"I was always treated as if I had insisted on being born in opposition to the dictates of reason, religion, and morality, and against the arguments of my best friends." ~ Pip's Lament "Great Expectations" (Chapter 4, pg. 25)
Friday, August 4, 2017
Camus on the 3 antidotes to life's absurdity
On Sunday, July 30, 2017 6:05 AM, Brain Pickings by Maria Popova <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Camus on the 3 antidotes to life's absurdity, German philosopher Josef Pieper on the secret source of music's supreme power, and more
Camus on the 3 antidotes to life's absurdity, German philosopher Josef Pieper on the secret source of music's supreme power, advice to the young from pioneering astrophysicist Cecilia Payne, and more.
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Hello, Terry Travers! This is the weekly email digest of brainpickings.org by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition – advice on how to move through difficult times from one of today's great Buddhist teachers, Emily Dickinson on making sense of loss, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation – each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
Three years before the interview, twenty-eight-year-old Camus had stunned the world with his revolutionary philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus, which begins with one of the most powerful opening sentences in all of literature and explores the paradox of the absurd in life. "I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion," he writes — something that prompted his interviewer to ask whether a philosophy predicated on absurdity might incline people to despair.
All I can do is reply on my own behalf, realizing that what I say is relative. Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful. An analysis of the idea of revolt could help us to discover ideas capable of restoring a relative meaning to existence, although a meaning that would always be in danger.
In a world whose absurdity appears to be so impenetrable, we simply must reach a greater degree of understanding among men, a greater sincerity. We must achieve this or perish. To do so, certain conditions must be fulfilled: men must be frank (falsehood confuses things), free (communication is impossible with slaves). Finally, they must feel a certain justice around them.
I have often wondered whether Camus had read W.H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939," written in 1940, which includes this searing stanza so kindred to Camus's sentiment:
All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie, The romantic lie in the brain Of the sensual man-in-the-street And the lie of Authority Whose buildings grope the sky: There is no such thing as the State And no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die.
Four years after his increasingly timely case for shedding the culture-crushing shackles of workaholism, of the German philosopher Josef Pieper (May 4, 1904–November 6, 1997) explored the abiding puzzlement of music's power in a speech delivered during intermission at a Bach concert in 1952, later published under the title "Thoughts About Music" in his small, enormous posthumous essay collection Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation (public library) — a set of reflections titled after Augustine's beautiful assertion that "only he who loves can sing" (which Van Gogh echoed in his insistence that art and love are one), exploring what Pieper argues is the "hidden root" of the richness of all music, fine art, and poetry: contemplation.
Piper begins his Bach speech by examining our age-old preoccupation with pinning down the elusive source of music's singular enchantment:
Not only is music one of the most amazing and mysterious phenomena of all the world's miranda, the things that make us wonder (and, therefore, the formal subject of any philosopher…) [but] music may be nothing but a secret philosophizing of the soul… yet, with the soul entirely oblivious, that philosophy, in fact, is happening here… Beyond that, and above all, music prompts the philosopher's continued interest because it is by its nature so close to the fundamentals of human existence.
Pieper considers the question of what we actually perceive when we listen to music. Surely, he points out, we perceive something greater and beyond the sum total of the specific sounds and words, something of additional intimacy and meaning, just as in poetry we "perceive more and something other than the factual, literal meaning of its words." Echoing Aldous Huxley's exquisite assertion that "after silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music," Pieper writes:
Music opens a path into the realm of silence. Music reveals the human soul in stark "nakedness," as it were, without the customary linguistic draperies.
The nature of music variously [has] been understood … as nonverbal articulation of weal and woe, as wordless expression of man's intrinsic dynamism of self-realization, a process understood as man's journey toward ethical personhood, as the manifestation of man's will in its aspects, as love.
All of these ideas, he suggests, can be summed up in a single formulation. A decade after the trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer framed music as a laboratory for feeling and time, Pieper writes:
Music articulates the inner dynamism of man's existential self, which is music's "prime matter" (so to speak), and both share a particular characteristic — both move in time.
Much as the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky would argue decades later that cinema is the art of "sculpting in time," Pieper argues that this temporal element of music gives us a vital tool with which to sculpt our personhood:
Since music articulates the immediacy of man's basic existential dynamism in an immediate way, the listener as well is addressed and challenged on that profound level where man's self-realization takes place. In this existential depth of the listener, far below the level of expressible judgments, there echoes — in identical immediacy — the same vibration articulated in the audible music.
We now realize why and to what extent music plays a role in man's formation and perfection… beyond any conscious efforts toward formation, teaching, or education.
In a passage of even more jarring pertinence to our own era of formulaic mass-produced mediocrity marketed as popular music, Pieper writes:
If we now look at our society … we observe how much the most trivial and "light" music, the "happy sound," has become the most common and pervasive phenomenon. By its sheer banality, this music expresses quite accurately the cheap self-deception that on the inner existential level all is fine… We observe how much attention is demanded by — and willingly given to — the rhythmic beat of a certain crude and orgiastic music… Both kinds of music, the "happy sound" as well as the numbing beat, claim legitimacy as "entertainment," as means, that is, of satisfying, without success, the boredom and existential void that are caused and increased by each other and that equally have become a common and pervasive phenomenon. We further observe how music … is frequently selected and consumed as a means of personal enchantment, of escapism, of a certain pseudo-deliverance, and as a means to achieve delight that remains merely "skin-deep" (von aussen her, as Rilke said)… We observe all this with great alarm, aware that music lays bare man's inner existential condition, removing veil and façade (and it cannot be otherwise), while this same inner condition receives from music the most discreet impulses, for better or for worse.
Pieper returns to the subject of his speech, extolling Bach as a timeless counterpoint to this debasement of the soul in music — a supreme example of the kind of music that ennobles our personhood by inviting existential contemplation:
We observe and ponder all this and then are moved to rejoice as we become aware again and acknowledge anew that among all the various kinds of music today there still exists, also and especially, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach!
Obviously, this implies a challenge to ourselves, a challenge not easily nor "automatically" satisfied. That we are willing to listen attentively to the essential message of this music and that we let this message find an echo, as if on reverberating strings, within the immediacy of our soul is decisive. This will lead to new and rekindled clarity, authenticity, and vigor of our inward existence; to the dissatisfaction with entertaining but hollow achievements; and to a sober and perceptive alertness that is not distracted from the realities of actual life by the promise of easy pleasure proffered in superficial harmonies. Above all, this will guide us to turn with resolve, constancy, courage, and hope toward the one and only Good by whose grace our inner existential yearning finds fulfillment; the one Good praised and exalted particularly in Bach's music with such ever-present "wordless jubilation."
The English-American astronomer and astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (May 10, 1900–December 7, 1979) — the first person to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy at Radcliffe-Harvard and the first woman to chair a Harvard department — overcame tremendous courterforces of cultural resistance to change our understanding of the cosmos and pave the way for women in science.
During her youth in England, Cecilia endured "concentrated agony" as she tried to perform the social dances in which her peers engaged and was taunted for being "a girl who reads Plato for pleasure," as a friend of her brother's scoffed. Disheartened but undeterred, she continued pursuing her intellectual passions. But upon completing her studies at Cambridge, she was not awarded a degree — the university wouldn't accredit women for another half-century. Disillusioned with her prospects in England, she applied for a fellowship at the Harvard College Observatory, home to the trailblazing Harvard Computers. In her 215-page Harvard doctoral thesis of 1925 — a time when there was only rudimentary awareness of the existence of stellar nuclei and nuclear reactions — Payne-Gaposchkin found that stars were made primarily of hydrogen, illuminating for the first time the chemical composition of the cosmos.
Payne-Gaposchkin accomplished this despite the consistent institutional discrimination she faced on account of her gender and her youth, which rendered her so underpaid compared to her male peers at Harvard that she was too ashamed to admit her income to her family in England. But she found her scientific calling so deeply rewarding that she simply continued to work with rapturous rigor and devotion — and also played the violin, read broadly and voraciously, wrote poetry, pioneered the now-worn aesthetic of using lines from famous poems as chapter epigraphs in popular science books, and once needlepointed a supernova.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin's embroidery of supernova remnant Cas A. Read the story behind the project here.
Looking back on the landscape of human knowledge over the span of her long career, she writes in her autobiography:
We know much less than we did when I came here as a student more than 50 years ago.
Shifting from the evolution of scientific knowledge to the evolution of culture, she reflects on what it takes to override the forces of resistance:
I have reached a height that I should never, in my wildest dreams, have predicted 50 years ago. It has been a case of survival, not of the fittest, but of the most doggedly persistent. I was not consciously aiming at the point I finally reached. I simply went on plodding, rewarded by the beauty of the scenery, toward an unexpected goal.
This appears to be a common sentiment among accomplished women in science — Vera Rubin, who confirmed the existence of dark matter, would echo it in her own thoughts on minimizing obstacles. Such a dogged devotion to the work itself, Payne-Gaposchkin asserts, is the single most substantive aim for anyone endeavoring to succeed — in science as much as in life. She writes:
Young people, especially young women, often ask me for advice. Here it is, valeat quantum [literally "equivalent amount" in Latin, an idiom for "(let it be worth) as much as it is worth"]. Do not undertake a scientific career in quest of fame or money. There are easier and better ways to reach them. Undertake it only if nothing else will satisfy you; for nothing else is probably what you will receive. Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward you will ask no other.
Writing with humbling clarity of conviction, she extols the centrality of trusting one's most authentic sense of purpose, untainted by external interference of other people's ideas, expectations, and permissions of possibility:
There are those — and I am one of them — who rebel at having to deal with an intermediary. They want to go to the fountain-head. Someone who knows me well says that science, to me, has been a religious experience. He is probably right. If my religious passion had been turned toward the Catholic Church I should have wanted to be a priest. I am sure that I should never have settled for being a nun. If it had been directed toward medicine, I should have wanted to be a surgeon; nothing would have persuaded me to be content to be a nurse. As I look over the world of science, I picture most of the many women who are working in that field today in the role of nuns and nurses. They are not allowed — they are not supposed to be fit — to be in direct touch with the fountain-head, whether you call it God or the Universe. (But even as I write, this situation is changing.) Here I have had no cause for complaint. I have always been in direct touch with the fountain-head. No other mortal has made my intellectual decisions for me. I may have been underpaid, I may have occupied subordinate positions for many years, but my source of inspiration has always been direct.
Two years before her death, Payne-Gaposchkin builds on her reflections on the true rewards of science and the measure of success in her 1977 memorial lecture delivered upon receiving the prestigious Henry Russell Prize from the American Astronomical Society, excerpted in Clifford Pickover's book The Stars of Heaven:
The reward of the young scientist is the emotional thrill of being the first person in the history of the world to see something or to understand something. Nothing can compare with that experience; it engenders what Thomas Huxley called Divine Dipsomania. The reward of the old scientist is the sense of having seen a vague sketch grow into a masterly landscape. Not a finished picture, of course; a picture that is still growing in scope and detail with the application of new techniques and new skills. The old scientist cannot claim that the masterpiece is his own work. He may have roughed out part of the design, laid on a few strokes, but he has learned to accept the discoveries of others with the same delight that he experienced his own when he was young.