BootsnAll Travel Network

Making judgments

One of the joys of blogging, for me, is that I have encountered a few people I’ve never met who have become virtual friends. That’s how it is with Nacho, Dave, Steve, Lubna, Jetgirl, and Stephen, the most frequent commenter on this blog who, because of his frequent comments, is here and now moving up to the center of the blog. At least for today. Stephen and I often communicate by email when we are not meeting on the blog, and I perceive the man I know via email to be gentler, kinder, more humorous, and more approachable (though no less discerning and discriminating) than the man who makes comments on the blog. This week our email and blog conversations have to do with India, where I have never been and he has; with judgment; with my perceptions of “harshness,” and with his beliefs about travelers, ethics, spirituality, and travel writing, his own and other people’s.

Stephen has a blog of his own, as well as an extension to that blog. Stephen’s blogs are unusual in the blogosphere, in that they are all about the town where he lives now, which is Sintra, Portugal; they are extensive and thoughtful explorations of the history, architecture, culture, art, and development of Sintra. They are not much like this blog, as he seldom updates them (in fact he hasn’t added anything to his blogs since last December); and they are not particularly “personal” except that they are opinionated–but then he has expert knowledge of his subject. Stephen’s blogs are, in my opinion, beautifully crafted essays, amplified helpfully by paintings and photographs.

My armchair travels in India and spirituality this week, and my enjoyment of Sarah Macdonald’s Holy Cow, which Stephen finds unappealing (even though he has not read it), prompted Stephen to send me some excerpts of his own travel writing about India, as well as his defense of what I consider his “harshness” and “judgmentalness.” Because the main issues in this blog are inner and outer travels, and questing, I’d like to put some of our email conversation, and some of Stephen’s writing about India, up here for anyone else to read and think about, if they like.

Stephen writes, “I don’t see that being critical of others or oneself has to be ‘harsh’ or ‘judgmental’ in a detrimental way–surely it’s commendable to try and see as clearly as possible, to try and determine what is better and what is worse and what can be made better?”

Definitely. He continues,

“Too many people don’t want to be bothered doing that, and I don’t think–allowing for individual capabilities–that they should be let off because they prefer to be slack or unnecessarily stupid. All right, I know that attitude can lead to a sort of bossy dogmatism, but good god someone has to be bossy sometimes or we’d all go down the drain.”

Here’s where I differ. I think if people don’t want to be bothered determining what is better and what is worse and what can be made better, we should leave them the fuck alone and just get on with it among ourselves. (Stephen disapproves of my occasional use of crude language. Let that be noted.) I do think people should be “let off” in their innocence, slackness, wisdom, stupidity, or whatever else they choose not to bring to the discussion. Not everyone wants to indulge in lengthy critical and philosophical discussions. Live and let live, I say. More importantly, I object to Stephen’s assumption that anyone who aspires to create ‘art’ compare what they do with the best works of genius ever seen on the planet.

Stephen writes, “I think ‘art’ is the only thing that matters….” I don’t quite agree, though I’d put it in the top three, along with love and courage. Back to Stephen: “…’art’ is the only thing that matters because it deals with fundamental principles of proportion, harmony and so on and always aspires, or should aspire, to an unattainable perfection.” Hmmm. Doesn’t work for me. Maybe Stephen is talking about visual art, not art in all its manifestations. I’m sure he will let us know. But aspiring to unattainable perfection makes me too cautious, too tight, too afraid. Takes all the fun out of making, for me. It makes me think about the end and not the process of making the thing; it dampens me, shuts me up, depresses me. If, every time I put my fingers on the keyboard or walked out on a stage or into a classroom, I felt I had to aspire to an unattainable perfection, I would censor myself so viciously that I would never finish a sentence. I have, as I’ve tried to explain to Stephen, been quite vicious with myself throughout most of my life. The result is not pretty. I get more neurotic, more self-critical, more afraid of my own judgments. I stop having any fun. I get too fucking serious (there I go again) about what I’m doing. I stop laughing and stop saying fuck. I become self-conscious. I write badly, snapping at myself all the while, telling myself I am not as good as (fill in the blank with any “great” artist) and therefore I don’t deserve to live. Does this sound melodramatic? You should hear my inner monologues. Much worse.

This is why Tillie Olsen was so nourishing for me. Not because she believed in democratizing the arts, but because she loved stories, and she wanted to hear stories she had never heard before, so she encouraged the most unlikely people to tell their stories. Poor women, for example. She en-couraged them to tell what they knew.

I love stories. Of course some stories are more interesting to me than others; discipline matters, and devotion, and sticking with it, and making ourselves better. Craft matters, and practice. We do get better with practice, and the joy of making lies in the effort to get better at it. In order to improve ourselves, we need to do exactly what Stephen says: try to see as clearly as possible, try to determine what is better and what is worse and what can be made better, in our own work and in the work we look at and think about.

I don’t think there are too many people making things. There are too few. What worries me is that so few people find the making in themselves or learn to enjoy the effort, the persistence, the joy in taking time to make something. In order to start over or to begin again, in order to edit the work, refine it, polish and improve it, we have to believe (a) we matter, and what we make might matter, and (b) art, or what we and others have made, matters. What worries me is that we don’t believe we matter. We don’t believe our stories matter. That is my history, anyway. That is the history of the prisoners I have worked with. That is the history of many of the people I have spent the years of my life loving. We silence ourselves and each other, because we don’t think people like us matter.

I want to en-courage the making of things. Later on, I am certain, there will be a winnowing, a sorting, a selection process that consigns much of what has been made to the dumpster. There will be gate-keepers and critics, dragons at the gates. I don’t want to be one. Let someone else take that role. I don’t think we will all go down the drain if we aren’t mean to ourselves about our making. I think the reverse is more likely.

The book of poems by Wislawa Szymborska that I ordered last week arrived this morning. One of her poems goes like this:


I prefer movies.
I prefer cats.
I prefer the oaks along the Warta.
I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky.
I prefer myself liking people
to myself loving mankind.
I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand, just in case.
I prefer the color green.
I prefer not to maintain
that reason is to blame for everything.
I prefer exceptions.
I prefer to leave early.
I prefer talking to doctors about something else.
I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations.
I prefer the absurdity of writing poems
to the absurdity of not writing poems.
I prefer, where love’s concerned, nonspecific anniversaries
that can be celebrated every day.
I prefer moralists
who promise me nothing.
I prefer cunning kindness to the overtrustful kind.
I prefer the earth in civvies.
I prefer conquered to conquering countries.
I prefer having some reservations.
I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order….

“I prefer cunning kindness to the overtrustful kind.” I take that in and turn it over, hold it like a coin between my fingers. The poem goes on, but that is already so much to think about that I will stop quoting it. I want to return to Stephen, and to his writing. I didn’t quote him for the purpose of disagreeing with him, although sometimes I do disagree. I quoted him because I celebrate how much he makes me stop and think about what I’m saying–and I celebrate how much I have strengthened over the years, so that stopping and thinking about what I’m saying doesn’t always result in silencing myself altogether. Sometimes, now, I stand tall and hold my ground. This is progress. But I appreciate Stephen’s bossy dogmatism; I rejoice in it, in fact. I believe it does matter to see as clearly as possible and to make our work better. I also appreciate his writing about India. I wonder if I will ever get to India. It seems unlikely, but then, just about everything I have ever enjoyed doing in my life seemed unlikely. Arundhati Roy’s descriptions make me want to get there. Stephen’s descriptions make me want to get there.

Here is what Stephen writes about a place called Hampi, or Vijayanagar:

Hampi is…like a dream, but one that no-one would ever have. It lies in a giant bowl entirely rimmed around with pinkish boulders piled into towering heaps, the work so it is said of the monkeys who assisted in some legendary battle of the gods by hurling rocks at the losing side. Apart from the fact that they would have to be vastly larger animals than their present descendents, it’s almost believable, because no natural geographical cause would spring to mind. Through this bowl a river meanders idly over and between the boulders, broken by the impediments into countless channels and rivulets of shimmering water nourishing groves of banana palms. It would be frighteningly eerie were it not at the same time so sublimely serene, and it can be no accident that it has for ages been a holy site to the Hindus. Not even the most hardened rationalist could be immune to an atmosphere which promotes a feeling approaching religiosity.

I am utterly enchanted. Stephen continues:

…simply to explore these ruins could fill days, but there were many other amusements in Hampi. Breakfast might consist of little cakes of boiled fermented rice in a sauce of curried coconut milk with milky bottled coffee, eaten in a cave where cauldrons were bubbling over open fires and goats and naked children sprawled on the earth floor. A riverside track to the ‘sacred ford’ led past more caves inhabited by extremely grubby sadhus and assorted mendicants. Further along, I talked with a cleaner and apparently more genuinely ‘holy man’ whose sole possessions were three squares of orange cotton–a loin cloth, a turban and a sort of shawl–and a tin kettle, and who walked continuously back and forth between Hampi and the Himalayas.

Thank you, Stephen, for the words, the images, the vivid word paintings that make that place quiver in my imagination.

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3 responses to “Making judgments”

  1. stephenbrody says:

    I was referring to ‘art’ in all its forms, from the most accomplished painting to making a simple meal. I insist only on the concept of value, a concept which has been systematically degraded through the centuries snce Plato; that’s to say, I think it’s an absolute, not a relative, and not be aligned with ‘factuality’. The idea of perfection exists, but it can never be humanly attained, and so ‘vicious’ self-maltreatment for failing leads us not towards it but into the realm of pathology, hypocritical apology and ultimate disgust. You slightly misunderstand me there Kendall. I applaud every effort at doing, with this reservation: that it must be honest, for the flawed but not worthless pleasure in itself, towards the objective striving and not towards cheap publicity.

    I couldn’t care less about ‘bad’ language, I’ve heard far worse than yours, except that it doesn’t really add anything to meaning and so it’s just another form of ‘slackness’. And I’m all for ‘live and let live’, so long as it’s mutual. I may occasionally give an opinion which can be listened to or not, it makes no difference to me; I resist retaliative action without proper opinion, as I think we all should.

    I agree with most of your poem and some of the lines are very good indeed, though I prefer Dostoyevski to Dickens, another difference of individual taste no doubt.

    My objection to your Indian traveller is that she continues there to look only at herself, and so she may as well have stayed at home and consulted the mirror. It seems to me that she simply wants a more exotic stage on which to display herself. I enjoyed being there because it was a feast to the eye compared to which the many difficulties were insignificant. It’s sometimes very convenient to be a painter, it removes one from oneself. whereas writers get stuck with themselves

    I don’t write blogs about myself because I don’t think they’d be particuarly interesting to anyone who doesn’t know me and as I’ve said before the world is already far too littered with mundane and thoughtless scribblings. I doubt very much that these cursory public communications between us are very interesting to anyone else either, if they’re even vaguely comprehensible. That doesn’t mean you won’t continue to be bossed and harassed in private!

  2. Christopher says:

    ” I doubt very much that these cursory public communications between us are very interesting to anyone else either, if they’re even vaguely comprehensible.”

    Hey, hey, not so fast, Stephen. I’m listening to the two of you. In fact, my ears perked up at the discussion of perfection, and at Kendall’s thoughts on making things, and on the joy of revision… and on the pursuit of perfection as possible paralysis. But it can be just the opposite if you emphasize the pursuit itself. One summer, years ago, I made a book called “The Complete Perfectionist: A Poetics of Work,” a collection of aphorisms by Juan Ramón Jiménez., who was a great Maker (= poet).

    “In this world of ours we must burn compltely. Each of us must resolve himself completely in the flames, in the resolution that belongs to him alone. No Creator, no god that we can create could possibly accept those who do not fulfill their lives completely.”

    Juan Ramón “burned completely” in the flame of his daily work, pursuing, and not achieving, what he wanted. On the way to his impossible goal, he inspired others to work and to have faith in work. He found truths that mattered more than the goal. He discovered that ‘God is not the origin or the end, he is the middle’; that ‘the value of a work lies not in its end, in its ‘rounding off,’ but in the open, prickly spiritual and material vibration caused by its never-ending restlessness.’ He liked beginnings and middles, not endings; odds, not evens. He liked sharp, pointy things rather than round ones (the aphorism is both). He discovered that poetry and perfection are always becoming, and came to accept that his own work was interminable ‘work in progress, imagination in movement, poetic succession.’ And perhaps this is his best lesson—the one he lived most intensely— about poetry, work, and perfection. He teaches that an impossible goal creates a possible path. It creates a present where we can ‘burn completely, holding nothing back, spending all our strengh on our ‘trabajo gustoso,’ whatever it ahppens to be. In one of his earliest aphorisms,he wrote: ‘The world does not need to come from a god. For better or worse, the world is here. But it does need to GO to one (where is he?) and that is why the poet exists.’”

    ‘Here are a few of his (sometimes contradictory) aphorisms; food for thought.

    Much and perfect. In the AND lies the secret, the little problem.

    Perfection comes from the very root of the well-nourished subconscious, and a little at random, like a flower.

    The best art always gives a surprising, somewhat alien first impression, as absolute beauty would give. And then comes mutual conquest and we are saved; the extraordinary makes US extraordinary.

    In any work that is ‘complete,’ the perfect and the imperfect must exist in equilibrium, each with its perpetual, unavoidable, demanding, beautiful reality.

    Perfect and imperfect, like the rose.

    I like the defect. And I prefer to find it than to remove, diminish, or emend it.

    Defect—something like a verb ending or a declension, not immoralityh or ugliness.

    Finding the defect is a matter of luck, as when you get something right. You don’t search for it, yhou siply come upon it.

    Poor lover of perfection, don’t you see that you are a living poet and that life is undying imperfection?

    What makes you perfect kills you. Without a doubt, perfection is poison.

    The truly definitive is nothing but the exactly provisional.

    Almost perfect: its greatest charm was in the ‘almost.’

    A quivering, restless perfection, whose ideal is normal imperfection.


    I do not believe in perfection. I would believe in ‘impossible, successive perfection,’ as in ‘possible, successive imperfection.’

    In a word (I wrote), for JRJ, perfection is neither being “completely finished” nor being “totally free of defects.” That sort of perfection is “poison.” The defect—when it is a beautiful, fatal gift of inspiration—is what gives an object its own memorable charcter, rescuing it from sameness. Inconsistency is the enemy of quality, but not of perfection as Juan Ramón conceives of it: “Yes, inconsistent. Like all natural and superantural forces: water, air, fire, earth, the flesh, light, love, the rose, grace, joy, pain.” Perfection is dynamic and successive: a poem or thing in movement toward its plenitude. No wonder that JRJ seized delightedly on an expression he had seen in American and English poets: “work in progress.” To him, what is no longer “in progress” can move no one, not even its creator. Something truly perfect gives us the feeling of imminence, of being about to happen. Perfection is always being realized, and even when it is abandoned, the perfect poem will continue, always, to “quiver with emotion and intelligence.” Perfection is approximation. It is “penultimate imperfection,” the “always of never.” In poetry and any creative work, there is always another step, leading to boredom and sterility, and it is better not to take it.”

    Sorry for this long, long comment. And what wonderful poems by Szymborska. I’m on my way to the library!

  3. stephenbrody says:

    that’s very grand talking, Christopher, and also very true. There’s something somewhere in Iris Murdoch to the effect that the line between a boundless optimism where everything seems possible and the despair where everything is already ruined and hopeless is so fine that it is crossed almost without noticing. The crossing is inevitable, or almost inevitable, for every artist but the trick, she says, is to delay it as long as possible ….nrnrThat’s more cheering than not, for some reason, and you should be cheered too, kendall, if you see that fine words and theories notwithstanding it’s much the same for anyone who ever attempts to do anything; we’re all too feeble when it comes down to it, but that doesn’t mean the idea is less

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