August 10, 2022

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The Unfinished Story of the World: Richard Powers’s Advice on Life and the Antidote to Cynicism


Perhaps the gravest violence we are able to do to ourselves is to dwell out our lives believing the world to be a fixity handed right down to us by the authorities of historical past and life to be a matter of taking immutable givens. Daring to consider in any other case — to consider that even our smallest purposeful motion alters the monolith of actuality in some refined, significant method — is an act of braveness and resistance, an act of immense vulnerability to the opportunity of disappointment, vulnerability the most typical cowering from which is cynicism.

James Baldwin knew this when he issued his lyrical and impassioned insistence that “nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed,” that “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”

Hannah Arendt knew this when she thought of how we invent ourselves and reinvent the world, observing that “the smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.”

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Richard Powers knew this when he made his contribution to Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two (public library) — artist and author James L. Harmon’s great 2002 anthology of wisdom from stellar minds, a decade within the constellating, envisioned as an eclectic modern counterpart to Rilke’s timeless Letters to a Young Poet, which had moved Harmon deeply when he first encountered it as a younger man.

Two many years earlier than Powers received the Pulitzer Prize for his sylvan symphony The Overstory, he echoes Seamus Heaney’s exhortation to always remain “true to your own secret knowledge” and writes:

Never overlook what you have been born realizing. That this fluke, single, enormous, cross-indexed, thermodynamic experiment of a narrative that the world has been inventing to inform itself at bedtime remains to be in embryo. It’s not even the define of a synopsis of notes towards a tough draft but. Buy the plot a while.

Nineteenth-century Solar System quilt by Ellen Harding Baker, embroidered over the course of seven years as a educating software in an period when girls have been barred from increased schooling in science and a fraction of the presently recognized Solar System objects have been recognized. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

We purchase the plot time with the forex of our aware selections, the grand and the mundane alike — the day by day actions that make us what we’re, the individuals who make the world what it’s. Powers writes:

Take in additional, devour much less, recycle all the pieces; book-keep all hidden prices; discover out the place you might have been set down; foyer for a smaller market; eliminate your automobile and journey as extensively as you may (yeah, stroll: what the hell); attempt to say just a little greater than you imply; carry a pocket encyclopedia (ask for one with out packaging) and when the entry on “Diffusion Constant” says, “for more information, see ‘Pastry War,’” see “Pastry War.”

This latter sentiment would possibly at first seem dated within the hindsight of twenty years, within the epoch of Wikipedia. But it’s truly all of the extra insightful and pressing immediately, for the quiet act of resistance at its coronary heart has grown all of the more durable. What I most rue concerning the web is that, for all its riches of readily accessible data, it has altered the feel of human curiosity, vanquishing that wondrous encyclopedic feeling of studying concerning the factor you hadn’t recognized you didn’t know however now vastly take pleasure in realizing. Somewhere alongside the best way of selections being made for us by an insular tribe of technologists, discovery was sacrificed on the altar of search as algorithms perfected the mechanics of giving us increasingly more of what we already knew we wished and believed, rendering the thoughts itself increasingly more a fixity. Would you be Googling “Pastry War” now had I not made this level a couple of level Richard Powers made way back on the pages of a yellowing guide I pulled from my bookshelf by some incomputable human impulse this morning?

Those selections matter, Powers reminds us, even on the smallest scale. There is not any fulcrum too small for the lever of change to carry from, however the carry should start with lucidity. He writes:

Take a full have a look at the worst. Acknowledge the figures: the runaway birthdates, the irreversible extinctions and ruined habitats, the meaningless economies fueled by waste, the exported taking pictures wars and their cowl causes… Then work at no matter comes at hand. Useful or not, it makes no distinction. Jumping in is the one calculus that emergency ever permits.

Complement with Rebecca Solnit on rewriting the world’s broken stories with our actions, then revisit What If — a wondrous French picture-book about daring to think about and construct a special world for the youngsters of tomorrow.





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