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09 MARCH, 2015

Walter Benjamin on Information vs. Wisdom and How the Novel and the News Killed Storytelling

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“Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom. The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.”

I think often, and with billowing concern, about the role of storytellers in helping us cultivate wisdom in the age of information — a task increasingly challenging and increasingly important as we find ourselves bombarded with bits of disjoined information, devoid of the sensemaking context that only deft storytelling can impart. Listicles commandeer these bits into alleged order, furthering our collective delusion of mistaking information for truth and meaning; there is a reason, after all, why we call such disjointed bits of information “trivia” — the true material of wisdom is meaning, and the meaningful is the opposite of the trivial. Although the list may be the origin of culture, truth and meaning are culture’s end goal. A listicle can never order information into truth, much less imbue it with meaning. Only the storyteller can transmute information — be it in the form of “objective” fact or “subjective” experience — into wisdom.

A century before the age of the listicle, German philosopher, cultural theorist, literary critic, and unflinching idealist Walter Benjamin (July 15, 1892–September 26, 1940) explored this dance between information and wisdom with great insight and prescience in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (public library) — a compendium of Benjamin’s ideas on language, literature, and life, originally published in 1968 and edited by the brilliant Hannah Arendt. In the introduction, Arendt envelops Benjamin’s genius in her own to describe him as “an alchemist practicing the obscure art of transmuting the futile elements of the real into the shining, enduring gold of truth.”

The most dazzling such transmutation takes place in an essay titled “The Storyteller,” in which Benjamin uses the work of 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov as a springboard for a higher-order meditation on the role of storytelling in society, the dangers of its decline, and how it shapes our relationship to truth, both public and private. The picture Benjamin paints begins in darkness but reaches toward the light.

He writes:

Familiar though his name may be to us, the storyteller in his living immediacy is by no means a present force. He has already become something remote from us and something that is getting even more distant… Viewed from a certain distance, the great, simple outlines which define the storyteller stand out in him, or rather, they become visible in him, just as in a rock a human head or an animal’s body may appear to an observer at the proper distance and angle of vision. This distance and this angle of vision are prescribed for us by an experience which we may have almost every day. It teaches us that the art of storytelling is coming to an end. Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly. More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed. It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.

One reason for this phenomenon is obvious: experience has fallen in value. And it looks as if it is continuing to fall into bottomlessness.

A century ago, Benjamin directs his lament about the commodification of experience at the newspaper — a medium enjoying its commercial heyday, not without timelessly timely criticism — but it applies all the more piercingly to the whole buzzfeedery of today’s online news and entertainment industry:

Every glance at a newspaper demonstrates that it has reached a new low, that our picture, not only of the external world but of the moral world as well, overnight has undergone changes which were never thought possible.

[…]

Never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.

Painting by Wendy Mark from '89 Clouds' by Mark Strand. Click image for more.

Long before contemporary psychologists came to advocate for the enormous importance of practical wisdom in human life, Benjamin argues for the value — the practical use, even — of great storytelling in our lives:

An orientation toward practical interests is characteristic of many born storytellers… This points to the nature of every real story. It contains, openly or covertly, something useful. The usefulness may, in one case, consist in a moral; in another, in some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or maxim. In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers. But if today “having counsel” is beginning to have an old-fashioned ring, this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing. In consequence we have no counsel either for ourselves or for others. After all, counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding. To seek this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story.

One can hear the echo of Rilke’s passionate exhortation to “live the questions” — a celebration of the uncertainty necessary for the telling of truth — in Benjamin’s case for the sensemaking power of story. To this he adds a point both piercing and prescient, which instantly strips of validity our essential illusion that the most pressing issues of our time are singular and unprecedented in human history:

Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom. The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out. This, however, is a process that has been going on for a long time. And nothing would be more fatuous than to want to see in it merely a “symptom of decay,” let alone a “modern” symptom. It is, rather, only a concomitant symptom of the secular productive forces of history, a concomitant that has quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time is making it possible to see a new beauty in what is vanishing.

And then he veers into an unexpected direction, at first striking and then strikingly brilliant in its intellectual elegance, as he identifies the true executioner of storytelling:

The earliest symptom of a process whose end is the decline of storytelling is the rise of the novel at the beginning of modern times. What distinguishes the novel from the story … is its essential dependence on the book. The dissemination of the novel became possible only with the invention of printing. What can be handed on orally, the wealth of the epic, is of a different kind from what constitutes the stock in trade of the novel. What differentiates the novel from all other forms of prose literature — the fairy tale, the legend, even the novella — is that it neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it. This distinguishes it from storytelling in particular. The storyteller takes what he tells from experience — his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale. The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others. To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life. In the midst of life’s fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living.

In a remark that calls to mind Virginia Woolf’s scathing view of all things middlebrow, Benjamin adds:

Hardly any other forms of human communication have taken shape more slowly, been lost more slowly. It took the novel, whose beginnings go back to antiquity, hundreds of years before it encountered in the evolving middle class those elements which were favorable to its flowering. With the appearance of these elements, storytelling began quite slowly to recede into the archaic; in many ways, it is true, it took hold of the new material, but it was not really determined by it. On the other hand, we recognize that with the full control of the middle class, which has the press as one of its most important instruments in fully developed capitalism, there emerges a form of communication which, no matter how far back its origin may lie, never before influenced the epic form in a decisive way. But now it does exert such an influence. And it turns out that it confronts storytelling as no less of a stranger than did the novel, but in a more menacing way, and that it also brings about a crisis in the novel.

And then, the essential point:

This new form of communication is information.

Paul Otlet's early-20th-century proto-internet, the Mundaneum, from 'Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age.' Click image for more.

The death of storytelling, Benjamin argues, is both the result and a further cause of this gaping rift between wisdom and information — a concern even more valid and worrisome today, in our story-yelling era driven by the illusion that the latest and the loudest are the most significant and most deserving of our attention. Benjamin writes:

It is no longer intelligence coming from afar, but the information which supplies a handle for what is nearest that gets the readiest hearing. The intelligence that came from afar — whether the spatial kind from foreign countries or the temporal kind of tradition — possessed an authority which gave it validity, even when it was not subject to verification. Information, however, lays claim to prompt verifiability. The prime requirement is that it appear “understandable in itself.” Often it is no more exact than the intelligence of earlier centuries was. But while the latter was inclined to borrow from the miraculous, it is indispensable for information to sound plausible. Because of this it proves incompatible with the spirit of storytelling.

Chiefly responsible for the decline of storytelling, Benjamin argues, is the rise of information. In a passage that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s monumental 1964 case against interpretation — for whom Benjamin was an influence; “Re-read … [Walter] Benjamin essays, often!” she wrote in her diary, where she extolled the virtues of rereading — he adds:

Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information. Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it… The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.

[…]

The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.

But the most perilous byproduct of the cult of information, and the greatest threat to storytelling, is something Benjamin identifies a century ago in such a way that any thinking person instantly recognizes it as triply troublesome today: our allergy to boredom and the resulting lost art of stillness. Boredom, after all, is the crucible of contemplation and creativity — legendary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips called the capacity for boredom “a developmental achievement for the child” and argued that it is essential for the creative life; philosopher Bertrand Russell saw it as central to the conquest of happiness; in his semantic sparring match, Kierkegaard first renounced it, only to extol its sister virtue of idleness. And yet today, we have lost all capacity for boredom. More than that, we have grown bored with thinking itself — we want to instantly know. We want ready-made information to fill the void of contemplative wisdom.

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

Benjamin caught the early symptoms of this civilizational malady and peered into its future metastasis with extraordinary prescience and precision. He argues for the importance of boredom in the art of listening between the lines, which is in turn central to storytelling:

There is nothing that commends a story to memory more effectively than that chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis. And the more natural the process by which the storyteller forgoes psychological shading, the greater becomes the story’s claim to a place in the memory of the listener, the more completely is it integrated into his own experience, the greater will be his inclination to repeat it to someone else someday, sooner or later. This process of assimilation, which takes place in depth, requires a state of relaxation which is becoming rarer and rarer. If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away. His nesting places — the activities that are intimately associated with boredom — are already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well. With this the gift for listening is lost and the community of listeners disappears. For storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained. It is lost because there is no more weaving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to. The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply is what he listens to impressed upon his memory. When the rhythm of work has seized him, he listens to the tales in such a way that the gift of retelling them comes to him all by itself. This, then, is the nature of the web in which the gift of storytelling is cradled. This is how today it is becoming unraveled at all its ends after being woven thousands of years ago in the ambience of the oldest forms of craftsmanship.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice and Mary Oliver’s memorable assertion that “attention without feeling … is only a report,” Benjamin considers this craftsmanship aspect of storytelling:

The storytelling that thrives … is itself an artisan form of communication, as it were. It does not aim to convey the pure essence of the thing, like information or a report. It sinks the thing into the life of the storyteller, in order to bring it out of him again. Thus traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel.

In yet another stroke of sublime divination, Benjamin quotes legendary French polymath Paul Valéry’s assertion that “modern man no longer works at what cannot be abbreviated” — prescient commentary on our modern lust for listicles, the ultimate form of abbreviation — and writes:

[Man] has succeeded in abbreviating even storytelling… From oral tradition and no longer permits that slow piling one on top of the other of thin, transparent layers which constitutes the most appropriate picture of the way in which the perfect narrative is revealed through the layers of a variety of retellings.

Citing Valéry again — who argued that an artisan’s work gets its “existence and value exclusively from a certain accord of the soul, the eye” — Benjamin returns to the craftsmanship aspect of storytelling with its implicit call for patience, which is even more endangered in our day than it was in his:

Soul, eye, and hand are brought into connection. Interacting with one another, they determine a practice. We are no longer familiar with this practice. The role of the hand in production has become more modest, and the place it filled in storytelling lies waste… That old co-ordination of the soul, the eye, and the hand … is that of the artisan which we encounter wherever the art of storytelling is at home. In fact, one can go on and ask oneself whether the relationship of the storyteller to his material, human life, is not in itself a craftsman’s relationship, whether it is not his very task to fashion the raw material of experience, his own and that of others, in a solid, useful, and unique way.

Illustration from J.R.R. Tolkien's little-known art. Click image for more.

And therein lies the very point that makes Benjamin’s meditation so timely and so unshakably urgent today — this fashioning of experience into something “solid” and “useful” for human life is precisely the transmutation of information into wisdom that we, a century after Benjamin, are increasingly losing and desperately need. Benjamin writes:

Seen in this way, the storyteller joins the ranks of the teachers and sages. He has counsel — not for a few situations, as the proverb does, but for many, like the sage. For it is granted to him to reach back to a whole lifetime (a life, incidentally, that comprises not only his own experience but no little of the experience of others; what the storyteller knows from hearsay is added to his own). His gift is the ability to relate his life; his distinction, to be able to tell his entire life. The storyteller: he is the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story. This is the basis of the incomparable aura about the storyteller… The storyteller is the figure in which the righteous man encounters himself.

The full essay, in its eighteen-page entirety, is well worth reading, as is the rest of Benjamin’s wildly and widely rewarding Illuminations. Complement it with Benjamin’s thirteen commandments of writing and Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller.

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06 MARCH, 2015

Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti on Our Fear of Being Touched, the Four Attributes of Crowds, and the Paradox of Why We Join Them

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“Direction is essential for the continuing existence of the crowd… A crowd exists so long as it has an unattained goal.”

“The evolution of the world tends to show the absolute importance of the category of the individual apart from the crowd,” Kierkegaard wrote in his diary in 1847. And yet our world is largely an ecosystem of crowds — nations, faiths, political ideologies, art movements, fan bases. But Kierkegaard wasn’t necessarily wrong — if anything, he intuited (as he frequently did) one of the great inner conflicts of the human experience: We worship individuality and long for freedom, but we are invariably drawn to crowds, which leaves us with a resentful ambivalence toward ourselves and others. E.B. White knew this too when he wrote in his timeless 1949 love letter to New York that the city “has never been so uncomfortable, so crowded, so tense” and yet it is “cheerful and filthy and crowded.”

But no one has captured the paradoxical psychology of crowds more elegantly and dimensionally than Elias Canetti (July 25, 1905–August 14, 1994). Born in Bulgaria (like myself), Canetti emigrated with his family at the age of six, living in various places across Western Europe before settling in Vienna at the age of nineteen, where he immersed himself in the literary world and began writing in German. In 1981, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature “for writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power.” Among his most influential and enduring ideas, and a cornerstone of the prize, was his 1960 treatise Crowds and Power (public library) — a fiercely insightful inquiry into what defines crowds, why we join them, and how they shape the meaning of power.

Canetti begins by considering the deepest psychological driver beneath our conflicted attitude toward crowds — the common root of our aversion and our attraction to them:

There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching toward him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it. Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange… All the distances which men create round themselves are dictated by this fear.

Half a century before cognitive scientists came to study the psychology of the “step-and-slide” — the pedestrian jig of avoiding contact and collision in crowded cities — Canetti captures the dynamics driving it:

The repugnance of being touched remains with us when we go about among people; the way we move in a busy street, in restaurants, trains or buses, is governed by it. Even when we are standing next to them and are able to watch and examine them closely, we avoid actual contact if we can. If we don’t avoid it, it is because we feel attracted to someone; and then it is we who make the approach.

The promptness with which apology is offered for an unintentional contact, the tension with which it is awaited, our violent and sometimes even physical reaction when it is not forthcoming, the antipathy and hatred we feel for the offender, even when we cannot be certain who it is — the whole knot of shifting and intensely sensitive reactions to an alien touch — proves that we are dealing here with a human propensity as deep-seated as it is alert and insidious; something which never leaves a man when he has once established the boundaries of his personality.

Illustration from Shel Silverstein's 'The Missing Piece Meets the Big O.' Click image for more.

But the great paradox of this deep-seated aversion is that our fear of touch is best assuaged by immersion in a crowd — another facet of the greater paradox proving, over and over, that the anguish of control is best alleviated by surrender. Canetti writes:

It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched. That is the only situation in which the fear changes into its opposite. The crowd he needs is the dense crowd, in which body is pressed to body; a crowd, too, whose psychical constitution is also dense, or compact, so that he no longer notices who it is that presses against him. As soon as man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch.

More than an antidote to our fear and isolation, a crowd is also a powerful equalizing force. Interjecting a remark that instantly reminds us what a profound source of otherness gender was before Betty Friedan gave shape to the problem, Canetti writes:

Ideally, all are equal there; no distinctions count, not even sex. The man pressed against him is the same as himself. He feels him as he feels himself. Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body. This is perhaps one of the reasons why a crowd seeks to close in on itself: it wants to rid each individual as completely as possible of the fear of being touched. The more fiercely people press together, the more certain they feel that they do not fear each other. This reversal of the fear of being touched belongs to the nature of crowds. The feeling of relief is most striking where the density of the crowd is the greatest.

Illustration from 'How to Be a Nonconformist,' 1968. Click image for more.

Canetti calls the core driver of this unification discharge and explains:

The most important occurrence within the crowd is the discharge. Before this the crowd does not actually exist; it is the discharge which creates it. This is the moment when all who belong to the crowd get rid of their differences and feel equal.

These differences, he argues, are externally defined — hierarchies of status and material possession — and yet they invariably shape our interior lives and self-definition. In being unshakably conscious of them, we use them to differentiate ourselves and thus to distance ourselves from others. Canetti captures this with piercing poeticism:

A man stands by himself on a secure and well defined spot, his every gesture asserting his right to keep others at a distance. He stands there like a windmill on an enormous plain, moving expressively; and there is nothing between him and the next mill. All life, so far as he knows it, is laid out in distances — the house in which he shuts himself and his property, the positions he holds, the rank he desires — all these serve to create distances, to confirm and extend them. Any free or large gesture of approach towards another human being is inhibited. Impulse and counter impulse ooze away as in a desert. No man can get near another, nor reach his height. In every sphere of life, firmly established hierarchies prevent him touching anyone more exalted than himself, or descending, except in appearance, to anyone lower.

But as much as these rankings of status anchor us and help us orient ourselves amid the chaos of the world, in anchoring us they also immobilize us. The crowd reconciles these conflicting needs:

These hierarchies … exist everywhere and everywhere gain a decisive hold on men’s minds and determine their behavior to each other. But the satisfaction of being higher in rank than others does not compensate for the loss of freedom of movement. Man petrifies and darkens in the distances he has created. He drags at the burden of them, but cannot move. He forgets that it is self-inflicted, and longs for liberation. But how, alone, can he free himself?

[…]

Only together can men free themselves from their burdens of distance; and this, precisely, is what happens in a crowd… Each man is as near the other as he is to himself; and an immense feeling of relief ensues. It is for the sake of this blessed moment, when no-one is greater or better than another, that people become a crowd.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'The Nutcracker.' Click image for more.

Canetti outlines the four key defining attributes found in varying degrees in any crowd:

  1. The crowd always wants to grow. There are no natural boundaries to its growth. Where such boundaries have been artificially created — e.g. in all institutions which are used for the preservation of closed crowds — an eruption of the crowd is always possible and will, in fact, happen from time to time. There are no institutions which can be absolutely relied on to prevent the growth of the crowd once and for all.
  2. Within the crowd there is equality. This is absolute and indisputable and never questioned by the crowd itself. It is of fundamental importance and one might even define a crowd as a state of absolute equality. A head is a head, an arm is an arm, and differences between individual heads and arms are irrelevant. It is for the sake of this equality that people become a crowd and they need to overlook anything which might detract from it. All demands for justice and all theories of equality ultimately derive their energy from the actual experience of equality familiar to anyone who has been part of a crowd.
  3. The crowd loves density. It can never feel too dense. Nothing must stand between its parts or divide them; everything must be the crowd itself. The feeling of density is strongest in the moment of discharge. One day it may be possible to determine this density more accurately and even to measure it.
  4. The crowd needs a direction. It is in movement and it moves towards a goal. The direction, which is common to all its members, strengthens the feeling of equality. A goal outside the individual members and common to all of them drives underground all the private differing goals which are fatal to the crowd as such. Direction is essential for the continuing existence of the crowd. Its constant fear of disintegration means that it will accept any goal. A crowd exists so long as it has an unattained goal.

In the remainder of Crowds and Power, which is immensely insightful in its entirety, Canetti goes on to classify crowds according to their five prevailing emotions, exploring how these dynamics shape everything from political movements to religion to music concerts and how they shed light on the complexities and true meaning of power. Complement it with Kierkegaard on the individual vs. the crowd and why we conform, then revisit Tove Jansson’s vintage philosophical cartoons on why we join groups.

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05 MARCH, 2015

Kafka’s Remarkable Letter to His Abusive and Narcissistic Father

By:

“It is, after all, not necessary to fly right into the middle of the sun, but it is necessary to crawl to a clean little spot on earth where the sun sometimes shines and one can warm oneself a little.”

Franz Kafka was one of history’s most prolific and expressive practitioners of what Virginia Woolf called “the humane art.” Among the hundreds of epistles he penned during his short life were his beautiful and heartbreaking love letters and his magnificent missive to a childhood friend about what books do for the human soul. Although he imbued most with an extraordinary depth of introspective insight and self-revelation, none surpass the 47-page letter he wrote to his father, Hermann, in November of 1919 — the closest thing to an autobiography Kafka ever produced. A translation by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins was posthumously published as Letter to His Father (public library) in 1966.

Prompted in large part by the dissolution of his engagement to Felice Bauer, in which Hermann’s active disapproval of the relationship was a toxic force and which resulted in the estrangement of father and son, 36-year-old Kafka set out to hold his father accountable for the emotional abuse, disorienting double standards, and constant disapprobation that branded his childhood — a measured yet fierce outburst of anguish and disappointment thirty years in the buildup.

His litany of indictments is doubly harrowing in light of what psychologists have found in the decades since — that our early limbic contact with our parents profoundly shapes our character, laying down the wiring for emotional habits and patterns of connecting that greatly influence what we bring to all subsequent relationships in life, either expanding or contracting our capacity for “positivity resonance” depending on how nurturing or toxic those formative relationships were. For those of us with similar experiences, be it inflicted by a patriarch or a matriarch, Kafka’s letter to his father is at once excruciating in its deep resonance and strangely comforting in its validation of shared reality.

Kafka writes:

Dearest Father,

You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking. And if I now try to give you an answer in writing, it will still be very incomplete, because, even in writing, this fear and its consequences hamper me in relation to you and because the magnitude of the subject goes far beyond the scope of my memory and power of reasoning.

The first page of Kafka's letter to his father.

Kafka paints the backdrop of his father’s emotional tyranny and lays out what he hopes the letter would accomplish for both of them:

To you the matter always seemed very simple, at least in so far as you talked about it in front of me, and indiscriminately in front of many other people. It looked to you more or less as follows: you have worked hard all your life, have sacrificed everything for your children, above all for me, consequently I have lived high and handsome, have been completely at liberty to learn whatever I wanted, and have had no cause for material worries, which means worries of any kind at all. You have not expected any gratitude for this, knowing what “children’s gratitude” is like, but have expected at least some sort of obligingness, some sign of sympathy. Instead I have always hidden from you, in my room, among my books, with crazy friends, or with extravagant ideas… If you sum up your judgment of me, the result you get is that, although you don’t charge me with anything downright improper or wicked (with the exception perhaps of my latest marriage plan), you do charge me with coldness, estrangement, and ingratitude. And, what is more, you charge me with it in such a way as to make it seem my fault, as though I might have been able, with something like a touch on the steering wheel, to make everything quite different, while you aren’t in the slightest to blame, unless it be for having been too good to me.

This, your usual way of representing it, I regard as accurate only in so far as I too believe you are entirely blameless in the matter of our estrangement. But I am equally entirely blameless. If I could get you to acknowledge this, then what would be possible is — not, I think, a new life, we are both much too old for that — but still, a kind of peace; no cessation, but still, a diminution of your unceasing reproaches.

But this is where the similarity ends. Kafka sees in his father everything he himself is not — a man of “health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly dominance, endurance, presence of mind, knowledge of human nature, a certain way of doing things on a grand scale, of course also with all the defects and weaknesses that go with these advantages and into which your temperament and sometimes your hot temper drive you.” The anguish resulting from this disparity of temperaments coupled with a disparity of power between parent and child is familiar to all who have lived through a similar childhood — the constantly enforced, with varying degrees of force, sense that the parent’s version of reality is always right simply by virtue of authority and the child’s always wrong by virtue of submission, and thus the child comes to internalize the chronic guilt of wrongness.

With such a child’s classic cycle of accusation and apologism in making sense of a parent’s hurtful behavior, Kafka considers his father’s shortcomings with equal parts pain and compassion:

We were so different and in our difference so dangerous to each other that if anyone had tried to calculate in advance how I, the slowly developing child, and you, the full-grown man, would stand to each other, he could have assumed that you would simply trample me underfoot so that nothing was left of me. Well, that did not happen. Nothing alive can be calculated. But perhaps something worse happened. And in saying this I would all the time beg of you not to forget that I never, and not even for a single moment, believe any guilt to be on your side. The effect you had on me was the effect you could not help having. But you should stop considering it some particular malice on my part that I succumbed to that effect.

I was a timid child. For all that, I am sure I was also obstinate, as children are. I am sure that Mother spoilt me too, but I cannot believe I was particularly difficult to manage; I cannot believe that a kindly word, a quiet taking by the hand, a friendly look, could not have got me to do anything that was wanted of me. Now you are, after all, at bottom a kindly and softhearted person (what follows will not be in contradiction to this, I am speaking only of the impression you made on the child), but not every child has the endurance and fearlessness to go on searching until it comes to the kindliness that lies beneath the surface. You can only treat a child in the way you yourself are constituted, with vigor, noise, and hot temper, and in this case this seemed to you, into the bargain, extremely suitable, because you wanted to bring me up to be a strong brave boy.

Kafka recounts one particularly traumatic incident when one night as a young boy, he kept crying for water — “not, I am certain, because I was thirsty, but probably partly to be annoying, partly to amuse myself,” he explains with that learned reality-questioning apologism he carried into adulthood — until his father grew so angry that he yanked little Franz out of bed, carried him out onto the balcony, and left him there in nothing but his nightshirt, shutting the door. He writes:

I was quite obedient afterwards at that period, but it did me inner harm. What was for me a matter of course, that senseless asking for water, and the extraordinary terror of being carried outside were two things that I, my nature being what it was, could never properly connect with each other. Even years afterwards I suffered from the tormenting fancy that the huge man, my father, the ultimate authority, would come almost for no reason at all and take me out of bed in the night and carry me out onto the [balcony], and that meant I was a mere nothing for him.

Illustration by Pascal Lemaitre from 'The Book of Mean People' by Toni and Slade Morrison. Click image for more.

In a poignant lament that calls to mind the contrasting childhood of Henri Matisse, who was bathed in parental support, Kafka bemoans his father’s attitude toward his academic and creative endeavors:

What I would have needed was a little encouragement, a little friendliness, a little keeping open of my road, instead of which you blocked it for me, though of course with the good intention of making me go another road. But I was not fit for that… At that time, and at that time in every way, I would have needed encouragement.

In reflecting on his father’s particularly oppressive “intellectual domination,” Kafka speaks to the particular burden of children whose parents have risen from poverty to success by their own efforts. (In factuality, Hermann grew up in a middle-class family but liked to mythologize the hardships of his youth after he became a successful businessman.) With piercing insight into the self-righteousness syndrome that befalls many such self-made people who come to believe their own myth of omnipotence, Kafka writes:

You had worked your way so far up by your own energies alone, and as a result you had unbounded confidence in your opinion. That was not yet so dazzling for me as a child as later for the boy growing up. From your armchair you ruled the world. Your opinion was correct, every other was mad, wild, meshugge, not normal. Your self-confidence indeed was so great that you had no need to be consistent at all and yet never ceased to be in the right. It did sometimes happen that you had no opinion whatsoever about a matter and as a result all opinions that were at all possible with respect to the matter were necessarily wrong, without exception. You were capable, for instance, of running down the Czechs, and then the Germans, and then the Jews, and what is more, not only selectively but in every respect, and finally nobody was left except yourself. For me you took on the enigmatic quality that all tyrants have whose rights are based on their person and not on reason.

Once again, Kafka returns to how his father’s warped and solipsistic view of reality made his own bleed with uncertainty and self-doubt:

All these thoughts, seemingly independent of you, were from the beginning burdened with your belittling judgments; it was almost impossible to endure this and still work out a thought with any measure of completeness and permanence.

One especially frequent form of belittlement was Hermann’s habit of dismissing anything that excited and inspired young Franz, invariably crushing the boy’s interest in pursuing anything — a particularly poisonous serpent to have in one’s nest of idea-incubation. He writes:

It was only necessary to be happy about something or other, to be filled with the thought of it, to come home and speak of it, and the answer was an ironical sigh, a shaking of the head, a tapping on the table with a finger… Of course, you couldn’t be expected to be enthusiastic about every childish triviality, when you were in a state of fret and worry. But that was not the point. Rather, by virtue of your antagonistic nature, you could not help but always and inevitably cause the child such disappointments; and further, this antagonism, accumulating material, was constantly intensified; eventually the pattern expressed itself even if, for once, you were of the same opinion as I; finally, these disappointments of the child were not the ordinary disappointments of life but, since they involved you, the all-important personage, they struck to the very core. Courage, resolution, confidence, delight in this and that, could not last when you were against it or even if your opposition was merely to be assumed; and it was to be assumed in almost everything I did.

Young Franz Kafka

Writing only five years after Freud introduced the concept of narcissism and half a century before Narcissistic Personality Disorder came to be classified in psychiatry’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Kafka offers a perfect and prescient diagnosis of his father:

What was always incomprehensible to me was your total lack of feeling for the suffering and shame you could inflict on me with your words and judgments. It was as though you had no notion of your power. I too, I am sure, often hurt you with what I said, but then I always knew, and it pained me, but I could not control myself, could not keep the words back, I was sorry even while I was saying them. But you struck out with your words without much ado, you weren’t sorry for anyone, either during or afterwards, one was utterly defenseless against you.

Anyone who has shared life with a narcissist recognizes, of course, the chronic dispensation of such double standards and its many manifestations across all areas where rules are applied. In describing how Hermann disciplined his children at the dinner table, Kafka illustrates this narcissistic tendency with the perfect allegorical anecdote:

The main thing was that the bread should be cut straight. But it didn’t matter that you did it with a knife dripping with gravy. Care had to be taken that no scraps fell on the floor. In the end it was under your chair that there were most scraps.

The most heartbreaking effect of these disorienting double standards is that the child grows utterly confused about right and wrong, for they seem to trade places constantly depending on who the doer is, and comes to internalize the notion that he or she is always at fault. Instead of holding up a mirror to validate the child’s experience of reality, such a parent instead traps the child in a fun-house maze of mirrors that never reflect an accurate or static image. Those who have lived through this know how easily it metastasizes into a deep-seated belief that one’s interpretation of reality, especially when reality is ambiguous or uncertain, is always the wrong one, the faulty one, the one fully invalidated by the mere existence of another’s interpretation.

As a consequence of this immersion in uncertainty and self-doubt, Kafka grew increasingly preoccupied with his body and health — a tangible aspect of reality:

Since there was nothing at all I was certain of, since I needed to be provided at every instant with a new confirmation of my existence, since nothing was in my very own, undoubted, sole possession, determined unequivocally only by me — in sober truth a disinherited son — naturally I became unsure even of the thing nearest to me, my own body.

This paved the way for “every sort of hypochondria” and developed a wide range of anxieties about “digestion, hair falling out, a spinal curvature, and so on,” which swelled into tormenting fixations until he finally succumbed to real illness — the tuberculosis that would eventually take his life.

Kafka captures this draining dance with disappointment and uncertainty in another heartbreaking exhortation:

Please, Father, understand me correctly: in themselves these would have been utterly insignificant details, they only became depressing for me because you, so tremendously the authoritative man, did not keep the commandments you imposed on me. Hence the world was for me divided into three parts: one in which I, the slave, lived under laws that had been invented only for me and which I could, I did not know why, never completely comply with; then a second world, which was infinitely remote from mine, in which you lived, concerned with government, with the issuing of orders and with the annoyance about their not being obeyed; and finally a third world where everybody else lived happily and free from orders and from having to obey. I was continually in disgrace; either I obeyed your orders, and that was a disgrace, for they applied, after all, only to me; or I was defiant, and that was a disgrace too, for how could I presume to defy you; or I could not obey because I did not, for instance, have your strength, your appetite, your skill, although you expected it of me as a matter of course; this was the greatest disgrace of all.

Illustration from 'My First Kafka' by Matthue Roth, a children's-book adaptation of Kafka for kids. Click image for more.

Kafka turns to how his father’s explosive temperament crushed the young man’s hope of being understood — which is what everybody needs — by annihilating the possibility of calm, civil conversation in the household:

[Your] frightful, hoarse undertone of anger and utter condemnation … only makes me tremble less today than in my childhood because the child’s exclusive sense of guilt has been partly replaced by insight into our helplessness, yours and mine.

The impossibility of getting on calmly together had one more result, actually a very natural one: I lost the capacity to talk. I dare say I would not have become a very eloquent person in any case, but I would, after all, have acquired the usual fluency of human language. But at a very early stage you forbade me to speak. Your threat, “Not a word of contradiction!” and the raised hand that accompanied it have been with me ever since. What I got from you — and you are, whenever it is a matter of your own affairs, an excellent talker — was a hesitant, stammering mode of speech, and even that was still too much for you, and finally I kept silent, at first perhaps out of defiance, and then because I could neither think nor speak in your presence. And because you were the person who really brought me up, this has had its repercussions throughout my life.

[…]

Your extremely effective rhetorical methods in bringing me up, which never failed to work with me, were: abuse, threats, irony, spiteful laughter, and — oddly enough — self-pity.

This blend of abusive aplomb and martyrdom seems common in the narcissistic tyrant — familiar, at least, to those who have suffered one — but Kafka adds even more dimension by pointing out that his father’s most scarring abuse was inflicted less by direct blows than by toxic osmosis, that soul-squashing effect of being in the presence of an angry and spiritually draining despot:

I cannot recall your ever having abused me directly and in downright abusive terms. Nor was that necessary; you had so many other methods, and besides, in talk at home and particularly at business the words of abuse went flying around me in such swarms, as they were flung at other people’s heads, that as a little boy I was sometimes almost stunned and had no reason not to apply them to myself too, for the people you were abusing were certainly no worse than I was and you were certainly not more displeased with them than with me. And here again was your enigmatic innocence and inviolability; you cursed and swore without the slightest scruple; yet you condemned cursing and swearing in other people and would not have it.

His father’s continuous threats, Kafka argues, were in a way more painful than the actual harm they promised but rarely delivered. “One’s feelings became dulled by these continued threats,” he laments, but more than that, they conditioned the twisted sense that his father’s choice not to administer the promised punishment was some great act of generosity:

One had, so it seemed to the child, remained alive through your mercy and bore one’s life henceforth as an undeserved gift from you.

[…]

It is also true that you hardly ever really gave me a whipping. But the shouting, the way your face got red, the hasty undoing of the braces and laying them ready over the back of the chair, all that was almost worse for me. It is as if someone is going to be hanged. If he really is hanged, then he is dead and it is all over. But if he has to go through all the preliminaries to being hanged and he learns of his reprieve only when the noose is dangling before his face, he may suffer from it all his life. Besides, from the many occasions on which I had, according to your clearly expressed opinion, deserved a whipping but was let off at the last moment by your grace, I again accumulated only a huge sense of guilt. On every side I was to blame, I was in your debt.

Indeed, this touches on the most devastating and deadening effect of growing up in such an emotional environment — the way in which we come to mistake the crumbs of mercy for a feast of love. Kafka recounts those rare glimpses of basic parental care and affection, to which every abuser’s child learns to cling as the most precious affirmation of existence:

Fortunately, there were exceptions to all this, mostly when you suffered in silence, and affection and kindliness by their own strength overcame all obstacles, and moved me immediately. Rare as this was, it was wonderful. For instance, in earlier years, in hot summers, when you were tired after lunch, I saw you having a nap at the office, your elbow on the desk; or you joined us in the country, in the summer holidays, on Sundays, worn out from work; or the time Mother was gravely ill and you stood holding on to the bookcase, shaking with sobs; or when, during my last illness, you came tiptoeing to Ottla’s room to see me, stopping in the doorway, craning your neck to see me, and out of consideration only waved to me with your hand. At such times one would lie back and weep for happiness, and one weeps again now, writing it down.

He then turns to another of the crushing complexities of such households — the role of the passive parent as the abuser’s accomplice and thus a perpetrator of parallel emotional betrayal by failing to validate the child’s confusion and to affirm the anguish inflicted by the abuser. Kafka writes:

It is true that Mother was illimitably good to me, but for me all that was in relation to you, that is to say, in no good relation. Mother unconsciously played the part of a beater during a hunt. Even if your method of upbringing might in some unlikely case have set me on my own feet by means of producing defiance, dislike, or even hate in me, Mother canceled that out again by kindness, by talking sensibly (in the maze and chaos of my childhood she was the very prototype of good sense and reasonableness), by pleading for me; and I was again driven back into your orbit, which I might perhaps otherwise have broken out of, to your advantage and to my own.

[…]

If I was to escape from you, I had to escape from the family as well, even from Mother. True, one could always get protection from her, but only in relation to you. She loved you too much and was too devoted and loyal to you to have been for long an independent spiritual force in the child’s struggle.

Long before psychologists demonstrated how our early attachment patterns wire the way we connect later in life, Kafka laments the detrimental effect of his father’s emotional abuse on his subsequent relationships:

Relations with people outside the family … suffered possibly still more under your influence. You are entirely mistaken if you believe I do everything for other people out of affection and loyalty, and for you and the family nothing, out of coldness and betrayal. I repeat for the tenth time: even in other circumstances I should probably have become a shy and nervous person, but it is a long dark road from there to where I have really come.

But for Kafka, the most disheartening manifestation of his father’s chronic disapproval was that directed at his writing:

[In my writing] I had, in fact, got some distance away from you by my own efforts, even if it was slightly reminiscent of the worm that, when a foot treads on its tail end, breaks loose with its front part and drags itself aside. To a certain extent I was in safety; there was a chance to breathe freely. The aversion you naturally and immediately took to my writing was, for once, welcome to me. My vanity, my ambition did suffer under your soon proverbial way of hailing the arrival of my books: “Put it on my bedside table!” (usually you were playing cards when a book came)… My writing was all about you; all I did there, after all, was to bemoan what I could not bemoan upon your breast. It was an intentionally long-drawn-out leave-taking from you, yet, although it was enforced by you, it did take its course in the direction determined by me.

He later adds:

In my writing, and in everything connected with it, I have made some attempts at independence, attempts at escape, with the very smallest of success; they will scarcely lead any farther; much confirms this for me. Nevertheless it is my duty or, rather, the essence of my life, to watch over them, to let no danger that I can avert, indeed no possibility of such a danger, approach them.

Early on, his father’s attitude toward his intellectual and creative interests planted the seed of Impostor Syndrome. Likening his young self to a bank clerk who has committed fraud yet continues working in constant terror of being found out, Kafka recounts one particularly tormenting fantasy he had in high school:

Often in my mind’s eye I saw the terrible assembly of the teachers … as they would meet, when I had passed the first class, and then in the second class, when I had passed that, and then in the third, and so on, meeting in order to examine this unique, outrageous case, to discover how I, the most incapable and, in any case, the most ignorant of all, had succeeded in creeping up so far as this class, which now, when everybody’s attention had at last been focused on me, would of course instantly spew me out, to the jubilation of all the righteous liberated from this nightmare. To live with such fantasies is not easy for a child.

But the most beautiful line in the entire letter is delivered almost as an aside, as Kafka contemplates the things his father has condemned as failures — including his broken engagement — and issues an elegant admonition against the perils of dogmatic perfectionism:

It is, after all, not necessary to fly right into the middle of the sun, but it is necessary to crawl to a clean little spot on earth where the sun sometimes shines and one can warm oneself a little.

Kafka ends the letter with a lyrical and heartbreaking reflection on its ultimate purpose — to offer a little door for repairing the relationship despite their vast differences:

Things cannot in reality fit together the way the evidence does in my letter; life is more than a Chinese puzzle. But with the correction made by this rejoinder — a correction I neither can nor will elaborate in detail — in my opinion something has been achieved which so closely approximates the truth that it might reassure us both a little and make our living and our dying easier.

Although the Kaiser/Wilkins vintage translation of the letter is enduringly excellent, only in this final paragraph do I find the more recent translation by Howard Colyer superior in elegance and enchantment:

In life things don’t fit together as neatly as do the proofs in my letter — life is more than a game of patience. But after allowing for this answer, which I can’t and don’t want to elaborate on now, I still believe my letter contains some truth, it takes us closer to the truth, and therefore it may allow us to live and die with a gentler and lighter spirit.

And yet for all the autobiographical tragedy captured in Kafka’s litany of abuses and disappointments, most tragic of all is the fate of the letter. According to Kafka’s friend and official biographer Max Brod, the anguished author didn’t mail the letter but gave it to his mother, Julie, to pass along to Hermann. But she never did — instead, she returned it to her son. After all, the most devastating pathology of such relationships is the child’s compulsive effort — be it by vain hope or by concrete action — to eradicate the abusive parent’s demons and make the paltry angels endure, only to be disappointed over and over again every time the demons re-rear their undying heads. Perhaps Julie sensed this and tried, in the best way she knew, to spare her son the ultimate disappointment of seeing this most grandiose of hopes familiarly vanquished.

Lighten the psychoemotional load of Letter to His Father — which is an overwhelming yet absolutely remarkable read in its totality — with Mark Twain on what his mother taught him about compassion and Rachel Carson on parenting and why it’s more important to feel than to know.

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04 MARCH, 2015

Annie Dillard on How to Live with Mystery, the Two Ways of Looking, and the Secret of Seeing

By:

“I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.”

In her 1984 novel The Lover, Marguerite Duras wrote that “the art of seeing has to be learned.” It is a sentiment at once poetic and practical — cognitive science now knows that our brains invest a great deal of resources in learning to unsee and tune out irrelevant stimuli, which is why “when you look closely at anything familiar, it transmogrifies into something unfamiliar.”

Anything that can be learned can be taught, and there is hardly a greater teacher in the art of seeing than Annie Dillard — an astute and lyrical observer of the world, both inner and outer, and a supreme enchantress of aliveness. Her 1974 masterpiece Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (public library) is one of those rare treasures best described as secular scripture, partway between Thoreau and Mary Oliver. In this gift of a book, Dillard explores seeing as an act of love (“The lover can see, and the knowledgeable,” she writes in one of her bestirring asides), but also as a monumental task for which we are chronically and profoundly underequipped (“My eyes account for less than one percent of the weight of my head,” she observes with sweet resignation; “I’m bony and dense; I see what I expect.”).

Illustration by Alessandro Sanna from 'The River.' Click image for more.

Dillard writes:

We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence… “Seem like we’re just set down here,” a woman said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.”

[…]

I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle to a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and it keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about. The creeks … are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation and all that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection.

Indeed, this uncertainty of vision is necessary if we are to befriend the mystery we call life — for the wider a view we take in observing that mystery, the more space for uncertainty there is. Dillard explores this with enormous wisdom and grace in another passage, using the word “we” with the perhaps intentional ambiguity of connoting both the universality of all human beings and the subset of humans who call ourselves writers. (For, lest we forget, “a writer is a professional observer.”) She reflects:

We don’t know what’s going on here. If these tremendous events are random combinations of matter run amok, the yield of millions of monkeys at millions of typewriters, then what is it in us, hammered out of those same typewriters, that they ignite? We don’t know. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.

'Beams of Light Through Glass' (1960) from Berenice Abbott's 'Documenting Science.' Click image for more.

The darkness, indeed, suits us — too much illumination can be paralyzing. (This happened quite literally when electric light was first introduced, but it is also part of our spiritual pathology as we spend much of our lives almost completely opaque to ourselves.) Citing one of Van Gogh’s stirring letters to his brother“Still,” he wrote, “a great deal of light falls on everything.” — Dillard reflects on the counterpoints that define our existence:

If we are blinded by darkness, we are also blinded by light. When too much light falls on everything, a special terror results.

Dillard illustrates this in the most visceral of ways imaginable. Referencing a wonderful and wonderfully obscure 1960 book called Space and Light by a surgeon named Marius von Senden, she relays the numerous case studies of the first generation of patients on whom safe cataract surgeries were performed, and the extraordinary ways in which the restoration of vision — especially for those who had been unseeing since birth — fully disoriented people’s sense perceptions and ideas of space.

The Bowery in the 1930s. Photograph by Berenice Abbott from 'Changing New York.' Click image for more.

The notion of shadow and light was particularly incomprehensible, for shadow is evidence of depth and dimension — something the patients had never experienced and thus something that made no sense at all, that presented them with “the world unraveled from reason.” The newly sighted were suddenly so overwhelmed by the world of light, form, and space that many retreated into their old ways of navigation and sensemaking, choosing to keep their eyes shut and to orient themselves via their familiar senses.

This, of course, is a metaphor at once incredibly elegant and incredibly jarring for how we all react to overwhelming new knowledge — especially knowledge about ourselves and ourselves in relation to our formerly familiar surroundings, our suddenly confusing inner world in relation to the suddenly nonsensical outer. It produces, in the words of one doctor Dillard cites, “the rapid and complete loss of that striking and wonderful serenity which is characteristic only of those who have never yet seen.” She writes:

The mental effort involved in these reasonings proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable. It oppresses them to realize that they have been visible to people all along, perhaps unattractively so, without their knowledge or consent. A disheartening number of them refuse to use their new vision, continuing to go over objects with their tongues, and lapsing into apathy and despair.

And yet there is a light — a gloriously breathtaking light — at the end of that tunnel of confusion, as much for the patients as for our spiritual blindnesses. Quoting another physician’s clinical case, Dillard captures this beautifully:

A twenty-two-year-old girl was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but, “the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Oh God! How beautiful!'”

Dillard returns to the elusive art of seeing in our everyday lives. In a sentiment that calls to mind what cognitive scientists now know about attention and Mary Oliver’s piercing assertion that “attention without feeling is only a report,” she considers the two ways of seeing:

Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it.

[…]

If Tinker Mountain erupted, I’d be likely to notice. But if I want to notice the lesser cataclysms of valley life, I have to maintain in my head a running description of the present… Like a blind man at the ball game, I need a radio.

When I see this way I analyze and pry. I hurl over logs and roll away stones; I study the bank a square foot at a time, probing and tilting my head. Some days when a mist covers the mountains, when the muskrats won’t show and the microscope’s mirror shatters, I want to climb up the blank blue dome as a man would storm the inside of a circus tent, wildly, dangling, and with a steel knife claw a rent in the top, peep, and, if I must, fall.

But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.

Manhattan in the 1930s. Photograph by Berenice Abbott from 'Changing New York.' Click image for more.

Indeed, the “aesthetic consumerism” of which Susan Sontag accused photography easily befalls the mind’s eye as well, if we aren’t careful. But when we allow ourselves this letting go, when we let shadow and light permeate our willful blindness, the warmth of illumination washes over us and leaves us transformed. “Something broke and something opened,” Dillard writes of one such transcendent moment in which she let herself experience this second kind of seeing. And something must always break in order for something to open within us — especially when it comes to seeing our interior worlds in their full dimensionality. Dillard writes:

When I see this way I see truly. As Thoreau says, I return to my senses. I am the man who watches the baseball game in silence in an empty stadium. I see the game purely; I’m abstracted and dazed. When it’s all over and the white-suited players lope off the green field to their shadowed dugouts, I leap to my feet; I cheer and cheer.

But I can’t go out and try to see this way. I’ll fail, I’ll go mad. All I can do is try to gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely as a newspaper dangled before my eyes. The effort is really a discipline requiring a lifetime of dedicated struggle; it marks the literature of saints and monks of every order East and West, under every rule and no rule, discalced and shod. The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance.

What John Steinbeck advised his teenage son about the secret of falling in love Dillard parallels in her counsel on the secret of seeing:

The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise… I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is an infinitely enlightening read in its totality, itself belonging to this canon of “the literature of illumination.” Complement it with Dillard on the life of sensation versus the life of presence, her enduring advice on writing, and an illuminating conversation with cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on learning to see the everyday wonderland of life, then revisit astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge.

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