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There are events in our personal lives and our collective history that seem categorically irredeemable, moments in which the grounds for gratefulness and hope have sunk so far below the sea level of sorrow that we have ceased to believe they exist. But we have within us the consecrating capacity to rise above those moments and behold the bigger picture in all of its complexity, complementarity, and temporal sweep, and to find in what we see not illusory consolation but the truest comfort there is: that of perspective.
John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) embodies this difficult, transcendent willingness in an extraordinary letter to his friend Pascal Covici — who would soon become his literary fairy godfather of sorts — penned on the first day of 1941, as World War II was raging and engulfing humanity in unbearable darkness. Found in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (public library) — which also gave us the beloved writer on the difficult art of the friend breakup, his comical account of a dog-induced “computer crash” decades before computers, and his timeless advice on falling in love — the letter stands as a timeless testament to the consolatory power of rehabilitating nuance, making room for fertile contradiction, and taking a wider perspective.
Steinbeck writes on January 1, 1941:
Speaking of the happy new year, I wonder if any year ever had less chance of being happy. It’s as though the whole race were indulging in a kind of species introversion — as though we looked inward on our neuroses. And the thing we see isn’t very pretty… So we go into this happy new year, knowing that our species has learned nothing, can, as a race, learn nothing — that the experience of ten thousand years has made no impression on the instincts of the million years that preceded.
But Steinbeck, who devoted his life to defending the disenfranchised and celebrating the highest potentiality of the human spirit, refuses to succumb to what Rebecca Solnit has so aptly termed the “despair, defeatism, cynicism[,] amnesia and assumptions” to which we reflexively resort in maladaptive self-defense against overwhelming evil. Instead, fifteen centuries after Plato’s brilliant charioteer metaphor for good and evil, Steinbeck quickly adds a perceptive note on the indelible duality of human nature and the cyclical character of the civilizational continuity we call history:
Not that I have lost any hope. All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die. I don’t know why we should expect it to. It seems fairly obvious that two sides of a mirror are required before one has a mirror, that two forces are necessary in man before he is man. I asked [the influential microbiologist] Paul de Kruif once if he would like to cure all disease and he said yes. Then I suggested that the man he loved and wanted to cure was a product of all his filth and disease and meanness, his hunger and cruelty. Cure those and you would have not man but an entirely new species you wouldn’t recognize and probably wouldn’t like.
Steinbeck’s point is subtle enough to be mistaken for moral relativism, but is in fact quite the opposite — he suggests that our human foibles don’t negate our goodness or our desire for betterment but, rather, provide both the fuel for it and the yardstick by which we measure our moral progress.
He wrests out this inevitable interplay of order and chaos the mortal flaw of the Nazi regime and the grounds for hope toward surviving the atrocity of WWII, which, lest we forget, much of the world feared was unsurvivable in toto:
It is interesting to watch the German efficiency, which, from the logic of the machine is efficient but which (I suspect) from the mechanics of the human species is suicidal. Certainly man thrives best (or has at least) in a state of semi-anarchy. Then he has been strong, inventive, reliant, moving. But cage him with rules, feed him and make him healthy and I think he will die as surely as a caged wolf dies. I should not be surprised to see a cared for, thought for, planned for nation disintegrate, while a ragged, hungry, lustful nation survived. Surely no great all-encompassing plan has ever succeeded.
Mercifully, Steinbeck was right — the Nazis’ grim world domination plan ultimately failed, humanity as a whole survived these unforgivable crimes against it (though we continually fail to sufficiently reflect upon them), and we commenced another revolution around the cycle of construction and destruction, creating great art and writing great literature and making great scientific discoveries, all the while carrying our parallel capacities for good and evil along for the ride, as we are bound to always do.
So when we witness evil punctuate the line of our moral and humanitarian progress, as we periodically do, may we remember, even within the most difficult moments of that periodicity, Steinback’s sobering perspective and lucid faith in the human spirit.
Complement this particular fragment of the wholly magnificent Steinbeck: A Life in Letters with Albert Camus on strength of character amid difficulty, Hannah Arendt on how we humanize each other, Joseph Brodsky on the greatest antidote to evil, Toni Morrison on the artist’s task in troubled times, and Rebecca Solnit on our grounds for hope in the dark.
In her incisive inquiry into the intelligence of emotions, philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote: “Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning.” But the moral system itself — what comprises it in a philosophical sense, how it is enacted in practical terms, and what it aims at in the daily act of living — remains one of the most conflicted ambiguities within and between human beings.
Those elements of the moral machinery are what the great French existentialist philosopher and trailblazing feminist Simone de Beauvoir (January 9, 1908–April 14, 1986) examines in The Ethics of Ambiguity (public library) — the paradigm-shifting 1947 treatise that gave us De Beauvoir on vitality, the measure of intelligence, and what freedom really means.
Simone de Beauvoir
To wrest a graspable conception of morality, De Beauvoir turns to art and science:
Art and science do not establish themselves despite failure but through it; which does not prevent there being truths and errors, masterpieces and lemons, depending upon whether the discovery or the painting has or has not known how to win the adherence of human consciousnesses; this amounts to saying that failure, always ineluctable, is in certain cases spared and in others not.
For this reason, she suggests, success and failure bear no equivalence with right and wrong. If we are to seek an understanding of morality, the equivalence is to be found not in the outcomes of art and science but in their methods. She writes:
Which action is good? Which is bad? To ask such a question is also to fall into a naive abstraction. We don’t ask the physicist, “Which hypotheses are true?” Nor the artist, “By what procedures does one produce a work whose beauty is guaranteed?” Ethics does not furnish recipes any more than do science and art. One can merely propose methods. Thus, in science the fundamental problem is to make the idea adequate to its content and the law adequate to the facts; the logician finds that in the case where the pressure of the given fact bursts the concept which serves to comprehend it, one is obliged to invent another concept; but he can not define a priori the moment of invention, still less foresee it. Analogously, one may say that in the case where the content of the action falsifies its meaning, one must modify not the meaning, which is here willed absolutely, but the content itself; however, it is impossible to determine this relationship between meaning and content abstractly and universally: there must be a trial and decision in each case. But likewise just as the physicist finds it profitable to reflect on the conditions of scientific invention and the artist on those of artistic creation without expecting any ready-made solutions to come from these reflections, it is useful for the man of action to find out under what conditions his undertakings are valid.
In a sentiment that calls to mind her compatriot Albert Camus’s insistence that happiness is our moral obligation, De Beauvoir considers the ethic of happiness at the heart of freedom:
It must not be forgotten that there is a concrete bond between freedom and existence; to will man free is … to will the disclosure of being in the joy of existence; in order for the idea of liberation to have a concrete meaning, the joy of existence must be asserted in each one, at every instant; the movement toward freedom assumes its real, flesh and blood figure in the world by thickening into pleasure, into happiness.
Echoing the poignant and increasingly timely rhetorical question which Bertrand Russell posed two decades earlier — “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” — she adds:
If the satisfaction of an old man drinking a glass of wine counts for nothing, then production and wealth are only hollow myths; they have meaning only if they are capable of being retrieved in individual and living joy. The saving of time and the conquest of leisure have no meaning if we are not moved by the laugh of a child at play.
The Ethics Of Ambiguity remains a cultural classic of timeless insight into the human experience. Complement this particular portion with Susan Sontag on what it means to be a moral human being, German philosopher Josef Pieper on why leisure is the basis of culture, and Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between how art and science illuminate the human condition, then revisit Sartre’s stunning love letter to De Beauvoir.
“The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning. And truth and meaning are not the same,” Hannah Arendt observed in her brilliant treatise on the life of the mind, adding: “The basic fallacy, taking precedence over all specific metaphysical fallacies, is to interpret meaning on the model of truth.”
The nature of consciousness and its role in both creating and mediating that fallacy is what Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) explored three decades earlier in The Myth of Sisyphus (public library) — the source of his abiding wisdom on the will to live and the most important question of existence.
Noting that “everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it,” 28-year-old Camus considers the nature of consciousness and its supreme object — truth. Fifteen years before he became the second youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded him for the “clear-sighted earnestness” with which he “illuminates the problems of the human conscience,” he writes:
Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable. If in order to elude the anxious question: “What would life be?” one must, like the donkey, feed on the roses of illusion, then the absurd mind, rather than resigning itself to falsehood, prefers to adopt fearlessly Kierkegaard’s reply: “despair.” Everything considered, a determined soul will always manage.
From the evening breeze to this hand on my shoulder, everything has its truth. Consciousness illuminates it by paying attention to it. Consciousness does not form the object of its understanding, it merely focuses, it is the act of attention, and, to borrow a Bergsonian image, it resembles the projector that suddenly focuses on an image. The difference is that there is no scenario, but a successive and incoherent illustration. In that magic lantern all the pictures are privileged. Consciousness suspends in experience the objects of its attention. Through its miracle it isolates them. Henceforth they are beyond all judgments. This is the “intention” that characterizes consciousness. But the word does not imply any idea of finality; it is taken in its sense of “direction”: its only value is topographical.
And yet the ultimate function of consciousness, Camus suggests, is not the retrieval of truth but the higher-order synthesis of meaning. He writes:
I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms. What I touch, what resists me — that is what I understand. And these two certainties — my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle — I also know that I cannot reconcile them. What other truth can I admit without lying, without bringing in a hope I lack and which means nothing within the limits of my condition?
If I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning, or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world. I should be this world.
With this, Camus comes full circle to the opening sentence of his treatise, which remains among the most famous in literature and poses one of the most profound questions of philosophy — whether or not life is worth living. With an eye to his first great philosophical preoccupation — the experience of the absurd and the perplexity of how one is to live with it — he writes:
The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.
I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death — and I refuse suicide.
Complement this particular portion of the wholly indispensable The Myth of Sisyphus with Sy Montgomery on how the octopus illuminates the wonders of consciousness and Israel Rosenfield’s trailblazing exploration of consciousness, memory, and how our sense of self arises, then revisit Camus on the art of awareness, how to bolster our spirit in hard times, what it means to be a rebel, happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons, and his moving correspondence with Boris Pasternak.
“I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason,” C.S. Lewis wrote in contemplating our core misconception about democracy. A generation later, Leonard Cohen reflected on why he wrote what he wrote and left out what he left out in composing his famous anthem to democracy: “I didn’t want to start a fight… I wanted a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense.”
In this time of dire need for “a revelation in the heart,” when the values of democracy are continually misconstrued and misused, Cohen’s immortal words come to life in a beautiful short film — part tribute to Cohen, part fundraiser for PEN America, part public service to lift the human spirit, narrated by Neil Gaiman, with music by Amanda Palmer and gorgeous watercolor art by David Mack and Olga Nunes.
There is a kind of sacredness to the slow, considered cadence of Gaiman’s voice and the sonorous depths of the piano, making Cohen’s words — to borrow a lyric from another one of his iconic songs — sink beneath his wisdom like a stone.
It’s coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square.
It’s coming from the feel
that this ain’t exactly real,
or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.
From the wars against disorder,
from the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
It’s coming through a crack in the wall;
on a visionary flood of alcohol;
from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount
which I don’t pretend to understand at all.
It’s coming from the silence
on the dock of the bay,
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
It’s coming from the sorrow in the street,
the holy places where the races meet;
from the homicidal bitchin’
that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.
From the wells of disappointment
where the women kneel to pray
for the grace of God in the desert here
and the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State!
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on.
It’s coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It’s here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.
It’s here the family’s broken
and it’s here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
It’s coming from the women and the men.
O baby, we’ll be making love again.
We’ll be going down so deep
the river’s going to weep,
and the mountain’s going to shout Amen!
It’s coming like the tidal flood
beneath the lunar sway,
in amorous array:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
Sail on, sail on…
I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene.
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight,
getting lost in that hopeless little screen.
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
that Time cannot decay,
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
this little wild bouquet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
Complement with Cohen himself on democracy and its redemptions, Parker Palmer on healing its heart, and Walt Whitman on why literature is essential for it, then join me in supporting PEN’s noble mission to defend the freedom of expression, protect persecuted writers, and advance literary culture.