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Character

Been a while since this blog has heard from Thoreau. This was on my feed today, and it left an impression enough that I highlight it here.

We falsely attribute to men a determined character; putting together all their yesterdays and averaging them, we presume we know them. Pity the man who has a character to support. It is worse than a large family. He is silent poor indeed. But in fact character is never explored, nor does it get developed in time, but eternity is its development, time its envelope. In view of this distinction, a sort of divine politeness and heavenly good breeding suggests itself, to address always the enveloped character of a man. I approach a great nature with infinite expectation and uncertainty, not knowing what I may meet. It lies as broad and unexplored before me as a scraggy hillside or pasture. I may hear a fox bark, or a partridge drum, or some bird new to these localities may fly up.

From the blog of Henry David Thoreau.

Adding some Thoreau to my diet

pearls and seaweed
…Thoreau’s Journal: 06-Jul-1840

Have no mean hours, but be grateful for every hour, and accept what it brings. The reality will make any sincere record respectable. No day will have been wholly misspent, if one sincere, thoughtful page has been written.

Let the daily tide leave some deposit on these pages, as it leaves sand and shells on the shore. So much increase of terra firma. This may be a calendar of the ebbs and flows of the soul; and on these sheets as a beach, the waves may cast up pearls and seaweed.

Happiness, optimism and the meaningful life

An interesting post from the ever-interesting brainpickings.

[Martin] Seligman begins by identifying the three types of happiness of which our favorite psychology grab-bag term is composed:

‘Happiness’ is a scientifically unwieldy notion, but there are three different forms of it if you can pursue. For the ‘Pleasant Life,’ you aim to have as much positive emotion as possible and learn the skills to amplify positive emotion. For the ‘Engaged Life,’ you identify your highest strengths and talents and recraft your life to use them as much as you can in work, love, friendship, parenting, and leisure. For the ‘Meaningful Life,’ you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.

That’s an interesting way to think about the nature of happiness. I would put myself in the “Pleasant life” camp with a certain degree of “engaged life” weaved into it, and sporadic spurts into “meaningful life” kind of activities, which usually don’t lead to anything productive.

Seligman says “optimism” is invaluable to having a meaningful life. I think that’s very true. Maybe even if I am not pessimistic, I am not quite the optimist.

So says Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton on the distinction between “dreams” and “wishes”.

A lot of people don’t know the difference. I don’t know if I can exactly define the difference. It’s just that, to me, to dream something, actually, you really know that’s something that you can have, and then you set about having to work it. You have to, as I’ve often said, you’ve got to put arms and legs and wings and feet and hands on dreams. You’ve got to get it out and make it come true.

But when you’re just wishing something would happen, it’s just kind of empty. It’s just empty thoughts and dream there, or fantasize. And if you don’t really get out and put some sweat into it and, really, some muscle power, it’s not likely to happen. So you don’t want to just wish your life away. You want to dream it and get out and do it.

 

….Do not confuse dreams with wishes. There is a difference. Dreams are where you visualize yourself being successful at what’s important to you to accomplish. Now dreams build convictions. Because you work hard to pay the price to make sure that they come true. Wishes are hoping good things will happen to you. But there is no fire in your gut to put everything forth to over come all the obstacles.

So you have to dream more. And never ever ever blame somebody else if it doesn’t happen. That is in your department.

Life is everything

So says Thoreau…

Men commonly exaggerate the theme. Some themes they think are significant and others insignificant. I feel that my life is very homely, my pleasures very cheap. Joy and sorrow, success and failure, grandeur and meanness, and indeed most words in the English language do not mean for me what they do for my neighbors. I see that my neighbors look with compassion on me, that they think it is a mean and unfortunate destiny which makes me to walk in these fields and woods so much and sail on this river alone. But as long as I find here the only real elysium, I cannot hesitate in my choice. My work is writing, and I do not hesitate, though I know that no subject is too trivial for me, tried by ordinary standards; for, ye fools, the theme is nothing, the life is everything. All that interests the reader is the depth and intensity of the life excited. We touch our subject but by a point which has no breadth, but the pyramid of our experience, or our interest in it, rests on us by a broader or narrower base. That is, man is all in all. Nature nothing, but as she draws him out and reflects him. Give me simple, cheap, and homely themes.

Forget your botany

And Thoreau says:

It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know. I do not get nearer by a hair’s breadth to any natural object so long as I presume that I have an introduction to it from some learned man. To conceive of it with a total apprehension I must for the thousandth time approach it as something totally strange. If you would make acquaintance with the ferns you must forget your botany.

So Said Orwell

I have been reading George Orwell’s Narrative Essays, a select collection of his narrative essays – some of them fairly long ones, some much shorter and a few that are really a series of articles on a particular theme. Most of the essays make for very interesting reading and it’s interesting to see how the idea for a masterpiece like 1984 originated in his ruminations in an essay on the Spanish Civil war. Clearly Orwell thought hard and long about the politics of his time and much of his thinking has been proven to be correct.

In one such essay written in 1946, aptly titled In front of your Nose, Orwell writes about our absurd capacity for holding two opposing thoughts in our minds at the same time, believing in both, when quite certainly only one or the other can be true. This is often aided by our ability to ignore obvious facts staring us at our face. Here’s an extract from this gem.

“Twenty or twenty five years ago, contraception and enlightenment were held to be almost synonymous. To this day, the majority of people argue – the argument is variously expressed, but always boils down to more or less the same thing – that large families are impossible for economic reasons. At the same time, it is widely known that the birth rate is highest among the low-standard nations, and in our own population, highest among the worst-paid groups. It is also argued that a smaller population would mean less unemployment and more comfort for everybody, while on the other hand it is well established that a dwindling and ageing population is faced with calamitous and perhaps insoluble economic problems. Necessarily the figures are uncertain, but it is quite possible that in only 70 years our population will amount to about eleven millions, over half of whom will be Old Age Pensioners. Since, for complex reasons, most people don’t want large families, the frightening facts can exist somewhere or other in their consciousness, simultaneously known and not known…

To see what is is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle. One thing that helps towards it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it. Political predictions are usually wrong, but even one makes a correct one, to discover why one was right can be very illuminating. In general, one is only right when either wish or fear coincides with reality. If one recognizes this, one cannot, of course, get rid of one’s subjective feelings, but one can to some extent insulate them from one’s thinking and make predictions cold-bloodedly, by the book of arithmetic. In private life most people are fairly realistic. When one is making out one’s weekly budget, two and two invariably make four. Politics, on the other hand, is a sort  of subatomic or non-Euclidean world where it is quite easy for the part to be greater than the whole or for two objects to be in the same place simultaneously. Hence the contradictions and absurdities I have chronicled above, all finally traceable to a secret belief that one’s political opinions, unlike the weekly budget, will not have to be tested against solid reality.

The state of our politics today only bears this out, more so than ever before.

Some Tagore to end the day…

It’s taken me two months, but I finally finished Sabyasachi Bhattacharya’s biography of Tagore – “Rabindranath Tagore: An Interpretation.” A satisfying read though it was not as stimulating as his other book on Tagore, “The Mahatma and the Poet”. But that’s more to do with the subject material that he covers in this one. This is much wider in scope compared to the latter (which had a narrow focus on Tagore’s relationship and fascinating debates/essays that he exchanged with Gandhi). To interpret the life of a polymath like Rabindranath Tagore in 240 pages is no easy task. Given that, I thought this was quite well done.

A few extracts from the book…

Tagore on poetry and music

  • Mankind has two means of self-expression – words and music. In fact even words depend upon the tone…When we write poetry we depend more on words and in songs on the language of music. But there is a difference between the two: words must add up to express an idea; music can attain expression without words. As a result, poetry has been compelled to cultivate the art of expressing ideas; music has fallen behind in that respect…Tagore thought that the cultivation and expression of bhava had declined in music as compared to the poet’s world where the poet cannot do without bhava to be expressed in words. Tagore concluded that music ought to be open to bhava; that is to say, poetry should be a close companion to music.

Tagore about modernism in literature and the modernists…

  • These modernists claim that only we know what is life only we deal with reality, – this has become an easy and cheap prescription. Yet they have done very little for the poverty-stricken masses; they are prosperous, they enjoy a comfortable living style; poverty to them is only a hot spice to impart pep to modernist literature. This curry powder of imagination is an ingredient in cooking up a cheap and artificial literature.

Likewise, the stress on the sex urge in literature, he said, is not necessarily commendable. It is one of the easiest ways of showing off a kind of courage.

  • Courage in writing, or for that matter in society at large, is a good thing. But courage may be of different types, of different qualities. ‘We do not care a damn’ is an attitude of courage, but to have courage because we care is another kind, a greater kind of courage.

Tagore on education

  • Mind, when long deprived of its natural food of truth and freedom of growth, develops an unnatural craving for success; and our students have fallen victims to the mania for success in examinations. Success consists in obtaining the largest number of marks with the strictest economy of knowledge. It is a deliberate cultivation of disloyalty to truth, of intellectual dishonesty, of a foolish imposition by which the mind is encouraged to rob itself…A most important truth which are apt to forget, is that a teacher can never light another lamp unless he is still learning himself. A lamp can never light another lamp unless it continues to burn its own flame. The teacher who has come to the end of his subject, who has no living traffic with his knowledge, but merely repeats his lessons to his students, can only load their minds; he cannot quicken them. Truth not only must inform but inspire. If the inspiration dies out, and the information only accumulates, then truth loses its infinity.

Further Tagore believed that the generation of knowledge was as important a function of a university as the transmission of knowledge.

  • In education, the most important factor must be the inspiring atmosphere of creative activity. And therefore the primary function our university should be the constructive work of knowledge. Men should be brought together and full scope given to them for work of intellectual exploration and creation; and the teaching should be like the overflow water of this spring of culture, spontaneous and inevitable. Education can only become natural and wholesome when it is the direct fruit of a living growing knowledge.

Near the sources

It is interesting to see near the sources, even of small streams or brooks, which now flow through an open country, perhaps shrunken in their volume, the traces of ancient mills, which have devoured the primitive forest, the earthen dams and old sluiceways, and ditches and banks for obtaining a supply of water. These relics of a more primitive period are still frequent in our midst. Such, too, probably, has been the history of the most thickly settled and cleared countries of Europe. The saw-miller is neighbor and successor to the Indian.

It is observable that not only the moose and the wolf disappear before the civilized man, but even many species of insects, such as the black fly and the almost microscopic “no-see-em.” How imperfect a notion have we commonly of what was the actual conditions of the place where we dwell, three centuries ago!

Henry David Thoreau

The lost outline

At sundown to Walden.

Standing on the middle of Walden I see with perfect distinctness the forms and outlines of the low hills which surround it, though they are wooded, because they are quite white, being covered with snow, while the woods are for the most part bare or very thin-leaved. I see thus the outline of the hills eight or ten rods back through the trees. This I can never do in the summer, when the leaves are thick and the ground is nearly the same color with them. The white hills are now seen as through a veil of stems. Immediately after the wood was cut off, this outline, of course, was visible at all seasons, but the wood, springing up again, concealed it, and now the snow has come to reveal the lost outline.

The sun has been set some minutes, and as I stand on the pond looking westward toward the twilight sky, a soft, satiny light is reflected from the ice in flakes here and there, like the light from the under side of a bird’s wing. It is worth the while to stand here at this hour and look into the soft western sky, over the pines whose outlines are so rich and distinct against the clear sky. I am inclined to measure the angle at which a pine bough meets the stem. That soft, still, cream-colored sky seems the scene, the stage or field, for some rare drama to be acted on.

C. says the winter is the Sabbath of the year. The perfect winter days are cold, but clear and bright.

–Henry David Thoreau