The Power of Perception and Critical Imagination: Alfred Kazin on Embracing Contradiction and How the Sacredness of Human Attention Shapes Our Reality
“The day, the living day, the actual moment, the pang of real life, — to be faithful to this, one must always pay attention, one must never dismiss anything a priori as too trivial.”
By Maria Popova
“Reality is what we take to be true,” pioneering physicist David Bohm asserted in 1977. “What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.”
How our perception shapes our experience of reality, and how that can be a source of power, is what the great Jewish-American writer and literary critic Alfred Kazin (June 5, 1915–June 5, 1998) explored twenty years earlier in a series of entires from Alfred Kazin’s Journals (public library) — an immensely rewarding trove of wisdom in the tradition of the journals of Thoreau, André Gide, Anne Truitt, and Susan Sontag, which endure as a sort of secular scripture and to which I return for comfort, consolation, and emboldenment in trying times.
Radiating from Kazin’s unrelenting introspection is uncommon insight into the human spirit and a willingness to contact, even to embrace, all of its dimensions — the awe and the anguish, the exultant and the exasperating, all of it riding acrest an ebbing undercurrent of imperfection.
Three days before his forty-second birthday, Kazin writes:
Trust to the contradictions and see them all. Never annul one force to give supremacy to another. The contradiction itself is the reality in all its manifoldness. Man from his vantage point can see reality only in contradictions. And the more faithful he is to his perception of the contradiction, the more he is open to what there is for him to know. “Harmony” as an absolute good is for the gods, not for man.
Cautioning against chasing the myth of harmony — a myth advanced, perhaps most famously, by Emerson and woven into the fabric of modern culture in tyrannical ideals like “work/life balance” — Kazin writes:
A thinker (like [Ralph Waldo Emerson]) misleads us as soon as he promotes harmony as the exclusive goal, and especially misleads us when he preaches harmony as a method. Man’s life is full of contradiction and he must be; we see through a glass darkly — we want more than we can have; we see more than we can understand. But a contradiction that is faced leads to true knowledge… Contradictions are on the surface, the symbols of deeper and more fertile forces that can unleash the most marvelous energy when they are embraced. Never try to achieve “order,” sacrifice symmetry — seek to relate all these antagonistic forces, not to let the elimination of one to the other. The idea of “God” as perfect order is perilous to man as an ideal, for us to follow…
The same perilous resistance to contradiction, Kazin observes in another entry penned the following month, is what undergirds our cult of self-improvement. Half a century before the heyday of self-help books and websites, which commodify human life as a problem to be solved rather than a glorious mystery to be savored, he writes:
The other day … I suddenly realized, with a shudder almost … how easy it is to fall into the other-imposed trap of trying endlessly to correct and reform oneself, in accordance with this and that, one’s idea of the right person to be, when all the time, one is not merely “stuck” with oneself, as one is rightly enough, but one suffers from constrictedness, from reaction, from the million-and-one reasons, so boringly personified around one in one’s contemporaries and half-friends and stupid, genteel colleagues, who are always telling us over again that man is bad and sinful!
Kazin’s journal is strewn with this restless search for self-generated sacredness — for a source of goodness and meaning not imposed from without, be it by spiritual mythology or by secular society, but synthesized from within. It comes most acutely alive in an entry penned earlier that year, in which Kazin reflects on Auden’s notion of “sacred objects” — catalysts for awe, which inspire the basic impulse to make art — and writes:
Without worship, without respect, without wonder, without the great work with which our wonder and awe plunge us, what is there — what?
But the “modern” epoch is precisely that in which each of us must discover our gods for ourselves. This is why so much in our language reverts to the idea of a fall, a descent. As Satan fell, to rise again as a prince of life, so we fall into this maelstrom, this madness — this world in which nothing any longer is given to us — to discover, in pain and awe, our own sacred objects.
Like those of us who choose to live with what philosopher Erich Fromm termed rational faith in the human spirit, Kazin was a resolute humanist who knew that beauty and goodness don’t merely befall us but come into being in the very act of our looking for them — nowhere more so than when it comes to our fellow human beings. In a diary entry from August of 1957, he contemplates an image by the legendary New York street photographer Weegee — who was doing half a century ago what Humans of New York‘s Brandon Stanton is doing now — and writes:
It is so important to keep the eye glued to the reality of the actual holiness! When I saw those Times Square faces in Weegee’s pictures yesterday, the women with that horrible fat and those indriven eyeglasses, I suddenly saw the beauty of the actual living hour in the human struggle of those faces — and of those faces alone. Somehow only the human being tells the story, only the human breath counts. The honor only the human heart ever knows… And even when the lonely transcendental heart stands poised upon an empty rock looking out to sea, it is this man, this mind, that makes the scene — not the rock and the sea, but the human eye that alone has united them. The human mind alone makes the radius to every point on the circumference, the great wheel on which we ride. The human eye alone unites the world — by perception…
Several weeks later, Kazin revisits the reality-shaping power of perception and suggests that how we choose to perceive the world is a centerpiece of our critical faculty; that a benevolent curiosity about our fellow humans is how we hold on to our own humanity. In an entry from September 28 of 1957, which resounds with remarkable timeliness amid our present cultural and political climate, he writes:
The critical imagination is distinguished by its voracious curiosity.
This retreat from curiosity, from interest in the outside world as continuously interesting, comes from our lack of politics, our lack of faith in the possibility of change.
That possibility, Kazin argues, must “start from the observer” — from the idea that one cannot “pretend [to be] a disembodied intelligence coolly reading the times.” Echoing Susan Sontag’s timeless assertion that in order to be a good writer and a moral human being one must “pay attention to the world,” Kazin considers yet another contradiction:
The problem, of course, is not to go too far the other way into introversion. And probably the safest path is always to think of the observer as a developing, living, growing agent, so that the self that is engaged in thinking out the world will feel itself growing only as the thoughts grow.
But meanwhile, the day, the living day, the actual moment, the pang of real life, — to be faithful to this, one must always pay attention, one must never dismiss anything a priori as too trivial. Nothing is too trivial, for what the writer may make of it.
Exactly two months later, he records his joyful surrender to this living, breathing world in an exultant counterpoint to our urban loneliness:
How alive the city is, how alive, how alive, how alive. Each of those windows has someone behind it, each of these streets is a current under my feet. A network of people, a living field — each grass a soul, each grass alive. So let us give thanks after all, and be glad, and rejoice. To be in life with so many people!
Alfred Kazin’s Journals is a tremendously vitalizing read in its six-decade totality. Complement it with Kazin on loneliness, the immigrant experience, and how reading liberates us, then revisit Emerson on how to live with maximum aliveness.