Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 2018

My ten creative books #2: The Importance of Living

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

When Lin Yutang died in 1976, his obituary in the New York Times naturally described him as “an interpreter to Western minds of the customs, aspirations, fears and thoughts of his people and their country, China, the great and tragic land.” But what strikes me the most now about his masterpiece, The Importance of Living, is how little of it seems specifically Chinese, and how quickly its vision of life came to seem like an anachronism. Here, for example, is Lin on the figure of “the scamp,” which he holds up as his ideal of human life:

My faith in human dignity consists in the belief that man is the greatest scamp on earth. Human dignity must be associated with the idea of a scamp and not with that of an obedient, disciplined, and regimented soldier. The scamp is probably the most glorious type of human being, as the soldier is the lowest type, according to this conception…In this present age of threats to democracy and individual liberty, probably only the scamp and the spirit of the scamp alone will save us from becoming lost as serially numbered units in the masses of disciplined, obedient, regimented, and uniformed coolies. The scamp will be the last and most formidable enemy of dictatorships. He will be the champion of human dignity and individual freedom, and will be the last to be conquered. All modern civilization depends entirely upon him.

These lines, which appeared in 1937, acquired a sadly ironic undertone almost from the moment of their first publication. Yet the book was always less about China than about the author himself. Like most interpreters and intermediaries between cultures, Lin was never particularly comfortable in either world, and like Thoreau and the other sages whom he cites, he was an outlier even in the society that he was supposedly introducing to the West.

And what remains is still the best handbook that I’ve ever found for living a sane, balanced life as a member of the creative class, regardless of one’s background. If you only have time to read part of it, I’d recommend the section “Who Can Best Enjoy Life?”, which I seem to revisit every year. Lin opens with a consideration of right living, and after considering the merits of the Taoist and Confucian points of view, he concludes with an unforgettable endorsement of the life embodied by Zisi, which Lin calls “the philosophy of half-and half”:

Those are the best cynics who are half-cynics…It is that spirit of sweet reasonableness, arriving at a perfect balance between action and inaction, shown in the ideal of a man living in half-fame and semi-obscurity; half-lazily active and half-actively lazy; not so poor that he cannot pay his rent, and not so rich that he doesn’t have to work a little or couldn’t wish to have slightly more to help his friends; who plays the piano, but only well enough for his most intimate friends to hear, and chiefly to please himself; who collects, but just enough to load his mantelpiece; who reads, but not too hard; learns a lot but does not become a specialist; writes, but has his correspondence to the Times half of the time rejected and half of the time published—in short, it is that ideal of middle-class life which I believe to be the sanest ideal of life ever discovered by the Chinese.

Few people of any country have ever managed to put this into practice, and Lin passes over the important point that one only arrives at it after a long struggle to achieve something more. Those who aim for it are likely to miss it entirely—but this doesn’t make it any less true. And when we think of those in power today, and of the moral compromises that they continue to make, Lin’s final admonition feels more resonant than ever: “A half Lindbergh would be better, because more happy, than a complete Lindbergh. I am quite sure Lindbergh would be much happier if he had flown only halfway across the Atlantic.”

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July 31, 2018 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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The poet…is born, it appears, with a stronger-than-usual need for verbal adequacy, and so he is always mustering and reviewing his vocabulary, and forearming himself with terms he may need in the future. I recall the excitement of a poet friend when he discovered in a mushroom guide the word “duff,” which signifies “decaying vegetable matter on the forest floor.” He was right to be excited, I think. Duff is a short, precise word which somehow sounds like what it means, and it is a word that poets must often have groped after in vain.

Richard Wilbur, “Poetry and Happiness”

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July 31, 2018 at 7:30 am

My ten creative books #1: On Growth and Form

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On Growth and Form

Note: For the next two weeks, I’ll be counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations.

In my first semester in college, I won something called the Detur Prize, which presented undergraduates who had earned good grades with an enticing award: a copy of a book of their choice. When you’re eighteen years old and just starting to figure out who you are, a decision like this quickly becomes a declaration of intent: I felt obliged to pick a title that said something about what I hoped to accomplish. A quick glance at the spines of the books selected by my fellow students confirmed that I wasn’t alone in this—the most popular choices seemed to be The Yale Shakespeare and The Wealth of Nations, both of which were revealing in themselves. After a lot of thought, I settled on a book that surprised some of my friends: On Growth and Form by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. And though it took me the better part of the next decade to actually finish reading it, I knew from the start that it was the right choice, and my feelings still haven’t changed. Thompson’s weighty masterpiece is the best evidence yet presented that science and the humanities form a continuous whole, with the patterns in one sphere shedding light on the other, but only if channeled through the mind of an author qualified to draw those connections. And Thompson, who uniquely combined the strengths of a scientist, a classicist, and a mathematician, stands as one of the last of our truly comprehensive intelligences.

As its title implies, On Growth and Form covers a dazzling array of topics. Thompson offers up original research and insights on turtle shells, narwhal’s horns, horse’s teeth, soap bubbles, and honeycombs. He explains how a cell finds its shape, how leaves are arranged on a branch, how an insect wing is structured, how birds and fish move, and how human beings grow. And he does it with style. The Nobel laureate Peter Medawar once wrote:

I think that Growth and Form is beyond comparison the finest work of literature in all the annals of science that have been recorded in the English tongue. There is a combination here of elegance of style with perfect, absolutely unfailing clarity that has never to my knowledge been surpassed… Growth and Form will remain forever worth reading as a text in the exacting discipline of putting conceptions accurately into words.

And my lifetime of reading Thompson—or, more accurately, reading in Thompson—only confirms that verdict. If Thomas Young, in the words of his biographer Andrew Robinson, was the last man who knew everything, Thompson is the most recent figure who could mount a convincing challenge. That kind of universality is no longer feasible. But On Growth and Form stands as a permanent monument to the idea that such unification was not only possible, but essential. That’s why I chose it two decades ago. And it’s why it still fills me with awe today.

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July 30, 2018 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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When a poet says he is doing north, look and see if he is actually doing south. Chances are that his bent is so entirely south that he must swear total allegiance to north in order to include the globe.

Donald Hall, Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird

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July 30, 2018 at 7:30 am

The woman and the muse

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While the male poet, even at his most wretched and alienated, can at least solace himself with his open or secret creativity, his mythmaking power, the female poet must come to terms with the fact that as a female she is that which is mythologized, the incarnation of otherness (to use de Beauvoir’s terminology) and hence the object of anthologies full of male metaphors. Many of her hypotheses about herself are therefore in one way or another replies to prevalent definitions of her femininity, replies expressing either her distress at the disparity between male myths about her and her own sense of herself, or else her triumphant repudiation of those myths. Men tell her that she is a muse. Yet she knows that she is not a muse, she has a muse (and what is its sex?). Men tell her she is the “angel in the house,” yet she doesn’t feel angelic, and wonders, therefore, if she is a devil, a witch, an animal, a criminal. Men tell her that she is Molly Bloom, Mother Earth, Ishtar, a fertility goddess, a thing whose periodicity expresses the divine order (or is it the disorder?) of seasons, skies, stars. They tell her, echoing Archibald MacLeish’s definition of a poem, that she should not mean but be. Yet meanings delight her, along with seemings, games, plays, costumes, and ideas of order, as they delight male poets. But perhaps, she speculates, her rage for order is mistaken, presumptuous?

Sandra M. Gilbert, “My Name is Darkness”

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July 29, 2018 at 7:30 am

The power of repetition

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The first fact of the world is that it repeats itself. I had been taught to believe that the freshness of children lay in their capacity for wonder at the vividness and strangeness of the particular, but what is fresh in them is that they still experience the power of repetition, from which our first sense of the power of mastery comes. Though predictable is an ugly little world in daily life, in our first experience of it we are clued to the hope of a shapeliness in things. To see that power working on adults, you have to catch them out: the look of foolish happiness on the faces of people who have just sat down to dinner is their knowledge that dinner will be served…Thinking that this is going to happen and having it happen might be, then, the authentic source of the experience of being, of identity, that word which implies that a lot of different things are the same thing.

Robert Hass, Twentieth Century Pleasures

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July 28, 2018 at 7:30 am

The poet on the bulldozer

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I want to defend literature. It’s a poor man’s art…Artists and composers are usually poor until they are no longer poor, that is, until they are successful. At least for a season or so. After that they can always un-teach at this or that university, and confuse a sufficient number of students to supply the country with personnel for useless ferment and vacuous bitterness…Poets are what they will, are free to be trained for anything. “Composers”—those trained for the calling—seldom are masters of their trade, however craftsmanly they may be. Composers of the Higher Art can’t grind out rock ‘n’ roll arrangements, usually, because they tell themselves it isn’t serious. In college, Stockhausen played in a jazz band, but he once wrote to Henry Flynt that jazz wasn’t serious music in the Western sense. Still, orchestras have to be supported: bread and circuses for the intelligentsia. But poets are people and can often run bulldozers. They make good pop musicians too…

[Most funding for the arts] goes to museums, to display the past or present fashions. Quite often it goes to flash plastic artists of one sort or another—especially if they’d like to spend a year in Rome or Florence or Paris, or some other living mortuary. It goes to dancers. Dancers are poorer than plastic artists, richer than composers, but much richer than writers or poets. Dance is harmless, therefore harmless to “Our Society.” Of course, that’s in practice, not in theory. An attitude of universal dancing and choreography would be very revolutionary, but dancers would probably call it “too literary” and dismiss it…The money goes to theaters [like]…the Beaumont Theater in New York for their production of Twelfth Night, one of my favorite of sixteenth-century plays. This is not supporting choreographed literature; it is supporting the tuxedo-rental industry.

Dick Higgins, “Seen, Heard, and Understood”

Written by nevalalee

July 27, 2018 at 7:30 am

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