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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

They Light Our Way Along the Arc


Photograph by Marjorie Farrell


An essay's conclusion, writes William Dereshewicz, is not something we refer to as a fact but rather as wisdom. He allows that the ideas in an essay are “often openly impressionistic and provisional, colored by feeling, memory and mood,” going on to say,
But the essay draws its strength not from separating reason and imagination but from putting them in conversation. A good essay moves fluidly between thought and feeling. It subjects the personal to the rigors of the intellect and the discipline of external reality. The truths it finds are more than just emotional. – William Dereshewicz, “In Defense of Facts,” The Atlantic, January-February 2017
Not every reader is as fascinated by the essay form and its history as I am, but anyone who has been awake this past year realizes that there have been bloody assaults on truth and facts, and many of us find that cause for concern.

Although my new Atlantic arrived last Friday, it wasn’t until Sunday afternoon that I got around to Dereshewicz. I’d started the morning with the longest piece in the issue, “My President Was Black,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Mine, too, I want to tell Coates, and I have a lot more to say about that, but I’ll save it for another time. For now let me just say that all my readers who don’t subscribe to The Atlantic should go right out and buy the current issue, because the Coates article alone is worth the cover price. After you read the whole issue, you’ll probably want to subscribe. I hope so.

Here are a few lines from the editorial in the current issue:
Obama is not an unalloyed idealist. He has complicated feelings about the nature of humanity, and harbors few illusions, in particular, about the moral systems that govern many other countries. But he has always seemed sincere in his belief that America is a place that possesses a unique capacity to become better, and then better again. “The arc of the moral universe is long [my emphasis added], but it bends toward justice,” he often said, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., but he really meant that America’s arc bends toward justice.
That stopped me in my tracks. Light dawned, belatedly, in one bookseller’s brain! The title of Kathleen Stocking’s book: The Long Arc of the Universe – that was her reference!

Originally I didn’t cared for the title. It seemed vague and having little to do with the content of the essays – but only because I had completely missed the allusion! When I’d shared my initial misgivings about the title with the author, she kindly refrained from pointing out my ignorance. I wish now she had not been so careful of my feelings!

Because now it makes perfect sense. It captures perfectly Stocking’s optimism in the future, a clear-eyed optimism she shares with President Obama, despite hard truths both have faced in this world.

Neither Obama nor Stocking is optimistic because they live in ivory tower isolation. Both have served – Obama in Chicago activism, the Illinois Senate, and the White House; Stocking in country schools, California prisons, and in the Peace Corps – in ways and places demanding a pragmatic, hands-on, the-buck-stops-here approach to problem-solving. Neither can say that the problems they tackled are now only historical footnotes. That should go without saying. Problems persist. The world is hard on people, and it’s harder on some than on others. But, like President Obama, Kathleen Stocking continues to have faith in the human capacity to become better and to make the world better. And both can say they put themselves on the line, personally, to do something toward that end.

Obama is quoted in the Coates article as saying, elaborating on the statement of Martin Luther King, Jr.,
To be optimistic about the long-term trends ... doesn’t mean everything is going to go in a smooth, direct, straight line....
Well, if optimism had to mean that, there couldn’t be an optimist anywhere in the world, could there? Kathleen Stocking wrote me in an e-mail, following the November election:
Ruth Gruber died today. She was 105. She was in Germany hearing Hitler's rants in 1932 and sounded the alarm, but no one heard. She photographed the people in the camps, the boats of refugees turned away by the British warships from Palestine, and so on. It can happen again. And it can happen here. There's no doubt at all in my mind about that. But I also believe, with Obama (that whippersnapper, that youngster) that history is not a straight line. Our species is evolving toward greater and greater consciousness, but there is backsliding, detours, and the process is slow, in any event. Julian of Norwich had to pretend she couldn't read and write and that everything was coming from heaven and had to be translated. Because any woman who could read or write was in league with the devil. As we all know.
But as she writes in her most recent book of personal essays, The Long Arc of the Universe: Travels Beyond the Pale:
The hard thing about living anywhere, I decide, and traveling in general, is that one can never live long enough or see enough of the world to fully understand the long arc of the universe and make sense of it. Little bits are all we get, and it’s never enough to see the big picture.

Holiday decorations by Kathleen Stocking

I do not call myself a pessimist. At the same time, I often find it hard to be optimistic about “the big picture.” Little corners, yes. Pockets. Certain stretches of time here and there. But it’s true that none of us gets to see “the big picture,” the “long arc.” Kathleen Stocking and President Obama, however, remain optimistic in their long views, and they have seen much more than I can claim to have seen, so I’m taking their words seriously.

The philosopher of my heart is Henri Bergson, who lived in France from 1859 to 1941. In his heyday, he had been the equivalent of a rock star. The public swarmed his lecture hall at the Sorbonne – it was the place to be! – and finally a section of seats had to be cordoned off and reserved for students, because socialites had started coming in to the lecture preceding Bergson’s to assure themselves seats for the star.

Never a novelist, always a philosopher and teacher, he was nevertheless awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1927, but by 1940 his star had faded, and he lived quietly, out of the limelight. Then came the Occupation. Bergson’s earlier glory was not forgotten by those who had assumed power. Eager to piggy-back on his reputation, they offered him blandishments, their recognition – which apparently they thought would be an irresistible inducement. Bergson said no.

The immediate cause of his death during the Nazi occupation of Paris was bronchitis, but I have always suspected heartbreak. Ill for many years with crippling arthritis, on the arm of a caregiver he left his sickbed to register as a Jew, despite Nazi assurances that he was “exempt” from the new, odious racial laws. Again, he could have sold out, but he didn’t.

Bergson died on the fourth of January, 1941, and I have always imagined him on a cold winter day, in the city he loved, arriving home exhausted to die of a broken heart – in part because he had been a most optimistic philosopher, sure that the human spirit was evolving in something higher and finer -- and whenever I have told the life story of Bergson to someone unfamiliar with his name, it has been hard for me to keep tears from my eyes at the end. But the truth is that I wasn’t there. I did not know him. And the day he died was probably not, as it has always been in my imagination, the same day he stood in line to register for his yellow star.

Undoubtedly he felt deep, wrenching sorrow for what had come to Europe in his own last days, and I cannot imagine that his heart did not ache, terribly -- for the Jews, for France, and for the world. But that he chose to show solidarity with the persecuted, though he had never practiced the religion, was a choice entirely in line with his philosophy and his entire life. By his own definition of freedom, that is, arrived at as early as his 1889 doctoral dissertation (Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience), his was a free act in 1941, neither mechanical reflex nor directed from anything exterior to his own soul. It came out of everything he was, out of his entire life leading up to that moment.

And exercising his freedom would have been, necessarily, for him, an affirmation and demonstration of the possibility of freedom. Would he also have been able to maintain, amidst the horrors of that time in history, his faith in the evolution of the spirit?


Ready now for holidays
Richard Leakey of Kenya, when entering political life, was asked by an interviewer, “Are you willing to give your life for this country?” Leakey is a white man whose home is a black African country, and the subtext of the question was that in running for office he might risk death. His answer, however, spoke not to the risk of death but to commitment: “What else does any of us have to give?”

It is not for us to question life, Viktor Frankl wrote. Life questions us. How will we answer? An amazing, inspiring person! He saw the absolute worst of the twentieth century and somehow kept faith in humanity.

How do these people do it? How do they maintain faith and optimism, despite all they see first-hand that could drive them to despair?

There will always be those in the moral universe who blatantly steal and rob from others, as there will always be the less obvious free riders, who simply manage not to pay their legitimate dues. But at the same time there will also be, besides the mass of responsible dues-payers, those who not only pay their own dues but who move mankind forward (or at least keep us from being forever lost in the abyss) by being extraordinary, by doing more than their share, by achieving wisdom and by serving as models for the rest of us.

Moral progress, if there is such a thing, is not a smooth, direct line. Okay. There will be backsliding. All right. But does it exist at all, this moral progress? Is the human spirit evolving into something better? Was Henri Bergson able to believe that still as he closed his eyes for the last time?

Martin Luther -- not my favorite guy! -- thought faith a matter of grace: You are given the gift, or you’re not. But what if faith, like any virtue in the Aristotelian sense, is a matter of practice? You get up every day, regardless of circumstances, despite difficulties, and you do what you can. You’re as frightened as the next person, but you choose not to let fear paralyze you. And doing what you can, one day at a time, despite fear, strengthens your faith in the future and in your fellow human beings. Do you think it might work that way?

It’s the only way I can make sense of it – moral progress not as a matter of inevitability, not operating blind like the evolution of the physical universe, but as something created by human choices and actions. Because if the long arc of the universe is to bend toward justice, is it not up to each of us to do our part, though all we can see is our little bit of here and now?

Warmest holiday wishes, my friends. Keep the faith! And thank you for being in my life!

P.S. 12/23/2016 - Here is a very inspiring essay. My sister Bettie sent me the link. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, all!


Photograph by Marjorie Farrell

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

And thank you for being in mine.
I am honored you used my photo.

Trudy Carpenter said...

Oh, Pamela, as always your thoughts make me think. Your moral compass is a bright star in my life.

P. J. Grath said...

We all need light from others. I know I do.

Deborah Case said...

This is a wonderful post Pamela! I read it yesterday and now again this morning. Printing to share with a friend to whom I've lent Stocking's Long Arc.

Marjorie's photo is absolutely beautiful and I'm glad you shared it with us.

P. J. Grath said...

Glad you like, Deborah. I really feel silly about not getting the title for so long, but better late than never. And yes, aren't Marjorie's photographs perfect for the holidays?