Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

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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05 MAY, 2015

Kierkegaard on Popular Opinion, the Petty Jealousies of Criticism, and the Only Cure for Embitterment in Creative Work

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“I need the enchantment of creative work to help me forget life’s mean pettinesses.”

“Publicity in general is a very destructive thing, for any artist,” Susan Sontag admonished in 1969. More than a century earlier, another sage of the ages and one of Sontag’s greatest influences made the same point in far less ambiguous terms in The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (public library) — the same fantastic volume that gave us the Danish philosopher’s prescient insights on why haters hate and why we conform to peer pressure.

Writing in 1843, long before our present age of relentless self-promotion and its tyranny of the “personal brand,” Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) laments:

Really, an author’s lot has gradually deteriorated to be the most wretched state of all. An author ordinarily must present himself … hat in hand, bowing and cringing, recommending himself with fine letters of introduction. How stupid: one who writes must understand that about which he writes better than he who reads; otherwise he would not write.

Or one must manage to become a shrewd little pocket-lawyer proficient at gulling the public. — That I will not do, no I won’t; no I won’t — no, the Devil take the whole caboodle. I write the way I want to, and that’s the way it’s going to be; the rest can do what they like, they can stop buying, stop reading, stop reviewing, etc.

Reviewers, in fact, had a special place in Kierkegaard’s heart — if he viewed self-appointed critics with pity, he reserved only the utmost contempt for the professional kind:

I loathe a literary critic as much as an ambulant barber-journeyman who runs after me with his shaving-bowl, which he uses for the beards of all his clients, and then dabs my face all over with his wet fingers.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from 'Enormous Smallness' by Mathhew Burgess a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

But the greatest threat to the written word, Kierkegaard believed, were writers themselves. One can only imagine what he would have made of today’s listicles and content-farmed mediocrity as he bemoans the business of letters:

In our day and age book-writing has become so poor, and people write about matters which they have never given any real thought, let alone experienced.

[…]

Everyone today can write a fairly decent article about all and everything; but no one can or will bear the strenuous work of following through a single solitary thought into the most tenuous logical ramifications. Instead, writing trivia is particularly appreciated today, and whoever writes a big book almost invites ridicule. In former days people read big books, and if they did read pamphlets or periodicals they did not quite like to admit it. Now everyone feels duty bound to read what is printed in a periodical or a pamphlet, but is ashamed to have read a big book through to the end, and he fears he may be considered weak in the head.

He arrives at the only logical conclusion, resolving:

I therefore have decided to read only the writings of men who have been executed or have risked their lives in some way.

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

In another diary entry from 1846, Kierkegaard finds himself once again appalled by the business of literature and returns to the subject with renewed dismay:

Today the fees even for authors of repute are very small, whereas the tips being dropped in the hats of literary hacks are very considerable. The more contemptible a man of letters is today, the more money he earns.

And yet for Kierkegaard — as for anyone as deeply bestirred by the commercial assault on the written word — the only antidote to this deplorable commodification of creativity is the “spiritual electricity” of creative work itself. In an other entry from 1846, he writes:

I need the enchantment of creative work to help me forget life’s mean pettinesses.

A year later, he revisits this insight with rekindled passion:

Only when I write do I feel well. Then I forget all of life’s vexations, all its sufferings, then I am wrapped in though and am happy. If I stop for a few days, right away I become ill, overwhelmed and troubled; my head feels heavy and burdened.

[…]

It is hard and depressing that as a result of all this toil one becomes the butt of the craven jealousy of the aristocracy and of the mockery of the populace! … [But] being an author … is not self-chosen; it is concomitant with everything in my individuality and its deepest urge.

The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard remains a spectacular read, brimming with the Danish philosopher’s enduring ideas on writing, melancholy, anxiety, spirituality, science, and the creative experience. Complement it with Kierkegaard on the power of the minority, the benefits of boredom, and our greatest source of unhappiness.

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04 MAY, 2015

Virginia Woolf on the Elasticity of Time

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“An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length.”

Long before psychologists had any insight into our warped perception of time — for instance, why it slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets twisted when we vacation — or understood how our mental time travel made us human, another great investigator of the human psyche captured the extraordinary elasticity of time not in science but in art.

In Orlando: A Biography (public library) — her subversive 1928 masterwork, regarded as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” which also gave us her insight into the dance of self-doubt in creative workVirginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) writes:

Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.

Woolf was acutely and intimately conscious of this strange elasticity of time — something she contemplated not only in her novels, for the public eyes, but also in the privacy of her diary, which she considered creatively essential. Nearly a decade before the publication of Orlando, in March of 1919, 37-year-old Woolf issues a meta-lament:

Life piles up so fast that I have no time to write out the equally fast rising mound of reflections.

In a rather despondent entry from the following October, Woolf considers how time both gives shape to existence and warps it — it is against the firmness of time, after all, that we measure our feats and infirmities. She writes:

I want to appear a success even to myself. Yet I don’t get to the bottom of it. It’s having no children, living away from friends, failing to write well, spending too much on food, growing old. I think too much of whys and wherefores; too much of myself. I don’t like time to flap round me. Well then, work.

In yet another entry from the day of her younger brother Adrian’s fifty-second birthday — don’t birthdays stir our indignation at time more potently than anything? — fifty-three-year-old Woolf’s unease with time intensifies even further:

I wonder why time is always allowed to harry one.

Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary (public library) is a timelessly rewarding read in its totality. Sample it further with her reflections on the consolations of aging and the creative benefits of keeping a diary, then complement this particular tussle with the story of how Galileo forever changed our relationship with time, the visual history of humanity’s quest to map time, and Thomas Mann on time and the soul of existence.

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23 APRIL, 2015

Thoreau on Libraries and His Ideal Sanctuary for Books

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

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

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

Spent the day in Cambridge Library.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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