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Joan Didion on Learning Not to Mistake Self-Righteousness for Morality

“When we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something … but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen.”

Joan Didion on Learning Not to Mistake Self-Righteousness for Morality

“To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention,” Susan Sontag wrote in what remains some of the finest advice on writing and life. But if beneath the world “morality,” as James Baldwin asserted, “we are confronted with the way we treat each other,” then to be a moral human being requires an especial attentiveness to other human beings and their subjective realities. In consequence, any true morality is the diametric opposite of self-righteousness — the very thing that so often masquerades for morality.

That paradox is what Joan Didion (b. December 5, 1934), a writer who has spent a lifetime mirroring us back to ourselves, examines with characteristic incisiveness in a short 1965 essay titled “On Morality,” found in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (public library) — the classic 1968 essay collection that gave us Didion on keeping a notebook and her timeless meditation on self-respect.

Joan Didion, 1977 (Photograph: Mary Lloyd Estrin)

With an eye to our tendency to mistake for morality what is indeed a “monstrous perversion” of the ego, Didion writes:

“I followed my own conscience.” “I did what I thought was right.” How many madmen have said it and meant it? How many murderers? Klaus Fuchs said it, and the men who committed the Mountain Meadows Massacre said it, and Alfred Rosenberg said it. And, as we are rotely and rather presumptuously reminded by those who would say it now, Jesus said it. Maybe we have all said it, and maybe we have been wrong. Except on that most primitive level — our loyalties to those we love — what could be more arrogant than to claim the primacy of personal conscience?

Half a century later, Didion’s point seems all the more disquieting amid our present culture, where the filter bubble of our loyalties has rendered in-group/out-group divisiveness all the more primitive and where we combat our constant terror of coming unmoored from our certitudes by succumbing to unbridled self-righteousness under the pretext of morality. Didion considers how this tendency has made us less moral rather than more:

You see I want to be quite obstinate about insisting that we have no way of knowing — beyond that fundamental loyalty to the social code — what is “right” and what is “wrong,” what is “good” and what “evil.” I dwell so upon this because the most disturbing aspect of “morality” seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears; in the press, on television, in the most perfunctory kinds of conversation. Questions of straightforward power (or survival) politics, questions of quite indifferent public policy, questions of almost anything: they are all assigned these factitious moral burdens. There is something facile going on, some self-indulgence at work.

In a passage of excruciating timeliness today, as we fling our self-righteousnesses at each other from the two-finger slingshot of what was once the peace sign, Didion adds:

Of course we would all like to “believe” in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is all right to do that; that is how, immemorially, things have gotten done. But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum, do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with “morality.” Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem remains an indispensable read. Complement this particular fragment with Mark Twain on morality vs. the intellect, artist Ann Truitt on the cure for our chronic self-righteousness and James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe’s forgotten conversation about morality, then revisit Didion on grief, Hollywood’s diversity problem, and her all-time favorite books.

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Stitching the Stars: Trailblazing Astronomer Maria Mitchell on the Needle as an Instrument of the Mind and Why Women Are Better Suited for Astronomy Than Men

“The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer.”

Stitching the Stars: Trailblazing Astronomer Maria Mitchell on the Needle as an Instrument of the Mind and Why Women Are Better Suited for Astronomy Than Men

In preparing for my conversation with the wonderful artist and philosopher of forms Ann Hamilton, I came upon a striking passage from one of her exhibition catalogs. In contemplating sewing as an act of listening — already a revelatory proposition — Hamilton writes:

The interval between stitches seaming two surfaces together is thinking at the pace of the body. Busy hands make a space that allows attention to wander. Productive wandering is how projects are made.

This beautiful passage reminded me not only of Rebecca Solnit’s parallel point about walking and the pace of the mind, but of the long history of such thinking-by-hand in the intellectual life of women. There was pioneering 18th-century astronomer Caroline Herschel, who spent her mornings in needlework as she revolutionized women’s role in science by night. There was physicist Lise Meitner, who opened up academia for women in the 19th century and who conducted her first empirical crusade against superstition as a little girl, with needle in hand.

But the most exquisite case for the needle as an instrument of the mind comes from the diaries of trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) — the first professional woman astronomer in America, the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the first woman hired by the United States federal government for a “specialized nondomestic skill” in her capacity as “computer of Venus,” a one-woman GPS guiding sailors around the world, and the tireless educator who paved the way for American women in science.

In a diary entry from 1878, her sixtieth year, Mitchell writes:

Nothing comes out more clearly in astronomical observations than the immense activity of the universe. “All change, no loss, ’tis revolution all.”

Observations of this kind are peculiarly adapted to women. Indeed, all astronomical observing seems to be so fitted. The training of a girl fits her for delicate work. The touch of her fingers upon the delicate screws of an astronomical instrument might become wonderfully accurate in results; a woman’s eyes are trained to nicety of color. The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer. Routine observations, too, dull as they are, are less dull than the endless repetition of the same pattern in crochet-work.

A girl’s eye is trained from early childhood to be keen. The first stitches of the sewing-work of a little child are about as good as those of the mature man. The taking of small stitches, involving minute and equable measurements of space, is a part of every girl’s training; she becomes skilled, before she is aware of it, in one of the nicest peculiarities of astronomical observation… The touch is a delicate sense given in exquisite degree to a girl, and her training comes in to its aid. She threads a needle almost as soon as she speaks… Then comes in the girl’s habit of patient and quiet work, peculiarly fitted to routine observations. The girl who can stitch from morning to night would find two or three hours in the observatory a relief.

Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866
Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866

Complement with the heartening story of how Mitchell herself applied this herculean patience and delicate skill in repairing a spider’s web, then revisit artist Judy Chicago’s iconic embroidered celebration of women’s place in creative culture.

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This Is Not a Picture Book: An Irreverent Illustrated Ode to Why We Read

Charming cartography for the emotional voyages on which books take us.

This Is Not a Picture Book: An Irreverent Illustrated Ode to Why We Read

“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful meditation on why we read and write. And yet while the seed may be fertilized by the reader’s imagination, the soil is tilled by the simple practical act of deciphering small marks on a page or screen and wresting from them meaning. Despite Hermann Hesse’s exquisite case for why the highest form of reading is non-reading, we can only non-read after we read — the willingness for reading is the seedbed of whatever potential the book may release in us.

But today, as the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture is displacing the contemplative intimacy of the written word, with nuanced texts reduced to Instagram images of out-of-context quotes, how are we to instill in the young the willingness to garden their own minds in the act of reading?

That’s what Brooklyn-based Italian comic artist Sergio Ruzzier explores with sympathetic warmth and levity in This is not a picture book! (public library).

The story begins with the androgynous duck protagonist stumbling upon a book with no pictures and being at first baffled, then thoroughly vexed by this strange and seemingly senseless object.

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But as the duck skeptically engages with the book, words — some difficult, some familiar — come alive into worlds.

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Entire emotional landscapes unfold — now joyful, now sorrowful, now wild — as the duck slowly surrenders to the book and lets it carry her away before depositing her into the familiar comfort of her own bed: a beautiful testament to C.S. Lewis’s notion that books both change us and make us more at home in ourselves.

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Complement This is not a picture book! with Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston’s spectacular A Child of Books, then revisit Proust on why we read and Neil Gaiman on what books do for the human spirit.

Illustrations © Sergio Ruzzier courtesy of Chronicle Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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