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Little Panic: A Literary Laboratory Exploring What It Is Like to Live in the Stranglehold of Anxiety and What It Takes to Break Free

“This terrible truth binds us all: fear there’s a single, unattainable, correct way to be human.”

Little Panic: A Literary Laboratory Exploring What It Is Like to Live in the Stranglehold of Anxiety and What It Takes to Break Free

“Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Alan Watts wrote in the early 1950s, nearly a quarter century before Thomas Nagel’s landmark essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” unlatched the study of other consciousnesses and seeded the disorienting awareness that other beings — “beings who walk other spheres,” to borrow Whitman’s wonderful term — experience this world we share in ways thoroughly alien to our own.

Today, we know that we need not step across the boundary of species to encounter such alien-seeming ways of inhabiting the world. There are innumerable ways of being human — we each experience life and reality in radically different ways merely by our way of seeing, but these differences are accentuated to an extreme when mental illness alters the elemental interiority of a consciousness. In these extreme cases, it can become impossible for even the most empathic imagination to grasp — not only cerebrally but with an embodied understanding — the slippery reality of an anguished consciousness so different from one’s own. Conversely, it can become impossible for those who share that anguish to articulate it, effecting an overwhelming sense of alienation and the false conviction that one is alone in one’s suffering. To convey that reality to those unbedeviled by such mental anguish, and to wrap language around its ineffable interiority for others who suffer silently from the same, is therefore a creative feat and existential service of the highest caliber.

That is what author, Happy Ending Music & Reading Series host, and my dear friend Amanda Stern accomplishes in Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life (public library) — part-memoir and part-portrait of a cruelly egalitarian affliction that cuts across all borders of age, gender, race, and class, clutching one’s entire reality and sense of self in a stranglehold that squeezes life out. What emerges is a sort of literary laboratory of consciousness, anatomizing an all-consuming yet elusive feeling-pattern to explore what it takes to break the tyranny of worry and what it means to feel at home in oneself.

Art by Catherine Lepange from Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind

Part of the splendor of the book is the way Stern unspools the thread of being to the very beginning, all the way to the small child predating conscious memory. In consonance with Maurice Sendak, who so passionately believed that a centerpiece of healthy adulthood is “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of,” the child-Amanda emerges from the pages alive and real to articulate in that simple, profound way only children have what the yet-undiagnosed acute anxiety disorder actually feels like from the inside:

Whenever I am afraid, worry sounds itself as sixty, seventy, radio channels playing at the same time inside my head. Refrains loop around and around my brain like fast jabber and I cannot get any of it to stop. I know there is something wrong with me, but no one knows how to fix me. Not anyone outside my body, and definitely not me. Eddie [Stern’s older brother] says a body is blood and bones and skin, and when everything falls off you’re a skeleton, but I am air pressure and tingly dots; energy and everything. I am air and nothing.

[…]

My breath flips on its side, horizontal and too wide to go through my lungs.

The grave paradox of mental illness and mental health is that, despite what we now know about how profoundly our emotions affect our physical wellbeing, these terms sever the head from the body — the physical body and the emotional body. A century after William James proclaimed that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” Stern offers a powerful corrective for our ongoing cultural Cartesianism. Her vivid prose, pulsating with a life in language, invites the reader into the interiority of a deeply embodied mind that experiences and comprehends the world somatically:

A burning clot of dread develops under my ribcage. One hundred radios are trapped in my head, all playing different stations at once.

Art from Emotional Anatomy: The Structure of Experience

“I was born with a basketball net slung over my top ribs, where the world dunks its balls of dread,” she writes as she channels her young self’s budding awareness that something is terribly, fundamentally wrong with her:

The kids around me are carefree and happy, but I’m not, and life doesn’t feel easy for me, ever, which means I’m being a kid in the wrong way.

You can’t see the wrong on my outside, but I wish you could because then my mom would get me fixed. My mom can fix anything; she knows every doctor in New York City.

And so Amanda is put through a series of tests. Although she is so small and slight as to be literally off the height and weight distribution chart for children her age, the medical tests fail to find the locus of her anguish:

I am a growing constellation of errors. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, only that something is, and it must be too shameful to divulge, or so rare that even the doctors are stumped.

Psychological tests follow. “Amanda equates performance with acceptability,” one clinician reports in the original test results punctuating the book like some ominous refrain of wrongness. Then there are the IQ tests. Growing up in an era well before scientists came to understand why we can’t measure so-called “general intelligence,” well before Howard Gardner revolutionized culture with his theory of multiple intelligences, the young Amanda does poorly on the tests — lest we forget, test-taking itself is an immensely anxiety-inducing act even for the average person unafflicted by a panic disorder. Deemed learning-disabled and held back a grade, she reanimates that first school day of her second second year in sixth grade:

The air is fresh, the slight coolness in front of each breeze carrying the smell of change and beginning, except I’m not changing; my worries keep repeating themselves, just like the rest of my life.

Looking back on this disorienting and rather punitive experience, Stern writes:

There was a version of me that felt out of alignment with who I really was. The adults’ version had me learning disabled, and the other version — mine — had me devoured by mental anguish.

It would be more than a decade until that mental anguish is finally correctly diagnosed as a severe panic disorder. But the intervening time — those formative years when one’s sense of self sets in as the child morphs into a young adult — is filled with a growing, gnawing shame of otherness. It takes root in the child’s conscience as she finds herself unable to learn to tell time. Her world is governed not by clocks and calendars but by countdowns tolling her acute separation anxiety — the suffocating dread of being away from her mom:

Away is what time is made of; away is counted in fear-seconds, not number-seconds.

[…]

Time moves everyone forward, but it’s always forgetting to bring me.

Art by Harvey Weiss from Time Is When by Beth Youman Gleick

Perhaps the most savaging aspect of anxiety is how it kidnaps its victims from the present moment and hurls them into the dungeon of a dread-filled future. Channeling the early experience that becomes an overtone of her young life, she writes:

Sometimes I feel like I’m watching a movie about myself. I am always in the future somehow, separated from my body, and it’s from there I feel sad for the moment I’m living. Soon this moment will be gone; it will turn into another moment that will go, and I think I must be the only person who feels life as though it’s already over. This is the weight I feel every time the sun goes down. No matter how hard I try to stop the feeling, I can’t. Even if I run from it, it meets me wherever I land.

At night, when I’m in bed, I try to hear the house sounds that comfort me: the low mumblings of my siblings, the tamped down warble of the radio, the needle’s skipped return over scratches inside a song, the ceramic clatter of plates being rinsed, and the first turbulent bumps of the dishwasher before it coasts into its varoom lulling hum. My mother’s voice talking on the phone curls its way to my room, and I pull it toward me, past the other sounds, and try to swallow it inside me.

Anxiety warps time and space for this young mind trying to navigate the world’s topography of dread:

When people try to explain that uptown is not far, or that a weekend isn’t long, it makes me feel worse, more afraid that my worries are right, and that the world I live in is different from the world everyone else lives in. That means I’m different, something I don’t want other people to figure out about me. Something is wrong inside me; I’ve always known that, but I don’t want anyone to ever see that I’m not the same as they are.

This sense of being a problem to be solved becomes the dominant overtone of young Amanda’s life, until it swells into the aching suspicion that there may be no solution to it at all — that she is doomed to a life marked by the wrong way of being human:

There is a way to be and I’m not being it, and I don’t know how to change. Is there someone I should be the exact copy of, and they’ve forgotten to introduce me? Or maybe a person is supposed to be a fact, like an answer that doesn’t change, and I’m more like an opinion, which the world doesn’t want?

This terrifying suspicion seeps into the fabric of her being, permeating every aspect of her life. It leads her into confused and conflicted relationships that distort her understanding of love and leave her with a version of the same question:

Is this what real life is then? An endless effort to match the story of yourself someone else tells?

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of Alice in Wonderland

When she is finally diagnosed with a panic disorder that gives shape and validity to her lifelong experience, she meets her diagnosis with elated relief. (A century earlier, Alice James — Henry and William James’s brilliant sister — had articulated that selfsame elation in her extraordinary diary: “Ever since I have been ill, I have longed and longed for some palpable disease, no matter how conventionally dreadful a label it might have, but I was always driven back to stagger alone under the monstrous mass of subjective sensations, which that sympathetic being ‘the medical man’ had no higher inspiration than to assure me I was personally responsible for, washing his hands of me with a graceful complacency under my very nose.”) Stern writes:

I feel weirdly solid, like I’m a valid human being. I didn’t even realize my feelings were categorizable as symptoms. Panic disorder. The air is softer, expansive, as though the world has suddenly opened and is unfolding every opportunity my panic had once ruled out. Every single thing in my life now makes perfect sense: the connections I couldn’t bridge; the choices I couldn’t make; the strange switches the natural world and all its sunsets turned on and off in me.

From this deeply personal experience emerges the universal assurance that what doesn’t kill you makes you more alive. Stern writes:

Over my life I’ve worried so much and feared so many things, and though many of those things actually happened, here I am, still alive, having survived what I thought I couldn’t. I didn’t turn out the way I thought I would: I didn’t get married and I didn’t have kids, and the not-having didn’t kill me either.

[…]

We are all just moments in time, a blink in a trillion-year history, even if our existence sometimes feels endless.

Art by Derek Dominic D’souza from Song of Two Worlds by Alan Lightman

With an eye to the centrality of anxiety in her own blink of existence, she telescopes to a larger truth about this widespread yet largely invisible affliction that seems a fundamental feature of being human:

When did it start? It started before I was born. It started before my mother was born. It started when friction created the world. When does anything start? It doesn’t, it just grows, sometimes to unmanageable heights, and then, when you’re at the very edge, it becomes clear: something must be done.

Left untreated, anxiety disorders, like fingernails, grow with a person. The longer they go untended, the more mangled and painful they become. Often, they spiral, straight out of control, splitting and splintering into other disorders, like depression, social anxiety, agoraphobia. A merry-go-round of features we rise and fall upon. Separation anxiety handicaps its captors, preventing them from leaving bad relationships, moving far from home, going on trips, to parties, applying for jobs, having children, getting married, seeing friends, or falling asleep. Some people are so crippled by their anxiety they have panic attacks in anticipation of having a panic attack.

I’ve had panic attacks in nearly every part of New York City, even on Staten Island. I’ve had them in taxis, on subways, public bathrooms, banks, street corners, in Washington Square Park, on multiple piers, the Manhattan Bridge, Chinatown, the East Village, the Upper East Side, Central Park, Lincoln Center, the dressing room at Urban Outfitters, Mamoun’s Falafel, the Bobst library, the Mid-Manhattan Library, the main library branch, the Brooklyn Library, the Fort Greene Farmer’s Market, laundromats, book kiosks, in the entrance of FAO Schwartz, at the post office, the steps of the Met, on stoops, at the Brooklyn Flea, in bars, at friends’ houses, on stage, in the shower, in queen-sized beds, double beds, twin beds, in my crib.

I’ve grown so expert at hiding them, most people would never even know that I’m suffering. How, after all, do you explain that a restaurant’s decision to dim their lights swelled your throat shut, and that’s why you must leave immediately, not just the restaurant, but the neighborhood? If you cannot point to something, then it is invisible. Like a cult leader, anxiety traps you and convinces you that you’re the only one it sees.

In a sentiment that calls to mind poet Nikki Giovanni’s remark to James Baldwin that “if you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else,” Stern adds:

For better or worse, we can only teach others what we understand… Each person begins, after all, as a story other people tell. And when we fall outside the confines of our common standards, we will assume our deficits define us.

[…]

My fear and my conviction were the same: that I was the flaw in the universe; the wrongly circled letter in our multiple-choice world. This terrible truth binds us all: fear there’s a single, unattainable, correct way to be human.

Little Panic stands as a mighty antidote to that universal fear. Complement it with Catherine Lepange’s illustrated meditation on anxiety and Seneca’s millennia-old, timeless wisdom on how to tame this psychic monster, then revisit William Styron’s classic masterwork accomplishing for the kindred monster of depression what Stern accomplishes for anxiety.

BP

Amanda Palmer and The Decomposers Cover Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” in Tribute to Rachel Carson

Art and science meet resistance in a modern reimagining of a classic anthem for the protection of nature.

Amanda Palmer and The Decomposers Cover Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” in Tribute to Rachel Carson

I dedicated the 2018 edition of The Universe in Verse to one of my great heroes, Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964), who catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her epoch-making 1962 book Silent Spring. Carson — a biologist who never relinquished her first love of literature — launched a courageous crusade against the deadly impact of pesticides and DDT in particular on nature. Conveying her unassailable science through exquisite literary prose, she awakened millions of lay people to the chemical industry’s ruthless assault on nature — not with mere facts, but with a larger poetic truth about our relationship and responsibility to this beautiful, fragile planet we call home. The creation of the first Earth Day and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency were both direct consequences of her work. She never lived to see either — like Copernicus, Carson died shortly after the publication of her paradigm-shifting book. But she left behind a novel understanding of nature as a complex and beautiful interleaving of relationships, of which we are only a small part — a small part with a great responsibility for stewarding the whole.

It is hard, with our pathological cultural amnesia, to fully appreciate today just how far Silent Spring reached — beyond science, beyond policy. For years after its publication, after Carson’s death, the book’s message rippled and rippled across the groundwaters of popular culture. New Yorker cartoons and Peanuts strips celebrated Carson and her legacy, which touched a young musician only just making her name.

Rachel Carson (left) and Joni Mitchell

In 1970, Joni Mitchell composed “Big Yellow Taxi” — a song that would become a sort of bittersweet anthem of the environmental movement. It features this stanza inspired by Carson’s exposé of how pesticides, long marketed as harmless, were killing the birds and the bees:

Hey farmer farmer —
Put away the DDT
Give me spots on my apples,
but leave me the birds and the bees.
Please!

In putting together The Universe in Verse — a labor-of-love celebration of science and nature through poetry, and a voice of resistance against the current assault on nature, with all proceeds benefiting the Natural Resources Defense Council — I realized that among the lovely humans who had donated their time and talent to read poems were four stellar musicians. So I asked one of them — my frequent collaborator and dear friend Amanda Palmer — to reimagine “Big Yellow Taxi” in a cover dedicated to Carson. She kindly did, enlisting the accompaniment of the other three — cellist Zoë Keating, Hedwig and the Angry Inch co-creator John Cameron Mitchell, and singer, songwriter, and guitarist Sean Ono Lennon. In a lovely burst of spontaneity, this makeshift band christened themselves The Decomposers and proceeded to deliver a stunning rendition of Mitchell’s masterpiece, emanating the timelessness and growing urgency of Carson’s message.

Amanda Palmer and The Decomposers at The Universe in Verse, April 28, 2018. (Photograph: Molly Walsh for Brain Pickings)

Prior to the show, they made a studio recording of the song at Pioneer Works, where The Universe in Verse was hosted. It is now released as a record, with cover art generously donated by Pioneer Works founder Dustin Yellin. All proceeds from the downloads benefit the Natural Resources Defense Council — please enjoy, >download, and join this small but significant act of resistance against the destruction of our Pale Blue Dot.

Below is the live performance with my prefatory contextualization, courtesy of Kickstarter Live and Bridgeside Productions, who contributed to this many-peopled project of goodwill by donating the livestream and the recording:

For more of The Universe in Verse, see poet Marie Howe’s stunning tribute to Stephen Hawking, astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, and other highlights, then revisit the full recording of the inaugural 2017 show.

To become a patron of Amanda’s music, a great deal of which benefits various humanitarian and environmental causes, join me in supporting her on Patreon.

UPDATE: For more on Carson, her epoch-making cultural contribution, and her unusual private life, she is the crowning figure in my book Figuring.

BP

An Axiom of Feeling: Werner Herzog on the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth

“The soul of the listener or the spectator… actualizes truth through the experience of sublimity: that is, it completes an independent act of creation.”

In his arresting meditation on how we use language to reveal and conceal reality, Nietzsche defined truth as “a movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished.” Truth, of course, is not reality but a subset of reality, alongside the catalogue of fact and the question of meaning, inside which human consciousness dwells. “Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world,” Saul Bellow asserted in his superb Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.”

How the creative impulse from which art arises unlatches that other reality is what cinematic philosopher Werner Herzog explores in an essay titled “On the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth.” Originally delivered as an extemporaneous speech following a Milan screening of Herzog’s film Lessons of Darkness and later translated by Moira Weigel, it touches on a number of questions that have occupied Herzog for as long as he has been making art — questions he explores from other angles throughout Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (public library).

Werner Herzog (Photograph: Lena Herzog)

Herzog writes in the speech-turned-essay:

Only in this state of sublimity [Erhabenheit] does something deeper become possible, a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual. Ecstatic truth, I call it.

Such truth, Herzog suggests, coalesces out of moments so saturated with reality that they become surreal. Reflecting on the disorientation-spurred rancor with which his film was initially met, he writes:

After the first war in Iraq, as the oil fields burned in Kuwait, the media — and here I mean television in particular — was in no position to show what was, beyond being a war crime, an event of cosmic dimensions, a crime against creation itself. There is not a single frame in Lessons of Darkness in which you can recognize our planet; for this reason the film is labeled “science fiction,” as if it could only have been shot in a distant galaxy, hostile to life.

Facing what he terms the “orgy of hate,” Herzog reminded audiences that he had done nothing different from Dante and Goya, those “guardian angels who familiarize us with the Absolute and the Sublime.” And yet our grasp of the Absolute is perennially slippery, our familiarity with it a seductive illusion — Carl Sagan knew this when he asserted that “the universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it.” With an eye to the greatest creative challenge in mathematics, Herzog writes:

The Absolute poses a never-ending quandary for philosophy, religion, and mathematics. Mathematics will probably come closest to getting it when someone finally proves Riemann’s hypothesis. That question concerns the distribution of prime numbers; unanswered since the nineteenth century, it reaches into the depths of mathematical thinking. A prize of a million dollars has been set aside for whoever solves it, and a mathematical institute in Boston has allotted a thousand years for someone to come up with a proof. The money is waiting for you, as is your immortality. For two and a half thousand years, ever since Euclid, this question has preoccupied mathematicians; if it turned out Riemann and his brilliant hypothesis were not right, it would send unimaginable shockwaves through the disciplines of mathematics and natural science. I can only very vaguely begin to fathom the Absolute; I am in no position to define the concept.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, found in Cosmigraphics

This ungraspable nature of the Absolute places it on the same plane as the Sublime — for the Sublime, as physicist Lisa Randall has written, also “proffers scales and poses questions that just might lie beyond our intellectual reach.” Occupying an entirely different stratum of reality is what Herzog calls “ecstatic truth” — the kind of truth marine biologist Rachel Carson celebrated in her transcendent encounter with midsummer fireflies, which illuminated for her the type of truth haloed with “an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves.” Herzog writes:

We must ask of reality: how important is it, really? And: how important, really, is the Factual? Of course, we can’t disregard the factual; it has normative power. But it can never give us the kind of illumination, the ecstatic flash, from which Truth emerges.

No masterpiece of Herzog’s better sparks that ecstatic flash than his film Fitzcarraldo — the story of an elaborate endeavor to stage an opera in the rainforest. Reflecting on his creative vision for the film and its broader conceptual commentary on the nature of truth, Herzog echoes Whitman’s conviction that music is the deepest and most direct expression of nature’s reality, and writes:

One maxim was crucial for me: an entire world must undergo a transformation into music, must become music; only then would we have produced opera. What’s beautiful about opera is that reality doesn’t play any role in it at all; and that what takes place in opera is the overcoming of nature. When one looks at the libretti from operas (and here Verdi’s Force of Destiny is a good example), one sees very quickly that the story itself is so implausible, so removed from anything that we might actually experience that the mathematical laws of probability are suspended. What happens in the plot is impossible, but the power of music enables the spectator to experience it as true.

Still from Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Margaret Fuller’s beautiful assertion that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” Herzog adds:

It’s the same thing with the emotional world [Gefühlswelt] of opera. The feelings are so abstracted; they cannot really be subordinated to everyday human nature any longer, because they have been concentrated and elevated to the most extreme degree and appear in their purest form; and despite all that we perceive them, in opera, as natural. Feelings in opera are, ultimately, like axioms in mathematics, which cannot be concentrated and cannot be explained any further. The axioms of feeling in the opera lead us, however, in the most secret ways, on a direct path to the sublime.

Through the gateway of opera, Herzog enters the larger world of the Sublime as both subset and superset of reality:

Our entire sense of reality has been called into question… Sometimes facts so exceed our expectations — have such an unusual, bizarre power — that they seem unbelievable.

But in the fine arts, in music, literature, and cinema, it is possible to reach a deeper stratum of truth — a poetic, ecstatic truth, which is mysterious and can only be grasped with effort; one attains it through vision, style, and craft… However, we also gain our ability to have ecstatic experiences of truth through the Sublime, through which we are able to elevate ourselves over nature.

With an eye to the Ancient Greek philosophers and dramatists, who used language as a vessel of ecstatic truth, Herzog returns to the function of the creative act as communion with the Sublime. Echoing Virginia Woolf’s notion that the reader is the writer’s “fellow-worker and accomplice,” he writes:

Thinking through language, the Greeks meant … to define truth as an act of disclosure — a gesture related to the cinema, where an object is set into the light and then a latent, not yet visible image is conjured onto celluloid, where it first must be developed, then disclosed.

The soul of the listener or the spectator completes this act itself; the soul actualizes truth through the experience of sublimity: that is, it completes an independent act of creation.

Complement with the difference between the beautiful and the sublime, then revisit Herzog on creativity, self-reliance, and how to make a living doing what you love.

BP

D.H. Lawrence on the Antidote to the Malady of Materialism

“Owners and owned, they are like the two sides of a ghastly disease. One feels a sort of madness come over one, as if the world had become hell. But it is only superimposed: it is only a temporary disease. It can be cleaned away.”

D.H. Lawrence on the Antidote to the Malady of Materialism

“It is now the most vitally important thing for all of us… to try to arrive at a clear, cogent statement of our ills, so that we may begin to correct them,” the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote in his touching fan letter to biologist Rachel Carson after she awakened the modern environmental conscience with her courageous 1962 book Silent Spring — a sobering look at the consequences, both for humanity and for our fragile planet, of material greed, unbridled power, and the cultural machine of consumerism. Several years later, the German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm further diagnosed the central malady of materialism in his pioneering treatise on the tradeoffs between having and being: “The full humanization of man requires the breakthrough from the possession-centered to the activity-centered orientation, from selfishness and egotism to solidarity and altruism.”

But because the epidemiology of disease parallels that of ideas, by the time symptoms arise, the illness has been silently working its way through the body of culture for generations.

Half a century before Carson and Fromm, and decades before the golden age of consumerism, the English poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, and painter D.H. Lawrence (September 11, 1885–March 2, 1930) pressed his prescient fingers against the pulse-beat of culture to limn the malady that would define the century to come — the greed for power and material possession that would give rise to numerous dictatorships, exploit vulnerable populations, and deplete Earth’s resources — and envisioned a remedy it is not too late for us to implement.

D.H. Lawrence

Just before his thirtieth birthday in the summer of 1915, while escaping the tumult of World War I at the English seaside resort of Littlehampton, Lawrence contemplated the relationship between the increasingly artificial human world and the immutable authenticity of the natural world in a letter to his friend Lady Cynthia Asquith, found in The Letters of D.H. Lawrence (public library). Echoing Whitman (“After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains.”), Lawrence writes:

We have lived a few days on the seashore, with the wave banging up at us. Also over the river, beyond the ferry, there is the flat silvery world, as in the beginning, untouched: with pale sand, and very much white foam, row after row, coming from under the sky, in the silver evening: and no people, no people at all, no houses, no buildings, only a haystack on the edge of the shingle, and an old black mill. For the rest, the flat unfinished world running with foam and noise and silvery light, and a few gulls swinging like a half-born thought. It is a great thing to realise that the original world is still there — perfectly clean and pure…

Half a century before E.F. Schumacher made his elegant anti-consumerist case for “Buddhist economics,” Lawrence contrasts this living Paradise with the human-made inferno of materialism — an inferno whose blazing fire of greed and fuming brimstone of ownership have only intensified in the century since.

Art by JooHee Yoon from The Tiger Who Would Be King, James Thurber’s 1927 parable of the destructiveness of greed and unbridled power.

Lawrence, who was a vocal opponent of militarism despite how unpopular and downright anti-patriotic this rendered him in wartime Britain, no doubt saw the causal relationship between humanity’s growing hunger for material possession —
the ultimate end of power — and the first truly global war that had just engulfed the world. He writes:

It is this mass of unclean world that we have superimposed on the clean world that we cannot bear. When I looked back, out of the clearness of the open evening, at this Littlehampton dark and amorphous like a bad eruption on the edge of the land, I was so sick I felt I could not come back: all these little amorphous houses like an eruption, a disease on the clean earth; and all of them full of such diseased spirit, every landlady harping on her money, her furniture, every visitor harping on his latitude of escape from money and furniture. The whole thing like an active disease, fighting out the health. One watches them on the sea-shore, all the people, and there is something pathetic, almost wistful in them, as if they wished that their lives did not add up to this nullity of possession, but as if they could not escape. It is a dragon that has devoured us all: these obscene, scaly houses, this insatiable struggle and desire to possess, to possess always and in spite of everything, this need to be an owner, lest one be owned. It is too horrible. One can no longer live with people: it is too hideous and nauseating. Owners and owned, they are like the two sides of a ghastly disease. One feels a sort of madness come over one, as if the world had become hell. But it is only superimposed: it is only a temporary disease. It can be cleaned away.

Art by Laura Carlin for The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes.

Sixteen years before his polymathic compatriot Bertrand Russell admonished against letting power-knowledge eclipse love-knowledge, Lawrence considers what it would take to rehabilitate the human spirit and treat not the symptoms but the illness itself:

One must destroy the spirit of money, the blind spirit of possession. It is the dragon for your St. George: neither rewards on earth nor in heaven, of ownership: but always the give and take, the fight and the embrace, no more, no diseased stability of possessions, but the give and take of love and conflict, with the eternal consummation in each. The only permanent thing is consummation in love or hate.

Complement this fragment of the immeasurably beautiful Letters of D.H. Lawrence with Alan Watts on money vs. wealth, Henry Miller on how the hedonic treadmill of materialism entraps us, and E.F. Schumacher on how to begin prioritizing people over products and creativity over consumption, then revisit Whitman on what makes life worth living.

BP

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