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Thoreau on How to Use Civil Disobedience to Advance Justice

“Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

Thoreau on How to Use Civil Disobedience to Advance Justice

“Truth always rests with the minority,” the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote in his diary in 1846 as he contemplated the individual vs. the crowd and why we conform, “because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion.”

Around the same time, across the Atlantic, 29-year-old Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) was beginning to contend with the subject of minority rights and civil justice after the horrors of the Mexican-American War compounded the outrage at slavery that had been seething in him for years.

Having recently benefited from trailblazing feminist Margaret Fuller’s conscientious mentorship, the young writer set about committing his outrage to words in what became Resistance to Civil Government, better known as Civil Disobedience (free ebook | public library).

thoreau1

Published in 1849 — well before Thoreau’s vivid writings about the glory of nature and the spiritual rewards of walking — this politically and socially awake masterpiece went on to influence such titans of culture as Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi (whose forgotten correspondence about violence, peace, and human nature is strewn with echoes of Thoreau), and informed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ideals of nonviolent resistance.

More than half a century before women got the right to vote — an era predating “the invention of women,” when “man” actually meant man — Thoreau writes:

Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice… Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? … Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents on injustice.

In a sentiment of acute timeliness as we are called to confront the atrocities of today’s criminal justice system and the systemic injustices of mass incarceration, Thoreau adds:

Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.

To the intuitive outcry of what is to be done, which bellows from deep in the soul of any human being who has managed to stay woke, Thoreau answers:

Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.

Civil Disobedience is an indispensable read for every democratically minded, socially conscious human being awake to justice. Complement it with Walt Whitman on how literature bolsters democracy, Eleanor Roosevelt on our individual responsibility in social change, and James Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, then revisit Thoreau on the art of walking, the sanctity of libraries, what it really means to be awake, the vital difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius.

BP

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

“Loneliness is personal, and it is also political. Loneliness is collective… We are in this together, this accumulation of scars… What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity.”

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

“You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love,” artist Louise Bourgeoise wrote in her diary at the end of a long and illustrious life as she contemplated how solitude enriches creative work. It’s a lovely sentiment, but as empowering as it may be to those willing to embrace solitude, it can be tremendously lonesome-making to those for whom loneliness has contracted the space of trust and love into a suffocating penitentiary. For if in solitude, as Wendell Berry memorably wrote, “one’s inner voices become audible [and] one responds more clearly to other lives,” in loneliness one’s inner scream becomes deafening, deadening, severing any thread of connection to other lives.

How to break free of that prison and reinhabit the space of trust and love is what Olivia Laing explores in The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (public library) — an extraordinary more-than-memoir; a sort of memoir-plus-plus, partway between Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk and the diary of Virginia Woolf; a lyrical account of wading through a period of self-expatriation, both physical and psychological, in which Laing paints an intimate portrait of loneliness as “a populated place: a city in itself.”

Art by Isol from Daytime Visions

After the sudden collapse of a romance marked by extreme elation, Laing left her native England and took her shattered heart to New York, “that teeming island of gneiss and concrete and glass.” The daily, bone-deep loneliness she experienced there was both paralyzing in its all-consuming potency and, paradoxically, a strange invitation to aliveness. Indeed, her choice to leave home and wander a foreign city is itself a rich metaphor for the paradoxical nature of loneliness, animated by equal parts restlessness and stupor, capable of turning one into a voluntary vagabond and a catatonic recluse all at once, yet somehow a vitalizing laboratory for self-discovery. The pit of loneliness, she found, could “drive one to consider some of the larger questions of what it is to be alive.”

She writes:

There were things that burned away at me, not only as a private individual, but also as a citizen of our century, our pixelated age. What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people, particularly if we don’t find speaking easy? Is sex a cure for loneliness, and if it is, what happens if our body or sexuality is considered deviant or damaged, if we are ill or unblessed with beauty? And is technology helping with these things? Does it draw us closer together, or trap us behind screens?

Bedeviled by this acute emotional anguish, Laing seeks consolation in the great patron saints of loneliness in twentieth-century creative culture. From this eclectic tribe of the lonesome — including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Hujar, Billie Holiday, and Nan Goldin — Laing chooses four artists as her companions charting the terra incognita of loneliness: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz, who had all “grappled in their lives as well as work with loneliness and its attendant issues.”

Olivia Laing
Olivia Laing

She considers, for instance, Warhol — an artist whom Laing had always dismissed until the was submerged in loneliness herself. (“I’d seen the screen-printed cows and Chairman Maos a thousand times, and I thought they were vacuous and empty, disregarding them as we often do with things we’ve looked at but failed properly to see.”) She writes:

Warhol’s art patrols the space between people, conducting a grand philosophical investigation into closeness and distance, intimacy and estrangement. Like many lonely people, he was an inveterate hoarder, making and surrounding himself with objects, barriers against the demands of human intimacy. Terrified of physical contact, he rarely left the house without an armoury of cameras and tape recorders, using them to broker and buffer interactions: behaviour that has light to shed on how we deploy technology in our own century of so-called connectivity.

Woven into the fabric of Laing’s personal experience are inquiries into the nature, context, and background of these four artists’ lives and their works most preoccupied with loneliness. But just as it would be unfair to call Laing’s masterpiece only a “memoir,” it would be unfair to call these threads “art history,” for they are rather the opposite, a kind of “art present” — elegant and erudite meditations on how art is present with us, how it invites us to be present with ourselves and bears witness to that presence, alleviating our loneliness in the process.

Laing examines the particular, pervasive form of loneliness in the eye of a city aswirl with humanity:

Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or forty-third floor of a building. The city reveals itself as a set of cells, a hundred thousand windows, some darkened and some flooded with green or white or golden light. Inside, strangers swim to and fro, attending to the business of their private hours. You can see them, but you can’t reach them, and so this commonplace urban phenomenon, available in any city of the world on any night, conveys to even the most social a tremor of loneliness, its uneasy combination of separation and exposure.

You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others. Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired. Unhappy, as the dictionary has it, as a result of being without the companionship of others. Hardly any wonder, then, that it can reach its apotheosis in a crowd.

As scientists are continuing to unpeel the physiological effects of loneliness, it is no surprise that this psychological state comes with an almost bodily dimension, which Laing captures vividly:

What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged. It hurts, in the way that feelings do, and it also has physical consequences that take place invisibly, inside the closed compartments of the body. It advances, is what I’m trying to say, cold as ice and clear as glass, enclosing and engulfing.

There is, of course, a universe of difference between solitude and loneliness — two radically different interior orientations toward the same exterior circumstance of lacking companionship. We speak of “fertile solitude” as a developmental achievement essential for our creative capacity, but loneliness is barren and destructive; it cottons in apathy the will to create. More than that, it seems to signal an existential failing — a social stigma the nuances of which Laing addresses beautifully:

Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorise. Like depression, a state with which it often intersects, it can run deep in the fabric of a person, as much a part of one’s being as laughing easily or having red hair. Then again, it can be transient, lapping in and out in reaction to external circumstance, like the loneliness that follows on the heels of a bereavement, break-up or change in social circles.

Like depression, like melancholy or restlessness, it is subject too to pathologisation, to being considered a disease. It has been said emphatically that loneliness serves no purpose… Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think any experience so much a part of our common shared lives can be entirely devoid of meaning, without a richness and a value of some kind.

With an eye to Virginia Woolf’s unforgettable diary writings on loneliness and creativity, Laing speculates:

Loneliness might be taking you towards an otherwise unreachable experience of reality.

Adrift and alone in the city that promises its inhabitants “the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation,” Laing cycles through a zoetrope of temporary homes — sublets, friends’ apartments, and various borrowed quarters, only amplifying the sense of otherness and alienation as she is forced to make “a life among someone else’s things, in a home that someone else has created and long since.”

Art by Carson Ellis from Home

But therein lies an inescapable metaphor for life itself — we are, after all, subletting our very existence from a city and a society and a world that have been there for much longer than we have, already arranged in a way that might not be to our taste, that might not be how the building would be laid out and its interior designed were we to do it from scratch ourselves. And yet we are left to make ourselves at home in the way things are, imperfect and sometimes downright ugly. The measure of a life has to do with this subletting ability — with how well we are able to settle into this borrowed, imperfect abode and how much beauty we can bring into existence with however little control over its design we may have.

This, perhaps, is why Laing found her only, if temporary, respite from loneliness in an activity propelled by the very act of leaving this borrowed home: walking. In a passage that calls to mind Robert Walser’s exquisite serenade to the soul-nourishment of the walk, she writes:

In certain circumstances, being outside, not fitting in, can be a source of satisfaction, even pleasure. There are kinds of solitude that provide a respite from loneliness, a holiday if not a cure. Sometimes as I walked, roaming under the stanchions of the Williamsburg Bridge or following the East River all the way to the silvery hulk of the U.N., I could forget my sorry self, becoming instead as porous and borderless as the mist, pleasurably adrift on the currents of the city.

But whatever semblance of a more solid inner center these peripatetic escapes into solitude offered, it was a brittle solidity:

I didn’t get this feeling when I was in my apartment; only when I was outside, either entirely alone or submerged in a crowd. In these situations I felt liberated from the persistent weight of loneliness, the sensation of wrongness, the agitation around stigma and judgement and visibility. But it didn’t take much to shatter the illusion of self-forgetfulness, to bring me back not only to myself but to the familiar, excruciating sense of lack.

Edward Hopper: Nighthawks (1942)
Edward Hopper: Nighthawks (1942)

It was in the lacuna between self-forgetfulness and self-discovery that Laing found herself drawn to the artists who became her companions in a journey both toward and away from loneliness. There is Edward Hopper with his iconic Nighthawks aglow in eerie jade, of which Laing writes:

There is no colour in existence that so powerfully communicates urban alienation, the atomisation of human beings inside the edifices they create, as this noxious pallid green, which only came into being with the advent of electricity, and which is inextricably associated with the nocturnal city, the city of glass towers, of empty illuminated offices and neon signs.

[…]

The diner was a place of refuge, absolutely, but there was no visible entrance, no way to get in or out. There was a cartoonish, ochre-coloured door at the back of the painting, leading perhaps into a grimy kitchen. But from the street, the room was sealed: an urban aquarium, a glass cell.

[…]

Green on green, glass on glass, a mood that expanded the longer I lingered, breeding disquiet.

Hopper himself had a conflicted relationship with the common interpretation that loneliness was a central theme of his work. Although he often denied that it was a deliberate creative choice, he once conceded in an interview: “I probably am a lonely one.” Laing, whose attention and sensitivity to even the subtlest texture of experience are what make the book so wonderful, considers how Hopper’s choice of language captures the essence of loneliness:

It’s an unusual formulation, a lonely one; not at all the same thing as admitting one is lonely. Instead, it suggests with that a, that unassuming indefinite article, a fact that loneliness by its nature resists. Though it feels entirely isolating, a private burden no one else could possibly experience or share, it is in reality a communal state, inhabited by many people. In fact, current studies suggest that more than a quarter of American adults suffers from loneliness, independent of race, education and ethnicity, while 45 per cent of British adults report feeling lonely either often or sometimes. Marriage and high income serve as mild deterrents, but the truth is that few of us are absolutely immune to feeling a greater longing for connection than we find ourselves able to satisfy. The lonely ones, a hundred million strong. Hardly any wonder Hopper’s paintings remain so popular, and so endlessly reproduced.

Reading his halting confession, one begins to see why his work is not just compelling but also consoling, especially when viewed en masse. It’s true that he painted, not once but many times, the loneliness of a large city, where the possibilities of connection are repeatedly defeated by the dehumanising apparatus of urban life. But didn’t he also paint loneliness as a large city, revealing it as a shared, democratic place, inhabited, whether willingly or not, by many souls?

[…]

What Hopper captures is beautiful as well as frightening. They aren’t sentimental, his pictures, but there is an extraordinary attentiveness to them… As if loneliness was something worth looking at. More than that, as if looking itself was an antidote, a way to defeat loneliness’s strange, estranging spell.

David Wojnarowicz by Peter Hujar (Peter Hujar Archive)
David Wojnarowicz by Peter Hujar (Peter Hujar Archive)

For the artists accompanying Laing on her journey — including Henry Darger, the brilliant and mentally ill Chicago janitor whose posthumously discovered paintings made him one of the most celebrated outsider artists of the twentieth century, and the creative polymath David Wojnarowicz, still in his thirties when AIDS took his life — loneliness was often twined with another profound affliction of the psyche: loss. In a passage evocative of Paul Goodman’s taxonomy of the nine types of silence, Laing offers a taxonomy of lonelinesses through the lens of loss:

Loss is a cousin of loneliness. They intersect and overlap, and so it’s not surprising that a work of mourning might invoke a feeling of aloneness, of separation. Mortality is lonely. Physical existence is lonely by its nature, stuck in a body that’s moving inexorably towards decay, shrinking, wastage and fracture. Then there’s the loneliness of bereavement, the loneliness of lost or damaged love, of missing one or many specific people, the loneliness of mourning.

But this lonesomeness of mortality finds its antidote in the abiding consolations of immortal works of art. “Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness,” philosopher Alain de Botton and art historian John Armstrong wrote in their inquiry into the seven psychological functions of art, and if loneliness is, as Laing puts it, “a longing for integration, for a sense of feeling whole,” what better answer to that longing than art? After all, in the immortal words of James Baldwin, “only an artist can tell, and only artists have told since we have heard of man, what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it.”

watertower_byMariaPopova

Looking back on her experience, Laing writes:

There are so many things that art can’t do. It can’t bring the dead back to life, it can’t mend arguments between friends, or cure AIDS, or halt the pace of climate change. All the same, it does have some extraordinary functions, some odd negotiating ability between people, including people who never meet and yet who infiltrate and enrich each other’s lives. It does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly.

If I sound adamant it is because I am speaking from personal experience. When I came to New York I was in pieces, and though it sounds perverse, the way I recovered a sense of wholeness was not by meeting someone or by falling in love, but rather by handling the things that other people had made, slowly absorbing by way of this contact the fact that loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.

But as profoundly personal as loneliness may feel, it is inseparable from the political dimensions of public life. In a closing passage that calls to mind Audre Lorde’s clarion call for breaking our silences against structural injustice, Laing adds:

There is a gentrification that is happening to cities, and there is a gentrification that is happening to the emotions too, with a similarly homogenising, whitening, deadening effect. Amidst the glossiness of late capitalism, we are fed the notion that all difficult feelings — depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage — are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to structural injustice or, on the other hand, to the native texture of embodiment, of doing time, as David Wojnarowicz memorably put it, in a rented body, with all the attendant grief and frustration that entails.

I don’t believe the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily. I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.

Loneliness is personal, and it is also political. Loneliness is collective; it is a city. As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each another. We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.

The Lonely City is a layered and endlessly rewarding book, among the finest I have ever read. Complement it with Rebecca Solnit on how we find ourselves by getting lost, David Whyte on the transfiguration of aloneness, Alfred Kazin on loneliness and the immigrant experience, and Sara Maitland on how to be alone without being lonely.

Thanks, Emily

BP

Hermann Hesse on the Three Types of Readers and Why the Most Transcendent Form of Reading Is Non-reading

“At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height, we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading.”

Hermann Hesse on the Three Types of Readers and Why the Most Transcendent Form of Reading Is Non-reading

Categories are how we navigate the world, for better or for worse — this impulse toward organization helps us (to borrow Umberto Eco’s wonderful phrase) make infinity comprehensible, but its perilous flipside is the seedbed of stereotypes.

Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) placed this paradoxical nature of categories at the heart of his taxonomy of the three types of readers — a sort of fluid hierarchy of reading modes, which he outlined in an altogether magnificent 1920 essay titled “On Reading Books.” It was later included in My Belief: Essays on Life and Art (public library) — the terrific Hesse anthology that gave us the beloved writer and Nobel laureate on why the book will never lose its magic.

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From ancient mythology to modern psychology, Hesse notes, the human experience is strewn with such taxonomies of character. He writes:

We have an inborn tendency to establish types in our minds and to divide mankind according to them. [But] however advantageous and revealing such categories may be, no matter whether they spring from purely personal experience or from attempting a scientific establishment of types, at times it is a good and fruitful exercise to take a cross section of experience in another way and discover that each person bears traces of every type within himself and that diverse characters and temperaments can be found as alternating characteristics within a single individual.

There are, Hesse argues, such distinct temperaments when it comes to our personality as readers:

Since you may take a completely different attitude toward anything in the world, so you may toward the book.

Half a century before E.B. White proclaimed that children are “the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth,” Hesse offers a hierarchical taxonomy predicated on the same sentiment. He outlines three key types, which can similarly coexist within a single reader over the course of a lifetime, beginning with the naïve reader — the reader who experiences a book merely as content, be it intellectual or aesthetic:

Everyone reads naïvely at times. This reader consumes a book as one consumes food, he eats and drinks to satiety, he is simply a taker, be he a boy with a book about Indians, a servant girl with a novel about countesses, or a student with Schopenhauer. This kind of reader is not related to a book as one person is to another but rather as a horse to his manager or perhaps as a horse to his driver: the book leads, the reader follows. The substance is taken objectively, accepted as reality. But the substance is only one consideration! There are also highly educated, very refined readers, especially of belles letters, who belong entirely to the class of the naïve… What the material, setting, and action are to simple souls, the art, language education, and intellectuality of the writer are to these cultivated readers.

[…]

This kind of reader assumes in an uncomplicated way that a book is there simply and solely to be read faithfully and attentively and to be judged according to its content or its form. Just as a loaf of bread is there to be eaten and a bed to be slept in.

He then turns to the second type of reader, which one might call (though Hesse does not provide a concrete term) the imaginative investigator — a reader endowed with childlike wonderment, who sees past the superficialities of content to plumb the depths of the writer’s creative impulse:

If one follows one’s nature and not one’s education one becomes a child again and begins to play with things; the bread becomes a mountain to bore tunnels into, and the bed a cave, a garden, a snow field. Something of this child-likeness, this genius for play, is exhibited by the second type of reader. This reader treasures neither the substance nor the form of a book as its single most important value. He knows, in the way children know, that every object can have ten or a hundred meanings for the mind. He can, for example, watch a poet or philosopher struggling to persuade himself and this reader of his interpretation and evaluation of things, and he can smile because he sees in the apparent choice and freedom of the poet simply compulsion and passivity. This reader is already so far advanced that he knows what professors of literature and literary critics are mostly completely ignorant of: the there is no such thing as a free choice of material or form.

[…]

From this point of view the so-called aesthetic values almost disappear, and it can be precisely the writer’s mishaps and uncertainties that furnish much the greatest charm and value. For this reader follows the poet not the way a horse obeys his driver but the way a hunter follows his prey, and a glimpse suddenly gained into what lies beyond the apparent freedom of the poet, into the poet’s compulsion and passivity, can enchant him more than all the elegance of good technique and cultivated style.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

Next comes the final type of reader, who is really a non-reader but rather a dreamer and interpreter:

The third and last type of reader … is apparently the exact reverse of what is generally called a “good” reader. He is so completely an individual, so very much himself, that he confronts his reading matter with complete freedom. He wishes neither to educate nor to entertain himself, he uses a book exactly like any other object in the world, for him it is simply a point of departure and a stimulus. Essentially it makes no difference to him what he reads. He does not need a philosopher in order to learn from him, to adopt his teaching, or to attack or criticize him. He does not read a poet to accept his interpretation of the world; he interprets it for himself. He is, if you like, completely a child. He plays with everything — and from one point of view there is nothing more fruitful and rewarding than to play with everything. If this reader finds a beautiful sentence in a book, a truth, a word of wisdom, he begins by experimentally turning it upside down.

In a sentiment which Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek would come to echo nearly a century later in his assertion that “you can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth,” Hesse adds:

[This reader] has known for a long time that for each truth the opposite also is true. He has known for a long time that every intellectual point of view is a pole to which an equally valid antipole exists. He is a child insofar as he puts a high value on associative thinking, but he knows the other sort as well.

But what grants this reader her or his superiority over the other types is, above all, a trained capacity for associative thinking that turns the reading material into a springboard for indiscriminate curiosity from which to leap far beyond the particular substance of the particular book. (A quarter century later, the inventor Vannevar Bush would describe the same psychological orientation in his prescient vision for the type of person who would triumph in the Information Age — the person who can “find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”) Hesse writes:

This reader is able, or rather each one of us is able, at the hour in which he is at this stage, to read whatever he likes, a novel or grammar, a railroad timetable, a galley proof from the printer. At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height, we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading. They may come out of the text, they may simply emerge from the type face. An advertisement in a newspaper can become a revelation; the most exhilarating, the most affirmative thoughts can spring from a completely irrelevant word if one turns it about, playing with its letters as with a jigsaw puzzle. In this stage one can read the story of Little Read Riding Hood as a cosmogony or philosophy, or as a flowery erotic poem. Or one can read the label “Colorado maduro” on a box of cigars, play with the words, letters, and sounds, and thereby take a tour through the hundred kingdoms of knowledge, memory, and thought.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

Hesse addresses the potential protestation that using a book as the trigger for a Rube Goldberg machine of interpretive associations is not “reading” at all — for is it really reading to devour “a page of Goethe unconcerned about Goethe’s intentions and meanings”? The objector, he imagines, would accuse this reading mode of being “the lowest, most childish and barbaric” of all. The objection, he concedes, is a valid one. And yet it contains within its validity the very point — each mode of reading is necessary for a full life, but it is insufficient in and of itself. “It must be emphasized that no one of us need belong permanently to any one of these types,” he cautions. In a passage that calls to mind Umberto Eco’s notion of the antilibrary, Hesse writes:

The reader at the their stage is no longer a reader. The person who remained there permanently would soon not read at all, for the design in a rug or the arrangement of the stones in a wall would be of exactly as great a value to him as the most beautiful page full of the best-arranged letters. The one book for him would be a page with the letters of the alphabet.

So be it: the reader at the last stage is really no longer a reader at all, he doesn’t give a hoot about Goethe, he doesn’t read Shakespeare. The reader in the last stage simply doesn’t read any more. Why books? Has he not the entire world within himself?

Half a century before Agnes Martin’s memorable observation that “we all have the same inner life [but] the artist has to recognize what it is,” Hesse adds:

Whoever remained permanently at this stage would not read any more, but no one does remain permanently at this stage. But whoever is not acquainted with this stage is a poor, an immature reader. He does not know that all the poetry and all the philosophy in the world lie within him too, that he greatest poet drew from no other source than the one each of us has within his own being. For just once in your life remain for an hour, a day at the third stage, the stage of not-reading-any-more. You will thereafter (it’s so easy to slip back) be that much better a reader, that much better a listener and interpreter of everything written. Stand just once at the stage where the stone by the road means as much to you as Goethe and Tolstoy, you will thereafter gain from Goethe, Tolstoy, and all poets infinitely more value, more sap and honey, more affirmation of life and of yourself than ever before. For the works of Goethe are not Goethe and the volumes of Dostoevsky are not Dostoevsky, they are only an attempt, a dubious and never successful attempt, to conjure up the many-voiced multitudinous world of which he was the central point.

Hesse likens this type of reading to a dream, or perhaps to what Stephen King has termed “creative sleep.” Dreaming transmogrifies the raw material of reality, gathered in our waking life, into fanciful creations of the consciousness set free from the constraints of reality. Similarly, this type of reading uses the actual text on the page as raw material for the imaginative meanderings of the mind. Hesse writes:

A dream is the opening through which you see into the content of your soul, and this content is the world, no more and no less than the world, the whole world from your birth up to today, from Homer to Heinrich Mann, from Japan to Gibraltar, from Sirius to the Earth, from Red Riding Hood to Bergson. — And to the extent that your attempt to write down your dream is related to the world that embraces that dream, so the work of an author is related to what he tired to say.

[…]

Without having recognized this, be it only a single time, in all its infinite fullness and inexhaustible significance, you stand handicapped before every poet and thinker, you take for the whole what is a small part, you believe in interpretations that barely touch the surface.

[…]

The third stage at which you are most yourself will put an end to your reading, will dissolve poetry, will dissolve art, will dissolve world history. And yet unless you intuitively know this stage, you will never read any book, any science or art except as a schoolboy reads his grammar.

Hesse’s My Belief, it bears repeating, is a transcendent read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Virginia Woolf on how to read a book, Patti Smith on the two types of masterpieces, C.S. Lewis on why we read, and a very old Robert Graves’s subversive celebration of how books transform us, illustrated by a very young Maurice Sendak.

BP

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