Hermann Hesse on little joys and the most important habit for living with presence, Karl Popper on truth vs. certainty, Sisyphus animated, and more
On Sunday, March 12, 2017 8:09 AM, Brain Pickings by Maria Popova <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Hermann Hesse on little joys and the most important habit for living with presence, Karl Popper on truth vs. certainty, Sisyphus animated, and more
Hermann Hesse on little joys, breaking the trance of busyness, and the most important habit for living with presence, Karl Popper on the vital difference between truth and certainty, the myth of Sisyphus animated, and more.
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"Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work," Kierkegaard admonished in 1843 as he contemplated our greatest source of unhappiness. It's a sobering sentiment against the backdrop of modern life, where the cult of busyness and productivity plays out as the chief drama of our existence — a drama we persistently lament as singular to our time. We reflexively blame on the Internet our corrosive compulsion for doing at the cost of being, forgetting that every technology is a symptom and not, or at least not at first, a cause of our desires and pathologies. Our intentions are the basic infrastructure of our lives, out of which all of our inventions and actions arise. Any real relief from our self-inflicted maladies, therefore, must come not from combatting the symptoms but from inquiring into and rewiring the causes that have tilted the human spirit toward those pathologies — causes as evident to Kierkegaard long ago as to any contemporary person who crumbles into bed at night having completed the day's lengthy to-do list yet feeling like a thoroughly incomplete human being.
More than a century before our present whirlpool of streaming urgencies, Hesse writes:
Great masses of people these days live out their lives in a dull and loveless stupor. Sensitive persons find our inartistic manner of existence oppressive and painful, and they withdraw from sight… I believe what we lack is joy. The ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life, the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival… But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.
Our ways of enjoying ourselves are hardly less irritating and nerve-racking than the pressure of our work. "As much as possible, as fast as possible" is the motto. And so there is more and more entertainment and less and less joy… This morbid pursuit of enjoyment [is] spurred on by constant dissatisfaction and yet perpetually satiated.
Noting that he doesn't have a silver bullet for the problem, Hesse offers:
I would simply like to reclaim an old and, alas, quite unfashionable private formula: Moderate enjoyment is double enjoyment. And: Do not overlook the little joys!
A century before psychoanalyst Adam Phillips made his compelling case for the art of missing out and the paradoxical value of our unlived lives, Hesse considers what moderation looks like in the face of seemingly unlimited possibilities for what to do with one's time, and although the options available have changed in the hundred-some years since, the principle still holds with a firm grip:
In certain circles [moderation] requires courage to miss a première. In wider circles it takes courage not to have read a new publication several weeks after its appearance. In the widest circles of all, one is an object of ridicule if one has not read the daily paper. But I know people who feel no regret at exercising this courage.
Let not the man* who subscribes to a weekly theater series feel that he is losing something if he makes use of it only every other week. I guarantee: he will gain.
Let anyone who is accustomed to looking at a great many pictures in an exhibition try just once, if he is still capable of it, spending an hour or more in front of a single masterpiece and content himself with that for the day. He will be the gainer by it.
Let the omnivorous reader try the same sort of thing. Sometimes he will be annoyed at not being able to join in conversation about some publication; occasionally he will cause smiles. But soon he will know better and do the smiling himself. And let any man who cannot bring himself to use any other kind of restraint try to make a habit of going to bed at ten o'clock at least once a week. He will be amazed at how richly this small sacrifice of time and pleasure will be rewarded.
Learning this difference between binging on stimulation and savoring enjoyment in small doses, Hesse argues, is what sets part those who live with a sense of fulfillment from those who romp through life perpetually dissatisfied. He writes:
The ability to cherish the "little joy" is intimately connected with the habit of moderation. For this ability, originally natural to every man, presupposes certain things which in modern daily life have largely become obscured or lost, mainly a measure of cheerfulness, of love, and of poesy. These little joys … are so inconspicuous and scattered so liberally throughout our daily lives that the dull minds of countless workers hardly notice them. They are not outstanding, they are not advertised, they cost no money!
He points to the most readily available, most habitually overlooked of those joys — our everyday contact with nature. A century before throngs of screen zombies began swarming the sidewalks of modern cities, Hesse writes:
Our eyes, above all those misused, overstrained eyes of modern man, can be, if only we are willing, an inexhaustible source of pleasure. When I walk to work in the morning I see many workers who have just crawled sleepily out of bed, hurrying in both directions, shivering along the streets. Most of them walk fast and keep their eyes on the pavement, or at most on the clothes and faces of the passers-by. Heads up, dear friends!
Hesse offers his prescription for breaking this trance of busyness and inattention:
Just try it once — a tree, or at least a considerable section of sky, is to be seen anywhere. It does not even have to be blue sky; in some way or another the light of the sun always makes itself felt. Accustom yourself every morning to look for a moment at the sky and suddenly you will be aware of the air around you, the scent of morning freshness that is bestowed on you between sleep and labor. You will find every day that the gable of every house has its own particular look, its own special lighting. Pay it some heed if you will have for the rest of the day a remnant of satisfaction and a touch of coexistence with nature. Gradually and without effort the eye trains itself to transmit many small delights, to contemplate nature and the city streets, to appreciate the inexhaustible fun of daily life. From there on to the fully trained artistic eye is the smaller half of the journey; the principal thing is the beginning, the opening of the eyes.
A stretch of sky, a garden wall overhung by green branches, a strong horse, a handsome dog, a group of children, a beautiful face — why should we be willing to be robbed of all this? Whoever has acquired the knack can in the space of a block see precious things without losing a minute's time… All things have their vivid aspects, even the uninteresting or ugly; one must only want to see.
And with seeing come cheerfulness and love and poesy. The man who for the first time picks a small flower so that he can have it near him while he works has taken a step toward joy in life.
Illustration by Sydney Smith from Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson, a wordless ode to living with presence
Noting that these small joys take the form of different things for each of us, Hesse adds:
[There are] many other small joys, perhaps the especially delightful one of smelling a flower or a piece of fruit, of listening to one's own or others' voices, of hearkening to the prattle of children. And a tune being hummed or whistled in the distance, and a thousand other tiny things from which one can weave a bright necklace of little pleasures for one's life.
He ends with an offering of counsel as valid and vitalizing today as it was a century ago, perhaps even more:
My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys, and thriftily save up the larger, more demanding pleasures for holidays and appropriate hours. It is the small joys first of all that are granted us for recreation, for daily relief and disburdenment, not the great ones.
In 1966, while leafing through an obscure book, a 19-year-old Japanese aspiring poet by the name of Setsuo Yazaki discovered a poem that stopped him up short with its staggering generosity of empathy and existential truth conferred with great simplicity:
At sunrise, glorious sunrise it's a big catch! A big catch of sardines!
On the beach, it's like a festival but in the sea, they will hold funerals for the tens of thousands dead.
The poem had been written many decades earlier by a young forgotten poet named Misuzu Kaneko (April 11, 1903–March 10, 1930). Yazaki hungered to know more about her life and work, but was met with a near-total vacuum. The only known copy of her poems had been destroyed during the bombing of Tokyo in WWII. The bookstore where she once worked was long gone. No one seemed to know if she had any surviving family.
Yazaki spent sixteen years trying to track down this ghostly genius. In 1982, by then in his mid-thirties, he finally made a breakthrough — he found and met with Kaneko's 77-year-old younger brother, who brought her three worn pocket diaries containing the only extant record of the 512 children's poems she had written in her blink of a lifetime, most never published.
Misuzu Kaneko, January 1930
Her poems have something of Whitman in their empathetic reverence for the splendor of the earth and its creatures, something of Blake in their precision of insight into the nature of things, and something of Plath in both the largehearted appetite for loving the world and the poet's heartbreaking death. Her short life is a rare reminder that the tragic and the transcendent can coexist, and that the barely bearable emotional porousness with which some people are endowed is the common root of both their sorrowful sensitivity and their uncommon capacity for compassion.
Yazaki set about enchanting the popular imagination with the grounding and elevating power of the lost poems he had found. Over the years that followed, as he published these forgotten treasures, Kaneko was resurrected as Japan's foremost poet for young readers. Children in public schools could recite her verses by heart. Her gentle face adorns a national postage stamp. When a tsunami devastated Japan in 2011, television companies stopped commercials and instead played her poem "Are You an Echo?" as a public service announcement that adrenalized nearly one million volunteers to flock to the site of the disaster.
ARE YOU AN ECHO?
If I say, "Let's play?" you say, "Let's play!"
If I say, "Stupid!" you say, "Stupid!"
If I say, "I don't want to play anymore," you say, "I don't want to play anymore."
And then, after a while, becoming lonely
I say, "Sorry." You say, "Sorry."
Are you just an echo? No, you are everyone.
But despite her immense popularity in Japan, the English-speaking world has been deprived of Kaneko's poetry for nearly a century — until now, thanks to Seattle's independent Chin Music Press: Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko (public library) introduces young readers to the life and work of this extraordinary woman, whose writing continues to salve generations by wrapping the delicate consciousness of words around what so many unconsciously feel but cannot articulate.
A labor of love by David Jacobson, who first fell in love with Kaneko's poetry in its original Japanese, this unusual bilingual book translated by Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi tells the story of the poet's life alongside some of her most beloved poems, illustrated in tender watercolor by Japanese artist Toshikado Hajiri.
Kaneko was born at the dawn of the twentieth century in a small fishing village. Her mother, who became a single parent after the girl's father died when she was three, ran a bookstore and felt strongly about reading and education. Unlike most Japanese girls in that era, whose formal education ended after sixth grade, Misuzu remained in school until the age of seventeen. A precocious child, she read voraciously about faraway lands and was animated by a sympathetic curiosity about the natural world. Like Oliver Sacks, who would lie in the garden and wonder what it's like to be a rose, young Misuzu would puzzle over what it's like to be snow and how orphaned whale calves grieve their parents after a whale hunt.
Snow on top must feel chilly, the cold moonlight piercing it.
Snow on the bottom must feel burdened by the hundreds who tread on it.
Snow in the middle must feel lonely with neither earth nor sky to look at.
In her early twenties, Kaneko began writing short poems for children based on vivid memories from her own childhood. She submitted some of them to five magazines that held regular competitions for young writers. To her amazement, four of the five accepted her poems and printed them in the same month of 1923. Soon, her poems began appearing in magazines all over the country. Barely in her twenties, she became a literary celebrity.
In a sensitive insight, Jacobson considers how Kaneko must have felt as she released her art into the world, and finds an analogy in one of her own poems:
FLOWER SHOP MAN
The flower shop man went to town to sell flowers and sold them all.
Poor lonely flower shop man. The flowers he cared for are all gone.
The flower shop man is now alone in his hut as the sun goes down. The flower shop man dreams of happiness for the flowers he sold.
But while the public shone its adoring attention on Kaneko, darkness was brewing in her private life. The man she had married — a clerk in her family bookstore — turned out to be a terrible, unfaithful husband. As Jacobson tactfully puts it, she "contracted a disease from her husband that caused her great pain." To compound the physical agony, he forced her to stop writing.
The little girl they had together was the light of Kaneko's life, but when she finally decided to rise from the pit of unhappiness by leaving her husband, she collided with further heartbreak: Japanese law automatically granted the father indisputable custody and Kaneko's husband didn't hesitate to use it — he declared that he was to take their daughter away. Bedeviled by debilitating bodily pain and anguished by the loss of her daughter, Kaneko sank into further despair.
One evening, after bathing her daughter and sharing with her their favorite desert — sakuramochi, a pink ball of sweet sticky-rice wrapped in a salty cherry tree leaf — Kaneko went into her study, wrote a letter to her husband asking that he let her mother raiser the girl, and took her own life a month before her twenty-seventh birthday.
STARS AND DANDELIONS
Deep in the blue sky, like pebbles at the bottom of the sea, lie the stars unseen in daylight until night comes. You can't see them, but they are there. Unseen things are still there.
The withered, seedless dandelions hidden in the cracks of the roof tile wait silently for spring, their strong roots unseen. You can't see them, but they are there. Unseen things are still there.
The grandmother eventually did get to raise the little girl. Jacobson offers a touching ending to a tragic story:
Every year on the anniversary of Misuzu's death, grandmother and granddaughter would share a sakuramochi. Together, they remembered Misuzu's kind and gentle soul.
Standing among the most memorable heroes of Greek mythology is Sisyphus — the prince whose moral foibles Zeus punished by dooming him to roll a boulder up a hill eternally, the rock rolling back down each time Sisyphus manages to muscle it to the top. In the millennia since, his myth has permeated the fabric of culture, most famously by inspiring Albert Camus's 1942 masterwork The Myth of Sisyphus, which contains one of the most arresting opening sentences in all of literature and poses philosophy's deepest question: whether or not life is worth living.
In modern life, Sisyphus has become a metaphor for laborious futility. We call Sisyphean the task of, say, replying to messages in an exponentially overflowing inbox. But residing in Sisyphus is also something invisible to the pitying or scornful cynic's eye — not the foolishness of his plight, but its fundamental hopefulness. Inherent to doing a task so self-defeating over and over without losing heart is the elemental belief that it can be done. Rather than letting his crushing despair crush him under the collapsing rock, Sisyphus presses on and on and on. He may be a tragic hero, but he is first and foremost a hero, precisely for this unrelenting faith in the possibility of accomplishing the impossible. His optimistic tenacity renders him the epitome of the creative spirit captured in Steinbeck's assertion that a great artist "always works at the impossible."
In this beautiful Oscar-nominated 1974 animated film, Hungarian graphic artist and animator Marcell Jankovics (b. October 21, 1941) brings to life the myth of Sisyphus in a minimalist, maximally evocative black-and-white visual narrative.
"I dream of a world where the truth is what shapes people's politics, rather than politics shaping what people think is true," astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson lamented. Nearly half a century earlier, Hannah Arendt captured the crux of the problem in her incisive reflection on thinking vs. knowing, in which she wrote: "The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning."
This distinction between truth and meaning is vital, especially today, as political propaganda and the "alternative facts" establishment manipulate a public that would rather know than think, preying on the desire for the certitude of ready-made meaning among those unwilling to engage in the work of critical thinking necessary for arriving at truth — truth measured by its correspondence with reality and not by its correspondence with one's personal agendas, comfort zones, and preexisting beliefs.
All things living are in search of a better world. Men, animals, plants, even unicellular organisms are constantly active. They are trying to improve their situation, or at least to avoid its deterioration… Every organism is constantly preoccupied with the task of solving problems. These problems arise from its own assessments of its condition and of its environment; conditions which the organism seeks to improve… We can see that life — even at the level of the unicellular organism — brings something completely new into the world, something that did not previously exist: problems and active attempts to solve them; assessments, values; trial and error.
Popper argues that because the identification of error is so central to the problem-solving process, its corrective — that is, truth — is a core component of our quest for betterment:
The search for truth … no doubt counts among the best and greatest things that life has created in the course of its long search for a better world.
We have made great mistakes — all living creatures make mistakes. It is indeed impossible to foresee all the unintended consequences of our actions. Here science is our greatest hope: its method is the correction of error.
Looking back on the sometimes troubled but ultimately exponential reach for a better world that had unfolded over the eighty-seven years of his life — "a time of two senseless world wars and of criminal dictatorships" — Popper writes:
In spite of everything, and although we have had so many failures, we, the citizens of the western democracies, live in a social order which is better (because more favourably disposed to reform) and more just than any other in recorded history. Further improvements are of the greatest urgency. (Yet improvements that increase the power of the state often bring about the opposite of what we are seeking.)
What often warps and frustrates our quest for betterment, Popper notes in a 1982 lecture included in the volume, is our failure to distinguish between the search for truth and the assertion of certainty:
Knowledge consists in the search for truth — the search for objectively true, explanatory theories.
It is not the search for certainty. To err is human. All human knowledge is fallible and therefore uncertain. It follows that we must distinguish sharply between truth and certainty. That to err is human means not only that we must constantly struggle against error, but also that, even when we have taken the greatest care, we cannot be completely certain that we have not made a mistake… To combat the mistake, the error, means therefore to search for objective truth and to do everything possible to discover and eliminate falsehoods. This is the task of scientific activity. Hence we can say: our aim as scientists is objective truth; more truth, more interesting truth, more intelligible truth. We cannot reasonably aim at certainty.
Since we can never know anything for sure, it is simply not worth searching for certainty; but it is well worth searching for truth; and we do this chiefly by searching for mistakes, so that we can correct them.
In a sentiment of piercing pertinence today, as a litany of "alternative facts" attempts to gaslight an uncritical public, Popper offers a definition and admonition of elegant acuity:
A theory or a statement is true, if what it says corresponds to reality.
Truth and certainty must be sharply distinguished.
Condemning relativistic approaches to truth — ones that regard truth as "what is accepted; or what is put forward by society; or by the majority; or by my interest group; or perhaps by television" — he cautions:
The philosophical relativism that hides behind [Kant's] "old and famous question" "What is truth?" may open the way to evil things, such as a propaganda of lies inciting men to hatred.
Relativism … is a betrayal of reason and of humanity.
It is useful here to revisit Arendt's distinction between truth and meaning, for where truth is absolute — a binary correspondence with reality: a premise either reflects reality or does not — meaning can be relative; it is shaped by one's subjective interpretation, which is contingent upon beliefs and can be manipulated. Certainty lives in the realm of meaning, not of truth. The very notion of an "alternative fact," which manipulates certainty at the expense of truth, is therefore the sort of criminal relativism against which Popper so rigorously cautions — something that, as he puts it, "results from mixing-up the notions of truth and certainty." All propaganda is in the business of manipulating certainty, but it can never manipulate truth. Arendt had articulated this brilliantly a decade earlier in her timely treatise on defactualization in politics: "No matter how large the tissue of falsehood that an experienced liar has to offer, it will never be large enough … to cover the immensity of factuality."
Popper argues that the ability to discern truth by testing our theories against reality using critical reasoning is a distinctly human faculty — no other animal does this. A generation before him, Bertrand Russell — perhaps the twentieth century's greatest patron saint of reason — called this ability "the will to doubt" and extolled it as our greatest self-defense against propaganda. The cultural evolution of our species, Popper notes, was propelled by the necessity of honing that ability — we developed a language that contains true and false statements, which gave rise to criticism, which in turn catalyzed a new phase of selection. He writes:
Natural selection is amplified and partially overtaken by critical, cultural selection. The latter permits us a conscious and critical pursuit of our errors: we can consciously find and eradicate our errors, and we can consciously judge one theory as inferior to another… There is no knowledge without rational criticism, criticism in the service of the search for truth.
But this rational criticism, Popper notes, should also be applied to science itself. Cautioning that the antidote to relativism isn't scientism — a form of certitude equally corrosive to truth — he writes:
Despite my admiration for scientific knowledge, I am not an adherent of scientism. For scientism dogmatically asserts the authority of scientific knowledge; whereas I do not believe in any authority and have always resisted dogmatism; and I continue to resist it, especially in science. I am opposed to the thesis that the scientist must believe in his theory. As far as I am concerned "I do not believe in belief," as E. M. Forster says; and I especially do not believe in belief in science. I believe at most that belief has a place in ethics, and even here only in a few instances. I believe, for example, that objective truth is a value — that is, an ethical value, perhaps the greatest value there is — and that cruelty is the greatest evil.