The Positivity Pushers

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In her New York Times article “The Power of Positive People,” Tara Parker-Pope tells us that we should surround ourselves with positive people, for the sake of our happiness and health. Her article brought a slew of objections–including a comment from me and one from my friend Jenny Golub.

I would not want to cut my slightly grumpy friends from my life–or to be cut off when going through a difficult time or speaking critically of something. “Positivity” is a vague term, but for some people it means “never complaining” or even “never criticizing.” The Iliad–and most of humanity–would be off limits for someone who sought only positive voices and views. Krasznahorkai and Bellow, Gogol and O’Connor would be off the charts.

Like me, but in different words, many of the commenters reject the premise that people can be classified as “positive” or “negative” and that the “positive” people are more valuable. In addition, they question the business of boosting one’s personal happiness without pause or perspective. “Moreover,” Jenny writes, “there is hard work to be done and genuine suffering to alleviate. Let’s just do the work—together—and stop worrying about that illusory, elusive, untrustworthy concept called ‘happiness.'”

That last point deserves an entire book. The “pursuit of happiness” has many meanings, but when it becomes a mandate and a fad, when people are told to do X, Y, and Z to become happier, then happiness loses whatever good it might have.

The current positivity movement–at least as described in the article–makes little room for suffering and self-questioning. Parker-Pope approvingly cites the work of the Blue Zone Team, which offers to help people assess and shape their social networks. For instance, the Team offers a tool for rating your current friends:

The Blue Zone team has created a quiz to help people assess the positive impact of their own social network. The quiz asks questions about your friends and the state of their health, how much they drink, eat and exercise, as well as their outlook. The goal of the quiz is not to dump your less healthy friends, but to identify the people in your life who score the highest and to spend more time with them.

Such a quiz promotes at least four ills: rating one’s friends in the first place (not to mention rating them against each other), rating them according to others’ criteria, treating the ratings as truth, and treating friends as subservient to one’s own agenda.

Parker-Pope and others might respond that they are not encouraging people to rate each other numerically–or to dump anyone in particular–but rather to take social inventory and act upon it. Well, if inventory is the point here, isn’t one better off examining how one is treating others? People are not obligated to be friends–some friendships take hold and others do not, for a panoply of reasons–but probably everyone has shied away from someone’s suffering. Probably everyone has, at some point, belittled someone who did not deserve to be belittled, ignored someone’s kind gestures, held grudges without good reason, or just not bothered to find out who someone was.

The point of such “inventory” need not be to heap guilt upon guilt or embark on a big project of forced amends, but to question one’s ways of regarding and treating others and to make a few genuine shifts.

Moreover, there is something to be said for grim jokes and rotund tears. When there is too much pressure to be happy, to speak in ever-cheery terms, you find yourself sneaking to the library to read Chekhov or Chesterton–whose works deserve much more than a peek or two on the sly. Why not begin more richly?

Yes, some people can drag others down with their attitudes and outlooks–but this isn’t a question of “negativity.” Such a drag can come from excessive self-assurance, in which the positivity pushers participate. It can also come from a bad or outworn habit in the friendship itself. The solution (if there is one) is not to surround oneself with “positive” people but to treat others frankly and kindly, acknowledge the unknown in them, and seek a fitting form of association with them. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes not; both ease and difficulty have a place in friendship, even in acquaintanceship, even in strangerhood.

Not for its lessons here, but for its gorgeousness and illumination, I recommend William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, which I can’t wait to read again.

 

I took the photo of Pollux at the Dallas Institute on Monday. Also, I added to this piece (several times) after posting it.

Reading and Rereading

kosice bookstoreThis is the first of three blog posts on the pitfalls of moving on. (See the introduction here.) Of all the examples of fruitful return, rereading stands out as both obvious and splendid. For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed rereading more than first-time reading; in remembering and rediscovering the book (or poem or play), I not only see new things in it but grasp a different whole. For this to happen, the work does not have to present explicit difficulties; I can reread Lorca’s poem “La guitarra” (in his Poema del cante jondo) and find new clarities and darknesses in it, even though nothing seemed to stump me on the first round.

Continual rereading has its own pitfalls; if you never get around to new books, you will limit the rereading itself. To reread a book, you must have read it in the first place; you must put those old favorites aside and take up this bulky thing that you do not yet know. This is my main “reading difficulty”: those stacks of unread books in my good intentions.

Rereading, then, can only accompany first-time reading. But our culture and economy seem tipped toward the latter: the latest book, the book club selections, the titles that everyone is talking about for a short while. Many of these books disappear as quickly as they come, but if they manage to squeeze some fame and sales out of the air, the publishers and publicists will not complain. Publishers do care what comes out of their presses, but they have to prosper too. So they will publish many urban daylilies along with a few bristlecone pines.

One possible measure of literary quality is longevity: how many times, or over how much time, a work can be read with new understanding and pleasure. A few publishers base their entire work on this principle. Library of America “champions our nation’s cultural heritage by publishing America’s greatest writing in authoritative new editions and providing resources for readers to explore this rich, living legacy.” Thus the Library of America’s work consists not only of republishing but of rereading too–and reading works that have been there for decades or centuries but that we barely acknowledged with a soporific quote.

A spirit of rereading makes room for first-time readings too. When you look back, you make room for those works you missed. Cynthia Haven’s “Another Look” book discussion series, which she founded with Tobias Wolff, focuses on books that deserve more attention than they have received. For many, these books may be first-time reads, but the club’s name, “Another Look,” suggests return. The series kicked off with William Maxwell’s short novel So Long, See You Tomorrow. I had not read it before; although I could not attend the discussion, I purchased a Library of America edition, read it in time for the event, brought it into my life, and now look forward to a third reading.

So returns and rereading can dissolve the highways of popularity and bring newness out of dust. But it is a complex matter. Exclusive rereading (with no new books) and exclusive first-time reading (with no returns) both constrict. Nor is there a perfect proportion; the balance or imbalance may vary. But rereading can offer a strong corrective to a culture bent on “moving on” to the next new thing. What just came out is not necessarily more important than what came out years ago.

Each summer, at the Dallas Institute, my colleagues and I teach literature: epic in the odd-numbered years and tragedy and comedy in the even-numbered years. This year, when returning to King Lear, I admired the scene where Edgar (in the guise of a stranger) pretends to assist his blinded father, Gloucester, in jumping off a cliff but actually saves him. Having attained the make-believe cliff, which actually is nothing, they have the following exchange (Lear 4.6.25-41):

Edgar. Give me your hand: you are now within a foot
Of th’ extreme verge: for all beneath the moon
Would I not leap upright.

Gloucester.                            Let go my hand.
Here, friend, ‘s another purse; in it a jewel
Well worth a poor man’s taking. Fairies and gods
Prosper it with thee! Go thou further off;
Bid me farewell, and let me hear thee going.

Edgar. Now fare ye well, good sir.

Gloucester. With all my heart.

Edgar. [Aside] Why I do trifle thus with his despair
Is done to cure it.

Gloucester says farewell to the world, jumps, “falls,” and is rescued by Edgar in the guise of another stranger, who speaks of his miraculous survival.

Edgar. Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,
So many fathom down precipatating,
Thou’dst shivered like an egg: but thou dost breathe;
Hast heavy substance; bleed’st not; speak’st; art sound.
Ten masts at each make not the altitude
Which thou hast perpendicularly fell:
Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.

I have read and loved this scene many times. But on this reading, Edgar’s aside stood out: “Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it.” This may seem an unnecessary explanation; the audience can already guess that Edgar intends to save his father’s life. But Edgar speaks here not of saving a life, but of curing despair; he makes a striking connection between “trifling” with the despair and “curing” it. He invents a lightness, which then surrounds Gloucester’s unfatal fall. “Thy life’s a miracle,” says Edgar–but what makes it a miracle is this very trifling, this creation of precipice, fall, and survival out of level land.

That’s what happens with rereading: it is choreography of words, where the dancers surprise you even after you think you know the whole dance. Rereading holds you up to the book and says, “There’s more, there’s more.”

 

I took the photo in Košice on May 29.

“Thank God There’s Still the Dictionary”

That is an untranslatable line from Tomas Venclova’s poem “Sutema pasitiko šalčiu.” In my translation (in Winter Dialogue and The Junction), the line reads, for the sake of rhythm, “Thank God for the dictionary,” which misses some of the wit. I was never satisfied with my translation of that line, but the alternatives were awkward. In Lithuanian, it’s brilliantly terse and ironic: “Ačiū Dievui, dar esti žodynas.” This poem comes to my mind almost every day, so it seems fitting to bring it up at Thanksgiving.

I enjoy giving thanks but keep them scant when saying them out loud. This entry is much shorter than my thoughts.

I had a beautiful few days at the annual meeting of the National Association of Schools of Music, where I gave a talk on Monday. I will be thinking about the event and the conversations for a long time.

A few books have taken up residence in my life: Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking by David Bromwich; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (thanks to Cynthia Haven and, indirectly, Tobias Wolff for bringing it to my attention); and Taking the Back off the Watch: A Personal Memoir by Thomas Gold.

In addition, I have returned to a few favorites, including The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy and Reflections on Espionage by John Hollander.

I generally avoid mentioning my students on this blog, as I respect their privacy and try to keep my teaching separate from my writing. But something happened today that clinched my gratitude.

My tenth-grade students are reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou. For today’s lesson, I planned to discuss a few passages involving “confrontation” with the You, such as the one on p. 59 (of Walter Kaufmann’s translation):

When I confront a human being as my You, and speak the basic word I-You to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things.

He is no longer He or She, limited by other Hes and Shes, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is You and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.

After we read this and another passage, I had my students listen to Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which has to do, in a way, with such a confrontation and is worth reading for itself.

My students (in one particular section) were full of ideas and eager to talk about the Buber. Then, when I introduced the Rilke poem to them, a few of them lost their certainty. They didn’t understand how a headless torso could see the person or what that might mean.

They grasped that this was an extraordinary encounter–that the statue’s radiance and life exceeded what the person (addressed as “you” in the poem) had known before, and that he had to confront his own partial life. Several students said this in different ways. They understood the meaning of Apollo; they could imagine how a headless statue might radiate from the inside. But how could it see anything?

I told them that one day they might come in contact with something–a piece of music, a book, a painting, or a poem–that seemed to see and know them. (That’s only an approximation of Rilke’s meaning, but I wanted to give them an entry.)

Then one student said solemnly, “I have a poem that does that. ‘Jabberwocky.'”

A Book Club for Overlooked Masterpieces

Cynthia Haven’s blog The Book Haven is one of the richest and most thougthful blogs I have encountered. I love reading her pieces on Joseph Brodsky, Tomas Venclova, Czesław Miłosz, and others. So, it was an honor to see that one of my recent pieces had inspired her to listen to a recording of Tomas Venclova reading his own poetry.

Today, when I visited her blog, I read a post that answered some questions that have been on my mind: How does one draw attention to a book one loves, a book that has been in some way overlooked, and how does one give such a book to others?

Cynthia Haven and Tobias Wolff have found a way to do just that. They created a book club devoted not to the book of the moment, but to overlooked masterpieces. It’s called “Another Look” and will debut on November 12, at Stanford University, with a discussion of William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.

I was so happy to read this news that I trekked out to the local bookstore in Park Slope (about two neighborhoods away from me) to purchase Maxwell’s novel, which I have not read. I rarely have room for book recommendations; I read slowly and am severely backlogged. But this was something too special to pass over.

I hadn’t been out since the storm, except to get coffee, so this was my first stretch of the legs in several days, in the midst of tourist-like residents who were taking photos of fallen branches. Fortunately that was the extent of the damage, from what I could tell, in this part of Brooklyn.

The bookstore didn’t have the novel on its own, but it did have a volume of Maxwell’s later novels and stories, which I gratefully seized (and purchased). I came home and read two of Maxwell’s short stories: “The Man Who Had No Friends and Didn’t Want Any” and “A Fable Begotten of an Echo of a Line of Verse by W. B. Yeats.” Now I know I have a treasure in my hands, or many treasures.

I will read So Long, See You Tomorrow by November 12 so that I can imagine the book discussion. What a great thing for Wolff, Haven, and the other participants to do.

Wolff’s own stories need no recommendation from me–but if anyone wishes for a place to start, I recommend his collection In the Garden of the North American MartyrsHis novel, Old School, has been on my mind a great deal lately. I commented on it recently and may say more about it soon.