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Charles Bukowski, Arthur C. Clarke, Annie Dillard, John Cage, and Others on the Meaning of Life

“We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”

The quest to understand the meaning of life has haunted humanity since the dawn of existence. Modern history alone has given us a plethora of attempted answers, including ones from Steve Jobs, Stanley Kubrick, David Foster Wallace, Anais Nin, Ray Bradbury, and Jackson Pollock’s dad. In 1988, the editors of LIFE magazine posed this grand question head-on to 300 “wise men and women,” from celebrated authors, actors, and artists to global spiritual leaders to everyday farmers, barbers, and welfare mothers. In 1991, they collected the results, along with a selection of striking black-and-white photographs from the magazine’s archives that answered the question visually and abstractly, in The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here (public library). Here is a selection of the answers.

Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard:

We are here to witness the creation and abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.

According to the second law of thermodynamics, things fall apart. Structures disintegrate. Buckminster Fuller hinted at a reason we are here: By creating things, by thinking up new combinations, we counteract this flow of entropy. We make new structures, new wholeness, so the universe comes out even. A shepherd on a hilltop who looks at a mess of stars and thinks, ‘There’s a hunter, a plow, a fish,’ is making mental connections that have as much real force in the universe as the very fires in those stars themselves.

Ralph Morse
Albert Einstein’s study shortly after his death, Princeton, New Jersey

Legendary science writer Stephen Jay Gould:

The human species has inhabited this planet for only 250,000 years or so-roughly.0015 percent of the history of life, the last inch of the cosmic mile. The world fared perfectly well without us for all but the last moment of earthly time–and this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the culmination of a prefigured plan.

Moreover, the pathways that have led to our evolution are quirky, improbable, unrepeatable and utterly unpredictable. Human evolution is not random; it makes sense and can be explained after the fact. But wind back life’s tape to the dawn of time and let it play again–and you will never get humans a second time.

We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer — but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves — from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way.

Bill Owens
Graduation dance

Frank Donofrio, a barber:

I have been asking myself why I’m here most of my life. If there’s a purpose I don’t care anymore. I’m seventy-four. I’m on my way out. Let the young people learn the hard way, like I did. No one ever told me anything.

Leonard Freed
Harlem summer day

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke:

A wise man once said that all human activity is a form of play. And the highest form of play is the search for Truth, Beauty and Love. What more is needed? Should there be a ‘meaning’ as well, that will be a bonus?

If we waste time looking for life’s meaning, we may have no time to live — or to play.

Franco Zecchin
Sicily

Literary icon John Updike:

Ancient religion and modern science agree: we are here to give praise. Or, to slightly tip the expression, to pay attention. Without us, the physicists who have espoused the anthropic principle tell us, the universe would be unwitnessed, and in a real sense not there at all. It exists, incredibly, for us. This formulation (knowing what we know of the universe’s ghastly extent) is more incredible, to our sense of things, than the Old Testament hypothesis of a God willing to suffer, coddle, instruct, and even (in the Book of Job) to debate with men, in order to realize the meager benefit of worship, of praise for His Creation. What we beyond doubt do have is our instinctive intellectual curiosity about the universe from the quasars down to the quarks, our wonder at existence itself, and an occasional surge of sheer blind gratitude for being here.

Abbas
Fireman at scene of bomb explosion, Belfast, Northern Ireland

Poet Charles Bukowski:

For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command or faith a dictum. I am my own God.

We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our educational system.

We are here to drink beer.

We are here to kill war.

We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.

We are here to read these words from all these wise men and women who will tell us that we are here for different reasons and the same reason.

Myron Davis
A boy and his dog, Iowa

Avant-garde composer and philosopher John Cage:

No why. Just here.

Duane Michals
The Human Condition

The Meaning of Life is a cultural treasure in its entirety, and the screen does the stunning photographs no justice — do grab yourself an analog copy.

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The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design

Six centuries of seminal design history, condensed into a stunning artifact.

Every once in a while, along comes a book-as-artifact that becomes an instant, inextricable necessity in the life of any graphic design aficionado. This season, it’s The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design — an impressive, exhaustive, rigorously researched, and beautifully produced compendium of 500 seminal designs spanning newspapers, magazines, posters, advertisements, typefaces, logos, corporate design, record covers, and moving graphics, examined through 3000 color and 300 black-and-white illustrations in their proper historical and sociocultural context.

Though the concept is hardly novel, wedged somewhere between 100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design and Bibliographic, the book-in-a-box execution holds a rare kind of mesmerism, its dividers inviting you to organize and explore the wealth of design legacy by designer, subject, chronology, or alphabetical order.

The Man of Letters or Pierrot’s Alphabet (1794)
Paul Rand: IBM (1956-1991)
Saul Bass: Vertigo (1958)
Charles Minard: Chart showing the number of men in Napoleon’s 1812 Russian campaign army, their movements, and the temperature they encountered on the return path (1869)
Aleksandr Rodchencko: Luchshih Sosok ne bilo i nyet (1923)
A. M. Cassandre: Dubo Dubonnet (1932)

Featuring such beloved design icons as Milton Glaser, Paula Scher, Saul Bass, and Paul Rand, the selections explore how graphic design coalesced out of the traditions of printing and fine art thanks to two key developments — the invention of the printing press in 15th-century Europe and the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries — emerging as one of the most powerful, ever-evolving tools of modern human communication.

At once a stunning artifact and an illuminating time-capsule of design history, The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design isn’t just a beautiful addition to your personal library — it is in itself a miniature, portable library of watershed graphic design work and the cultural context that gave it shape.

Some images via It’s Nice That

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Dan Ariely on the Truth About Dishonesty, Animated

“It’s all about rationalization.”

From the fantastic RSA Animate series comes an illustrated distillation of behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s new book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves, which you might recall. Here, Ariely highlights some of the fascinating psychological mechanisms that steer our moral compass — and often do so in directions different from our self-conception as righteous people — explaining everything from why we cheat on our diets to how the world ended up in a massive financial crisis, and offering lab-tested behavioral insights on what we can do about it all.

If you think about the whole financial crisis, we’ve taken people and we’ve put them in situations which basically are guaranteed to blind or, at least, to distort their vision. And we expect people to overcome that.

We all have a tendency to think of people as good or bad. And, we say, as long as we kick the bad people, everything would be fine. But the reality is that we all have the capacity to be quite bad, under the right circumstances, and I think in banking we’ve created the right circumstances for everybody to misbehave. And, because of that, it’s not such a matter of kicking some people and getting new people in — it’s about changing the incentive structure. Because, unless we change that, we’re not going to get forward.

For a closer look at The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, see these annotated excerpts from a chapter on the relationship between creativity and dishonesty.

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