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art creativity death dogs French literature nature storms wisdom

Day 72: ignite the finite (homage to Diderot)

Our lives are finite. We can only stand so much. Honey Girl’s actions during today’s thunderstorm prove it.

First, she was hiding in the bathroom because the lightning and thunder scare her. During a lull in the storm, I opened the door and she came out. A little. Then the thunder boomed and she went back in to the smallest place in the house: a tiny bathroom under the stairs. Her world is as small as she can make it. We can’t help it that sounds scare us, but being of a philosophical mind, we can find interest in the concept of being “finite.” And happily, it doesn’t have to scare us.

“Our lives are finite” feels grim; a death sentence. But if you examine the actual word and concept, it feels different. It feels a lot like peace.

finite, adjective and noun (from Latin finitus, pa pple of finire FINISH verb)

a. adjective. 1. Having bounds, ends, or limits; not infinite or infinitesimal.

b. Having an existence subject to limitations and conditions.

2. Fixed, determined, definite.

[Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, vol. 1, p. 962. Three other definitions follow, in math, grammar, and music.]

What I love about this definition is the concept of: “Not infinite or infinitesimal.” In other words, we do exist, we have the ability to act, we are not insignificant. Instead of despairing about our lives’ limitations, why not turn it around? Why not think of our bodies and minds as conduits through which we can make things happen. It’s the real potential at hand. Ignite the finite!

(For my part, I’ve already launched one long-term collaborative project with a distant friend today and I’ve got dozens of masks to sew, so my time feel’s short. I like it that way.)

As Denis Diderot once said, « J’aime mieux une belle chimère qui fait tenter de grandes choses qu’une réalité stérile, une prétendue sagesse qui jette et retient l’homme rare dans une stupide inertie. »

–Lettre à Falconet, in Esprit de Diderot : choix de citations, p. 61.

« I prefer beautiful fantasies that inspire men of genius to grandiose actions, rather than a sterile reality, supposedly the seat of wisdom, which enslaves their spirits to inertia.”

***

 

Yesterday’s face mask production, fyi

Face masks made on May 29 2020

 

*with thanks to Laurent Loty’s beautiful book (with Éric Vanzieleghem), Esprit de Diderot: choix de citations (Paris: Hermann, 2013) and the bookmarks commemorating events at Université Paris Diderot, in honor of French philosopher Denis Diderot (1713-1784), editor of the Encyclopédie and many other works of Enlightenment genius.

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American literature creativity death French literature wisdom work

day eight: let us make things happen

Richard Wright

“Anything seemed possible, likely, feasible, because I wanted everything to be possible… Because I had no power to make things happen outside of me in the objective world, I made things happen within. Because my environment was bare and bleak, I endowed it with unlimited potentialities, redeemed it for the sake of my own hungry and cloudy yearning.”  –Richard Wright*

In our current bleak environment, let us make things happen.

Volition, William James tells us, the power to will ourselves to act toward some future purpose, is what makes humans unique among the animals. As he writes, “the deepest question that is ever asked admits of no reply but the dumb turning of the will and tightening of our heart-strings as we say, “Yes, I will even have it so!”** We are arguably the only sentient creatures on earth who make plans that will not come to fruition until some unspecified time in the future, possibly beyond our life span. (This is a gift and a curse, possibly our greatest folly, as philosophers from the East and the West have rightly noted.)

Now, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, it is hard to know what do to. How and where should one will one’s will to act? As a skilled seamstress, should I rush down to the JoAnn’s store and pick up a mask-making kit for medical personnel?  Should I take my car, even if I thereby contribute to the traffic jams already happening, due to the abrupt West Seattle Bridge closure earlier this week? Or should I stay home as Governor Inslee has ordered? I am frozen.  So I stay home. And I look for a transfusion of hope from beloved books. That in itself is an act of will, and it reinforces the promise I made to you last week.

And that is how I landed on today’s quote by a great American writer (and Francophile), Richard Wright, pictured above, from his powerful and heartbreaking book, Black Boy. His words remind us that today’s struggle, for the millions of people who are healthy, remains primarily a mental battle. If we are lucky enough to have housing, food, and good health, yet we are unable to go out or work in the world, how can we continue to feel purpose?  We have to will it into being.

Some years ago, while I was writing a book on literature about the French Revolution, I wondered about the pre-conditions for artistic genius. Would France have seen the great novels of megalomania and disillusion written by Stendhal (b. 1783), Honoré de Balzac (b. 1799) or Victor Hugo (b. 1802) without the Revolution of 1789-93 and the memory of its trauma on their lives? Is there a cause-effect relationship between one’s generation–the time and place where you live, your country’s wars and prosperity– and one’s genius?  I was quite taken by the following quote by Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot, about the conditions necessary for an artistic renaissance:

“Poetry requires something enormous, barbaric, and savage.  …  When shall we see the birth of poets?  It will be after a time of disaster and great misfortune, when the beleaguered people will draw a breath.  Then the imagination, shaken by those terrible spectacles, will depict things unknown to those who have not seen them.”***

Could the present crisis give birth to a renaissance in the 2020s?  Let it be so, and let it begin with us.

P.S. In case you think I’m shirking my civic responsibility by not going down to JoAnns’ in Southcenter to get a mask-sewing kit, please know I have signed up to sew masks (Phase 3) for Sew Loved, in South Bend, IN. (and you can too, by clicking here!)  People with pets in their homes are ineligible for making medically-approved masks for Sew Loved (Phase 1 & 2), alas.

* Richard Wright, Black Boy (American Hunger): A Record of Childhood and Youth, 1st ed. 1944, (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), pp. 72-73.

** William James, Psychology: The Briefer Course, ed. Gordon Allport (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), 326.

***Denis Diderot, « De la poésie dramatique », 1st ed. 1758 in Œuvres esthétiques, éd. Paul Vernière, Paris, Garnier, 1968, vol. 2, p. 2.  With thanks to Elena Russo for this translation, from her book Styles of Enlightenment, p. 200.

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dogs French literature happiness humor wisdom

stop and listen if you can

 

Honey Girl is feeling frisky these days! As a part German Shepherd part Corgi, that’s not surprising; she’s a big furry creature who thrives in the cold.

Tonight’s walk made me feel keenly her physical superiority over mine. As I layered on the clothes and pulled things tight, hiding from the cold and squinting through the night, she trotted along gaily with her tail held high. She stopped confidently and sniffed deeply. She left a good trail in her wake and pulled short, sometimes, when a new discovery was afoot.

At times, she’d turn around and look at me, as if to say, well, something encouraging.

It made me feel humble, my blindness and fear of the cold. I strained to hear what she stopped to take in. I stumbled on the ice, while she watched in patient indifference.

Just then, I thought of Diderot! Denis Diderot is one of my favorite French philosophers of the Enlightenment (1740-89). He’s an expert at  irony and sarcasm, and his deadpan notes on mankind’s limitations are hilarious. Here’s Diderot’s description of man’s status vis-a-vis the wildlife of the world:

“Man’s perfectibility is borne of the weaknesses of his senses, none of which dominates the organ of reason. If [man] had a nose like a dog, he would sense odors all the time; if he had eyes like an eagle, he would be forever watchful; if he had the ears of a mole, he would be a listening creature… The human species is thus no more than a hodgepodge of individuls who are more or less crippled, more or less ailing.”

(Elements de physiologie, 1774-80)

I don’t know if Diderot ever read any Zen masters, but if he did he might have learned this kind of lesson, about Mind versus Body Mind:

“The Mind tenses up in fearful situations because it realizes that it’s really helpless. Only Body Mind, with its spontaneity, sensitivity, speedy reactions, power, and connection to the power of the earth, can protect you in severe circumstances.” Bob Klein, Movements of Magic.

Honey Girl’s playful delight in the snow, where she throws it on her back and rolls around rubbing her bum, is a fun site to see!