For those of us struggling to get up this Monday, Marcus Aurelius has some good advice:
In he morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?- But this is more pleasant.- Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?- But it is necessary to take rest also.- It is necessary: however nature has fixed bounds to this too: she has fixed bounds both to eating and drinking, and yet thou goest beyond these bounds, beyond what is sufficient; yet in thy acts it is not so, but thou stoppest short of what thou canst do. So thou lovest not thyself, for if thou didst, thou wouldst love thy nature and her will. But those who love their several arts exhaust themselves in working at them unwashed and without food; but thou valuest thy own own nature less than the turner values the turning art, or the dancer the dancing art, or the lover of money values his money, or the vainglorious man his little glory. And such men, when they have a violent affection to a thing, choose neither to eat nor to sleep rather than to perfect the things which they care for. But are the acts which concern society more vile in thy eyes and less worthy of thy labour?
Today is the famous “Gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s birthday. An early influence on my writing–though fortunately not on my lifestyle–Thompson’s own style is incredibly idiosyncratic. With its own sort of caustic, violent, debauched poetry, it sings in places with rhapsodic eloquence. It can also be quite insightful.
So in honor of his birthday, here’s a link to a letter he wrote giving some advice about finding a meaningful life. It echoes his Nietzsche-like adage, “Buy the ticket, take the ride” and shows the candor and humility that characterizes some of his better writing. I hope you enjoy.
Also, happy Nelson Mandela Day. Get a peek at the Google Doodle for some moving quotes. If anything, I think both men, in their own vastly different ways, strove to criticize the hypocrisies and silences that uphold corruption, injustice, and oppression.
I found this link today to some inspiring words from Bill Watterson, the reclusive creator of the beloved Calvin and Hobbes series. The words critique the high-climbing, fast-paced American view of success and happiness: work hard, keep climbing, and one day you’ll be happy, or at the very least you’ll have fame, success, and a lot of money. Pointing out the statistics and the logical fallacies to view entails is not new. Neither is Watterson’s encouragement to break away from social pressure and follow personal passions, ignoring the flak and shame that comes from following “the road less traveled.”
Some people may think such encouragement is trite or naive. It’s the sort of drivel that idealistic college kids tell themselves when struggling in classes and accruing debt or peppy elementary teachers post on walls, but ultimately, it’s a lie,as pervasive and false as the American dream. But when one considers the way Watterson lived out his own advice, the words gain a new depth. He did resist corporate pressure and created one of the most beloved, evocative comic strips around. Not everyone would want to fallow his path, and many may think his reclusive life unstable and unhealthy.
But still, hearing such words in such a monoculture of competition and corporate ambition is refreshing. Hearing such words from Watterson, transformed into a homage by cartoonist Gavin Aung Than–that is truly moving:
Once again, other projects have consumed my weekend. Perhaps, I’ll try to find time in the midst of the week to write, so this doesn’t happen again. In the meantime, here is a link to a beautiful poem by Wordsworth and a picture I took in my own travels around his home in the Lake District, one of my favorite places in the world. Enjoy.
I found this recording of the famous post-modern novelist, cultural critic, essayist, and educator David Foster Wallace delivering a commencement speech at Kenyon College. The words are all the more haunting knowing that Wallace hanged himself Sept. 12, 2008 after a lifelong struggle with depression. The main focus of the speech is the “human value” of a liberal arts education. For Wallace, an ideal education provides “awareness” of our world and our way of processing the world.
With this in mind, two passages in particular struck me. The first deals with the potential dangers of the mind. As Wallace says:
Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’
As someone who suffered from depression, Wallace clearly understood the tyranny of a mind mastering reality, the way it warps and weaves impressions into a gloomy, self-destructive haze, leaving one alone in a world of friends.
But equally destructive is the closed-minded comfort that creates destructive prejudices or what Wallace calls our “default setting”: the self-focused way we narrate, judge, and arrange our life. In itself, this is innocuous, but when we start to think our reality is the norm or the “right” way of doing things, a process called “normative hubris,” we can become destructive.
As the blog and book You Are Not So Smart argues, our “rational” or “informed” opinions are often biased rationalizations. Some of these biases may be cultural or biological, but many are self-created, or at the very least, they can be self-controlled.
This, argues Wallace, is the goal of the liberal arts education: the ability to recognize this hubris and ignorance and do our best, if possible, to keep it in check. It grants us the ability to recognize the most basic thing, the way we explain reality.
Wallace is not the only person to say this. It rings with the self-conscious ignorance of Socrates and echoes Albert Camus’ dictum from his notebooks: “An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.” Its view of education also mirrors what astronomer Carl Sagan said in his final interview about science: “Science is more than a body of knowledge: It’s a way of thinking.”
Wallace’s unique addition is the painful awareness he has over his own limitations and the poignant, almost Zen-like awareness that the simplest, most pervasive things are the most hidden. Wallace opens the speech with a didactic story about two young fish swimming. Coming the opposite direction, an older fish swims by them saying, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two younger fish keep going, and eventually one of the fish turns to the other and asks, “What the hell is water?” The very fabric of their existence is far from obvious.
This parable returns toward the speech’s conclusion in a pointed restatement of the theme:
[T]he real value of a real education [has] almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
‘This is water.’
‘This is water.’
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime.
As someone who works as a T.A. for a freshman composition class and in a writing center that aids students with the composition process, I’ve come to reach a similar point of view–I hesitate to call it a conclusion. Now on the other side of the desk, where I’m supposed to provide “knowledge” or “guidance” to new students, I painfully recognize the subjectivity of it all, the hubris of trying to “teach” someone how I see the world.
Instead, I just want to make them aware–aware of the world around them, with its conversations and conventions, and how they fit into it. What their own voice has to say. Or what their own voice has misidentified, misunderstood, or overgeneralized. But I often feel torn between the immediate goals of polishing up their arguments, correcting their grammar, or getting them a good grade and this much more idealistic, long-term longing. Moreover, I often struggle with normative hubris or unaware auto pilot in myself.
Most of the time, I’m not the older fish who sees the water. Most of the time, I’m simply the younger one, asking, “What the hell?”
I need to get some serious work done on a few things today, so I don’t have time to type up my usual post–I swear I’m getting better at this, haha–but rather than leave you with nothing, I wanted to post a video with a spattering of Alan Watts lectures.
Alan Watts was a notable (though some would say notorious) Zen practitioner who dabbled in a variety of other fields, from philosophy to physics. Born in 1915 and dying in 1975, he spent much of his life lecturing and writing, becoming a central figure in the counter-culture movements of the 60s and 70s. His thoughts are often iconoclastic and his metaphors can be pointed, so few read Watts indifferent or unchanged.
A wealth of Alan Watts lectures exist on YouTube. Some users pair them with music and inspiring images or splice together clips of crowded city streets and airy mountaintops. This particular one is a short collection of meaningful excerpts animated by the creators of South Park. Some of the excerpts are quite insightful. Others are a little more out there, depending on your taste. But on the whole, they do give a brief view of Watts’ style and insights.
I hope you enjoy this, question it, and enter the week with some new ideas. Cheers.
When he wasn’t trying to shoot an elephant as a colonial police officer, dawning work clothes to blend in with London’s lower classes, or battling the strangling reach of totalitarianism–Orwell drank tea. And as you can see from the newspaper column, he loved tea a great deal.
I hope you enjoy it, and for an audio version of him saying a few rules, click here.
Call this a sequel to my last post. I graduated yesterday, and have been busy moving, unpacking, and processing my final weeks. So I haven’t had much time to research or write anything new.
Still, in the midst of it, I’ve been reading Nietzsche. Along with his break with Wagner in 1876, Nietzsche took leave from his post at the University of Basel. With his freedom, Nietzsche wrote a series of aphoristic works, beginning with Human, All too Human and ending with The Gay Science.
I just finished reading excerpts from the set of them.
Before these works, Nietzsche wrote essays or reflections, The Birth of Tragedy being the main example. After, his work retained this aphoristic bent, even when he resumed a more traditional essay style, as in Beyond Good and Evil. The style may owe much to the German philosopher Schopenhauer and the French tradition that predated Nietzsche, which influenced his work a great deal, but he made it his own with his sharp wit, dynamic language, and unique philosophy.
Influenced by Nietzsche, I figured I’d share a few aphorisms I’ve gathered during college. I’ve heard some, borrowed others from books, and made up a number. In no particular order, here are a few:
I’m a bit too busy today to write a full post, so I figured I’d leave a quote I’ve been thinking about regarding love, especially with Valentine’s Day earlier this week. Enjoy.
A Tibetan mystic saying goes: We are here to realize the illusion of our separateness. The spiritual sentiment has a biological cognate. Our xenotropic drive — to merge with what is not us, temporarily in sex, or permanently in symbiosis or cross-species hybrids — is more than a metaphor. But it also offers spiritual solace. When we hook up with another, in sex or love (or, more rarely, both) we prove that our isolation is not permanent. In the fullness of time, we may all be linked. In the meantime, eros brings us together, making us more than we are alone. Cupid’s arrow, quivering into the heart of loneliness, kills us even as it sets us free.
You don’t fall in love like you fall in a hole. You fall likefalling through space. It’s like you jump off your own private planet to visit someone else’s planet. And when you get there it all looks different: the flowers, the animals, the colours people wear. It is a big surprise falling in love because you thought you had everything just right on your own planet, and that was true, in a way, but then somebody signalled to you across space and the only way you could visit was to take a giant jump. Away you go, falling into someone else’s orbit and after a while you might decide to pull your two planets together and call it home. And you can bring your dog. Or your cat. Your goldfish, hamster, collection of stones, all your odd socks. (The ones you lost, including the holes, are on the new planet you found.)
And you can bring your friends to visit. And read your favourite stories to each other. And the falling was really the big jump that you had to make to be with someone you don’t want to be without. That’s it.