Friday, 19 June 2015

Allen Ginsberg on never working again (and living a "literary and quiet city-hermit existence" instead)


Carl Solomon, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs at the Gotham Book Mart celebrating the reissue of JUNKY, NYC, 1977.

I recently came across a wonderful quote from Allen Ginsberg, the Beat Generation poet best known for his incredible epic poem "Howl" ("I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness..."), and wanted to share it with you.

I think that often we find ourselves reading books, articles and websites that push us to do more, see more, and be more, and I love that this conveys the opposite. Yes, motivating ourselves is important, but so is simplifying life and enjoying the little moments.

It reminds me somewhat of the Nicholas Carr quote that I included in my Arianna Huffington and slowing down article: “there needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden”.

But here's the Ginsberg quote:

“I really would like to stop working forever–never work again, never do anything like the kind of work I’m doing now–and do nothing but write poetry and have leisure to spend the day outdoors and go to museums and see friends. And I’d like to keep living with someone — maybe even a man — and explore relationships that way. And cultivate my perceptions, cultivate the visionary thing in me. Just a literary and quiet city-hermit existence.”

Around 1953 Ginsberg began seeing a therapist at Langley Porter Institute, San Francisco, and recalls saying the above to him. He also remembers the therapists's response: "Well, why don't you?"

Mentioned in On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg by Lewis Hyde (p405)


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Monday, 15 June 2015

Kierkegaard on how "if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right"

Unfinished sketch of Kierkegaard by his cousin 
Niels Christian Kierkegaard, c. 1840
I finished my undergraduate degree last month, and since then I've spent a few weeks travelling. One of the stops was Copenhagen, where I decided to make Søren Kierkegaard a focal point of my wanderings: the Danish philosopher and father of existentialism whose work included Either/Or and Fear and Trembling.

The philosopher was born in the city, studied at its university, and died there, and I found it fascinating to wander its roads with his life and work in mind. This is particularly fitting upon considering one of Kierkegaard's most famous quotes:

"Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”

― Søren Kierkegaard, from a letter to his favourite niece, Henriette Lund, in 1847

If you find yourself in Copenhagen, try to meander around the Frederiksberg Gardens — “that wonderful garden which for the child was the enchanted land where the king lived with the queen,” as Kierkegaard wrote in “Concluding Unscientific Postscript.” You can also contemplate his grave in Assistens Cemetery, see a 1918 bronze statue of him in the Royal Library Garden, and stroll along the "Lovers' Lane" near Peblinge Lake that is the opening setting for The Seducer's Diary.

But if you're not in Copenhagen, perhaps try to wander a little regardless. Walk, with or without direction, and walk yourself into your best thoughts as the Danish philosopher did.


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Sunday, 17 May 2015

On retreating into galleries, museums and the beauty of art (with help from Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch)


Museums and galleries remain among the few oases that can deliver what has become increasingly rare in our world: the opportunity to disconnect from our hyperconnected lives and experience the feeling of wonder. Museums are where we go to commune with the permanent, the ineffable, and the unquantifiable. And it’s an especially rare, and thus precious, experience in our technology-besieged lives. Maxwell Anderson, the CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, describes a museum’s mission as providing visitors with “resonance and wonder … an intangible sense of elation—a feeling that a weight was lifted.”

- Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington
The Fighting Temeraire by JMW Turner (1839), displayed in the National Gallery.

Look for a museum when life isn't making much sense

"I mean seeing the Elgin marbles this morning gave me the same feeling and I didn’t know, don’t know whether I’m in Rome or Paris. I mean the Louvre and the British Museum hold one together, keep one from going to bits". - Asphodel, H.D.
Inside this clay jug there are canyons and pine mountains, and the maker of canyons and pine mountains! All seven oceans are inside, and hundreds of millions of stars. –Kabir 

Spend time looking at a painting (really looking)

View on Delft by Vermeer (c.1660-61).
She’d never seen a great painting in person until she was eighteen and moved to New York, and she was eager to make up for lost time – “pure bliss, perfect heaven,” she’d said, up to the neck in art books and poring over the same old slides (Manet, Vuillard) until her vision started to blur. (“It’s crazy,” she’d said, “but I’d be perfectly happy if I could sit looking at the same half dozen paintings for the rest of my life. I can’t think of a better way to go insane.”) - The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Care for, or admire, a few beautiful things

Croatian Apoxyomenos, a bronze statue from 4th century BC currently on display in the British Museum's "Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art" exhibition. Photo attribution: Marie-Lan Nguyen.
“Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?” - The Goldfinch

Keep looking until you find art that resonates with you

Two Women in a Garden by Eric Ravilious (1933)
I’ve been thinking a lot about what Hobie said: about those images that strike the heart and set it blooming like a flower, images that open up some much, much larger beauty that you can spend your whole life looking for and never find. - The Goldfinch
if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.” - The Goldfinch
“Living is like tearing through a museum. Not until later do you really start absorbing what you saw, thinking about it, looking it up in a book, and remembering - because you can't take it in all at once.” ― Audrey Hepburn
 

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Saturday, 9 May 2015

Tolstoy's Pierre Bezukhov on why being knocked off course is "only the start of something new and good"


My favourite translation by Anthony Briggs and
published by Penguin.
A fortnight ago I submitted my undergraduate dissertation, which consisted of eight thousand words on Pierre Bezukhov's transformation from "absolute scoundrel" to "a man of such value to society" in Tolstoy's War and Peace. My argument: Pierre does not reach perfection, but rather a state of increased self-knowledge that comes from failures, false starts and poor decisions.

It was a lot of fun to research and put the essay together, and I've gathered several quotes and snippets of interestingness that I look forward to sharing here.

One particular point of the novel that we can mull over is Pierre's captivity after he is falsely accused of arson. Pierre's old life is quickly stripped away, and he realises that his family name and status now mean nothing. He undergoes weeks of hardship and witnesses a series of executions, only realising at the final moment that he has been taken there as a spectator.

However, as George R. Clay recognises in Tolstoy's Phoenix, it is during this challenging time that Pierre “exchanges his former absent-mindedness and chronic despair for ‘a feeling of alertness and readiness for anything’”, calling Pierre’s experience a great “realignment of aspirations” (60).

As Pierre contemplates after he returns home,
‘Everybody says that adversity means suffering’, said Pierre. ‘But if you asked me now, at this moment, whether I wanted to stay as I was before I was taken prisoner, or go through it all again, my God, I’d sooner be a prisoner and eat horse-meat again. We all think we only have to be knocked a little bit off course and we’ve lost everything, but it’s only the start of something new and good. Where there is life, there is happiness. There is a huge amount yet to come.’ (1247)
Adversity challenges Pierre's mental strength, but he perceives it as leading to opportunity rather than suffering: the opportunity of time to think, reassess his own values, and start afresh. As the novel closes, Pierre is an entirely different man from the “gross object, oversized and out of place” at Anna Pavlovna's soirée at the start of the novel, and his road to transformation is one of the most memorable journeys in Tolstoy's writing.

When we can, I think it's worth pondering "where there is life, there is happiness". Because happiness is always there somewhere, even if it means making a conscious effort to find it and build on it.


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Sunday, 3 May 2015

9 lessons on slowing down and reassessing our values from Arianna Huffington's Thrive

I wasn't expecting huge things from Arianna Huffington's Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. For one, there's the title. Reviews haven't necessarily been glowing either. However, Thrive comes with a few life lessons that really are worth mulling over, and it's a book I'll return to. After all, if a book gets you thinking about how you're living your life, do reviews really matter at all?

On a day when the wind is perfect, the sail just needs to open and the world is full of beauty. Today is such a day. –RUMI

Arianna Huffington's "12 Steps to Thrive". Infographic source: mindvalleyacademy.com

1. Think about the end and work backwards

[It] is very telling what we don’t hear in eulogies. We almost never hear things like: “The crowning achievement of his life was when he made senior vice president.” Or: “He increased market share for his company multiple times during his tenure.” Or: “She never stopped working. She ate lunch at her desk. Every day.” Or: “He never made it to his kid’s Little League games because he always had to go over those figures one more time.” Or: “While she didn’t have any real friends, she had six hundred Facebook friends, and she dealt with every email in her in-box every night.” Or: “His PowerPoint slides were always meticulously prepared.” Our eulogies are always about the other stuff: what we gave, how we connected, how much we meant to our family and friends, small kindnesses, lifelong passions, and the things that made us laugh.

2. Talk about death with your loved ones

“The best part of The Conversation Project,” she told me, “is that we are asking people to talk about their end of life wishes at the kitchen table and not in the ICU. We are asking them to talk about what matters to them, not what’s the matter with them. The conversations turn out to be some of the most intimate and caring ones that families have ever had.”

3. "Turn off all notifications; you should control when you want information"

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life. –Wu Men

4. Sit idly in the garden

“there needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden”

- In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

5. Dedicate a little time to philosophy and thinking about the world

“Stoicism took off because it offered security and peace in a time of warfare and crisis,” write Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni, authors of a biography of the Stoic Cato the Younger. “The Stoic creed didn’t promise material security or a peace in the afterlife; but it did promise an unshakable happiness in this life.”

6. What matters is what we give our attention to

I did a major “life audit” when I turned forty, and I realized how many projects I had committed to in my head—such as learning German and becoming a good skier and learning to cook. Most remained unfinished, and many were not even started. Yet these countless incomplete projects drained my energy and diffused my attention. As soon as the file was opened, each one took a little bit of me away. It was very liberating to realize that I could “complete” a project by simply dropping it—by eliminating it from my to-do list. Why carry around this unnecessary baggage? That’s how I completed learning German and becoming a good skier and learning to cook and a host of other projects that now no longer have a claim on my attention.

7. Treat bedtime like an appointment you can't miss

Too many of us think of our sleep as the flexible item in our schedule that can be endlessly moved around to accommodate our fixed and top priority of work. But like a flight or train, our sleep should be thought of as the fixed point in our day, and everything else should be adjusted as needed so we don’t miss it.

8. Find time to appreciate art and beauty

Maxwell Anderson, the CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, describes a museum’s mission as providing visitors with “resonance and wonder … an intangible sense of elation—a feeling that a weight was lifted.” Or as my fellow countryman Aristotle put it: “catharsis.”

 9. Retain a sense of wonder

For me, whether I’m on a visit to a monastery in Greece or an elaborately planned staycation (that involves disengaging from all my devices, going on long hikes or walks, yoga classes and unhurried meditations, sleeping in with no alarms, and reading actual books you can underline that have nothing to do with work), the essential element is to regain that sense of wonder. It means disconnecting from the outside world and setting out—for however short a time—on an inner journey.

You can find the book on Amazon, or read more about stoicism and mindfulness here on the blog.


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Sunday, 19 April 2015

'Feast on your life': Tom Hiddleston on Derek Walcott's "Love After Love" for accepting ourselves


I read it to my dearest friends after dinner once, and to my family at Christmas, and they started crying. Which always, unfailingly, makes me cry.

- Tom Hiddleston on "Love After Love" by Derek Walcott
Derek Walcott, a Saint Lucian poet and playwright. VIII Festival Internacional de Poesía en Granada, 2012. Source.


In Poems That Make Grown Men Cry by Anthony and Ben Holden, actor Tom Hiddleston (known for roles in The Avengers and War Horse) selects "Love After Love" by Derek Walcott as his choice for the anthology.

He describes how he reads the poem often, at least once a month, as an antidote to "the madness and mayhem of modern life, where every man seems committed to an endless search for the approval and esteem of his fellows and peers, no matter what the cost". After all, as the actor explains,

Most of us are motivated deep down by a sense of insufficiency, a need to be better, stronger, faster; to work harder; to be more committed, more kind, more self-sufficient, more successful. We are driven by a sense that we are not, as we are, 'enough'.

"Love After Love" alternatively, is "like a declaration of unconditional love" that asserts "we are each of us whole, perfectly imperfect, enough." We can read it to become more aware of the present moment, gain a sense of calm, and feel grateful for what we do have, rather than what we do not. It's a powerful piece of writing that achieves this.

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self [...]

Read the full poem here, in Walcott's Sea Grapes anthology, or his Selected Poems


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