past to present to future as they navigate through their day-to-day activities… Regardless of age or security of income, we are all in the business of making sense of a changing world. In all cases, understanding the nexus of past and future is crucial to acting upon what comes next.

Educational institutions, they argue, are both uniquely situated as bastions of long-term thinking and particularly vulnerable to the epidemic of short-termism. Nalanda University in India, founded as a Buddhist institution more than 1,500 years ago, may still be a hearth of learning, but it also must exist in a culture where the average lifespan of a modern corporation is a mere 75 years and the vast majority of startups don’t survive past their fifth year. That universities are increasingly subjected to the expectations of businesses, Guldi and Armitage suggest, is of enormous cultural peril:

Universities … are the carriers of traditions, the guardians of deep knowledge. They should be the centers of innovation where research takes place without regard to profit or immediate application.

[...]

The peculiar capacity of the university to foster disinterested inquiries into the long term may be as endangered as long-term thinking itself… As the medieval university mutated into the modern research university, and as private foundations become subject to public control and funding, the goals of the humanities were increasingly tested and contested. For at least the last century, wherever the humanities have been taught or studied there has been debate about their “relevance” and their “value.” Crucial to the defense of the humanities has been their mission to transmit questions about value — and to question values — over hundreds, even thousands, of years. Any search for antidotes to short-termism must begin with them.

'Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences' by Chrétien Frederic (1780) from 'The Book of Trees.' Click image for details.

In the third chapter, titled “The Proliferation of Mythology,” Guldi and Armitage point to one particularly perilous aspect of our cultural narrative — that of reductionist and misleading myths. (The great Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner memorably captured the power of myth in 1962, calling it “at once an external reality and the resonance of the internal vicissitudes of man” and a “ready-made means of externalizing human plight.”) The authors write:

The abundance of false stories in our time is one of the major reasons that we are in a crisis of short-term thinking. In an era of simplistic solutions to problems with rising sea-levels, governance, or inequality, few people can talk authoritatively about the big picture. The proliferation of reductionist stories about the past has a history, like anything else. Nightmare scenarios and fundamentalist mythologies about climate, governance, and inequality began to proliferate around the same time that historians began to retreat to shorter and shorter time scales.

As the Short Past came to dictate conversations about history, longue-durée understanding began to look, by contrast, like an antique mode of story-telling, something performed only by patriarchs or amateurs, unsuited to a modern student adept at using evidence or argument. This led to the charge that social history had abandoned all interest in politics, power, and ideology, leading its practitioners instead to “sit somewhere in the stratosphere, unrooted in reality.” Increasingly, the Short Past was defined as not only one way to look at history, but the only way to look at history.

'A New Chart of History' by Joseph Priestley (1769) from '100 Diagrams that Changed the World.' Click image for details.

Particularly since the 1970s, Guldi and Armitage argue, such short-termism has resulted in nothing short of a moral crisis, blinding us to alternative futures and producing “habits of microscopic attention that culminated in a sense of practical irrelevance” and that caused the mutual abandonment of the humanities (which are, after all, what makes us human) and the public.

As somebody particularly drawn to mid-twentieth-century thinkers like Susan Sontag, Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, and Alan Watts, I find particularly pause-giving Guldi and Armitage’s observation that during that period, historians and intellectuals played an active role in the public sphere — something that undoubtedly not only benefited public life, but also enriched these thinkers’ ideas to make them precisely as enduring as they are. Today, the notion of a “public intellectual” is, outside of a small coterie, practically paradoxical. Our idols are not scholars and people who think for a living but performers and entrepreneurs, people who do for a living, and do at a rapid pace, with productive immediacy. No wonder short-termism is the monoculture of our time.

Guldi and Armitage advocate for a new breed of historians and history-minded thinkers who are concerned with “restoring the tight-woven cloak of stories that helps to shelter a culture with a sophisticated understanding of its past” and who use the past to illuminate the future and speak truth to present power:

The new historians of the longue durée should be inspired to use history to criticize the institutions around us and to return history to its mission as a critical social science. History can provide the basis for a rejection of anachronisms founded on deference to longevity alone. Thinking with history — but only with long stretches of that history — may help us to choose which institutions to bury as dead and which we might want to keep alive.

[...]

History, with its rich, material understanding of human experience and institutions and its apprehension of multiple causality, is reentering the arena of long-term discussions of time where evolutionary biologists, archaeologists, climate scientists, and economists have long been the only protagonists. Today, we desperately need an arbiter for these mythological histories, capable of casting out prejudice, reestablishing consensus about the actual boundaries of the possible, and in so doing opening up a wider future and destiny for modern civilizations. History as a discipline can be that referee.

A visual history of Nobel Prizes and laureates. Click image for details.

In the final section, Guldi and Armitage capture precisely what is at stake and why the role of history in shaping the future is so full of promise and possibility:

Responding to the call for a public future demands some rethinking the way we look at the past… Answering the call for a public future also means writing and talking about the past and the future in public, in such a way that ideas can be easily shared.

They outline the three things essential for writing such future-forward history:

  1. A need for new narratives capable of being read, understood, and engaged by non-experts
  2. An emphasis on visualization and digital tools
  3. A fusion between the big and the small, the “micro” and the “macro,” that harnesses the best of archival work on the one hand and big-picture work about issues of common concern on the other

Seven decades after Vannevar Bush presaged the rise of “a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record,” Guldi and Armitage write:

History’s relationship with the public future lies in developing a longue-durée contextual background against which archival information, events, and sources can be interpreted… [This] requires the services of scholars trained in looking at the past, who can explain where things came from, who can examine the precise evidence of the Short Past and the broader picture of big data and the longue durée, and who are dedicated to serve the public through responsible thinking about the nexus of past, present, and future.

Illustration from the graphic biography of Karl Marx. Click image for details.

But rather than nihilistic criticism of contemporary culture, the book is above all a clarion call for taking action, for our era is uniquely positioned to cultivate a sound and nourishing relationship with the past:

An era defined by a crisis of short-termism may be a particularly good time to start rethinking attitudes towards the past. Many histories have been written with the express purpose of offering a window into the future, and some — especially long-term histories of capitalism and the environment — are very clear about what they offer.

This, Guldi and Armitage argue, would require the dedication of people “unafraid of generating and circulating digestible narratives” — for, lest we forget, the disseminators of ideas are the unsung heroes of innovation and progress — who would respond to “a public need to make sense of our common past.” These people, they point out, need not be professional historians — we ought to, as legendary humanist John Franklin Jameson put it in 1912, think of history “not as the property of a small guild of professional colleagues, but as the rightful heritage of millions.”

The History Manifesto is excellent and urgently necessary in its totality. Complement it with Judith Butler’s fantastic commencement address on the value of the humanities.

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15 OCTOBER, 2014

Friedrich Nietzsche on Why a Fulfilling Life Requires Embracing Rather than Running from Difficulty

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A century and a half before our modern fetishism of failure, a seminal philosophical case for its value.

German philosopher, poet, composer, and writer Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) is among humanity’s most enduring, influential, and oft-cited minds — and he seemed remarkably confident that he would end up that way. Nietzsche famously called the populace of philosophers “cabbage-heads,” lamenting: “It is my fate to have to be the first decent human being. I have a terrible fear that I shall one day be pronounced holy.” In one letter, he considered the prospect of posterity enjoying his work: “It seems to me that to take a book of mine into his hands is one of the rarest distinctions that anyone can confer upon himself. I even assume that he removes his shoes when he does so — not to speak of boots.”

A century and a half later, Nietzsche’s healthy ego has proven largely right — for a surprising and surprisingly modern reason: the assurance he offers that life’s greatest rewards spring from our brush with adversity. More than a century before our present celebration of “the gift of failure” and our fetishism of failure as a conduit to fearlessness, Nietzsche extolled these values with equal parts pomp and perspicuity.

In one particularly emblematic specimen from his many aphorisms, penned in 1887 and published in the posthumous selection from his notebooks, The Will to Power (public library), Nietzsche writes under the heading “Types of my disciples”:

To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures.

(Half a century later, Willa Cather echoed this sentiment poignantly in a troubled letter to her brother: “The test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring.”)

With his signature blend of wit and wisdom, Alain de Botton — who contemplates such subjects as the psychological functions of art and what literature does for the soul — writes in the altogether wonderful The Consolations of Philosophy (public library):

Alone among the cabbage-heads, Nietzsche had realized that difficulties of every sort were to be welcomed by those seeking fulfillment.

Not only that, but Nietzsche also believed that hardship and joy operated in a kind of osmotic relationship — diminishing one would diminish the other — or, as Anaïs Nin memorably put it, “great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.” In The Gay Science (public library), his treatise on poetry where his famous “God is dead” proclamation was coined, he wrote:

What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to “jubilate up to the heavens” would also have to be prepared for “depression unto death”?

[...]

You have the choice: either as little displeasure as possible, painlessness in brief … or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of an abundance of subtle pleasures and joys that have rarely been relished yet? If you decide for the former and desire to diminish and lower the level of human pain, you also have to diminish and lower the level of their capacity for joy.

He was convinced that the most notable human lives reflected this osmosis:

Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favorable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.

De Botton distills Nietzsche’s convictions and their enduring legacy:

The most fulfilling human projects appeared inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awkwardly close to those of our greatest pains…

Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfillment.

Nietzsche was striving to correct the belief that fulfillment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects, for it leads us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared for the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable.

(Or, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it in his atrociously, delightfully ungrammatical proclamation, “Nothing any good isn’t hard.”)

Nietzsche arrived at this ideas the roundabout way. As a young man, he was heavily influenced by Schopenhauer. At the age of twenty-one, he chanced upon Schopenhauer’s masterwork The World as Will and Representation and later recounted this seminal life turn:

I took it in my hand as something totally unfamiliar and turned the pages. I do not know which demon was whispering to me: ‘Take this book home.’ In any case, it happened, which was contrary to my custom of otherwise never rushing into buying a book. Back at the house I threw myself into the corner of a sofa with my new treasure, and began to let that dynamic, dismal genius work on me. Each line cried out with renunciation, negation, resignation. I was looking into a mirror that reflected the world, life and my own mind with hideous magnificence.

And isn’t that what the greatest books do for us, why we read and write at all? But Nietzsche eventually came to disagree with Schopenhauer’s defeatism and slowly blossomed into his own ideas on the value of difficulty. In an 1876 letter to Cosima Wagner — the second wife of the famed composer Richard Wagner, whom Nietzsche had befriended — he professed, more than a decade after encountering Schopenhauer:

Would you be amazed if I confess something that has gradually come about, but which has more or less suddenly entered my consciousness: a disagreement with Schopenhauer’s teaching? On virtually all general propositions I am not on his side.

This turning point is how Nietzsche arrived at the conviction that hardship is the springboard for happiness and fulfillment. De Botton captures this beautifully:

Because fulfillment is an illusion, the wise must devote themselves to avoiding pain rather than seeking pleasure, living quietly, as Schopenhauer counseled, ‘in a small fireproof room’ — advice that now struck Nietzsche as both timid and untrue, a perverse attempt to dwell, as he was to put it pejoratively several years later, ‘hidden in forests like shy deer.’ Fulfillment was to be reached not by avoiding pain, but by recognizing its role as a natural, inevitable step on the way to reaching anything good.

And this, perhaps, is the reason why nihilism in general, and Nietzsche in particular, has had a recent resurgence in pop culture — the subject of a fantastic recent Radiolab episode. The wise and wonderful Jad Abumrad elegantly captures the allure of such teachings:

All this pop-nihilism around us is not about tearing down power structures or embracing nothingness — it’s just, “Look at me! Look how brave I am!”

Quoting Nietzsche, in other words, is a way for us to signal others that we’re unafraid, that difficulty won’t break us, that adversity will only assure us.

And perhaps there is nothing wrong with that. After all, Viktor Frankl was the opposite of a nihilist, and yet we flock to him for the same reason — to be assured, to be consoled, to feel like we can endure.

The Will to Power remains indispensable and The Consolations of Philosophy is excellent in its totality. Complement them with a lighter serving of Nietzsche — his ten rules for writers, penned in a love letter.

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