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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

14 AUGUST, 2014

Barbara Walters on Gossip

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“You’re never just a spectator: unless you put a stop to it, you’re a participant.”

“It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table,” C.S. Lewis remarked in reflecting on the mealtime reading portion of his ideal daily routine. “What one wants is a gossipy, formless book.” And yet this is perhaps the only instance in which anything “gossipy” can have even a marginally fruitful function. Gossip, by and large, is as easy to go down as candy and just as bad for us in the long run — the kind of social malady that infects all parties involved with toxic poison under the guise of sugar-water.

From the out-of-print 1970 gem How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything (public library) — the same witty, perceptive guide that gave us Walters on the art of conversation and what Truman Capote teaches us about being interesting — comes a section on the perils of perpetuating gossip, which rings with tenfold the poignancy four decades later, in the age of constant social web chatter and clickbait entertainment “journalism.”

Walters admonishes:

Gossip can be fun when it’s gossip about famous people who’ll never hear of your discussion and couldn’t care less if they did. For me, gossip about Liz and Richard [Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton], or Jackie and Ari [Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis], is entirely fair, enormously interesting, and probably completely untrue. But gossip about people you know is not only morally wrong, it is also tactically wrong because it almost always gets back to the person involved.

And don’t kid yourself into false virtue because you kept silent when others were lacerating someone’s reputation. You’re never just a spectator: unless you put a stop to it, you’re a participant. Change the subject in a firm voice; say, “I like Jane very much and I’m sure none of us here is glad that she’s having problems. Let’s talk about something else…”

When all else fails, Walters suggests a clever counterstrategy of the reverse-psychology variety:

There’s always the classic line when someone is running down a mutual friend. You look amazed and say, “Funny, she always speaks so well of you.” I dare the gossip to go on after that, especially if you follow up your line with a compliment that the friend actually paid the gossip in your hearing.

Conversely, if you meet someone who you’ve heard has made a bitchy comment about you, try to be big about it. We all have said unkind things that we didn’t really mean, tricked by something nervous in the situation or in ourselves.

Her most heartbreaking observation on the culture — or, rather, culturelessness — of gossip comes as an almost throwaway remark:

Sometimes people gossip just because they feel they must in order to be interesting.

Noting that if the person who gossiped about you is someone you know and if there’s a grain of constructive criticism in the comment, you might be able to learn from it, Walters nonetheless makes room for our fallible humanity, which she illustrates with a disarming personal anecdote:

You’re only human though, and there are times when it’s a strain to be civilized. I had an experience with Joan Rivers before we ever met that made me doubt we could ever be polite, much less pals. She was being interviewed by The New York Times on the subject of femininity among female television performers. As examples of tough women, she quipped, “I’d love to put Barbara Walters and Jacqueline Susann in the same room and see which one came out alive.”

By a quirk of fate, I had just written Joan what amounted to a fan letter. She was about to do a brand-new interview show on NBC and I wanted to welcome her to the network. She received my note the day before her comment about me was to appear in the Times and although we’d never met, she telephoned me in agony to apologize.

I had written the note in all innocence, but I later thought that it was the perfect variation on the “funny-but-she-always-speaks-well-of-you” ploy. Anyway, Joan and I both felt so terrible about the incident that we’ve been friends ever since.

Joan Rivers and Barbara Walters, 2011 (Photograph: Rob Rich)

How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything, should you be able to track down a surviving copy, is well worth the read — rather than dated, most of Walters’s points of advice, aimed at helping you “get beyond the superficial forgettable small talk that most people use as a substitute for communication,” ring with all the more resonance in today’s vastly more public, many-voiced, conversation-based culture.

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13 AUGUST, 2014

Truth and Tenderness: Ralph Waldo Emerson on Friendship and Its Two Essential Conditions

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“What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling?”

It’s been argued that friendship is a greater gift than romantic love (though it’s not uncommon for one to turn abruptly into the other), but whatever the case, friendship is certainly one of the most rewarding fruits of life — from the sweetness of childhood friendships to the trickiness of workplace ones. This delicate dance has been examined by thinkers from Aristotle to Francis Bacon to Thoreau, but none more thoughtfully than by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In an essay on the subject, found in his altogether soul-expanding Essays and Lectures (public library; free download), Emerson considers the intricate dynamics of friendship, beginning with our often underutilized innate capacities:

We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken. Barring all the selfishness that chills like east winds the world, the whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether. How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor, and who honor us! How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom, though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eyebeams. The heart knoweth…

The emotions of benevolence … from the highest degree of passionate love, to the lowest degree of good will, they make the sweetness of life.

More than mere gratification of the heart, however, Emerson celebrates friendship as something that expands and enriches our intellectual landscape:

Our intellectual and active powers increase with our affection. The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend, and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words.

But beyond the rewards of emotion and intellect lies an even deeper satisfaction — that of the soul:

What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling? How beautiful, on their approach to this beating heart, the steps and forms of the gifted and the true! The moment we indulge our affections, the earth is metamorphosed; there is no winter, and no night; all tragedies, all ennuis vanish; all duties even; nothing fills the proceeding eternity but the forms all radiant of beloved persons. Let the soul be assured that somewhere in the universe it should rejoin its friend, and it would be content and cheerful alone for a thousand years.

For Emerson, friendship isn’t something that can be willed or forced but, rather, the natural byproduct of our interaction with the world. A century and a half before the modern social web, he pens a passage that rings with extraordinary poignancy and prescience today:

We weave social threads of our own, a new web of relations; and, as many thoughts in succession substantiate themselves, we shall by-and-by stand in a new world of our own creation, and no longer strangers and pilgrims in a traditionary globe. My friends have come to me unsought.

Drawing from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc, a tender illustrated story about loyalty and the gift of friendship. Click image for more.

In the deepest of friendships, Emerson finds an element of reverie as the two friends amplify each other’s goodness through a boundless generosity of spirit:

I must feel pride in my friend’s accomplishments as if they were mine, and a property in his virtues. I feel as warmly when he is praised, as the lover when he hears applause of his engaged maiden. We over-estimate the conscience of our friend. His goodness seems better than our goodness, his nature finer, his temptations less. Everything that is his, — his name, his form, his dress, books and instruments, — fancy enhances. Our own thought sounds new and larger from his mouth.

But even the most absolute of friendships, Emerson argues, have a certain pace of presence and absence, a natural rhythm of “comings and goings” that should be respected rather than bemoaned as a weakness in the relationship:

The soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone, for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society. This method betrays itself along the whole history of our personal relations. The instinct of affection revives the hope of union with our mates, and the returning sense of insulation recalls us from the chase. Thus every man passes his life in the search after friendship, and if he should record his true sentiment, he might write a letter like this, to each new candidate for his love:

Dear Friend:—

If I was sure of thee, sure of thy capacity, sure to match my mood with thine, I should never think again of trifles, in relation to thy comings and goings. I am not very wise; my moods are quite attainable; and I respect thy genius; it is to me as yet unfathomed; yet dare I not presume in thee a perfect intelligence of me, and so thou art to me a delicious torment. Thine ever, or never.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House of Butterflies,' 1960. Click image for more.

To rush these rhythms or force friendship to comply to a specific fantasy, Emerson gently admonishes, would be an assault on the relationship:

Our friendships hurry to short and poor conclusions, because we have made them a texture of wine and dreams, instead of the tough fiber of the human heart. The laws of friendship are great, austere, and eternal, of one web with the laws of nature and of morals. But we have aimed at a swift and petty benefit, to suck a sudden sweetness.

In a sentiment that John Steinbeck would come to echo a century later in the context of love, writing to his teenage son that “the main thing is not to hurry [for] nothing good gets away,” Emerson argues that to be impatient in friendship is to mistrust the depth of the relationship and to deny the resilience and immutability of the friend’s affections:

Our impatience is thus sharply rebuked. Bashfulness and apathy are a tough husk in which a delicate organization is protected from premature ripening. It would be lost if it knew itself before any of the best souls were yet ripe enough to know and own it. Respect the naturalangsamkeit [German for the slowness of natural development] which hardens the ruby in a million years, and works in duration, in which Alps and Andes come and go as rainbows. The good spirit of our life has no heaven which is the price of rashness. Love, which is the essence of God, is not for levity, but for the total worth of man. Let us not have this childish luxury in our regards, but the austerest worth; let us approach our friend with an audacious trust in the truth of his heart, in the breadth, impossible to be overturned, of his foundations.

[...]

I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frost-work, but the solidest thing we know.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I’ll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss, 1954. Click image for more.

And yet how rare it is to have a friend with whom one can be earnest to the point of absoluteness — who doesn’t require the veneer of self-consciousness and the shield of cynicism. Echoing Aristotle’s assertion that a friend holds a mirror up to us and thus brings us closer to ourselves, Emerson outlines the two key elements of a true, solid, soul-fortifying friendship:

There are two elements that go to the composition of friendship, each so sovereign, that I can detect no superiority in either, no reason why either should be first named. One is Truth. A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud. I am arrived at last in the presence of a man so real and equal that I may drop even those undermost garments of dissimulation, courtesy, and second thought, which men never put off, and may deal with him with the simplicity and wholeness, with which one chemical atom meets another. Sincerity is the luxury allowed, but diadems and authority, only to the highest rank, that being permitted to speak truth as having none above it to court or conform unto. Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins… We cover up our thought from him under a hundred folds.

[...]

The other element of friendship is tenderness. We are holden to men by every sort of tie, by blood, by pride, by fear, by hope, by lucre, by lust, by hate, by admiration, by every circumstance and badge and trifle, but we can scarce believe that so much character can subsist in another as to draw us by love. Can another be so blessed, and we so pure, that we can offer him tenderness? When a man becomes dear to me, I have touched the goal of fortune.

In another stroke of exalting prescience, Emerson bemoans — more than a century before our networking-preoccupied, self-promotional society — the superficiality and transactional ego-stroking that defines most human interactions, the vacant “chat of markets or reading-rooms.” (We all know the people who bestow upon professional relations and marginal acquaintances the misplaced label “friend” in an act of name-dropping or self-inflation — an injustice against true friendship.) Emerson laments:

To most of us society shows not its face and eye, but its side and its back. To stand in true relations with men in a false age, is worth a fit of insanity, is it not? We can seldom go erect. Almost every man we meet requires some civility, — requires to be humored; he has some fame, some talent, some whim of religion or philanthropy in his head that is not to be questioned, and which spoils all conversation with him. But a friend is a sane man who exercises not my ingenuity, but me. My friend gives me entertainment without requiring any stipulation on my part. A friend, therefore, is a sort of paradox in nature. I who alone am, I who see nothing in nature whose existence I can affirm with equal evidence to my own, behold now the semblance of my being in all its height, variety and curiosity, reiterated in a foreign form; so that a friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.

[...]

I hate the prostitution of the name of friendship to signify modish and worldly alliances.

He returns to the greatest gift of true friendship:

[Friendship] is for aid and comfort through all the relations and passages of life and death. It is fit for serene days, and graceful gifts, and country rambles, but also for rough roads and hard fare, shipwreck, poverty, and persecution… We are to dignify to each other the daily needs and offices of man’s life, and embellish it by courage, wisdom and unity. It should never fall into something usual and settled, but should be alert and inventive, and add rhyme and reason to what was drudgery.

Illustration by Carla Torres from 'Larry and Friends.' Click image for more.

But Emerson argues, as I too have long believed, that the fruits of friendship are best harvested in one-on-one companionship rather than larger social situations. He explores the inverse correlation between the quality of connection and conversation and the number of friends involved:

I find this law of one to one, peremptory for conversation, which is the practice and consummation of friendship. Do not mix waters too much. The best mix as ill as good and bad. You shall have very useful and cheering discourse at several times with two several men, but let all three of you come together, and you shall not have one new and hearty word. Two may talk and one may hear, but three cannot take part in a conversation of the most sincere and searching sort. In good company there is never such discourse between two, across the table, as takes place when you leave them alone. In good company, the individuals at once merge their egotism into a social soul exactly co-extensive with the several consciousnesses there present. No partialities of friend to friend, no fondnesses of brother to sister, of wife to husband, are there pertinent, but quite otherwise. Only he may then speak who can sail on the common thought of the party, and not poorly limited to his own. Now this convention, which good sense demands, destroys the high freedom of great conversation, which requires an absolute running of two souls into one.

Returning to the building blocks of true friendship, Emerson points out that the most valuable friendships don’t spring from a filter bubble of like-mindedness but, rather, from the perfect osmosis of shared values and just enough discrepancy in tastes and sensibilities to broaden our horizons:

Friendship requires that rare mean betwixt likeness and unlikeness, that piques each with the presence of power and of consent in the other party… I hate, where I looked for a manly furtherance, or at least a manly resistance, to find a mush of concession. Better be a nettle in the side of your friend, than his echo. The condition which high friendship demands is ability to do without it… Let it be an alliance of two large formidable natures, mutually beheld, mutually feared, before yet they recognize the deep identity which beneath these disparities unites them.

(A phrase like “a mush of concession” reminds you of just how daring a writer Emerson was in his era, and how original he remains in ours.)

Illustration by Ben Shecter from 'The Hating Book' by Charlotte Zolotow, 1953. Click image for more.

He returns once more to the organic formation of true friendship and the reverie with which its natural rhythms should be beheld, the room we should give a friend to breathe and grow and just be:

Friendship demands a religious treatment. We talk of choosing our friends, but friends are self-elected. Reverence is a great part of it. Treat your friend as a spectacle. [Your friend] has merits that are not yours, and that you cannot honor, if you must needs hold him close to your person. Stand aside; give those merits room; let them mount and expand. Are you the friend of your friend’s buttons, or of his thought? To a great heart he will still be a stranger in a thousand particulars, that he may come near in the holiest ground…

Leave this touching and clawing. Let him be to me a spirit.

To entrust a friend with the burden of our own wholeness, he suggests, is not only to place an unbearable weight on the relationship but also to relinquish vital personal responsibility:

We must be our own before we can be another’s… The least defect of self-possession vitiates, in my judgment, the entire relation. There can never be deep peace between two spirits, never mutual respect until, in their dialogue, each stands for the whole world.

Illustration by André François from 'Little Boy Brown,' a vintage ode to friendship by Isobel Harris. Click image for more.

Emerson ends by considering the dual art of what it takes to have a friend and to be one:

Wait, and thy heart shall speak. Wait until the necessary and everlasting overpowers you, until day and night avail themselves of your lips. The only reward of virtue, is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one.

A patience with the rhythms of relationships and an attentive sensitivity to their dynamics, he argues, will eventually elevate the true friendships over the false ones, over those of unequal investment of affections and effort, which will invariably fall away to reveal the immutable:

It has seemed to me lately more possible than I knew, to carry a friendship greatly, on one side, without due correspondence on the other. Why should I cumber myself with regrets that the receiver is not capacious? It never troubles the sun that some of his rays fall wide and vain into ungrateful space, and only a small part on the reflecting planet. Let your greatness educate the crude and cold companion. If he is unequal, he will presently pass away… But the great will see that true love cannot be unrequited. True love transcends the unworthy object, and dwells and broods on the eternal, and when the poor interposed mask crumbles, it is not sad, but feels rid of so much earth, and feels its independency the surer… The essence of friendship is entireness, a total magnanimity and trust.

Complement this with Andrew Sullivan’s beautiful reflections on friendship. Emerson’s Essays and Lectures includes equally insightful meditations on love, heroism, intellect, prudence, self-reliance, and more. The entire volume is available, and highly recommended, as a free download.

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13 AUGUST, 2014

Jane Goodall Answers the Proust Questionnaire

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A dead writer meets one of the greatest scientists alive.

A century before today’s popular personality quizzes, Victorian “confession albums” served essentially the same role, presenting a series of simple questions designed to reveal the respondent’s sensibility and aspirations. In the 1880s, teenage Marcel Proust was given one such questionnaire by his friend Antoinette, the daughter of France’s then-president, which he promptly answered. The original manuscript, titled “by Marcel Proust himself,” lay dormant for decades, until it was discovered in 1924, two years after the writer’s death. Half a century later, French television host Bernard Pivot resurrected the questionnaire as a backbone for his literary interviews. In 1993, Vanity Fair transplanted the tradition to the last page of the magazine, which began featuring various public figures’ answers to the Proust Questionnaire.

In 2009, the magazine released Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life (public library). Among the respondents is legendary primatologist and environmentalist Jane Goodall, she of great wisdom, who answered the famed survey in May of 2004.

Portrait of Jane Goodall by Robert Risko for Vanity Fair

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Sitting by myself in the forest in Gombe National Park watching one of the chimpanzee mothers with her family.

What is your greatest fear?
That I shall be tortured and be a coward.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Hypocrisy.

What is your greatest extravagance?
Long-distance phone calls to my friends.

What is your favorite journey?
My favorite ever journey was my first trip from Nairobi City to the Serengeti to Olduvai Gorge before it was famous, when there were no roads and all the animals were there. We were in an overloaded Land Rover, four people and two Dalmatians.

What do you dislike most about your appearance?
Aging skin!

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
My childhood companion and teacher — my dog, Rusty.

When and where were you happiest?
In the early 60s, when I was alone at Gombe with the chimpanzees.

What talent would you most like to have?
Ability to learn languages.

What is your current state of mind?
Deep concern at the state of the planet, environmental and social.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I need to be 20 years younger — there is too much to do.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Starting our youth program, Roots & Shoots, along with helping to blur the line between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Knowing you have let someone down, betrayed their trust.

What is your favorite occupation?
Observing animals alone in the wilderness.

What is your most marked characteristic?
Determination/optimism.

What do you most value in your friends?
Being able to share happiness and sadness and have a good laugh.

Who are your favorite writers?
Shakespeare, Tolkien, Mary Wesley.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Robin Hood.

Who are your heroes in real life?
My mother, until her death; dedicated teachers; Kofi Annan; Nelson Mandela; Muhammad Yunus.

What is it that you most dislike?
Receptions and dinners in noisy places with people talking too loud, riding in stretch limos, waste.

How would you like to die?
Peacefully and before losing my physical and especially my mental facilities.

What is your motto?
“As thy days, so shall thy strength be.”

That Goodall — one of the greatest scientists of the past century — should answer this last question with a quote from the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish Torah only speaks to her sensitivity to the spiritual aspect of science and her conviction that religion is useful only when and if it inspires us to do better.

Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire features more responses by such cultural icons as Allen Ginsberg, Hedy Lamarr, Gore Vidal, Julia Child, and Joan Didion. Sample it further with David Bowie’s playful and poignant answers and complement it with LIFE magazine’s similarly-spirited 1991 volume The Meaning of Life.

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