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Theodore Roosevelt on the Cowardice of Cynicism and the Courage to Create Rather Than Tear Down

“The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twister pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt.”

Theodore Roosevelt on the Cowardice of Cynicism and the Courage to Create Rather Than Tear Down

“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic,” Maya Angelou wrote in contemplating courage in the face of evil, “because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.”

How to prevent that cultural tragedy, which poisons the heart of a just and democratic society, is what Theodore Roosevelt (October 27, 1858–January 6, 1919) examined when he took the podium at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23 of 1910 to deliver one of the most powerful, rousing, and timelessly insightful speeches ever given, originally titled “Citizenship in a Republic” and later included under the title “Duties of the Citizen” in the 1920 volume Roosevelt’s Writings (public library).

Theodore Roosevelt

A century before Caitlin Moran cautioned that “cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas,” Roosevelt admonishes against “that queer and cheap temptation” to be cynical, and writes:

The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twister pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities — all these are marks, not as the possessor would fain to think, of superiority but of weakness. They mark the men unfit to bear their part painfully in the stern strife of living, who seek, in the affection of contempt for the achievements of others, to hide from others and from themselves in their own weakness. The rôle is easy; there is none easier, save only the rôle of the man who sneers alike at both criticism and performance.

One of the tendencies I find most troubling in contemporary culture is that of mistaking cynicism for critical thinking. This confusion seeds a pernicious strain of unconstructive and lazily destructive opprobrium. Amid this epidemic of self-appointed critics, it becomes harder and harder to remember just how right Bertrand Russell was when he asserted nearly a century ago that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.”

With an eye to those lazy critics — the dead weight of society — Roosevelt offers:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat… The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be a cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder.

The entire twenty-seven-page speech, found in Roosevelt’s Writings and on par with JFK’s superb speech on the artist’s role in society, is a masterpiece of thought and feeling, replete with insight into what it means to be a good citizen, a good leader, and a complete human being. Complement this particular fragment with Leonard Bernstein on the countercultural courage of resisting cynicism, Goethe on the only criticism worth voicing, and philosopher Daniel Dennett on how to criticize with kindness, then revisit Eleanor Roosevelt on how uncynical personal conviction powers social change.

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J.D. McClatchy on the Contrast and Complementarity of Desire and Love

“Love is the quality of attention we pay to things.”

J.D. McClatchy on the Contrast and Complementarity of Desire and Love

We are creatures of such staggering psychoemotional complexity that we are often opaque to ourselves, purblind to the constellation of our own thoughts, our own feelings, our chaotic and often contradictory desires — nowhere more so than in the realm of the heart. “The alternations between love and its denial,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote in contemplating the difficulty of knowing ourselves, “constitute the most essential and ubiquitous structural feature of the human heart.”

Perhaps the most disorienting aspect of that interior opacity is that of distinguishing between love and desire, both electrifying in their own right and interdependent in many ways, but throughly distinct species of being. The contrast and complementarity between the two is what the late, great poet and literary polymath J.D. McClatchy (August 12, 1945–April 10, 2018) explores in the preface to Love Speaks Its Name (public library) — his lovely 2001 anthology of LGBT love poems.

J.D. McClatchy (Photograph: Geoff Spear)

With an eye to the kaleidoscopic intoxication of desire and its contradistinction to love, McClatchy writes:

A desire can be a vague wish, a sharp craving, a steadfast longing, a helpless obsession. It can signal an absence or a presence, a need or a commitment, an ideal or an impossibility. The root of the word “desire” links it to consider and to terms of investigation and augury, thereby reminding us that desire is often less what we feel than what we think about what we feel. And the still deeper root of the word links it to star and shine, as if our desires, and bright centers of our being, were also like the fixed fates in the heavens, determining the course of our lives. Indeed, our mundane experience of desire often coincides with this sense of something beyond our control, of something confusing, something driving us beyond the bounds of habit or reason. It is the heart of our hearts, the very stuff of the self. Desire explodes past borders of time or law. It drifts through veils of propriety. It cannot be confined by social expectations or strictures.

Love is something else again. As mysterious as are the ways of desire, and as disconcerting its effects, love is desire raised to a higher power. It can be as consuming as desire, but it lasts longer. Love is the quality of attention we pay to things. Love is both the shrine and the idol. Love is what we make of other people, and what they make of us. It can be as dispassionate as a Zen monk’s, or as wasting as the Romantic hero’s.

In a sentiment that calls to mind physicist Richard Feynman’s extraordinary love letter to his young wife, penned after her untimely death, McClatchy adds:

Love has nothing to do with behavior or circumstance. Love doesn’t require sexual expression, or even a meeting, just as it continues, often stronger, after the beloved’s death.

[…]

Anxiety is sewn into the lining of euphoria. What makes the beloved so dear, what makes love so precious, is the realization that it may — no, in the end, it will — end…. Love’s illusions are constructed in order to be undermined. Vulnerability, not music, is the food of love. Our fears are the black backing of our silvered hopes, and are as much a part of love as are the anticipation and the fervor. And when love evaporates or ends? Perhaps the most poignant stage of love is not its tender antennae probing the new surface, and not the glistening track of its progress, but the shell into which it retreats for shelter. Neither betrayal nor death can end our love. The force of memory, and the heart’s persistent needs see to that… Poems are meant to embody and eternalize the moment. So too are our memories of a love, just as love itself, when we are in the grip of it, throws off the shackles of time and makes us — for a moment that seems forever — feel divine.

Art from Love Found — a diverse illustrated collection of classic love poems celebrating desire, longing, and devotion

Reflecting on the poems he anthologized — poems about “both desire and its higher power, and love in its tender or taunting variety”; poems composed by “men and women whose desires for love, over the centuries, have been condemned and persecuted” — McClatchy echoes Nietzsche’s insight into how we use metaphors to both conceal and reveal reality, and extols the singular power of poetry to liberate love from the confines of punitive concealment:

To hide something is to conceal it; to disguise something is to reveal it but only to those who know how and where to look. The very conventions of poetry were devised to encode experience, to make it less obvious and thereby more true. To make a metaphor, after all, is to describe something in terms of what it is not, the better to apprehend what it is.

The poems gathered in Love Speaks Its Name — timeless gems by poets as diverse as Sappho and Shakespeare, Baldwin and Bishop, Whitman and Wilde — are sectioned along the stages of love: longing, looking, loving, ecstasy, anxiety, and aftermath. Complement this tiny treasure with Love Found — an illustrated collection of classic love poems celebrating desire, longing, and devotion — and some of humanity’s most beautiful LGBT love letters, then revisit Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue on the disorientation of falling in love and Anne Sexton’s intoxicating hymn to desire, “Song for a Lady.”

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Three Balls of Wool: An Illustrated Celebration of Nonconformity and the Courage to Remake Society’s Givens

A poignant and hope-giving allegory based on the true story of a refugee family.

Three Balls of Wool: An Illustrated Celebration of Nonconformity and the Courage to Remake Society’s Givens

It may be an elemental property of human nature to fantasize about utopias — a fantasy all the more alluring the more dystopian one’s actual society is. But the inescapable fallacy of the fantasy is that while a utopia promises universal flourishing for everyone, not everyone has the same criteria for flourishing. Homogeneity, as Zadie Smith observed in her superb essay on optimism and despair, is no guarantor of a just and equitable society. We all dream different utopias — something Margaret Mead and James Baldwin tussled with in their fantastic forgotten conversation about the problematic metaphor of the melting pot. An ideal society is not one that seeks to level the differences into a flat universality but one that welcomes them into a glorious topography of diverse human flourishing.

That is what Portuguese writer Henriqueta Cristina and Brazilian artist Yara Kono explore in Three Balls of Wool (Can Change The World) (public library) — an unusual and poignant picture-book about the meaning of freedom and human dignity, published in partnership with Amnesty International.

The story, reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s lovely vintage semiotic children’s books on humanitarian subjects, is told through the perspective of an eight-year-old girl and her refugee family, exiled from their home country under threats of imprisonment and a sense of political gloom, which the young girl can’t quite understand, though she intuits their gravity through the deep lines furrowing her parents’ foreheads.

The family arrives in a new country that at first shines with the promise of a better life, clean and orderly. “Here there are no poor people and all the children go to school,” the girl’s mother tells her. But soon the seeming utopia unravels into a tyranny of uniformity. At school, all the children wear sweaters in one of the three permitted colors — solid gray, solid green, or solid orange — and all the buildings look like “a bunch of gray shoeboxes staked one on top of the other.”

One day, the mother launches a quiet rebellion against the tyranny of homogeneity and conformity — an embodiment of artist Ben Shahn’s insistence that “without the nonconformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay.” It starts with a grey sweater she unravels into a ball of yarn, then an orange one, then a green one. Out of these three balls of wool, she begins knitting sweaters of all stripes and patterns, remixing the solid givens into previously unimagined possibilities.

Soon, the little girl and her brothers are clad in countercultural sweaters that become the awe of the neighborhood.

People begin gathering at the local park each Sunday, unraveling their old solid sweaters and knitting variegated new ones, transfiguring the same three colors of yarn into every imaginable combination of shape and pattern — a testament to Kierkegaard’s assertion that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”

By springtime, the entire city is an explosion of combinatorial color.

The story doesn’t reveal what country the refugees left, nor what country they arrived in, but through the semiotic description of their new home I sense familiar echoes of my own childhood in Communist Bulgaria. The afterword confirms my intuition — the book is based on the true story of a Portuguese family who fled from Portugal’s right-wing dictatorship at the peak of the Cold War in the 1960s, then lived as refugees in Algeria and Romania before finally settling in Czechoslovakia. They returned home to Portugal shortly before the end of the Carnation Revolution — a peaceful uprising that began on April 25, 1974 and ended the half-century dictatorship. “Today, Portugal has a democratically elected government and every child goes to school,” Cristina writes in the closing of the afterword.

Printed on the last spread of the book is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, before Portugal was a member. Its first article reads:

All human beings are born free and equal in rights. Endowed with reason and conscience, we should act towards one another in a spirit of kindness and community.

Its thirtieth and final article reads:

This declaration does not give any government, group, or person the right to infringe upon the freedoms of any other.

Three Balls of Wool, which is absolutely lovely both as a picture-book and as a symbolic cultural message, comes from Enchanted Lion Books — the Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse that has brought us treasures like Cry, Heart, But Never Break, The Lion and the Bird, The Paper-Flower Tree, and Bertolt. Complement it with Albert Camus on what it really means to be a rebel and Ben Shahn on nonconformity and the creative spirit.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Hymn to Time”

An ode to the eternal “let there be” between death and chance.

Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Hymn to Time”

“The moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity,” Kierkegaard wrote in contemplating the paradoxical nature of time half a century before Einstein forever changed our understanding of it. As relativity saturated the cultural atmosphere, Virginia Woolf was tussling and taffying with time’s confounding elasticity, the psychology of which scientists have since dissected. We are beings of time and in time — something Jorge Luis Borges spoke to beautifully in his classic 1946 meditation on time: “Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

That riverine dimension of being is what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) explores with spare words and immense splendor of sentiment in “Hymn to Time” from her final poetry collection, Late in the Day (public library) — a poem embodying her conviction that “science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside, [and] both celebrate what they describe.”

In this recording created as a warmup for our second annual Universe in Verse, astrophysicist Janna Levin — who has written beautifully about the nature of time herself — brings Le Guin’s poem to life in thirty-five transcendent seconds:

HYMN TO TIME
by Ursula K. Le Guin

Time says “Let there be”
every moment and instantly
there is space and the radiance
of each bright galaxy.

And eyes beholding radiance.
And the gnats’ flickering dance.
And the seas’ expanse.
And death, and chance.

Time makes room
for going and coming home
and in time’s womb
begins all ending.

Time is being and being
time, it is all one thing,
the shining, the seeing,
the dark abounding.

Complement with Hannah Arendt on space, time, and our thinking ego, then revisit Le Guin’s feminist translation of the timeless Tao Te Ching and Levin’s splendid reading of “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich from the inaugural edition of The Universe in Verse.

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