Ursula K. Le Guin and the “myth of the veneer”

Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin (who is easily in the topmost tier of my favorite writers ever) dismantles a common conception I’ve had a problem with for a long time — the idea that everything good about human society is merely a mask concealing our “true” destructive urges:

If you peel away a veneer, you reveal a solid substance of a different nature from the veneer. If law and moral convention are a veneer, the implication is that they are a thin, artificial disguise or prettification of something substantial but less pretty.

What is this substance?

Are we to assume the substance revealed is that of social relations in their raw state?

Does a raw state postulate some “natural” or prehistoric phase of human existence, a pre-social state in which there was no social code, and each individual invented behavior and relationship from scratch?

Social animals such as man all live within a system of rules of behavior and relationship, some innate and some learned, which limit violence within the group, facilitate communication, and make repeated betrayal of trust unprofitable. Almost all human beings, even infants, are continuously engaged in intensely complex mutual human relationships taking place within a society and culture consisting of rules, laws, traditions, institutions, etc. that specify and regulate the nature and manner of those relationships.

There is no evidence that human beings ever lived in asocial anarchy, and much evidence that, like other social animals, they have always lived within a social system. The rules differ greatly, but there are never no rules.

In other words, law and moral convention — social control of behavior and relationship — is not an artificial, enforced constraint, but a substantial element of our existence as members of our species. Non-violent, informative, trustworthy behavior is fully as natural to us as violence, lying, and betrayal.

I’m reading Le Guin’s The Eye of the Heron right now, and I’m struck by how this theme plays out in that novel as well, as two groups of people explore different conflict-resolution strategies — violence versus nonviolence, cooperation versus coercion, reasoning together versus deception and terrorism — and Le Guin awesomely refuses to privilege one approach as more “natural” or “valid” than the other.

We’re all people, figuring things out, and there’s no “human nature” that dictates that we must inevitably take the darker road; whenever we choose the more civilized path, we’re not denying our nature but affirming it, as evolved social beings. We are, by nature, capable of both the best and the worst that we can imagine. What’s left is the will to choose.

There’s more to Le Guin’s essay; read it in its entirety here.

(Photo by Andy Black)

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“Live fully, wildly, imperfectly”

From a must-read Facebook post by Anne Lamott:

“[P]erfectionism [...] is the great enemy of the writer, and of life, our sweet messy beautiful screwed up human lives. It is the voice of the oppressor. It will keep you very scared and restless your entire life if you do not awaken, and fight back, and if you’re an artist, it will destroy you. [...]

Do you mind even a little that you are still addicted to people-pleasing, and are still putting everyone else’s needs and laundry and career ahead of your creative, spiritual life? Giving all your life force away, to “help” and impress. Well, your help is not helpful, and falls short.

Look, I struggle with this. I hate to be criticized. I am just the tiniest bit more sensitive than the average bear. [...]

Yet, I get to tell my truth. I get to seek meaning and realization. I get to live fully, wildly, imperfectly. That’s why I’m alive. And all I actually have to offer as a writer, is my version of life. Every single thing that has happened to me is mine. [...]

Is it okay with you that you blow off your writing, or whatever your creative/spiritual calling, because your priority is to go to the gym or do yoga five days a week? Would you give us one of those days back, to play or study poetry? To have an awakening? Have you asked yourself lately, “How alive am I willing to be?” It’s all going very quickly. [...]

It’s time to get serious about joy and fulfillment, work on our books, songs, dances, gardens. But perfectionism is always lurking nearby, like the demonic prowling lion in the Old Testament, waiting to pounce. It will convince you that your work-in-progress is not great, and that you may never get published. [...]

Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen. Repent just means to change direction — and NOT to be said by someone who is waggling their forefinger at you. Repentance is a blessing. Pick a new direction, one you wouldn’t mind ending up at, and aim for that. Shoot the moon.

Here’s how to break through the perfectionism: make a LOT of mistakes. Fall on your butt more often. Waste more paper, printing out your shitty first drafts, and maybe send a check to the Sierra Club. Celebrate messes–these are where the goods are. Put something on the calendar that you know you’ll be terrible at, like dance lessons, or a meditation retreat, or boot camp. Find a writing partner, who will help you with your work, by reading it for you, and telling you the truth about it, with respect, to help you make it better and better; for whom you will do the same thing. Find someone who wants to steal his or her life back, too. Now; today. One wild and crazy thing: wears shorts out in public if it is hot, even if your legs are milky white or heavy. Go to a poetry slam. Go to open mike,and read the story you wrote about the hilariously god-awful family reunion, with a trusted friend, even though it could be better, and would hurt Uncle Ed’s feelings if he read it, which he isn’t going to. [...]

At work, you begin to fulfill your artistic destiny. Wow! A reviewer may hate your style, or newspapers may neglect you, or 500 people may tell you that you are bitter, delusional and boring.

Let me ask you this: in the big juicy Zorba scheme of things, who fucking cares?”

__________

Time to Do. The. Work.

(And for a broader sociocultural take on the destructiveness of perfectionism, see my musings here on Timothy Ferris’s excellent The Science of Liberty.)

(via Brain Pickings; photo by Mark Richards)

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“Keep the channel open”

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

– Martha Graham

as spotted in a bathroom sign at Siggy’s Good Food, in Manhattan

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Why libraries matter: “Libraries Now — A Day in the Life”

If anyone out there is still wondering whether libraries are relevant in the 21st century, let this powerfully moving video by Julie Dressner and Jesse Hicks remove all doubt:

Help make sure that libraries can keep doing good. Wherever you are, support your local library today.

And whether you live in NYC or not, you can donate to the New York Public Library here, the Brooklyn Public Library here, and the Queens Library here.

(via Gothamist)

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How to be a Demon Barber 101, by Stephen Sondheim

My god. What television show did this come from? Here’s Stephen Sondheim himself giving a master class on his music (“My Friends” from Sweeney Todd in this particular clip) to aspiring theater actors; the performances are far from perfect — these are students, after all — but Sondheim’s unpacking of the song to reveal the perfect marriage of lyrics to music to the psychology of the character is nothing short of absolutely breathtaking.

And here’s the incomparable George Hearn (with Angela Lansbury) perfectly executing (ha!) the song as Sondheim envisions it:

Hearn also gives an outstanding concert performance of it here with Patti LuPone. I know many theater buffs think that Len Cariou best embodied the character; fair enough, but, just as Doctor Who fans gravitate to one actor or another as “their” Doctor, I suppose George Hearn is “my” Sweeney.

In any case, no matter what the cast or the production, the twisted beauty of Sondheim’s creation itself always shines through: sharp, cutting, painfully brilliant, and soaked in crimson — like a silver razor dripping precious rubies.

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Badass female rock n’ roll, cont’d: Listening to Halestorm and Hunter Valentine

Oh yeah.

And here’s Lzzy Hale and Halestorm rocking out on an original:

Here’s Canadian band Hunter Valentine squeezing every ounce of goodness from my favorite descending chord progression:

Another Hunter Valentine track, with possibly the best power choruses this side of Hedwig:

And speaking of Hedwig, it’s fantastic to see that Lena Hall — whom I gushed over in an earlier post — is rising through the ranks on Broadway: now she’s playing Yitzhak alongside Neil Patrick Harris’ titular transsexual in the revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, taking on a role made essential by Miriam Shor’s indelible vocals. Here’s hoping this leads to Hall getting much-deserved recognition on her own terms.

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“Let It Go” conquers the world

There’s the “official baby version” that slays with cuteness. There’s the hilariously (yet beautifully) sung homage from members of Pentatonix. There’s the toddler who was delightfully warbling the chorus on infinite repeat during my recent visit to the Museum of Natural History. This song is absolutely everywhere, and now here it is yet again — the mighty “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen, sung in 25 languages from the film’s various international versions:

4/13 Update — And here are the women behind the voices:

If I despised this song I’d be completely miserable by now. Good thing, then, that I love it: it’s a perfectly-written anthem of self-acceptance and liberation that isn’t tied to any specific emotional relationship (unlike, say, Taylor Swift’s declarations of independence from boyfriends du jour). No surprise, then, that it’s been embraced by folks of all ages as a talisman in their own struggles against fear and shame, their own myriad journeys towards confidence and fulfillment. Just a pop song? Well, yes. But music and culture snobs scoff at the power of pop songs at their peril. This one sticks to the ears, lifts the heart, and dares us to be brave, and I think it’s here to stay.

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