On kindness (with a short digression)

If I had to choose a phrase for a tattoo covering both of my forearms the winner would be “Kindness Rulez”. A close runner-up would be “Keep It Real”, but the former has at least two advantages: (1) It consists of exactly two words, which perfectly matches my number of forearms; (2) if I were ever forced to assume a defensive position in a fistfight, my tattoo would probably discourage my opponent from punching too hard, or maybe even scare him or her off entirely. Note: Kindness does not only rule, it also has subversive potential.

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Bracing myself for a fistfight.

What prompted me to think about kindness was a short autobiographical text by George Saunders (who also made an appearance in an earlier post, and whose stories frequently radiate kindness). In it, he reflects on his education — both writerly and moral, I’d say. This is what Saunders writes about one of his teachers at Syracuse, Tobias Wolff:

Toby is a powerful man: in his physicality, in his experiences, in his charisma. But all that power has culminated in gentleness. It is as if that is the point of power: to allow one to access the higher registers of gentleness.

Kindness, or gentleness, to me, signifies strength, not weakness. Genuinely kind people seem to be those who have figured the important things out, those whose life seems to rest on the firm footing of certain unwavering and worthy ideals. Kindness is an attitude we take towards people, of course, but also towards non-human animals, nature, and inanimate objects. Kindness towards people is not the same as mere friendliness or joviality, but rather a genuine will to see the good in others, to conceive of them as worthy of consideration and respect, regardless of their accomplishments. I also think that it goes hand in hand with a willingness to change one’s perspective.

When I was a first-year student, I took a course that was designed to help us develop some basic scientfic skills such as conducting a literature search, writing a term paper and citing correctly, or giving a short talk. From this course, I grasped a somewhat perverted notion of constructive criticism: Whenever you have to criticize a shitty talk or paper, start by saying something nice first; just find something nice to say, whatever it is, for f***s sake! I’m not sure who is to blame for my early misconception of what constructive criticism consists in — but I myself was probably no less culpable than the course’s instructor. From Saunders’ text I grasp a different, more apt (partial) characterization of constructive criticism: Find something good and mean it. This determination to find something good and mean it — in a text, in a talk, in a person — is one aspect of being a kind person, I guess.

What I also grasp from Saunders’ text is a certain idea(l) of teaching that I would subscribe to. According to this idea(l), the goal of teaching is not, or not primarily, knowledge transfer, or the imparting of certain intellectual skills. Rather, teaching is conceived of as an effort to help others develop a well-rounded personality. The acquisition of intellectual skills is, of course, a part of that, but it’s a part only. To a certain extent, and for better or worse, teachers are role models. Here is some anecdotal evidence: During my many years in school I have acquired various skills and accumulated some pieces of knowledge (I still remember some facts about acetabularia mediterranea). But what really stuck with me about our teachers was not the amount of knowledge they were able to impart, or the number or level of skills I owe to them, but their personality and the way they treated us students.

Digression: Re-reading Saunders’ reflections I was also struck by the following lines, which touch upon what I wrote about getting lost in literature:

The story is not some ossified, cerebral thing: it is entertainment, active entertainment, of the highest variety. All of those things I’ve been learning about in class, those bone-chilling abstractions theme, plot, and symbol are de-abstracted by hearing Toby read Chekhov aloud: they are simply tools with which to make your audience feel more deeply—methods of creating higher-order meaning. The stories and Toby’s reading of them convey a notion new to me, or one which, in the somber cathedral of academia, I’d forgotten: literature is a form of fondness-for-life. It is love for life taking verbal form.

Back to kindness: Now, to make this blogpost even more confusing, I feel compelled to include a further video. It’s a talk by David Foster Wallace. In essence, its message is: “Being an adult is hard. It is hard for others, too. Get out of your own head. Be kind to others. Don’t be a jerk. Or, at least, try not to be.” But Wallace, like Saunders, has a way with words — and that’s why one should listen to the talk in full and not rely on my very brief summary of its essential points.

Related bookmarks (to be deleted after publication of this post):

On getting lost (Part II)

In my earlier post on getting lost in literature I wrote that “I usually don’t approach literature with an analytical stance, but like to immerse myself in a story.” That’s not entirely true — or, better yet, it’s not the whole truth. Because sometimes I do feel compelled to approach some piece of writing in a more analytical way, to attend to the author’s choice of words and punctuation, to sentence structure and imagery.

But in order for that to happen, two other things (usually) need to happen first: (1) The novel/short story/poem/… has to resonate with me, by which I probably mean the evocation of some sort of emotional reaction (not just any sort of emotional reaction, but I’m too lazy to dig deeper right now), and (2) I need to have the impression that the particular writing style has a significant role to play in said evocation.

The relation between style and what might, perhaps, best be called mood is, perhaps, most obvious in poetry. (Lots of perhapses today. But better perhapses than lapses.) The abundance of dashes in Dickinson’s writing, for example, often contributes to her poems’ specific mood. (Needless to say that, had she owned a keyboard, she would have made sure to dash the fuck out of it.)

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

Another example that comes to mind is “Fox 8”, a story by George Saunders. According to the Bloomsbury website, it tells a story of “human greed and nature” — from the point of view of a young, dreamy, and somewhat naive fox, who also speaks “Yuman” pretty well. For a fox, that is. Saunders gives this particular fox a unique voice that captures his character and worldview extremely well.

We do not trik Chikens! We are very open and honest with Chikens! With Chikens, we have a Super Fare Deel, which is they make the egs, we take the egs, they make more egs. Not Sly at all. Very strate forword.

The above feels somewhat incomplete and too short, even for a blogpost. Maybe I’ll get back to getting lost in a third post. Or I’ll finally turn to horses. We’ll see.

 

On getting lost (Part I)

I was planning to finally improve upon my early diary entries and write a decent blogpost about why horses are great. I would have made sure to have some bookmarks ready to substantiate my firm opinions about their general adorability. Things, however, don’t always go as planned.

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Early efforts in second languages. Sadly, Sally and I didn’t remain girlfriends forever.

Because today I read the following lines by Patti Smith:

Personally, I’m not much for symbolism. I never get it. Why can’t things just be as they are? I never thought to psychoanalyze Seymour Glass or sought to break down “Desolation Row”. I just wanted to get lost, become one with somewhere else, slip a wreath on a steeple top solely because I wished it.

These lines are part of a short paragraph devoted to Smith’s reflections on her reading habits, and they struck quite a chord with me. I have always been sort of an escapist reader. I usually don’t approach literature with an analytical stance, but like to immerse myself in a story — get lost. Whenever I read for pleasure I assume a horizontal position: nothing better than to slide from a story into a daydream and back again. I also tend to empathize with literary characters, or with fictional characters in general. They grow dear to me, as do their creators.

My escapist tendencies go hand in hand with a preference for an unobtrusive style. Good fiction writers make immersion into their stories feel effortless. They have no need to show off their rhetoric abilities, they don’t have to pile up intertextual references or create elaborate puzzles that require an entire wiki to solve (sorry, Thomas Pynchon). They don’t, to quote Jonathan Franzen, “let their writerly ego […] intrude on the pure story.” In writing, as in many other areas, good does not necessarily equal difficult.

Related bookmarks (to be deleted after publication of this blogpost):

Half empty (Part II)

I still miss my grandma. She wasn’t much of a talker but preferred to show her affection through cooking. Many dishes inevitably remind me of her. My favorite: hash browns. There was an air of stoicism around her. After her death I found myself wishing she had complained a little more often. She would have had more than enough reason to do so — it just wasn’t her style, I guess.

My grandfather misses my grandma, too. A lot. Roughly four years since her passing, he still refuses to clear out her wardrobe. He visits her grave almost daily as, he says, there’s always something to fix — some leaves to be removed, some flowers to be rearranged. My grandfather probably meets enough of the diagnostic criteria for “persistent complex bereavement disorder” specified in the DSM-5. Or, at least, he has probably met enough of them over a period much longer than six months. And it was him who immediately crossed my mind when I read the following lines from a relatively recent article on aeon:

The tendency that goes together with overpromotion of happiness is stigmatisation of the opposite of happiness – emotional suffering, such as depression, anxiety, grief or disappointment.

For while at various points I hoped that my grandfather would eventually play his accordion again, or join the local Nordic walking group, I was and still am reluctant to count his inability to move on as a disorder. He has suffered a terrible loss, and he has every right to mourn it however and for as long as he pleases.

I’m not a foe of happiness. But the happiness I’m interested in, the kind of happiness that, to me, seems worth striving for, is a happiness despite. It’s a happiness that doesn’t deny the more — pardon — shitty aspects of reality, but keeps them in full view.

I have long suspected that slightly depressed people — or people we would likely describe as slightly depressed — have a more accurate view of the world and themselves. Studies in psychology and behavioral economy indicate our general susceptibility to a number of cognitive biases. A tendency to overestimate one’s control over life’s events, one’s abilities and efforts, seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Intuitively, the claim — labeled “depressive realism” — that people who show some amount of downward deviation from an overly optimistic baseline are, in fact, more trustworthy judges of reality than those who do not makes sense to me.

A positively distorted worldview and self-image might make life easier, or improve one’s ability to function. But it might have its downsides as well, especially with regard to others. A tendency to ascribe one’s successes to one’s own efforts and abilities while “reason[ing] away negative events” (link) often goes hand in hand with a tendency to judge the failures of others overly harshly — they must have been lazy, or they just don’t have what it takes. Julie Reshe, the author of the aeon piece, writes that her depression helped her develop “a deeper understanding of the suffering of others.” This relates to the notion of empathy, or compassion, that is central to philosophical pessimism. So, again, I think that a worldview that is frequently labeled “pessimistic”, or a disposition that is frequently labeled “(slightly) depressed”, might actually make us better persons.

 

Writing in one’s second language (Part III)

Some people prefer writing in their second language to writing in their first — not, or not only, because of pragmatic reasons such as an increased reach, but for more personal ones. In my previous posts (part I & part II) on this topic I ventured two guesses as to why writing in one’s second language might sometimes feel more adequate: reflective and therapeutic distance. By “reflective distance” I meant a less habitualized and more playful way of using a language that promotes self-expression. By “therapeutic distance” I meant a certain degree of detachment from one’s thinking habits that facilitates engagement with difficult or painful topics. There’s certainly some overlap between both kinds of distance, and I suspect that both have a role to play in “finding one’s voice” — the subject of this post.

I so fear the word of men.
They pronounce everything so distinctly.
And this is called dog and that is called house,
and here it begins and the end’s over there.

(R. M. Rilke 1897/1899, translated)

Finding your voice is hard, especially if you’re not exactly the opinionated type to begin with or tend to second-guess yourself. Each sentence you put down on paper (or screen) might strike you as too confident, too definitive. And how can you ever hope to capture subtle moods or shifts thereof by words such as “happy” or “sad”, “angry” or “frustrated”? Putting things into words can feel confining, as if it thwarted rather than fostered one’s striving for authenticity and sincerity.

When I first started blogging, all my posts felt wrong. And I remember the same feeling regarding my early diary entries, which preceded any eventual blogposts, and which mostly dealt with horses. Sometimes the products of blogging and journaling still feel off to me, but less so. In part, that is certainly due to the shedding of my preconceived notions of what a decent piece of writing looks like — no, you don’t really need a big idea; and no, your sentences don’t have to be complicated; and yes, there may be repetitions; and no, uncommon words ain’t essential. If you really, really like dashes and brackets, go for it, keep them. Dash the fuck out of your keyboard!

More importantly, however, I allow myself a different perspective on what I have written. I now like to think that our sentences don’t define us, they reflect a momentary stage of our lives, they are snapshots. I once called myself a “futility maximizer”. Do I really see myself that way? Sometimes, maybe. I also once wrote a somewhat pathetic rant about small towns and an accusatory piece called “bitter pill”. It’s okay to exaggerate. We all have our more dramatic moments. Why not own them?

Another thing to let go of: fear of imitation. Our own voices are a distillate of a wild mixture of influences. Our selves emerge through engagement with and in distinction from others. And this, finally, forges a connection to the topic of this little trilogy, second languages. Because if your most cherished authors — those, whose voices you admire, whose writings inspire you — write in a language different from your native one, this might quite naturally yield a desire to emulate.

Half empty (Part I)

— “I say pessimist, you say killjoy! Pessimist!”
— “Killjoy!”
— “Pessimist!”
— “Killjoy!”

Pessimists are those grumpy fellows, right? Toxic personalities that are prone to constant complaining? Human-shaped stumbling blocks one is well-advised to steer clear off so as not to jeopardize one’s personal development? Well, maybe not. To be sure, pessimism is not exactly popular in circles in which the prevalent attitude is one of can-do, or among people with a distinct “Silicon Valley mindset” who take each instance of failure as an occasion for a witty and ultimately optimistic fuckup night. (Pardon my exaggeration. Sometimes my grumpyness gets the better of me.)

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Poor Mr. Beckett, if only you had known how many motivational posters in the corridors of startup incubators your wise words would some day adorn.

And yet pessimism, philosophical pessimism, is more than bitter nagging disguised by a thin veneer of scholarship. Or so I think. To me, the writings of pessimists — think Schopenhauer, or the over-the-top vitriol of Cioran — convey an understanding of the existential challenges each of us faces, provided we choose not to avert our eyes. In a sense, we are all bound to become “acquainted with the night“. Bad stuff is bound to happen to all of us, sometimes sooner, sometimes later. (And it’s not as if pessimists have nothing on offer to ease the pain: art, humor, philosophy, love provide solace in obliviousness.) Hidden behind pessimists’ sourly dispositions and snide remarks, it seems to me, is a deep compassion for humanity at large — and, at least in Schopenhauer’s case, not only humanity, but also the animal world. This is not what a misanthrope looks or sounds like, not really. Empathy takes pessimism’s edge off. In order to find the true misanthropes we might have to look somewhere else than into the writings of the self-professed ones.

And now it gets a little new-agey: I think what pessimists might teach us is not to sugarcoat or suppress what seems unbearable, to allow for our occasional bouts of fear or despair — they issue an invitation to accept, if not embrace, our vulnerability. And that, in turn, might actually make us better persons. Wait. What exactly did I just write? I fear I might just have made an optimism-infused plea on behalf of a pessimistic worldview. I proudly present my preferred version of pessimism: a sheep in wolves’ clothing. Namaste.

I’ll end this somewhat rambling post with one of Cioran’s aphorisms:

Only one thing that counts: learning how to be a loser.

That’s something to aspire to, no? To let go of one’s narcissism? To come to terms with one’s imperfections? To allow ourselves to see that, in many cases, control is illusory? So in the spirit of BoJack Horseman I say:

truedat

In the second part of this post I will, — hopefully, if things go as planned, if nothing bad happens — turn to the phenomenon (if it is a phenomenon) of depressive realism.

Related bookmarks (to be deleted after publication of this post):

Writing in one’s second language (Part II)

Why would someone choose to write in his or her second language? In my previous post I speculated that a second language shapes the writing process in a way that admits of something I called “reflective distance”.

I think that writing in a second language allows for a different kind of distance as well: distance from our former selves. In a certain sense, a second language provides the means to become someone else — without having to undergo plastic surgery or a brain transplant first. Yay to that!

Maybe one could call the kind of distance I have in mind “therapeutic”. Some writing, especially autobiographical writing, is a way of coming to terms with one’s own history. But one’s mother tongue is inextricably linked with one’s family (and often also one’s place) of origin; and because of its close ties to painful memories or trying life events we might feel as if our first language renders us speechless. Certain words or phrases might even send us down a spiral staircase of obsessive rumination. That’s probably not be the best place to start creative work from. Therapeutic distance, it seems, is what the Iraqi writer Abbas Khider is getting at when he says that he felt compelled to switch from Arabic to German during the Iraq War.

A big part of any therapeutic process is to let go of some of one’s entrenched beliefs, to discover, inspect, and — eventually — discard certain mantras one has taken over from one’s parents, peers, or society at large. In order to do so, some amount of detachment from our own thinking habits is needed. A different language, I suspect, can facilitate the process. It allows us to view ourselves from a second-person standpoint: By temporarily speaking or writing in a different voice we become “someone else”, which, in turn, enables us to get a sense of our own embeddedness.

 

Writing in one’s second language (Part I)

The German pop band Tocotronic has a song called “Über Sex kann man nur auf Englisch singen” — “only in English can one sing about sex”. And although I wouldn’t agree with this particular example — what about “voulez-vouz coucher avec moi, ce soir”, after all — something about the song title certainly rings true for me. I’d like to understand why. What follows is a first stab, but I plan on adding two further posts on “becoming someone else” and “finding one’s voice”, respectively.

My first language is German. I first encountered my second language, English, when I began grammar school at the age of ten. Our teacher, Mr. Kaum (or “Mr. Hardly”, as he called himself jokingly), began his first day of teaching our class with the words “This is a hedgehog”, pointing to a corresponding small stuffed animal. I have loved English ever since. I wonder if I would have loved it as much had our teacher been someone else, or had Mr. Kaum begun our first lesson with another sentence, or another stuffed animal.

Most of the time, our use of a second language is not exactly a choice. English, by now, is the standard language for scientific publications, and many or most prestigious journals are anglophone — so if you want your work to have an impact, you better not write in German (or Danish, or Turkish — you get the gist). And immigrants, of course, are often required to use some other than their native language in their communication with administrative authorities. Et cetera.

So I was somewhat surprised to learn how many writers, serious and accomplished writers, chose and choose to write in some language other than their mother tongue. Now, I wouldn’t call myself a writer, much less a serious one, but I could relate. Over the past years, I gradually switched to writing more and more of my occasional diary entries, (nonsense) poems, and aphorisms in English. And I chose to do so not only because of my undeniable soft spot for the English language, but because writing in English often feels more authentic or sincere to me. As if this particular language provided the means to express my thoughts more adequately, as if it allowed me to tap into my emotions and put them on paper — or screen — comparatively unobscured. Maybe I delude myself. But suppose my impression is correct. Why is that? How is that even possible?

A partial answer to this question, I suppose, is: reflective distance. My choice of words, my way of putting things in English is not quite as automatic, not as habitualized as if I were to write in German. If I have a vague feeling, say, and I would like to put this feeling into words, a German word might immediately come to mind. Maybe, probably, I would be content to use this word if my text were to be written in German. If I plan on writing in English, however, I frequently look up the German word’s English (rough) equivalent, take note of its close and not-so-close relatives, and I actively search for the term that most accurately represents my experience. Our mother tongue offers many well-trodden paths, and this, I suspect, comes with a downside: the danger of cliché.

Also, and relatedly, the element of playfulness seems more pronounced in one’s use of a second language. And this might have something to do with the fact that the way we learn a second language differs considerably from the acquisition of our first. First-language acquisition equals immersion into a practice, while in learning a second language we experience and are compelled to reflect on words as tools.

As to why I love this particular second language, English, I think that it lends itself to a distinct style that I would describe as terse, or lapidar. So I often feel as if by using English I can safeguard myself against pretentiousness. No idea if it works, though.

Related bookmarks (to be deleted after publication of this blogpost):