Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My ten creative books #2: The Importance of Living

with 4 comments

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.”

Written by nevalalee

July 31, 2018 at 9:00 am

4 Responses

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  1. I love this! Yes, the middle ground is worth striving for, especially in the Bay Area where everyone seems to want bigger and more.
    My books for spiritual recalibration–*Freedom From the Known* by JM Krishnamurti and Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching.

    inglotpoems

    July 31, 2018 at 10:04 am

  2. “Few people of any country have ever managed to put this into practice…”

    Newfoundland was a country once up on a time.

    I recommended your blog to Adrian Bejan tonight when he put a paper up on LinkedIn.

    Benj

    July 31, 2018 at 9:30 pm

  3. This reminds me of two things. First, Kurt Vonnegut’s admonition that “we are here on earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.” Second, my kids are fond of quoting something they heard from a teacher, that Olympic bronze medalists are much happier than silver medalists: silvers are tormented by what they think they could’ve/should’ve done to reach gold, bronzes are just thrilled that they made it to the podium.


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