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Posts Tagged ‘history’

16 JUNE, 2015

Adam Smith’s Underappreciated Wisdom on Benevolence, Happiness, and Kindness

By:

“Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love.”

“Spiritual health and material well-being are not enemies: they are natural allies,” wrote E.F. Schumacher in his timeless clarion call for “Buddhist economics,” penned amid the hippie counterculture of the early 1970s. But it was another visionary economist, as far from hippie culture in both time and ideology as possible, that made the most convincing case for this very concept two centuries earlier — a mind, paradoxically enough, presently celebrated for just about the opposite sentiment.

The great Scottish moral philosopher, political economy pioneer, and Enlightenment maven Adam Smith (June 16, 1723–July 17, 1790) is best known for authoring the 1776 masterwork The Wealth of Nations — a foundational text of behavioral economics two centuries before behavioral economics existed. It originated the famous “invisible hand” metaphor for how socially beneficial outcomes can be traced back to the self-interested actions of individuals. True to our modern incapacity for nuance, Smith’s “invisible hand” has come to symbolize a rather bleak view of the human spirit as bedeviled by inescapable selfishness. And yet Smith’s own views were more generous and elevating — something he explored in his eclipsed but excellent earlier work, the 1759 treatise The Theory of Moral Sentiments, full of timeless wisdom on ambition, success, good personhood, the far-from-linear relationship between money and happiness, and that wonderfully old-fashioned notion of “benevolence,” so urgently needed in our divisive world today.

The book’s opening sentence alone is a masterpiece of prose and philosophy:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.

That misunderstood aspect of Smith’s philosophy and its applications to our everyday lives is what Russ Roberts explores in How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness (public library). I share a certain kinship of spirit with Roberts, who hosts the EconTalk podcast, in dusting off forgotten and often misunderstood ideas, restoring their original dimension flattened by our sound bite culture of superficial familiarity, and recontextualizing them as timeless technologies of thought that help us live happier, more ennobled lives — which is precisely what he does with Smith’s text.

Roberts recounts chancing upon this obscure book and being, to his own surprise, deeply enchanted by its relevance to so much of modern life:

The book changed the way I looked at people, and maybe more important, it changed the way I looked at myself. Smith made me aware of how people interact with each other in ways I hadn’t noticed before… [He] helped me understand why Whitney Houston and Marilyn Monroe were so unhappy and why their deaths made so many people so sad. He helped me understand my affection for my iPad and my iPhone, why talking to strangers about your troubles can calm the soul [and] how morality is built into the fabric of the world.

[…]

The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a book of observations about what makes us tick. As a bonus, almost in passing, Smith tells us how to lead the good life in the fullest sense of that phrase.

Roberts disentangles one of our most chronic confusions — that between self-interest and selfishness. Citing Smith’s famous line — “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” — he unpacks the deeper, more dimensional meaning:

People are fundamentally self-interested, which is not the same thing as selfish.

[…]

Yes, you are profoundly self-interested. But for some reason, you do not always act in what appears to be your self-interest… Given our self-love, why do we so often act selflessly, sacrificing our own well-being to help others?

One answer would be that we are inherently kind and decent, filled with what Smith calls benevolence or what we moderns call compassion. We are altruistic; we care about others and hate to see them suffer. Yet Smith reminds us that losing our finger bothers us more than millions losing their lives.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

When we are altruistic, according to Smith, “it is not that feeble spark of benevolence … capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love.” Rather, we are compelled to behave honorably before an “impartial spectator” — a kind of unconscious stand-in for conscience, a form of secular accountability that displaces the vice-policing gods of organized religions; or, as Roberts puts it, “a figure we imagine whom we converse with in some virtual sense, an impartial, objective figure who sees the morality of our actions clearly.” When faced with a moral choice, we answer to this imaginary arbiter of righteousness. Smith himself writes:

It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration.

Roberts terms this “The Iron Law of You,” which he illustrates with a relatable modern example:

You think more about yourself than you think about me. There’s a corollary to the Iron Law of You — the Iron Law of Me. I think more about myself than I do about you. That’s just the way the world works.

Ever send someone an e-mail asking for a favor and he or she doesn’t respond? It’s easy to forget that the recipient, like you perhaps, gets way too many e-mails to respond promptly. Your e-mail means more to you than it does to the person whose help you need. There’s no reason to take it personally. When I don’t hear back from someone, I assume that the person never received the e-mail in the first place. I resend it a few days later without mentioning (or complaining) that I sent it before.

[…]

The impartial spectator reminds us that we are not the center of the universe. Remembering that we are no more important than anyone else helps us play nicely with others. The impartial spectator is the voice inside our head that reminds us that pure self-interest is grotesque and that thinking of others is honorable and noble — the voice that reminds us that if we harm others in order to benefit ourselves, we will be resented, disliked, and unloved by anyone who is looking on impartially.

Illustration by Benji Davies from 'The Storm Whale.' Click image for more.

Smith himself elegantly captures this dual role of the impartial spectator in both our self-reliance and our sense of belonging:

It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.

Roberts explains how this drives our actions and reverberates across the essential arts of living, from personal growth to a capacity for presence:

The modern calculus of economics that looks at material costs and benefits alone is a flawed calculus. It’s perfectly rational to tip in a restaurant that you’ll never visit again, donate anonymously to charity, give blood without expecting to use blood in the future, and even donate a kidney without being paid for it. People who do those things do them gladly… Smith believes that our desire for approval from those around us is embedded within us, and that our moral sense comes from experiencing approval and disapproval from others. As we experience those responses, we come to imagine an impartial spectator judging us.

Whether or not honorable behavior is really motivated by people’s imagining a watchful and judgmental impartial spectator, the concept gives us a powerful tool for self-improvement. Imagining an impartial spectator encourages us to step outside ourselves and view ourselves as others see us. This is a brave exercise that most of us go through life avoiding or doing poorly. But if you can do it and do it well, if you can hover above the scene and watch how you handle yourself, you can begin to know who you really are and how you might improve. Stepping outside yourself is an opportunity for what is sometimes called mindfulness — the art of paying attention instead of drifting through life oblivious to your flaws and habits.

The impartial spectator, far beyond enhancing our standing with the non-imaginary spectators in our lives by steering us toward behavior that is perceived as decent and kind, actually helps us reach the intrinsic rewards of taking comfort in our own decency and kindness. Smith himself puts it best in one of his most famous and enduring passages:

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise. He dreads, not only blame, but blameworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be blamed by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of blame.

In a complementary sentiment, Smith writes:

What so great happiness as to be beloved, and to know that we deserve to be beloved? What so great misery as to be hated, and to know that we deserve to be hated?

Roberts translates this in the language of our most intimate rewards:

Loveliness isn’t an investment looking for a return. That’s why you don’t keep score in a good marriage — I did this for you, so now it’s your turn to do something for me. I went to the grocery, so you have to run the kids to soccer. I was nice to you when you were under stress. Now I’m under stress, so you have to be nice to me. Or I’m up four to one, so the next three tasks fall on you…

If you think of your actions as a husband or wife as an investment or a cost-benefit analysis, you don’t have a marriage motivated by love. You have a mutually beneficial arrangement. I can have that with my butcher or my baker. I don’t want that arrangement with my wife. In a good marriage, you get pleasure from helping your spouse simply because that’s the kind of partner you want to be — a lovely one.

[…]

Smith’s ideal is achieved when your inner self mirrors your outer self.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce's Ulysses. Click image for more.

This convergence of being lovely in one’s private person and being publicly beloved is what we might call “authenticity” today. This harmonic symmetry, Roberts points out, isn’t revealed in our grand gestures but in our small daily choices — the nanoscale of the-right-thing-to-do — which add up to our larger character. That’s why we often fail, on the small and practical level, to live up to the ideals we espouse philosophically — and yet we continue to think of ourselves as highly moral people, thanks to the uniquely human talent of self-delusoin. Roberts writes:

One explanation for selfishness — or, worse, cruelty — is that some people don’t imagine an impartial spectator, have no desire to imagine one, and in fact have no interest in being lovely. This is a tempting way to view our fellow human beings: people who don’t act the way we think they should are immoral or evil.

But Adam Smith had a different idea of why we fail to live up to the standards an impartial spectator might set or the standards of the people around us whose respect and affection we’d like to earn: we are prone to self-deception. The impartial spectator whom we imagine and whose counsel we hear isn’t quite as impartial as we’d like to think. In the heat of the moment, when we are about to act, our self-love often overwhelms any potential role for the impartial spectator, “the man within the breast,” our conscience: “…the violence and injustice of our own selfish passions are sometimes sufficient to induce the man within the breast to make a report very different from what the real circumstances of the case are capable of authorising.”

[…]

We want not only to be loved, we want to think of ourselves as lovely. Rather than see ourselves as we truly are, we see ourselves as we would like to be. Self-deception can be more comforting than self-knowledge. We like to fool ourselves.

In the remainder of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, Roberts goes on to explore how this quarter-millennium-old text can teach us to fool ourselves less and, in doing so, enhance rather than compromise our happiness. Complement it with the psychology of how our delusions keep us sane and Albert Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons.

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15 JUNE, 2015

How Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage Invented the World’s First Computer: An Illustrated Adventure in Footnotes and Friendship

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The story of how an improbable pair forever changed our horizons of the possible.

In 1843, Ada Lovelace — the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron — translated a scientific paper by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea titled Sketch of an Analytical Engine, adding seven footnotes to it. Together, they measured 65 pages — two and half times the length of Menabrea’s original text — and included the earliest complete computer program, becoming the first true paper on computer science and rendering Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. She was twenty-seven.

About a decade earlier, Lovelace had met the brilliant and eccentric British mathematician Charles Babbage who, when he wasn’t busy teaming up with Dickens to wage a war on street music, was working on strange inventions that would one day prompt posterity to call him the father of the computer. (Well, sort of.) The lifelong friendship that ensued between 18-year-old Lovelace and 45-year-old Babbage sparked an invaluable union of software and hardware to which we owe enormous swaths of modern life — including the very act of reading these words on this screen.

The unusual story of this Victorian power-duo is what graphic artists and animator Sydney Padua explores in the immensely delightful and illuminating The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (public library), itself a masterwork of combinatorial genius and a poetic analog to its subject matter — rigorously researched, it has approximately the same footnote-to-comic ratio as Lovelace’s trailblazing paper. The footnote, after all, is proto-hypertext linking one set of ideas to another, and in these analog hyperlinks, Padua draws on an impressive wealth of historical materials — from the duo’s scientific writings and lectures to Lovelace’s letters to Babbage’s autobiography to various accounts by their contemporaries.

Padua begins at the beginning, with Lovelace’s unusual upbringing as the daughter of Lord Byron, a “radical, adventurer, pan-amorist, and poet,” and Anne Isabella Millbanke, a “deeply moral Evangelical Christian and prominent anti-slavery campaigner.”

Determined to shield young Ada from any expression of her father’s dangerous “poetical” influence, her mother instructed the young girl’s nurse:

Be most careful always to speak the truth to her … take care not to tell her any nonsensical stories that will put fancies into her head.

She wasn’t spared the Victorian era’s brutal control mechanisms of women’s minds and bodies. Padua footnotes:

Ada’s upbringing was strict and lonely. She was given lessons while lying on a “reclining board” to perfect her posture. If she fidgeted, even with her fingers, her hands were tied in black bags and she was shut in a closet. She was five years old.

But the best control strategy for the disorderly tendencies of the poetical mind, it was determined, was thorough immersion in mathematics — which worked, but only to a degree.

Lovelace was eventually introduced to Babbage by the great Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Somerville — for whom, incidentally, the word “scientist” was coined.

And so one of history’s most paradigm-shifting encounters took place.

Implicit to the story is also a reminder that genius is as much the product of an individual’s exceptional nature as it is of the culture in which that individual is nourished. Genius leaps from the improbable into the possible — the courage of the leap is the function of individual temperament, but the horizons of possibility are to a large extent determined by the culture and the era.

Lovelace lived in an age when it was not only uncommon but even discouraged for women to engage in science, let alone authoring scientific paper themselves. In another illuminating footnote, Padua quotes from Babbage’s autobiography, capturing Lovelace’s dance with this duality of possibility and limitation perfectly:

The late Countess of Lovelace informed me that she had translated the memoir of Menabrea. I asked why she had not herself written an original paper on a subject with which she was so intimately acquainted? To this Lady Lovelace replied that the thought had not occurred to her.

And yet groundbreaking thoughts that hadn’t occurred to others did occur to Lovelace.

So immersed was Lovelace in her computational poetics that her contemporaries described her as rather “poetical in her appearance,” which, for those unversed in Victorian euphemism, Padua translates to mean “depressed-looking and extremely badly dressed.” Her mind operated on a level so far beyond the ordinary as to be barely graspable by common imaginations. Padua explains in another footnote:

In an age before the mathematization of logic (Boole’s Foundational laws of Thought was still ten years away) this was a truly extraordinary leap of imagination — it is difficult, maybe, for us in our computerized age to grasp how extraordinary. Babbage had not thought beyond calculating numbers with his machine, but he loved what he called “admirable and philosophic view of the Analytical Engine” — “The more I read your Notes the more surprised I am at them and regret not having earlier explored so rich a vein of the noblest metal.”

Lovelace herself spoke to that fruitful cross-fertilization of the poetic, the philosophical, and the scientific in her famous proclamation in a letter to her mother penned shortly before her footnote masterwork:

You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?

In the remainder of The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, layered and wonderful in its totality, Padua goes on to chronicles the power-duo’s tragicomic demo of the Analytical Engine for Queen Victoria, explores how their different temperaments mapped onto the complementary archetypes of the inventor and the entrepreneur — Babbage was the obsessive and perfectionistic tinkerer, Lovelace the one with the fail-forward startup spirit — and delivers a thoroughly unsynthesizable range of enchantment and elucidation. Complement it with Lovelace’s spirited letter on science and religion, then revisit these lovely illustrated biographies of great minds.

Thanks, Michelle

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10 JUNE, 2015

Saul Bellow’s Spectacular Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech on How Art and Literature Ennoble the Human Spirit

By:

“Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.”

In a 1966 interview, Saul Bellow (June 10, 1915–April 5, 2005) articulated the seed of what would blossom into a central concern of his life, and of our culture: “Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, in the eye of the storm… Art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.” A quarter century later — already an elder with a Pulitzer Prize, a National Medal of Arts, and a Nobel Prize under his belt — Bellow would come to explore this duality more deliberately in his stirring essay on how artists and writers save us from the “moronic inferno” of distraction.

But nowhere does the celebrated author address his views on the artist’s task more directly than in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize awarded to him in 1976 “for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work.” Eventually published in Nobel Lectures in Literature, 1968–1980 (public library), it remains one of the greatest public addresses of all time.

Reflecting on the death of the notion of “character” in literature, Bellow writes:

I am interested here in the question of the artist’s priorities. Is it necessary, or good, that he should begin with historical analysis, with ideas or systems?

[…]

I myself am tired of obsolete notions and of mummies of all kinds but I never tire of reading the master novelists. And what is one to do about the characters in their books? Is it necessary to discontinue the investigation of character? Can anything so vivid in them now be utterly dead? … Can we accept the account of those conditions we are so “authoritatively” given? I suggest that it is not in the intrinsic interest of human beings but in these ideas and accounts that the problem lies.

With an almost Buddhist attitude as applicable to literature as it is to life itself, Bellow adds:

To find the source of trouble we must look into our own heads.

He admonishes against taking on faith any death knell rung by our culture’s so-called experts — lest we forget, Frank Lloyd Wright put it best when he quipped that “an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows’” — and in a sentiment that renders just as laughable the modern death knell for the novel, he writes:

The fact that the death notice of character “has been signed by most serious essayists” means only that another group of mummies, the most respectable leaders of the intellectual community, has laid down the law. It amuses me that these serious essayists should be allowed to sign the death notices of literary forms. Should art follow culture? Something has gone wrong.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'The Big Green Book' by Robert Graves. Click image for more.

Many decades before Tom Wolfe’s spectacular commencement address admonishing against the tyranny of the pseudo-intellectual, Bellow adds:

We must not make bosses of our intellectuals. And we do them no good by letting them run the arts. Should they, when they read novels, find nothing in them but the endorsement of their own opinions? Are we here on earth to play such games?

Once again, Bellow reminds us that the anxieties and paranoias which every generation sees as singular to its era are anything but — 1976 sounds an awful lot like today:

The condition of human beings has perhaps never been more difficult to define…

Every year we see scores of books and articles which tell [people] what a state they are in — which make intelligent or simpleminded or extravagant or lurid or demented statements. All reflect the crises we are in while telling us what we must do about them; these analysts are produced by the very disorder and confusion they prescribe for.

[…]

In private life, disorder or near-panic. In families — for husbands, wives, parents, children — confusion; in civic behavior, in personal loyalties, in sexual practices (I will not recite the whole list; we are tired of hearing it) — further confusion. And with this private disorder goes public bewilderment.

[…]

It is with these facts that knock us to the ground that we try to live… There is no simple choice between the children of light and the children of darkness… But I have made my point; we stand open to all anxieties. The decline and fall of everything is our daily dread, we are agitated in private life and tormented by public questions.

Let me interject here with a necessary caveat: Despite the Swedish Academy’s brief to celebrate the value of literature and the arts in ennobling the human spirit, a great many Nobel Prize acceptance speeches bear the distinct flavor of Grumpy Old Man. This is a natural, if hardly excusable, product of the fact that the Nobel Prize has a long history of being granted primarily to old white men, not to mention it was established by a particularly grumpy one — a fact increasingly glaring and uncomfortable even for those of us dedicated to preserving the wisdom of our cultural and civilizational elders. How exasperating that such extraordinary writers as Susan Sontag, Chinua Achebe, and Maya Angelou died without a Nobel Prize.

And perhaps the sample pool is too small to draw scientifically valid conclusions, but there is palpable anecdotal evidence that when a writer like Albert Camus, the youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, or Pearl S. Buck, the second youngest laureate and the youngest woman to receive the coveted accolade, takes the stage at the Swedish Academy, there is a decidedly different ratio of grumpiness to gladness in their speech, of embitterment to emboldening faith in the human spirit. (cf. Hemingway’s.)

The history of the Nobel Prize, visualized. Click image for details.

And now back to Grumpy Old Man Bellow, who is beneath grumpiness — or else, after all, he wouldn’t be here — a staunch champion of the power of art to elevate and enlarge the human spirit. Against this backdrop of dread and ruin, amid our growing spiritual hunger for quietude, he asks:

Art and literature — what of them? … We are still able to think, to discriminate, and to feel. The purer, subtler, higher activities have not succumbed to fury or to nonsense. Not yet. Books continue to be written and read. It may be more difficult to reach the whirling mind of a modern reader but it is possible to cut through the noise and reach the quiet zone. In the quiet zone we may find that he is devoutly waiting for us. When complications increase, the desire for essentials increases too. The unending cycle of crises that began with the First World War has formed a kind of person, one who has livd through terrible, strange things, and in whom there is an observable shrinkage of prejudices, a casting off of disappointing ideologies, an ability to live with many kinds of madness, an immense desire for certain durable human goods — truth, for instance, or freedom, or wisdom.

With an eye to Time Regained, the penultimate volume of Proust’s universally beloved seven-part novel In Search of Lost Time, Bellow considers the singular role of art in the human experience:

Only art penetrates what pride, passion, intelligence and habit erect on all sides — the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive. Proust calls these hints our “true impressions.” The true impressions, our persistent intuitions, will, without art, be hidden from us and we will be left with nothing but a “terminology for practical ends which we falsely call life.”

Returning to the role of intellectuals in perpetuating such a quasi-reality of practical ends, Bellow considers the task of the writer and artist to reawaken our “true impressions”:

There is in the intellectual community a sizable inventory of attitudes that have become respectable — notions about society, human nature, class, politics, sex, about mind, about the physical universe, the evolution of life. Few writers, even among the best, have taken the trouble to re-examine these attitudes and orthodoxies… Literature has for nearly a century used the same stock of ideas, myths, strategies … maintaining all the usual things about mass society, dehumanization and the rest. How weary we are of them. How poorly the represent us. The pictures they offer no more resemble us than we resemble the reconstructed reptiles and other monsters in a museum of paleontology. We are much more limber, versatile, bette articulated, there is much more to us, we all feel it.

Bellow peers into the future of humanity, in the shaping of which we are all implicated — perhaps even more so today, when we are tenfold more interconnected and our fates more intertwined, than at the time of his speech:

Mankind [is] determining, in confusion and obscurity, whether it will endure or go under. The whole species — everybody — has gotten into the act. At such a time it is essential to lighten ourselves, to dump encumbrances, including the encumbrances of education and all organized platitudes, to make judgments of our own, to perform acts of our own… We must hunt for that under the wreckage of many systems. The failure of those systems may bring a blessed and necessary release from formulations, from an over-defined and misleading consciousness. With increasing frequency I dismiss as merely respectable opinions I have long held — or thought I held — and try to discern what I have really lived by, and what others live by.

In a sentiment that calls to mind psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s magnificent meditation on the necessary excesses of our inner lives, Bellow adds:

Our very vices, our mutilations, show how rich we are in thought and culture. How much we know. How much we even feel. The struggle that convulses us makes us want to simplify, to reconsider, to eliminate the tragic weakness which prevented writers — and readers — from being at once simple and true.

Writers, Bellow argues, are in a singular positions to cut through the veneer of respectable opinions and remind us the truth of who we are and who we can be:

The intelligent public is wonderfully patient with [writers], continues to read them and endures disappointment after disappointment, waiting to hear from art what it does not hear from theology, philosophy, social theory, and what it cannot hear from pure science. Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for. At the center humankind struggles with collective powers for its freedom, the individual struggles with dehumanization for the possession of his soul. If writers do not come again into the center it will not be because the center is pre-empted. It is not. They are free to enter. If they so wish.

A 17th-century conception of the universe, found in 'Cosmigraphics.' Click image for more

Echoing the Dante-esque notion of “a love that moves the sun and the other stars,” Bellow closes with a breathtaking contemplation of our deeper search for meaning undergirding all great art and literature — those fragmentary glimpses of luminous lucidity through which we are reminded, although we soon forget again, of our eternal communion with the universe:

The essence of our real condition, the complexity, the confusion, the pain of it is shown to us in glimpses, in [Proust’s] “true impressions.” This essence reveals and then conceals itself. When it goes away it leaves us again in doubt. But we never seem to lose our connection with the depths from which these glimpses come. The sense of our real powers, powers we seem to derive from the universe itself, also comes and goes. We are reluctant to talk about this because there is nothing we can prove, because our language is inadequate and because few people are willing to risk talking about it. They would have to say, “There is a spirit” and that is taboo. So almost everyone keeps quiet about it, although almost everyone is aware of it.

The value of literature lies in these intermittent “true impressions.” A novel moves us back and forth between the world of objects, of actions, of appearances, and that other world from which these “true impressions” come and which moves us to believe that the good we hang onto so tenaciously — in the face of evil, so obstinately — is no illusion.

[…]

Art attempts to find in the universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what is fundamental, enduring, essential.

Complement with Dani Shapiro on the “animating presence” of secular spirituality and William Faulkner’s elevating Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the role of the writer as a booster of the human heart, then revisit Bellow on our dance with distraction.

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08 JUNE, 2015

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

By:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Sand by Nadar, 1864

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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