How bleak, unlivable, insufferable existence becomes when we are deprived of artwork. That the life and work of writers facing peril must be protected is urgent, but along with that urgency we should remind ourselves that their absence, the choking off of a writer’s work, its cruel amputation, is of equal peril to us. The rescue we extend to them is a generosity to ourselves….
Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorry into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.
From Morrison’s 1998 Sarah Lawrence Commencement Address:
If I spend my life despising you because of your race, or class, or religion, I become your slave. If you spend yours hating me for similar reasons, it is because you are my slave. I own your energy, your fear, your intellect. I determine where you live, how you live, what your work is, your definition of excellence, and I set limits to your ability to love. I will have shaped your life. That is the gift of your hatred; you are mine….
We are already live-chosen by ourselves. Humans, and as far as we know there are no others. We are the moral inhabitants of the galaxy. Why trash that magnificent obligation after working so hard in the womb to assume it? You will be in positions that matter. Positions in which you can decide the nature and quality of other people’s lives. Your errors may be irrevocable. So when you enter those places of trust, or power, dream a little before you think, so your thoughts, your solutions, your directions, your choices about who lives and who doesn’t, about who flourishes and who doesn’t will be worth the very sacred life you have chosen to live. You are not helpless. You are not heartless. And you have time.
Lastly, here is the oft-quoted passage from Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Lecture in Literature:
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
Really enjoyed this substantive recent conversation on Krista Tippett’s “On Being” podcast. At one point, Tippett quotes Cole’s Blind Spot, one of my favorite books from the last few years: “To look is to see only a fraction of what one is looking at. Even in the most vigilant eye, there is a blind spot. What is missing?” She tells Cole, “I find that useful language.” The ruminative Cole responds:
Well, thank you. I find it very fortifying as an idea, to think about what is not evident, what’s not apparent. I have a real struggle, especially when I’m writing for the Times. I have a very sympathetic, understanding, and encouraging editor, who lets me get away with all kinds of things, but I’m always trying to lower the volume of my essays. Very often, I’m trying to write and not say more than can justly be said. I want to reduce the number of sparks. I want to embed hesitation and lack of certainty in it.
“A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”
Hadn’t seen this Camus quote before. (It appropriately closed a new profile on Sam Mendes in TNY.)
Years ago, long before I had children or was even married, a friend with children said, “The thing about having kids is that after a while you forget what it was like before you had them.” The idea was shocking. Busy enough with my own life, I couldn’t envisage a future self whose comings and goings were circumscribed, apparently happily, by the wants and needs of people half my size. But that’s what happened. As I grew into the role of parent, I sometimes felt as if I were taking apart a ship and using the planks to build a ship for someone else. I was building a ship across time, out of my time.
The official flag for The Refugee Nation, a team of ten refugees currently competing in the Rio Olympics, draws its colour scheme and design from lifejackets. Designed by Syrian artist and refugee Yara Said, the flag is a vivid orange with a single black stripe.
The idea of a center is an interesting one, and one that is more of a Western concept. Roland Barthes made a comment on visiting Japan that it is a country that doesn’t seem to have a center; great depth, but no center. I think I carry that aspect of Japan with me. For me, the center of a building is always the person who is in it, experiencing the space from within it themselves. The challenge is in allowing each person to be the center, to be generous enough with the space to allow them to feel they are the center.
Having just finished book three of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle(I enjoyed the first two more, though this volume’s still captivating), I was eager to listen to both part one and part two of the author’s interviews on Michael Silverblatt’s “Bookworm.”
It’s great listening. These insights from Silverblatt — which followed his comment that Knausgaard clearly knows his “great literature” — rang especially true for me:
What’s daring about My Struggle is that you’re willing to put the difficulty of the literature of the century — Joyce on — aside, to recapture the human. To make it human again, or to restore it to humanness. And in doing so, you risk being wildly misunderstood….
These works of great literature, in some way, speak to readers. And they speak from a world of genius. And I feel that in order to restore the possibility of originality, and even grandeur, you had to enter the zone of shame and the zone of ordinary life, which is banality. And you had to ask, Can great literature be made of such things? Am I willing to try to write six volumes of daily life, when all of us are feeling that our daily lives are disappointing and dissatisfying? Can the novel of Knausgaard restore our feelings of the importance of daily life?
I can’t think, personally, of anything more important. I’m very grateful when I read these books, because I feel like you’ve restored my interest in human beings. In going to the grocery. In feeding a child and making sure things are taken care of from one day to the next.
Enjoyed this piece, especially Ashton’s quoting of composer George Ligeti’s secretary, writing to a requester of some kind:
He is creative and, because of this, totally overworked. Therefore, the very reason you wish to study his creative process is also the reason why he (unfortunately) does not have time to help you in this study. He would also like to add that he cannot answer your letter personally because he is trying desperately to finish a Violin Concerto which will be premiered in the Fall.
Interesting historical perspective from Chrystia Freeland, writing in the Times:
The story of Venice’s rise and fall is told by the scholars Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, in their book “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty,” as an illustration of their thesis that what separates successful states from failed ones is whether their governing institutions are inclusive or extractive. Extractive states are controlled by ruling elites whose objective is to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society. Inclusive states give everyone access to economic opportunity; often, greater inclusiveness creates more prosperity, which creates an incentive for ever greater inclusiveness.
A member of the Wallace-L listserv posted this Pascal quote this morning, commenting (insightfully) on how it brings to mind many statements DFW made about reading and indeed love:
When a natural discourse paints a passion or an effect, one feels within oneself the truth of what one reads, which was there before, although one did not know it. Hence one is inclined to love him who makes us feel it, for he has not shown us his own riches, but ours. And thus this benefit renders him pleasing to us, besides that such community of intellect as we have with him necessarily inclines the heart to love.
There was only one exception to [Montaigne’s] “question everything” rule: he was careful to state that he considered his religious faith beyond doubt. He adhered to the received dogma of the Catholic Church, and that was that.
This can come as a surprise to modern readers. Today, Skepticism and organized religion are usually thought to occupy opposite sides of a divide, with the latter representing faith and authority while the former allies itself with science and reason. In Montaigne’s day, the lines were drawn differently. Science in the modern sense did not yet exist and human reason was only rarely considered something that could stand alone, unsupported by God. The idea that the human mind could find things out for itself was the very thing Skeptics were likely to be most skeptical about. And the Church currently favored faith over “rational theology,” so it naturally saw Pyrrhonism as an ally. Attacking human arrogance as it did, Pyrrhonian Skepticism was especially useful against the “innovation” of Protestantism, which prioritized private reasoning and conscience rather than dogmas.