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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

20 AUGUST, 2015

The Genes of the Soul: Amin Maalouf on Belonging, Conflict, and How We Inhabit Our Identity

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“A person’s identity … is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.”

As a teenager in Bulgaria, the great joy of turning sixteen was finally qualifying for a passport. But this long-awaited event also marked my first brush with the violence of bureaucracy. One Friday morning, I stepped into a municipal office to apply for the coveted certificate of identity and lined up behind — or, rather, herded with, as is customary in Eastern Europe — a large lot of my fellow humans also in need of some government document. Across the mass of dejected strangers, resigned to countless hours at the mercilessness of bureaucrats, I spotted a boy from my high school. “It takes a lot to wrest identity out of nothing,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their extraordinary conversation on identity and belonging, and yet wrest we do when we must: The boy and I locked eyes in relieved recognition of affinity amid alienating otherness. Although we had never talked or otherwise acknowledged each other’s existence in the two years of sharing a campus, we suddenly felt that we belonged to the same tribe, united along this slim axis of affiliation as we faced a shared Other in the municipal bureaucrats and surrounding strangers.

As philosopher David Whyte aptly observed, “our sense of slight woundedness around not belonging is actually one of our core competencies.”

We spent the remainder of the day — Eastern European bureaucracy, for those fortunate enough not to have experienced it, operates on a wholly different time-scale — as the best of friends, talking about everything under the setting sun.

Illustration from 'Pool' by JiHyeon Lee, a parable of how kindred spirits find one another. Click image for more.

Upon returning to school on Monday, we never saw or spoke to each other again — we had both resumed our respective tribal affinity amid the larger nation of the school. As the sameness of our shared predicament dissolved, each was once again an Other to the other.

Almost everyone has experienced some form of such disposable affinity — with an airplane seat mate, with a fellow patient at the dentist’s waiting room, with the other stray Dresden Dolls fan at a science conference. But the strange psychology undergirding our morphing sense of belonging is also the root of the destructive impulses that Tolstoy and Gandhi contemplated in exploring why we hurt each other. All violence requires an Other as its target, and the shifting boundaries of our own identity are what contours that otherness.

We each live with what pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner called an “internal clamor of identities,” out of which spring both the bonds of belonging and the violence of difference, inflicted upon those whom we perceive as a threat to any one of our multiple identities of gender, race, religion, nationality, class, political affiliation, favorite sports team, and so forth.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from 'Waterloo and Trafalgar.' Click image for more.

These fascinating, shape-shifting complexities of personhood are what Lebanese-born French writer Amin Maalouf explores in the superb 1996 book In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong (public library), translated by Barbara Bray — an immensely insightful exploration of difference, allegiance, and the underlying commonalities of the human experience, timelier than ever in our culture of divisive Otherness. What emerges is a reminder that only by acknowledging the multiplicity of our identity can we begin to simultaneously own our uniqueness and fully inhabit our ties to our fellow human beings.

Maalouf, who carries a number of such clamoring belongings within himself — born in Lebanon to Christian parents and raised with Arabic as his mother tongue, he emigrated to France in his twenties — writes:

Each individual’s identity is made up of a number of elements and these are clearly not restricted to the particulars set down in official records. Of course, for the great majority these factors include allegiance to a religious tradition; to a nationality — sometimes two; to a profession, an institution, or a particular social milieu. But the list is much longer than that; it is virtually unlimited.

[…]

Not all these allegiances are equally strong, at least at any given moment. But none is entirely insignificant, either. All are components of personality — we might almost call them “genes of the soul” so long as we remember that most of them are not innate.

While each of these elements may be found separately in many individuals, the same combination of them is never encountered in different people, and it’s this that gives every individual richness and value and makes each human being unique and irreplaceable.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce's Ulysses. Click image for more.

To underscore that identity is a dynamic interaction with life mores so than a static trait passed down from our ancestors, Maalouf adds:

It can happen that some incident, a fortunate or unfortunate accident, even a chance encounter, influences our sense of identity more strongly than any ancient affiliation.

In fact, he admonishes, adhering to a static and absolute framework of identity is the seedbed of trouble:

In every age there have been people who considered that an individual had one overriding affiliation so much more important in every circumstance to all others that it might legitimately be called his “identity.” For some it was the nation, for others religion or class. But one has only to look at the various conflicts being fought out all over the world today to realize that no one allegiance has absolute superiority.

[…]

While there is always a certain hierarchy among the elements that go to make up individual identities, that hierarchy is not immutable; it changes with time, and in so doing brings about fundamental changes in behavior.

Illustration from 'The Sea' by Marianne Dubuc. Click image for more.

Reflecting on his own belonging to a minority as a Christian Arab, Maalouf considers the dance between uniqueness and shared belonging:

I sometimes find myself “examining my identity” as other people examine their conscience. As you may imagine, my object is not to discover within myself some “essential” allegiance in which I may recognize myself. Rather the opposite: I scour my memory to find as many ingredients of my identity as I can. I then assemble and arrange them. I don’t deny any of them.

[…]

Any person of goodwill trying to carry out his or her own “examination of identity” would soon, like me, discover that that identity is a special case. Mankind itself is made up of special cases. Life is a creator of differences… Every individual without exception possesses a composite identity.

Maalouf emphasizes this point as an important antidote to the perilous and prevalent attitude that demands of us to declare our identity along a single dimension — say, female or Bulgarian or queer or yogi — which becomes a violent constriction of our expansiveness. To further complicate the equation, personal identity changes over the course of life, and it is this enigmatic evolution that seeds the mystery of what makes you and your childhood self the same person.

Maalouf writes:

Identity isn’t given once and for all: it is built up and changes throughout a person’s lifetime… Not many of the elements that go to make up our identity are already in us at birth. A few physical characteristics of course — sex, color and so on. And even at this point not everything is innate. Although, obviously, social environment doesn’t determine sex, it does determine its significance. To be born a girl is not the same in Kabul as it is in Oslo; the condition of being a woman, like every other factor in a person’s identity, is experienced differently in the two places.

The same could be said of color. To be born black is a different matter according to whether you come in to the world in New York, Lagos, Pretoria or Luanda… For an infant who first sees the light of day in Nigeria, the operative factor as regards his identity is not whether he is black rather than white, but whether he is Yoruba, say, rather than Hausa… In the United States it’s of no consequence whether you have a Yoruba rather than a Hausa ancestor: it’s chiefly among the whites — the Italians, the English, the Irish and the rest — that ethnic origin has a determining effect on identity.

[…]

I mention these examples only to underline the fact that even color and sex are not “absolute” ingredients of identity. That being so, all the other ingredients are even more relative.

Photograph by Martine Franck, 1965

Maalouf considers the crucible of our identity:

What determines a person’s affiliation to a given group is essentially the influence of others: the influence of those about him — relatives, fellow-countrymen, co-religionists — who try to make him one of them; together with the influence of those on the other side, who do their best to exclude him. Each one of us has to make his way while choosing between the paths that are urged upon him and those that are forbidden or strewn with obstacles. He is not himself from the outset; nor does he just “grow aware” of what he is; he becomes what he is. He doesn’t merely “grow aware” of his identity; he acquires it step by step.

[…]

But it is just as necessary to emphasize that identity is also singular, something that we experience as a complete whole. A person’s identity is not an assemblage of separate affiliations, nor a kind of loose patchwork; it is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.

Only by understanding the complexities of identity can we begin to understand what transforms this drum from a celebratory beat of belonging into a menacing rhythm that powers militant marches of violence. Echoing Margaret Mead’s assertion that “we’ve started to worry about identity since people began losing it,” Maalouf writes:

People often see themselves in terms of whichever one of their allegiances is most under attack. And sometimes, when a person doesn’t have the strength to defend that allegiance, he hides it. Then it remains buried deep down in the dark, awaiting its revenge. But whether he accepts or conceals it, proclaims it discreetly or flaunts it, it is with that allegiance that the person concerned identifies. And then, whether it relates to color, religion, language or class, it invades the person’s whole identity. Other people who share the same allegiance sympathize; they all gather together, join forces, encourage one another, challenge “the other side.” For them, “asserting their identity” inevitably becomes an act of courage, of liberation.

In the midst of any community that has been wounded agitators naturally arise… The scene is now set and the war can begin. Whatever happens “the others” will have deserved it.

[…]

What we conveniently call “murderous folly” is the propensity of our fellow-creatures to turn into butchers when they suspect that their “tribe” is being threatened. The emotions of fear or insecurity don’t always obey rational considerations. They may be exaggerated or even paranoid; but once a whole population is afraid, we are dealing with the reality of the fear rather than the reality of the threat.

Such complex problems, Maalouf is careful to point out, merit only befittingly nuanced solutions:

I no more believe in simplistic solutions than I do in simplistic identities. The world is a complex machine that can’t be dismantled with a screwdriver. But that shouldn’t prevent us from observing, from trying to understand, from discussing, and sometimes suggesting a subject for reflection.

That’s precisely what Maalouf goes on to do in the remainder of the wholly excellent, urgently relevant In the Name of Identity. Complement it with Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s forgotten conversation about identity and Rebecca Goldstein on the mystery of personhood.

Thanks, Jacqueline

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19 AUGUST, 2015

Simone Weil on Attention and Grace

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“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

“Attention without feeling,” Mary Oliver wrote in her beautiful elegy for her soul mate, “is only a report.” To fully feel life course through us, indeed, we ought to befriend our own attention, that “intentional, unapologetic discriminator.”

More than half a century before Oliver, another enchantress of the human spirit — the French philosopher Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943), a mind of unparalleled intellectual elegance and a sort of modern saint whom Albert Camus described as “the only great spirit of our times” — wrote beautifully of attention as contemplative practice through which we reap the deepest rewards of our humanity.

In First and Last Notebooks (public library) — the out-of-print treasure that gave us Weil on the key to discipline and how to make use of our suffering — she writes:

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

This piercing thought comes fully abloom in Gravity and Grace (public library) — a posthumous 1952 collection of Weil’s enduring ideas, culled from her notebooks by Gustave Thibon, the farmer whom she entrusted with her writings before her untimely death.

Weil considers the superiority of attention over the will as the ultimate tool of self-transformation:

We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.

The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles, and these movements are associated with the idea of the change of position of nearby objects. I can will to put my hand flat on the table. If inner purity, inspiration or truth of thought were necessarily associated with attitudes of this kind, they might be the object of will. As this is not the case, we can only beg for them… Or should we cease to desire them? What could be worse? Inner supplication is the only reasonable way, for it avoids stiffening muscles which have nothing to do with the matter. What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem. Attention is something quite different.

Pride is a tightening up of this kind. There is a lack of grace (we can give the word its double meaning here) in the proud man. It is the result of a mistake.

Weil turns to attention as the counterpoint to this graceless will — where the will contracts the spirit, she argues, attention expands it:

Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.

Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.

If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.

Gravity and Grace is one of the most spiritually nourishing texts ever published. Complement it with Weil on temptation and true genius, then revisit writer Melissa Pritchard on art as a form of active prayer and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on reawakening our capacity for attention.

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18 AUGUST, 2015

The Inner Light of Creativity: Vivian Gornick on How One Blossoms into Being an Artist

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“I experienced a joy then I knew nothing else would ever equal. Not an ‘I love you’ in the world could touch it.”

“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote in her exquisite letter to Sherwood Anderson, adding: “Making your unknown known is the important thing.” Over the years, I’ve kept coming back to this as the most piercing and perfect definition of what it means to be an artist — an idea E.E. Cummings echoed in asserting that “the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.” During a recent walk with a cellist friend, I was reminded of this sentiment and the immutable inquiry at its heart — when the banality of exterior metrics falls away, what is that singular interior orientation that sets the artist apart from the rest?

That’s what Vivian Gornick explores in a portion of her superb 1987 memoir Fierce Attachments (public library).

'Red and yellow sunflowers' (1920) by German-Danish painter and printmaker Emil Nolde (Courtesy of Nolde Foundation)

Gornick describes her first brush with the throbbing contour of the creative impulse during an impromptu visit to the Whitney Museum:

I walk through the door, turn to the wall nearest me, and come face to face with two large Nolde watercolors, the famous flowers. I’ve looked often at Nolde’s flowers, but now it’s as though I am seeing them for the first time: that hot lush diffusion of his outlined, I suddenly realize, in intent. I see the burning quality of Nolde’s intention, the serious patience with which the flowers absorb him, the clear, stubborn concentration of the artist on his subject. I see it. And I think, It’s the concentration that gives the work its power. The space inside me enlarges. That rectangle of light and air inside, where thought clarifies and language grows and response is made intelligent, that famous space surrounded by loneliness, anxiety, self-pity, it opens wide as I look at Nolde’s flowers.

That rectangle of air and light — an interior space wholly different from the illusory fetishes of exterior space against which Bukowski admonished when he wrote “baby, air and light and time and space / have nothing to do with it / and don’t create anything / except maybe a longer life to find / new excuses / for” — becomes Gornick’s recurring companion during the most electrifying moments of creative flow. She recounts a particularly formative period of her life, “a true beginning,” during which the rectangle took shape in her own art:

In the second year of my marriage the rectangular space made its first appearance inside me. I was writing an essay, a piece of graduate-student criticism that had flowered without warning into thought, radiant shapely thought. The sentences began pushing up in me, struggling to get out, each one moving swiftly to add itself to the one that preceded it. I realized suddenly that an image had taken control of me: I saw its shape and its outline clearly. The sentences were trying to fill in the shape. The image was the wholeness of my thought. In that instant I felt myself open wide. My insides cleared out into a rectangle, all clean air and uncluttered space, that began in my forehead and ended in my groin. In the middle of the rectangle only my image, waiting patiently to clarify itself. I experienced a joy then I knew nothing else would ever equal. Not an “I love you” in the world could touch it. Inside that joy I was safe and erotic, excited and at peace, beyond threat or influence. I understood everything I needed to understand in order that I might act, live, be.

The metaphor of this image-animating rectangle of creative electricity is astonishingly poignant today, nearly three decades later, in an era where we’ve grown transfixed by a very different — and in many ways opposite — kind of luminous rectangle. One is left to wonder, not without wistfulness, how the glowing screens into which we stare day and night, and through which we both consume and communicate so much of our experience of life, might be dimming the inner light of that interior rectangle where the wholeness of thought takes shape.

But the romance of this exultant rectangle, Gornick reminds us, coexists with the reality of the negative space surrounding it — a space rife with the artist’s atmospheric self-doubt, which animated Virginia Woolf and filled John Steinbeck’s diary. Reflecting on an especially intense period of work, Gornick captures the ebb and flow of these two states, always in an osmotic relationship:

I sat at the desk and I concentrated. I didn’t glaze over looking at the words, or stumble about in my chair reeling with fog and fatigue. Rather, I sat down each morning with a clear mind and hour after hour I worked. The rectangle had opened wide and remained open: in the middle stood an idea. A great excitement formed itself around this idea, and took hold of me. I began fantasizing over the idea, rushing ahead of it, envisioning its full and particular strength and power long before it had clarified. Out of this fantasizing came images, and out of the images a wholeness of thought and language that amazed me each time it repeated itself. At the end of the week I had a large amount of manuscript on my desk. On Friday afternoon I put away the work. On Monday morning I looked at it, and I saw that the pages contained merit but the idea was ill-conceived. It didn’t work at all. I’d have to abandon all that I had done. I felt deflated. The period of inspired labor was at an end. The murk and the vapor closed in on me again, the rectangle shriveled and I was back to eking out painfully small moments of clarity, as usual and as always. Still, it was absorbing to remember the hours I had put in while under the spell of my vision. I felt strengthened by the sustained effort of work the fantasizing had led to.

Fierce Attachments is a rich and deeply rewarding read in its totality. Complement it with Gornick on how to own your story and some of today’s most celebrated artists on what it means to be a great artist.

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18 AUGUST, 2015

An Illustrated Tour of New York City from a Dog’s Point of View

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A vibrant concentration of humanity, seen through earnest eyes of wonderment and infectious enthusiasm.

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.” So wrote E.B. White wrote in his timeless love letter to New York — a city that has, in fact, has inspired a great deal of poetry itself: visual poetry, like Berenice Abbott’s stunning photographs of its changing face and Julia Rothman’s illustrated tour of the five boroughs; poetic prose, like Zadie Smith’s love-hate letter to Gotham and the private writings of notable authors who lived in and visited the city; and poetry-poetry, like Frank O’Hara’s “Song (Is it dirty)” and Walt Whitman’s “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun.”

Now comes a most unusual addition to the menagerie of Gotham-lovers — a foreign cousin of Manhattan’s beloved creative canines. In Americanine: A Haute Dog in New York (public library), French illustrator Yann Kebbi takes us on an imaginative and infectiously enthusiastic tour of the city from the point of view of a dog, “a merry canine” — a creature full of goodwill and earnest wonderment at the world, wholly devoid of the petty cynicisms that blind us to the miraculousness of so much humanity compressed into such a small space. It is only through such eyes of fiery friendliness that we begin to add music and meaning — to New York, to any city, to life itself.

Kebbi’s illustrations, immeasurably delightful in their own right, bear a palpable kinship of spirit with this singular city itself — colorful and deeply alive, they bridge haste and purposefulness, simplicity and sophistication.

We follow the dog as he samples the usual tourist attractions — from staples like the Statue of Liberty and Grand Central to classic funscapes like the Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel to bastions of high-brow culture like the Guggenheim.

Tucked into his journey are treats to which tourists may remain oblivious but which locals will recognize with nostalgic delight — the Central Park saxophonist, the archetypal spoke-figure of the dog walker, the Domino Sugar factory by the Williamsburg Bridge, the city’s iconic water towers.

There also semi-hidden perplexities that wink at the reality of the story and the reality of the city simultaneously: Our dog-hero wanders the streets leashed, and yet the enigmatic leash-holder always remains out of the frame — both a source of mystery and a subtle layer of civic history, for it is illegal to let dogs off-leash in the streets of New York.

The playfulness of the canine perspective extends a warm invitation to pause and marvel at some of the absurd things we humans do, which we’ve come to take for granted in the rhythm of daily life. As the dog peers through the window of a giant gym and watches people run in place without getting anywhere, one is suddenly reminded of how silly much of what we do would seem to a rational observer.

What emerges is a loving portrait of a city ablaze with aliveness, one in which both tourists and locals will recognize themselves — their dreams and their realities, mirrored back at them with eager and nonjudgmental eyes full of wonderment.

The wholly delightful Americanine comes from Brooklyn-based Enchanted Lion Books, the independent picture-book powerhouse behind such intelligent and imaginative treasures as Beastly Verse, Little Boy Brown, The Lion and the Bird, Why Dogs Have Wet Noses, and the illustrated biography of E.E. Cummings.

For some complementary treats, see The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, the graphic biography of the man who shaped Gotham, and the science of how a dog actually “sees” the world through smell.

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