My short essay ‘A Constitution Should Help A Country Govern, Not Hobble It‘ is up at Aeon Magazine. Comments welcome. (Many thanks to Sam Haselby, my editor at Aeon, for all his help.)
People are always talking about originality; but what do they mean? As soon as we are born, the world begins to work upon us and goes on to the end. What can we call our own except energy, strength, and will? If I could give an account of all that I owe to great predecessors and contemporaries, there would be but a small balance in my favor. [p. 115]
The greater part of those fine things cited by Lord Byron,” said Goethe, “I have never even read, much less did I think of them, when I was writing ‘Faust.’ But Lord Byron is only great as a poet; as soon as he reflects, he is a child. He knows not how to help himself against the stupid attacks of the same kind made upon him by his own countrymen. He ought to have expressed himself more strongly against them. ‘What is there is mine,’ he should have said, ‘and whether I got it from a book or from life, is of no consequence; the only point is, whether I have made a right use of it.’ Walter Scott used a scene from my Egmont and he had a right to do so; and because he did it well, he deserves praise. He has also copied the character of Mignon in one of his romances; but whether with equal judgment, is another question. Lord Byron’s transformed Devil is a continuation of Mephistophiles, and quite right too. If, from the whim of originality, he had departed from the model, he would certainly have fared worse. Thus, my Mephistophiles sings a song from Shakspeare, and why should he not? Why should I give myself the trouble of inventing one of my own, when this said just what was wanted. If, too, the prologue to my ‘Faust’ is something like the beginning of Job, that is again quite right, and I am rather to be praised than censured. [pp. 82-83]
Like all truly great artists, Goethe recognizes that ‘genius’ and ‘creativity’ have little to do with ‘originality’–whatever that means. Rather, the artist, as noted by all too many who create, is a magpie, a borrower and stealer and copier and mime and ventriloquist. She takes what she needs for her work and synthesizes them into a new work. It is this genius of synthesis we recognize; it is this vision, the one that picked out what it needed and combined them into a whole only visible to it, that we so admire. Great works of art, like all human productions, do not spring forth, fully formed, like Athena out of the skull of Zeus. They have long gestations, and the raw material that goes into this making is drawn from the world around them, from the creative work of other humans, artists or not. The history of an artwork always includes that of the pieces that went into its making.
As always, Goethe remains relevant; so-called ‘intellectual property‘ acolytes would do well to pay attention to a man who knew a bit about artistic creation.
Last night, in my graduate seminar–which carries the snappy title ‘From Schopenhauer to Freud (Via Nietzsche): Depth Psychology and Philosophy‘–my students and I spent the entire two hours of our class meeting time reading and discussing Section 354 of Nietzsche‘s The Gay Science. We each had a copy of the section in front of us; I read its text out aloud in class, pausing to offer commentary and elucidation and inviting similar interjections from my students. In the closing half-hour or so of class time, we discussed a pair of written responses to the section 354. (My students write responses to the assigned reading every week; this week while the primary readings were all secondary sources on Nietzsche, I had asked my students to base their responses on the primary Nietzsche texts invoked in these sources.)
It is no secret. to me at least, that the class meeting I described above comes close to an imagined ideal for a philosophy class meeting: I assign a text to be read; my students do the reading and have intelligent responses to it; in class we ‘work through the text’ diligently and patiently, reading every single word carefully, bringing out the texts many meanings and allusions and implications. Rarely is such an ideal realized; that is precisely what makes its rare occurrences even more pleasurable. Once, over the course of a semester in an undergraduate Social Philosophy class, my students and I achieved this ideal repeatedly; the secrets of that ‘success,’ were that my reading assignments were short and my class included a few ‘bright lights’ who came to class prepared and ready to dig into the material with me.
The reasons why such a class meeting represents an ideal for this teacher of philosophy should be evident from my descriptions above. My students and I ‘encounter’ the text in the way its writer intended it to be: sympathetically. This does not mean eschewing criticism of the text, but rather, “by looking at reality in the light of what it is saying.” From a personal perspective, as I’ve noted here previously, my understanding of a philosophical text is considerably enriched by these discussions with my students. A good discussion with my students always lets me know there is more going on in the text than I might have imagined.
Our task was made easier, of course, by the text and its writer. Nietzsche always repays close attention and his language is extraordinarily rich (and to think that we were reading him in translation!) As he almost always does, Nietzsche sends out a message to all future writers and philosophers: if you want to read be with such attention and care, you would do well to follow him–in your own way!–on his chosen path. Write clearly and joyfully, letting your readers know that your writing represents a genuine attempt on your part to work through the problem at hand–which should always, always be a problem for you too, and not an idle academic pursuit.
Was our society, which had always been assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?
Eliot wrote these lines shortly after the 1938 Munich Agreement, as Britain and France bowed and scraped before Hitler’s demands for more territorial gains in Europe.¹ The idea expressed at their heart has not lost any of its pungency. Eliot sought to contrast the faith of the Christian, a belief in something more permanent, lasting, morally-inflected, with the commodified, fashionable foundations of the commercial society. But even if you, perhaps of secular persuasion, do not want to fall back on religious faith as an alternative to the call of commerce, there is an acute question that remains raised: what is the great prize of our civilization, the one we offer and hold forth and aloft in front of the gaze of those eager applicants, ‘our youth,’ ‘our best and brightest’?
Something like the following: Go to school, go to college, get good grades, study business, or accounting, or finance, get to work, make ‘good money’–or rather, as much as money as you can, your money-making endeavors unrestricted by any kind of moral impulse. Disdain art and the humanities and all else as not being the real world, as useless and impractical, unsuited to the needs of our times. Regard the history of the world as a mistake, one to rectified by throwing money or weapons at all of its recalcitrant problems. Regard the weekends as a bonus allotment of time to ‘catch up on some work in the office that needs to get done by Monday.’ Birth, (business) school, work, death? The physical details of this are as equally grim: rise and shine, dress up, put on a tie, get in a car and get into traffic, or get into crowded public transportation, and then spend roughly ten hours–if you’re lucky–indoors in climate controlled environments. Rinse and repeat. The utter vacuity at the heart of these pursuits is almost frightening in its blandness, its lack of emotional and spiritual sustenance; the commodification of life and love it promises is genuinely terrifying.
Small wonder so many who live this dream ‘stumble’ from boardroom to bar to coke spoon to therapy couch to the grave. And small wonder that when the allure of something more substantive, more emotional, is held out as bait, so many snap and bite. Perhaps religion, perhaps a ‘new-age cure,’ perhaps, in the most extreme circumstances, an abandonment of family and an older life altogether. We will join these travelers, like all others, in their final destinations, the grave, but we can exercise some measure of control over the paths we take there.
[T]he most important things great philosophers have to give us are to be got at not by analysing the logic of their arguments or their use of concepts but by looking at reality in the light of what it is saying….”Is reality illuminated for me if I look at it in the light of X’s explanation of it?”….For the most part philosophy is about different ways of looking at things: its purpose is not so much of knowledge as of understanding. An original philosopher is saying to us in effect: “You will find you will understand things better if you look at them this way.”….in this respect philosophy can be like art….the result is an enhanced perception and understanding of my own world, my own experience, an enrichment of my vision….What one gets from a philosophy consists largely not of true propositions but, more important than that, ways of looking at things, ways of seeing things.
I’ve made note here and elsewhere–in an interview with 3AM Magazine–of my original motivations for studying philosophy. The latter spoke to philosophy’s therapeutic function. The former, more explicitly in line with Magee’s claim above, spoke to the ‘special elevated vision’ the philosophical attitude seemed to promise: I would see the world in a whole new light once I had become a philosopher. But of course, that is what philosophy’s therapeutic function amounted to as well–at least as I understood it. For what I hoped for and desired more than anything else via the study of philosophy was that it would convince me that the world I lived in, a world then tainted by my grief and anxiety and sorrowful remembrance, could be viewed anew, and thus transformed, made into one that I could go on living in with purpose and desire and striving. My state of mind then did not permit such a perspective: all was shadow and murk. For philosophy did not just promise to elevate me above the fray, to look down from an Olympian height (in the way that the two paragraphs I quoted from John David Mabbott in the post linked above had seemed to.) That promise still contained within it a hint of remoteness: perhaps I would have to separate myself from the mundane world to enjoy such a ‘superior’ perspective. But the promise to see things anew, to see ‘reality in the light of what it is saying’ was a trifle more ambitious and humble and human all at once: I would walk these same streets, among the same people, see the same sun rise every day on this world with all its ugliness and beauty, and yet, none of it would be the ‘same,’ because I would be a philosopher.
These original conceptions of philosophy carried a hint of the poetic, the artistic, the religious, and the scientific to me; and despite my immersion in technical analytic philosophy in graduate school, they never quite left me. Every attempt to straitjacket it into only one of those categories was, at some important level in my mind, a failure to understand philosophy’s promise, a betrayal I could never sign up for.
A few days ago, I made note of the passing of my young nephew, Rohin Kushwaha, at the age of nineteen, mourning the tragic loss of a brilliant, young, and talented man to the ravages of a relentless disease. In that remembrance, I made note of Rohin’s writing talents:
His intellectual ambition was vast, speaking of a vision and a scale not normally associated with one so young: he studied computer science and dreamed about writing a different kind of video game, complex, based on rich narratives with complicated characters; he would bring his own novels and stories to life with the games he wrote. He had completed work on one novel and had begun work on another; he was talented and prolific and organized and hard-working, the perfect artist.
Today, I can say something more substantive about Rohin’s writerly talent and ambition by sharing a powerful piece of writing he wrote in response to a fellowship application prompt. I include it here on this blog, in this public space, because it contains lessons that all creators of any stripe, writers, and artists alike, would do well to learn, a wisdom it took me over three decades to realize (albeit only partially). What is striking about the writing below is not just that it is written by a 18-year old, or that it is describing the writing of a novel at that age, but that the articulation of the necessary labors of the writer that it contains–write regularly; do not wait for inspiration to strike; the muse only visits while you work; revise, revise, revise, for a work of writing is never complete, never ‘done’–are among the deepest of the writer’s craft. It is succinct; it is to the point. Some of Rohin’s friends referred to him as an ‘old soul,’ wise beyond his years. This piece of writing shows why. Every writer, creator, or artist could take this little piece of writing, print it out, stick it on their desk, and get to work. I know I will.
Thanks for writing this Rohin. I hope others read this and are inspired to write, and create, to bring their works to completion. You’ve passed on, but your words will live on and inspire others. With all my love, Samir Chacha.
Here is the prompt:
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Here is Rohin’s response:
Ever since I was 10 years old I told myself I could do it. But there was a part of me that also knew I couldn’t. Or wouldn’t rather. As far back as I could remember I always wanted to tell stories. Stories like the ones I saw in movies and read in books. Stories that made people feel something as they experienced it. I wasn’t sure if this passion of mine would fade with time. I wasn’t sure if it was a passion at all. But when your mind is so packed with character arcs, plot twists, and dramatic moments that it’s about to burst, you have to let it out somehow. So I did. The summer I turned 16 I decided to sit down and write a book. And I told myself it was going to be good.
Before I even typed the first word I thought I had the whole thing figured out. I thought I knew every detail of my story, chapter to chapter. But as I wrote I began to realize I only knew three things about my story: the beginning, the middle, and the end. The question I kept having to ask myself is “what happens next?”. This is the question that made me stop writing immediately after the first chapter, a mere 577 words.
The next day I sat at my computer and stared at the next blank page, hopeless. I didn’t write a single word that day because I was afraid that what I decided to happen next would be the wrong thing to happen next. I was afraid of telling a bad story. I shrugged it off each day, telling myself I wasn’t “inspired” or “in the mood”.
It must have been a week until I realized the “trick” to completing my story, the “trick” to writing. Even if you’re not inspired or not in the mood. Write anyway. Even if you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Write anyway. Even if the sentences you make are bad sentences. Write anyway. So I did. 1,000 words a day. That’s what I told myself. Some days that would take an hour, others it would take 3. But I never went to bed until those 1,000 words a day were complete.
And just like that my story began to be told. I found my characters writing themselves, speaking and acting as they would if they were real people. I found motivations and plot points aligning, finally making sense in the bigger picture. And I found myself enjoying every moment, every struggle and every little victory of writing my story. There were even some days I found myself writing over 1,000 words without even realizing it.
In two months time I was done. I was actually, finally done. 65,000 words, 65,000 of my own words. So I decided to put the story down for a month. Come back with a pair of fresh eyes and impress myself all over again with what I had done.
But what I had found when I came back was that my novel had changed from science fiction to horror. I read each sentence, each chapter in dread. I was amazed at how little so much of it made sense. After finally coming to terms with it, I realized that I was far from done. I had barely even started.
So I tore each chapter to pieces. I rewrote, rewrote, and then rewrote some more. And here I am a year later. Is my story perfect? Not even close. It is ten times better than it was last year? Improvement is relative, so I’ll at least give myself that one. But this story will forever be the thing I am most proud of. Because when I sat down every day, even when I knew it wasn’t perfect, I wrote 1,000 more words.
“Even if you’re not inspired or not in the mood. Write anyway. Even if you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Write anyway. Even if the sentences you make are bad sentences. Write anyway.”
When relationships are commodified, can friendship survive? This old, plaintive question has not lost any of its urgency. Once we meet and greet our fellow humans our interactions are quickly transformed into the transactional because that is the context within which they function. To be with our friends, to spend time with them, to engage in all manner of social interactions often requires money. We spend money on our friends, they spend money on us; perhaps we consume each others’ purchased goods; together, we consume this society’s various offerings–art, culture, sports, entertainment–all needing to be purchased for. Every ‘hang-out session’ needs to be paid for–because, let’s face it, we don’t just go on aimless walks with friends. (The walk in the park with a friend is, I think, a rare indulgence these days.) We cannot afford to be friends with some people; their tastes are too expensive. Some people cannot afford to be friends with us; our tastes are too expensive. (In my graduate school years, there were friends whose dinner invitations I always turned down; they would pick restaurants which I could not afford. And indeed, their failure to recognize my financial situation, by way of their oblivious invitations, never failed to anger me for their insensitivity.)
So accusations of failures of generosity are, in a society like ours, underwritten by a particular urgency; the pinch of the tightening belt all too often animates the anger with which we lash out at those who would abuse our beneficence. A friend who lightens your wallet excessively or who does not lighten his in turn for you is no friend. For we are keenly aware that this relationship seems to have impoverished us in this society’s most crucial reckoning of our worth: our bank balance. We struggle to find the right balance between being a miser and a spendthrift in our relationships with our friends; they struggle accordingly. Indeed, those supposed purveyors of unconditional love, parents, often find themselves hurling accusations of ingratitude at their children: “Do you have any fucking idea how much money I spent on your goddamned college education?” (One friend confided to me that he couldn’t wait for his kids to move out of his house so that he could start spending his money on himself. He groaned as he said this, because he knew, like I did, that matters were not so simple, that his children could, and would, continue to make both emotional and financial demands on him.)
The need to balance the budget makes accountants out of all of us, even when interacting with loved ones. It casts a very particular interpretive lens over actions and words, causing us to evaluate and judge accordingly. That forgetful friend of yours, the one who forgets to reciprocate the coffee you bought for him, the one who forgot to offer to pay for the gas when you gave him a ride? He doesn’t appear innocently absent-minded anymore. All too easily, he’s easily transformed into a malevolent destroyer of your financial future. (I exaggerate but you catch my drift.)
The converse aspect of the situation described above is that relationships that start off as transactional have little chance of blossoming into friendships. On that more, anon.