Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

21 JANUARY, 2015

Bertrand Russell on the Vital Role of Boredom and “Fruitful Monotony” in the Conquest of Happiness

By:

“A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men… of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

Between the time Kierkegaard contemplated boredom and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips made his bewitching case for why the capacity for it is essential for a full life, Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) tussled with the subject more elegantly than any other thinker before or since. In a chapter titled “Boredom and Excitement” from his altogether indispensable 1930 classic The Conquest of Happiness (public library) — an effort “to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer” — he teases apart the paradoxical question of why, given how vital it is to our wholeness, we dread boredom as much as we do. Long before our present anxieties about how the age of distraction and productivity is thwarting our capacity for presence — a capacity essential for that very conquest of happiness — Russell shines timeless wisdom and remarkably timely insight on the deep-seated demons of human nature that keep us small and unhappy, and offers sage assurance for transcending them by bringing greater awareness to our own perilous pathologies.

With the same astounding prescience that defines most of his work, Russell writes:

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.

He makes an especially timely note of how the hedonic treadmill of consumerism becomes our chronic, and chronically futile, refuge for running from boredom:

As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense. Those who can afford it are perpetually moving from place to place, carrying with them as they go gaiety, dancing and drinking, but for some reason always expecting to enjoy these more in a new place. Those who have to earn a living get their share of boredom, of necessity, in working hours, but those who have enough money to be freed from the need of work have as their ideal a life completely freed from boredom. It is a noble ideal, and far be it from me to decry it, but I am afraid that like other ideals it is more difficult to achievement than the idealists suppose. After all, the mornings are boring in proportion as the previous evenings were amusing. There will be middle age, possibly even old age. At twenty men think that life will be over at thirty… Perhaps it is as unwise to spend one’s vital capital as one’s financial capital. Perhaps some element of boredom is a necessary ingredient in life. A wish to escape from boredom is natural; indeed, all races of mankind have displayed it as opportunity occurred… Wars, pogroms, and persecutions have all been part of the flight from boredom; even quarrels with neighbors have been found better than nothing. Boredom is therefore a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.

And yet Russell recognizes the vitalizing value of this greatly reviled state, outlining two distinct types of boredom:

Boredom, however, is not to be regarded as wholly evil. There are two sorts, of which one is fructifying, while the other is stultifying. The fructifying kind arises from the absence of drugs and the stultifying kind from the absence of vital activities.

Our frantic flight from boredom, he admonishes, results in a paradoxical relationship with excitement, wherein we’re at once addicted to its intake and desensitized to its effects:

What applies to drugs applies also, within limits, to every kind of excitement. A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure. A person accustomed to too much excitement is like a person with a morbid craving for pepper, who comes last to be unable even to taste a quantity of pepper which would cause anyone else to choke. There is an element of boredom which is inseparable from the avoidance of too much excitement, and too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty… A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young.

Indeed, the cultivation of this core capacity early in life fortifies the psychological immune system of the adult. Nearly a century before the iPad, which is now swiftly shoved in the screen-hungry hands of every toddler bored to disgruntlement, Russell writes:

The capacity to endure a more or less monotonous life is one which should be acquired in childhood. Modern parents are greatly to blame in this respect; they provide their children with far too many passive amusements… and they do not realize the importance to a child of having one day like another, except, of course, for somewhat rare occasions.

DIY indoor boomerang from the vintage gem 'How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself.' Click illustration for more.

Instead, he exhorts parents to allow children the freedom to experience “fruitful monotony,” which invites inventiveness and imaginative play — in other words, the great childhood joy and developmental achievement of learning to “do nothing with nobody all alone by yourself,” a testament to Kierkegaard’s insistence that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.” Russell writes:

The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness. Pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theatre, should occur very rarely. The excitement is in the nature of a drug, of which more and more will come to be required, and the physical passivity during the excitement is contrary to instinct. A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.

I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony… A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from 'Mr. Tweed's Good Deeds.' Click image for details.

Even humanity’s greatest works of literature, Russell points out, have boredom baked into their very substance — something he illustrates with an entertaining example all the more perfectly parodic of contemporary publishing:

All great books contain boring portions, and all great lives have contained uninteresting stretches. Imagine a modern American publisher confronted with the Old Testament as a new manuscript submitted to him for the first time. It is not difficult to think what his comments would be, for example, on the genealogies.

“My dear sir,” he would say, “this chapter lacks pep; you can’t expect your reader to be interested in a mere string of proper names of persons about whom you tell him so little. You have begun your story, I will admit, in fine style, and at first I was very favorably impressed, but you have altogether too much wish to tell it all. Pick out the highlights, take out the superfluous matter, and bring me back your manuscript when you have reduced it to a reasonable length.”

So the modern publisher would speak, knowing the modern reader’s fear of boredom. He would say the same sort of thing about the Confucian classics, the Koran, Marx’s Capital, and all the other sacred books which have proved to be bestsellers.

(Of course, it’s triply tragicomic to imagine what Russell might make of the listicle — today’s ultimate reactionary hedge against our fear of boredom.)

Illustration from 'An ABZ of Love,' Kurt Vonnegut's favorite vintage Danish illustrated guide to sexuality. Click image for more.

He uses the most intimate of metaphors to illustrate the existential emptiness that such groping for fleeting excitement engenders:

Consider the difference between love and mere sex attraction. Love is an experience in which our whole being is renewed and refreshed as is that of plants by rain after drought. In sex intercourse without love there is nothing of this. When the momentary pleasure is ended, there is fatigue, disgust, and a sense that life is hollow. Love is part of the life of Earth; sex without love is not.

This, indeed, is both Russell’s most timeless and most devastatingly timely point — that our dread of boredom is a self-inflicted wound resulting from the singular modern violence of our break with nature. But here is the most striking part: The sight of a man walking down the street transfixed by a glowing rectangle, completely blind to the sky and deaf to the birds and hardened to the wind’s caress, would have been completely foreign to Russell. Many decades before such violent forms of severance from nature existed, he admonishes:

The special kind of boredom from which modern urban populations suffer is intimately bound up with their separation from the life of Earth. It makes life hot and dusty and thirsty, like a pilgrimage in the desert. Among those who are rich enough to choose their way of life, the particular brand of unendurable boredom from which they suffer is due, paradoxical as this may seem, to their fear of boredom. In flying from the fructifying kind of boredom, they fall a prey to the other far worse kind. A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.

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

The Conquest of Happiness is a spectacular, existentially necessary read in its entirety. Complement it with Russell on human nature, his heartening message to descendants, and his ten commandments of teaching and learning.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

19 JANUARY, 2015

The Wisdom of No Escape: Pema Chödrön on Gentleness, the Art of Letting Go, and How to Befriend Your Inner Life

By:

“Our neurosis and our wisdom are made out of the same material. If you throw out your neurosis, you also throw out your wisdom.”

Pema Chödrön (b. July 14, 1936) — a generous senior teacher in the Buddhist contemplative tradition of Shambhala, ordained Buddhist nun, and prolific author — is one of our era’s most tireless champions of a mindful wholeheartedness as the essential life-force of the human experience. For the generations since Alan Watts — who began introducing Eastern philosophy in the West in the 1950s and sparked a counterculture to consumerism seeking to transcend the illusions of the separate self — Chödrön has become the most widely beloved translator of Eastern ideas into Western life.

In the spring of 1989, she led a monthlong dathun meditation session at Gampo Abbey — the renowned Buddhist monastery of which Chödrön is founding director, founded in 1983 by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, her root guru. She began each day by giving a short talk aimed at emboldening participants “to remain wholeheartedly awake to everything that occurred and to use the abundant material of daily life as their primary teacher and guide.” On the monastery grounds, meditators kept five vows: “not to lie, not to steal, not to engage in sexual activity, not to take life, and not to use alcohol or drugs.” The rather singular combination of solitude, nature, meditation, and the vows made for what Chödrön calls “an alternatingly painful and delightful ‘no exit’ situation.” Thus, the collection of her morning talks from the dathun is aptly titled The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness (public library) — short, beautifully simple yet powerful reflections on various aspects of how “to be with oneself without embarrassment or harshness.”

In the fourth talk, Chödrön explores the related graces of precision, gentleness, and letting go:

If we see our so-called limitations with clarity, precision, gentleness, goodheartedness, and kindness and, having seen them fully, then let go, open further, we begin to find that our world is more vast and more refreshing and fascinating than we had realized before. In other words, the key to feeling more whole and less shut off and shut down is to be able to see clearly who we are and what we’re doing.

Pointing to the “innocent, naive misunderstanding that we all share, which keeps us unhappy” — the same well-intentioned but misguided impulse with which we keep ourselves small by people-pleasing — Chödrön writes:

The innocent mistake that keeps us caught in our own particular style of ignorance, unkindness, and shut-downness is that we are never encouraged to see clearly what is, with gentleness. Instead, there’s a kind of basic misunderstanding that we should try to be better than we already are, that we should try to improve ourselves, that we should try to get away from painful things, and that if we could just learn how to get away from the painful things, then we would be happy.

Pema Chödrön (Courtesy of Pema Chödrön Foundation)

That gentleness of presence, Chödrön argues, is at the heart of meditation:

Meditation is about seeing clearly the body that we have, the mind that we have, the domestic situation that we have, the job that we have, and the people who are in our lives. It’s about seeing how we react to all these things. It’s seeing our emotions and thoughts just as they are right now, in this very moment, in this very room, on this very seat. It’s about not trying to make them go away, not trying to become better than we are, but just seeing clearly with precision and gentleness.

[…]

The problem is that the desire to change is fundamentally a form of aggression toward yourself. The other problem is that our hangups, unfortunately or fortunately, contain our wealth. Our neurosis and our wisdom are made out of the same material. If you throw out your neurosis, you also throw out your wisdom.

Chödrön, however, is careful to point out that holding one’s imperfection with gentleness is not the same as resignation or condoning harmful behavior — rather, it’s a matter of befriending imperfection rather than banishing it, in order to then gently let it go rather than forcefully expel it. Whatever your folly — anger or fear or jealousy or melancholy — Chödrön teaches that freedom from it lies in “getting to know it completely, with some kind of softness, and learning how, once you’ve experienced it fully, to let go.”

And yet, in a sentiment that calls to mind the Chinese concept of wu-wei, “trying not to try,” she gently admonishes against seeing this practice itself as a source of compulsive striving:

Precision, gentleness, and the ability to let go … are not something that we have to gain, but something that we could bring out, cultivate, rediscover in ourselves.

She points to the simple exercise of following your unforced breath as a way of contacting the art of letting go:

Being fully present isn’t something that happens once and then you have achieved it; it’s being awake to the ebb and flow and movement and creation of life, being alive to the process of life itself. That also has its softness. If there were a goal that you were supposed to achieve, such as “no thoughts,” that wouldn’t be very soft. You’d have to struggle a lot to get rid of all those thoughts, and you probably couldn’t do it anyway. The fact that there is no goal also adds to the softness.

This practice, Chödrön points out, cultivates a nonjudgmental attitude and helps us learn how to, instead of succumbing to harsh self-criticism, begin “seeing what is with precision and gentleness” and develop “a sense of warmth toward oneself.” She writes:

The honesty of precision and the goodheartedness of gentleness are qualities of making friends with yourself… As you work with being really faithful to the technique and being as precise as you can and simultaneously as kind as you can, the ability to let go seems to happen to you. The discovery of your ability to let go spontaneously arises; you don’t force it. You shouldn’t be forcing accuracy or gentleness either, but while you could make a project out of accuracy, you could make a project out of gentleness, it’s hard to make a project out of letting go.

In the next talk, titled “The Wisdom of No Escape,” Chödrön explores well-being and suffering as two sides of the same coin which, when put together, define the human condition. She points to the practice of meditation — arguably our greatest gateway to self-transcendence — as the way to illuminate both sides of this duality:

We see how beautiful and wonderful and amazing things are, and we see how caught up we are. It isn’t that one is the bad part and one is the good part, but that it’s a kind of interesting, smelly, rich, fertile mess of stuff. When it’s all mixed up together, it’s us: humanness.

This is what we are here to see for ourselves. Both the brilliance and the suffering are here all the time; they interpenetrate each other. For a fully enlightened being, the difference between what is neurosis and what is wisdom is very hard to perceive, because somehow the energy underlying both of them is the same. The basic creative energy of life … bubbles up and courses through all of existence. It can be experienced as open, free, unburdened, full of possibility, energizing. Or this very same energy can be experienced as petty, narrow, stuck, caught… The basic point of it all is just to learn to be extremely honest and also wholehearted about what exists in your mind — thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, the whole thing that adds up to what we call “me” or “I.” Nobody else can really begin to sort out for you what to accept and what to reject in terms of what wakes you up and what makes you fall asleep. No one else can really sort out for you what to accept — what opens up your world — and what to reject — what seems to keep you going round and round in some kind of repetitive misery.

[…]

This is the process of making friends with ourselves and with our world. It involves not just the parts we like, but the whole picture, because it all has a lot to teach us.

In the remainder of The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness — which shares with Alan Watts’s indispensable The Wisdom of Insecurity not only a similarity of title but also a kinship of spirit — Chödrön goes on to explore such related secular wisdom from the Buddhist tradition as joy, satisfaction, inconvenience, and the art of living with balance in a culture of extremes. Complement it with Sam Harris on the paradox of meditation.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

16 JANUARY, 2015

Susan Sontag on the Trouble with Treating Art and Cultural Material as “Content”

By:

“Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art… Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.”

“There are no facts, only interpretations,” Nietzsche wrote in his notebook in the late 1880s. Nearly a century later, Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004), perhaps his only true intellectual peer in the history of human thought, used Nietzsche’s assertion as the springboard for one of the greatest essays ever written — her 1964 masterwork “Against Interpretation,” found in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (public library).

Sontag — a woman of penetrating and enduring insight on such aspects of the human experience as courage and resistance, the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture, the clash between beauty and interestingness, and how stereotypes imprison us — examines our culture’s generally well-intentioned but ultimately perilous habit of interpretation, which she defines as “a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain ‘rules’ of interpretation,” a task akin to translation.

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from 'Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.' Click image for details.

Only thirty-one at the time but already with two decades of intense and intensive reading under her belt, Sontag writes:

Interpretation … presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy. The situation is that for some reason a text has become unacceptable; yet it cannot be discarded. Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning. However far the interpreters alter the text … they must claim to be reading off a sense that is already there.

This, of course, warrants the necessary meta-observation that Sontag’s now-iconic essay was perhaps, at least on some level, her way of admonishing people like you and me against interpreting her own work to its detriment — that is, misinterpreting it, or merely over-interpreting to a point of stripping it of the sheer sensory pleasure of Sontag’s style, of the elegance with which her mind spills onto the page in its essential form.

Even half a century ago, in fact, Sontag was wary of the violence embedded in the act itself:

The contemporary zeal for the project of interpretation is often prompted by an open aggressiveness… The old style of interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys…

[…]

Interpretation is not (as most people assume) an absolute value, a gesture of mind situated in some timeless realm of capabilities. Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness. In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling.

Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling.

Although Sontag presaged with astounding accuracy the compulsions of the social web, one can’t help but wince at a gruesome modern illustration of her point: I recently witnessed a commenter on Facebook throw a rather unwholesome epithet at Sontag herself, in reacting solely to an auto-generated thumbnail image, rather than responding to the 2,000-word article about Sontag, which Facebook’s mindless algorithm had chosen to “interpret” by that thumbnail image — human and machine colluding in an especially violent modern form of “interpretation.”

In that respect, Sontag’s condemnation of such reactionary cowardice echoes the insightful observation Kierkegaard — another peer whose ideas she absorbed early and revisited over her lifetime — made in his diary a century earlier, contemplating the psychology of why haters hate. Hate, after all, is a form of interpretation — a particularly “reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling” one. In a remark astoundingly timely in our age of lazy reactivity and snap-judgments, often dispensed from behind the veil of anonymity, Sontag illuminates the underlying psychology of such “interpretations” with piercing precision:

Interpretation is not simply the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of understanding something, and is applied to works of every quality.

Interpretation, she argues, is at its most perilous when applied to the arts:

Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.)

Susan Sontag's diary meditations on art, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

In a spectacular answer to the eternal and elusive question of what art is and what its duties are, she adds:

Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.

In another stroke of prescient and urgently timely insight, Sontag considers this notion of “content” — perhaps the vilest term by which professional commodifiers refer to cultural material today — and how it defiles art:

Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.

As an antidote to such violating interpretation, Sontag points to “making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be … just what it is.” In a sentiment that Wendell Berry would come to echo two decades later in his bewitching case for the value of form, Sontag writes:

What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary — a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary — for forms.

This notion of vocabulary once again calls to mind the modern fixation on “content” — a term by which no self-respecting writer or artist would refer to what she makes, and yet one forcefully seared onto writing and art by the tyrannical vocabulary of commercial media, that hotbed of professionalized consumerism concerned not with the stewardship of culture but with the profitable commodification of it.

Sontag points to cinema as the perfect example of a form that resists the violence of interpretation. “Cinema is the most alive, the most exciting, the most important of all art forms right now,” she writes — a remark partially quoted all over the internet, almost always with the “right now” portion missing, in a testament to exactly what Sontag warns against; her point, after all, was that cinema’s aliveness in the “right now” of 1964 was due to its being such a young art. She writes:

Perhaps the way one tells how alive a particular art form is, is by the latitude it gives for making mistakes in it, and still being good… In good films, there is always a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret… The fact that films have not been overrun by interpreters is in part due simply to the newness of cinema as an art.

But Sontag’s greatest admonition against interpretation has to do with its tendency to de-sensualize art — to render impossible the “active surrender” by which great art makes its claim on our souls:

Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there… Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life — its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness — conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.

What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.

She returns to that timeless, devastatingly timely question of “content”:

Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art — and, by analogy, our own experience — more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

The entirety of Against Interpretation and Other Essays is all genius, no mediocrity — the kind of reading that plants itself in the garden of the mind, remains there a lifetime, and blossoms anew with each passing year. Complement it with Sontag on literature and freedom, the writer’s role in society, boredom, sex, censorship, aphorisms, why lists appeal to us, and the joy of rereading beloved books.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.