Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “optimism”

Kierkegaard on the Spiritual and Sensual Power of Music, the Essence of Genius, and the Key to a Timeless Work of Art

“If Mozart ever became wholly comprehensible to me, he would for the first time become wholly incomprehensible to me.”

“Without music life would be a mistake,” Nietzsche bellowed his unmistakable baritone of buoyant nihilism into the vast chorus of great thinkers extolling the singular power of music.

A year before his birth, Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) — another thinker of soaring lucidity, unafraid to plumb the darkest depths for the elemental truths — took up the subject in a portion of Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (public library) — the 1843 masterwork that furnished his insight into transcending the tyranny of binary choice, our greatest source of unhappiness, and the only true cure for our existential emptiness.

While Walt Whitman was singing the body electric across the Atlantic and contemplating the power of music through the lens of Beethoven’s genius, Kierkegaard placed at the center of a long essay on “the musical erotic” his ecstatic love of Mozart, from which emerges a larger centrifugal meditation on the power of music, the nature of genius, and what makes a timeless work of art in any field.

kierkegaard0

In a sentiment evocative of Aldous Huxley’s logic-subverting observation that “after silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Kierkegaard writes:

I am convinced that if Mozart ever became wholly comprehensible to me, he would for the first time become wholly incomprehensible to me.

Noting that his analysis of the power of music and the criteria for artistic greatness is “written only for those in love,” he proclaims with the unselfconscious exultation of the besotted:

I am like a young girl in love with Mozart and must have him placed highest whatever the cost… and I shall beg Mozart to forgive me because his music did not inspire me to great deeds but made a fool of me — I, who through him lost the last grain of reason I possessed, and now spend most of my time in quiet sadness humming what I do not understand, haunting like a ghost what I cannot enter into… To take him away, to efface his name, would be to overturn the only pillar that hitherto has prevented everything collapsing for me into a boundless chaos, into a fearful nothingness.

I like to imagine that Kierkegaard knew of Beethoven’s only surviving love letter, to his “immortal beloved,” and it was with this knowledge, with the subtlety of the allusion, that he places Mozart above all geniuses, even Beethoven. Switching voices and audiences, Kierkegaard reaches across mortality and possibility to address his master-muse directly:

Immortal Mozart! You, to whom I owe everything, to whom I owe the loss of my reason, the wonder that overwhelmed my soul, the fear that gripped my inmost being; you, who are the reason I did not go through life without there being something that could make me tremble; you, whom I thank for the fact that I shall not have died without having loved…

A century before Aldous Huxley found the secret of the universe in Don Giovanni, Kierkegaard considers Mozart’s crowning achievement:

There is one work alone of his which makes him a classic composer and absolutely immortal. That work is Don Giovanni. Whatever else he has produced may cause pleasure and delight, arouse our admiration, enrich the soul, satisfy the ear, gladden the heart; but it does him and his immortality no service to lump everything together and make everything equally great. Don Giovanni is his acceptance piece. With Don Giovanni he enters that eternity which lies not outside time but within it, which no curtain conceals from human eyes, into which the immortals are admitted not once and for all but are constantly discovered as one generation passes and turns its gaze towards them, is happy in its contemplation of them, goes to the grave, and the next generation passes in its turn and is transfigured in its contemplation.

This latter criterion for immortality, for artistic greatness, is also what makes “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Walt Whitman’s Don Giovanni — one of those rare bridges between the ephemeral and the eternal, swelling the river of time with absolute aliveness for every human consciousness that steps onto it.

Through this gateway of Mozart’s genius, Kierkegaard considers the nature of all true genius and the ultimate gift of all transcendent art. A century and a half before Michael Pollan reflected so beautifully on Bach, the cosmos of belonging, and how music allays the loneliness of being, he writes:

From the moment my soul was first overwhelmed in wonder at Mozart’s music, and bowed down to it in humble admiration, it has often been my cherished and rewarding pastime to reflect upon how that happy Greek view that calls the world a cosmos, because it manifests itself as an orderly whole, a tasteful and transparent adornment of the spirit that works upon and in it — upon how that happy view repeats itself in a higher order of things, in the world of ideals, how it may be a ruling wisdom there too, mainly to be admired for joining together those things that belong with one another.

The Gnomes: "He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes."
One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

With this, he turns to the essence of genius, squarely confronting the common hubris — a form of human self-consolation — that genius is merely a matter of chance-conferred opportunity, and that if the same chance befell any one of us, we too would rise to the level of genius. He dismantles the elemental arrogance at the heart of this mindset:

It thinks it an accident that the lovers get each other, an accident that they love each other; there were a hundred other girls he could have been just as happy with, whom he could have loved just as deeply. It thinks many a poet has existed who would have been just as immortal as Homer had that marvellous material not been seized on by him, many a composer just as immortal as Mozart had only the opportunity offered. Now this wisdom contains much solace and comfort for all mediocre minds since it lets them and like-minded spirits fancy that the reason they are not as celebrated as the celebrities is some confusion of fate, a mistake on the part of the world. This produces a most convenient optimism. But to every high-minded soul, to every optimate who does not feel bound to save himself in such a pitiable manner as by losing himself in contemplation of the great, it is of course repugnant, while his soul delights and it is his holy joy to see united those things that belong together. This is what fortune is, not in the fortuitous sense, and so it presupposes two factors whereas the fortuitous consists in the inarticulate interjections of fate. This is what historical fortune consists in: the divine conjuncture of historical forces, the heyday of historical time. The fortuitous has just one factor: the accident that the most remarkable epic theme imaginable fell to Homer’s lot in the shape of the history of the Trojan wars. In good fortune there are two: that the most remarkable epic material came to the lot of Homer. The accent lies here on Homer as much as on the material. In this lies the profound harmony that resounds in every work of art we call classic. And so too with Mozart: it is a piece of good fortune that what in a deeper sense is perhaps the only true musical subject was granted — to Mozart.

The pillar of that “profound harmony,” Kierkegaard argues, is a certain natural discernment which only the artist of true genius possesses — an ability to intuitively match one’s gift, one’s innermost longing, with the medium and vessel of its outward expression in the world:

The poet wants his material; but wanting is no art, as one says, quite rightly and with much truth in the case of a host of impotent poetic wants. To want rightly, on the other hand, is a great art, or rather, it is a gift. It is what is inexplicable and mysterious about genius, just like the divining rod, to which it never occurs to want except in the presence of what it wants.

Art by Carson Ellis from Du Iz Tak?

Only by wanting rightly are timeless classics born — the works that stand orders of magnitude above the “ephemeral classics,” those “dusk moths from the vaults of classicality.” The more abstract the idea the artist seeks to express, Kierkegaard argues, the more difficult to achieve this ideal and the more timeless the result if attained. More than a century before Where the Wild Things Are creator Maurice Sendak insisted that “fantasy and feeling lie deeper than words… and both demand a more profound, more biological expression, the primitive expression of music,” Kierkegaard considers the crowning achievement of abstract expression — the fantasy and feeling comprising the erotic:

The most abstract idea conceivable is the spirit of sensuality. But in what medium can it be represented? Only in music. It cannot be represented in sculpture, for in itself it is a kind of quality of inwardness. It cannot be painted, for it cannot be grasped in fixed contours; it is an energy, a storm, impatience, passion, and so on, in all their lyrical quality, existing not in a single moment but in a succession of moments, for if it existed in a single moment it could be portrayed or painted. Its existing in a succession of moments indicates its epic character, yet in a stricter sense it is not an epic, for it has not reached the level of words; it moves constantly in an immediacy. Nor can it be represented, therefore, in poetry. The only medium that can represent it is music. For music has an element of time in it yet it does not lapse in time except in an unimportant sense. What it cannot express is the historical in time.

But while both language and music address the ear, which Kierkegaard considers “the most spiritually determined of the senses,” it is precisely along this temporal frontier that the two diverge and music emerges as the atemporal conscience par excellence:

Goethe’s Faust is a genuine classic, the idea is an historical one, and so every significant historical age will have its Faust. Faust has language as its medium, and the fact that language is a far more concrete medium is another reason why several works of the same kind can be imagined. Don Giovanni, on the other hand, is and will remain the only one of its kind, just as the classic sculptures of Greece. But since the idea in Don Giovanni is far more abstract even than that underlying sculpture, one sees easily why we have just one work in music but several in sculpture. One can indeed imagine many more musical classics, yet there still remains just one work of which it can be said that its idea is absolutely musical, so that the music does not enter as an accompaniment but, in bringing the idea to light, reveals its own innermost being. Therefore Mozart with his Don Giovanni stands highest among the immortals.

Noting that language is “the proper medium for the idea” yet in it “the sensual is, as medium, reduced to the level of mere instrument and constantly negated,” he concludes:

Music is, then, the medium for that species of the immediate which, qualified spiritually, is specified as lying outside spirit. Naturally, music can express much else, but this is its absolute object.

Complement with Oliver Sacks on how music saved his life in a Norwegian fjord, Regina Spektor’s enchanting reading of Mark Strand’s poem “The Everyday Enchantment of Music,” and the German philosopher Joseph Pieper, writing a century after Kierkegaard, on how Bach will save your soul, then revisit Kierkegaard on the power of the minority, the trap of busyness, and how to bridge the ephemeral with the eternal.

BP

Conscience in Revolt: Sophie Scholl on Suffering, Strength, and the Deepest Wellspring of Courage

“Sympathy is often difficult and soon becomes hollow if one feels no pain oneself.”

Conscience in Revolt: Sophie Scholl on Suffering, Strength, and the Deepest Wellspring of Courage

“To be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances, not to grow despondent and not to lose heart — that’s what life is all about, that’s its task,” the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in an existential exhale of a letter to his brother hours after his death sentence was repealed; in 1849, still in his twenties, Dostoyevsky had been arrested and sentenced to death for belonging to a literary society that circulated books the tsarist regime deemed dangerous.

Dostoyevsky lived to give us some of the most beautiful and humanistic literature our species has produced — literature laced with admonitions against indulging those murderous impulses of human nature, with invitations to choose again and again not to lose heart, not to lose faith in the human capacity for goodness.

A century later, amid a world that had failed to take Dostoyevsky’s heed, a person even younger took upon her slight shoulders that eternal task in one of the most powerful acts of resistance in the history of our civilization — powerful both for its courage and for its tragedy, outlining both what we are capable of as a human beings and how far we have yet to go to reach our highest potential as a humane society.

Born in a small German town as one of the local mayor’s five children, Sophie Scholl (May 9, 1921–February 22, 1943) was barely out of her teens when her conscience burst awake to the unconscionable inhumanity that had wormed her country’s soul. A month after she began her university studies in biology and philosophy in the nation’s capital, she co-founded the White Rose — a non-violent resistance group of students, artists, and scientists devoted to inspiring their compatriots to take a clear stance against Hitler, “to strive for the renewal of the mortally wounded German spirit,” as they impelled in one of their pamphlets.

Sophie Scholl. Painting by Allison Adams from her lovely grief-healing portrait series of heroic women.

On February 18, 1943 — eight months after the group’s founding — Scholl, her brother, and four other members of the White Rose were arrested, convicted of high treason for distributing anti-war pamphlets, and sentenced to death by the so-called People’s Court.

She was executed four days later.

Scholl is one of sixty-four heroes of resistance to Nazism profiled in Conscience in Revolt (public library) through brief biographies and a selection of their surviving writings that radiate the uncommon courage of living one’s values to the hilt — a 1957 out-of-print treasure that came into my life via one of those rare, improbable wonders that every once in a while reward those of us who mine the forgotten for the timeless: Tucked into my antiquarian copy of another our-of-print book on nonviolence, I discovered a newspaper clipping of a review by an English archbishop and anti-apartheid activist, lauding Conscience in Revolt as “a most moving and challenging pesentation of resistance to tyranny as a personal, individual, intensely human thing.” (Lest we forget, all of our pursuit and defense of truth springs from such a place, as astrophysicist Janna Levin reminds us in her beautiful reflection on science as a personal, “truly human endeavor.”) “It is precisely this we need to be reminded of now and always,” Father Huddleston writes in his review, “for there is no form of escapism more subtle or more general than the use of abstractions. And… there is no more certain way of losing the fight for human dignity and peace than the refusal to believe in the infinite value of the individual.”

The deeply personal nature of Scholl’s resistance and its seedbed in her singular individuality radiate from the previously unpublished private writings quoted in this book I was impelled to track down.

In a letter from February 10 — a fortnight before her execution, and a decade after her French kindred spirit Simone Weil modeled in her own triumph of resistance how to use our suffering as a portal to empathy — Scholl echoes the young Sylvia Plath’s longing “to be affected by life deeply” as she considers the possibility of being drafted for labor service the following summer:

I am not entirely unhappy about it, because I still want to suffer, to share the suffering of these days… to be affected more directly… Sympathy is often difficult and soon becomes hollow if one feels no pain oneself.

One comes to such fearless lucidity only through the awareness, accepted without resistance, of just how intimately the life of the body and the life of the spirit are entwined — an understanding Scholl inhabited with absolute creaturely integrity. In a diary entry vibrating with the invincibility of youth, penned in the last summer of her life not long after her twenty-first birthday, she captures the animalistic pleasure of aliveness that is the wellspring of our strength, our humanity, and the poetry of existence:

The wind tears open the blue sky, out comes the sun and kisses me tenderly. I’d like to kiss him back, but my wish is forgotten in a moment as the wind grasps me. I feel the wonderful firmness of my body, I laugh aloud for the sheer joy of finding I can resist the wind. I can feel all my own strength.

Nearly a century after Walt Whitman, who had served as a nurse to the dying in the Civil War, wrote so beautifully about optimism as a force of resistance and shortly after Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl penned his impassioned insistence upon believing in human goodness, Scholl located her strength — the supreme strength of the human animal — in the unflinching refusal to succumb to the cowardice of cynicism. That refusal was at the beating heart of her courage and her resistance — an ethos she articulated most directly and most exquisitely in a letter penned when she was only eighteen. Nearly half a century before Maya Angelou observed that “there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing,” this resolutely uncynical young woman writes:

After all, one should have the courage to believe in what is good. I do not mean that one should believe in illusions, but I mean that one should do only what is true and good and take it for granted that other people will do the same, in a way one can never do with the intellect alone. (That is to say — never calculate.)

Complement with Hannah Arendt, writing in the wake of the Holocaust, on our only effective antidote to the normalization of evil, Susan Sontag on moral courage and the power of principled revolt against injustice, Iris Murdoch on the power of literature to dismantle tyranny, and 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how books save lives.

BP

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Walt Whitman’s Stunning Serenade to Our Interlaced Lives Across Space and Time

“It avails not, time nor place… What is it then between us?… It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, the dark threw its patches down upon me also.”

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Walt Whitman’s Stunning Serenade to Our Interlaced Lives Across Space and Time

How few artists are not merely the sensemaking vessel for the tumult of their times, not even the deck railing of assurance onto which the passengers steady themselves, but the horizon that remains for other ships long after this one has reached safe harbor, or has sunk — the horizon whose steadfast line orients generation after generation, yet goes on shifting as each epoch advances toward new vistas of truth and possibility.

Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) was among those rare few. The century and a half between his time and ours has been scarred by pandemics and pandemoniums, hallowed by staggering triumphs of the humanistic, scientific, and artistic imagination. We made Earth less habitable with two World Wars and discovered 4,000 potentially habitable worlds outside the Solar System. We gave all races and genders the ballot, and invented new ways of revoking human dignity and belonging. We beheld the structure of life in a double helix and the shape of civilizational shame in a mushroom cloud. We heard Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, and the sound of spacetime. But the most remarkable thing about it all, the most human and humanizing thing, is the awareness of this we as atomized into millions of individual I’s who have lived and loved and lost and made art and music and mathematics through it all.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

Whitman understood and celebrated this intricate tessellation of being, not only across society — “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” — but across space and time, nowhere more splendidly than in his sweeping, horizonless masterpiece “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” — a poem that opens up a liminal space where past, present, and future tunnel into one another, a cave of forgotten and remembered dreams that invites you to press your outstretched living fingers into the palm-print of the dead, into Whitman’s generous open hand, and in doing so effects, to borrow Iris Murdoch’s marvelous phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”

At a special miniature edition of The Universe in Verse on Governors Island, devoted to Whitman’s enchantment with science, astrophysicist Janna Levin — an enchantress of poetry, a writer of uncommonly poetic prose, and co-founder of the Whitman-inspired endeavor to build New York’s first public observatory — reanimated an excerpt from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in a gorgeous reading emanating the elusive elemental truth Whitman so elegantly makes graspable in the poem.

from “CROSSING BROOKLYN FERRY”
by Walt Whitman

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west — sun there half an hour high — I see you also face to face.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,
The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme,
The similitudes of the past and those of the future.

[…]

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

It avails not, time nor place — distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried.

[…]

What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Whatever it is, it avails not — distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me

[…]

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,
I am he who knew what it was to be evil,
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting,
Was one with the rest, the days and haps of the rest,
Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word,
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,

Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.

For other highlights from the first three years of The Universe in Verse, as we labor on a virtual show amid the strangeness of this de-atomized season of body and spirit, savor Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson and his feminist poem about the history of science, Marie Howe reading her tribute to Stephen Hawking, Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson, and Neri Oxman reading Whitman, then revisit Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistance, women’s centrality to democracy, how to keep criticism from sinking your soul, and what makes life worth living.

BP

An Antidote to Helplessness and Disorientation: The Great Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on Our Human Fragility as the Key to Our Survival and Our Sanity

“Only through full awareness of the danger to life can this potential be mobilized for action capable of bringing about drastic changes in our way of organizing society.”

An Antidote to Helplessness and Disorientation: The Great Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on Our Human Fragility as the Key to Our Survival and Our Sanity

To be human is to be a miracle of evolution conscious of its own miraculousness — a consciousness beautiful and bittersweet, for we have paid for it with a parallel awareness not only of our fundamental improbability but of our staggering fragility, of how physiologically precarious our survival is and how psychologically vulnerable our sanity. To make that awareness bearable, we have evolved a singular faculty that might just be the crowning miracle of our consciousness: hope.

Hope — and the wise, effective action that can spring from it — is the counterweight to the heavy sense of our own fragility. It is a continual negotiation between optimism and despair, a continual negation of cynicism and naïveté. We hope precisely because we are aware that terrible outcomes are always possible and often probable, but that the choices we make can impact the outcomes.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

How to harness that uniquely human paradox in living more empowered lives in even the most vulnerable-making circumstances is what the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) explores in the 1968 gem The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology (public library), written in an era when both hope and fear were at a global high, by a German Jew who had narrowly escaped a dismal fate by taking refuge first in Switzerland and then in America when the Nazis seized power.

Erich Fromm

In a sentiment he would later develop in contemplating the superior alternative to the parallel lazinesses of optimism and pessimism, Fromm writes:

Hope is a decisive element in any attempt to bring about social change in the direction of greater aliveness, awareness, and reason. But the nature of hope is often misunderstood and confused with attitudes that have nothing to do with hope and in fact are the very opposite.

Half a century before the physicist Brian Greene made his poetic case for our sense of mortality as the wellspring of meaning in our ephemeral lives, Fromm argues that our capacity for hope — which has furnished the greatest achievements of our species — is rooted in our vulnerable self-consciousness. Writing well before Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant unsexing of the universal pronoun, Fromm (and all of his contemporaries and predecessors, male and female, trapped in the linguistic convention of their time) may be forgiven for using man as shorthand for the generalized human being:

Man, lacking the instinctual equipment of the animal, is not as well equipped for flight or for attack as animals are. He does not “know” infallibly, as the salmon knows where to return to the river in order to spawn its young and as many birds know where to go south in the winter and where to return in the summer. His decisions are not made for him by instinct. He has to make them. He is faced with alternatives and there is a risk of failure in every decision he makes. The price that man pays for consciousness is insecurity. He can stand his insecurity by being aware and accepting the human condition, and by the hope that he will not fail even though he has no guarantee for success. He has no certainty; the only certain prediction he can make is: “I shall die.”

What makes us human is not the fact of that elemental vulnerability, which we share with all other living creatures, but the awareness of that fact — the way existential uncertainty worms the consciousness capable of grasping it. But in that singular fragility lies, also, our singular resilience as thinking, feeling animals capable of foresight and of intelligent, sensitive decision-making along the vectors of that foresight.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. (Available as a print.)

Fromm writes:

Man is born as a freak of nature, being within nature and yet transcending it. He has to find principles of action and decision making which replace the principles of instinct. He has to have a frame of orientation that permits him to organize a consistent picture of the world as a condition for consistent actions. He has to fight not only against the dangers of dying, starving, and being hurt, but also against another danger that is specifically human: that of becoming insane. In other words, he has to protect himself not only against the danger of losing his life but also against the danger of losing his mind. The human being, born under the conditions described here, would indeed go mad if he did not find a frame of reference which permitted him to feel at home in the world in some form and to escape the experience of utter helplessness, disorientation, and uprootedness. There are many ways in which man can find a solution to the task of staying alive and of remaining sane. Some are better than others and some are worse. By “better” is meant a way conducive to greater strength, clarity, joy, independence; and by “worse” the very opposite. But more important than finding the better solution is finding some solution that is viable.

Art by Pascal Lemaître from Listen by Holly M. McGhee

As we navigate our own uncertain times together, may a thousand flowers of sanity bloom, each valid so long as it is viable in buoying the human spirit it animates. And may we remember the myriad terrors and uncertainties preceding our own, which have served as unexpected awakenings from some of our most perilous civilizational slumbers. Fromm — who devoted his life to illuminating the inner landscape of the individual human being as the tectonic foundation of the political topography of the world — composed this book during the 1968 American Presidential election. He was aglow with hope that the unlikely ascent of an obscure, idealistic, poetically inclined Senator from Minnesota by the name of Eugene McCarthy (not to be confused with the infamous Joseph McCarthy, who stood for just about everything opposite) might steer the country toward precisely such pathways to “greater strength, clarity, joy, independence.”

McCarthy lost — to another Democratic candidate, who would in turn lose to none other than Nixon — and the country plummeted into more war, more extractionism, more reactionary nationalism and bigotry. But the very rise of that unlikely candidate contoured hopes undared before — hopes some of which have since become reality and others have clarified our most urgent work as a society and a species. Fromm writes:

A man who was hardly known before, one who is the opposite of the typical politician, averse to appealing on the basis of sentimentality or demagoguery, truly opposed to the Vietnam War, succeeded in winning the approval and even the most enthusiastic acclaim of a large segment of the population, reaching from the radical youth, hippies, intellectuals, to liberals of the upper middle classes. This was a crusade without precedent in America, and it was something short of a miracle that this professor-Senator, a devotee of poetry and philosophy, could become a serious contender for the Presidency. It proved that a large segment of the American population is ready and eager for Humanization… indicating that hope and the will for change are alive.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

Having given reign to his own hope and will for change in this book “appealing to the love for life (biophilia) that still exists in many of us,” Fromm reflects on a universal motive force of resilience and change:

Only through full awareness of the danger to life can this potential be mobilized for action capable of bringing about drastic changes in our way of organizing society… One cannot think in terms of percentages or probabilities as long as there is a real possibility — even a slight one — that life will prevail.

Complement The Revolution of Hope — an indispensable treasure rediscovered half a century after its publication and republished in 2010 by the American Mental Health Foundation — with Fromm on spontaneity, the art of living, the art of loving, the art of listening, and why self-love is the key to a sane society, then revisit philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility and Rebecca Solnit on the real meaning of hope in difficult times.

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 receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.