Hello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – Neil Gaiman on how stories last, Oliver Sacks on the strange psychology of writing, the illustrated story of how Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage invented the first computer, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.
"As the desert offers no tangible riches, as there is nothing to see or hear in the desert," Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in his exquisite memoir of what the Sahara Desert taught him about the meaning of life, "one is compelled to acknowledge, since the inner life, far from falling asleep, is fortified, that man is first animated by invisible solicitations." No one captures this invisible animation of inner life more bewitchingly than Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire (public library) – a miraculously beautiful book, originally published in 1968, which I discovered through a passing mention by the wonderful Cheryl Strayed. (How right Laurence Sterne was to call digression “the sunshine of narrative,” and Calvino to consider it, even, a hedge against mortality.)
In the late 1950s, Abbey took a job as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Monument in Utah's Moab desert. "Why I went there no longer matters; what I found there is the subject of this book," he writes. Between April and September, between the canyons and the pages of his journal, he found a great many of the things we spend our lives looking for – a Thoreau of the desert, mapping the maze of the interior landscape as he wanders the expanse of the exterior.
One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince
The time passed extremely slowly, as time should pass, with the days lingering and long, spacious and free as the summers of childhood. There was time enough for once to do nothing, or next to nothing, and most of the substance of this book is drawn, sometimes direct and unchanged, from the pages of the journals I kept and filled through the undivided, seamless days of those marvelous summers. The remainder of the book consists of digressions and excursions into ideas and places that border in varied ways upon that central season in the canyonlands...
Abbey's digressions, to be sure, are oases of meaning – he writes about the ideas that animate his spirit with unsentimental sincerity and deep respect for the aliveness of language itself:
In recording my impressions of the natural scene I have striven above all for accuracy, since I believe that there is a kind of poetry, even a kind of truth, in simple fact... Language makes a mighty loose net with which to go fishing for simple facts, when facts are infinite... Since you cannot get the desert into a book any more than a fisherman can haul up the sea with his nets, I have tried to cecate a world of words in which the desert figures more as medium than as material.
He begins with what is possibly the most charming, disarming disclaimer in all of literature:
I quite agree that much of the book will seem coarse, rude, bad-tempered, violently prejudiced, unconstructive – even frankly antisocial in its point of view. Serious critics, serious librarians, serious associate professors of English will if they read this work dislike it intensely;. at least I hope so. To others I can only say that if the book has virtues they cannot be disentangled from the faults; that there is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right.
But make no mistake – his are reflections undergirded not by grouchiness but by immense grace and generosity of spirit. Take, for instance, how he cushions against the potential complaint that the book is too concerned with the appearance of the landscape. (It is not.)
I am pleased enough with surfaces – in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of friend or lover, the silk of a girl’s thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind – what else is there? What else do we need?
There is, however, something else that we need – each of us, Abbey observes, longs for that most beautiful and sacred place where we feel wholly at home. His is this canyon-strewn desert, but these personal idyls are deeply subjective and as varied as our individual interior landscapes:
Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome—there’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment. Theologians, sky pilots, astronauts have even felt the appeal of home calling to them from up above, in the cold black outback of interstellar space.
Astronauts, in fact, have since come to describe this peculiar feeling as "the overview effect" – remember, Abbey is writing shortly before the first human foot touched the cratery desert of the moon – but Abbey himself finds this most beautiful of earthly places in the canyonlands, in "the red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky." He describes one of his first mornings there:
I awake before sunrise, stick my head out of the sack, peer through a frosty window at a scene dim and vague with flowing mists, dark fantastic shapes looming beyond. An unlikely landscape.
The sun is not yet in sight but signs of the advent are plain to see. Lavender clouds sail like a fleet of ships across the pale green dawn; ...the last fogbanks left over from last night’s storm are scudding away like ghosts, fading into nothing before the wind and the sunrise.
One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince
It is, indeed, an unlikely landscape – one even unlikelier today, itself scudding away like a ghost. Abbey, writing more than half a century ago, rightly describes his book as "not a travel guide but an elegy" – as he recounts getting lost twenty miles into the interior of the desert, completely alone in the 33,000 acres of which he was the "sole inhabitant, usufructuary, observer and custodian," one is left wondering how many such earthly interiors are left in which to get lost in order to find ourselves, how many such unlikely landscapes in the sacred solitude of which to access our own interiors. One is reminded of Wendell Berry, writing more than two decades later: “True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible… In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.” Or of Thoreau, writing a century earlier: "I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit... I cannot easily shake off the village."
Abbey captures this with piercing profundity:
Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not. In the second place most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock. Don’t drop it on your foot – throw it at something big and glassy. What do you have to lose?
And yet the tombstone Abbey thrusts into our hands is almost uncontainably vitalizing, emanating an uncommon sense of communion between his humanity – our humanity – and the inanimate yet deeply animating presence of the land; between his smallness – our smallness – and the grandeur of Earth. Over and over, he surrenders to the land's rhythms and wishes – a great act of faith that requires, manyfold more so now than it did then, relinquishing the many small violences by which we seek to bend nature to our will.
Illustration from Flashlight by Lizi Boyd
Four decades after Henry Beston's beautiful love letter to darkness, Abbey considers one such form of surrender:
I have a flashlight with me but will not use it unless I hear some sign of animal life worthy of investigation. The flashlight, or electrical torch as the English call it, is a useful instrument in certain situations but I can see the road well enough without it. Better, in fact.
There’s another disadvantage to the use of the flashlight: like many other mechanical gadgets it tends to separate a man from the world around him. If I switch it on my eyes adapt to it and I can see only the small pool of light which it makes in front of me; I am isolated. Leaving the flashlight in my pocket where it belongs, I remain a part of the environment I walk through and my vision though limited has no sharp or definite boundary.
The night flows back, the mighty stillness embraces and includes me; I can see the stars again and the world of starlight. I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation.
Abbey is writing two generations before the iPhone, and I find myself wondering whether when we point the illuminating Night Sky app into the night sky – and point it I blissfully do – we might be learning a great deal more about this lowercase marvel but inevitably communing with it a great deal less.
Landscape Arch, in the Devil's Garden Section of Arches National Park, is believed to be the longest stone arch in the world
With great sensitivity to our tendency to mistake grandeur for godliness, Abbey reminds us of the quiet causality with which nature inches toward its most miraculous creations – like the very arches after which his temporary dominion is named:
These are natural arches, holes in the rock, windows in stone, no two alike, as varied in form as in dimension ... formed through hundreds of thousands of years by the weathering of the huge sandstone walls, or fins, in which they are found. Not the work of a cosmic hand, nor sculptured by sand-bearing winds, as many people prefer to believe, the arches came into being and continue to come into being through the modest wedging action of rainwater, melting snow, frost, and ice, aided by gravity...
Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman. An insane wish? Perhaps not – at least there’s nothing else, no one human, to dispute possession with me.
Through this possessiveness of the landscape Abbey arrives at what he has gone there to find – a kind of spiritual self-repossession:
I am here not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.
This is what makes Desert Solitaire so powerful, so enduring, so fiercely necessary today: Abbey's writing is both a form of spiritual sustenance and a feat of conservation – for, being human and thus solipsistic, unless we appreciate the value of these experiences to our inner lives, we are rarely moved to honor their sacred value to all life.
Complement this treasure of a book, this packet of loveliness and quiet exultation, with Rebecca Solnit on how we find ourselves by getting lost, Georgia O'Keeffe on the singular mesmerism of the Southwestern sky, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's wonderful meditation on the spiritual rewards of the desert.
:: FORWARD TO A FRIEND :: SHARE / READ MORE
The dog is an amazing creature – a frequent muse to an entire canon of art, a whole collection of Mary Oliver verses, and some excellent metaphors for beauty and aging, and . But its nose – which is how the dog actually "sees" the world – is a particularly miraculous pinnacle of its amazingness, and now the inspiration for a most fanciful alternative mythology.
In the immensely wonderful Why Dogs Have Wet Noses (public library), Scottish poet, novelist, and children's book author Kenneth Steven and celebrated Norwegian illustrator Øyvind Torseter – the artist behind the existential allegory The Hole and the bittersweet My Father’s Arms Are a Boat – offer an irreverent and utterly heartwarming modern reimagining of Noah's Ark.
Steven sets the stage:
A long, long time ago, not long after the world began, it started to rain. It was the kind of rain that really soaks you, pouring down from the sky like it will never stop.
We meet Noah, a man "both watchful and wise," who looks like a lovable aging hipster from the maker movement. He begins building an enormous lifeboat – the Ark – then sets out to recruit "as many creatures as he could remember," emanating a kind of indiscriminate Buddhist love for all, even "slugs, spiders, and other creepy-crawlies."
The last to board is a mutt so odd-looking that Noah can't quite tell what kind of a dog it is, but the soft black nose assures him that it is one.
With a great big groan and a terrifying tilt, the Ark sets sail as Noah wonders whether his strange company will survive this plunge into the unknown.
Steven's writing, to be sure, is absolutely exquisite – the kind you might find in a Henry Beston masterpiece or an Annie Dillard classic rather than a typical children's book (but this, of course, isn't a typical children's book):
They sailed away. Land had long since vanished. Only sea and sky remained. The rain fell heavier and heavier, and lightning shot from the black clouds, gleaming like snakes' tongues. But apart from the crashing sounds of rain and thunder, it was completely quiet. As though there were no other sounds left in the whole wide world.
And yet inside the Ark, it was a completely different story – creatures of all shapes, sizes, and appetites clamored day and night. In a scene familiar to parents raising multiple small children – and perhaps good training for Noah himself, whose equally hipster-looking wife grows increasingly pregnant throughout the voyage – he labors tirelessly to feed each animal its favorite food, having "no peace and not a wink of sleep."
No sooner had the last animal had dinner and gone to sleep, then it was time for the first to have breakfast again.
And yet Noah manages to hold the floating fort for twenty days until, suddenly, disaster strikes – the Ark springs a leak. Although the hole is "no bigger than a chestnut," water begins to gush in, spelling dread and doom.
With his now beloved dog by his side, Noah brainstorms for a plan. At last, lightning of the more welcome and metaphorical kind strikes.
Just like that, the supreme testament to the dog's dogness – its soft black nose – plugs the hole and saves the Ark.
All other creatures rejoice as the loyal dog sits there for forty days and forty nights, keeping their lifeboat from sinking amid the seemingly endless ocean.
And then one morning, just as the dog smells an unfamiliar scent, another violent disruption rattles their nautical rhythm – the Ark hits something hard.
Land! Hills rose up through the mist and behind them there was a tiny bit of blue sky. The rain had stopped at last and a magnificent rainbow stretched across the sky.
One by one, the creatures disembark onto the long-awaited shore, marveling at the lush life covering the land. But just as Noah, the last to climb out, joins the marveling bunch, he is seized with a shocking realization: His beloved dog is still down in the belly of the boat, nose faithfully plugging the hole.
Noah rushes to the rescue.
Noah gently stoked his dog's tummy.
"Good boy," he whispered.
"Woof!" the dog replied, leaping up to give his master a kiss wit his wet nose.
Never again would Noah's dog have to go to sea. But from then on, every dog in the world would have a wet nose.
And that, you see, is why dogs have wet noses.
Why Dogs Have Wet Noses comes from Brooklyn-based independent children's book powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, makers of such intelligent and imaginative treasures as Beastly Verse, The Lion and the Bird, and the illustrated biography of E.E. Cummings.
Complement this particular gem with Torseter's philosophical take on a different hole and another magnificent tale of the sea by way of an illustrated love letter to the blue whale, then revisit the far less fanciful actual science of the dog's amazing nose.
:: FORWARD TO A FRIEND :: SHARE / READ MORE
"There are few things humans are more dedicated to than unhappiness," philosopher Alain de Botton writes in the opening sentence of the intensely rewarding How Proust Can Change Your Life (public library). Among the key culprits in our spiritual doldrums, he argues, are "the deadening effects of habit" – something Kierkegaard had also arrived at a century and a half earlier in contemplating our greatest source of unhappiness. Indeed, although habit may be how we give shape to our lives, it can also lull us into a mindless trance in which we glide across the surface of existence.
How Proust can help us snap out of our habitual unhappiness is what De Botton explores in this animated essay chronicling how the events of Proust's own life translated into the "systematic exploration of the three possible sources of the meaning of life" in his great novel In Search of Lost Time (which, at 1,267,069 words, is officially the longest novel of all time, twice the length of Tolstoy's War and Peace).
For Proust, the great artists deserve acclaim because they show us the world in a way that is fresh, appreciative, and alive... The opposite of art, for Proust, is something he calls habit. For Proust, much of life is ruined for us by a blanket or shroud of familiarity that descends between us and everything that matters. It dulls our senses and stops us appreciating everything, from the beauty of a sunset to our work and our friends.
Children don’t suffer from habit, which is why they get excited by some very key but simple things – like puddles, jumping on the bed, sand, and fresh bread. But we adults get ineluctably spoiled, which is why we seek ever more powerful stimulants, like fame and love.
The trick, in Proust’s eyes, is to recover the powers of appreciation of a child in adulthood, to strip the veil of habit and therefore to start to look upon daily life with a new and more grateful sensitivity.
This, for Proust, is what one group in the population does all the time: artists. Artists are people who strip habit away and return life to its deserved glory.
This film is part of a wonderful series of animated meditations by The School of Life, founded by De Botton, exploring such facets of our quest for meaning as what great books do for the soul, how to find fulfilling work, what philosophy is for, and what comes after religion.
Complement How Proust Can Change Your Life with De Botton on harnessing the seven psychological functions of great art and what Nietzsche can teach us about true fulfillment.
:: FORWARD TO A FRIEND :: SHARE / READ MORE
I recently found myself in an intense conversation with a friend about privacy – why it matters; how much of it we're relinquishing and what for; whether it is even possible to maintain even a modicum of control over our own privacy at this point – the same intense conversation being had everywhere from family dinner tables to courtrooms to public radio to the highest levels of government.
It suddenly struck me that our cultural narrative about privacy is completely backward: What we really fear is not that the internet – or a prospective employer, or a nosy lover, or Big Brother – knows too much about us, but that it knows too little; that it fails to encompass Whitman’s multitudes which each of contains; that it reduces the larger, complex truth of who we are to a few fragmented facts about what we do; that it hijacks our rich, ever-evolving personal stories and replaces them with disjointed anecdotal data.
Perhaps the most potent antidote to this increasingly disempowering cultural shift is to grow ever more thoughtful and deliberate about how we tell our own stories; to master the art of personal narrative so that we can write – writing being that most lucid mode of thinking and an indispensable form of talking to ourselves – about the expansive, dimensional, textured reality of who we are. That's what writer Vivian Gornick explores in the timelessly wonderful and infinitely timely 2001 classic The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (public library).
Illustration by Ralph Steadman for a vintage edition of Alice in Wonderland
Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.
She begins by illustrating the power of personal narrative with, befittingly, a personal narrative:
A pioneering doctor died and a large number of people spoke at her memorial service. Repeatedly it was said by colleagues, patients, activists in health care reform that the doctor had been tough, humane, brilliant; stimulating and dominant; a stern teacher, a dynamite researcher, an astonishing listener. I sat among the silent mourners. Each speaker provoked in me a measure of thoughtfulness, sentiment, even regret, but only one among them – a doctor in her forties who had been trained by the dead woman – moved me to that melancholy evocation of world-and-self that makes a single person’s death feel large.
The next morning I awakened to find myself sitting bolt upright in bed, the eulogy standing in the air before me like a composition. That was it, I realized. It had been composed. That is what had made the difference.
What made the eulogy so memorable, Gornick reflects, is precisely what lends personal narrative its power – a delicate mastery of structure, shapeliness, associative flow, and dramatic buildup. The way the younger doctor recounted coming of age under the influence of her departed mentor fused these essential elements of enchanting personal storytelling into what Gornick calls "narrative texture":
The memory had acted as an organizing principle that determined the structure of her remarks. Structure had imposed order. Order made the sentences more shapely. Shapeliness increased the expressiveness of the language. Expressiveness deepened association. At last, a dramatic buildup occurred, one that had layered into it the descriptive feel of a young person’s apprenticeship, medical practices in a time of social change, and a divided attachment to a mentor who could bring herself only to correct, never to praise. This buildup is called texture. It was the texture that had stirred me; caused me to feel, with powerful immediacy, not only the actuality of the woman being remembered but – even more vividly – the presence of the one doing the remembering. The speaker’s effort to recall with exactness how things had been between herself and the dead woman – her open need to make sense of a strong but vexing relationship – had caused her to say so much that I became aware at last of all that was not being said; that which could never be said. I felt acutely the warm, painful inadequacy of human relations. This feeling resonated in me. It was the resonance that had lingered on, exactly as it does when the last page is turned of a book that reaches the heart.
Illustration from The Jacket
This ability, Gornick argues, requires a certain sensitivity to the mystery of personal identity over time, a certain intimacy with the stable of our former selves. She writes:
It was the act of imagining herself as she had once been that enriched her syntax and extended not only her images but the coherent flow of association that led directly into the task at hand.
The better the speaker imagined herself, the more vividly she brought the dead doctor to life.
It requires, too, a clarity of purpose and a discernment in choosing from among one's multitudes only those selves that add texture to this particular story:
The speaker never lost sight of why she was speaking – or, perhaps more important, of who was speaking. Of the various selves at her disposal (she was, after all, many people – a daughter, a lover, a bird-watcher, a New Yorker), she knew and didn’t forget that the only proper self to invoke was the one that had been apprenticed. That was the self in whom this story resided. A self – now here was a curiosity – that never lost interest in its own animated existence at the same time that it lived only to eulogize the dead doctor. This last, I thought, was crucial: the element most responsible for the striking clarity of intent the eulogy had demonstrated. Because the narrator knew who was speaking, she always knew why she was speaking.
And so does Gornick – she recounts this anecdote with the clear purpose of adding dimension to the inquiry at the heart of her book, which deals with that immensely intricate art of writing about oneself not from the surface stream of solipsism or narcissism but from a deeper well of universal truth. More than a decade later, Cheryl Strayed captured this beautifully in asserting that "when you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice" – the singular task of the nonfiction writer of personal narrative, which Gornick elegantly distinguishes from the demands of all other writing:
To fashion a persona out of one’s own undisguised self is no easy thing. A novel or a poem provides invented characters or speaking voices that act as surrogates for the writer. Into those surrogates will be poured all that the writer cannot address directly – inappropriate longings, defensive embarrassments, anti-social desires – but must address to achieve felt reality. The persona in a nonfiction narrative is an unsurrogated one. Here the writer must identify openly with those very same defenses and embarrassments that the novelist or the poet is once removed from. It’s like lying down on the couch in public – and while a writer may be willing to do just that, it is a strategy that most often simply doesn’t work. Think of how many years on the couch it takes to speak about oneself, but without all the whining and complaining, the self-hatred and the self-justification that make the analysand a bore to all the world but the analyst. The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming low-level self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader.
Yet the creation of such a persona is vital in an essay or a memoir. It is the instrument of illumination. Without it there is neither subject nor story. To achieve it, the the writer of memoir or essay undergoes an apprenticeship as soul-searching as any undergone by novelist or poet: the twin struggle to know not only why one is speaking but who is speaking.
Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce's Ulysses
This, Gornick argues, call for a clarity of intention that still makes room for complexity of feeling – that difficult art of holding opposing truths and walking forward with grace. The eulogist had to bridge this clarity of intent on the one hand (to celebrate and commemorate the dead), with recognition of her own mixed feelings on the other (the deceased mentor had been an often difficult but ultimately life-changing presence for the eulogist, "an agent of threat and promise"). Gornick considers how this particular task illuminates the general task of the writer of personal narrative:
First she sees that she has [these mixed feelings]. Then she acknowledges them to herself. Then she considers them as a way into the experience. Then she realizes they are the experience. She begins to write.
Penetrating the familiar is by no means a given. On the contrary, it is hard, hard work.
Returning to the essential interplay of situation and story, Gornick turns to the specific case of autobiography – perhaps the highest, most concentrated effort to take charge of one's own narrative through a form of highly controlled privacy made public. (For a most enchanting exemplar, see Oliver Sacks's masterwork of the genre.) She writes:
The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void. The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom – or rather the movement toward it – that counts... The poet, the novelist, the memoirist – all must convince the reader they have some wisdom, and are writing as honestly as possible to arrive at what they know. To the bargain, the writer of personal narrative must also persuade the reader that the narrator is reliable.
With an eye to the masters of the genre – Joan Didion, Edmund Gosse, Geoffrey Wolff – Gornick extracts the common denominator of uncommonly excellent personal narrative:
In each case the writer was possessed of an insight that organized the writing, and in each case a persona had been created to serve the insight.
I become interested then in my own existence only as a means of penetrating the situation in hand. I have created a persona who can find the story riding the tide that I, in my unmediated state, am otherwise going to drown in.
The Situation and the Story remains an indispensable read not only for writers of personal narrative, professional or aspiring, but for any thinking, feeling human being who longs to make sense of her or his own existence at the immutable intersection of situation and story called life. Complement it with Rebecca Goldstein on reconciling your present self with your past personae and master-memoirist Dani Shapiro's superb