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Art in the Light of Conscience: The Great Russian Poet Marina Tsvetaeva on Loving vs. Understanding and the Paradoxical Psychology of Our Resistance to Ideas

“Not to go onwards (in verse, as in everything) means to go backwards — that is, to leave the scene.”

Art in the Light of Conscience: The Great Russian Poet Marina Tsvetaeva on Loving vs. Understanding and the Paradoxical Psychology of Our Resistance to Ideas

“People have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them,” Bob Dylan observed in his 1991 conversation with journalist Paul Zollo about the unconscious mind and the creative process.

More than half a century earlier, the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (October 8, 1892–August 31, 1941) explored the paradoxical psychological machinery of that resistance in one of the eight beautiful pieces in her collection of essays on art and writing, Art in the Light of Conscience (public library) — a discovery embodying my longtime saying that literature is the original internet, for I found a “link” to the book in a footnote in Tsvetaeva’s exquisite correspondence with Pasternak and Rilke, which was in turn “linked” to in Marina Abramović moving memoir.

Marina Tsvetaeva
Marina Tsvetaeva

In a sentiment of equal cultural and political perceptiveness, Tsvetaeva writes:

Not to like a work is, in the first and most important place, not to recognize it: not to find the pre-cognized in it. The first cause of not accepting a work is not being prepared for it… A physical turning away of the head: I see nothing in this picture, therefore I don’t wish to look at it. — But, in order to see, one needs to look; in order to really see, one needs to look really closely. Disappointment of an eye that is used to seeing at first glance, which means used to seeing along its old track, that of others’ eyes… [an eye] used to not an act of cognition, but recognition.

Tsvetaeva considers the only position from which we have the right — intellectual, creative, moral — to reject an idea or a work of art:

The only case worthy of respect, the only legitimate non-acceptance of a work, is non-acceptance of it in full knowledge… No one is obliged to love, but every non-loving person is obliged to know — first, what it is he doesn’t love, and second, why he doesn’t love it.

In a fine complement to her compatriot Leo Tolstoy’s ideas about the paradoxical nature of love, she adds:

Anyone who loves only something, loves nothing.

Although our instinctual reaction to that which we do not understand is to reject it, Tsvetaeva reminds us that such rejection is maladaptive and to the detriment of our evolution — be it in art or in politics or in our private lives. She writes:

Not to go onwards (in verse, as in everything) means to go backwards — that is, to leave the scene.

What we reject most often is that which rebels against and challenges the status quo, but such rejection, Tsvetaeva admonishes, is antithetical to the creative force that propels us forward. Once again, what is true of poetry is true of life itself:

There is no poet who would reject any elemental force, consequently any rebellion.

[…]

What doesn’t accept (rejects, even ejects) is the human being: will, reason, conscience.

In this realm the poet can have only one prayer: not to understand the unacceptable — let me not understand, so that I may not be seduced. The sole prayer of the poet is not to hear the voices: let me not hear, so that I may not answer. For to hear, for the poet, is already to answer, and to answer is already to affirm, if only by the passionateness of his denial. The poet’s only prayer is a prayer for deafness.

Complement this particular fragment of Art in the Light of Conscience with Hannah Arendt on thinking vs. knowing and André Gide on art’s vital role as both acceptance of and rebellion against reality.

BP

Annie Dillard on the Winter Solstice and How the Snowy Season Anneals Us to Life

“Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”

Annie Dillard on the Winter Solstice and How the Snowy Season Anneals Us to Life

Rilke considered the cold season the time for tending one’s inner garden. “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer,” Albert Camus wrote a generation later. “If we didn’t remember winter in spring, it wouldn’t be as lovely,” Adam Gopnik observed after many more revolutions of the Earth around the Sun in his lyrical love letter to winter. But if we are to reap winter’s quiet and invisible spiritual rewards, it seems that special regard must be paid to day of the season’s onset as the time to set such interior intentions.

That’s what Annie Dillard (b. April 30, 1945) invites in a splendid meditation on the winter solstice, originally published in her 1974 masterpiece Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — which I revisit frequently as a sort of secular scripture — and later included in The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New (public library), one of the 16 finest books of 2016.

anniedillard

Dillard writes:

Today is the winter solstice. The planet tilts just so to its star, lists and holds circling in a fixed tension between veering and longing, spins helpless, exalted, in and out of that fleet blazing touch. Last night Orion vaulted and spread all over the sky, pagan and lunatic, his shoulder and knee on fire, his sword three suns at the ready — for what?

[…]

I stood at the window, the bay window on which in summer a waxy-looking grasshopper had breathed puff puff, and thought, I won’t see this year again, not again so innocent, and longing wrapped round my throat like a scarf… Is this mystery or coyness? A cast-iron bell hung from the arch of my rib cage; when I stirred it rang, or it tolled, a long syllable pulsing ripples up my lungs and down the gritty sap inside my bones, and I couldn’t make it out; I felt the voiced vowel like a sigh or a note, but couldn’t catch the consonant that might shape it into sense. I wrenched myself from the window and stepped outside.

Art by Isabelle Arsenault from Once Upon a Northern Night by Jean E. Pendziwol

She considers how winter highlights one of the central perplexities of existence — the mystery of beauty. In a sentiment that calls to mind Baudelaire’s assertion that “beauty always has an element of strangeness,” Dillard contemplates winter’s strange and sorrowful landscape of loss, and writes:

Is beauty itself an intricately fashioned lure, the cruelest hoax of all?

[…]

A wind rose, quickening; it invaded my nostrils, vibrated my gut. I stirred and lifted my head. No, I’ve gone through this a million times, beauty is not a hoax… Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it.

Art by Carson Ellis from Du Iz Tak?, a lyrical illustrated story about the cycle of life and the eternal cycle of growth and decay

Watching a maple leaf twirl to the ground in its final flight, Dillard considers something else we easily forget, as essential as beauty — the irrepressible cycle of growth and decay, life and death, each rendering the other both necessary and inevitable:

Another year has twined away, unrolled and dropped across nowhere like a flung banner painted in gibberish. “The last act is bloody,” said Pascal, “however brave be all the rest of the play; at the end they throw a little earth upon your head, and it’s all over forever.” Somewhere, everywhere, there is a gap…

[…]

The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps … are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fjords splitting the cliffs of mystery.

Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the solid, turn, and unlock — more than a maple — a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.

Art Alessandro Sanna from The River, a watercolor ode to the seasonality of being human

In a passage that calls to mind Simone Weil’s beautiful notion of “the needs of the soul,” Dillard arrives at the ultimate existential gift that winter gives us when we make ourselves willing to receive it:

There is not a guarantee in the world. Oh your needs are guaranteed; your needs are absolutely guaranteed by the most stringent of warranties, in the plainest, truest words: knock; seek; ask. But you must read the fine print. “Not as the world giveth, give I unto you.” That’s the catch. If you can catch it it will catch you up, aloft, up to any gap at all, and you’ll come back, for you always come back, transformed in a way you may not have bargained for… Did you think, before you were caught, that you needed, say, life? Did you think you would keep your life, or anything else you love? … You see the needs of your own spirit met whenever you have asked, and you have learned that the outrageous guarantee holds. You see creatures die, and you know you will die. And one day it occurs to you that you must not need life. Obviously. And then you’re gone…

I think that the dying pray at the last not “please,” but “thank you,” as a guest thanks his host at the door… The universe was not made in jest but in solemn, incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.

The Abundance is a bountifully rewarding read in its totality. Devour more of its richness with Dillard on what it takes to be a writer, then revisit Henry Beston on solstice, seasonality, and the human spirit and Dillard’s abiding wisdom on the two ways of seeing, choosing presence over productivity, and how to reclaim our capacity for joy and wonder.

BP

Hannah Arendt on Loneliness as the Common Ground for Terror and How Tyrannical Regimes Use Isolation as a Weapon of Oppression

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

Hannah Arendt on Loneliness as the Common Ground for Terror and How Tyrannical Regimes Use Isolation as a Weapon of Oppression

“Loneliness is personal, and it is also political,” Olivia Laing wrote in The Lonely City, one of the finest books of the year. Half a century earlier, Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) examined those peculiar parallel dimensions of loneliness as a profoundly personal anguish and an indispensable currency of our political life in her intellectual debut, the incisive and astonishingly timely 1951 classic The Origins of Totalitarianism (public library).

Arendt paints loneliness as “the common ground for terror” and explores its function as both the chief weapon and the chief damage of oppressive political regimes. Exactly twenty years before her piercing treatise on lying in politics, she writes:

Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men* as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)

What perpetuates such tyrannical regimes, Arendt argues, is manipulation by isolation — something most effectively accomplished by the divisiveness of “us vs. them” narratives. She writes:

Terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other… Therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together…; isolated men are powerless by definition.

Although isolation is not necessarily the same as loneliness, Arendt notes that loneliness can become both the seedbed and the perilous consequence of the isolation effected by tyrannical regimes:

In isolation, man remains in contact with the world as the human artifice; only when the most elementary form of human creativity, which is the capacity to add something of one’s own to the common world, is destroyed, isolation becomes altogether unbearable… Isolation then becomes loneliness.

[…]

While isolation concerns only the political realm of life, loneliness concerns human life as a whole. Totalitarian government, like all tyrannies, certainly could not exist without destroying the public realm of life, that is, without destroying, by isolating men, their political capacities. But totalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it is not content with this isolation and destroys private life as well. It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.

This is why our insistence on belonging, community, and human connection is one of the greatest acts of courage and resistance in the face of oppression — for, in the words of the beloved Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, “the ancient and eternal values of human life — truth, unity, goodness, justice, beauty, and love — are all statements of true belonging.”

The Origins of Totalitarianism is a remarkable read in its totality. Complement it with Arendt on the life of the mind, how we humanize each other, the difference between how art and science illuminate human life, and her beautiful love letters.

BP

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