So concludes the promised “31 Days of Cheer,” and with it, a Happy New Year to all.
A note of happiness rings through Updike’s prose, and draws us to it, makes us happy when we read it. It is not a fatuous happiness, or a happiness unaware of death (a preoccupation with death and dying was a steady feature of his work), but neither does it cede too much to mere mortality. One has a sense of someone who—as much as, though with more wit than, Andy Warhol—has spent a good deal of his life liking things. Women’s clothes, their hair, the hybridization of American accents; the way that the hyper-cold of the airline baggage compartment can be felt like a secret in the bag as you unpack—all these images and moments, recalled at random from his work, are not just reported but quietly rhapsodized, registered with love. It is his affections that rise, and that we recall.
Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker
Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?
To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes two persons, things, situations, seem alike. . . Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.
Walter Pater, from The Renaissance
As we near the end of the Parade of Positives that has been Muse Machine’s 31 Days of Cheer, I’ve got to admit that NY Timesman Ross Douthat has out-happied even me by finding at least one thing to like about each of the far-too-numerous Republican candidates for president. Seriously. There is, quoth he, at least one worthwhile idea in each man’s head, and if you doubt, check out his inventory here.
Reason, gentlemen, is a fine thing, that is unquestionable, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s reasoning capacity, while wanting is a manifestation of the whole of life–that is, the whole of human life, including reason and various little itches.
And though our life in that manifestation often turns out to be a bit of trash, still it is life and not just the extraction of a square root. I, for example, want to live so as to satisfy my whole capacity for living, and not so as to satisfy just my reasoning capacity alone, which is some twentieth part of my whole capacity for living. What does reason know? Reason knows only what it has managed to learn . . . while human nature acts as an entire whole, with everything that is in it, consciously and unconsciously, and though it lies, still it lives.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground
Point-counterpoint words to live by, or at least muse on, in 2012:
Happiness is desired by all men, and moments of it are probably attained by most men. Only moments of it can be attained because happiness is the inner concomitant of neat harmonies of body, spirit, and society; and these neat harmonies are bound to be infrequent. There is no simple harmony between our ambitions and our achievements because all ambitions tend to outrun achievements. There is no neat harmony between the conscious ends of life and the physical instruments for its attainment, for the health of the body is frail and uncertain. . . There is no neat harmony between personal desires and ambitions and the ends of human societies no matter how frantically we insist with the eighteenth century that communities are created only for the individual.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History
But still. . .
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
If I ruled the world, I’d have every person who aspires to be a writer, politician or any kind of thought leader read this essay at least once a year. It should be posted on the walls of all newsrooms and magazine offices. In this piece, Orwell models clarity, honesty, and humility while performing what for many is an impossible task: He takes the measure of a man who in many ways is his polar opposite and gives this complicated man his due. Rather than begin with some cheap political agenda that must be served, Orwell sets out to evaluate Gandhi in his own terms.
Here you find none of the thundering, blustering certainty that makes most political discourse today unbearable; instead, you see a great writer trying to follow the truth wherever it seems to lead. Key quote:
His character was an extraordinarily mixed one, but there
was almost nothing in it that you can put your finger on and call bad,
and I believe that even Gandhi’s worst enemies would admit that he was an
interesting and unusual man who enriched the world simply by being alive.
Whether he was also a lovable man, and whether his teachings can have
much for those who do not accept the religious beliefs on which they are
founded, I have never felt fully certain.
The full text of this great essay is here.