The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Audre Lorde on What to Do When Difference Ruptures Society

Living into the risk and responsibility of the multiple identities we carry.

Audre Lorde on What to Do When Difference Ruptures Society

“If you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else,” the young poet Nikki Giovanni told the elder James Baldwin in their historic intergenerational conversation. Perhaps it is because we are such strangers to ourselves — so opaque in our own motives and vulnerabilities, so haunted by confusion and self-contradiction — that we so bruisingly misunderstand and mistreat others, so readily seize on their otherness, lashing our confusions at them, so readily forget that diversity and difference are the reason life exists.

The antidote to that reflex is what Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) considers in an interview found in Black Women Writers at Work (public library) — the superb collection that also gave us Maya Angelou on writing and our responsibility to our creative gifts.

Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde

A generation after Hannah Arendt’s insight into the power and opportunity of the outsider position, and an epoch before the term intersectionality existed, Lorde considers the challenge of the multiple identities we each inhabit, which further alienate us from each other for as long as they remain unreconciled and unintegrated within us:

When you are a member of an out-group, and you challenge others with whom you share this outsider position to examine some aspect of their lives that distorts differences between you, then there can be a great deal of pain. In other words, when people of a group share an oppression, there are certain strengths that they build together. But there are also certain vulnerabilities. For instance, talking about racism to the women’s movement results in “Huh, don’t bother us with that. Look, we’re all sisters, please don’t rock the boat.” Talking to the black community about sexism results in pretty much the same thing. You get a “Wait, wait… wait a minute: we’re all black together. Don’t rock the boat.” In our work and in our living, we must recognize that difference is a reason for celebration and growth, rather than a reason for destruction.

Considering her own responsibility to that recognition and that reconciliation, she adds:

My responsibility is to speak the truth as I feel it, and to attempt to speak it with as much precision and beauty as possible.

Complement with Lorde on kinship across difference, feeling as an antidote to fearing, and turning fear into creative fire, then revisit Bear and Wolf — a tender illustrated fable about walking side by side in otherness.

BP

The Vital Difference Between Work and Labor: Lewis Hyde on Sustaining the Creative Spirit

“The gifts of the inner world must be accepted as gifts in the outer world if they are to retain their vitality.”

The Vital Difference Between Work and Labor: Lewis Hyde on Sustaining the Creative Spirit

It is a gladness to be able to call one’s daily work a labor of love, and to have that labor put food on the table the way any work does, dishwashing or dentistry. And yet such labors of diligence and devotion — the kind William Blake called “eternal work” — are somehow different, different and more vulnerable, for they enter the world in a singular spirit and are recompensed in a singular spirit, distinct from dentistry or dishwashing.

That spirit is the spirit of a gift — not the transaction of two commodities but the interchange of two mutual generosities, passing between people who share in the project of a life worth living.

A year before I was born, the poet Lewis Hyde taxonomized that vital and delicate distinction between work and labor in his eternally giving book The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World (public library) — a timeless inquiry into what it takes to harmonize “the inner gift that we accept as the object of our labor, and the outer gift that has become a vehicle of culture.”

Art by Kay Nielsen from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Hyde writes:

Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and ends at a specific time and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus — these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify. “Getting the program” in AA is a labor. It is likewise apt to speak of “mourning labor”: when a loved one dies, the soul undergoes a period of travail, a change that draws energy. Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors. Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule. Things get done, but we often have the odd sense that we didn’t do them… We wake up to discover the fruits of labor.

At the heart of the distinction is the recognition that those fruits are offered to the world not as a service or a transaction but as a gift — “the gift we long for, the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us.” The challenge arises when we try to reconcile the spiritual ecosystem of gifts with the material market economy within which they dwell — the economy of sustenance and solvency of which every modern person partakes just in the course of staying alive.

An epoch before Patreon and Kickstarter and Substack, Hyde issues a clarion call for honoring the gifts we receive:

If we really valued these gift labors, couldn’t we pay them well? Couldn’t we pay social workers as we pay doctors, pay poets as we do bankers, pay the cellist in the orchestra as we pay the advertising executive in the box seat? Yes, we could. We could — we should — reward gift labors where we value them. My point here is simply that where we do so we shall have to recognize that the pay they receive has not been “made” the way fortunes are made in the market, that it is a gift bestowed by the group. The costs and benefits of tasks whose procedures are adversarial and whose ends are easily quantified can be expressed through a market system. The costs and rewards of gift labors cannot.

Art by William Blake for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Available as a print.)

In a sentiment that gladdens those of us who offer the fruits of our labors freely and are sustained by what is given freely in return, he adds:

The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation… The gifts of the inner world must be accepted as gifts in the outer world if they are to retain their vitality.

The Gift remains a vitalizing read, all the more nourishing and necessary in our present culture that so commodifies creative labor and our market economy that so devalues those works of thought and tenderness that most help us live our lives: music, poetry, philosophy, art. Complement these fragments from it with some Hyde-fomented thoughts on music and the price of what we cherish, then revisit the story of how Van Gogh found his gift that revolutionized art and how Jeanne Villepreux-Power turned her gift into a breakthrough of science.

BP

Ways of Being: Rethinking Intelligence

“Intelligence is not something which exists, but something one does.”

Ways of Being: Rethinking Intelligence

“Intelligence supposes good will,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote. “Sensitivity is nothing else but the presence which is attentive to the world and to itself.” Yet our efforts to define and measure intelligence have been pocked with insensitivity to nuance, to diversity, to the myriad possible ways of paying attention to the world. Within the human realm, there is the dark cultural history of IQ. Beyond the human realm, there is the growing abashed understanding that other forms of intelligence exist, capable of comprehending and navigating the world in ways wildly different from ours, no less successful and no less poetic. One measure of our own intelligence may be the degree of our openness to these other ways of being — the breadth of mind and generosity of spirit with which we recognize and regard otherness.

The science-reverent English artist James Bridle invites such a broadening of mind in Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence (public library). He writes:

The tree of evolution bears many fruits and many flowers, and intelligence, rather than being found only in the highest branches, has in fact flowered everywhere.

[…]

There are many ways of “doing” intelligence: behaviourally, neurologically, physiologically and socially… Intelligence is not something which exists, but something one does; it is active, interpersonal and generative, and it manifests when we think and act. We have already learned — from the gibbons, gorillas and macaques — that intelligence is relational: it matters how and where you do it, what form your body gives it, and with whom it connects. Intelligence is not something which exists just in the head — literally, in the case of the octopus, who does intelligence with its whole body. Intelligence is one among many ways of being in the world: it is an interface to it; it makes the world manifest.

Art from Cephalopod Atlas, 1909. (Available as a print and as a cutting board, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Borrowing ecological philosopher David Abram’s notion of “the more-than-human world,” he adds:

Intelligence, then, is not something to be tested, but something to be recognized, in all the multiple forms that it takes. The task is to figure out how to become aware of it, to associate with it, to make it manifest. This process is itself one of entanglement, of opening ourselves to forms of communication and interaction with the totality of the more-than-human world, much deeper and more extensive than those which can be performed in the artificial constraints of the laboratory. It involves changing ourselves, and our own attitudes and behaviours, rather than altering the conditions of our non-human communicants.

[…]

To think of intelligence in this way is not to reduce its definition, but to enlarge it. Anthropocentric science has argued for centuries that redefining intelligence in this way is to make it meaningless, but this is not the case. To define intelligence simply as what humans do is the narrowest way we could possibly think about it — and it is ultimately to narrow ourselves, and lessen its possible meaning. Rather, by expanding our definition of intelligence, and the chorus of minds which manifest it, we might allow our own intelligence to flower into new forms and new emergent ways of being and relating. The admittance of general, universal, active intelligence is a necessary part of our vital re-entanglement with the more-than-human world.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

A century and a half after the Victorian visionary Samuel Butler presaged the emergence of a new branch on the tree of life — a “mechanical kingdom” of our own making, comprising our machines governed by a “self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race” — Bridle offers an optimistic implication of this redefinition for the future of what we now call “artificial intelligence”:

If intelligence, rather than being an innate, restrictive set of behaviours, is in fact something which arises from interrelationships, from thinking and working together, there need be nothing artificial about it all. If all intelligence is ecological — that is, entangled, relational, and of the world — then artificial intelligence provides a very real way for us to come to terms with all the other intelligences which populate and manifest through the planet.

What if, instead of being the thing that separates us from the world and ultimately supplants us, artificial intelligence is another flowering, wholly its own invention, but one which, shepherded by us, leads us to a greater accommodation with the world? Rather than being a tool to further exploit the planet and one another, artificial intelligence is an opening to other minds, a chance to fully recognize a truth that has been hidden from us for so long. Everything is intelligent, and therefore — along with many other reasons — is worthy of our care and conscious attention.

Complement with Walt Whitman on the wisdom of trees, Ursula K. Le Guin on the poetry of penguins, and Marilyn Nelson’s spare, splendid poem about octopus intelligence, then revisit Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of AI.

BP

What the Heart Keeps When the Mind Goes: May Sarton on Loving a Loved One Through Dementia

On remaining in loving contact with the intangible, immutable part of the self.

What the Heart Keeps When the Mind Goes: May Sarton on Loving a Loved One Through Dementia

One of the hardest things in life is watching a loved one’s mind slowly syphoned by cognitive illness — that haunting ambiguous loss of the familiar body remaining, but the person slowly fading into otherness, their very consciousness frayed and reconstituted into that of a stranger.

How to go on loving this growing stranger is the supreme challenge of accompanying a precious human being through the most disorienting experience in life — the great open question pocked with guilt but pulsating with possibility.

The poet and diarist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) explores how to step into that possibility with uncommon sensitivity and tenderness in one of the diary entries collected in the altogether magnificent The House by the Sea (public library).

May Sarton

Sarton was thirty-three when she met Judith Matlack, twelve years her senior. May and Judy fell in love — a love consecrated in Sarton’s almost unbearably beautiful poetry collection Honey in the Hive. When they separated thirteen years later, they remained not only friends but nothing less than family to each other.

Judy was not yet seventy when dementia began fraying her mind. Uncoupled and childless, she moved into a nursing home. Sarton visited regularly. Once she settled into her house by the sea in Maine, she often had Judy stay with her for several days at a time. During one of these visits, with Judy particularly disoriented, unable to hold a conversation, wandering into the neighbors’ yards, Sarton offers a passage of tender assurance:

Death comes by installments but sometimes the first installments can be very steep, perhaps much more painful to those around them than to the person. I do cherish her so; can one maintain the image of love when so much has gone?” I guess the answer to that question is, yes, because when one has lived with someone for years, as I did with Judy, something quite intangible is there, as though in the bloodstream, that no change in her changes.

Couple with Mary Gaitskill on how to move through life when your parents are dying — some of the simplest, most beautiful and redemptive life-advice you’ll ever receive — then revisit Sarton on how to live with tenderness in a harsh world.

BP

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