Evil, even in the darkest moments, is impotent before the miracle of human kindness. This miracle defies prejudices and hatreds. It crosses cultures and religions. It lies at the core of faith. Take a brief journey through the eyes of American, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges to Jerusalem, Gaza, and Iraq, and discover the sacred bonds that make us human.
She might be the world’s most famous romance writer, nay the highest selling living author bar none, but there’s little room for flowers and chocolates in Danielle Steel’s writing regime. In a recent interview she laughed at the idea of young people insisting on a work-life balance, and has claimed she regularly writes for 20 to 22 hours a day, and sometimes 24. The result: 179 books in under 50 years, selling about 800m copies.
Some aspiring novelists might just have cancelled their entire lives to get on the Steel plan, but many more are probably wondering if it’s time to try something less demanding. We asked four creative writing teachers for their perspective:
Liam Murray Bell, University of Stirling
Steel’s claim reminds me of the thriller writer Edgar Wallace, who was known to write a novel over the course of a long weekend. He’d retire to his study on a Friday evening and not emerge until the Monday morning, dictating his words to a secretary and stopping only for half-hourly cups of tea. Poor secretary.
The only thing I recognise from that brutal regime is the need for copious amounts of tea. For me, a productive day is four hours of writing. Four hours of focused, uninterrupted time at the keyboard. This morning, I wrote for two hours and managed just shy of 1,000 words. Even that is a decent day; a steady day. To wrestle those hours of writing time free, I’m postponing teaching preparation, leaving my marking until the evening, relying on childcare. Most of all, I’m doing my damnedest to ignore emails. When does Steel answer her emails, is what I want to know.
There have been times, on writing retreats or under threat of impending deadline, when I’ve been known to stretch to six or seven hours. No more, though, because then the words stop making sense and the delete key takes a hammering. I start explaining my plot to the mantelpiece and rehearsing lines of dialogue with the cat. Instead, I go and do something else. It’s amazing how often clarity about your writing comes while washing the dishes, trimming the hedge, taking the dog for a walk. The writers I know are full of anecdotes of story ideas scribbled on bus tickets, or pulling over the car to jot down a poem opening by the side of the road.
It’s often when I’m out for a lunchtime run that I find myself reflecting on what I wrote that morning or find the thread for a scene to write the next day. Haruki Murakami talks about the similar feats of concentration and endurance required for long-distance running and for writing a novel; each endeavour requiring the person to turn up day after day for months or even years. At the University of Stirling, we’ve actually formed a research group to look at the links between creative writing and physical activity because so many writers are also keen runners or cyclists or swimmers.
The appeal of Steel’s process, then, seems to be that every day is race day. But you can’t sustain that. Little and often is my mantra, with every day building momentum. If you manage 200 words today then those are 200 words you didn’t have yesterday. That might take you 15 minutes or it might take six hours; either way, it’s progress. The aim isn’t to get as many words on the page as quickly as possible; the aim is to get the right words on the page, however long it takes.
Sarah Corbett, University of Lancaster
I’m sorry to say there isn’t a formula for how to write a novel (so don’t buy those “how to” books) – only hard graft, staying power, blinding self belief (rescued every morning from the teeth of doubt), and the willingness to meet the devil at the crossroads and outwit him. And to write, rewrite, write, rewrite, write, rewrite …
Perhaps this isn’t very helpful to the beginner; and I have to admit that I’m just finishing my own first novel – after five years. But having taught creative writing for almost 20 years across all genres, here are some things I can say from experience:
1) Read other novels. There’s no getting round this: you have to do a lot of reading – passionate, engaged and risky – but also the kind where you start to notice, and then investigate how the writer does things. Read lots of different types of books too: be curious, endlessly;
2) Practice, practice, practice. Write regularly even if you can only spare an hour in the evening or an afternoon at the weekend. Most writers have other jobs, families, pets, households, and you’d be surprised how much writing gets done in the gaps between other things;
3) Work at your technique at every level of detail from sentencing and phrasing to word choice, creating believable characters, immersive settings, dynamic scenes and authentic dialogue;
4) Write what saddens/moves/frightens/turns you on; write with the whole of your self and the whole of your senses;
5) Join a course, start a group;
6) Write because you enjoy it, and you enjoy a challenge;
7) Be prepared to tear it up and start again;
8) Remember that writing is work, the best kind, that transports and enchants you;
9) Keep going…;
10) Write your own rules.
So how did I write my novel? Slowly – I published two poetry collections in the same period, did a lot of teaching and saw my son through his GCSEs and A-levels – and with a lot of gutting and rewriting; begging more experienced friends to read it and give me their toughest, most honest advice, and then acting on it, even when it meant radical cuts and changes.
Mine is a literary novel – about family, home and shame – but with a psychological twist. The character and her story came to me all in one go on the train home from Manchester after an unsettling encounter in Waterstones, and since then it’s been a process of excavation, as if the novel already existed somewhere in the world, and I just had to keep uncovering it, slowly, layer by layer. I’m still adding scenes, taking others away, fine tuning every line. I’m still working out the best way to tell the story, but I know I’m nearly ready to let it go because the next one has already arrived.
Edward Hogan, Open University
For his 2016 book Rest, the writer and Silicon Valley consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang collected the routines of creative people throughout history. From the habits of writers such as Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and Alice Munro, he concluded that four hours a day is optimum, and you need to wake up early. Trollope rose at 5am each morning (a servant brought him coffee at half past), and wrote until 8.30am, before going to his job at the post office. On that schedule, he published over 40 novels.
As a writer with a family and a full-time job, I currently follow the 5am method, though I make my own coffee. In theory, this “little and often” approach seems straightforward: if you write 500 words a day, you’ll have a first draft in months. But it isn’t that simple. My first novel took eight years, but my third was pretty much done in 40 days. Writing requires two states of mind: you need the researcher’s brain, the clear-thinking editor’s, but you must be open to the dark mess of creation, too. My routine changes, because I haven’t figured out how to do it yet. When I do, I’ll probably quit.
I’m interested in Steel’s way of working. That sort of immersion, favoured by Kasuo Ishiguro, and Jesse Ball – who claims to write his novels in as little as six days – allows them to retain the vitality of the initial idea.
Paul Sheldon, the author and narrator of Stephen King’s Misery, describes “falling through a hole in the page” when writing. Maybe that’s the sort of compulsion that Steel experiences, and it’s refreshing to hear her address the physicality of the process. Writers are reluctant to talk about the (rare) sensation of extreme focus that results when they become possessed by their work. Rambling about raised heart-rates, losing track of time, and being “in the zone”, can make writing sound like a cross between yoga and golf.
The writer’s routine is where practical concerns meet the more ephemeral subject of inspiration. You have to decide what kind of writer you want to be. Jenny Colgan produces two books a year, and this involves hitting deadlines so that her novels appear around Mother’s Day and the Christmas season. Writing is work, the daily pursuit of a word count. For Hilary Mantel, that sort of regularity is alien. She talks about“flow days” when she has no idea what she’s written until she reads it back. But both writers are at their desks, daily.
The act of writing can be exhilarating, but it’s mostly quite difficult. Then again, it’s not like going down the pit. So if you want to write a novel, and find Steel’s method unappealing, let me refer you to the celebrated and prolific children’s author Jacqueline Wilson, who writes for about half-an-hour a day. In bed.
David Bishop, Edinburgh Napier University
Steel’s regime sounds extreme, but if that works for her – so be it. Every writer has their own unique sweet spot, a time and place where they can produce words that will be ready for reading one day. The trick is finding your personal approach, and also recognising it might not suit every project.
Some people say you must write every day to be a writer. Perhaps, but writing is not simply the act of typing words on paper or screen. There is so much more that goes into creating narratives from your imagination. Reading widely is often the sign of a voracious writer, though there is always the danger of a project being infected by the style or substance of whatever you happen to be reading at the time.
It’s also a myth that you need to write a certain number of words in a session. Some writers do benefit from a daily or weekly target, but others prefer to devote a fixed amount of time to writing, and trust that the words will come. Feeling guilty for not matching another writer’s productivity is certainly not good for your mental health. Besides, quantity is no measure of quality. I once had 600,000 words published in one calendar year, but they certainly weren’t my best work.
The act of not writing is just as important as writing. Never underestimate the importance of staring out of a window or going for a walk. All too often the knottiest story problems can only be untangled by getting away from the desk. If all else fails, try going to sleep and letting your subconscious do the heavy lifting. It’s amazing how often the resting mind can resolve a problem your active thoughts couldn’t fix.
For most writers, finding the best way to write a novel is trial and error: experimenting with different systems until they discover one that chimes. Some writers craft detailed plot outlines as a narrative safety net; others prefer a journey of discovery that could mean wholesale rewrites later. Some work in total silence; others needs background sounds such as music. An idea to spark your imagination is necessary, along with a trajectory to follow – but what happens next is up to you.
Steel has a sign in her office that reads: “There are no miracles. There is only discipline.” To be a writer does not require 22 hours at a desk each day, but Steel is right that there are no miracles, either. If you want to be a writer, you have to write – however you do it. That much is inescapable.
Sontag begins with the quintessential question asked of, and answered by, all prominent writers — to distill their most essential advice on the craft:
I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”
Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer’s virtue.
For instance: “Be serious.” By which I meant: Never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.
With the disclaimer that “descriptions mean nothing without examples,” Sontag points to Gordimer as the “living writer who exemplifies all that a writer can be” and considers what the South African author’s “large, ravishingly eloquent, and extremely varied body of work” reveals about the key to all great writing:
A great writer of fiction both creates — through acts of imagination, through language that feels inevitable, through vivid forms — a new world, a world that is unique, individual; and responds to a world, the world the writer shares with other people but is unknown or mis-known by still more people, confined in their worlds: call that history, society, what you will.
She cautions that despite all the noble uses of literature, despite all the ways in which it can transcend the written word to achieve a larger spiritual purpose — William Faulkner’s conviction that the writer’s duty is “to help man endure by lifting his heart” comes to mind — storytelling is still literature’s greatest duty:
The primary task of a writer is to write well. (And to go on writing well. Neither to burn out nor to sell out.) … Let the dedicated activist never overshadow the dedicated servant of literature — the matchless storyteller.
To write is to know something. What a pleasure to read a writer who knows a great deal. (Not a common experience these days…) Literature, I would argue, is knowledge — albeit, even at its greatest, imperfect knowledge. Like all knowledge.
Still, even now, even now, literature remains one of our principal modes of understanding.
Everybody in our debauched culture invites us to simplify reality, to despise wisdom. There is a great deal of wisdom in Nadine Gordimer’s work. She has articulated an admirably complex view of the human heart and the contradictions inherent in living in literature and in history.
Nearly half a century after E.B. White proclaimed that the writer’s duty is “to lift people up, not lower them down,” Sontag considers “the idea of the responsibility of the writer to literature and to society” and clarifies the terms:
By literature, I mean literature in the normative sense, the sense in which literature incarnates and defends high standards. By society, I mean society in the normative sense, too — which suggests that a great writer of fiction, by writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot help but evoke (if only by their absence) the better standards of justice and of truthfulness that we have the right (some would say the duty) to militate for in the necessarily imperfect societies in which we live.
Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent… This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate — and, therefore, improve — our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.
Every writer of fiction wants to tell many stories, but we know that we can’t tell all the stories — certainly not simultaneously. We know we must pick one story, well, one central story; we have to be selective. The art of the writer is to find as much as one can in that story, in that sequence … in that time (the timeline of the story), in that space (the concrete geography of the story).
A novelist, then, is someone who takes you on a journey. Through space. Through time. A novelist leads the reader over a gap, makes something go where it was not.
Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once … and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.
The work of the novelist is to enliven time, as it is to animate space.
Repeating her memorable assertion that criticism is “cultural cholesterol,” penned in her diary decades earlier, Sontag considers the reactive indignation that passes for criticism:
Most notions about literature are reactive — in the hands of lesser talents, merely reactive.
The greatest offense now, in matters both of the arts and of culture generally, not to mention political life, is to seem to be upholding some better, more exigent standard, which is attacked, both from the left and the right, as either naïve or (a new banner for the philistines) “elitist.”
Writing nearly a decade before the golden age of ebooks and some years before the epidemic of crowdsourced-everything had infected nearly every corner of creative culture, Sontag once again reveals her extraordinary prescience about the intersection of technology, society, and the arts. (Some decades earlier, she had presaged the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture on the social web.) Turning a critical eye to the internet and its promise — rather, its threat — of crowdsourced storytelling, she writes:
Hypertext — or should I say the ideology of hypertext? — is ultrademocratic and so entirely in harmony with the demagogic appeals to cultural democracy that accompany (and distract one’s attention from) the ever-tightening grip of plutocratic capitalism.
[But the] proposal that the novel of the future will have no story or, instead, a story of the reader’s (rather, readers’) devising is so plainly unappealing and, should it come to pass, would inevitably bring about not the much-heralded death of the author but the extinction of the reader — all future readers of what is labeled as “literature.”
Returning to the writer’s crucial task of selecting what story to tell from among all the stories that could be told, Sontag points to literature’s essential allure — the comfort of appeasing our anxiety about life’s infinite possibility, about all the roads not taken and all the immensities not imagined that could have led to a better destination than our present one. A story, instead, offers the comforting finitude of both time and possibility:
Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape. Alternatives to the plot ought to be felt up to the last moment. These alternatives constitute the potential for disorder (and therefore of suspense) in the story’s unfolding.
Endings in a novel confer a kind of liberty that life stubbornly denies us: to come to a full stop that is not death and discover exactly where we are in relation to the events leading to a conclusion.
The pleasure of fiction is precisely that it moves to an ending. And an ending that satisfies is one that excludes. Whatever fails to connect with the story’s closing pattern of illumination the writer assumes can be safely left out of the account.
A novel is a world with borders. For there to be completeness, unity, coherence, there must be borders. Everything is relevant in the journey we take within those borders. One could describe the story’s end as a point of magical convergence for the shifting preparatory views: a fixed position from which the reader sees how initially disparate things finally belong together.
There is an essential … distinction between stories, on the one hand, which have, as their goal, an end, completeness, closure, and, on the other hand, information, which is always, by definition, partial, incomplete, fragmentary.
For Sontag, these two modes of world-building are best exemplified by the dichotomy between literature and the commercial mass media. Writing in 2004, she saw television as the dominant form of the latter, but it’s striking to consider how true her observations hold today if we substitute “the internet” for every mention of “television.” One can only wonder what Sontag would make of our newsfeed-fetishism and our compulsive tendency to mistake the latest and most urgent for the most important. She writes:
Literature tells stories. Television gives information.
Literature involves. It is the re-creation of human solidarity. Television (with its illusion of immediacy) distances — immures us in our own indifference.
The so-called stories that we are told on television satisfy our appetite for anecdote and offer us mutually canceling models of understanding. (This is reinforced by the practice of punctuating television narratives with advertising.) They implicitly affirm the idea that all information is potentially relevant (or “interesting”), that all stories are endless — or if they do stop, it is not because they have come to an end but, rather, because they have been upstaged by a fresher or more lurid or eccentric story.
By presenting us with a limitless number of nonstopped stories, the narratives that the media relate — the consumption of which has so dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading — offer a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.
Indeed, this notion of moral obligation is what Sontag sees as the crucial differentiator between storytelling and information — something I too have tussled with, a decade later, in contemplating the challenge of cultivating wisdom in the age of information, particularly in a media landscape driven by commercial interest whose very business model is predicated on conditioning us to confuse information with meaning. (Why think about what constitutes a great work of art — how it moves you, what it says to your soul — when you can skim the twenty most expensive paintings in history on a site like Buzzfeed?)
In storytelling as practiced by the novelist, there is always … an ethical component. This ethical component is not the truth, as opposed to the falsity of the chronicle. It is the model of completeness, of felt intensity, of enlightenment supplied by the story, and its resolution — which is the opposite of the model of obtuseness, of non-understanding, of passive dismay, and the consequent numbing of feeling, offered by our media-disseminated glut of unending stories.
Television gives us, in an extremely debased and untruthful form, a truth that the novelist is obliged to suppress in the interest of the ethical model of understanding peculiar to the enterprise of fiction: namely, that the characteristic feature of our universe is that many things are happening at the same time. (“Time exists in order that it doesn’t happen all at once… space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”)
And therein lies Sontag’s greatest, most timeless, most urgently timely point — for writers, and for human beings:
To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.
To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.
When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.
The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.
But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.
Studies show that writing down your pain actually has a positive effect on your immune system. Not only that, it can help with the healing process.
In the following article, we will look at the science behind how the cathartic properties of writing work, as well as some ways to help you get motivated to write.
The positive physical effects of writing on the body were first noticed by James Pennebaker in 1986, who was then the chair of the psychology department at Southern Methodist University.
Pennebaker made this startling discovery while performing a rather simple experiment involving “expressive writing.”
Pennebaker asked a number of test subjects write for fifteen minutes about the worst thing that had ever happened to them in their life.
The subjects were told to open up completely, letting out their innermost thoughts and details regarding this traumatic event. The process was difficult for many students, many of whom broke down crying.
However, students also found the process comforting, and when they were asked if they wanted to stop, always asked to be allowed to continue.
Pennebaker contrasted these students to a control group who wrote about normal things, describing their bedroom, a tree outside, or something equally bland.
He observed these students for six months. After this period of time, he observed that the students writing about something traumatic went to the doctor significantly less.
You can listen to an interview with Pennebaker here.
Pennebroker’s groundbreaking experiment opened up a new field of research called “psychoneuroimmunology,” an area of study that explores how expressive writing actually improves the functioning of our immune systems.
A few days before she turned 61, writer Anne Lamott decided to write down everything she knew for sure. She dives into the nuances of being a human who lives in a confusing, beautiful, emotional world, offering her characteristic life-affirming wisdom and humor on family, writing, the meaning of God, death and more.
In 1986 the psychology professor James Pennebaker discovered something extraordinary, something which would inspire a generation of researchers to conduct several hundred studies. He asked students to spend 15 minutes writing about the biggest trauma of their lives or, if they hadn’t experienced a trauma, their most difficult time.
They were told to let go and to include their deepest thoughts, even if they had never shared these thoughts before. Four days running they did the same thing. It wasn’t easy. Pennebaker told me that roughly one in 20 students would end up crying, but when asked whether they wanted to continue they always did. Meanwhile a control group spent the same number of sessions writing a description of something neutral such a tree or their dorm room.
Studies have shown expressive writing can reduce the amount of times people visit the doctor (Credit: iStock)
Then he waited for six months while monitoring how often the students visited the health centre. The day he saw the results, he left the lab, walked to his friend who was waiting for him in a car and told him he’d found something big. Remarkably, the students who had written about their secret feelings had made significantly fewer trips to the doctor in the subsequent months.
Ever since, the field psychoneuroimmunology has been exploring the link between what’s now known as expressive writing, and the functioning of the immune system. The studies that followed examined the effect of expressive writing on everything from asthma and arthritis to breast cancer and migraines. In a small study conducted in Kansas, for example, it was found that women with breast cancer experienced fewer troublesome symptoms and went for fewer cancer-related appointments in the months after doing expressive writing.
There is one area where the findings are more consistent and that is in the healing of wounds
The aim of the study wasn’t to look at long-term cancer prognosis, and the authors are not suggesting the cancer would be affected. But in the short-term other aspects of the women’s health did seem better than for those in the control group who wrote about the facts surrounding their cancer rather than their feelings about it.
But it doesn’t always work. A meta-analysis by Joanne Fratarolli from the University of California Riverside does demonstrate an effect overall, but a small one. Nevertheless, for an intervention that is free and beneficial, that’s a benefit worth having. Some studies have had disappointing results, but there is one area where the findings are more consistent and that is in the healing of wounds.
In these studies brave volunteers typically do some expressive writing, then some days later they are given a local anaesthetic and then a punch biopsy at the top of their inner arm. The wound is typically 4mm across and heals within a couple of weeks. This healing is monitored and again and again, and it happens faster if people have spent time beforehand writing down their secret thoughts.
Simply imagining a traumatic event and writing a story about it could have health benefits (Credit: iStock)
What does the act of committing words to paper do? Initially it was assumed this simply happened through catharsis, that people felt better because they’d let out their pent-up feelings. But then Pennebaker began looking in detail at the language people used in their writing.
Summary: A new study reports that for those who wrote emotionally about previous stressful events prior to having a skin biopsy healed faster than those who wrote about factual events.
Source: University of Auckland.
People who wrote emotionally about past stressful events two weeks before having a biopsy had their wound heal faster than people who wrote about factual day to day activities, a study has found.
The study, “The effects of expressive writing before or after punch biopsy on wound healing”, was published in the journal Brain, Behaviour and Immunity.
The research was conducted by Doctoral Candidate Hayley Robinson and Associate Professor Elizabeth Broadbent of the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences. They were joined by Professor Kavita Vedhara of the University of Nottingham and dermatologist Dr Paul Jarrett of Counties Manukau DHB.
The aim of the study was to investigate whether expressive writing could speed the healing of punch biopsy wounds if writing was performed either before or after wounds were made compared to writing about neutral topics.
The study recruited 122 participants from Auckland aged between 18 and 55 years that were randomly allocated to one of four groups, expressive writing pre biopsy or expressive writing post biopsy, or control writing pre biopsy, or control writing post biopsy.
The expressive writing groups were asked to write about their “deepest thoughts and feelings about a traumatic, upsetting experience of your entire life”. Ideally participants were to write about something they had not discussed in great detail with anyone else.
The control groups were asked to write factually about their daily activities.
A dermatologist performed a 4mm punch biopsy to each participant’s inner upper arm.
After 10 days the results showed that 52 percent of the people who had written expressively before the biopsy were healed, while only 27 percent of people who wrote expressively afterward the biopsy had healed.
The results were worse for the two groups that wrote facts without emotion. Only 15 percent in the controlled writing before the biopsy had healed. And for those who wrote about the control topic after the biopsy, only 23 percent had healed.
Hayley says the results suggest that expressive writing has its greatest effects when it occurs prior to an acute wound.
“This is because the writing initially makes you feel worse before you feel better,” she says.
The aim of the study was to investigate whether expressive writing could speed the healing of punch biopsy wounds if writing was performed either before or after wounds were made compared to writing about neutral topics. NeuroscienceNews.com image is for illustrative purposes only.
“So ideally you have finished writing and are starting to feel better during the period when your wound is healing. The results are important because they suggest that when you write is important, not just what you write about.
“Future research needs to look at the effects of expressive writing on the healing of chronic wounds, when writing can only be done after the wound has occurred,” Dr Broadbent says.
About this neuroscience research article
Source: Anna Kellett – University of Auckland Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain. Original Research: Full open access research for “The effects of expressive writing before or after punch biopsy on wound healing” by Hayley Robinson, Paul Jarrett, Kavita Vedhara, Elizabeth Broadbent in Brain, Behaviour and Immunity. Published online March 2017 doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2016.11.025
I read “Women Who Work” so you don’t have to. Ivanka’s “successful businesswoman” reputation is kind of a sham.
Photo Credit: David Shankbone / Flickr Creative Commons
Ivanka Trump’s new book “Women Who Work” is not, as you may have already guessed or read, particularly useful, even compared to other bland corporate tactical manuals. If you are a woman who works — or know one with a graduation or a promotion or a birthday coming up — save your money. The Trump family’s rapacious worldview is in its full glory in this clip job of a so-called monograph; Ivanka (or whoever “architected” this sugar-, fat- and gluten-free life manual) takes the subhead, “Rewriting the Rules for Success,” to an absurdly literal level. The book is not written so much as it is aggregated, borrowed so heavily from certain individual sources that she ought to owe royalties to Sheryl Sandberg and the estate of Stephen Covey, not that they’re any more likely to collect now that her office is in the West Wing instead of Trump Tower. What else is the intellectual work of others but “content” for “Ivanka” to “curate” (“wordsmith,” even!) for her own profit?
Ivanka is not an original thinker; this is not news. So it comes as little surprise that she is not a gifted — or even passably average for her genre — writer, either. In her NPR review, Annalisa Quinn aptly likens reading the book to “eating scented cotton balls,” and I would thank the American culture to immediately stop placing any automatic, unqualified premium value on prestigious prep school and Ivy League educations, as every podunk public school graduate I know has a better grasp of Toni Morrison and Charlotte Perkins Gilman than Ivanka Trump does, despite her expensive degrees.
A more fitting label for this perfect-bound Pinterest board would be “Women Who Work for Me, Ivanka Trump,” as they appear to be the only relevant audience. The focus is mainly on what has worked for her in her career, which is as idiosyncratic as her personal life has been, and what kinds of people she is drawn to when she builds a team. So if you work for Ivanka Trump but still don’t understand her alien ways, or some day want to sell some harmless clutches to whichever mid-range department store will still do business with you, this book is likely quite useful. Spout back all of the platitudes about building a “one-life corporate culture,” show up with “DREAM and DO” doodled on your file folder, and you’re in.
But for all of her nonsense about the “quiet, deliberate, and essential” so-called “workplace revolution” she claims to be launching, Ivanka is not up-ending what she calls “the old-fashioned ‘work warrior’ mentality” that demands long hours at the office as the only proof that employees are sufficiently dedicated to making money for their corporate overlords. What she’s advocating — Millennial Pinkified, self-actualized personal contentment wrapped around a tireless pitbull level of commitment to achieving corporate goals — is even more sinister. In her world, #WomenWhoWork and depart the office at 6 p.m. are still “leaving early” — the so-called Trump administration advocate for working parents obviously has no idea what time many daycares close — and they’re also expected to be back on at night and on the weekends, grinding away after they fulfill their Ivanka-modeled 20 scheduled minutes of quality time with their children or partners at home.
Ivanka’s obliviousness at her own privilege, despite lip service to acknowledging her many blessings, continues to dazzle. She holds up her Shabbat time with her family — sundown Friday to sundown Saturday — as an example of aspirational restorative time, and no doubt it is. Show me a couple that works the kinds of hours Ivanka and Jared do — even those without kids — that doesn’t have to use some of their non-working hours to run necessary errands or tidy up or get caught up on something other than leisure time, and I’ll show you a family wealthy enough to pay a full-time domestic staff to handle everything for them that isn’t personal exercise, family fun time and mandatory biweekly date nights. (Bullet journal note to self: An app to disrupt mandatory biweekly date nights? Siri but for sex?)
In Ivanka’s world, you can either “[turn] on ‘Real Housewives’ and [sit] in front of the TV eating a giant bowl of pasta with a glass of wine” — counterproductive! — or “meditate, soak in the tub, exercise, or take a long walk” at the end of a day to unwind. There’s a third option, too: “I simply turn off my devices, go into my kids’ room, and just watch them sleep.” Only a person who has never wondered if she could get her clean laundry put away before it cycled through to dirty again could offer only these options with a straight face.
Despite her heavy focus on working mothers in this book (though she is careful to always include those who are not parents yet and those who have chosen not to be, because you never leave a potential customer out!), it’s not until page 154 that the words “my nanny” appear, despite the many passages devoted to balancing motherhood with a demanding job. I don’t believe I saw it again until the acknowledgments, in which she thanks not only the nannies, Bridget and Dorothy, who helped raise her and her brothers as her own mother Ivana worked, but also “Liza and Xixi, who are helping me raise my own children, thank you for being a part of our extended family and enabling me to do what I do.” Employing two nannies has to be a cornerstone of the Ivanka Method; burying the full acknowledgment of that literally in the acknowledgments section is beyond disingenuous.
So Ivanka Trump is wealthy and privileged and shameless about pretending her hard work has been the key secret to her success; this is not news. But what this book does highlight is that her “successful businesswoman” image is also a hollow sham.After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in 2004, she worked briefly for another real estate development company, Forest City Enterprises. She nods to this in an anecdote about turning down a job at Vogue, which Anna Wintour offered her personally, because she just loves real estate so much. In 2005, she went to work for her father at the Trump Organization. She stayed with the family business even as she founded her own fashion and lifestyle company, and now she has followed the family business right into the White House. Ivanka glosses over quite deftly in her book that she has spent all of one year, tops, working for someone who is not herself or her father, and it shows.
Take these nuggets of advice about how to “bond with your boss”:
Take a cue from those around you. When your boss shares something that was pivotal early in her career, that’s an opportunity for you to respond in kind.
* * *
Ask questions. Inquire about her previous career history; ask her how she got to where she is today.
* * *
Think you deserve a promotion? Hoping for more than a cost-of-living raise? Broaching these topics in a setting that’s warmer and more casual than her office will take the pressure off you both; continuing the dialogue in a more formal way at review time will alleviate the need to try to cover everything in one sitting.
In Ivanka’s experience, the boss is either her — this is how to get on her good side — or Donald Trump, her own father, in which case flattering him with questions about his early successes and finding opportunities to remind him of how good she is at her job are the pathways to impressing him.
“Broaching these topics in a setting that’s warmer and more casual than her office will take the pressure off you both” is great advice if your boss is a woman with whom you are also chummy but it is potentially fraught and even lousy advice if a Woman Who Work’s boss is a man, as statistics tell us he is quite likely to be.
Ivanka has clearly never personally weighed the pros and cons of the optics of asking for a promotion or a raise from a man she is not related to “in a setting that’s warmer and more casual” than the office. She certainly didn’t “curate” any wisdom from Ellen Pao, who might have something to say about how corporate bonding can put women at a professional disadvantage. The clear advantage of working for daddy is that nobody is going to accuse you of sleeping with the boss, or trying to, in order to land a promotion or a raise — and you would have no reason to suspect that the boss has any sketchy motives for wanting to hang out “in a setting that’s warmer and more casual than the office” when you’re related to him.
This is not to say male bosses and female subordinates can’t break Mike Pence’s retrograde rules with no fear of harassment or gossip — of course they can and do. I personally have been friends with male bosses with no weirdness, innuendo, or actionable offenses, and surely many readers have as well. But to not even connect her advice to the realities of sexism and harassment women continue to face in the workplace and how to deal with them if or when they arise in a book aimed at working women, especially when your father has Fox News blaring in the background 24-7 as a reminder, is laughably naïve. In Ivanka’s world, you just “prove your worth,” and automatically you are paid as much as your male counterparts, or actually you deserve to make more than Eric because you’re two years older, Daddy, and it’s only fair.
“While I believe every woman should thoughtfully architect a life she’ll love and actively work toward achieving her goals,” the book states, “we must also be flexible, adaptable, and realistic about the fact that our passions, interests, priorities, and relationships shift.” Nowhere in the book does Ivanka address, for example, what happens when access to affordable health coverage for self-employed female entrepreneurs with pre-existing conditions “shifts” after it proves “flexible” in the eyes of Republican leaders, or how to negotiate a raise or higher project rates to off-set the costs if your insurer decides your pregnancy is a pre-existing condition. (Yes, this book was wordsmithed before the House voted last week to replace the Affordable Care Act, but Ivanka was a key strategist of her father’s campaign, which ran on the promise of doing just that.) Of course, forget about advice on how to discreetly schedule several days out of the office for an out-of-town abortion when the only appointment you can get within the legal timeframe is in another state that mandates a counseling appointment and a waiting period, and it’s November and you’ve already used up your vacation days for the year.
I amtired ofwriting aboutIvankaTrump. You may well be tired of reading about her, too. If her father had not won the election with her help, and if Ivanka had then not taken a federal job as an adviser to the president, “Women Who Work” would be just another forgettable remainder table staple a month after graduation season ends. But she is supposed to be the advocate for workplace issues facing women in an administration that has already proven itself to be friendly to forces hostile to us. What Ivanka doesn’t know could hurt us all — and this book reveals just how extensive her lack of knowledge and context truly is.
“Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” philosopher Alan Watts wrote in the 1950s as he contemplated the interconnected nature of the universe. What we may now see as an elemental truth of existence was then a notion both foreign and frightening to the Western mind. But it was a scientist, not a philosopher, who levered this monumental shift in consciousness: Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964), a Copernicus of biology who ejected the human animal from its hubristic place at the center of Earth’s ecological cosmos and recast it as one of myriad organisms, all worthy of wonder, all imbued with life and reality. Her lyrical writing rendered her not a mere translator of the natural world, but an alchemist transmuting the steel of science into the gold of wonder. The message of her iconic Silent Spring (public library) rippled across public policy and the population imagination — it led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, inspired generations of activists, and led Joni Mitchell to write a lyric as timeless as “I don’t care about spots on my apples / Leave me the birds and the bees / Please!”
A woman scientist without a Ph.D. or an academic affiliation became the most powerful voice of resistance against ruinous public policy mitigated by the self-interest of government and industry, against the hauteur and short-sightedness threatening to destroy this precious pale blue dot which we, along with countless other animals, call home.
Carson had grown up in a picturesque but impoverished village in Pennsylvania. It was there, amid a tumultuous family environment, that she fell in love with nature and grew particularly enchanted with birds. A voracious reader and gifted writer from a young age, she became a published author at the age of ten, when a story of hers appeared in a children’s literary magazine. She entered the Pennsylvania College for Women with the intention of becoming a writer, but a zestful zoology professor — herself a rare specimen as a female scientist in that era — rendered young Carson besotted with biology. A scholarship allowed her to pursue a Master’s degree in zoology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University, but when her already impecunious family fell on hard times during the Great Depression, she was forced to leave the university in search of a full-time paying job before completing her doctorate.
After working as a lab assistant for a while, she began writing for the Baltimore Sun and was eventually hired as a junior aquatic biologist for what would later become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Her uncommon gift for writing was soon recognized and Carson was tasked with editing other scientists’ field reports, then promoted to editor in chief for the entire agency. Out of this necessity to reconcile science and writing was born her self-invention as a scientist who refused to give up on writing and a writer who refused to give up on science — the same refusal that marks today’s greatest poets of science.
When her older sister died in 1937, thirty-year-old Carson was left the sole provider for their mother and her two orphaned nieces. That year, she was asked to write a brochure for the Fisheries Bureau. When she turned in something infinitely more poetic than her supervisor had envisioned, he asked her to rewrite the brochure but encouraged her to submit the piece as an essay for The Atlantic Monthly. She did. It was accepted and published as Undersea — a first of its kind, immensely lyrical journey into the science of the ocean floor inviting an understanding of Earth from a nonhuman perspective. Readers and publishers were instantly smitten, and Carson expanded her Atlantic article into her first book, The Sea Around Her — the culmination of a decade of her oceanographic research, which rendered her an overnight literary success.
Against towering cultural odds, these books about the sea established her — once a destitute girl from landlocked Pennsylvania — as the most celebrated science writer of her time.
But the more Carson studied and wrote about nature, the more cautious she became of humanity’s rampant quest to dominate it. Witnessing the devastation of the atomic bomb awakened her to the unintended consequences of science unmoored from morality, of a hysterical enthusiasm for technology that deafened humanity to the inner voice of ethics. In her 1952 acceptance speech for the John Burroughs Medal, she concretized her credo:
It seems reasonable to believe — and I do believe — that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.
One of the consequences of wartime science and technology was the widespread use of DDT, initially intended for protecting soldiers from malaria-bearing mosquitoes. After the end of the war, the toxic chemical was lauded as a miracle substance. People were sprayed down with DDT to ward off disease and airplanes doused agricultural plots in order to decimate pest and maximize crop yield. It was neither uncommon nor disquieting to see a class of schoolchildren eating their lunch while an airplane aiming at a nearby field sprinkled them with DDT. A sort of blind faith enveloped the use of these pesticides, with an indifferent government and an incurious public raising no questions about their unintended consequences.
In January of 1958, Carson received a letter from an old writer friend named Olga Owens Huckins, alerting her that the aerial spraying of DDT had devastated a local wildlife sanctuary. Huckins described the ghastly deaths of birds, claws clutched to their breasts and bills agape in agony. This local tragedy was the final straw in Carson’s decade-long collection of what she called her “poison-spray material” — a dossier of evidence for the harmful, often deadly effects of toxic chemicals on wildlife and human life. That May, she signed a contract with Houghton Mifflin for what would become Silent Spring in 1962 — the firestarter of a book that ignited the conservation movement and awakened the modern environmental consciousness.
But the book also spurred violent pushback from those most culpable in the destruction of nature — a heedless government that had turned a willfully blind eye to its regulatory responsibilities and an avaricious agricultural and chemical industry determined to maximize profits at all costs. Those inconvenienced by the truths Carson exposed immediately attacked her for her indictment against elected officials’ and corporations’ deliberate deafness to fact. They used every means at their disposal — a propaganda campaign designed to discredit her, litigious bullying of her publisher, and the most frequent accusation of all: that of being a woman. Former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, who would later become Prophet of the Mormon Church, asked: “Why a spinster with no children was so concerned about genetics?” He didn’t hesitate to offer his own theory: because she was a Communist. (The lazy hand-grenade of “spinster” was often hurled at Carson in an attempt to erode her credibility, as if there were any correlation between a scientist’s home life and her expertise — never mind that, as it happened, Carson did have one of the most richly rewarding relationships a human being could hope for, albeit not the kind that conformed to the era’s narrow accepted modalities.)
Carson withstood the criticism with composure and confidence, shielded by the integrity of her facts. But another battle raged invisible to the public eye — she was dying.
She had been diagnosed with cancer in 1960, which had metastasized due to her doctor’s negligence. In 1963, when Silent Spring stirred President Kennedy’s attention and he summoned a Congressional hearing to investigate and regulate the use of pesticides, Carson didn’t hesitate to testify even as her body was giving out from the debilitating pain of the disease and the wearying radiation treatments. With her testimony as a pillar, JFK and his Science Advisory Committee invalidated her critics’ arguments, heeded Carson’s cautionary call to reason, and created the first federal policies designed to protect the planet.
Carson endured the attacks — those of her cancer and those of her critics — with unwavering heroism. She saw the former with a biologist’s calm acceptance of the cycle of life and had anticipated the latter all along. She was a spirited idealist, but she wasn’t a naïve one — from the outset, she was acutely aware that her book was a clarion call for nothing less than a revolution and that it was her moral duty to be the revolutionary she felt called to be. Just a month after signing the book contract, she articulates this awareness in a letter found in Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952–1964 (public library) — the record of her beautiful and unclassifiable relationship with her dearest friend and beloved.
Carson writes to Freeman:
I know you dread the unpleasantness that will inevitably be associated with [the book’s] publication. That I can understand, darling. But it is something I have taken into account; it will not surprise me! You do know, I think, how deeply I believe in the importance of what I am doing. Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent… It is, in the deepest sense, a privilege as well as a duty to have the opportunity to speak out — to many thousands of people — on something so important.
In that sense, the eventual title of Silent Spring was a dual commentary on how human hubris is robbing Earth of its symphonic aliveness and on the moral inadmissibility of remaining silent about the destructive forces driving this loss. Carson upheld that sense of duty while confronting her own creaturely finitude as she underwent rounds of grueling cancer treatment. In a letter to Freeman from the autumn of 1959, she reports:
Mostly, I feel fairly good but I do realize that after several days of concentrated work on the book I’m suddenly no good at all for several more. Some people assume only physical work is tiring — I guess because they use their minds little! Friday night … my exhaustion invaded every cell of my body, I think, and really kept me from sleeping well all night.
And yet mind rose over matter as Carson mobilized every neuron to keep up with her creative vitality. In another letter from the same month, she writes to Freeman about her “happiness in the progress of The Book”:
The other day someone asked Leonard Bernstein about his inexhaustible energy and he said “I have no more energy than anyone who loves what he is doing.” Well, I’m afraid mine has to be recharged at times, but anyway I do seem just now to be riding the crest of a wave of enthusiasm and creativity, and although I’m going to bed late and often rising in very dim light to get in an hour of thinking and organizing before my household stirs, my weariness seems easily banished.
Stirring her household was Roger — the nine-year-old orphan son of Carson’s niece, whom she had adopted and was single-parenting, doing all the necessary cooking, cleaning, and housework while writing Silent Spring and undergoing endless medical treatments. All of this she did with unwavering devotion to the writing and the larger sense of moral obligation that animated her. In early March of 1961, in the midst of another incapacitating radiation round, she writes to Freeman:
About the book, I sometimes have a feeling (maybe 100% wishful thinking) that perhaps this long period away from active work will give me the perspective that was so hard to attain, the ability to see the woods in the midst of the confusing multitude of trees.
With an eye to Albert Schweitzer’s famous 1954 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which appeared under the title “The Problem of Peace” and made the unnerving assertion that “we should all of us realize that we are guilty of inhumanity” in reflecting on the circumstances that led to the two world wars, she adds:
Sometimes … I want [the book] to be a much shortened and simplified statement, doing for this subject (if this isn’t too presumptuous a comparison) what Schweitzer did in his Nobel Prize address for the allied subject of radiation.
In June of that year, Carson shares with Freeman a possible opening sentence, which didn’t end up being the final one but which nonetheless synthesizes the essence of her groundbreaking book:
This is a book about man’s war against nature, and because man is part of nature it is also inevitably a book about man’s war against himself.
At that point, Carson was considering The War Against Nature and At War with Nature as possible titles, but settled on Silent Spring in September — a title inspired by Keats, Carson’s favorite poet: “The sedge is withered from the lake, / And no birds sing.”
Four months later, in January of 1962, she reports to Freeman the completion of her Herculean feat:
I achieved the goal of sending the 15 chapters to Marie [Rodell, Carson’s literary agent] — like reaching the last station before the summit of Everest.
Rodell had sent a copy of the manuscript to longtime New Yorker editor William Shawn, who gave Carson the greatest and most gratifying surprise of her life. Struggling to override her typical self-effacing humility, she relays the episode to Freeman:
Last night about 9 o’clock the phone rang and a mild voice said, “This is William Shawn.” If I talk to you tonight you will know what he said and I’m sure you can understand what it meant to me. Shamelessly, I’ll repeat some of his words — “a brilliant achievement” — “you have made it literature” “full of beauty and loveliness and depth of feeling.” … I suddenly feel full of what Lois once called “a happy turbulence.”
After Roger was asleep I took Jeffie [Carson’s cat] into the study and played the Beethoven violin concerto — one of my favorites, you know. And suddenly the tensions of four years were broken and I got down and put my arms around Jeffie and let the tears come. With his little warm, rough tongue he told me that he understood. I think I let you see last summer what my deeper feelings are about this when I said I could never again listen happily to a thrush song if I had not done all I could. And last night the thoughts of all the birds and other creatures and the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness, that now I had done what I could — I had been able to complete it — now it had its own life!
Silent Spring was published on September 27, 1962 and adrenalized a new public awareness of the fragile interconnectedness of this living world. Several months later, CBS host Eric Sevareid captured its impact most succinctly in lauding Carson as “a voice of warning and a fire under the government.” In the book, she struck a mighty match:
When the public protests, confronted with some obvious evidence … it is fed little tranquilizing pills of half truth.
How tragic to observe that in the half-century since, our so-called leaders have devolved from half-truths to “alternative facts” — that is, to whole untruths that fail the ultimate criterion for truth: a correspondence with reality.
Carson, who was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, never lived to see the sea change of policy and public awareness that her book precipitated. Today, as a new crop of political and corporate interests threatens her hard-won legacy of environmental consciousness, I think of that piercing Adrienne Rich line channeling the great 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, another scientist who fundamentally revolutionized our understanding of the universe and our place in it: “Let me not seem to have lived in vain.”
Let’s not let Rachel Carson seem to have lived in vain.
If you want to track a civilization as it collapses, watch what happens to the concept of the rebel.
From the 1960s onward—starting with Lee Oswald and the assassination of JFK—the whole idea of “the rebel” with power has been sequentially updated and repackaged. This is intentional.
The objective is to equate “rebel” with a whole host of qualities—e.g., runaway self-serving paranoia; random destruction; out-of-control drug use; generalized hatred; the commission of crimes…
On a lesser, “commercialized” level, the new rebel can define himself by merely showing up at a concert to scream and drink heavily and break something, having already dressed to make a dissident fashion statement. He can take an afternoon off from college classes and have his arms tattooed. All the while, of course, he functions as an avid consumer of mainstream corporate products.
You even have people who, considering themselves rebels of the first order, support a government that spies on its people 24/7, launches military attacks all over the world, and now funds a Manhattan Project to map every move of the 100 billion neurons of the brain, for the ultimate purpose of controlling it.
Even going back as far as the 1950s, the so-called decade of conformity, psyops professionals sculpted notions of The Rebel: He was the person who didn’t want to take part in the emerging bland corporate culture.
He was imagined and presented as troubled, morose; a wobbly unfocused JD Salinger Holden Caulfield, or a beatnik, a Madison Avenue caricature of somebody who opposed Madison Avenue.
In other words, the people who were shaping the consumer culture were creating the image of the rebel as a cartoon figure who just didn’t want to buy into “the good life.”
Time Magazine ran a cover story on the beatniks, and characterized them as a disaffected trend. Marlon Brando, heading up a bunch of moronic motorcycle riders, invaded a town of pleasant clueless citizens and took it over, wreaking destruction. The 1953 movie was The Wild One. James Dean, who had the same trouble Brando did in articulating a complete sentence, was “the rebel without a cause” in the “iconic film” of the same name. He raced cars toward cliffs because his father couldn’t understand him.
These were all puff pieces designed to make rebels look ridiculous, and they worked. They also functioned to transmit the idea to young people that being a rebel should be a showbiz affectation. That worked, too.
Then the late 1960s arrived. Flower children, in part invented by the major media, would surely take over the world and dethrone fascist authority with rainbows. San Francisco was the epicenter. But Haight-Ashbury, where the flowers and the weed were magically growing out of the sidewalks, turned into a speed, acid, and heroin nightmare, a playground for psychopaths to cash in and steal and destroy lives. The CIA, of course, gave the LSD culture a major push.
For all that the anti-war movement eventually accomplished in ending the Vietnam war-crime, in the aftermath many of those college students who had been in the streets—once the fear of being drafted was gone—scurried into counselors’ offices to see where they might fit into the job market after graduation. The military industrial complex took its profits and moved on, undeterred.
The idea of the rebel was gone. It later resurfaced as The Cocaine Dealer, the archangel of the 1980s.
And so forth and so on. All these incarnations of The Rebel were artificially created and sustained as psyops. At bottom, the idea was to discredit the Individual, in favor of The Group.
Now, in our collectivist society of 2016, The Group, as a rapidly expanding victim class, is the government’s number one project. It’s a straight con. “We’re here to make you worse off while we lift you up.”
In the psyop to demean, distort, and squash the rebel, there is a single obvious common denominator: the establishment media are doing the defining; they are the ones who are setting the parameters and making the descriptions; they are the ones who build the cartoons; looking down their noses, pretending to a degree of sympathy, they paint one unflattering picture after another of what the rebel is and does and says; they have co-opted the whole game.
These days, the ultimate rebels, the media would have you believe, are “gun-toting racist bitter clingers who have religion.” Another attempt to shape a distorted unflattering portrait
You can take a whole host of political films and television series of the past 50 years, and look at them for signs of the Rebel: Seven Days in May, Advise and Consent, The Candidate, The Seduction of Joe Tynan, Dave, Primary Colors, The Contender, Good Night and Good Luck, The American President, West Wing, Scandal, The Newsroom…
Good acting, bad acting, drama, message—at the end you’re looking for the core. What do the rebel heroes really stand for? What are their principles? It’s all bland. It’s vague. It has the posturing of importance, but little else.
As I was finishing this piece, a friend wrote with a quote attributed to Robert Anton Wilson: “The universe is a war between reality programmers.”
This is exactly where the real rebel enters the scene. He’s not trying to program people. Freedom means cutting loose from programming.
The Rebel doesn’t go to the market and choose which reality program he wants. They’re all used up as soon as they come out of the package.
Albert Camus once wrote: “The welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants, and it provides the further advantage of giving the servants of tyranny a good conscience. It would be easy, however, to destroy that good conscience by shouting to them: if you want the happiness of the people, let them speak out and tell what kind of happiness they want and what kind they don’t want! But, in truth, the very ones who make use of such alibis know they are lies; they leave to their intellectuals on duty the chore of believing in them and of proving that religion, patriotism, and justice need for their survival the sacrifice of freedom.”
“THIS or THAT” is the history of Earth: choose reality program A or B. The choice was always a con.
We’re well into a time period when the experts and scientific authorities are settling on the human being as a biological machine that can only respond to programming. That’s their view and their default position.
It’s sheer madness, of course, but what else do you expect? We’re in an intense technological age, and people are obsessed with making things run smoother. They treat their precious little algorithms for control like the Crown Jewels. They’re terribly enthusiastic about the problem they’re solving, and that problem is us.
We’re the wild cards, a fact which they take to be result of our improper and incomplete conditioning. They aim to fix that.
“Why not stop diddling around and just make the whole thing over? Why not reshape humans?”
Having decided that, the battle begins between competing programmers of the mind. Which program for humans is better?
The rebel is against all such programming, no matter how “good and right” it sounds. “Good” and “right” are the traps.
“Well, certainly we could make a list of qualities we want all people to have. You know, the best qualities, like bravery and determination. Who could be against that? So suppose we could actually program such qualities into humans? Wouldn’t that be a fine thing? Then people would just BE that way…”
The ultimate rebellion is against programming, whatever it looks like, wherever it occurs.
Programming is someone else’s idea of who and what you should be.
While I’m thinking about stuff with nothing actually sticking in the mind as particularly worthy of another difficult “essay” that says what I want to say but produces little except frustration and dissatisfaction, I thought I’d throw out some disparate quotes from other stuff I’ve read, or some I’ve pretended to read. Let’s have a look…
Things are as they are. Looking out into the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations. — Alan Watts
The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence. – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
The great fallacy of childhood is the belief that grownups must know what they are doing. There is no evidence for this in the historical record. You would do better by grabbing a government at random from the denizens of a rural high school. Democracy brings us twerps, psychopaths, ambitious ciphers, short men, and well-born drones. They are what they are. They can’t change any more than a leper can change his spots. I need some really strong drugs or someone to hit me on the head with a rubber mallet. Opium is the religion of the masses. Let us pray. – Fred Reed
What comes after capitalism in its final crisis, now under way, is, I suggest, not socialism or some other defined social order, but a lasting interregnum – no new world system equilibrium…but a prolonged period of social entropy or disorder – Wolfgang Streeck
If Trump’s rise represented an actual substantive rebellion, that at least would suggest a revolution in consciousness. But it’s not that serious. There’s no content behind it. Trump is just a symbol of negation, a big middle finger to the establishment. He’s a TV show for a country transfixed by spectacle. (Sean Illing – Vox)
They’d never been lovers, of course, not in the physical sense. But they’d been lovers as most of us manage, loving through expressions and gestures and the palm set softly upon the bruise at the necessary moment. Lovers by inclination rather than by lust. Lovers, that is, by love. — Gregory Maguire, Out of Oz.
Resistance starts with plain speaking. Fake news is propaganda. The powerful demanding apologies from artists is censorship. Business dealings while in office are corruption. Threatening protesters and petitioners is authoritarianism. Declaring a minority an internal enemy and calling for militarized unity is fascism. Everything starts with naming these things in public. (from Adventures and Musings of an Arch Druidess)
I am reading the book of human sins. When I’m done I’ll cast it into the fire and all their sins will be gone. (“The Island” – movie)
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum. – Noam Chomsky
Conventions go a long way to validating superiority. If we were all guided by truth alone, none of us could accept anything on face value. We would each become investigative journalist, historian and detective wrapped as one. – Exo-politician, WordPress
It is better to be alone than to become a person that loses his soul to the fear of loneliness. ― Shannon L. Alder
You have to understand that most of the people out there are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so helplessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it. (Morpheus, The Matrix)
When love is not madness, it is not love. — Pedro Calderon de la Barca
Not a single star will be left in the night. / The night will not be left. / I will die and, with me, / the weight of the intolerable universe. / I shall erase the pyramids, the medallions, / the continents and faces. / I shall erase the accumulated past. / I shall make dust of history, dust of dust. / Now I am looking on the final sunset. / I am hearing the last bird. / I bequeath nothingness to no one — Jorge Luis Borges, “The Suicide”
God’s only excuse is that he does not exist. — Stendhal
As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, / They kill us for their sport. — William Shakespeare
You have to be ready to be anyone in moments of danger or love. — Lidia Yuknavitch
[…] there is a human capacity called imagination. It’s the wild card in the deck. It’s the greatest wild card ever known. It is, in fact, the cutting edge of consciousness. It invents new realities. It releases gigantic amounts of buried energy. And it’s entirely an individual proposition. – Jon Rappoport
What could be more free, more independent, more unique, more creative than individual consciousness that has a non-material basis? – Jon Rappoport
…there’ll always be money and whores and drunkards / down to the last bomb, / but as God said, / crossing his legs, / I see where I have made plenty of poets / but not so very much / poetry. — Charles Bukowski
We can catch buses and count our change and cross the roads and talk real sentences. But […] our discreditable secret is that we don’t know anything at all, and our horrid inner secret is that we don’t care that we don’t. — Dylan Thomas
A few years ago I was living in a small town in Vancouver Island, Canada. A town already on the brink of collapse because the main employer, a pulp mill, had decided to shut down its operations in that town. ( The fact that the corporation is a foreign-owned company is for another post.)
I had a new friend. He was an assistant manager for one of the big supermarkets that dominate the food supply in that town. Owned by Loblaw, the largest food retailer in Canada, with over 1400 supermarkets.
That night he called me at around 11pm and asked me to come over. I sensed urgency in his voice so I was there in short time. He explained to me that, earlier on we had experienced a major black out, a power storm had knocked out the electricity supply to the town for three days. He had been told by senior management that all frozen foods were to be discarded. I asked him, why couldn’t they just give the foods to a local food bank? He said that they had to scan the frozen foods for insurance reasons, and then all the foods were to be put in the crusher and destroyed.
OK, so why not give the foods after the scanning ? They could not be bothered.
That’s why he called me. He knew I was an activist that had contacts in town. I knew many of the social outcasts in town. He asked me if I had an idea.
Doh! Not difficult really.
So after he scanned some of the foods, he let me take them. I proceeded for the next few hours to grab as much of the goods that my little vehicle could handle and brought them to Crack House Central. The place in town where no one knows your name. Crack heads have to eat and have families by the way. And yes, they do spend most, if not all of their money, on crack.
You should have seen the faces of the users when I showed up with about $1000 worth of frozen foods. I asked them to please take the foods home before continuing on their ride to Hell.
By the way, crack is gender neutral. There were as many women as men in the house when I arrived. 14 people sitting so quietly that you would not even suspect a cat lived there. That drug makes you paranoid to the extreme.
So we managed to save approximately $1000 worth of frozen food. My friend told me that altogether he must have destroyed another $5000 worth of stuff through the night.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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, Steinbeck’s sobering perspective and lucid faith in the human spirit.
I saw a question on a blog this morning from someone called “Kate”
It asked: “I was wondering if you’d give me some advice on how to get more people to read my blog.”
The question wasn’t addressed to me, and I did not comment on it but I think I have something to say to that query. So, here goes, for those wondering souls out there who are concerned about not being read or followed.
How much work are you willing to put into blogging?
How many emails are you willing to sort through per day: 100? 200?
How many comments are you willing to sincerely and thoughtfully engage and respond to?
Blogging works on an exponential scale. You start a blog, post something, then begin the real work: following, reading and commenting on others’ works.
I shouldn’t call it work, it’s more like school, or study sessions. It isn’t work, it’s fascination, with endlessly fresh, mind-boggling information and insight into the lives of REAL people. There is so much “out there” that people express. There are wonderful writers, authors, and those who are just eager to share their life’s experiences.
Can’t afford vacations, or flying? Try blogging, all you need is time and sincerity.
The “Process” then: as you follow others, they follow you, then their followers read your posts and they too follow, just as you do when on their blogs.
See something you like? Don’t just read it and “like” it, click on “follow.” If it’s really not up your alley, you can always “unsubscribe” later without hurting any feelings. Others will take your place, no worry about that. As I said already, it’s exponential, but you have to put into the equation. You give to get. Blogging isn’t “the Universe” just so eager to grant your every wish for nothing (I’m being sarcastic of course).
Blogging: I think this is a great system of global communication. Another way to increase traffic is to “reblog” other posts, but some overdo that part. I was recently subscribed to 4 blogs that essentially all reblogged the same material… so I pared it down to one of them. I can’t have my daily email load exceed 200.
For me the point of having my own blog (as opposed to just running across Word Press looking for interesting tidbits) is to say what I want to say while keeping those who follow my blog interested and perhaps at times, entertained as well. And most importantly, to receive feed-back, love the “Like” but I enjoy the comments too.
The key to blogging: it’s all give and take with more “give” than “take.” Oh, and on Word Press we are “civilized” bloggers. No insults, no shaming. If I have one criticism of Word Press writers, including myself, it would be that we are too well behaved to even think of critiquing another’s work. I think we need more of that. But that’s for another topic, if I get a “round-to-it” and get around to it.
From one of the most beautiful women I have ever met.
Ceilidh is my kind of editor. If I ever want to write anything of value I will pass it through her first. If you need to become a writer, get in touch with me and I’ll introduce you to her. But, prepare to be challenged.
By the way, there is no writer without a great editor.
Reading books is tied to a longer life, according to a new report.
Researchers used data on 3,635 people over 50 participating in a larger health study who had answered questions about reading.
The scientists divided the sample into three groups: those who read no books, those who read books up to three and a half hours a week, and those who read books more than three and a half hours.
The study, in Social Science & Medicine, found that book readers tended to be female, college-educated and in higher income groups. So researchers controlled for those factors as well as age, race, self-reported health, depression, employment and marital status.
Compared with those who did not read books, those who read for up to three and a half hours a week were 17 percent less likely to die over 12 years of follow-up, and those who read more than that were 23 percent less likely to die. Book readers lived an average of almost two years longer than those who did not read at all.
They found a similar association among those who read newspapers and periodicals, but it was weaker.
“People who report as little as a half-hour a day of book reading had a significant survival advantage over those who did not read,” said the senior author, Becca R. Levy, a professor of epidemiology at Yale. “And the survival advantage remained after adjusting for wealth, education, cognitive ability and many other variables.”
Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers. “Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines,” the author Jeanette Winterson has written. “What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.”
Revolving histories are commonplace as politicians and religious leaders have still not learned to live together, not ordinary people, they live quite well together, but the priests and politicians who hate the ideologies of each other.
We are at a crossroads between a new world order of poverty and political/economic servitude in the western ideological world and an old world order of religious/economic exploitation in Islamic countries by the Muslim religions and politicians.
It’s the tenth century all over again.
But ordinary people have not formed these hateful ideologies of religion, corrupt political institutions, corrupt world financial services and religious persecution and suppression, the priest and politicians as well as the financiers did.
And we have to live in it, it’s our world, it belongs to the ordinary people, the ones who work it, live it and die for it but we do not have proper say in it.
Our national institutions and international institutions the world over are run and controlled by politicians and priests and the super rich, neither of which have changed the status quo in three thousand years of history.
So we can see the revolving door history never changes no matter how many new ideologies, religions or banking crimes are invented to fool the populations of our past.
The ordinary mans words are dust before the sun sets each day, as the few people who contain us all force their words into our lives, our children and even past our graves.
Our common morality is abused when sexual offences against children are covered up by police forces and politicians in institutions run by PEOPLE who are supposed to be following the will of the people they represent, both politically and religiously.
Our sense of justice is abused constantly with the super rich and multi national company OWNERS who can avoid billions in taxes while ordinary people are put in jail for missing a weeks tax or a bedroom tax, or a drinks tax, tobacco tax, coffee tax, grave registration tax, and a tax from your first nappy to the last stone above your grave.
Politicians accept hundreds of billions in debt money from the super rich on the strength of people paying taxes in their working life.
If your government do not agree to the conditions of the loans, these international super rich refuse the loans.
The conditions of austerity ordinary people have to suffer is immense, soul destroying and a national psychological chain for every nation involved, except the lenders.
The amount of world and international debt/wealth has gone into cartoon numbers, the colossal amounts of money involved could never be dug up in gold and resources in a billion years.
The planet will be hollow before these people stop.
Such a sad indictment to the most intelligent species on the planet!
When you attempt to envision a writer, I imagine many of you see a quirky recluse, hunched over a desk in some cabin, crumpled paper strewn about as they obsessively work on the next great American novel. But writing is so much more.
Prose is thought put to page, which makes all of us writers—even if we don’t have the chops to tangle with Faulkner. In most cases, writing is most useful as a tool for thinking, expression, and creativity; cabin-dwelling novelists be damned.
Let’s look at some of the benefits of making writing a regular habit.
The Therapeutic Aspects of Writing
Much of the research on writing and happiness deals with “expressive writing,” or jotting down what you think and how you feel. Even blogging “undoubtedly affords similar benefits” to private expressive writing in terms of therapeutic value.
Expressive writing has also been linked to improved mood, well-being, and reduced stress levels for those who do it regularly, says Adam Grant:
“Research by Laura King shows that writing about achieving future goals and dreams can make people happier and healthier… And Jane Dutton and I found that when people doing stressful fundraising jobs kept a journal for a few days about how their work made a difference, they increased their hourly effort by 29% over the next two weeks.”
Moreover, laziness with words creates difficulty in describing feelings, sharing experiences, and communicating with others. Being able to flesh out thoughts in your mind only to have them come stumbling out when you speak is supremely frustrating. Fortunately, regular writing seems to offer some reprieve.
In both emotional intelligence and in hard sciences like mathematics, writing has been shown to help people communicate highly complex ideas more effectively. Writing helps eliminate “it sounded good in my head” by forcing your hand; brains forgive fuzzy abstractions, prose does not.
Writing Can Help You Handle Hard Times
In one study that followed recently fired engineers, the researchers found that those engineers who consistently engaged with expressive writing were able to find another job faster. Says Adam Grant:
“The engineers who wrote down their thoughts and feelings about losing their jobs reported feeling less anger and hostility toward their former employer. They also reported drinking less. Eight months later, less than 19% of the engineers in the control groups were reemployed full-time, compared with more than 52% of the engineers in the expressive writing group.”
According to an older study, writing about traumatic events actually made the participants more depressed, until about 6 months later, when the emotional benefits started to stick.
One participant noted, “Although I have not talked with anyone about what I wrote, I was finally able to deal with it, work through the pain instead of trying to block it out. Now it doesn’t hurt to think about it.”
“Loneliness is personal, and it is also political. Loneliness is collective… We are in this together, this accumulation of scars… What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity.”
“You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love,” artist Louise Bourgeoise wrote in her diary at the end of a long and illustrious life as she contemplated how solitude enriches creative work. It’s a lovely sentiment, but as empowering as it may be to those willing to embrace solitude, it can be tremendously lonesome-making to those for whom loneliness has contracted the space of trust and love into a suffocating penitentiary. For if in solitude, as Wendell Berry memorably wrote, “one’s inner voices become audible [and] one responds more clearly to other lives,” in loneliness one’s inner scream becomes deafening, deadening, severing any thread of connection to other lives.
How to break free of that prison and reinhabit the space of trust and love is what Olivia Laing explores in The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (public library) — an extraordinary more-than-memoir; a sort of memoir-plus-plus, partway between Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk and the diary of Virginia Woolf; a lyrical account of wading through a period of self-expatriation, both physical and psychological, in which Laing paints an intimate portrait of loneliness as “a populated place: a city in itself.”
After the sudden collapse of a romance marked by extreme elation, Laing left her native England and took her shattered heart to New York, “that teeming island of gneiss and concrete and glass.” The daily, bone-deep loneliness she experienced there was both paralyzing in its all-consuming potency and, paradoxically, a strange invitation to aliveness. Indeed, her choice to leave home and wander a foreign city is itself a rich metaphor for the paradoxical nature of loneliness, animated by equal parts restlessness and stupor, capable of turning one into a voluntary vagabond and a catatonic recluse all at once, yet somehow a vitalizing laboratory for self-discovery. The pit of loneliness, she found, could “drive one to consider some of the larger questions of what it is to be alive.”
There were things that burned away at me, not only as a private individual, but also as a citizen of our century, our pixelated age. What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people, particularly if we don’t find speaking easy? Is sex a cure for loneliness, and if it is, what happens if our body or sexuality is considered deviant or damaged, if we are ill or unblessed with beauty? And is technology helping with these things? Does it draw us closer together, or trap us behind screens?
Bedeviled by this acute emotional anguish, Laing seeks consolation in the great patron saints of loneliness in twentieth-century creative culture. From this eclectic tribe of the lonesome — including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Hujar, Billie Holiday, and Nan Goldin — Laing chooses four artists as her companions charting the terra incognita of loneliness: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz, who had all “grappled in their lives as well as work with loneliness and its attendant issues.”
She considers, for instance, Warhol — an artist whom Laing had always dismissed until the was submerged in loneliness herself. (“I’d seen the screen-printed cows and Chairman Maos a thousand times, and I thought they were vacuous and empty, disregarding them as we often do with things we’ve looked at but failed properly to see.”) She writes:
Warhol’s art patrols the space between people, conducting a grand philosophical investigation into closeness and distance, intimacy and estrangement. Like many lonely people, he was an inveterate hoarder, making and surrounding himself with objects, barriers against the demands of human intimacy. Terrified of physical contact, he rarely left the house without an armoury of cameras and tape recorders, using them to broker and buffer interactions: behaviour that has light to shed on how we deploy technology in our own century of so-called connectivity.
Woven into the fabric of Laing’s personal experience are inquiries into the nature, context, and background of these four artists’ lives and their works most preoccupied with loneliness. But just as it would be unfair to call Laing’s masterpiece only a “memoir,” it would be unfair to call these threads “art history,” for they are rather the opposite, a kind of “art present” — elegant and erudite meditations on how art is present with us, how it invites us to be present with ourselves and bears witness to that presence, alleviating our loneliness in the process.
Laing examines the particular, pervasive form of loneliness in the eye of a city aswirl with humanity:
Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or forty-third floor of a building. The city reveals itself as a set of cells, a hundred thousand windows, some darkened and some flooded with green or white or golden light. Inside, strangers swim to and fro, attending to the business of their private hours. You can see them, but you can’t reach them, and so this commonplace urban phenomenon, available in any city of the world on any night, conveys to even the most social a tremor of loneliness, its uneasy combination of separation and exposure.
You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others. Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired. Unhappy, as the dictionary has it, as a result of being without the companionship of others. Hardly any wonder, then, that it can reach its apotheosis in a crowd.
As scientists are continuing to unpeel the physiological effects of loneliness, it is no surprise that this psychological state comes with an almost bodily dimension, which Laing captures vividly:
What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged. It hurts, in the way that feelings do, and it also has physical consequences that take place invisibly, inside the closed compartments of the body. It advances, is what I’m trying to say, cold as ice and clear as glass, enclosing and engulfing.
There is, of course, a universe of difference between solitude and loneliness — two radically different interior orientations toward the same exterior circumstance of lacking companionship. We speak of “fertile solitude” as a developmental achievement essential for our creative capacity, but loneliness is barren and destructive; it cottons in apathy the will to create. More than that, it seems to signal an existential failing — a social stigma the nuances of which Laing addresses beautifully:
Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorise. Like depression, a state with which it often intersects, it can run deep in the fabric of a person, as much a part of one’s being as laughing easily or having red hair. Then again, it can be transient, lapping in and out in reaction to external circumstance, like the loneliness that follows on the heels of a bereavement, break-up or change in social circles.
Like depression, like melancholy or restlessness, it is subject too to pathologisation, to being considered a disease. It has been said emphatically that loneliness serves no purpose… Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think any experience so much a part of our common shared lives can be entirely devoid of meaning, without a richness and a value of some kind.
Loneliness might be taking you towards an otherwise unreachable experience of reality.
Adrift and alone in the city that promises its inhabitants “the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation,” Laing cycles through a zoetrope of temporary homes — sublets, friends’ apartments, and various borrowed quarters, only amplifying the sense of otherness and alienation as she is forced to make “a life among someone else’s things, in a home that someone else has created and long since.”
But therein lies an inescapable metaphor for life itself — we are, after all, subletting our very existence from a city and a society and a world that have been there for much longer than we have, already arranged in a way that might not be to our taste, that might not be how the building would be laid out and its interior designed were we to do it from scratch ourselves. And yet we are left to make ourselves at home in the way things are, imperfect and sometimes downright ugly. The measure of a life has to do with this subletting ability — with how well we are able to settle into this borrowed, imperfect abode and how much beauty we can bring into existence with however little control over its design we may have.
This, perhaps, is why Laing found her only, if temporary, respite from loneliness in an activity propelled by the very act of leaving this borrowed home: walking. In a passage that calls to mind Robert Walser’s exquisite serenade to the soul-nourishment of the walk, she writes:
In certain circumstances, being outside, not fitting in, can be a source of satisfaction, even pleasure. There are kinds of solitude that provide a respite from loneliness, a holiday if not a cure. Sometimes as I walked, roaming under the stanchions of the Williamsburg Bridge or following the East River all the way to the silvery hulk of the U.N., I could forget my sorry self, becoming instead as porous and borderless as the mist, pleasurably adrift on the currents of the city.
But whatever semblance of a more solid inner center these peripatetic escapes into solitude offered, it was a brittle solidity:
I didn’t get this feeling when I was in my apartment; only when I was outside, either entirely alone or submerged in a crowd. In these situations I felt liberated from the persistent weight of loneliness, the sensation of wrongness, the agitation around stigma and judgement and visibility. But it didn’t take much to shatter the illusion of self-forgetfulness, to bring me back not only to myself but to the familiar, excruciating sense of lack.
It was in the lacuna between self-forgetfulness and self-discovery that Laing found herself drawn to the artists who became her companions in a journey both toward and away from loneliness. There is Edward Hopper with his iconic Nighthawks aglow in eerie jade, of which Laing writes:
There is no colour in existence that so powerfully communicates urban alienation, the atomisation of human beings inside the edifices they create, as this noxious pallid green, which only came into being with the advent of electricity, and which is inextricably associated with the nocturnal city, the city of glass towers, of empty illuminated offices and neon signs.
The diner was a place of refuge, absolutely, but there was no visible entrance, no way to get in or out. There was a cartoonish, ochre-coloured door at the back of the painting, leading perhaps into a grimy kitchen. But from the street, the room was sealed: an urban aquarium, a glass cell.
Green on green, glass on glass, a mood that expanded the longer I lingered, breeding disquiet.
Hopper himself had a conflicted relationship with the common interpretation that loneliness was a central theme of his work. Although he often denied that it was a deliberate creative choice, he once conceded in an interview: “I probably am a lonely one.” Laing, whose attention and sensitivity to even the subtlest texture of experience are what make the book so wonderful, considers how Hopper’s choice of language captures the essence of loneliness:
It’s an unusual formulation, a lonely one; not at all the same thing as admitting one is lonely. Instead, it suggests with that a, that unassuming indefinite article, a fact that loneliness by its nature resists. Though it feels entirely isolating, a private burden no one else could possibly experience or share, it is in reality a communal state, inhabited by many people. In fact, current studies suggest that more than a quarter of American adults suffers from loneliness, independent of race, education and ethnicity, while 45 per cent of British adults report feeling lonely either often or sometimes. Marriage and high income serve as mild deterrents, but the truth is that few of us are absolutely immune to feeling a greater longing for connection than we find ourselves able to satisfy. The lonely ones, a hundred million strong. Hardly any wonder Hopper’s paintings remain so popular, and so endlessly reproduced.
Reading his halting confession, one begins to see why his work is not just compelling but also consoling, especially when viewed en masse. It’s true that he painted, not once but many times, the loneliness of a large city, where the possibilities of connection are repeatedly defeated by the dehumanising apparatus of urban life. But didn’t he also paint loneliness as a large city, revealing it as a shared, democratic place, inhabited, whether willingly or not, by many souls?
What Hopper captures is beautiful as well as frightening. They aren’t sentimental, his pictures, but there is an extraordinary attentiveness to them… As if loneliness was something worth looking at. More than that, as if looking itself was an antidote, a way to defeat loneliness’s strange, estranging spell.
For the artists accompanying Laing on her journey — including Henry Darger, the brilliant and mentally ill Chicago janitor whose posthumously discovered paintings made him one of the most celebrated outsider artists of the twentieth century, and the creative polymath David Wojnarowicz, still in his thirties when AIDS took his life — loneliness was often twined with another profound affliction of the psyche: loss. In a passage evocative of Paul Goodman’s taxonomy of the nine types of silence, Laing offers a taxonomy of lonelinesses through the lens of loss:
Loss is a cousin of loneliness. They intersect and overlap, and so it’s not surprising that a work of mourning might invoke a feeling of aloneness, of separation. Mortality is lonely. Physical existence is lonely by its nature, stuck in a body that’s moving inexorably towards decay, shrinking, wastage and fracture. Then there’s the loneliness of bereavement, the loneliness of lost or damaged love, of missing one or many specific people, the loneliness of mourning.
But this lonesomeness of mortality finds its antidote in the abiding consolations of immortal works of art. “Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness,” philosopher Alain de Botton and art historian John Armstrong wrote in their inquiry into the seven psychological functions of art, and if loneliness is, as Laing puts it, “a longing for integration, for a sense of feeling whole,” what better answer to that longing than art? After all, in the immortal words of James Baldwin, “only an artist can tell, and only artists have told since we have heard of man, what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it.”
Looking back on her experience, Laing writes:
There are so many things that art can’t do. It can’t bring the dead back to life, it can’t mend arguments between friends, or cure AIDS, or halt the pace of climate change. All the same, it does have some extraordinary functions, some odd negotiating ability between people, including people who never meet and yet who infiltrate and enrich each other’s lives. It does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly.
If I sound adamant it is because I am speaking from personal experience. When I came to New York I was in pieces, and though it sounds perverse, the way I recovered a sense of wholeness was not by meeting someone or by falling in love, but rather by handling the things that other people had made, slowly absorbing by way of this contact the fact that loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.
There is a gentrification that is happening to cities, and there is a gentrification that is happening to the emotions too, with a similarly homogenising, whitening, deadening effect. Amidst the glossiness of late capitalism, we are fed the notion that all difficult feelings — depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage — are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to structural injustice or, on the other hand, to the native texture of embodiment, of doing time, as David Wojnarowicz memorably put it, in a rented body, with all the attendant grief and frustration that entails.
I don’t believe the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily. I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.
Loneliness is personal, and it is also political. Loneliness is collective; it is a city. As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each another. We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.
“Our citizens should know the urgent facts…but they don’t because our media serves imperial, not popular interests. They lie, deceive, connive and suppress what everyone needs to know, substituting managed news misinformation and rubbish for hard truths…”—Oliver Stone