“We had seen the world dead. This was within the power of nature.”
By Maria Popova
Two weeks after my fifteenth birthday, an otherworldly wave of darkness intercepted the sweltering August afternoon and plunged it into a surreal cool — the first total solar eclipse to sweep across Bulgaria since I was a small child. An hour earlier, the Moon’s shadow had swallowed the sun in southwest England for the first time since June 29, 1927.
On June 29, 1927, seven weeks after the publication of To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) was smoking a cigar on a train carriage, traveling with her husband, her beloved teenage nephews, her great love turned lifelong friend Vita Sackville-West, and Vita’s husband. Woolf recorded what she saw and felt in vivid detail, with her uncommon gift for magnifying the smallest details of life into revelations about the largest questions of what it means to be human.
Before it got dark we kept looking at the sky; soft fleecy… Then we had another doze…; then here was a level crossing, at which were drawn up a long line of motor omnibuses and motors, all burning pale yellow lights. It was getting grey — still a fleecy mottled sky… All the fields were auburn with June grasses and red tasselled plants none coloured as yet, all pale. Pale and grey too were the little uncompromising Yorkshire farms. As we passed one, the farmer and his wife and sister came out, all tightly and tidily dressed in black, as if they were going to church. At another ugly square farm, two women were looking out of the upper windows. These had white blinds drawn down half across them. We were a train of 3 vast cars, one stopping to let the others go on; all very low and powerful; taking immensely steep hills… We got out and found ourselves very high, on a moor, boggy, heathery, with butts for grouse shooting. There were grass tracks here and there and people had already taken up positions. So we joined them, walking out to what seemed the highest point looking over Richmond. One light burned down there. Vales and moors stretched, slope after slope, round us. It was like the Haworth country. But over Richmond, where the sun was rising, was a soft grey cloud. We could see by a gold spot where the sun was. But it was early yet. We had to wait, stamping to keep warm… There were thin places in the clouds and some complete holes. The question was whether the sun would show through a cloud or through one of these hollow places when the time came. We began to get anxious. We saw rays coming through the bottom of the clouds. Then, for a moment, we saw the sun, sweeping — it seemed to be sailing at a great pace and clear in a gap; we had out our smoked glasses; we saw it crescent, burning red; next moment it had sailed fast into the cloud again; only the red streamers came from it; then only a golden haze, such as one has often seen. The moments were passing. We thought we were cheated; we looked at the sheep; they showed no fear; the setters were racing round; everyone was standing in long lines, rather dignified, looking out. I thought how we were like very old people, in the birth of the world — druids on Stonehenge; (this idea came more vividly in the first pale light though). At the back of us were great blue spaces in the cloud. These were still blue. But now the colour was going out. The clouds were turning pale; a reddish black colour. Down in the valley it was an extraordinary scrumble of red and black; there was the one light burning; all was cloud down there, and very beautiful, so delicately tinted. Nothing could be seen through the cloud. The 24 seconds were passing. Then one looked back again at the blue; and rapidly, very very quickly, all the colours faded; it became darker and darker as at the beginning of a violent storm; the light sank and sank; we kept saying this is the shadow; and we thought now it is over — this is the shadow; when suddenly the light went out.
In a sentiment Annie Dillard would echo half a century later in recounting how “the sun was going, and the world was wrong,” Woolf speaks to that profound, disquieting wrongness in which an eclipse washes our ordinary expectations of the world, our elemental givens of sensorial and perceptual reality:
We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no colour. The earth was dead. That was the astonishing moment; and the next when as if a ball had rebounded the cloud took colour on itself again, only a sparky ethereal colour and so the light came back. I had very strongly the feeling as the light went out of some vast obeisance; something kneeling down and suddenly raised up when the colours came. They came back astonishingly lightly and quickly and beautifully in the valley and over the hills — at first with a miraculous glittering and ethereality, later normally almost, but with a great sense of relief. It was like recovery. We had been much worse than we had expected. We had seen the world dead. This was within the power of nature.
One felt very livid. Then — it was over till 1999. What remained was the sense of the comfort which we get used to, of plenty of light, and colour. This for some time seemed a definitely welcome thing. Yet when it became established all over the country, one rather missed the sense of its being a relief and a respite, which one had had when it came back after the darkness. How can I express the darkness? It was a sudden plunge, when one did not expect it; being at the mercy of the sky; our own nobility; the druids; Stonehenge; and the racing red dogs; all that was in one’s mind.
“Go, dear friend, if need be give up all else, and commence to-day to inure yourself to pluck, reality, self-esteem, definiteness, elevatedness…”
By Maria Popova
“In the long run,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in considering how we bring about social change, “there is no more liberating, no more exhilarating experience than to determine one’s position, state it bravely, and then act boldly.” A generation after her, Albert Camus examined what it really means to be a rebel and asserted that the true rebel is not one who aims to destroy the existing order of things but one who “says yes and no simultaneously.” And yet the hardest project of self-actualization is that of discerning what to accept and what to reject — of the world and of ourselves — as we build the architecture of our character and stake out our stance in relation to our obstacles and aims.
Although the preface to the original edition contains Whitman’s timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life, tucked toward the end is a short poem titled “To a Pupil,” which captures in three spare verses his most concentrated and consecrating advice to the young — wisdom on the path to self-actualization, the essential discipline of personhood, and what it takes to be an effective agent of social change.
TO A PUPIL
Is reform needed? is it through you?
The greater the reform needed, the greater the Personality you
need to accomplish it.
You! do you not see how it would serve to have eyes, blood,
complexion, clean and sweet?
Do you not see how it would serve to have such a body and soul
that when you enter the crowd an atmosphere of desire
and command enters with you, and every one is impress’d
with your Personality?
O the magnet! the flesh over and over!
Go, dear friend, if need be give up all else, and commence to-day
to inure yourself to pluck, reality, self-esteem, definiteness,
Rest not till you rivet and publish yourself of your own Personality.
“Spontaneous activity is the one way in which man can overcome the terror of aloneness… for in the spontaneous realization of the self man unites himself anew with the world — with man, nature, and himself.”
By Maria Popova
Those of us accustomed to making life livable by superimposing over its inherent chaos various control mechanisms — habit, routine, structure, discipline — are always haunted by the disquieting awareness that something essential is lost in the clutch of control, some effervescent liveliness and loveliness elemental to what makes life not merely livable but worth living. Perhaps the most succinct shorthand for that counterpoint and counterpart to control is spontaneity. Ancient Eastern philosophy held it at the center of the enlightened life through the concept of wu wei, loosely translated as “spontaneous action.” The Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century recognized its vital antidote to the self-limiting compulsion for control in Emerson’s assertion that “people wish to be settled [but] only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”
In my own push-pull struggle with spontaneity — the longing for its unloosing of joy, the terror of its loss of control — I was reminded of some immensely insightful and encouraging passages by the German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) from his first major work, Escape from Freedom (public library) — his classic 1941 inquiry into how to cope with our moral aloneness.
A capacity and willingness for spontaneity, Fromm argues, is the railroad switch that shifts our life-track away from what he terms negative freedom — our impulse to escape from freedom rather than to it, overwhelmed by the tyranny of possibility — and toward its opposite, positive freedom. He writes:
The realization of the self is accomplished not only by an act of thinking but also by the realization of man’s total personality, by the active expression of his emotional and intellectual potentialities. These potentialities are present in everybody; they become real only to the extent to which they are expressed. In other words, positive freedom consists in the spontaneous activity of the total, integrated personality.
In a sentiment that has only swelled in relevance in the near-century since, Fromm observes that ours is a culture so predicated on control and the compulsions of achievement that it has rendered spontaneity a rarity. And yet among spontaneity’s scarce practitioners we find the model for the life most worth achieving:
While spontaneity is a relatively rare phenomenon in our culture, we are not entirely devoid of it… We know of individuals who are — or have been — spontaneous, whose thinking, feeling, and acting were the expression of their selves and not of an automaton. These individuals are mostly known to us as artists. As a matter of fact, the artist can be defined as an individual who can express himself spontaneously. If this were the definition of an artist — Balzac defined him just in that way — then certain philosophers and scientists have to be called artists too, while others are as different from them as an old-fashioned photographer from a creative painter. There are other individuals who, though lacking the ability — or perhaps merely the training — for expressing themselves in an objective medium as the artist does, possess the same spontaneity. The position of the artist is vulnerable, though, for it is really only the successful artist whose individuality or spontaneity is respected; if he does not succeed in selling the art, he remains to his contemporaries a crank, a “neurotic.” The artist in this matter is in a similar position to that of the revolutionary throughout history. The successful revolutionary is a statesman, the unsuccessful one a criminal.
Fromm argues that we recognize spontaneity as a supreme existential art and are drawn to its electric allure on some primal level, beneath the surface of our culturally conditioned evaluations:
There is nothing more attractive and convincing than spontaneity whether it is to be found in a child, in an artist, or in those individuals who cannot thus be grouped according to age or profession.
Most of us can observe at least moments of our own spontaneity which are at the same time moments of genuine happiness. Whether it be the fresh and spontaneous perception of a landscape, or the dawning of some truth as the result of our thinking, or a sensuous pleasure that is not stereotyped, or the welling up of love for another person — in these moments we all know what a spontaneous act is and may have some vision of what human life could be if these experiences were not such rare and uncultivated occurrences.
Negative freedom by itself makes the individual an isolated being, whose relationship to the world is distant and distrustful and whose self is weak and constantly threatened. Spontaneous activity is the one way in which man can overcome the terror of aloneness without sacrificing the integrity of his self; for in the spontaneous realization of the self man unites himself anew with the world — with man, nature, and himself.
Spontaneity, Fromm suggests, is both the prerequisite and the proof of the most universal yearning of the human heart — the yearning for meaning, manifested in the two core experiences of love and work:
Love is the foremost component of such spontaneity; not love as the dissolution of the self in another person, not love as the possession of another person, but love as spontaneous affirmation of others, as the union of the individual with others on the basis of the preservation of the individual self. The dynamic quality of love lies in this very polarity: that it springs from the need of overcoming separateness, that it leads to oneness — and yet that individuality is not eliminated. Work is the other component; not work as a compulsive activity in order to escape aloneness, not work as a relationship to nature which is partly one of dominating her, partly one of worship of and enslavement by the very products of man’s hands, but work as creation in which man becomes one with nature in the act of creation. What holds true of love and work holds true of all spontaneous action, whether it be the realization of sensuous pleasure or participation in the political life of the community. It affirms the individuality of the self and at the same time it unites the self with man and nature. The basic dichotomy that is inherent in freedom — the birth of individuality and the pain of aloneness — is dissolved on a higher plane by man’s spontaneous action.
Ours is only that to which we are genuinely related by our creative activity, be it a person or an inanimate object. Only those qualities that result from our spontaneous activity give strength to the self and thereby form the basis of its integrity.
“To create today is to create dangerously… The question, for all those who cannot live without art and what it signifies, is merely to find out how, among the police forces of so many ideologies… the strange liberty of creation is possible.”
The artist’s essential responsibility to leap society forward by upsetting the system is what Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) explores in a timeless, immensely insightful piece titled “Create Dangerously,” composed in Auden’s time but acutely relevant to our own. Originally delivered as a lecture at a Swedish university in December of 1957 — weeks after Camus became the second-youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded him for work that “with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times” — it was later included in his indispensable essay collection Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (public library).
An Oriental wise man always used to ask the divinity in his prayers to be so kind as to spare him from living in an interesting era. As we are not wise, the divinity has not spared us and we are living in an interesting era. In any case, our era forces us to take an interest in it. The writers of today know this. If they speak up, they are criticized and attacked. If they become modest and keep silent, they are vociferously blamed for their silence. In the midst of such din the writer cannot hope to remain aloof in order to pursue the reflections and images that are dear to him. Until the present moment, remaining aloof has always been possible in history. When someone did not approve, he could always keep silent or talk of something else. Today everything is changed and even silence has dangerous implications. The moment that abstaining from choice is itself looked upon as a choice and punished or praised as such, the artist is willy-nilly impressed into service. “Impressed” seems to me a more accurate term in this connection than “committed.” Instead of signing up, indeed, for voluntary service, the artist does his compulsory service.
It is easy to see all that art can lose from such a constant obligation. Ease, to begin with, and that divine liberty so apparent in the work of Mozart. It is easier to understand why our works of art have a drawn, set look and why they collapse so suddenly. It is obvious why we have more journalists than creative writers, more boy-scouts of painting than Cézannes, and why sentimental tales or detective novels have taken the place of War and Peace or The Charterhouse of Parma.
To create today is to create dangerously. Any publication is an act, and that act exposes one to the passions of an age that forgives nothing. Hence the question is not to find out if this is or is not prejudicial to art. The question, for all those who cannot live without art and what it signifies, is merely to find out how, among the police forces of so many ideologies (how many churches, what solitude!), the strange liberty of creation is possible.
What characterizes our time, indeed, is the way the masses and their wretched condition have burst upon contemporary sensibilities. We now know that they exist, whereas we once had a tendency to forget them. And if we are more aware, it is not because our aristocracy, artistic or otherwise, has become better — no, have no fear — it is because the masses have become stronger and keep people from forgetting them.
Coupled with various other social forces, this tyranny of popular opinion works “to discourage free creation by undermining its basic principle, the creator’s faith in himself.” (Writing in the same era, E.E. Cummings captured the importance of protecting that basic principle beautifully in his advice to artists: “To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.”) Out of this syphoning of creative freedom and courage, Camus argues, arises the dangerous falsehood that art is merely a luxury. Nearly two decades after Rebecca West insisted in the midst of WWII that “art is not a plaything, but a necessity… not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted,” Camus considers what led modern society to so misapprehend the essence and purpose of art:
If it adapts itself to what the majority of our society wants, art will be a meaningless recreation. If it blindly rejects that society, if the artist makes up his mind to take refuge in his dream, art will express nothing but a negation. In this way we shall have the production of entertainers or of formal grammarians, and in both cases this leads to an art cut off from living reality. For about a century we have been living in a society that is not even the society of money (gold can arouse carnal passions) but that of the abstract symbols of money. The society of merchants can be defined as a society in which things disappear in favor of signs. When a ruling class measures its fortunes, not by the acre of land or the ingot of gold, but by the number of figures corresponding ideally to a certain number of exchange operations, it thereby condemns itself to setting a certain kind of humbug at the center of its experience and its universe. A society founded on signs is, in its essence, an artificial society in which man’s carnal truth is handled as something artificial. There is no reason for being surprised that such a society chose as its religion a moral code of formal principles and that it inscribes the words “liberty” and “equality” on its prisons as well as on its temples of finance. However, words cannot be prostituted with impunity. The most misrepresented value today is certainly the value of liberty.
For a hundred years a society of merchants made an exclusive and unilateral use of liberty, looking upon it as a right rather than as a duty, and did not fear to use an ideal liberty, as often as it could, to justify a very real oppression. As a result, is there anything surprising in the fact that such a society asked art to be, not an instrument of liberation, but an inconsequential exercise and a mere entertainment?
He examines the social charade that engulfs creative work, inflating ego while deflating art:
Art for art’s sake, the entertainment of a solitary artist, is indeed the artificial art of a factitious and self-absorbed society. The logical result of such a theory is the art of little cliques or the purely formal art fed on affectations and abstractions and ending in the destruction of all reality. In this way a few works charm a few individuals while many coarse inventions corrupt many others. Finally art takes shape outside of society and cuts itself off from its living roots. Gradually the artist, even if he is celebrated, is alone or at least is known to his nation only through the intermediary of the popular press or the radio, which will provide a convenient and simplified idea of him. The more art specializes, in fact, the more necessary popularization becomes. In this way millions of people will have the feeling of knowing this or that great artist of our time because they have learned from the newspapers that he raises canaries or that he never stays married more than six months. The greatest renown today consists in being admired or hated without having been read. Any artist who goes in for being famous in our society must know that it is not he who will become famous, but someone else under his name, someone who will eventually escape him and perhaps someday will kill the true artist in him.
And yet Camus condemns the simplistic divide between artistic authenticity and what we today may call “selling out” — to wholly reject society, including its currencies of celebrity, is to perpetrate another sort of hubris that divorces art from its raw material. In a sentiment Baldwin would echo several years later in reminding us that what made Shakespeare the greatest poet in the English language was that he “found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people,” Camus writes:
As a result of rejecting everything, even the tradition of his art, the contemporary artist gets the illusion that he is creating his own rule and eventually takes himself for God. At the same time he thinks he can create his reality himself. But, cut off from his society, he will create nothing but formal or abstract works, thrilling as experiences but devoid of the fecundity we associate with true art, which is called upon to unite.
Instead, Camus argues, the artist must contact the reality of his or her time, wresting from it something timeless and universal:
[The artist] has only to translate the sufferings and happiness of all into the language of all and he will be universally understood. As a reward for being absolutely faithful to reality, he will achieve complete communication among men.
This ideal of universal communication is indeed the ideal of any great artist. Contrary to the current presumption, if there is any man who has no right to solitude, it is the artist. Art cannot be a monologue. When the most solitary and least famous artist appeals to posterity, he is merely reaffirming his fundamental vocation. Considering a dialogue with deaf or inattentive contemporaries to be impossible, he appeals to a more far-reaching dialogue with the generations to come.
But in order to speak about all and to all, one has to speak of what all know and of the reality common to us all. The sea, rains, necessity, desire, the struggle against death — these are the things that unite us all. We resemble one another in what we see together, in what we suffer together. Dreams change from individual to individual, but the reality of the world is common to us all. Striving toward realism is therefore legitimate, for it is basically related to the artistic adventure.
Reality cannot be reproduced without exercising a selection… The only thing needed, then, is to find a principle of choice that will give shape to the world. And such a principle is found, not in the reality we know, but in the reality that will be — in short, the future. In order to reproduce properly what is, one must depict also what will be.
The artist chooses his object as much as he is chosen by it. Art, in a sense, is a revolt against everything fleeting and unfinished in the world. Consequently, its only aim is to give another form to a reality that it is nevertheless forced to preserve as the source of its emotion. In this regard, we are all realistic and no one is. Art is neither complete rejection nor complete acceptance of what is. It is simultaneously rejection and acceptance, and this is why it must be a perpetually renewed wrenching apart. The artist constantly lives in such a state of ambiguity, incapable of negating the real and yet eternally bound to question it in its eternally unfinished aspects.
The loftiest work will always be… the work that maintains an equilibrium between reality and man’s rejection of that reality, each forcing the other upward in a ceaseless overflowing, characteristic of life itself at its most joyous and heart-rending extremes. Then, every once in a while, a new world appears, different from the everyday world and yet the same, particular but universal, full of innocent insecurity — called forth for a few hours by the power and longing of genius. That’s just it and yet that’s not it; the world is nothing and the world is everything — this is the contradictory and tireless cry of every true artist, the cry that keeps him on his feet with eyes ever open and that, every once in a while, awakens for all in this world asleep the fleeting and insistent image of a reality we recognize without ever having known it.
This tension — between the present and the future, between what is and what can be, between suffering and the transcendence of suffering — is the seedbed of art. Camus writes:
The artist can neither turn away from his time nor lose himself in it… The prophet, whether religious or political, can judge absolutely and, as is known, is not chary of doing so. But the artist cannot. If he judged absolutely, he would arbitrarily divide reality into good and evil and thus indulge in melodrama. The aim of art, on the contrary, is not to legislate or to reign supreme, but rather to understand first of all. Sometimes it does reign supreme, as a result of understanding. But no work of genius has ever been based on hatred and contempt. This is why the artist, at the end of his slow advance, absolves instead of condemning. Instead of being a judge, he is a justifier. He is the perpetual advocate of the living creature, because it is alive.
Perhaps the greatness of art lies in the perpetual tension between beauty and pain, the love of men and the madness of creation, unbearable solitude and the exhausting crowd, rejection and consent… On the ridge where the great artist moves forward, every step is an adventure, an extreme risk. In that risk, however, and only there, lies the freedom of art.
Art, by virtue of that free essence I have tried to define, unites whereas tyranny separates. It is not surprising, therefore, that art should be the enemy marked out by every form of oppression. It is not surprising that artists and intellectuals should have been the first victims of modern tyrannies… Tyrants know there is in the work of art an emancipatory force, which is mysterious only to those who do not revere it. Every great work makes the human face more admirable and richer, and this is its whole secret. And thousands of concentration camps and barred cells are not enough to hide this staggering testimony of dignity. This is why it is not true that culture can be, even temporarily, suspended in order to make way for a new culture… There is no culture without legacy… Whatever the works of the future may be, they will bear the same secret, made up of courage and freedom, nourished by the daring of thousands of artists of all times and all nations.
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