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May Sarton on the Cure for Despair and Solitude as the Seedbed of Self-Discovery

“Sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.”

May Sarton on the Cure for Despair and Solitude as the Seedbed of Self-Discovery

“A great deal of poetic work has arisen from various despairs,” wrote Lou Andreas-Salomé, the first woman psychoanalyst, in a consolatory letter to the poet Rainer Maria Rilke as he was wrestling with depression, nearly a century before psychologists came to study the nonlinear relationship between creativity and mental illness. A generation later, with an eye to what made Goethe a genius, Humphrey Trevelyan argued that great artists must have the courage to despair, that they “must be shaken by the naked truths that will not be comforted. This divine discontent, this disequilibrium, this state of inner tension is the source of artistic energy.”

Few artists have articulated the dance between this “divine discontent” and creative fulfillment more memorably than the poet, novelist, essayist, and diarist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995). In her Journal of a Solitude (public library), Sarton records and reflects on her interior life in the course of one year, her sixtieth, with remarkable candor and courage. Out of these twelve private months arises the eternity of the human experience with its varied universal capacities for astonishment and sorrow, hollowing despair and creative vitality.

May Sarton

In an entry from September 15, 1972, Sarton writes:

It is raining. I look out on the maple, where a few leaves have turned yellow, and listen to Punch, the parrot, talking to himself and to the rain ticking gently against the windows. I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my “real” life again at last. That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone…

She considers solitude as the seedbed of self-discovery:

For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision. I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation. But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self. I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose — to find out what I think, to know where I stand.

[…]

My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there. I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.

Art by Sir Quentin Blake from Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

In another journal entry penned three days later, in the grip of her recurrent struggle with depression, Sarton revisits the question of the difficult, necessary self-confrontations that solitude makes possible:

The value of solitude — one of its values — is, of course, that there is nothing to cushion against attacks from within, just as there is nothing to help balance at times of particular stress or depression. A few moments of desultory conversation … may calm an inner storm. But the storm, painful as it is, might have had some truth in it. So sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.

In a passage that calls to mind William Styron’s sobering account of living with depression, Sarton adds:

The reasons for depression are not so interesting as the way one handles it, simply to stay alive.

Perhaps Albert Camus was right in asserting that “there is no love of life without despair of life,” but this is a truth hard to take in and even harder to swallow when one is made tongueless by depression. In an entry from October 6, still clawing her way out of the pit of darkness, Sarton considers the only cure for despair she knows:

Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.

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

By mid-October, Sarton has begun to emerge from the abyss and marvels at the transformation in a beautiful testament to the finitude and transitoriness of all things, even the deepest-cutting and most all-consuming of states:

I can hardly believe that relief from the anguish of these past months is here to stay, but so far it does feel like a true change of mood — or rather, a change of being where I can stand alone.

Echoing Virginia Woolf’s memorable insight into writing and self-doubt — the same self-doubt with which Steinbeck’s diary is strewn — Sarton considers the measure of success in creative work:

So much of my life here is precarious. I cannot always believe even in my work. But I have come in these last days to feel again the validity of my struggle here, that it is meaningful whether I ever “succeed” as a writer or not, and that even its failures, failures of nerve, failures due to a difficult temperament, can be meaningful. It is an age where more and more human beings are caught up in lives where fewer and fewer inward decisions can be made, where fewer and fewer real choices exist. The fact that a middle-aged, single woman, without any vestige of family left, lives in this house in a silent village and is responsible only to her own soul means something. The fact that she is a writer and can tell where she is and what it is like on the pilgrimage inward can be of comfort. It is comforting to know there are lighthouse keepers on rocky islands along the coast. Sometimes, when I have been for a walk after dark and see my house lighted up, looking so alive, I feel that my presence here is worth all the Hell.

Complement these particular passages of the wholly exquisite Journal of a Solitude with Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckages of the soul, then revisit Louise Bourgeois on how solitude enriches creative work and Elizabeth Bishop on why everyone needs at least one prolonged period of solitude in life.

BP

How Mendeleev Invented His Periodic Table in a Dream

“Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper.”

How Mendeleev Invented His Periodic Table in a Dream

Trailblazing chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (February 8, 1834–February 2, 1907) came to scientific greatness via an unlikely path, overcoming towering odds to create the periodic table foundational to our understanding of chemistry. Born in Siberia as one of anywhere between 11 and 17 children — biographical accounts differ, as infant mortality rate in the era was devastatingly high — he was immersed in tragedy from an early age. His father was a professor of fine arts, philosophy, and politics, but grew blind and lost his teaching position. His mother became the sole breadwinner, working at a glass factory. When Dmitri was thirteen, his father died. Two years later, a fire destroyed the glass factory.

The following year, determined to ensure her son’s education, his mother took him across the country hoping to get him into a good university. The University of Moscow rejected him. At last, they made it to Saint Petersburg, Russia’s then-capital. Saint Petersburg University — his father’s alma mater and, incidentally, both of my parents’ — admitted him and the family relocated there despite their poverty.

A promising scholar, Mendeleev — also spelled Mendeleyev in English — published papers by the time he was 20 and attended the world’s first chemistry conference at 26. By his mid-thirties, he was intensely preoccupied with classifying the 56 elements known by that point. He struggled to find an underlying principle that would organize them according to sets of similar properties and eventually reaped the benefits of the pattern-recognition that fuels creativity.

mendeleev

But rather than by willful effort, he arrived at his creative breakthrough by the unconscious product of what T.S. Eliot called idea-incubation — one February evening, after a wearying day of work, Mendeleev envisioned his periodic table in a dream.

In Mendeleyev’s Dream: The Quest for the Elements (public library), novelist Paul Strathern reconstructs the landmark moment from the scientist’s letters and diaries, and reimagines it with a dose of satisfying literary flourishing:

As Mendeleyev’s eyes ran once more along the line of ascending atomic weights, he suddenly noticed something that quickened his pulse. Certain similar properties seemed to repeat in the elements, at what appeared to be regular numerical intervals. Here was something! But what? A few of the intervals began with a certain regularity, but then the pattern just seemed to peter out. Despite this, Mendeleyev soon became convinced that he was on the brink of a major breakthrough. There was a definite pattern there somewhere, but he just couldn’t quite grasp it… Momentarily overcome by exhaustion, Mendeleyev leaned forward, resting his shaggy head on his arms. Almost immediately he fell asleep, and had a dream.

The dream, of course, was just a function of what the human brain normally does during sleep — organizing and consolidating the ideas, images, and bits of information that occupy our waking hours. And what Mendeleev’s waking mind was so vigorously occupied with was the quest for a classification system that would order the elements. “It’s all formed in my head,” he lamented, “but I can’t express it.” It was only when he reentered his own head under the spell of sleep’s uninhibited state that the disjointed bits fell into a pattern and the larger idea expressed itself.

Mendeleev himself would recount in his diary:

I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper.

Mendeleev's 1869 handwritten draft of the periodic table
Mendeleev’s 1869 handwritten draft of the periodic table

Complement Mendeleyev’s Dream with Margaret Mead’s existentially revelatory dream about the meaning of life and John Steinbeck’s prophetic dream about how the commercial media are killing creative culture, then revisit the science of what the brain actually does while we sleep.

BP

Why We Write About Ourselves: Some of Today’s Most Celebrated Writers on the Art of Telling Personal Stories That Unravel Universal Truth

“Making art is all about humans and our psychology: who we are, how we behave, what we do with the hand we’ve been dealt. It’s closer to your own bone when it’s a memoir, but the bone is still the bone.”

Why We Write About Ourselves: Some of Today’s Most Celebrated Writers on the Art of Telling Personal Stories That Unravel Universal Truth

“Oh, let’s not be petty, seeking sincerity in memoirs doesn’t make much sense,” the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska wrote in one of her wonderful prose pieces, adding: “It’s worth asking what version of his self and world the author’s chosen — since there’s always room for choice.”

In another piece, she elaborates:

In his work, every memoirist leaves behind a better or worse likeness of the people he knew, alongside two self-portraits. The first of these two is painted intentionally, while the second is unplanned, accidental. It goes without saying that the first is more flattering than the second, and the second is more faithful than the first. The better the writer, the more attention we should pay to this discrepancy.

But what is it about this polarity of control and surrender that makes the dual self-portrait so alluring and so abiding in its allure? Why are we, both as readers and as writers, so intensely drawn to memoir, from St. Augustine’s Confessions to the Internet’s deluge of personal narratives? Perhaps some of it has to do with our longing, to borrow Joan Didion’s unforgettable words, for keeping “on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings

But surely there is something more than self-reconciliation, something larger than the ego’s conversation with itself, that impels writers to open their hearts and wounds to strangers, and impels readers to plunge into the open hearts and wounds of strangers.

The enigmatic substance of that something is what editor Meredith Maran explores in Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature (public library) — a terrific compendium of insight into the practical craft and philosophical dimensions of how and why the magnetism of memoir works over us and works us over, featuring contributions from such masters of the genre as Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Nick Flynn, Meghan Daum, Pat Conroy, Edmund White, and A.M. Homes.

Dani Shapiro by Kate Uhry
Dani Shapiro by Kate Uhry

Novelist, memoirist, and artisan of nuance Dani Shapiro — whose memoir of the creative life, Still Writing, is one of the most vitalizing books I’ve ever read — begins by disabusing us of the common misconception that writing memoir is an act of catharsis:

It’s a misapprehension that readers have that by writing memoir you’re purging yourself of your demons. Writing memoir has the opposite effect. It embeds your story deep inside you. It mediates the relationship between the present and the past by freezing a moment in time.

Echoing Oliver Sacks’s admonition against the malleability of memory, she adds:

The idea of truth in memoir is absurd. Memory is utterly mutable, changeable, and constantly in motion. You can’t fact-check memory.

In a sentiment that calls to mind legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom’s assertion that “a penalty of the creative artist [is] wanting to make order out of chaos,” Shapiro writes:

One of the greatest gifts of writing memoir is having a way to shape that chaos, looking at all the pieces side by side so they make more sense. It’s a supreme act of control to understand a life as a story that resonates with others. It’s not a diary. It’s taking this chaos and making a story out of it, attempting to make art out of it. When you’re a writer, what else is there to do?

[…]

It’s like stitching together a quilt, creating order that isn’t chronological order — it’s emotional, psychological order.

That emotional and psychological dimension, Shapiro suggests, is the very fabric of the creative life — and it is indivisible from even the most mundane aspects of an artist’s life. (Amanda Palmer addressed this in her spectacular BBC open letter about the choice to become a mother as a working artist.) In a necessary counterpoint to the tyrannical notion of “work/life balance,” Shapiro observes:

More and more I feel there’s no contradiction and no delineation between my domestic life and my creative life. One can’t exist without the other. There is this life and there is this driving need to dive into that place that then expands, and that world is as large and encompassing when I’m inside it as the world that’s all around me.

In accordance with the anthology’s format of ending each contribution with a concentrated dose of essential advice to aspiring memoirists, Shapiro offers:

Know your reasons for embarking on this memoir. If one of your reasons is revenge, stop. Wait. Writing from rage, or from the sting of betrayal, or whatever it might be that is motivating you, will produce an incoherent story. Be sure you have enough distance from your material so that you are able to think of yourself as a character.

[…]

Remember that you’re telling a story. Not everything belongs… Just because it happened to you does not make it relevant. Choose carefully what to put in and what to leave out.

Cheryl Strayed by Graeme Mitchell
Cheryl Strayed by Graeme Mitchell

Cheryl Strayed, masterful pearlfinder in the subterranean river of emotion and purveyor of no-nonsense advice on writing, speaks to the singular potency of memoir’s currency, truth:

There’s a great amount of power present in reading something where the writer is standing right there behind the sentences, saying, “This is true.”

In a refreshing refusal to indulge the false humility behind which we all too often hide the vulnerable zeal of our creative egos, Strayed considers the impetus that animates her — the impetus, one might argue, that animates every true artist:

I aspire to greatness. I want to write literature that moves people, that looks them in the eye and reaches into their guts. My biggest worry is fulfilling the mission of literature, which is to tell us what it means to be human… I’m fueled by the desire to give beauty and truth to the world via the sentences I construct. I really want that in this deep, core, essential way. There’s an ache inside me that’s soothed only by writing.

[…]

I’m not talking about confession. I’m talking about necessity, about telling the deepest truth at the right moment and being in command of that.

[…]

My work doesn’t hinge on shock value. I tell only what needs to be told for the work to reach its full potential. I’m not interested in confession. I’m interested in revelation.

Echoing her previous observation that “when you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice,” she counsels aspiring writers:

The most powerful strand in memoir is not expressing your originality. It’s tapping into your universality. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be original in your writing — you are the only one who can write that universal experience in just that way. Trust that.

[…]

Good writing is built on craft and heart… You must do your work and it must cost you everything to do it.

Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott, who writes with uncommon grace and generosity of spirit about such messy subjects as grief, friendship, how we keep ourselves small by people-pleasing, and what gives us meaning in a seemingly meaningless world, sees memoir as a private act of public service:

I write memoirs because I have a passionate desire to be of even the tiniest bit of help. I like to write about the process of healing, of developing, of growing up, of becoming who we were born to be instead of who we always agreed to be. It’s sort of a missionary thing, to describe one person’s interior, and to say we’re probably raised not to think this or say it, but actually all of us feel it and have gone through it, and we all struggle with it. I feel like it’s a gift I have to offer to people, to say, “This is what it’s like for me, who you seem to like or trust. We’re all like this. We’re all ruined. We’re all loved. We all feel like victims, we all feel better than.”

There’s no shame in that. Anybody you’d ever want to be friends with has had a tremendous amount of wounding in their past.

Meghan Daum by Laura Kleinhenz

Meghan Daum, who has written beautifully about how we become who we are and who describes herself as “a personal essayist more than a memoirist,” examines the delicate art of heeding the line between intimacy and oversharing:

To me, writing personal narrative nonfiction should be an act of generosity toward the reader.

It’s an invitation. The writer is saying to the reader, “Come along with me while I tell you a few things and explore a few ideas.” The writer is saying, “Come a little closer and I’ll confide in you about a few things.”

The hope is those confidences will inspire the reader to unearth some of his own feelings or insights. None of this has to do with spilling your guts or handing your whole, unedited and unprocessed life story over to the reader to digest. That’s just bad manners, bad hostessing. When you write about yourself — actually, when you write about anything — the goal is to offer up just the right ingredients in just the right portions. You’re not dumping out the contents of the pantry. You’re serving up a finished meal.

In her advice to writers, Daum takes a page out of John Steinbeck’s book and offers a kind of meta-disclaimer:

Take most advice with a grain of salt, including mine. In literature, as in life, most advice says more about the giver than the receiver. So always consider the source. And if they’re good ones, don’t forget to thank them in your acknowledgments.

A.M. Homes
A.M. Homes

For A.M. Homes, writing memoir springs from “the impulse to organize the information and the experience — to put it in a container, if only to set the container aside for a while.” But the very construction of the container may require the violent shattering of a Pandora’s box. Looking back on the experience of writing The Mistress’s Daughter — her exquisitely disconcerting memoir of meeting her biological parents thirty years after they had given her up for adoption at birth — she reflects:

I wasn’t who I thought I was, and yet I didn’t know who I was. It was interesting to realize how fragile your identity is. Even when you’re thirty-something years old, and you’ve written a bunch of books, and you think you know who you are, the reveal of a piece of information, an addition or subtraction to your known narrative, can yank it all out from under you.

[…]

Since publishing the memoir, the biggest personal shift is that I now feel a greater sense of legitimacy. I feel I have the right to be alive, the right to exist. I felt very peripheral as a kid; it was an uncomfortable way to live.

One of the primary qualities great memoirs share, and a centripetal force of the magnetism that draws us to them, is this craftsmanship of legitimacy — the act of conferring dignity and validity upon the experiences of strangers via the writer’s own private experience. Homes speaks to this beautifully:

Writing my memoir was unpleasant, like being a doctor examining myself: Does it hurt here? Which part hurts the most? Oops! I made you bleed again.

There were many points at which I thought, I don’t really want to be doing this. I want to stop.

What propelled me to keep going was that I felt I could bring to the memoir my experience and training as a writer — finding language for primitive emotional experiences. One of the things that worked about the book was that it gave voice to people who hadn’t found language for their adoption experience. It allowed them to explore their own experience in a different way, and/or to have their feelings about it articulated and confirmed.

But although memoir’s form is molded of the deeply personal, its substance is animated by the universality of the creative impulse — something Homes captures with electrifying exactitude:

Making art is all about humans and our psychology: who we are, how we behave, what we do with the hand we’ve been dealt. It’s closer to your own bone when it’s a memoir, but the bone is still the bone.

Complement Why We Write About Ourselves with master-memoirist Vivian Gornick on how to own your story, then revisit Maran’s previous anthology, the marvelous Why We Write — a compendium of twenty celebrated writers’ reflections on why they do what they do and an excellent addition to this evolving archive of timeless advice on the craft.

BP

Elevating Resolutions for the New Year Inspired by Some of Humanity’s Greatest Minds

Cultivate honorable relationships, resist absentminded busyness, tell the world how to treat you, embrace enoughness, and more.

Elevating Resolutions for the New Year Inspired by Some of Humanity’s Greatest Minds

What if we could augment the bucket-list of typical New Year’s resolutions, dominated by bodily habits and pragmatic daily practices, with higher-order aspirations — habits of mind and spiritual orientations borrowed from some of humanity’s most timelessly rewarding thinkers? After last year’s selection of worthy resolutions inspired by such luminaries as Seneca, Maya Angelou, Bruce Lee, and Virginia Woolf, here is another set for the new year borrowed from a new roster of perennially elevating minds.

1. ADRIENNE RICH: CULTIVATE HONORABLE RELATIONSHIPS

One of the most influential poets of the twentieth century and a woman of unflinching conviction, Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) became the first and to date only person to decline the National Medal of Arts in protest against the growing monopoly of power and the government’s proposed plan to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Although her poetry collection The Dream of a Common Language is a cultural cornerstone and required reading for every thinking, feeling human being, her lesser-known collected prose, published as On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (public library), pours forth Rich’s most direct insight into the political, philosophical, and personal dimensions of human life.

In it, she writes:

An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.

It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.

It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.

It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.

2. SØREN KIERKEGAARD: RESIST ABSENTMINDED BUSYNESS

Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855), considered the first true existentialist philosopher, remains a source of enduring wisdom on everything from the psychology of bullying to the vital role of boredom to why we conform. In a chapter of the altogether indispensable 1843 treatise Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (public library), thirty-year-old Kierkegaard writes:

Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.

In a latter chapter, titled “The Unhappiest Man,” he considers how we grow unhappy by fleeing from presence and busying ourselves with the constant pursuit of some as-yet unattained external goal:

The unhappy person is one who has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, the essence of his being, in some manner outside of himself. The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself. But one can be absent, obviously, either in the past or in the future. This adequately circumscribes the entire territory of the unhappy consciousness.

[…]

The unhappy one is absent… It is only the person who is present to himself that is happy.

3. RAINER MARIA RILKE: LIVE THE QUESTIONS

In 1902, Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) began corresponding with a 19-year-old cadet and budding poet named Franz Xaver Kappus. Later published as Letters to a Young Poet (public library), Rilke’s missives address such enduring questions as what it really means to love, how great sadnesses bring us closer to ourselves, and what reading does for the human spirit.

In one of the most potent letters, he writes:

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

4. SUSAN SONTAG: PAY ATTENTION TO THE WORLD

In a terrific 1992 lecture, Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) asserted that “a writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.” But this observant attentiveness to the world, Sontag believed, is as vital to being a good writer as it is to being a good human being — something she addresses in one of the many rewarding pieces collected in the posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library), which also gave us Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness, courage and resistance, and literature and freedom.

Reflecting on a question she is frequently asked — to distill her essential advice on writing — Sontag offers:

I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”

Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer’s virtue.

For instance: “Be serious.” By which I meant: Never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.

But these tenets of storytelling, Sontag argues, aren’t just writerly virtues — they are a framework for human virtues:

To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.

But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.

5. BERTRAND RUSSELL: MAKE ROOM FOR “FRUITFUL MONOTONY”

Many of humanity’s greatest minds have advocated for the vitalizing role of not-doing in having a full life, but none more compellingly than British philosopher Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) in his 1930 masterwork The Conquest of Happiness (public library) — an effort “to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer,” and a timelessly insightful lens on what “the good life” really means.

In a chapter titled “Boredom and Excitement,” Russell teases apart the paradoxical question of why, given how central it is to our wholeness, we dread boredom as much as we do. Long before our present anxieties about how the age of distraction and productivity is thwarting our capacity for presence, he writes:

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.

[…]

As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense.

Many decades before our present concerns about screen time, he urges parents to allow children the freedom to experience “fruitful monotony,” which invites inventiveness and imaginative play — in other words, the great childhood joy and developmental achievement of learning to “do nothing with nobody all alone by yourself.” He writes:

The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness… A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.

I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony… A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.

6. URSULA K. LE GUIN: REFUSE TO PLAY THE PERFECTION GAME

ursulakleguin0

Perfectionism is our most compulsive way of keeping ourselves small, a kind of psychoemotional contortionism that gives the illusion of reaching for greatness while constricting us into increasingly suffocating smallness. That’s what Ursula K. Le Guin (b. October 21, 1929) explores in a wonderful 1992 essay titled “Dogs, Cats, and Dancers: Thoughts about Beauty,” found in the altogether spectacular volume The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library) — the source of Le Guin’s wisdom on the cultural baggage of gender, the magic of real human conversation, and the sacredness of public libraries.

Reflecting on various cultures’ impossible and often punishing ideals of human beauty, “especially of female beauty,” Le Guin writes:

There are a whole lot of ways to be perfect, and not one of them is attained through punishment.

[…]

I think of when I was in high school in the 1940s: the white girls got their hair crinkled up by chemicals and heat so it would curl, and the black girls got their hair mashed flat by chemicals and heat so it wouldn’t curl. Home perms hadn’t been invented yet, and a lot of kids couldn’t afford these expensive treatments, so they were wretched because they couldn’t follow the rules, the rules of beauty.

Beauty always has rules. It’s a game. I resent the beauty game when I see it controlled by people who grab fortunes from it and don’t care who they hurt. I hate it when I see it making people so self-dissatisfied that they starve and deform and poison themselves. Most of the time I just play the game myself in a very small way, buying a new lipstick, feeling happy about a pretty new silk shirt.

[…]

There’s the ideal beauty of youth and health, which never really changes, and is always true. There’s the ideal beauty of movie stars and advertising models, the beauty-game ideal, which changes its rules all the time and from place to place, and is never entirely true. And there’s an ideal beauty that is harder to define or understand, because it occurs not just in the body but where the body and the spirit meet and define each other.

And yet for all the ideals we impose on our bodies, Le Guin argues in her most poignant but, strangely, most liberating point, it is death that ultimately illuminates the full spectrum of our beauty — death, the ultimate equalizer of time and space; death, the great clarifier that makes us see that, as Rebecca Goldstein put it, “a person whom one loves is a world, just as one knows oneself to be a world.”

With this long-view lens, Le Guin remembers her own mother and the many dimensions of her beauty:

My mother died at eighty-three, of cancer, in pain, her spleen enlarged so that her body was misshapen. Is that the person I see when I think of her? Sometimes. I wish it were not. It is a true image, yet it blurs, it clouds, a truer image. It is one memory among fifty years of memories of my mother. It is the last in time. Beneath it, behind it is a deeper, complex, ever-changing image, made from imagination, hearsay, photographs, memories. I see a little red-haired child in the mountains of Colorado, a sad-faced, delicate college girl, a kind, smiling young mother, a brilliantly intellectual woman, a peerless flirt, a serious artist, a splendid cook—I see her rocking, weeding, writing, laughing — I see the turquoise bracelets on her delicate, freckled arm — I see, for a moment, all that at once, I glimpse what no mirror can reflect, the spirit flashing out across the years, beautiful.

That must be what the great artists see and paint. That must be why the tired, aged faces in Rembrandt’s portraits give us such delight: they show us beauty not skin-deep but life-deep.

More here.

7. ERICH FROMM: MASTER THE ART OF LOVING

erichfromm1

Our cultural mythology depicts love as something that happens to us — something we fall into, something that strikes us arrow-like, in which we are so passive as to be either lucky or unlucky. Such framing obscures the fact that loving — the practice of love — is a skill attained through the same deliberate effort as any other pursuit of human excellence.

Long before the Zen sage Thich Nhat Hahn admonished that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” the great German social psychologist, psychoanalyst, and philosopher Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) addressed this neglected skillfulness aspect of love in his 1956 classic The Art of Loving (public library) — a case for love as a skill to be honed the way artists apprentice themselves to the work on the way to mastery, demanding of its practitioner both knowledge and effort.

Fromm writes:

Love is not a sentiment which can be easily indulged in by anyone, regardless of the level of maturity reached by him… [All] attempts for love are bound to fail, unless [one] tries most actively to develop [one’s] total personality, so as to achieve a productive orientation; …satisfaction in individual love cannot be attained without the capacity to love one’s neighbor, without true humility, courage, faith and discipline. In a culture in which these qualities are rare, the attainment of the capacity to love must remain a rare achievement.

[…]

There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.

The only way to abate this track record of failure, Fromm argues, is to examine the underlying reasons for the disconnect between our beliefs about love and its actual machinery — which must include a recognition of love as an informed practice rather than an unmerited grace:

The first step to take is to become aware that love is an art, just as living is an art; if we want to learn how to love we must proceed in the same way we have to proceed if we want to learn any other art, say music, painting, carpentry, or the art of medicine or engineering. What are the necessary steps in learning any art? The process of learning an art can be divided conveniently into two parts: one, the mastery of the theory; the other, the mastery of the practice. If I want to learn the art of medicine, I must first know the facts about the human body, and about various diseases. When I have all this theoretical knowledge, I am by no means competent in the art of medicine. I shall become a master in this art only after a great deal of practice, until eventually the results of my theoretical knowledge and the results of my practice are blended into one — my intuition, the essence of the mastery of any art. But, aside from learning the theory and practice, there is a third factor necessary to becoming a master in any art — the mastery of the art must be a matter of ultimate concern; there must be nothing else in the world more important than the art. This holds true for music, for medicine, for carpentry — and for love. And, maybe, here lies the answer to the question of why people in our culture try so rarely to learn this art, in spite of their obvious failures: in spite of the deep-seated craving for love, almost everything else is considered to be more important than love: success, prestige, money, power — almost all our energy is used for the learning of how to achieve these aims, and almost none to learn the art of loving.

More here.

8. ANNE TRUITT: CHOOSE UNDERSTANDING OVER JUDGMENT

Perhaps because she was formally trained as a psychologist, artist Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921–December 23, 2004) possessed exceptional powers of introspection and self-awareness coupled with an artist’s penchant for patient observation. This made her diary, eventually published as Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library), a true masterwork of psychological insight.

In one particularly poignant entry, she considers how our preconceptions and our ready-made judgments are keeping us from truly seeing one another, erecting a perilous barrier to love:

Unless we are very, very careful, we doom each other by holding onto images of one another based on preconceptions that are in turn based on indifference to what is other than ourselves. This indifference can be, in its extreme, a form of murder and seems to me a rather common phenomenon. We claim autonomy for ourselves and forget that in so doing we can fall into the tyranny of defining other people as we would like them to be. By focusing on what we choose to acknowledge in them, we impose an insidious control on them. I notice that I have to pay careful attention in order to listen to others with an openness that allows them to be as they are, or as they think themselves to be. The shutters of my mind habitually flip open and click shut, and these little snaps form into patterns I arrange for myself. The opposite of this inattention is love, is the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.

More here.

9. SIMONE WEIL: MAKE USE OF YOUR SUFFERING

Long before scientists had empirical evidence of the astounding ways in which our minds affect our bodies, French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) — a thinker of unparalleled intellectual elegance and a sort of modern saint whom Albert Camus described as “the only great spirit of our times” — examined the delicate relationship between our physical and spiritual suffering, between the anguish of the material body and that of the soul.

A few months before her painful yet stoic death from tuberculosis — despite her diagnosis and her doctor’s explicit orders to eat heartily, Weil consumed only what was rationed to her compatriots under the German Occupation in a remarkable gesture of solidarity, ultimately resulting in fatal malnutrition — she turned to the problem of pain in First and Last Notebooks (public library). In an entry from late 1942, Weil considers how our instinctive reaction to suffering often only amplifies our pain:

The way to make use of physical pain. When suffering no matter what degree of pain, when almost the entire soul is inwardly crying “Make it stop, I can bear no more,” a part of the soul, even though it be an infinitesimally small part, should say: “I consent that this should continue throughout the whole of time, if the divine wisdom so ordains.” The soul is then split in two. For the physically sentient part of the soul is — at least sometimes — unable to consent to pain. This splitting in two of the soul is a second pain, a spiritual one, and even sharper than the physical pain that causes it.

Weil extends this philosophy beyond physical pain and into other forms of bodily and spiritual discomfort that we habitually exacerbate by stiffening with resistance to the unpleasantness:

A similar use can be made of hunger, fatigue, fear, and of everything that imperatively constrains the sentient part of the soul to cry: I can bear no more! Make it stop! There should be something in us that answers: I consent that it should continue up to the moment of death, or that it should not even finish then, but continue for ever. Then it is that the soul is as if divided by a two-edged sword.

To make use in this way of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us is better than inflicting discipline upon oneself.

10. JAMES BALDWIN: TELL THE WORLD HOW TO TREAT YOU

jamesbaldwin4

One August evening in 1970, James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) and Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978) sat together on a stage in New York City for a remarkable public conversation. They talked for seven and a half hours over the course of the weekend, tackling such enduring concerns as power and privilege, race and gender, beauty, religion, justice, and the relationship between the intellect and the imagination. The transcript was eventually published as A Rap on Race (public library) — a testament to both how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go, exploring such timeless and timely questions as changing one’s destiny, the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, and reimagining democracy for a post-consumerist culture.

In a portion of the conversation examining race, identity, and the immigrant experience, Baldwin observes:

It takes a lot to wrest identity out of nothing.

He offers an autobiographical example:

I remember once a few years ago, in the British Museum a black Jamaican was washing the floors or something and asked me where I was from, and I said I was born in New York. He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” I did not know what he meant. “Where did you come from before that?” he explained. I said, “My mother was born in Maryland.” “Where was your father born?” he asked. “My father was born in New Orleans.” He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” Then I began to get it; very dimly, because now I was lost. And he said, “Where are you from in Africa?” I said, “Well, I don’t know,” and he was furious with me. He said, and walked away, “You mean you did not care enough to find out?”

Now, how in the world am I going to explain to him that there is virtually no way for me to have found out where I came from in Africa? So it is a kind of tug of war. The black American is looked down on by other dark people as being an object abjectly used. They envy him on the one hand, but on the other hand they also would like to look down on him as having struck a despicable bargain.

But identity, Baldwin argues, isn’t something we are born with — rather, it is something we claim for ourselves, then must assert willfully to the world:

You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.

More here.

11. JOHN STEINBECK: USE DISCIPLINE TO CATALYZE CREATIVE MAGIC

Many celebrated writers have championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary, but no one has put the diary to more impressive practical use in the creative process than John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968).

In the spring of 1938, he embarked on the most intense writing experience of his life. The public fruit of this labor would become the 1939 masterwork The Grapes of Wrath, which earned Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and was a cornerstone for his Nobel Prize two decades later. But its private rewards are at least as important and morally instructive: Alongside the novel, Steinbeck also began keeping a diary, eventually published as Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (public library) — a living record of his creative journey, in which this extraordinary writer tussles with excruciating self-doubt (exactly the kind Virginia Woolf so memorably described) but plows forward anyway, with equal parts gusto and grist, determined to do his best with the gift he has despite his limitations.

His journal, which became for him a practice both redemptive and transcendent, stands as a supreme testament to the fact that the essential substance of genius is the daily act of showing up. Steinbeck captures this perfectly in an entry that applies just as well to any field of creative endeavor:

In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is no possibility, in me at least, of saying, “I’ll do it if I feel like it.” One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all. The rest is nonsense. Perhaps there are people who can work that way, but I cannot. I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not.

The journal thus becomes at once a tool of self-discipline (he vowed to write in it every single weekday, and did, declaring in one of the first entries: “Work is the only good thing.”), a pacing mechanism (he gave himself seven months to complete the book, anticipated it would actually take only 100 days, and finished it in under five months, averaging 2,000 words per day, longhand, not including the diary), and a sounding board for much-needed positive self-talk in the face of constant doubt (“I am so lazy and the thing ahead is so very difficult,” he despairs in one entry; but he assures himself in another: “My will is low. I must build my will again. And I can do it.”) Above all, it is a tool of accountability to keep him moving forward despite life’s litany of distractions and responsibilities. “Problems pile up so that this book moves like a Tide Pool snail with a shell and barnacles on its back,” he writes, and yet the essential thing is that despite the problems, despite the barnacles, it does move. He captures this in one of his most poignant entries, shortly before completing the first half of the novel:

Every book seems the struggle of a whole life. And then, when it is done — pouf. Never happened. Best thing is to get the words down every day. And it is time to start now.

A few days later, he spirals into self-doubt again:

My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be all right. I’ll try to go on with work now. Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.

And so he inches forward, day after day. As he nears the finish line, he is even more certain of this incremental reach for greatness:

I’ll get the book done if I just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.

And yet even as he approaches the end, his self-doubt remains as unshakable as his commitment to finish:

I only hope it is some good. I have very grave doubts sometimes. I don’t want this to seem hurried. It must be just as slow and measured as the rest but I am sure of one thing — it isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do. Now to work on it.

The book, of course, was far from run-of-the-mill. In addition to earning the two highest accolades in literature, The Grapes of Wrath remained atop the bestseller list for almost a year after it was published, sold nearly 430,000 copies in its first year alone, and remains one of the most read and celebrated novels ever written.

12. MARTHA NUSSBAUM: HEED THE INTELLIGENCE OF THE EMOTIONS

As scientists are shedding light on how our emotions affect our susceptibility to disease, it is becoming increasingly clear that our emotional lives are equipped with a special and non-negligible kind of bodily and cognitive intelligence. The nature of that intelligence and how we can harness its power is what Martha Nussbaum (b.May 6, 1947), whom I continue to consider the most compelling and effective philosopher of our time, examines in her magnificent 2001 book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (public library). Titled after Proust’s conception of the emotions as “geologic upheavals of thought,” Nussbaum’s treatise offers a lucid counterpoint to the old idea that our emotions are merely animal energies or primal impulses wholly separate from our cognition. Instead, she argues that they are a centerpiece of moral philosophy and that any substantive theory of ethics necessitates a substantive understanding of the emotions.

Nussbaum writes:

A lot is at stake in the decision to view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to the perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, and if they contain in themselves an awareness of value or importance, they cannot, for example, easily be sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment, as so often they have been in the history of philosophy. Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning. We cannot plausibly omit them, once we acknowledge that emotions include in their content judgments that can be true or false, and good or bad guides to ethical choice. We will have to grapple with the messy material of grief and love, anger and fear, and the role these tumultuous experiences play in thought about the good and the just.

[…]

Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.

She considers the rationale behind the book’s title:

Emotions should be understood as “geological upheavals of thought”: as judgments in which people acknowledge the great importance, for their own flourishing, of things that they do not fully control — and acknowledge thereby their neediness before the world and its events.

More here.

13. GRACE PALEY: MASTER THE ART OF GROWING OLDER

Perhaps the greatest perplexity of aging is how to fill with gentleness the void between who we feel we are on the inside and who our culture tells us is staring back from that mirror. The cultivation of that gentleness is what beloved writer Grace Paley (December 11, 1922–August 22, 2007) examines in a magnificent short piece titled “My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age,” originally written for the New Yorker in 2002 and included in Here and Somewhere Else: Stories and Poems by Grace Paley and Robert Nichols (public library) — a celebration of literature, love, and the love of literature by Paley and her husband, published a few months before she died at the age of eighty-five.

Paley writes:

My father had decided to teach me how to grow old. I said O.K. My children didn’t think it was such a great idea. If I knew how, they thought, I might do so too easily. No, no, I said, it’s for later, years from now. And besides, if I get it right it might be helpful to you kids in time to come.

They said, Really?

My father wanted to begin as soon as possible.

[…]

Please sit down, he said. Be patient. The main thing is this — when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands. You must do this every morning.

That’s a metaphor, right?

Metaphor? No, no, you can do this. In the morning, do a few little exercises for the joints, not too much. Then put your hands like a cup over and under the heart. Under the breast. He said tactfully. It’s probably easier for a man. Then talk softly, don’t yell. Under your ribs, push a little. When you wake up, you must do this massage. I mean pat, stroke a little, don’t be ashamed. Very likely no one will be watching. Then you must talk to your heart.

Talk? What?

Say anything, but be respectful. Say — maybe say, Heart, little heart, beat softly but never forget your job, the blood. You can whisper also, Remember, remember.

More here.

14. FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE: WALK YOUR OWN PATH

“Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?” Elizabeth Gilbert asked in framing her catalyst for creative magic. This is among life’s most abiding questions and the history of human creativity — our art and our poetry and most empathically all of our philosophy — is the history of attempts to answer it.

Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900), who believed that embracing difficulty is essential for a fulfilling life, considered the journey of self-discovery one of the greatest and most fertile existential difficulties. In 1873, as he was approaching his thirtieth birthday, Nietzsche addressed this perennial question of how we find ourselves and bring forth our gifts in a beautiful essay titled Schopenhauer as Educator (public library), part of his Untimely Meditations.

Nietzsche, translated here by Daniel Pellerin, writes:

Any human being who does not wish to be part of the masses need only stop making things easy for himself. Let him follow his conscience, which calls out to him: “Be yourself! All that you are now doing, thinking, desiring, all that is not you.”

Every young soul hears this call by day and by night and shudders with excitement at the premonition of that degree of happiness which eternities have prepared for those who will give thought to their true liberation. There is no way to help any soul attain this happiness, however, so long as it remains shackled with the chains of opinion and fear. And how hopeless and meaningless life can become without such a liberation! There is no drearier, sorrier creature in nature than the man who has evaded his own genius and who squints now towards the right, now towards the left, now backwards, now in any direction whatever.

Echoing Picasso’s proclamation that “to know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing,” Nietzsche considers the only true antidote to this existential dreariness:

No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself. There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk!

More here.

15. MARTHA GRAHAM: EMBRACE YOUR DIVINE DISSATISFACTION

“Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied,” Zadie Smith counseled in her ten rules of writing. But how does one befriend this perennial dissatisfaction while continuing to unlock, to borrow Julia Cameron’s potent phrase, the “spiritual electricity” of creative flow?

To this abiding question of the creative life, legendary choreographer Martha Graham (May 11, 1894–April 1, 1991) offers an answer at once remarkably grounding and remarkably elevating in a conversation found in the 1991 biography Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham (public library) by dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille.

In 1943, De Mille was hired to choreograph the musical Oklahoma!, which became an overnight sensation and ran for a record-setting 2,212 performances. Feeling that critics and the public had long ignored work into which she had poured her heart and soul, De Mille found herself dispirited by the sense that something she considered “only fairly good” was suddenly hailed as a “flamboyant success.” Shortly after the premiere, she met Graham “in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda” for a conversation that put into perspective her gnawing grievance and offered what De Mille considered the greatest thing ever said to her. She recounts the exchange:

I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.

Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have so far used about one-third of your talent.”

“But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”

“No artist is pleased.”

“But then there is no satisfaction?”

“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

16. KURT VONNEGUT: CELEBRATE ENOUGHNESS

In 2005, Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922–April 11, 2007) — a man of discipline, a sage of storytelling, and one wise dad — penned a short and acutely beautiful remembrance of his friend Joseph Heller, who had died several years earlier. Originally published in the New Yorker, it was later reprinted in John C. Bogle’s Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life (public library).

JOE HELLER

True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
now dead,
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.

I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!

BP

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