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The Power of Antagonistic Cooperation: Albert Murray on Heroism and How Storytelling Redeems Our Broken Cultural Mythology

“It is literature, in the primordial sense, which establishes the context for social and political action in the first place.”

The Power of Antagonistic Cooperation: Albert Murray on Heroism and How Storytelling Redeems Our Broken Cultural Mythology

“A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” James Baldwin wrote in 1962 as he considered the creative process and the artist’s responsibility in society. “Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Iris Murdoch insisted a decade later in celebrating literature as a vehicle of truth and art as a force of resistance.

That singular power of literary art to cast a clarifying light on society’s most perilous breaking points is what the novelist, essayist, biographer, and jazz scholar Albert Murray (May 12, 1916–August 18, 2013) explores in a portion of his superb 1973 book The Hero and the Blues (public library), which I discovered through a passing mention in theoretical cosmologist and saxophonist Stephon Alexander’s marvelous The Jazz of Physics.

Albert Murray

Having lived through two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the cataclysmic dawn of the Civil Rights movement, Murray writes:

In truth, it is literature, in the primordial sense, which establishes the context for social and political action in the first place. The writer who creates stories or narrates incidents which embody the essential nature of human existence in his time not only describes the circumstances of human actuality and the emotional texture of personal experience, but also suggests commitments and endeavors which he assumes will contribute most to man’s immediate welfare as well as to his ultimate fulfillment as a human being.

It is the writer as artist, not the social or political engineer or even the philosopher, who first comes to realize when the time is out of joint. It is he who determines the extent and gravity of the current human predicament, who in effect discovers and describes the hidden elements of destruction, sounds the alarm, and even (in the process of defining “the villain”) designates the targets. It is the storyteller working on his own terms as mythmaker (and by implication, as value maker), who defines the conflict, identifies the hero (which is to say the good man — perhaps better, the adequate man), and decides the outcome; and in doing so he not only evokes the image of possibility, but also prefigures the contingencies of a happily balanced humanity and of the Great Good Place.

Illustration from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

To examine the mechanics and ideals of cultural mythmaking is to inevitably consider what makes a hero. Half a century after Joseph Campbell outlined his classic eleven stages of the hero’s journey, Murray locates the heart of heroism in what he terms antagonistic cooperation — the necessary tension between trial and triumph as the outside world antagonizes the hero with adversity that in turn anneals the hero’s character and cultivates in him or her the inner strength necessary for surmounting the trial. In consonance with Nietzsche’s insistence that a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, Murray writes:

The image of the sword being forged is inseparable from the dynamics of antagonistic cooperation, a concept which is indispensable to any fundamental definition of heroic action, in fiction or otherwise. The fire in the forging process, like the dragon which the hero must always encounter, is of its very nature antagonistic, but it is also cooperative at the same time. For all its violence, it does not destroy the metal which becomes the sword. It functions precisely to strengthen and prepare it to hold its battle edge, even as the all but withering firedrake prepares the questing hero for subsequent trials and adventures. The function of the hammer and the anvil is to beat the sword into shape even as the most vicious challengers no less than the most cooperatively rugged sparring mates jab, clinch, and punch potential prize-fighters into championship condition.

Illustration from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

A century after Nietzsche defined heroism as the willingness “to face simultaneously one’s greatest suffering and one’s highest hope,” Murray adds:

Heroism, which like the sword is nothing if not steadfast, is measured in terms of the stress and strain it can endure and the magnitude and complexity of the obstacles it overcomes. Thus difficulties and vicissitudes which beset the potential hero on all sides not only threaten his existence and jeopardize his prospects; they also, by bringing out the best in him, serve his purpose. They make it possible for him to make something of himself. Such is the nature of every confrontation in the context of heroic action.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Viktor Frankl’s impassioned conviction that idealism is our best realism, Murray makes and unmakes an essential disclaimer:

Such a conception of heroism is romantic, to be sure, but after all, given the range of possibilities in human nature and conduct, so is the notion of the nobility of man. And so inevitably, whether obvious or not, are the fundamental assumptions underlying every character, situation, gesture, and story line in literature. For without the completely romantic presuppositions behind such elemental values as honor, pride, love, freedom, integrity, human fulfillment, and the like, there can be no truly meaningful definition either of tragedy or of comedy. Nor without such idealistic preconceptions can there be anything to be realistic about, to protest about, or even to be cynical about.

One of Salvador Dalí’s rare illustrations for Don Quixote

A century and a half after Emerson pioneered the American ideal of self-reliance as fundamental to a healthy society, Murray writes:

Heroism, which is, among other things, another word for self-reliance, is not only the indispensable prerequisite for productive citizenship in an open society; it is also that without which no individual or community can remain free. Moreover, as no one interested in either the objectives of democratic institutions or the image of democratic man can ever afford to forget, the concept of free enterprise has as much to do with adventurous speculations and improvisations in general as with the swashbuckling economics of, say, the Robber Barons.

In a passage of striking timeliness amid our present cultural drama, Murray returns to the notion of antagonistic cooperation as a centerpiece of heroism, in literature and life:

The writer who deals with the experience of oppression in terms of the dynamics of antagonistic cooperation works in a context which includes the whole range of human motivation and possibility. Not only does such a writer regard anti-black racism, for instance, as an American-born dragon which should be destroyed, but he also regards it as something which, no matter how devastatingly sinister, can and will be destroyed because its very existence generates both the necessity and the possibility of heroic deliverance.

Complement this particular portion of the altogether fascinating The Hero and the Blues with Walter Lippmann’s formulation of what makes a hero in his stunning tribute to Amelia Earhart, then revisit John Steinbeck on heroism and human nature.

BP

The Difficult Balance of Intimacy and Independence: Beloved Philosopher and Poet Kahlil Gibran on the Secret to a Loving and Lasting Relationship

“Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.”

The Difficult Balance of Intimacy and Independence: Beloved Philosopher and Poet Kahlil Gibran on the Secret to a Loving and Lasting Relationship

“What’s the use of falling in love if you both remain inertly as-you-were?” Mary McCarthy asked her friend Hannah Arendt in their correspondence about love. The question resonates because it speaks to a central necessity of love — at its truest and most potent, love invariably does change us, deconditioning our painful pathologies and elevating us toward our highest human potential. It allows us, as Barack Obama so eloquently wrote in his reflections on what his mother taught him about love, “to break across our solitude, and then, if we’re lucky, [be] finally transformed into something firmer.”

But in the romantic ideal upon which our modern mythos of love is built, the solidity of that togetherness is taken to such an extreme as to render love fragile. When lovers are expected to fuse together so closely and completely, mutuality mutates into a paralyzing codependence — a calcified and rigid firmness that becomes brittle to the possibility of growth. In the most nourishing kind of love, the communion of togetherness coexists with an integrity of individuality, the two aspects always in dynamic and fluid dialogue. The philosopher Martin Heidegger captured this beautifully in his love letters to Hannah Arendt: “Why is love rich beyond all other possible human experiences and a sweet burden to those seized in its grasp? Because we become what we love and yet remain ourselves.”

This difficult balance of intimacy and independence is what the great Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) explores with uncommon insight and poetic precision in a passage from his 1923 masterwork The Prophet (public library).

Illustration by Julie Paschkis from Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown

By way of advice on the secret to a loving and lasting marriage, Gibran offers:

Let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly enchanting The Prophet with Virginia Woolf on what makes love last, philosopher Alain Badiou on how we fall and stay in love, Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage, Mary Oliver on how differences bring couples closer together, and Joseph Campbell on the single most important factor in sustaining romantic relationships, then revisit Gibran on the seeming self vs. the authentic self and the absurdity of our self-righteousness.

BP

What Makes a Hero and the True Measure of the Human Spirit: Walter Lippmann’s Stunning Tribute to Amelia Earhart

“The world is a better place to live in because it contains human beings who will give up ease and security and stake their own lives in order to do what they themselves think worth doing.”

What Makes a Hero and the True Measure of the Human Spirit: Walter Lippmann’s Stunning Tribute to Amelia Earhart

What is it that gives the human spirit wings to soar above the trenches of tradition, above the flatlands of convention, above even the highest peaks of the probable into ever-greater altitudes of possibility?

That’s what the great journalist and essayist Walter Lippmann (September 23, 1889–December 14, 1974) explores in a beautiful piece published in his New York Herald Tribune column, Today and Tomorrow, on July 8, 1937 — six days after Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean, leaving behind a decades-long comet tail of courage that has since inspired generations.

Lippmann’s requiem, eventually included in The Essential Lippmann: A Political Philosophy for Liberal Democracy (public library), stands as a counterpart, perhaps even a precondition, to Alexander Flexner’s wonderful defense of “the usefulness of useless knowledge.” What Lippmann crafts is a beautiful case for the usefulness of useless curiosity and courage, through the sieve of which all truly useful knowledge and human achievement must pass.

Walter Lippmann
Walter Lippmann

Half a century before Joseph Campbell conceived of his eleven stages of the hero’s journey and before pioneering biochemist lamented how how the excessive pragmatization of science is sapping its courage and poetic curiosity, Lippmann considers the heroism of unbridled curiosity:

I cannot quite remember whether Miss Earhart undertook her flight with some practical purpose in mind, say, to demonstrate something or other about aviation which will make it a little easier for commercial passengers to move more quickly around the world. There are those who seem to think that an enterprise like hers must have some such justification, that without it there was no good reason for taking such grave risks.

But in truth Miss Earhart needs no such justification. The world is a better place to live in because it contains human beings who will give up ease and security and stake their own lives in order to do what they themselves think worth doing. They help to offset the much larger numbers who are ready to sacrifice the ease and the security and the very lives of others in order to do what they want done.

Writing on the cusp of World War II, Lippmann admonishes against mistaking force for fortitude and argues that “synthetic heroes” and “men in bulletproof vests surrounded by squads of armed guards” are the measure not of humanity’s strength but of our weakness. Heroes like Amelia Earhart offer a different, truer conception of courage. He writes:

It is somehow reassuring to think that there are also men and women who take the risks themselves, who pit themselves not against their fellow beings but against the immensity and the violence of the natural world, who are brave without cruelty to others and impassioned with an idea that dignifies all who contemplate it.

Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart

Lippmann ends with a sentiment that transcends Earhart’s particular feat and extends to triumphs of the human spirit as diverse as the invention of the world’s first computer, the first polar expeditions, and the century-long quest to hear the sound of spacetime:

The best things of mankind are as useless as Amelia Earhart’s adventure. They are the things that are undertaken not for some definite, measurable result, but because someone, not counting the costs or calculating the consequences, is moved by curiosity, the love of excellence, a point of honor, the compulsion to invent or to make or to understand. In such persons mankind overcomes the inertia which would keep it earthbound forever in its habitual ways. They have in them the free and useless energy with which alone men surpass themselves.

Such energy cannot be planned and managed and made purposeful, or weighted by the standards of utility or judged by its social consequences. It is wild and it is free. But all the heroes, the saints, the seers, the explorers and the creators partake of it. They do not know what they discover. They do not know where their impulse is taking them. They can give no account in advance of where they are going or explain completely where they have been. They have been possessed for a time with an extraordinary passion which is unintelligible in ordinary terms.

No preconceived theory fits them. No material purpose actuates them. They do the useless, brave, noble, the divinely foolish and the very wisest things that are done by man. And what they prove to themselves and to others is that man is no mere creature of his habits, no mere automaton in his routine, no mere cog in the collective machine, but that in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lighted now and then by great winds from the sky.

All of Lippmann’s cultural observations gathered in The Essential Lippmann emanate these transcendent overtones of lyrical and lucid idealism. Complement this particular portion with this modern manifesto for nurturing tomorrow’s Amelias and Earhart herself on marriage, motivation and human nature, and sticking up for yourself.

For a contemporary embodiment of Lippmann’s “useless, brave, noble… divinely foolish… very wisest” pursuits, devour the exhilarating story of LIGO and the quest to detect gravitational waves.

Thanks, Dawn

BP

Virginia Woolf on What Makes Love Last

In praise of those intermittent “moments of vision” that electrify love.

Virginia Woolf on What Makes Love Last

“Real love,” wrote philosopher Alain Badiou in contemplating how we fall and stay in love, “is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.” But what, exactly, adrenalizes that triumph, particularly against the tidal tedium of time that washes over any long-term relationship?

That’s what Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) explores in a beautiful short passage from her diary, which I rediscovered in W.H. Auden’s commonplace book and which originally appeared in A Writer’s Diary (public library) — that indispensable portal into one of humanity’s finest, sharpest minds, and the source of Woolf’s abiding wisdom on the elasticity of time, the paradox of the soul, and the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

In an entry from the early fall of 1926, fourteen years into her unconventional marriage to Leonard, 44-year-old Woolf writes under the heading The married relation:

Arnold Bennett says that the horror of marriage lies in its “dailiness.” All acuteness of a relationship is rubbed away by this. The truth is more like this: life — say 4 days out of 7 — becomes automatic; but on the 5th day a bead of sensation (between husband and wife) forms which is all the fuller and more sensitive because of the automatic customary unconscious days on either side. That is to say the year is marked by moments of great intensity. Hardy’s “moments of vision.” How can a relationship endure for any length of time except under these conditions?

Complement this particular portion of the wholly magnificent A Writer’s Diary with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage and Joseph Campbell on the single most important thing in sustaining romantic relationships, then revisit Woolf on writing and consciousness, why the most fertile mind is the androgynous mind, the epiphany that revealed to her what it means to be an artist, and this wonderful illustrated biography of the beloved writer.

BP

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