Hey Terry Travers! If you missed last week's edition – the psychology and practicalities of becoming a successful artist, David Foster Wallace on writing and how we become who we are, Bukowski's letter of gratitude to the man who helped him quit his soul-sucking day job to become a writer, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.
Werner Herzog is celebrated as one of the most influential and innovative filmmakers of our time, but his ascent to acclaim was far from a straight trajectory from privilege to power. Abandoned by his father at an early age, Herzog survived a WWII bombing that demolished the house next door to his childhood home and was raised by a single mother in near-poverty. He found his calling in filmmaking after reading an encyclopedia entry on the subject as a teenager and took a job as a welder in a steel factory in his late teens to fund his first films. These building blocks of his character – tenacity, self-reliance, imaginative curiosity – shine with blinding brilliance in the richest and most revealing of Herzog's interviews. Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (public library) – not to be confused with E.F. Schumacher's excellent 1978 philosophy book of the same title – presents the director's extensive, wide-ranging conversation with writer and filmmaker Paul Cronin. His answers are unfiltered and to-the-point, often poignant but always unsentimental, not rude but refusing to infest the garden of honest human communication with the Victorian-seeded, American-sprouted weed of pointless politeness.
Herzog's insights coalesce into a kind of manifesto for following one's particular calling, a form of intelligent, irreverent self-help for the modern creative spirit – indeed, even though Herzog is a humanist fully detached from religion, there is a strong spiritual undertone to his wisdom, rooted in what Cronin calls "unadulterated intuition" and spanning everything from what it really means to find your purpose and do what you love to the psychology and practicalities of worrying less about money to the art of living with presence with an age of productivity. As Cronin points out in the introduction, Herzog's thoughts collected in the book are "a decades-long outpouring, a response to the clarion call, to the fervent requests for guidance."
And yet in many ways, A Guide for the Perplexed could well have been titled A Guide to the Perplexed, for Herzog is as much a product of his "cumulative humiliations and defeats," as he himself phrases it, as of his own "chronic perplexity," to borrow E.B. White's unforgettable term – Herzog possesses that rare, paradoxical combination of absolute clarity of conviction and wholehearted willingness to inhabit his own inner contradictions, to pursue life's open-endedness with equal parts focus of vision and nimbleness of navigation.
A certain self-reliance that permeates his films and his mind, a refusal to let the fear of failure inhibit trying – a sensibility the voiceover in the final scene of Herzog's The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz captures perfectly: "Even a defeat is better than nothing at all." He tells Cronin:
There is nothing wrong with hardships and obstacles, but everything wrong with not trying.
Illustration by Tove Jansson from Alice in Wonderland
Herzog reflects on failure as a prerequisite for creative mastery:
The bad films have taught me most about filmmaking. Seek out the negative definition. Sit in front of a film and ask yourself, “Given the chance, is this how I would do it?” It’s a never-ending educational experience, a way of discovering in which direction you need to take your own work and ideas.
He takes this notion of self-reliance – as he does most things he believes – to an almost religious degree:
I did as much as possible myself; it was an article of faith, a matter of simple human decency to do the dirty work as long as I could... Three things – a phone, computer and car – are all you need to produce films. Even today I still do most things myself. Although at times it would be good if I had more support, I would rather put the money up on the screen instead of adding people to the payroll.
Indeed, having grown up without money and earned every penny himself, Herzog considers this self-reliance closely intertwined with the question of financial struggle – a circumstance he always refused to mistake for a fatal roadblock to the creative drive. His wisdom on the subject extends beyond film and applies just as perceptively to almost any field of endeavor in today's creative landscape:
The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not to wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. If you can’t afford to make a million-dollar film, raise $10,000 and produce it yourself. That’s all you need to make a feature film these days. Beware of useless, bottom-rung secretarial jobs in film-production companies. Instead, so long as you are able-bodied, head out to where the real world is. Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Drive a taxi for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a film. Walk on foot, learn languages and a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema. Filmmaking – like great literature – must have experience of life at its foundation. Read Conrad or Hemingway and you can tell how much real life is in those books. A lot of what you see in my films isn’t invention; it’s very much life itself, my own life. If you have an image in your head, hold on to it because – as remote as it might seem – at some point you might be able to use it in a film. I have always sought to transform my own experiences and fantasies into cinema.
He later revisits the subject even more pointedly:
A natural component of filmmaking is the struggle to find money. It has been an uphill battle my entire working life... If you want to make a film, go make it. I can’t tell you the number of times I have started shooting a film knowing I didn’t have the money to finish it. I meet people everywhere who complain about money; it’s the ingrained nature of too many filmmakers. But it should be clear to everyone that money has always had certain explicit qualities: it’s stupid and cowardly, slow and unimaginative. The circumstances of funding never just appear; you have to create them yourself, then manipulate them for your own ends. This is the very nature and daily toil of filmmaking. If your project has real substance, ultimately the money will follow you like a common cur in the street with its tail between its legs. There is a German proverb: “Der Teufel scheisst immer auf den grössten Haufen” [“The Devil always shits on the biggest heap”]. So start heaping and have faith. Every time you make a film you should be prepared to descend into Hell and wrestle it from the claws of the Devil himself. Prepare yourself: there is never a day without a sucker punch. At the same time, be pragmatic and learn how to develop an understanding of when to abandon an idea. Follow your dreams no matter what, but reconsider if they can’t be realized in certain situations. A project can become a cul-de-sac and your life might slip through your fingers in pursuit of something that can never be realized. Know when to walk away.
Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from The Wizard of Oz
This question of money parlays into what's perhaps Herzog's most urgent and piercing point – a testament to the idea that anything worthwhile takes a long time:
Perseverance has kept me going over the years. Things rarely happen overnight. Filmmakers should be prepared for many years of hard work. The sheer toil can be healthy and exhilarating.
Although for many years I lived hand to mouth – sometimes in semi-poverty – I have lived like a rich man ever since I started making films. Throughout my life I have been able to do what I truly love, which is more valuable than any cash you could throw at me. At a time when friends were establishing themselves by getting university degrees, going into business, building careers and buying houses, I was making films, investing everything back into my work. Money lost, film gained.
Ultimately, this notion of doing what you love is rooted in defining your own success, which often requires the bravery of not buying into the cultural template. Herzog captures this elegantly:
Even if I went broke, I wouldn’t be able to sell anything to the highest bidder. What makes me rich is that I am welcomed almost everywhere. I can show up with my films and am offered hospitality, something you could never achieve with money alone... For years I have struggled harder than you can imagine for true liberty, and today am privileged in the way the boss of a huge corporation never will be.
Illustration by Gaëtan Dorémus from Bear Despair, a wordless story about obsession and perseverance. Click image for more.
Observing that happiness and meaningfulness are not necessarily the same thing – something researchers have since confirmed – Herzog echoes artist Agnes Martin's assertion that doing what you were born to do is the secret of happiness and tells Cronin:
I find the notion of happiness rather strange... It has never been a goal of mine; I just don’t think in those terms... I try to give meaning to my existence through my work. That’s a simplified answer, but whether I’m happy or not really doesn’t count for much. I have always enjoyed my work. Maybe “enjoy” isn’t the right word; I love making films, and it means a lot to me that I can work in this profession. I am well aware of the many aspiring filmmakers out there with good ideas who never find a foothold. At the age of fourteen, once I realized filmmaking was an uninvited duty for me, I had no choice but to push on with my projects. Cinema has given me everything, but has also taken everything from me.
(This calls to mind a line Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in March of 1979: “There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work.”)
Herzog describes his ideation process in almost violent terms, framing the creative act as an inherently ambivalent one, oscillating between creation, destruction, and purging:
The problem isn’t coming up with ideas, it is how to contain the invasion. My ideas are like uninvited guests. They don’t knock on the door; they climb in through the windows like burglars who show up in the middle of the night and make a racket in the kitchen as they raid the fridge. I don’t sit and ponder which one I should deal with first. The one to be wrestled to the floor before all others is the one coming at me with the most vehemence. I have, over the years, developed methods to deal with the invaders as quickly and efficiently as possible, though the burglars never stop coming. You invite a handful of friends for dinner, but the door bursts open and a hundred people are pushing in. You might manage to get rid of them, but from around the corner another fifty appear almost immediately... Finishing a film is like having a great weight lifted from my shoulders. It’s relief, not necessarily happiness. But you relish dealing with these “burglars.” I am glad to be rid of them after making a film or writing a book. The ideas are uninvited guests, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t welcome.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from I’ll Be You and You Be Me by Ruth Krauss, 1954
Channeling T.S. Eliot's notion of the mystical quality of creativity and Bukowski's assertion that true creative work "comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut," Herzog – who, like Maira Kalman, sees walking as a creative catalyst – considers how his ideas arise:
My films come to me very much alive, like dreams, without explanation. I never think about what it all means. I think only about telling a story, and however illogical the images, I let them invade me. An idea comes to me, and then, over a period of time – perhaps while driving or walking – this blurred vision becomes clearer in my mind, pulling itself into focus.
When I write, I sit in front of the computer and pound the keys. I start at the beginning and write fast, leaving out anything that isn’t necessary, aiming at all times for the hard core of the narrative. I can’t write without that urgency. Something is wrong if it takes more than five days to finish a screenplay. A story created this way will always be full of life.
In that creative act, Herzog argues, lies the artist's broader cultural responsibility to continually reinvent the established forms:
We need images in accordance with our civilization and innermost conditioning, which is why I appreciate any film that searches for novelty, no matter in what direction it moves or what story it tells... The struggle to find unprocessed imagery is never-ending, but it’s our duty to dig like archaeologists and search our violated landscapes. We live in an era when established values are no longer valid, when prodigious discoveries are being made every year, when catastrophes of unbelievable proportions occur weekly. In ancient Greek the word “chaos” means “gaping void” or “yawning emptiness.” The most effective response to the chaos in our lives is the creation of new forms of literature, music, poetry, art and cinema.
And yet being preoccupied with form can be limiting – it should emerge from the story organically rather than seek to shape it:
I don’t consciously reflect on aesthetics before making a film because, for me, the story always dictates such things. Of course, aesthetics do sometimes enter unconsciously through the back door, because whether we like it or not our preferences always somehow influence the decisions we make. If I were to think about my handwriting while writing an important letter, the words would become meaningless. When you write a passionate love letter and focus on making sure your longhand is as beautiful as possible, it isn’t going to be much of a love letter. But if you concentrate on the words and emotions, your particular style of longhand – which has nothing to do with the letter per se – will somehow seep in of its own accord. Aesthetics, if they even exist, are to be discovered only once a film has been completed.
Herzog doesn't shy away from touching on the existential:
We can never know what truth really is. The best we can do is approximate... Truth can never be definitively captured or described, though the quest to find answers is what gives meaning to our existence.
In one of his most endearingly characteristic proclamations, Herzog tells Cronin why he has never taken vacation:
It would never occur to me... I work steadily and methodically, with great focus. There is never anything frantic about how I do my job; I’m no workaholic. A holiday is a necessity for someone whose work is an unchanged daily routine, but for me everything is constantly fresh and always new. I love what I do, and my life feels like one long vacation.
Above all, however, Herzog reveals himself as a rare master of prioritizing presence over productivity:
I work best under pressure, knee-deep in the mud. It helps me concentrate. The truth is I have never been guided by the kind of strict discipline I see in some people, those who get up at five in the morning and jog for an hour. My priorities are elsewhere. I will rearrange my entire day to have a solid meal with friends.
Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss captures Herzog's singular spirit in the afterword:
The Werner Herzog I have come to know is not the wild man of his press clippings. He is a caring, thoughtful, playful and essentially gentle human being. Possessing a restless mind, with a fertile and creative imagination, he is a man interested in all aspects of the human experience. Self-taught, he is widely read and deeply knowledgeable. I like to think that one of the reasons we enjoy each other’s company is that we both share a deep excitement in the human experience.
Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed is a spectacular read in its hefty 600-page totality, offering a rare glimpse of one of the most ravenously imaginative minds of our time. Complement it with other spectacular interviews with David Foster Wallace, Jeanette Winterson, Leonard Cohen, Seth Godin, Dani Shapiro, William Faulkner, Bob Dylan, Adam Phillips, Pablo Picasso, Malcolm Gladwell, and Susan Sontag.
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In 1908, Indian revolutionary Taraknath Das wrote to Leo Tolstoy, by then one of the most famous public figures in the world, asking for the author's support in India's independence from British colonial rule. On December 14, Tolstoy, who had spent the last twenty years seeking the answers to life's greatest moral questions, was moved to reply in a long letter, which Das published in the Indian newspaper Free Hindustan. Passed from hand to hand, the missive finally made its way to the young Mahatma Gandhi, whose career as a peace leader was just beginning in South Africa. He wrote to Tolstoy asking for permission to republish it in his own South African newspaper, Indian Opinion. Tolstoy's letter was later published in English under the title A Letter to a Hindu (free download; public library).
The exchange sparked an ongoing correspondence between the two that lasted until Tolstoy's death – a meeting of two great minds and spirits, eventually collected in Letters from One: Correspondence (and more) of Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas Gandhi and rivaled only by Einstein's correspondence with Freud on violence and human nature.
Tolstoy's letters issue a clarion call for nonviolent resistance – he admonishes against false ideologies, both religious and pseudo-scientific, that promote violence, an act he sees as unnatural for the human spirit, and advocates for a return to our most natural, basic state, which is the law of love. Evil, Tolstoy argues with passionate conviction, is restrained not with violence but with love – something Maya Angelou would come to echo beautifully decades later.
Gandhi's introduction to the original edition, in which he calls Tolstoy "one of the clearest thinkers in the western world, one of the greatest writers," offers a pithy caveat to the text, as perfect today as it was a century ago:
One need not accept all that Tolstoy says ... to realize the central truth of his indictment... There is no doubt that there is nothing new in what Tolstoy preaches. But his presentation of the old truth is refreshingly forceful. His logic is unassailable. And above all he endeavors to practice what he preaches. He preaches to convince. He is sincere and in earnest. He commands attention.
Tolstoy opens each "chapter" of his missive – for the letter's length, indeed, puts in glaring perspective the nuanceless and hasty op-eds of our time, contrasting the truly reflective with the merely reactive – by quoting a passage from Krishna as a backdrop for his political, moral, and humanistic arguments. His words bear extraordinary prescience today, as we face a swelling tide of political unrest, ethnic violence, and global conflict. He writes:
The reason for the astonishing fact that a majority of working people submit to a handful of idlers who control their labour and their very lives is always and everywhere the same – whether the oppressors and oppressed are of one race or whether ... the oppressors are of a different nation... The reason lies in the lack of a reasonable religious teaching which by explaining the meaning of life would supply a supreme law for the guidance of conduct and would replace the more than dubious precepts of pseudo-religion and pseudo-science with the immoral conclusions deduced from them and commonly called "civilization."
It's worth pausing here to note that Tolstoy's notion of "religious teaching" is perhaps best regarded as "spiritual direction," for he dedicated a great portion of his life trying to discern precisely such spiritual direction for himself by selectively culling wisdom from all the major religious and philosophical traditions. Indeed, he speaks to that aspect directly further along in the letter:
In every individual a spiritual element is manifested that gives life to all that exists, and that this spiritual element strives to unite with everything of a like nature to itself, and attains this aim through love... The mere fact that this thought has sprung up among different nations and at different times indicates that it is inherent in human nature and contains the truth. But this truth was made known to people who considered that a community could only be kept together if some of them restrained others, and so it appeared quite irreconcilable with the existing order of society.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Tolstoy's Nikolenka's Childhood
He considers how political ideologies hijacked this basic law of love at various times in human history and tried to replace it with a law of violent submission:
This truth was made known to people who considered that a community could only be kept together if some of them restrained others, and so it appeared quite irreconcilable with the existing order of society... The dissemination of the truth in a society based on coercion was always hindered in one and the same manner, namely, those in power, feeling that the recognition of this truth would undermine their position, consciously or sometimes unconsciously perverted it by explanations and additions quite foreign to it, and also opposed it by open violence. Thus the truth – that his life should be directed by the spiritual element which is its basis, which manifests itself as love, and which is so natural to man—this truth, in order to force a way to man's consciousness, had to struggle not merely against the obscurity with which it was expressed and the intentional and unintentional distortions surrounding it, but also against deliberate violence, which by means of persecutions and punishments sought to compel men to accept religious laws authorized by the rulers and conflicting with the truth.
The recognition that love represents the highest morality was nowhere denied or contradicted, but this truth was so interwoven everywhere with all kinds of falsehoods which distorted it, that finally nothing of it remained but words. It was taught that this highest morality was only applicable to private life – for home use, as it were – but that in public life all forms of violence – such as imprisonment, executions, and wars – might be used for the protection of the majority against a minority of evildoers, though such means were diametrically opposed to any vestige of love. And though common sense indicated that if some men claim to decide who is to be subjected to violence of all kinds for the benefit of others, these men to whom violence is applied may, in turn, arrive at a similar conclusion with regard to those who have employed violence to them, and though the great religious teachers ... foreseeing such a perversion of the law of love, have constantly drawn attention to the one invariable condition of love (namely, the enduring of injuries, insults, and violence of all kinds without resisting evil by evil) people continued – regardless of all that leads man forward – to try to unite the incompatibles: the virtue of love, and what is opposed to love, namely, the restraining of evil by violence. And such a teaching, despite its inner contradiction, was so firmly established that the very people who recognize love as a virtue accept as lawful at the same time an order of life based on violence and allowing men not merely to torture but even to kill one another.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Tolstoy's Nikolenka's Childhood
He distills this idea to one "old and simple truth":
It is natural for men to help and to love one another, but not to torture and to kill one another.
In addition to the false interpretations of religion, Tolstoy takes equal issue with scientific reductionism – something that undoubtedly felt like a great threat at the dawn of the twentieth century, when science was just beginning break to down the material universe into its basic atomic units, a discovery that many feared might be reduced to the hollowing belief that a human being is nothing more than physical "stuff." Both science and religion, Tolstoy argues, could result in dangerous dogma that blinds us to the basic law of love, if taken at face value and stripped of nuance – the danger of, as he puts it, "scientific superstition replacing the religious one":
But by the term "scientific" is understood just what was formerly understood by the term "religious": just as formerly everything called "religious" was held to be unquestionable simply because it was called religious, so now all that is called "scientific" is held to be unquestionable... The unfortunate majority of men bound to toil is so dazzled by the pomp with which these "scientific truths" are presented, that under this new influence it accepts these scientific stupidities for holy truth, just as it formerly accepted the pseudo-religious justifications.
(How easy it is even today for laypeople to be "dazzled by the pomp" of questionable science journalism that prioritizes clickbait sensationalism – something else about which Tolstoy held passionate, prescient opinions – over clarity and rigor.)
He returns to the central point, affirming Gandhi's advocacy of nonviolent resistance:
Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills, and in it you too have the only method of saving your people from enslavement... Love, and forcible resistance to evil-doers, involve such a mutual contradiction as to destroy utterly the whole sense and meaning of the conception of love.
Considering the British colonization of India, Tolstoy marvels at how "a commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred millions" and argues that this was only made possible by people, both the oppressors and the oppressed, failing to contact "the eternal law of love inherent in humanity." He writes:
As soon as men live entirely in accord with the law of love natural to their hearts and now revealed to them, which excludes all resistance by violence, and therefore hold aloof from all participation in violence – as soon as this happens, not only will hundreds be unable to enslave millions, but not even millions will be able to enslave a single individual.
Reflecting on the process of reawakening to that "eternal law," Tolstoy offers a developmental metaphor:
What is now happening to the people of the East as of the West is like what happens to every individual when he passes from childhood to adolescence and from youth to manhood. He loses what had hitherto guided his life and lives without direction, not having found a new standard suitable to his age, and so he invents all sorts of occupations, cares, distractions, and stupefactions to divert his attention from the misery and senselessness of his life. Such a condition may last a long time.
When an individual passes from one period of life to another a time comes when he cannot go on in senseless activity and excitement as before, but has to understand that although he has outgrown what before used to direct him, this does not mean that he must live without any reasonable guidance, but rather that he must formulate for himself an understanding of life corresponding to his age, and having elucidated it must be guided by it. And in the same way a similar time must come in the growth and development of humanity. I believe that such a time has now arrived – not in the sense that it has come in the year 1908, but that the inherent contradiction of human life has now reached an extreme degree of tension: on the one side there is the consciousness of the beneficence of the law of love, and on the other the existing order of life which has for centuries occasioned an empty, anxious, restless, and troubled mode of life, conflicting as it does with the law of love and built on the use of violence. This contradiction must be faced, and the solution will evidently not be favorable to the outlived law of violence, but to the truth which has dwelt in the hearts of men from remote antiquity: the truth that the law of love is in accord with the nature of man.
But men can only recognize this truth to its full extent when they have completely freed themselves from all religious and scientific superstitions and from all the consequent misrepresentations and sophistical distortions by which its recognition has been hindered for centuries.
To save a sinking ship it is necessary to throw overboard the ballast, which though it may once have been needed would now cause the ship to sink.
Sensing that global tensions were brewing, Tolstoy added the prescient admonition that "in our time all these things must be cleared away in order that mankind may escape from self-inflicted calamities that have reached an extreme intensity." World War I broke out less than five years later. One of humanity's grimmest self-inflicted calamities offered evidence, as modern wars do, that we still have a long way to go before reaching that return to the basic nature of love Tolstoy envisioned – which is why Tolstoy's closing words to Gandhi ring with amplified urgency today:
What are wanted for the Indian as for the Englishman, the Frenchman, the German, and the Russian, are not Constitutions and Revolutions, nor all sorts of Conferences and Congresses, nor the many ingenious devices for submarine navigation and aerial navigation, nor powerful explosives, nor all sorts of conveniences to add to the enjoyment of the rich, ruling classes; nor new schools and universities with innumerable faculties of science, nor an augmentation of papers and books, nor gramophones and cinematographs, nor those childish and for the most part corrupt stupidities termed art – but one thing only is needful: the knowledge of the simple and clear truth which finds place in every soul that is not stupefied by religious and scientific superstitions – the truth that for our life one law is valid – the law of love, which brings the highest happiness to every individual as well as to all mankind. Free your minds from those overgrown, mountainous imbecilities which hinder your recognition of it, and at once the truth will emerge from amid the pseudo-religious nonsense that has been smothering it: the indubitable, eternal truth inherent in man, which is one and the same in all the great religions of the world.
(Twelve years earlier, Tolstoy found far more than "childish and for the most part corrupt stupidities" in art in his sublime essay on the "emotional infectiousness" of art.)
Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss
Writing to Gandhi again on September 7, 1910 – eight weeks before he took his final breath – Tolstoy revisited the subject with even more heartfelt conviction:
The longer I live – especially now when I clearly feel the approach of death – the more I feel moved to express what I feel more strongly than anything else, and what in my opinion is of immense importance, namely, what we call the renunciation of all opposition by force, which really simply means the doctrine of the law of love unperverted by sophistries. Love, or in other words the striving of men's souls towards unity and the submissive behavior to one another that results therefrom, represents the highest and indeed the only law of life, as every man knows and feels in the depths of his heart (and as we see most clearly in children), and knows until he becomes involved in the lying net of worldly thoughts... Any employment of force is incompatible with love.
A Letter to a Hindu is well worth a read in its entirety, and it's available as a free download. Complement it with Tolstoy on finding meaning in a meaningless world, his timeless Calendar of Wisdom, and a rare recording of the author reading from it shortly before his death, then revisit another extraordinary exchange of Eastern and Western ideas in Einstein and Tagore's 1930 conversation about Truth and Beauty.
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In 1982, nearly a decade after their spectacular conversation about freedom, beloved poet, memoirist, dramatist, actor, producer, filmmaker, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou and celebrated interviewer Bill Moyers traveled together to the beautiful Texas countryside to discuss the ugliest aspects of human nature at a conference titled Facing Evil. It was a subject with which Angelou, the survivor of childhood rape and courageous withstander of lifelong racism, was intimately acquainted. In a recent remembrance of his friend, Moyers shares excerpts from the 1988 documentary about the event and reflects on the timeless goodness of her spirit.
Transcribed highlights below:
On the history of evil:
Throughout our nervous history, we have constructed pyramidic towers of evil, ofttimes in the name of good. Our greed, fear and lasciviousness have enabled us to murder our poets, who are ourselves, to castigate our priests, who are ourselves. The lists of our subversions of the good stretch from before recorded history to this moment. We drop our eyes at the mention of the bloody, torturous Inquisition. Our shoulders sag at the thoughts of African slaves lying spoon-fashion in the filthy hatches of slave-ships, and the subsequent auction blocks upon which were built great fortunes in our country. We turn our heads in bitter shame at the remembrance of Dachau and the other gas ovens, where millions of ourselves were murdered by millions of ourselves. As soon as we are reminded of our actions, more often than not we spend incredible energy trying to forget what we've just been reminded of.
And yet Angelou was nothing if not a champion of the human spirit and its highest potentiality for good. She reflects on how refusing to speak for five years after being raped as a child ("I won't say severely raped; all rape is severe," Angelou notes in one of her characteristically piercing asides) shaped her journey:
To show you ... how out of evil there can come good, in those five years I read every book in the black school library. I read all the books I could get from the white school library. I memorized James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. I memorized Shakespeare, whole plays, fifty sonnets. I memorized Edgar Allen Poe, all the poetry – never having heard it, I memorized it. I had Longfellow, I had Guy de Maupassant, I had Balzac, Rudyard Kipling – I mean, it was catholic kind of reading, and catholic kind of storing.
Out of this evil, which was a dire kind of evil, because rape on the body of a young person more often than not introduces cynicism, and there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. In my case I was saved in that muteness... And I was able to draw from human thought, human disappointments and triumphs, enough to triumph myself.
Angelou's most soul-expanding point is that courage – something she not only embodied but also championed beautifully in her children's book illustrated by Basquiat – is our indelible individual capacity and our shared existential responsibility:
We need the courage to create ourselves daily, to be bodacious enough to create ourselves daily – as Christians, as Jews, as Muslims, as thinking, caring, laughing, loving human beings. I think that the courage to confront evil and turn it by dint of will into something applicable to the development of our evolution, individually and collectively, is exciting, honorable.
For more of Angelou's remarkable spirit, revisit her 1973 conversation with Moyers, her moving letter to her younger self, and her timeless meditations on home and belonging and identity and the meaning of life.
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