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Iris Murdoch on Storytelling, Why Art Is Essential for Democracy, and the Key to Good Writing

“A good society contains many different artists doing many different things. A bad society coerces artists because it knows that they can reveal all kinds of truths.”

Iris Murdoch on Storytelling, Why Art Is Essential for Democracy, and the Key to Good Writing

“One of the functions of art,” Ursula K. Le Guin observed in contemplating art, storytelling, and the power of language to transform and redeem, “is to give people the words to know their own experience… Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.” Because self-knowledge is the most difficult of the arts of living, because understanding ourselves is a prerequisite for understanding anybody else, and because we can hardly fathom the reality of another without first plumbing our own depths, art is what makes us not only human but humane.

That is what the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) — one of the most lucid and luminous minds of the twentieth century — explored in a long, deep, immensely insightful 1977 conversation with the British broadcaster and philosopher Bryan McGee, which aired on McGee’s television series Men of Ideas. (That, after all, was the era when every woman was “man.”) The transcript was later adapted and published in the altogether revelatory collection of Murdoch’s essays and interviews, Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (public library).

irismurdoch3
Iris Murdoch

Murdoch begins by reflecting on the fundamental difference between the function of philosophy and that of art — one being to clarify and concretize, the other to mystify and expand. She observes:

Literary writing is an art, an aspect of an art form. It may be self-effacing or it may be grand, but if it is literature it has an artful intention, the language is being used in a characteristically elaborate manner in relation to the “work,” long or short, of which it forms a part. So there is not one literary style or ideal literary style, though of course there is good and bad writing.

A century after Nietzsche examined the power of language to both conceal and reveal truth, and several years before Oliver Sacks’s trailblazing insight into narrative as the pillar of identity, Murdoch considers how we, as storytelling creatures, use language in the parallel arts of literature and living:

Literary modes are very natural to us, very close to ordinary life and to the way we live as reflective beings. Not all literature is fiction, but the greater part of it is or involves fiction, invention, masks, playing roles, pretending, imagining, story-telling. When we return home and “tell our day,” we are artfully shaping material into story form. (These stories are very often funny, incidentally.) So in a way as word-users we all exist in a literary atmosphere, we live and breathe literature, we are all literary artists, we are constantly employing language to make interesting forms out of experience which perhaps originally seemed dull or incoherent. How far reshaping involves offences against truth is a problem any artist must face. A deep motive for making literature or art of any sort is the desire to defeat the formlessness of the world and cheer oneself up by constructing forms out of what might otherwise seem a mass of senseless rubble.

Down the Rabbit Hole
One of Salvador Dalí’s etchings for a rare 1969 edition of Alice in Wonderland

Echoing Hemingway’s admonition against the dangers of ego in creative work, Murdoch cautions:

We want a writer to write well and to have something interesting to say. Perhaps we should distinguish a recognisable style from a personal presence. Shakespeare has a recognisable style but no presence, whereas a writer like D. H. Lawrence has a less evident style but a strong presence. Though many poets and some novelists speak to us in a highly personal manner, much of the best literature has no strongly felt presence of the author in the work. A literary presence if it is too bossy, like Lawrence’s, may be damaging; when for instance one favoured character is the author’s spokesman. Bad writing is almost always full of the fumes of personality.

In a sentiment bridging William James’s landmark assertion that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity” and Tolstoy’s insistence that “emotional infectiousness” is what separates good art from the bad, Murdoch considers the central animating force of art:

Literature could be called a disciplined technique for arousing certain emotions. (Of course there are other such techniques.) I would include the arousing of emotion in the definition of art, although not every occasion of experiencing art is an emotional occasion. The sensuous nature of art is involved here, the fact that it is concerned with visual and auditory sensations and bodily sensations. If nothing sensuous is present no art is present. This fact alone makes it quite different from “theoretical” activities… Art is close dangerous play with unconscious forces. We enjoy art, even simple art, because it disturbs us in deep often incomprehensible ways; and this is one reason why it is good for us when it is good and bad for us when it is bad.

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

Expanding upon the ideas of the ancient Greeks, so formative to our understanding of art, Murdoch offers a definition:

Art is mimesis and good art is, to use another Platonic term, anamnesis, “memory” of what we did not know we knew… Art “holds the mirror up to nature.” Of course this reflection or “imitation”” does not mean slavish or photographic copying. But it is important to hold on to the idea that art is about the world, it exists for us standing out against a background of our ordinary knowledge. Art may extend this knowledge but is also tested by it.

She considers the ecosystem of good and bad art in human culture, and the essential distinguishing factor between the two:

There is always more bad art around than good art, and more people like bad art than like good art.

[…]

Good art is good for people precisely because it is not fantasy but imagination. It breaks the grip of our own dull fantasy life and stirs us to the effort of true vision. Most of the time we fail to see the big wide real world at all because we are blinded by obsession, anxiety, envy, resentment, fear. We make a small personal world in which we remain enclosed. Great art is liberating, it enables us to see and take pleasure in what is not ourselves. Literature stirs and satisfies our curiosity, it interests us in other people and other scenes, and helps us to be tolerant and generous. Art is informative. And even mediocre art can tell us something, for instance about how other people live. But to say this is not to hold a utilitarian or didactic view of art. Art is larger than such narrow ideas.

A decade after James Baldwin wielded the double-edged sword of the artist’s duty to society, Murdoch insists on this largeness:

I certainly do not believe that it is the artist’s task to serve society.

[…]

A citizen has a duty to society, and a writer might sometimes feel he ought to write persuasive newspaper articles or pamphlets, but this would be a different activity. The artist’s duty is to art, to truth-telling in his own medium, the writer’s duty is to produce the best literary work of which he is capable, and he must find out how this can be done.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

In consonance with John F. Kennedy’s exhortation to a propaganda-smothered society — “We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” — Murdoch considers the deeper reality beneath what may appear as an artificial distinction between artist and citizen:

A propaganda play which is indifferent to art is likely to be a misleading statement even if it is inspired by good principles. If serious art is a primary aim then some sort of justice is a primary aim. A social theme presented as art is likely to be more clarified even if it is less immediately persuasive. And any artist may serve his society incidentally by revealing things which people have not noticed or understood. Imagination reveals, it explains. This is part of what is meant by saying that art is mimesis. Any society contains propaganda, but it is important to distinguish this from art and to preserve the purity and independence of the practice of art. A good society contains many different artists doing many different things. A bad society coerces artists because it knows that they can reveal all kinds of truths.

Three decades after the teenage Sylvia Plath precociously observed that “once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,” Murdoch examines the laboratory for reflection and interpretation that great art constructs in its pursuit of truth:

A poem, play or novel usually appears as a closed pattern. But it is also open in so far as it refers to a reality beyond itself, and such a reference raises… questions about truth… Art is truth as well as form, it is representational as well as autonomous. Of course the communication may be indirect, but the ambiguity of the great writer creates spaces which we can explore and enjoy because they are openings on to the real world and not formal language games or narrow crevices of personal fantasy; and we do not get tired of great writers, because what is true is interesting… Any serious artist has a sense of distance between himself and something quite other in relation to which he feels humility since he knows that it is far more detailed and wonderful and awful and amazing than anything which he can ever express. This “other” is most readily called “reality” or “nature” or “the world” and this is a way of talking that one must not give up.

One of Salvador Dalí’s etchings for a rare edition of Montaigne’s essays

Murdoch holds good criticism — the formal interpretation of art — to the same standard as good art:

Beauty in art is the formal imaginative exhibition of something true, and criticism must remain free to work at a level where it can judge truth in art… Training in an art is largely training in how to discover a touchstone of truth; and there is an analogous training in criticism.

In a passage that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s beautiful wisdom on storytelling and what it means to be a moral human being, Murdoch weighs the relationship between morality and truth, as mediated by language:

It is important to remember that language itself is a moral medium, almost all uses of language convey value. This is one reason why we are almost always morally active. Life is soaked in the moral, literature is soaked in the moral. If we attempted to describe this room our descriptions would naturally carry all sorts of values. Value is only artificially and with difficulty expelled from language for scientific purposes. So the novelist is revealing his values by any sort of writing which he may do. He is particularly bound to make moral judgements in so far as his subject matter is the behaviour of human beings… The author’s moral judgement is the air which the reader breathes.

The extent to which the writer is a seer and channeler of truth, Murdoch argues, is the measure of his or her writing:

One can see here very clearly the contrast between blind fantasy and visionary imagination. The bad writer gives way to personal obsession and exalts some characters and demeans others without any concern for truth or justice, that is without any suitable aesthetic ‘explanation’. It is clear here how the idea of reality enters into literary judgement. The good writer is the just, intelligent judge. He justifies his placing of his characters by some sort of work which he does in the book. A literary fault such as sentimentality results from idealisation without work. This work of course may be of different kinds, and all sorts of methods of placing characters, or relation of characters to plot or theme, may produce good art. Criticism is much concerned with the techniques by which this is done. A great writer can combine form and character in a felicitous way (think how Shakespeare does it) so as to produce a large space in which the characters can exist freely and yet at the same time serve the purposes of the tale. A great work of art gives one a sense of space, as if one had been invited into some large hall of reflection.

[…]

Artists are often revolutionary in some sense or other. But the good artist has, I think, a sense of reality and might be said to understand “how things are” and why they are… The great artist sees the marvels which selfish anxiety conceals from the rest of us. But what the artist sees is not something separate and special, some metaphysically cut-off never-never land. The artist engages a very large area of his personality in his work…

In a sentiment that Zadie Smith would come to echo in the tenth of her ten tenets of writing“Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it.” — Murdoch adds:

Art is naturally communication (only a perverse ingenuity can attempt to deny this obvious truth) and this involves the joining of the farthest-out reality to what is nearer, as must be done by any truthful explorer… Literature is connected with the way we live. Some philosophers tell us that the self is discontinuous and some writers explore this idea, but the writing (and the philosophy) takes place in a world where we have good reasons for assuming the self to be continuous. Of course this is not a plea for ‘realistic’ writing. It is to say that the artist cannot avoid the demands of truth, and that his decision about how to tell truth in his art is his most important decision.

One of Salvador Dalí’s etchings for a rare edition of Montaigne’s essays

A quarter century after Hannah Arendt penned her timeless treatise on how dictatorships use isolation as a weapon of oppression, Murdoch considers this singular virtue of “merciful objectivity” at the heart of art — the selfsame virtue of which totalitarian regimes bereave society by persecuting art and artists. In a parallel to physicist Freeman Dyson’s observation that “the glory of life [is] that it always seems to tend to diversity,” she argues that what art gives us, above all else, is a warm and welcoming regard for what is other than ourselves:

I would like to say that all great artists are tolerant in their art, but perhaps this cannot be argued. Was Dante tolerant? I think most great writers have a sort of calm merciful vision because they can see how different people are and why they are different. Tolerance is connected with being able to imagine centres of reality which are remote from oneself. There is a breath of tolerance and generosity and intelligent kindness which blows out of Homer and Shakespeare and the great novelists. The great artist sees the vast interesting collection of what is other than himself and does not picture the world in his own image.

Murdoch’s Existentialists and Mystics is a trove of abiding insight in its totality — one of those rare books that illuminate the immense breadth of the human experience while also plumbing its richest depth. Complement this particular portion with Rebecca West on storytelling as a survival mechanism, Pablo Neruda’s touching account of what a childhood encounter taught him about why we make art, and Jeanette Winterson on how art redeems our inner lives, then revisit Iris Murdoch on causality, chance, and how love gives meaning to our existence and her devastatingly beautiful love letters.

BP

The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener on Communication, Control, and the Morality of Our Machines

“We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves. A pattern is a message.”

The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener on Communication, Control, and the Morality of Our Machines

“Information will never replace illumination,” Susan Sontag asserted in considering the conscience of words. “Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in the same era in her exquisite meditation on the magic of real human communication. “They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” But what happens when words are stripped of their humanity, fed into unfeeling machines, and used as currencies of information that no longer illuminates?

Half a century before the golden age of algorithms and two decades before the birth of the Internet, the mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener (November 26, 1894–March 18, 1964) tried to protect us from that then-hypothetical scenario in his immensely insightful and prescient 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (public library) — a book Wiener described as concerned with “the limits of communication within and among individuals,” which went on to influence generations of thinkers, creators, and entrepreneurs as wide-ranging as beloved author Kurt Vonnegut, anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier.

Norbert Wiener

Wiener had coined the word cybernetics two years earlier, drawing on the Greek word for “steersman” — kubernētēs, from which the word “governor” is also derived — to describe “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine,” pioneering a new way of thinking about causal chains and how the feedback loop taking place within a system changes the system itself. (Today’s social media ecosystem is a superficial but highly illustrative example of this.)

In a complement to Hannah Arendt’s contemporaneous insight into how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression and manipulation, Wiener explains why, under this model of information systems, communication and control are inexorably linked:

Information is a name for the content of what is exchanged with the outer world as we adjust to it, and make our adjustment felt upon it. The process of receiving and of using information is the process of our adjusting to the contingencies of the outer environment, and of our living effectively within that environment. The needs and the complexity of modern life make greater demands on this process of information than ever before, and our press, our museums, our scientific laboratories, our universities, our libraries and textbooks, are obliged to meet the needs of this process or fail in their purpose. To live effectively is to live with adequate information. Thus, communication and control belong to the essence of man’s inner life, even as they belong to his life in society.

Art by Ralph Steadman from a rare edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

A pillar of Wiener’s insight is the second law of thermodynamics and its central premise that entropy — the growing tendency toward disorder, chaos, and unpredictability — increases over time in any closed system. But even if we were to consider the universe itself a closed system — an assumption neglecting the possibility that our universe may be one of many universes — neither individual human beings nor the societies they form can be thought of as closed systems. Rather, they are pockets of attempted order and decreasing entropy amid the vast expanse of cosmic chaos — attempts encoded in our systems of organizing and communicating information. Wiener examines the parallel between organisms and machines in this regard — a radical notion in his day and plainly obvious, if still poorly understood, in ours:

If we wish to use the word “life” to cover all phenomena which locally swim upstream against the current of increasing entropy, we are at liberty to do so. However, we shall then include many astronomical phenomena which have only the shadiest resemblance to life as we ordinarily know it. It is in my opinion, therefore, best to avoid all question-begging epithets such as “life,” “soul,” “vitalism,” and the like, and say merely in connection with machines that there is no reason why they may not resemble human beings in representing pockets of decreasing entropy in a framework in which the large entropy tends to increase.

When I compare the living organism with such a machine, I do not for a moment mean that the specific physical, chemical, and spiritual processes of life as we ordinarily know it are the same as those of life-imitating machines. I mean simply that they both can exemplify locally anti-entropic processes, which perhaps may also be exemplified in many other ways which we should naturally term neither biological nor mechanical.

Art by Ralph Steadman from an illustrated biography of Leonardo da Vinci

In a sentiment of astounding foresight, Wiener adds:

Society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part.

[…]

In control and communication we are always fighting nature’s tendency to degrade the organized and to destroy the meaningful; the tendency… for entropy to increase.

In consonance with Neil Gaiman’s conception of stories as “genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance,” Wiener considers how living organisms resemble and are aided by information systems:

Organism is opposed to chaos, to disintegration, to death, as message is to noise. To describe an organism, we do not try to specify each molecule in it, and catalogue it bit by bit, but rather to answer certain questions about it which reveal its pattern: a pattern which is more significant and less probable as the organism becomes, so to speak, more fully an organism.

[…]

We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves. A pattern is a message.

He adds:

Messages are themselves a form of pattern and organization. Indeed, it is possible to treat sets of messages as having an entropy like sets of states of the external world. Just as entropy is a measure of disorganization, the information carried by a set of messages is a measure of organization. In fact, it is possible to interpret the information carried by a message as essentially the negative of its entropy, and the negative logarithm of its probability. That is, the more probable the message, the less information it gives.

Wiener illustrates this idea with an example that would have pleased Emily Dickinson:

Just as entropy tends to increase spontaneously in a closed system, so information tends to decrease; just as entropy is a measure of disorder, so information is a measure of order. Information and entropy are not conserved, and are equally unsuited to being commodities. Clichés, for example, are less illuminating than great poems.

[…]

The prevalence of cliches is no accident, but inherent in the nature of information. Property rights in information suffer from the necessary disadvantage that a piece of information, in order to contribute to the general information of the community, must say something substantially different from the community’s previous common stock of information. Even in the great classics of literature and art, much of the obvious informative value has gone out of them, merely by the fact that the public has become acquainted with their contents. Schoolboys do not like Shakespeare, because he seems to them nothing but a mass of familiar quotations. It is only when the study of such an author has penetrated to a layer deeper than that which has been absorbed into the superficial clichés of the time, that we can re-establish with him an informative rapport, and give him a new and fresh literary value.

From this follows a corollary made all the clearer by the technologies and media landscapes which Wiener never lived to see and with which we must and do live:

The idea that information can be stored in a changing world without an overwhelming depreciation in its value is false.

[…]

Information is more a matter of process than of storage… Information is important as a stage in the continuous process by which we observe the outer world, and act effectively upon it… To be alive is to participate in a continuous stream of influences from the outer world and acts on the outer world, in which we are merely the transitional stage. In the figurative sense, to be alive to what is happening in the world, means to participate in a continual development of knowledge and its unhampered exchange.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

In a passage that calls to mind Zadie Smith’s lucid antidote to the illusion of universal progress and offers a sobering counterpoint to today’s strain of social scientists purveying feel-good versions of “progress” via the tranquilizing half-truths of highly selective statistics willfully ignorant of the for whom question, Wiener writes:

We are immersed in a life in which the world as a whole obeys the second law of thermodynamics: confusion increases and order decreases. Yet, as we have seen, the second law of thermodynamics, while it may be a valid statement about the whole of a closed system, is definitely not valid concerning a non-isolated part of it. There are local and temporary islands of decreasing entropy in a world in which the entropy as a whole tends to increase, and the existence of these islands enables some of us to assert the existence of progress.

[…]

Thus the question of whether to interpret the second law of thermodynamics pessimistically or not depends on the importance we give to the universe at large, on the one hand, and to the islands of locally decreasing entropy which we find in it, on the other. Remember that we ourselves constitute such an island of decreasing entropy, and that we live among other such islands. The result is that the normal prospective difference between the near and the remote leads us to give far greater importance to the regions of decreasing entropy and increasing order than to the universe at large.

A 1617 depiction of the notion of non-space, found in Cosmigraphics.

Wiener considers the central flaw of the claim that the arrow of historical time is aligned with the arrow of “progress” in a universal sense:

Our worship of progress may be discussed from two points of view: a factual one and an ethical one — that is, one which furnishes standards for approval and disapproval. Factually, it asserts that the earlier advance of geographical discovery, whose inception corresponds to the beginning of modern times, is to be continued into an indefinite period of invention, of the discovery of new techniques for controlling the human environment. This, the believers in progress say, will go on and on without any visible termination in a future not too remote for human contemplation. Those who uphold the idea of progress as an ethical principle regard this unlimited and quasi-spontaneous process of change as a Good Thing, and as the basis on which they guarantee to future generations a Heaven on Earth. It is possible to believe in progress as a fact without believing in progress as an ethical principle; but in the catechism of many Americans, the one goes with the other.

With this, Wiener turns to the most gaping void in the narrative of progress — a recognition of the interconnectedness of existence across scales and species, which the pioneering naturalist John Muir so memorably captured a century earlier in his assertion that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” A decade before Rachel Carson awakened the modern environmental conscience, Wiener considers the larger planetary costs of humanity’s “progress”:

What many of us fail to realize is that the last four hundred years are a highly special period in the history of the world. The pace at which changes during these years have taken place is unexampled in earlier history, as is the very nature of these changes. This is partly the result of increased communication, but also of an increased mastery over nature which, on a limited planet like the earth, may prove in the long run to be an increased slavery to nature… We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in this new environment. We can no longer live in the old one. Progress imposes not only new possibilities for the future but new restrictions… May we have the courage to face the eventual doom of our civilization as we have the courage to face the certainty of our personal doom. The simple faith in progress is not a conviction belonging to strength, but one belonging to acquiescence and hence to weakness.

[…]

The new industrial revolution is a two-edged sword… It may be used for the benefit of humanity, but only if humanity survives long enough to enter a period in which such a benefit is possible. It may also be used to destroy humanity, and if it is not used intelligently it can go very far in that direction.

Three decades later, the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas would articulate the flip side of the same sentiment in his beautiful meditation on the peril and possibility of progress: “We are in for one surprise after another if we keep at it and keep alive. We can build structures for human society never seen before, thoughts never thought before, music never heard before… Provided we do not kill ourselves off, and provided we can connect ourselves by the affection and respect for which I believe our genes are also coded, there is no end to what we might do on or off this planet.” Wiener’s most visionary point is that if we are to not only survive but thrive as a civilization and a species, we must encode these same values of affection and respect into our machines, our information systems, and our technologies of communication, so that “the new modalities are used for the benefit of man, for increasing his leisure and enriching his spiritual life, rather than merely for profits and the worship of the machine as a new brazen calf.”

Man as Industrial Palace (1926) by infographics pioneer Fritz Kahn

More than a century after Mary Shelley raised these enduring questions of innovation and responsibility in Frankenstein, Wiener offers a sentiment of astonishing prescience and relevance to the artificial intelligence precipice on which we now stand, in an era when algorithms are deciding for us what we read, where we go, and how much of reality we see:

The machine’s danger to society is not from the machine itself but from what man makes of it.

[…]

The modern man, and especially the modern American, however much “know-how” he may have, has very little “know-what.” He will accept the superior dexterity of the machine-made decisions with out too much inquiry as to the motives and principles behind these… Any machine constructed for the purpose of making decisions, if it does not possess the power of learning, will be completely literalminded. Woe to us if we let it decide our conduct, unless we have previously examined the laws of its action, and know fully that its conduct will be carried out on principles acceptable to us! On the other hand, the machine [that] can learn and can make decisions on the basis of its learning, will in no way be obliged to make such decisions as we should have made, or will be acceptable to us. For the man who is not aware of this, to throw the problem of his responsibility on the machine, whether it can learn or not, is to cast his responsibility to the winds, and to find it coming back seated on the whirlwind.

At the heart of Wiener’s decades-old book is a point of great timelessness and great urgency, which ought to be inscribed on the mental motherboard of every coder, technologist, and entrepreneur. Eight years after the trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer considered how the questions we ask shape the answers we give and the world we build, he writes:

When human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human beings, but as cogs and levers and rods, it matters little that their raw material is flesh and blood. What is used as an element in a machine, is in fact an element in the machine. Whether we entrust our decisions to machines of metal, or to those machines of flesh and blood which are bureaus and vast laboratories and armies and corporations, we shall never receive the right answers to our questions unless we ask the right questions.

Precisely because our existence is so improbable against the backdrop of a universe governed by entropy, it is imbued with a singular responsibility — a responsibility that is the source and succor of meaning in human life. In a sentiment which the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska would later echo, Wiener writes:

It is quite conceivable that life belongs to a limited stretch of time; that before the earliest geological ages it did not exist, and that the time may well come when the earth is again a lifeless, burnt-out, or frozen planet. To those of us who are aware of the extremely limited range of physical conditions under which the chemical reactions necessary to life as we know it can take place, it is a foregone conclusion that the lucky accident which permits the continuation of life in any form on this earth, even without restricting life to something like human life, is bound to come to a complete and disastrous end. Yet we may succeed in framing our values so that this temporary accident of living existence, and this much more temporary accident of human existence, may be taken as all-important positive values, notwithstanding their fugitive character.

In a very real sense we are shipwrecked passengers on a doomed planet. Yet even in a shipwreck, human decencies and human values do not necessarily vanish, and we must make the most of them. We shall go down, but let it be in a manner to which we may look forward as worthy of our dignity.

Nearly a century later, The Human Use of Human Beings remains an immensely insightful and increasingly relevant read. Complement it with the great cellist Pablo Casals on making our world worthy of its children, then revisit Thomas Merton’s beautiful letter to Rachel Carson about technology, wisdom, and the difficult art of civilizational self-awareness.

BP

Optimism: A Poetic Stop-Motion Celebration of Nature’s Resilience and the Persistence of Life Against All Odds

A spare and lovely ode to that which we so easily forget yet which animates the center of existence.

Optimism: A Poetic Stop-Motion Celebration of Nature’s Resilience and the Persistence of Life Against All Odds

One spring morning in 2017, walking along a San Francisco sidewalk, I was arrested by the sight of a tiny weed poking through the crevice between a concrete wall and a chain link fence, boldly blooming in its yellow gramophone blossoms. I stood there marveling at its persistence, remembering Gwendolyn Brooks’s beautiful lines: “Wherever life can grow, it will. / It will sprout out, / and do the best it can.”

Poetry was on my mind that day — I was in the final stages of composing the inaugural Universe in Verse and was on my way to meet the poet and ordained Buddhist Jane Hirshfield, whose work I had cherished for years and who had kindly contributed to the program her mighty protest poem about the silencing of science and nature.

A year passed. When I invited Jane to participate in the second annual Universe in Verse, we chose her spare and lovely poem “Optimism” for the show. Perhaps because it is thematically kindred, or perhaps because adjacent memories so often get enmeshed when encoded, it instantly reminded me of the irrepressible yellow blossoms I had seen the day Jane and I first met. I had a sudden vision of brining the poem to life in an animated stop-motion short film playing with this idea of the improbable and inhospitable environments in which life, against all odds, persists — the raw optimism of nature.

I enlisted the imaginative help of artist, designer, papercraft engineer, and my longtime collaborator Kelli Anderson — a wrester of wonder from ordinary objects and creator of the wondrous This Books Is a Planetarium — and sent her a photograph of the little yellow weed that had germinated the idea, inviting her to explore this concept with her masterly paper engineering.

Kelli Anderson: “Optimism” process.
Kelli Anderson: “Optimism” process.
Kelli Anderson: “Optimism” process.

Kelli poured tremendous time, thought, and craftsmanship into creating a set of delicate, exquisitely engineered paper weeds, then setting them to “grow” in various real-world urban environments around Brooklyn — crawling along a brick wall, sprouting through concrete, blooming in a pavement crack — to the sound of Jane reading her splendid poem and a cello score by Zoë Keating, who was also part of The Universe in Verse. The resulting short film is a collaborative labor of love, celebrating a simple truth we so easily forget, yet a truth that animates the center of existence:

OPTIMISM
by Jane Hirshfield

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth.

“Optimism” appears in Jane Hirshfield’s altogether spirit-quenching Each Happiness Ringed by Lions: Selected Poems (public library).

Find more highlights from The Universe in Verse here, including actor and activist America Ferrera reading Denise Levertov’s poem about our conflicted relationship with nature and astrophysicist Janna Levin reading of Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, inspired by Carl Sagan, then revisit Zadie Smith on optimism and despair.

BP

Pioneering Mathematician G.H. Hardy on the Noblest Existential Ambition and How We Find Our Purpose

“If a man has any genuine talent he should be ready to make almost any sacrifice in order to cultivate it to the full.”

Pioneering Mathematician G.H. Hardy on the Noblest Existential Ambition and How We Find Our Purpose

“Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied,” Zadie Smith counseled in the tenth of her ten rules of writing — a tenet that applies with equally devastating precision to every realm of creative endeavor, be it poetry or mathematics. Bertrand Russell addressed this Faustian bargain of ambition in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the four desires motivating all human behavior: “Man differs from other animals in one very important respect, and that is that he has some desires which are, so to speak, infinite, which can never be fully gratified, and which would keep him restless even in Paradise. The boa constrictor, when he has had an adequate meal, goes to sleep, and does not wake until he needs another meal. Human beings, for the most part, are not like this.”

Ten years earlier, the English mathematician and number theory pioneer G.H. Hardy (February 7, 1877–December 1, 1947) — an admirer of Russell’s — examined the nature of this elemental human restlessness in his altogether fascinating 1940 book-length essay A Mathematician’s Apology (public library).

G.H. Hardy

In considering the value of mathematics as a field of study and “the proper justification of a mathematician’s life,” Hardy offers a broader meditation on how we find our sense of purpose and arrive at our vocation. Addressing “readers who are full, or have in the past been full, of a proper spirit of ambition,” Hardy writes in an era when every woman was colloquially “man”:

A man who is always asking “Is what I do worth while?” and “Am I the right person to do it?” will always be ineffective himself and a discouragement to others. He must shut his eyes a little and think a little more of his subject and himself than they deserve. This is not too difficult: it is harder not to make his subject and himself ridiculous by shutting his eyes too tightly.

[…]

A man who sets out to justify his existence and his activities has to distinguish two different questions. The first is whether the work which he does is worth doing; and the second is why he does it, whatever its value may be. The first question is often very difficult, and the answer very discouraging, but most people will find the second easy enough even then. Their answers, if they are honest, will usually take one or other of two forms; and the second form is a merely a humbler variation of the first, which is the only answer we need consider seriously.

Most people, Hardy argues, answer the first question by pointing to a natural aptitude that led them to a vocation predicated on that particular aptitude — the lawyer became a lawyer because she naturally excels at eloquent counter-argument, the cricketer a cricketer because he has a natural gift for cricket. In what may sound like an ungenerous sentiment but is indeed statistically accurate, Hardy adds:

I am not suggesting that this is a defence which can be made by most people, since most people can do nothing at all well. But it is impregnable when it can be made without absurdity, as it can by a substantial minority: perhaps five or even ten percent of men can do something rather well. It is a tiny minority who can do something really well, and the number of men who can do two things well is negligible. If a man has any genuine talent he should be ready to make almost any sacrifice in order to cultivate it to the full.

Illustration by artist Hugh Lieber from Human Values and Science, Art and Mathematics by mathematician Lillian Lieber

But while talent exists in varying degrees within each field of endeavor, Hardy notes that the fields themselves occupy a hierarchy of value — different activities offer different degrees of benefit to society. And yet most people, he argues, choose their occupation not on the basis of its absolute value but on the basis of their greatest natural aptitude relative to their other abilities. (Not to do so, after all, renders one the faintly smoking chimney in Van Gogh’s famous lament about unrealized talent: “Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.”) Hardy writes:

I would rather be a novelist or a painter than a statesman of similar rank; and there are many roads to fame which most of us would reject as actively pernicious. Yet it is seldom that such differences of value will turn the scale in a man’s choice of a career, which will almost always be dictated by the limitations of his natural abilities. Poetry is more valuable than cricket, but [the champion cricketer Don] Bradman [whose test batting average is considered the greatest achievement of any sportsman] would be a fool if he sacrificed his cricket in order to write second-rate minor poetry (and I suppose that it is unlikely that he could do better). If the cricket were a little less supreme, and the poetry better, then the choice might be more difficult… It is fortunate that such dilemmas are so seldom.

Presaging the ominous twenty-first-century trend of talented mathematicians and physicists swallowed by Silicon Valley for lucrative jobs ranging from the uninspired to the downright pernicious, Hardy adds:

If a man is in any sense a real mathematician, then it is a hundred to one that his mathematics will be far better than anything else he can do, and that he would be silly if he surrendered any decent opportunity of exercising his one talent in order to do undistinguished work in other fields. Such a sacrifice could be justified only by economic necessity or age.

[…]

Every young mathematician of real talent whom I have known has been faithful to mathematics, and not from lack of ambition but from abundance of it; they have all recognized that there, if anywhere, lay the road to a life of any distinction.

Ambition, he argues, has been the motive force behind nearly everything we value as a civilization — every significant breakthrough in art and science, “all substantial contributions to human happiness.” (George Orwell, too, pointed to personal ambition as the first of the four universal motives of great writers.) But while various ambitions can possess us, ranging from the vain and greedy to the most elevated and idealistic, Hardy points to one as the crowning achievement of the purposeful life:

Ambition is a noble passion which may legitimately take many forms… but the noblest ambition is that of leaving behind something of permanent value.

In the remainder of A Mathematician’s Apology, Hardy goes on to explore the particular aspects of mathematics that make it a pursuit of permanent value. Complement this particular portion with Dostoyevsky on the difference between artistic ambition and the ego, David Foster Wallace on the double-edged sword of ambition, and Georgia O’Keeffe on setting priorities for success.

BP

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