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Iris Murdoch on Causality, Chance, and How Love Gives Meaning to Human Existence

“Everything that is important and valuable and good belongs with the little piece of us which is not mechanical.”

Iris Murdoch on Causality, Chance, and How Love Gives Meaning to Human Existence

In the mid-1960s, a rebellious twenty-something sculptor named Rachel Brown became infatuated with her RCA thesis supervisor — the great Irish novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999). An intense emotional relationship developed between the two women, but Murdoch considered it a friendship while Brown yearned for more and grew increasingly forlorn. She eventually married and became Rachel Fenner, but her depression — perhaps predictably — only deepened.

In the spring of 1967, about to go into therapy seeking relief from her lovesickness, Fenner reached out to Murdoch for solace. In a letter found in Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch, 1934–1995 (public library) — which also gave us her intensely beautiful love letters — Murdoch offers a brief and brilliant meditation on causality, chance, how love gives meaning to existence, and why every aspect of it, including the difficult and seemingly unbearable, is essential to our human wholeness.

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She writes on May 28, 1967:

Causality and chance … are the same things looked at two ways. Of course we are rather mechanical, and psychoanalysis can offer us some useful generalities about ourselves. But everything that is important and valuable and good belongs with the little piece of us which is not mechanical and no one who is not bemused by philosophy or a youthful mood really doubts the existence of this piece.

I think the sage who saw us as naturally reaching out towards the good had got something. We know, in the best part of ourselves, to use Platonic language, that great art is good, that work is often good and love often good. And if we have any certainties in the human condition these are they, and much more evident certainties than semi-philosophical stuff about all is flux. Of course much is flux, perhaps most is flux — but there is the other small thing and by this and in this one lives — I think almost involuntarily. (It’s very bad really to believe that certain aspects of love in one’s life are meaningless or worthless.)

In an earlier letter to Fenner, Murdoch had articulated the kernel of the same truth:

Love is better than no love, though it can hurt so much.

Cognizant of the paradox of trying to move the heart through the intellect, Murdoch sends a short note to Fenner the following day, May 29:

Rachel, just a PS to send love. I fear my metaphysical letter won’t have been exactly cheering. One is very chemical really, and if one is depressed, words, such words anyway, may seem pretty empty. Though actually you seem to me to be elated as much as depressed at present. These winds blow to and fro when one is young and when one is an artist.

Fenner went on to become an acclaimed sculptor, painter, and environmental artist.

Living on Paper is a magnificent read in its entirety, brimming with Murdoch’s bewitchingly articulated wisdom on life, literature, and love. Complement this particular portion with philosopher Alain Badiou on how chance and causality conspire in why we fall and stay in love, then revisit Murdoch’s love letters.

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Walt Whitman on Donald Trump, How Literature Bolsters Democracy, and Why a Robust Society Is a Feminist Society

“America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without… Always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote.”

Walt Whitman on Donald Trump, How Literature Bolsters Democracy, and Why a Robust Society Is a Feminist Society

In 1855, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) made his debut as a poet and self-published Leaves of Grass. Amid the disheartening initial reception of pervasive indifference pierced by a few shrieks of criticism, the young poet received an extraordinary letter of praise and encouragement from his idol — Ralph Waldo Emerson, the era’s most powerful literary tastemaker. This gesture of tremendous generosity was a creative life-straw for the dispirited artist, who soon became one of the nation’s most celebrated writers and went on to be remembered as America’s greatest poet.

In the late 1860, working as a federal clerk and approaching his fiftieth birthday, Whitman grew increasingly concerned that America’s then-young democracy had grown in danger of belying the existential essentials of the human spirit. He voiced his preoccupations in a masterful and lengthy essay titled Democratic Vistas, later included in the indispensable Library of America volume Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (free ebook | public library).

Both Whitman’s spirited critique of American democracy and his proposed solution — which calls for an original and ennobling national body of literature as the means to cultivating the people’s mentality, character, and ideals — ring remarkably true today, perhaps even truer amid our modern disenchantment and dearth of idealism, accentuated by the spectacle of an election season.

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Literature, Whitman argues, constructs the scaffolding of society’s values and “has become the only general means of morally influencing the world” — its archetypal characters shape the moral character and political ideals of a culture. Long after the political structures of the ancient world have crumbled, he reminds us, what remains of Ancient Greece and Rome and the other great civilizations is their literature. He writes:

At all times, perhaps, the central point in any nation, and that whence it is itself really sway’d the most, and whence it sways others, is its national literature, especially its archetypal poems. Above all previous lands, a great original literature is surely to become the justification and reliance, (in some respects the sole reliance,) of American democracy. Few are aware how the great literature penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals, and, after subtle ways, with irresistible power, constructs, sustains, demolishes at will.

[…]

In the civilization of to-day it is undeniable that, over all the arts, literature dominates, serves beyond all — shapes the character of church and school — or, at any rate, is capable of doing so. Including the literature of science, its scope is indeed unparallel’d.

Illustration by Allen Crawford from Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself

Lamenting the vacant materialism of consumer society, Whitman writes:

We had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ’d in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ’d in.

[…]

Our New World democracy, however great a success in uplifting the masses out of their sloughs, in materialistic development, products, and in a certain highly-deceptive superficial popular intellectuality, is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects, and in really grand religious, moral, literary, and esthetic results… In vain have we annex’d Texas, California, Alaska, and reach north for Canada and south for Cuba. It is as if we were somehow being endow’d with a vast and more and more thoroughly-appointed body, and then left with little or no soul.

[…]

To take expression, to incarnate, to endow a literature with grand and archetypal models — to fill with pride and love the utmost capacity, and to achieve spiritual meanings, and suggest the future — these, and these only, satisfy the soul. We must not say one word against real materials; but the wise know that they do not become real till touched by emotions, the mind.

The savior of the nation’s soul, Whitman insists, is not the politician but the artist:

Should some two or three really original American poets, (perhaps artists or lecturers,) arise, mounting the horizon like planets, stars of the first magnitude, that, from their eminence, fusing contributions, races, far localities, &c., together they would give more compaction and more moral identity, (the quality to-day most needed,) to these States, than all its Constitutions, legislative and judicial ties, and all its hitherto political, warlike, or materialistic experiences.

Art by Maurice Sendak from his 1993 masterwork We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, his darkest yet most hopeful book

In a sentiment that makes one shudder imagining what the poet would’ve made of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, Whitman writes:

I know nothing grander, better exercise, better digestion, more positive proof of the past, the triumphant result of faith in human kind, than a well-contested American national election.

[…]

America, it may be, is doing very well upon the whole, notwithstanding these antics of the parties and their leaders, these half-brain’d nominees, the many ignorant ballots, and many elected failures and blatherers. It is the dilettantes, and all who shirk their duty, who are not doing well… America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without.

The sole antidote, Whitman reminds us, lies in our own hands and the ballots they hold — in not shirking our duty as voters. He shares his advice to the young:

Enter more strongly yet into politics… Always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote.

Illustration by Allen Crawford from Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself

The role of government and those in power, he argues, is not to rule by authority alone — the mark of dictatorship rather than democracy — but “to train communities … beginning with individuals and ending there again, to rule themselves.” Above all, the task of democratic leadership is to bind “all nations, all men, of however various and distant lands, into a brotherhood, a family.” Many decades before women won the right to vote and long before Nikola Tesla’s feminist vision for humanity, Whitman argues that a robust democracy is one in which women are fully empowered and included in that “brotherhood” on equal terms:

I have sometimes thought … that the sole avenue and means of a reconstructed sociology depended, primarily, on a new birth, elevation, expansion, invigoration of woman… Great, great, indeed, far greater than they know, is the sphere of women.

Reflecting on the perils of inequality in any guise, for any group, he adds:

Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn — they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.

The supreme tool of reconstructing a more equal society, Whitman asserts, is literature — a body of literature that gives voice to the underrepresented, that elevates and expands and invigorates their spirits by mirroring them back to themselves as indelibly worthy of belonging to society. (I’m reminded of a contemporary counterpart: Jacqueline Woodson on why she writes characters of color.)

Whitman writes:

A new founded literature, not merely to copy and reflect existing surfaces, or pander to what is called taste … but a literature underlying life, religious, consistent with science, handling the elements and forces with competent power, teaching and training men — and, as perhaps the most precious of its results, achieving the entire redemption of woman … and thus insuring to the States a strong and sweet Female Race… — is what is needed.

But Whitman’s most pertinent point is that true dedication to democracy isn’t a mere fleeting fixture of election season. Rather, it permeates the very fabric of society and must be upheld in every aspect of our lives, at every moment — something best effected by literature:

Far, far, indeed, stretch, in distance, our Vistas! How much is still to be disentangled, freed! How long it takes to make this American world see that it is, in itself, the final authority and reliance! Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruits in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men, and their beliefs — in religion, literature, colleges, and schools — democracy in all public and private life.

[…]

The literature, songs, esthetics, &c., of a country are of importance principally because they furnish the materials and suggestions of personality for the women and men of that country, and enforce them in a thousand effective ways.

Democratic Vistas is a stirring and magnificently timely read in its entirety, as is all of Whitman’s Poetry and Prose. Complement it with James Baldwin and Margaret Mead on reimagining democracy for a post-consumerist culture, Carl Sagan on science as a tool of democracy, and Adrienne Rich on capitalism and freedom, then revisit Whitman’s raunchy ode to New York City and this beautiful illustrated tribute to his “Song of Myself.”

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Artist Agnes Martin on Inspiration, Interruptions, Cultivating a Creative Atmosphere, and the Only Type of Person You Should Allow Into Your Studio

“The development of sensibility is the most important thing for children and adults alike, but is much more possible for children…. Adults are very busy, taught to run all the time. You cannot run and be very aware of your inspirations.”

Artist Agnes Martin on Inspiration, Interruptions, Cultivating a Creative Atmosphere, and the Only Type of Person You Should Allow Into Your Studio

During my annual surrender to a week of forced extroversion, I was acutely reminded of the perils of interruption in creative work. Although studies of the psychology of the optimal creative environment indicate that some artists and writers thrive when surrounded by stimulation, most creative work requires unburdened space and uninterrupted time for what Mary Oliver calls “that wild, silky part of ourselves” — also known by its commonplace name, inspiration — to reveal itself.

The nature of that wild, silky part and the conditions that best coax it forth is what the great artist Agnes Martin (March 22, 1912–December 16, 2004) examines with uncommon insight in her handwritten notes for a student lecture, included in the magnificent monograph Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances (public library), edited by Martin’s longtime friend and Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher.

Agnes Martin at her studio in New Mexico, 1953 (Photograph: Mildred Tolbert)
Agnes Martin at her studio in New Mexico, 1953 (Photograph: Mildred Tolbert)

Martin begins with the often troublesome relationship between the artist’s ego and the artist’s art:

I have sometimes, in my mind, put myself ahead of my work and have suffered in consequence. I thought me, me and I suffered and the work suffered and for that I suffered more. I thought I was important. I was taught to think that. I looked very big and the work small. But now I see it quite differently. To think I am big and the work big, the position of pride, is not possible and to think I am small and the work small, the position of modesty, is not possible.

The only possible position for creative work, Martin suggests, is the position of inspiration, which she considers “the beginning and end of all art work.” For this notoriously elusive grab-bag concept she offers the crispest yet most expansive definition I have yet encountered:

An inspiration is a happy moment that takes us by surprise.

Many people are so startled by an inspiration or a condition of inspiration, which is so different from daily care, that they think that they are unique in having had it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Inspiration is there all the time for anyone whose mind is not covered over with thoughts and concerns, and [it is] used by everyone whether they realize it or not.

[…]

It is an untroubled state of mind. Of course, we know that an untroubled state of mind cannot last, so we say that inspiration comes and goes, but it is there all the time waiting for us to be untroubled again. We can therefore say that it is pervasive.

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In a sentiment that echoes and adds dimension to Picasso’s famous proclamation that every child is an artist, Martin considers how our relationship with inspiration evolves over the course of a lifetime:

Young children have more time in which they are untroubled than adults. They have therefore more inspirations than adults. The moments of inspiration added together make what we refer to as sensibility — defined in the dictionary as “response to higher feelings.” The development of sensibility is the most important thing for children and adults alike, but is much more possible for children.

But inspiration, Martin argues, cannot be controlled or willed — it can only be surrendered to. She illustrates this by way of the child:

What is the experience of the small child in the dirt? He suddenly feels happy, rolls in the dirt probably, feels free, laughs and runs and falls. His face is shining… “The light was extraordinary, the feeling was extraordinary” is the way in which many adults describe moments of inspiration. Although they have had them all their lives they never really recall them and are always taken by surprise. Adults are very busy, taught to run all the time. You cannot run and be very aware of your inspirations.

It’s a sentiment that pierces our modern condition and calls Kierkegaard to mind — as he contemplated our greatest source of unhappiness more than a century earlier, the Danish philosopher lamented: “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.” To counter this ridiculousness, Martin urges artists to create a sanctuary for inspiration — a space devoid of busyness and dedicated to unburdened clarity of mind, with “no telephone,” where one is “to be disturbed only if the house is burning.” A century and a half after Delacroix admonished against social distractions in creative work, she counsels aspiring artists:

A studio is not a place in which to talk to friends. You will hate your friends if they destroy the atmosphere of your studio. As an artist you will have to try and live with inspiration. You are not like the little boy in the dirt free and open. The whole world which you now know intrudes. It is almost hopeless to expect clarity of mind. It is hopeless if your studio atmosphere cannot be preserved.

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But there is one kind of person who should be allowed, even invited, into the artist’s studio — the kind that calls to mind Patti Smith’s notion of those who magnify your spirit. Martin writes:

There are some people to be allowed into the studio, however, who will not destroy the atmosphere but will bring encouragement and who are an absolute necessity in the field of art. They are not personal friends. Personal friends are a different thing entirely and should be met in cafés. They are Friends of Art.

Friends of art are people with very highly developed sensibilities whose inspiration leads them to devote their lives to the promotion of art work and to bringing it before the public.

Such “friends of art,” Martin argues, bring with them a highly attuned intuition — intuition being, of course, merely the accretion of experience-encoded discernment — which can help guide the artist closer to his or her own truth:

When they come to see the work it is not to judge it but to enjoy it… When these friends of art come to your studio they should be treated as honored guests, otherwise you will destroy the atmosphere of your studio yourself. If you are not ready to do this, be sure to wait till you are ready. The premature showing of work when you are perhaps struggling and even fighting is an unnecessary suffering. You will know when you are really ready.

Because the studio should be a sacred space for the untroubled mind, Martin recommends avoiding physical clutter in order to prevent mental clutter:

You must clean and arrange your studio in a way that will forward a quiet state of mind. This cautious care of atmosphere is really needed to show respect for the work. Respect for art work and everything connected with it, one’s own and that of everyone else, must be maintained and forwarded. No disrespect, carelessness or ego [and] selfishness must be allowed to interfere if it can be prevented. Indifference and antagonism are easily detected — you should take such people out immediately. Just turning the paintings to the wall is not enough. You yourself should not go to your studio in an indifferent or fighting mood.

Couple the beautiful and revelatory Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances, which features gorgeous reproductions of her most celebrated artwork alongside previously unpublished interviews, essays, and meditations, with Martin on art, pride, failure, and happiness, then revisit Tchaikovsky on work ethic vs. inspiration and Bob Dylan on the ideal conditions for creative work.

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