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A Field Guide to Getting Lost: Rebecca Solnit on How We Find Ourselves

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“The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation… Never to get lost is not to live.”

“On how one orients himself to the moment,” Henry Miller wrote in reflecting on the art of living, “depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.” Indeed, this act of orienting ourselves — to the moment, to the world, to our own selves — is perhaps the most elusive art of all, and our attempts to master it often leave us fumbling, frustrated, discombobulated. And yet therein lies our greatest capacity for growth and self-transcendence.

Rebecca Solnit, whose mind and writing are among the most consistently enchanting of our time, explores this tender tango with the unknown in her altogether sublime collection A Field Guide to Getting Lost (public library).

Solnit writes in the opening essay:

Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go. Three years ago I was giving a workshop in the Rockies. A student came in bearing a quote from what she said was the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno. It read, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” I copied it down, and it has stayed with me since. The student made big transparent photographs of swimmers underwater and hung them from the ceiling with the light shining through them, so that to walk among them was to have the shadows of swimmers travel across your body in a space that itself came to seem aquatic and mysterious. The question she carried struck me as the basic tactical question in life. The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration — how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?

Illustration from 'Where You Are: A Collection of Maps That Will Leave You Feeling Completely Lost.' Click image for details.

The inquiry itself carries undertones of acknowledging the self illusion, or at the very least brushing up against the question of how we know who “we” are if we’re perpetually changing. But for Solnit, as for Rilke, that uncertainty is not an obstacle to living but a wellspring of life — of creative life, most of all. Bridging the essence of art with the notion that not-knowing is what drives science, she sees in the act of embracing the unknown a gateway to self-transcendence:

Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found. It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own. Scientists too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, “live always at the ‘edge of mystery’ — the boundary of the unknown.” But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.

But unlike the dark sea, which obscures the depths of what is, of what could be seen in the present moment, the unknown spills into the unforeseen. Solnit turns to Edgar Allan Poe, who argued that “in matters of philosophical discovery … it is the unforeseen upon which we must calculate most largely,” and considers the deliberate juxtaposition of the rational, methodical act of calculation with the ineffable, intangible nature of the unforeseen:

How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.

The poet John Keats captured this paradoxical operation elegantly in his notion of “negative capability,” which Solnit draws on before turning to another literary luminary, Walter Benjamin, who memorably considered the difference between not finding your way and losing yourself — something he called “the art of straying.” Solnit writes:

To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away. In Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography. That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.

T and O map by Bartholomaeus Angelicus, 1392, from Umberto Eco's 'The Book of Legendary Lands.' Click image for details.

Even the word itself endured an unforeseen transformation, its original meaning itself lost amidst our present cult of productivity and perilous goal-orientedness:

The word “lost” comes from the Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know. Advertising, alarmist news, technology, incessant busyness, and the design of public and private space conspire to make it so.

Taking back the meaning of lost seems almost a political act, a matter of existential agency that we ought to reclaim in order to feel at home in ourselves. Solnit writes:

There’s another art of being at home in the unknown, so that being in its midst isn’t cause for panic or suffering, of being at home with being lost.

[...]

Lost [is] mostly a state of mind, and this applies as much to all the metaphysical and metaphorical states of being lost as to blundering around in the backcountry.

The question then is how to get lost. Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.

Illustration for 'Mapping Manhattan.' Click image for details.

During a recent vacation, I went horseback riding on a California ranch, home to a tight-knit equine community. Midway along the route, my horse glimpsed his peer across the field, carrying another rider on a different route, and began neighing restlessly upon the fleeting sight. Our guide explained that the horses, despite being extraordinarily intelligent beings, had a hard time making sense of seeing their friends appear out of nowhere, then disappear into the distance. Falling out of sight held the terror of being forever lost. My horse was calling out, making sure his friend was still there — that neither was lost. Underneath the geographic disorientation, one can imagine, lies a primal fear of losing control.

Despite the evolutionary distance, this equine disposition bears a disorienting similarity to the duality of our own relationship to the concept of lost — losing something we care about, losing ourselves, losing control — which Solnit captures beautifully:

Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a sublime read in its entirety. Complement it with Where You Are, an exploration of cartography as wayfinding for the soul, then revisit Anaïs Nin on how inviting the unknown helps us live more richly.

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Henry Miller on Money and How It Gets That Way

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“The dilemma in which we find ourselves today is that no matter how much we increase the purchasing power of the wage-earner he never has enough.”

Henry Miller was not a man shy of strong opinions, having pondered such existential questions as the art of living, the joys of growing old, the future of humanity, and the meaning of life. But there was one inevitable, essential aspect of existence to which he’d never given much thought until his friend Ezra Pound, upon reading Miller’s controversial novel Tropic of Cancer in 1935, inquired about it: Miller received a postcard from Pound, penned “in his usual cabalistic style,” asking if he had ever considered the issue of money, “what makes it and how it gets that way.”

The question, at once simple and riddled with complexities, gave Miller pause. In the year that followed, he collected his “meditations and lucubrations” on the subject in Money and How It Gets That Way, originally published in Paris in 1938 and reissued in America as a limited-edition chapbook of 1,500 copies eight years later, shortly after the end of WWII — a time when the question of money was even more loaded, uncomfortable, and urgently pressing, making Miller’s angle of playfulness and poignancy all the more compelling. Only a few copies of the chapbook, which features illustrations by Jack Wright, are known to survive. The essay was eventually included in the anthology Stand Still Like the Hummingbird (public library), which also gave us Miller on originality.

After a brief history of how money was invented, Miller considers “the axiomatic” nature of the concept:

Money has no life of its own except as money. To the man in the street, unaccustomed to thinking of money in abstract terms, this obvious truism may smack of casuistry. Yet nothing could be more simple and consistent than this reduction to tautology, since money in any period whatever of man’s history has, like life itself, never been found to represent the absence of money. Money is, and whatever form or shape it may assume it is never more nor less than money. To inquire therefore how it comes about that money has become what it now is is as idle as to inquire what makes evolution.

[...]

Money, then, whatever its real nature, reveals itself to us through form. Just as hydrogen and oxygen reveal their presence to us in varying forms and yet are not themselves, either separately or combined, such as water or peroxide, so money, whether in specie or counterfeit, is always something inclusive, coexistent, consubstantial and beyond the thing manifest. In a profound sense money may be said to resemble God Almighty.

This worship of money, Miller argues, effects a particular deterioration of the soul. A man of wide and cross-disciplinary interests, he crafts an apt metaphor out of the biological process of heart-rot — a fungal disease that decays a tree’s trunk and branches from the inside out, which scientists first began studying about a decade before Miller’s treatise. With his signature blend of intellectual wisdom and irreverent wit, he writes:

To borrow an expression from the arboriculturist, we might add that gold has a tendency at times to bring about a condition of “white heart rot.” That is to say that, though outwardly all may seem well, the eye of the forester can detect beneath the bark the disease which lurks in the very heart of the tree and ravages it mercilessly. White-heart-rot has been frequently compared to tuberculosis in the human organism; it is encountered chiefly in metropolitan areas among city trees. In finance it is recognized as “inflation.” If the disease has not completely eaten the tree away cement may be administered to preserve what life is left. With dying currencies the treatment employed is to amass gold, or to ship it frantically from one country to another. Whenever, therefore, gold is amassed in unusual quantities, or when its movements become erratic and frenetic, the indications are that the money of the countries in question is diseased.

This rotting of the psyche, Miller suggests, is rooted in a dynamic that springs from the religious concept of guilt and has to do with the notion of debt:

The evolution of the idea of money is closely associated, for reasons which must be apparent to even the most casual observer, with the development of the notions of sin and guilt. Even in the earliest periods of trade we find rudimentary principles at work such as would lead us to believe that primitive man had evolved methods of exchange which sui generis implied the existence of debt. It was not until Ricardo’s time, however, that a formula was arrived at which expressed the relationship between debtor and creditor beyond all caviling. With almost Euclidian simplicity Ricardo summed it up thus: “a debt is discharged by the delivery of money.”

But what compounds these symbolic complexities is also the fact that money itself has become an abstraction — something Miller argues was brought on by the invention of double-entry bookkeeping, which led money to be “regarded not in terms of pieces of money but as an abstract symbol of wealth”:

With the invention of double-entry bookkeeping … the reality of money began to diminish until in our day it has almost disappeared entirely.

It’s worth pausing here to note that Miller expressed these concerns in 1936, decades before credit and charge cards became the dominant Western mode of payment — practice that further abstracts money and removes it from its source, to say nothing of recent modalities like crypto-currency, abstracting the transactional exchange of goods and services further still.

And yet, noting that money evolved out of the gold standard, Miller laments the “great pity” of the shift away from it, “for gold is capable of making a greater appeal to the imagination than any other symbol known to man.” But perhaps the very allure of concepts like crypto-currency lies in their ability to stir the imagination in new, differently compelling ways. Still, despite this — or because of it — Miller’s words ring with double poignancy today:

To have money in the pocket is one of the small but inestimable pleasures of life. To have money in the bank is not quite the same thing, but to take money out of the bank is indisputably a great joy. The pleasure then is in the handling, not the spending necessarily, as some economists would have us believe. It is very possible, indeed, that the coin or specie came into existence to meet this very human need…

Here, Miller makes an interesting point about the concept of price — perhaps the most artificial abstraction of all:

A price is a piece of goods, a commodity as we say, expressed in gold or any other metal that is acceptable to the public conscience, without the necessity of being weighed on the spot. Price has value only to the extent that there is a mobile cash quantum to back it up. Anything which can inflate to-day and collapse to-morrow has neither weight, substance nor value. It is not even gas, because gas after all answers to all three of these descriptions. This is to my mind the best proof of what thinking in money leads to, which is the collapse of thinking, or, as Sir Isaac Newton expressed it, “a vacuum in extenso.”

And so we get to the difference between money and wealth and the disconnect between being rich and being wealthy. Long before the concept of “the hedonic treadmill” was coined, Miller describes it with immeasurable wisdom and wit:

Money … is only theoretically related to wealth. In the realm of theory it is true that “action and reaction are equal and opposite,” but money is more than a theory, and wealth, even if it is not money, is at any rate something real. What is needed above everything is a clear conception of money.

The dilemma in which we find ourselves today is that no matter how much we increase the purchasing power of the wage-earner he never has enough. If he has enough money to own a Ford he wants a Packard; if he has a Packard he wants a Rolls Royce, and if he has a Rolls Royce he wants an aeroplane… Men imagine that they need money, that if they had it they could satisfy their desires, cure their ills, insure their old age, and so on. Nothing could be farther from the truth. For if it were so that money could accomplish all these miracles, then the happiest man on earth would be the millionaire, which is obviously an untruth. Naturally those who have not enough to eat, nor place to sleep, are just as miserable as the millionaire, perhaps even more miserable, though it is difficult at times to tell with certainty. As always, the golden mean obtains. He is sure to be more happy who has eaten well and slept well and has besides a little money in his jeans. Such men are rare to find for the simple reason that most men are incapable of appreciating the wisdom of such a simple truth. The worker thinks he would be better off if he were running the factory; the owner of the factory thinks he would be better off if he were a financier; and the financier knows he would be better off if he were clean out of the bloody mess and living the simple life.

Money, then, is best used as a dynamic method for inhabiting the present moment, rather than a static symbol of wealth to amass and hold on to for future use — another manifestation of Miller’s philosophy of flux. He writes:

Money is one of the insoluble problems of life. Men of theory will tell you that it is unnecessary, but men of theory are generally very ignorant fellows. Often they have never had any money, and if they had it they wouldn’t know what to do with it. The last thing in the world to occur to their minds would be to spend it. And yet that is the chief satisfaction which money affords. Whoever has money let him put it in circulation!

Money and How It Gets That Way is, sadly, well out of print but well worth the hunt. Complement it with John Armstrong on how to worry less about money and Paul Graham on how to get rich, then revisit Miller on growing old, the meaning of life, and his irreverent notice to visitors.

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The Best-Kept Secret of Clichés: How to Upgrade Our Uses and Abolish Our Abuses of Language

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A manifesto against mindless language, or how to get off autopilot in the art of communication.

“Aphoristic thinking is impatient thinking,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in 1980, lamenting the commodification of wisdom. But there is a yet greater abuse of language that bespeaks such impatience that bleeds into cognitive laziness — the aphorism’s cousin, the cliché, arguably the most successful meme of language. In It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés (public library), lexicographer and linguistics researcher Orin Hargraves embarks on a quest to empower you to “proceed with the confidence that you have made peace with clichés through greater understanding and that you have established a relationship with them that will serve your interests when you write and speak.”

That understanding begins with the word itself: Hargraves points out that it comes from French, where it originally denoted “a convenience of printing, specifically a stereotype block bearing text that was used to produce multiple printed copies” — hence its present semantic representation of a reusable template-expression. Hargraves outlines his mission in unambiguous terms:

I have persisted in my attempt to stop some clichés in their flight, capture and anesthetize them, splay their dull wings, pin them to the specimen board, and make them visible for all to see, so that they may be revealed in their true lack of color. My intention is to make speakers and writers more aware of the occasions when they are using clichés or when they think that they need to — for it must surely be the case that clichés are largely used mindlessly, given their viral proliferation. An increased awareness of clichés and the detriment that they typically represent to effective communication should serve as a motive for language users to consider alternatives to them.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for details.

Indeed, this viral nature of clichés is both the reason for their success and their greatest failure of imagination. Hargraves explains:

A quality of clichés that is typically overlooked when people are disparaging them is that many of them are really very clever and original. Or rather, they were very clever and original the first time they appeared… Clichés are very often a victim of their own early success.

And yet defining what makes a cliché remains a tricky endeavor — while most language scholars agree that its core characteristics are “overuse and ineffectiveness,” it’s hard to arrive at agreement over these qualities or who is to judge their degree of manifestation. Hargraves writes:

Nearly all judgments about what constitutes a cliché have traditionally relied on consensus: if enough people think a form of words is overused, or if a person who is perceived as having some authority about language declares such a thing, then the word or phrase becomes a cliché. The result of this haphazard process is that many phrases are designated clichés without there being evidence of their frequent use. That is, infrequently used words and phrases may be deemed clichés, simply because a large number of people, or a small number of influential people, find them annoying or designate them as clichés for some other reason… But they are never annoying in equal measure, to the same people, in the same contexts, and for the same reasons.

But while human judgments of what constitutes overuse are invariably subjective, lexicographers can turn to artificial intelligence for a more reliable assessment. A corpus — “a collection of natural language in machine-readable form, assembled for the purpose of linguistic research” — can reveal statistical relationships between words and their usage in specific groupings in natural speech or writing. Hargraves explains:

From these statistics emerge portraits of the life of words, their mating habits, their abuses, their triumphs and failings, in a much clearer and more comprehensive light than can be gleaned from casual reading or listening; it is a portrait that is far more dependable than the one that results from merely consulting your intuition about how often a form of words is used or whether people use it consistently, aptly, or inappropriately. Modern computational lexicography makes it possible to learn at a glance which pairs or groups of words are getting together far more often than their overall frequency in the language suggests that they would. Such pairings of words are called collocations and may include typical combinations representing several different parts of speech, such as adjective + noun (like abject poverty), noun + noun (like software download), or adverb + verb (like virtually guarantee).

Illustration by Ben Shahn from Alistair Reid's 'Ounce Dice Trice,' a children's book that plays with extraordinary names for ordinary things. Click image for details.

Often, however, it is misuse rather than overuse that renders something a cliché. Hargraves offers an illustrative example:

Take the noun phrase best-kept secret. Best-kept, as an adjective, has few uses in English other than to precede the word secret, and discounting the adjective dark, best-kept is the adjective most likely to be found preceding secret in nearly every genre of writing. But as a few examples will show, things that are dubbed best-kept secrets are in fact often not secret at all, and it is rarely specified, sometimes not even implied, in what sense they are “kept.” This, in effect, makes both parts of this compound expression not very meaningful. It is also the case that the best-kept secret is found preponderantly in journalism, a medium that is by its nature contrary to the idea of “secret.”

Indeed, Hargraves holds journalism particularly accountable for perpetuating clichés — the very tendency, no doubt, that originated the disparaging pun “churnalism.” He writes:

Of all genres … none is more cliché-burdened today than journalism. Journalism has been historically and continues to be the true home of the cliché… Many phrases originate in genres outside of journalism and continue to have a specific or technical meaning in their place of origin: matter of fact in law, for example, or exhibit a tendency in scientific writing. Once an expression has made a home in the fertile and supportive soil of journalism, however, it thrives and grows in thick patches, often losing its particular semantic characteristics.

He goes on to bemoan the fact that “journalism contains more clichés per unit of text than any other genre” and later hones the precision of his arrow, making the unambiguous assertion that “journalism is demonstrably the greatest repository of cliché in English,” adding that “this is not a criticism, just a fact.” Curiously, though, Hargraves makes a distinction between “journalism” and “blogging,” chastising them on a sliding scale of “spreading and popularizing (and thus further deadening) clichéd expressions” — a rather dated divide in an era when some of the best independent journalism takes place on “blogs” and every major print publication has an online presence of the “blog” variety. (Blogs, he argues, are “full of unedited writing that is shot through with clichés, which are gobbled up uncritically by the avid perusers of these genres” — a rather ungenerous depiction of online readers, to say nothing of writers.) Journalism, after all, is a genre of cultural commentary and criticism, and a blog is merely a platform for publishing, whatever the genre — comparing a genre to a platform seems, to use the appropriate and thus non-clichéd idiom, an apples-to-oranges proposition.

Illustration from 'The Little Golden Book of Words,' 1948. Click image for details.

But misplaced distinction aside, Hargraves makes a gravely valid and urgent point about the responsibility of writers today, be they “journalists” or “bloggers,” in an age when writing is considered “content” and treated as the vacant page-filler the term implies; when Emerson and Longfellow’s journal lives on to publish “native advertising” for the Church of Scientology on the web and once-reputable business magazines have reincarnated as listicle-purveyors online. Echoing Schopenhauer’s lament on writing “for the sake of filling up paper,” Hargraves’s words ring with particular poignancy in our present context of formulaic language that borders on content farming:

People who are required to write — whether hastily or not — and those who write without any awareness of what separates good writing from bad, such as poorly educated students or poorly read adults, naturally write in a semiautomatic style… Taken together then, carelessness and ignorance are certainly responsible for a great deal of cliché that is expressed in speech and print.

[...]

Journalists are required to produce verbiage hastily most of the time. While their work is typically edited, it is not edited for clichés because cliché is a substantial part of the code of journalism, and consumers of journalism accept conventional and stereotyped ways of expressing ideas, whether consciously or unconsciously, as part of the diet. Because of the natural tendency of speakers and writers to be influenced by what they read and hear, it is also inescapable that journalists are the greatest vectors of cliché in English.

Therein lies Hargraves’s most important point — a case for the eradication of clichés as a political act, part of our shared civic responsibility as readers, writers, and users of language. Echoing Virginia Woolf’s manifesto for the glory of language, he writes:

There is so much writing and speech that has clearly been done with no clear thought given to the purpose of the words that compose it. If all writing was entirely of this kind, it seems likely that people would be put off reading and clichés would live in a rather small, moribund world that would eventually extinguish itself. But we all must read, whether for entertainment, vital communication, or acquiring new information; and all of the writing we read is bound to contain some portion of cliché. Because of these factors we cannot help exposing ourselves to cliché and being infected by it. Whether we become active vectors of cliché ourselves is a matter of choice. All that is required for clichés to flourish is for good writers to disengage their attention from what they are doing.

[...]

A cliché in itself and by definition has no element of originality and if a cliché is to be used, it places greater demands on a thoughtful writer to justify its use in preference to a more straightforward or succinct expression. Requiring a cliché to do more than it normally does by extending its meaning, application, or reference is one way to do this.

What Penguin publisher Sir Allen Lane memorably said of design, Hargraves asserts about language:

It takes only a little more time, but considerably more effort, to write mindfully than it does to write mindlessly. You have to engage your intellect and examine the requirements of what you mean to express, and the words available to do it for you. But writing mindfully can be developed to become a habit with some effort, just as writing mindlessly becomes a habit with no effort.

In the remainder of It’s Been Said Before, Hargraves draws on corpus data to identify some of the most toxic clichés in the English language and goes on to equip us with the tools and critical thinking necessary for using more imaginative alternatives to them. Complement it with a stimulating examination of another centerpiece of linguistic communication, the magical world of metaphor, then revisit these five excellent books on language.

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