Sunshine Recorder

Link: Woody Allen: "The Whole Thing Is Tragic"

Mr. Allen, do you truly believe that happiness in life is impossible?

This is my perspective and has always been my perspective on life. I have a very grim, pessimistic view of it. I always have since I was a little boy; it hasn’t gotten worse with age or anything. I do feel that’s it’s a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience and that the only way that you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies and deceive yourself.

I think it’s safe to say that most people would disagree.

But I am not the first person to say this or even the most articulate person. It was said by Nietzsche, it was said by Freud, it was said by Eugene O’Neill. One must have one’s delusions to live. If you look at life too honestly and clearly, life becomes unbearable because it’s a pretty grim enterprise, you will admit.

I have a hard time imagining Woody Allen having such a hard life…

I have been very lucky and I have made my talent a very productive life for me, but everything else I am not good at. I am not good getting through life, even the simplest things. These things that are a child’s play for most people are a trauma for me.

Can you give me an example?

Checking in at an airport or at hotel, handling my relationships with other people, going for a walk, exchanging things in a store… I’ve been working on the same Olympus Typewriter since I was sixteen – and it still looks like new. All of my films were written on that typewriter, but until recently I couldn’t even change the color ribbon myself. There were times when I would invite people over to dinner just so they would change the ribbon. It’s a tragedy.

Do you distrust the good things in life?

Life is full of moments that are good – winning a lottery, seeing a beautiful woman, a great dinner – but the whole thing is tragic. It’s an oasis that is very pleasant. Take a film like Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. This is a film of great tragedy, but there is a moment when he is sitting with the children and drinking milk and eating wild strawberries. But then that wonderful moment passes and you come back to what existence really is.

Are you equally pessimistic about love?

You are much more dependent on luck than you think. People say if you want to have a good relationship, you have to work at it. But you never hear it about anything you really like, about sailing or going to soccer games. You never say: I have to work at it. You just love it. You can’t work at a relationship; you can’t control it. You have to be lucky and go through your life. If you are not lucky you have to be prepared for some degree of suffering. That’s why most relationships are very difficult and have some degree of pain. People stay together because of inertia, they don’t have the energy. Because they are frightened of being lonely, or they have children.

Can a man love two women at the same time?

More than two. (Laughs) I think you can. That’s why romance is a very difficult and painful thing, a very hard, very complicated thing. You can be with your wife, very happily married, and then you meet some woman and you love her. But you love your wife, too. And you also love that one. Or if she’s met some man and she loves the man and she loves you. And then you meet somebody else and now there are three of you. (Laughs) Why only one person?

Things might get a bit tricky if one were to follow your advice…

It’s important to control yourself because life gets too complicated if you don’t, but the impulse is often there for people. Some say society should be more open. That doesn’t work either. I think it’s a lose-lose situation. If you pursue the other woman, it’s a losing situation and it’s not good for your relationship or your marriage. If your marriage is open and you’re allowed to, that’s no good either. There’s no way, really in the end, to be happy unless you get very lucky.

Do you ever cry?

I cry in the cinema all the time. It’s probably one of the only places I ever cry, because I have trouble crying. In Hannah and Her Sisters there was a scene where I was supposed to cry, and they tried everything, but it was impossible. They blew the stuff in my eyes and I couldn’t cry, but in the cinema I weep. It’s like magic. I see the end of Bicycle Thieves or City Lights. It’s the only place – never in the theater and almost never in life.

You used to star in almost all of your films, but in recent years you’ve been in less and less of them. Why?

Only because there is no good part. For years I played the romantic lead and then I couldn’t play it anymore because I got too old. It’s just no fun not playing the guy who gets the girl. You can imagine how frustrating it is when I do these movies with Scarlett Johansson and Naomi Watts and the other guys get them and I am the director. I am that old guy over there that is the director. I don’t like that. I like to be the one that sits opposite them in the restaurant, looks in their eyes and lies to them. So if I can’t do that it’s not much fun to play in the movies.

What’s your take on getting older?

I find it a lousy deal. There is no advantage getting older. You don’t get smarter, you don’t get wiser, you don’t get more mellow, you don’t get more kindly, nothing good happens. Your back hurts more, you get more indigestion, your eyesight isn’t as good, you need a hearing aid. It’s a bad business getting old and I would advise you not to do it if you can avoid it. It doesn’t have a romantic quality.

Will you ever stop making films?

I simply enjoy working. Where else could I develop ambition? As an artist, you are always striving toward an ultimate achievement but never seem to reach it. Youl shoot a film, and the result could have always been better. You try again, and fail once more. In some ways I find it enjoyable. You never lose sight of your goal. I don’t do my job to make money or to break box office records, I simply try things out. What would happen if I were to achieve perfection at some point? What would I do then?

Link: "In Praise of Idleness" by Bertrand Russell

Like most of my generation, I was brought up on the saying: ‘Satan finds some mischief for idle hands to do.’ Being a highly virtuous child, I believed all that I was told, and acquired a conscience which has kept me working hard down to the present moment. But although my conscience has controlled my actions, my opinions have undergone a revolution. I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached. Everyone knows the story of the traveler in Naples who saw twelve beggars lying in the sun (it was before the days of Mussolini), and offered a lira to the laziest of them. Eleven of them jumped up to claim it, so he gave it to the twelfth. this traveler was on the right lines. But in countries which do not enjoy Mediterranean sunshine idleness is more difficult, and a great public propaganda will be required to inaugurate it. I hope that, after reading the following pages, the leaders of the YMCA will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Before advancing my own arguments for laziness, I must dispose of one which I cannot accept. Whenever a person who already has enough to live on proposes to engage in some everyday kind of job, such as school-teaching or typing, he or she is told that such conduct takes the bread out of other people’s mouths, and is therefore wicked. If this argument were valid, it would only be necessary for us all to be idle in order that we should all have our mouths full of bread. What people who say such things forget is that what a man earns he usually spends, and in spending he gives employment. As long as a man spends his income, he puts just as much bread into people’s mouths in spending as he takes out of other people’s mouths in earning. The real villain, from this point of view, is the man who saves. If he merely puts his savings in a stocking, like the proverbial French peasant, it is obvious that they do not give employment. If he invests his savings, the matter is less obvious, and different cases arise.

One of the commonest things to do with savings is to lend them to some Government. In view of the fact that the bulk of the public expenditure of most civilized Governments consists in payment for past wars or preparation for future wars, the man who lends his money to a Government is in the same position as the bad men in Shakespeare who hire murderers. The net result of the man’s economical habits is to increase the armed forces of the State to which he lends his savings. Obviously it would be better if he spent the money, even if he spent it in drink or gambling.

But, I shall be told, the case is quite different when savings are invested in industrial enterprises. When such enterprises succeed, and produce something useful, this may be conceded. In these days, however, no one will deny that most enterprises fail. That means that a large amount of human labor, which might have been devoted to producing something that could be enjoyed, was expended on producing machines which, when produced, lay idle and did no good to anyone. The man who invests his savings in a concern that goes bankrupt is therefore injuring others as well as himself. If he spent his money, say, in giving parties for his friends, they (we may hope) would get pleasure, and so would all those upon whom he spent money, such as the butcher, the baker, and the bootlegger. But if he spends it (let us say) upon laying down rails for surface card in some place where surface cars turn out not to be wanted, he has diverted a mass of labor into channels where it gives pleasure to no one. Nevertheless, when he becomes poor through failure of his investment he will be regarded as a victim of undeserved misfortune, whereas the gay spendthrift, who has spent his money philanthropically, will be despised as a fool and a frivolous person.

All this is only preliminary. I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.

First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.

Throughout Europe, though not in America, there is a third class of men, more respected than either of the classes of workers. There are men who, through ownership of land, are able to make others pay for the privilege of being allowed to exist and to work. These landowners are idle, and I might therefore be expected to praise them. Unfortunately, their idleness is only rendered possible by the industry of others; indeed their desire for comfortable idleness is historically the source of the whole gospel of work. The last thing they have ever wished is that others should follow their example.

From the beginning of civilization until the Industrial Revolution, a man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was required for the subsistence of himself and his family, although his wife worked at least as hard as he did, and his children added their labor as soon as they were old enough to do so. The small surplus above bare necessaries was not left to those who produced it, but was appropriated by warriors and priests. In times of famine there was no surplus; the warriors and priests, however, still secured as much as at other times, with the result that many of the workers died of hunger. This system persisted in Russia until 1917 [1], and still persists in the East; in England, in spite of the Industrial Revolution, it remained in full force throughout the Napoleonic wars, and until a hundred years ago, when the new class of manufacturers acquired power. In America, the system came to an end with the Revolution, except in the South, where it persisted until the Civil War. A system which lasted so long and ended so recently has naturally left a profound impress upon men’s thoughts and opinions. Much that we take for granted about the desirability of work is derived from this system, and, being pre-industrial, is not adapted to the modern world. Modern technique has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.

It is obvious that, in primitive communities, peasants, left to themselves, would not have parted with the slender surplus upon which the warriors and priests subsisted, but would have either produced less or consumed more. At first, sheer force compelled them to produce and part with the surplus. Gradually, however, it was found possible to induce many of them to accept an ethic according to which it was their duty to work hard, although part of their work went to support others in idleness. By this means the amount of compulsion required was lessened, and the expenses of government were diminished. To this day, 99 per cent of British wage-earners would be genuinely shocked if it were proposed that the King should not have a larger income than a working man. The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own. Of course the holders of power conceal this fact from themselves by managing to believe that their interests are identical with the larger interests of humanity. Sometimes this is true; Athenian slave-owners, for instance, employed part of their leisure in making a permanent contribution to civilization which would have been impossible under a just economic system. Leisure is essential to civilization, and in former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labors of the many. But their labors were valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good. And with modern technique it would be possible to distribute leisure justly without injury to civilization.

Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone. This was made obvious during the war. At that time all the men in the armed forces, and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions, all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda, or Government offices connected with the war, were withdrawn from productive occupations. In spite of this, the general level of well-being among unskilled wage-earners on the side of the Allies was higher than before or since. The significance of this fact was concealed by finance: borrowing made it appear as if the future was nourishing the present. But that, of course, would have been impossible; a man cannot eat a loaf of bread that does not yet exist. The war showed conclusively that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world. If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of the week had been cut down to four, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry.

This is the morality of the Slave State, applied in circumstances totally unlike those in which it arose. No wonder the result has been disastrous. Let us take an illustration. Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

Link: Nihilism is rather pointless, isn't it?

It has become something of a curious cliché among the general public that philosophers are, on the whole, only concerned with answering one question: “What is the meaning of life?” Of course, this could not be further than the truth: many philosophers will dismiss this question as pointless and unanswerable, and will focus their attention instead on what they consider to be less futile pursuits. In contrast to this view, I feel that this question is extremely important, or rather, the implications of the answer have extremely important consequences as to how you live your life.

To be a nihilist is to deny the existence or importance of aspects our life that are generally said to be meaningful. Different branches of nihilism make subjects of a multitude of different concepts. For example, moral nihilism is the view that there is no such thing as objective morality, and epistemological nihilism is the view that knowledge is not possible. When this concept is applied to the question I mentioned in the first paragraph, the result is existential nihilism. This, as you can probably work out by now, is the view that life has no point, purpose or meaning.

I consider myself an existential nihilist. You may reasonably ask: “What is my justification for this belief?” Well, when it comes down to it, we are no more than a manifestation of chemical reactions living in a cohort with billions of other chemical reactions. We inhabit a very small planet which in turn is part of a solar system that, with the inevitable failure of our closest star, is already condemned to self-destruction. Furthermore, the star that is the focal point of our solar system is one of 200+ billion in our galaxy, not to mention the hundreds of billions of other galaxies which co-exist with our own.

Nothing that we can do with our lives can change these facts. Whether we die after 100 years or after ten years makes no real difference on the grand scale of things. Our lives have no meaning because there is nothing to give them meaning; the universe offers us no objectivity, it simply persists, and we are but ants annoyingly bustling around the feet of the imaginary gods. There is no magic stone with the “meaning of life” conveniently inscribed upon it; this is why we must scuffle around in the dark as blind men, desperately trying to latch on to something that we arbitrarily decide is important, and pursue that for the rest of our short lives.

In the story of our lives, we can only be certain of the content of two passages: the beginning and the end. We can fill up the space in between with things that we believe to be meaningful but eventually the pages will run out, and our book will have to be closed. This is true for us as individuals, us as a species, and, as previously mentioned, our solar system and every other one like it. (As a side note, the same cannot be said for the universe as our current model states that is is infinitely expanding). Whether you fill your pages with tales of generosity and goodwill or tales of evil and cruelty does not matter in the slightest: your narrative will still be confined to the bookshelf of history.

For those of you who already know a little about nihilism, this essay (if I can really call it that) has thus far probably been more revision than revelation. It’s all well and good explaining what nihilism is and providing a justification for it, but more interesting is perhaps a discussion about the implications that the acceptance of nihilism will have on the way that we live our lives. I would love to be able to say that embracing nihilism has had no effect on the way I see myself, and that I can still endeavor to pursue my interests with the same gusto that I once did. But alas, I cannot.

We insist on staying alive precisely because life has no foundation, because it lacks even the poorest argument. On the other hand, death is too exact; all arguments are for it. Although our instincts perceive it as a mystery, to our reason it reveals itself in its whole clarity, deprived of the deceiving charms and glory of the unknown. With its ongoing accumulation of hollow mysteries and its monopoly over nonsense, life induces fear more than death does; it is life that represents in fact the great Unknown. Where can so much void and inexplicability lead? We cling to our living days because the desire to die is too logical, therefore inefficient. If life had at least one argument for itself – one tenable, indestructible argument – it would be torn apart; instincts and prejudices fade when in contact with Rigor. Every living creature feeds on the unexplainable; a surplus of reason would be lethal for the existence – an endeavor to reach the Absurd … Give a precise meaning to life and it will instantaneously lose its savor. The lack of clarity of its goals makes it superior to death; a grain of precision would lower it to the triviality of a tomb. For a positive science dealing with the meaning of life would depopulate the Earth in one single day and no fool would ever succeed in resurrecting the fertile improbability on its surface.
— Emil Cioran, A Short History of Decay


Peter Singer: Should We Live to 1,000?
On which problems should we focus research in medicine and the biological sciences? There is a strong argument for tackling the diseases that kill the most people –diseases like malaria, measles, and diarrhea, which kill millions in developing countries, but very few in the developed world.
Developed countries, however, devote most of their research funds to the diseases from which their citizens suffer, and that seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Given that constraint, which medical breakthrough would do the most to improve our lives?
If your first thought is “a cure for cancer” or “a cure for heart disease,” think again. Aubrey de Grey, Chief Science Officer of SENS Foundation and the world’s most prominent advocate of anti-aging research, argues that it makes no sense to spend the vast majority of our medical resources on trying to combat the diseases of aging without tackling aging itself. If we cure one of these diseases, those who would have died from it can expect to succumb to another in a few years. The benefit is therefore modest.
In developed countries, aging is the ultimate cause of 90% of all human deaths; thus, treating aging is a form of preventive medicine for all of the diseases of old age. Moreover, even before aging leads to our death, it reduces our capacity to enjoy our own lives and to contribute positively to the lives of others. So, instead of targeting specific diseases that are much more likely to occur when people have reached a certain age, wouldn’t a better strategy be to attempt to forestall or repair the damage done to our bodies by the aging process?
De Grey believes that even modest progress in this area over the coming decade could lead to a dramatic extension of the human lifespan. All we need to do is reach what he calls “longevity escape velocity” – that is, the point at which we can extend life sufficiently to allow time for further scientific progress to permit additional extensions, and thus further progress and greater longevity. Speaking recently at Princeton University, de Grey said: “We don’t know how old the first person who will live to 150 is today, but the first person to live to 1,000 is almost certainly less than 20 years younger.”
What most attracts de Grey about this prospect is not living forever, but rather the extension of healthy, youthful life that would come with a degree of control over the process of aging. In developed countries, enabling those who are young or middle-aged to remain youthful longer would attenuate the looming demographic problem of an historically unprecedented proportion of the population reaching advanced age – and often becoming dependent on younger people.
On the other hand, we still need to pose the ethical question: Are we being selfish in seeking to extend our lives so dramatically? And, if we succeed, will the outcome be good for some but unfair to others?
People in rich countries already can expect to live about 30 years longer than people in the poorest countries. If we discover how to slow aging, we might have a world in which the poor majority must face death at a time when members of the rich minority are only one-tenth of the way through their expected lifespans.
That disparity is one reason to believe that overcoming aging will increase the stock of injustice in the world. Another is that if people continue to be born, while others do not die, the planet’s population will increase at an even faster rate than it is now, which will likewise make life for some much worse than it would have been otherwise.
Whether we can overcome these objections depends on our degree of optimism about future technological and economic advances. De Grey’s response to the first objection is that, while anti-aging treatment may be expensive initially, the price is likely to drop, as it has for so many other innovations, from computers to the drugs that prevent the development of AIDS. If the world can continue to develop economically and technologically, people will become wealthier, and, in the long run, anti-aging treatment will benefit everyone. So why not get started and make it a priority now?

Peter Singer: Should We Live to 1,000?

On which problems should we focus research in medicine and the biological sciences? There is a strong argument for tackling the diseases that kill the most people –diseases like malaria, measles, and diarrhea, which kill millions in developing countries, but very few in the developed world.

Developed countries, however, devote most of their research funds to the diseases from which their citizens suffer, and that seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Given that constraint, which medical breakthrough would do the most to improve our lives?

If your first thought is “a cure for cancer” or “a cure for heart disease,” think again. Aubrey de Grey, Chief Science Officer of SENS Foundation and the world’s most prominent advocate of anti-aging research, argues that it makes no sense to spend the vast majority of our medical resources on trying to combat the diseases of aging without tackling aging itself. If we cure one of these diseases, those who would have died from it can expect to succumb to another in a few years. The benefit is therefore modest.

In developed countries, aging is the ultimate cause of 90% of all human deaths; thus, treating aging is a form of preventive medicine for all of the diseases of old age. Moreover, even before aging leads to our death, it reduces our capacity to enjoy our own lives and to contribute positively to the lives of others. So, instead of targeting specific diseases that are much more likely to occur when people have reached a certain age, wouldn’t a better strategy be to attempt to forestall or repair the damage done to our bodies by the aging process?

De Grey believes that even modest progress in this area over the coming decade could lead to a dramatic extension of the human lifespan. All we need to do is reach what he calls “longevity escape velocity” – that is, the point at which we can extend life sufficiently to allow time for further scientific progress to permit additional extensions, and thus further progress and greater longevity. Speaking recently at Princeton University, de Grey said: “We don’t know how old the first person who will live to 150 is today, but the first person to live to 1,000 is almost certainly less than 20 years younger.”

What most attracts de Grey about this prospect is not living forever, but rather the extension of healthy, youthful life that would come with a degree of control over the process of aging. In developed countries, enabling those who are young or middle-aged to remain youthful longer would attenuate the looming demographic problem of an historically unprecedented proportion of the population reaching advanced age – and often becoming dependent on younger people.

On the other hand, we still need to pose the ethical question: Are we being selfish in seeking to extend our lives so dramatically? And, if we succeed, will the outcome be good for some but unfair to others?

People in rich countries already can expect to live about 30 years longer than people in the poorest countries. If we discover how to slow aging, we might have a world in which the poor majority must face death at a time when members of the rich minority are only one-tenth of the way through their expected lifespans.

That disparity is one reason to believe that overcoming aging will increase the stock of injustice in the world. Another is that if people continue to be born, while others do not die, the planet’s population will increase at an even faster rate than it is now, which will likewise make life for some much worse than it would have been otherwise.

Whether we can overcome these objections depends on our degree of optimism about future technological and economic advances. De Grey’s response to the first objection is that, while anti-aging treatment may be expensive initially, the price is likely to drop, as it has for so many other innovations, from computers to the drugs that prevent the development of AIDS. If the world can continue to develop economically and technologically, people will become wealthier, and, in the long run, anti-aging treatment will benefit everyone. So why not get started and make it a priority now?

We insist on staying alive precisely because life has no foundation, because it lacks even the poorest argument. On the other hand, death is too exact; all arguments are for it. Although our instincts perceive it as a mystery, to our reason it reveals itself in its whole clarity, deprived of the deceiving charms and glory of the unknown. With its ongoing accumulation of hollow mysteries and its monopoly over nonsense, life induces fear more than death does; it is life that represents in fact the great Unknown. Where can so much void and inexplicability lead? We cling to our living days because the desire to die is too logical, therefore inefficient. If life had at least one argument for itself – one tenable, indestructible argument – it would be torn apart; instincts and prejudices fade when in contact with Rigor. Every living creature feeds on the unexplainable; a surplus of reason would be lethal for the existence – an endeavor to reach the Absurd … Give a precise meaning to life and it will instantaneously lose its savor. The lack of clarity of its goals makes it superior to death; a grain of precision would lower it to the triviality of a tomb. For a positive science dealing with the meaning of life would depopulate the Earth in one single day and no fool would ever succeed in resurrecting the fertile improbability on its surface.
— Emil Cioran, A Short History of Decay

(Source: hyperboreanvoyager, via sisyphean-revolt)


Philosophy as an Art of Living
A quiet revolution may have taken place over the last three decades in our understanding of the history of Western philosophy. So quiet, in fact, that few have noticed it. Three recent books give us a sense of the significance and extent of this paradigm shift: Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, by James Miller; How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell; and The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, by Bettany Hughes. What has this revolution brought forth? The realization that some of the most influential Western philosophers (primarily the ancient philosophers, but also Montaigne, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others) intended their philosophy to be not just a body of doctrines, of pure intellectual content, but to be above all an “art of living.” It is immediately obvious that, like most revolutions, this one, too, is about how we relate to the past.  

At the heart of the notion of philosophy as a “way of life” there lies the idea of a radical transformation. In Theses on Feuerbach (1845) Karl Marx famously challenged the way philosophy had been conceived of in the West: “Philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it.” Yet, understanding philosophy as an “art of living” means not to change the world, but the philosopher herself. In a way, “changing the world” is a touch too easy, because nobody exactly knows what it means. Revolutionaries and spin doctors alike never stop talking about “changing the world,” which results in a social anesthetization of sorts; too much revolutionary talk is the best way to kill a revolution before it even starts. Soon enough we feel no discomfort living in a world that, in spite of all appearances, does not really change. Plus ça change… On the other hand, should one be unlucky enough to be visited by it, one will find it very hard to get rid of the relentless feeling that one has to change oneself. Rilke’s admonition, which Peter Sloterdijk borrowed for the title of one of his recent books, sounds now harsher than ever: Du mußt dein Leben ändern (“You must change your life”).
In this understanding of the Western tradition, the chief reason for studying philosophy is not a desire to know more about the world, but a profound sense of dissatisfaction with the state in which one finds oneself at a given moment. One day you suddenly, painfully realize that something important is missing in your life, that there is a gap between what you currently are and the sense of what you could be. And before you know it, this emptiness starts eating at you. In a way, you don’t even exist yet. (It must have been in this sense that Socrates used the term “midwifery” for what he was doing; by subjecting those around him to the rigors of his philosophy, he was bringing them into existence properly.) Philosophy thus presupposes a certain degree of self-detestation. It may well be that philosophizing begins in shame. If you are a bit too comfortable with yourself, if there is nothing you are ashamed of, you don’t need philosophy; you are fine as you are.   
This is where Hadot’s reading of the history of ancient philosophy comes in. In the late 1970s, Pierre Hadot (1922-2010) started using the term “spiritual exercises” to describe what the ancient philosophers were doing. He borrowed the term from Ignatius of Loyola, but significantly expanded its area of applicability. In so doing, Hadot thought he gave it back its original meaning: “Ignatius’ Exercitia spiritualia are nothing but a Christian version of a Greco-Roman tradition. […] In the final analysis, it is to antiquity that we must return in order to explain the origin and significance of this idea of spiritual exercises.”
The “spiritual exercises” are practices and routines, performed in a highly self-conscious manner, that engage and train specific human faculties: attention, memory, imagination, self-control. They are a recipe of self-realization; their “goal is a kind of self-formation, or paideia, which is to teach us to live.” Hadot discusses in detail several such “spiritual exercises” practiced first in the Greek, then in the Roman philosophical schools. One example is “attention to the present moment.” By focusing on the present, we free ourselves from the “passions” that both the past and the future (none of which we can control) stir in us: regret, fear, apprehension, anger, sadness. Attention to the present moment also gives us a sense of “cosmic consciousness” and helps us appreciate the “infinite value of each instant.” Similarly, premeditation of evils (praemeditatio malorum), another exercise, presupposes a constant awareness of the bad things (poverty, suffering, death, etc.) that may at any moment befall us. By meditating on them, we learn how to live with them, should misfortune strike. By knowing what can happen to us, to some extent we gain control over the unknown. The “view from above,” to give a final example, helps us realize how ant-like our lives are when placed within a bigger cosmic picture; this exercise is meant to cure us of the diseases of arrogance and self-importance.

Philosophy as an Art of Living

A quiet revolution may have taken place over the last three decades in our understanding of the history of Western philosophy. So quiet, in fact, that few have noticed it. Three recent books give us a sense of the significance and extent of this paradigm shift: Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, by James Miller; How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell; and The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, by Bettany Hughes. What has this revolution brought forth? The realization that some of the most influential Western philosophers (primarily the ancient philosophers, but also Montaigne, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others) intended their philosophy to be not just a body of doctrines, of pure intellectual content, but to be above all an “art of living.” It is immediately obvious that, like most revolutions, this one, too, is about how we relate to the past.  

At the heart of the notion of philosophy as a “way of life” there lies the idea of a radical transformation. In Theses on Feuerbach (1845) Karl Marx famously challenged the way philosophy had been conceived of in the West: “Philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it.” Yet, understanding philosophy as an “art of living” means not to change the world, but the philosopher herself. In a way, “changing the world” is a touch too easy, because nobody exactly knows what it means. Revolutionaries and spin doctors alike never stop talking about “changing the world,” which results in a social anesthetization of sorts; too much revolutionary talk is the best way to kill a revolution before it even starts. Soon enough we feel no discomfort living in a world that, in spite of all appearances, does not really change. Plus ça change… On the other hand, should one be unlucky enough to be visited by it, one will find it very hard to get rid of the relentless feeling that one has to change oneself. Rilke’s admonition, which Peter Sloterdijk borrowed for the title of one of his recent books, sounds now harsher than ever: Du mußt dein Leben ändern (“You must change your life”).

In this understanding of the Western tradition, the chief reason for studying philosophy is not a desire to know more about the world, but a profound sense of dissatisfaction with the state in which one finds oneself at a given moment. One day you suddenly, painfully realize that something important is missing in your life, that there is a gap between what you currently are and the sense of what you could be. And before you know it, this emptiness starts eating at you. In a way, you don’t even exist yet. (It must have been in this sense that Socrates used the term “midwifery” for what he was doing; by subjecting those around him to the rigors of his philosophy, he was bringing them into existence properly.) Philosophy thus presupposes a certain degree of self-detestation. It may well be that philosophizing begins in shame. If you are a bit too comfortable with yourself, if there is nothing you are ashamed of, you don’t need philosophy; you are fine as you are.   

This is where Hadot’s reading of the history of ancient philosophy comes in. In the late 1970s, Pierre Hadot (1922-2010) started using the term “spiritual exercises” to describe what the ancient philosophers were doing. He borrowed the term from Ignatius of Loyola, but significantly expanded its area of applicability. In so doing, Hadot thought he gave it back its original meaning: “Ignatius’ Exercitia spiritualia are nothing but a Christian version of a Greco-Roman tradition. […] In the final analysis, it is to antiquity that we must return in order to explain the origin and significance of this idea of spiritual exercises.”

The “spiritual exercises” are practices and routines, performed in a highly self-conscious manner, that engage and train specific human faculties: attention, memory, imagination, self-control. They are a recipe of self-realization; their “goal is a kind of self-formation, or paideia, which is to teach us to live.” Hadot discusses in detail several such “spiritual exercises” practiced first in the Greek, then in the Roman philosophical schools. One example is “attention to the present moment.” By focusing on the present, we free ourselves from the “passions” that both the past and the future (none of which we can control) stir in us: regret, fear, apprehension, anger, sadness. Attention to the present moment also gives us a sense of “cosmic consciousness” and helps us appreciate the “infinite value of each instant.” Similarly, premeditation of evils (praemeditatio malorum), another exercise, presupposes a constant awareness of the bad things (poverty, suffering, death, etc.) that may at any moment befall us. By meditating on them, we learn how to live with them, should misfortune strike. By knowing what can happen to us, to some extent we gain control over the unknown. The “view from above,” to give a final example, helps us realize how ant-like our lives are when placed within a bigger cosmic picture; this exercise is meant to cure us of the diseases of arrogance and self-importance.

Link: David Foster Wallace on Life and Work

From a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College.

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

If at this moment, you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude — but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense.

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues.” This is not a matter of virtue — it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often described as being “well adjusted,” which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphal academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default-setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about college education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what’s going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what’s going on inside me. As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about “teaching you how to think” is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: “Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.

That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let’s get concrete.

There are many out there who have never been on a 7:30 a.m. freeway or punched a timeclock or even had a job and don’t intend to, can’t, won’t, will die first rather than live the common way. In a sense, each of them is a genius in his or her way, fighting against the obvious, swimming upstream, going mad, getting on pot, wine, whiskey, art, suicide, anything but the common equation. It will be some time before they even us out and make us say quits. When you see that city hall downtown and all those proper precious people, don’t get melancholy. There is a whole tide, a whole race of mad people, starving, drunk, goofy, miraculous. I have seen many of them. I am one of them. There will be more. This city has not been taken. Death before death is sickening. The strange ones will hold, the war will continue. Thank you.
— Charles Bukowski

(Source: crumpetsandfries, via vjoriqor)

Life continues, and some mornings, weary of the noise, discouraged by the prospect of the interminable work to keep after, sickened also by the madness of the world that leaps at you from the newspaper, finally convinced that I will not be equal to it and that I will disappoint everyone—all I want to do is sit down and wait for evening. This is what I feel like, and sometimes I yield to it.
— Albert Camus

"Live live a mighty river"
In 1986, 23 years after the death of Sylvia Plath, celebrated poet Ted Hughes wrote the following letter to their 24-year-old son, Nicholas, and, quite beautifully, advised him to embrace his “childish self” so as to experience life to its fullest. Tragically, during a period of depression in 2009, Nicholas took his own life. He was 47.

Dear Nick, 
I hope things are clearing. It did cross my mind, last summer, that you were under strains of an odd sort. I expect, like many another, you’ll spend your life oscillating between fierce relationships that become tunnel traps, and sudden escapes into wide freedom when the whole world seems to be just there for the taking. Nobody’s solved it. You solve it as you get older, when you reach the point where you’ve tasted so much that you can somehow sacrifice certain things more easily, and you have a more tolerant view of things like possessiveness (your own) and a broader acceptance of the pains and the losses. I came to America, when I was 27, and lived there three years as if I were living inside a damart sock—I lived in there with your mother. We made hardly any friends, no close ones, and neither of us ever did anything the other didn’t want wholeheartedly to do. (It meant, Nicholas, that meeting any female between 17 and 39 was out. Your mother banished all her old friends, girl friends, in case one of them set eyes on me—presumably. And if she saw me talking with a girl student, I was in court. Foolish of her, and foolish of me to encourage her to think her laws were reasonable. But most people are the same. I was quite happy to live like that, for some years.) Since the only thing we both wanted to do was write, our lives disappeared into the blank page. My three years in America disappeared like a Rip Van Winkle snooze. Why didn’t I explore America then? I wanted to. I knew it was there. Ten years later we could have done it, because by then we would have learned, maybe, that one person cannot live within another’s magic circle, as an enchanted prisoner.
So take this new opportunity to look about and fill your lungs with that fantastic land, while it and you are still there. That was a most curious and interesting remark you made about feeling, occasionally, very childish, in certain situations. Nicholas, don’t you know about people this first and most crucial fact: every single one is, and is painfully every moment aware of it, still a child. To get beyond the age of about eight is not permitted to this primate—except in a very special way, which I’ll try to explain. When I came to Lake Victoria, it was quite obvious to me that in some of the most important ways you are much more mature than I am. And your self-reliance, your Independence, your general boldness in exposing yourself to new and to-most-people-very-alarming situations, and your phenomenal ability to carry through your plans to the last practical detail (I know it probably doesn’t feel like that to you, but that’s how it looks to the rest of us, who simply look on in envy), is the sort of real maturity that not one in a thousand ever come near. As you know. But in many other ways obviously you are still childish—how could you not be, you alone among mankind? It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we’re likely to get a rough time, and to end up making ‘no contact’. But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child. It’s an intangible thing. But they too sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child. Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced. Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool—for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful. So there it is. And the sense of itself, in that little being, at its core, is what it always was. But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner. And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line—unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears. And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive—even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt. And that’s where it calls up its own resources—not artificial aids, picked up outside, but real inner resources, real biological ability to cope, and to turn to account, and to enjoy. That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self—struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence—you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself. The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all. It was a saying about noble figures in old Irish poems—he would give his hawk to any man that asked for it, yet he loved his hawk better than men nowadays love their bride of tomorrow. He would mourn a dog with more grief than men nowadays mourn their fathers.
And that’s how we measure out our real respect for people—by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate—and enjoy. End of sermon. As Buddha says: live like a mighty river. And as the old Greeks said: live as though all your ancestors were living again through you.

"Live live a mighty river"

In 1986, 23 years after the death of Sylvia Plath, celebrated poet Ted Hughes wrote the following letter to their 24-year-old son, Nicholas, and, quite beautifully, advised him to embrace his “childish self” so as to experience life to its fullest. Tragically, during a period of depression in 2009, Nicholas took his own life. He was 47.

Dear Nick, 

I hope things are clearing. It did cross my mind, last summer, that you were under strains of an odd sort. I expect, like many another, you’ll spend your life oscillating between fierce relationships that become tunnel traps, and sudden escapes into wide freedom when the whole world seems to be just there for the taking. Nobody’s solved it. You solve it as you get older, when you reach the point where you’ve tasted so much that you can somehow sacrifice certain things more easily, and you have a more tolerant view of things like possessiveness (your own) and a broader acceptance of the pains and the losses. I came to America, when I was 27, and lived there three years as if I were living inside a damart sock—I lived in there with your mother. We made hardly any friends, no close ones, and neither of us ever did anything the other didn’t want wholeheartedly to do. (It meant, Nicholas, that meeting any female between 17 and 39 was out. Your mother banished all her old friends, girl friends, in case one of them set eyes on me—presumably. And if she saw me talking with a girl student, I was in court. Foolish of her, and foolish of me to encourage her to think her laws were reasonable. But most people are the same. I was quite happy to live like that, for some years.) Since the only thing we both wanted to do was write, our lives disappeared into the blank page. My three years in America disappeared like a Rip Van Winkle snooze. Why didn’t I explore America then? I wanted to. I knew it was there. Ten years later we could have done it, because by then we would have learned, maybe, that one person cannot live within another’s magic circle, as an enchanted prisoner.

So take this new opportunity to look about and fill your lungs with that fantastic land, while it and you are still there. That was a most curious and interesting remark you made about feeling, occasionally, very childish, in certain situations. Nicholas, don’t you know about people this first and most crucial fact: every single one is, and is painfully every moment aware of it, still a child. To get beyond the age of about eight is not permitted to this primate—except in a very special way, which I’ll try to explain. When I came to Lake Victoria, it was quite obvious to me that in some of the most important ways you are much more mature than I am. And your self-reliance, your Independence, your general boldness in exposing yourself to new and to-most-people-very-alarming situations, and your phenomenal ability to carry through your plans to the last practical detail (I know it probably doesn’t feel like that to you, but that’s how it looks to the rest of us, who simply look on in envy), is the sort of real maturity that not one in a thousand ever come near. As you know. But in many other ways obviously you are still childish—how could you not be, you alone among mankind? It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we’re likely to get a rough time, and to end up making ‘no contact’. But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child. It’s an intangible thing. But they too sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child. Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced. Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool—for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful. So there it is. And the sense of itself, in that little being, at its core, is what it always was. But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner. And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line—unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears. And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive—even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt. And that’s where it calls up its own resources—not artificial aids, picked up outside, but real inner resources, real biological ability to cope, and to turn to account, and to enjoy. That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self—struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence—you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself. The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all. It was a saying about noble figures in old Irish poems—he would give his hawk to any man that asked for it, yet he loved his hawk better than men nowadays love their bride of tomorrow. He would mourn a dog with more grief than men nowadays mourn their fathers.

And that’s how we measure out our real respect for people—by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate—and enjoy. End of sermon. As Buddha says: live like a mighty river. And as the old Greeks said: live as though all your ancestors were living again through you.

Link: When Charles Darwin Hated Everybody

“The day of days!,” wrote an elated 29-year-oldCharles Darwin in his journal after his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, accepted his marriage proposal, proceeding to famously weigh the pros and cons of marriage and merrily conclude that the enterprise was worth it. But Darwin, apparently, wasn’t always so cheerful. In her recent Creative Mornings talk, the inimitableMaira Kalman shared a letter Darwin wrote to his friend, the Scottish geologist Charles Lyell, in 1861, a little over a year after the publication ofOn the Origin of Species. The missive, found inThe Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Volume 9 (public library) and made available online by theDarwin Correspondence Project, is at once jarring in its uncharacteristic despondency and oddly reassuring, reminding us that even the greatest of minds have their dark days — that rather than detracting from one’s genius, those are as much a part of it as the intellectual and creative highs, that emotional intensity is essential to the creative process in all of its extremes.

My dear Lyell

[…]

What a wonderful case the Bedford case.– Does not the N. American view of warmer or more equable period after great Glacial period become much more probable in Europe?–

But I am very poorly today & very stupid & hate everybody & everything. One lives only to make blunders.– I am going to write a little Book for Murray on orchids & today I hate them worse than everything so farewell & in a sweet frame of mind, I am

Ever yours

C. Darwin

Link: The Person You Used To Be Still Tells You What To Do

Most of our standing impressions are probably based on a single experience — one instance of unpleasantness or disappointment that turned you off of entire categories of recreational activities, lifestyles and creative pursuits, forever.

Once my friends and I reached legal bar-going age, I watched as we split into two factions. There were the people who went out to clubs to dance, and the people who went to pubs to sit and drink and talk loudly.

I hated the clubs. The music was awful, thumping electronic noise. I think I made about three attempts to have fun this way, and then I made a long-lasting error in judgment. I made a conclusion about myself I wasn’t qualified to make: dancing is not for me.

As it turns out, much more investigation was required. But I didn’t bother. I thought I knew. I’d endured three dull nights drinking draft under sweeping blue lights, pretending I was happy to be out and about but silently wondering how anyone could bring themselves to flail their bodies to uptempo remixes of Ricky Martin. So without quite realizing it, I decided I am not one who dances. I love music, but not the music people dance to.

A sweeping generalization like that, if it concerns who you are and what’s for you or not for you, can affect you for a long stretch of your life. For the next twelve years all invitations to go out dancing were declined by default.

That’s all it takes to keep something out of your life, a single instance of telling youself, “This is not for me.” The problem is we don’t think much about what exactly constitutes “that” and so we’re prone to dismissing, just by association, a whole lot of experiences that maybe are for us. We lose track of our symbols.

Earlier this year it cracked — while traveling, which seems to be what I’m doing at all of the moments in which I become aware that a long-held misconception about myself has just died. I found myself sitting crosslegged on a friend’s floor, talking about music with a woman I’d just met. I liked her right away, and every time she mentioned an act I liked too, I felt closer to her.

When she mentioned she liked electronic dance music I felt a pang of disappointment — a bit less of a connection, momentarily. Somehow, nearly half a lifetime after I first rolled my eyes at a roomful of late-nineties club crowd, I figured some part of what I had seen and hated appealed to her.

And that’s because I already knew that is not for me. I’d known for years. I don’t dance. I think I said so.

I already knew her taste was excellent, though, and so I explored the music she was talking about, and of course it sounded nothing like the electro-pop shlock I had hated as a teenager. It was awesome. Unpretentious and refined.

And now I dance. I love it. I should have been doing it all along.

To that day — and thankfully, never after — the image I had in my mind of going out to dance is the same one I rejected twelve years earlier: drunk teenagers dancing in a terrible suburban club to vapid anthem-pop.

What surprised me was how relevant my opinion of dance music still seemed, up until that moment. It felt true, but it was based on old, inadequate data, like most of our opinions probably are. Still, we tend to view our own beliefs as if they are real knowledge. I hadn’t realized how crusty and obsolete my impression of “dance music” was. In reality, since I’d last actively considered it, the sun had risen and set four thousand times, wars had been fought, borders had been redrawn, great loves had started and ended, eras had died. Children who were five then were now driving cars, and somehow I still felt like I had a pretty clear idea of what I was missing.

I can’t say for sure what my early dismissal of dancing cost me. Certainly hundreds of amazing nights out. Certainly dozens of would-be friendships and connections. Certainly it stifled my progress away from shyness and self-consciousness.

Naturally my personality gradually conformed toward the pub faction’s qualities and away from those of the club faction — toward more passive vibes where you sat and talked to the same few people, and away from more active and intimate social dynamics. I know now that the former is less me than the latter, given the superior vantage point I now inhabit, at 31 years. All I know for sure is that a huge amount of what I love was missed.

So essentially, at thirty-one years of age, a large area of my life — how I go out, how I recreate — was still being decided by a judgmental 19-year-old. I see now what a bad job that 19-year-old had been doing. He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know what I value, what really turns my crank, what I ought to be afraid of or what I ought to seek out. My 29 year-old self wouldn’t even do a very good job of telling me what to do. I’m a different person than he is.

This happens a lot. Much of what you do today (or don’t do) was decided by the person you were years ago, a person with less life experience and less insight into your values. Your identity — as in who you are to yourself, and who you are to others — changes throughout your life, and the person most qualified to be deciding how you spend your time now is always going to be who you are today.

But we often don’t work like that. We work from conclusions made years ago, usually with no idea of when we made them, or why. Most of our standing impressions are probably based on a single experience — one instance of unpleasantness or disappointment that turned you off of entire categories of recreational activities, lifestyles and creative pursuits, forever.

A conclusion is not the point at which you find the truth, it’s only the point at which the exploring stops. We do it quickly and unconsciously and the effects are long-lasting. In no time you’re left with a standing belief, a sort of surrogate “fact” in your head, left over from a time when you didn’t know any better.

A lot of the things that feel like they are not for you are indeed for you. The person you used to be still wants you to be the person you used to be.

Beliefs collect like old magazines, except that even though they direct our behavior, we can’t really see them so we don’t think to clean them up or cull them. You may be familiar with the notion of challenging your beliefs but how do you actually do that in real life? Do you sit down with a big list and think about each one again?

That’s too abstract and too boring and if you’ve tried it you know it won’t get you anywhere. In real-time, moment-to-moment life, culling beliefs about yourself amounts simply to consiously doing things that feel like they’re not quite a natural fit for you, just to see what happens. If you’re not doing this on a regular basis — things that feel out of character for you — you are definitely missing out on a lot that is close to perfect for you.

Let the phrases “not my thing” or “not for me” become red flags to you whenever you hear yourself say them. How old was the person who decided that? Was it even a decision, or just an emotional reaction? How much do you really know about it?

Ask, or otherwise know that your lifestyle is still being directed by a younger and less experienced version of you who, frankly, doesn’t know you at all.

This is what is sad when one contemplates human life, that so many live out their lives in quiet lostness; they outlive themselves, not in the sense that life’s content successively unfolds and is now possessed in the unfolding, but they live, as it were, away from themselves and vanish like shadows. Their immortal souls are blown away, and they are not disquieted by the question of its immortality, because they are already disintegrated before they die.
— Soren Kierkegaard

(via therefore-death-to-us-is-nothin)

Link: Anaïs Nin on the Meaning of Life & the Dangers of the Internet

“We believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people… This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us.”  

Last week’s widely reverberating meditations on the meaning of life by cultural icons like Charles Bukowski, Annie Dillard, Arthur C. Clarke, and John Cage reminded me of a passage from the altogether sublime The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — the same tome that gave us this poignant reflection on why emotional excess is essential to creativity.

In an entry from May 1946, Anaïs Ninonce again challenges our presentism bias by thinking deeply and timelessly about issues we tend to believe we’re brushing up against for the very first time, from the pitfalls of always-on communication technology to the pace of modern life to the venom of procrastination.

Even more interesting than the striking similarity between what Nin admonishes against and the present dynamics of the internet is the fact that she essentially describes Marshall McLuhan’s seminal concept of the global village… a decade and a half before he coined it.

The secret of a full life is to live and relate to others as if they might not be there tomorrow, as if you might not be there tomorrow. It eliminates the vice of procrastination, the sin of postponement, failed communications, failed communions. This thought has made me more and more attentive to all encounters. meetings, introductions, which might contain the seed of depth that might be carelessly overlooked. This feeling has become a rarity, and rarer every day now that we have reached a hastier and more superficial rhythm, now that we believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people, more people, more countries. This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us. The dangerous time when mechanical voices, radios, telephones, take the place of human intimacies, and the concept of being in touch with millions brings a greater and greater poverty in intimacy and human vision.

For more on Nin’s timeless insights on life, see Lisa Congdon’s stunning hand-lettered diary quotes.