How to be un-dread — Anaïs Nin and D.H. Lawrence on the key to living fully; C.S. Lewis on our task in troubled times; the woman who saved native song

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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 — relationship repair and what true forgiveness takes, Sylvia Plath's ode to the tenacity of the creative spirit, women holding things — you can catch up right here. Also worth reading, my 16 life-learnings from 16 years of The Marginalian. 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.

How to Be Un-Dead: Anaïs Nin and D.H. Lawrence on the Key to Living Fully

“When you surrender, the problem ceases to exist,” Henry Miller wrote in his stunning letter to Anaïs Nin (February 21, 1903–January 14, 1977). “Try to solve it, or conquer it, and you only set up more resistance.”

But we, the controlling species, the conquering species, have a hard time with this notion of surrender; we, the conflicted species, spend our lives resisting it yet craving its liberations.

Anaïs Nin

Nin herself — a woman uncommonly liberated from the common traps of convention, control, and self-consciousness — took up the spiritual mechanics of this paradox in her first published book, D. H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study (public library), composed when she was still in her twenties.

With an eye to D.H. Lawrence (September 11, 1885–March 2, 1930) and his “philosophy that was against division,” his “plea for whole vision,” she writes:

When the realization came to the moderns of the importance of vitality and warmth, they willed the warmth with their minds. But Lawrence, with the terrible flair of the genius, sensed that a mere mental conjuring of the elemental was a perversion… Lawrence believed that the feelings of the body, from its most extreme impulses to its smallest gesture, are the warm root for true vision, and from that warm root can we truly grow. The livingness of the body was natural; the interference of the mind had created divisions, the consciousness of wrong-doing or well-doing.

In a sentiment central to my own animating ethos, she adds:

Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.

It was Lawrence’s own writing that awakened in her this awareness of ongoingness and the urgency of total aliveness — the way “livingness is the axis of his world, the light, the gravitation, and electromagnetism of his world.”

In his 1924 novel The Boy in the Bush, Lawrence makes a stunning case for the indivisibility of it all — the beauty and the sorrow, the ache and the astonishment:

All real living hurts as well as fulfils. Happiness comes when we have lived and have a respite for sheer forgetting. Happiness, in the vulgar sense, is just a holiday experience. The life-long happiness lies in being used by life; hurt by life, driven and goaded by life, replenished and overjoyed with life, fighting for life’s sake. That is real happiness. In the undergoing, a large part of it is pain.

D.H. Lawrence

This was the foundational philosophy of Lawrence’s worldview — the pulse-beat that makes his writing so resonant and eternally alive, the way all great spiritual texts are. He distilled this view in an especially beautiful passage from his 1923 novel Kangaroo, reckoning with the most universal reality of life — the reality we spend our lives fighting, yet the one that peeks through in all of our greatest works of art and highest triumphs of the creative spirit. Echoing Whitman’s defense of our inner multitudes, often at odds with each other, he writes in an era when every woman was a “man” purely as a matter of linguistic convention:

If a man loves life, and feels the sacredness and mystery of life, then he knows that life is full of strange and subtle and even conflicting imperatives. And a wise man learns to recognize the imperatives as they arise — or nearly so — and to obey. But most men bruise themselves to death trying to fight and overcome their own, new, life-born needs, life’s ever strange imperatives. The secret of all life is obedience: obedience to the urge that arises in the soul, the urge that is life itself, urging us to new gestures, new embraces, new emotions, new combinations, new creations.

In the same epoch when Hermann Hesse so beautifully defended the wisdom of the inner voice, Lawrence’s protagonist makes a passionate case for listening to the song of life as it reverberates through the singular cathedral of each self, yours and mine, as it did for Nin and Lawrence and every other great mind long sung out of existence:

I offer no creed. I offer myself, my heart of wisdom, strange warm cavern where the voice of the oracle steams in from the unknown; I offer my consciousness, which hears the voice; and I offer my mind and my will, for the battle against every obstacle to respond to the voice of life.

Complement with Mary Oliver on how to live with maximum aliveness and Henry Miller on the measure of a life well lived, then revisit Nin on the meaning of maturity and how reading awakens us from the trance of near-living.

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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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The Woman Who Saved Native Song

Tucked into a corner of the Library of Congress is the Densmore Collection of cylinder phonographs — a bygone medium containing the living songs of an ancient culture.

In the early twentieth century, the U.S. government continued its assault on Native Americans by demanding they relinquish their tribal languages and belief systems, teach their children English, and enter the American mainstream. As a result of this concerted erasure campaign, the average American came to see indigenous peoples as living fossils on the brink of cultural extinction.

Frances Densmore (May 21, 1867–June 5, 1957) — a young music teacher from Red Wing, Minnesota — was appalled. In consonance with the eternal truth that the best way to complain is to create, she set out to singlehandedly preserve a vital aspect of indigenous culture, the one art that is the heartbeat of every culture: music.

Frances Densmore

Thomas Edison had invented the phonograph — a mechanical means of recording and reproducing sound, using a wax-coated cardboard cylinder and a cutting stylus — when Frances was ten. Around that time, listening to the songs of the Dakota Indians near her home, she fell in love with music. In an era when higher education was closed to women with only limited exceptions, she spent three years studying music at Oberlin College — the first university to admit women, and the first to admit students of ethnic minorities — then devoted herself to teaching Western music to Native Americans (the academic term for whom was then “American Indians”) and learning their own traditional songs as they taught her in turn.

With her simple box camera and cylinder phonograph, wearing trousers and a bow-tie, Frances Densmore spent years traveling to remote settlements where no scholar dared venture. She worked with dozens of tribes — the Sioux, the Chippewa, the Mandan, the Hidatsa, the northern Pawnee of Oklahoma, the Winnebago and Menominee of Wisconsin, the Seminoles of Florida, the Ute of Utah, the Papago of Arizona, the Pueblo Indians of the southwest, the Kuna Indians of Panama, and various tribes across the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia.

Everywhere she went, her pure-hearted devotion to preserving traditional music magnetized the warmth of the community. The eminent Sioux elder Red Fox adopted her as a daughter.

Frances Densmore during a phonograph recording session with Mountain Chief of the Blackfoot Confederacy, 1916.

Whenever Frances returned to her monastic one-room apartment, she perched at her heavy black typewriter to record her evolving understanding of a complex musical world in a way that no scholar before her had, and none since, detailing everything from children’s songs to the design of wind instruments to the spell-like songs sung as “love charms.”

Word of her work had spread beyond academic journals. In 1907, the Smithsonian approached her to make recordings for their Bureau of American Ethnography. Within a year, she had compiled her recordings in the popular LP Healing Songs of the Native Americans.

To use an ahistorical term she far predates, Frances Densmore became the premiere ethnomusicologist of her time and place. She opened her 1926 book The American Indians and Their Music (public library | public domain) with an insight that reaches beyond culture, into the very heart of our species:

Music is closely intertwined with the life of every race. We understand the people better if we know their music, and we appreciate the music better if we understand the people themselves.

In the book, she detailed the singular role of music in Native American culture, teleologically distinct from the spiritual function it served in early Western culture:

The radical difference between the musical custom of the Indian and our own race is that, originally, the Indians used song as a means of accomplishing definite results. Singing was not a trivial matter, like the flute-playing of the young men. It was used in treating the sick, in securing success in war and the hunt, and in every undertaking which the Indian felt was beyond his power as an individual. An Indian said, “If a man is to do something more than human he must have more than human power.” Song was essential to the putting forth of this “more than human power,” and was used in connection with some prescribed action.

This function of music shaped its form:

One of the musical requirements of the white race is that a song and its accompaniment shall be “exactly together,” but an Indian song may be either a little faster or a little slower than the accompanying drum without disturbing the Indian musician. The Indian takes his music seriously and has nothing that corresponds to our popular songs. There are standards of excellence in his music and he practices in order to attain them, although Indians do not have musical performances corresponding to our concerts. The Indians have no melody-producing instruments except the flute, which has its special uses, so the voices of the singers around the drum are like the melody-producing instruments in our orchestras or bands, while the drum is like the bass or percussion instruments which supply the rhythm. The singers and the drum provide the music at all dances and social gatherings as well as at the tribal ceremonies. They have rehearsals, as we do, and practice and learn new songs. If a man goes to visit another tribe he tries to remember and bring home songs, which are always credited to the source whence they came. Songs are taught to one person by another, and in the old days it was not unusual for a man to pay the value of one or two ponies for a song. He did not buy such a song for his own pleasure but because it had a ceremonial connection or was believed to have magic power. To this class belong the songs for treating the sick and those believed to bring rain.

In some elemental sense, however, this is the selfsame function music serves in every culture since the dawn of our species: We use music to heal ourselves, to save ourselves. We have, since before we discovered the mathematics of harmony. We will, long after everything we know of civilization has crumbled into discord. Nothing refracts the light of being like music. Nothing reflects the health of a culture and nothing predicts its durability better than how well it treats its song-makers.

C.S. Lewis on Our Task in Troubled Times

It bears repeating: Right now, someplace in the world, somebody is making love and another a poem. Elsewhere in the universe, a star manyfold the mass of our third-rate sun is living out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a black hole, its exhale bending spacetime itself into a well of nothingness that can swallow every atom that ever touched us and every datum we ever produced, every poem and statue and symphony we’ve ever known.

Even in the sliver of spacetime that is our present, perishable like every present of the past, an infinity of things are going on all at once, menacing and magnificent — a vast simultaneity of which we notice only a fleck, our attention narrowed by evolution and exploited by the news media. But the fact remains — and this has always been so — that even in the most tumultuous of circumstances, human beings have managed to divert their attention and its tendrils of intention away from destruction and toward creation. Some of the greatest achievements of civilization, from mathematics to Nina Simone, have sprung up in the darkest of times.

That is what C.S. Lewis (November 29, 1898–November 22, 1963) explores in a sermon he delivered in England at the peak of World War II, later included in his 1949 collection of addresses The Weight of Glory (public library).

Art by Kay Nielsen from East of the Sun and West of the Moon. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Addressing an audience of frightened young scholars, unsure of what use their intellectual passion and creative labor have in a war-torn world, Lewis offers an elixir of perspective:

The war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes.

With an eye to our particular evolutionary inheritance, he adds:

The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men* are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.

The Dove No. 1 by Hilma af Klint, painted during World War I. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

In a splendid rebuttal of the view that culture is an extravagance — “an inexcusable frivolity on the part of creatures loaded with such awful responsibilities as we” — he offers a salve for our ahistorical rashes of panic:

We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

[…]

The war has not really raised up a new enemy but only aggravated an old one. There are always plenty of rivals to our work. We are always falling in love or quarrelling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.

In a sentiment Albert Camus would come to echo a decade later in his insistence that “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present,” he adds:

Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment… The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.

Complement with Toni Morrison on our creative duty in dark times and Nick Cave on the necessity of hope in a fragile world, then revisit Lewis on what we long for in our existential longing.

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

You can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch.
 

one-time donation

Or you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.
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