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Boredom has a long cultural history and an adaptive function in human life – it serves a vital creative purpose and protects us by helping us tolerate open-endedness; in childhood, it becomes the wellspring of imaginative play. And yet we live in a culture that seems obsessed with eradicating boredom, as if it were Ebola or global poverty, and replacing it with a peculiar modern form of active idleness oozing from our glowing screens.
No thinker in the history of humanity has done more to shed light on both the problem of boredom and its existential solution than Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard – a man of such timeless insight into the fundamental desiderata of the human soul that he was able to explain, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the psychology of online trolling and bullying, the reason for the eternal tension between the majority and the minority, and why anxiety fuels creativity rather than stifling it.
In a section of his 1843 masterwork Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (public library), which also gave us Kierkegaard on our greatest source of unhappiness, the Danish philosopher defines boredom as a sense of emptiness and examines it not as an absence of stimulation but as an absence of meaning – an idea that also explains why it's possible, today more than ever, to be overstimulated but existentially bored.
Bemoaning how "utterly meaningless" his life has become, 30-year-old Kierkegaard writes:
How dreadful boredom is – how dreadfully boring; I know no stronger expression, no truer one, for like is recognized only by like... I lie prostrate, inert; the only thing I see is emptiness, the only thing I live on is emptiness, the only thing I move in is emptiness. I do not even suffer pain... Pain itself has lost its refreshment for me. If I were offered all the glories of the world or all the torments of the world, one would move me no more than the other; I would not turn over to the other side either to attain or to avoid. I am dying death. And what could divert me? Well, if I managed to see a faithfulness that withstood every ordeal, an enthusiasm that endured everything, a faith that moved mountains; if I were to become aware of an idea that joined the finite and the infinite.
In this conception, boredom becomes indeed an emptiness of meaning rather than a lack of diversion. In fact, Kierkegaard likely influenced Tolstoy when the beloved Russian author, in his own existential quest for meaning, asserted that "for man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.”
Kierkegaard also illuminates our modern cult of productivity and our compulsive busyness as a hedge against that dreaded boredom:
Boredom is the root of all evil. It is very curious that boredom, which itself has such a calm and sedate nature, can have such a capacity to initiate motion. The effect that boredom brings about is absolutely magical, but this effect is one not of attraction but of repulsion.
Such a conception explains, for instance, why all the cute-cat listicles spewed by the BuzzWorthy establishment of commodified distraction are hapless in assuaging the soul's cry – which is, after all, the task of philosophy – in the face of such terrifying boredom springing from a lack of meaning. Alan Watts, another prescient sage of the ages, termed such futile strategies of diversion "orgasm without release." Noting that such "misguided diversion" is itself the source of existential boredom – which is "partly an acquired immediacy" – Kierkegaard adds:
It seems doubtful that a remedy against boredom can give rise to boredom, but it can give rise to boredom only insofar as it is used incorrectly. A mistaken, generally eccentric diversion has boredom within itself, and thus it works its way up and manifests itself as immediacy.
Illustration by Edward Gorey from The Shrinking of Treehorn by Florence Parry Heide
Kierkegaard laments that "habit and boredom have gained the upper hand to such a degree" in society and argues that this stems from how deeply boredom is woven into the fabric of our cultural mythology:
Adam was bored because he was alone; therefore Eve was created. Since that moment, boredom entered the world and grew in quantity in exact proportion to the growth of population. Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored together; then Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were bored en famille. After that, the population of the world increased and the nations were bored en masse.
In a remark at once amusing and disquieting in the context of modern childhood – recently, while playing with my four-year-old niece, she pressed her thumb into the circle portion of my arm tattoo as one would press a device button, expecting it to perform some entertaining animation and being visibly disappointed when it didn't – Kierkegaard offers an illustrative example of this mythology's aftermath:
How corrupting boredom is, everyone recognizes also with regard to children. As long as children are having a good time, they are always good. This can be said in the strictest sense, for if they at times become unmanageable even while playing, it is really because they are beginning to be bored; boredom is already coming on, but in a different way. Therefore, when selecting a nursemaid, one always considers essentially not only that she is sober, trustworthy, and good-natured but also takes into esthetic consideration whether she knows how to entertain children. Even if she had all the other excellent virtues, one would not hesitate to give her the sack if she lacked this qualification.
It would be quite impossible to prevail if one wanted to demand a divorce because one’s wife is boring, or demand that a king be dethroned because he is boring to behold, or that a clergyman be exiled because he is boring to listen to, or that a cabinet minister be dismissed or a journalist be executed because he is frightfully boring.
And yet boredom, he argues, is our basic constitution:
All human beings, then, are boring. The very word indicates the possibility of a classification. The word “boring” can designate just as well a person who bores others as someone who bores himself. Those who bore others are the plebeians, the crowd, the endless train of humanity in general; those who bore themselves are the chosen ones, the nobility. How remarkable it is that those who do not bore themselves generally bore others; those, however, who bore themselves entertain others.
Illustration by Maira Kalman from Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag, a most unusual alphabet book
Echoing his own admonition against our busyness as a distraction from living, he adds:
Generally, those who do not bore themselves are busy in the world in one way or another, but for that very reason they are, of all people, the most boring of all, the most unbearable... The other class of human beings, the superior ones, are those who bore themselves... They generally amuse others – at times in a certain external way the masses, in a deeper sense their co-initiates. The more thoroughly they bore themselves, the more potent the medium of diversion they offer others, also when the boredom reaches its maximum, since they either die of boredom (the passive category) or shoot themselves out of curiosity (the active category).
So what, then, are we to do to protect ourselves against the great evil of boredom? As its counterpoint, Kierkegaard offers the virtue of "idleness" – a concept he uses much like we use the notion of stillness today, a quality of being necessary for mindful presence with our own lives. Kierkegaard writes:
Idleness as such is by no means a root of evil; on the contrary, it is a truly divine life, if one is not bored... Idleness, then, is so far from being the root of evil that it is rather the true good. Boredom is the root of evil; it is that which must be held off. Idleness is not the evil; indeed, it may be said that everyone who lacks a sense for it thereby shows that he has not raised himself to the human level.
Much of this, of course, is semantic play, further complicated by the messiness of translation. But Kierkegaard's distinction between boredom and idleness seems rather similar to Van Gogh's distinction between the two types of idlers. Implicit to the positive counterpoint of the perilous kind is the "fertile solitude" necessary for a full life.
Echoing Seneca's timeless admonition against compulsive busyness, he admonishes against our tendency to conceive of life as a series of tasks to be accomplished rather than moments to be filled with living:
There is an indefatigable activity that shuts a person out of the world of spirit and places him in a class with the animals, which instinctively must always be in motion. There are people who have an extraordinary talent for transforming everything into a business operation, whose whole life is a business operation, who fall in love and are married, hear a joke, and admire a work of art with the same businesslike zeal with which they work at the office. The Latin proverb otium est pulvinar diaboli [idleness is the devil’s pillow] is quite correct, but the devil does not find time to lay his head on this pillow if one is not bored. But since people believe that it is man’s destiny to work, the antithesis idleness/work is correct. I assume that it is man’s destiny to amuse himself, and therefore my antithesis is no less correct.
Illustration for Alice in Wonderland by Lisbeth Zwerger
Our compulsive busyness also manifests itself in how we attempt to relieve ourselves of boredom – a strategy he explains through the agricultural metaphor of crop rotation done badly, which "consists in continually changing the soil," a sort of grasping after "the boundless infinity of change." Kierkegaard explains the failure of this boredom-alleviation method, which twentieth-century psychologists would come to term "the hedonic treadmill" of consumerism:
This rotation of crops is the vulgar, inartistic rotation and is based on an illusion. One is weary of living in the country and moves to the city; one is weary of one’s native land and goes abroad; one is [weary of Europe] and goes to America etc.; one indulges in the fanatical hope of an endless journey from star to star. Or there is another direction, but still extensive. One is weary of eating on porcelain and eats on silver; wearying of that, one eats on gold; one burns down half of Rome in order to visualize the Trojan conflagration. This method cancels itself and is the spurious infinity.
This he counters with the correct strategy – a method akin to mindfulness training, which emerges again and again, across every major spiritual tradition and secular school of thought, as our most promising gateway to happiness. Kierkegaard writes:
The method I propose does not consist in changing the soil but, like proper crop rotation, consists in changing the method of cultivation and the kinds of crops. Here at once is the principle of limitation, the sole saving principle in the world. The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes. A solitary prisoner for life is extremely resourceful; to him a spider can be a source of great amusement... What a meticulous observer one becomes, detecting every little sound or movement. Here is the extreme boundary of that principle that seeks relief not through extensity but through intensity.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss
A masterwork of timeless insight, Either/Or is infinitely rewarding in its totality. Complement it with legendary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why the capacity for boredom is essential for a full life and How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself, a wonderful vintage field guide to joyful solitude, then revisit Kierkegaard on why haters hate.
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"Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant – there is no such thing," Georgia O'Keeffe wrote in her spectacular letter to Sherwood Anderson. "Making your unknown known is the important thing – and keeping the unknown always beyond you…” And yet, as human beings, we orient ourselves in the darkness of the unknown by grasping blindly for familiar points of reference, seeking to construct a compass out of similarities and contrasts relative to our familiar world, and out of those we try to construct a framework for what we call success. This is especially true of such nebulous subjects as art, where there is no true North, no universal gold standard of success, so we seek tangibles – like the market – to orient ourselves in the maze of merit. The result can be a great crisis of confidence in artists and a great arrogance in audiences, leaving us still more unsure, as individuals and as a culture, of what makes great art and what it really means to be an artist.
In 33 Artists in 3 Acts (public library) – a belated but wildly worthy addition to the best art books of 2014 – journalist Sarah Thornton sets out to answer these delicate but crucial questions by peering into "the nature of being a professional artist today" and "how artists move through the world and explain themselves" via visits and conversations with such titans of contemporary art as Marina Abramović, Ai Weiwei, Yayoi Kusama, Laurie Simmons, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Cindy Sherman. Thornton spent four years traveling several hundred miles to interview 130 artists, of whom she chose 33 – those most "open, articulate, and honest," who fall "at diverse points along the following spectrums: entertainer versus academic, materialist versus idealist, narcissist versus altruist, loner versus collaborator" – hailing from five continents and fourteen countries. She then divided the great sensemaking task of her project into three umbrella themes – politics, which examines the relationship between the artists' work and their ethics, attitude to power, and sense of civic responsibility, with a special focus on freedom of speech and human rights; kinship, which explores the ecosystem of peers, influences, and patrons of which Art is woven, all the way from the large-scale creative lineage of inspirations to one actual nuclear family: photographer Laurie Simmons, painter Carroll Dunham, and writer-actor-director Lena Dunham; and craft, a survey of the practicalities of art, from skills to routines to studio spaces.
Thornton writes in the introduction:
Artists don’t just make art. They create and preserve myths... In a sphere where anything can be art, there is no objective measurement of quality, so ambitious artists must establish their own standards of excellence. Generating such standards requires not only immense self-confidence, but the conviction of others. Like competing deities, artists today need to perform in ways that yield a faithful following.
Echoing Ursula K. Le Guin's wryly wise assertion that "all the arts are performance arts, only some of them are sneakier about it than others," Thornton – who later notes that "everyone’s personal history is a creatively edited story" – adds:
The walk and talk of an artist has to persuade, not just others but the performers themselves. Whether they have colorful, large-scale personas or minimal, low-key selves, believable artists are always protagonists, never secondary characters who inhabit stereotypes. For this reason, I see artists’ studios as private stages for the daily rehearsal of self-belief.
Nowhere is this interplay between the public and private personae more central to the process and product of art than in performance art itself. For her now-legendary 2010 MoMA show The Artist Is Present, Marina Abramović – an artist who sees "immaterial energy" as her medium and believes that "nonverbal interaction is the highest form of communication" – sat in a wooden chair for more than 700 hours as she offered "unconditional love to complete strangers" – some half a million of them, many of whom were moved to tears in the presence of such piercing intensity.
But for the grand dame of performance art herself, the experience required a Buddhist-like quality of presence, a Buddhist-like attitude of welcoming everything that is. She tells Thornton:
Your shoulders drop, your legs swell, your ribs sink down into your organs... When you have so much pain, you think you will lose consciousness. If you say to yourself, ‘So what, lose consciousness,’ the pain goes away.
But Abramović, who indeed heeds the teachings of Tibetan monks, seeks not the showmanship but the higher purpose of such experiences. Her medium is, above all, the human spirit – something she handles with meticulous care and deep respect, with staunch opposition to nihilism, and always with an eye toward the essential sense of purpose that nourishes the human experience. That her art would take on the hues of a secular cult is neither accidental nor surprising. She tells Thornton with conviction "like a hurricane-force wind":
Many people spend so much time doubting. Before you choose a profession, you have to stand still, close your eyes and think: who am I? ... You know you are an artist when you have the urge to create, but this doesn’t make you a great artist. Great artists result from the sacrifices that you make to your personal life.
She sees the role of the artist as E.B. White saw the role of the writer, and as William Faulkner did in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, extolling the writer's duty "to help man endure by lifting his heart." Abramović tells Thornton:
The public is in need of experiences that are not just voyeuristic. Our society is in a mess of losing its spiritual center... Artists should be the oxygen of society. The function of the artist in a disturbed society is to give awareness of the universe, to ask the right questions, to open consciousness and elevate the mind.
Perhaps because these deeper desires for meaning are so quintessential and universal, Abramović echoes young Virginia Woolf's belief that all art merely imitates nature and negates the notion of creative influence between artists:
I have never been influenced by another artist... I like to go to the source, to all the places in nature that have a certain energy that you can absorb and translate into your own creativity as an artist.
And yet, as an artist who wholeheartedly embraces her contradictions – Abramović is a vegetarian, doesn't drink, fasts regularly, yet freely admits to loving fashion – she acknowledges the arrogant myth of originality:
We can’t invent anything in this world which is not there already. It’s about seeing in a different way. Anything that is revolutionary is in front of your nose and it is never complicated. But you don’t see it until you have a safe mind. Performance can help people to get into a state of mind to perceive the simplicity.
Even so, Abramović is a relentless proponent and practitioner of self-reinvention and risk-taking as the ultimate duty of the artist:
When you repeat, you really lose respect for yourself... For me, the studio is a trap to overproduce and repeat yourself. It is a habit that leads to art pollution. Nothing new happens. You don’t surprise yourself. Artists are here to risk, to find new territory. Risk, especially when you are a known artist, includes failing. It is an essential part of process. Failure is healthy for your ego.
Chinese artist, authority-provocateur, and human rights activist Ai Weiwei has made risk-taking his medium, having dedicated his life to challenging his country's long history of muffling free speech under a blanket of government propaganda and outright, often militant suppression – a mission that has landed him under arrest, led the Chinese authorities to completely wipe his writing from the country's patch of the internet, and on one occasion resulted in undercover police pulling a black hood over his head, throwing him into a van, and driving him to a hotel two hours away, where he was kept for two weeks before being transferred into a high-security military compound to endure more than fifty interrogations while handcuffed to a chair. He tells Thornton via translator:
Criticism and finding trouble is, in the Chinese context, a positive, creative act.
But it was precisely this trouble-finding creativity that his father, Ai Qing – who was among the intellectuals exiled during the anti-rightist campaign preceding China's Cultural Revolution – tried to discourage in young Ai, adamantly demanding that his son be anything but an artist. Ai Weiwei tells Thornton:
He always said forget about literature or art. Be an honest worker. [But] I became an artist because, under such pressure, my father still had somewhere nobody could touch. Even when the whole world was dark, there was something warm in his heart.
And yet under threats from the Red Guards to punish his family, Ai Qing gave up poetry and ended up cleaning the public toilets in a village in a remote Chinese province. Ai Weiwei recalls:
Only in the movies or in the Nazi time could you see things like that. It was very frustrating because this man was not a criminal. But people threw stones at him; the children used sticks to beat him; they poured ink on his head – all kinds of strange things in the name of justice and reeducation. The village people didn’t even know what he had done wrong. They just knew he was the enemy.
This early and deep sense of injustice became the raw material for Ai's art and the lens through which he views the role of art in society, and yet he describes himself as an "eternal optimist" and tells Thornton:
Art is a mental activity, an attitude, a lifestyle.
With an eye to the endangered art of being alone, he considers the relationship between art and activism, the fusion of which defines his own work:
If you have never felt lonely, you should become an activist. Loneliness is a valuable feeling. Artists need to know how to walk alone.
His views on fame both parallel Einstein's and better honor the complexity of the subject as he tells Thornton:
It comes too quick, too much. It is kind of ridiculous but I have good intentions. Fame needs to have content. If you use it for a purpose, it becomes different. So I am very happy that I have this chance to always speak my mind.
Although he recognizes the great hunger for commercial success in art today, Ai's opinion of such aspirations is unambivalent. Thornton writes:
In his opinion, to be a “business artist” requires two qualities: “emptiness and shamelessness"... Emptiness and shamelessness are not uncommon in Western art, I say. Some of the most successful artists appear to be nihilists who don’t believe in much other than themselves and the luxury goods market. Ai nods. “For them, art has become pure play, lacking any essential truth," he says.
This unflinching dedication to truth shows in Ai's definition of authenticity, which he offers Thornton after a moment of reflection:
[Authenticity] is a habit. It is a road we are comfortable with... Being somebody is being yourself. An artist’s success is part of the downside. You can lose yourself. Being yourself is a very difficult game.
Painter Carroll Dunham offers a complementary perspective on this delicate relationship between sense of self and artistic success:
A long career in the art world is hard on the ego... The most fun time to be an artist is when you are young and when you are old... Getting through the weird middle period with a sense that you’ve kept growing is a challenge.
Laurie Simmons, 'Love Doll: Day 27/ Day 1 (New in Box),' 2010
Photographer Laurie Simmons – Dunham's wife and the other half of their self-described "classic extrovert-introvert couple" – considers the trajectory of one's relationship with criticism over this long game of an artist's career:
When you’re younger and get a bad review, you think they hate you. It’s the recovery time that changes. You have to know how to pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and get back to work. That’s the key to maturity. It’s what divides the artists that do what they do from those who are not up to it.
When you are younger, you think about eradicating self-doubt. But, as you age, you understand that it is part of the rhythm of being an artist. As I get older, I have developed my ability to examine self-doubt in private, to play around with it, rather than push it away.
Echoing Sherwin Nuland's undying wisdom on what everybody needs, Dunham considers the heart of what makes criticism burn:
Negative commentary makes you feel misunderstood. So I often say to myself, "Apparently, I haven’t been clear enough with you people!"
Interesting artworks are always hypotheses about what an artwork could be... Why would anyone think that new art should resemble what art already looks like?
Echoing Jeanette Winterson's spectacular meditation on art and the arrogance of the audience, Dunham adds:
The general public doesn’t understand art so they think that a con has been perpetrated on them.
And yet artists, he suggests, do perpetrate cons when they take market over mystery and deploy cheap tricks like surface shock value in lieu of deeper inquiries into the human experience, which is itself shocking in a much more profound way:
Shock is just another move in the entertainment complex. It’s bullshit. Who are you supposed to shock? Rich hedge fund managers? Do you find the fact that you’re going to die shocking? I do. Art can bracket those human conditions. It can cause you to have a moment of insight.
In those moments, Dunham argues, the viewer is rolfed by creative communion with the artist:
You know the difference between a soothing back rub and truly deep bodywork. The latter is not pleasant while it’s happening but afterward you feel quite changed from it. Shock, awe, whatever. I’m not looking for a back rub from art. I’m looking for something that feels like it matters.
Simmons adds a piercing articulation of the great, disquieting fact of creative work, embracing which sets great creators apart:
Any work that is really great hovers between terrific and terrible.
Calling to mind Amanda Palmer's exquisite definition of what makes one a "real" artist, Dunham later adds:
There is this reverb. You have to make art to be an artist, but you have to be an artist to make art. It’s about getting your self-representation and your actual activities into alignment. I’ve gone through moments where I thought ‘I hate this, I don’t want to do it anymore,’ but I always come back to the fact there isn’t anything else that would better suit my sense of who I am.
It's hard to imagine that such strong opinions and unflinching dedication to the integrity of art wouldn't be passed on to Dunham and Simmons's daughter, Lena Dunham – herself one of the most courageous creative mavericks of our time. In a testament to the notion that parental presence rather than praise fosters a healthy relationship with achievement, Dunham – who defines creativity as "an ineffable bug that takes you over but also something that you can learn" – reflects on the creative conditions and conditioning of her childhood:
I was given the tools, the space, and the support to do whatever I wanted. New approaches to old problems were encouraged... My parents taught me that you can have a creative approach to thinking that is almost scientific. You don’t have to be at the mercy of the muse. You need your own internalized thinking process that you can perform again and again.
She considers the rewards of the creative life. . . .
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In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy's Levin observes his dog Laska one evening – "she opened her mouth a little, smacked her lips, and settling her sticky lips more comfortably about her old teeth, she sank into blissful repose" – and finds in her behavior a "token of all now being well and satisfactory," mirroring the "blissful repose" he so desires in his own life. Our tendency to anthropomorphize our faithful canine companions and project on them our own experiences and intentions may have produced some great literature – including Mary Oliver's sublime Dog Songs and an entire canon of high-brow comics – but it is something against which cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz admonishes with great elegance and rigor in Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (public library).
Of all the misplaced anthropomorphism we unleash on our dogs, Horowitz – a self-described "dog person" and "lover of dogs," who also happens to be a scientist heading Barnard's Dog Cognition Lab, where she studies dogs at play – makes a special, and utterly fascinating, case against the use of doggie raincoats:
There are some interesting assumptions involved in the creation and purchase of tiny, stylish, four-armed rain slickers for dogs. Let’s put aside the question of whether dogs prefer a bright yellow slicker, a tartan pattern, or a raining-cats-and-dogs motif (clearly they prefer the cats and dogs). Many dog owners who dress their dogs in coats have the best intentions: they have noticed, perhaps, that their dog resists going outside when it rains. It seems reasonable to extrapolate from that observation to the conclusion that he dislikes the rain.
But dogs, Horowitz points out, are also masters of mixed signals – your dog might wag his tail excitedly as you put the raincoat on him, or he might cower from the coat and curl his tail between his legs; he might look disheveled after a coatless rainy walk, but then take great joy in shaking off the water vigorously. To discern the dog's true feelings about that possibly plaid, possibly tartan-patterned raincoat, Horowitz turns to the dog's evolutionary ancestor:
The natural behavior of related, wild canines proves the most informative about what the dog might think about a raincoat. Both dogs and wolves have, clearly, their own coats permanently affixed. One coat is enough: when it rains, wolves may seek shelter, but they do not cover themselves with natural materials. That does not argue for the need for or interest in raincoats. And besides being a jacket, the raincoat is also one distinctive thing: a close, even pressing, covering of the back, chest, and sometimes the head. There are occasions when wolves get pressed upon the back or head: it is when they are being dominated by another wolf, or scolded by an older wolf or relative. Dominants often pin subordinates down by the snout. This is called muzzle biting, and accounts, perhaps, for why muzzled dogs sometimes seem preternaturally subdued. And a dog who “stands over” another dog is being dominant. The subordinate dog in that arrangement would feel the pressure of the dominant animal on his body. The raincoat might well reproduce that feeling. So the principal experience of wearing a coat is not the experience of feeling protected from wetness; rather, the coat produces the discomfiting feeling that someone higher ranking than you is nearby.
This interpretation is borne out by most dogs’ behavior when getting put into a raincoat: they may freeze in place as they are “dominated." ... The be-jacketed dog may cooperate in going out, but not because he has shown he likes the coat; it is because he has been subdued. And he will wind up being less wet, but it is we who care about the planning for that, not the dog. The way around this kind of misstep is to replace our anthropomorphizing instinct with a behavior-reading instinct. In most cases, this is simple: we must ask the dog what he wants. You need only know how to translate his answer.
But more than a mere evolutionary curiosity or reality check for our relationship with our beloved pets, this illustrates the broader solipsism of the Golden Rule in its traditional formulation, which urges us to do unto other human animals as we would like for them to do unto us. Instead, as Karen Armstrong has written in her magnificent treatise on the subject, true compassion requires that we seek to understand others so that we can do unto them what they would like done, rather than treating them by the personal ideals we subscribe to ourselves.
Artwork by Ana Juan from The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs
Much of that, whether it comes to a dog's raincoat or to interpersonal relationships between humans, has to do with understanding the umwelt – the subjective reality in which each creature dwells – and how it shapes the meaning of things for that creature. Horowitz writes:
If we want to understand the life of any animal, we need to know what things are meaningful to it. The first way to discover this is to determine what the animal can perceive: what it can see, hear, smell, or otherwise sense. Only objects that are perceived can have meaning to the animal; the rest are not even noticed, or all look the same... Two components – perception and action – largely define and circumscribe the world for every living thing. All animals have their own umwelten.
Each individual creates his own personal umwelt, full of objects with special meaning to him. You can most clearly see this last fact by letting yourself be led through an unknown city by a native. He will steer you along a path obvious to him, but invisible to you. But the two of you share some things: neither of you is likely to stop and listen to the ultrasonic cry of a nearby bat; neither of you smells what the man passing you had for dinner last night (unless it involved a lot of garlic). We ... and every other animal dovetail into our environment: we are bombarded with stimuli, but only a very few are meaningful to us.
This notion is what led Horowitz to follow up Inside of a Dog – which is intensely fascinating in its totality – with On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, a book that profoundly changed my perception of reality. For a sample taste of these first disorienting, then wonderfully reorienting ideas, see my conversation with Horowitz about the art and science of looking.
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"There are no facts, only interpretations," Nietzsche wrote in his notebook in the late 1880s. Nearly a century later, Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004), perhaps his only true intellectual peer in the history of human though, used Nietzsche's assertion as the springboard for one of the greatest essays ever written – her 1964 masterwork "Against Interpretation," found in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (public library).
Sontag – a woman of penetrating and enduring insight on such aspects of the human experience as courage and resistance, the "aesthetic consumerism" of visual culture, the clash between beauty and interestingness, and how stereotypes imprison us – examines our culture's generally well-intentioned but ultimately perilous habit of interpretation, which she defines as "a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain 'rules' of interpretation," a task akin to translation.
Only thirty-one at the time but already with two decades of intense and intensive reading under her belt, Sontag writes:
Interpretation ... presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy. The situation is that for some reason a text has become unacceptable; yet it cannot be discarded. Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning. However far the interpreters alter the text ... they must claim to be reading off a sense that is already there.
This, of course, warrants the necessary meta-observation that Sontag's now-iconic essay was perhaps, at least on some level, her way of admonishing people like you and me against interpreting her own work to its detriment – that is, misinterpreting it, or merely over-interpreting to a point of stripping it of the sheer sensory pleasure of Sontag's style, of the elegance with which her mind spills onto the page in its essential form.
Even half a century ago, in fact, Sontag was wary of the violence embedded in the act itself:
The contemporary zeal for the project of interpretation is often prompted by an open aggressiveness... The old style of interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys...
Interpretation is not (as most people assume) an absolute value, a gesture of mind situated in some timeless realm of capabilities. Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness. In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling.
Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling.
Although Sontag presaged with astounding accuracy the compulsions of the social web, one can't help but wince at a gruesome modern illustration of her point: I recently witnessed a commenter on Facebook throw a rather unwholesome epithet at Sontag herself, in reacting solely to an auto-generated thumbnail image, rather than responding to the 2,000-word article about Sontag, which Facebook's mindless algorithm had chosen to "interpret" by that thumbnail image – human and machine colluding in an especially violent modern form of "interpretation."
In that respect, Sontag's condemnation of such reactionary cowardice echoes the insightful observation Kierkegaard – another peer whose ideas she absorbed early and revisited over her lifetime – made in his diary a century earlier, contemplating the psychology of why haters hate. Hate, after all, is a form of interpretation – a particularly "reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling" one. In a remark astoundingly timely in our age of lazy reactivity and snap-judgments, often dispensed from behind the veil of anonymity, Sontag illuminates the underlying psychology of such "interpretations" with piercing precision:
Interpretation is not simply the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of understanding something, and is applied to works of every quality.
Interpretation, she argues, is at its most perilous when applied to the arts:
Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.)
Susan Sontag's diary meditations on art, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton
In a spectacular answer to the eternal and elusive question of what art is and what its duties are, she adds:
Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.
In another stroke of prescient and urgently timely insight, Sontag considers this notion of "content" – perhaps the vilest term by which professional commodifiers refer to cultural material today – and how it defiles art:
Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.
As an antidote to such violating interpretation, Sontag points to "making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be … just what it is." In a sentiment that Wendell Berry would come to echo two decades later in his bewitching case for the value of form, Sontag writes:
What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary – a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary – for forms.
This notion of vocabulary once again calls to mind the modern fixation on "content" – a term by which no self-respecting writer or artist would refer to what she makes, and yet one forcefully seared onto writing and art by the tyrannical vocabulary of commercial media, that hotbed of professionalized consumerism concerned not with the stewardship of culture but with the profitable commodification of it.
Sontag points to cinema as the perfect example of a form that resists the violence of interpretation. "Cinema is the most alive, the most exciting, the most important of all art forms right now," she writes – a remark partially quoted all over the internet, almost always with the "right now" portion missing, in a testament to exactly what Sontag warns against; her point, after all, was that cinema's aliveness in the "right now" of 1964 was due to its being such a young art. She writes:
Perhaps the way one tells how alive a particular art form is, is by the latitude it gives for making mistakes in it, and still being good... In good films, there is always a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret... The fact that films have not been overrun by interpreters is in part due simply to the newness of cinema as an art.
But Sontag's greatest admonition against interpretation has to do with its tendency to de-sensualize art – to render impossible the "active surrender" by which great art makes its claim on our souls:
Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there... Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life – its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness – conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.
What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.
She returns to that timeless, devastatingly timely question of "content":
Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.
The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and, by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.
The entirety of Against Interpretation and Other Essays is all genius, no mediocrity – the kind of reading that plants itself in the garden of the mind, remains there a lifetime, and blossoms anew with each passing year. Complement it with Sontag on literature and freedom, the writer's role in society, boredom, sex, censorship, aphorisms, why lists appeal to us, and the joy of rereading beloved books.
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