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Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

23 JANUARY, 2015

Hans Christian Andersen’s Daily Routine

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From coffee time to bedtime, via ample walks and a necessary stretch of royal tedium.

I have a longstanding fascination with the daily routines of writers — most recently, those of C.S. Lewis, Charles Bukowski, and Anne Truitt — which is, of course, underpinned by an interest in the psychology of the ideal daily routine.

From The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen (public library) — the same forgotten gem that gave us Andersen’s little-known and lovely sketches and his account of climbing Vesuvius during an eruption — comes Andersen’s outline of what his days were like in December of 1845, when he was visiting with the King and Queen of Denmark on their formal invitation. By that point, having already revolutionized storytelling, Andersen was practically royalty himself — a celebrity revered by commonfolk all over Europe and welcomed in the court of nearly every monarch. “Europe’s most famous and noble personalities fondly surround me, meet with me as kindred spirit,” he marveled in the diary just a couple of years earlier, but by 1845 he had come to accept his fame as fact.

Portrait of Hans Christian Andersen by Thora Hallager, Denmark's first professional female photographer

Shortly before Christmas that year, while staying at the royal couple’s castle, he writes:

How my day goes: up at 8 o’clock and drink coffee; putter around and write until 10 o’clock; then walk up along the long, tree-lined drive and out the gate to the path through the field to Hollufgaard; look at the strait and wander back; read, sew, put things in order; and lunch at 12 o’clock with a glass of port. Then a short rest and after that, as before, an hour’s walk. It is the same route, and I take a little farther out in the other direction. Read and write until around 4 o’clock, get dressed; and dinner is from 4:00 to 5:00.

Wall clock design by Debbie Millman. Click image for more.

In a passage that calls to mind Bertrand Russell’s point about the importance of developing a capacity for boredom, Andersen goes on to describe “the most boring period, until 8 o’clock.” One invariably wonders how he might have filled that time if he lived in our era of on-demand distraction, and how that might have impacted his creative legacy. He bemoans that tedious stretch of time:

I sit in my room; don’t want to do anything, not to sleep either. One of the servants is playing a flute badly, practicing a piece… The wind is whistling outside; the fire in the tile stove is rumbling; the moon is shining in… Downstairs I conduct the entire conversation from 8 until 10 o’clock… I look at the clock; it doesn’t seem to be running at all; and when it finally does strike, each stroke falls as if marking time to a funeral march. — At 10 o’clock, upstairs; and half an hour later, in bed.

Illustrations for Andersen's fairy tales by Japanese artist Takeo Takei. Click image for more.

The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen is a wonderful read in its entirety, full of the legendary storyteller’s intimate reflections on writing, criticism, travel, mental health, love, family, and more. Complement it with the best illustrations from 150 years of his tales, then revisit celebrated writers’ ideas on the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

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13 JANUARY, 2015

How to Master the Vital Balance of Freedom and Restraint: Young André Gide’s Rules of Conduct

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“One should want only one thing and want it constantly. Then one is sure of getting it.”

French author André Gide (November 22, 1869–February 19, 1951) is one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century — in no small part, paradoxically, because he adamantly believed that a great writer must always swim against the current of his era. He dedicated his life to the problem of personal freedom and became a staunch champion of the oppressed. His work inspired legal reform in the Congo and helped loosen the grip of colonialism, championed prison reform and more humane conditions for the incarcerated, and laid the philosophical foundation for marriage equality a century before it became a legal reality. The tradeoff for Gide’s devotion to speaking truth to power was that he was systematically snubbed by the literary establishment and deprived of award nominations. It wasn’t until shortly before his death that the Swedish Academy granted him the Nobel Prize in Literature for his “fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight,” and even then 78-year-old Gide proudly declared to a journalist that if the had been asked to recant any of his subversive work in order to qualify for the prestigious accolade, he would have gladly “bade farewell to the Nobel Prize.”

But nowhere does this “fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight” reveal itself with more crystalline precision than in Gide’s six decades as a dedicated diarist with an intense inward gaze exquisitely reflective of the notion that “the more intimate you are willing to be about the details of your own life, the more universal you are”; nowhere does Gide’s deepest personhood and most universal insight on the human experience come more fully and dimensionally alive than in The Journals of André Gide (public library), of which young Susan Sontag found “such perfect intellectual communion” as she wrote in her own journal: “I finished reading this at 2:30 a.m. of the same day I acquired it — I should have read it much more slowly and I must re-read it many times.” Sontag was not alone — it is no more possible to put down Gide’s journal than it is to finish it without feeling wholly transformed.

In one of the earliest entries in the journal, from November of 1890, the 21-year-old author grapples with what would become the defining quest of his life as a thinker and a writer — the pursuit of a moral framework that combines freedom and restraint. Gide itemizes his aspiration toward proper conduct:

I am still clumsy; I should aim to be clumsy only when I wish to be. I must learn to keep silent… I must learn to take myself seriously; and not to hold any smug opinion of myself. To have more mobile eyes and a less mobile face. To keep a straight face when I make a joke. Not to applaud every joke made by others. Not to show the same colorless geniality toward everyone. To disconcert at the right moment by keeping a poker face. Especially never to praise two people in the same way, but rather to keep toward each individual a distinct manner from which I would never deviate without intending to.

Under the heading “RULE OF CONDUCT,” Gide goes on to outline his self-imposed moral mandates:

First point: Necessity for a rule.

2. Morals consist in establishing a hierarchy among things and in using the lesser to obtain the greater. This is the ideal strategy.

3. Never lose sight of the end. Never prefer the means.

4. Look upon oneself as a means; hence never prefer oneself as the chosen end, to the work.

(At this point a blank space in which the question arises as to the choice of the work, and the free choice of that work. To manifest. And yet… Can one choose?)

He adds a further admonition against this focus on the self as a means:

Thinking of one’s salvation: egotism.

The hero must not even think of his salvation. He has voluntarily and fatally consecrated himself, unto damnation, for the sake of others; in order to manifest.

A few months later, in the spring of 1891, he revisits the question of discipline in manifesting the end via the means:

One should want only one thing and want it constantly. Then one is sure of getting it. But I desire everything and consequently get nothing. Each time I discover, and too late, that one thing had come to me while I was running after another:

He then resolves:

No compromise (either ethical or artistic). Perhaps it is very dangerous for me to see other people; I always have too great a desire to please; perhaps I need solitude… (But there should not be any “perhaps” in matters of conduct. There’s no use creating question marks. Answer everything in advance. What a ridiculous undertaking! How rash!)

That he should issue this self-admonition in a parenthetical remark — the ultimate “perhaps” of punctuation — speaks to Gide’s willingness to complicate and contradict his thought, which is the greatest gift of his diary as a timeless trove of psychological insight and creative assurance.

Complement the endlessly rewarding The Journals of André Gide with some of history’s greatest writers, including Gide himself, on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, then revisit these 15 self-refinement aspirations from some of humanity’s greatest minds.

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05 JANUARY, 2015

Rereading as Rebirth: Young Susan Sontag on Personal Growth, the Pleasures of Revisiting Beloved Books, and Her Rereading List

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“Stop! I cannot think this fast! Or rather I cannot grow this fast!”

Recently, in writing about astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s answer when asked what books “every intelligent person on the planet should read,” I lamented in a semi-aside the complete lack of female voices among his selections and the general lack of female cultural icons’ public reading lists in our culture, noting that Susan Sontag is arguably the only exception, as her published diaries are essentially one lifelong reading list. But in addition to being perhaps the twentieth century’s most voracious reader, often spending eight to ten hours a day reading by her own estimate, Sontag was also a great advocate and practitioner of another infinitely rewarding yet increasingly lost art: rereading.

“Let me note all the sickening waste of today, that I shall not be easy with myself and compromise my tomorrows,” resolves 15-year-old Sontag in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library) — that spectacular collection of diary entries, which also gave us young Sontag on art, marriage, the four people a great writer must be, and her duties for being a twenty-something. A week after her indignation at the “sickening waste” of that day, on which she had “pretended to enjoy a Technicolor blood-and-thunder movie,” Sontag — who had a penchant for worthy resolutions — turns to the journals of André Gide for redemption and extols the rewards of rereading.

Susan Sontag

Photograph: New York Times Co. archive / Getty Images; courtesy of HBO Documentary Films / Regarding Susan Sontag

In an entry from September of 1948, she writes:

I finished reading this at 2:30 a.m. of the same day I acquired it —

I should have read it much more slowly and I must re-read it many times — Gide and I have attained such perfect intellectual communion that I experience the appropriate labor pains for every thought he gives birth to! Thus I do not think: “How marvelously lucid this is!” — but: “Stop! I cannot think this fast! Or rather I cannot grow this fast!”

For, I am not only reading this book, but creating it myself, and this unique and enormous experience has purged my mind of much of the confusion and sterility that has clogged it all these horrible months.

A few months later, she once again waxes rapturous about rereading:

I was very moved by the Goethe, although I think I’m far from understanding it — the [Christopher] Marlowe [play Doctor Faustus] is just about mine though — for I’ve put a good deal of time into it, re-reading it several times, and declaiming many of the passages aloud again and again. Faustus’ final soliloquy I have read aloud a dozen times in the past week. It is incomparable…

Somewhere, in an earlier notebook, I confessed a disappointment with the Mann [Doctor] Faustus … This was a uniquely undisguised evidence of the quality of my critical sensibility! The work is a great and satisfying one, which I’ll have to read many times before I can possess it…

I’m re-reading pieces of things that have always been important to me, and am amazed at my evaluations.

After remarking that she is also rereading Dante “with undiminished pleasure” and T.S. Eliot, “of course,” Sontag adds a note of enthusiastic praise for the virtues of reading out loud:

It is so good to read aloud.

In a testament to one of Italo Calvino’s 14 definitions of a classic“The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…,’ never ‘I’m reading…'” — here are a few of Sontag’s favorite rereads, as recorded in her journal:

In addition to her rereading, Reborn offers a magnificent record of Sontag’s voracious reading, as does the second installment of her published diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 — an altogether superb volume brimming with such gems as Sontag on love, sex, and her radical vision for remixing education.

Complement with Andy Miller on the slippery question of what makes a great book, then revisit Sontag on why lists appeal to us.

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26 NOVEMBER, 2014

Kierkegaard on the Individual vs. the Crowd, Why We Conform, and the Power of the Minority

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“Truth always rests with the minority … because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion.”

“When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her spectacular meditation on happiness and conformity, “you surrender your own integrity [and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.” And yet conformity is not only a survival strategy for us but also something institutionally indoctrinated in our culture.

A century earlier, the great Danish writer and thinker Søren Kierkegaard, celebrated as the first true existentialist philosopher and an active proponent of the benefits of keeping a diary, contemplated this eternal tension between the individual and the crowd. Writing in The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (public library | IndieBound) — the same fantastic window into his inner world that gave us Kierkegaard’s prescient insight on the psychology of online trolling and bullying — he considers how our incapacity for quiet contemplation cuts us off from our true self and instead causes us to adopt by passive absorption the ideals of others.

Lamenting the tendency to take our values from the “very loud talk” of the crowd rather than by “each individual going alone into his secret closet to commune quietly with himself” — something he had come to consider the root of our unhappiness — he writes:

One can very well eat lettuce before its heart has been formed; still, the delicate crispness of the heart and its lovely frizz are something altogether different from the leaves. It is the same in the world of the spirit. Being too busy has this result: that an individual very, very rarely is permitted to form a heart; on the other hand, the thinker, the poet, or the religious personality who actually has formed his heart, will never be popular, not because he is difficult, but because it demands quiet and prolonged working with oneself and intimate knowledge of oneself as well as a certain isolation.

A year later, in 1847, Kierkegaard revisits the question of the individual and the crowd:

The evolution of the world tends to show the absolute importance of the category of the individual apart from the crowd… But as yet we have not come very far concretely, though it is recognized in abstracto. That explains why it still impresses people as prideful and overweening arrogance to speak of the separate individual, whereas this precisely is truly human: each and every one is an individual.

And yet, Kierkegaard argues, most of us find it too daunting to live as individuals and instead opt for the consolations of the crowd:

Most people become quite afraid when each is expected to be a separate individual. Thus the matter turns and revolves upon itself. One moment a man is supposed to be arrogant, setting forth this view of the individual, and the next, when the individual is about to carry it out in practice, the idea is found to be much too big, too overwhelming for him.

Illustration from 'How to Be a Nonconformist,' a 1968 satire of conformity-culture written and illustrated by a high school girl. Click image for more.

Conformity becomes our hedge against this overwhelming idea:

Of course it is more secure to have a solid position in life, some official appointment which does not demand nearly as much of one… Most people lead far too sheltered lives, and for that reason they get to know [the divine] so little. They have permanent positions, they never put in their utmost effort…

Another year later, he returns to the subject and argues that the real arrogance is not in living up to our individuality but in denying it, and in effect denying the individuality of others:

Each human being has infinite reality, and it is pride and arrogance in a person not to honor his fellow-man…. It is a paralogism that one thousand human beings are worth more than one… The central point about being human is that the unit “1” is the highest; “1000” counts for less.

Two years later, in 1850, Kierkegaard makes a poignant case for the vital role of the minority as an antidote to the chronic groupthink of the majority:

Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion — and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion, which then becomes that of the majority, i.e., becomes nonsense by having the whole [mass] on its side, while Truth again reverts to a new minority.

In regard to Truth, this troublesome monster, the majority, the public, etc., fares in the same way as we say of someone who is traveling to regain his health: he is always one station behind.

Two centuries before Zadie Smith wrote about the privilege of self-actualization, Kierkegaard is keenly aware of the class element in this interplay between minority and majority, between the individual and the crowd:

I want people to sit up and take notice, to prevent them from idling away and wasting their lives. Aristocrats take it for granted that a lot of people will always go to waste. But they keep silent about it; they live sheltered lives pretending that all these many, many people simply do not exist. That is what is ungodly about the superior status of the aristocrats; in order to be comfortable themselves they do not even call attention to anything.

Vowing not to be like the aristocrats himself, he — a self-described “complete composite of dialectics” — offers his own solution:

I will call the attention of the crowd to their own ruination. And if they don’t want to see it willingly, I shall make them see it by fair means or foul. Please understand me — or, at least, do not misunderstand me. I do not intend to beat them… I will force them to beat me. Thus I actually compel them. For if they begin to beat me, they will probably pay attention; and if they kill me, they most definitely will pay attention, and I shall have won an absolute victory.

Kierkegaard’s rationale behind this strategy is rather humanistic in considering what it takes to awaken the individual human spirit from the trance of the crowd:

[Individuals] are not so corrupt that they actually wish to do evil, but they are blinded, and don’t really know what they are doing. It is all a matter of baiting them for decisive action… A crowd triumphs if one cedes the way, steps aside, so that it never comes to realize what it is doing. A crowd has no essential viewpoint; therefore if it happens to kill a man it is eo ipso halted; it pays heed and comes to its senses.

He later adds:

Nobody wants to be this strenuous thing: an individual; it demands an effort. But everywhere services are readily offered through the phony substitute: a few! Let us get together and be a gathering, then we can probably manage. Therein lies mankind’s deepest demoralization.

Photographs from 'Exactitudes,' a global project highlighting the implicit conformity of subcultures. Click image for more.

But Kierkegaard’s most poignant point arrives shortly before his death, in 1854, when he addresses with prescient precision our modern anxiety about being alone, stressing its absolute vitality in living up to our individual potential:

The yardstick for a human being is: how long and to what degree he can bear to be alone, devoid of understanding with others.

A man who can bear being alone during a whole life-time, and alone in decisions of eternal significance, is farthest removed from the infant and the society-person who represent the animal-definition of being human.

In a remark to which Anne Lamott might have the perfect response, he adds:

Testifying to the fact that man is spirit … with the passing centuries, as polished brutishness mounts, becomes increasingly necessary, but also requires increasingly greater effort.

The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard is a short yet infinitely rewarding read. For a counterpoint to this particular excerpt, see Norman Mailer on the instinct for nonconformity, then revisit Kierkegaard on our greatest source of unhappiness and why anxiety enhances creativity rather than hinders it.

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