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"On how one orients himself to the moment," Henry Miller wrote in reflecting on the art of living, "depends the failure or fruitfulness of it." Indeed, this act of orienting ourselves – to the moment, to the world, to our own selves – is perhaps the most elusive art of all, and our attempts to master it often leave us fumbling, frustrated, discombobulated. And yet therein lies our greatest capacity for growth and self-transcendence.
Rebecca Solnit, whose mind and writing are among the most consistently enchanting of our time, explores this tender tango with the unknown in her altogether sublime collection A Field Guide to Getting Lost (public library).
Solnit writes in the opening essay:
Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go. Three years ago I was giving a workshop in the Rockies. A student came in bearing a quote from what she said was the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno. It read, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” I copied it down, and it has stayed with me since. The student made big transparent photographs of swimmers underwater and hung them from the ceiling with the light shining through them, so that to walk among them was to have the shadows of swimmers travel across your body in a space that itself came to seem aquatic and mysterious. The question she carried struck me as the basic tactical question in life. The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration – how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?
Illustration from Where You Are: A Collection of Maps That Will Leave You Feeling Completely Lost
The inquiry itself carries undertones of acknowledging the self illusion, or at the very least brushing up against the question of how we know who "we" are if we're perpetually changing. But for Solnit, as for Rilke, that uncertainty is not an obstacle to living but a wellspring of life – of creative life, most of all. Bridging the essence of art with the notion that not-knowing is what drives science, she sees in the act of embracing the unknown a gateway to self-transcendence:
Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found. It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own. Scientists too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, “live always at the ‘edge of mystery’ – the boundary of the unknown.” But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.
But unlike the dark sea, which obscures the depths of what is, of what could be seen in the present moment, the unknown spills into the unforeseen. Solnit turns to Edgar Allan Poe, who argued that "in matters of philosophical discovery ... it is the unforeseen upon which we must calculate most largely," and considers the deliberate juxtaposition of the rational, methodical act of calculation with the ineffable, intangible nature of the unforeseen:
How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.
The poet John Keats captured this paradoxical operation elegantly in his notion of "negative capability," which Solnit draws on before turning to another literary luminary, Walter Benjamin, who memorably considered the difference between not finding your way and losing yourself – something he called "the art of straying." Solnit writes:
To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away. In Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography. That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.
T and O map by Bartholomaeus Angelicus, 1392, from Umberto Eco's The Book of Legendary Lands
Even the word itself endured an unforeseen transformation, its original meaning itself lost amidst our present cult of productivity and perilous goal-orientedness:
The word “lost” comes from the Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know. Advertising, alarmist news, technology, incessant busyness, and the design of public and private space conspire to make it so.
Taking back the meaning of lost seems almost a political act, a matter of existential agency that we ought to reclaim in order to feel at home in ourselves. Solnit writes:
There’s another art of being at home in the unknown, so that being in its midst isn’t cause for panic or suffering, of being at home with being lost. . . . Lost [is] mostly a state of mind, and this applies as much to all the metaphysical and metaphorical states of being lost as to blundering around in the backcountry.
The question then is how to get lost. Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.
Illustration for Mapping Manhattan
During a recent vacation, I went horseback riding on a California ranch, home to a tight-knit equine community. Midway along the route, my horse glimpsed his peer across the field, carrying another rider on a different route, and began neighing restlessly upon the fleeting sight. Our guide explained that the horses, despite being extraordinarily intelligent beings, had a hard time making sense of seeing their friends appear out of nowhere, then disappear into the distance. Falling out of sight held the terror of being forever lost. My horse was calling out, making sure his friend was still there – that neither was lost. Underneath the geographic disorientation, one can imagine, lies a primal fear of losing control.
Despite the evolutionary distance, this equine disposition bears a disorienting similarity to the duality of our own relationship to the concept of lost – losing something we care about, losing ourselves, losing control – which Solnit captures beautifully:
Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a sublime read in its entirety. Complement it with Where You Are, an exploration of cartography as wayfinding for the soul, then revisit Anaïs Nin on how inviting the unknown helps us live more richly.
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"It’s part of the nature of man," Ray Bradbury told Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke as they peered into the future of space exploration, "to start with romance and build to a reality." "What would happen," Marshall McLuhan wondered in his seminal 1964 treatise Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, "if art were suddenly seen for what it is, namely, exact information of how to rearrange one's psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own extended faculties?" More than a quarter century later, Leonard Shlain picked up the inquiry with added dimension in Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light (public library) – an exploration of how "the inscrutability of modern art and the impenetrability of the new physics" intersect in a shared system of thinking about how the world works. In the preface, Shlain – neither an artist nor a physicist himself – considers how his training as a surgeon lends him a unique perspective on the two fields and their cross-pollination:
A surgeon is both an artist and a scientist... Surgeons rely heavily on their intuitive visual-spatial right-hemispheric mode. At the same time, our training is obviously scientific. Left-brained logic, reason, and abstract thinking are the stepping-stones leading to the vast scientific literature's arcane tenets. The need in my profession to shuttle back and forth constantly between these two complementary functions of the human psyche has served me well for this project.
Shlain lays out the basic premise of the parallel between the two fields:
Art and physics are a strange coupling. Of the many human disciplines, could there be two that seem more divergent? The artist employs image and metaphor; the physicist uses number and equation. Art encompasses an imaginative realm of aesthetic qualities; physics exists in a world of crisply circumscribed mathematical relationships between quantifiable properties. Traditionally, art has created illusions meant to elicit emotion; physics has been an exact science that made sense. . . . Yet, despite what appear to be irreconcilable differences, there is one fundamental feature that solidly connects these disciplines. Revolutionary art and visionary physics are both investigations into the nature of reality. Roy Lichtenstein, the pop artist of the 1960s, declared, "Organized perception is what art is all about." Sir Isaac Newton might have said as much for physics; he, too, was concerned with organizing perceptions. While their methods differ radically, artists and physicists share the desire to investigate the ways the interlocking pieces of reality fit together. This is the common ground upon which they meet.
Roy Lichtenstein, 'Sunrise,' 1963
Turning to the question of originality, Shlain argues that both art and physics are propelled by revolutionary insight – that transcendent clarity of vision that Rilke called a "conflagration of clear sight" – which reframes our understanding of the world:
Although the development of physics has always depended upon the incremental contributions of many original and dedicated workers, on a few occasions in history, one physicist has had an insight of such import that it led to a revision in his whole society's concept of reality. . . . Emile Zola's definition of art: "Nature as seen through a temperament," invokes physics, which is likewise involved with nature. The Greek word, physis, means "nature." ... The physicist, like any scientist, sets out to break "nature" down into its component parts to analyze the relationship of those parts. This process is principally one of reduction. The artist, on the other hand, often juxtaposes different features of reality and synthesizes them, so that upon completion, the whole work is greater than the sum of its parts. There is considerable crossover in the technique used by both. The novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote, "There is no science without fancy and no art without facts." . . . In addition to illuminating, imitating, and interpreting reality ... artists create a language of symbols for things for which there are yet to be words.
This capacity for abstraction and symbolic representation, Shlain argues, is hard-wired into the evolution of our cognitive development:
Observe any infant as it masters its environment. Long before speech occurs, a baby develops an association between the image of a bottle and a feeling of satisfaction. Gradually, the baby accumulates a variety of images of bottles. This is an astounding feat considering that a bottle viewed from different angles changes shape dramatically: from a cylinder to an ellipse to a circle. Synthesizing these images, the child's emerging conceptual faculties invent an abstract image that encompasses the idea of an entire group of objects she or he will henceforth recognize as bottles. This step in abstraction allows the infant to understand the idea of "bottleness."
This rudimentary faculty remains central to how we make sense of the world as adults and how we grasp its immaterial subtleties:
Concepts such as "justice," "freedom" or "economics" can be turned over in the mind without ever resorting to mental pictures. While there is never final resolution between word and image, we are a species dependent on the abstractions of language and in the main, the word eventually supplants the image.
When we reflect, ruminate, reminisce, muse and imagine, generally we revert to the visual mode. But in order to perform the brain's highest function, abstract thinking, we abandon the use of images and are able to carry on without resorting to them. It is with great precision that we call this type of thinking, "abstract." This is the majesty and the tyranny of language. To affix a name to something is the beginning of control over it. . . . Words, more than strength or speed, became the weapons that humans have used to subdue nature.
Children's use of metaphor, we now know, sheds light on the evolution of human imagination – something Shlain argues is central to our ability to navigate the world. Adding to history's most elegant definitions of art, he argues for the cultural role of the artist in fostering this crucial domain of understanding:
Because the erosion of images by words occurs at such an early age, we forget that in order to learn something radically new, we need first to imagine it. "Imagine" literally means to "make an image." ... [If] this function of imagination, so crucial to the development of an infant, is also present in the civilization at large, who then creates the new images that precede abstract ideas and descriptive language? It is the artist. . . . Art [lives] not only as an aesthetic that can be pleasing to the eye but, as a Distant Early Warning system of the collective thinking of a society. Visionary art alerts the other members that a conceptual shift is about to occur in the thought system used to perceive the world.
One of Lisbeth Zwerger's imaginative illustrations for Alice in Wonderland
He cites art critic Robert Hughes's assertion that "the truly significant work of art is the one that prepares the future" and adds:
Repeatedly throughout history, the artist introduces symbols and icons that in retrospect prove to have been an avant-garde for the thought patterns of a scientific age not yet born. . . . Revolutionary art in all times has served this function of preparing the future.
Shlain returns to the common ground between art and physics, both of which serve as tools for mapping the unknown:
Both art and physics are unique forms of language. Each has a specialized lexicon of symbols that is used in a distinctive syntax. Their very different and specific contexts obscure their connection to everyday language as well as to each other. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy just how often the terms of one can be applied to the concepts of the other... While physicists demonstrate that A equals B or that X is the same as Y, artists often choose signs, symbols and allegories to equate a painterly image with a feature of experience. Both of these techniques reveal previously hidden relationships. . . . Revolutionary art and visionary physics attempt to speak about matters that do not yet have words. That is why their languages are so poorly understood by people outside their fields. Because they both speak of what is certainly to come, however, it is incumbent upon us to learn to understand them.
Illustration from Alice in Quantumland: An Allegory of Quantum Physics by CERN physicist Robert Gilmore
Turning to the famous Tower of Babel myth – a Biblical story about humanity's collaborative effort to build a tower that would reach the heavens, paralyzed by an indignant god's spell that transformed people's previously common language into garbled speech that made them unable to communicate and collaborate – Shlain draws a parallel to the artificial garbling of the shared language of art and physics:
History has been the record of our agonizingly slow resumption of work on this mythic public monument to knowledge. Gradually the parochial suspicions that had been abetted by large numbers of local dialects have given way to the more universal outlook of modern humankind. Currently, this work in progress is the creation of a global commonwealth. The worldwide community of artists and scientists is and has been in the forefront of this coalescence, offering perceptions of reality that erase linguistic and national boundaries. Reconciliation of the apparent differences between these two unique human languages, art and physics, is the next important step in developing our unifying Tower.
Both disciplines, he argues, first require us to ask how we know the world. Tracing the history of the answer from Plato to Descartes to Kant, Shlain points to philosophers' distinction between "the inner eye of imagination and the external world of things" as a toxic and artificial divide that drove art and physics apart:
The faculty we use to grasp the nature of the "out there" is our imagination. Somewhere within the matrix of our brain we construct a separate reality created by a disembodied, thinking consciousness. This inner reality is unconnected to external space and exists outside the stream of linear time. When reminiscing about a day at the beach, we knit together elements of that day that no longer "actually" exist. We can run the events forward and backward with ease, and amend with alternate possibilities what we believe happened... Consciousness, resembling nothing so much as long columns of ants at work, must laboriously transfer the outside world piece by piece through the tunnels of the senses, then reconstruct it indoors. This inner spectral vision amounts to a mental "opinion" unique to each individual of how the world works... When an entire civilization reaches a consensus about how the world works, the belief system is elevated to the supreme status of a "paradigm," whose premises appear to be so obviously certain no one has to prove them anymore.
Shlain points to the beginning of the 20th century, when Einstein's theory of photons challenged two centuries of considering light a wave, as a turning point for the integration between art and physics. Suddenly, by acknowledging the contradictory duality of light as both a particle and a wave, science had to confront its basic tenet of objectivity and fixed laws. As Shlain puts it, "at the turn of the century, what was to be a surprising feature of quantum reality amounted to a Zen koan."
Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky from On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne
In 1926, Niels Bohr formalized this notion in his theory of complementarity, which stated that light was not either a wave or a particle, but was both a wave and a particle. Shlain writes:
As it turned out, light would reveal only one aspect of its nature at a time, resembling an odd carnival peep show. Whenever a scientist set up an experiment to measure the wavelike aspect of light, the subjective act of deciding which measuring device to use in some mysterious way affected the outcome, and light responded by acting as a wave. The same phenomenon occurred whenever a scientist set out to measure the particlelike aspect of light. Thus "subjectivity," the anathema of all science (and the creative wellspring of all art) had to be admitted into the carefully defended citadel of classical physics. Werner Heisenberg, Bohr's close associate, said in support of this bizarre notion, "The common division of the world into subject and object, inner world and outer world, body and soul is no longer adequate.... Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves." According to the new physics, observer and observed are somehow connected, and the inner domain of subjective thought turns out to be intimately conjoined to the external sphere of objective facts.
From this revolutionary duality of light Shlain extracts a broader metaphor for his central thesis:
[Through] the complementarity of art and physics ... these two fields intimately entwine to form a lattice upon which we all can climb a little higher in order to construct our view of reality. Understanding this connection should enhance our appreciation for the vitality of art and deepen our sense of awe before the ideas of modern physics. Art and physics, like wave and particle, are an integrated duality: They are simply two different but complementary facets of a single description of the world. Integrating art and physics will kindle a more synthesized awareness which begins in wonder and ends with wisdom.
In the remainder of Art & Physics, a mind-expanding read in its totality, Shlain goes on to trace the evolution of human thinking and knowledge from Ancient Greece to the Renaissance to the 20th century, exploring various aspects of the parallels between the two disciplines, from Einstein and Picasso's "common vision" to the interplay between illusion and reality to how music integrates the reason of science with the emotional expressiveness of art. Complement it with Dorion Sagan (son of Carl) on how science and philosophy enrich each other.
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In addition to being a great personal hero of mine, Susan Sontag endures as one of the most influential intellectuals of the past century. But her most enchanting quality was a singular blend of fierce, opinionated intellect and vast emotional capacity – a mind not only aware of the world, but also of itself and its own vulnerability, coupled with a heart that beat with uncommon intensity and inhabited its fallible human potentiality fully, unflinchingly – not only a "professional observer" of life, per her memorable definition of a writer, but also an active participant in life, both public and private. Sontag lived with more dimension than most people are capable of even imagining, let alone comprehending, which rendered her at times revered, at times reviled, but mostly artificially flattened into the very labels she so deplored.
To capture Sontag's life and spirit by honoring her dimensionality, then, is a monumental task, but one which Berlin-based writer and art critic David Schreiber accomplishes with enormous elegance in the long-awaited Susan Sontag: A Biography (public library).
Perhaps the most interesting narrative thread in Schreiber's story of Sontag explores how Sontag claimed her place in culture and crafted her version of "the American dream," beginning with her conquest of New York:
In March 1959, Susan and her son, David, moved to New York. With her typical flair for self-dramatization, Sontag told interviewers that she arrived in the metropolis with only two suitcases and thirty dollars. Later it was seventy dollars, a somewhat more realistic amount that would be about $450 in today’s dollars. Because of the low rents in New York at the time, it would have been enough to make a start.
As Sontag told it, it sounds like a version of the American dream: a twenty-three-year-old single mother without resources moves to a huge and hostile city intending to live there as an author, filmmaker, and intellectual. And on her own and against all odds, she realizes her dream. There could not have been a better place than New York for Sontag to convert her fantasy of the bohemian life into reality. In this city, everything seemed possible for a young, ambitious woman.
But it wasn't merely a matter of ambition: Sontag possessed a rare talent to possess – people, places, social situations. Schreiber cites an account by one of Sontag's lifelong friends, The American poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Howard:
Howard remembers what a natural Sontag was at making new contacts, striking up friendships, and meeting influential people. “She could be very, very nice – even seductive – to people she wanted something from. She just could not talk to stupid people.” . . . Sontag’s natural and self-confident contact with this exclusive society is all the more remarkable when one recalls how difficult it was to gain admittance. The gathering of New York’s high society of writers, artists, and intellectuals was an almost hermetically sealed world with strict criteria for admission. . . . Sontag seemed to exude an irresistible mixture of intelligence, hipness, sex, and beauty, so that, as she herself once said, she had Jasper Johns, Bobby Kennedy, and Warren Beatty all at her feet.
For Sontag, however, New York wasn't just a public scene to be conquered – it was also the scene of her most private passions and struggles. She inhabited, perhaps more fully than any other New Yorker, E.B. White's famous description of Gotham as a city that "blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation." And among Sontag's more private conquests was that of her own sexuality, underpinned by a characteristically paradoxical fusion of conflictedness and conviction. It was in New York that she met and fell in love with the Cuban-American artist María Irene Fornés. Schreiber explores the relationship between Sontag's sexuality and her writing:
The published excerpts from Sontag’s journals make clear how close and fulfilling the relationship between her and Fornés was. In them, the extremely vulnerable Sontag sketches the petty jealousies and disappointments she suffered and her own, often exaggerated, demands on her partner. A few years later, the relationship would flounder on such demands. But the greatest discovery in this relationship was Sontag’s unconditional acceptance of the fact that her erotic needs included sexual relations with women. . . . By the end of 1959, she had admitted to herself that she desired women as well as men. With Fornés, she experienced erotic fulfillment such as she had not known before, and she associated it with the renewal of her writing: “I lust to write."
A couple of years later, Sontag would revisit the interplay between writing and sex in her journal. But her "unconditional acceptance" would quickly be put to the test against the prejudices of her era. Philip Rieff, Sontag's ex-husband and the father of her son David, ambushed her with a custody lawsuit claiming that she was an unfit mother due to her lesbian relationships. (Rieff, it appears, was no stranger to self-serving and exploitive tactics: their divorce settlement stipulated that he could claim sole authorship of Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, a book over which Sontag had tenaciously labored as co-author.) Schreiber writes of the custody battle:
This attempt was a shock to Susan who – herself fatherless as a child – had always strongly insisted that David have a good relationship with his father and had sent him on visits to Rieff in California and Pennsylvania as often as possible.
There ensued a custody battle that was grist for the gossip columns of several New York dailies. The New York Daily News headlined its courtroom commentary “Lesbian Religion Professor Gets Custody.” With his nose for a good story, Alfred Chester reported that Sontag and Fornés appeared in the courtroom “stunning” in dresses, heels, and makeup. The judge was so smitten by the glamorous duo that he could not believe they were lesbians.
Despite winning the case and retaining custody of David, Sontag was shocked by the trial. Although from the beginning it was unlikely that a court of the time would grant custody to the father rather than the mother, the Stonewall Uprising and the birth of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement lay far in the future. Homosexuality was still a punishable offense in New York, even if it was seldom prosecuted if practiced behind closed doors and by women.
Sontag went on to have several significant relationships in her lifetime, most with women. She spent the last fifteen years of her life with legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz. (According to Leibovitz, the couple never liked the terms "companion" or "partner" – after Sontag's death, Leibovitz said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle: “It was a relationship in all its dimensions. . . I mean, we helped each other through our lives. Call us ‘lovers’ . . . I like ‘lovers.’ You know, ‘lovers’ sounds romantic. I mean, I want to be perfectly clear. I love Susan. I don’t have a problem with that.” One could only imagine how Sontag might have greeted the dawn of marriage equality, had she lived to see it, and how the new politics of sexuality might have translated into her writing.)
Susan Sontag on love — excerpts from her diary, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton
In the closing pages, Schreiber returns to the essence of Sontag's spirit and the very root of her enduring legacy:
Sontag was one of the few figures able to maintain her public status as an intellectual in the new era of theory. One reason was that, as her essays had always shown, she believed implicitly in her mission, namely, to bring together art, literature, film, and politics and communicate their interrelatedness to her readers.
And she accomplished that mission. Her conception of herself as an intellectual and writer on the French model whose passing Barthes mourned and her irresistible combination of braininess and hipness proved compatible with the changing public taste… Both the old and the new generation found a common denominator in her thought and writings. She was capable of building a bridge between the moribund New York Intellectuals of the “old school” and the academic disseminators of cultural studies, semiotics, and deconstructivism. As a transitional figure, she was both the object of a kind of nostalgia and the creator of new impulses, both the relict of a bygone era and the media star of a new one.
Susan Sontag: A Biography is a spectacular read in its entirety, chronicling Sontag's career and the trajectory of intellectual luminosity, her loves, her political and social activism, her decades-long battles with depression and cancer, and her mission to "defend the universal role of the writer against the opposition of her times." Complement it with Sontag on the gap between love and sex, "aesthetic consumerism," beauty vs. interestingness, education, stereotypes, literature and freedom, and why lists appeal to us.
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"Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction," Rebecca Solnit wrote in her sublime meditation on how the art of getting lost helps us find ourselves, "and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery." But the maps we use to navigate that terra incognita – maps bequeathed to us by the dominant beliefs and standards of our culture – can often lead us further from ourselves rather than closer, leaving us discombobulated rather than oriented toward the true north of our true inner compass. A decade after his influential meditation on "Buddhist economics," British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher set out to explore how we can improve those maps and use them to better navigate the meaning of life in his magnificent 1977 essay collection A Guide for the Perplexed (public library).
Schumacher begins with an apt anecdotal metaphor for how these misleading maps are handed to us:
On a visit to Leningrad some years ago I consulted a map to find out where I was, but I could not make it out. I could see several enormous churches, yet there was no trace of them on my map. When finally an interpreter came to help me, he said "We don’t show churches on our maps." Contradicting him, I pointed to one that was very clearly marked. "This is a museum," he said, "not what we call a 'living church.' It is only the 'living churches' we don’t show."
It then occurred to me that this was not the first time I had been given a map that failed to show many of the things I could see right in front of my eyes. All through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance for the conduct of my life. I remembered that for many years my perplexity was complete; and no interpreter came along to help me. It remained complete until I ceased to suspect the sanity of my perceptions and began, instead, to suspect the soundness of the maps.
Map of Palmanova, from Umberto Eco's Legendary Lands
Instead, Schumacher set out to "look at the whole world and try to see it" – which requires examining what it really means to map knowledge and meaning in life, including its invisible, unprovable layers. Peering into the history of "philosophical mapmaking," he writes:
The maps of real knowledge, designed for real life, showed nothing except things which allegedly could be proved to exist. The first principle of the philosophical mapmakers seemed to be "If in doubt, leave it out," or put it into a museum. It occurred to me, however, that the question of what constitutes proof was a very subtle and difficult one. Would it not be wiser to turn the principle into its opposite and say: "If in doubt, show it prominently"? After all, matters that are beyond doubt are, in a sense, dead; they do not constitute a challenge to the living.
To accept anything as true means to incur the risk of error. If I limit myself to knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt, I minimize the risk of error but I maximize, at the same time, the risk of missing out on what may be the subtlest, most important and most rewarding things in life.
Isle of Knowledge by Marian Bantjes
To do that, however, we need a tolerance for doubt – more than that, an active embrace of uncertainty. Corroborating the idea that our compulsion for plans limits us, Schumacher cites the famous José Ortega y Gasset line that "life is fired at us point-blank" and writes:
We cannot say: "Hold it! I am not quite ready. Wait until I have sorted things out." Decisions have to be taken that we are not ready for; aims have to be chosen that we cannot see clearly. This is very strange and, on the face of it, quite irrational. Human beings ... hesitate, doubt, change their minds, run hither and thither, uncertain not simply of how to get what they want, but above all of what they want.
Mapping our wants is a core part of the human journey. If we don't do that, Schumacher argues, we are "left in total perplexity." But the art of existential mapmaking is a delicate one:
Mapmaking is an empirical art which makes use of a high degree of abstraction but none the less clings to reality with something akin to self-abandonment. Its motto, in a sense, is "Accept everything; reject nothing." If something is there, if it has any kind of existence ... it must be indicated on the map, in its proper place.
Graphic for Skepticism from Philographics, a visual dictionary of philosophy
But as Rationalism and Skepticism rose to power in philosophy, Schumacher argues they wrought a "very great impoverishment" in the ability to map abstraction, because these movements "strove with determination, not to say fanaticism, to get rid of the vertical dimensions [of being]," the distinction between lower- and higher-order ideals that traditional wisdom distinguished between. He writes:
Thus the maps ceased to be of any help to people in the awesome task of picking their way through life.
The loss of the vertical dimension meant that it was no longer possible to give an answer, other than a utilitarian one, to the question, "What am I to do with my life?" The answer could be more individualistic-selfish or more social-unselfish, but it could not help being utilitarian: either "Make yourself as comfortable as you can" or "Work for the greatest happiness of the greatest number."
Without the qualitative concepts of "higher" and "lower" it is impossible to even think of guidelines for living that lead beyond individual or collective utilitarianism and selfishness.
To remedy this flattening, Schumacher maps out four essential "Levels of Being" and proposes a model – a formula of sorts – for how they relate to one another and where they belong on the philosophical map: m marks the "mineral level" of inorganic matter; x is the "life force" of organic matter, which animates plants and animals, setting them apart from rocks; y denotes consciousness, which distinguishes a cat from catnip (though it has been argued, since Schumacher's time, that plants may have a consciousness-like capacity); and z, which denotes the human capacity for self-awareness. Schumacher considers this uniquely human – though, one could presently argue, questionably so – faculty:
This power z has undoubtedly a great deal to do with the fact that man is not only able to think but is also able to be aware of his thinking. Consciousness and intelligence, as it were, recoil upon themselves. There is not merely a conscious being, but a being capable of being conscious of its consciousness; not merely a thinker, but a thinker capable of watching and studying his own thinking. There is something able to say “I” and to direct consciousness in accordance with its own purposes, a master or controller, a power at a higher level than consciousness itself. This power z, consciousness recoiling upon itself, opens up unlimited possibilities of purposeful learning, investigating, exploring, and of formulating and accumulating knowledge.
We must, however, take great care always to remember that such a word label is merely (to use a Buddhist phrase) “a finger pointing to the moon.” The “moon” itself remains highly mysterious and needs to be studied with the greatest patience and perseverance if we want to understand anything about man’s position in the Universe.
By this model, then, a rock is described as m, a plant as m + x, an animal as m + x + y, and a human being as m + x + y + z. Where scientific reductionism and philosophies like Skepticism fall short, Schumacher argues, is in dealing with the lowest level, m, and pretending the rest don't exist. He writes:
To say that life is nothing but a property of certain peculiar combinations of atoms is like saying that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is nothing but a property of a peculiar combination of letters. The truth is that the peculiar combination of letters is nothing but a property of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Illustration from Geometrical Psychology, Benjamin Betts's 19th-century mathematical diagrams of consciousness
It is from the ineffable power of z – "consciousness recoiling upon itself" – that our core humanity springs, and it is through harnessing this power that we can reach our highest potentiality along the vertical dimension:
Because of the power of self-awareness (z), [the human] faculties are indeed infinite; they are not narrowly determined, confined, or “programmed”... Once a human potentiality is realized, it exists. . . .
This “open-endedness” is the wonderful result of the specifically human powers of self-awareness (z), which, as distinct from the powers of life and consciousness, have nothing automatic or mechanical about them. The powers of self-awareness are essentially a limitless potentiality rather than an actuality. They have to be developed and “realized” by each human individual if he is to become truly human, that is to say, a person.
Self-awareness is the rarest power of all, precious and vulnerable to the highest degree, the supreme and generally fleeting achievement of a person, present one moment and all too easily gone the next.
But self-awareness, Schumacher implies, also makes us invariably aware of the other – of our fellow human beings – without whom our individual experience would be vacant of meaning. Once again, he rebels against reductionism:
The most “real” world we live in is that of our fellow human beings. Without them we should experience a sense of enormous emptiness; we could hardly be human ourselves, for we are made or marred by our relations with other people. The company of animals could console us only because, and to the extent to which, they were reminders, even caricatures, of human beings. A world without fellow human beings would be an eerie and unreal place of banishment; with neither fellow humans nor animals the world would be a dreadful wasteland, no matter how luscious its vegetation. To call it one-dimensional would not seem to be an exaggeration. Human existence in a totally inanimate environment, if it were possible, would be total emptiness, total despair. It may seem absurd to pursue such a line of thought, but it is surely not so absurd as a view which counts as “real” only inanimate matter and treats as “unreal,” “subjective,” and therefore scientifically nonexistent the invisible dimensions of life, consciousness, and self-awareness.
He returns to the progression between the levels and considers our ultimate human potentiality:
At the level of animal ... the power of doing, organizing and utilizing is immeasurably extended; there is evidence of an "inner life," of happiness and unhappiness, confidence, fear, expectation, disappointment and so forth. Any being with an inner life cannot be a mere object: it is a subject itself, capable even of treating other beings as mere objects, as the cat treats the mouse.
At the human level, there is a subject that says "I" — a person: another marked change from passivity to activity, from object to subject. To treat a person as if he or she were a mere object is a perversity, not to say a crime. No matter how such a person may be weighed down and enslaved by circumstances, there is always the possibility of self-assertion and rising above circumstances... There is no definable limit to his possibilities, even though there are practical limitations which he has to recognize and respect.
Illustration from Ralph Steadman's visual biography of Leonardo da Vinci
A Guide for the Perplexed is excellent in its entirety. Pair it with Schumacher on how to stop prioritizing goods over people and Alan Watts on becoming who you really are.
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