Sunday, December 21, 2014
Wendell Berry And Bill Moyers Talk Coal And Climate
"One can't write directly about the soul," Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary. Few writers have come to write about it – and to it – more directly than the novelist, poet, and environmental activist Wendell Berry, who describes himself as “a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts.” In his wonderful and wonderfully titled essay collection What Are People For? (public library), Berry addresses with great elegance our neophilic tendencies and why innovation for the sake of novelty sells short the true value of creative work.
Novelty-fetishism, Berry suggests, is an act of vanity that serves neither the creator nor those created for:
Works of pride, by self-called creators, with their premium on originality, reduce the Creation to novelty – the faint surprises of minds incapable of wonder. Pursuing originality, the would-be creator works alone. In loneliness one assumes a responsibility for oneself that one cannot fulfill. Novelty is a new kind of loneliness.
Berry paints pride and despair as two sides of the same coin, both equally culpable in poisoning creative work and pushing us toward loneliness rather than toward the shared belonging that true art fosters:
There is the bad work of pride. There is also the bad work of despair – done poorly out of the failure of hope or vision. Despair is the too-little of responsibility, as pride is the too-much. The shoddy work of despair, the pointless work of pride, equally betray Creation. They are wastes of life. For despair there is no forgiveness, and for pride none. Who in loneliness can forgive?Good work finds the way between pride and despair. It graces with health. It heals with grace. It preserves the given so that it remains a gift. By it, we lose loneliness:we clasp the hands of those who go before us, and the hands of those who come after us;we enter the little circle of each other’s arms,and the larger circle of lovers whose hands are joined in a dance,and the larger circle of all creatures, passing in and out of life, who move also in a dance, to a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it except in fragments.
Illustration by Emily Hughes from 'Wild,' one of the best children's books of the year
Echoing Thoreau's ode to the woods and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips's assertion that cultivating a capacity for "fertile solitude" is essential for creative work, Berry extols the ennobling effects of solitude, the kind gained only by surrendering to nature's gentle gift for quieting the mind:
We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness...True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.
The return from such humanizing solitude, Berry cautions, can be disorienting:
From the order of nature we return to the order – and the disorder – of humanity. From the larger circle we must go back to the smaller, the smaller within the larger and dependent on it. One enters the larger circle by willingness to be a creature, the smaller by choosing to be a human. And having returned from the woods, we remember with regret its restfulness. For all creatures there are in place, hence at rest.In their most strenuous striving, sleeping and waking, dead and living, they are at rest. In the circle of the human we are weary with striving, and are without rest.
Indeed, so deep is our pathology of human striving that even Thoreau, a century and a half ago, memorably despaired: "What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?" But the value of such recalibration of our connectedness in solitude, Berry suggests, is that it reminds us of the artist's task, which is to connect us to one another. He returns to the subject of despair and pride, which serve to separate and thus betray the task of art:
The field must remember the forest, the town must remember the field, so that the wheel of life will turn, and the dying be met by the newborn.[...]Seeing the work that is to be done, who can help wanting to be the one to do it?[...]But it is pride that lies awake in the night with its desire and its grief.To work at this work alone is to fail. There is no help for it. Loneliness is its failure. It is despair that sees the work failing in one’s own failure. This despair is the awkwardest pride of all.
But Berry's most urgent point has to do with the immense value of "thoroughly conscious ignorance" and of keeping alive the unanswerable questions that make us human:
There is finally the pride of thinking oneself without teachers. The teachers are everywhere. What is wanted is a learner.In ignorance is hope. Rely on ignorance. It is ignorance the teachers will come to. They are waiting, as they always have, beyond the edge of the light.
All of the essays in What Are People For? are imbued with precisely this kind of light-giving force. Complement it with Berry on what the poetic form teaches us about the secret of marriage, then revisit Sara Maitland on the art of solitude, one of the year's best psychology and philosophy books.
Epistles on the fine art of “speeding truth into the world.”
Despite being one of the most important writers our civilization ever produced, on whose labors humanity continues to feed, Jane Austen(December 16, 1775–July 18, 1817) left hardly any record of her opinions and theories on the craft she so masterfully wielded in practice. But a close reading of Jane Austen’s Letters (public library) reveals, here and there, little glimpses of the beloved author’s stylistic convictions — a fine, if modest, addition to this ongoing archive of notable wisdom on writing.
In one 1808 letter to her sister Cassandra, 33-year-old Austen admires a short piece by the English cricketer William Deedes, a friend of Cassandra’s — a glimpse of what she believes makes a good writer:
He has certainly great merit as a writer; he does ample justice to his subject, and without being diffuse is clear and correct… He certainly has a very pleasing way of winding up a whole, and speeding truth into the world.
In another letter from February of 1813, Austen recounts an atypically disappointing work by the English novelist, diarist, and playwright Frances “Fanny” Burney — whose writing Austen generally enjoyed and admired, and whose 1782 novel Cecilia heavily influenced the final pages of Pride and Prejudice— and offers a critique of its shortcomings:
The work is rather too light and bright and sparkling: it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story… something that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the general style.
But her most explicit counsel on writing comes from a series of letters to her teenage niece, Anna. In August of 1814, 17-year-old Anna asked Austen for feedback on the novel she was writing, under the working title Which Is the Heroine — a title Austen liked “very well” and anticipated to “grow to like it very much in time.” Upon receiving the initial manuscript, Austen writes:
My dear Anna,—I am very much obliged to you for sending your MS. It has entertained me extremely; indeed all of us. I read it aloud to your grandmamma and Aunt Cass, and we were all very much pleased. The spirit does not droop at all.
Austen proceeds to comment on each of Anna’s characters and offers the first of a series of concretely rooted, generally extensible criticisms:
I do not like a lover speaking in the 3rd person; it is too much like the part of Lord Overtley, and I think it not natural.
In the same letter, Austen offers a warm disclaimer to her criticism — “If you think differently, however, you need not mind me.” — but a month later, having immersed herself in the book more thoroughly, she takes off the auntly hat and dons the writerly one. She readies Anna for some tough love:
Anna,—We have been very much amused by your three books, but I have a good many criticisms to make, more than you will like.
After complimenting a number of the girl’s characters and offering her take on the ideal length of a novel — roughly six times Anna’s first section of the novel, or a total of 288 pages — Austen makes a case against the abuses of clichéd phrases:
I have only taken the liberty of expunging one phrase of his which would not be allowable,—”Bless my heart!” It is too familiar and inelegant.
Though herself a master of detail, Austen cautions against overly precious particularities:
You describe a sweet place, but your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked. You give too many particulars of right hand and left.
She encourages the girl to focus on the relationships between the characters against a well-crafted backdrop of place:
You are now collecting your people delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life. Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on, and I hope you will do a great deal more, and make full use of them while they are so very favorably arranged.
Toward the end of the letter, Austen makes a remark at first blush amusing in the context of today’s thriving young-adult genre, then rather sad coming from a woman revolutionizing literature from within the patriarchy, and finally reluctantly sage given the general fate of female characters in canon of literature:
You are but now coming to the heart and beauty of your story. Until the heroine grows up the fun must be imperfect… One does not care for girls until they are grown up.
Although one never sees Anna’s letters to Austen — Cassandra had many of her sister’s letters destroyed after her death — it seems like the shaky confidence of the aspiring writer was rattled rather vigorously, for her aunt sent the following assurance a few months later:
My dear Anna,—I have been very far from finding your book an evil, I assure you. I read it immediately and with great pleasure.
Anna never finished her novel. But when Austen died less than three years later, the young woman inherited her aunt’s unfinished manuscript of Sanditon and later became the first writer to attempt completing it. In 1869, she collaborated with her half-brother, James Edward Austen-Leigh, on A Memoir of Jane Austen— the first major biography of their famous aunt and the primary one for decades after its publication, eclipsed only by Jan Fergus’s 1991 biography Jane Austen: A Literary Life.
Santa Claus Is More Real Than You Are
The Real Story Of Saint Nicholas
who tossed gold through the open windows of poor people
so they didn't sell their daughters into prostitution
How to instill an appreciation of the difference between “fact” and “poetic truth,” in kids and grownups alike.
Few things rattle the fine line between the benign magic of mythology and the deliberate delusion of a lie more than the question of how, what, and whether to tell kids about Santa Claus. Half a century ago, Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978) — the world’s most influential cultural anthropologist and one of history’s greatest academic celebrities — addressed this delicate subject with great elegance, extending beyond the jolly Christmas character and into larger questions of distinguishing between myth and deception.
From the wonderful out-of-print volume Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views (public library) — the same compendium of Mead’s answers to audience questions from her long career as a public speaker and lecturer, which also gave us her remarkably timely thoughts on racism and law enforcement and equality in parenting — comes an answer to a question she was asked in December of 1964: “Were your children brought up to believe in Santa Claus? If so, what did you tell them when they discovered he didn’t exist?”
Mead’s response, which calls to mind Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, is a masterwork of celebrating rational, critical thinking without sacrificing magic to reason:
Belief in Santa Claus becomes a problem mainly when parents simultaneously feel they are telling their children a lie and insist on the literal belief in a jolly little man in a red suit who keeps tabs on them all year, reads their letters and comes down the chimney after landing his sleigh on the roof. Parents who enjoy Santa Claus — who feel that it is more fun talk about what Santa Claus will bring than what Daddy will buy you for Christmas and who speak of Santa Claus in a voice that tells no lie but instead conveys to children something about Christmas itself — can give children a sense of continuity as they discover the sense in which Santa is and is not “real.”
With her great gift for nuance, Mead adds:
Disillusionment about the existence of a mythical and wholly implausible Santa Claus has come to be a synonym for many kinds of disillusionment with what parents have told children about birth and death and sex and the glory of their ancestors. Instead, learning about Santa Claus can help give children a sense of the difference between a “fact” — something you can take a picture of or make a tape recording of, something all those present can agree exists — and poetic truth, in which man’s feelings about the universe or his fellow men is expressed in a symbol.
Recalling her own experience both as a child and as a parent, Mead offers an inclusive alternative to the narrow Santa Claus myth, inviting parents to use the commercial Western holiday as an opportunity to introduce kids to different folkloric traditions and value systems:
One thing my parents did — and I did for my own child — was to tell stories about the different kinds of Santa Claus figures known in different countries. The story I especially loved was the Russian legend of the little grandmother, the babushka, at whose home the Wise Men stopped on their journey. They invited her to come with them, but she had no gift fit for the Christ child and she stayed behind to prepare it. Later she set out after the Wise Men but she never caught up with them, and so even today she wanders around the world, and each Christmas she stops to leave gifts for sleeping children.
But Mead’s most important, most poetic point affirms the idea that children stories shouldn’t protect kids from the dark:
Children who have been told the truth about birth and death will know, when they hear about Kris Kringle and Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas and the little babushka, that this is a truth of a different kind.
Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views is, sadly, long out of print — but it’s an immeasurable trove of Mead’s wisdom well worth the used-book hunt. Complement it with Mead’s beautiful love letters to her soulmate and the story of how she discovered the meaning of life in a dream.
How to Change Your Mind and Murder Your Darlings: John Steinbeck on Creative Integrity and the Humanistic Duty of the Writer
The fact that we humans have such a notoriously hard time changing our minds undoubtedly has to do with the notion that "human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished," which belies the great robbery of the human experience – by calling ourselves beings, we deny our ever-unfolding becomings. Only in childhood are we afforded the luxury of inhabiting our becoming, but once forced to figure out who we want to be in life, most of us are so anxious about planting that stake of being that we bury the alive, active process of our becoming. In our rush to arrive at who we want to be, we flee from the ceaseless mystery of our becoming.
To show up wholeheartedly for our becoming requires doing one of the hardest things in life – allow the possibility of being wrong and incur the anguish of admitting that error. It requires that we grieve every earlier version of ourselves and endure the implicit accusation that if the way we do a certain thing now is better than before, then the way we did it before is not only worse but possibly – and this is invariably crushing – even wrong. The uncomfortable luxury of changing our mind is thus central to the courage of facing our becoming with our whole being.
This constant tussle could be especially difficult for artists, who imbue their creative work with an enormous amount of their being at the point of creation but must also include it in the ongoing record of their becoming. Hardly any figure in creative history has faced that anguishing moment of changing one’s mind for the sake of creative integrity, and faced it publicly, with more courage than John Steinbeck.
In September of 1936 – more than a quarter century before he was awarded the Nobel Prize – 34-year old Steinbeck witnessed a gruesome clash between the migrant workers and growers in a lettuce strike in California. "There are riots in Salinas and killings in the streets of that dear little town where I was born,” he despaired in a letter to his friend George Albee. Deeply invested in the fate of the migrant workers – who were also suffering from massive floods, had no help from the government, and lived in conditions over which Steinbeck repeatedly expressed compassionate outrage in his letters – he began working on a manuscript titled L’Affaire Lettuceberg. But over the two years that followed, it unraveled into an angry and rather bitter satire of Salinas leadership. Steinbeck was very much of the conviction that, as E.B. White eloquently put it many years later, a writer should "lift people up, not lower them down." And this text – a work of tearing down rather than building up – seemed to move young Steinbeck not closer but further away from the great champion of the human spirit he would one day become.
As soon as he finished the manuscript in mid-May of 1938, Steinbeck did something few people and perhaps even fewer artists are able to do: Hemurdered his darlings in a courageous letter to his editor, found in the altogether revelatory Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath(public library | IndieBound). The missive is a masterwork of looking one's becoming in the eye and somersaulting one's entire being into a strenuous and seemingly backbreaking change of course for the sake of creative and spiritual integrity.
This is going to be a hard letter to write ... this book is finished and it is a bad book and I must get rid of it. It can’t be printed. It is bad because it isn’t honest. Oh! these incidents all happened but – I’m not telling as much of the truth about them as I know. In satire you have to restrict the picture and I just can’t do satire.... I know, you could sell possibly 30,000 copies. I know that a great many people would think they liked the book. I myself have built up a hole-proof argument on how and why I liked it. I can’t beat the argument but I don’t like the book... Not once in the writing of it have I felt the curious warm pleasure that comes when work is going well. My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other and then I deliberately write this book the aim of which is to cause hatred through partial understanding. My father would have called it a smart-alec book. It was full of tricks to make people ridiculous. If I can’t do better I have slipped badly.
He attributes the misfire to a kind of creative complacency – another admission too anguishing for most of us to make – which made him forget that writing, as David Foster Wallace put it, is an art in which the horizon for self-improvement is infinite; forget the constant becoming that is any craft:
I had got smart and cocky you see. I had forgotten that I hadn’t learned to write books, that I will never learn to write them. A book must be a life that lives all of itself and this one doesn’t do that.
Steinbeck – who had just gotten significant critical acclaim for his warmup essays on the migrant workers' plight, published in The Nation – is also exquisitely aware of how blinding success can become to that essential incompleteness of an artist's creative journey:
I beat poverty for a good many years and I’ll be damned if I’ll go down at the first little whiff of success...I think this book will be a good lesson for me. I think I got to believing critics – I thought I could write easily and that anything I touched would be good simply because I did it. Well any such idea conscious or unconscious is exploded for some time to come. I’m in little danger now of believing my own publicity...Again I’m sorry. But I’m not ready to be a hack yet. Maybe later.
Less than two weeks later, Steinbeck was already hard at work on The Grapes of Wrath – the iconic epic of the Great Depression that shines a light on the same uncomfortable and often gruesome subjects of class struggle, power, and oppression, but does so in a way that ennobles the characters, chooses dignity over depravity, and critiques a hopeless situation while granting hope. He gave himself a hundred days to finish the novel and recorded his creative process and personal journey in Working Days, which is in many ways as significant and rewarding as the novel it chronicles. The Grapes of Wrathearned Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize a year after its publication, became a cornerstone of his Nobel Prize two decades later, and endures as one of the most important works of social justice ever published in the English language.
Complement it with Steinbeck's unforgettable letter of advice to his teenage son on falling in love.
You Will Remember This White Woman's "F_____ Nigger" Rant The Rest Of Your Life
Republican Party Is "Full Of Racists," Colin Powell's Chief Of Staff
blogspot.com/2012/10/ republican-party-is-full-of- racists.html
Florida State University does not have a policy governing what faculty and staff can – or cannot – say on social media.As we all know, political discussions can get heated. I wonder how bad it could have been?But FSU College of Business senior lecturer Deborah O'Connor agreed that she went too far with her reactions on Facebook last Thursday to a photo of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. O'Connor submitted her resignation the following day, one week before the end of finals for the fall semester.
[Bold my emphasis—though I imagine she would have bolded the words if she could have.]
“YOU elected POTUS, Holder et al. And they are supposed to represent all Americans,not just blacks … why don’t these ass clowns insert themselves into their stories?”Well then. "You people" are gay people FYI. For her part, O'Connor has clearly learned her lesson:[...]“Take your Northern fagoot [sic] elitism and shove it up your ass.”
“I teach at a University, you asshole. What do you do?”“You are an intellectual fraud, just like your Messiah. Obama has single-handedly turned our once great society into a Ghetto Culture, rivaling that of Europe. France is almost at war because of his filthy rodent Muslims who are attacking Native Frenchmen and women.”“I just looked at your picture and what you do for a living. I’m signing off now. I don’t talk to you people.”
O'Connor told the Tallahassee Democrat that she was embarrassed by the entire incident. She was not forced to resign, she said, but she was encouraged to.When someone says "Let's just leave it at that," I think we all know they aren't leaving anything "at that" and clearly are not showing even a modicum of contrition. The button on this story is the reply from Caryn Beck-Dudley, FSU's business school dean, in response to Deborah O'Connor's resignation letter:"I've learned my lesson about Facebook; let's just leave it at that," O'Connor said. "I decided to resign because I didn't think it was feasible to drag myself and Florida State through this kind of mud."
I accept your voluntary resignation. In doing so, I am not agreeing with or admitting to any statements that you have made in your emails which contain several untrue statements and misrepresentations.