Thursday, May 28, 2009

I finished The Brothers Karamazov.

I consider this a major triumph in my reading life. Now I feel like since I did read it, I should give some serious thought time to it. So. This post will be transformed into something brilliant just as soon as I have time to think.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The existential questions come round again. Or, lives as novels. Or, justification for an English Degree.

This post is based on and quotes a lot of this Atlantic Monthly article. The entire piece is incredibly interesting. In it, Joshua Wolf Shenk writes of George Valiant and a longitudinal study that he began in the early forties with 72 men attending Harvard, poised for what most would consider an incredibly successful life. The study offers, as Shenk says, a glimpse into the human condition, wondering if there is a formula—some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation—for a good life. Following are some of the most interesting excerpts from the article and a few thoughts about them.

So many of us think that if we attain x, y and z, then we will have "successful" lives. What was fascinating to me (though not surprising, per se) was seeing in a scientific study the fact that in terms of life satisfaction, people matter over education, wealth: In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” Being reminded of this always makes me rethink my priorities. My question is if we all know this in the back of our minds, but since relationships can be difficult to maintain, we find ourselves drawn to things more measurable and tangible.

The biggest mystery of life that never leaves me alone is the longing...the underlying feeling that all is not right and the ardent desire to have everything make sense...and while it is not measurable in scientific terms, it is almost the essence of the human experience. “Everyone in positive psychology who seeks to explain the mysteries of the psyche wants deeper stuff. George is the poet of this movement. He makes us aware that we’re yearning for deeper stuff.” I always tell my students to avoid using the word stuff. But here, I enjoy the fact that this scientific study needed a person to be its poet; to wonder about the threads that make us all human, the things that make us all feel.

Can the good life be accounted for with a set of rules? Can we even say who has a “good life” in any broad way? At times, Vaillant wears his lab coat and lays out his findings matter-of-factly. (“As a means of uncovering truth,” he wrote in Adaptation to Life, “the experimental method is superior to intuition.”) More often, he speaks from a literary and philosophical perspective. (In the same chapter, he wrote of the men, “Their lives were too human for science, too beautiful for numbers, too sad for diagnosis and too immortal for bound journals.) This is one of the greatest parts of the article to me. We are all obsessed with the three points to make us deeper thinkers, or the ten steps for a more meaningful life, or for someone to just tell us what to do so that we can get our lives together. But. We are not wired for that kind of existence and there is beauty, deep deep beauty, in humanity that cannot be contained in rules or generalizations or lists. Sigh.

With this level of intimacy and depth, the lives do become worthy of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.
And this is what I love. It always, for me, comes back to story. All I have wanted to do lately is to read and write. As I was walking around a book store this week, I kept wondering what I am hoping to accomplish by my incessant reading: I have at least ten books at home waiting for me and dozens more I can't wait to read sitting on the shelves of shops. I keep returning to the novel because each one offers a window into humanity. I find myself continually seeking out the story.

Perhaps in this, I thought, lies the key to the good life—not rules to follow, nor problems to avoid, but an engaged humility, an earnest acceptance of life’s pains and promises... For all his love of science and its conclusions, he returns to stories and their questions.

Sigh. No more words.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sometimes someone else's words say it all and it is best to say nothing else.

Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

I just got lost.

(Disclaimer: this post is relevant (well, that's my hope, anyway) even if you don't watch Lost, and isn't specific enough to ruin anything if you are relatively up to date this season. )

The latest Lost quandry that has been running through my thoughts is the following:

If you had the ability to change the past so that events in the future would be prevented, would you do it? Or, do you feel like however painful or traumatizing those events might be, they have shaped your selfhood and understanding of life and the world in such a way that you wouldn't want to un-do them?

Is it ethical to try to change an event in your memory? The New York Times discussed this a few weeks ago (not so much in the time travel, science fiction sense, does feel a little like that). Nicole Krauss poses this question in Man Walks into a Room.

Memory is a repeating theme for me in my reading and writing.

What would the consequences be of deleting a scene from your life?
Even now I'm trying to think of potential scenarios that people may want to remove, but it gets so complicated and messy in about 5 seconds of thought.

Today I'm apparently just posing questions.

Saturday, May 2, 2009