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Simone de Beauvoir on Atheism, the Ultimate Frontier of Hope, and the Need to Move Beyond the Simplistic Divide of Optimism and Pessimism

“To fight unhappiness one must first expose it, which means that one must dispel the mystifications behind which it is hidden so that people do not have to think about it.”

Simone de Beauvoir on Atheism, the Ultimate Frontier of Hope, and the Need to Move Beyond the Simplistic Divide of Optimism and Pessimism

“Optimism is an alienated form of faith, pessimism an alienated form of despair,” the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in 1972 as he made his elegant case for rational faith in the human spirit, adding: “To have faith means to dare, to think the unthinkable, yet to act within the limits of the realistically possible.”

That selfsame year, across the Atlantic, the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (January 9, 1908–April 14, 1986) — another thinker of formidable foresight and abiding insight into the human experience — explored this osmotic relationship between optimism, pessimism, and hope in the fourth and final volume of her autobiography, All Said and Done (public library).

Simone de Beauvoir, 1952 (Photograph: Gisèle Freund)

Beauvoir, who lived through two World Wars, devoted much of her work to the notion that happiness is not only possible but our moral obligation — a notion rooted not in a rosy wishfulness but in an incisive intellect that used every tool of skepticism to probe untruth and dispel ignorance. A devout lifelong atheist, she reflected at the end of her life that while many of her philosophical ideas evolved over the decades, her atheism remained unflinching. She held a strong conviction that the dogmas of religion preclude the critical thinking and analytical reasoning necessary for philosophical inquiry and for the evolution of human thought itself — an interference particularly pronounced when it came to the question of whether one is to take an optimistic or pessimistic attitude toward life and human nature. Beauvoir writes:

Faith is often an appurtenance that is given in childhood as part of the middle-class equipment, and that is unquestionably retained together with the rest of it. If a doubt arises, it is often thrust aside for emotional reasons — a nostalgic loyalty to the past, affection for those around one, dread of the loneliness and banishment that threaten those who do not conform… Habits of mind, a system of reference and of values have been acquired, and one becomes their prisoner.

With an eye to the ultimate delusion of religion — that of personal immortality, to which the pious cling as a hedge against the terror of the void that death presents — Beauvoir adds:

Faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly. And to crown all, the believer derives a sense of great superiority from this very cowardice itself.

But out of this courageous confrontation with difficulty arises an unexpected fountain of hope — that more lucid and muscular counterpart to blind optimism. Beauvoir writes:

In what colors do I see this Godless world in which I live? Many readers tell me that what they like in my books is my delight in happiness, my love of live — my optimism. But others, particularly when they write to me about my last book, Old Age, deplore my pessimism. Both these labels are oversimplified.

[…]

My natural bent certainly does not lead me to suppose that the worst is always inevitable. Yet I am committed to looking reality in the face and speaking about it without pretense… It is just because I loathe unhappiness and because I am not given to foreseeing it that when I do come up against it I am deeply shocked or furiously indignant — I have to communicate my feelings. To fight unhappiness one must first expose it, which means that one must dispel the mystifications behind which it is hidden so that people do not have to think about it. It is because I reject lies and running away that I am accused of pessimism; but this rejection implies hope — the hope that truth may be of use. And this is a more optimistic attitude than the choice of indifference, ignorance or sham.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly invigorating All Said and Done, which also gave us Beauvoir’s reflections on how chance and choice converge to make us who we are, with Rebecca Solnit’s manifesto for hope in the dark, Helen Keller on optimism, and Jonathan Lear on radical hope, then revisit Beauvoir on art, science, freedom, and busyness and the measure of intelligence.

BP

The Story Behind Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and the Poet’s Own Stirring Reading of His Masterpiece

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The Story Behind Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and the Poet’s Own Stirring Reading of His Masterpiece

“Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire,” Adrienne Rich wrote in contemplating what poetry does. “Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock,” Denise Levertov asserted in her piercing statement on poetics. Few poems furnish such a wakeful breaking open of possibility more powerfully than “Do not go gentle into that good night” — a rapturous ode to the unassailable tenacity of the human spirit by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (October 27, 1914–November 9, 1953).

Written in 1947, Thomas’s masterpiece was published for the first time in the Italian literary journal Botteghe Oscure in 1951 and soon included in his 1952 poetry collection In Country Sleep, And Other Poems. In the fall of the following year, Thomas — a self-described “roistering, drunken and doomed poet” — drank himself into a coma while on a reading and lecture tour in America organized by the American poet and literary critic John Brinnin, who would later become his biographer of sorts. That spring, Brinnin had famously asked his assistant, Liz Reitell — who had had a three-week romance with Thomas — to lock the poet into a room in order to meet a deadline for the completion of his radio drama turned stage play Under Milk Wood.

Dylan Thomas, early 1940s

In early November of 1953, as New York suffered a burst of air pollution that exacerbated his chronic chest illness, Thomas succumbed to a round of particularly heavy drinking. When he fell ill, Reitell and her doctor attempted to manage his symptoms, but he deteriorated rapidly. At midnight on November 5, an ambulance took the comatose Thomas to St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York. His wife, Caitlin Macnamara, flew from England and spun into a drunken rage upon arriving at the hospital where the poet lay dying. After threatening to kill Brinnin, she was put into a straitjacket and committed to a private psychiatric rehab facility.

When Thomas died at noon on November 9, it fell on New Directions founder James Laughlin to identify the poet’s body at the morgue. Just a few weeks later, New Directions published The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas (public library), containing the work Thomas himself had considered most representative of his voice as a poet and, now, of his legacy — a legacy that has continued to influence generations of writers, artists, and creative mavericks: Bob Dylan changed his last name from Zimmerman in an homage to the poet, The Beatles drew his likeness onto the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Christopher Nolan made “Do not go gentle into that good night” a narrative centerpiece of his film Interstellar.

Upon receiving news of Thomas’s death, the poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote in an astonished letter to a friend:

It must be true, but I still can’t believe it — even if I felt during the brief time I knew him that he was headed that way… Thomas’s poetry is so narrow — just a straight conduit between birth & death, I suppose—with not much space for living along the way.

In another letter to her friend Marianne Moore, Bishop further crystallized Thomas’s singular genius:

I have been very saddened, as I suppose so many people have, by Dylan Thomas’s death… He had an amazing gift for a kind of naked communication that makes a lot of poetry look like translation.

The Pulitzer-winning Irish poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon writes in the 2010 edition of The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas:

Dylan Thomas is that rare thing, a poet who has it in him to allow us, particularly those of us who are coming to poetry for the first time, to believe that poetry might not only be vital in itself but also of some value to us in our day-to-day lives. It’s no accident, surely, that Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” is a poem which is read at two out of every three funerals. We respond to the sense in that poem, as in so many others, that the verse engine is so turbocharged and the fuel of such high octane that there’s a distinct likelihood of the equivalent of vertical liftoff. Dylan Thomas’s poems allow us to believe that we may be transported, and that belief is itself transporting.

“Do not go gentle into that good night” remains, indeed, Thomas’s best known and most beloved poem, as well as his most redemptive — both in its universal message and in the particular circumstances of how it came to be in the context of Thomas’s life.

By the mid-1940s, having just survived World War II, Thomas, his wife, and their newborn daughter were living in barely survivable penury. In the hope of securing a steady income, Thomas agreed to write and record a series of broadcasts for the BBC. His sonorous voice enchanted the radio public. Between 1945 and 1948, he was commissioned to make more than one hundred such broadcasts, ranging from poetry readings to literary discussions and cultural critiques — work that precipitated a surge of opportunities for Thomas and adrenalized his career as a poet.

At the height of his radio celebrity, Thomas began working on “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Perhaps because his broadcasting experience had attuned his inner ear to his outer ear and instilled in him an even keener sense of the rhythmic sonority of the spoken word, he wrote a poem tenfold more powerful when channeled through the human voice than when read in the contemplative silence of the mind’s eye.

In this rare recording, Thomas himself brings his masterpiece to life:

For more beloved writers reading their own work, see Mary Oliver reading from Blue Horses, Adrienne Rich reading “What Kind of Times Are These,” J.R.R. Tolkien singing “Sam’s Rhyme of the Troll,” Frank O’Hara reading his “Metaphysical Poem,” Susan Sontag reading her short story “Debriefing,” Elizabeth Alexander reading “Praise Song for the Day,”, Dorothy Parker reading “Inscription for the Ceiling of a Bedroom,” and Chinua Achebe reading his little-known poetry.

BP

Oliver Sacks on Evolving Our Notions of Normalcy to Include the Differently Abled

“If a tenth or a quarter of the population have some condition, it has to be accepted as a legitimate form of life.”

Oliver Sacks on Evolving Our Notions of Normalcy to Include the Differently Abled

“Color itself is a degree of darkness,” Goethe wrote in his theory of color and emotion. Although it was at bottom a misguided refutation of Newton, Goethe’s study of colors, in addition to inspiring artists and philosophers as wide-ranging as Schopenhauer, Gödel, and Kandinsky, inadvertently posed one of the most fascinating questions in neurology: What if color can, indeed, be experienced as degrees of achromatic darkness, and this mode of perception is not a disability but a difference in ability?

It fell on the irreplaceable Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015), the Gödel of neurology and the Goethe of science writing, to answer that question.

Oliver Sacks (Photograph: Nicholas Naylor-Leland)

A voracious lifelong reader, Dr. Sacks had grown enchanted by the H.G. Wells short story “The Country of the Blind,” set in an isolated society where blindness prevailed for three centuries and where a lost Western traveller finds himself the aberrant one, afflicted with sight. Drawing on the Wells story, his own childhood experience of visual migraines that temporarily blunted his color perception, and his neurological work with a painter who had suddenly become colorblind, Dr. Sacks bridged two of his great literary and intellectual heroes — Wells and Darwin — and wondered whether there might exist, not in fiction but in geography, a real isolated culture where total colorblindness — or achromatopsia — had become a basic condition among the population.

Because such mutations are most easily contained in cultures isolated by sea, he reasoned that if such a society existed, it would have to be on an island. After tracking down the appropriate colleague to ask, he was surprised and thrilled to learn that one such island did indeed exist — Pingelap in the Caroline archipelago of Micronesia, where total colorblindness had been coloring the genetic pool for two centuries.

In 1993, tantalized by the promise of a real world that seemed fetched from his fancy, Dr. Sacks set out for Micronesia on a journey “not part of any program or agenda, not intended to prove or disprove any thesis, but simply to observe.” He recorded these observations in The Island of the Colorblind (public library), where they became, like all of his work at the intersection of science and literature, something much larger and richer than mere record — a wellspring of profound and poetic insight into the most central truths of the human experience gleaned from its most unusual and often stigmatized peripheries.

Pingelap, Micronesia

Like all genetic deviations from the mean, colorblindness on Pingelap had emerged due to a formidable brush with randomness. In 1775, a typhoon decimated 90% of the people living on the island. Most of the remaining survivors eventually succumbed to a slow death of starvation, so that of the one thousand islanders only twenty remained. Several centuries earlier, the original settlers had brought to Pingelap the recessive gene for colorblindness, but because the population had been large enough, the odds of two carriers marrying and the gene manifesting in their children had been fairly low. Now, with a tiny but fertile group left with no recourse but inbreeding to repopulate the island, the recessive gene suddenly flourished into growing domination and total colorblindness was soon a common condition.

When achromatopsia first appeared on Pingelap, the term maskun — local for “not-see” — was coined to refer to those afflicted. Two hundred years after the fateful typhoon, 57 of the 700 islanders were maskuns and an entire third of the population carried the gene for the condition. Total colorblindness manifested in one out of every twelve people — a gargantuan leap from the one in 30,000 precedence everywhere else in the world.

Dr. Sacks paints the unusual genetic backdrop against which this little-studied and therefore poorly understood culture plays out:

Colorblindness had existed on both Fuur and Pingelap for a century or more, and though both islands had been the subject of extensive genetic studies, there had been no human (so to speak, Wellsian) explorations of them, of what it might be like to be an achromatope in an achromatopic community — to be not only totally colorblind oneself, but to have, perhaps, colorblind parents and grandparents, neighbors and teachers, to be part of a culture where the entire concept of color might be missing, but where, instead, other forms of perception, of attention, might be amplified in compensation. I had a vision, only half fantastic, of an entire achromatopic culture with its own singular tastes, arts, cooking, and clothing — a culture where the sensorium, the imagination, took quite different forms from our own, and where “color” was so totally devoid of referents or meaning that there were no color names, no color metaphors, no language to express it; but (perhaps) a heightened language for the subtlest variations of texture and tone, all that the rest of us dismiss as “grey.”

When he hears of a vision researcher at the University of Oslo named Knut Nordby — a physiologist and psychophysicist who had made his personal condition, colorblindness, the area of his professional expertise — Dr. Sacks immediately knows that his Norwegian colleague would be the perfect companion for a trip to the curious island of the colorblind. The go went on to “form a team, an expedition at once neurological, scientific, and romantic,” and depart for the archipelago harboring the mysterious island.

Dr. Sacks soon finds that his colorblind colleague reaps the rewards of the visual world as much as, if differently from, the color-seeing majority. He writes of their arrival:

For us, as color-normals, it was at first just a confusion of greens, whereas to Knut it was a polyphony of brightnesses, tonalities, shapes, and textures, easily identified and distinguished from each other.

Indeed, Dr. Sacks and his companions discover that maskuns, especially maskun children, have adapted to and compensated for their condition in remarkable ways. Observing a group of schoolchildren, he writes:

The achromatopic children seemed to have developed very acute auditory and factual memories… [They] were oddly knowledgeable too about the colors of people’s clothing, and various objects around them — and often seemed to know what colors “went” with what… We could already observe in these achromatopic children in Mand how a sort of theoretical knowledge and know-how, a compensatory hypertrophy of curiosity and memory, were rapidly developing in reaction to their perceptual problems. They were learning to compensate cognitively for what they could not directly perceive or comprehend.

In this wonderful excerpt from a 1998 radio interview by Henry Tischler, uncovered and animated by Blank on Blank, Dr. Sacks relays the incident that illuminated for him the way in which the maskuns had transformed their condition not into a disability but into a different ability, one superior to his “normal” ability in surprising and humbling ways — an insight that applies as much to colorblindness as it does to conditions like autism:

There is a sort of critical level, so that if a tenth or a quarter of the population have some condition, it has to be accepted as a legitimate form of life and won’t be marginalized and, sometimes, won’t even be noticed.

The Island of the Colorblind is a revelatory read in its totality. Complement it with Dr. Sacks on death and destiny, the power of music, choosing empathy over vengeance, and his stirring recollection of his largehearted life, then revisit more Blank on Blank animated archival treasures: Leonard Cohen on creativity and his influences, Nora Ephron on women and politics, Kurt Vonnegut on what it takes to be a writer, Sally Ride’s conversation with Gloria Steinem about being a trailblazing female astronaut, John Lennon and Yoko Ono on the art of love, Ray Bradbury on the secret to great storytelling, David Foster Wallace on the dark side of ambition, Jane Goodall on overcoming extraordinary odds, Hunter S. Thompson on the only cure for our destructive tendencies, and Richard Feynman on what his father taught him about the most important thing.

BP

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