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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

26 JANUARY, 2015

The Quiet Book: An Illustrated Love Letter to Life’s Meaningful Pauses

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A sweet celebration of the nuanced stillnesses that comprise aliveness.

“There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy… the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul… the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos,” wrote Paul Goodman in his sublime taxonomy of the nine kinds of silence.

If silence’s sister faculty — solitude — is partway between apathetic extinction and deliberate eradication because we’re failing to cultivate childhood’s essential capacity for “fertile solitude,” then it follows that the survival of silence depends in large part on cultivating a healthy relationship with it, as well as a deep appreciation of its many gifts, in childhood.

That’s precisely what writer Deborah Underwood and illustrator Renata Liwska set out to do, with great subtlety and sensitivity, in The Quiet Book (public library) — a gentle reminder that, despite what our culture of compulsive stimulation may have led us to believe, silence is itself the stuff of substance; the moments it fills are not the inbetweenery of life but life itself — rich and nuanced and irrepressibly, if quietly, alive.

There is the wistful (“last one to get picked up from school quiet”), the mischievous (“thinking of a good reason you were drawing on the wall quiet”), the tender (“sleeping sister quiet”), the enraptured (“first snowfall quiet”), and all kinds of other quietudes that call to mind Maira Kalman’s beautiful and evocative phrase “the moments inside the moments inside the moments.” Liwska’s delicate illustrations, inspired by vintage Polish poster art and yet unmistakably, singularly her own, deepen and make more dimensional Underwood’s already bewitching words.

What emerges is at once a Goodnight Moon for a new generation and a modern celebration of adulthood’s increasingly endangered art of seeking out those pockets of stillness where, as Wendell Berry memorably put it, “one’s inner voices become audible.”

Complement The Quiet Book with Christopher Ricks’s bewitching reading of Goodman’s nine silences, then revisit Bertrand Russell on why happiness is contingent on our capacity for “fruitful monotony” — for what is quietude if not a supreme monotony of sound that enlivens the soul?

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26 JANUARY, 2015

Emerson on Talent vs. Character, Our Resistance to Change, and the Key to True Personal Growth

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“People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

“Cut short of the floundering and you’ve cut short the possible creative outcomes,” Denise Shekerjian wrote in contemplating the capacity for “staying loose” that many MacArthur geniuses have in common. “Cheat on the chaotic stumbling-about, and you’ve robbed yourself of the raw stuff that feeds the imagination.” And yet part of the human paradox is that even in the face of overwhelming evidence for this uncomfortable truth, despite full intellectual awareness of it, we continue to seek certainty and resist change, stunting our personal growth with stubborn self-righteousness and staunch defiance of the very discomfort from which self-transcendence springs.

From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — the same indispensable volume that gave us the great philosopher on the two essential requirements of true friendship — comes a layered and immeasurably insightful 1841 essay titled “Circles,” exploring the pillars of personal growth and how we can learn to stop resisting the very things that help us transcend our self-imposed limitations.

A century and a half before psychologists examined “the backfire effect” of our ideological stubbornness, Emerson considers how we arrive at our beliefs and why we have such a hard time with the uncomfortable luxury of changing our minds:

The key to every man is his thought. Sturdy and defying though he look, he has a helm which he obeys, which is the idea after which all his facts are classified. He can only be reformed by showing him a new idea which commands his own. The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end. The extent to which this generation of circles, wheel without wheel, will go, depends on the force or truth of the individual soul. For it is the inert effort of each thought, having formed itself into a circular wave of circumstance … to heap itself on that ridge, and to solidify and hem in the life. But if the soul is quick and strong, it bursts over that boundary on all sides, and expands another orbit on the great deep, which also runs up into a high wave, with attempt again to stop and to bind. But the heart refuses to be imprisoned; in its first and narrowest pulses, it already tends outward with a vast force, and to immense and innumerable expansions.

The balance of steadfastness and spontaneity that jazz legend Bill Evans saw as necessary for his art, Emerson sees as necessary for the art of personal development:

Let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker… Yet this incessant movement and progression which all things partake could never become sensible to us but by contrast to some principle of fixture or stability in the soul.

Illustration by Rob Hunter from 'A Graphic Cosmogony.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment that Bertrand Russell would come to echo nearly a century later in his ten timeless commandments of learning“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” — Emerson considers our resistance to change, both as individuals and as a culture:

Every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series… The new statement is always hated by the old, and, to those dwelling in the old, comes like an abyss of skepticism.

[…]

In nature every moment is new; the past is always swallowed and forgotten… Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit. No love can be bound by oath or covenant to secure it against a higher love. No truth so sublime but it may be trivial to-morrow in the light of new thoughts. People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.

Life is a series of surprises.

But Emerson’s most pressing point has to do with how this courage for embracing uncertainty and change — especially unwelcome change — is the foundation of what we call character:

The difference between talents and character is adroitness to keep the old and trodden round, and power and courage to make a new road to new and better goals. Character makes an overpowering present; a cheerful, determined hour, which fortifies all the company, by making them see that much is possible and excellent that was not thought of. Character dulls the impression of particular events. When we see the conqueror, we do not think much of any one battle or success… The great man is not convulsible or tormentable; events pass over him without much impression. People say sometimes, ‘See what I have overcome; see how cheerful I am; see how completely I have triumphed over these black events.’ Not if they still remind me of the black event. True conquest is the causing the calamity to fade and disappear, as an early cloud of insignificant result in a history so large and advancing.

Illustration by Oliver Jeffers from the unusual and wonderful 'Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters.' Click image for more.

He returns to the notion of life’s self-evolving circle:

The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment. The great moments of history are the facilities of performance through the strength of ideas… They ask the aid of wild passions… to ape in some manner these flames and generosities of the heart.

Emerson’s Essays and Lectures is a sublimely rewarding read in its entirety, full of enduring wisdom on discipline, language, love, beauty, ethics, illusion, self-reliance, and nearly every other substantial aspect of the human experience. Complement it with fifteen ideas for self-refinement through the wisdom of the ages, including one from Emerson himself.

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23 JANUARY, 2015

The Principle of Infinite Pains: Legendary Filmmaker Maya Deren on Cinema, Life, and Her Advice to Aspiring Filmmakers

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“The love of life itself… seems to me larger than the loving attention to a life. But, of course, each contains the other…”

Russian-born American filmmaker, poet, photographer, choreographer, and critic Maya Deren (April 29, 1917–October 13, 1961) endures as one of humanity’s most significant experimental filmmakers and champions of independent cinema. She was only twenty-six when she made the influential classic Meshes of the Afternoon, which remains required viewing for film students, visual storytellers, and general connoisseurs of creative culture alike. But Deren was also a masterful writer and film theorist, who authored dozens of articles in film journals and popular magazines, often included extensive program notes with her films, and self-published a chapbook of her writings. Nearly half a century after Deren’s sudden and premature death, the best of her written work was collected in Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film (public library) — a compendium of her views on cinema as an art form, the rewards and challenges of independent filmmaking, and broader questions of art, reality, and the creative process.

But arguably more revealing and insightful than all of her formal critical writings in the collection combined is a single letter Deren wrote in April of 1955, shortly before her thirty-eighth birthday, to James Card — film archivist for George Eastman House, the institution Deren was considering for representation and preservation of her archive. Card had invited her to send a reel of Meshes of the Afternoon and preview prints of her other films.

After a series of questions intended to assess whether George Eastman House would provide a proper home for her films and be a bastion of her legacy — Deren observes that “it may seem exaggerated to speak of a will,” a remark particularly poignant given her untimely death a few years later — she notes that she considers her films Ritual in Transfigured Time and A Study in Choreography for Camera “most representative” of her work, then writes:

Meshes of the Afternoon is my point of departure. I am not ashamed of it, for I think that, as a film, it stands up very well. From the point of view of my own development, I cannot help but be gently proud that that first film — that point of departure — had such relatively solid footing. This is due to two major facts: first, to the fact that I had been a poet up until then, and the reason that I had not been a very good poet was because actually my mind worked in images which I had been trying to translate or describe in words; therefore, when I undertook cinema, I was relieved of the false step of translating image into words, and could work directly so that it was not like discovering a new medium so much as finally coming home into a world whose vocabulary, syntax, grammar, was my mother tongue; which I understood and thought it, but, like a mute, had never spoken.

Noting that “the first speech of a mute is hoarse, ugly, virtually unintelligible,” Deren points to the second reason of her film’s success — the technical acumen and mechanical expertise of her husband and collaborator, Czechoslovakian filmmaker Alexander “Sasha” Hammid, who made sure the film didn’t sound like a mute’s “first speech.” Embedded in her specific gratitude is Deren’s general advice to aspiring filmmakers about the importance of technical mastery and painstaking attention to detail — especially regarding speech and sound — as the foundation for a well-executed creative vision:

My debt to him for teaching me the mechanics of film expression, and, more than that, the principle of infinite pains, is enormous. I wish that all these young film-makers would have the luck for a similar apprenticeship. As it is, when they revolt against the meaningless rhetoricians of film, they tend to throw out the baby with the bath water. They don’t bother to shape the lips and mouth carefully before letting the sound out, and ignore the fact that a good idea merits careful enunciation with the result that a good many of them sound, at best, like Marlon Brando… I mean, you just know he’s feelings things like crazy, but why doesn’t he take those marbles out of his mouth!

Maya Deren and Aleksander Hammid, 1940

But Deren places even greater importance on the role of movement. Reflecting on her film A Study in Choreography for Camera, she writes:

This principle — that the dynamic of movement in film is stronger than anything else — than any changes of matter… that movement, or energy is more important, or powerful, than space or matter — that, in fact, it creates matter — seemed to me to be marvelous, like an illumination, that I wanted to just stop and celebrate that wonder, just by itself…

And yet Deren offers a perfectly worded disclaimer to mistaking her insistence on technique for an absence of a deeper concern with creative vision, which she illustrates with an exquisitely insightful metaphor:

I have reticence about the more profound significance which is hard for me to explain except, perhaps, by analogy — the way a woman will look up and say to a man “That suit looks very well on you” instead of, “I love you. I am happy that you are here to look at.” The trouble is that people often think that technique is my primary consideration when I speak of techniques — just as if that man would begin discussing wholesale prices and yard goods, which would make the woman feel peculiar.

Similarly, Deren points out, the masterful technique for which her films were commended wasn’t an end of itself but merely a way for her to both access and articulate the deeper vision:

Each time one of those technical sequences buzzed in my head, like a beacon signaling “This way, this way,” it was because I was tuned to that frequency. I was not simply trying to get out of that room and go somewhere, anywhere, I was heading in a certain direction, and no matter how minute the crack that gave upon it, it was to pass through there that I labored. There may have been wide doors to both sides. I did not even try them for they did not give in my direction. And, looking back, it is clear that the direction was away from a concern with the way things feel and towards a concern with the way things are; away from personal psychology towards nerveless metaphysics. I mean metaphysics in the large sense… not as mysticism but beyond the physical in the way that a principle is an abstraction, beyond any particulars in which it is manifest.

She points to each of her films as complementary examples:

[Meshes of the Afternoon] externalizes an inner world to the point where it is confounded with the external world. At Land has little to do with the inner world of the protagonist; it externalizes the hidden dynamic of the external world, and here the drama results from the activity of the external world. It is as if I had moved from a concern with the life of a fish, to a concern with the sea which accounts for the character of the fish and its life. And Rituals pulls back even further, to a point of view from which the external world itself is but an element in the entire structure and scheme of metamorphosis: the sea itself changes because of the large changes of the earth.

Noting that her latest project, The Very Eye of Night — which would be her last finished film — had “taken [her] out in space about as far as [she] can go” and spurred her desire to explain why she considers Meshes of the Afternoon a “point of departure,” she zooms out into a wide view of her body of work:

Each film was built as a chamber and became a corridor, like a chain reaction.

Maya Deren (Still from 'Meshes of the Afternoon,' 1943)

But Deren’s most poignant point in the letter has nothing to do with her films themselves and everything to do with the spiritual foundation from which they spring. She recounts a recent awakening of sorts — the kind common to near-death experiences from which one emerges with a newfound gratefulness of the glory of life:

Last May I had an emergency operation; it was touch and go for a few hours there, and I came out of it with a rapidity that dazzled: one month from the date of that operation (I had to be slit from side to side) I was dancing! Then I actually realized that I was overwhelmed with the most wondrous gratitude for the marvelous persistence of the life force. In the transported exaltation of this moment, I wanted to run out into the streets and shout to everyone that death was not true! that they must not listen to the doom singers and the bell ringers! that life was more true! I had always believed and felt this, but never had I known how right I was. And I asked myself, why, then, did I not celebrate it in my art. And then I had a sudden image: a dog lying somewhere very still, and a child, first looking at it, and then, compulsively, nudging it. Why? to see whether it was alive; because if it moves, if it can move, it lives. This most primitive, this most instinctive of all gestures: to make it move to make it live. So I had always been doing with my camera… nudging an ever-increasing area of the world, making it move, animating it, making it live… The love of life itself… seems to me larger than the loving attention to a life. But, of course, each contains the other, and, perhaps, I have not so much traveled off in a direction as moved in a slow spiral around some central essence, seeing it first from below, and now, finally, from above.

Deren leaps spryly off this spiral of intensity into a playful sign-off:

Anyway, this is one way to look at that reel of film. You can’t say you haven’t been briefed!

Six years later, Deren died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage. She was forty-four. Essential Deren remains the most complete record and bewitching glimpse of the singular mind and spirit which produced some of the most influential visual masterworks of the twentieth century. Complement it with a contemporary counterpart — Werner Herzog’s compendium of reflections on film and life, which was among the best books of 2014.

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