Examining the unlived life

Alex has a wonderful essay up this week on the unexamined life vs the unlived life. I recognized so much of myself in his description of his early college self. And i would say it's only been fairly recently that I've decided to bias myself towards action -- even fidgety action -- over excessive rumination. (Just look up what "brown study" means.)

I think had Alex pushed farther, he would have probably detected fear prompting the defensive thinking posture he (we) adopted. Fear of rejection, fear of not being good enough, fear of not being perfect, fear of not being loved. There are damn few Socrates in the world whose motivations are not based on fear; for the rest of us, I think we adopt that intellectual camouflage and hope for the best.

And I loved this description of one of the risks we run by overindulging our penchant for thinking over a livelier balance between thought and action:

Believing advice is the greatest help we can provide others who are suffering. It’s not. The greatest gift we can provide others who are suffering is encouragement—encouragement that draws its power from our having experienced similar sufferings that we’ve overcome ourselves.

Anyway, his post reminded me for some reason of this wonderful Alexander Theroux quote from his novel Laura Warholic:

I decided at one point in my life that I never wanted to be anything that would not allow me to be anything else I wanted to be ... I ended up being nothing that I can currently identify, which I suppose means I got my wish.


Dahl on travel and civilization

In this excerpt from Roald Dahl's Boy, his mother asks if he wants to go to Oxford or Cambridge.

"No, thank you," I said. "I want to go straight from school to work for a company that will send me to wonderful faraway places like Africa or China."

You must remember that there was virtually no air travel in the early 1930s. Africa was two weeks away from England by boat and it took you about five weeks to get to China. These were distant and magic lands and nobody went to them just for a holiday. You went there to work. Nowadays you can go anywhere in the world in a few hours and nothing is fabulous anymore. But it was a very different matter in 1933.

I love the use of that word fabulous. It saves the passage from sounding like a cranky-old-man reminiscence.

Dahl gets his wish and is posted to Africa, where he will work for three years straight, with no opportunity to visit home or see his family. I admire the detail and compression in this paragraph as he summarizes three years of his life into a paragraph.

...I got my African adventure all right. I got the roasting heat and the crocodiles and the snakes and the long safaris up-country, selling Shell oil to the men who ran the diamond mines and the sisal plantations. I learned about an extraordinary machine called a decorticator (a name I have always loved) which shredded the big leathery sisal leaves into fibre. I learned to speak Swahili and to shake the scorpions out of my mosquito boots in the mornings. I learned what it was like to get malaria and to run a temperature of 105 degrees F for three days, and when the rainy seasons came and the water poured down in solid sheets and flooded the little dirt roads, I learned how to spend nights in the back of a stifling station-wagon with all the windows closed against marauders from the jungle. Above all, I learned how to look after myself in a way that no young person can ever do by staying in civilisation.

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Dahl on the life of businessmen and writers

In the following excerpt from Roald Dahl's Boy, he's left public school at 18 to take a job with Shell Oil company. He is taking their internal training courses and is learning the business.

...[E]very morning, six days a week, Saturdays included, I would dress neatly in a sombre grey suit, have breakfast at seven forty-five and then, with a brown trilby on my head and a furled umbrella in my hand, I would board the eight-fifteen train to London together with a swarm of other equally sombre-suited businessmen. I found it easy to fall into their pattern. We were all very serious and dignified gents taking the train to our offices in the City of London where each of us, so we thought, was engaged in high finance and other enormously important matters. Most of my companions wore hard bowler hats, and a few like me wore soft trilbys, but not one of us on that train in the year of 1934 went bareheaded. It wasn't done. And none of us, even on the sunniest of days, went without his furled umbrella. The umbrella was our badge of office. We felt naked without it. Also it was a sign of respectability. Road-menders and plumbers never went to work with umbrellas. Businessmen did.

I enjoyed it. I really did. I began to realise how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with fixed hours and a fixed salary and very little original thinking to do. The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn't go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock. The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze. He wants a drink. He needs it. It happens to be a fact that nearly every writer of fiction in the world drinks more whiskey than is good for him. He does it to give himself faith, hope, and courage. A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.

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Great words

From the final Hold this Thought broadcast:

"In East of Eden, John Steinbeck writes:

'A child may ask, "What is the world's story about?" And a grown man or woman may wonder, "What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we're at it, what's the story about?"

I believe that there is one story in the world.... Humans are caught -- in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too -- in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well -- or ill?' "

"The Midnight Disease"

A few years ago, I read and enjoyed Alice W. Flaherty's memoir, The Midnight Disease. Suffering from postpartum depression after the death of her newborn child, she began experiencing hypergraphia -- the uncontrollable urge to write. She filled pages and pages with her writing, and couldn't stop -- the opposite of writer's block. Flaherty is a psychiatrist and her memoir/study grapples with a scientific way to look at creativity, which at times resembles a mental disorder.

When I had the book, I wrote down many passages and thoughts that struck me. Those passages follow. Page numbers refer to the hardcover edition.

(no page #) Far more important, a life chosen to maximize joy may be very different from one chosen to minimize pain.

212 Accounts of the muse's influence are matched by complaints of its fickleness. An example is Donald Justice's poem "The Telephone Number of the Muse":

I call her up sometimes, long distance now. And she still knows my voice, but I can hear, Behind the music of her phonograph, The laughter of the young men with their keys. I have the number written down somewhere.

239 I would argue that these creative states are extreme variants of the inner voice, that constant monologue which fills us from when we first learn language as toddlers until we lose it in nursing homes and intensive care units.

250 When we are thinking abstractly, though, we seem to be doing so prelinguistically, both because the speed of our thoughts seems faster than words and because of the difficulty we often have in putting fleeting thoughts into real words. By contrast, in both the experience of the muse and in psychotic hallucinations, the voice heard has more of a sensory quality as well; it is more like a voice, less like an idea.

This notion fits with our sense that voices, whether spoken or signed, in some way are more primitive than silent thoughts. Just as two-year-olds say aloud much of what goes through their heads, just as six-year-olds subvocalize when they read, so people in the throes of creation, as well as people hallucinating, may be thinking more primitively. Not necessarily more simplistically, but primitively ... more vividly, more concretely, more associatively, less constrained by societal convention.

252 The psychiatrist Mark Epstein has pointed out that keeping respiration in mind as a model for our give-and-take relationship with the external world, and especially with our creative work, would have a very different effect from thinking of the world as something (on the oral, anal, or genital models) to be consumed, expelled, or penetrated.

254 The image is not of the artist enriched by the spirit of art, but ex-hausted by its leaving his body. Finishing a project successfully is, paradoxically, a not uncommon cause of clinical depression.

I think that when you work hard enough on any work, everything of value in you goes into that work. When you finish it, it leaves you, and you are empty.

260 Neurologists and others have attributed the behavior of many famous religious leaders directly to temporal lobe epilepsy.

Moses, for instance, reportedly had convulsive fits starting at age three, speech problems suggestive of aphasia or dysarthria, unusually prolific writing, episodes of sudden rage, and religious visions. One neuropsychologist has even speculated that his epilepsy was caused by his being left in that basket among the bullrushes for several days and sustaining a brain injury from heatstroke.

266 The scientist in me worries that my happiness is nothing more than a symptom of bipolar disease, hypergraphia from a postpartum disorder. The rest of me thinks that artificially splitting off the scientist in me from the writer in me is actually a kind of cultural bipolar disorder, one that too many of us have. The scientist asks how I can call  my writing vocation and not addiction. I no longer see why I should have to make that distinction. I am addicted to breathing in the same way. I write because when I don't, it is suffocating. I write because something much larger than myself comes into me that suffuses the page, the world, with meaning. Although I constantly fear that what I am writing teeters at the edge of being false, this force that drives me cannot be anything but real, or nothing will ever be real for me again.