The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Choreography of Everyday Life: A Leaping Antidote to Our Modern Loneliness

Finding that vitalizing “a reciprocity between us perceiving the world together through art, and the world in turn reading us through what we make.”

The Choreography of Everyday Life: A Leaping Antidote to Our Modern Loneliness

“If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so,” Alan Watts wrote as he contemplated our search for meaning. “The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.”

It is a fertile metaphor, for the way we move through the world — and how we move the world through the mind — shapes our entire experience of it. Out of this existential choreography, which we perform a million times a day in a million unconscious ways, arises our perception of reality.

The metaphor comes alive with uncommon vitality in The Choreography of Everyday Life (public library) by choreographer Annie-B Parson, who has shaped living artworks by cultural icons ranging from David Bowie and David Byrne to Mikhail Baryshnikov and the Martha Graham Dance Company.

Reading the Odyssey as a kind of secular theology and reckoning with Tik-Tok as the folk art form of our time, she turns a cautious eye to our menacing pandemic of selfing, observing the self-made corner into which we have punished ourselves:

Social media forms are performative solo forms with an odd conflation of friendship and marketing; the body is alone in a room performing the self, with an undercurrent of desire for applause. Without a town square to gather in and hash out the day with neighbors, social media communications have a shading of loneliness underneath.

Art by Maira Kalman for her illustrated adaptation of David Byrne’s American Utopia, choreographed by Annie-B Parson

The way out, she intimates, is movement — a movement of the spirit that mirrors the movement of bodies toward the togetherness of the town square, the place where generative change takes place, for all creativity — which is the antidote to loneliness — is a kind of dance we perform not in isolation but with the world:

The wide shot is the camera position that allows the audience to see the full body of everyone in the scene in their environment, it’s the most objective and potentially the most compositional of camera positions, and for very brief moments I can perceive our wide shot: that we experience contentment, then we suffer, we slog through what we deem uninteresting, we get inspired, we see things, we miss things, we trip or fall or slowly crumble, we get up, we fight, we reconnect, and then in despair or fascination or just reflexively, we write about it.

And this desire to articulate what you feel and perceive, to tell it, to name it, to describe it, this is as natural as the progression from walking to running to leaping, to shaping that leap into a pattern of leaps, and then a group of leapers in unison — into a dance.

And if I go into the extreme wide shot, I can see a generative duality between us and the world, a reciprocity between us perceiving the world together through art, and the world in turn reading us through what we make. In this mirror structure, I can imagine the creative act as world-actualization rather than self-actualization, that what we make becomes a part of nature’s generative system.

Art by Maira Kalman for American Utopia

Couple this fragment of The Choreography of Everyday Life with Zadie Smith on what writers can learn from the great dancers, then revisit Helen Keller, upon visiting Martha Graham’s studio, on how dance is like thought.


David Bowie on Creativity and His Advice to Artists

“It’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations”

Every creator’s creations are their coping mechanism for life — for the loneliness of being, for the longing for connection, for the dazzling incomprehension of what it all means. What we call art is simply a gesture toward some authentic answer to these open questions, at once universal and intimately felt — questions aimed at the elemental truths of being alive, animated by a craving for beauty, haunted by the need to find a way of bearing our mortality. Without this elemental longing, without this authentic gesture, what is made is not art but something else — the kind of commodified craftsmanship Virginia Woolf indicted when she weighed creativity against catering.

The year he turned fifty, and a year before he gave his irreverent answers to the famous Proust Questionnaire, David Bowie (January 8, 1947–January 10, 2016) contemplated the soul of creativity in a television interview marking the release of his experimental drum’n’bass record Earthling — a radical departure from the musical style that had sprinkled the stardust of his genius upon the collective conscience of a generation, and a testament to Bowie’s unassailable devotion to continual creative growth.

Nested into the interview is his most direct advice to artists and the closest thing he ever formulated to a personal creative credo.

In consonance with E.E. Cummings’s splendid insistence that “the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” Bowie reflects:

Never play to the gallery… Always remember that the reason that you initially started working is that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society. I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations — they generally produce their worst work when they do that.

Echoing Beethoven’s life-tested insight that though the true artist “may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun,” Bowie adds a mighty antidote to the greatest enemy of creative work — complacency:

If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.

Complement with John Lennon on creativity, Nick Cave on the relationship between art and mystery, Paul Klee on how an artist must be like a tree, and Wassily Kandinsky on the three responsibilities of the artist, then revisit Virginia Woolf’s account of the epiphany that revealed to her what the creative life means.


The Art of Receiving: John Steinbeck on the True Meaning of Gratitude

“It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving, on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness.”

The Art of Receiving: John Steinbeck on the True Meaning of Gratitude

“It’s only when we demand that we are hurt,” Henry Miller observed when he weighed the delicate balance of giving and receiving. A demand is a metastasis of longing. Because longing is the defining feature of human life, learning to bear our longing without demanding is the beginning of healing.

Nothing is more salutary to the soul than that which comes unbidden and is received freely. And yet, paradoxically enough, it is in receiving that we most often trip up — for to receive is an act of tremendous trust and tremendous vulnerability. True gratitude has as its object not what is given but what is received. The art of receiving is therefore the precursor to any sense of gratitude — our deepest wellspring of thanks-giving.

That is what John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) explores in one of the myriad dazzling passages that strew The Log from the Sea of Cortez (public library) — his uncommonly insightful meditation on how to think better and see the pattern beneath the particulars.

John Steinbeck

With an eye to a friend so skillful at receiving that “everyone felt good” in giving to him — “a present, a thought, anything” — Steinbeck writes:

Perhaps the most overrated virtue in our list of shoddy virtues is that of giving. Giving builds up the ego of the giver, makes him superior and higher and larger than the receiver. Nearly always, giving is a selfish pleasure, and in many cases it is a downright destructive and evil thing. One has only to remember some of our wolfish financiers who spend two-thirds of their lives clawing fortunes out of the guts of society and the latter third pushing it back. It is not enough to suppose that their philanthropy is a kind of frightened restitution, or that their natures change when they have enough. Such a nature never has enough and natures do not change that readily. I think that the impulse is the same in both cases. For giving can bring the same sense of superiority as getting does, and philanthropy may be another kind of spiritual avarice.

It is a countercultural notion, this indictment of the greed of generosity, especially in our culture of virtue-signaling and performative giving. But only by acknowledging this particular form of selfing can we begin to appreciate the beauty of its mirror-image in the art of receiving — an art truer and more tender, for it requires not an exercise of the ego but its exorcism.

Art by Jacqueline Ayer from The Paper-Flower Tree

Steinbeck writes:

It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving, on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well.

It requires a self-esteem to receive — not self-love but just a pleasant acquaintance and liking for oneself.

The Log from the Sea of Cortez remains one of the finest things I have ever read. Complement this fragment with Seneca on gratitude and what it really means to be a generous human being, then revisit Steinbeck on love, the necessary contradictions of human nature, the difficult art of the friend breakup, and his Nobel Prize acceptance speech about what it means to be a writer.


Storytelling and the Art of Tenderness: Olga Tokarczuk’s Magnificent Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

“Tenderness is the most modest form of love. It is the kind of love that does not appear in the scriptures or the gospels, no one swears by it, no one cites it… It appears wherever we take a close and careful look at another being, at something that is not our ‘self.’”

“I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being,” James Baldwin observed as he offered his lifeline for the hour of despair. “I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am also aware that we save each other some of the time.”

When we do save each other, it is always with some version of the mightiest lifeline we humans are capable of weaving: tenderness — the best adaptation we have to our existential inheritance as “the fragile species.”

Like all orientations of the spirit, tenderness is a story we tell ourselves — about each other, about the world, about our place in it and our power in it. Like all narratives, the strength of our tenderness reflects the strength and sensitivity of our storytelling.

That is what the Polish psychologist turned poet and novelist Olga Tokarczuk explores in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Olga Tokarczuk by Harald Krichel

Tokarczuk recounts a moment from her early childhood that deeply moved her: Her mother, inverting Montaigne’s notion that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” told her small daughter that she missed her even before she was born — an astonishing gesture of love so total that it bends the arrow of time. Across the abyss of a lifetime, along the arrow of time that eventually shot through her mother’s life, Tokarczuk reflects:

A young woman who was never religious — my mother — gave me something once known as a soul, thereby furnishing me with the world’s greatest tender narrator.

Our present bind, Tokarczuk observes, is that the old narratives about who we are and how the world works are untender and clearly broken, but we are yet to find tender new ones to take their place. Observing that in our sensemaking cosmogony “the world is made of words” yet “we lack the language, we lack the points of view, the metaphors, the myths and new fables,” she laments the tyranny of selfing that has taken their place:

We live in a reality of polyphonic first-person narratives, and we are met from all sides with polyphonic noise. What I mean by first-person is the kind of tale that narrowly orbits the self of a teller who more or less directly just writes about herself and through herself. We have determined that this type of individualized point of view, this voice from the self, is the most natural, human and honest, even if it does abstain from a broader perspective. Narrating in the first person, so conceived, is weaving an absolutely unique pattern, the only one of its kind; it is having a sense of autonomy as an individual, being aware of yourself and your fate. Yet it also means building an opposition between the self and the world, and that opposition can be alienating at times.

This optics of the self, the way in which the individual becomes “subjective center of the world,” is the defining feature of this most recent chapter of the history of our species. And yet everything around us reveals its illusory nature, for as the great naturalist John Muir observed, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Art by Arthur Rackham from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. (Available as a print.)

With an eye to her lifelong fascination with “the systems of mutual connections and influences of which we are generally unaware, but which we discover by chance, as surprising coincidences or convergences of fate, all those bridges, nuts, bolts, welded joints and connectors” — the subject of her Nobel-winning compatriot Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Love at First Sight” — Tokarczuk reflects on our creativity not as some separate and abstract faculty but as a fractal of the living universe:

We are all — people, plants, animals, and objects — immersed in a single space, which is ruled by the laws of physics. This common space has its shape, and within it the laws of physics sculpt an infinite number of forms that are incessantly linked to one another. Our cardiovascular system is like the system of a river basin, the structure of a leaf is like a human transport system, the motion of the galaxies is like the whirl of water flowing down our washbasins. Societies develop in a similar way to colonies of bacteria. The micro and macro scale show an endless system of similarities.

Our speech, thinking and creativity are not something abstract, removed from the world, but a continuation on another level of its endless processes of transformation.

We sever this dazzling indivisibility whenever we contract into what she calls “the uncommunicative prison of one’s own self” — something magnified in all the compulsive sharing on so-called social media with their basic paradigm of selfing masquerading as connection. Instead, she invites us to look “ex-centrically” and imagine a different story — one tasked with “revealing a greater range of reality and showing the mutual connections.” Amid a world riven by “a multitude of stories that are incompatible with one another or even openly hostile toward each other, mutually antagonizing,” accelerated by techno-capitalist media systems that prey on the greatest vulnerabilities of human nature, Tokarczuk reminds us that literature is also an invaluable tool of empathy — an antidote to the divisiveness so mercilessly exploited by our “social” media:

Literature is one of the few spheres that try to keep us close to the hard facts of the world, because by its very nature it is always psychological, because it focuses on the internal reasoning and motives of the characters, reveals their otherwise inaccessible experience to another person, or simply provokes the reader into a psychological interpretation of their conduct. Only literature is capable of letting us go deep into the life of another being, understand their reasons, share their emotions and experience their fate.

Art by Virginia Frances Sterrett, Old French Fairy Tales, 1920
Century-old art by the adolescent Virginia Frances Sterrett. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)

She calls for something beyond empathy, something achingly missing from our harsh culture of dueling gotchas — a literature of tenderness:

Tenderness is the art of personifying, of sharing feelings, and thus endlessly discovering similarities. Creating stories means constantly bringing things to life, giving an existence to all the tiny pieces of the world that are represented by human experiences, the situations people have endured and their memories. Tenderness personalizes everything to which it relates, making it possible to give it a voice, to give it the space and the time to come into existence, and to be expressed.

Echoing Iris Murdoch’s unforgettable definition of love as “the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real,” Tokarczuk adds:

Tenderness is the most modest form of love. It is the kind of love that does not appear in the scriptures or the gospels, no one swears by it, no one cites it. It has no special emblems or symbols, nor does it lead to crime, or prompt envy.

It appears wherever we take a close and careful look at another being, at something that is not our “self.”

Tenderness is spontaneous and disinterested; it goes far beyond empathetic fellow feeling. Instead it is the conscious, though perhaps slightly melancholy, common sharing of fate. Tenderness is deep emotional concern about another being, its fragility, its unique nature, and its lack of immunity to suffering and the effects of time. Tenderness perceives the bonds that connect us, the similarities and sameness between us. It is a way of looking that shows the world as being alive, living, interconnected, cooperating with, and codependent on itself.

Literature is built on tenderness toward any being other than ourselves.

Complement with Ursula K. Le Guin on storytelling as a force of redemption, then revisit Toni Morrison’s superb Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the power of language.


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