Colette’s Lovely Ode to Her Mother on Mother’s Day

earthly paradiseOur relationship to our mother is almost always complicated.  It can be as arduous as a trek up a mountain or as effortless as a stroll through the French countryside.  It can be loving, turbulent, affectionate, estranged, doting or impossible to please.  It can be fortified by time, diminished by resentment, magnified by tenderness, undone by rejection, bound by magnanimity, spoiled by neglect, buoyed by boundless love, or blighted by strife.

This profound relationship between mother and child is what great French writer Colette explores in Earthly Paradise, her stunning autobiography which Robert Phelps called a “vivid, year-by-year revelation of a long, eager, courageous life.”  A rare writer who can glimpse the transcendent in the mundane, Colette finds as much poetry in the concrete details of the physical as in the philosophical.  In her signature lush, evocative prose, Colette pays tribute to her mother, a passionate woman whose fervor for flowers comes to symbolize her unceasing commitment to growth.  Much like the flowers she lovingly tends, her mother possesses an instinct to blossom and- even in old age- refuses to wither.  Despite her own personal failings, Colette finds consolation in the fact that she was born of such a remarkable mother:

Whenever I feel myself inferior to everything about me, threatened by my own mediocrity, frightened by the discovery that a muscle is losing its strength, a desire its power, or a pain the keen edge of its bite, I can still hold up my head and say to myself: ‘I am the daughter of the woman who wrote that letter- that letter and so many more that I have kept.  This one tells me in ten lines that at the age of seventy-six she was planning journeys and undertaking them, but that waiting for the possible bursting into bloom of a tropical flower held everything up and silenced even her heart, made for love.  I am the daughter of a woman who, in a mean, close-fisted, confined little place, opened her village home to stray cats, tramps, and pregnant servant girls.  I am the daughter of a woman who many a time, when she was in despair at not having enough money for others, ran through the wind-whipped snow to cry from door to door, at the houses of the rich, that a child had just been born in a poverty-stricken home to parents whose feeble, empty hands had no swaddling clothes for it.  Let me not forget that I am the daughter of a woman who bent her head, trembling, between the blades of a cactus, her wrinkled face full of ecstasy over the promise of a flower, a woman who herself never ceased to flower, untiringly, during three quarters of a century.’”

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A Calendar of Wisdom: Leo Tolstoy on the Treasure of a Small, Selected Library

“What a great treasure can be hidden in a small, selected library!” transcendental philosopher a calendar of wisdomRalph Waldo Emerson once marveled when contemplating the miracle of books.  “A company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world, for thousands of years can make the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us.”  For Emerson, libraries were more than dusty receptacles of an outmoded past- a collection of classics was a potent distillation- in the words of Matthew Arnold- “of the best that’s been thought and said.”  To read a great book was to be guided by the most enlightened of teachers.  

It is this idea that books offer invaluable insight into life that inspired Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy to embark on A Calendar of Wisdom, a delightful daily devotional meant to “nourish the soul.”  Though not nearly as well-known as his masterpieces War and Peace or Anna Karenina, Tolstoy considered A Calendar of Wisdom to be his most important contribution to the world.  His mission?  To collect a “circle of reading” in which ordinary men could seek counsel from history’s most extraordinary thinkers.  “What,” he meditated in his diary, “can be more precious than to communicate every day with the wisest men in the world?”  On March 15, 1884, Tolstoy first articulated his idea for a reflection book:

“I have to create a circle of reading for myself: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Pascal, The New Testament.  This is also necessary for all people.”

 A year later in a letter to his assistant Vladimir Chertkov, Tolstoy shared the vision for his ambitious project to amass “one wise thought for every day of the year”:

“I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers as Socrates, Epictetus, Arnold, Parker. … They tell us about what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue. … I would like to create a book…in which I could tell a person about his life, and about the Good Way of Life.”  

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Tolstoy would spend the next fifteen years assembling a diverse array of thinkers from a wide range of religious, philosophical, and cultural backgrounds.  Turning through A Calendar of Wisdom, you’re just as likely to encounter Jesus as Buddha.  On one page, you might discover a thoughtful Stoic meditation; on another, an ancient Persian proverb.  Whereas some entires contain the stunning revelations and lush lyricisms of a poet, others spotlight an elevating piece of scripture.  Artists and writers, poets and philosophers: all converge to bring their immeasurable wisdom to the modern reader.  

In 1904, Tolstoy would finally publish the first edition of his day book under the title Thoughts of Wise Men.  Between 1904-1907, he worked diligently on an expanded second edition, which included not only a compendium of quotes organized by universal themes such God and morality, love and law, perfection and work, but a compilation of Tolstoy’s own thoughts in his own words.  Tolstoy later revised and simplified the third edition in hopes of making his “circle of reading” more accessible to the masses.  “To create a book…for millions of people,” he believed, “was incomparably more important and fruitful than to compose a novel of the kind which diverts some members of the wealthy classes for a short time, and then is forever forgotten.”  Though widely read in pre-revolutionary Russia, Tolstoy’s final masterwork was eventually banned and sadly sunk into oblivion under communism.

It wasn’t until the fall of the Berlin Wall that A Calendar of Wisdom remerged from behind the iron curtain.  Only re-released in post-soviet Russia in 1995, it quickly sold a staggering 300,000 copies before being translated into English.  The book begins with a few thoughts on the importance of learning only what is edifying and essential:

“Better to know a few things which are good and necessary than many things which are useless and mediocre.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The difference between real material poison and intellectual poison is that most material poison is disgusting to the taste, but intellectual poison, which takes the form of cheap newspapers or bad books, can unfortunately sometimes be attractive.”- Leo Tolstoy 

Later, Tolstoy and the transcendentalists he so admired contemplate the definition of genuine knowledge.  Man may have an obligation to respect his intellectual heritage but-they argued- he must still establish his own opinions with his individual intellect:

“Knowledge is real knowledge only when it is acquired by the efforts of your intellect, not by memory.  Only when we forget what we were taught do we start to have real knowledge.”- Henry David Thoreau 

“A scholar knows many books; a well-educated person has the knowledge and skills; an enlightened person understands the meaning and purpose of his life.”- Leo Tolstoy

“We are like children who first repeat the unquestionable ‘truth’ told to us by our grandmothers, then the ‘truth’ told to us by our teachers, and then, when we become older, the ‘truth’ told to us by prominent people.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson

“A man should use that spiritual heritage which he has received from the wise and holy people of the past, but he should test everything with his intellect, accepting certain things and rejecting others.”- Leo Tolstoy 

In another entry, Henry George warns we must purge ourselves of our preconceptions if we are to apprehend reality:

“We should be ready to change our views at any time, and slough off prejudices, and live with an open and receptive mind.  A sailor who sets the same sails all the time, without making changes when the wind changes, will never reach his harbor.”- Henry George

Besides noting the ways rigid narrow-mindedness can hinder the quest for truth, many of Tolstoy’s thinkers remark on the revolutionary power of kindness:

“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.”- Leo Tolstoy 

“For a truth to be heard, it must be spoken with kindness.  Truth is kind only when it is spoken through your heart with sincerity.  You should know that when a message you convey to another person is not understood by him, at least one of the following things is true: what you have said is not true, or you have conveyed it without kindness.  The only way to tell the truth is to speak with kindness.  Only the words of a loving man can be heard.”- Henry David Thoreau 

In an age where we worship convivial chatter and affable sociability, we’ve forgotten the value of silence.  When we’re careless with our words and unleash anger and hostility, we most often cause irreversible harm and suffer regret:

“Only speak when your words are better than silence.”- Arabic proverb 

“For every time you regret that you did not say something, you will regret a hundred times that you did not keep your silence.”- Leo Tolstoy 

“If you lose your temper, count to ten before you do or say anything.  If you haven’t calmed down, then count to a hundred; and if you have not calmed down after this, count up to a thousand.”- Thomas Jefferson

“A gunshot wound may be cured, but the wound made by a tongue never heals.”- Persian wisdom 

Mindless gossip, malicious rumors,  nasty insults hurled in anger: thoughtlessness with words is an indefensible abuse of man’s greatest power.  Just as it’s wrong to weaponize language to belittle and wound, it’s unforgivable to squander hours in idleness and refuse to work:

“It is a sin to not be engaged in work, even if it is not necessary for you to make your living.”- Leo Tolstoy 

“Nothing can make a person feel more noble than work.  Without work, a person cannot have human dignity.  It is because of this that idle people are so much concerned by the superficial, outer expression of their own importance; they know that without this, other people would despise them.”- Leo Tolstoy 

 “It seems to us that the most important work in the world is the work which is visible, which we can see: building a house, plowing the land, feeding cattle, gathering fruits,” Tolstoy once observed, “and that the work which is invisible, the work done by our soul, is not important but our invisible work…is the most important work in the world.”  It was his hope that this trove of quotes would help generations of readers with the pressing work of bettering themselves.  A breathtaking treasury spanning centuries of human thought, A Calendar of Wisdom is a must-have for anyone who wants to enlarge their soul.

The Writing Life: Annie Dillard on Maintaining Objectivity & Having the Courage to Cut

“I hate writing; I love having written,” critic and satirist Dorothy Parker once confessed with herthe writing life defining cheeky wit.  Writing vs. having written: the only difference is a slight shift in tense.  The -ing form of “writing” is uncompromisingly confined to the present, to the act of writing itself: the endless hours spent trying to wrangle an idea to the page, the long stretches of silence and solitude, the nearly unendurable periods of self-loathing and self-doubt.  “Having written,” on the other hand, suggests a blissful future where the torment of writing is finally over.  A wellspring of wisdom, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is the sublime memoir of a woman who knows personally the pains and perils of a being a writer.

Andre Gide, winner of the 1947 Nobel Prize in Literature, once argued the artist resembled an explorer venturing into uncharted territory.  “One does not discover new lands,” he held, “without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”  Much like those dauntless Spanish explorers who first sailed across the Atlantic in search of the new world, the writer voyages on the stormy seas of the blank page in hopes of stumbling upon lands previously undiscovered.  In a passage that echoes both Andre Gide’s and Joan Didion’s beautiful reassurance that writing is a process of discovery, Annie Dillard asserts all creative work is essentially an adventure into the unknown:

When you write, you lay out a line of words.  The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe.  You wield it, and it digs a path to follow.  Soon you find yourself deep in new territory.  Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject?  You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.

You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully.  You go where the path leads.  At the end of the path, you find a box canyon.  You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins.

The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool.  The new place interests you because it is not clear.  You attend.  In your humility, you lay down the words carefully, watching all the angles.  Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless.  Process is nothing; erase your tracks.  The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.”

It was Kurt Vonnegut who so wisely advised that words be the slaves to our ideas.  “Be merciless,” he pleaded in his timeless treatise on writing with style, “If a sentence does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”  Stephen King put it more bluntly: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”  Much like King and Vonnegut, Dillard warns us not to worship our words.  Being a writer depends on a healthy level of detachment.  When we begin glorifying our words as the pious praise God, we lose objectivity- an ability essential to assessing the quality of our work: we keep three sentences where one would suffice, though they contribute nothing to our meaning; we refuse to scrap sentences for the sheer reason that we can’t stand parting with such lovely words.  Much of writing, Dillard suggests, is not talent or brilliance but simply recognizing when a piece isn’t working and having the courage to start over:

The line of words is a hammer.  You hammer against the walls of your house.  You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere.  After giving many years’ attention to these things, you know what to listen for.  Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay, or everything will fall down.  Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference.  Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go.  It cannot be helped.  There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is.  Knock it out.  Duck.

Courage utterly opposes the bold hope that this is such fine stuff the work needs it, or the world.  Courage, exhausted, stands on bare reality: this writing weakens the work.  You must demolish the work and start over.  You can save some of the sentences, like bricks.  It will be a miracle if you save some of the paragraphs, no matter how excellent in themselves or hard-won.  You can waste a year worrying about it, or you can get over it now.  (Are you a woman, or a mouse?)”  

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Later, Dillard contemplates the manifold reasons writers resist throwing away work:

“If he has read his pages too often, those pages will have a necessary quality, the ring of the inevitable, like poetry known by heart; they will perfectly answer their own familiar rhythms.  He will retain them.  He may retain those pages if they possess some virtues, such as power in themselves, though they lack the cardinal virtue, which is pertinence to, and unity with, the book’s thrust.  Sometimes the writer leaves his early chapters in place from gratitude; he cannot contemplate them or read them without feeling again the blessed relief that exalted him when the words first appeared- relief that he was writing anything at all.  That beginning served to get him where he was going, after all; surely the reader needs it, too, as groundwork.  But no.”  

As artists and writers, we often feel an intense attachment to what we create.  When a passage was particularly laborious to bring into being, therefore, we hesitate to delete, even if it no longer suits our purposes or fits the structure of the piece.  But the finest writers understand the importance of separating the creative process from the critical and refuse to let an irrational, groundless penchant for a passage interfere with a dispassionate assessment of its shortcomings and strengths.  John Trimble, author of the lively, indispensable Writing With Style, believes writing is a matter of courtesy: the writer has an obligation to respect his reader.  Dillard would agree.  Writing is neither a narcissistic display of our own talent nor an excuse for pointless, trifling self-indulgence- it’s an authentic yearning to communicate something of consequence to another human being.  Having worked tirelessly on a passage just isn’t enough reason to refrain from hitting delete.  Though we tend to cherish the art we’ve labored hardest for, our feelings are in no way reliable measures of the quality of a piece.  In a humorous moment, Dillard recounts the story of an aspiring photographer who insists his landscape has merit despite his more experienced mentor’s critiques:

“Every year the aspiring photographer brought a stack of his best prints to an old, honored photographer, seeking his judgment.  Every year the old man studied his prints and painstakingly ordered them into two piles, bad and good.  Every year the old man moved a certain landscape print into the bad stack.  At length he turned to the young man: ‘You submit this same landscape every year, and every year I put it on the bad stack.  Why do you like it so much?’  The young photographer said, ‘Because I had to climb a mountain to get it.'”

The Stoics on Reason, Desire & Self-Control

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According to Maria Popova, erudite lover of letters and founder of the insanely popular Brainpickings blog, few words have been more corrupted by appropriation and misuse than the modern derivative of Stoicism.  Today, she maintains, stoic is a word “rendered vacant of the original quest for enlivenment that animated Stoic philosophy” and has rather been “warped to connote the very opposite — a kind of unfeeling forbearance that borders on pursed-lipped resignation.”  However, at the cornerstone of Stoic philosophy is not the insistence that we ruthlessly suppress our emotions but merely the conviction that we use judgement and common sense.  If man is to ever achieve lasting contentment, the Stoics believe, he has to master his baser, more ungovernable emotions- lust, fear, terror, rage- and instead commit to a life of the mind-cultivating a steady inner calm and prioritizing rationality and reason.  

In the days of ancient Rome, Stoicism bestowed the gift of the good life to its many loyal adherents, instructing them in such practical matters as how to live with integrity, how to distinguish what you can control from what you can’t, and how to step off the hedonic treadmill and liberate yourself from desire’s perpetual prison.  Today everyone from brilliant heads of state to millionaire CEOs attributes their success to the bygone wisdom of Stoic philosophy. 

Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman’s lovely The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, the daily stoicPerseverance, and the Art of Living resurrects this ancient school of thought from the dusty shelves of obscurity and distills its timeless wisdom so lucidly that it can now reach an even larger audience.  A daily devotional overflowing with inspiration and insight, The Daily Stoic features a quote from one of the foundational Stoic philosophers for each day of the year.  Organized into three parts, the Discipline of Perception, the Discipline of Action, and the Discipline of Will, and twelve themes, one for each month, Holiday and Hanselman’s illuminating volume makes accessible the central tenets of Stoic philosophy like never before.

Beginning the year is founding philosopher Epictetus who shares the bedrock of Stoic thought:

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.  Where then do I look for good and evil?  Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.”  

Later, we learn that for Epictetus the root of all suffering can be traced to the futile (but pathetically human) desire to control the uncontrollable:

“Some things are in our control, while others are not.  We control our opinion, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything of our own doing.  We don’t control our body, property, reputation, position, and, in a word, everything not of our own doing.  Even more, the things in our control are by nature free, unhindered, and unobstructed, while those not in our control are weak, slavish, can be hindered, and are not our own

For if a person shifts their caution to their own reasoned choices and the acts of those choices, they will at the same time gain the will to avoid, but if they shift their caution away from their own reasoned choices to things not under their control, seeking to avoid what is controlled by others, they will then be agitated, fearful, and unstable.”  

In prose characterized by unsurpassed elegance, Epictetus goes on to define the one path to happiness:

“Keep this thought at the ready at daybreak, and through the day and night-there is only one path to happiness, and that is in giving up all outside of your sphere of choice, regarding nothing else as your possession, surrendering all else to God and Fortune.”

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For the Stoics, bemoaning our fate and protesting circumstances over which we have no control is not only pointless- it’s a squandering of precious time.  The only thing man has control over, indeed, the only thing he will ever have control over, is his own psyche.  It is for this reason that the Stoics argue we spend our finite lives civilizing the most savage frontier: ourselves.  Philosopher, dramatist and statesman Seneca believes the most difficult thing to defeat is not exterior conditions but the interiors of the self:

“Our soul is sometimes a king, and sometimes a tyrant.  A king, by attending to what is honorable, protects the good health of the body in its care, and gives it no base or sordid command.  But an uncontrolled, desire-ruled, over-indulged soul is turned from a king into that most feared and detested thing- a tyrant.”

Much like the Buddhists, the Stoics contend desire afflicts the greatest suffering.  In fact, it is this very aching for more, this perpetually unsatisfied sense of lack that eliminates happiness’s possibility:

“It is quite impossible to unite happiness with a yearning for what we don’t have.  Happiness has all that it wants, and resembling the well-fed, there shouldn’t be hunger or thirst

Remember that it’s not only the desire for wealth and position that debases and subjugates us, but also the desire for peace, leisure, travel, and learning.  It doesn’t matter what the external thing is, the value we place on it subjugates us to another…where our heart is set, there our impediment lies.”

Whenever I feel myself overcome by a desperate, impatient yearning, a brattish ingratitude that what I want isn’t here yet, I finally recall the sagacious words of Epictetus:

“Remember to conduct yourself in life as if at a banquet.  As something being passed around comes to you, reach out your hand and take a moderate helping.  Does it pass you by?  Don’t stop it.  It hasn’t yet come?  Don’t burn in desire for it, but wait until it arrives in front of you.  Act this way with children, a spouse, toward a position, with wealth- one day it will make you worthy of a banquet with the gods.”

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A Little Life: Hanya Yanagihara on the Inescapability of the Past, the Solace of Friendship & the Limits of Human Endurance

Hanya Yanagihara’s masterful A Little Life is-dare I say- one of the best books I’ve ever read.  hanyaFerociously heart-breaking and profoundly, unimaginably upsetting, this harrowing beauty of a novel chronicles the saga of four college friends: Willem, a handsome, kind-hearted actor, Malcolm, an aspiring architect, J.B., a talented-if cocky-artist, and Jude, a mysterious litigator.  The setting: New York City, the twinkling land of starry-eyed hopefuls where the only thing people have in common, one character notes, is their drive for success.  When the novel opens, each character has yet to materialize his ambitions: Willem, like most would-be actors, spends his evenings waiting tables in between auditions, his tips sustaining him rejection after demoralizing rejection; J.B., like most starving artists, pays his electricity bill not by selling his paintings but by working at a downtown art magazine as a receptionist while Malcolm, despite having landed an impressive associate position at a prestigious architecture firm, finds himself hopelessly unfulfilled.  As Sinatra sang in his classic ode to the restless city, Yanagihara’s characters have “vagabond shoes” that are “longing to stray.”  But what first appears to be your typical bildungsroman about four best friends trying to make it in the big city turns out to be both a devastating and heart-warming account of the inescapability of the past, the solace of friendship, and the limits of human endurance. 

A Little Life purports to be the story of four friends but the story is really Jude’s alone.  Beautiful but tortured, Jude is a mysterious figure throughout much of the novel: no one, not even Willem or Malcolm or J.B., know anything about his upbringing.  Such an enigma is he that J.B. takes to calling him the “postman” because he’s “post-sexual, post-racial, post-past, post-identity.”  Over the course of 700 horrifying pages, we learn Jude was abandoned at a monastery at birth and as a child was made to endure unspeakable sexual, physical, and psychological abuse.  Though Jude goes on to have a life most of us would envy- a successful career as a corporate lawyer, a loving relationship with a thoughtful (not to mention gorgeous) movie star, a New York socialite’s exciting calendar of nights at the theater and chic rooftop parties- he’s a man wounded.  Despairing and tormented by terrible self-loathing, he believes himself fundamentally unlovable after years of being brutalized and degraded in the most monstrous of ways.  Is it possible, A Little Life wonders, for a man to bear so much suffering and still persist?  Throughout the novel, Jude’s past has a stranglehold on him which he desperately tries to escape:

There were two ways of forgetting.  For many years, he had envisioned (unimaginatively) a vault, and at the end of the day, he would gather the images and sequences and words that he didn’t want to think about again and open the heavy steel door only enough to hurry them inside, closing it quickly and tightly.  But this method wasn’t effective: the memories seeped out anyway.  The important thing, he came to realize, was to eliminate them, not just to store them.  So he had invented some solutions.  For small memories—little slights, insults—you relived them again and again until they were neutralized, until they became near meaningless with repetition, or until you could believe that they were something that had happened to someone else and you had just heard about it.  For larger memories, you held the scene in your head like a film strip, and then you began to erase it, frame by frame.  Neither method was easy: you couldn’t stop in the middle of your erasing and examine what you were looking at, for example; you couldn’t start scrolling through parts of it and hope you wouldn’t get ensnared in the details of what had happened, because you of course would.  You had to work at it every night, until it was completely gone.  Though they never disappeared completely, of course.”

The past’s inescapability becomes one of the novel’s paramount themes when Jude realizes he’s a little lifeeternally doomed to his own identity.  Just as “x must always equal x,” who he was must always define who he is.  He may have love and friendship, prestige and wealth but he will never be entirely liberated from the horrors of history:

The axiom of equality states that x always equals x: it assumes that if you have a conceptual thing named x, that it must always be equivalent to itself, that it has a uniqueness about it, that it is in possession of something so irreducible that we must assume it is absolutely, unchangeably equivalent to itself for all time, that its very elementalness can never be altered.  But it is impossible to prove.  Always, absolutes, nevers: these are the words, as much as numbers, that make up the world of mathematics.  Not everyone liked the axiom of equality––Dr. Li had once called it coy and twee, a fan dance of an axiom––but he had always appreciated how elusive it was, how the beauty of the equation itself would always be frustrated by the attempts to prove it.  It was the kind of axiom that could drive you mad, that could consume you, that could easily become an entire life.

But now he knows for certain how true the axiom is, because he himself––his very life––has proven it.  The person I was will always be the person I am, he realizes.  The context may have changed: he may be in this apartment, and he may have a job that he enjoys and that pays him well, and he may have parents and friends he loves.  He may be respected; in court, he may even be feared.  But fundamentally, he is the same person, a person who inspires disgust, a person meant to be hated.” 

The saddest part of A Little Life is that Jude believes himself deserving of such heinous mistreatment.  Violated by the very men who were supposed to protect him, forced as a child into prostitution: Jude was very obviously a victim.  But- like many victims- he directs his rage inward.  To cope with his trauma, he begins cutting himself, a masochistic habit he continues into adulthood.  Yanagihara spares no mercy in her detailing of Jude’s self-harm, at one point revealing he had long ago “run out of blank skin on his forearms” and so “recuts over old cuts, using the edge of the razor to saw through the tough, webby scar tissue.”  Seeing the damage he’s inflicted, Jude feels “disgusted and dismayed and fascinated all at once by how severely he had deformed himself.”  Such graphic depictions of violence, though gruesome, never feel titillating or excessive but rather seem necessary to depicting Jude’s anguish.  Not only does Yanagihara handle this sensitive material expertly, but she constructs the novel with great skill: just as Jude’s traumatic past relentlessly intrudes on his present, so too does it encroach on the reader in the form of distressing-and disturbing-flashbacks.  James Joyce’s epic hero Stephen Daedalus once memorably called history a “nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.”  A haunted man, Jude St. Francis knows intimately this sentiment.  

Though A Little Life probes the depths of human depravity, it also reveals man’s extraordinary capacity for love.  Despite never fully understanding the demons that beset him, Willem, Malcolm and J.B. remain Jude’s loyal friends, selflessly caring for and consoling him during dark nights of the soul.  At times- in fact- I found it hard to believe any one person could be blessed with such devoted supporters.

But A Little Life’s tragedy is that love is not enough to deliver Jude’s soul.  In the end, trauma is trauma is trauma and, though we cherish uplifting stories of redemption, sometimes absolution never comes.  True to life but brutally sad, A Little Life will linger long after you’ve shut it closed.

Why I Write: Joan Didion’s Meditations on Art as the Expression & Discovery of Self

Why do you write?  In answer to this perennial question, poet and memoirist Mary Karr replied, “I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead.  I have a kind of primitive need to leave my mark on the world.”  “I write,” Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Jennifer Egan maintained, “because when I’m writing…I feel as if I’ve been transported outside myself.”  Best-selling author Jane Smiley responded she wrote “to investigate things she was curious about” while James Frey, screenwriter and memoirist behind the controversial A Million Little Pieces, wisecracked he wrote because he “wasn’t really qualified to do much else.”  Other literary luminaries confided writing was a foundational part of their identity, a vocation inseparable from their sense of self.  Being a writer was often described as a destiny etched in the firmament, a kind of fate rather than a conscious choice.  In her timeless essay “Why I Write,” originally published in the New York Times Book Review in December of 1976 and found in The Writer on Her Work Volume IJoan Didion divulges why she personally writes.

joan didionIn her gorgeously understated prose, Didion defines writing as a forceful, even belligerent expression of self:

“Of course I stole the title from this talk, from George Orwell.  One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write.  There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:

I

I

I

In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.  Its an aggressive, even a hostile act.  You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the readers most private space.” 

Later, Didion confesses she always felt like a foreigner in the republic of ideas.  Unlike her peers in Berkeley academia, she was fascinated not by abstractions but by what she could “see and smell and touch”:

I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word “intellectual” I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts.  During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.

In short I tried to think.  I failed.  My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral.  I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor.  I would try to read linguistic theory and would find myself wondering instead if the lights were on in the bevatron up the hill.  When I say that I was wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron you might immediately suspect, if you deal in ideas at all, that I was registering the bevatron as a political symbol, thinking in shorthand about the military industrial complex and its role in the university community, but you would be wrong.  I was only wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron, and how they looked.  A physical fact…

I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in “Paradise Lost,” the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer.  But I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a grayed and obscurely sinister light.  In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus.  During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas.  I knew I couldn’t think.  All I knew then was what I couldn’t do.  All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.”

Contemplating the titular question of what compels her to put pen to page, Didion explains that for her-much like Henry Miller-writing is a voyage of discovery, a safari into the most unfathomable depths of the self.  With a hint of self-deprecation, she reveals:

“Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer.  Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write.  I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Why Work is Essential to Happiness

Since God cast Adam and Eve out of Eden and forced them to toil, we’ve understood work as a terrible burden rather than a source of pleasure.  The common conception is labor is an onerous responsibility, a wearisome obligation to get over and done.  But philosophers throughout the ages have recognized that-despite prevailing belief- work is crucial to happiness.  “Work,” astute philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell once noted, “is desirable, first and foremost, as a preventive of boredom.”  Not only is work an antidote to ennui- it’s humanity’s most profound source of satisfaction.

Csikszentmihalyi

This vital link between labor and happiness is what ground-breaking positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi examines in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, a brilliant culmination of years of scientific research that today stands as his crowning achievement.  Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as an exalted state of consciousness where you’re so completely absorbed by the task at hand that you experience the pure bliss of doing something for its own sake.  The poet who reveres language and spends hours choosing the word that precisely conveys his purpose, the painter who looks at the clock only to realize a whole day has passed since he first began at the easel, the scientist who- so engrossed in a problem-forgets to eat his regular meals: all know this magical state.  

Often called a “man obsessed by happiness,” Csikszentmihalyi and his team devoted years to uncovering what, exactly, brings about this entrancing euphoria.  What Csikszentmihalyi found was that most people experience flow while working.  Though participants surveyed reported far higher rates of engagement while working than while relaxing in leisure, most nevertheless disclosed they’d rather be “somewhere else.”  Csikszentmihalyi observed the opposite phenomenon when participants reported their feelings during leisure.  Despite the fact that they were often the least captivated while say, watching television or reading for pleasure, respondents claimed they felt most motivated while liberated from the drudgery of work.

But why is this?  Csikszentmihalyi attributes the paradox to our cultural attitudes toward work:

“When it comes to work,” he explains, “people do not heed the evidence of their senses.  They disregard the quality of immediate experience, and base their motivation instead on the strongly rooted cultural stereotype of what work is supposed to be like.  They think of it as an imposition, a constraint, an infringement of their freedom, and therefore something to be avoided as much as possible.”

However, it is just the nature of work-its goal-direction, its confinement to rules, its immediate feedback-that make it so conducive to flow.  Though work provides us with more opportunities for challenge and, thus, genuine gratification, the sad reality is most of us count the minutes until we can leave the office and engage in “real” pleasure.

This, I think, is why free time is so often unsatisfying, why a hard won vacation or sabbatical usually disappoints.  Unstructured time is just that: unstructured.  In order to feel fully engrossed in the moment, to feel enthralled by living, we must be engaged in the pursuit of a goal- a few leisurely hours after work offer nothing to strive for.  Yet at work we have countless things for which to aim: the doctor, to cure his patient, the teacher, to explain a difficult math problem.  Without an end in mind, life becomes pointless- we need something to direct our energies.  As New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean notes in her poetically understated prose:

“The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it.  There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go.  I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.  It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.”

If the natural state of the mind is entropy, then from a purely psychological, scientific point-of-view, life is chaos.  As Orlean so beautifully articulates, work-a passion, a dream, an obsession- shrinks the world to a more “manageable” scope.  It is passion that brings law to anarchy, order to chaos.  Imagine a dazed, humid summer afternoon.  If you passed these hours unhurriedly reading whatever was at hand, I doubt the afternoon would hold any meaning for you.  But if you used your “unstructured” hours for some purpose, say, to read the great romantic poets or study Italian or read philosophy or learn French, those hours would be both more absorbing and more memorable.  

“Contrary to what we usually believe,”  Csikszentmihalyi defends, “the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable…The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”