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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

17 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Spirit of Sauntering: Thoreau on the Art of Walking and the Perils of a Sedentary Lifestyle

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Why “every walk is a sort of crusade.”

“Go out and walk. That is the glory of life,” Maira Kalman exhorted in her glorious visual memoir. A century and a half earlier, another remarkable mind made a beautiful and timeless case for that basic, infinitely rewarding, yet presently endangered human activity.

Henry David Thoreau was a man of extraordinary wisdom on everything from optimism to the true meaning of “success” to the creative benefits of keeping a diary to the greatest gift of growing old. In his 1861 treatise Walking (free ebook | public library | IndieBound), penned seven years after Walden, he sets out to remind us of how that primal act of mobility connects us with our essential wildness, that spring of spiritual vitality methodically dried up by our sedentary civilization.

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

Intending to “regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society,” because “there are enough champions of civilization,” Thoreau argues that the genius of walking lies not in mechanically putting one foot in front of the other en route to a destination but in mastering the art of sauntering. (In one of several wonderful asides, Thoreau offers what is perhaps the best definition of “genius”: “Genius is a light which makes the darkness visible, like the lightning’s flash, which perchance shatters the temple of knowledge itself — and not a taper lighted at the hearthstone of the race, which pales before the light of common day.”) An avid practitioner of hiking, Thoreau extols sauntering as a different thing altogether:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.

Proclaiming that “every walk is a sort of crusade,” Thoreau laments — note, a century and a half before our present sedentary society — our growing civilizational tameness, which has possessed us to cease undertaking “persevering, never-ending enterprises” so that even “our expeditions are but tours.” With a dramatic flair, he lays out the spiritual conditions required of the true walker:

If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man — then you are ready for a walk.

[…]

No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence which are the capital in this profession… It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker.

Art by Maira Kalman from 'My Favorite Things.' Click image for more.

Thoreau’s prescription, to be sure, is neither for the faint of body nor for the gainfully entrapped in the nine-to-five hamster wheel. Professing that the preservation of his “health and spirits” requires “sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields” for at least four hours a day, he laments the fates of the less fortunate and leaves one wondering what he may have said of today’s desk-bound office worker:

When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them — as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon — I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.

[…]

I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.

Of course, lest we forget, Thoreau was able to saunter through the woods and over the hills and fields in no small part thanks to support from his mom and sister, who fetched him fresh-baked donuts as he renounced civilization. In fact, he makes a sweetly compassionate aside, given the era he was writing in, about women’s historical lack of mobility:

How womankind, who are confined to the house still more than men, stand it I do not know; but I have ground to suspect that most of them do not stand it at all.

Thoreau is careful to point out that the walking he extols has nothing to do with transportational utility or physical exercise — rather it is a spiritual endeavor undertaken for its own sake:

The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours — as the Swinging of dumb-bells or chairs; but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life. Think of a man’s swinging dumbbells for his health, when those springs are bubbling up in far-off pastures unsought by him!

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

To engage in this kind of walking, Thoreau argues, we ought to reconnect with our wild nature:

When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?

[…]

Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure — as if we lived on the marrow of koodoos devoured raw.

[…]

Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest.

[…]

All good things are wild and free.

One can only wonder how Thoreau would eviscerate this formidable set of civilizing regulations at Walden Pond, his beloved patch of wilderness. (Photograph: Karen Barbarossa)

But his most prescient point has to do with the idea that sauntering — like any soul-nourishing activity — should be approached with a mindset of presence rather than productivity. To think that a man who lived in a forest cabin in the middle of the 19th century might have such extraordinary insight into our toxic modern cult of busyness is hard to imagine, and yet he captures the idea that “busy is a decision” with astounding elegance:

I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is — I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?

Illustration by Emily Hughes from 'Wild.' Click image for more.

Walking, which is available as a free ebook, is a brisk and immensely invigorating read in its entirety, as Thoreau goes on to explore the usefulness of useless knowledge, the uselessness of given names, and how private property is killing our capacity for wildness. Complement it with Maira Kalman on walking as a creative stimulant and the cognitive science of how a walk along a single city block can forever change the way you perceive the world.

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13 NOVEMBER, 2014

Adrienne Rich on Lying, What “Truth” Really Means, and the Alchemy of Human Possibility

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“The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.”

Long before Sam Harris’s memorable assertion that lying is “both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood,” long before psychologists identified the four most reliable ways to spot a liar, Adrienne Rich wrote beautifully about what is actually at stake when we lie and how lying in all of its permutations — especially those subtle everyday evasions and untruths we tend to attribute to circumstance or to the misguided mercy of sparing others pain — chips away at our basic humanity.

In a 1975 speech-turned-essay titled “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” found in the indispensable volume On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978 (public library | IndieBound) — which also gave us Rich on how relationships refine our truths and her spectacular commencement address on claiming an education — she writes:

Lying is done with words, and also with silence.

Rich considers how, in relationships, we often use lying as a hedge against the discomfort of being truly seen:

The liar lives in fear of losing control. She cannot even desire a relationship without manipulation, since to be vulnerable to another person means for her the loss of control.

The liar has many friends, and leads an existence of great loneliness.

But the pathology of lying, she argues, doesn’t merely alienate us from others — it engenders the greatest loneliness of all, by cutting us off from ourselves:

The liar often suffers from amnesia. Amnesia is the silence of the unconscious.

To lie habitually, as a way of life, is to lose contact with the unconscious. It is like taking sleeping pills, which confer sleep but blot out dreaming. The unconscious wants truth. It ceases to speak to those who want something else more than truth.

The question of lies, Rich notes, invariably invokes the question of honesty and what “truth” really is:

There is nothing simple or easy about this idea. There is no “the truth,” “a truth” — truth is not one thing, or even a system. It is an increasing complexity. The pattern of the carpet is a surface. When we look closely, or when we become weavers, we learn of the tiny multiple threads unseen in the overall pattern, the knots on the underside of the carpet.

This is why the effort to speak honestly is so important. Lies are usually attempts to make everything simpler — for the liar — than it really is, or ought to be.

In lying to others we end up lying to ourselves. We deny the importance of an event, or a person, and thus deprive ourselves of a part of our lives. Or we use one piece of the past or present to screen out another. Thus we lose faith even within our own lives.

The unconscious wants truth, as the body does. The complexity and fecundity of dreams come from the complexity and fecundity of the unconscious struggling to fulfill that desire.

Pointing out the long history of “the lie as a false source of power,” Rich turns to women’s particular responsibility to one another in matters of truth:

Women have been driven mad, “gaslighted,” for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience. The truth of our bodies and our minds has been mystified to us. We therefore have a primary obligation to each other: not to undermine each other’s sense of reality for the sake of expediency; not to gaslight each other.

Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.

[…]

When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.

This notion of possibility, Rich argues, is central to the power of truth and the peril of lies in all human relationships:

The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.

When relationships are determined by manipulation, by the need for control, they may possess a dreary, bickering kind of drama, but they cease to be interesting. They are repetitious; the shock of human possibilities has ceased to reverberate through them.

Rich weighs the difference between honesty and oversharing — one particularly poignant today, in an age of compulsive oversharing and very little actual honesty — in the context of honorable human relationships:

It isn’t that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you.

It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.

The possibility of life between us.

To fully inhabit this possibility requires, it seems, understanding the subtle but vital difference between trust and faith. Rich considers why “we feel slightly crazy when we realize we have been lied to in a relationship”:

We take so much of the universe on trust. You tell me: “In 1950 I lived on the north side of Beacon Street in Somerville.” You tell me: “She and I were lovers, but for months now we have only been good friends.” You tell me: “It is seventy degrees outside and the sun is shining.” Because I love you, because there is not even a question of lying between us, I take these accounts of the universe on trust: your address twenty-five years ago, your relationship with someone I know only by sight, this morning’s weather. I fling unconscious tendrils of belief, like slender green threads, across statements such as these, statements made so unequivocally, which have no tone or shadow of tentativeness. I build them into the mosaic of my world. I allow my universe to change in minute, significant ways, on the basis of things you have said to me, of my trust in you.

[…]

When we discover that someone we trusted can be trusted no longer, it forces us to reexamine the universe, to question the whole instinct and concept of trust. For a while, we are thrust back onto some bleak, jutting ledge, in a dark pierced by sheets of fire, swept by sheets of rain, in a world before kinship, or naming, or tenderness exist; we are brought close to formlessness.

Noting that common liar’s excuse of “I didn’t want to cause pain” is merely the liar’s unwillingness to deal with the other’s pain, Rich writes:

The lie is a short-cut through another’s personality.

Truthfulness, honor, is not something which springs ablaze itself; it has to be created between people.

[…]

Truthfulness anywhere means a heightened complexity. But it’s a movement into evolution.

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence is a spectacular read in its totality, a trove of timeless truths spoken by one of the most intensely interesting and important voices of the past century. Complement it with Rich on love, loss, and creativity, why an education is something you claim rather than something you get, her soul-stirring poem “Gabriel,” and the courageous letter in which she became the only person to decline the National Medal of Arts.

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12 NOVEMBER, 2014

William S. Burroughs and Tennessee Williams Talk Writing, Drugs, and Death in 1977

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“Deliberate, conscienceless mendacity, the acceptance of falsehood and hypocrisy, is the most dangerous of all sins.”

Tennessee Williams and William S. Burroughs had a great deal in common: Both were born in St. Louis, within three years of each other, but didn’t meet until, in their late forties, they were introduced at a table in the Cafe de Paris in Tangiers; both revolutionized their respective fields of creative endeavor despite years of dismal commercial prospects and what Williams once described “absolutely merciless ridicule”; both were queer men in an era when this meant secrecy and social disgrace; both were tragic testaments to the relationship between creativity and mental illness, confronting lifelong struggles with addiction and other anguishing malfunctions of mental health.

In May of 1977, as his play Vieux Carré was about to open on Broadway, Williams invited Burroughs, who had attended the preview two weeks earlier, to his spacious apartment at the Hotel Elyseé. Both men were in their late sixties. Originally published by The Village Voice and later included in the altogether fantastic volume Conversations with Tennessee Williams (public library), their convulsively candid conversation unfolded over two bottles of wine and sprawled across writing, drugs, and death.

Burroughs: When someone asks me to what extent my work is autobiographical, I say, “Every word is autobiographical, and every word is fiction.” Now what would your answer be to that question?

Williams: My answer is that every word is autobiographical and no word is autobiographical. You can’t do creative work and adhere to facts.

After contemplating the wistfulness of growing old (“That’s the sad thing about growing old, isn’t it — you learn that you are confronted with loneliness,” Williams laments), the paradox of youth (“If there weren’t age, there wouldn’t be any youth, remember,” Burroughs consoles), and the bias of autobiographical memory (“I’m ever satisfied to look back on youth,” Williams professes; “Writers don’t, as a rule,” Burroughs observes), the two veer into a strange and strangely satisfying discussion of drugs. Williams, who brings up the subject, tells Burroughs:

I’ve always wanted to go on opium. I did try it in Bangkok. I was traveling with a professor friend of mine, and he had been in the habit of occasionally dissolving a bit of it — you know, it comes in little long black sticks — dissolving it in the tea, and drinking it. And he was angry at me, or confused mentally, I don’t know which — and so I called him one morning, as he’d gotten me this long black stick of opium, and I said, “Paul, what do I do with it?” And he said, “Just put it in the tea.” So I put the whole stick in the tea. I nearly died of an OD, of course. I was puking green as your jacket, you know? And sicker than 10 dogs all that day. I called in a Siamese doctor. He said, “You should be dead.” I said, “I feel as though if I weren’t walking or stumbling about, I would be.” I’ve always said I wanted to write under the drug, you know, like Cocteau did — all of a sudden, my head seemed like a balloon and it seemed to go right up to the ceiling…

Williams then recounts more of his substance experiments:

I wrote [the film script One Arm] one summer while I was taking Dr. Max Jacobson’s shots. I did some of my best writing while taking those shots. I had incredible vitality under them. And I got way ahead of myself as a writer, you know? And into another dimension. I never enjoyed writing like that.

They proceed to exchange substance preferences:

Williams: You’ve never written on any kind of speed, have you Bill?

Burroughs: Well no, I’m not a speed man at all.

Williams: I’m a downer man.

Burroughs: I don’t like either one very much.

Williams: Speed is wonderful, while I was young enough to take it; but you don’t like either one, now? You don’t need any kind of artificial stimulant?

Burroughs: Ummmm, well, you know … of course, cannabis in any form is —

Williams: Cannabis has the opposite effect on me. But I think Paul finds it very helpful — Paul Bowles. But I have tried it; nothing. Just stonewalled me.

Riffing off an oft-quoted line from one of his stories — “All art is an indiscretion, all life is a scandal.” — Williams steers the conversation, tongue-in-cheek, toward writing:

I hate politesse, don’t you, Bill? I don’t like people who play it too close to the vest — especially when there isn’t too much of it left. I intend to enjoy what little there is. We’re having a very literary discussion, aren’t we? [hearty laugh] I avoid talking about writing.

[…]

There’s something very private about writing, don’t you think? Somehow it’s better, talking about one’s most intimate sexual practices — you know — than talking about writing. And yet it’s what I think we writers, we live for: writing. It’s what we live for, and yet we can’t discuss it with any freedom. It’s very sad…

Williams returns to the subject of drugs, this time with full facetiousness, and shares “a poem about a junky,” written during one of his bouts of severe depression. It was inspired by “the mistress of a famous man,” who left the woman and she died from substance abuse.

I met an apparition, and so did she.
She was as lovely as ever and even more fragile than ever and her eyes
were blind-looking.
I found myself able to think and speak a little.
“What have you been doing lately?”
Indifferently she said: “When you take pills around the clock
what you do is try to get money and pay the drugstore.”

Williams, his mind no doubt on Burroughs’s extensive autobiographical writings about the heroin addiction of his youth, adds:

I think it’s most remarkable that you avoided any commitment to drugs, you know? Except cannabis. And your’e strong enough to control it. I’m strong enough to control anything I take…

To hear such a classic addict’s statement from one of the most brilliant creators of the twentieth century is heartbreaking evidence that there is no outsmarting addiction. By that point, Williams had spent decades spiraling deeper and deeper into the pit of substance abuse.

And yet it is unsurprising that two men of such considerable talent and intelligence wouldn’t be able to discuss drugs as a purely recreational subject outside the bounds of larger considerations of morality. When Burroughs quotes the English occultist, poet, and novelist Aleister Crowley’s line, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” the conversation takes a turn for the philosophical:

Williams: Provided you want to do the right thing, yes.

Burroughs: Ah, but if you really want to do it, then it’s the right thing. That’s the point.

Williams: Isn’t that an amoralist point of view?

Burroughs: Completely … completely.

Williams: I don’t believe you’re an amoralist.

Burroughs: Oh yes.

Williams: You do believe it?

Burroughs: Well, I do what I can…

Williams: I don’t think it’s true.

Twenty years earlier, in another interview included in the volume, Williams had addressed the question of moralism directly:

I have a distinct moralist attitude. I wouldn’t say message. I’m not polemical, but I have a distinct attitude toward good and evil in life and people. I think any of my plays examined closely will indicate what I regard as evil. I think I regard hypocrisy and mendacity as almost the cardinal sins. It seems they are the ones to which I am most hostile. I think that deliberate, conscienceless mendacity, the acceptance of falsehood and hypocrisy, is the most dangerous of all sins.

In this light, the final moments of Williams’s conversation with Burroughs twenty years later reverberate with even more poignancy:

Burroughs: We were both brought up in the Bible belt; but it’s obvious that what you want to do is, of course, eventually what you will do, anyway. Sooner or later.

Williams: I think we all die, sooner or later. I prefer to postpone the event.

Burroughs: Yes, there is that consideration.

Williams: I’m in no hurry. But one doesn’t choose it. I’ve always been terrified of death.

Burroughs: Well… why?

Williams: I’m not sure. I say that, and yet I’m not sure. How about you?

Burroughs: Well, as I say, I don’t know. Someone asked me about death, and I said, “How do you know you’re not dead already?”

Six years later, 71-year-old Williams was found dead in his hotel room, having choked on the bottle cap of his eye drops. The evidence strongly suggests that his lifelong drug and alcohol use had damaged his gag reflex, causing his death. This renders Conversations with Tennessee Williams, in which his creative genius and intellectual integrity blossom with breathtaking beauty, all the more bittersweet — and an immeasurably valuable reminder that life is woven of dualities and contradictions, that “everything exists at once with its opposite,” that the greatest struggle of the human experience is that of reconciling the life-giving parts of us with the deadly ones.

Complement with Williams’s stirring reading of two poems by Hart Crane, Burroughs on creativity, his advice to the young channeled by Patti Smith, and Aldous Huxley on drugs and democracy.

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