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In Praise of Idleness: Bertrand Russell on the Relationship Between Leisure and Social Justice

“Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle.”

In Praise of Idleness: Bertrand Russell on the Relationship Between Leisure and Social Justice

“Everybody should be quiet near a little stream and listen,” the great children’s book author Ruth Krauss — a philosopher, really — wrote in her last and loveliest collaboration with the young Maurice Sendak in 1960. At the time of her first collaboration with Sendak twelve years earlier, just after the word “workaholic” was coined, the German philosopher Josef Pieper was composing Leisure, the Basis of Culture — his timeless and increasingly timely manifesto for reclaiming our human dignity in a culture of busyness. “Leisure,” Pieper wrote, “is not the same as the absence of activity… or even as an inner quiet. It is rather like the stillness in the conversation of lovers, which is fed by their oneness.”

A generation earlier, with a seer’s capacity to peer past the horizon of the present condition and anticipate a sweeping cultural current before it has flooded in, and with a sage’s ability to provide the psychic buoy for surviving the current’s perilous rapids, Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) addressed the looming cult of workaholism in a prescient 1932 essay titled In Praise of Idleness (public library).

bertrandrussell3
Bertrand Russell

Russell writes:

A great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.

With his characteristic wisdom punctuated by wry wit, he examines what work actually means:

Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e., of advertising.

Russell points to landowners as a historical example of a class whose idleness was only made possible by the toil of others. For the vast majority of our species’ history, up until the Industrial Revolution, the average person spent nearly every waking hour working hard to earn the basic necessities of survival. Any marginal surplus, he notes, was swiftly appropriated by those in power — the warriors, the monarchs, the priests. Since the Industrial Revolution, other power systems — from big business to dictatorships — have simply supplanted the warriors, monarchs, and priests. Russell considers how the exploitive legacy of pre-industrial society has corrupted the modern social fabric and warped our value system:

A system which lasted so long and ended so recently has naturally left a profound impress upon men’s thoughts and opinions. Much that we take for granted about the desirability of work is derived from this system, and, being pre-industrial, is not adapted to the modern world. Modern technique has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.

Writing nearly a century after Kierkegaard extolled the existential boon of idleness, Russell considers how this manipulated mentality has hypnotized us into worshiping work as virtue and scorning leisure as laziness, as weakness, as folly, rather than recognizing it as the raw material of social justice and the locus of our power:

The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own. Of course the holders of power conceal this fact from themselves by managing to believe that their interests are identical with the larger interests of humanity. Sometimes this is true; Athenian slave owners, for instance, employed part of their leisure in making a permanent contribution to civilization which would have been impossible under a just economic system. Leisure is essential to civilization, and in former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labors of the many. But their labors were valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good. And with modern technique it would be possible to distribute leisure justly without injury to civilization.

Art by Beatrice Alemagna for a letter by Adam Gopnik from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Russell notes that WWI — which was dubbed “the war to end all wars” by a world willfully blind to the fact that violence begets more violence, unwitting that this world war would pave the way for the next — furthered our civilizational conflation of duty with work and work with virtue, lulling us into the modern trance of busyness. More than half a century before Annie Dillard observed that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Russell traces the ledger of our existential spending back to war’s false promise of freedom:

The war showed conclusively that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world. If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of work had been cut down to four, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry.

Pointing out that this equivalence originates in the same morality — or, rather, immorality — that produced the slave state, he exposes the core cultural falsehood it has effected, which stands as a monumental obstruction to equality and social justice in contemporary society:

The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich.

Born in an era when urban workingmen had just acquired the right to vote in Great Britain, Russell draws on his own childhood for a stark illustration of this belief and its far-reaching tentacles of socioeconomic oppression:

I remember hearing an old Duchess say: “What do the poor want with holidays? They ought to work.” People nowadays are less frank, but the sentiment persists, and is the source of much of our economic confusion.

That sentiment, Russell reminds us again and again, is ahistorical. Advances in science, technology, and the very mechanics of society have made it no longer necessary for the average person to endure fifteen-hour workdays in order to obtain basic sustenance, as adults — and often children — had to in the early nineteenth century. But while the allocation of our time in relation to need has changed immensely, our attitudes about how that time is spent hardly have. He writes:

Every human being, of necessity, consumes, in the course of his life, a certain amount of the produce of human labor.

[…]

The wise use of leisure, it must be conceded, is a product of civilization and education. A man who has worked long hours all his life will be bored if he becomes suddenly idle. But without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things. There is no longer any reason why the bulk of the population should suffer this deprivation; only a foolish asceticism, usually vicarious, makes us continue to insist on work in excessive quantities now that the need no longer exists.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

But while reinstating the dignity of leisure — or what Russell calls idleness — is a necessary condition for recalibrating our life-satisfaction to more adequately reflect the contemporary realities of work and need, it is not a sufficient one. Exacerbating our already warped relationship with work is the muddling of needs and wants at the heart of capitalist materialism — something Russell would address nearly two decades later in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, listing acquisitiveness as the first of the four desires driving human behavior. He considers the radical shift that would take place if we were to stop regarding the virtue of work as an end in itself and begin seeing it as a means to a state of being in which work is no longer needed, reinstating leisure and comfort — that is, a contented sense of enoughness — as the proper existential end:

What will happen when the point has been reached where everybody could be comfortable without working long hours?

In the West, we have various ways of dealing with this problem. We have no attempt at economic justice, so that a large proportion of the total produce goes to a small minority of the population, many of whom do no work at all. Owing to the absence of any central control over production, we produce hosts of things that are not wanted. We keep a large percentage of the working population idle, because we can dispense with their labor by making the others overwork. When all these methods prove inadequate, we have a war; we cause a number of people to manufacture high explosives, and a number of others to explode them, as if we were children who had just discovered fireworks. By a combination of all these devices we manage, though with difficulty, to keep alive the notion that a great deal of severe manual work must be the lot of the average man.

Our society, Russell argues, is driven by “continually fresh schemes, by which present leisure is to be sacrificed to future productivity.” He challenges the inanity of this proposition:

The fact is that moving matter about, while a certain amount of it is necessary to our existence, is emphatically not one of the ends of human life. If it were, we should have to consider every navvy superior to Shakespeare. We have been misled in this matter by two causes. One is the necessity of keeping the poor contented, which has led the rich, for thousands of years, to preach the dignity of labor, while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect. The other is the new pleasure in mechanism, which makes us delight in the astonishingly clever changes that we can produce on the earth’s surface. Neither of these motives makes any great appeal to the actual worker. If you ask him what he thinks the best part of his life, he is not likely to say: “I enjoy manual work because it makes me feel that I am fulfilling man’s noblest task, and because I like to think how much man can transform his planet. It is true that my body demands periods of rest, which I have to fill in as best I may, but I am never so happy as when the morning comes and I can return to the toil from which my contentment springs.” I have never heard workingmen say this sort of thing. They consider work, as it should be considered, a necessary means to a livelihood, and it is from their leisure hours that they derive whatever happiness they may enjoy.

Art by Kenard Pak for a letter by Terry Teachout from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Decades before Diane Ackerman made her exquisite case for the evolutionary and existential value of play, Russell considers how the cult of productivity has demolished one of life’s pillars of satisfaction. Noting that modern people — true of the moderns of 1932, even truer of today’s — enjoy a little leisure but wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they had to work only four hours a day, he observes:

In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for lightheartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.

The seedbed of this soul-shriveling belief is the notion — a driving force of consumerism — that the only worthwhile activities are those that bring material profit. A formidable logician, Russell exposes the self-unraveling nature of this argument:

Broadly speaking, it is held that getting money is good and spending money is bad. Seeing that they are two sides of one transaction, this is absurd; one might as well maintain that keys are good, but keyholes are bad. Whatever merit there may be in the production of goods must be entirely derivative from the advantage to be obtained by consuming them. The individual, in our society, works for profit; but the social purpose of his work lies in the consumption of what he produces. It is this divorce between the individual and the social purpose of production that makes it so difficult for men to think clearly in a world in which profit-making is the incentive to industry. We think too much of production, and too little of consumption. One result is that we attach too little importance to enjoyment and simple happiness, and that we do not judge production by the pleasure that it gives to the consumer.

Another result, Russell argues, is a kind of split between positive idleness, which ought to be the nourishing end of work, and negative idleness, which ends up being the effect of work under the spell of consumerism and its consequent socioeconomic inequality. He writes:

The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.

Art by Ofra Amit for a letter by Mara Faye Lethem from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

With an eye to our civilization’s triumphs and failures of self-actualization, Russell points out that, historically, there has been a small leisure class enjoying a great many privileges without a basis in social justice, profiting on the backs of a large working class toiling for survival. While this rendered the oppressive leisure class morally condemnable, it resulted in the vast majority of art and science — “the whole of what we call civilization.” He writes:

Without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism.

The method of a hereditary leisure class without duties was, however, extraordinarily wasteful. None of the members of the class had been taught to be industrious, and the class as a whole was not exceptionally intelligent. The class might produce one Darwin, but against him had to be set tens of thousands of country gentlemen who never thought of anything more intelligent than fox-hunting and punishing poachers.

Russell’s most compelling point is the most counterintuitive — the idea that reclaiming leisure is not a reinforcement of elitism but the antidote to elitism itself and a form of resistance to oppression, for it would require dismantling the power structures of modern society and undoing the spell they have cast on us to keep the poor poor and the rich rich. To correctly calibrate modern life around a sense of enough — that is, around meeting the need for comfort rather than satisfying the endless want for consumerist acquisitiveness — would be to lay the groundwork for social justice. In such a society, Russell argues, no one would have to work more than four hours out of twenty-four — a proposition even more countercultural today than it was in his era. He paints the landscape of possibility:

In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational potboilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and the capacity.

[…]

Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid. At least 1 per cent will probably devote the time not spent in professional work to pursuits of some public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered, and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that the advantages of leisure will appear. Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will involve long and severe work for all. Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for the others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever.

In Praise of Idleness has only grown timelier by the ticking of the decades. Complement it with trailblazing anthropologist Margaret Mead on leisure and creativity, then revisit Russell on what makes a fulfilling life, our mightiest defense against political manipulation, power-knowledge vs. love-knowledge, why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness, and his remarkable response to a fascist’s provocation.

BP

The Art of Waiting: Reclaiming the Pleasures of Durational Being in an Instant Culture of Ceaseless Doing

“Waiting isn’t a hurdle keeping us from intimacy and from living our lives to our fullest. Instead, waiting is essential to how we connect as humans through the messages we send.”

The Art of Waiting: Reclaiming the Pleasures of Durational Being in an Instant Culture of Ceaseless Doing

“It is we who are passing when we say time passes,” the French philosopher Henri Bergson insisted a century ago, just before Einstein defeated him in the historic debate that revolutionized our understanding of time. “If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” his compatriot and colleague Gaston Bachelard observed in contemplating our paradoxical relationship with time a decade later, long before the technology-accelerated baseline haste of our present era had plundered the life out of living. “Time is the substance I am made of,” Borges wrote in his spectacular confrontation with time yet another decade later. “Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

We are indeed creatures of time who live with it and in it, on the picketed patch of spacetime we have each been allotted. But if time is the foundational baseboard of our being, what happens to the structure of our lives in a culture of doing?

That is what Jason Farman explores in Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World (public library) — a part-philosophical, part-poetic effort to reclaim waiting “not as a burden, but as an important feature of human connection, intimacy, and learning.” He writes:

Waiting isn’t an in-between time. Instead, this often-hated and underappreciated time has been a silent force that has shaped our social interactions. Waiting isn’t a hurdle keeping us from intimacy and from living our lives to our fullest. Instead, waiting is essential to how we connect as humans through the messages we send. Waiting shapes our social lives in many ways, and waiting is something that can benefit us. Waiting can be fruitful. If we lose it, we will lose the ways that waiting shapes vital elements of our lives like social intimacy, the production of knowledge, and the creative practices that depend on the gaps formed by waiting.

[…]

An embrace of the moments when waiting becomes visible can remind us not of the time we are losing but of the ways we can demystify the mythology of instantaneous culture and ever-accelerating paces of “real time.” Notions of instantaneous culture promise that access to what we desire can be fulfilled immediately. However, this logic that dominates the current approaches to the tech industry misses the power of waiting and the embedded role it plays in our daily lives.

Discus chronologicus — a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, included in Cartographies of Time. (Available as a print and as a wall clock.)

Although waiting is different from stillness — another essential, modernity-endangered state of being — in having an object of anticipation, a thing we are waiting for, it is kindred in that recalibrating our experience of waiting not as tortuous but as fertile requires a certain inner stillness that defies the forward slash of the soul toward the awaited. Farman chronicles some of the landmark technologies that have shaped our relationship with waiting — from aboriginal message sticks to the postage stamp to the buffering icon to Japan’s mobile messaging system deployed in the wake of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami — to explore how we can allay the durational restlessness of our lives.

One of the most fascinating and pause-giving chapters of the book uses astrophysics as a lens on waiting — a field in which the greatest discoveries take decades, sometimes centuries, of incubation, prototyping, and testing in the laboratory of reality we call nature. (Take, for instance, the detection of gravitational waves — the most monumental astrophysical breakthrough in our lifetime and the greatest since Galileo — a triumph with a remarkable century-long buildup.)

With an eye to the New Horizons interplanetary space probe — which revolutionized our understanding of the Solar System in faint whispers of data transmitted across three billion miles of cosmic expanse, dripping at a rate vastly smaller than that at which earthlings stream YouTube videos and upload photos to Instagram — Farman frames waiting as an essential building block of the speculative imagination, a period that allows for the cultivation of what Bertrand Russell so poetically and memorably termed “a largeness of contemplation”:

The New Horizons mission is a perfect example of the vital relationship between waiting and knowledge. The unknown creates speculation as we try to fill in the gaps of knowledge with everything from educated guesses to fear-inspired myths about what lies beyond the edge of our understanding.

This mode of speculation creates a new way of thinking. Our imaginations allow us to access that which does not yet exist and create scenarios that have not yet happened. Wait times are key to this mode of creative thinking because they afford us the opportunity to imagine and speculate about worlds beyond our own immediate places and speculate about the possible.

Nearly a century after T.S. Eliot — the poet laureate of “the still point of the turning world” — insisted on the creative value of the incubation period, Farman writes:

Waiting, as represented by silences, gaps, and distance, allows us the capacity to imagine that which does not yet exist and, ultimately, innovate into those new worlds as our knowledge expands.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

In another chapter, he turns to Samuel Beckett’s classic play Waiting for Godot to reframe waiting not as a stoic feat of endurance in the name of some anticipated reward but as a process transformative and rewarding in its very unfolding — a sort of training ground for hope, which is ultimately training ground for character:

Beckett’s play, in its many violations of theatrical norms, strips away plot expectations to make a comment on the human condition. Godot symbolizes whatever we wait for, whatever we long for, whatever we rely on to save us from our current state of uncertainty and despair. Godot represents the promise of what might come on the other side of our waiting.

[…]

It shows how time flows through us and changes us. Day after day, as we wait for the things we desire, we become different people. In the act of waiting, we become who we are. Waiting points to our desires and hopes for the future; and while that future may never arrive and our hopes may never be fulfilled, the act of reflecting on waiting teaches us about ourselves. The meaning of life isn’t deferred until that thing we hope for arrives; instead, in the moment of waiting, meaning is located in our ability to recognize the ways that such hopes define us.

At the end of the book, Farman offers two practical strategies for recalibrating our experience of waiting from burdensome to fruitful. The first is a deceptively simple yet effective discipline of shifting focus from the negative feelings waiting breeds — boredom, helplessness, anger — to a reminder of the positive object of the waiting. As soon as we remember, really remember, what we are waiting for and why we want it, Farman argues, the frustration of waiting is neutralized.

Art by Salvador Dalí for a rare 1946 edition of the essays of Montaigne

But far more interesting and profound is the second tactic. Farman proposes a radical shift of viewing time not as individual but as collective, which is inherently a radical act of empathy — the willingness to accept another’s time as just as valuable as our own, however different our circumstances may be. Embedded in this act is a challenge to the power structures of the status quo, for it forces us to consider who is imposing the wait times on whom and who benefits from that imposition. In a sentiment that calls to mind the fascinating science of why empathy is a clock that ticks in the consciousness of another, Farman writes:

If my time is distinct from your time, and you end up wasting my time by valuing your own, you have robbed me of my resource (time). When you value your own time instead of my time, you have effectively stolen minutes (or hours) from me. We see these attitudes in abundance.

However, if we shift perspectives and see our time as intertwined with one another’s, then we are all investing our time in other people’s circumstances.

Art by Isol from Daytime Visions

Farman recounts a not-uncommon experience: At the grocery store, he finds himself getting reflexively frustrated with the woman ahead of him, who is taking too much time to check out. Only upon realizing that she is counting food stamps and coupons does he transport himself, with a pang of shame, into her difficult circumstances. He writes:

If we work toward an awareness of time as collective rather than individual, we can come to understand wait time as an investment in the social fabric that connects us. My patience with someone like the woman at the grocery store who has to account for every dollar and pay with food stamps is an investment of my time in her situation. As we invest time in other people through waiting, we become stakeholders in their situations. This has the radical potential to build empathy and to inspire a call for social change, as we realize that not everyone is afforded the same agency for how time is used.

There are times when we should wait and see the benefits of waiting; however, there are times when waiting needs to be resisted. Waiting can be a tool of the powerful to maintain the status quo by forcing people to invest their time in ways that inhibit their ability to transform their situation. Many examples demonstrate the kinds of waiting that reinforce the power dynamics in a society. From the long-delayed recovery efforts and federal dollars following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the perpetually delayed recovery for Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands after Hurricane Maria in 2017, to the long commute times between home and job (often, jobs) imposed on many people below the poverty line, unequal access to time is revealed in the different ways people are forced to wait. Many social justice advocates like Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander point to prisoners like those sitting in San Quentin as prime examples of those who are forced to wait unjustly. The “prison industrial complex,” as Davis terms it, is fueled by racial inequality that targets African Americans more than any other population. In this example, wait times are strategies of the powerful to maintain the status quo of power relationships in the social order.

Complement Delayed Response with Ursula K. Le Guin on why our relationship with time is the root of our morality, Søren Kierkegaard on how to bridge the ephemeral and the eternal, James Gleick on our temporal imagination, and this lovely vintage children’s book about the nature of time by Gleick’s mother, then revisit German chronobiologist Marc Wittman on the psychology of time and how the interplay of spontaneity and self-control mediates our capacity for presence.

BP

Against Common Sense: Vladimir Nabokov on the Wellspring of Wonder and Why the Belief in Goodness Is a Moral Obligation

“This capacity to wonder at trifles — no matter the imminent peril — these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so different from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.”

Against Common Sense: Vladimir Nabokov on the Wellspring of Wonder and Why the Belief in Goodness Is a Moral Obligation

“Once we leave those domains of human experience, there’s no reason to expect the laws of nature to continue to obey our expectations, since our expectations are dependent on a limited set of experiences,” Carl Sagan observed in considering how common sense blinds us to the reality of the universe. Perhaps worse yet — worse than the wrong beliefs we held for millennia about our planet’s shape, motion, and position in the cosmos, just because it feels flat and steady beneath our feet and is the center of everything we know — common sense often blinds us to the reality of our own interior world. It impoverishes our experience of the uncommonest, most delicate, most beautiful aspects of being and leads us, as I wrote in the prelude to Figuring, to mistake our labels and models of things for the things themselves.

How to lift the blinders of common sense that unfit us for seeing wonder is what Vladimir Nabokov (April 22, 1899–July 2, 1977) explores with uncommon wisdom, wit, and splendor of sentiment in a lecture he delivered at Wellesley College in 1941, titled “The Art of Literature and Commonsense” and later included in the superb posthumous 1980 volume Lectures on Literature (public library).

Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov writes:

In the fall of 1811 Noah Webster, working steadily through the C’s, defined commonsense as “good sound ordinary sense . . . free from emotional bias or intellectual subtlety… horse sense.” This is rather a flattering view of the creature, for the biography of commonsense makes nasty reading. Commonsense has trampled down many a gentle genius whose eyes had delighted in a too early moonbeam of some too early truth; commonsense has back-kicked dirt at the loveliest of queer paintings because a blue tree seemed madness to its well-meaning hoof; commonsense has prompted ugly but strong nations to crush their fair but frail neighbors the moment a gap in history offered a chance that it would have been ridiculous not to exploit. Commonsense is fundamentally immoral, for the natural morals of mankind are as irrational as the magic rites that they evolved since the immemorial dimness of time. Commonsense at its worst is sense made common, and so everything is comfortably cheapened by its touch. Commonsense is square whereas all the most essential visions and values of life are beautifully round, as round as the universe or the eyes of a child at its first circus show.

This “sense made common” is, of course, the seedbed of so many of our social and civilizational biases — from the dogmatic geocentrism that nearly cost Galileo his life to the mindless majority rule against which James Baldwin so fervently admonished. It is the seedbed, therefore, of conformity and thus the enemy of a society’s progress, which presupposes that we rise above the common lot of beliefs and mores to imagine the uncommon, the alternative — an act so countercultural that, throughout history, those who have dared undertake it have been punished or ostracized. Kierkegaard knew this when he contemplated why we conform and asserted that “truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion.” Ben Shahn knew it when he observed in his fantastic Norton lectures at Harvard that “without the nonconformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay.”

With an eye to the innumerable offenses against sanity and justice perpetrated by an unquestioning adherence to so-called common sense, Nabokov adds:

It is instructive to think that there is not a single person in this room, or for that matter in any room in the world, who, at some nicely chosen point in historical space-time would not be put to death there and then, here and now, by a commonsensical majority in righteous rage. The color of one’s creed, neckties, eyes, thoughts, manners, speech, is sure to meet somewhere in time or space with a fatal objection from a mob that hates that particular tone. And the more brilliant, the more unusual the man, the nearer he is to the stake. Stranger always rhymes with danger. The meek prophet, the enchanter in his cave, the indignant artist, the nonconforming little schoolboy, all share in the same sacred danger. And this being so, let us bless them, let us bless the freak; for in the natural evolution of things, the ape would perhaps never have become man had not a freak appeared in the family. Anybody whose mind is proud enough not to breed true, secretly carries a bomb at the back of his brain; and so I suggest, just for the fun of the thing, taking that private bomb and carefully dropping it upon the model city of commonsense. In the brilliant light of the ensuing explosion many curious things will appear; our rarer senses will supplant for a brief spell the dominant vulgarian that squeezes Sinbad’s neck in the catch-as-catch-can match between the adopted self and the inner one. I am triumphantly mixing metaphors because that is exactly what they are intended for when they follow the course of their secret connections — which from a writer’s point of view is the first positive result of the defeat of commonsense.

But there is a second, deeper consequence of defeating common sense. A century after Walt Whitman extolled optimism as our mightiest resistance against the corruptions of society, Nabokov frames optimism not as a luxury of privilege but as an imperative of survival. He writes:

The second result is that the irrational belief in the goodness of man… becomes something much more than the wobbly basis of idealistic philosophies. It becomes a solid and iridescent truth. This means that goodness becomes a central and tangible part of one’s world, which world at first sight seems hard to identify with the modern one of newspaper editors and other bright pessimists, who will tell you that it is, mildly speaking, illogical to applaud the supremacy of good at a time when something called the police state, or communism, is trying to turn the globe into five million square miles of terror, stupidity, and barbed wire. And they may add that it is one thing to beam at one’s private universe in the snuggest nook of an unshelled and well-fed country and quite another to try and keep sane among crashing buildings in the roaring and whining night. But within the emphatically and unshakably illogical world which I am advertising as a home for the spirit, war gods are unreal not because they are conveniently remote in physical space from the reality of a reading lamp and the solidity of a fountain pen, but because I cannot imagine (and that is saying a good deal) such circumstances as might impinge upon the lovely and lovable world which quietly persists, whereas I can very well imagine that my fellow dreamers, thousands of whom roam the earth, keep to these same irrational and divine standards during the darkest and most dazzling hours of physical danger, pain, dust, death.

Vladimir Nabokov as a child (Nabokov Museum)

Nabokov locates the antipode of common sense in “the supremacy of the detail over the general, of the part that is more alive than the whole, of the little thing which a man observes and greets with a friendly nod of the spirit while the crowd around him is being driven by some common impulse to some common goal.” Speaking at the peak of WWII, as John Steinbeck is writing on the other side of the continent that “all the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up,” Nabokov offers:

I take my hat off to the hero who dashes into a burning house and saves his neighbor’s child; but I shake his hand if he has risked squandering a precious five seconds to find and save, together with the child, its favorite toy. I remember a cartoon depicting a chimney sweep falling from the roof of a tall building and noticing on the way that a sign-board had one word spelled wrong, and wondering in his headlong flight why nobody had thought of correcting it. In a sense, we all are crashing to our death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles — no matter the imminent peril — these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so different from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.

In the remainder of this piece from his altogether magnificent Lectures on Literature, Nabokov goes on to explore how the rejection of common sense factors into the creative process and the two types of inspiration. For more of his abiding insight into art and life, see Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller, what makes a good reader, and the six short stories everyone ought to read, then revisit his exquisite love letters to Véra.

BP

James Baldwin on Resisting the Mindless Majority, Not Running from Uncomfortable Realities, and What It Really Means to Grow Up

“We ought to try, by the example of our own lives, to prove that life is love and wonder and that that nation is doomed which penalizes those of its citizens who recognize and rejoice in this fact.”

James Baldwin on Resisting the Mindless Majority, Not Running from Uncomfortable Realities, and What It Really Means to Grow Up

“I can conceive of no better service,” Walt Whitman wrote, “than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.” Nearly a century later, James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) — another poet laureate of the human spirit — embodied this ethos in one of his shortest, most searing, and timeliest essays.

In 1963, the children’s book author Charlotte Pomerantz edited an anthology of prominent writers’ and artists’ critiques of the House Committee on Un-American Activities — the Orwellian investigative committee largely responsible for the internment of Japanese-Americans and the Hollywood blacklist. Titled A Quarter-Century of Un-Americana, 1938– 1963: A Tragico-Comical Memorabilia of HUAC, it featured writing and art by such titans of creative culture as Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, and Ben Shahn. Baldwin’s contribution was later included in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (public library), which also gave us his abiding insight into the redemptive power of language and the artist’s role in society.

James Baldwin

Reflecting on how such metastases of power imperil the moral climate of a society and corrupt the very foundation of democracy, Baldwin writes:

We are living through the most crucial moment of our history, the moment which will result in a new life for us, or a new death… a new vision of America, a vision which will allow us to face, and begin to change, the facts of American life… This seems a grim view to take of our situation, but it is scarcely grimmer than the facts. Our honesty and our courage in facing these facts is all that can save us from disaster. And one of these facts is that there has always been a segment of American life, and a powerful segment, too, which equated virtue with mindlessness… It always reminds me of a vast and totally untrustworthy bomb shelter in which groups of frightened people endlessly convince one another of its impregnability, while the real world outside — by which, again, I mean the facts of our private and public lives — calmly and inexorably prepares their destruction.

Baldwin notes that this is the reality he himself inhabits as a black man, but it is a reality from which the vast majority of Americans spend their lives taking flight. In a sentiment of excruciating timeliness today, he writes:

People in flight never can grow up, which means they can never, really, become citizens — and we simply must not surrender this great country to those people. We must not allow their fear to control us, and, indeed, we must not allow it to control them. Rather, we should attempt to release them from their panic and their unadmitted sorrow. We ought to try, by the example of our own lives, to prove that life is love and wonder and that that nation is doomed which penalizes those of its citizens who recognize and rejoice in this fact.

Art by Ben Shahn from On Nonconformity

A century after Kierkegaard insisted that “truth always rests with the minority… while the strength of a majority is illusory,” Baldwin adds:

We must dare to take another view of majority rule… taking it upon ourselves to become the majority by changing the moral climate. For it is upon this majority that the life of any nation really depends.

Half a century before Toni Morrison counseled young graduates that “true adulthood… is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory, which commercial forces and cultural vapidity should not be permitted to deprive you of,” Baldwin examines this intensely hard won glory not on the individual level but on the collective, and considers what true adulthood really means for a society:

The time has come for us to grow up. A man grows up when he looks back, realizes what has happened to him, accepts it all, and begins to change himself. He cannot grow up until he reaches this moment and passes it. We are now at the end of our extraordinarily prolonged adolescence. A very great poet, an American, Miss Marianne Moore, wrote, many years ago, the following description of our terrors: “The weak overcomes its menace. The strong overcomes itself.”

Two generations after some of the world’s most prominent thought leaders co-signed the Declaration of the Independence of the Mind with the commitment “never to serve anything but the free Truth that has no frontiers and no limits and is without prejudice against races or castes,” Baldwin concludes:

That self-knowledge which matures a nation as well as a man presupposes free men and free minds.

Complement The Cross of Redemption — a trove of cultural and spiritual insight that has only fermented with time — with Baldwin on our capacity for transformation as individuals and nations, what it means to be an artist, freedom and how we imprison ourselves, the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, and his fantastic forgotten conversations with Chinua Achebe about the political power of art, with Margaret Mead about identity, race, and the experience of otherness, and with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered, then revisit Albert Camus on the artist as a voice of resistance and Iris Murdoch on why art is essential for democracy.

BP

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