Proust on the Benefits & Limitations of Reading

It is a truth universally acknowledged that reading contributes to the public good.  As any librarian or public service announcement will tell you, the benefits of reading are too many to count.  libraryNot only does reading magnify our capacity for empathy and strengthen our ability to be open-minded, it fortifies the foundations of democracy itself.  On the societal level, literacy reduces crime, fosters freer, more stable governments, and promotes social activism.  Books empower us with the tools to be strong critical thinkers and bestow us with the gift of words to depict our world.  Books are museums, ways of preserving the wisdom of our collective past, and crystal balls that grant us insight into our possible futures.  Books are medicines that can cure almost any ailment, from the most life-threatening bouts of existential angst to more common cases of hard-to-place melancholy.  Books are lamps and life rafts, friends and teachers, time machines and time capsules.  “We read to remember.  We read to forget.  We read to make ourselves and remake ourselves and save ourselves,” Maria Popova once said.

British philosopher Alain De Botton insists reading has yet another benefit: it sensitizes us.  In our hyper-exposed era where we’re relentlessly besieged by sexualized images, tasteless profanity, and disturbing portrayals of violence, books offer a bastion against the inhumane forces working to desensitize us.  Rather than blunt our ability to feel distress at scenes of cruelty or anesthetize us to brutality, books make us feel: love, empathy.  And because they describe what we usually neglect— the wrinkled topography of someone’s face, the sky on a frost-bitten December morning— they can stir us from our semi-conscious stupor and remind us life is endlessly fascinating if we only pause to look. 

In his charming self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, the same trove of Proustian wisdom that taught us how to be happy in lovereawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, and avoid the enticing lure of platitude and cliche, Botton argues Proust’s adoration for British art critic John Ruskin is an example of the power of books to transform us.  Proust first discovered Ruskin when he was one thousand pages into writing his first novel Jean Santeuil.  “The universe suddenly regained infinite value in my eyes,” he said of reading the great Victorian author.  Proust was so taken with Ruskin that he abandoned his novel and spent the next three years translating his idol’s prolific body of work into French. 

So why did Ruskin have such a tremendous impact on the budding author?  Botton hypothesizes in Ruskin “he found experiences that he had never been more than semiconscious of raised and beautifully assembled in language.”  Though at some level Proust surely recognized the grandeur of northern France’s great cathedrals before reading Ruskin, Ruskin helped him more keenly experience their beauty and, in so doing, restored to him a bit of the world.  In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, the influential critic minutely described one particular statue in Rouen Cathedral, a figure of a little man carved into one of the structure’s magnificent portals.  Proust had never noticed the statue before.  But by writing with the same heartfelt attention a portrait painter pays to his subject, Ruskin showed Proust that the statue was worthwhile and that, perhaps, life was as well:  

“For Proust, Ruskin’s concern for the little man had effected a kind of resurrection, one characteristic of great art.  He had known how to look at this figure, and had hence brought it back to life for succeeding generations.  Ever polite, Proust offered a playful apology to the little figure for that would have been his own inability to notice him without Ruskin as a guide (“I would not have been clever enough to find you, amongst the thousands of stones in our towns, to pick out your figure, to rediscover your personality, to summon you, to make you live again”).  It was a symbol for what Ruskin had done for Proust, and what all books might do for their readers— namely, bring back to life, from the deadness caused by habit and inattention, valuable yet neglected aspects of experience.”

monet's cathedrals

But though books possess the conscious-raising power to reinvigorate our senses and revive us from the numbing effects of over-exposure and habit, they have their limitations.  Yes, reading writers we admire can be inspiring (what a joy to revel in the inexplicable pleasure of a graceful sentence, a delight to discover a beautifully-crafted arrangement of words!).  And yes, a brilliant book can sometimes be an effective antidote for writer’s block: a prescription of Proust, for example, can inspire us to more deeply delve in our own characters’ psychology; a pill of Plath can rouse us to write with raw emotional ferocity; a spoonful of Anais Nin can rekindle our passion for the poetic aspects of language, leading us to play with figures of speech and write with more elegance and delicacy.  

But when we worship an author too fervently, he becomes the cruel yardstick with which we measure our own efforts.  “Why can’t we write with Didion’s understated restraint?” we wonder, unable to scribble a single sentence since reading her landmark essay “Why I Write.”  “Why can’t my sentences sing with the lyrical simplicity of Solnit’s?  Or mesmerize with the exquisite beauty and intricacy of Fitch?”  It is often we bookish writers who find ourselves most debilitated by self-doubt and self-hatred.  Because we’re so well-versed in the canon— or, as Matthew Arnold once termed, “the best that’s been thought and said”— we possess a centuries-old library in the shelves of our heads, hundreds upon hundreds of volumes with which to compare ourselves.  When we craft a sharp bit of wordplay, we might momentarily delight in our own cleverness only to glance backward and see the towering presence of Shakespeare himself.  Our attempts at double entendre are god-awful compared to his.  Certainly our wit will never be a match for the bard’s! 

So though reading is invaluable to a writer’s formation, too much reading can discourage us from writing at all.  After all, why put pen to page if x, y and z author has already said what you wanted to say and said it better?  Even the most talented writers have opened the pages of their favorite novels and felt a terrible sense of their own inadequacy.  Take titan of modernism Virginia Woolf.  Despite her indisputable genius, she— too— suffered agonizing periods of self-doubt after encountering what she thought was the work of a superior writer.  In a 1922 letter to English painter and fellow member of the Bloomsbury Group, Roger Fry, she raved about In Search of Lost Time, the magnum opus of Mr. Marcel Proust:

“Well – what remains to be written after that?  I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes.  How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped – and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance?  One has to put the book down and gasp.”

Virginia Woolf

Reading Proust, Woolf felt nothing short of wonderstruck.  She was astounded by his facility with language, his ability to weave a story with both the “utmost sensitivity” and “utmost tenacity.”  So in awe was she of his talents that she came to question her own.  She wanted desperately to write like Proust but her attempts at imitation revealed— much to her dismay— that she could only write like herself.  Later she told Fry:

“Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out a sentence.  Oh if I could write like that!  I cry.  And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures— there’s something sexual in it— that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can’t.”  

Even after writing Mrs. Dalloway, a masterpiece of never-before-seen stream-of-consciousness that would come to be regarded as one of the most important works of the 20th century, Woolf still felt herself lacking.  “I wonder if this time I have achieved something?” she confessed in her diary, “Well, nothing anyhow compared to Proust…he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.” 

Thankfully, Woolf didn’t let her admiration for Proust discourage her too much: she continued to write and would go on to publish such groundbreaking novels and essays as Orlando and A Room of One’s Own.  But hers is still a cautionary tale: we shouldn’t exalt human beings to the status of idols.  If our admiration for an author slips into adulation, if we glorify books as if they were bibles, we’ll eventually discount our own talent.  The result?  The Virginia Woolfs of the world will try to write the next In Search of Lost Time instead of To the Lighthouse.

Proust on How Cliche Narrows Our Perceptions & the Obligation of the Artist to Create His Own Language

Proust praised his friend Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld’s novel The Lover and the Doctorproust as a “superb, tragic work of complex and consummate craftsmanship” but criticized its reliance on cliches: “There are some fine big landscapes in your novel,” Proust began, “but at times one would like them to be painted with more originality.  It’s quite true that the sky is on fire at sunset, but it’s been said too often, and the moon that shines discreetly is a trifle dull.”

Why, we might ask, did Proust loathe the cliched phrase?  After all, when we break up with someone, isn’t it occasionally true that “it’s not you, it’s me”?  Don’t beautiful women have “long blonde hair”?  Aren’t attractive men usually of the “tall, dark, and handsome” variety?  For a cliche to gain popularity and enter the common idiom, it must have at one time expressed a truth in a never-before-seen way.  To describe a tidy girl as “neat as a pin” or a quick wit as “sharp as a tack” once was an original articulation.  At first, these phrases had flavor, spice.  But with overuse, such expressions became insipid and trite. 

Nearly all writers share Proust’s distaste for cliche.  “Anything you’ve heard or read before is a cliche,” Janet Fitch once told an interviewer, “If you’re a writer, you have to invent from scratch.”  Francine Du Plessix Gray agreed.  “Combat the embrace of all words that are too long married,” she instructed her pupils.  In a wonderfully un-cliched metaphor, she likened the tired phrase to tepid sex, a “form of verbal missionary position.”  For her, good writing was intoxicating, passionate, hot-blooded.  A writer who didn’t titillate us with his every word was a writer who failed in his one goal: to seduce us.

In his delightful self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, the same compendium of Proustian wisdom that taught us how to be happy in lovereawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, and remember the benefits and limitations of reading, British philosopher Alain De Botton argues we should avoid cliches “because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.”  The problem with stale expressions is not only that they bore instead of captivate our audience— they are too imprecise and vague.  And when our language is inexact— general instead of specific, superficial instead of complex— so is our experience.  Like Rebecca Solnit, who maintained “calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness,” Botton believes how we describe the world determines how we perceive it.  We all write our own stories.  But if we only depict life in the most unoriginal terms, we’ll only see it in the most unoriginal ways.  Art which is truly novel, on the other hand, has the “ability to restore to our sight a distorted or neglected aspect of reality.”  A fresh portrayal of something mundane, like Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, can resuscitate us from the slumber of our customary ways of seeing and help us understand the world in a new way:

“In 1872, the year after Proust was born, Claude Monet exhibited a canvas entitled Impression, Sunrise.  It depicted the harbor of Le Havre at dawn, and allowed viewers to discern, through a thick morning mist and a medley of unusually choppy brushstrokes, the outline of an industrial seafront, with an array of cranes, smoking chimneys, and buildings.  

The canvas looked a bewildering mess to most who saw it, and particularly irritated the critics of the day, who pejoratively dubbed its creator and the loose group to which he belonged ‘impressionists,’ indicating that Monet’s control of the technical side of painting was so limited that all he had been able to achieve was a childish daubing, bearing precious little resemblance to what dawns in Le Havre actually look like.  

The contrast with the judgement of the art establishment a few years later could hardly have been greater.  It seemed that not only could the Impressionists use the brush after all, but that their technique was masterful at capturing a dimension of visual reality overlooked by less talented contemporaries.  What could explain such a dramatic reappraisal?  Why had Monet’s Le Havre been a great mess, then a remarkable representation of a Channel port?  

The Proustian answer starts with the idea that we are all in the habit of ‘giving to what we feel a form of expression which differs so much from, and which we nevertheless after a little time take to be, reality itself.’  

In this view, our notion of reality is at variance with actual reality, because it is so often shaped by inadequate or misleading accounts.  Because we are surrounded by cliched depictions of the world, our initial response to Monet’s Impression, Sunrise may well be to balk and complain that Le Havre looks nothing like that…If Monet is a hero in this scenario, it is because he has freed himself from the traditional, and in some ways limited, representations of Le Havre, in order to attend more closely to his own, uncorrupted impressions of the scene.”  

impression sunrise

A stylist who fashioned his own distinct manner of expression, Proust believed artists had a single responsibility: to develop an authentic voice.  “Every writer is obliged to create his own language, as every violinist is obliged to create his own tone,” he wrote.  No path is more difficult or disheartening than the path to discover our own style: the trail is not straight and clear-cut but winding, obstructed by the overgrown shrubbery of insecurity and self-doubt.  We worry that our ideas are stupid and unoriginal, that we’re not talented or witty or interesting enough.  So we make feeble attempts to be other people, at various times imitating the controlled compactness of Hemingway and the ritzy lyricism of Fitzgerald.  Writing begins with mimicry, impersonation.  But, for Proust, a “writer” only earns the elevated title of “artist” when he finally strips away the costumes of his idols and finds the confidence to dress like himself.

While Proust contended the artist had an obligation to create his own language, leading man of letters and literary editor of La Revue de Paris Louis Ganderax believed the writer had a duty to adhere to the established rules of the language.  At one time appointing himself “Defender of the French Language,” Ganderax was a linguistic traditionalist who took offense to the slightest deviation from conventional grammar, the kind of pompous purist for whom the use of “good” instead of “well” was an unforgivable faux pas.  According to his philosophy of art, literature had to sound literary: a good writer was one who wrote with the grandiloquence of his 19th century forefathers.  Proust despised this overblown mode of expression.  When in 1908, he came upon an excerpt from Ganderax’s preface to Georges Bizet’s collection of correspondence, he laughed, calling it a piece of “enormous, comic pretension.”  So outraged was he that he wrote to George Bizet’s wife, Madame Straus:

“‘Why, when he can write so well, does he write as he does?’  ‘Why, when one says ‘1871,’ add ‘that most abominable of all years,’  Why is Paris dubbed ‘the great city’ and Delaunay ‘the master painter’?  Why must emotion inevitably be ‘discreet’ and good-naturedness ‘smiling’ and bereavements ‘cruel’, and countless other fine phrases that I can’t remember?'” 

proust #2But what, exactly, was so terrible about Ganderax’s prose?  Because Ganderax insisted on upholding the traditions of his literary predecessors, Proust believed, he could only spew the most meaningless cliches and banal ideas.  The result was a parody of literary-ness, writing that perhaps sounded sophisticated but contributed nothing new or interesting to the topic.  “I don’t mean to say that I like original writers who write badly,” he clarified to Mrs. Straus, “I prefer— and perhaps it’s a weakness— those who write well.  But they begin to write well only on the condition that they’re original, that they create their own language.  Correctness, perfection of style do not exist…The only way to defend language is to attack it, yes, yes, Madame Straus!” 

Proust on How to Be Happy in Love

lovers“Who, being loved, is poor?” witty master of aphorisms Oscar Wilde once wondered.  Though it might be an overstatement to say “all you need is love,” ancient philosophers and contemporary science agree that satisfying relationships are a crucial component, if not the crucial component, of human happiness.  In one of the longest studies of its kind, the Harvard Study of Adult Development followed 724 men in hopes of discovering the secrets to a good life.  Over the course of nearly 80 years, they observed their defeats and triumphs, their careers and love lives.  What they found was astonishing: more than IQ, social class, or genetics, quality relationships, particularly marriages, were the number one determiner of a fulfilling existence.  Not only did a harmonious matrimony dictate their overall life satisfaction— it had a far-reaching impact on their health.  Those in loving marriages, not those who had achieved wealth or prestige or our societal ideal of social status, were found to live longer than both their unmarried and unhappily married counterparts.  In fact, those who were most satisfied in their relationships at age fifty were the healthiest group at eighty.  Marital contentment was even a better predictor of later health than cholesterol.

Because meaningful relationships are so critical to our emotional and physical health, we should be alarmed by the current state of romantic love.  In the U.S. alone, nearly half of marriages end in divorce.  My generation is more reluctant to get married and often postpones, if not completely forgoes, tying the knot.  Though the rise of casual hookup apps like Tinder give the impression that millennials at least have red-hot sex lives, they’re actually having less sex than young people a generation ago.  Experts attribute the “sex recession” to everything from the widespread availability of porn to increasing psychological fragility and fear of intimacy (after all, masturbating to a cold blue computer screen requires a lot less vulnerability than being intimate with someone).  Still others argue the advent of online dating has made approaching the opposite sex in public socially awkward, even taboo.  The result? 20% of Americans report they’re dissatisfied with their lives because they don’t have close confidantes.  

To say we in the modern era are suffering a crisis of love would be a gross understatement.  If nothing is more essential to human happiness than having a partner who can act as a lifeboat amid the sea of life’s misfortunes, it’s vital we learn how to sustain gratifying long-term relationships.  Based on our staggering divorce rates and dwindling number of sex partners, we clearly need a teacher to instruct us.  In his ever-enlightening self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, British philosopher Alain De Botton argues we can find no better mentor than Marcel Proust, the fine French novelist who also taught us how to suffer successfully, reawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, remember the benefits and limitations of reading, and avoid the lure of platitudes and cliches.  At the beginning of the chapter “How to Be Happy in Love,” the example of the telephone illustrates the difficulty of keeping a long-term relationship alive.  When first invented, we stood before the telephone astounded at its ability to allow us to communicate across once unsurpassable distances.  Now, with just the dial of a few numbers, we could speak to someone over seven thousand miles away in Mumbai from the comfort of our studio apartment in New York.  But within a span of only a few decades, this technological wonder became just another staple of the average household, as commonplace as cutlery and toasters:

“Take the unemotive example of the telephone.  Bell invented it in 1876.  By 1900, there were thirty thousand phones in France.  Proust acquired one and particularly liked a service called the “theater-phone,” which allowed him to listen to live opera and theater in Paris venues.  

He might have appreciated his phone, but he noted how quickly everyone else began taking theirs for granted.  As early as 1907, he wrote that the machine was

a supernatural instrument whose miracle we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought, to summon our tailor or to order an ice cream.

Moreover, if the confiserie had a busy line or the connection to the tailor a hum, instead of admiring the technological advances that had frustrated our sophisticated desires, we tended to act with childish ingratitude.  

Since we are children who play with divine forces without shuddering before their mystery, we only find the telephone “convenient,” or rather, as we are spoilt children, we find that “it isn’t convenient,” we fill Le Figaro with our complaints. 

A mere thirty-one years separated Bell’s invention from Proust’s sad observations on the state of  French telephone-appreciation.  It had taken little more than three decades for a technological marvel to cease attracting admiring glances and turn into a household object that we wouldn’t hesitate to condemn were we to suffer at its hands the minor inconvenience of a delayed glace au chocolate.”

lovers #2

Just as we take even the most miraculous technological innovations for granted once they become part of our day-to-day, we ungrateful mortals struggle to appreciate our significant others once we’ve committed to lifelong monogamy.  Recalling the narrator of Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, Botton suggests our capacity for appreciation diminishes as something becomes more familiar:

“As a boy, Proust’s narrator longs to befriend the beautiful, vivacious Gilberte, whom he has met playing in the Champs-Elysees.  Eventually, his wish comes true.  Gilberte becomes his friend, and invites him regularly to tea at her house.  There she cuts him slices of cake, ministers to his needs, and treats him with great affection.  

He is happy, but, soon enough, not as happy as he should be.  For so long, the idea of having tea at Gilberte’s house was like a vague, chimerical dream, but after quarter of an hour in her drawing room, it is the time before he knew her, before she was cutting him cake and showering him with affection, that starts to grow chimerical and vague.  

The outcome can only be a certain blindness to the favors he is enjoying.  He will soon forget what there is to be grateful for because the memory of a Gilberte-less life will fade, and with it, evidence of what there is to savor.  The smile on Gilberte’s face, the luxury of her tea, and the warmth of her manners will eventually become such a familiar part of his life that there will be as much incentive to notice them as there is to notice omnipresent elements like trees, clouds, and telephones.” 

At the cornerstone of both Botton and Proust’s conception of a fulfilling life is the ability to see clearly— and not just in the literal sense of visually discerning an object in physical reality, but in the deeper sense of seeing the world in all its miraculous grandeur and beauty.  While artists are experts at looking closely, we in regular life often fail to exercise our perceptive faculties.  We might “see” a night sky but never notice the way charcoal clouds blot out an erie moon, the way the silhouettes of bare branches form a sinister backdrop to a still autumn night.  We might “see” our husband or wife but never notice, truly notice, their rare ability to listen or the sweetness of their dimples or the innocence of their eyes.  It is a tragic irony that the more we see an object, the more we become blind:

“Though we usually assume that seeing an object requires us to have visual contact with it, and that seeing a mountain involves visiting the Alps and opening our eyes, this may only be the first and in a sense the inferior part of seeing, for appreciating an object properly may also require us to re-create it in our mind’s eye.  

After looking at a mountain, if we shut our lids and dwell on the scene internally, we are led to seize on its important details.  The mass of visual information is interpreted and the mountain’s salient features identified: its granite peaks, its glacial indentations, the mist hovering above the tree linedetails that we would previously have seen but not for that matter noticed.

 […]

Having something physically present sets up far from ideal circumstances in which to notice it.  Presence may in fact be the very element that encourages us to ignore or neglect it, because we feel we have done all the work simply in securing visual contact.” 

So how, exactly, can we apply these insights to be happier in love and cultivate more satisfying bonds?  In the Proustian worldview, the key to marital bliss, in fact any bliss, is looking anew: in other words, noticing, not just seeingour partners.  Rather than regard our husbands with the blasé indifference that extinguishes the flames of millions of marriages (“How was your day?” we ask more out of obligation than genuine interest only to half pay attention when he replies), we can reignite passion by pretending we’re first getting to know each other.  As Yiyun Li so beautifully articulates, the people closest to us are as unfamiliar as strangers in a subway car.  Because the institution of marriage requires we live with the same person day after day, we begin to think we’ve charted the entire map of our lover’s heart; after all, after so much time together, how could any territory of his nature possibly remain unplumbed?  But this sense of familiarity is a mirage: though physical proximity ensures we literally see our partners, we rarely notice the many facets that comprise who they are.  As Mary Gaitskill observes, man is as multi-dimensional as a Russian nesting doll: he projects an outward public persona that conceals countless other selves.  The routine nature of matrimony convinces us there’s no land of our lover left to explore when in actuality there’s still many new worlds and many new shores:

“Deprivation quickly drives us into the process of appreciation, which is not to say that we have to be deprived in order to appreciate things, but rather that we should learn a lesson from what we naturally do when we lack something, and apply it to conditions where we don’t.

If long acquaintance with a lover so often breeds boredom, breeds a sense of knowing the person too well, the problem may ironically be that we do not know him or her well enough.  Whereas the initial novelty of the relationship could leave us in no doubt as to our ignorance, the subsequent reliable physical presence of the lover and the routines of communal life can delude us into thinking that we have achieved genuine, and dull, familiarity; whereas it may be no more than a fake sense of familiarity that physical presence fosters.”

It is a rule of human nature that desire begins with denial, infatuation with inaccessibility.  After all, who consumes us with the most ardent longing: our husbands whom we’ve managed to acquire or the sharply-dressed guy in the break room we barely converse with but see once in awhile?  In high school, who was our helpless obsession: our sweetest, most considerate guy friend or the hot punk we only observed from afar?  What lies just beyond our grasp is what most tantalizes us.  Proust was well aware of this fact.  “There is no doubt that a person’s charms are less frequently a cause of love than a remark such as: ‘No, this evening I shan’t be free,'” he once said.  Why is it that the rebuff of a dinner invitation makes a love interest all the more attractive?  For Proust, the answer once again rests in this idea of seeing vs. noticing: because our capacity for appreciation is gradually dulled by the habitual nature of domesticity, we merely see our long-term partners instead of notice them.  If couples don’t make a conscious and consistent effort to stoke the flames of romance, the intensity of desire they once felt will most certainly wane until what was once a lustful blaze will be smothered by the monotony of routine.  Our lovers will no longer hold interest for us because we know them too intimately (or, that is, we think we know them too intimately).

The man in the break room, on the other hand, will continue to allure us because he carries an aura of mystery.  Because our desire for him has not been fulfilled, he remains enticing.  The fact that he’s a distant crush and not a husband explains why he’s a source of fascination: the moment a lust is gratified, the moment when what we desperately yearn for is finally possessed is almost always unsatisfying— at least, not as satisfying as we imagined.  Attainment is ultimately disenchanting.  It is the delay of gratification, it is the not having that makes everything from a potential lover to a pair of shoes appealing.  In Search for Lost Time demonstrates this lesson through the characters of the Duchess and Albertine: 

“Both Albertine and the Duchess de Guermantes are interested in fashion.  However, Albertine has very little money and the Duchess owns half of France.  The Duchesse’s wardrobes are therefore overflowing; as soon as she sees something she wants, she can send for her dressmaker and her desire is fulfilled as rapidly as hands can sew.  Albertine, on the other hand, can hardly buy anything, and has to think at length before she does so.  She spends hours studying clothes, dreaming of a particular coat or hat or dressing gown.  The result is that though Albertine has far fewer clothes than the Duchesse, her understanding, appreciation, and love of them is far greater.

[…]

Proust compares Albertine to a student who visits Dresden after cultivating a desire to see a particular painting, whereas the Duchesse is likely a wealthy tourist who travels without any desire or knowledge, and experiences nothing but bewilderment, boredom and exhaustion when she arrives.  

Which emphasizes the extent to which physical possession is only one component of appreciation.  If the rich are fortunate in being able to travel to Dresden as soon as the desire to do so arises, or buy a dress after they have just seen it in a catalog, they are cursed because the speed with which their wealth fulfills their desires.  No sooner have they thought of Dresden than they can be on a train there; no sooner have they seen a dress than it can be in their wardrobe.  They therefore have no opportunity to suffer the interval between desire and gratification which the less privileged endure, and which, for all its apparent unpleasantness, has the incalculable benefit of allowing people to know and fall deeply in love with paintings in Dresden, hats, dressing gowns, and someone who isn’t free that evening.”

french women.jpg

Now let’s turn to a more controversial topic: sex.  What did the legendary French author have to say about getting busy between the sheets?  Throughout time, women were told chastity was a requisite for finding a husband.  Even after the feminist and sexual liberation movements of the 1960s, our mothers still clung to the conservative belief that we should wait as long as possible before engaging in the ultimate act of intimacy.  “Why would a man buy the whole ice cream truck if you’re giving away the popsicles for free?” they cautioned.  In other words, why would a man ever exchange vows to remain faithful in “sickness and health” if he already achieved his ultimate aim?  

Though as a culture we no longer hold the outdated belief that a woman needs to remain “pure” to be attractive, Proust might say our mothers— for all their antiquated ideas of gender roles and offensive double standards— were in some ways correct.  “Women who are to some extent resistant, whom one cannot possess at once, whom one does not even know at first whether one will ever possess are the only interesting ones,” he once wrote.  Now, before we condemn Proust as an unforgivable misogynist, he believed this principle equally applied to men.  If love is three quarters curiosity as quintessential lady’s man Casanova once said, love wilts as familiarity grows.  Compare your attitude toward where you live to an exotic locale.  What do you look at with more longing: the cobblestone streets and sparkling waters of Venice, Italy or the well-trotted roads of your daily route?  Obviously, the former.  However, if you could too easily secure the object of your desire, if because of an overflowing bank account or an abundance of frequent flier miles, you could fly halfway across the world to gaze upon St. Mark’s Basilica with little difficulty, the experience would be less satisfying.  Within an hour of suffering the impossibly long lines of an Italian summer, you’d be dreaming of yet another faraway destination: the idyllic English countryside, perhaps, or a breathtaking beach in the Caribbean.

This elucidates the basis of Proust’s theory of desire: we are incapable of appreciating what can be obtained with little effort.  If we sleep with someone on the first date (or even the second or third), there’s no more mystery, curiosity: the once exciting possibility of traversing the societal boundaries of clothes and exploring the forbidden territory of another’s body becomes as boring and predictable as our well-trodden route to work.  For Proust, this was the fundamental problem with the prostitute: “because she both wishes to entice a man and yet is commercially prevented from doing what is most likely to encourage love— namely, tell him that she is not free tonight…the outcome is clear, and therefore real, lasting desire unlikely.”  So if we want to captivate our lovers, we must maintain the mystery.

Proust on How Art Reawakens Us to the Extraordinary Beauty of Ordinary Things

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In his pragmatic self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, British philosopher Alain De Botton, the same boundlessly charming mind who offered a surprising remedy to status anxiety and shed light on the psychology behind why we travel, argues Proust (and artists like him) can open our eyes to the world’s limitless but often overlooked beauty.  Though De Botton is a bookish academic who possesses seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of literature, art, and philosophy, he’s never pretentious.  Far from the dry intellectualism of a university textbook, his work emits a playful exuberance— and a sense that he doesn’t take anything too seriously.  The common thread that unites his books is a belief that the great thinkers of the past have invaluable lessons to teach.  After sifting through Proust’s diaries, letters, novels, and essays, De Botton distills his prolific literary output into digestible advice for the modern reader.  The result?  An indispensable guide to being happy in love, remembering the benefits and limitations of reading, and expressing yourself precisely while avoiding the lure of platitudes and cliches.  How Proust Can Change Your Life’s every beautifully-patterned sentence sparkles with wit and wry humor, every word, with erudition and insight.  So if you’re curious why one of the finest minds of the 20th century believed you should never worship books too zealously or sleep with someone on the first date, check out this book from the library. 

The book’s seventh chapter “How to Open Your Eyes” begins with a summary of Proust’s essay “Chardin: The Essence of Things” which recounts the story of a disgruntled aesthete.  A cultured young man of worldly sophistication and refined taste, he worships at the temple of beauty.  Because his imagination is full of the glory of cathedrals and museums, he’s offended by the mundanity of his surroundings: in his dreary domestic settings the only thing to behold is “one last knife” lying next to an “underdone, unsavory cutlet” on a “half-removed tablecloth.”  The sole object of beauty—a “ray of sun shine”— only serves to accentuate as “cruelly as an ironic laugh” the everyday banality of his existence.  Why hadn’t he been born into a rich, noble family and been blessed to live among luxurious furnishings and fine art?  He envied the socialites who floated from grand party to grand party, the dapper aristocrats and chicly-dressed debutantes.

Deprived of beauty in his bland surroundings, the man flees to the Louvre.  The stately portraits of Van Dyck, the rich colors and magnificent palaces of Veronese, the spectacular landscapes of Lorrain: these masterpieces, he believes, will finally nourish his starved aesthete’s soul.  But rather than let him hurry to the galleries of Van Dyck and Veronese, Proust redirects him to the French painter Jean-Baptiste Chardin.  A painter of still lives and domestic scenes, Chardin prefers bowls of fruit to grand palaces and English statesmen.  His subjects are rarely engaged in anything noteworthy: rather they’re doing needlework, stirring tea, building a house of cards or carrying loaves of bread. 

wine & loaf of bread

But though Chardin depicts commonplace people in commonplace settings, his paintings reawaken us to the extraordinary splendor hidden beneath the ordinary.  The breathtaking beauty of white flowers delicately arranged next to a basket of richly red strawberries; the subtle elegance of a glass of cabernet and loaf of bread; the splendid luster of copper cookery: through his devoted attention to detail, Chardin restores our ability to see transcendence in the mundane and therefore broadens our conception of beauty.  Once the young man was “dazzled by this rich painting of what he called mediocrity, this zestful painting of a life that he found tasteless, this great art depicting a subject that he considered mean,” Proust asks:

“This makes you happy, doesn’t it?  Yet what more have you seen here than a well-to-do middle-class woman pointing out to her daughter the mistakes she has made in her tapestry work; a woman carrying bread; the interior of a kitchen where a live cat is trampling on some oysters while a dead fish hangs on the wall, and an already half-cleared sideboard on which some knives are scattered on the cloth?”

For Proust, this young man is so discontented not because his existence is actually beauty-starved but because he’s imperceptive.  As Chardin demonstrates, there’s no reason to envy the lavish lifestyles of aristocrats or covet the glamorous circles of the rich— he can find as much poetry in a simple bouquet of flowers as in a volume of Shakespeare, as much rapture in classic blue-and-white china as in Beethoven’s Fifth.  The young man can’t behold all the exquisite beauty around him, not because of some shortage in his surroundings, but because of his own dullness of vision (“If your everyday life seems poor,” Rilke wrote to an aspiring young poet, “don’t blame it; blame yourself…you were not enough of a poet to call forth its riches.”)  Thankfully, the discerning eyes of artists like Chardin can resharpen our deadened, desensitized powers of perception.

the silver cup

At its foundation, How Proust Can Change Your Life suggests, much like Proust’s dispirited aesthete, we world-weary adults take life for granted.  Blinded by the shroud of custom and habit, we no longer see the miracle of the ordinary.  For Proust, art is our only hope of resuscitating the senses.  The artist, through his acute sensitivity and appreciative awareness, restores to the world a sense of awe and wonder, enlarging our definition of beauty to accommodate the mundane material of life we usually neglect.  A madeline and cup of lime-blossom tea, a bowl of peaches, a wedge of brie and slice of bread: when our eyes are no longer obscured by routine, the most unremarkable things reveal themselves worthy of appreciation.  

The tragedy of our times is our conception of aesthetics is too small, too narrow.  Most of us think beauty is restricted to the rarefied world of high culture, something as inaccessible as Van Gogh’s “Wheat Fields with Cypresses” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Beauty, we believe, is sunsets and red roses and brides on their wedding day — not slate skies, withered flowers, and street corner whores.  So when we look upon our vulgar day-to-day, we feel dissatisfied, bored.  Art is so essential because it reminds us beauty exists not just in Italian Renaissance paintings but underdone, unsavory cutlets on half-removed tablecloths. 

Andre Dubus III on Writing as Dreaming, not Thinking

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In yet another restorative essay for the artist’s soul from Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Processthe same treasure trove that gave us the encouraging words of Maggie Shipstead, Marilynne Robinson, Yiyun Li, Khaled Hosseini, Hanya Yanagihara, Mary Gaitskill and Elizabeth Gilbert, novelist Andre Dubus III adds his own insights to the storehouse of wisdom on the craft.  After he stumbled upon Richard Bausch’s dictum “Do not think, dream” in the soul-nourishing Letters to a Fiction Writer, a compendium of letters from literary artists as acclaimed as Joyce Carol Oates, Ray Bradbury, and Raymond Carver, it became the bedrock of his writing philosophy.  Today the phrase acts as an eternal reminder that art belongs first and foremost to the imagination, not rationality:

“We’re all born with an imagination.  Everybody gets one.  And I really believe—this is just from years of daily writing—that good fiction comes from the same place as our dreams.  I think the desire to step into someone else’s dream world, is a universal impulse that’s shared by us all.  That’s what fiction is.  As a writing teacher, if I say nothing else to my students, it’s this.

Here’s the distinction.  There’s a profound difference between making something up and imagining it.  You’re making something up when you think out a scene, when you’re being logical about it.  You think, “I need this to happen so some other thing can happen.”  There’s an aspect of controlling the material that I don’t think is artful.  I think it leads to contrived work, frankly, no matter how beautifully written it might be.  You can hear the false note in this kind of writing. 

This was my main problem when I was just starting out: I was trying to say something.  When I began to write, I was deeply self-conscious.  I was writing stories hoping they would say something thematic, or address something that I was wrestling with philosophically.  I’ve learned, for me at least, it’s a dead road.  It’s writing from the outside in instead of the inside out.

But during my very early writing, certainly before I’d published, I began to learn characters will come alive if you back the fuck off.  It was exciting, and even a little terrifying.  If you allow them to do what they’re going to do, think and feel what they’re going to think and feel, things start to happen on their own.  It’s a beautiful and exciting alchemy.  And all these years later, that’s the thrill I write to get: to feel things start to happen on their own.

So I’ve learned over the years to free-fall into what’s happening.  What happens then is, you start writing something you don’t even really want to write about.  Things start to happen under your pencil that you don’t want to happen, or don’t understand.  But that’s when the work starts to have a beating heart.”

As writer, teacher and creativity guru Julia Cameron argues in her transformative The Artist’s Way, writing is about getting something down— not thinking something up.  Andre Dubus III is a devoted adherent to this school of thought.  Rather than consciously manufacture a contrived plot, what Cameron would call “think something up” forcefully from intellect and egotistic self-will, Dubus maintains the novelist must simply listen to the whisperings of inspiration and write down the story as it naturally unfolds.  What does he see in his imagination?  what does he hear?  smell?  

Though aspiring writers imagine constructing a novel is a methodical, orderly affair with clearly discrete, delineated steps like they were taught in school, the actual act of writing is a far messier process.  Most accomplished novelists will tell you they rarely have a complete conception of a book when they first get started: they might have an idea of how it will begin and end but how it will ultimately get from point a to point b remains a mystery.  Much like legendary journalist Joan Didion who asserted writing was a voyage of discovery (“I write,” she confessed, “to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear.”) or Agnes De Mille who claimed to create was a daring act of faith (“The artist never entirely knows,” she wisely observed, “We guess.  We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.”), Dubus believes writing requires we relinquish control, embrace uncertainty, and simply trust:

“So you can dream by being curious—by being curious enough to report back what’s in front of your narrative eye.  I love that line from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving at night.  You can only see as far as your headlights—” but you keep going until you get there.  I’ve learned over the years to just report back anything that I see in front of the headlights: Are they yellow stripes or white?  What’s on the side of the road?  Is there vegetation?  What kind?  What’s the weather?  What are the sounds?  If I capture the experience all along the way, the structure starts to reveal itself.  My guiding force and principle for shaping the story is to just follow the headlights.  That’s how the architecture is revealed.”

Ultimately, there are two distinct stages of the writing process: the “dreaming” and the “thinking”— or the creative and the critical.  The creative phase is formless, freewheeling, disorderly, intuitive, irrational whereas the critical is structured and systematic, analytical and logical.  If the creative phase is brainstorming and free writing, the critical is revising what we initially wrote.  For Dubus, dreaming and thinking are opposing but equally essential parts of the creative process: were we to write without first permitting the fun-loving partygoer of free association and exploratory imagination play, we’d produce only the most stiff ideas and dull cliches— if, that is, we wrote at all.  But if we never unleashed our stern, serious-minded school teacher onto our first drafts, we’d only have sloppy raw material.  The final critical stage is about evaluating what’s there.  Do our words clearly communicate our meaning or is there potential for misunderstanding?  Do we need to cut and condense or elaborate?  Do our style and voice convey the appropriate mood and tone?  After all, if we’re writing to reach the masses, we don’t want to employ the erudite, high-brow vocabulary of the New Yorker.  To write well we have to answer these questions as objectively as possible.

But how can we reach the peak of objectivity necessary to survey the land of our own ideas?  Dubus, much like Zadie Smith and Brenda Ueland, recommends letting some time elapse between the two stages as distance helps us regain a level of impartiality toward our work.  When we’re immersed in the task of writing, toiling at the page day after day, we naturally become attached to what we’ve written.  There’s a reason for the widespread metaphor of writing as childbirth: our writing is our baby, a fragile, delicate, shrieking thing we labored to create and therefore want to protect.  In much the same way our water breaks at the most inconvenient moment, an idea whispers into our ear begging (sometimes demanding) to be brought into existence.  So we obey the muse and write.  Like childbirth, the actual process of articulating ourselves is excruciating.  As we endeavor for months, sometimes years, to birth our idea, our yet born child wrenches our insides until we’re in so much pain we’re shouting obscenities at blameless nurses and cursing God as we race through emergency room corridors.  When the agony of labor is finally over and we’re gazing at our angelic child in the peaceful quiet of a white hospital room, we’re overcome by indescribable gratitude: we, mere mortals, miraculously created this living, breathing thing, a sentient being with consciousness and ten toes and fingers!  Is it any wonder we find it difficult to dispassionately evaluate our words?

No matter how unbearable it feels to “kill your darlings” as the oft repeated advice counsels, Dubus argues the difference between a good book and a great book is a ruthless attitude toward our work.  No matter how burdensome a word or laborious a line was to bring into being, no matter how strong our affection for a particularly graceful turn-of-phrase, we have to be willing to part with any sentence that doesn’t further our aim:

“Now, dreaming your way through a story is very useful at first—for the first draft, maybe the first two drafts.  But once the revision process begins, you’ve got to change your approach.  Bausch would be the first to say that once you dream it through, try to look at the result the way a doctor looks at an X-ray.  You’ve got to be terribly smart about it.  In the secondary period, you get more rational and logical about what you’ve dreamt—while still cooperating with the deeper truths of what you’ve made.

So once I have a beginning, middle, and end, I walk away from it for at least six months and don’t look at it.  At least six months.  To revise means “to see again”—well, how can you see again when you just looked at it 10 days ago?  No.  Have two seasons go between you.  And then when you pick it up and read it, you actually forget some of what happens in the story.  You forget how hard it was to write those 12 pages.  And you become tougher on it.  You see closer to what the reader is going to see.

What I look for at this point is dramatic tension, forward movement, and, frankly, beauty.  I try to make it as truly itself as possible.  And that’s when the major plotting comes in—plot, not as a noun but as a verb—the ordering of events and material.  I get really merciless.  I don’t care if I spent a year writing pages 1 through 96.  If I feel some real energy on page 93, and I think that should be page 1?  Those first 92 pages are fucking gone.  A merciless reviser is in a much better position to write a really good book than one who hasn’t got the stomach for it.  That may be the distinction between what makes a really good book and a great book.”

Though Dubus would never call himself a religious man, writing has convinced him something is out there— not God, a word too narrow a linguistic box to allow for mystery and too overburdened with intolerance and bloodshed, but some sort of higher power.  The imagination, the subconscious, the universal life force, fate, destiny, the almighty infinite spirit, the holy ghost, God: whatever term we prefer, Dubus believes creativity is a way of making contact with the unknowable.  Speaking of his opera Madame Butterfly, Puccini confessed, “The music was dictated to me by God.  I was merely instrumental in getting it on paper and communicating it to the public.”  Even the most adamantly secular among us can admit we too have had the mystical experience of being a vessel, of our words coming not from our own minds but from somewhere else.  For Dubus, being an artist requires we simply transcribe what is dictated to us—  we don’t need to know exactly where we’re going or how it’ll turn out.  Because we live in a scientific age where we exalt definitive answers, merely having faith that page after page will order itself into something comprehensible seems stupid, borderline absurd.  Just “trust in the process”?  Ha!  It sounds like a bunch of hokey New Age nonsense.  We want assurance that all our efforts will lead to a finished product.  But art, Dubus believes, demands we take leap after leap in the dark:

“I don’t believe in God, but I believe in something: Something’s out there.  And the main reason I believe that something’s out there—something mysterious and invisible but real—largely has come from my daily practice of writing.  There’s a great line from an ancient anonymous Chinese poet: We poets knock upon the silence for an answering music.  The way I write, the way I encourage people I work with to try to write is exactly this: Trust your imagination.  Free fall into it.  See where it brings you to.  It’s scary, it’s unorganized, and you’re going to have to prepare yourself for some major fucking rewriting—and maybe cut two years of work.

I know, putting up this kind of uncertainty is very difficult.  We bring ourselves into these rooms.  We bring all of our hopes, all of our longings, all of our shadows.  What writing asks of us is the opposite of what being in the American culture asks of us.  You’re supposed to have a five-year plan.  Young people now are so cautious.  Oh, we can’t get married until we have a house.  Oh, we can’t have a baby until we have 20 grand in the bank.  These crazy, careful people!  You know, look: Life is short if you live a hundred years.  Better to die naked and reckless and with passion—and not be afraid to fuck up and fail.”

With a rebellious spirit reminiscent of Cheryl Strayed, who once told a disheartened aspiring writer “you don’t have a career, you have a life,” Dubus concludes by affirming writing is not about agents or royalties or book deals— it’s about the writing itself:

“I think one of the downsides of MFA programs is they make people really career-conscious.  Fuck career.  Let me tell you something: I’m so grateful to have had a publishing career so far.  It’s how I make most of my living.  It’s been an incredible blessing.  It’s helped me take better care of my family than I could have ever thought possible.  But I do not ever think about career when I’m in my writing cave.  I do not.  I try not to think; I dream.  It’s my mantra.  I just get in there and try to be these people.  It’s not so I can write a book and get paid and have another book tour—though those are good problems to have.  It’s because I feel an almost sacred obligation to these spirits who came before: to sit with them and write their tale.”

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Elizabeth Gilbert on Joy, Curiosity & Having the Courage to Rejoice in the Marvels & Mysteries of Existence

A writer of buoyant spirit and large-hearted generosity, Gilbert shares her always life-affirmingelizabeth gilbert wisdom in her essay, “In Praise of Stubborn Gladness”— yet another gem from Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.  When asked what inspires her, Gilbert chose a passage from magnetic, mysterious poet Jack Gilbert, whom she first learned of when she was teaching creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville— a rotating position that brought a new visiting writer every year.  Coincidentally, the writer before her had been Jack Gilbert (“I started jokingly calling the position The Gilbert Chair,” she laughed to editor Joe Fassler).  Curious about this man who shared both her classroom and her name, Gilbert began to investigate.  Jack Gilbert, she learned, secured renown early in his career: in 1962, his first collection of poems, Views of Jeopardy, won the Yale Prize and was nominated for a Pulitzer alongside such luminaries as Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams.  He soon rose to the status of literary icon, his captivating good looks gracing the pages of Vogue and Glamour.  Then he disappeared.  For twenty years, he wrote but didn’t publish a single line of poetry.  Though he could have led a glittery life of glamour and celebrity, he chose a quiet existence sequestered from the public eye, residing at various times in Denmark, Greece and Italy.  An unrelenting protector of his privacy, Gilbert only did two major interviews in his life, a brilliant one for the Paris Review and another with the legendary editor Gordon Lish.  When Lish asked him how his self-imposed exile had affected his career, Gilbert laughed, “I suppose it’s been fatal, but I don’t really care!”

At the University of Tennessee, Gilbert’s rejection of fame surrounded him with a sort of mystique.  His romantic Whitmanesque poetry along with his Thoreau-like dismissal of modern notions of success captivated students, who left his classroom emboldened to be more daring and authentic.  “Do you have the courage to be a poet?” he supposedly asked one of his graduate students, “The jewels that are hiding inside of you are begging you to say yes!”  Rather than instruct these young literary hopefuls in the practical business of writing— how to get an agent, how to write a query, how to get published— he challenged them to completely immerse themselves in the marvels and mysteries of human experience, both the ecstasy and agony, solace and suffering, contentment and discontentment.

Of all his works, Ms. Gilbert calls “A Brief for the Defense” her favorite.  A poem she describes as “biblical in scope,” “A Brief for the Defense” ponders how we can reconcile life’s beauty with life’s wretchedness — in other words, the question of how we ought to conduct ourselves.  It begins with heartbreaking images— “sorrow,” “slaughter,” “starvation”— that reveal human suffering’s omnipresence:

“Sorrow everywhere.  Slaughter everywhere.  If babies

are not starving someplace, they are starving

somewhere else.  With flies in their nostrils.”

For Gilbert, the beauty of the poem is the way it embraces the paradoxical incongruity of “and” over the simplistic black-and-white thinking of “either/or.”  Unlike the blind optimist, who believes good must always triumph over evil, or the despairing pessimist, who believes the world is wicked and cruel, “A Brief for the Defense” suggests to be human is both joy and misery, the Garden of Eden and Dante’s infernal hell.  Despite the existence of “sorrow” and “starvation” and “slaughter,” there’s still ecstasy and exultation, compassion and connection, love and laughter.  Or as Anne Lamott, writer of breathtaking honesty and woman of whole-hearted wisdom might say, “Periods in the desert or wilderness are not lost time.  You might find life, wildflowers, fossils, sources of water.”

In the end, “A Brief for the Defense” is just that— a defense, a defense of delight and joy though life can be heartless.  Today the line— “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world”— has become the first commandment of Gilbert’s personal credo, a kind of mantra she recites to remind herself to maintain her joie de vivre, her sense of play and wonder, despite the seriousness of suffering in the world:

“So it begins with an admission of how devastating the world is, how unfair and how sad.  He goes on to say what he’s seen from a life of watching very carefully: women at the fountain in a famine-stricken town, “laughing together between / the suffering they have known and the awfulness / in their future.”  He describes the “terrible streets” of Calcutta, caged prostitutes in Bombay laughing.  So there’s this human capacity for joy and endurance, even when things are at their worst.  A joy that occurs not despite our suffering, but within it.

When it comes to developing a worldview, we tend to face this false division: Either you are a realist who says the world is terrible, or a naïve optimist who says the world is wonderful and turns a blind eye.  Gilbert takes this middle way, and I think it’s a far better way: he says the world is terrible and wonderful, and your obligation is to joy.  That’s why the poem is called “A Brief for the Defense”—it’s defending joy.  A real, mature, sincere joy—not a cheaply earned, ignorant joy.  He’s not talking about building a fortress of pleasure against the assault of the world.  He’s talking about the miraculousness of moments of wonder and how it seems to be worth it, after all.  And one line from this poem is the most important piece of writing I’ve ever read for myself:

We must risk delight.  We can do without pleasure,

but not delight.  Not enjoyment.  We must have

the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless

furnace of this world.

This defines exactly what I want to strive to be—a person who holds onto “stubborn gladness,” even when we dwell in darkness.  I want to be able to contain both of them within me at the same time, remain able to cultivate joy and wonder even at life’s bleakest.”

jack gilbert

For writer of the smash hit Eat, Pray, Love and, more recently, the spirit-emboldening treatise on art, inspiration and creativity, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Gilbert’s poetry radiates with a profound reverence for paying attention—a simple act that, in our hurried, heedless age, seems like a lost art.  Much like the Buddhists, who suggest peace and enlightenment arises from dwelling deeply in the present moment without judgement, Gilbert believes we should savor the full range of human experience, never flinching from what frightens us.  His philosophy of “stubborn gladness” is not just a commitment to joy and wonderment— it’s an unwavering conviction that to be alive is endlessly magnificent.  Every experience— death, destruction, divorce, decay— can be fascinating if we get curious and take notice.  Or to borrow the words of Herman Hesse, all things, even the uninteresting and ugly, have their “vivid aspects”:

“He has another poem that’s a conversation between him and the gods, who offer him a chance to be famous if he would just give up his weird life.  But he doesn’t settle for that.  He says:

Let me fall

in love one last time, I beg them.

Teach me mortality, frighten me

into the present.

Give me something real, he’s asking, and he’s not fooling around.  Who makes a prayer that includes the words “frighten me”?  That’s a bold thing to ask for.  It’s not “frighten” me in the sense of bungee jumping or surfing—it’s wanting to stand on the edge of the abyss and look in, look in carefully with an alert gaze.  It’s a commitment to literature, and a commitment to living.

I saw the same quality in my great aunt Lolly, who has not had an easy life—but she’s the most stubbornly glad person I’ve ever met.  When she was 85, I visited her and she said to me, “Guess what?  Guess what I have, Liz?”

What,” I said.

I have cancer,” she said, and this big grin spread across her face.  “Isn’t that interesting?”

And that’s part of stubborn gladness, too: to regard things, even the hardest things, as—at their base—interesting.  It’s hard to say that without sounding like a Pollyanna, but the people who you know who can really do this are not innocents.  You see it, too, in Steve Job’s last words: Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.

Full-on wonder, even at the moment of death.

Jack Gilbert addresses this experience directly in “A Brief for the Defense”: “If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,” he writes, “We should give thanks that the end had magnitude.”  That’s another one I always lean on.  At least it was magnificent—you lived and died, that’s magnificent.  To be able to summon some sort of wonder and gratitude for the fact you got to live and die is the highest calling.  It is the best way to go through life—it beats almost any other model of thinking I’ve ever encountered.”

Ms. Gilbert applies this philosophy of “stubborn gladness” not only to her life but to her art.  Because of our legacy of Christian martyrdom and German romanticism, we in the West tend to conflate art with suffering.  In our cultural consciousness, an artist is a tortured soul, a sensitive Van Gogh tormented by mental illness, a precocious Plath harrowed by manic-depression, a glamorous Sexton so haunted by suicidal thoughts that she locked herself in her garage and asphyxiated herself while dressed in her mother’s fur coat.  An artist, we imagine, is someone so delicate they can’t endure life itself.  Though there are innumerable artists throughout time who have been neither alcoholics nor mentally ill, the myth of the starving artist continues to captivate us, perhaps because there’s a certain allure to the image of a lone genius suffering for some heroic goal.  The theatrics of a turbulent marriage like Scott and Zelda’s, the drama of alcoholism like Hemingway and Faulkner’s, the wild lives of excess led by Led Zeppelin and the Doors: tales of talented if troubled artists are exciting— far more exciting than the day to day reality of writing a novel or recording an album.

Though such romantic notions of the artist’s life are enticing, making art does not have to be a Greek tragedy-level drama.  Creating only becomes painful when we bring our theatrics to the keyboard.  “How many times can you possibly use one word?” we’ll berate ourselves, “Have you ever heard of a thesaurus?”  “Really, you’re going to end your story that way?  Talk about uninspired…”  When we react to our disappointments with histrionics and melodrama, we make writing more distressing than it needs to be.  Instead of simply address the fact that our word choice is imprecise or our ending is only a first draft and a little sloppy, we throw up our hands in defeat.  “Who am I kidding?  I’m too unoriginal to be a writer…guess I better chug this vodka to distract myself from the embarrassment of a novel I’m writing.”  But there is a better way: just as we can remain “stubbornly glad” despite life’s catastrophes and calamities, we can maintain a detached objectivity despite our work’s many shortcomings:

“As someone who struggles with anxiety and cowardice, as we all do, I’m profoundly inspired by this full-on commitment to wonder, to wonder as a response to anguish or difficulty.  It makes everything a puzzle, right?  A catastrophe is nothing but a puzzle with the volume of drama turned up very high.  For now, I’m best with stubborn gladness when taking on the challenges in my writing life.  Because writing can be a very dramatic pursuit, full of catastrophes and disasters and emotion and attempts that fail.  My path as a writer became much more smooth when I learned that, when things aren’t going well, to regard my struggles as curious, not tragic.

So, How do we get through this puzzle?  That’s funny, I thought I could write this book and I can’t, instead of, I have to drink a bottle of gin before 11:00 to numb myself at how horrifying this is.  You could almost call it a spiritual practice I’ve cultivated over the years.  I really worked to create that kind of relationship—so that it’s not a chaotic fight.  I don’t go up against my writing and come out bloody-knuckled.  I don’t wrestle with the muse.  I don’t argue.  I try to get away from self-hatred, and competition, all those things that mark and mar so many writers’ careers and lives.  I try to remain stubborn in my gladness.”  

In the end, Gilbert’s poetry pleads for us to deliver ourselves from the shackles of caution and convention so we can develop into the most authentic expression of ourselves.  To live fully, to sip all the wonderful wines of life, to be unconditionally, unabashedly ourselves— for Gilbert, that was the ultimate goal.  But to write this way, to live this way— his protege reminds us—requires we be brave and bold:

“I have an uncle who’s a great reader of poetry, and I shared Jack Gilbert’s work with him.  He said he didn’t like him, and I asked why.  My uncle said, “I like the poems, but I don’t like the way the poems make me feel I haven’t lived a brave or interesting enough life.”  That’s the pain and pleasure of reading Gilbert.  He offers an uncompromising challenge to his readers: Make the very most of your life, no less.  In this, he holds up a model of something I would so love to be.  Sometimes I brush up against in it sideways ways, and then skirt away from it again—because I long for security and affirmation more than I long for the purity of a life spent in examination of the poetic mysteries.

Do you have the courage to be a poet?” Gilbert asked the graduate student, after all.  We need courage to take ourselves seriously, to look closely and without flinching, to regard the things that frighten us in life and art with wonder.  We tend to surround ourselves with the things that make us feel safe, but can then wall us in.  We’re aspirational, we’re ambitious, we’re insecure, we want comforts.  Live bravely when you’re young, we say.  And maybe again when you retire, if you play your cards right.  

Jack Gilbert refused that argument: No, I’m just going to live that way every single day of my life, thanks.  And he did, by all accounts.”

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process remains a must-read for writers hungry for inspiration or anyone fascinated by the mysterious workings of the muse.  For more wisdom on art, literature and life, explore the rest of the collection, especially the illuminating essays of Maggie Shipstead, Marilynne Robinson, Yiyun Li, Khaled Hosseini, Andre Dubus III, Hanya Yanagihara, and Mary Gaitskill.

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Yiyun Li on Seeing, Staring & the Necessity of Looking Closer

yiyun liThroughout human history, heedful observation has been the first step to deciphering the mysteries of the universe: Copernicus only realized the planets in our solar system revolved around the sun after countless hours staring through a telescope whereas Darwin only formulated his paradigm-shifting theory of evolution after rigorously studying the breathtaking diversity of the Galapagos.  Art, too, begins with observation.  The novelist, the photographer, the painter, the poet: before he can represent reality, he must see it, which requires he dispense with all preconception and prejudice.  To discover truth, whether as an artist or scientist, we must be willing to look closer— and be courageous enough to see things as they actually are.

The necessity of looking closer is what Yiyun Li, author of the heartbreaking autobiographical novel, Where Reasons End, ponders in her perceptive essay “Strangers on a Train,” one of forty six thought-provoking pieces that compose Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.  Complied of the best essays from the Atlantic’s much-beloved “By Heart” column, Light the Dark asks literature’s leading lights one question: what inspires you?   They then choose a passage that was formative to their development as writers.  The result?  An engrossing compendium of wisdom from authors as diverse as Mary Gaitskill, Maggie Shipstead, Marilynne Robinson, Khaled Hosseini, Andre Dubus III, Hanya Yanagihara, and Elizabeth Gilbert.  

When asked what inspires her, Li chose an excerpt from Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Death of Heart.  The passage describes Portia Quayne, a sixteen-year-old orphan who’s learned to evade people’s gaze:

Portia had learnt one dare never look for long.  She had those eyes that seem to be welcome nowhere, that learnt shyness from the alarm they precipitate.  Such eyes are always turning away or being humbly lowered…You most often meet or, rather, avoid meeting such eyes in a child’s face— what becomes of that child later you do not know.”

For Li, this passage captures an essential fact of human nature: most of us are embarrassed to be known.  Terrified of being seen for who we are, we avert our eyes from lingering glances and hide from intimacy behind self-imposed walls.  When others attempt to penetrate our defenses, we fortify our strongholds, remaining as remote as an island thousands of miles from the coast.  Not even our dearest friends are permitted unrestricted access to our hearts.  After all, if we lay bare our authentic selves, whether it be to casual acquaintances or to our closest confidantes, we risk being rejected and ridiculed: 

This passage describes an averted gaze— eyes we ‘avoid meeting’ because they are so revealing, so full of feeling, and the way these eyes themselves learn to turn away because they cause such alarm.  I think it’s a very cutting insight into human nature.  How often do we turn away from knowing another person fully as we could, avoiding even the eyes of the people we’re closest to?  And how often do we hide ourselves, afraid of being really looked into and seen?” 

 In a funny moment, Li confesses that— unlike Bowen’s timid Portia— she loves to stare, mostly because observing is how one begins to understand another’s soul:

I relate to this because I’m a starer; I’m interested in looking at people very closely.  I look at people I know, but I also look at people I don’t know.  It does make strangers uncomfortable— which, of course, I understand.  I’ve noticed that, in New York City, you’re not supposed to stare at people.  No one has enough space, and when people are in public, they’re trying to maintain anonymity.  But I stare at people all the time, because I like to imagine their lives by looking into their faces, looking at their eyes.  You can tell so much just from a person’s face.”

Other than our instinctual fear of ridicule, we avoid gazing too intensely in others’ eyes because we fear the secrets we’ll unearth.  Human beings are as unfathomable as the furthest reaches of the universe: we can launch satellites into space but can never unravel all the enigmas that lie beyond our own limited frontier.  

And therein lies the dilemma— we can never truly know people.  Our mother, our best friend, our lover: if we look at any of them too closely, we’ll realize they’re as unfamiliar as strangers in a subway car.  On the surface, our mother may seem unadventurous but, if we plumb the depths of her past, we might discover she once gallivanted around the globe, sunbathing in Santorini and dancing all night at the Brazilian carnival.  Our best friend may seem vivacious and charismatic, so convivial she can effortlessly strike up a conversation with most people but, beneath her facade of sociability, she might prefer to be left alone.  Even after years together, some terrain of our lover’s character might remain unexplored.  Our kind, gentle husband might shock us when he loses his temper and smashes a plate against the wall.  Or a casual conversation about abortion might reveal he holds an opinion in direct conflict with our own.  Nothing is more mysterious than the human heart.  Though we tend to classify people into neat and tidy categories of semantic description (“mother,” “father,” “enemy,” “friend”), human beings contain “multitudes” to borrow the enduring words of Walt Whitman— they can’t be collapsed into a box.  When we look steadily at our loved ones, Li writes, we realize what we see is but a small fraction of who they are:

When I was studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop years ago, Marilynne Robinson used an example to demonstrate the inexplicableness of human beings.  I forget the context, and I’m paraphrasing, but she would say something like this: 

Sometimes, when you get home and your mother looks up, her eyes are so unfamiliar, and for a moment it’s as though she’s looking at you as a stranger on a New York subway would do.

I loved that idea— your eyes surprise your mother’s eyes, and for that split second everything is there: a whole emotional world that you don’t know well, so foreign and hidden that she briefly becomes a stranger.  Then she transforms, she becomes the mother you know again, and life goes on.  But, in that brief instant of eye contact, something is caught.  This is what we learn by looking at another person’s face— and also what makes us want to turn away.”

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No matter how terrified we are of seeing and being seen, the only way to unveil the truth of people— and the world— is to look closer.  This is especially true in writing.  In the words of Susan Sontag, “a writer is someone who pays attention to the world— a writer is a professional observer.”  For Lin, to write is to stare: to truly see characters in all their contradictions and complexities, we can’t flinch from what’s there.  As in real life, characters lie to us: they wear a public face, they weave stories about who they are.  And just as in real life, we must unravel our characters from the myths they tell.  Life is a masquerade ball where we disguise ourselves in more acceptable costumes.  If we are to find the man behind the mask, the person behind the persona, we have to strip away the endless shrouds of affectation and facade until we can see others uncut and uncensored:

“Writing fiction is kind of like staring, too.  You have to stare at your characters, like you would a stranger on a train, but for much longer than is comfortable for both of you.  This way, you get to know characters layer by layer, until any dishonesty is stripped away.  I believe all characters try to trick us.  They lie to us.  It’s just like when you meet someone in the real world— no one’s going to be 100 percent honest.  They’re not going to tell you the whole story about themselves; in fact, the stories they do tell will say more about how they want to be perceived than how they actually are.  There’s always a certain resistance with being known, and that’s true of characters and real people.  People don’t want to tell you their secrets.  Or they lie to themselves, or they lie to you.

[…]

That’s why I stare at my characters.  Not physically— I can’t really see them physically— but in an act of imagination that’s similar to the way I stare at people in real life.  It can be harsh, but I think I like the harsh, true things you see when you don’t turn away.  The writer must never look away.  You can feel it in a book when a writer flinches away from seeing too deeply into his characters.  You really have to strip your characters naked, every single layer, to finally understand them.”

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