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A Small Dark Light: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Legacy of the Tao Te Ching and What It Continues to Teach Us About Personal and Political Power 2,500 Years Later

“It is the profound modesty of the language that offers what so many people for so many centuries have found in this book: a pure apprehension of the mystery of which we are part.”

A Small Dark Light: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Legacy of the Tao Te Ching and What It Continues to Teach Us About Personal and Political Power 2,500 Years Later

Two and a half millennia ago, the Chinese sage Lao Tzu wrote a poetic and profound short text known as the Tao Te Ching. With uncommon elegance, it crystallized the teachings of Taoist philosophy on such perennial matters as power, happiness, and the source of meaning in human life. As its wisdom radiated West over the centuries, it went on to influence minds as varied as John Cage (who wove it into his pioneering musical aesthetic), Franz Kafka (who considered it the clearest view of reality), Bruce Lee (who anchored his famous metaphor for resilience in it), Alan Watts (who placed it at the center of his philosophy), and Leo Tolstoy (who leaned on it in his proto-blog about the meaning of life). One changeless constant has endured across the millennia: Every generation of admirers has felt, and continues to feel, a prescience in these ancient teachings so astonishing that they appear to have been written for their own time.

Among the timeless text’s most ardent admirers is Ursula K. Le Guin (b. October 21, 1929), who first became besotted with it as a little girl, watching her father leaf through and lovingly annotate a scrumptious cloth-bound copy of Paul Carus’s 1898 translation. Le Guin soon came to discover that this “venerable object of mystery” held enchantments deeper than the beguiling blue-and-red Chinese designs gracing its cover — upon asking her father why he was taking notes, she was told that he was marking the chapters he wanted read at his funeral. (They were read.)

Ursula K. Le Guin by Laura Anglin

“I was lucky to discover him so young, so that I could live with his book my whole life long,” Le Guin recalls. By the time she was in her twenties, having lived with the book and having seen the book live through her, she set out to give voice to that silent mutuality. Although she spoke no Chinese, Le Guin decided to create her own translation — or, rather, lyrical interpretation — using Carus’s 1898 translation, which included a transliteration of each Chinese character, as a sort of Rosetta Stone to decipher the poetic grammar of the ancient text against the scholarly English translations.

In her twenties, Le Guin completed several chapters, then went on adding slowly each decade. Nearly half a century later, as she was inching toward seventy, she gave this private passion public form in Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching (public library) — a book Le Guin describes as “a rendition, not a translation.” Similar in nature to Proust’s far-more-than-translation of Ruskin, it is indeed the type of work which the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska meant when she spoke of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes … a second original.”

Le Guin writes of the ethos animating her version:

The Tao Te Ching was probably written about twenty-five hundred years ago, perhaps by a man called Lao Tzu, who may have lived at about the same time as Confucius. Nothing about it is certain except that it’s Chinese, and very old, and speaks to people everywhere as if it had been written yesterday.

[…]

The Tao Te Ching is partly in prose, partly in verse; but as we define poetry now, not by rhyme and meter but as a patterned intensity of language, the whole thing is poetry. I wanted to catch that poetry, its terse, strange beauty. Most translations have caught meanings in their net, but prosily, letting the beauty slip through. And in poetry, beauty is no ornament; it is the meaning. It is the truth.

Le Guin being Le Guin — a writer whose incisive intellect continually slices through our limiting societal structures and whose essay on being “a man” remains the finest, sharpest thing ever written about gender in language — she notes the deliberate countercultural undertone of her rendition:

Scholarly translations of the Tao Te Ching as a manual for rulers use a vocabulary that emphasizes the uniqueness of the Taoist “sage,” his masculinity, his authority. This language is perpetuated, and degraded, in most popular versions. I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul. I would like that reader to see why people have loved the book for twenty-five hundred years.

It is the most lovable of all the great religious texts, funny, keen, kind, modest, indestructibly outrageous, and inexhaustibly refreshing. Of all the deep springs, this is the purest water. To me, it is also the deepest spring.

2nd century BC Ink-on-silk manuscript of the Tao Te Ching
2nd century BC Ink-on-silk manuscript of the Tao Te Ching

And so, with equal parts reverence and imaginative rigor, Le Guin plunges into the spring. Most of the chapters, each sculpted into poetic profundity that enlarges the beauty and truth of Lao Tzu’s wisdom, are footnoted with Le Guin’s illuminations, which reveal, and often add to, the original depth. Of the first, she notes:

A satisfactory translation of this chapter is, I believe, perfectly impossible. It contains the book. I think of it as the Aleph, in Borges’s story: if you see it rightly, it contains everything.

And so she presents the first chapter-poem, which she titles “Taoing”:

The way you can go
isn’t the real way.
The name you can say
isn’t the real name.

Heaven and earth
begin in the unnamed:
name’s the mother
of the ten thousand things.

So the unwanting soul
sees what’s hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul
sees only what it wants.

Two things, one origin,
but different in name,
whose identity is mystery.
Mystery of all mysteries!
The door to the hidden.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s abiding admonition against interpretation, Le Guin writes:

Everything Lao Tzu says is elusive. The temptation is to grasp at something tangible in the endlessly deceptive simplicity of the words… It is the profound modesty of the language that offers what so many people for so many centuries have found in this book: a pure apprehension of the mystery of which we are part.

Among Lao Tzu’s elusive truths are counterintuitive notions like “useful emptiness,” “dim brightness,” and the Chinese concept of wu wei, trying not to try, many of which revolve around the question of what power really means. The tenth chapter, which Le Guin titles “Techniques,” explores the path to attaining these paradoxical powers:

Can you keep your soul in its body,
hold fast to the one,
and so learn to be whole?
Can you center your energy,
be soft, tender,
and so learn to be a baby?

Can you keep the deep water still and clear,
so it reflects without blurring?
Can you love people and run things,
and do so by not doing?

Opening, closing the Gate of Heaven,
can you be like a bird with her nestlings?
Piercing bright through the cosmos,
can you know by not knowing?

To give birth, to nourish,
to bear and not to own,
to act and not lay claim,
to lead and not to rule:
this is mysterious power.

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Le Guin considers this central teaching of the Tao Te Ching:

Taoists gain their ends without the use of means. That is indeed a light that does not shine—an idea that must be pondered and brooded over. A small dark light.

One of Lao Tzu’s most timeless teachings is also, today, one of the timeliest — his ideas about the true source of political power. Le Guin explains:

Lao Tzu, a mystic, demystifies political power.

Autocracy and oligarchy foster the beliefs that power is gained magically and retained by sacrifice, and that powerful people are genuinely superior to the powerless.

Lao Tzu does not see political power as magic. He sees rightful power as earned and wrongful power as usurped. He does not see power as virtue, but as the result of virtue. The democracies are founded on that view.

He sees sacrifice of self or others as a corruption of power, and power as available to anybody who follows the Way. This is a radically subversive attitude. No wonder anarchists and Taoists make good friends.

Such radical subversiveness concludes the thirteenth chapter, which Le Guin aptly titles “Shameless”:

People who treated the body politic
as gently as their own body
would be worthy to govern the commonwealth.

Tucked into Lao Tzu’s millennia-old verses are observations that apply with remarkable precision to certain public figures and political actors of our own time, nowhere more acutely than in the civilizational embarrassment who signs himself Donald Trump. In the twenty-fourth chapter, for instance, Lao Tzu writes:

Self-satisfied people do no good,
self-promoters never grow up.

The fifty-sixth, in which Le Guin deliberately drops “he” from the grammatically familiar “he who,” contains one of his most famous tenets:

Who knows
doesn’t talk.
Who talks
doesn’t know.

In the thirty-third, which Le Guin titles “Kinds of Power,” Lao Tzu writes:

Knowing other people is intelligence,
knowing yourself is wisdom.
Overcoming others takes strength,
overcoming yourself takes greatness.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep
Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep, an illustrated parable of how power changes us

The thirty-eighth chapter deals directly with the subject of true power and its simulacra:

TALKING ABOUT POWER

Great power, not clinging to power,
has true power.
Lesser power, clinging to power,
lacks true power.
Great power, doing nothing,
has nothing to do.
Lesser power, doing nothing,
has an end in view.

The good the truly good do
has no end in view.
The right the very righteous do
has an end in view.
And those who act in true obedience to law
roll up their sleeves
and make the disobedient obey.

So: when we lose the Way we find power;
losing power we find goodness;
losing goodness we find righteousness;
losing righteousness we’re left with obedience.

Obedience to law is the dry husk
of loyalty and good faith.
Opinion is the barren flower of the Way,
the beginning of ignorance.

So great-minded people
abide in the kernel not the husk,
in the fruit not the flower,
letting the one go, keeping the other.

Le Guin distills the meaning:

A vast, dense argument in a minimum of words, this poem lays out the Taoist values in steeply descending order: the Way and its power; goodness (humane feeling); righteousness (morality); and — a very distant last — obedience (law and order). The word I render as “opinion” can be read as “knowing too soon”: the mind obeying orders, judging before the evidence is in, closed to fruitful perception and learning.

The whole of Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching is well worth savoring — as much for the ancient substance as for Le Guin’s stylistic splendor. Complement it with Le Guin on power, oppression, and freedom, the magic of real human conversation, the sacredness of public libraries, what beauty really means, and where good ideas come from.

BP

Ursula K. Le Guin on Art, Storytelling, and the Power of Language to Transform and Redeem

“One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience… Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.”

Ursula K. Le Guin on Art, Storytelling, and the Power of Language to Transform and Redeem

“People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them,” Emerson wrote in contemplating the key to personal growth. Hardly anything does this for us more powerfully than art — it unsettles us awake, disrupts our deadening routines, enlarges our reservoir of hope by enlarging our perspective, our grasp of truth, our capacity for beauty.

This singular function of art is what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) reflects on in an interview by the polymathic marine conservationist Jonathan White, included in his wonderful Talking on the Water: Conversations about Nature and Creativity (public library).

Ursula K. Le Guin (Photograph: The Oregonian)

In a roaming conversation over tea, “with only momentary interruptions by Lorenzo the cat or chimes from the grandfather clock,” Le Guin tells White:

The daily routine of most adults is so heavy and artificial that we are closed off to much of the world. We have to do this in order to get our work done. I think one purpose of art is to get us out of those routines. When we hear music or poetry or stories, the world opens up again. We’re drawn in — or out — and the windows of our perception are cleansed, as William Blake said. The same thing can happen when we’re around young children or adults who have unlearned those habits of shutting the world out.

Art, Le Guin suggests a century after Kandinsky extolled its spiritual element and a decade after Susan Sontag considered its ethical responsibility, restores to secular culture the sense of sacredness and moral purpose:

Our culture doesn’t think storytelling is sacred; we don’t set aside a time of year for it. We don’t hold anything sacred except what organized religion declares to be so. Artists pursue a sacred call, although some would buck and rear at having their work labeled like this. Artists are lucky to have a form in which to express themselves; there is a sacredness about that, and a terrific sense of responsibility. We’ve got to do it right. Why do we have to do it right? Because that’s the whole point: either it’s right or it’s all wrong.

In a sentiment reminiscent of Albert Camus’s reflection on the lacuna between truth and meaning, Le Guin — who spent the last sixty-five years of her life married to a historian — considers the lacuna between the events of the past and their selective retelling in what we call history:

History is one way of telling stories, just like myth, fiction, or oral storytelling. But over the last hundred years, history has preempted the other forms of storytelling because of its claim to absolute, objective truth. Trying to be scientists, historians stood outside of history and told the story of how it was. All that has changed radically over the last twenty years. Historians now laugh at the pretense of objective truth. They agree that every age has its own history, and if there is any objective truth, we can’t reach it with words. History is not a science, it’s an art.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds

The paradox, of course, is that because our notion of history is rooted in the written record, words are both our instrument of truth and our weapon of distortion. We use them both to reveal and to conceal — a duality which Hannah Arendt so memorably dissected in her meditation on lying in politics. Le Guin — who has written beautifully about the transformational potential of words — echoes Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the power and responsibility of language, and reflects on the challenging task of those who limn reality in words:

As a writer, you want the language to be genuinely significant and mean exactly what it says. That’s why the language of politicians, which is empty of everything but rather brutal signals, is something a writer has to get as far away from as possible. If you believe that words are acts, as I do, then one must hold writers responsible for what their words do.

With a concerned eye to how our metaphors shape our thinking, Le Guin adds:

We can’t restructure our society without restructuring the English language. One reflects the other. A lot of people are getting tired of the huge pool of metaphors that have to do with war and conflict [and] the proliferation of battle metaphors, such as being a warrior, righting, defeating, and so on. In response, I could say that once you become conscious of these battle metaphors, you can start “fighting” against them. That’s one option. Another is to realize that conflict is not the only human response to a situation and to begin to find other metaphors, such as resisting, outwitting, skipping, or subverting. This kind of consciousness can open the door to all sorts of new behavior.

What literature does, Le Guin points out, is enlarge our understanding of our own experience by enriching its container in language:

One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience. There are always areas of vast silence in any culture, and part of an artist’s job is to go into those areas and come back from the silence with something to say. It’s one reason why we read poetry, because poets can give us the words we need. When we read good poetry, we often say, ‘Yeah, that’s it. That’s how I feel.’

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

In a sentiment evocative of James Baldwin’s assertion that “an artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian [whose] role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are,” she adds:

Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want, too. If we never find our experience described in poetry or stories, we assume that our experience is insignificant.

Complement this particular portion of the splendid Talking on the Water with Le Guin’s immortal wisdom on the artist’s task, growing older, storytelling as an instrument of freedom, her feminist translation of the Tao Te Ching, and her classic unsexing of gender.

BP

Inner Preacher vs. Inner Teacher: Ursula K. Le Guin on Meaning-Making and the Artist’s Task

“That’s how an artist can best speak as a member of a moral community: clearly, yet leaving around her words that area of silence, that empty space, in which other and further truths and perceptions can form in other minds.”

Inner Preacher vs. Inner Teacher: Ursula K. Le Guin on Meaning-Making and the Artist’s Task

“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,” young Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother as she reflected on her first poem. What is true of a poem is true of any work of art: Art transforms us not with what it contains but with what it creates in us — the constellation of interpretations, revelations, and emotional truths illuminated — which, of course, is why the rise of the term “content” to describe creative output online has been one of the most corrosive developments in contemporary culture. A poem — or an essay, or a painting, or a song — is not its “content”; it transforms us precisely by what cannot be contained, by what is received and interpreted.

That’s what Ursula K. Le Guin explores in a magnificent piece titled “Teasing Myself Out of Thought,” originally given as a talk at Oregon’s Blue River Gathering and later adapted into an essay included in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016, with a Journal of a Writer’s Week (public library) — the endlessly rewarding volume that gave us Le Guin on the operating instructions for life.

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Reflecting on the framing questions her hosts had posed for the talk — “Where is a writer to find strength and hope in this world? What is a writer’s calling in this time and place? What work will make a difference? And how might we create a community of purpose?” — Le Guin writes:

I’m embarrassed because I come out with the same response to each question. Where am I to find strength and hope in this world? In my work, in trying to write well. What’s a writer’s calling, now or at any time? To write, to try to write well. What work will make a difference? Well-made work, honest work, writing well written. And how might we create a community of purpose? I can’t say. If our community of purpose as writers doesn’t lie in our shared interest in and commitment to writing as well as we can, then it must lie in something outside our work — a goal or end, a message, an effect, which may be most desirable, but which makes the writing merely a means to an end that lies outside the work, the vehicle of a message. And this is not what writing is to me. It is not what makes me a writer.

Le Guin notes that since our school days, we’ve been taught that writing is a means to a practical end — the end of transmitting a message — which much writing indeed is, from memos to love letters to tweets. And yet, she argues, a work of art — be it written or otherwise — bequeaths a gift of meaning beyond messaging:

The kids ask me, “When you write a story, do you decide on the message first or do you begin with the story and put the message in it?”

No, I say, I don’t. I don’t do messages. I write stories and poems. That’s all. What the story or the poem means to you — its “message” to you — may be entirely different from what it means to me.

The kids are often disappointed, even shocked. I think they see me as irresponsible. I know their teachers do.

They may be right. Maybe all writing, even literature, is not an end in itself but a means to an end other than itself. But I couldn’t write stories or poetry if I thought the true and central value of my work was in a message it carried, or in providing information or reassurance, offering wisdom, giving hope. Vast and noble as these goals are, they would decisively limit the scope of the work; they would interfere with its natural growth and cut it off from the mystery which is the deepest source of the vitality of art.

A poem or story consciously written to address a problem or bring about a specific result, no matter how powerful or beneficent, has abdicated its first duty and privilege, its responsibility to itself. Its primary job is simply to find the words that give it its right, true shape. That shape is its beauty and its truth.

It is precisely in the lacuna between message and meaning that art is co-created by artist and audience, by writer and reader. This, of course, is what Susan Sontag had in mind when she presciently admonished, half a century ago, against what we stand to lose when we treat cultural material as “content.” Le Guin illustrates this notion with a simple, elegant analogy:

A well-made clay pot — whether it’s a terra-cotta throwaway or a Grecian urn — is nothing more and nothing less than a clay pot. In the same way, to my mind, a well-made piece of writing is simply what it is, lines of words.

As I write my lines of words, I may try to express things I think are true and important. That’s what I’m doing right now in writing this essay. But expression is not revelation… Art reveals something beyond the message. A story or poem may reveal truths to me as I write it. I don’t put them there. I find them in the story as I work.

And other readers may find other truths in it, different ones. They’re free to use the work in ways the author never intended.

Illustration by Alice and Martin Provensen from a vintage adaptation of Homer for kids

Looking to the great tragedies of ancient Greece, which continue to slake readers’ thirst for meaning millennia later and to reveal different layers of moral truth to each generation, Le Guin observes that “those works were written out of that mystery, the deep waters, the wellspring of art.” With an eye to Keats’s notion of “negative capability” and to the wisdom on Lao Tzu (whose Tao Te Ching Le Guin has amplified in an exquisite translation), she writes:

A poem of the right shape will hold a thousand truths. But it doesn’t say any of them.

Always the artisan of nuance, Le Guin is careful to point out that she isn’t advocating for the “Art for Art’s sake” trope, which she considers flawed in its implication that art is solipsistic and without any responsibility to its audience. She writes:

Art does change people’s minds and hearts. And an artist is a member of a community: the people who may see, hear, read her work. My first responsibility is to my craft, but if what I write may affect other people, obviously I have a responsibility to them too. Even if I don’t have a clear idea of what the meaning of my story is and only begin to glimpse it as I write — still, I can’t pretend it isn’t there.

This sidewise glimpse of truth, Le Guin suggests, is far more effective than the blunt badgering of preaching. Of course, Emily Dickinson knew this when she famously exhorted her reader to “tell all the truth but tell it slant,” and astrophysicist and novelist Janna Levin knew this a century and a half later, when she wrote of truth obliquely illuminated in her stunning novel about Alan Turing, Kurt Gödel, and the legacy of the Vienna Circle: “Maybe truth is just like that.

You can see it, but only out of the corner of your eye.” Le Guin considers the moral reason for letting the reader glimpse the truth out of the corner of her own eye:

What my reader gets out of my pot is what she needs, and she knows her needs better than I do. My only wisdom is knowing how to make pots. Who am I to preach?

No matter how humble the spirit it’s offered in, a sermon is an act of aggression.

Drawing an elegant contrast between the Inner Preacher and the Inner Teacher — a contrast of excruciating necessity in our golden age of self-righteousness aggressively delivered — Le Guin adds:

“The great Way is very simple; merely forgo opinion,” says the Taoist, and I know it’s true — but there’s a preacher in me who just longs to cram my lovely pot with my opinions, my beliefs, with Truths. And if my subject’s a morally loaded one, such as Man’s relationship to Nature — well, that Inner Preacher’s just itching to set people straight and tell them how to think and what to do, yes, Lord, amen!

I have more trust in my Inner Teacher. She is subtle and humble because she hopes to be understood. She contains contradictory opinions without getting indigestion. She can mediate between the arrogant artist self who mutters, “I don’t give a damn if you don’t understand me,” and the preacher self who shouts, “Now hear this!” She doesn’t declare truth, but offers it. She takes a Grecian urn and says, “Look closely at this, study it, for study will reward you; and I can tell you some of the things that other people have found in this pot, some of the goodies you too may find in it.”

And yet, Le Guin notes, even the Inner Teacher isn’t to be put in charge of meaning — for, “after all, she’s the one who taught the kids to expect a message.” She considers instead the ultimate job and responsibility of the artist:

My job is to keep the meaning completely embodied in the work itself, and therefore alive and capable of change. I think that’s how an artist can best speak as a member of a moral community: clearly, yet leaving around her words that area of silence, that empty space, in which other and further truths and perceptions can form in other minds.

Complement this fragment of Le Guin’s altogether glorious Words Are My Matter with Wassily Kandinsky on the three responsibilities of the artist and James Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society, then revisit Le Guin on being a “man,” the sacredness of public libraries, imaginative storytelling as a force of freedom, what beauty really means, where good ideas come from, and writing as falling in love.

BP

Beloved Artist Agnes Martin on Our Greatest Obstacle to Happiness and How to Transcend It

“No-one knows what your life or life itself should be because it is in the process of being created. Life moves according to a growing consciousness of life and is completely unpredictable.”

Beloved Artist Agnes Martin on Our Greatest Obstacle to Happiness and How to Transcend It

Perhaps the greatest paradox of human life is that although happiness is the most universal of our longings, it is unobtainable by striving. Every seeming end we seek — love, money, purpose, the perfect cappuccino — we seek as a means to happiness, and yet happiness defies the usual laws of effort and achievement: The more ferociously we try to attain it, the more it eludes us.

How to break out of this paradox and transcend our self-imposed limitations in the pursuit of happiness is what artist Agnes Martin (March 22, 1912–December 16, 2004) examines in a set of notes prepared for a 1979 lecture at the University of New Mexico, Santa Fe, included in Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances (public library) — the wonderful monograph that gave us Martin on inspiration, interruptions, and the ideal atmosphere for creative work.

Agnes Martin at her studio in New Mexico, 1953 (Photograph: Mildred Tolbert)
Agnes Martin at her studio in New Mexico, 1953 (Photograph: Mildred Tolbert)

Martin was deeply influenced by the Zen teachings of D.T. Suzuki. Reminiscent of the Chinese philosophy of wu-wei — roughly translated as “trying not to try” — Martin’s ideas are formulated in a Zen-like style of profound simplicity evocative the Tao Te Ching, and speak to the difficult art of holding life with unattached awareness. She writes under the heading “The Current of the River of Life Moves Us”:

What we really want to do is serve happiness.
We want everyone to be happy, never unhappy even for a moment.
We want the animals to be happy. The happiness of every living thing is what we want.
We want it very much but we cannot bring it about.
We cannot make even one individual happy.
It seems that this thing that we want most of all is out of our reach.
But we were born to serve happiness and we do serve it.
The confusion is due to our lack of awareness of real happiness. Happiness is pervasive.
It is everywhere… When we are unhappy it is because something is covering our minds and we are not able to be aware of happiness. When the difficulty is past we find happiness again.
It is not that happiness is all around us. That is not it at all. It is not this or that or in this or that.
It is an abstract thing.
Happiness is unattached. Always the same. It does not appear and disappear. It is not sometimes more and sometimes less. It is our awareness of happiness that goes up and down.
Happiness is our real condition.
It is reality.
It is life.
In this life, life is represented by beauty and happiness.
If you are completely unaware of them you are not alive.
The times when you are not aware of beauty and happiness you are not alive.

[…]

By awareness of life we are inspired to live.
Life is consciousness of life itself.
The measure of your life is the amount of beauty and happiness of which you are aware.

Agnes Martin, Summer 1964

Martin considers the artist’s task as a midwife of awareness:

The life of an artist is a very good opportunity for life.
When we realize that we can see life we gradually give up the things that stand in the way of our complete awareness.
As we paint we move along step by step. We realize that we are guided in our work by awareness of life.
We are guided to greater expression of awareness and devotion to life.
We recognize the great exultation with life of great artists like Beethoven and we realize that all great artists praise and exult life.

Surely, a cynic might dismiss such a perspective as a function of privilege. But Martin had a hard and unusual life, working an astonishing array of odd jobs before becoming an artist. Her ideas spring from a place of deep self-reflection and are heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy. Addressing her audience of young aspiring artists, 67-year-old Martin offers her most direct, life-tested advice:

You must say to yourself: “How can I best step into this state of mind and devote myself to the expression of life.”
You must not be led astray into the illustration of ideas because that is not art work. It is ineffective even though it is often accepted for a short time. it does not contribute to happiness and it is finally discarded.
The art work in the Metropolitan Museum or the British Museum does not illustrate ideas.
The great and fatal pitfall in the art field and in life is dependence on the intellect rather than inspiration.
Dependence on intellect means a consideration of observed facts and deductions from observation as a guide in life.
Dependence on inspiration means dependence on consciousness, a growing consciousness that develops from awareness of beauty and happiness.
To live and work by inspiration you have to stop thinking.
You have to hold your mind still in order to hear inspiration clearly.

Agnes Martin, With My Back to the World, 1997
Agnes Martin, With My Back to the World, 1997

In a sentiment of discomfiting pertinence today, she points to one such major realm of conditioned ideas:

The political world is a structure conceived and agreed to by us but it is not a reality.
You have been conditioned to believe that this political world is in fact real.
With this conception it is believed that we have come into ownership of the world and that we are responsible for creating it. And with this concept we have placed ourselves in a condition of perpetual responsibility and reform.
But since we are not creating the world, since it was created before us and we are merely in it, and since we do not own it, our whole political concept is false.

Turning once again to how our forceful striving stands in the way of attaining the very things we strive for, Martin considers the life-expanding alternative:

The world evolves due to changes that take place in individuals. By individuals I mean all living things.
The world evolves due to a growing awareness in the lives of all things and is expressed in their actions.
The actions of all things are guided by a growing awareness of life. We call it inspiration.
Living by inspiration is living. Living by intellect — by comparisons, calculations, schemes, concepts, ideas — is all a structure of pride in which there is not beauty or happiness — no life.

[…]

Where pride walks nothing of life remains. It is the supreme destroyer of life. Pride leaves nothing in its path. It is death in life.

Echoing Maya Angelou’s unforgettable assertion that “life loves the liver of it,” Martin crystallizes her central point:

If you want life on your side or to be on the side of life against death you must surrender completely to life.

A century after Nietzsche proclaimed that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Martin counsels:

Hold fast to your life, to beauty and happiness and inspiration, and to obedience to inspiration. Do not imitate others or seek advice anywhere except from your own mind. No-one can help you. No-one knows what your life should be. No-one knows what your life or life itself should be because it is in the process of being created.
Life moves according to a growing consciousness of life and is completely unpredictable.
If you live according to human knowledge, according to precept, values and standards, you live in the past.
If you live entirely in the past you will not know beauty or happiness and you will not in fact live.
You must believe in life. Believe that you can know the truth about life.

[…]

The current of the river of life moves us. Awareness of life, beauty and happiness is the current of the river.
With great awareness we move rapidly. With no awareness we do not move.

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly fantastic Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances with Hermann Hesse on how to live with greater awareness, Søren Kierkegaard on our greatest source of unhappiness, and Alan Watts on happiness and how to live with presence, then revisit this rare vintage conversation with the reclusive Martin about art, life, and happiness.

BP

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