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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

10 NOVEMBER, 2014

Pico Iyer on What Leonard Cohen Teaches Us about Presence and the Art of Stillness

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“Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”

“Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments,” Alan Lightman wrote in his sublime meditation on science and spirituality, “and at others to ride the passion and exuberance.” In his conversation with E.O. Wilson, the poet Robert Hass described beauty as a “paradox of stillness and motion.” But in our Productivity Age of perpetual motion, it’s increasingly hard — yet increasingly imperative — to honor stillness, to build pockets of it into our lives, so that our faith in beauty doesn’t become half-hearted, lopsided, crippled. The delicate bridling of that paradox is what novelist and essayist Pico Iyer explores in The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (public library | IndieBound) — a beautifully argued case for the unexpected pleasures of “sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it,” revealed through one man’s sincere record of learning to “take care of his loved ones, do his job, and hold on to some direction in a madly accelerating world.”

Iyer begins by recounting a snaking drive up the San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles to visit his boyhood hero — legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. In 1994, shortly after the most revealing interview he ever gave, Cohen had moved to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center to embark on five years of seclusion, serving as personal assistant to the great Japanese Zen teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, then in his late eighties. Midway through his time at the Zen Center, Cohen was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and given the Dharma name Jikan — Pali for “silence.” Iyer writes:

I’d come up here in order to write about my host’s near-silent, anonymous life on the mountain, but for the moment I lost all sense of where I was. I could hardly believe that this rabbinical-seeming gentleman in wire-rimmed glasses and wool cap was in truth the singer and poet who’d been renowned for thirty years as an international heartthrob, a constant traveler, and an Armani-clad man of the world.

Cohen, who once described the hubbub of his ordinary state of mind as “very much like the waiting room at the DMV,” had sought in the sequestered Zen community a more extreme, more committed version of a respite most us long for in the midst of modern life — at least at times, at least on some level, and often wholeheartedly, achingly. Iyer reflects on Cohen’s particular impulse and what it reveals about our shared yearning:

Leonard Cohen had come to this Old World redoubt to make a life — an art — out of stillness. And he was working on simplifying himself as fiercely as he might on the verses of one of his songs, which he spends more than ten years polishing to perfection. The week I was visiting, he was essentially spending seven days and nights in a bare meditation hall, sitting stock-still. His name in the monastery, Jikan, referred to the silence between two thoughts.

[…]

One evening — four in the morning, the end of December — Cohen took time out from his meditations to walk down to my cabin and try to explain what he was doing here.

Sitting still, he said with unexpected passion, was “the real deep entertainment” he had found in his sixty-one years on the planet. “Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available within this activity.”

Was he kidding? Cohen is famous for his mischief and ironies.

He wasn’t, I realized as he went on. “What else would I be doing?” he asked. “Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don’t know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.”

Typically lofty and pitiless words; living on such close terms with silence clearly hadn’t diminished his gift for golden sentences. But the words carried weight when coming from one who seemed to have tasted all the pleasures that the world has to offer.

Iyer beholds his encounter with Cohen with the same incredulous amazement that most of us modern cynics experience, at first reluctantly, when confronted with something or someone incomprehensibly earnest, for nothing dissolves snark like unflinching sincerity. For Cohen, Iyer observes, the Zen practice was not a matter of “piety or purity” but of practical salvation and refuge from “the confusion and terror that had long been his bedfellows.” Iyer writes:

Sitting still with his aged Japanese friend, sipping Courvoisier, and listening to the crickets deep into the night, was the closest he’d come to finding lasting happiness, the kind that doesn’t change even when life throws up one of its regular challenges and disruptions.

“Nothing touches it,” Cohen said, as the light came into the cabin, of sitting still… Going nowhere, as Cohen described it, was the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.

But the paradox thickens the closer we get to its source. The kind of stillness Cohen bows to is a capacity most reliably acquired through meditation. And yet even though meditation is our greatest gateway to everyday transcendence, most adults in the West don’t practice it. The second most common reason nonpractitioners have against meditating is that they don’t have the time to do it — not enough time to learn to live with presence. (The most common reason to resist, of course, is people’s protestation that they simply can’t do it or aren’t cut out for it, which is merely the time argument by a guise of greater denial — it simply means that they haven’t put in the time to get good at it; there is a reason it’s termed a meditation practice — mastering it obeys the same basic principles of attaining excellence as any skill.)

A century after Bertrand Russell admonished that the conquest of leisure and health would be of no use if no one remembers how to use them, Iyer paints an empirical caricature of the paradoxical time argument against stillness. Citing a sociological study of time diaries that found Americans were working fewer hours than they were 30 years earlier but felt as if they were working more, he writes:

We’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off — our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk.

As most of us would begrudgingly admit, not without some necessary tussle with denial and rationalization, the challenge of staying present in the era of productivity is in no small part a product of our age itself. Iyer captures this elegantly:

Not many years ago, it was access to information and movement that seemed our greatest luxury; nowadays it’s often freedom from information, the chance to sit still, that feels like the ultimate prize. Stillness is not just an indulgence for those with enough resources — it’s a necessity for anyone who wishes to gather less visible resources. Going nowhere, as Cohen had shown me, is not about austerity so much as about coming closer to one’s senses.

Much like we find ourselves by getting lost, Iyer suggests, we inhabit the world more fully by mindfully vacating its mayhem:

Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Annie Dillard’s memorable notion of “unmerited grace [that] is handed to you, but only if you look for it,” Iyer considers the rewards that beckon us from that space of stillness:

It’s only by taking myself away from clutter and distraction that I can begin to hear something out of earshot and recall that listening is much more invigorating than giving voice to all the thoughts and prejudices that anyway keep me company twenty-four hours a day. And it’s only by going nowhere — by sitting still or letting my mind relax — that I find that the thoughts that come to me unbidden are far fresher and more imaginative than the ones I consciously seek out.

With a wink of wisdom that would’ve made William James proud, Iyer adds:

It takes courage, of course, to step out of the fray, as it takes courage to do anything that’s necessary, whether tending to a loved one on her deathbed or turning away from that sugarcoated doughnut.

The Art of Stillness, which comes from TED Books, is a wonderful read in its entirety. Complement it with Alan Watts on happiness and how to live with presence, Rebecca Solnit’s magnificent field guide to getting lost, Annie Dillard on presence vs. productivity, and some thoughts on wisdom in the age of information.

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05 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Flat Rabbit: A Minimalist Scandinavian Children’s Book about Making Sense of Death and the Mysteries of Life

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A gentle and assuring reminder that we don’t have all the answers.

Neil Gaiman, in discussing his gorgeous new adaptation of Hansel and Gretel, asserted that we shouldn’t protect ourselves and children from the dark. But when the thickest darkness comes, in childhood as much as in adulthood, it brings with it not the monsters and witches of fairy tales but the tragedies of life itself — nowhere more acutely than in confronting death and its ghouls of grief. And when it does come, as Joan Didion memorably put it, it’s “nothing like we expect it to be.” What we need isn’t so much protection as the shaky comfort of understanding — a sensemaking mechanism for the messiness of loss.

That’s precisely what Faroese children’s book author and artist Bárður Oskarsson does in The Flat Rabbit (public library | IndieBound) — a masterwork of minimalist storytelling that speaks volumes about our eternal tussle with our own impermanence.

The book, translated by Faroese language-lover Marita Thomsen, comes from a long tradition of Scandinavian children’s books with singular sensitivity to such difficult subjects — from Tove Jansson’s vintage parables of uncertainty to Stein Erik Lunde’s Norwegian tale of grief to Øyvind Torseter’s existential meditation on the meaning of something and nothing.

The story, full of quiet wit and wistful wonder, begins with a carefree dog walking down the street. Suddenly, he comes upon a rabbit, lying silently flattened on the road. As the dog, saddened by the sight, wonders what to do, his friend the rat comes by.

“She is totally flat,” said the rat. For a while they just stood there looking at her.

“Do you know her?”

“Well,” said the dog, “I think she’s from number 34. I’ve never talked to her, but I peed on the gate a couple of times, so we’ve definitely met.”

The two agree that “lying there can’t be any fun” and decide to move her, but don’t know where to take her and head to the park to think.

The dog was now so deep in thought that, had you put your ear to his skull, you would have actually heard him racking his brain.

Embedded in the story is a subtle reminder that ideas don’t come to us by force of will but by the power of incubation as everything we’ve unconsciously absorbed clicks together into new combinations in our minds. As the dog sits straining his neurons, we see someone flying a kite behind him — a seeming aside noted only in the visual narrative, but one that becomes the seed for the rabbit solution.

Exclaiming that he has a plan, the dog returns to the scene with the rat. They take the rabbit from the road and work all night on the plan, hammering away in the doghouse.

In the next scene, we see the rabbit lovingly taped to the frame of a kite, which takes the dog and the rat forty-two attempts to fly.

With great simplicity and sensitivity, the story lifts off into a subtle meditation on the spiritual question of an afterlife — there is even the spatial alignment of a proverbial heaven “above.” It suggests — to my mind, at least — that all such notions exist solely for the comfort of the living, for those who survive the dead and who confront their own mortality in that survival, and yet there is peace to be found in such illusory consolations anyway, which alone is reason enough to have them.

Mostly, the story serves as a gentle reminder that we simply don’t have all the answers and that, as John Updike put it, “the mystery of being is a permanent mystery.”

Once the kite was flying, they watched it in silence for a long time.

“Do you think she is having a good time?” the rat finally asked, without looking at the dog.

The dog tried to imagine what the world would look like from up there.

“I don’t know…” he replied slowly. “I don’t know.”

Complement The Flat Rabbit with Love Is Forever, a more literal but no less lovely take on helping young hearts deal with loss, then revisit Meghan O’Rourke’s magnificent grownup memoir of navigating mourning.

Illustrations courtesy of Owlkids Books

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05 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Malady of Middlebrow: Virginia Woolf’s Brilliantly Blistering Response to a Patronizing Reviewer

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“If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares call me ‘middlebrow’ I will take my pen and stab him, dead.”

Susan Sontag once scoffed that reading criticism is “cultural cholesterol” that “clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas.” Despite her svelte frame, Virginia Woolf, on at least one notable occasion, indulged in such a high-cholesterol gorge of the mind.

On October 13, 1932, the English novelist and critic J. B. Priestley reviewed Woolf’s The Second Common Reader — the source of that superb essay on how to read a book — and hurled her way the patronizing remark that her writing belonged to the ilk of “terrifically sensitive, cultured, invalidish ladies with private means.” (The privilege narrative, it seems, is the perennial low-hanging fruit of criticism.) He also referred to Woolf by a term the writer Arnold Bennett had coined some years earlier — “the High Priestess of Bloomsbury” — which she found loathsome. In a letter to her onetime lover and lifelong literary confidante Vita Sackville-West, Woolf wrote that Priestley’s remarks elicited in her “unadulterated disgust.”

The situation escalated when, four days later, the BBC invited Priestley to give a radio talk under the title “To a Highbrow,” mocking those who reject anything “popular” for the sake of appearing intellectual and urging them instead to “be a broadbrow.” A week later, Sackville-West’s husband, the diarist and author Harold Nicolson — whose book Priestley had eviscerated in the same review as Woolf’s — was invited to give a rebuttal under the title “To a Lowbrow.” The following week, New Statesman reviewed the BBC debate and declared Nicolson victorious.

But Woolf, fifty at the time, remained unsettled by the “battle of the brows.” To address the complex issues at stake, she penned a brilliant, spectacularly scathing letter to New Statesman, in which she argued that the true social malady in need of eradication wasn’t “highbrow” or “lowbrow” but “middlebrow” — that lot of men and women of “middlebred intelligence” concerned not with the lowbrows’ pursuit of living, nor with the highbrows’ pursuit of the life of ideas, but with “betwixt and between” simulacra, “neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige.”

The piece stands as proof that literature, at its best, is the original internet — the letter a lace of hypertext, full of elegantly placed “hyperlinks” to a web of external ideas and incidents related to Woolf’s commentary. It is also a masterwork of irony in the true literary sense. She mocks not only Priestley as a stand-in for “middlebrow,” at that point occupying the decidedly middlebrow position of book critic from the Evening Standard, but also the BBC itself, renaming it the “Betwixt and Between Company” — subtly piercing, not to mention astoundingly timely, criticism against the commodification of journalism that happens when media companies package their product for sale to an audience of “middlebred intelligence” and package that audience for sale to advertisers.

Woolf didn’t send the letter — after completing it, she became convinced that it was better-served as an essay and intended to rework it into one. But it was never published in her lifetime. It appears under the title “Middlebrow” in the posthumous collection The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (public library | IndieBound) — the same spectacular volume that gave us the record of the only surviving recording of Woolf’s voice, aired, ironically, by the BBC.

In the spirit of such irony, Woolf opens with a complaint that she wasn’t called a “highbrow” in the review and writes:

Since the Battle of the Brows troubles, I am told, the evening air, since the finest minds of our age have lately been engaged in debating, not without that passion which befits a noble cause, what a highbrow is and what a lowbrow, which is better and which is worse, may I take this opportunity to express my opinion and at the same time draw attention to certain aspects of the question which seem to me to have been unfortunately overlooked?

Now there can be no two opinions as to what a highbrow is. He is the man or woman of thoroughbred intelligence who rides his mind at a gallop across country in pursuit of an idea. That is why I have always been so proud to be called highbrow. That is why, if I could be more of a highbrow I would. I honour and respect highbrows. Some of my relations have been highbrows; and some, but by no means all, of my friends. To be a highbrow, a complete and representative highbrow, a highbrow like Shakespeare, Dickens, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Charlotte Bronte, Scott, Jane Austen, Flaubert, Hardy or Henry James — to name a few highbrows from the same profession chosen at random — is of course beyond the wildest dreams of my imagination. And, though I would cheerfully lay myself down in the dust and kiss the print of their feet, no person of sense will deny that this passionate preoccupation of theirs — riding across country in pursuit of ideas — often leads to disaster… Highbrows, for some reason or another, are wholly incapable of dealing successfully with what is called real life. That is why, and here I come to a point that is often surprisingly ignored, they honour so wholeheartedly and depend so completely upon those who are called lowbrows. By a lowbrow is meant of course a man or a woman of thoroughbred vitality who rides his body in pursuit of a living at a gallop across life. That is why I honour and respect lowbrows — and I have never known a highbrow who did not. In so far as I am a highbrow (and my imperfections in that line are well known to me) I love lowbrows; I study them; I always sit next the conductor in an omnibus and try to get him to tell me what it is like — being a conductor. In whatever company I am I always try to know what it is like — being a conductor, being a woman with ten children and thirty-five shillings a week, being a stockbroker, being an admiral, being a bank clerk, being a dressmaker, being a duchess, being a miner, being a cook, being a prostitute. All that lowbrows do is of surpassing interest and wonder to me, because, in so far as I am a highbrow, I cannot do things myself.

Half a century before Sontag’s lament about the artificial divide between “high” and “low” culture, Woolf offers “another point which is surprisingly overlooked”:

Lowbrows need highbrows and honour them just as much as highbrows need lowbrows and honour them. This too is not a matter that requires much demonstration. You have only to stroll along the Strand on a wet winter’s night and watch the crowds lining up to get into the movies. These lowbrows are waiting, after the day’s work, in the rain, sometimes for hours, to get into the cheap seats and sit in hot theatres in order to see what their lives look like. Since they are lowbrows, engaged magnificently and adventurously in riding full tilt from one end of life to the other in pursuit of a living, they cannot see themselves doing it. Yet nothing interests them more. Nothing matters to them more. It is one of the prime necessities of life to them — to be shown what life looks like. And the highbrows, of course, are the only people who can show them. Since they are the only people who do not do things, they are the only people who can see things being done…

Nevertheless we are told — the air buzzes with it by night, the press booms with it by day, the very donkeys in the fields do nothing but bray it, the very curs in the streets do nothing but bark it — “Highbrows hate lowbrows! Lowbrows hate highbrows!” — when highbrows need lowbrows, when lowbrows need highbrows, when they cannot exist apart, when one is the complement and other side of the other! How has such a lie come into existence? Who has set this malicious gossip afloat?

There can be no doubt about that either. It is the doing of the middlebrows. They are the people, I confess, that I seldom regard with entire cordiality. They are the go-betweens; they are the busy-bodies who run from one to the other with their tittle tattle and make all the mischief — the middlebrows, I repeat.

Woolf then offers a definition of “middlebrow”:

They are neither one thing nor the other. They are not highbrows, whose brows are high; nor lowbrows, whose brows are low. Their brows are betwixt and between. They do not live in Bloomsbury which is on high ground; nor in Chelsea, which is on low ground. Since they must live somewhere presumably, they live perhaps in South Kensington, which is betwixt and between. The middlebrow is the man, or woman, of middlebred intelligence who ambles and saunters now on this side of the hedge, now on that, in pursuit of no single object, neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige.

This preoccupation with appearances and approval is a central element in Woolf’s critique of the middlebrow. In a passage that no doubt glares at Priestley’s remark about her “private means,” she writes:

We all have to earn our livings nowadays, my friends the lowbrows remind me. I quite agree. Even those of us whose Aunts came a cropper riding in India and left them an annual income of four hundred and fifty pounds, now reduced, thanks to the war and other luxuries, to little more than two hundred odd, even we have to do that. And we do it, too, by writing about anybody who seems amusing — enough has been written about Shakespeare — Shakespeare hardly pays. We highbrows, I agree, have to earn our livings; but when we have earned enough to live on, then we live. When the middlebrows, on the contrary, have earned enough to live on, they go on earning enough to buy.

Woolf paints the middlebrow as perpetually caught on the hedonic treadmill as she describes what they actually buy:

Queen Anne furniture (faked, but none the less expensive); first editions of dead writers, always the worst; pictures, or reproductions from pictures, by dead painters; houses in what is called “the Georgian style” — but never anything new, never a picture by a living painter, or a chair by a living carpenter, or books by living writers, for to buy living art requires living taste.

(In fact, Woolf’s contempt for Priestley as an epitome of such middlebrow repugnancy predated the “Battle of the Brows.” In 1930, writing in her diary, she mocks Priestley’s hypocritical relationship with money and status: “At the age of 50 Priestly will be saying, ‘why don’t the highbrows admire me? It isn’t true that I write only for money.’ He will be enormously rich; but there will be that thorn in his side — or so I hope.”)

In one particularly entertaining passage in the letter, Woolf describes what happens when she is asked to read a middlebrow book — but not without the wonderfully witty remark that the highbrows, among whom she proudly counts herself, “never buy a middlebrow book, or go to a middlebrow lecture, or read, unless we are paid for doing so,” a wink back to the “private means” accusation:

I read a page here, and I read a page there (I am breakfasting, as usual, in bed). And it is not well written; nor is it badly written. It is not proper, nor is it improper — in short it is betwixt and between. Now if there is any sort of book for which I have, perhaps, an imperfect sympathy, it is the betwixt and between. And so, though I suffer from the gout of a morning — but if one’s ancestors for two or three centuries have tumbled into bed dead drunk one has deserved a touch of that malady — I rise. I dress. I proceed weakly to the window. I take that book in my swollen right hand and toss it gently over the hedge into the field. The hungry sheep — did I remember to say that this part of the story takes place in the country? — the hungry sheep look up but are not fed.

Woolf’s letter is laced with perfectly highbrow zingers (the notion of a “highbrow zinger” being, of course, already a thoroughly middlebrow linguistic construct perhaps betraying my own betwixt-and-betweenery) — bemoaning what middlebrows “have the impudence to call real humanity,” she calls their version of culture a “mixture of geniality and sentiment stuck together with a sticky slime of calves-foot jelly” — but nowhere more so than in her concluding paragraphs:

The true battle in my opinion lies not between highbrow and lowbrow, but between highbrows and lowbrows joined together in blood brotherhood against the bloodless and pernicious pest who comes between… If the B.B.C. stood for anything but the Betwixt and Between Company they would use their control of the air not to stir strife between brothers, but to broadcast the fact that highbrows and lowbrows must band together to exterminate a pest which is the bane of all thinking and living.

In closing, Woolf wryly proclaims, with a pun jabbing at Priestley’s name, that she will stay in Bloomsbury — “a place where lowbrows and highbrows live happily together on equal terms and priests are not, nor priestesses, and, to be quite frank, the adjective ‘priestly’ is neither often heard nor held in high esteem” — until the rent is raised “so high that Bloomsbury is safe for middlebrows to live in.” She ends by sarcastically thanking Priestley for his “courteous and interesting review” and returning to the root of her reproach — his chief transgression of not having called her “highbrow”:

I ask nothing better than that all reviewers, for ever, and everywhere, should call me a highbrow. I will do my best to oblige them. If they like to add Bloomsbury, W.C.1, that is the correct postal address, and my telephone number is in the Directory. But if your reviewer, or any other reviewer, dares hint that I live in South Kensington, I will sue him for libel. If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares call me “middlebrow” I will take my pen and stab him, dead.

Yours etc.,

Virginia Woolf

Woolf makes her point even in her signature — nowhere in the history of the English language has the use of “etc.” connoted so much contempt as Woolf deliberately deploys it in place of all variations on the epistolary etiquette of sign-offs.

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays remains a remarkable glimpse into one of the greatest minds humanity has ever known. Complement it with Woolf on writing and consciousness and the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

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