Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

12 MARCH, 2014

Jack Kerouac on Kindness, the Self Illusion, and the “Golden Eternity”

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“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.”

In the mid-1950s, literary iconoclast and beat icon Jack Kerouac (March 12, 1922–October 21, 1969) became intensely interested in Buddhism, which began permeating his writing. It was the golden age of Eastern ideas drawing Western minds, from legendary composer John Cage to pioneering philosopher Alan Watts, credited with popularizing Zen thinking in mainstream Western society. Watts, in fact, at one point criticized Kerouac’s writing as being “always a shade too self-conscious, too subjective, and too strident to have the flavor of Zen.” But when stripped of his literary self-consciousness, as he was in his private letters, Kerouac had a special way of articulating the most beautiful and eternal concepts of Zen Buddhism with equal parts expansive awareness and crystalline precision.

Kerouac sent one such letter to his first wife, Edie Kerouac Parker, in late January of 1957, a decade after their marriage had been annulled. Found in The Portable Jack Kerouac (public library) — an altogether terrific treasure trove of his stories, poems, letters, and essays on Buddhism — the missive is nothing short of exquisite.

Portrait of Jack Kerouac by Robert Frank

Kerouac writes:

I have lots of things to teach you now, in case we ever meet, concerning the message that was transmitted to me under a pine tree in North Carolina on a cold winter moonlit night. It said that Nothing Ever Happened, so don’t worry. It’s all like a dream. Everything is ecstasy, inside. We just don’t know it because of our thinking-minds. But in our true blissful essence of mind is known that everything is alright forever and forever and forever. Close your eyes, let your hands and nerve-ends drop, stop breathing for 3 seconds, listen to the silence inside the illusion of the world, and you will remember the lesson you forgot, which was taught in immense milky way soft cloud innumerable worlds long ago and not even at all. It is all one vast awakened thing. I call it the golden eternity. It is perfect.

Echoing Watts’s philosophy on death, Kerouac considers the illusion of the solid “self” as he contemplates the life and death of mountains:

We were never really born, we will never really die. It has nothing to do with the imaginary idea of a personal self, other selves, many selves everywhere: Self is only an idea, a mortal idea. That which passes into everything is one thing. It’s a dream already ended. There’s nothing to be afraid of and nothing to be glad about. I know this from staring at mountains months on end. They never show any expression, they are like empty space. Do you think the emptiness of space will ever crumble away? Mountains will crumble, but the emptiness of space, which is the one universal essence of mind, the vast awakenerhood, empty and awake, will never crumble away because it was never born.

He ends the letter with one of his free-flowing, uninhibited poems:

The world you see is just a movie in your mind.
Rocks dont see it.
Bless and sit down.
Forgive and forget.
Practice kindness all day to everybody
and you will realize you’re already
in heaven now.
That’s the story.
That’s the message.
Nobody understands it,
nobody listens, they’re
all running around like chickens with heads cut
off. I will try to teach it but it will
be in vain, s’why I’ll
end up in a shack
praying and being
cool and singing
by my woodstove
making pancakes.

More than half a century after Kerouac penned that beautiful letter, director Sergi Castella and filmmaker Hector Ferreño transformed the writer’s words into a magnificent cinematic adaptation for Dosnoventa Bikes, with a haunting, Johnny-Cashlike voiceover by James Phillips and beautifully curated music by Pink Floyd and Cash himself. As an intense lover of both bikes and literature, it makes my heart sing in multiple octaves.

The Portable Jack Kerouac offers a richer glimpse into one of modern history’s most extraordinary minds. Complement it with Kerouac’s beat tour of NYC’s nightlife and his 30 beliefs and techniques for prose and life.

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11 MARCH, 2014

Orgasm Without Release: Alan Watts Presages Our Modern Media Gluttony in 1951

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A prescient admonition from the pioneer of Eastern philosophy in the West.

“If the remission of pain is happiness, then the emergence from distraction is aesthetic bliss,” Saul Bellow wrote in his poignant 1990 essay “The Distracted Public.” Nearly a century earlier, in his funny and wise reflection on feeding the mind, Lewis Carroll admonished that “mental gluttony, or over-reading, is a dangerous propensity, tending to weakness of digestive power, and in some cases to loss of appetite.” And yet, cut off from both our bodies and our brains, we constantly oscillate between distraction and mental gluttony, seething in a cauldron of our own making, unwilling or unable to still our minds long enough for the truly meaningful to settle and coalesce.

This, of course, is far from a modern concern. In his altogether superb 1951 book The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (public library), which gave us his invaluable meditation on happiness and how to live with presence, pioneering British Zen philosopher Alan Watts considers how our perilous compulsion for planning the future, coupled with our voracious appetite for distraction and escapism from the present, stifles our capacity to truly live.

Alan Watts, early 1970s (Image courtesy of Everett Collection)

Watts writes:

The root of [our] frustration is that we live for the future, and the future is an abstraction… The “primary consciousness,” the basic mind which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future. It lives completely in the present, and perceives nothing more than what is at this moment. The ingenious brain, however, looks at that part of present experience called memory, and by studying it is able to make predictions. These predictions are, relatively, so accurate and reliable (e.g., “everyone will die”) that the future assumes a high degree of reality — so high that the present loses its value.

But the future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements — inferences, guesses, deductions — it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.

In language reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s admonition about the moving image, Watts — who, ironically, had a cameo in Spike Jonze’s Siri-centric movie Her — presages the modern mesmerism of screens, devices, and feeds, which, when used mindlessly, take us away from the present moment and become a “moronic inferno.” More than half a century before the technologies that most entice and entrance us today — especially the tyranny of perpetually flashing videos and animated GIFs — Watts observes the same worrisome effect in their then-modern predecessors:

The “brainy” economy designed to produce this happiness is a fantastic vicious circle which must either manufacture more and more pleasures or collapse –providing a constant titillation of the ears, eyes, and nerve ends with incessant streams of almost inescapable noise and visual distractions. The perfect “subject” for the aims of this economy is the person who continuously itches his ears with the radio, preferably using the portable kind which can go with him at all hours and in all places. His eyes flit without rest from television screen, to newspaper, to magazine, keeping him in a sort of orgasm-without-release through a series of teasing glimpses of shiny automobiles, shiny female bodies, and other sensuous surfaces, interspersed with such restorers of sensitivity — shock treatments — as “human interest” shots of criminals, mangled bodies, wrecked airplanes, prize fights, and burning buildings. The literature or discourse that goes along with this is similarly manufactured to tease without satisfaction, to replace every partial gratification with a new desire.

And as if to seal the deal on his remarkable prescience, he adds a remark that applies with striking precision to our age of screens, data, and the quantified self:

The brainy modern loves not matter but measures, no solids but surfaces.

Watts, of course, was the opposite of a techno-dystopian — he was a champion of the human spirit and its capacity for freedom. His lament, all the timelier today, was thus not a curmudgeonly complaint but an expression of honest concern about the choices we’re making daily, and a gentle reminder that, as Annie Dillard put it, “how we spend our days … is how we spend our lives.” The rest of The Wisdom of Insecurity, which remains a must-read, explores how we can transcend our futile strategies for controlling life and surrender to its living essence. Sample some of it here, then see Watts on the ego and the universe.

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10 MARCH, 2014

Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Crucial Difference Between Success and Mastery

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The lost art of learning to stand “where we would rather not and expand in ways we never knew we could.”

“You gotta be willing to fail… if you’re afraid of failing, you won’t get very far,” Steve Jobs cautioned. “There is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction,” Oprah counseled new Harvard graduates. In his wonderfully heartening letter of fatherly advice, F. Scott Fitzgerald gave his young daughter Scottie a list of things to worry and not worry about in life; among the unworriables, he listed failure, “unless it comes through your own fault.” And yet, as Debbie Millman observed in Fail Safe, her magnificent illustrated-essay-turned-commencement-address, most of us “like to operate within our abilities” — stepping outside of them risks failure, and we do worry about it, very much. How, then, can we transcend that mental block, that existential worry, that keeps us from the very capacity for creative crash that keeps us growing and innovating?

That’s precisely what curator and art advocate Sarah Lewis, who has under her belt degrees from Harvard and Oxford, curatorial positions at the Tate Modern and the MoMA, and an appointment on President Obama’s Arts Policy Committee, examines in The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (public library) — an exploration of how “discoveries, innovations, and creative endeavors often, perhaps even only, come from uncommon ground” and why this “improbable ground of creative endeavor” is an enormous source of advantages on the path to self-actualization and fulfillment, brought to life through a tapestry of tribulations turned triumphs by such diverse modern heroes as legendary polar explorer Captain Scott, dance icon Paul Taylor, and pioneering social reformer Frederick Douglass. Lewis, driven by her lifelong “magpie curiosity about how we become,” crafts her argument slowly, meticulously, stepping away from it like a sculptor gaining perspective on her sculpture and examining it through other eyes, other experiences, other particularities, which she weaves together into an intricate tapestry of “magpielike borrowings” filtered through the sieve of her own point of view.

Female archers, lantern slide, c. 1920. (Public domain via Oregon State University Special Collections & Archives.)

Lewis begins with a visit with the women of Columbia University’s varsity archery team, who spend countless hours practicing a sport that requires equal parts impeccable precision of one’s aim and a level of comfort with the uncontrollable — all the environmental interferences, everything that could happen between the time the arrow leaves the bow and the time it lands on the target, having followed its inevitably curved line. From this unusual sport Lewis draws a metaphor for the core of human achievement:

There is little that is vocational about [contemporary] culture anymore, so it is rare to see what doggedness looks like with this level of exactitude… To spend so many hours with a bow and arrow is a kind of marginality combined with a seriousness of purpose rarely seen.

In the archers’ doggedness Lewis finds the central distinction that serves as a backbone of her book — far more important than success (hitting the bull’s-eye) is the attainment of mastery (“knowing it means nothing if you can’t do it again and again”), and in bridging the former with the latter lives the substance of true achievement. (The distinction isn’t unlike what psychologist Carol Dweck found in her pioneering work on the difference between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets.) Lewis writes:

Mastery requires endurance. Mastery, a word we don’t use often, is not the equivalent of what we might consider its cognate — perfectionism — an inhuman aim motivated by a concern with how others view us. Mastery is also not the same as success — an event-based victory based on a peak point, a punctuated moment in time. Mastery is not merely a commitment to a goal, but to a curved-line, constant pursuit.

Thomas Edison

This is why, Lewis argues, a centerpiece of mastery is the notion of failure. She cites Edison, who famously said of his countless fruitless attempts to create a feasible lightbulb: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” (Another less famous Edison anecdote paints this in even more vivid detail: When one of his inventions failed, Edison locked himself in his lab with five of his men and declared he would not come out until the puzzle was solved; he spent sixty-four hours working continuously with no sleep, until he conquered the challenge, then slept for thirty hours to recover.)

In fact, Lewis points out that embedded in the very word “failure” — a word originally synonymous with bankruptcy, devised to assess creditworthiness in the 19th century, “a seeming dead end forced to fit human worth” — is the bias of our limited understanding of its value:

The word failure is imperfect. Once we begin to transform it, it ceases to be that any longer. The term is always slipping off the edges of our vision, not simply because it’s hard to see without wincing, but because once we are ready to talk about it, we often call the event something else — a learning experience, a trial, a reinvention — no longer the static concept of failure.

In its stead, Lewis offers another 19th-century alternative: “blankness,” which beautifully captures the wide-open field of possibility for renewal, for starting from scratch, after an unsuccessful attempt. Still, she considers the challenge of pinning down into plain language a concept so complex and fluid — even fashionable concepts like grit fail failure:

Trying to find a precise word to describe the dynamic is fleeting, like attempting to locate francium, an alkali metal measured but never isolated in any weighted quantity or seen in a way that the eye can detect — one of the most unstable, enigmatic elements on the Earth. No one knows what it looks like in an appreciable form, but there it is, scattered throughout ores in the Earth’s crust. Many of us have a similar sense that these implausible rises must be possible, but the stories tend to stay strewn throughout our lives, never coalescing into a single dynamic concept… The phenomenon remains hidden, and little discussed. Partial ideas do exist — resilience, reinvention, and grit — but there’s no one word to describe the passing yet vital, constant truth that just when it looks like winter, it is spring.

[…]

When we don’t have a word for an inherently fleeting idea, we speak about it differently, if at all. There are all sorts of generative circumstances — flops, folds, wipeouts, and hiccups — yet the dynamism it inspires is internal, personal, and often invisible… It is a cliché to say simply that we learn the most from failure. It is also not exactly true. Transformation comes from how we choose to speak about it in the context of story, whether self-stated or aloud.

One essential element of understanding the value of failure is the notion of the “deliberate incomplete.” (Cue in Marie Curie, who famously noted in a letter to her brother: “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”) Lewis writes:

We thrive, in part, when we have purpose, when we still have more to do. The deliberate incomplete has long been a central part of creation myths themselves. In Navajo culture, some craftsmen and women sought imperfection, giving their textiles and ceramics an intended flaw called a “spirit line” so that there is a forward thrust, a reason to continue making work. Nearly a quarter of twentieth century Navajo rugs have these contrasting-color threads that run out from the inner pattern to just beyond the border that contains it; Navajo baskets and often pottery have an equivalent line called a “heart line” or a “spirit break.” The undone pattern is meant to give the weaver’s spirit a way out, to prevent it from getting trapped and reaching what we sense is an unnatural end.

There is an inevitable incompletion that comes with mastery. It occurs because the greater our proficiency, the more smooth our current path, the more clearly we may spot the mountain that hovers in our gaze. “What would you say increases with knowledge?” Jordan Elgrably once asked James Baldwin. “You learn how little you know,” Baldwin said.

A related concept is that of the “near win” — those moments when we come so close to our aim, yet miss it by a hair:

At the point of mastery, when there seems nothing left to move beyond, we find a way to move beyond ourselves. Success motivates. Yet the near win — the constant auto-correct of a curved-line path — can propel us in an ongoing quest. We see it whenever we aim, climb, or create with mastery as our aim, when the outcome is determined by what happens at the margins.

Here, again, it’s useful to consider Carol Dweck’s influential work on mindsets, in which she found that students who equated success with a reflection of their natural ability learned much less than those who saw it as a product of their effort; the former group dreaded failure as a tell-tale sign of their insufficiency, while the latter saw in it an invitation to change course, to try harder, to grow.

But while a “near win” may be an invitation to grow, it is anything but comfortable. One of the most easily discernible manifestations of its anguish is found among Olympic medalists. Lewis cites the work of Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich, who found that silver medalists were far more frustrated with having lost than bronze medalists. It is a phenomenon first discovered by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who in the 1980s found that people were far more frustrated about missing a flight by five minutes than by thirty. And yet the “near win” is also the reason why silver medalists are more likely to win the gold next time around — victory seems possible, yet not as far away as for the bronze medalists, so the “near win” is experienced as a nudge to sharpen focus and try harder rather than a discouragement. Lewis writes:

A near win shifts our view of the landscape. It can turn future goals, which we tend to envision at a distance, into more proximate events. We consider temporal distance as we do spatial distance. (Visualize a great day tomorrow and we see it with granular, practical clarity. But picture what a great day in the future might be like, not tomorrow but fifty years from now, and the image will be hazier.) The near win changes our focus to consider how we plan to attain what lies in our sights, but out of reach.

[…]

Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end. They are masters because they realize that there isn’t one. On utterly smooth ground, the path from aim to attainment is in the permanent future.

Herbert Ponting, 'Grotto in an iceberg,' Antarctica, 1911. (Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge.)

For one of her illustrative case studies, Lewis turns to the legacy of pioneering polar explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott, whose 1911 expedition to the South Pole is considered by many the greatest unfinished journey of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and “the world’s most tragically famous failure” — Scott and his entire crew perished before reaching the end of their quest. A century later, modern-day polar explorer Ben Saunders set out to complete Scott’s journey, which would be the longest unsupported polar expedition in human history — 1,800 miles or, as Lewis puts it, “the length of sixty-nine marathons back to back.” She considers what might possess people like Saunders to attempt such seemingly deadly feats:

People driven by a pursuit that puts them on the edges are often not on the periphery, but on the frontier, testing the limits of what it is possible to withstand and discover.

Implicit to testing the limits, however, is acknowledging them — and, more importantly, surrendering to them in a way that gives us more freedom. This notion of surrender — which Alan Watts expounded as he pioneered Eastern philosophy in the West half a century ago — is central to Lewis’s model of fruitful failure. She turns, once more, to Saunders:

Out in the Arctic, he said, “I was aware that I was responsible for my own survival,” but eventually settled into a “wonderful feeling of ‘Well, I can’t think of a better word than surrender,’” as he described the process of nonresistance to wind, temperatures, and the pain that had brought him there.

[…]

I wondered for two years after first speaking to Saunders about this idea of surrender. How do you lean into pain when you’re trying to forge ahead in one of the most inhospitable places on our planet? Why is that helpful? … Surrender, we both admitted, might be an imperfect word to describe it. The term is often synonymous with the white-flag retreat of loss in the context of battle. Yet when feelings of failure come with their own form of pain, empowerment through accepting it — surrender — and pivoting out of it can be more powerful than fighting. The kind of surrender that Saunders means is more akin to Nietzsche’s idea of amor fati, to love your fate. “The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply.”

Once again, Lewis provides an alternative to a culturally misunderstood word for an important concept. To explain the essence of this kind of surrender, she turns to the martial art of aikido, which derives its power from “strategic nonresistance.” (If you’ve ever engaged with Eastern philosophy or listened to the teachings of Tara Brach, you might be familiar with the oft-cited aphorism “What you resist persists.”) Far from easeful resignation, this concept makes aikido one of the most challenging martial arts to master, precisely because “strategic nonresistance” is the exact opposite of what eons of evolution have optimized our minds and bodies to do — to tense up, snap into fight-or-flight mode, and enlist all of our willful resistance in the basic survival instinct of self-protection. And yet the central principle of aikido, which brings to mind Bruce Lee’s famous advice to “be like water” (though he practiced a different martial art), is a philosophical one rather than a physical one. Lewis explains:

Aikido embodies the idea that when we stop resisting something, we stop giving it power. In aikido, an uke, the person who receives an attack from the thrower, or nage, absorbs and transforms the incoming energy through harmony and blending. There is no word for competitor, only for the one who is giving or receiving the energy.

She relates this concept of surrender to our relationship with death:

When we surrender to the fact of death, not the idea of it, we gain license to live more fully, to see life differently.

(Once again, Alan Watts’s influential ideas on the subject would have been an excellent reference here. John Updike also contemplated the question: “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” Artist Candy Chang puts it even more succinctly: “Thinking about death clarifies your life.”)

But there’s a concept that illuminates surrender even more brilliantly than death. Lewis points to zero:

Zero is the oddest number. Its value is foundational and yet unstable; it has what seems to be inexplicable properties. It can threaten some — multiply or divide a number by zero and you wipe it out. Or it can act neutrally — add or subtract zero from any number and it remains. For centuries, it has been a limit that most civilizations have preferred not to consider, with the exception of Hindu societies, which embraced it. It is on the threshold, separating positive from negative, all that we want from all that we don’t. Surrender, like zero, doesn’t translate into an appreciable form. It is like the duende of the artist, living on the line in between worlds where intellect, intuition, and force meet, and unendurable beauty is born of enduring travails.

For all of our attempts to describe surrender, discerning its place in our lives feels like trying to engage with that elusive number without which nothing makes sense, and through which all that we thought we knew falls down slack like a rag doll in our lap. And this is the trouble with the rebounding effect of zero: we have to first let ourselves get extremely low to go there.

More than anything, however, the case for surrender stands in stark contrast with the conditioning of our age, an era of endless distractions from discomfort. And yet the very “moronic inferno” Saul Bellow lamented is what makes this capacity for surrender an increasingly valuable psychological commodity. Lewis writes:

In an age where we can skip from idea to idea, with countless distractions to divert us, absconding from painful places is easy. How do we stand in a place where we would rather not and expand in ways we never knew we could? How do we practice the aikido move of surrender? The perception of failure, the acceptance of the low, is often the adhesive.

Frederick Douglass

In another of her illustrative examples, Lewis turns to legendary social reformer and statesman Frederick Douglass, who believed in the power of visual culture a century before Susan Sontag made the cultural case for photography and a century and a half before the age of selfies. Long before science would illuminate the visual bias of our brains, Douglass intuited the power of images:

Frederick Douglass was sure, even in the face of war, that the transportive, emancipatory force of “pictures,” and the expanded, imaginative visions they inspire, was the way to move toward what seemed impossible. An encounter with pictures that moves us, those in the world and the ones it creates in the mind, has a double-barreled power to convey humanity as it is, and, through the power of the imagination, to ignite an inner vision of life as it could be. The inward “picture making faculty,” Douglass argued, the human capacity for artful, imaginative thought, is what permits us to see the chasm accurately, our failures — the “picture of life contrasted with the fact of life.” “All that is really peculiar to humanity . . . proceeds from this one faculty or power.” This distinction of “the ideal contrasted with the real” is what made “criticism possible,” that is, it enabled the criticism of slavery, inequity, and injustice of any kind.

It helps us deal with the opposite of failure, which may not be success—that momentary label affixed to us by others — but reconciliation, aligning our past with an expanded vision that has just come into view.

[…]

The “key to the great mystery of life and progress” was the ability of men and women to fashion a mental or material picture and let his or her entire world, sentiments, and vision of every other living thing be affected by it. Even the most humble image held in the hand or in the mind was never silent. Like the tones of music, it could speak to the heart in a way that words could not. All of the “Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, Photographs and Electrotypes, good and bad, [that] now adorn or disfigure all our dwellings,” Douglass said, could allow for progress through the mental pictures that they conjured. He went on to describe “the whole soul of man,” when “rightly viewed,” as “a sort of picture gallery[,] a grand panorama,” contrasting the sweep of life with the potential for progress in every moment.

What Douglass intuited, Lewis argues, is the notion of “aesthetic force” — that transcendent power of a Rothko painting or the “overview effect” of cosmic awe that astronauts experience when gazing at Earth from space or the transcendence of a life-changing encounter with wild ospreys, those visceral experiences that leave us somehow transformed. Lewis writes:

Our reaction to aesthetic force, more easily than logic, is often how we accept with grace that the ground has shifted beneath our feet.

Earthrise, December 24, 1968

So powerful is aesthetic force, Lewis argues, that it can alter our behavior both as individuals and as a culture — the iconic Earthrise photograph has been credited with galvanizing the environmental movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Underpinning aesthetic force is a mechanism similar to that behind the “deliberate incomplete”:

When we’re overcome by aesthetic force, a propulsion comes from the sense that, until that moment, we have been somehow incomplete. It can make us realize that our views and judgments need correction. It can give these moments “elasticity” and “plasticity”…

Lewis dons her art historian hat to tie this back to failure:

The mechanics of how we see and remember when we are moved is one way that we move forward out of near ruin. Douglass was describing, as he saw it, our pictorial process of creating reality.

It is as true of vision as it is of justice — distorted, flat, horizontal worlds become more full when we accept that the limit of vision is the way we see unfolding, infinite depth. Painted and printed images used to be just flat bands of color until the invention of perspectival construction and with it, the vanishing point — the void, nothing, the start of infinite possibility. Moving toward a reality that is just, collectively and for each of us individually, comes from a similar engagement with an inbuilt failure. A fuller vision comes from our ability to recognize the fallibility in our current and past forms of sight.

[…]

What we lose if we underestimate the power of an aesthetic act is not solely talent and freedom of expression, but the avenue to see up and out of failures that we didn’t even know we had. Aesthetic force is not merely a reflection of a feeling, luxury, or respite from life. The vision we conjure from the experience can serve as an indispensable way out from intractable paths.

[…]

Seeing the uncommon foundations of a rise is not merely a contrarian way of looking at the world. It has, in many cases, been the only way that we have created the one in which we are honored to live.

Illustration by Matt Kish from 'Moby-Dick in Pictures.' Click image for details.

Indeed, history is strewn with such “uncommon foundations.” There’s Joan Didion, who faced a slew of uncompromising rejections before becoming one of the most celebrated writers of our time, or Herman Melville who Lewis reminds us died a penniless customs agent some seventy years before Moby-Dick would receive critical acclaim as one of the greatest novels of all time. (Melville himself, for all his capacity for the joyful, was all too painfully aware of the tragic in his own life when he lamented, “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.”)

Lewis’s point, of course, isn’t to bemoan the occasional cruelties of fate and commiserate with its famous victims but to remind us that we choose how we designate and how we relate to our own experience, and out of that choice, especially amidst tribulation, springs our capacity for triumph:

The moment we designate the used or maligned as a state with generative capacity, our reality expands. President John F. Kennedy once mentioned an old saying that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. Failure is an orphan until we give it a narrative. Then it is palatable because it comes in the context of story, as stars within a beloved constellation.

Once we reach a certain height we see how a rise often starts on a seemingly outworn foundation. . . .

When we take the long view, we value the arc of a rise not because of what we have achieved at that height, but because of what it tells us about our capacity, due to how improbable, indefinable, and imperceptible the rise remains.

The Rise is a dimensional read in its entirety — highly recommended. Complement it with Daniel Dennett on how to make good mistakes and Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life, then revisit Debbie Millman’s Fail Safe.

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