Iris Murdoch on the myth of closure, Keith Haring on change and creativity, Emily Dickinson on why we read

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The Marginalian

Welcome Hello Reader! This is the weekly email digest of The Marginalian by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition — poet Donald Hall on the secret to lasting love, Bruce Springsteen's strategy for living through depression, and the strange evolutionary and creative history of the avocado — you can catch up right here. And if my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation — for sixteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive (as have I) thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: I appreciate you more than you know.

Iris Murdoch on the Myth of Closure and the Beautiful, Maddening Blind Spots of Our Self-Knowledge

In literature, when a storyline involves victim and a persecutor, we call it a drama. In life, most acts of aggression or complaint (which are two sides of the same coin: the emotional currency of existential malcontentment), most tantrums thrown by otherwise reasonable adults, most blamethirsty fingers pointed at some impartial reality, involve the self-victimization of drama. People prone to drama have not only cast themselves as victims of a perpetrator in a plot, but have tacitly conceded that there is a plot, which presupposes a playwright — some external entity scripting the story in which they feel done unto. The person self-cast into a drama is resigned to being a character, insentient to Joan Didion’s fundamental law of having character: “Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.” Wherever there is drama, there is a deficiency of self-respect and too shallow a well of self-knowledge.

The ways in which we are all susceptible to drowning ourselves into drama, and what it takes to float free, is what Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) explores in her subtle, splendid 1978 novel The Sea, the Sea (public library) — the story of a talented but complacent playwright approaching the overlook of life, who is ultimately overcome by his tragic flaw: Despite his obsessive self-reflection (or perhaps precisely because of it), his egotism ultimately eclipses his creative spirit — that brightest and most generous part of us, the part rightly called our gift, the part that extends the outstretched hand of sympathy and wonder we call art and invites, in Iris Murdoch’s lovely phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”

Dame Iris Murdoch by Ida Kar (National Portrait Gallery)

Looking back on his life, the elderly playwright reflects on his own art and its relation to life itself:

Emotions really exist at the bottom of the personality or at the top. In the middle they are acted. This is why all the world is a stage.

Murdoch’s entire body of work, from philosophy to fiction, can be thought of as one cohesive inquiry into the meaning of goodness and the meaning of love, lensed through the meaning-machinery of art. She understood uniquely that we act out the messy middle of emotion because it is often too complex, contradictory, and category-defying for us to know what we are really feeling. Perennially half-opaque to ourselves, we feign surety and confidence in our reasons. Unwilling to fully live into what we are — anxious and uncertain creatures, tender and terrified throughout so much of life — we act ourselves into being, taking the stage costumed in false certitudes.

One of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s 1920 illustrations for old French fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

As Murdoch’s protagonist sets out to write his memoirs — those sad shallows of literature, where art drifts to die as vain self-obsession — his cousin and boyhood playmate, now an old men himself, urges him to allot ample room for the eternal subject of human vanity, which renders us blinder to reality and more opaque to ourselves than any of our other confusions:

We are such inward secret creatures, that inwardness the most amazing thing about us, even more amazing than our reason. But we cannot just walk into the cavern and look around. Most of what we think we know about our minds is pseudo-knowledge. We are all such shocking poseurs, so good at inflating the importance of what we think we value. The heroes at Troy fought for a phantom Helen… Vain wars for phantom goods… People lie so… though in a way, if there is art enough it doesn’t matter, since there is another kind of truth in the art.

More than anything, we lie to ourselves. Peeled back far enough, even the most layered self-delusion springs from the same source — our illusion of free will amid a world in which, at the most basic level of reality, we control none of the fundamental forces and therefore have extremely limited agency in events. As the precocious teenage Sylvia Plath understood, our latitude of free movement in life is paralyzingly limited “from birth by environment, heredity, time and event and local convention”. In such a reality, choice is only a narrative, and a retroactive one at that — it is the story we tell ourselves, in the vanity-light of hindsight, about why our lives went one way and not another.

Echoing James Baldwin’s exquisite lament about the illusion of choice, Murdoch writes:

What a queer gamble our existence is. We decide to do A instead of B and then the two roads diverge utterly and may lead in the end to heaven and to hell. Only later one sees how much and how awfully the fates differ. Yet what were the reasons for the choice? They may have been forgotten. Did one know what one was choosing? Certainly not.

A subset of the illusion of choice is the illusion of closure — the alluring but ultimately vain idea that, as life lives itself through us in ways far beyond our control, in a complex and by definition ever-fraying tapestry of story-lines, we can tease out any one narrative thread neatly enough to tie it into a complete and permanently valid conclusion. Murdoch dispels the vanity:

Loose ends can never be properly tied, one is always producing new ones. Time, like the sea, unties all knots. Judgements on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning, whatever art may otherwise pretend in order to console us.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage Japanese woodblocks. (Available as a print.)

But here is where we do have choice: In accepting a hazy and uncertain reality beyond our control, we can also refuse to resign ourselves to being victims of it — the sort of adaptation Octavia Butler held up as the highest measure of intelligence and integrity. We can recognize that life is much more interesting as a process of continual presence than as an acted drama; that the world is much more interesting as a shoreline than as a stage — for it is at the living shore that we witness, as Richard Feynman did, “ages upon ages” unfolding into the wonder of life; at the shore that we are humbled, as Rachel Carson was, by “our place in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea… in which there is no finality, no ultimate and fixed reality”; at the shore that we finally accept the most elemental fact of our lives: There is no final act — only shoreless seeds and stardust.

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Every month, I spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian going. For sixteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation. Your support makes all the difference.

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Keith Haring on Our Resistance to Change, the Dangers of Certainty, and the Root of Creativity

“It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis,” Henry Miller wrote as he contemplated humanity’s future. And yet it does need to be stressed continually, because coursing through us is the fundamental paradox of our humanity: our longing for permanence amid a universe governed by entropy — the great source of our existential restlessness and our creative fury, to which all of our sorrow and all of our art can be traced.

The oracular Octavia Butler captured this in her reckoning with the meaning of God: “the only lasting truth is Change.” The rest of nature is constantly attesting to this inconstancy. And yet with every fiber of our being, we resist its fundamental reality — even though our very fibers, each and every cell composing us, have been replaced since we first came into being. As life lives itself through us, our bodies change; the physical places and social spheres we inhabit change; if we are alive enough and courageous enough, our opinions and ideas about life change. And yet we cling to the comforting illusion that we remain, in some unmappable region of being, fundamentally ourselves — our immutable selves.

Art by Keith Haring

Keith Haring (May 4, 1958–February 16, 1990) was only twenty and already colliding with his own impermanence when he turned his soulful intellect to these perennial paradoxes in Keith Haring Journals (public library) — the posthumous gem of a book that gave us his largehearted wisdom on creativity, empathy, and what makes us who we are.

Two millennia after the ship of Theseus and a generation before neuroscience began illuminating the dazzling realities of different minds, Haring marvels at our tactics for bridling the basic effervescence of being:

The physical reality of the world as we know it is motion. Motion itself = movement. Change. If there is any repetition it is not identical repetition because (at least) time has passed and therefore there is an element of change.

No two human beings ever experience two sensations, experiences, feelings, or thoughts identically. Everything changes, everything is always different. All of these variables merging, interacting, destroying each other, building new forms, ideas, “realities,” mean that the human experience is one of constant change and, as we label it, “growth” [and yet] most living human beings build their lives around the belief that these differences, changes, don’t exist. They choose to ignore these things and attempt to program or control their own existence. They make schedules, long-term commitments, set up a system of time and become controlled by their system of controls.

Keith Haring at work. Illustration by Josh Cochran from Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring by Matthew Burgess

A century and a half after Emerson lamented that “people wish to be settled [but] only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them,” Haring considers the underlying unease that leads us to these coping mechanisms, these artificial hedges against this most natural manifestation of nature:

People don’t want to know that they change.

Unless they feel it is an improvement, and then they are all for “change,” and will go to great lengths to “make changes” or contrive situations or force a change that is unnatural… Some attitudes I see all around me are:

Change is acceptable as long as it is controllable.

Change can be predicted.

Changes can be contrived and/or altered and/or planned.

Part of our willful blindness to change in the grand scheme, Haring intimates, is our unease about change in the small scheme of the self — the multitudes we each contain, discontinuous and contradictory, a flickering of emotional and mental states that never still to a permanent constellation across the sweep of time. He observes:

Usually the underlying fact that change is reality, that we are constantly changing and constantly in difficult situations, different states of mind and actually different realities is

ignored

or misunderstood

or misinterpreted

or confronted.

Most simply, people know to some extent that they feel different at different times or look different to themselves different days, but few people really try to experience this or question it or really investigate its reasons or its implications.

In a sentiment evocative of Iris Murdoch’s meditation on the beautiful, maddening blind spots of our self-knowledge, he adds:

To be a victim of your own knowledge is not understanding what your knowledge is and what its result is.

To be a victim of change is to ignore its existence.

To be a victim of “living by what you think” is to ignore the possibilities of “another way to live” or the possibility of “being wrong about the way it is” or ignoring the possibility of “not knowing what you think.”

Thinking you know the answer is as dangerous as not thinking about the possibility of no answers.

Creativity, Haring suggests, is a form of candor, a kind of fidelity to reality — a way of responding to change genuinely rather than artificially:

Pure art exists only on the level of instant response to pure life.

[…]

I am interested in making art to be experienced and explored by as many individuals as possible with as many different individual ideas about the given piece with no final meaning attached. The viewer creates the reality, the meaning, the conception of the piece. I am merely a middleman trying to bring ideas together.

Complement this fragment of the wholly wondrous Keith Haring Journals with the forgotten prodigy William James Sidis on the controversial science of change and reversibility, then revisit Haring on the love of life even in the face of death.

In a Library: Emily Dickinson on Why We Read and the Magic of Old Books

Every book you read, you read not with your eyes but with your world — with the totality of who and what you are, your eyes lensed with a lifetime of impressions and relationships and experiences you alone have had. No two readers ever read the same book. Each book holds in its margins infinite space for every possible reader to fill with the entirety of their being — that endless, ecstatic dialogue between reader and writer that we call literature. We engage in the dialogue for many different reasons — we read to touch into the exquisite interconnectedness of things, as Virginia Woolf did; to acquire superhuman powers, as Galileo did; to map the route to our dreams, as Jane Goodall did; to solace, empower, and transform ourselves, as Rebecca Solnit knows we do; to understand ourselves and each other better, as Alain de Botton knows we must — but we always emerge with our worlds clarified and magnified by the worlds we have visited.

Every book, in turn, has sprung from the whole of its author’s being, imprinted with the dazzling particulars of their time, place, and personhood composing their world. As a book passes from hand to hand, from self to self, from epoch to epoch, its truth — the truth of its author’s world and of every world that has touched it since — presses into our hands an origami of meaning folded from the fabric of spacetime itself.

Emily Dickinson

That is what the thirty-three-year-old Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) explores in a poem written, like all of her verses, without a title but titled “In a Library” by Mabel Loomis Todd in the first edition of Dickinson’s poetry, published four years after her death.

Visiting the poet’s home during my research for Figuring, I was especially taken with the large library room downstairs, to the shelves of which much of the family’s original collection has been restored — thick leather-bound volumes as various as Paradise Lost, Emerson’s essays, and Clarissa Munger Badger’s botanical art. Spine by gilded spine, they stand as the building blocks of the young poet’s old soul, both plunging her into the depths of collective memory and elevating her above the plane of her time, to that otherworldly place from which she gave us her far-seeing eternal verses.

A precious — mouldering pleasure — ’tis —
To meet an Antique Book —
In just the Dress his Century wore —
A privilege — I think —

His venerable Hand to take —
And warming in our own —
A passage back — or two — to make —
To Times when he — was young —

His quaint opinions — to inspect —
His thought to ascertain
On Themes concern our mutual mind —
The Literature of Man —

What interested Scholars — most —
What Competitions ran —
When Plato — was a Certainty —
And Sophocles — a Man —

When Sappho — was a living Girl —
And Beatrice wore
The Gown that Dante — deified —
Facts Centuries before

He traverses — familiar —
As One should come to Town —
And tell you all your Dreams — were true —
He lived — where Dreams were born —

His presence is Enchantment —
You beg him not to go —
Old Volume shake their Vellum Heads
And tantalize — just so —

Complement with Gwendolyn Brooks’s lyric love letter to books, composed a century later, and Jeanette Winterson on why we read, then revisit Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters and one of her most ravishing poems brought to life as an animated song.

donating=loving

Every month, I spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian going. For sixteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation. Your support makes all the difference.

monthly donation

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