by Maria Popova
“Any fool knows that to work hard at something you want to accomplish is the only way to be happy.”
By the time he was fifty, playwright Eugene O’Neill had just about every imaginable cultural accolade under his belt, including three Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize. But the very tools that ensured his professional success — dogged dedication to his work, an ability to block out any distraction, razor-sharp focus on his creative priorities — rendered his personal life on the losing side of a tradeoff. Thrice married, he fathered three children with his first two wives. His youngest son, Shane, was a sweet yet troubled boy who worshipped his father but failed to live up to his own potential.
In the summer of 1939, as O’Neill completed his acclaimed play The Iceman Cometh, Shane was expelled from yet another school. Frustrated with the boy’s track record of such dismissals over the course of his academic career, O’Neill sent his 19-year-old son a magnificent letter epitomizing tough love, found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the wonderful anthology that gave us Albert Einstein’s advice to his son on the secret to learning anything, Sherwood Anderson on the key to the creative life, Benjamin Rush on travel and life, Lincoln Steffens on the power of not-knowing, and some of history’s greatest motherly advice. While heavy on the love, O’Neill’s letter is also unflinchingly honest in its hard truths about life, success, and the key to personal fulfillment.
O’Neill doesn’t take long to cut to the idea that an education is something one claims, not something one gets. With stern sensitivity, he issues an admonition that would exasperate the archetypal millennial (that archetype being, of course, merely another limiting stereotype) and writes:
All I know is that if you want to get anywhere with it, or with anything else, you have got to adopt an entirely different attitude from the one you have had toward getting an education. In plain words, you’ve got to make up your mind to study whatever you undertake, and concentrate your mind on it, and really work at it. This isn’t wisdom. Any damned fool in the world knows it’s true, whether it’s a question of raising horses or writing plays. You simply have to face the prospect of starting at the bottom and spending years learning how to do it.
O’Neill’s son seems to suffer from Fairy Godmother Syndrome — the same pathology afflicting many young people today, from aspiring musicians clamoring to be on nationally televised talent competitions that would miraculously “make” their career to online creators nursing hopes of being “discovered” with a generous nod from an established internet goddess or god. O’Neill captures this in a beautiful lament:
The trouble with you, I think, is you are still too dependent on others. You expect too much from outside you and demand too little of yourself. You hope everything will be made smooth and easy for you by someone else. Well, it’s coming to the point where you are old enough, and have been around enough, to see that this will get you exactly nowhere. You will be what you make yourself and you have got to do that job absolutely alone and on your own, whether you’re in school or holding down a job.
The best I can do is to try to encourage you to work hard at something you really want to do and have the ability to do. Because any fool knows that to work hard at something you want to accomplish is the only way to be happy. But beyond that it is entirely up to you. You’ve got to do for yourself all the seeking and finding concerned with what you want to do. Anyone but yourself is useless to you there.
What I am trying to get firmly planted in your mind is this: In the really important decisions of life, others cannot help you. No matter how much they would like to. You must rely on yourself. That is the fate of each one of us. It can’t be changed. It just is like that. And you are old enough to understand this now.
And that’s all of that. It isn’t much help in a practical advice way, but in another way it might be. At least, I hope so.
Toward the end of the letter, O’Neill makes a sidewise remark that might well be his most piercing and universally valuable piece of wisdom:
I’m glad to know of your doing so much reading and that you’re becoming interested in Shakespeare. If you really like and understand his work, you will have something no one can ever take from you.
The shocking true story of academia in 2014
Forget minimum wage, some adjunct professors say they’re making 50 cents an hour. Wait till you read these stories
You’ve probably heard the old stereotypes about professors in their ivory tower lecturing about Kafka while clad in a tweed jacket. But for many professors today, the reality is quite different: being so poorly paid and treated, that they’re more likely to be found bargain-hunting at day-old bread stores. This is academia in 2014.
“The most shocking thing is that many of us don’t even earn the federal minimum wage,” said Miranda Merklein, an adjunct professor from Santa Fe who started teaching in 2008. “Our students didn’t know that professors with PhDs aren’t even earning as much as an entry-level fast food worker. We’re not calling for the $15 minimum wage. We don’t even make minimum wage. And we have no benefits and no job security.”
Over three quarters of college professors are adjunct. Legally, adjunct positions are part-time, at-will employment. Universities pay adjunct professors by the course, anywhere between $1,000 to $5,000. So if a professor teaches three courses in both the fall and spring semesters at a rate of $3000 per course, they’ll make $18,000 dollars. The average full-time barista makes the same yearly wage. However, a full-time adjunct works more than 40 hours a week. They’re not paid for most of those hours.
“If it’s a three credit course, you’re paid for your time in the classroom only,” said Merklein. “So everything else you do is by donation. If you hold office hours, those you’re doing for free. Your grading you do for free. … Anything we do with the student where we sit down and explain what happened when the student was absent, that’s also free labor. Some would call it wage theft because these are things we have to do in order to keep our jobs. We have to do things we’re not getting paid for. It’s not optional.”
Merklein was far from the only professor with this problem.
“It can be a tremendous amount of work,” said Alex Kudera. Kudera started teaching in 1996 and is the author of a novel about adjunct professorship, “Fight For Your Long Day.” “When I was an adjunct, I didn’t have a social life. It’s basically just work all the time. You plan your weekend around the fact that you’re going to be doing work Saturday and Sunday — typically grading papers, which is emotionally exhausting. The grading can be tedious but at least it’s a private thing. It’s basically 5-10 hours a day for every day of the week.”
One professor from Indiana who spoke to Salon preferred to remain anonymous. “At some point early in my adjunct career, I broke down my pay hourly. I figured out that I was making under minimum wage and then I stopped thinking about it,” he said. “I can’t speak for everyone, but I essentially design my own courses. And sometimes I don’t find out how many courses I’m going to be teaching until maybe Thursday and they start Monday. … So I have to develop a course, and it’s been the case where one summer I taught English 102 where the course was literally dropped in my lap three days before it started and I had to develop it entirely from scratch. It didn’t even have a text book. That was three 16-hour days in a row developing a syllabus. … You’re expected to be in contact with students constantly. You have to be available to them all the time. You’re expected to respond to emails generally within 24 hours. I’m always on-call. And it’s one of my favorite parts of my job, I don’t regret it, but if you factored those on-call hours in, that’d be the end of it. I’d be making 50 cents an hour.”
Being financially secure and teaching at an institute of higher education are almost mutually exclusive, even among professors who are able to teach the maximum amount of courses each semester. Thus, more than half of adjunct professors in the United States seek a second job. Not all professors can find additional employment. An advanced degree slams most doors shut and opens a handful by the narrowest crack.
Nathaniel Oliver taught as an adjunct for four years in Alabama. He received $12,000 a year during his time teaching.
“You fall in this trap where you may be working for less than you would be at a place that pays minimum wage yet you can’t get the minimum wage jobs because of your education,” Oliver said.
Academia’s tower might be ivory but it casts an obsidian shadow. Oliver was one of many professors trapped in the oxymoronic life of pedantic destitution. Some professors in his situation became homeless. Oliver was “fortunate” enough to only require food stamps, a fact of life for many adjuncts.
“It’s completely insane,” he said. “And this isn’t happening just to me. More and more people are doing it.”
“We have food stamps,” said the anonymous adjunct from Indiana. “We wouldn’t be able to survive without them.”
“Many professors are on food stamps and they go to food donation centers. They donate plasma. And that’s a pretty regular occurrence,” Merklein told Salon.
Life isn’t much easier for those lucky enough to find another income stream. Many are reduced to menial service jobs and other forms of first-world deprivation.
“I ended up applying for a job in a donut shop recently,” said an Ohio professor who requested to go by a pseudonym. Professor Doe taught for over two decades. Many years he only made $9600. Resorting to a food service job was the only way he could afford to live, but it came with more than its expected share of humiliation.
“One of the managers there is one of the students I had a year ago who was one of the very worst writers I’ve ever had. What are we really saying here? What’s going on in the work world? Something does not seem quite right. I’m not asking to be rich. I’m not asking to be famous. I just want to pay my bills.”
Life became even more harrowing for adjuncts after the Affordable Care Act when universities slashed hours and health insurance coverage became even more difficult to obtain.
“They’re no better off than people who work at Walmart,” said Gordon Haber, a 15-year adjunct professor and author of “Adjunctivitis.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, other professors echoed this sentiment.
“There’s this idea that faculty are cheap, renewable labor. There’s the idea that student are customers or clients,” said Joseph Fruscione, a former adjunct of 15 years. “And there are some cases where if a student is displeased with a grade, there’s the notion where they’re paying for this, so they deserve an A or a B because of all this tuition.”
“The Walmart metaphor is vivid,” Kudera said. “There are these random schools where they’re just being terrible. But as some of the schools it seems like there’s some enlightened schools and it doesn’t seem like every single person who speaks up loses their classes. It varies school to school. They’re well aware some of their adjuncts may not afford toothpaste at the end of the month or whatever those kinds of tragedies may be.” He suggested looking at the hashtag #badmin to see transgressions and complaints documented in real time.
Robert Baum, a former adjunct and now a dean, was able to provide insights from both sides of the problem.
“That pressure [to make money] has been on higher education forever,” he said. “A lot of the time when I was an adjunct, things were very black and what I’m finding is that the graying is happening a lot. I’m losing track of the black and white.” Still, Baum noted that the current system was hardly ideal, and that change was necessary. “The Walmart model is based on the idea of putting the burden on taking care of the worker on either the state or on the worker’s credit card or on the worker’s family. And that is no different than what I’ve experienced across my adjunct life. No different. Zero difference.”
Ana Fores Tamayo, an adjunct who claims she was blacklisted over her activism, agreed with the latter parts of Baum’s assessment.
“Walmart and the compartmentalized way of treating faculty is the going rate. The way administration turns around and says, for instance, where I was teaching it was probably about 65% adjunct faculty. But the way they fix their numbers, it makes it looks as if it’s less when they show their books because the way they divide it and the way they play with their numbers it shows that it’s less.”
“As soon as they hear about you organizing, they go on the defensive,” Merklein said. “For instance, at my community college, I am being intimidated constantly and threatened in various ways, hypothetically usually. They don’t like to say something that’s an outright direct threat. … They get really freaked out when they see pamphlets around the adjunct faculty office and everyone’s wearing buttons regardless of what professional organization or union it is. They will then go on the offensive. They will usually contact their attorney who is there to protect the school as a business and to act in an anti-labor capacity.”
The most telling phrase in Merklein’s words are “the school as a business.” Colleges across the country have transitioned from bastions of intellectual enlightenment to resort hotels prizing amenities above academics. Case in point: The ludicrously extravagant gyms in America’s larger universities are home to rock climbing walls, corkscrew tracks, rooftop gardens, and a lazy river. Schools have billions to invest in housing and other on-campus projects. Schools have millions (or in some cases “mere” hundreds of thousands) to pay administrators. Yet schools can’t find the money to hire more full-time professors. If one follows the money, it’s clear that colleges view education as tertiary. The rigor of a university’s courses doesn’t attract the awe of doe-eyed high school seniors. Lavish dorms and other luxuries do.
Despite such execrable circumstances, professors trek onward and try to educate students as best they can. But how good can education provided by overworked, underpaid adjuncts be? The professors Salon spoke to had varying opinions.
Benay Blend has taught for over 30 years. For 10 of those years, she worked in a bookstore for $7.50 an hour because she needed the extra income.
“I don’t want to fall into the trap that the media use that using adjunct labor means poor education,” Blend said. “I have a PhD. I’ve published probably more than full-time people where I teach. I’ve been teaching for 30 years. I’m a good teacher.”
“On the whole, teaching quality by adjuncts is excellent,” said Kane Faucher, a six-year adjunct. “But many are not available for mentoring and consultation because they have to string together so many courses just to reach or possibly exceed the poverty line. This means our resources are stretched too thinly as a matter of financial survival, and there are many adjuncts who do not even have access to a proper office, which means they work out of coffee shops and cars.”
The anonymous adjunct professor from Indiana expressed a similar sentiment.
“I definitely don’t want to go down the road of ‘Adjunct professors, because of the way we’re handled, are not able to be effective teachers.’ I think some of us are more effective teachers than people who get paid a lot more than we do. Some of us aren’t for really good reasons which have to do with not having the resources. I mean if you’re working at three different colleges, how can you possibly be there?”
Ann Kottner, an adjunct professor and activist, agreed.
“The real problem with the adjunct market right now is that it cheats students of the really outstanding educations they should be getting,” she said. “They’re paying a lot of money for these educations and they’re not getting them. And it’s not because they have bad instructors, it’s because their instructors are not supported to do the kind of work they can do.”
The situation reached such a flashpoint that Kottner and several colleagues (some of which spoke to Salon for this article) penned a petition to the US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. The petition calls for “an investigation into the labor practices of our colleges and universities in the employment of contingent faculty.” Ana Foryes Tamayo has a petition as well, this one to the US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. They both have over 8,000 signatories.
When asked about the petition’s impact, Kottner said it was “just one tactic in the whole sheath of a rising adjunct response to contingency.” Other tools included unionization, which is difficult in many states. Kottner said the most powerful force was information. “I think our biggest weapon now is basically making the public aware of what their tuition dollars are not paying for, and that is professor salaries and professor security.”
When asked if there was any hope about the future, no consensus was reached among the adjuncts Salon spoke with. Some believed things would never change. Others thought the tide would turn if enough people knew how far the professoriat had fallen.
The theme of Ayn Rand’sAtlas Shrugged, according to Ms. Rand herself, is “what happens to the world when the Prime Movers go on strike.” The prime movers are corporate executives – “the motor of the world” – and Rand imagines what would happen if they all just went away. To Rand this is nothing less than “a picture of the world with its motor cut off.”
Ouch. Paging Dr. Freud.
In Rand’s novel the great, throbbing “motor of the world” (it’s made of executives, remember?) retreats to an Atlantis-like idyll known as “Galt’s Gulch.” Without their ingenuity and drive the nation descends into chaos, leading many long pages later to their triumphant return and anointment as leaders of a new libertarian order.
Which gets us to the fraud charges now swirling around a venture called “Galt’s Gulch of Chile.” Its website is currently down, but it’s still being promoted as a real-world retreat for the world’s movers and shakers. “Yes, you read that right,” the organizer chirps cheerily. “Those who become one of GGC’s Founders will be paid back … within three years of the consummation of their Founders Club participation (please contact GGC for the fine print and T&Cs).”
In what should be an unsurprising outcome, it didn’t turn out very well. That news comes (via Metafilter and Gawker) from a blogger named Wendy McElroy, who writes that she bought some property in Galt’s Gulch with her husband and then learned that it never had legal rights to the property in the first place. A visit to Chile revealed that many of the area’s local vendors had also been defrauded by the Galtians.
As Gawker’s headline puts it, “Ayn Rand’s Capitalist Paradise Is Now a Greedy Land-Grabbing Shitstorm.”
It’s possible to feel genuinely sympathetic to the McElroys’ plight – and I do – and yet wonder why this outcome was the least bit surprising to any reader of Rand’s work. Atlas Shrugged actually celebrates fraud – at least against those whom Rand despises. These charges aren’t an aberration. They’re the inevitable outcome of Rand’s own philosophy.
Atlas Shrugged opens with a question – “Who is John Galt?” – and then takes forever to answer it, clocking in at a weighty and tendentious 1168 pages. One glance at its author’s pinned eyes, immortalized in the photo on the back cover of the hardbound Dutton edition, and the book’s interminable length becomes easier to understand. Ms. Rand is gazing slightly heavenward, as if locking eyes with some adored Übermensch. She sits poised as if preparing for flight, one hand nervously clenched in a half-fist, like Mighty Mouse on methedrine.
How misguided, how downright strange, is Atlas Shrugged? Rand insists that the most sexually desirable human beings on the planet are wealthy male CEOs, a conceit which conjures up images of Charles Koch as Austin Powers, performing a mating dance to the sounds of “Let’s Get It On” as a comely stranger reclines on a rotating sofa.
Do I make you Randian, baby? Do I?
But the auto-executive eroticism becomes considerably less amusing when one realizes that one of Rand’s heroes is a rapist:
He held her, pressing the length of his body against hers with a tense, purposeful insistence, his hand moving over her breasts as if he were learning a proprietor’s intimacy with her body, a shocking intimacy that needed no consent from her, no permission.
…She knew that fear was useless, that he would do what he wished, that the decision was his, that he left nothing possible to her except the thing she wanted most – to submit.
She wanted it, so it’s okay, right? Except she never said she wants it, and the rapist (“Francisco”) had already roughed her up in an earlier scene: “When she came home, she told her mother that she had cut her lip by falling against a rock.”
Then there’s Hank Rearden, the married man whose sex with the heroine leaves her bloodied and bruised the next morning. To wit: “She saw a bruise above her elbow, with dark beads that had been blood.” The morning-after sweet nothings rom Hank include “I wanted you as one wants a whore – for the same reason and purpose,” and “What I feel for you is contempt…”
Vile talk. But then, women are an inferior species in Rand’s world, a place where little girls need not dream of growing up to be President. “By the nature of her duties and daily activities,” writes Rand, “she would become the most unfeminine, sexless, metaphysically inappropriate, and rationally revolting figure of all: a matriarch.”
Rand’s creepy mise-en-scène is as ridden with criminality as it is with misogyny and sexual brutality. One of its cartoonish heroes is a pirate named Ragnar Danneskjöld, who’s celebrated for stealing from humanitarian relief ships bound for poverty-stricken lands and giving the money – I’m not making this up – to the rich.
“I’m after a man whom I want to destroy,” says Ragnar. “… Robin Hood …”
Danneskjöld is described as follows:
… the face had no expression; it had not changed once while speaking; it looked as if the man had lost the capacity to feel long ago, and what remained of him were only features that seemed implacable and dead. With a shudder of astonishment, Rearden found himself thinking that it was not the face of a man, but of an avenging angel.
It sounds more like the face of a psychopath.
Rand’s heroes aren’t just rapists, woman-beaters, and thieves. They’re also terrorists who freely blow up or burn properties for ideological reasons, or simply because things didn’t turn out as they might have liked. (Fun exercise: Imagine how conservatives would react to Rand’s storylines if all the protagonists were black. Or Muslim.)
Then there’s the fraud. It’s praiseworthy in Rand’s eyes – if it’s practiced by the right sort of people. Francisco, the rapist/hero, even boasts about defrauding investors from the “looters’” parasitical economy. In an ironic foreshadowing of Galt’s Gulch in Chile, he brags about building defective housing for Mexican workers as part of a government contract:
Well, those steel-frame houses are mainly cardboard, with a coating of good imitation shellac. They won’t stand another year. The plumbing pipes – as well as most of our mining equipment – were purchased from dealers whose main source of supply are the city dumps of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. I’d give those pipes another five months, and the electric system about six. The wonderful roads we graded up four thousand feet of rock for the People’s State of Mexico, will not last beyond a couple of winters: they’re cheap cement without foundation, and the bracing at the bad turns is just painted clapboard. Wait for one good mountain slide …
“Wait for one good mountain slide” – with those workers’ families inside, of course. Comedy gold, amirite?
Is it any wonder that a venture inspired by this book eventually defrauded its customers? And yet, despite the allegations against them, Gawker’s Adam Weinstein tells us that, “GGC developers will still sell you a 1,200-acre “Master Estate” for a mere $500,000. As long as you’re also willing to extend GGC developers a $2 million ‘Founders Club’ loan along with that $500,000, which they’ll totally pay back, they swear.”
Weinstein snarks, “That silence you hear? That’s the sound of Atlas shrugging.”
But hold the schadenfreude for a second. Every victim of criminal fraud deserves compassion, even when they admire a writer who idealizes greed. McElroy appears to be the kind of libertarian who, however misguided one may consider her economic views, can be found on the frontlines of many a good fight – for civil liberties and individual freedom, and against militarism.
McElroy says she still has faith in the project’s founder – Mr. “Yes, you read that right!” – and believes that other partners were responsible for the malfeasance. But one of the reasons the “Galt’s Gulch” crowd chose Chile is because of that country’s lax regulatory environment. Regulations exist for a reason. The Randians’ blind hatred of them, and of the democratic governments which establish them, flies in the face of reason. Would they object to the recent regulatory actions which resulted in Graco, the baby products corporation, recalling more than six million infant car seats? Would it change their minds if they knew that Graco’s improperly designed strollers resulted to the strangulation deaths of four babies in 2010?
But then, a hatred of regulation is part of Rand’s profound contempt for democracy itself, which can be seen in her description of “the woman in Roomette 9, Car No. 12 … a housewife who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing, to control giant industries, of which she had no knowledge.”
Rand and her followers don’t think that a “housewife” has the right to elect politicians who regulate giant industries. The parents of those four strangled infants would probably disagree.
Hopefully the criminal justice system will bring justice to the McElroy household and to other fraud victims. These government agencies can be very effective at such tasks, although perhaps less so now that tax cuts for the wealthy have eaten into their operating budgets.
The truth is that we need government, in the form of police, legislatures – and yes, regulators- to protect us from the psychopathic lack of empathy which, along with the sadomasochistic sexuality, is such an integral part of the Randian ideal.
What sort of society would voluntarily surrender itself people like the sociopath Ragnar, the rapist Francisco, or the rough-trade cruiser Rearden? That would be an act of collective masochism.
And let’s get one thing straight: Ayn Rand isn’t a deep thinker. She’s a gelatinous mass of chaotic and violent drives, loosely wrapped in pseudo-Nietzschian babble. Her writings are intellectually shallow econo-porn, part Kraft-Ebbing and part Horatio Alger, possessing neither coherence nor philosophical depth. Rand writes that Galt’s Gulch represents “the mind on strike,” but it’s more like a work slowdown.
Atlas Shrugged’s long-awaited last line reads as follows:
“He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.”
Some of those now-invisible air dollars belong to fraud victims like the McElroys, victims who went looking for “the motor of the world” and got the shaft instead.
Our libertarian friends seem to think that government produces an over-regimented, insect-like society comprised only of rulers and drones. But the only governments which have turned out that way are either corporation-run or practice a Communist model of “state capitalism.” Democracy has never produced the kind of regimentation which the average corporation now demands of its employees and customers.
It’s greed, not government, which subjugates us today. Nobody wants to be an insect, but Rand and her followers want to turn society into a hive filled with sociopathic bees. When that happens, as the investors in Chile learned, somebody’s bound to get stung.
by Maria Popova
“Friendship … has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gave value to survival.”
“What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling?” Emerson marveled in his exquisite meditation on friendship. But what, exactly, is at the heart of this “just and firm encounter”?
In his insightful 1960 book The Four Loves (public library), C.S. Lewis picks up where Aristotle left off and examines the differences between the four main categories of intimate human bonds — affection, the most basic and expressive; Eros, the passionate and sometimes destructive desire of lovers; charity, the highest and most unselfish spiritual connection; and friendship, the rarest, least jealous, and most profound relation.
In one of the most beautiful passages, he considers how friendship differs from the other three types of love by focusing on its central question: “Do you see the same truth.”
Lovers seek for privacy. Friends find this solitude about them, this barrier between them and the herd, whether they want it or not.
In a circle of true Friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself. No one cares twopence about anyone else’s family, profession, class, income, race, or previous history. Of course you will get to know about most of these in the end. But casually. They will come out bit by bit, to furnish an illustration or an analogy, to serve as pegs for an anecdote; never for their own sake. That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts. This love (essentially) ignores not only our physical bodies but that whole embodiment which consists of our family, job, past and connections. At home, besides being Peter or Jane, we also bear a general character; husband or wife, brother or sister, chief, colleague, or subordinate. Not among our Friends. It is an affair of disentangled, or stripped, minds. Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.
Hence (if you will not misunderstand me) the exquisite arbitrariness and irresponsibility of this love. I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gave value to survival.
The Four Loves is a superb read in its entirety, provocative at times but invariably thoughtful throughout. Complement it with Andrew Sullivan on why friendship is a greater gift than romantic love and a curious history of the convergence of the two in “romantic friendship,” then revisit Lewis on suffering and what free will really means, the secret of happiness, the key to authenticity in writing, and his ideal daily routine.
by Maria Popova
“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today… The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”
“How we spend our days,” Annie Dillard memorably wrote in her soul-stretching meditation on the life of presence, “is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And yet most of us spend our days in what Kierkegaard believed to be our greatest source of unhappiness — a refusal to recognize that “busy is a decision” and that presence is infinitely more rewarding than productivity. I frequently worry that being productive is the surest way to lull ourselves into a trance of passivity and busyness the greatest distraction from living, as we coast through our lives day after day, showing up for our obligations but being absent from our selves, mistaking the doing for the being.
Despite a steadily swelling human life expectancy, these concerns seem more urgent than ever — and yet they are hardly unique to our age. In fact, they go as far back as the record of human experience and endeavor. It is unsurprising, then, that the best treatment of the subject is also among the oldest: Roman philosopher Seneca’s spectacular 2,000-year-old treatise On the Shortness of Life (public library) — a poignant reminder of what we so deeply intuit yet so easily forget and so chronically fail to put into practice.
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.
Millennia before the now-tired adage that “time is money,” Seneca cautions that we fail to treat time as a valuable resource, even though it is arguably our most precious and least renewable one:
People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.
To those who so squander their time, he offers an unambiguous admonition:
You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply — though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire… How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!
Nineteen centuries later, Bertrand Russell, another of humanity’s greatest minds, lamented rhetorically, “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” But even Seneca, writing in the first century, saw busyness — that dual demon of distraction and preoccupation — as an addiction that stands in the way of mastering the art of living:
No activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied … since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply, but rejects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it. Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man; yet there is nothing which is harder to learn… Learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.
In our habitual compulsion to ensure that the next moment contains what this one lacks, Seneca suggests, we manage to become, as another wise man put it, “accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” Seneca writes:
Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who … organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day… Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied food which he does not want but can hold. So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbor, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.
Seneca is particularly skeptical of the double-edged sword of achievement and ambition — something David Foster Wallace would later eloquently censure — which causes us to steep in our cesspool of insecurity, dissatisfaction, and clinging:
It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return. New preoccupations take the place of the old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition. They do not look for an end to their misery, but simply change the reason for it.
This, Seneca cautions, is tenfold more toxic for the soul when one is working for the man, as it were, and toiling away toward goals laid out by another:
Indeed the state of all who are preoccupied is wretched, but the most wretched are those who are toiling not even at their own preoccupations, but must regulate their sleep by another’s, and their walk by another’s pace, and obey orders in those freest of all things, loving and hating. If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.
In one particularly prescient aside, Seneca makes a remark that crystallizes what is really at stake when a person asks, not to mention demands, another’s time — an admonition that applies with poignant precision to the modern malady of incessant meeting requests and the rather violating barrage of People Wanting Things:
All those who call you to themselves draw you away from yourself.
I am always surprised to see some people demanding the time of others and meeting a most obliging response. Both sides have in view the reason for which the time is asked and neither regards the time itself — as if nothing there is being asked for and nothing given. They are trifling with life’s most precious commodity, being deceived because it is an intangible thing, not open to inspection and therefore reckoned very cheap — in fact, almost without any value.
He suggests that protecting our time is essential self-care, and the opposite a dangerous form of self-neglect:
Nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing… We have to be more careful in preserving what will cease at an unknown point.
He captures what a perilous form of self-hypnosis our trance of busyness is:
No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favor. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.
But even “more idiotic,” to use his unambiguous language, than keeping ourselves busy is indulging the vice of procrastination — not the productivity-related kind, but the existential kind, that limiting longing for certainty and guarantees, which causes us to obsessively plan and chronically put off pursuing our greatest aspirations and living our greatest truths on the pretext that the future will somehow provide a more favorable backdrop:
Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.
Seneca reframes this with an apt metaphor:
You must match time’s swiftness with your speed in using it, and you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow… Just as travelers are beguiled by conversation or reading or some profound meditation, and find they have arrived at their destination before they knew they were approaching it; so it is with this unceasing and extremely fast-moving journey of life, which waking or sleeping we make at the same pace — the preoccupied become aware of it only when it is over.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his own occupation, Seneca points to the study of philosophy as the only worthwhile occupation of the mind and spirit — an invaluable teacher that helps us learn how to inhabit our own selves fully in this “brief and transient spell” of existence and expands our short lives sideways, so that we may live wide rather than long. He writes:
Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own. Unless we are very ungrateful, all those distinguished founders of holy creeds were born for us and prepared for us a way of life. By the toil of others we are led into the presence of things which have been brought from darkness into light.
From them you can take whatever you wish: it will not be their fault if you do not take your fill from them. What happiness, what a fine old age awaits the man who has made himself a client of these! He will have friends whose advice he can ask on the most important or the most trivial matters, whom he can consult daily about himself, who will tell him the truth without insulting him and praise him without flattery, who will offer him a pattern on which to model himself.
Perhaps most poignantly, however, Seneca suggests that philosophy offers a kind of spiritual reparenting to those of us who didn’t win the lottery of existence and didn’t benefit from the kind of nurturing, sound, fully present parenting that is so essential to the cultivation of inner wholeness:
We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be. There are households of the noblest intellects: choose the one into which you wish to be adopted, and you will inherit not only their name but their property too. Nor will this property need to be guarded meanly or grudgingly: the more it is shared out, the greater it will become. These will offer you a path to immortality and raise you to a point from which no one is cast down. This is the only way to prolong mortality — even to convert it to immortality.
In a stunning new book, author Vikram Chandra explores the mystical complexities hiding in our laptops and iPhones
Is computer code art? What binds two different acts of creation — writing fiction and programming a computer — together and what sunders them apart? To successfully answer such questions, one needs to be both a superlative writer and a smart programmer, equally at home building worlds out of words and software code.
In “Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty,” the novelist and programmer Vikram Chandra proves himself exactly that kind of multidimensional world traveler. Chandra weaves a comprehensive understanding of the history, practice and art of programming into a startling fabric that includes a fascinating dose of classical Indian philosophy and his own lifelong creative journey as a writer. Unexpected connections abound.
To pick just one typical example of his cross-discipline riffing:
At the end of a discussion (a meditation? exploration? evocation?) about something called dhvani – the theory of “aesthetic suggestion” formulated by 9th century Indian philosopher Anandavardhana – Chandra suddenly leaps across time and and space and quotes the American writer Flannery O’Connor:
You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning.
For a reviewer, Chandra’s diversion to O’Connor is a challenge and a subtle joke about the act of reading the book itself. What is ”Geek Sublime” about? Don’t ask me — just read it!
Like poetry, “Geek Sublime” seems designed not to be summarized, but to be felt. As the last words of the book resonate through your brain — “In the practice of fiction what is tasted — first and then again — is consciousness itself” — you’ll suddenly understand what the poet T. S. Eliot was trying to communicate when he described two years of Sanskrit study as having left him in “a state of enlightened mystification.”
(Did you know, by the way, that a very strong case can be made that Sanskrit was the first programming language? Because I did not. But thanks to Chandra, I am now convinced.)
Okay, yes, my job here is do more than evoke, and honestly, it isn’t that impossible a task. Because “Geek Sublime” turns out to be about a great many things. In the space of a mere 210 pages, Chandra covers broad territory. “Geek Sublime” is instantly essential to any further discussion of of whether computer code can be thought of as the same kind of exercise in creativity delivered by music or painting. (The short answer: no.) He brings keen new insight into the troubling gender divide in the American software industry. (His points about how the Indian software industry is far less male-dominated than in the U.S. crushes theories that programming is somehow intrinsically male.) Perhaps most unexpectedly, while exploring the psychology of coders and writers, he manages to integrate the vast legacy of Indian intellectual history into contemporary conversations about the meaning of art and experience. He manages to get as close to the machine as any previous literary inquisition of coding, to explain exactly how computing happens, how ones and zeroes are translated into action, while simultaneously soaring into the delicate ether of the most refined aesthetic spirituality. It is a dazzle, from beginning to end.
Who knew that Vikram Chandra — the author of three novels, and teacher of creative writing at UC Berkeley — was such a geek? When James Gleick (the author of “Chaos Theory” and “The Information”) reviewed “Geek Sublime” for the New York Times Book Review two weeks ago, I thought the name sounded familiar. And yes, it turned out that I had devoured Chandra’s sprawling, epic novel about India, “Sacred Games,” seven years ago. But of the fact that Chandra had supported his early writing life by working as a programmer, I had not a clue. That he’s as nimble manipulating code as he is at narrative flow was a revelation. Plenty of programmers consider themselves artists, and plenty of writers presume to declaim about programming. But very, very few can comfortably inhabit both worlds with such grace and precision.
“Fiction has been my vocation, and code my obsession,” writes Chandra. What, then, to make of a nonfiction work about code and fiction? If one of the key differences between code and fiction is that code actually has to work, in the real world, as a functioning tool, to achieve its desired goal — while fiction can be broken and shattered and not even make any obvious sense and still succeed in evoking a meaningful response — how do we appraise a nonfictional exploration of both the fictional and real?
Does it work? Yes, absolutely. But how? Not by tripping logic gates on a silicon chip, certainly, but through something more mysterious, the chemistry of synapses and cognition.
There is so much to be fascinated by here: Like, for instance, that the structure of Sanskrit appears to have influenced the structure and development of high-level programming languages in the U.S. — well before Indian programmers became a significant part of the American software industry.
His discussion of Indian philosophy opens up portals to a world of subtlety and sophistication that strips away Western cultural arrogance like acid dissolving a lacquered veneer. There’s so much we in the West still don’t have a clue about. There’s so much to learn and absorb. It turns out that vast historical tidal waves — the impact of British imperialism on India, for example — inform to this day how Indian and white programmers interact with each other in the cubicle farms of Silicon Valley.
Across thousands of years of history, from the India of his youth to the United States of his professional career, down deep in the nitty gritty of compilers and assembly language and object-oriented programming, “Geek Sublime” tells one coherent story about the creative process and our aesthetic reactions to art. There may be times when the newcomer to Indian philosophy can get a little lost in the intricacies of viyabhicaribhavas (“fleeting emotional states”) and samskaras and vasanas (“latent impressions”) but sometimes poetry can be inscrutable and still pack a payoff.
And then there’s rasa, a word that, Chandra writes, “literally means ‘taste’ or ‘juice’” — but in the context of classical Indian discourse is defined as “the aestheticized satisfaction or ‘sentiment’ of tasting artificially induced emotions.”
Chandra is all about the rasa. Because that’s what artists do, right? And that’s why writers write, isn’t it? We want you to feel the rasa. We will artificially induce your emotions and you will love us for it.
The chief dialectician of rasa, Abhinavagupta, the 10th century mystic, aesthetician, musician, poet, dramatist, theologist and logician who is considered one of India’s greatest philosophers (and of whom I knew zilch about before reading “Geek Sublime”) comes off, through Chandra’s telling, as a pretty smart guy.
Abhinavagupta tells us that his teacher said, “Rasa is delight, delight is the drama; and the drama is the Veda,” the goal of wisdom.
“Geek Sublime” is a wise book.
Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.