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Rebecca Solnit on Breaking Silence as Our Mightiest Weapon Against Oppression

“We are our stories, stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison.”

Rebecca Solnit on Breaking Silence as Our Mightiest Weapon Against Oppression

“To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men,” the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in her 1914 anthem against silence — an incantation which fomented biologist and writer Rachel Carson’s courage to speak inconvenient truth to power as she catalyzed the environmental movement. “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you,” Audre Lorde admonished on the cusp of another cultural revolution in her influential 1984 treatise on transforming silence into redemptive action. “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,” Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech shortly after Lorde’s landmark essay was published.

No silence is larger, both in age and in scope, nor more demanding of breaking, than the silencing of women’s voices — a millennia-old assault on the integrity of more than half of humankind.

Let me make one thing clear here: We — all of us, of any gender — may have different answers to the questions feminism raises. But if we refuse to engage with the questions themselves, we are culpable not only of cowardice but of complicity in humanity’s oldest cultural crime.

How to dismantle that complicity and transmute it into courage is what Rebecca Solnit explores in an extraordinary essay titled “Silence Is Broken,” found in The Mother of All Questions (public library) — a sweeping collection of essays Solnit describes as “a tour through carnage, a celebration of liberation and solidarity, insight and empathy, and an investigation of the terms and tools with which we might explore all these things.”

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

Solnit begins by mapping the terra cognita of silence:

Silence is the ocean of the unsaid, the unspeakable, the repressed, the erased, the unheard. It surrounds the scattered islands made up of those allowed to speak and of what can be said and who listens. Silence occurs in many ways for many reasons; each of us has his or her own sea of unspoken words.

Silence, of course, is crucially different from quietude, the latter being the absence of noise and the former the absence of voice. Silence is to quietude what isolation, that weapon of oppression, is to solitude, that wellspring of creative fertility. Defining silence as “what is imposed” and quietude as “what is sought,” Solnit contrasts the two:

The tranquility of a quiet place, of quieting one’s own mind, of a retreat from words and bustle, is acoustically the same as the silence of intimidation or repression but psychically and politically something entirely different. What is unsaid because serenity and introspection are sought is as different from what is not said because the threats are high or the barriers are great as swimming is from drowning. Quiet is to noise as silence is to communication. The quiet of the listener makes room for the speech of others, like the quiet of the reader taking in words on the page, like the white of the paper taking ink.

[…]

Silence is what allows people to suffer without recourse, what allows hypocrisies and lies to grow and flourish, crimes to go unpunished. If our voices are essential aspects of our humanity, to be rendered voiceless is to be dehumanized or excluded from one’s humanity.

Echoing Ursula K. Le Guin’s memorable assertion that “words are events, they do things, change things,” Solnit celebrates our mightiest, perhaps our only, mechanism for breaking our silences:

Words bring us together, and silence separates us, leaves us bereft of the help or solidarity or just communion that speech can solicit or elicit.

[…]

We are our stories, stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison; we make stories to save ourselves or to trap ourselves or others, stories that lift us up or smash us against the stone wall of our own limits and fears. Liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.

Cartography: Molly Roy; subway route symbols © Metropolitan Transit Authority
The New York City subway map reimagined with every stop named after a notable woman, from Nonstop Metropolis by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly Shapiro

Noting that “the history of silence is central to women’s history,” Solnit writes:

Violence against women is often against our voices and our stories. It is a refusal of our voices, and of what a voice means: the right to self-determination, to participation, to consent or dissent, to live and participate, to interpret and narrate.

[…]

Sometimes just being able to speak, to be heard, to be believed are crucial parts of membership in a family, a community, a society. Sometimes our voices break those things apart; sometimes those things are prisons. And then when words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by a society sometimes becomes intolerable.

[…]

Even those who have been audible have often earned the privilege through strategic silences or the inability to hear certain voices, including their own. The struggle of liberation has been in part to create the conditions for the formerly silenced to speak and be heard.

Half a century after James Baldwin asserted that “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over” in his abiding inquiry into freedom and how we imprison ourselves, Solnit considers how the redemptive reclaiming of systemically muted voices is reconfiguring our world:

If the right to speak, if having credibility, if being heard is a kind of wealth, that wealth is now being redistributed. There has long been an elite with audibility and credibility, an underclass of the voiceless. As the wealth is redistributed, the stunned incomprehension of the elites erupts over and over again, a fury and disbelief that this woman or child dared to speak up, that people deigned to believe her, that her voice counts for something, that her truth may end a powerful man’s reign. These voices, heard, upend power relations.

[…]

Who is heard and who is not defines the status quo. Those who embody it, often at the cost of extraordinary silences with themselves, move to the center; those who embody what is not heard or what violates those who rise on silence are cast out. By redefining whose voice is valued, we redefine our society and its values.

Art by Jabari Asim from Preaching to the Chickens by E.B. Lewis, a children’s book about how the great civil rights leader John Lewis found his voice as a boy

In a sentiment that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s incisive treatise on how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, Solnit argues that “silence is the universal condition of oppression” and considers the complex cultural matrix on which various sets of oppressive silences intersect:

The category women is a long boulevard that intersects with many other avenues, including class, race, poverty and wealth. Traveling this boulevard means crossing others, and it never means that the city of silence has only one street or one route through it that matters. It is now useful to question the categories of male and female, but it’s also useful to remember that misogyny is based on a devout belief in the reality of those categories (or is an attempt to reinforce them by demonstrating the proper role of each gender)… It was in opposition to slavery that American feminism arose, born at the intersection. Elizabeth Cady Stanton went to the World’s Antislavery Convention in London in 1840, one of many women abolitionists who traveled to participate, only to find that they could not be seated and could not speak. Even people who considered themselves champions of the oppressed could not see what was oppressive about an order so old it was perceived as natural. A controversy arose. Stanton wrote in her autobiography of the remarkable women gathered there, who were “all compelled to listen in silence to the masculine platitudes on women’s sphere.” She went home furious, and that fury at being silenced and shut out, and the insight that resulted, gave rise to the first women’s rights movement.

Indeed, the history of breaking silence is the history of insurgent solidarity with the silenced on behalf of those who have voice. Without the silence-shattering letter of solidarity which sixteen of the twentieth century’s most prominent white poets wrote after Amiri Baraka was brutalized by racial violence, he might have perished as another black man swallowed by the systemic injustice of the prison system instead of becoming one of the world’s most influential poets.

Solnit considers this essential human task of those who have voice in relation to those who are silenced:

Empathy is a narrative we tell ourselves to make other people real to us, to feel for and with them, and thereby to extend and enlarge and open ourselves. To be without empathy is to have shut down or killed off some part of yourself and your humanity, to have protected yourself from some kind of vulnerability. Silencing, or refusing to hear, breaks this social contract of recognizing another’s humanity and our connectedness.

[…]

Our humanity is made out of stories or, in the absence of words and narratives, out of imagination: that which I did not literally feel, because it happened to you and not to me, I can imagine as though it were me, or care about it though it was not me. Thus we are connected, thus we are not separate. Those stories can be killed into silence, and the voices that might breed empathy silenced, discredited, censored, rendered unspeakable, unhearable. Discrimination is training in not identifying or empathizing with someone because they are different in some way, in believing the differences mean everything and common humanity nothing.

A supreme failure of empathy, Solnit suggests, is the refusal to speak up for those who are shamed or suppressed from speaking for themselves:

Individuals and societies serve power and the powerful by refusing to speak and bear witness.

Echoing Susan Sontag’s insistence that “courage is as contagious as fear,” Solnit adds:

Silence and shame are contagious; so are courage and speech. Even now, when women begin to speak of their experience, others step forward to bolster the earlier speaker and to share their own experience. A brick is knocked loose, another one; a dam breaks, the waters rush forth.

With her parallel willingness to name our human follies with robust lucidity and to welcome our highest potential with unsentimental optimism, Solnit considers our most fertile frontier of persistence and resistance to the silencing of our own voices and those around us:

Every day each of us invents the world and the self who meets that world, opens up or closes down space for others within that. Silence is forever being broken, and then like waves lapping over the footprints, the sandcastles and washed-up shells and seaweed, silence rises again.

Exactly half a century after the repentant poet Laura (Riding) Jackson wrote that “the task of truth is divided among us, to the number of us,” and that “we must grasp [it] with the tongs of our individual littleness [and] take the measure of it with what we are,” Solnit adds:

The task of calling things by their true names, of telling the truth to the best of our abilities, of knowing how we got here, of listening particularly to those who have been silenced in the past, of seeing how the myriad stories fit together and break apart, of using any privilege we may have been handed to undo privilege or expand its scope is each of our tasks. It’s how we make the world.

The Mother of All Questions is a sobering and mobilizing read in its slim, potent entirety. Complement it with Shankar Vedantam on the unconscious biases that bedevil even the best-intentioned of us, then revisit Solnit on living with intelligent hope in dispiriting times, how maps can oppress and liberate, and walking as an act of rebellion.

BP

Diseases of the Will: Neuroscience Founding Father Santiago Ramón y Cajal on the Six Psychological Flaws That Keep the Talented from Achieving Greatness

“Our neurons must be used … not only to know but also to transform knowledge; not only to experience but also to construct.”

Diseases of the Will: Neuroscience Founding Father Santiago Ramón y Cajal on the Six Psychological Flaws That Keep the Talented from Achieving Greatness

“Principles are good and worth the effort only when they develop into deeds,” Van Gogh wrote to his brother in a beautiful letter about talking vs. doing and the human pursuit of greatness. “The great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.” But what stands between the impulse for greatness and the doing of the “little things” out of which success is woven?

That’s what neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal (May 1, 1852–October 17, 1934) addresses in his 1897 book Advice for a Young Investigator (public library) — the science counterpart to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Anna Deavere Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist, predating one by nearly a decade and the other by more than a century.

Although Cajal’s counsel is aimed at young scientists, it is replete with wisdom that applies as much to science as it does to any other intellectually and creatively ambitious endeavor — nowhere more so than in one of the pieces in the volume, titled “Diseases of the Will,” presenting a taxonomy of the “ethical weaknesses and intellectual poverty” that keep even the most gifted young people from ascending to greatness.

Self-portrait by Cajal at his library in his thirties, from Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal

It should be noted that Cajal addresses his advice to young men, on the presumption that scientists are male — proof that even the most visionary geniuses are still products of their time and place, and can’t fully escape the limitations and biases of their respective era, or as Virginia Woolf memorably put it in Orlando, “It is probable that the human spirit has its place in time assigned to it.” (Lest we forget, although the word “scientist” had been coined for a woman half a century earlier, women were not yet able to vote and were decades away from being admitted into European universities, so scientists in the strict academic sense were indeed exclusively male in Cajal’s culture.) Still, when stripped of its genderedness, his advice remains immensely psychologically insightful, offering a timeless corrective for the pitfalls that keep talent and drive from manifesting into greatness, not only in science but in any field.

Considering the all too pervasive paradox of creative people “who are wonderfully talented and full of energy and initiative [but] who never produce any original work and almost never write anything,” Cajal divides them into six classes according to the “diseases of the will” afflicting them — contemplators, bibliophiles and polyglots, megalomaniacs, instrument addicts, misfits, and theorists.

He examines the superficiality driving the “particularly morbid variety” of the first type:

[Contemplators] love the study of nature but only for its aesthetic qualities — the sublime spectacles, the beautiful forms, the splendid colors, and the graceful structures.

One of Cajal’s revolutionary histological drawings

With an eye to his own chosen field of histology, which he revolutionized by using beauty to illuminate the workings of the brain, Cajal notes that a contemplator will master the finest artistic techniques “without ever feeling the slightest temptation to apply them to a new problem, or to the solution of a hotly contested issue.” He adds:

[Contemplators] are as likable for their juvenile enthusiasm and piquant and winning speech as they are ineffective in making any real scientific progress.

More than a century before Tom Wolfe’s admonition against the rise of the pseudo-intellectual, Cajal treats with special disdain the bibliophiles and polyglots — those who use erudition not as a tool of furthering humanity’s enlightenment but as a personal intellectual ornament of pretension and vanity. He diagnoses this particular “disease of the will”:

The symptoms of this disease include encyclopedic tendencies; the mastery of numerous languages, some totally useless; exclusive subscription to highly specialized journals; the acquisition of all the latest books to appear in the bookseller’s showcases; assiduous reading of everything that is important to know, especially when it interests very few; unconquerable laziness where writing is concerned; and an aversion to the seminar and laboratory.

In a passage that calls to mind Portlandia’s irrepressibly hilarious “Did You Read It?” sketch, he writes:

Naturally, our bookworm lives in and for his library, which is monumental and overflowing. There he receives his following, charming them with pleasant, sparkling, and varied conversation — usually begun with a question something like: “Have you read So-and-so’s book? (An American, German, Russian, or Scandinavian name is inserted here.) Are you acquainted with Such-and-such’s surprising theory?” And without listening to the reply, the erudite one expounds with warm eloquence some wild and audacious proposal with no basis in reality and endurable only in the context of a chat about spiritual matters.

Cajal examines the central snag of these vain pseudo-scholars:

Discussing everything — squandering and misusing their keen intellects — these indolent men of science ignore a very simple and very human fact… They seem only vaguely aware at best of the well-known platitude that erudition has very little value when it does not reflect the preparation and results of sustained personal achievement. All of the bibliophile’s fondest hopes are concentrated on projecting an image of genius infused with culture. He never stops to think that only the most inspired effort can liberate the scholar from oblivion and injustice.

Three decades before John Cowper Powys’s incisive dichotomy between being educated and being cultured, Cajal is careful to affirm the indisputable value of learnedness put to fertile use — something categorically different from erudition as a personal conceit:

No one would deny the fact that he who knows and acts is the one who counts, not he who knows and falls asleep. We render a tribute of respect to those who add original work to a library, and withhold it from those who carry a library around in their head. If one is to become a mere phonograph, it is hardly worth the effort of complicating cerebral organization with study and reflection. Our neurons must be used for more substantial things. Not only to know but also to transform knowledge; not only to experience but also to construct.

[…]

The eloquent fount of erudition may undoubtedly receive enthusiastic plaudits throughout life in the warm intimacy of social gatherings, but he waits in vain for acclamation from the great theater of the world. The wise man’s public lives far away, or does not yet exist; it reads instead of listens; it is so austere and correct that recognition with gratitude and respect is only extended to new facts that are placed in circulation on the cultural market.

Next come the megalomaniacs, who may be talented and motivated, but are bedeviled by a deadly overconfidence that ultimately renders them careless and unrigorous in their work. Cajal writes:

People with this type of failure are characterized by noble and winning traits. They study a great deal, but love personal activities as well. They worship action and have mastered the techniques needed for their research. They are filled with sincere patriotism and long for the personal and national fame that comes with admirable conquests.

Yet their eagerness is rendered sterile by a fatal flaw. While they are confirmed gradualists in theory, they turn out to rely on luck in practice. As if believing in miracles, they want to start their careers with an extraordinary achievement. Perhaps they recall that Hertz, Mayer, Schwann, Roentgen, and Curie began their scientific careers with a great discovery, and aspire to jump from foot soldier to general in their first battle. They end up spending their lives planning and plotting, constructing and correcting, always submerged in feverish activity, always revising, hatching the great embryonic work—the outstanding, sweeping contribution. And, as the years go, by expectation fades, rivals whisper, and friends stretch their imaginations to justify the great man’s silence. Meanwhile, important monographs are raining down abroad on the subjects they have so painstakingly explored, fondled, and worn to a thread.

Self-portrait by Cajal at his laboratory in his thirties, from Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Cajal reflects on the only remedy for the megalomaniac’s main stumbling block:

All of this happens because when they started out these men did not follow with humility and modesty a law of nature that is the essence of good sense: Tackle small problems first, so that if success smiles and strength increases one may then undertake the great feats of investigation.

He considers a special class of megalomaniac — the serial ideator who always fails to reach the stage of execution and whose rampant dreaming chronically falls short of doing. (This type, it occurs to me, has an analog in love — the serial besotter, who thrives on the thrill of infatuation, but crumbles as soon as the fantasy the beloved becomes a real relationship teeming with imperfection and the often toilsome work of love.) Cajal writes:

The dreamers who are reminiscent of the conversationalists of old might be seen as a variety of megalomaniac. They are easily distinguished by their effervescence and by a profusion of ideas and plans of attack. Their optimistic eyes see everything through rose-colored glasses. They are confident that, once accepted, fruits of their initiative will open broad horizons in science, and yield invaluable practical results as well. There is only one minor drawback, which is deplorable — none of their undertakings are ever completed. All come to an untimely end, sometimes through lack of resources, and sometimes through lack of a proper environment, but usually because there were not enough able assistants to carry out the great work, or because certain organizations or governments were not sufficiently civilized and enlightened to encourage and fund it.

The truth is that dreamers do not work hard enough; they lack perseverance.

He turns to the instrument addicts next — a class particularly prominent in our present culture of techno-fetishism. In a sentiment that applies with astonishing precision to today’s legions of failed serial entrepreneurs — the foundering founders who have fetishized the glitzy sleekness of an invention, be it a gadget or an app, over its core conceptual value proposition — Cajal writes:

This rather unimportant variety of ineffectualist can be recognized immediately by a sort of fetishistic worship of research instruments. They are as fascinated by the gleam of metal as the lark is with its own reflection in a mirror.

[…]

Cold-hearted instrument addicts cannot make themselves useful. They suffer from an almost incurable disease, especially when it is associated (as it commonly is) with a distinctive moral condition that is rarely admitted — a selfish and disagreeable obsession with preventing others from working because they personally do not know how, or don’t want, to work.

Next, Cajal turns to the misfit — though I suspect the word could have been translated better, for he doesn’t mean the visionary nonconformist who propels society forward but the person who has ended up in a vocation or environment ill-fitted to their inherent talents, thwarting them from reaching their potential. He writes:

Instead of being abnormal, misfits are simply unfortunate individuals who have had work unsuited to their natural aptitudes imposed on them by adverse circumstances. When everything is said and done, however, these failures still fall in the category of abulics because they lack the energy to change their course, and in the end fail to reconcile calling and profession.

It appears to us that misfits are hopelessly ill. On the other hand, this certainly does not apply to the young men whose course has been swayed by family pressure or the tyrannies of their social environment, and who thus find themselves bound to a line of work by force. With their minds still flexible, they would do well to change course as soon as favorable winds blow. Even those toiling in a branch of science they do not enjoy — living as if banished from the beloved country of their ideals — can redeem themselves and work productively. They must generate the determination to reach for lofty goals, to seek an agreeable line of work — which suits their talents — that they can do well and to which they can devote a great deal of energy. Is there any branch of science that lacks at least one delightful oasis where one’s intellect can find useful employment and complete satisfaction?

Cajal’s drawing of the medial geniculate nucleus in the thalamus of the cat, from Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Next come the theorists. Marked by “a certain flaunting of intellectual superiority that is only pardoned in the savant renowned for a long series of true discoveries,” the theorist becomes so besotted with her ideas and hypotheses that she shirks from testing them against reality and instead continually narrows her lens to only factor in what supports her theories. Cajal writes:

There are highly cultivated, wonderfully endowed minds whose wills suffer from a particular form of lethargy, which is all the more serious because it is not apparent to them and is usually not thought of as being particularly important. Its undeniable symptoms include a facility for exposition, a creative and restless imagination, an aversion to the laboratory, and an indomitable dislike for concrete science and seemingly unimportant data. They claim to view things on a grand scale; they live in the clouds. They prefer the book to the monograph, brilliant and audacious hypotheses to classic but sound concepts. When faced with a difficult problem, they feel an irresistible urge to formulate a theory rather than to question nature. As soon as they happen to notice a slight, half-hidden, analogy between two phenomena, or succeed in fitting some new data or other into the framework of a general theory –whether true or false — they dance for joy and genuinely believe that they are the most admirable of reformers. The method is legitimate in principle, but they abuse it by falling into the pit of viewing things from a single perspective. The essential thing for them is the beauty of the concept. It matters very little whether the concept itself is based on thin air, so long as it is beautiful and ingenious, well-thought-out and symmetrical.

Exclaiming that “so many apparently immutable doctrines have fallen,” Cajal summarizes this particular pitfall rather bluntly:

Basically, the theorist is a lazy person masquerading as a diligent one. He unconsciously obeys the law of minimum effort because it is easier to fashion a theory than to discover a phenomenon.

Cajal takes care to note that while hypotheses have their use “as inspiration during the planning stage of an investigation, and for stimulating new fields of investigation,” the theorist’s mistake is a blind attachment to her theories not as a means to truth but as an end of intellectual labor:

One must distinguish between working hypotheses … and scientific theories. The hypothesis is an interpretative questioning of nature. It is an integral part of the investigation because it forms the initial phase, the virtually required antecedent. But to speculate continuously — to theorize just for its own sake, without arriving at an objective analysis of phenomena — is to lose oneself in a kind of philosophical idealism without a solid foundation, to turn one’s back on reality.

Let us emphasize again this obvious conclusion: a scholar’s positive contribution is measured by the sum of the original data that he contributes. Hypotheses come and go but data remain. Theories desert us, while data defend us. They are our true resources, our real estate, and our best pedigree. In the eternal shifting of things, only they will save us from the ravages of time and from the forgetfulness or injustice of men. To risk everything on the success of one idea is to forget that every fifteen or twenty years theories are replaced or revised. So many apparently conclusive theories in physics, chemistry, geology, and biology have collapsed in the last few decades! On the other hand, the well-established facts of anatomy and physiology and of chemistry and geology, and the laws and equations of astronomy and physics remain — immutable and defying criticism.

Advice for a Young Investigator is a marvelous read in its totality, exploring such aspects of science and success as the art of concentration, the most common mistakes beginners make, the optimal social and cultural conditions for discovery, and how to avoid the perilous trap of prestige. Complement it with physicist and writer Alan Lightman on the shared psychology of creative breakthrough in art and science, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer on the crucial difference between genius and talent, and astrophysicist and writer Janna Levin on the animating force of great scientists.

BP

The Telling: An Unusual and Profound 1967 Manifesto for Truth

“The task of truth is divided among us, to the number of us… We must grasp the Subject with the tongs of our individual littleness; take the measure of it with what we are.”

The Telling: An Unusual and Profound 1967 Manifesto for Truth

“Teller and listener, each fulfills the other’s expectations,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her beautiful meditation on the magic of real human communication. “The living tongue that tells the word, the living ear that hears it, bind and bond us in the communion we long for in the silence of our inner solitude.” But what exactly is this act of telling that transfigures our isolation into communion — how, why, and what do we actually tell, and to whom do we tell it?

That’s what the poet Laura Riding (January 16, 1901–September 2, 1991) set out to explore half a century ago.

Eleven years after she composed her extraordinary letters of life-advice to an eight-year-old girl, Riding renounced her vocation, feeling that she had “reached poetry’s limit” as a means of probing human truth and that there existed “something better in our linguistic way of life than we have.” She fell in love with TIME magazine poetry critic Schuyler B. Jackson and became Laura (Riding) Jackson. The Jacksons went on to live a humble yet intensely intellectual life in Florida, working as citrus farmers to fund their work on an ambitious, unorthodox dictionary that distilled each word into a single definition.

But Jackson, animated by her intense love of language, remained restless about the problem of truth’s articulation. It took her a quarter century to formulate just why she had abandoned poetry and what greater frontiers of truth-telling there may be. Her formulation first appeared in the New York magazine Chelsea in 1967 and later became the small, immensely profound book The Telling (public library) — an unusual manifesto for the existential necessity of living for truth.

Laura (Riding) Jackson

Jackson frames the promise of the book in a prefatory note:

Life of the human kind has been lived preponderantly so far according to the needs of the self as felt to be the possession of itself. This self-claiming self is a human-faced creature, existing in the multiple form of a loose number reckonable only as “the human aggregate.” The needs of this self issue from a diffuse greed, which is imparted from one to the other in garrulous sociality.

There is an alternative self, a human-faced soul-being, a self conscious of ourselves who bear in manifold individualness, each singly, the burden of the single sense of the manifold totality. This self is implicated in the totality as a speaking self of it, owing it words that will put the seal of the Whole upon it. On what we each may thus say depends the happiness of the Whole, and our own (every happiness of other making being destined to disappear into the shades of the predetermined nothingness of the self-claiming self, which encircle it.)

The book is structured like Pascal’s Pensées and Descartes’s The Passions of the Soul — as a series of short meditations each presented in a numbered paragraph. In the first, Jackson considers our primal hunger for the telling of core human truths yet untold:

There is something to be told about us for the telling of which we all wait. In our unwilling ignorance we hurry to listen to stories of old human life, new human life, fancied human life, avid of something to while away the time of unanswered curiosity. Many of the lesser things concerning us have been told, but the greater things have not been told; and nothing can fill their place. Whatever we learn of what is not ourselves, but ours to know, being of our universal world, will likewise leave the emptiness an emptiness. Until the missing story of ourselves is told, nothing besides told can suffice us: we shall go on quietly craving it.

Art by Sydney Pink from Overcoming Creative Block

In the fourth fragment, she suggests that at the heart of the pervasive sense that our stories are unheard lies the fact that they are first and foremost untold:

Everywhere can be seen a waiting for words that phrase the primary sense of human-being, and with a human finality, so that the words themselves are witness to what they tell… In the eyes of all (in the opaque depths in them of unacknowledged presentness to one another) are mirrored (but scarcely discerned) concourses where our souls ever secretly assemble, in expectation of events of common understanding that continually fail to occur. We wait, all, for a story of us that shall reach to where we are. We listen for our own speaking; and we hear much that seems our speaking, yet makes us strange to ourselves.

She considers how our cultural modes of truth-telling fragment rather than unify our truths:

How our story has been divided up among the truth-telling professions! Religion, philosophy, history, poetry, compete with one another for our ears; and science competes with all together. And for each we have a different set of ears. But, though we hear much, what we are told is as nothing: none of it gives us ourselves, rather each story-kind steals us to make its reality of us.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s prescient admonition that “information will never replace illumination,” Jackson adds:

The time, in love with easy knowledge and fast knowledge, has created a new materialism to minister to the appetites of the intellect. Human things are broken up into unreal pieces by this hasty learning-lust, studied in their supposed particulars at scientific remove; and in their reality they are far less visible through science’s glass than with the naked eye of human selfhood.

[…]

How can it be that there is both a waiting, everywhere, for true words of ourselves, and a not-waiting? … a hunger both kept pure, unprofaned by false satisfaction, and stilled with the state of expedient alternatives to our truth? We are both purely and impurely ourselves: … purely, in that we are ourselves, and impurely, in that we do not know our whole nature, and live much in misknowledge of ourselves, part-corrupted into what we are not. Thus has it ever been with us. But we have reached the end of the possibility of self-ignorance, and can no longer draw on innocence to purge us of self-mistaking.

Art by Isol from Daytime Visions

Truth, Jackson suggests, is a quietly self-propagating organism, the ultimate corrective:

Truth rings no bells. When we have corrected ourselves with ourselves, joined that of us which sustained us in false notions of our truth to that of us which sustained us in our waiting for our truth itself, we shall have the force of truth in us, and immediately begin to speak true. Later, we shall know that we have begun to speak true by an increased hunger for true-speaking; we shall have the whole hunger only after we have given ourselves the first taste of it.

In a passage of particular prescience amid our age of oppression by untruth, and in resonance with Hannah Arendt’s timeless inquiry into how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, Jackson considers the vital self-protection and self-liberation which the telling of our truths makes possible:

We can best defend ourselves against those who would crowd us all into a prison of shrunken-destiny … by knowing our missing story, and dwelling in it, as in the home of our thought. Let them move us to take our souls fully unto ourselves, and to speak from soul-self to one another as ourselves in truth: that speaking will be our story, and it will silence them. To defeat them we need only to tell our truth, which is theirs also.

Our truth cannot be all-told, from the beginning told, unless we tell it to one another.

Such a commitment to mutual truth-telling, Jackson asserts, is the only real force of unity across our innumerable differences, which cannot and should not be eradicated but can be and must be understood. In her closing paragraphs, framed in extended parentheses, she writes:

Among human beings there are true differences of understanding, come of their having spoken so little with one another as beings of the one life-story. By speaking out of their different story-sense of human-being to one another, the differers can learn their life-sameness, and the different understandings be loosed to join.

In a sentiment of chilling relevance to our climate of “alternative facts” wielded by exploitive politicians as a weapon of separation and polarization, Jackson adds:

But — yes — there are also false differences of understanding. There are inventors of difference, bent greedily on having their own to say… Those of false-different understanding who might press forward to have a part in the making of our truth, stealing the name of it for their inventions, could do nothing other than follow the trace of old falsity, drawing the false circles that turn back upon themselves half-way. There is nothing new of false truth to suffer from. It will be repeated to the extinction of its capability of seeing new, true; we shall suffer from it only to the extinction of our capacity for being deceived.

A decade later, Jackson wrote in piece titled “A Preface for a Second Reading” accompanying the 1972 edition of the book:

My purpose is to remind us that there remain still to be told the fundamentals of our being, and that we are the natural tellers of them — each a natural teller of a story of which we and Everything, together, are the Subject, the story of ourselves and everything that touches on us, everything we touch on… The task of truth is divided among us, to the number of us — however large truth’s subject is, truth can be no more than the speaking of an exact self, a being exactly one (nor can it be less). We must grasp the Subject with the tongs of our individual littleness; take the measure of it with what we are.

The Telling is a beautiful, pleasantly challenging and thought-expanding read in its entirety. Complement it with Le Guin’s “Telling Is Listening,”, Toni Morrison on how to be your own story, and Hannah Arendt on thinking vs. knowing and the crucial difference between truth and meaning.

BP

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