“Cynicism about society is not the only option besides a credulous conformity to this social aeon or a credulous looking-forward to the one that is to come.”
By Maria Popova
In his timeless and increasingly timely 1972 inquiry into human nature and its capacity for destructiveness, the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm proposed the notion of humanistic radicalism — a mindset and movement that “seeks to liberate man from the chains of illusions,” one which “postulates that fundamental changes are necessary, not only in our economic and political structure but also in our values, in our concept of man’s aims, and in our personal conduct.” A few years later, in his treatise on the art of living, Fromm argued that any attempt to save our civilization from fatality must begin with liberation “in the classic, humanist sense as well as in the modern, political and social sense.” He wrote: “The only realistic aim is total liberation, a goal that may well be called radical (or revolutionary) humanism.”
But this systematic movement toward humanism as a form of insurgency and an instrument of cultural, social, and political liberation began a decade earlier with the Austrian-American sociologist Peter L. Berger (b. March 17, 1929) in his 1963 classic Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective (public library).
Berger makes the case for what he terms “sociological humanism”:
Clearly sociology by itself cannot lead to humanism, as it cannot by itself produce an adequate anthropology… But sociological understanding can be an important part of a certain sense of life that is peculiarly modern, that has its own genius of compassion and that can be the foundation of a genuine humanism. This humanism to which sociology can contribute is one that does not easily wave banners, that is suspicious of too much enthusiasm and too much certainty. It is an uneasy, uncertain, hesitant thing, aware of its own precariousness, circumspect in its moral assertions. But this does not mean that it cannot enter into passionate commitment at those points where its fundamental insights into human existence are touched upon… Before the tribunals that condemn some men to indignity because of their race or sexuality, or that condemn any man to death, this humanism becomes protest, resistance and rebellion.
But because such sociological humanism is predicated on a skeptical questioning of the status quo, its certitudes, and its hubrises, it can often be mistaken for resigned disenchantment or, worse yet, for cynicism — that sewage of the spirit. Berger weighs the crucial difference between cynicism and the healthy skepticism of sociological humanism:
Sociological understanding leads to a considerable measure of disenchantment. The disenchanted man is a poor risk for both conservative and revolutionary movements; for the former because he does not possess the requisite amount of credulity in the ideologies of the status quo, for the latter because he will be skeptical about the Utopian myths that invariably form the nurture of revolutionaries. Such unemployability in the cadres of either present or future regimes need not, however, leave the disenchanted man in the posture of alienated cynicism. It may do that, to be sure. And we find just such postures among some younger sociologists in this country, who find themselves driven to radical diagnoses of society without finding in themselves the capacity for radical political commitments. This leaves them with no place to go except to a sort of masochistic cult of debunkers who reassure each other that things could not possibly be worse.
This cynical stance is in itself naive and often enough grounded more in a lack of historical perspective than anything else. Cynicism about society is not the only option besides a credulous conformity to this social aeon or a credulous looking-forward to the one that is to come.
Another option is what we regard as the most plausible one to result from sociological understanding, one that can combine compassion, limited commitment and a sense of the comic in man’s social carnival. This will lead to a posture vis-à-vis society based on a perception of the latter as essentially a comedy, in which men parade up and down with their gaudy costumes, change hats and titles, hit each other with the sticks they have or the ones they can persuade their fellow actors to believe in. Such a comic perspective does not overlook the fact that nonexistent sticks can draw real blood, but it will not from this fact fall into the fallacy of mistaking the Potemkin village for the City of God. If one views society as a comedy, one will not hesitate to cheat, especially if by cheating one can alleviate a little pain here or make life a little brighter there. One will refuse to take seriously the rules of the game, except insofar as these rules protect real human beings and foster real human values. Sociological Machiavellianism is thus the very opposite of cynical opportunism. It is the way in which freedom can realize itself in social action.
It was Machiavelli, after all, who wrote half a millennium ago that “there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” And today, we need nothing less than a new order.
“Maturity is the assimilation of the features of every ancestor.”
By Maria Popova
“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin asserted in 1960 as he contemplated freedom and how we imprison ourselves. But we can only make a broken world over if we first closely examine its parts — that is, its pasts — and take responsibility for the conditions as well as the consequences of its brokenness.
And yet, too often, we flee and burrow in the comforting certitude of our history, which is not the same as our past, no matter how false and hubristic such certitude may be. Baldwin himself touched on this a decade later in his spectacular and timely 1970 conversation with Margaret Mead about identity, race, and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, where he observed: “What we call history is perhaps a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, is happening, in time.” Without taking such responsibility we couldn’t create that new and better world, for the great drama of its creation — like that of our self-creation — is that of weaving something new and wonderful from the tattered threads of our cultural history and convention.
That difficult, necessary, transcendent will to weave is what the great Caribbean poet, playwright, essayist, and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott (b. January 23, 1930) explores in a stirring 1974 essay titled “The Muse of History,” found in his essay collection What the Twilight Says (public library).
“Not to go onwards (in verse, as in everything) means to go backwards — that is, to leave the scene,” the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva wrote on the cusp of the Russian Revolution and its attendant cultural revolution as she considered why we must intimately understand something before we can rightfully reject it. Half a century later, Walcott echoes her insight, turning a skeptical eye to the generation of West Indian writers who dismiss hastily and wholesale the complex colonial legacy of the New World. He writes:
Those who break a tradition first hold it in awe. They perversely encourage disfavour, but because their sense of the past is of a timeless, yet habitable, moment, the New World owes them more than it does those who wrestle with that past, for their veneration subtilizes an arrogance which is tougher than violent rejection. They know that by openly fighting tradition we perpetuate it … and that maturity is the assimilation of the features of every ancestor.
For those who take this stance, Walcott argues, “history is fiction, subject to a fitful muse, memory.” In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s incisive ideas about the relationship between agency and victimhood, he writes:
The further the facts, the more history petrifies into myth. Thus, as we grow older as a race, we grow aware that history is written, that it is a kind of literature without morality, that in its actuaries the ego of the race is indissoluble and that everything depends on whether we write this fiction through the memory of hero or of victim.
In the New World servitude to the muse of history has produced a literature of recrimination and despair, a literature of revenge written by the descendants of slaves or a literature of remorse written by the descendants of masters. Because this literature serves historical truth, it yellows into polemic or evaporates in pathos. The truly tough aesthetic of the New World neither explains nor forgives history. It refuses to recognize it as a creative or culpable force.
Those whom Walcott celebrates as the great poets of the New World — Neruda, Whitman, Borges — reject this model of history and instead uphold a more ennobling alternative:
Their vision of man in the New World is Adamic. In their exuberance he is still capable of enormous wonder. Yet he has paid his accounts to Greece and Rome and walks in a world without monuments and ruins. They exhort him against the fearful magnet of older civilizations… Fact evaporates into myth. This is not the jaded cynicism which sees nothing new under the sun, it is an elation which sees everything as renewed… This is the revolutionary spirit at its deepest; it recalls the spirit to arms.
And yet this potential for renewal necessarily coexists with our shared legacy of outrage, which must remain a wakeful outrage and not a somnolent trance if we are to transcend our history. Walcott writes:
Who in the New World does not have a horror of the past, whether his ancestor was torturer or victim? Who, in the depth of conscience, is not silently screaming for pardon or for revenge? The pulse of New World history is the racing pulse beat of fear, the tiring cycles of stupidity and greed.
In time the slave surrendered to amnesia. That amnesia is the true history of the New World. That is our inheritance, but to try and understand why this happened, to condemn or justify is also the method of history, and these explanations are always the same: This happened because of that, this was understandable because, and in days men were such. These recriminations exchanged, the contrition of the master replaces the vengeance of the slave.
With an eye to classics like Whitman’s Democratic Vistas and radical poets like Neruda, who made of language a vehicle for redeeming the present without denying the past, he adds:
It is not the pressure of the past which torments great poets but the weight of the present… The sense of history in poets lives rawly along their nerves… The vision, the “democratic vista,” is not metaphorical, it is a social necessity.
Contemplating the challenge and the necessity of reconciling contrasting, often conflicting, histories and heritages — something he termed in another essay “that wrestling contradiction of being white in mind and black in body, as if the flesh were coal from which the spirit like tormented smoke writhed to escape” — Walcott writes:
We are misled by new prophets of bitterness who warn us against experiences which we have never cared to have, but the mass of society has had neither the interest nor the opportunity which they chose. These preach not to the converted but to those who have never lost faith. I do not mean religious faith but reality. Fisherman and peasant know who they are and what they are and where they are, and when we show them our wounded sensibilities we are, most of us, displaying self-inflicted wounds.
I accept this archipelago of the Americas. I say to the ancestor who sold me, and to the ancestor who bought me, I have no father, I want no such father, although I can understand you, black ghost, white ghost, when you both whisper “history,” for if I attempt to forgive you both I am falling into your idea of history which justifies and explains and expiates, and it is not mine to forgive, my memory cannot summon any filial love, since your features are anonymous and erased and I have no wish and no power to pardon. You were when you acted your roles, your given, historical roles of slave seller and slave buyer, men acting as men, and also you, father in the filth-ridden gut of the slave ship, to you they were also men, acting as men, with the cruelty of men, your fellowman and tribesman not moved or hovering with hesitation about your common race any longer than my other bastard ancestor hovered with his whip, but to you, inwardly forgiven grandfathers, I, like the more honest of my race, give a strange thanks. I give the strange and bitter and yet ennobling thanks for the monumental groaning and soldering of two great worlds, like the halves of a fruit seamed by its own bitter juice, that exiled from your own Edens you have placed me in the wonder of another, and that was my inheritance and your gift.
“You are like the Great Spirit, who befriends man not only to share his life, but to add to it. My knowing you is the greatest thing in my days and nights, a miracle quite outside the natural order of things.”
By Maria Popova
Nearly a century after his death, the Lebanese-American painter, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) endures as one of humanity’s most universally beloved voices of truth and transcendence. But there would have been no Gibran as we know and love him without the philanthropist and patron of the arts Mary Elizabeth Haskell — his greatest champion, frequent collaborator, and unusual beloved.
Haskell and Gibran met on May 10, 1904, at a friend’s studio. He was twenty-one and she nearly thirty-one. Impressed with his art, Haskell soon offered to send Gibran to Paris to study painting, with a stipend of $75 a month, equivalent to about $2,000 today. He accepted. In a letter to a friend written shortly before he departed for Paris in 1908, Gibran described Haskell as “a she-angel who is ushering me toward a splendid future and paving for me the path to intellectual and financial success.” Shortly after arriving, he wrote: “The day will come when I shall be able to say, ‘I became an artist through Mary Haskell.'”
But the open hands of Haskell’s generosity branched from an equally open heart, from some larger kindness of which Gibran soon became enamored. He came to see her as more than a benefactress — a kindred spirit, a woman of uncommon tenderness, and, above all, a person willing to descend into the deepest trenches of his psyche and climb to its highest mounts in order to understand him, which he considered the greatest measure of love. It was through her generosity that he survived as an artist, and it was through her selfless love that he found himself as a man.
In one of his first letters to Haskell from Paris, Gibran captures what is perhaps the greatest gift of love, whatever its nature — the gift of being seen by the other for who one really is:
When I am unhappy, dear Mary, I read your letters. When the mist overwhelms the “I” in me, I take two or three letters out of the little box and reread them. They remind me of my true self. They make me overlook all that is not high and beautiful in life. Each and every one of us, dear Mary, must have a resting place somewhere. The resting place of my soul is a beautiful grove where my knowledge of you lives.
On Christmas Day that year, he writes:
I think of you today, beloved friend, as I think of no other living person. And as I think of you Life becomes better and higher and much more beautiful. I kiss your hand, dear Mary, and in kissing your hand I bless myself.
Over the year that followed, their relationship intensified. Haskell records the pivotal sequence of events in her journal the day before her thirty-seventh birthday in 1910:
Kahlil spent the evening. Told me he loved me and would marry me if he could, but I said my age made it out of the question.
“Mary,” he said, “whenever I try to get nearer to you in speech, to be personal at all — you fly up into remote regions and are inaccessible.” “But I take you with me,” said I. And I said I wanted to keep our friendship enduring, and feared to spoil a good friendship for a poor love-affair. This was after Kahlil had explained what he meant.
The next afternoon Kahlil was here a while and I told him yes.
But the following spring, their relationship took its single most defining and transcendent turn — the decision, absolutely radical at the time, not to get married after all but to remain each other’s most intimate partner in life. The reason for it, which Haskell articulates with remarkable poeticism in another diary entry from April of 1911, was her grandest gesture of magnanimity:
It seemed to me that it was the moment of the opening of the door between Kahlil and the world that shall love him and into whose heart he shall surely feel he is pouring his work. I think his future is not far away now!
And so I made up my mind to follow what seems to me the final finger of God — I put definitely to myself the possibility of being his wife. And though every waking hour since has been drenched with inner tears, I know I am right, and that the tears mean joy, not pain, for the future. My age is simply the barrier raised between us and the blunder of our marrying. Not my age constitutes the objection — but the fact that for Kahlil there waits a different love from that he bears me — an apocalypse of love — and that shall be his marriage. His greatest work will come out of that — his greatest happiness, his new, full life. And it is not many years distant. Toward the woman of that love, I am but a step. And though my susceptible eyes weep, I think of her with joy — and I don’t want to have Kahlil, because I know she is growing somewhere for him, and that he is growing for her.
The following day, Haskell delivered her emotionally ambivalent yet intellectually firm decision to Gibran and said to him, “My heart longs to be overpersuaded. Still I know in the end I should not be persuaded.” She reports his response in her diary:
He wept and I got him a handkerchief. But he could not speak. Near the beginning in one of my many pauses he said brokenly, “Mary, you know I cannot say things, when I am this way,” and hardly another word. The only comment he made was to love me. When it was over I opened my arms to him — but he soon had me in his, and the heart is not flesh that would not have been comforted…. When it grew late I put his right palm to my lips — and then indeed the tears came — but they drew me simply nearer to him. I kissed that wonderful hand as I have often longed to do, but as I have not before, because a mere touch on it moves him so. It answered like a heart… Again at the door I cried a little — while he wiped my eyes, saying only, “Mary — Mary — Mary.” And as he went he said as well as he could, “You’ve given me a new heart tonight.”
Upon my tears after I went to bed it was suddenly as if a great peace and light broke — and he and I were in it — so that I cried, “Thank you, God, thank you!” again and again. I was so ineffably happy. That I have given him up I realize. But it has not parted us — it has brought us even much nearer together.
“I’ve always known our relation was permanent,” Haskell would later reflect on the decision. “I wanted continuity of conscious togetherness.” This notion, arising from the enormous magnanimity of her nonpossessive love, would eventually lead Gibran to his superb and timeless advice on healthy relationships.
A month after the decision against marriage, Gibran channels precisely such a “continuity of conscious togetherness” in a letter to Haskell from New York:
Just came from the museum. O how much I want to see these beautiful things with you. We must see these things together someday. I feel so lonely when I stand alone before a great work of art. Even in Heaven one must have a beloved companion in order to enjoy it fully.
Good night, dear. I kiss your hands and your eyes.
Bedridden in June with one of his frequent bouts of illness, he writes to Haskell, who spent her summers in solitude in the mountains of the West:
Now, Mary dear, I am going to rest. I shall close my eyes and turn my face to the wall and think and think and think of you — you the mountain climber — you the life hunter.
Good night, beloved.
As the months wear on, his letters grow more and more animated by that uncommon blend of infatuation’s restless longing and the solid togetherness of an unperturbeable partnership. He writes to her on October 31, 1911:
Your last letter is a flame, a winged globe, a wave from That Island of strange music.
Do you not know what it is to burn and burn, and to know while burning, that you are freeing yourself from everything around you? Oh, there is no greater joy than the joy of Fire!
And now let me cry out with all the voices in me that I love you.
Alongside Gibran’s passionate proclamations is a calm bellowing tenderness emanating from the depths of his being, which he articulates beautifully in a letter from early January of 1912:
Now I will say goodnight, as any other time. I kiss you and then I say goodnight and then I open the door and then I go out to the streets with a full heart and a hungry soul. But I always come again to kiss you and to say goodnight and to open the door and to go out to the street with hungry soul and full heart.
With equally poetic passion, Haskell writes to Gibran the same week:
All I am ever finally impelled to say, rather than not say, to you of yourself seems resolvable into, “Kahlil, you are in my heart — you are in my heart, Kahlil.” When I look back over the years, it seems always to have been that — with changes only of depth and heat of your heart-place.
The following month, she writes:
God lends me His heart to love you with. I asked for it when I found my own was too small, and it really holds you, and leaves you room to grow.
In the spring, Haskell writes to Gibran in New York, channeling her unselfish love and her longing in parallel in a letter that could well be a poem:
What are you writing — and how does it go? And what are you thinking about — and how does it go? And what do you want to talk with me about? — and how do You go?
And why aren’t your arms six hours long to reach to Boston?
And when will You come to me in a dream and make night sweeter than night?
That October, Gibran repays the “continuity of conscious togetherness” that Haskell had always trusted would bloom between them even though, and perhaps precisely because, they chose not to marry:
The most wonderful thing, Mary, is that you and I are always walking together, hand in hand, in a strangely beautiful world, unknown to other people. We both stretch one hand to receive from Life — and Life is generous indeed.
In another letter, he captures one of the small enormities that define love:
I love to be silent with you, Mary.
A few days later, responding to Gibran’s concern that his physical illness and its attendant creative block might disappoint her, Haskell sends the most beautiful and generous assurance a person who is loved could hope for:
I don’t even want you to be a poet or painter: I want you to be whatever you are led or impelled to become.
Nothing you become will disappoint me; I have no preconception that I’d like to see you be or do. I have no desire to foresee you, only to discover you. You can’t disappoint me.
The following year, as Gibran continues to struggle, she grants him the ultimate gift of love — the equal embrace of his inner darkness and his inner light:
Your work is not only books and pictures. They are but bits of it. Your work is You, not less than you, not parts of you… These days when you “cannot work” are accomplishing it, are of it, like the days when you “can work.” There is no division. It is all one. Your living is all of it; anything less is part of it. — Your silence will be read with your writings some day, your darkness will be part of the Light.
With a sensitivity to Gibran’s growing mastery of English, she adds:
It is like the resolution of greatest dissonances in great music. You know the use of that word resolution in music, don’t you? — so deep and beautiful. — And it is like the reconciliation of life. And do you know Reconciliation used in that way? To me it is one of the profoundest and fullest of our words.
A few months later, having pushed through his creative and spiritual stagnation, Gibran attempts to put words around the immensity of his gratitude for this supreme gift of being seen, and loved, in his wholeness:
I wish I could tell you, beloved Mary, what your letters mean to me. They create a soul in my soul. I read them as messages from life. Somehow they always come when I need them most, and they always bring that element which makes us desire more days and more nights and more life. Whenever my heart is bare and quivering, I feel the terrible need of someone to tell me that there is a tomorrow for all bare and quivering hearts and you always do it, Mary.
You have the great gift of understanding, beloved Mary. You are a life-giver, Mary. You are like the Great Spirit, who befriends man not only to share his life, but to add to it. My knowing you is the greatest thing in my days and nights, a miracle quite outside the natural order of things.
I have always held, with my Madman, that those who understand us enslave something in us. It is not so with you. Your understanding of me is the most peaceful freedom I have known. And in the last two hours of your last visit you took my heart in your hand and found a black spot in it. But just as soon as you found the spot it was erased forever, and I became absolutely chainless.
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