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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

11 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Day Dostoyevsky Discovered the Meaning of Life in a Dream

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“And it is so simple… You will instantly find how to live.”

One November night in the 1870s, legendary Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881) discovered the meaning of life in a dream — or, at least, the protagonist in his final short story did. The piece, which first appeared in the altogether revelatory A Writer’s Diary (public library) under the title “The Dream of a Queer Fellow” and was later published separately as The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, explores themes similar to those in Dostoyevsky’s 1864 novel Notes from the Underground, considered the first true existential novel. True to Stephen King’s assertion that “good fiction is the truth inside the lie,” the story sheds light on Dostoyevsky’s personal spiritual and philosophical bents with extraordinary clarity — perhaps more so than any of his other published works. The contemplation at its heart falls somewhere between Tolstoy’s tussle with the meaning of life and Philip K. Dick’s hallucinatory exegesis.

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov, 1871

The story begins with the narrator wandering the streets of St. Petersburg on “a gloomy night, the gloomiest night you can conceive,” dwelling on how others have ridiculed him all his life and slipping into nihilism with the “terrible anguish” of believing that nothing matters. He peers into the glum sky, gazes at a lone little star, and contemplates suicide; two months earlier, despite his destitution, he had bought an “excellent revolver” with the same intention, but the gun had remained in his drawer since. Suddenly, as he is staring at the star, a little girl of about eight, wearing ragged clothes and clearly in distress, grabs him by the arm and inarticulately begs his help. But the protagonist, disenchanted with life, shoos her away and returns to the squalid room he shares with a drunken old captain, furnished with “a sofa covered in American cloth, a table with some books, two chairs and an easy-chair, old, incredibly old, but still an easy-chair.”

As he sinks into the easy-chair to think about ending his life, he finds himself haunted by the image of the little girl, leading him to question his nihilistic disposition. Dostoyevsky writes:

I knew for certain that I would shoot myself that night, but how long I would sit by the table — that I did not know. I should certainly have shot myself, but for that little girl.

You see: though it was all the same to me, I felt pain, for instance. If any one were to strike me, I should feel pain. Exactly the same in the moral sense: if anything very pitiful happened, I would feel pity, just as I did before everything in life became all the same to me. I had felt pity just before: surely, I would have helped a child without fail. Why did I not help the little girl, then? It was because of an idea that came into my mind then. When she was pulling at me and calling to me, suddenly a question arose before me, which I could not answer. The question was an idle one; but it made me angry. I was angry because of my conclusion, that if I had already made up my mind that I would put an end to myself to-night, then now more than ever before everything in the world should be all the same to me. Why was it that I felt it was not all the same to me, and pitied the little girl? I remember I pitied her very much: so much that I felt a pain that was even strange and incredible in my situation…

It seemed clear that if I was a man and not a cipher yet, and until I was changed into a cipher, then I was alive and therefore could suffer, be angry and feel shame for my actions. Very well. But if I were to kill myself, for instance, in two hours from now, what is the girl to me, and what have I to do with shame or with anything on earth? I am going to be a cipher, an absolute zero. Could my consciousness that I would soon absolutely cease to exist, and that therefore nothing would exist, have not the least influence on my feeling of pity for the girl or on my sense of shame for the vileness I had committed?

From the moral, he veers into the existential:

It became clear to me that life and the world, as it were, depended upon me. I might even say that the world had existed for me alone. I should shoot myself, and then there would be no world at all, for me at least. Not to mention that perhaps there will really be nothing for any one after me, and the whole world, as soon as my consciousness is extinguished, will also be extinguished like a phantom, as part of my consciousness only, and be utterly abolished, since perhaps all this world and all these men are myself alone.

Beholding “these new, thronging questions,” he plunges into a contemplation of what free will really means. In a passage that calls to mind John Cage’s famous aphorism on the meaning of life — “No why. Just here.” — and George Lucas’s assertion that “life is beyond reason,” Dostoyevsky suggests through his protagonist that what gives meaning to life is life itself:

One strange consideration suddenly presented itself to me. If I had previously lived on the moon or in Mars, and I had there been dishonored and disgraced so utterly that one can only imagine it sometimes in a dream or a nightmare, and if I afterwards found myself on earth and still preserved a consciousness of what I had done on the other planet, and if I knew besides that I would never by any chance return, then, if I were to look at the moon from the earth — would it be all the same to me or not? Would I feel any shame for my action or not? The questions were idle and useless, for the revolver was already lying before me, and I knew with all my being that this thing would happen for certain: but the questions excited me to rage. I could not die now, without having solved this first. In a word, that little girl saved me, for my questions made me postpone pulling the trigger.

Just as he ponders this, the protagonist slips into sleep in the easy-chair, but it’s a sleep that has the quality of wakeful dreaming. In one of many wonderful semi-asides, Dostoyevsky peers at the eternal question of why we have dreams:

Dreams are extraordinarily strange. One thing appears with terrifying clarity, with the details finely set like jewels, while you leap over another, as though you did not notice it at all — space and time, for instance. It seems that dreams are the work not of mind but of desire, not of the head but of the heart… In a dream things quite incomprehensible come to pass. For instance, my brother died five years ago. Sometimes I see him in a dream: he takes part in my affairs, and we are very excited, while I, all the time my dream goes on, know and remember perfectly that my brother is dead and buried. Why am I not surprised that he, though dead, is still near me and busied about me? Why does my mind allow all that?

In this strange state, the protagonist dreams that he takes his revolver and points it at his heart — not his head, where he had originally intended to shoot himself. After waiting a second or two, his dream-self pulls the trigger quickly. Then something remarkable happens:

I felt no pain, but it seemed to me that with the report, everything in me was convulsed, and everything suddenly extinguished. It was terribly black all about me. I became as though blind and numb, and I lay on my back on something hard. I could see nothing, neither could I make any sound. People were walking and making a noise about me: the captain’s bass voice, the landlady’s screams… Suddenly there was a break. I am being carried in a closed coffin. I feel the coffin swinging and I think about that, and suddenly for the first time the idea strikes me that I am dead, quite dead. I know it and do not doubt it; I cannot see nor move, yet at the same time I feel and think. But I am soon reconciled to that, and as usual in a dream I accept the reality without a question.

Now I am being buried in the earth. Every one leaves me and I am alone, quite alone. I do not stir… I lay there and — strange to say — I expected nothing, accepting without question that a dead man has nothing to expect. But it was damp. I do not know how long passed — an hour, a few days, or many days. Suddenly, on my left eye which was closed, a drop of water fell, which had leaked through the top of the grave. In a minute fell another, then a third, and so on, every minute. Suddenly, deep indignation kindled in my heart and suddenly in my heart I felt physical pain. ‘It’s my wound,’ I thought. ‘It’s where I shot myself. The bullet is there.’ And all the while the water dripped straight on to my closed eye. Suddenly, I cried out, not with a voice, for I was motionless, but with all my being, to the arbiter of all that was being done to me.

“Whosoever thou art, if thou art, and if there exists a purpose more intelligent than the things which are now taking place, let it be present here also. But if thou dost take vengeance upon me for my foolish suicide, then know, by the indecency and absurdity of further existence, that no torture whatever that may befall me, can ever be compared to the contempt which I will silently feel, even through millions of years of martyrdom.”

I cried out and was silent. Deep silence lasted a whole minute. One more drop even fell. But I knew and believed, infinitely and steadfastly, that in a moment everything would infallibly change. Suddenly, my grave opened. I do not know whether it had been uncovered and opened, but I was taken by some dark being unknown to me, and we found ourselves in space. Suddenly, I saw. It was deep night; never, never had such darkness been! We were borne through space and were already far from the earth. I asked nothing of him who led me. I was proud and waited. I assured myself that I was not afraid, and my heart melted with rapture at the thought that I was not afraid. I do not remember how long we rushed through space, and I cannot imagine it. It happened as always in a dream when you leap over space and time and the laws of life and mind, and you stop only there where your heart delights.

The 1845 depiction of a galaxy that inspired Van Gogh’s 'The Starry Night,' from Michael Benson's 'Cosmigraphics.' Click image for more.

Through the thick darkness, he sees a star — the same little star he had seen before shooing the girl away. As the dream continues, the protagonist describes a sort of transcendence akin to what is experienced during psychedelic drug trips or in deep meditation states:

Suddenly a familiar yet most overwhelming emotion shook me through. I saw our sun. I knew that it could not be our sun, which had begotten our earth, and that we were an infinite distance away, but somehow all through me I recognized that it was exactly the same sun as ours, its copy and double. A sweet and moving delight echoed rapturously through my soul. The dear power of light, of that same light which had given me birth, touched my heart and revived it, and I felt life, the old life, for the first time since my death.

He finds himself in another world, Earthlike in every respect, except “everything seemed to be bright with holiday, with a great and sacred triumph, finally achieved” — a world populated by “children of the sun,” happy people whose eyes “shone with a bright radiance” and whose faces “gleamed with wisdom, and with a certain consciousness, consummated in tranquility.” The protagonist exclaims:

Oh, instantly, at the first glimpse of their faces I understood everything, everything!

Conceding that “it was only a dream,” he nonetheless asserts that “the sensation of the love of those beautiful and innocent people” was very much real and something he carried into wakeful life on Earth. Awaking in his easy-chair at dawn, he exclaims anew with rekindled gratitude for life:

Oh, now — life, life! I lifted my hands and called upon the eternal truth, not called, but wept. Rapture, ineffable rapture exalted all my being. Yes, to live…

Dostoyevsky concludes with his protagonist’s reflection on the shared essence of life, our common conquest of happiness and kindness:

All are tending to one and the same goal, at least all aspire to the same goal, from the wise man to the lowest murderer, but only by different ways. It is an old truth, but there is this new in it: I cannot go far astray. I saw the truth. I saw and know that men could be beautiful and happy, without losing the capacity to live upon the earth. I will not, I cannot believe that evil is the normal condition of men… I saw the truth, I did not invent it with my mind. I saw, saw, and her living image filled my soul for ever. I saw her in such consummate perfection that I cannot possibly believe that she was not among men. How can I then go astray? … The living image of what I saw will be with me always, and will correct and guide me always. Oh, I am strong and fresh, I can go on, go on, even for a thousand years.

[…]

And it is so simple… The one thing is — love thy neighbor as thyself — that is the one thing. That is all, nothing else is needed. You will instantly find how to live.

A century later, Jack Kerouac would echo this in his own magnificent meditation on kindness and the “Golden Eternity.”

A Writer’s Diary is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement it with Tolstoy on finding meaning in a meaningless world and Margaret Mead’s dreamed epiphany about why life is like blue jelly.

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10 NOVEMBER, 2014

Rewriting the Book of Belonging: Anne Lamott on the True Gift of Friendship and the Uncomfortable Art of Letting Yourself Be Seen

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“Trappings and charm wear off… Let people see you.”

Beyond having written one of the finest books on writing ever published, Anne Lamott embraces language and life with equal zest, squeezing from the intersection wisdom of the most soul-stretching kind. Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (public library | IndieBound) shines a sidewise gleam at Lamott’s much-loved meditations on why perfectionism kills creativity and how we keep ourselves small by people-pleasing to explore the boundless blessings of our ample imperfections, from which our most expansive and transcendent humanity springs.

In an especially enchanting essay titled “The Book of Welcome,” Lamott imagines a scripture that was never written, a set of guidances and assurances that would avail us of haven from one of our most anguishing pathologies — the sense that we fall short, that we are undeserving of happiness, that we are unlovable and undesired; a sense instilled in many of us by “not having been cherished for who we are, by certain tall, anxiously shut-down people in our childhood homes.” She writes:

The welcome book would have taught us that power and signs of status can’t save us, that welcome — both offering and receiving — is our source of safety. Various chapters and verses of this book would remind us that we are wanted and even occasionally delighted in, despite the unfortunate truth that we are greedy-grabby, self-referential, indulgent, overly judgmental, and often hysterical.

Somehow that book “went missing”… We have to write that book ourselves.

Illustration from 'Hug Me' by Simona Ciraolo. Click image for more.

We write that book, Lamott suggests, in large part through our friendships — those delicate yet supremely secure embraces of welcome, woven of what Emerson memorably termed “truth and tenderness.” We nurture these voluntary relationships to heal from the involuntary ones that failed to nurture us when we were coming unto ourselves. Lamott writes:

The reality is that most of us lived our first decades feeling welcome only when certain conditions applied: we felt safe and embraced only when the parental units were getting along, when we were on our best behavior, doing well in school, not causing problems, and had as few needs as possible. If you needed more from them, best of luck.

[…]

They liked to think their love was unconditional. That’s nice. Sadly, though, the child who showed up at the table for meals was not the child the parents had set out to make. They seemed surprised all over again. They’d already forgotten from breakfast.

The parental units were simply duplicating what they’d learned when they were small. That’s the system.

It wasn’t that you got the occasional feeling that you were an alien or a chore to them. You just knew that attention had to be paid constantly to their moods, their mental health levels, their rising irritation, and the volume of beer consumed. Yes, there were many happy memories marbled in, too, of picnics, pets, beaches. But I will remind you now that inconsistency is how experimenters regularly drive lab rats over the edge.

Illustration from 'Little Boy Brown.' Click image for more.

And when “the system” does eventually drive us over the edge, we drop — if we’re lucky, if we allow ourselves to fall with grace — into the ungrabby, ungreedy, wholly welcoming arms of those we learn to call friends. Lamott recounts her own crash when, in her thirties, she got sober:

A few women in the community reached out to me. They recognized me as a frightened lush. I told them about my most vile behavior, and they said, “Me too!” I told them about my crimes against the innocent, especially me. They said, “Ditto. Yay. Welcome.” I couldn’t seem to get them to reject me. It was a nightmare and then my salvation.

It turns out that welcome is solidarity. We’re glad you’re here, and we’re with you. This whole project called you being alive, you finding joy? Well, we’re in on that.

Allowing that, Lamott observes, is a massive undertaking, a “big adjustment” that requires a “rebalancing of the soul.” But once we do, the book of welcome rewrites your story:

Trappings and charm wear off… Let people see you. They see your upper arms are beautiful, soft and clean and warm, and then they will see this about their own, some of the time. It’s called having friends, choosing each other, getting found, being fished out of the rubble. It blows you away, how this wonderful event ever happened — me in your life, you in mine.

Two parts fit together. This hadn’t occurred all that often, but now that it does, it’s the wildest experience. It could almost make a believer out of you. Of course, life will randomly go to hell every so often, too. Cold winds arrive and prick you: the rain falls down your neck: darkness comes. But now there are two of you: Holy Moly.

A master of the touchpoint between wit and wisdom, Lamott adds to the poignant a wink of the playful:

The two nonnegotiable rules are that you must not wear patchouli oil — we’ll still love you, but we won’t want to sit with you — and that the only excuse for bringing your cell phone to the dinner table is if you’re eagerly waiting to hear that they’ve procured an organ for your impending transplant.

Small Victories is an enormously ennobling read in its entirety. Complement it with Lamott on how to handle those who refuse to welcome us, then revisit Aristotle on the art of human connection, Andrew Sullivan on why friendship is a greater gift than erotic love, and C.S. Lewis on true friendship.

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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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