Sunday, September 03, 2017

Titans of Literature

“If I swim a mile, the first half hour might be drudgery, but somewhere in the middle it catches fire.”

“You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love,”Louise Bourgeois wrote to a friend in contemplating how solitude enriches creative work. But solitude — the most creatively fecund kind of which the psychoanalyst Adam Philips termed“fertile solitude” — is only one flavor of aloneness. The physical state of being alone can also be colored by the dramatically different psychic conditions of isolation and loneliness.

Freedom owes its vitality to destiny, and destiny owes its significance to freedom. Our talents, our gifts, are on loan, to be called in at any moment by death, by illness, or by any one of the countless other happenings over which we have no direct control. Freedom is that essential to our lives, but it is also that precarious

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,”30-year-old Nietzsche wrote in his treatise on how to find yourself. And yet in the century and a half since, a curious dissonance has begun to reverberate across culture: On the one hand, we have grown increasingly fixated on the self as the focal lens for interpreting the world — a fixation which Ian McEwan so brilliantly satirized and which has precipitated today’s tragic epidemic of militant identity politics; on the other hand, the rise of neuroscience has demonstrated again and again that the self we experience as so overwhelmingly real — the psychophysiological raft of experience through which we float along the river of life — is a sensory-perceptual byproduct of consciousness, completely illusory in its solidity

Language fails us … in times of great grief, in times of extremity, in times of stress. What can we say, where can we find the words that will somehow make bearable the pain that we’re in at the time?
 The only people who can still strike us as normal are those we don’t yet know very well. The best cure for love is to get to know them better.

With an eye to the assault on nature we call civilization — that perilous human impulse driven by what Bertrand Russell termed “power-knowledge,” as distinct from “love-knowledge” — Eiseley writes:

On this pleasant shore a war existed and would go on until nothing remained but man. Yet this creature with the gray, appealing face wanted very little: a strip of shore to coast up and down, sunlight and moonlight, some weeds from the deep water. He was an edge-of-the-world dweller, caught between a vanishing forest and a deep lake pre-empted by unpredictable machines full of chopping blades. He eyed me nearsightedly, a green leaf poised in his mouth. Plainly he had come with some poorly instructed memory about the lion and the lamb.
“You had better run away now,” I said softly, making no movement in the shafts of light. “You are in the wrong universe and must not make this mistake again. I am really a very terrible and cunning beast. I can throw stones.” With this I dropped a little pebble at his feet.
He looked at me half blindly, with eyes much better adjusted to the wavering shadows of his lake bottom than to sight in the open air. He made almost as if to take the pebble up into his forepaws. Then a thought seemed to cross his mind — a thought perhaps telepathically received, as Freud once hinted, in the dark world below and before man, a whisper of ancient disaster heard in the depths of a burrow. Perhaps after all this was not Eden. His nose twitched carefully; he edged toward the water.
As he vanished in an oncoming wave, there went with him a natural world, distinct from the world of girls and motorboats, distinct from the world of the professor holding to reality by some great snowshoe effort in his study. My muskrat’s shoreline universe was edged with the dark wall of hills on one side and the waspish drone of motors farther out, but it was a world of sunlight he had taken down into the water weeds. It hovered there, waiting for my disappearance. I walked away, obscurely pleased that darkness had not gained on life by any act of mine. In so many worlds, I thought, how natural is “natural” — and is there anything we can call a natural world at all?

In his beautiful 1948 manifesto forbreaking the tyranny of technology and relearning to be nourished by nature, Henry Beston lamented: “What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity.” And yet his admonition fell on ears increasingly unhearing as the decades rolled on with their so-called progress. The poet Jane Hirshfield captured this in her stirring anthem against the silencing of nature“The silence spoke loudly of silence, / and the rivers kept speaking, / of rivers, of boulders and air.”
“The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is,” Kurt Vonnegut observed in discussing Hamlet during hisinfluential lecture on the shapes of stories.“The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad,” Alan Watts wrote a generation earlier in his sobering case for learning not to think in terms of gain or loss. And yet most of us spend swaths of our days worrying about the prospect of events we judge to be negative, potential losses driven by what we perceive to be “bad news.” In the 1930s, one pastor itemized anxiety into five categories of worries, four of which imaginary and the fifth, “worries that have a real foundation,” occupying “possibly 8% of the total.” A Stoic’s Key to Peace of Mind: Seneca on the Antidote to Anxiety

Who has known the ocean? Neither you nor I, with our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide,” pioneering conservationist and marine biologist Rachel Carson wrote in the 1937 masterpiece that inspired a new aesthetic of lyrical science writing. A century earlier, another woman of towering genius, immense moral courage, and uncommonly poetic prose offered a different but complementary perspective on the ocean’s invitation to human self-transcendence.

You are wise enough to understand that being “a little lonely” is not a bad thing. A writer’s occupation is one of the loneliest in the world, even if the loneliness is only an inner solitude and isolation, for that he must have at times if he is to be truly creative. And so I believe only the person who knows and is not afraid of loneliness should aspire to be a writer. But there are also rewards that are rich and peculiarly satisfying Rachel Carson on Writing and the Loneliness of Creative Work