Day 10: A Book that Changed My Life

This Thirty Day Book Challenge is turning out to be significantly more, well, challenging, than I had initially thought. I have spent the last few days giving today’s topic some serious thought…

There is no one, single book that has “changed my life.” No magic moment upon reading a book that as I finished it I knew that I was forever different. What there has been, however, is a series of books, from different authors and at different times, that have forced me to look at the world, my life, my ideas and my beliefs in new and different ways. This group of books, once I really began to think about them, have quite a lot in common. They are all in some way “academic” as opposed to more popular fiction, and all have an undeniable philosophical component, although some more than others. Perhaps what the strongest common thread between all of these texts is that they have all, in their own way, helped me form my intellectual curiosities, my personal philosophical outlook, my moral and ethical grounding, and my general sense of what life should be about.

A more honest way of framing today’s post would be to admit that it’s not necessarily books that have impacted me so strongly, rather thinkers and writers. If I were to list a few, I would include as varied a group as David Hume, Carl Sagan, Thomas Kuhn, Bertrand Russell, Isaiah Berlin, Erwin Schrödinger, Sigmund Freud, Aldous Huxley, Charles Darwin, and Michel Foucault. If I were to count fiction as well, then I would also include Umberto Eco, Aldous Huxley again, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Tom Robbins. If I included poetry, then the list would have to expand to also include William Blake and Allen Ginsberg. In other words, there is no way that I could sit and discuss a single text, or even a single author in regards to how they have changed my life.

I’ve been reading for a lifetime, and for that lifetime these thinkers and writers have had a certain and cumulative effect. They have, together, taught me to think critically and embrace reason, and to revel in questions instead of becoming entrenched in apparent answers. They have reminded me to never fail to pay attention to beauty that surrounds me, and to live curiously, openly, and passionately. They have taught me that a vigorous intellect is nothing to be ashamed of. Together they have reinforced the idea that kindness and generosity are the highest virtues, and that our significance is measured by how we love, how we think, and how our actions affect those around us. They have opened my eyes to the wonders of this universe, as well as the magnificence of our minds and our hearts. In short, they set me on the path to become the woman who I am, and every time I read anything by these scientists, writers, poets, and thinkers, I see a little of myself reflected in their words.

Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive as there are authors whose influence, although subtle, was nevertheless significant, and other authors who as a result of time have simply been forgotten, although their impact surely remains. Morevoer, and perhaps most importantly, I have not stopped reading. I encounter writers, historians, scientists, and philosophers who, on a daily basis, push me out of my intellectual comfort zone and cause me to rethink my ideas and question my realities, and I hope that this will forever be the case.

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7 x 7 Link Award

Another award! Whoa! And here I thought it was going to be a bad day after my pants unceremoniously ripped (in a rather embarrassing place) as I got out of the car this morning. Things are most certainly looking up!

First, let me thank Janine over at Shambolic Living for this award. Everyone should definitely pay her blog a visit.  Her blog is wonderfully down to earth with some pretty amazing photographs, too.

According to the rules of this award, I’m supposed to:

  • Share something about myself that no one knows
  • Link 7 of my posts that I think are noteworthy
  • Nominate 7 bloggers to receive this award

Insofar as the first rule… I think I already said more than enough earlier today.

Here are my seven favorite posts. It’s nice to be able to shake the dust off and breathe some new life into them.

  1. Love and Byron
  2. Playing with the Moon
  3. On Love and Forgetting: A Personal Note
  4. Allen Ginsberg and William Blake
  5. The Pull of Huxley
  6. You can’t step into the same river twice… but what about books?
  7. The Distance from the Moon

And now for my favorite part, passing the award along to seven other bloggers.

  1. To a Dusty Shelf We Aspire
  2. Abominations
  3. Proper Noun Blog
  4. Being Arindam
  5. SubtleKate
  6. Poetry Poems Poets
  7. Deidra Alexander’s Blog

Allen Ginsberg and William Blake

Photograph by Cynthia MacAdams

For the last couple of days, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time with the Beats. I read through Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind (triggered by watching the Republican Iowa Caucus), followed by plenty of Gregory Corso, a little Rexroth, and some McClure, too. But today has been an Allen Ginsberg kind of day. Without planning to, I wove Ginsberg into my AP European History class via Blake and Romanticism (more on that in a minute), and I somehow even managed to work his poem “America” into my AP World History class.

During lunch, I sat and watched this BBC interview with him, which reminded me of the many reasons that I had fallen in love with him in college. He epitomized the kind person who lived with his eyes open to all around him, and his mind open to all the world had to offer. He was a kind, gentle soul with a keen mind. Needless to say, he was also an incredible poet.

As I talked about in a previous post, my love of the Beats stretches back about twenty years, when I was asked by an ex-boyfriend to write a paper for his twentieth century American history class. I chose to write about the Beat Generation’s role in the 1950’s countercultural movement because at the time, I was an English major focusing on English Romanticism and I had heard that there was a connection between William Blake and Allen Ginsberg.  I found out that he had had an ecstatic vision while reading Blake’s “Ah, Sunflower,” “The Sick Rose,” and “A Little Girl Lost” from Songs of Experience. He claimed that it was a pivotal moment for him, one that shaped his views of writing, his life, and the nature of the universe itself. In his “A Blake Experience,” Gingsberg wrote,

…the poem I’d read a lot of times before, overfamiliar to the point where it didn’t make any particular meaning except some sweet thing about flowers — and suddenly I realized that the poem was talking about me…Now I began understanding it, the poem I was looking at, and suddenly, simultaneously with understanding it, heard a very deep earthen grave voice in the room, which I immediately assumed, I didn’t even have to think twice, was Blake’s voice…

Looking out the window, through the window at the sky, suddenly it seemed that I saw into the depths of the universe, by looking simply into the ancient sky. The sky suddenly seemed very ancient. And this was the very

ancient place I was talking about, the sweet golden clime, I suddenly realized that this existence was it! And that I was born in order to experience up to this very moment that I was having this experience, to realize what this was all about — in other words that this was the moment I was born for.

In 1948, Ginsberg immortalized that moment in his poem “On Reading William Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose.’

Rose of spirit, rose of light,
spirit whereof all will tell,
is this black vision of my sight
the fashion of a prideful spell,
mystic charm of magic bright,
o judgement of fire and fright?

what everlasting force confounded
in its being, like some human
spirit shrunken in a bounded
immortality, what blossom
gathers us inward, astounded?
is this sickness that is doom?

With that, I then set out to read as much Ginsberg as I could get my hands on, seeing in him what I had seen in Blake so many times… the ability to make simple language a thing of almost unbearable beauty, a depth of thought and feeling that seemed nearly unending, and a the gift of a sense of liberation as my eyes read their words. They were different, to be sure. Blake, the English Romantic, mystic and rebel, who challenged his contemporaries and his readers to think more clearly and to feel more deeply. Ginsberg, the gay poet from Patterson, New Jersey, mystic, and rebel, who also challenged… wait, maybe they weren’t so different after all. Different times, different voices, but connected by their ability communicate in a manner that transcended the words on the page.

An essay titled “William Blake and Allen Ginsberg: Poets of a Fallen World, Prophets of the New World,” states that,

Whether truth or madness, Blake’s voice was certainly that of a prophet in the more general sense of the word, for he was a denouncer of the evils of the world around him, calling for a return to God and a renunciation of worldly things for spiritual. William Blake wrote at one of the most important and turbulent junctures of history, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution which in his day was radically transforming the fabric of life in city and country, creating totally new and alien problems with which the old monarchies of Europe could not cope.. . .As a poet and mystic, Blake took the stance of a radical visionary against the established order of his time.

The same can certainly be said of Allen Ginsberg. He and the Beats, like Blake, wrote during a pivotal time in Western society. For Blake and the Romantics, they were the responding and reacting to the unyielding rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment, and the complete transformation of the world around them triggered by the Industrial Revolution. For Ginsberg and the Beats, they emerged as America clamored for normalcy after the upheaval of World War II. They wrote as mainstream, white America fled from the cities and into the suburbs in an attempt to recreate the “Donna Reed” ideal that the mass media was selling. It was an America whose heterogeneity and diversity was being traded in for uniformity and conformity. Ginsberg and his fellow poets embraced Eastern mysticism over American Christianity, favored cold-water flats in crowded cities over the white-picket fenced in suburbs, and with their words attempted to lift the veil off of the country.

The same article later states that,

If we take a step back from Blake and see him in his historical context we see that he marks the beginning of a fundamental change in English language poetry. The poet, rather than representing the voice of the civilized, cultured society, became the voice of alienation and separation from society. The poet was outside the culture’s limiting structure, disillusioned by its elitism, social injustice, industrialism, materialism…

Once again, the same can be said of Ginsberg and his contemporaries. They, too, were fundamentally changing poetry, with, as Kerouac coined, their “spontaneous bop prosody,” the cadence of jazz, and the use of what Ginsberg called “kitchen English.” Their poetry became the voice of the people, and even more so, the counterculture. Their disillusionment was clearly, beautifully, and eloquently expressed in the language of the street.

Through my readings of Ginsberg this week, I came across this poem that I hadn’t read in years. It was published in 1972, the year I was born, and although not as famous as “Howl” or “Kaddish,” it’s always been among my favorites. It’s titled “Xmas Gift,” and there has always been something about it that strikes me as being reminiscent of Blake. Perhaps it’s the lines about invented universes, and creatures giving birth to themselves.

I met Einstein in a dream
Springtime on Princeton lawn grass
I kneeled down & kissed his young thumb
like a ruddy pope
his face fresh broad cheeked rosy
“I invented a universe separate,
something like a Virgin”–
“Yes, the creature gives birth to itself,”
I quoted from Mescaline
We sat down open air universal summer
to eat lunch, professors’ wives
at the Tennis Court Club,
our meeting eternal, as expected,
my gesture to kiss his fist
unexpectedly saintly
considering the Atom Bomb I didn’t mention.

Lastly, here’s a reading by Ginsberg, of Blake’s short poem “Ah! Sunflower.”  One of the three that started it all. Just beautiful.

Blake’s Adoration of the Magi…and stars.

In keeping with last night’s post of that amazing photograph of the angelic nebula, I’m following up this morning with another seasonally appropriate image, this time from William Blake. This is his “Adoration of the Magi,” and although I’m far from religious, this work still evokes a sense of magic. My favorite part of the painting? The luminous star, of course, illuminating the sky around it. It’s long trail of light connecting it to the only other light-source in the work, the infant Christ. Reminds me of what Sagan said,

The cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

Thank you to Biblioklept for reminding me how much I love this painting. 

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell… Revisiting Blake

Title page of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell ...

This past week’s theme in regards to my reading seems to be the revisiting of old favorites from my “formative years” (early 20s) – Huxley’s  Island, Hume’s Inquiry,  Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (post coming soon), and after last night’s post, and in keeping with the trend, I went back and reread Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

This work is Blake’s attempt at presenting to us, in true Romanticist fashion, an argument against the dualist, Manichaean, view of good and evil which characterized Christian Europe.  Deliberately upsetting the common understanding of those very definitions of good and evil, and dark and light, Blake begins by blurring the lines.  He writes,

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

And just a few lines later he adds,

 Energy is Eternal Delight.

He opens this work by presenting the argument that humans are, and should be, both angels and devils, both reason and passion.  To deny either part is to deny our humanity. It is in these contradictions, and it is in these grey areas that we find our humanity.

The entire work, which often mimics the structures of biblical passages and prophecies, fuses the sacred and the profane, the divine and the fallen, and the spiritual and the material; in effect,  a “marriage” of heaven and hell.  Blake, unlike Dante (who also uses the literary device of imagining himself visiting hell) presents hell as a place of poetry, energy, and exuberance – a place the speaks to our passions and our physicality.  Heaven, on the other hand, is a place of reason, restrained passions, and “unacted desires.”  For Blake, neither is inherently evil nor inherently good.

The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands & feet Proportion.
As the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.
The crow wish’d every thing was black, the owl, that every thing was white.
Exuberance is Beauty.

Blake beautifully express the Romantic desire to recapture the irrational element in man, something that the Enlightenment had effectively, according to Blake, killed off (he regarded the philosophes as “unimaginative killers of the human spirit”). Echoing this idea, in another poem, “A Little Girl Lost,” Blake writes,

Children of the future age,
Reading this indignant page;
Know that in a former time,
Love! sweet love! was thought a crime.

Isaiah Berlin, in his book The Roots of Romanticism, in Proustian fashion, attempts to define Romanticism.  He writes,

Romanticism is the primitive, the untutored, it is youth, the exuberant sense of life of the natural man, but it is also pallor, fever, disease, decadence. . . It is the strange, the exotic, the grotesque, phantoms, vampires, nameless terror, the irrational, the unutterable. . . It is nostalgia, it is reverie, it is intoxicating dreams, it is sweet melancholy and bitter melancholy. . . It is energy, force, will, étalage du moi. . . It is Satanic revels, cynical irony, diabolical laughter, black heroes, but also Blake’s vision of God and his angels, the great Christian society, the eternal order, and ‘the starry heavens which can scarce express the infinite and eternal of the Christian soul.’ It is, in short, unity and multiplicity.

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,  Blake illustrates this definition eloquently and elegantly.  By “marrying” heaven and hell, by blurring our perceptions of what is base and what is sacred, Blake shows us that our very souls exist in this “unity and multiplicity.”  He is a true spokesman for his age when he calls our attention to the inherent “sturm und drang” (storm and stress) of human experience.

Also in true Romantic style, Blake not only blurs the lines between good and evil, but also between man and God.  He writes,

And at length they pronounc’d that the Gods had order’d such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.

Which is reminiscent of this quote by Sagan, from his Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,

God is an invention of Man. So the nature of God is only a shallow mystery. The deep mystery is the nature of Man.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, although one of his earlier works, captures the spirit of Romanticism beautifully.  But more than that, he truly articulates what it means to be human, with all of our contradictions and inconsistencies. We are both of the spirit and the flesh, and of the mind and the body. We are both reason and passion, intellect and lust.   He confirms and condones this as he closes the work, liberating us to embrace our entire selves,

Let the Priests of the Raven of dawn, no longer in deadly black, with hoarse note curse the sons of joy. Nor his accepted brethren, whom, tyrant, he calls free: lay the bound or build the roof. Nor pale religious letchery call that virginity, that wishes but acts not!
For every thing that lives is Holy.

The Pull of Huxley

Sometimes it seems as if all the forces in the universe converge to focus one’s attention in a certain direction, or towards a certain thing.  Lately, it seems as if all things are pointing me towards Aldous Huxley.  A few days ago I posted a series of images of illustrations by William Blake.  For me, Blake and Huxley are inextricably bound together.  In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake first wrote that famous line that was later quoted by Huxley (as well as used in the title)  in his Doors of Perceptionabout his experience with mescaline,

If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is – infinite.

Also, this morning while clicking through various articles and blogs about the Occupy Wall Street Library situation, I came across this article, “Michael Bloomberg’s Brave New World.” In it Amy Goodman writes,

As the night progressed, the irony of finding Huxley’s book grew. He wrote it in 1958, almost 30 years after his famous dystopian novel, Brave New World. The original work described society in the future where people had been stratified into haves and have-nots. The Brave New World denizens were plied with pleasure, distraction, advertisement and intoxicating drugs to lull them into complacency, a world of perfect consumerism, with lower classes doing all the work for an elite.

There is no doubt that current events both at home and abroad have a distinct dystopian feel to them, and  Brave New World certainly does provide an interesting analogy.  So more Huxley.

Now tonight, as I sat here on my couch recovering after a pretty tiring day, I found myself watching a documentary on Wavy Gravy (“Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie”), an old hippie, clown, peace activist, and true altruist.  The documentary showed clips from the various concerts he attended and worked, and what struck me was the free kitchen that he and the “Hog Farm” set up at Woodstock.

“What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000. . .”

They carved out and created a little temporary utopia for themselves and their community, immediately calling to my mind Huxley’s last novel (and my favorite), Island.

Island, of course, was Huxley’s counter-point to Brave New World, about Pala, a fictional, island utopia, where our protagonist William Farnaby (“suffering from the disease called civilization”) finds himself shipwrecked. It was Huxley’s last major work, and in many ways, his final testament.  In it he gave free rein to his interests in Eastern mysticism, and the productive and positive use of mind-altering substances.

Lastly, also tonight, Lauraglen, a fellow blogger, replied to my “Perspective” post, writing that the video made her feel insignificant.  My reaction, as I replied to her, was quite the opposite. It made me feel as if I was Will Farnaby from Huxley’s Island, and the video was the mynah bird yelling “attention!” and “here and now boys!”.  Watching the video made me feel small, yes, but that small-ness made my life and those in it seem bigger to me.  The video, like the mynahs, focused my attention on the “here and now.”

My collection of Huxley first editions.

I first discovered Huxley in high school.  I was assigned, like every other high school student in the country, Brave New World.  I adored it.  The way he expressed himself seemed to mirror my thought process.  I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I always found him to be the “easiest” read, because he wrote like I thought.  And I had only begun to scratch the surface.  Soon enough Island fell into my hands right around my first year of college.  We all have that book (or books) that “changed our lives,”  and this was that book for me.  I took me out of myself and really forced me to look at the world around me with open eyes for the first time.  I think it has that effect on most people.  It is, without a doubt, among the books that helped shape me.

Nobody needs to go anywhere else. We are all, if we only knew it, already there. If I only know who in fact I am, I should cease to behave as what I think I am; and if I stopped behaving as what I think I am, I should know who I am.

So I sit here now, picking up Huxley’s Island again.  Far be it from me to ignore the signs. The insight of Eco, the reason of Hume, the perspective of Sagan, the humanity of Huxley… not bad for a couple of weeks of reading.

The Lost Art of Commonplacing

I recently finished reading the last of the “books about reading” that I had sitting on my coffee table.  This one was a collection of essays by Robert Darnton, the author of the essay on Old Regime pornography that I blogged about recently.   In this collection, titled The Case for Books, he writes about the role of the printed book and the research library in this ever-increasingly digital age.  He ultimately finds a place for both.

Of the essays, however, the one that has lingered in my mind these past couple of days is about the early modern European practice of commonplacing. It’s an essay titled “The Mystery of Reading” that was expanded from an article he had written for the The New York Review of Books titled “Extraordinary Commonplaces.” He writes,

Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it . . . They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.

A page from Milton's commonplace book.

I had completely forgotten about commonplacing until Darnton sparked my memory. I first learned about commonplace books in an undergraduate literature course on Milton. Our professor, an elegant and intelligent woman, introduced us to Milton’s commonplace book, and at that moment I decided that I was going to keep one.  That same afternoon I rushed to the university bookstore and picked up a beautiful leather-bound journal, and for the next 7 years or so I filled it with quotes from books, snippets of poetry, song lyrics, impressions from my own life.  I carried it with me as I went to countless Grateful Dead shows, and on all my travels both at home and abroad.  I copied passages from Shelley while I sat in my favorite little inn in Annecy, and from  Proust (yes, that was when I read Swann’s Way) while sitting next to a little stream in cabin in North Carolina.  It grew with my experiences and with every book I read.  To an outsider it would have seemed like a disjointed and motley grouping of authors, musicians and poets (William Blake and Aldous Huxley, Tom Robbins and Voltaire, Steely Dan and Sartre), but to my eyes it was a clearer reflection of me then a simple journal would have been.  It was may attempt to “make sense” of my world using the very tools that gave me my perspective, my books (and my music).

All the keepers of commonplace books . . . read their way through life, picking up fragments of experience and fitting them into patterns.  The underlying affinities that held those patterns together represented an attempt to get a grip on life, to make sense of it…

I nearly tore my home apart looking for it last night.  I still haven’t been able to find it. Although its pages (and inside covers, and margins) were filled over a decade ago, I never have even considered throwing it away, and the thought that it might be lost just breaks my heart.  I think I may stop at another bookstore on my way home and get another leather-bound journal, and start keeping another commonplace book.  We readers should bring back the lost art of commonplacing.