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How to Know Everything About Everything: Laura Riding’s Extraordinary 1930 Letters to an 8-Year-Old Girl About Being Oneself

“People who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make up for not thinking with doing.”

How to Know Everything About Everything: Laura Riding’s Extraordinary 1930 Letters to an 8-Year-Old Girl About Being Oneself

In 1926, having just divorced her first husband at the age of twenty-five, the American poet, critic, essayist, and short story writer Laura Riding (January 16, 1901–September 2, 1991) moved to England and founded, together with her friend the poet Robert Graves, a small independent press. Like Anaïs Nin’s publishing venture, all of their early publications — which included work by Gertrude Stein — were typeset and printed by hand.

In 1930, Riding and Graves moved their offices to Majorca. That year, 29-year-old Riding wrote a series of letters to 8-year-old Catherine — the daughter of Graves and the artist Nancy Nicholson. Originally published by a Parisian press in a limited edition of 200 copies each signed by the author, Four Unposted Letters to Catherine (public library) endures as a small, miraculous book, reminiscent in spirit of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and in style and substance of the Zen teachings of Seung Sahn or Thich Nhat Hanh. With great simplicity and unpretentious sincerity, both comprehensible and enchanting as much to this particular little girl as to any child or even any wakeful grownup at all, Riding addresses some of the most elemental questions of existence — how to live a life of creativity and integrity, why praise and prestige are corrosive objects of success, and above all what it means to be oneself.

Laura Riding

Riding eventually returned to America in 1939, remarried and became Laura (Riding) Jackson, continued to write, and lived to be ninety — a long life animated by the conviction that language is “the essential moral meeting-ground.” When she reflected on these letters three decades after writing them, she remarked wistfully that she might no longer be inclined to write “such easy-speaking letters, treating with so much diffident good-humor the stupendous, incessantly-urgent matter of Virtue and the lack of it,” by which she meant “the eternal virtue of good Being, not the mortal virtue of good Custom.” And yet, mercifully, she did once write them, and they did survive, and today they continue to nourish souls of all ages with their unadorned wisdom and transcendent truthfulness.

In the first of the four letters, a meandering meditation on young Catherine’s remark that grownups sometimes seem to “know everything about everything,” Riding explores the nature of knowledge and its essential seedbed of self-knowledge. She writes:

A child should be allowed to take as long as she needs for knowing everything about herself, which is the same as learning to be herself. Even twenty-five years if necessary, or even forever. And it wouldn’t matter if doing things got delayed, because nothing is really important but being oneself.

Nearly a century after Kierkegaard extolled the virtues of idleness and two decades before the German philosopher Joseph Pieper argued that not-doing is the basis of culture, Riding urges young Catherine not to worry about being accused of laziness and considers the basic goodness of simply being oneself:

You seem to spend a lot of time dreaming about nothing at all. And yet you are, as the few people who really know you recognise, a perfect child… This is because when you seem to be dreaming about nothing at all you are not being lazy but thinking about yourself. One doesn’t say you are lazy or selfish. If a person is herself she can’t be a bad person in any way; she is always a good person in her own way. For instance, you are very affectionate, but that’s because you are a good person. You are not a good person just because you are affectionate. It wouldn’t matter if you weren’t affectionate, because you are a good person. You are yourself, and whatever you do is sure to be good.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

In a passage that radiates a prescient admonition against the perils of our modern Parenting Industrial Complex, Riding adds:

It is very sad then that so many children are hurried along and not given time to think about themselves. People say to them when they think that they have been playing long enough: “You are no longer a child. You must begin to do something.” But although playing is doing nothing, you are really doing something when you play; you are thinking about yourself. Many children play in the wrong way. They make work out of play. They not only seem to be doing something, they really are doing something. They are imitating the grown-ups around them who are always doing as much instead of as little as possible. And they are often encouraged to play in this way by the grown-ups. And they are not learning to be themselves.

In an essential caveat that teases out the nuance of her point, Riding notes that rather than selfishness or narcissism, such thinking about oneself is the only way to conceive of one’s place within a larger world and therefore to think of the world itself. In a sentiment that calls to mind Diane Ackerman’s wonderful notion of “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” Riding offers an almost Buddhist perspective:

People are by themselves in being themselves, but together with everyone and everything else in being everything. And this is what makes a world, and people in it. Things that don’t think about themselves aren’t people; they are just everything. And by themselves they are nothing. And even all together, as everything, they are nothing because they know nothing about everything. We are something because we think about ourselves. And being part of everything we think about everything too and make something of it.

In the second letter in the book, Riding picks up the subject from another angle and examines, well before the golden age of modern productivity, how our compulsive doing is keeping us from being — that is, from the essential self-knowledge out of which our entire experience of life arises. She writes to young Catherine:

There are many people who are not entirely themselves because as children they were not given time to think about themselves. And because they don’t know everything about themselves they can’t know everything about everything. But no one likes to admit that she doesn’t know everything about everything. And so these people try to make up for not knowing everything about everything by doing things.

[…]

People who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make up for not thinking with doing. They try to pretend that doing is thinking.

Noting that doing certainly has its uses, she considers its misuses. In a passage that calls to mind Bruce Lee’s wisdom on the crucial difference between pride and self-esteem and Anna Deavere Smith’s own letters to young artists about the true measure of confidence, Riding writes:

The wrong kind of doing is doing that people do not for comfort or fun but in order to prove to themselves and to other people that they are people. Of course, the only kind of people that people of this sort could impress would be people like them, who wished to seem people in a general way although they weren’t particularly speaking people. In a place where most of the people were like this the object of life would be busyness. And, dear Catherine, this is the way the world is. Only a small part of the doings in it are done for comfort or fun. The rest is just showing-off.

Writing only a decade after women claimed the right to vote, Riding adds:

The greatest showers-off and busy-bodies are men. And so this world is ruled by men, because it is a world not of doing but over-doing. A world of simple doing would need no ruling. It takes really very little doing to keep comfortably and happily alive. We ought not to pay much more attention to doing than to breathing.

All this extra doing interferes, in fact, with comfort and fun and makes a bad kind of laziness instead of a good kind. Good laziness is thinking — knowing about yourself and knowing also about everything when you want to… You would not be surprised if you realised that it didn’t take brains to do things. Birds, bees, ants, dogs, tress, earth, the sky — all these and everything do the most marvelous things, but they haven’t brains like ours. Never be impressed by what people do, dear Catherine. Doing is only natural.

Once again admonishing against the way in which praise and prestige come to displace the true confidence that comes from self-knowledge, she offers an incisive definition:

Praise … is the confidence in yourself that you get from people whom you have succeeded in pleasing when you haven’t any confidence in yourself.

Riding considers how self-knowledge becomes the foundational structure upon which all other knowledge is built:

If a person knows everything about herself, then she is herself, which is a part of everything. But if she can think further than this, then she can perhaps make that part into a whole, into everything — not just an everything that is everything and anything, but an everything that is herself, or, you might say, an everything that is precious instead of just ordinary. This good thing, this little everything — well, it might be a poem or anything that a thinking might be, and it would be a good thing because it wasn’t a doing.

[…]

A poem or anything like that that is thinking and not doing … is of course much harder work than making a chair, but it is work done with laziness not with busyness. By this I mean that in making a poem there is no hurry or purpose as there is in making a chair; it has nothing to do with fun or comfort, it is better than fun or comfort. Having fun and being comfortable is connected with being alive for a good long time, a year or maybe a hundred years. But making a poem is like being alive for always: this is what I mean by laziness and there being no hurry or purpose. A good poem, then, or any good thinking thing, wouldn’t try to give comfort or fun to people: it would be good because of what it was, not because of what it did, and so give people something better than comfort or fun — a feeling of laziness, of being alive for always. Only someone who knows herself in an everything way could make such a thing, but to make such a thing is nothing to be proud of or show off about. For if you are able to make a poem, it doesn’t seem a wonderful thing to do; it seems just a necessary-natural thing to do.

But this ability to make a good poem, Riding argues, springs from the same source as the ability to make a good chair — that is, a poem or chair that doesn’t show off — which is, at bottom, what also makes a good person. (Nearly a century later, the poet Mary Oliver would call that source “the third self.”) Riding writes:

A person might be able to make poems but be unable to make chairs, not because she could only make poems, but because it didn’t happen to her to make chairs. In the long run a person who could make good poems would certainly come round to making good chairs, and the other way round.

Four Unposted Letters to Catherine is an enormously rewarding read in its slim totality. Complement it with Rilke on what it takes to be an artist and the poet Ann Lauterbach on why we make art and how art makes us.

Thanks, Ann

BP

Nietzsche on Truth, Lies, the Power and Peril of Metaphor, and How We Use Language to Reveal and Conceal Reality

“What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished…”

Nietzsche on Truth, Lies, the Power and Peril of Metaphor, and How We Use Language to Reveal and Conceal Reality

“The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her incisive meditation on the vital difference between thinking and knowing. “Knowledge consists in the search for truth,” Karl Popper cautioned in considering truth and the dangers of relativism. “It is not the search for certainty.”

But in an uncertain world, what is the measure of truth and where does the complex, conflicted human impulse for knowledge originate in the first place?

That is what Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) examined a century before Arendt and Popper in his 1873 essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” later translated by W.A. Haussmann and included in the indispensable Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche (public library).

Friedrich Nietzsche

Half a century before Bertrand Russell admonished that, in a universe unconcerned with human interests, the equally naïve notions of optimism and pessimism “spring from self-importance, and are best corrected by a little astronomy,” Nietzsche paints the backdrop for the drama of truth:

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.

One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly — as though the world’s axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with a gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself. There is nothing so reprehensible and unimportant in nature that it would not immediately swell up like a balloon at the slightest puff of this power of knowing. And just as every porter wants to have an admirer, so even the proudest of men, the philosopher, supposes that he sees on all sides the eyes of the universe telescopically focused upon his action and thought.

1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, envisioning the creation of the Ptolemaic universe by an omnipotent creator. From Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time.

The desire for knowledge, Nietzsche argues, stems from the same hubristic self-focus and is amplified by the basic human instinct for belonging — within a culture, what is designated as truth is a form of social contract and a sort of “peace pact” among people. A century before Laura Riding observed that “the task of truth is divided among us, to the number of us,” Nietzsche writes:

A uniformly valid and binding designation is invented for things, and this legislation of language likewise establishes the first laws of truth. For the contrast between truth and lie arises here for the first time. The liar is a person who uses the valid designations, the words, in order to make something which is unreal appear to be real. He says, for example, “I am rich,” when the proper designation for his condition would be “poor.” He misuses fixed conventions by means of arbitrary substitutions or even reversals of names. If he does this in a selfish and moreover harmful manner, society will cease to trust him and will thereby exclude him. What men avoid by excluding the liar is not so much being defrauded as it is being harmed by means of fraud. Thus, even at this stage, what they hate is basically not deception itself, but rather the unpleasant, hated consequences of certain sorts of deception. It is in a similarly restricted sense that man now wants nothing but truth: he desires the pleasant, life-preserving consequences of truth. He is indifferent toward pure knowledge which has no consequences.

Suggesting that language itself can become a tool that conceals rather than reveals truth — something Anna Deavere Smith would echo a century later in her observation that “some people use language as a mask [and] create designed language that appears to reveal them but does not” — Nietzsche probes at these linguistic conventions themselves:

Are they perhaps products of knowledge, that is, of the sense of truth? Are designations congruent with things? Is language the adequate expression of all realities?

[…]

What is a word? It is the copy in sound of a nerve stimulus. But the further inference from the nerve stimulus to a cause outside of us is already the result of a false and unjustifiable application of the principle of sufficient reason… We speak of a “snake”: this designation touches only upon its ability to twist itself and could therefore also fit a worm. What arbitrary differentiations! What one-sided preferences, first for this, then for that property of a thing!

Illustration from The Little Golden Book of Words

Half a century before the Nobel-winning Indian poet and philosopher Tagore asserted that “relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance,” Nietzsche adds:

The various languages placed side by side show that with words it is never a question of truth, never a question of adequate expression; otherwise, there would not be so many languages. The “thing in itself” (which is precisely what the pure truth, apart from any of its consequences, would be) is likewise something quite incomprehensible to the creator of language and something not in the least worth striving for. This creator only designates the relations of things to men, and for expressing these relations he lays hold of the boldest metaphors… It is this way with all of us concerning language; we believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things — metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities… A word becomes a concept insofar as it simultaneously has to fit countless more or less similar cases — which means, purely and simply, cases which are never equal and thus altogether unequal. Every concept arises from the equation of unequal things. Just as it is certain that one leaf is never totally the same as another, so it is certain that the concept “leaf” is formed by arbitrarily discarding these individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects. This awakens the idea that, in addition to the leaves, there exists in nature the “leaf”: the original model according to which all the leaves were perhaps woven, sketched, measured, colored, curled, and painted — but by incompetent hands, so that no specimen has turned out to be a correct, trustworthy, and faithful likeness of the original model… We obtain the concept, as we do the form, by overlooking what is individual and actual; whereas nature is acquainted with no forms and no concepts, and likewise with no species, but only with an X which remains inaccessible and undefinable for us.

“What is essential is invisible to the eye.” One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince.

With this, Nietzsche returns to his central premise and distills the notion of truth as a social contract in language:

What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions — they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.

And yet what Nietzsche tenders is not relativism but a framework for differentiating between truth and lie, rooted in the understanding that language — a human invention and social adaptation — is too porous a vessel for holding pure reality beyond the anthropocentric:

To be truthful means to employ the usual metaphors. Thus, to express it morally, this is the duty to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie with the herd and in a manner binding upon everyone… From the sense that one is obliged to designate one thing as “red,” another as “cold,” and a third as “mute,” there arises a moral impulse in regard to truth. The venerability, reliability, and utility of truth is something which a person demonstrates for himself from the contrast with the liar, whom no one trusts and everyone excludes.

As a “rational” being, he now places his behavior under the control of abstractions. He will no longer tolerate being carried away by sudden impressions, by intuitions. First he universalizes all these impressions into less colorful, cooler concepts, so that he can entrust the guidance of his life and conduct to them. Everything which distinguishes man from the animals depends upon this ability to volatilize perceptual metaphors in a schema, and thus to dissolve an image into a concept.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from Pinocchio: The Origin Story

He illustrates this transfiguration of physical fact into abstract concept in the recognition, construction, and articulation of “truth”:

If I make up the definition of a mammal, and then, after inspecting a camel, declare “look, a mammal” I have indeed brought a truth to light in this way, but it is a truth of limited value. That is to say, it is a thoroughly anthropomorphic truth which contains not a single point which would be “true in itself” or really and universally valid apart from man.

At bottom, what the investigator of such truths is seeking is only the metamorphosis of the world into man. He strives to understand the world as something analogous to man, and at best he achieves by his struggles the feeling of assimilation. Similar to the way in which astrologers considered the stars to be in man’s service and connected with his happiness and sorrow, such an investigator considers the entire universe in connection with man: the entire universe as the infinitely fractured echo of one original sound-man; the entire universe as the infinitely multiplied copy of one original picture-man. His method is to treat man as the measure of all things, but in doing so he again proceeds from the error of believing that he has these things [which he intends to measure] immediately before him as mere objects. He forgets that the original perceptual metaphors are metaphors and takes them to be the things themselves.

Our purest contact with reality, Nietzsche suggests, lies in breaking free from the trap of language and standing in absolute attentive presence with the actuality of what is before us — beyond classification, beyond description, beyond constriction into concept:

Only by forgetting this primitive world of metaphor can one live with any repose, security, and consistency: only by means of the petrification and coagulation of a mass of images which originally streamed from the primal faculty of human imagination like a fiery liquid, only in the invincible faith in this sun, this window, this table is a truth in itself, in short, only by forgetting that he himself is an artistically creative subject, does man live with any repose, security, and consistency.

Long before Rachel Carson invited the human imagination to experience reality from the perspective of marine creatures and before cognitive scientists explored what the world looks like through others’ eyes, Nietzsche adds:

It is even a difficult thing for [man] to admit to himself that the insect or the bird perceives an entirely different world from the one that man does, and that the question of which of these perceptions of the world is the more correct one is quite meaningless, for this would have to have been decided previously in accordance with the criterion of the correct perception, which means, in accordance with a criterion which is not available. But in any case it seems to me that “the correct perception” — which would mean “the adequate expression of an object in the subject” — is a contradictory impossibility.

[…]

So far as we can penetrate here — from the telescopic heights to the microscopic depths — everything is secure, complete, infinite, regular, and without any gaps. Science will be able to dig successfully in this shaft forever, and the things that are discovered will harmonize with and not contradict each other. How little does this resemble a product of the imagination, for if it were such, there should be some place where the illusion and reality can be divined. Against this, the following must be said: if each us had a different kind of sense perception — if we could only perceive things now as a bird, now as a worm, now as a plant, or if one of us saw a stimulus as red, another as blue, while a third even heard the same stimulus as a sound — then no one would speak of such a regularity of nature, rather, nature would be grasped only as a creation which is subjective in the highest degree.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from Pinocchio: The Origin Story

Nietzsche shines a sidewise gleam on the abiding question of whether mathematics — that supreme catchpool and calculator of the laws of nature — is discovered, a fundamental fact of the universe, or invented, a human language:

After all, what is a law of nature as such for us? We are not acquainted with it in itself, but only with its effects, which means in its relation to other laws of nature — which, in turn, are known to us only as sums of relations. Therefore all these relations always refer again to others and are thoroughly incomprehensible to us in their essence. All that we actually know about these laws of nature is what we ourselves bring to them — time and space, and therefore relationships of succession and number. But everything marvelous about the laws of nature, everything that quite astonishes us therein and seems to demand explanation, everything that might lead us to distrust idealism: all this is completely and solely contained within the mathematical strictness and inviolability of our representations of time and space. But we produce these representations in and from ourselves with the same necessity with which the spider spins. If we are forced to comprehend all things only under these forms, then it ceases to be amazing that in all things we actually comprehend nothing but these forms. For they must all bear within themselves the laws of number, and it is precisely number which is most astonishing in things. All that conformity to law, which impresses us so much in the movement of the stars and in chemical processes, coincides at bottom with those properties which we bring to things. Thus it is we who impress ourselves in this way.

One of Salvador Dalí’s rare illustrations for the essays of Montaigne

Nietzsche examines the relationship between language and science, and their analogous functions in the human quest to fathom reality:

We have seen how it is originally language which works on the construction of concepts, a labor taken over in later ages by science.

Just as the bee simultaneously constructs cells and fills them with honey, so science works unceasingly on this great columbarium of concepts, the graveyard of perceptions. It is always building new, higher stories and shoring up, cleaning, and renovating the old cells; above all, it takes pains to fill up this monstrously towering framework and to arrange therein the entire empirical world.

He locates the common impulse undergirding both language and science:

The drive toward the formation of metaphors is the fundamental human drive, which one cannot for a single instant dispense with in thought, for one would thereby dispense with man himself.

Two centuries after Pascal, whom Nietzsche greatly admired, examined the difference between the intuitive and the logical mind, he ends by considering the tradeoffs between these two orientations of being — the rational and the intuitive — as mechanisms for inhabiting reality with minimal dissimilation and maximal truthfulness:

There are ages in which the rational man and the intuitive man stand side by side, the one in fear of intuition, the other with scorn for abstraction. The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by knowing how to meet his principle needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an “overjoyed hero,” counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty… The man who is guided by concepts and abstractions only succeeds by such means in warding off misfortune, without ever gaining any happiness for himself from these abstractions. And while he aims for the greatest possible freedom from pain, the intuitive man, standing in the midst of a culture, already reaps from his intuition a harvest of continually inflowing illumination, cheer, and redemption — in addition to obtaining a defense against misfortune. To be sure, he suffers more intensely, when he suffers; he even suffers more frequently, since he does not understand how to learn from experience and keeps falling over and over again into the same ditch. He is then just as irrational in sorrow as he is in happiness: he cries aloud and will not be consoled. How differently the stoical man who learns from experience and governs himself by concepts is affected by the same misfortunes! This man, who at other times seeks nothing but sincerity, truth, freedom from deception, and protection against ensnaring surprise attacks, now executes a masterpiece of deception: he executes his masterpiece of deception in misfortune, as the other type of man executes his in times of happiness. He wears no quivering and changeable human face, but, as it were, a mask with dignified, symmetrical features. He does not cry; he does not even alter his voice. When a real storm cloud thunders above him, he wraps himself in his cloak, and with slow steps he walks from beneath it.

Complement “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” with Adrienne Rich on what “truth” really means, Toni Morrison on the power of language, and Bertrand Russell on our only effective self-defense against the manipulation of realty, then revisit Nietzsche on depression and the rehabilitation of hope, how to find yourself, what it really means to be a free spirit, and why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty.

BP

The Courage to Be Yourself: E.E. Cummings on Art, Life, and Being Unafraid to Feel

“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.”

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” wrote the thirty-year-old Nietzsche. “The true and durable path into and through experience,” Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney counseled the young more than a century later in his magnificent commencement address, “involves being true … to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge.”

Every generation believes that it must battle unprecedented pressures of conformity; that it must fight harder than any previous generation to protect that secret knowledge from which our integrity of selfhood springs. Some of this belief stems from the habitual conceit of a culture blinded by its own presentism bias, ignorant of the past’s contextual analogues. But much of it in the century and a half since Nietzsche, and especially in the years since Heaney, is an accurate reflection of the conditions we have created and continually reinforce in our present informational ecosystem — a Pavlovian system of constant feedback, in which the easiest and commonest opinions are most readily rewarded, and dissenting voices are most readily punished by the unthinking mob.

E.E. Cummings by Edward Weston (Photograph courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography)
E.E. Cummings by Edward Weston (Photograph courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography)

Few people in the two centuries since Emerson issued his exhortation to “trust thyself” have countered this culturally condoned blunting of individuality more courageously and consistently than E.E. Cummings (October 14, 1894–September 3, 1962) — an artist who never cowered from being his unconventional self because, in the words of his most incisive and competent biographer, he “despised fear, and his life was lived in defiance of all who ruled by it.”

A fortnight after the poet’s fifty-ninth birthday, a small Michigan newspaper published a short, enormous piece by Cummings under the title “A Poet’s Advice to Students,” radiating expansive wisdom on art, life, and the courage of being yourself. It went on to inspire Buckminster Fuller and was later included in E.E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised (public library) — that wonderful out-of-print collection which the poet himself described as “a cluster of epigrams, forty-nine essays on various subjects, a poem dispraising dogmata, and several selections from unfinished plays,” and which gave us Cummings on what it really means to be an artist.

Illustration from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, an illustrated tribute to E.E. Cummings

Addressing those who aspire to be poets — no doubt in that broadest Baldwinian sense of wakeful artists in any medium and courageous seers of human truth — Cummings echoes the poet Laura Riding’s exquisite letters to an eight-year-old girl about being oneself and writes:

A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.

This may sound easy. It isn’t.

A lot of people think or believe or know they feel — but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling — not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

Page from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess

Cummings should know — just four years earlier, he had fought that hardest battle himself: When he was awarded the prestigious Academy of American Poets annual fellowship — the MacArthur of poetry — Cummings had to withstand harsh criticism from traditionalists who besieged him with hate for the bravery of breaking with tradition and being nobody-but-himself in his art. With an eye to that unassailable creative integrity buoyed by relentless work ethic, he adds:

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time — and whenever we do it, we’re not poets.

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.

And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world — unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.

Does that sound dismal? It isn’t.

It’s the most wonderful life on earth.

Or so I feel.

Complement the thoroughly invigorating E.E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised with a lovely illustrated celebration of Cummings’s creative bravery, then revisit Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Penn Warren on what it really means to find yourself and Janis Joplin on the courage of being what you find.

BP

The Telling: An Unusual and Profound 1967 Manifesto for Truth

“The task of truth is divided among us, to the number of us… We must grasp the Subject with the tongs of our individual littleness; take the measure of it with what we are.”

The Telling: An Unusual and Profound 1967 Manifesto for Truth

“Teller and listener, each fulfills the other’s expectations,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her beautiful meditation on the magic of real human communication. “The living tongue that tells the word, the living ear that hears it, bind and bond us in the communion we long for in the silence of our inner solitude.” But what exactly is this act of telling that transfigures our isolation into communion — how, why, and what do we actually tell, and to whom do we tell it?

That’s what the poet Laura Riding (January 16, 1901–September 2, 1991) set out to explore half a century ago.

Eleven years after she composed her extraordinary letters of life-advice to an eight-year-old girl, Riding renounced her vocation, feeling that she had “reached poetry’s limit” as a means of probing human truth and that there existed “something better in our linguistic way of life than we have.” She fell in love with TIME magazine poetry critic Schuyler B. Jackson and became Laura (Riding) Jackson. The Jacksons went on to live a humble yet intensely intellectual life in Florida, working as citrus farmers to fund their work on an ambitious, unorthodox dictionary that distilled each word into a single definition.

But Jackson, animated by her intense love of language, remained restless about the problem of truth’s articulation. It took her a quarter century to formulate just why she had abandoned poetry and what greater frontiers of truth-telling there may be. Her formulation first appeared in the New York magazine Chelsea in 1967 and later became the small, immensely profound book The Telling (public library) — an unusual manifesto for the existential necessity of living for truth.

Laura (Riding) Jackson

Jackson frames the promise of the book in a prefatory note:

Life of the human kind has been lived preponderantly so far according to the needs of the self as felt to be the possession of itself. This self-claiming self is a human-faced creature, existing in the multiple form of a loose number reckonable only as “the human aggregate.” The needs of this self issue from a diffuse greed, which is imparted from one to the other in garrulous sociality.

There is an alternative self, a human-faced soul-being, a self conscious of ourselves who bear in manifold individualness, each singly, the burden of the single sense of the manifold totality. This self is implicated in the totality as a speaking self of it, owing it words that will put the seal of the Whole upon it. On what we each may thus say depends the happiness of the Whole, and our own (every happiness of other making being destined to disappear into the shades of the predetermined nothingness of the self-claiming self, which encircle it.)

The book is structured like Pascal’s Pensées and Descartes’s The Passions of the Soul — as a series of short meditations each presented in a numbered paragraph. In the first, Jackson considers our primal hunger for the telling of core human truths yet untold:

There is something to be told about us for the telling of which we all wait. In our unwilling ignorance we hurry to listen to stories of old human life, new human life, fancied human life, avid of something to while away the time of unanswered curiosity. Many of the lesser things concerning us have been told, but the greater things have not been told; and nothing can fill their place. Whatever we learn of what is not ourselves, but ours to know, being of our universal world, will likewise leave the emptiness an emptiness. Until the missing story of ourselves is told, nothing besides told can suffice us: we shall go on quietly craving it.

Art by Sydney Pink from Overcoming Creative Block

In the fourth fragment, she suggests that at the heart of the pervasive sense that our stories are unheard lies the fact that they are first and foremost untold:

Everywhere can be seen a waiting for words that phrase the primary sense of human-being, and with a human finality, so that the words themselves are witness to what they tell… In the eyes of all (in the opaque depths in them of unacknowledged presentness to one another) are mirrored (but scarcely discerned) concourses where our souls ever secretly assemble, in expectation of events of common understanding that continually fail to occur. We wait, all, for a story of us that shall reach to where we are. We listen for our own speaking; and we hear much that seems our speaking, yet makes us strange to ourselves.

She considers how our cultural modes of truth-telling fragment rather than unify our truths:

How our story has been divided up among the truth-telling professions! Religion, philosophy, history, poetry, compete with one another for our ears; and science competes with all together. And for each we have a different set of ears. But, though we hear much, what we are told is as nothing: none of it gives us ourselves, rather each story-kind steals us to make its reality of us.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s prescient admonition that “information will never replace illumination,” Jackson adds:

The time, in love with easy knowledge and fast knowledge, has created a new materialism to minister to the appetites of the intellect. Human things are broken up into unreal pieces by this hasty learning-lust, studied in their supposed particulars at scientific remove; and in their reality they are far less visible through science’s glass than with the naked eye of human selfhood.

[…]

How can it be that there is both a waiting, everywhere, for true words of ourselves, and a not-waiting? … a hunger both kept pure, unprofaned by false satisfaction, and stilled with the state of expedient alternatives to our truth? We are both purely and impurely ourselves: … purely, in that we are ourselves, and impurely, in that we do not know our whole nature, and live much in misknowledge of ourselves, part-corrupted into what we are not. Thus has it ever been with us. But we have reached the end of the possibility of self-ignorance, and can no longer draw on innocence to purge us of self-mistaking.

Art by Isol from Daytime Visions

Truth, Jackson suggests, is a quietly self-propagating organism, the ultimate corrective:

Truth rings no bells. When we have corrected ourselves with ourselves, joined that of us which sustained us in false notions of our truth to that of us which sustained us in our waiting for our truth itself, we shall have the force of truth in us, and immediately begin to speak true. Later, we shall know that we have begun to speak true by an increased hunger for true-speaking; we shall have the whole hunger only after we have given ourselves the first taste of it.

In a passage of particular prescience amid our age of oppression by untruth, and in resonance with Hannah Arendt’s timeless inquiry into how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, Jackson considers the vital self-protection and self-liberation which the telling of our truths makes possible:

We can best defend ourselves against those who would crowd us all into a prison of shrunken-destiny … by knowing our missing story, and dwelling in it, as in the home of our thought. Let them move us to take our souls fully unto ourselves, and to speak from soul-self to one another as ourselves in truth: that speaking will be our story, and it will silence them. To defeat them we need only to tell our truth, which is theirs also.

Our truth cannot be all-told, from the beginning told, unless we tell it to one another.

Such a commitment to mutual truth-telling, Jackson asserts, is the only real force of unity across our innumerable differences, which cannot and should not be eradicated but can be and must be understood. In her closing paragraphs, framed in extended parentheses, she writes:

Among human beings there are true differences of understanding, come of their having spoken so little with one another as beings of the one life-story. By speaking out of their different story-sense of human-being to one another, the differers can learn their life-sameness, and the different understandings be loosed to join.

In a sentiment of chilling relevance to our climate of “alternative facts” wielded by exploitive politicians as a weapon of separation and polarization, Jackson adds:

But — yes — there are also false differences of understanding. There are inventors of difference, bent greedily on having their own to say… Those of false-different understanding who might press forward to have a part in the making of our truth, stealing the name of it for their inventions, could do nothing other than follow the trace of old falsity, drawing the false circles that turn back upon themselves half-way. There is nothing new of false truth to suffer from. It will be repeated to the extinction of its capability of seeing new, true; we shall suffer from it only to the extinction of our capacity for being deceived.

A decade later, Jackson wrote in piece titled “A Preface for a Second Reading” accompanying the 1972 edition of the book:

My purpose is to remind us that there remain still to be told the fundamentals of our being, and that we are the natural tellers of them — each a natural teller of a story of which we and Everything, together, are the Subject, the story of ourselves and everything that touches on us, everything we touch on… The task of truth is divided among us, to the number of us — however large truth’s subject is, truth can be no more than the speaking of an exact self, a being exactly one (nor can it be less). We must grasp the Subject with the tongs of our individual littleness; take the measure of it with what we are.

The Telling is a beautiful, pleasantly challenging and thought-expanding read in its entirety. Complement it with Le Guin’s “Telling Is Listening,”, Toni Morrison on how to be your own story, and Hannah Arendt on thinking vs. knowing and the crucial difference between truth and meaning.

BP

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