Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 49

Philosopher Alain Badiou on How We Fall and Stay in Love

“Love is a tenacious adventure… Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.”

“An honorable human relationship … in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love,’” Adrienne Rich memorably wrote, “is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.” That transcendent turbulence of mutual truth-refinement is a centerpiece of the altogether fantastic In Praise of Love (public library) by French philosopher Alain Badiou (b. January 17, 1937) — an impassioned and immensely insightful defense of both love as a human faculty and love as a worthwhile philosophical pursuit.

“Air de Capri” by Gerda Wegener, 1923
“Air de Capri” by Gerda Wegener, 1923

A century after Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi that “love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills,” Badiou argues that love is the most potent antidote to the self-interest that dominates the modern world and our greatest hope for bridging the gaping divide between self and other:

Provided it isn’t conceived only as an exchange of mutual favours, or isn’t calculated way in advance as a profitable investment, love really is a unique trust placed in chance. It takes us into key areas of the experience of what is difference and, essentially, leads to the idea that you can experience the world from the perspective of difference.

But unlike Tolstoy and Gandhi, who advocated for cultivating an expansive platonic love of one another, and unlike Martin Luther King, Jr., who pointed to the Ancient Greek notion of agape as the kind of love that would cut off the chain of hate between human beings, Badiou advocates for the truth-enlarging value of the most intimate kind of love — the eros of romance:

Love… is a quest for truth… truth in relation to something quite precise: what kind of world does one see when one experiences it from the point of view of two and not one? What is the world like when it is experienced, developed and lived from the point of view of difference and not identity? That is what I believe love to be.

He considers the evolution of love, from its beginning reminiscent of cosmic inflation to its gradual and ongoing entwining of separate truth-particles into an expansive shared universe of truth:

We shouldn’t underestimate the power love possesses to slice diagonally through the most powerful oppositions and radical separations. The encounter between two differences is an event, is contingent and disconcerting… On the basis of this event, love can start and flourish. It is the first, absolutely essential point. This surprise unleashes a process that is basically an experience of getting to know the world. Love isn’t simply about two people meeting and their inward-looking relationship: it is a construction, a life that is being made, no longer from the perspective of One but from the perspective of Two.

'Lee Miller and Friend' by Man Ray. Paris, 1930.
‘Lee Miller and Friend’ by Man Ray. Paris, 1930.

Badiou cautions against our culture’s tendency to fetishize the encounter itself at the expense of the collaborative ongoingness that follows, which is the true substance of love:

Love cannot be reduced to the first encounter, because it is a construction. The enigma in thinking about love is the duration of time necessary for it to flourish. In fact, it isn’t the ecstasy of those beginnings that is remarkable. The latter are clearly ecstatic, but love is above all a construction that lasts. We could say that love is a tenacious adventure. The adventurous side is necessary, but equally so is the need for tenacity. To give up at the first hurdle, the first serious disagreement, the first quarrel, is only to distort love. Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.

This necessary temporal dimension is what moves the experience of love from the plane of chance to the plane of choice — or, rather, of being chosen; chosen, in Mary Oliver’s words, “by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable and beautiful and possibly even unsuitable.” Badiou writes:

To make a declaration of love is to move on from the event-encounter to embark on a construction of truth. The chance nature of the encounter morphs into the assumption of a beginning. And often what starts there lasts so long, is so charged with novelty and experience of the world that in retrospect it doesn’t seem at all random and contingent, as it appeared initially, but almost a necessity. That is how chance is curbed: the absolute contingency of the encounter with someone I didn’t know finally takes on the appearance of destiny. The declaration of love marks the transition from chance to destiny, and that’s why it is so perilous and so burdened with a kind of horrifying stage fright.

[…]

The locking in of chance is an anticipation of eternity… The problem then resides in inscribing this eternity within time. Because, basically, that is what love is: a declaration of eternity to be fulfilled or unfurled as best it can be within time: eternity descending into time.

[…]

Happiness in love is the proof that time can accommodate eternity. And you can also find proof … in the pleasure given by works of art and the almost supernatural joy you experience when you at last grasp in depth the meaning of a scientific theory.

Complement the enormously enlivening In Praise of Love with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on the paradoxical psychology of why we fall in love, Stendhal on the seven stages of romance, and Mary Oliver on love’s necessary wildness.

BP

The 12th-Century Jewish Philosopher Moses Maimonides on Truth, Doubt, and How to Read Intelligently

“Do not read superficially, lest you do me an injury, and derive no benefit for yourself.”

“Our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it,” the great French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil wrote in contemplating the rarest and purest form of human thought. A generation later, Hannah Arendt cautioned that “the basic fallacy … is to interpret meaning on the model of truth.” How to bridge the gap between meaning, which is the human interpretation of truth, and that naked truth itself is perhaps the most abiding challenge in reconciling the human intellect with the human spirit.

That’s what the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher and astronomer Moses Maimonides examined centuries before Weil and Arendt in The Guide for the Perplexed (public library) — a masterwork of philosophy and rhetoric, dedicated to those “lost in perplexity and anxiety,” so enduring and influential that it has inspired works as diverse as E.F. Schumacher’s magnificent 1977 collection of essays on the meaning of culture and Werner Herzog’s compendium of meditations on creativity and life. A conceptual predecessor to Rilke’s indispensable Letters to a Young Poet, the book was written as a three-part letter to one of Maimonides’s students.

Statue of Maimonides in Cordoba, Spain (Photograph: David Baron)

In the prefatory remarks to the original edition, Maimonides points out that he “hesitated very much before writing on the subjects contained in this work, since they are profound mysteries,” and considers the three primary ways we see truth:

Ignorant and superficial readers take them in a literal, not in a figurative sense. Even well informed persons are bewildered if they understand these passages in their literal signification, but they are entirely relieved of their perplexity when we explain the figure, or merely suggest that the terms are figurative. For this reason I have called this book Guide for the Perplexed. I do not presume to think that this treatise settles every doubt in the minds of those who understand it, but I maintain that it settles the greater part of their difficulties.

Centuries before Michael Faraday lamented our remarkable capacity for self-deception, Maimonides addresses the “errors which give rise to fear and anxiety, constant grief and great perplexity,” and writes:

At times the truth shines so brilliantly that we perceive it as clear as day. Our nature and habit then draw a veil over our perception, and we return to a darkness almost as dense as before. We are like those who, though beholding frequent flashes of lightning, still find themselves in the thickest darkness of the night. On some the lightning flashes in rapid succession, and they seem to be in continuous light, and their night is as clear as the day… By others only once during the whole night is a flash of lightning perceived… There are some to whom the flashes of lightning appear with varying intervals; others are in the condition of men, whose darkness is illumined not by lightning, but by some kind of crystal or similar stone, or other substances that possess the property of shining during the night; and to them even this small amount of light is not continuous, but now it shines and now it vanishes, as if it were “the flame of the rotating sword.” The degrees in the perfection of men vary according to these distinctions.

Illuminated manuscript depiction of Maimonides teaching his students

Our self-deceptions, Maimonides cautions, can warp what we impart on others — a tendency merely personally tragic in the context of one-to-one human communication but civilizationally menacing in the context of today’s one-to-many media, which didn’t exist in Maimonides’s time and which frame the basic realities of ours. He writes:

You must know that if a person, who has attained a certain degree of perfection, wishes to impart to others, either orally or in writing, any portion of the knowledge which he has acquired of these subjects, he is utterly unable to be as systematic and explicit as he could be in a science of which the method is well known. The same difficulties which he encountered when investigating the subject for himself will attend him when endeavoring to instruct others; viz., at one time the explanation will appear lucid, at another time, obscure; this property of the subject appears to remain the same both to the advanced scholar and to the beginner.

But Maimonides argues that the responsibility to counter untruth lies equally in writer and reader, in media-maker and media-consumer — a sentiment triply timely today. In admonishing his reader against skimming and the unconsidered snap judgments it invariably seeds, he presents a timeless micro-manifesto for the intellectual responsibilities of all information-consumers in any medium:

Do not read superficially, lest you do me an injury, and derive no benefit for yourself. You must study thoroughly and read continually… The reader must, moreover, beware of raising objections to any of my statements, because it is very probable that he may understand my words to mean the exact opposite to what I intended to say… Let the reader make a careful study of this work… Should he notice any opinions with which he does not agree, let him endeavor to find a suitable explanation, even if it seem far-fetched, in order that he may judge me charitably. Such a duty we owe to every one. We owe it especially to our scholars and theologians, who endeavor to teach us what is the truth according to the best of their ability.

With this, he arrives at what should be the credo of every respectable and self-respecting purveyor of information, knowledge, and wisdom — a credo just about diametrically opposed to the one driving today’s media economy of catering to the lowest common denominator. Maimonides reflects:

When I have a difficult subject before me — when I find the road narrow, and can see no other way of teaching a well established truth except by pleasing one intelligent man and displeasing ten thousand fools — I prefer to address myself to the one man, and to take no notice whatever of the condemnation of the multitude; I prefer to extricate that intelligent man from his embarrassment and show him the cause of his perplexity, so that he may attain perfection and be at peace.

The Guide for the Perplexed goes on to explore the path to truth, reaching which Maimonides argues is essential for attaining such peace from perplexity. Complement this particular portion with physicist Lisa Randall on the different paths art, science, and religion take to meaning and Hannah Arendt on the crucial distinction between truth and meaning.

BP

9 Learnings from 9 Years of Brain Pickings

Reflections on the rewards of seeking out what magnifies your spirit.

On October 23, 2006, Brain Pickings was born as an email to my seven colleagues at one of the four jobs I held while paying my way through college. Over the years that followed, the short weekly email became a tiny website updated every Friday, which became a tiny daily publication, which slowly grew, until this homegrown labor of love somehow ended up in the Library of Congress digital archive of “materials of historical importance” and the seven original recipients somehow became several million readers. How and why this happened continues to mystify and humble me as I go on doing what I have always done: reading, thinking, and writing about enduring ideas that glean some semblance of insight — however small, however esoteric — into what it means to live a meaningful life.

In October of 2013, as Brain Pickings turned seven, I marked the occasion by looking back on the seven most important things I learned from the thousands of hours spent reading, writing, and living during those first seven years. (Seven is an excellent numeral — a prime, a calendric unit, the perfect number of dwarfs.) I shared those reflections not as any sort of universal advice on how a life is to be lived, but as centering truths that have emerged and recurred in the course of how this life has been lived; insights that might, just maybe, prove useful or assuring for others. (Kindred spirits have since adapted these learnings into a poster and a short film.)

Art by Maurice Sendak from his little-known and lovely vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading

As Brain Pickings turns nine, I continue to stand by these seven reflections, but the time has come to add two more. (Nine is also an excellent numeral — an exponential factorial, the number of Muses in Greek mythology, my favorite chapter in Alice in Wonderland.) Here are the original seven, as they appeared in 2013:

  1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
  2. Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.
  3. Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.
  4. Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.

    Most importantly, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking moment, dictates our social rhythm, and even mediates our negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?

  5. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as importantly, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
  6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
  7. “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman, for it’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. As I’ve reflected elsewhere, the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.

And here are the two new additions:

  1. Seek out what magnifies your spirit. Patti Smith, in discussing William Blake and her creative influences, talks about writers and artists who magnified her spirit — it’s a beautiful phrase and a beautiful notion. Who are the people, ideas, and books that magnify your spirit? Find them, hold on to them, and visit them often. Use them not only as a remedy once spiritual malaise has already infected your vitality but as a vaccine administered while you are healthy to protect your radiance.
  2. Don’t be afraid to be an idealist. There is much to be said for our responsibility as creators and consumers of that constant dynamic interaction we call culture — which side of the fault line between catering and creating are we to stand on? The commercial enterprise is conditioning us to believe that the road to success is paved with catering to existing demands — give the people cat GIFs, the narrative goes, because cat GIFs are what the people want. But E.B. White, one of our last great idealists, was eternally right when he asserted half a century ago that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down” — a role each of us is called to with increasing urgency, whatever cog we may be in the machinery of society. Supply creates its own demand. Only by consistently supplying it can we hope to increase the demand for the substantive over the superficial — in our individual lives and in the collective dream called culture.

In the spirit of reflection, here are my current nine favorite pieces from the first nine years of Brain Pickings:

  1. Musicked Down the Mountain: How Oliver Sacks Saved His Own Life by Literature and Song


  2. Ursula K. Le Guin on Being a Man


  3. Love After Love: Derek Walcott’s Poetic Ode to Being at Home in Ourselves


  4. The Life of the Mind: Hannah Arendt on Thinking vs. Knowing and the Crucial Difference Between Truth and Meaning


  5. The Magic of Moss and What It Teaches Us About the Art of Attentiveness to Life at All Scales


  6. Why We Fall in Love: The Paradoxical Psychology of Romance and Why Frustration Is Necessary for Satisfaction


  7. Virginia Woolf on Why the Best Mind Is the Androgynous Mind


  8. A Rap on Race: Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s Rare Conversation on Forgiveness and the Difference Between Guilt and Responsibility


  9. The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and the Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long

For more on the origin story, the ethos, and the spirit that keeps it all going, here is my On Being conversation with the wonderful and generous Krista Tippett, for which I remain enormously grateful:

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated