Sunday, September 20, 2015

Returning to Work, With Leisure in Mind

The first part of this post, begun over three weeks ago (within days its intended completion), is transcribed from a notebook entry I made during the week of our return to school, which always comes with jarring speed at the end of a period of relative calm.  For teachers, this is summer, and as it ended, about a week after I finished reading Josef Pieper’s 1948 essay “On Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” I felt myself synchronously drawn to the need to more deeply contemplate its worth.  

Interesting to note how in 1948. Piper was defining the plight of  “the modern workaholic” as one who is quick to remind others of his drive and ambition as measured in hours spent in labor, who scoffs at the notion of slowing down.  Of this figure, Pieper aptly observes that the compulsion to work is often rooted in the same vapid nature as the compulsion to indolence and laziness; both, Pieper argues, are borne of a disconnect with the philosophical self, that which seeks divine union through contemplation.  

Here it is, relatively unedited, as recorded at the end of the first week back.  Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, there has been no time to edit.  

This time of year, it is helpful to acknowledge that part of what is called for - in addition to the tritely apt reminder to breathe - is some surrender to the momentum of the excitement, because only in surrender to the susurrations of life’s pulse will one be able to find stillness in any motion it fuels.  For many years I have found myself at this point in the year thinking, even in the crux of genuine enthusiasm over the new year, how I am going too fast and must soon find some time to slow down or some essential presence, mindset, or priority - often that which was polished during reflective weeks in the heart of summer - will be lost.   It’s all new beginnings and lengthy to-do lists, a sense of running all day and stopping only to drink water as needed.  Following summer, the shift is jarring.  Although I maintained various responsibilities throughout those two months, I had grown accustomed to moving throughout my days at a pace slow enough to allow for frequent pauses.  I woke up, more or less, when I was ready to.  I made time for exercise because it felt good to do so, and had a positive effect on my day.  I planned meals with care and pleasure.  

Since staff development began, two days ago - in the same week as the start of my university coursework, I find myself often rushing from one place to the next, and waiting for a moment of pause during meetings so that I may run to get water and use the restroom.  I have gone from having responsibility for myself and two others to leading hundreds.  Ideas swim in my head more quickly than I can catch, some inspired (what if we tried _ this year?), others frantic (don’t forget: make copies of __, reply to emails from _,__, and __, finish updating syllabus, set up website… the list goes on). The to-do list, though essential at such times, has a way of regenerating at such speed that it can seem menacing in a certain light.

I wish to cast it in another light.  For sanity’s sake, yes;  more precisely, for the sake of preserving intact, some of my the most admirable traits of my human inheritance - namely, capacity to wonder, reflect, search for meaning, and let my mouth fall open in awe.  Rushing with one’s head down is a sure way to detach from these  Over a decade in the profession is more than enough to have taught me that  a sense of frantic rushing and a of not having enough time to tend to all needs, are features indigenous to any territory in the vast landscape of one’s life as it may be lived in any meaningful service.  Small tasks must be written down before they fall out of the head, and large tasks - the sort that would ordinarily be at the forefront of the mind - must be written down as a reminder, lest the hold on these becomes loosened and they are lost in the current of endless activity.  Such tragic loss might easily go unnoticed; for while it happens, one is, after all, working.  

For these reasons, what serendipity to have found Pieper’s manifesto on the necessity of preserving leisure exceedingly timely.  Prior to reading it, I had an incomplete understanding of the word.  

For the Greeks, “not-leisure” was the word for the world of everyday work; and not only to indicate its “hustle and bustle,” but the work itself… “the Greeks would probably not have understood our maxims about “work for the sake of work”… Could this also imply that people in our day no longer have direct access to leisure?
This section certainly gives pause, and the effect is magnified with the observation that, “The Greek word for leisure is the origin of the Latin shola, German schule, English school.”  I think, how much the opposite has come to be true.  For those who are “good students,” scholastic excellence is associated with “hard work,” and for those detached from the process, school may as well be synonymous with boredom.  

This post emerged from a desire to remember that human dignity and beauty live in the stillness at the center of work, and are lost in the hustle and bustle.  And yet, when one does not have the luxury of making one’s own hours, the only reliable and consistent way to do this is to stop waiting for the noise to die down and to cultivate a capacity to create some inner stillness amid the wild current, and to find silence in a crowded room of shouters. As I write this, I picture a pair of noise-canceling headphones placed deliberately around the most sacred center of one’s being. 

I almost wrote, “center of the interior self,” before catching an inherent flaw in the phrase.  While the image seemed useful - a small, highly concentrated shadow self within the larger body - the concept may do more harm than good.  In our ceaseless effort to order and sort elements of our environment and experience so as to better understand, we are often much too quick to create dichotomies:  noise/silence, company/solitude, work/life, activity/stillness. Such habits of mind create mental divisions where none need to be, like superfluous walls in a room intended to be open. When it is crowded, I may long for silence, but I cannot access it through the wall.  When active, my actions tend to be meaningful and the level of activity sustainable only when anchored to a place of stillness.

Enter Pieper’s thesis:

Culture depends for its very existence on leisure, and leisure, in its turn, is not possible unless it has a durable and consequently living link with the cultus, with divine worship.

Culture… is the quintessence of all the natural goods of the world and of those gifts and qualities which, while belonging to man, lie beyond the immediate sphere of his needs and wants.  All that is good in this sense, all man’s gifts and faculties, are not necessarily useful in a practical way; though there is no denying that they belong to a truly human life, not strictly speaking necessary, even though he could not do without them.

…freedom, in its innermost circle indeed, is philosophy…

While at work- meaning, honoring some responsibility to act in a capacity of service to others or a larger cause, it can be easy to feel estranged from some of the more sustaining aspects of nature, be these relationships, art, reflection, or a simple quiet pause, 

This will happen for as long as I feel that what I love to do is necessarily separate from that to which I am called to do. For, as Pieper reminds,  as long as Leisure is equated with “vacation,” “summer,” “weekend,” and perceived as antithetical to “work,” it will remain elusive.  At work time, leisure will be anxiously missed, and on “off” time, one will be too frayed to experience the stillness at its center.  One will be constantly aware of the way that my time with it is ending, which makes it difficult if not impossible to appreciate.  

Here are some passages that linger from this week’s reading:

Up until this time… the provence of “intellectual enterprise” tended to be looked upon as a kind of paradise, where nobody needed to work; at the heart of this privileged province lay philosophy, something at furthest remove from the working world.

… Now, the takeover of this region of intellectual action… by the realm of “total work” forms only the most recent phase of a whole series of conquests made by the “imperial figure” of the “worker

...The Greek word for leisure is the origin of the Latin shola, German schule, English school.

According not only to ancient philosophers, but also to medieval thinkers, understanding may come in two ways: one comes from being, or the “purely receptive ‘looking…” to which Heraclitus referred as the “Listening-in to the being of things.” This type of knowing corresponds to what the medieval intellectuals would have called intellectus, which corresponds to “the ability of ‘simply looking’… to which the truth presents itself as a landscape presents itself to the eye. Contrast this with ratio, “the power of discursive thought, of searching and re-searching, abstracting, refining, and concluding…”

“All knowing involves both,” and yet there appears to be some built in bias towards the “earned via work” sort of knowing over the “simply looking.” This, as Pieper reminds, appears to be a a noteworthy sign of the times. In discussing this  cultural tendency towards “over-valuation of the difficult,” 

Pieper observes:

The innermost meaning of this over-emphasis on effort appears to be this: that man mistrusts everything that is without effort; that in good conscience he can own only what he himself has reached through painful effort; that he refuses to let himself be given anything.

I suspect that I am not the only contemporary reader who feels a slight pang of shame at this.  While I like to believe that I am not yet near the stance of “workaholic,” it is also true that many a week goes by in a rush, and somewhere in the middle of such rushes, I become  hyper-focused on “getting things done.” Although such bouts of frantic activity rarely come without some longing for slower moments, I have been guilty of holding my sleep deprivation up like a badge of honor, as if my slavish determination to “get things done” meant something on a moral level.

Maybe it does, but probably it does not, and I thank Joseph Pieper for issuing a needed (apparently, over five decades ago) call to be mindful of the ways that we are conditioned in the modern world, to freely spend energy before noticing how doing so can leave little of time or anything else needed to celebrate the sacred space that makes human energy meaningful.  

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

In Times That Call for Satire, Paul Beatty Delivers

In a column he penned in 2006, Canadian critic John Doyle of Canada’s Globe and Mail observed that “There are specific periods when satire is necessary. We’ve entered one of these times.”  Suffice to say that post-2008 America, when Obama’s presidency corresponds ominously with a rash of media coverage (see Ferguson, St. Louis, Charlotte, and Queens) which may or may not be (but decidedly is)  rooted in a nation’s dark history of racism, Doyle’s sentiment is perhaps as true as it ever was.   Certain topics have become so marginalized or taboo in nature that any serious discussion of them is likely to be punished or ignored.  In so-called “postracial” America, the preponderance of deeply-rooted racial inequality is perhaps one of the most concerning taboos observed in popular rhetoric.  Despite glaring evidence to the contrary, the public discourse of Americans reflect a staunch determination to insist that race is no longer a valid axis of social inequality. 

Enter Paul Beatty and his 2015 satirical masterpiece The Sellout, which has been hailed by Dwight Garner of The New York Time Book Review as “the best American satire of the millennium.”  As a reader who was serendipitously introduced to Beatty in college, upon professor Bertram Ashe’s recommendation of Beatty's 1996 TheWhite Boy Shuffle, I expected, upon opening The Sellout, to experience a mixture of exhilaration and pain similar to what I felt when I first read his work;  that is, exhilaration at being in the hands of a writer of such impressive virtuosity that the completion of a page is in itself a heady rush - and pain because the talents of this writer, as witnessed by one at the verge of an understanding that she may well be called towards writing as vocation - are enough to inspire complete surrender before one even begins.  What’s the point? Beatty is that good.  It takes only a few pages of The Sellout for any sensitive reader to understand that they are in the hands of a literary master of dazzling ambition who has arrived intent on delivering a walloping blow.  

Talent, combined with drive and incisive focus on key issues of the day, make Beatty an ideal writer to address certain taboo subjects, and this reader early on considered it a boon to observe how, in The Sellout, Beatty pulls no punches.  I can think of no one better to loudly suggest that the very idea of “postracial America” may be a farce, even given the fact of a Black president, and while this theme remains the critical focus, his scathing commentary doesn’t end there.  Beatty hits hard, with precise blows, and his targets include the ceaseless “do-gooderism” of Dave Eggers along with the cloying presence of those whose overt and puritanical insistence on politically-correct language is especially offensive when ensconced in a comfortable buffer of bourgeoise accoutrements, and when it accompanies, in the name of liberation, a suspiciously instinctive readiness for filing out to march, “zombie-like” in procession at the next calling of any cause that seems remotely related to the mission of civil rights.  He swings at the dirty conspiracy of gentrification (see below for more on this) and at the inherent reluctance of a nation of people quick to hang banners for Black History Month, to acknowledge certain of the most uncomfortable aspects of the struggle, especially those as represented by Hominy, an aging actor befriended by the protagonist, who is a former Little Rascals star whose fame has not only become the sort of thing that many people of all races would much prefer to forget about, also has the dubious distinction of being native to Dickens, an urban agrarian L.A. community that was once primarily black, which is now increasingly Mexican, in which the protagonist maintains one of the only working farms - raising satsuma oranges, distinctively luscious watermelon, fine strains of pot, and a few pigs, while riding his horse, as his father did, into and out of town - while the city itself is being silently wiped off the map by a conspiracy of real-estate interests who would prefer to pretend that it doesn’t exist. 

I am getting ahead of myself here.  The central situation of the story, as presented in the opening pages, is that the protagonist (last name Me, who is known alternately as "Bonbon" by his girlfriend, "Massa" by his slave, and "Sellout" by his nemesis) is on trial in the Supreme Court, for reinstating both slavery and segregation in his hometown of Dickens, an “urban agrarian" community in Los Angeles, where he is one of the last remaining farmers. 

The protagonist is characterized largely by childhood of being raised by his father, a “social scientist of some renown,” who had left a position as a stable-hand in Kentucky to to become interim dean at Riverside Community College while establishing a small farm in LA.  As described in one of the opening chapters:

As the founder and, to my knowledge, sole practitioner of the field of Liberation Psychology, he liked to walk around the house, aka “the Skinner box,” in a laboratory coat.  Where I, his gangly, absentminded black lab rat was homeschooled in strict accordance with Piaget’s theory of natural development.  I wasn’t fed; I was presented with lukewarm appetitive stimuli. I wasn’t punished; I was broken of my unconditioned reflexes.  I wasn’t loved, but brought up in an atmosphere of calculated intimacy and intense levels of commitment.  
…in his quest to unlock the keys to mental freedom, I was his Anna Freud… when he wasn’t teaching me how to ride [horses], he was replicating famous social science experiments with me as both the control and the experimental group.

Although his early service as lab rat has the unintended effect of making him decidedly indifferent about race, Me’s odyssey begins after the death of his father, who is essentially shot by police for driving while black.  As he explains the circumstances that led him to become an agent of change in the community, Me explains his motivation as “a son’s simple wish to please his father.”  

Me's father’s murder - which has obvious chilling echoes to national news headlines - is compounded by the erasure of his hometown of Dickens, which is described by an equally pernicious and relevant process that is the sort of familiar reality that generally flies under the radar of racist censure in ways that this passage effectively highlights, which make it emblematic of a new order of inequality that differs from its predecessor primarily in outward appearance while maintaining a de facto segregation that bears many of the essential elements that post racial America is so publicly proud of overcoming:

There was no loud sendoff.  Dickens didn’t go out with a bang like Nagasaki, Sodom and Gomorrah, and my dad.  It was quietly removed  like those towns that vanished from maps of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, atomic accident by atomic accident.  It was part of a blatant conspiracy by the surrounding, increasingly affluent, two-car garage communities to keep their property values up and blood pressures down. When the housing boom hit in the early part of the century, many moderate-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles county underwent real-estate makeovers.  Once pleasant working-class neighborhoods became rife with fake tits and fake graduation and crime rates, hair and tree transplants, lipo- and cholosuctions In the wee hours of the night, after the community boards, homeowner associations, and real estate moguls banded together and coined descriptive names for nondescript neighborhoods, someone would bolt a large glittery Mediterranean-blue sign high up on a telephone pole. And when the fog lifted, the soon-to-be-gentrified blocks awoke to find out they lived in Crest View, La Cienga Heights, or Westdale. Even though there weren’t any topographical features like crests, views, heights, or dales to be found within then miles. Nowadays Angelenos who used to see themselves as denizens of the west, east, and south sides wage protracted battles over whether their two-bedroom, charming country cottages reside within the confines of Beverlywood or Beverlywood Adjacent.   
…Signs that had read “Welcome to the City of Dickens” disappeared overnight.

As explained by Megan Le Boeuf, one of the hallmarks of satire is that “the main characters always feel they are doing something wrong by violating the rules and values imposed by society, when in fact they are acting morally, a fact obvious to the audience but not to them.”

In this vein, consider Beatty’s central character, driven to find a way to honor his father’s legacy, part of which involves his recognition throughout the community as the "whisperer" capable of  talking people down from crisis situations, whose hallmark crisis-turning reminder to the desperate and despairing was, “You have to ask yourself two questions, Who am I? And how may I become myself?” The question becomes a compass for the odyssey that follows, and Me's unassuming approaches towards declaring some measure of freedom from existing axes of oppression, and to extend the same to those he cares about, lead him on a quest to bring back Dickens, which he does by replacing a “disappeared” freeway sign and painting drawing a white line around the former neighborhood, guided by an outdated map.  His other offense, as slaveholder, is a role he takes only reluctantly out of respect for an elderly neighborhood icon, Hominy, to whom he feels indebted from childhood.  Hominy, an interesting character in his own right, who, with his gentle nature, “minstrel smile,” and the way that he, like many child actors, he“never seem to age” is a symbol that speaks to the heart of Beatty’s critical offense. 

Hominy’s very presence is the unsavory residue of a national past that no one wishes to acknowledge.  A former child-actor, Hominy was a rising star on The Little Rascals series before it was cancelled at the dawn of the era that heralded a commitment to post-racial America - and with it, perhaps, a guilty or overly optimistic rush to believe prematurely in its existence.  Hominy's tragic character is endlessly surprising and interesting in ways that can not be distilled into a single passage, but the essence of his predicament is that he, “like any other child star still standing in the klieg light afterglow of a long-ago cancelled career, was bat-shit crazy.”  The pathos of Hominy’s fading fame is compounded by the fact that the few remaining loyal followers can not - as a result of the disappearance of Dickens - locate him in order to pay their respects.  The compounding grief of his loss brings Hominy to a botched suicide attempt, at which point the protagonist muses on the particular poignance of his character:

If that naked old man crying in my lap had been born elsewhere, say Edinburgh, maybe he’d be knighted by now… But he had the misfortune of being born in Dickens, California, and in America Hominy is no source of pride: he’s a Living National Embarrassment. A mark of shame on the African-American legacy, something to be eradicated, stricken from the racial record, like the hambone, Amos n’ Andy, Dave Chapelle’s meltdown, and people who say “Valentime’s Day.”

When asked to explain his reason for attempting to kill himself, Hominy responds, “I just want to feel relevant.”

As part of his mental breakdown, Hominy becomes “unable to distinguish between himself and the corny ‘I owe you my life, I’ll be your slave’ trope,” he wakes the day after his failed suicide attempt calling his rescuer “massa” and begging to be whipped, despite the fervent protests of his reluctant slaveholder.  When, mid-protest, the protagonist asks, “is there anything else that would make you happy?” Hominy responds, “Bring back Dickens.”

In an episode that I almost hesitate to relay in awareness that it may not translate well outside of the intricate context of the novel, the protagonists’s girlfriend Marpessa (a bus driver) -  as a birthday present to Hominy arranged by "The Sellout," installs a tribute to the aging actor’s glory days in the form of a small placards  reminding bus patrons of “Priority Seating for Seniors, Disabled, and Whites.”  The satire really shines here - in part because of the predictable outrage that ensues from various patrons (When one man cries out, “I’m offended!” the narrator responds, “What does that mean, I’m offended? …It’s not even an emotion. What does being offended say about how you feel?”) and in equal part because of the absurdity of the situation, and finally because the real-life geographical and situational segregation is so acutely defined that Hominy is left eagerly waiting all day for a chance to give up his seat and would have gone completely disappointed except for the appearance of a redheaded Jewish beauty whose appearance turns out to have been arranged by the protagonist.  In comparison to those of pre-Civil Rights America, today's buses may seem like democratic institutions, but the ride on Hominy’s birthday illustrates how its passengers are so notably non-white as to make any internal segregation within the system not only irrelevant, but redundant to boot.
Norman Rockwell's The Problem We All Live With
In a serendipitous parallel, during the week that I was reading The Sellout, NPR’s This American Life aired the first of a scathing two-part program that effectively highlights some of the real repercussions of the American reluctance to directly address race.  Entitled “The Problem We All Live With” (in homage to the iconic Norman Rockefeller painting of the same name), it is well worth the hour of listening, and far too rich to detail here except in the briefest of sketches as relates to the issues at hand.  The episode follows the narration of Nicole Hannah, investigative reporter for The New York Times, in an documenting her well-earned (throughout decades of intensive research and personal experience on school reform measures, including integration) frustration over the refusal of most policymakers to discuss integration as a viable possibility, when research overwhelmingly supports integration as the single most (in fact, the only, Hannah argues) effective means of significantly reducing the achievement gap:
I'm so obsessed with this because we have this thing that we know works, that the data shows works, that we know is best for kids, and we will not talk about it. And it's not even on the table.
The program aims, as Beatty does, to address the unspeakable American problem of racial injustice so deeply entrenched that refusal to acknowledge race as an issue that continues to bear paramount relevance with regards to social and economic standing, and strongly illustrates how this deliberate glossing-over of legitimate concerns may arguably be rooted in some aversion to intricate complexity and nuance in an age and culture where the simple explanation is so often preferred, especially when ensconced in the alluring sheen of a national pledge towards “liberty and justice for all." Surely, by now, the thinking goes, such an ideal, now well into a the third century as an ideologies experiment, must be manifest. How eager we are to idealize, how slow to acknowledge our faults.  This human tendency is magnified exponentially at the national level, especially when the veracity of a national creed is called into question by any truly sober examination of the national image in an unbiased mirror. 

This brings me to highlight the final relevant talking point of this entry, which is by no means exhaustive of the fertile critical banquet that Beatty provides.  It concerns precisely the issue of integration, and has the effect of complicating my impressions of the episode described above, Part 1 of which has the effect of leaving the listener with the message that “Integration is the answer, but we don’t consider it because we will not consider overt discussion of race.”  Instead, the words used concern crime, security, funding, preservation of equity in real estate and and “the safety of our children.” (Listen to the podcast if you don’t believe me.  At recordings taken from city hall meetings in 2013, when the closing of the Normandy unified school district, for failure to meet federal minimum standards threatened to allow thousands of  students of predominantly black district to elect to attend high school in neighboring areas that, as the saying goes, “just happened to be” predominantly white, and you may find yourself wondering, as I did, if you are in fact listening to an eerily high-definition recording of a town hall meeting, circa the wake of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision mandating recognition of the legal and moral illegitimacy of the “separate but equal” mentality that seems to continue to justify - in increasingly more complex nuances - the continued segregation of schools along racial lines, which most notably is the root of the reason that the term “achievement gap” continues to exist as a prominent phrase in national parlance on education, nearly half a century after it first was coined in recognition of certain uncomfortable truths that were obvious to any serious educator.)

Here’s the link to Beatty, which is precisely what landed him the hot-seat as defendant in a Supreme Court trial. To a principal of a local middle school and friend of his girlfriend, the protagonist develops and institutes a plan to segregate the local middle school, in opposition to the view that integration is a “cover up.”  As he observes:
If you ask me, Chaff Middle School had already been segregated and re-segregated many times over, maybe not by color, but certainly by reading level and behavior problem… During Black History Month, my father used to watch the nightly television news of the Freedom buses burning, the dogs snarling and snapping, and say to me, “You can’t force integration, boy. The people who want to integrate will integrate.” I’ve never figured out to what extent, if at all, I agree or disagree with him, but its an observation that’s stayed with me. Made me realize that for many people integration is a finite concept.  Here, in America, “integration” can be a cover-up. “I’m not racist. My prom date, second cousin, my president is black (or whatever).” The problem is that we don’t know whether integration is a natural or unnatural state. Is integration, forced or otherwise, social entropy or social order? No one’s ever defined the concept.
For many readers, including this one, Beatty’s sheer talent is enough to warrant effusive praise and devoted following, but what is even more interesting about The Sellout is what lingers long after the mind has steadied itself from the vertigo affected by Beatty’s sheer talent as a writer.  It is his strength as a satirist in particular, that makes it so that certain themes, as attached to particular imagery and passages in the book, continue to occupy one’s thoughts during the spaces between readings and long into the time beyond the final page. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Exploring Patagonia with Bruce Chatwin

In the spirit of embracing summer travel plans on a stay-at-home budget, I have been wanting to schedule at least one vacation via excellent travel book. This is what led me on a memorable tour through Patagonia with Bruce Chatwin, via the author's 1977 publication of In Patagonia. Although I had no prior knowledge of the author prior to the journey, I noticed that his name consistently ranked among the great travel writers of all time.  My high expectations were not disappointed.

Documenting the expedition he undertook during the 1970s, Chatwin describes his work as such:

In Patagonia is not a travel book in the usual sense but a Quest or Wonder Voyage.  It is about wandering and exile, and its structure is as old as literature itself: the narrator travels to a remote country in search of a strange beast and, as he goes along, describes his encounters with other people who delay him en route.
The “strange beast” Chatwin references at the opening of the narrative is a “replacement of the lost piece of skin” which had so mystified the author in his youth.   Chatwin’s grandfather, sailor Charley Milward, had kept the artifact in a jar throughout his life, claiming it to be the skin of a brontosaurus discovered soon after the merchant ship he captained sunk off the Strait of Magellan.  Upon Millward’s death, the legendary skin-in-a-jar was promptly discarded by his wife, and so Chatwin sets out to unpack the mystery of its origins, discovering the beast to be not a brontosaurus but most certainly the mylodon, otherwise known as giant ground sloth, a prehistoric mammal of dino-esque proportions.  It does not take long to understand that the “strange beast” of this story is more complex than the either brontosaurus or mylodon: a sort of chimera comprised of the mythical image of his grandfather, “a god among men,” the paths that people take to exile, and the vast and intricate history of a region ripe with mythical, cultural, and political history.  

Chatwin’s “godlike” characterization his grandfather - who settled in Punta Arenas after the demise of his vessel, sets the stage for a journey steeped in  wonder and mythos that turns out to be perfectly appropriate to a region so richly imbued not only with a rich and varied fossil record, but also with stratified layers of legend and intrigue. The artists, priests, merchants, expats, stock-herders, and other characters encountered throughout the journey seem to continually reinforce an implication that the lore and mystery of the place seems not at all dulled by living there.  Ripe history of colonial occupation and expat relocation leaves a tapestry of people of varied ancestry behind: history of various stripes: Welsh, English, Persian, Spanish, Scottish, French.  One example of the author’s nuanced presentation of the region’s history can be found in an early passage, narrating his voyage southward:
Mylodon model (from wikimedia)
The history of Buenos Aires is written in its telephone directory. Pompey Romanov, Emilio Rommel, Crisping D.Z. de Rose, Ladislao Radziwil, and Elizabeth Marta Callman de Rothschild - five names taken at random from among the R’s - told a story of exile, disillusion, and anxiety behind lace curtains.
Part of the delight in reading Chatwin comes from the author’s excellent characterizations.  One is swept up in the story by virtue of the rich interplay between characters possessed of both mythical and personable charms.  Take for example, Mrs. Jones, a “squat old lady in her eighties” who runs a teashop with her son, who introduces herself from her seat at the table with this line: “I can’t move, my dear… You’ll have to come and talk to me in the kitchen… I’m crippled. I’ve had arthritis since the flood and have to be carried everywhere.”  Or Alan Powell, “a small man, crinkled by the sun and wind,” and his wife, who “had shiny cheeks and was always laughing.” His taut descriptions are precise and I am pulled along on his adventure, swiftly; I  can see these people, and their presence, in Chatwin’s lively and well-honed voice keeps the journey immersive, real, and never abstract.  Add to this the shared meals: asado with a salmuera sauce of vinegar, garlic, chiles, and oregano, washed down with vino rosado at midday in shepherd’s kitchen The evolving narrative moves less towards a resolution, and instead towards an immersion in strange delicious midday dreaminess.  Traveling primarily on foot between hitchhiking jags, it seems as though every new chapter (many of them fewer than three pages) finds the author in a new kitchen, bed, or mishap, like walking past midnight, laying awake with raucous or suspicious bunkmates, or being stranded on the side of the road after an unfortunate tire blowout at the bottom of a backcountry hill.  

The structure lends itself to being interpreted (and I have read that this was Chatwin's intention) as a series of photographs kept in an album.  One of the most memorable of the recurring characters, in addition to Chatwins seafaring grandfather, whose story is traced throughout the narrative - is Father Manuel Palacios, “a comprehensive genius of the South” who lived in the Salesian College, and who shares with Chatwin a rich history including: "statistics, radio-carbon dates, migrations of men and animals, marine regressions, upheavals of the Andes or the appearance of new artifacts.  Possessed of a photographic memory he could describe in detail every Indian rock-painting of the South…  "

Palacios' lecture, as Chatwin recalls, “melted into a dream voyage,” in which “Marquesans beached their canoes in the fjords of Southern Chile, scaled the Andes, settled by Lake Musters and merged with the indigenous population.  Father Palacios described his own discovery, in Tierra del Fuego, the sculpture of a headless woman, life sized and smothered in red ochre” and goes on to detail his theory that the origin of the species can be traced to the Andes.  The fact that this theory yet fails to achieve widespread acknowledgment as valid in the eyes of the scientific community matters little in the context of this book of abundant legend and mystery.  

Image of the Patagonian Unicorn
The brontosaurus/mylodon is  one of many mythical beings appearing throughout the journey.  Others include ‘The Cappadocian Dragon,’ The Sect of Brujeria,  Charles Darwin, Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and those tasked with stalking them, to name a few.

Attempting to unpack the mysterious nature of a place can be problematic.  To paraphrase an insight offered by Fr. Greg Boyle on the problem of explaining humor: “It’s sort of like dissecting a frog.  You can do it, but you have to kill the frog first.”  So, instead of attempting to do so, I’ll attempt to detail a few of the elements of Patagonian lore which linger in the imagination long after the last page, and which prompted me to do a fair amount of follow up internet research to verify the veracity of their existence. 

In Fr. Palacios’s encyclopedic description of regional history, he mentions the Patagonian unicorn, which were “hunted to extinction by man in the fifth or sixth millennium B.C.” which are depicted in cave paintings near Lago Posados by  (“Really?” I think when I first read the account, recalling the burning shame of being scolded by my first grade teacher for including a unicorn in my painstaking  depiction of the garden of Eden.  “That’s not one of God’s creatures,” she barked.) I am pleased to learn that its existence is quite plausibly traced to the Toxodon, a “large hippo-like South American mammal that belonged to the now totally extinct order Nitingulata, hoofed mammals endemic to the American continent,” according to research compiled by Austin Whitthall, author of Monsters of Patagonia, and others.  There are other theories about this creature, including the rare but documented presence of one-horned deer. With a loud internal Hooray, I make a mental note to recover a favorite movie of childhood, The Last Unicorn, in order to watch it with my five year old in celebration. 
Follow this finding with the discovery of furry humanoid dwarves living in trees.  To be more specific, the Yoshil, a “tail-less protohominid with lichenous hair of yellowish green colour" dwarves that lived in trees and are rumored to have come into the beds of local women in the middle of the night.  These rumors may have countless other explanations, but fossil record and the testimony of numerous regional Salesian priests and others indicate the plausibility of reality of a Fuegian homunculus that fits the description of the Yoshil, who may also have been hunted to extinction at times when other prey were scarce.

Add to this, the fossil records of plesiosaurus, glyptodon, and macrauchenia,  ‘The Cappadocian Dragon,’  and the beaches of the here-and now (at least as they were, circa 1970s) scattered with carcasses of penguins.  Then there’s The Sect of Brujeria, a devilish cult of witchcraft rumored to dismember infants as part of initiation, and  the giant Patagons,  members of the Tehuelche Indian tribe, renamed by Magellan at first sight of their large physical stature, who are said to have been inspiration for the Shakespeare’s Caliban of The Tempest, whose voice utters the bitterness of the New World in the face of colonization: “This island’s mine, by Sycorax  my mother, which you take’s from me” (the reference, provided by Chatwin, calls to mind another, line of the same play, uttered by Sebastian (Act III, scene iii), as referenced by Whitthall: “Now I will believe, that there are unicorns…”) .  

Black-browed albatross
In this vein it is interesting to recall another legendary  figure, one John Davis, a mariner whose fateful journey is rumored to have inspired the voice of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rhyme of The Ancient Mariner, for whom, after shooting the bird: “Instead of the cross, the Albatross/ About my neck was hung.”  Considering the length of the ensuing journey, and the image I had in mind of the massive (by avian standards) albatross, the veracity of such a circumstance seemed so implausible that I have always thought that it must surely be meant as metaphor.  However, as Chatwin explains, the epic poem was in fact an historically-informed rendering of the records of voyages as recorded by John Davis, and there are in fact two much smaller members of the albatross family, both natives to Patagonia,  who are likely candidates for the role.  

As presented by Chatwin: "There are two contenders and I saw them both on Tierra del Fuego: the Sooty Albatross, ashy bird, smoke-grey all over and known to sailors as the Stinkpot or Prophet; or, less likely, the Black-browed Albatross or Mollymauk, fearless and attached to human company."

I could go on, but in the interest of time I’ll simply posit the question,  "Can you imagine?" against the tacit understanding that those who can will get it.  This is a place where over and over again, the supposed boundaries between imagination and reality and consistently blurred.  I cannot speak for other readers, but this is enough to keep me coming back for more.  

Although he was most often described as a travel writer, Chatwin did not see himself as such.  I suspect that this may have something to do with why he is such an excellent writer of travel narratives. Also generally reluctant to to identify as a novelist, Chatwin preferred to be acknowledged as a storyteller.  He is, indeed a storyteller, and his prose shimmers with wit, verve, and down-to-earth sensibilities that pair nicely with the affinity towards subtle shades of magical realism that he displays in this volume - and, I’ve read, in his other works, although Patagonia is the first of his that I am reading. 

The story lingers with a gossamer dreamlike quality, and after spending some time afterwards attempting to discern what parts were fact and what were fiction, I have given up.  It seems that some of the controversy surrounding aspects of the veracity of some of the stories within it is perhaps misplaced, although I sympathize with the tendency of outsiders to scrutinize, fact-check, and note disparities as they are found.  It seems that Chitin’s narrative is composed in the spirit of the place he is documenting, a place where, each mythical beast, as the mylodon he comes to find.  In attempting to record various human and animal histories, Chatwin observes how - in more than one instance, though this passage refers to the mylodon:
there was… a point at which the extinct beast merged with the living beast and the beast of the imagination.
This observation cuts to the heart of what is so memorable about this journey.  I cannot definitively draw the line between fact and fiction, and this seems to me to be true to experience in a way that the idea of a dichotomy between the two is not.  I have never had a significant experience which I did not burnish and polish over time as I handled it over and over again as memory.  I am certain only of the rich magic of Patagonia, and of my intention to plan future vacations with Mr. Chatwin.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Sontag On the Tyranny of Images

"Camera" by Hai Sam Nguyen on flickr
In On Photography, originally published in 1977, Susan Sontag offers incisive insights into the form and the mindsets and ways of being that photography engenders.  She astutely observes how, as a result of the “insatiability of the photographic eye,” photography as common practice essentially changes the way we relate to the world.  She observes how photographs, in their ubiquity as practice and presence, “teach us a new visual code” and, in essence, “alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at” as well as profoundly altering our sense of “what we have a right to observe.”  She also notices how photographs alter our perception of scale of importance and of continuity.   All six essays in this volume are brilliant and cutting, but this post is focused on the opening section of the book, "In Plato's Cave" which would be a laudable choice as required reading for any adult in western society after the 1950s, when the relatively inexpensive accessibility of cameras and photo-sharing technologies (from the Kodak print, onward) so profoundly altered our perspective of reality so dramatically that most people are immune to any consciousness of the shift.  And this was before Facebook equated the image with one's personal status on a literal level. 

Sontag observes that part of the appeal of photography comes from its way of giving people “imaginary possession” of an “unreal past” while simultaneously helping people to “take possession of space in which they are insecure.” A habit of photography is “a way of refusing experience” by “limiting experience to a search for the photogenic.”
Consider this opening passage:
Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth.  But being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images.  For one thing, there are a great many more images around, claiming our attention.  The inventory started in 1839 and since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems.  This very insatiability of the photographing eye changes the terms of confinement in the cave, our world.  In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter  and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observes.  They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.

I wonder about the degree to which my sense of being is shaped by photographs, but I suspect that thinking about this is a little bit like asking a fish how the water feels.  

Unlike with more “artisanal” forms of representation, photographs are often treated as “narrowly selective interpretation[s]” or “evidence.” There is a built in bias to equate photographic images with “truth,” even if we know better, understanding that “photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.”

One particularly interesting observation that Sontag shares involves the way that “there is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.” Considering this in light of the ubiquity of cheap, universally accessible, photographic technology, the implications of this certainly give pause.  Add to this, other mindsets prevalent in an increasingly complex, modern society.  Consider the insatiable tendency to document, photograph, to the point that “it hardly matters what activities are taken so long as photographs get taken and are cherished” (remember, in 1977, Kodak business was booming, and Sontag is still referring to print images: those endlessly collectible, handed down, and passed around artifacts taken, for the most part as representations of past events and people as they once were.  Photographs essentially “help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure.” I can only imagine that the effects Sontag describes are magnified now.  I cannot help but juxtapose the increased call for “mindfulness” and training people to “be present” with the reality of living in a world where, according to Sontag’s argument, “a way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it - my limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.” Experience becomes shaped by a mindset of “stop, take a picture, move on,” where travel becomes a strategic way to collect more photographs.  And consider, this is before Facebook, when one’s status and identity is literally (as opposed to metaphorically, as followers of Sontag may have it may have been more likely to observe) linked to ones photographs.

Another strong observation Sontag delivers involves the connection between photography and nostalgia:
It is a nostalgic time right now, and photographs actively promote nostalgia.  Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos… to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt. 

Sontag thoughtfully considers the capacity of photographs to raise awareness of injustices in such a way that people are moved to action.

In the vein of exploring the capacity of photographs to elicit emotional outrage, shock, or other feeling, she observes that “photographs shock insofar as they show something novel. Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised - partly through the very proliferation of such images of horror.” She goes on to hauntingly give voice to the peculiarly modern “negative epiphany” of being “stunned by an artifact from the “photographic inventory of ultimate horror.”  As she recalls her own experience upon first encountering photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau in 1945, at the age of twelve.  Its an experience, like much of what she catalogues in this essay, so common that it might easily go overlooked - perhaps mores now, over three decades later, when the photographs often arrived unbidden, with even greater and more constant velocity, through many more available livestreams.  If one wanted to avoid them, it would be difficult to discern where or where not to look.  

"Sailor, Uniform" by Beryl_snw on flickr
I recall a similar feeling of helplessness upon my first encounter with similar images.  I am hard pressed to say which came first: the children with swollen bellies in Ethiopia, the child running from the destruction of Hanoi, or a black and white image of concentration camp victims, or the piles of corpses in mass graves.  I recall a series of days of being ill with certain dizziness and weakness after witnessing some particular images of Nazi concentration camps when I was seven, which fortunately my mother did not ask me to explain.  It was a double-edged horror: of the destruction and degradation I had seen in the photographs, with the sense that the adults around me had all seen it before, and so adulthood was in part a matter of getting used to certain degrees of horror while maintaining a sort of ironic detachment from it all.  I had a strong suspicion - which from time to time bubbled into utter fear and despair - that I did not have it in me to do so, and therefore was not qualified to live and act in this world as a functional adult - a state that seemed, even in my earliest memories, to be ever-present and waiting for me just around the corner.  How on earth would I ever make it? I was no stranger to heartbreak, sadness, and even horror on the immediate scale, but how was I supposed to grow into the sort of person who could witness large-scale, calculated, devastating horror on the level of the images of Dachau and still manage to be the person who offered guests cheese and crackers, and remembered to bathe, and pay the electric bill, and polish one’s Sunday shoes?  How was that supposed to be managed?  As Sontag recalls her own initiation into photographic horror, “a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead, something is still crying.”  There’s a peculiar degree to which the photographic images presents horror outside of its context, such that the witness is forced to witness while being prevented from taking some immediate action.  The horror is in a sense magnified, because it can be examined in a way that horror rarely can be when it is lived: often, the urgency of survival in such situations is so great that it has the effect of mitigating existential contemplation of the event.

One way of dealing with this angst, Sontag eerily reminds, is by growing accustomed to the horror.  One learns to adapt to it, and the effect is lessened.  Exposure to suffering is profoundly different from exposure to photographic images of suffering, because the photographic image “does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them… Images anaesthetize. An event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would have been if one had not seen the photographs - think of the Vietnam War… But after repeated exposure to images it also becomes less real.  

As a result of living in a world where photographic images of horror are increasingly prevalent, citizens of this world develop a “certain familiarity with atrocity, making the horrible seem more ordinary.” It is possible, she argues, that after a certain “saturation point” had been reached (as she believed it had, by the late 1970s) such that “‘concerned’ photography” published after saturation “has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.”

In the concluding sections of this powerful piece, the writer relates the following:

Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it.  But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks.

The omnipresence of photographs has an incalculable effect on our ethical sensibility. By furnishing this already crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is.
Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.

Today, everything exists to end in a photograph.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

In Times of Trouble, Words of Wisdom

For anyone who has ever longed, in the live-tweeting age of Instagram, snap chat, selfie sticks, reality-television housewives and lawsuits over the heat of freshly-brewed coffee, for a dose of something more serious and substantial, Alain de Botton is a good friend to know.  I had the sense when I first picked up his The Consolations of Philosophy, a few weeks ago, that I had encountered the author before.  My hunch was confirmed with a quick google search; it was a 2013 On Being interview with Krista Tippett, which I remember hearing at some pre-dawn hour during a Saturday morning run, in which he discussed his motivations for founding the School of Life in London, which he describes as a church for atheists.  I was moved by the talk and by de Botton’s earnest search for truth and meaning beyond the world currently taken as “secular” while also resisting the dogmas of religion.  His soulful sensibility and earnest searching is perhaps most efficiently conveyed by a survey of the titles of his books.  These include, in addition to The Consolations of Philosophy: The Art of Travel, Status Anxiety, On Love (a novel), Essays in Love,  The Architecture of Happiness, How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Religion for Atheists: A Nonbeliever's Guide to The Uses of Religion, The News: A User’s Manual, How to Think More About Sex, A Week at the Airport, The Romantic Movement: Sex, Shopping, and The Novel, On Seeing and Noticing, and Art as Therapy: From the Collection of The National Gallery at Victoria.  

In The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton parses wisdom of the ages for everyday living, with searching questions and endearing wit. Let’s face it, a book that dares to attempt to distill wisdom of teachings of philosophers as diverse and wide ranging as Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche - could easily become a litany of trite superficial distillations of profound truths.  De Botton’s volume is fresh and meaningful because he is not trying to simplify the oeuvre of any of the characters in his enlightening discussion.  Rather, he looks to them sincerely as wise elders, searching the teachings of each for clues that may help him to address a very specific and personal problem.  His honesty is endearing, while affording the reader with a fresh lens by which to examine each thinker.  

He reads with an eye for aiding and addressing particular human blights, and organizes his chapters around them, pairing each with a philosopher whose message offers complex varieties of consolation around the theme at hand.  For “Unpopularity,” he turns to Socrates, for “Not Having Enough Money,” Epicurus, Seneca on “Frustrations,” Montaigne on “Inadequacy,” Schopenhauer for “A Broken Heart,” and finally, to Nietzsche for “Difficulties” in general.

De Botton begins by narrating his experience of being in “a deserted gallery on the upper level of the Metropolitan Museum of Art" on his way to find a container of his favorite chocolate milk before heading back home to London, and being struck by Jacques-Louis David’s 1786 painting, The Death of Socrates.

As he contemplates the work, de Botton observes how “the subject of which the Greek philosopher was the supreme symbol seemed to offer an invitation to take on a task at once profound and laughable: to become wise through philosophy.”  The author elaborates with explanation of his desire to profile treasured insights of diverse philosophers across time:
Jacques Louis David's The Death of Socrates
In spite of vast differences between the many thinkers described as philosophers across time (people in actuality so diverse that had they been gathered together at a giant cocktail party, they would not only have had nothing to say to one another, but would most probably have come to blows after a few drinks), it seemed possible to discern a small group of men, separated by centuries, sharing a loose allegiance to a vision of philosophy suggested by the Greek etymology of the word - philo, love; sophia, wisdom - a group bound by common interest in saying a few consoling and practical things about the causes of our greatest griefs.  It was to these men I would turn.

Also in the opening, he explains his rationale for desiring to cultivate philosophical habits of thought, supported by an illustration of two artifacts of pottery, side by side: one which could easily be found in a museum, the other which appears to have been sculpted by a distracted three-year-old with borderline ADHD who has possibly been sipping a bit too much of his grandfather’s scotch. In this vein, de Botton observes:
“Unfortunately, unlike in pottery, it is initially extremely hard to tell a good product of thought from a poor one.” 
This strikes me as particularly applicable to the times at hand, which seem often to consist of a number of well-oiled and handsomely coiffed and manicured mouthpieces eager to spout off knee-jerk opinions in equally well-manicured rhetoric devoid of apparent flaw even if it is all bunk. For this, de Botton offers this explanation:
A bad thought delivered authoritatively, though without evidence of how it was put together, can for a time carry all the weight of a sound one.  Bit we acquire a misplaced respect for others when we concentrate solely on their conclusions - which is why Socrates urged us to dwell on the logic they used to reach them.
Oh, Socrates.  What debts we owe you, for showing, at expense of your life, how humans will predictably prefer doctrine and custom over truth, and how ignorance, when propagated efficiently en masse, tends to win, over and over again.  You drank hemlock, and even the guards wept.  Your wife, Xanthippe, had to be carried out over the scene she was making, but who could blame her?  She was simply voicing what everyone felt.  “This cannot happen!  Look at this injustice!  See it and be moved!”  We see it, we are moved, but it exists anyway. We sigh, we drink, we look ahead in resignation.  It can happen, and does, over and over again, world without end.  Only the purest lambs among us can still weep in indignation.  Still, there is comfort in knowing that this is how things are.  

For daring to offer that happiness may be found in doing good (a position which placed him in stark opposition to Polos who argued that dictators were revered by masses), Socrates was tried by a biased jury and received the death sentence.  In the last public argument of his life, he offered this:
If you put me to death you may not easily find anyone to take my place…
From the life of Socrates, de Botton offers “a way out of two powerful delusions: that we should always or never listen to the dictates of public opinion.  To follow his example, we will best be rewarded if we strive instead to listen always to the dictates of reason." 

For the chapter, “Consolation for Not Having Enough Money,” de Botton begins with “Happiness, an acquisition list,” which includes the trappings of great villas, impressive acquisitions, and - for the book lovers among us - “A library with a large desk, a fireplace, and a view onto a garden.”  He then contrasts these with the ideas of happiness espoused by Epicurus - a thinker whom, until I read this volume, I mainly associated with justification for gluttony and orgies.

I have learned that I am not alone in this error. Epicurus, on the importance of sensual pleasure, is often misunderstood.  He is widely known for observing how “pleasure is the beginning and the goal of the happy life” and he publicly confessed “his love of excellent food,” for, as he aptly observed, “the beginning and root of every good pleasure is the pleasure of the stomach.  Even wisdom and culture must be referred to this.”  And, perhaps one of my favorite observations, exemplary of de Botton’s keen sensibilities, how, “philosophy properly performed was nothing less than a guide to pleasure.” Here it becomes easy to see where interpretation of Epicurean thought veered into justification for a narcissism and gluttony that Epicurus himself never would have lived or endorsed.   

So it is surprising (and refreshing in a food culture that is often over-hyped, overdone, and a bit too gourmet) to learn that for Epicurus, food was simple. As de Botton clarifies:
  He drank water rather than wine,and was happy with a dinner of bread, vegetables, and a palmful of olives. ‘Send me a pot of cheese, so that I may have a feast whenever I like,’ he asked a friend.  Such were the tastes of a man who had described pleasure as the purpose of life.
…He had not meant to deceive.  His devotion to pleasure was far greater than even the orgy accusers could have imagined. It was just that after rational analysis, he had come to some striking conclusions about what actually made life pleasurable - and fortunately for those lacking a large income, it seemed tat the essential ingredients of pleasure, however elusive, were not very expensive.
De Botton goes onto carefully detail these: Friendship ("Before you eat or drink anything, consider carefully who you eat or drink with rather than what you eat or drink: for feeding without a friend is like the life of the lion or the wolf.”), Freedom (he and his friends bought a house together, grew their own vegetables, and lived on what would today be called a commune, where they shared responsibilities and lived simply), and Thought (chiefly for developing the ability to distinguish what is natural and necessary from that which is unnatural and unnecessary.  It is precisely the lack of sufficient thought, de Botton observes, which is at the heart of so much of today’s unhappiness even in the face of relative material abundance.  As de Botton notes, “our weak understanding of our needs is aggravated by what Epicurus termed the ‘idle opinions’ of those around us, which do not reflect the natural hierarchy of our needs…” while advertisers work to exploit our longing for forgotten needs (friendship, freedom) to tempt us towards desire for unnecessary things (fancy aperitif sounds good when the real craving is friendship, longing for a Jeep may be the manifestation of a desire for freedom).

Peter-Paul Rubens' Seneca
To address "Frustrations," deBotton looks to Seneca, opening with examination of the circumstances surrounding the philosopher’s death in Rome in April A.D. 65. Basically, the twenty-eight year old Emperor Nero had uncovered a conspiracy to unseat him from the throne, and was on a rampage executing (mainly by feeding to lions and crocodiles) anybody that he suspected to be in on it, including his half brother Britannicus, his mother Agrippa and wife, Octavia, a large number of senators, and eventually also his tutor, Seneca. The philosopher’s friends and followers were beside themselves with agonized grief and impotent rage at this injustice.  Seneca reminded them here, to consider the logic of the situation (as provided via an account by Tacitus):
Where had their philosophy gone, he asked, and that resolution against impending misfortunes which they had encouraged in each other over so many years? ‘Surely nobody was unaware that Nero was cruel!’ he added. ‘After murdering his mother and brother, it only remained for him to kill his teacher and tutor.’
For de Botton, this account serves as an example of Seneca’s characteristic ability to meet “reality’s shocking demands” with well-honed stoic dignity, which he no doubt had opportunity to cultivate throughout a lifetime of bearing witness to such disasters as the earthquakes that shattered Pompeii, the burning of Rome and Lugdunum, the violent tyranny of Nero’s murderous reign, contraction of tuberculosis which sidelined his political aspirations, and subsequent onset of suicidal depression, and - as a result of a plot by the Empress Messalina which resulted in his disgrace - eight years of exile on the Island of Corsica. All of this, de Botton eloquently observes, afforded the philosopher “a comprehensive dictionary of frustration, his intellect a series of responses to [his experiences]”  which result in a deep understanding of a critical truth: that “the sources of our satisfaction lie beyond our control and that the world does not reliably conform to our desires.” For Seneca, achievement of wisdom lies not in circumventing this (you can’t), but in “learning not to aggravate the world’s obstinacy through our own responses, through spasms of rage, self-pity, anxiety, bitterness, self-righteousness, and paranoia.”  It reminds me of the best of realizations that I have sometimes read, from survivors of rape, cancer, abuse, and other traumas. At some point the would be victim changes the lens and the singular focus that would have relegated them forever to victim status- namely, the tendency to cry, “Why me?”  - and the response becomes instead, “Why not me?” upon consideration of the large numbers of people facing similar ills. The knowledge seems to have the effect of removing the single greatest stumbling block to further progress, which is precisely the tendency to react by wallowing in any of the unwanted responses describe above.  When you take away rage, self-pity, bitterness, and the like - what is left but to accept and move on?  Yes, of course, there is the issue of anger, and much of this righteous, but what to do with it?  Seneca observed, “There is no swifter way to insanity…” In his view, the primary cause of anger results from holding onto “dangerously optimistic notions about what the world and other people are like.” In short, “we will cease to be so angry once we cease to be so hopeful.” 

As I write the line above, I can imagine, that if this post had more readers, surely some would be aghast at the notion.  I’ve committed blasphemy by this acknowledgment that, after all, maybe it is true that even though anything is possible, everything is not.  In an age of “Believe it, achieve it!” the notion of moderating one’s expectations may be a tough pill to swallow.  Which is, one might observe in a vein of practicality, why it is called a pill and not something other, like a hot buttered crust of bread.  We have to live here, and if we’re fortunate in the Epicurean sense, from time to time we’ll get to love the process.  But, let’s face it, Seneca reminds, we don’t get to make up the rules of the game. “An animal,” Seneca observed, “struggling against the noose, tightens it… the only alleviation for overwhelming evils is to endure and bow to necessity.” 

For "Consolation for Inadequacy," turn to Michel de Montaigne of the wooded hills in south-western France, circa the mid 1500s.

Montaigne observed “how far we were from the rational, serene creatures whom most of the ancient thinkers had taken us to be,” proposing that we were “for the most part hysterical and demented, gross and agitated souls beside whom animals were in many respect paragons of health and virtue - an unfortunate reality which philosophy was obliged to reflect, but rarely did: ‘Our life consists partly in madness, partly in wisdom…’” 

From this he turns to a tender and personal reflection on the particular emotional and spiritual pitfalls of sexual inadequacy, and onto cultural inadequacy borne of the “speed and arrogance with which people seem to divide the world into two camps, the camp of the normal and that of the abnormal.  Further still, to chart the waters of intellectual inadequacy, borne of certain “leading assumptions about what it takes to be a clever person” contrasting with the philosopher’s own personal distaste fore certain revered books which induced immediate bouts of deep sleep.  He urged writing with simplicity, observing how there is “no legitimate reason why books in the humanities should be difficult or boring,” and reminded how such simplicity, naked of adornment, demanded courage, such as that exhibited by Socrates in his dirty cloak, speaking in his plain language, whose humble style is so easy to forget when presented in the sleek prose of his faithful student, Plato, for it seems, observes Montaigne, “we can appreciate no graces which are not pointed, inflated, and magnified by artifice… such graces as flow on under the name of naivety and simplicity readily go unseen by so course an insight as ours…”  Simplemindedness may not be so bad, after all.  

Onto the theme of "A Broken Heart," and the entrance of Arthur Schopenhauer, who seems, from an early age, born to despair.  He had enough wealth that he did not have to work (though it must be noted that this was inherited only after his father’s suicide, which happened when the young Arthur was 17), he attended an English boarding school, and confessed to be preoccupied with mulling over human misery.  When he finally relaxes, on a European tour following the completion of a masterpiece of a book, The World as Will and Representation, which some critics take as explanation for the young man’s lack of friends- and attempts to entertain the company of a number of young ladies, he is categorically rejected by all.  With few moments of reprieve, rejections by the objects of his affections becomes a running theme, and by his mid-forties he mainly keeps company with “a succession of poodles, who he feels have a gentleness and humility humans lack”. He appears to survive by maintenance of a strict routine: three hours of writing every morning, followed by flute-playing for an hour, after which he “dresses in white tie for lunch in the Englischer Hof on the Rossmarket” where he is described as “comically disgruntled, but harmless and good-naturedly gruff.”  Despite the warnings of his mother that “it is not good” he regularly goes for months without leaving his room.

Arthur Schopenhauer
As he nears his sixties, Schopenhauer gains more attention from women and men alike, and his views towards women soften somewhat.  Still, at the time of his death in 1860, at the age of seventy-two, he is firmly convinced that “human existence is a kind of error.”

De Botton observes how Schopenhauer’s particular brand of pessimism is may offer some useful consolation when it comes to matters of the heart, and the section he devotes to exploring how is particularly memorable.  

As he puzzled over the peculiar pangs of love, Schopenhauer concluded that the lover is beset by a temporary insanity fueled by an instinctual pull to create the next generation.  For this reason, one is pulled strongly towards a potential mate for reasons that often make no logical sense, and likewise, lukewarm or cool around people who are perfectly acceptable companions when the details of their persons are considered but for whom there is no particular spark.  

As de Botton observes, this analysis “surely violates rational self-image, but at least it counters suggestions that romantic love is an avoidable departure from more serious tasks… by conceiving of love as biologically inevitable, Schopenhauer’s theory of the will invites us to adopt a more forgiving stance towards the eccentric behavior to which love so often makes us subject.”

The strange mystery of “Why him?” or “Why her?” is for Schopenhauer a matter of instinct.  Namely, “we are not free to fall in love with everyone because we cannot produce healthy children with everyone… our will to life drives us towards people who will raise out chances of producing beautiful and intelligent offspring, and repulses us away from those who lower these same chances.”

The philosopher also concludes, bleakly, [in de Botton’s interpretation] that “the person who is highly suitable for our child is almost never (though we cannot realize it at the time because we have been blindfolded by the will-to-life) very suitable for us.”

To those who would offer exceptions to this rule, Schopenhauer would respond, “that convenience and passionate love should go hand in hand is the rarest stroke of good fortune.”

In short, as Schopenhauer regarded intense coupling, “The coming generation is provided for at the expense of the present.”

While many may no doubt find such views a bit severe, and perhaps colored by the author’s own ill-fate in love, it’s hard not to notice how they offer a sort of consolation in the vein of Seneca’s stoic acceptance, a reminder of how often human expectations for what will and should be are at odds with how they are. 

"Consolation for Difficulties," featuring Nietzsche, brilliantly opens with this passage:
Few philosophers have thought highly of feeling wretched. A wise life has traditionally been associated with an attempt to reduce suffering: anxiety, despair, anger, self-contempt and heartache.
Then again, pointed out Friedrich Nietzsche, the majority of philosophers have always been ‘cabbage-heads.’

Nietzsche seems born for his particular brand of thinking, concluding relatively early in his scholarly life, influenced heavily by the work of Schopenhauer, that the greatest suffering is caused by pleasure-seeking; better to simply, through abstinence, aim to mitigate pain by embracing some measure of the inevitable discomfort of living. The goal here is obviously not enjoyment, but to preserve some measure of sanity which for Nietzsche is at odds with attempts to gain pleasure.  
“the harder we try to enjoy [life], the more enslaved we are by it, and so we [should] discard the goods of life and practice abstinence.”

This is not to imply that the philosopher successfully followed his own advice consistently (his death results from an unfortunate case of syphilis most certainly contracted in a Cologne brothel).  Periods of apparent simplicity and abstinence were frequently interrupted by violent pinnings for women who consistently rejected him - perhaps on account of the large mustache he wore, which appeared like the pelt of a small mammal, or perhaps because he was often painfully shy. 

As his thinking developed, so did a deep understanding of the inextricable link between joy and pain, pleasure and displeasure.
What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other… you have the choice: either as little displeasure as possible, painlessness in brief… or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of an abundance of subtle pleasures and joys that have rarely been relished yet? If you decide for the former and desire to diminish and lower the level of human pain, you also have to diminish and lower the level of their capacity for joy.

Very much a philosopher “of the mountains,” (for seven summers, he rented a cheap room in the mountains of southeastern Switzerland, which he felt to be “his real home.”) Nietzsche drew an analogy from his favorite surroundings to support his view on the duality of human experience:

When we behold those deeply-furrowed hollows in which glaciers have lain, we think it hardly possible that a time will come when a wooded, grassy valley, watered by streams, will spread itself out upon the same spot.  So, it is, too, in the history of mankind: the most savage forces beat a path, and are mainly destructive; but their work was none-the-less necessary, in order that later a gentler civilization might raise its house.  The frightful energies - those which are called evil - are the cyclopean architects and road makers of humanity.

His unfortunate death followed a state of rapidly debilitating madness that left him under care of his mother and sister. In reflecting on his work and those of his fellows across time and space, de Botton concludes with this potent truth, simple enough, but so difficult for human beings to fully understand:
“Not everything which makes us feel better is good for us.  Not everything which hurts may be bad.”  
Here’s a lesson for toddlers and five-year-olds (put the candy down, finish your broccoli, close your eyes even though you would dance and giggle all night), and yet even the most thoughtful among us may spend lifetimes learning what it really means.