Philosophical Dictionary (Penguin Classics)

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What the Caged Bird Feels: A List of Writers in Support of Vegetarianism

Growing up as a vegetarian in rural England in the ’90s, I was sometimes under the impression that my lifestyle was unusual—if not radical. In recent years, vegetarianism (and reduced-meat diets) have become more mainstream even in rural areas.

With time I’ve come to realize that there have always been vegetarians and vegetarian communities. Perhaps the more interesting ones for me are the artists and thinkers who go against the grain, choosing to think and live differently from the people around them. There is sometimes difficulty in ascertaining the validity of claims that certain historical figures actually followed a vegetarian lifestyle. For Da Vinci we have both Giorgio Vasari’s accounts and the letters between Andrea Corsali and Da Vinci’s patron Giuliano de’ Medici as convincing sources; for Pythagoras we have a number of ancient sources, as well as his enduring legacy. My awareness of Albert Einstein’s vegetarianism comes from primary sources—letters to Hans Muehsam and Max Kariel.

I will employ the term “vegetarian sentiment” here, as vegetarianism and veganism are ideologies before they are followed through in lifestyle and dietary choices. There are many writers and thinkers who advocate for vegetarianism and/or animal rights but still consume flesh meat. There’s Alice Walker, who I’ll talk about in more detail later; there’s Voltaire, who argued fervently against Descartes’s belief that animals were mere machines (though he may have been a practicing vegetarian based on what he writes in Dictionnaire Philosophique: “Men fed upon carnage, and drinking strong drinks, have all an impoisoned and acrid blood which drives them mad in a hundred different ways.”

Anna Sewell, through her children’s novel Black Beauty, taught young and old readers about how to treat both animals and humans with kindness—and in turn spurred progression in the animal welfare movement.

Raskolinov’s fearful horse dream in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is symbolic of what is soon to come—though also revelatory of what the author feels about animals. In his later novel The Brothers Karamazov, there’s a discussion between Alyosha and the elder Zosima:
Love animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble their joy, don’t harass them, don’t deprive them of their happiness, don’t work against God’s intent. Man, do not pride yourself on superiority to animals; they are without sin, and you, with your greatness, defile the earth by your appearance on it, and leave the traces of your foulness after you—alas, it is true of almost every one of us!
Suffragists who fought for women’s rights were also heavily involved in campaigning against vivisection and the consumption of meat. Many suffragists thought that the adoption of a vegetarian diet could herald a new world where women were not confined to the kitchens. Carol J. Adams writes in her book The Sexual Politics of Meat (extract obtained from Stuff Mom Never Told You):
We can follow the historic alliance of feminism and vegetarianism in Utopian writings and societies, antivivisection activism, the temperance and suffrage movements, and twentieth century pacifism. Hydropathic institutes in the nineteenth century, which featured vegetarian regimens, were frequented by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, and others. At a vegetarian banquet in 1853, the gathered guests lifted their alcohol-free glasses to toast: “Total Abstinence, Women’s Rights, and Vegetarianism.”
Recently a friend came to me asking for a recommendation for vegetarian literature. I was taken a little off guard, for I have never actively searched for books on vegetarianism. Why read to be convinced of an opinion I already share? Though I realized that I had read books by vegetarian authors (of fiction), and writers who have expressed a vegetarian sentiment. And though I couldn’t answer his question, it compelled me to pick up work by authors whose experiences of (and sometimes motivations for) vegetarianism were entirely different from my own.

While far from exhaustive, I shall discuss some among them here.

1. Franz Kafka
Max Brod is often remembered as the friend who wouldn’t burn Franz Kafka’s life’s work, as was asked of him by Kafka, instead publishing it posthumously. If it were not for his refusal to follow his friend’s instructions, we might not have stories such as The Metamorphosis and The Castle. But Brod was also a prolific published writer during his lifetime, and he eventually became Kafka’s biographer. Much of what we know about Kafka comes from Brod, including his experimentation with different diets—in part to ease his lifelong sickness.

One of the most striking images from Franz Kafka: A Biography is where Brod recalls how Kafka, a recently turned strict vegetarian, once visited the Berlin aquarium:
Suddenly he began to speak to the fish in their illuminated tanks, “Now at last I can look at you in peace, I don’t eat you any more.” …

Among my notes I find something else that Kafka said about vegetarianism…He compared vegetarians with the early Christians, persecuted everywhere, everywhere laughed at, and frequenting dirty haunts. “What is meant by its nature for the highest and the best, spreads among the lowly people.”
In a letter from Brod to Kafka’s fiancee Felice Bauer, Brod writes:
After years of trial and error Franz has at last found the only diet that suits him, the vegetarian one. For years he suffered from his stomach; now he is as healthy and as fit as I have ever known him. Then along come his parents, of course, and in the name of love try to force him back into eating meat and being ill—it is just the same with his sleeping habits. At last he has found what suits him best, he can sleep, can do his duty in that senseless office, and get on with his literary work. But then his parents…This really makes me bitter.
2. Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer returns to fellow Jewish writer Kafka’s moment at the Berlin aquarium throughout his first nonfiction work, Eating Animals. The book is the result of three years spent immersed in the world of animal agriculture. This was in part motivated by a desire to make an informed decision about what to feed his newborn son—but also to become more resolved with regard to his wavering vegetarianism. He makes the invisible realities for factory-farmed animals visible for himself and the reader, forcing us to think about what is impaled on our forks.

Eating Animals is essentially his own denunciation of factory farming, but it is also a reflection on the culture that surrounds meat eating: the history of ambivalence toward carnism; societal hypocrisies; the myth of consent and other stories cultures create for themselves to justify slaughter; the language we use to devalue some animals but place value in others that we love as companions.

In several places, Safran Foer refers back to that moment when Kafka looks at fish at the Berlin aquarium. He uses Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of Kafka’s animal tales to frame this part of his own story. Benjamin tells us how Kafka’s animals are “receptacles of forgetting,” while shame—as paraphrased by Safran Foer—is “a response and a responsibility before invisible others.”

“What had moved Kafka to become vegetarian?” asks Safran Foer:
A possible answer lies in the connection Benjamin makes, on the one hand, between animals and shame, and on the other, between animals and forgetting. Shame is the work of memory against forgetting. Shame is what we feel when we almost entirely—yet not entirely—forget social expectations and our obligations to others in favor of our immediate satisfaction.
Shame doesn’t just prompt forgetting about the animals we harm. “What we forget about animals,” writes Safran Foer, “we begin to forget about ourselves.”

During the spring of 2007, Safran Foer lived in Berlin with his family, and they would visit the aquarium Kafka had visited the previous century—and like him, they would stare into the tanks at the sea life. “As a writer aware of that Kafka story, I came to feel a certain kind of shame at the aquarium,” he writes. Among the various manifestations of shame he experienced: shame at feeling “grossly inadequate” compared to his hero, shame at being a Jew in Berlin:
And then there was the shame in being human: the shame of knowing that twenty of the roughly thirty-five classified species of seahorse worldwide are threatened with extinction because they are killed “unintentionally” in seafood production. The shame of indiscriminate killing for no nutritional necessity or political cause or irrational hatred or intractable human conflict.
For Safran Foer, remembering thwarts forgetting when he visits the kill floor of Paradise Locker Meats and looks into the eyes of a pig who is minutes away from being slaughtered; he didn’t quite feel at ease being the pig’s last sight, though what he felt wasn’t quite shame either. “The pig wasn’t a receptacle of my forgetting,” he writes. “The animal was a receptacle of my concern. I felt—I feel—relief in that. My relief doesn’t matter to the pig. But it matters to me.”

3. Alice Walker
“KNOW what the caged bird feels,” wrote Paul Laurence Dunbar in a poem entitled “Sympathy.” With this poem, Dunbar—who was born to parents who had been enslaved before the American Civil War—opened up this dreaded comparison between human and animal slavery. The line was borrowed by Maya Angelou for the title of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Most will feel uncomfortable with comparisons between animal suffering and human suffering—the title of Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison acknowledges this. The African-American writer and self-described womanist Alice Walker, known best perhaps for The Color Purple, prefaced Marjorie Spiegel’s controversial title. Walker writes, “It is a comparison that, even for those of us who recognize its validity, is a difficult one to face. Especially so, if we are the descendants of slaves. Or of slave owners. Or of both. Especially so if we are also responsible in some way for the present treatment of animals.”

Though Walker acknowledges the difficulty of this comparison, she concludes that she agrees with Spiegel’s line of reason: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men. This is the gist of Spiegel’s cogent, humane and astute argument, and it is sound.” 

Walker is not a vegetarian. In a book entitled The Chicken Chronicles, the author writes about her relationship with her flock of chickens. Rather than turn her head, Walker confronts her food vis-à-vis—in this way, the chicken is not a receptacle of her forgetting. Interviewer Diane Rehm expressed surprise upon learning that Walker eats birds. “I know, I know. It’s a contradiction and I have been a vegan and I’ve been a vegetarian,” replied Walker, “but from time to time, I do eat chicken. I grew up on chicken and I accept that.”

Vegetarianism, or veganism, is something to which Walker seems to aspire, though. To an audience at Emory University, the author talks about her love of cows and says she is glad she doesn’t eat them. She then recites a short poem she wrote for an Italian friend who wanted help giving up meat, “La Vaca”:
Look
into
her eyes
and know:
She does not think
of
herself
as
steak.

4. Isaac Bashevis Singer
The comparison between human and animal slavery is not the only dreaded comparison; the Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer has become the classic reference for comparisons between intensive farming and the Holocaust. In “The Letter Writer,” he wrote, “In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.”

Singer was born in a village near Warsaw, Poland. His father was a Hasidic rabbi, while his mother was the daughter of the rabbi of Bilgoraj. Singer seemed destined to become a rabbi, too, though a brief enrollment at a rabbinical school turned him off the idea. He worked brief stints in a number of fields before emigrating to the United States, fearful of the rise of Nazism in neighboring Germany. In New York City he worked as a journalist for a Yiddish-language newspaper before penning his own novels and short stories, including The Slave and The Family Moskat.

Vegetarianism crops up often in his work. Yet it is nowhere near as explicit as in “The Slaughterer,” a short story which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1967 and now resides in The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. The story follows Yoineh Meir, a Jew who—like Singer—seems destined to become a rabbi. A competitor takes Meir’s place, and instead he is offered the role of the town’s ritual slaughterer. The career causes him daily anguish and eventually leads to his own untimely demise. The story is graphic and bloody, the protagonist sensitive and empathetic toward all living creatures:
Yoneih Meir no longer slept at night. If he dozed off, he was immediately beset by nightmares. Cows assumed human shape, with beards, and skullcaps over their horns. Yoineh Meir would be slaughtering a calf, but it would turn into a girl. Her neck throbbed, and she pleaded to be saved. She ran to the study house and splattered the courtyard with her blood. He even dreamed that he had slaughtered [his wife] instead of a sheep.
Yoineh Meir extends his love toward all animals when he realizes what it means to kill one. Later in the narrative, Singer writes that “when you slaughter a creature, you slaughter God.”

5. J.M. Coetzee
In his metafictional novella The Lives of Animals, Coetzee’s alter ego and fictional novelist Elizabeth Costello is invited to be a guest lecturer at a university’s annual literary seminary. Rather than talk about literature, she decides to talk about animal cruelty and in several places compares the mass slaughter of animals to the Holocaust:
The people who lived in the countryside around Treblinka—Poles, for the most part—said that they did not know what was going on in the camp; said that, while in a general way they might have guessed what was going on, they did not know for sure; said that, while in a sense they might have known, in another sense they did not know, could not afford to know, for their own sake. …

I return one last time to the places of death all around us, the places of slaughter to which, in a huge communal effort, we close our hearts. Each day a fresh holocaust, yet, as far as I can see, our moral being is untouched. … 

It was from the Chicago stockyards that the Nazis learned how to process bodies. 
We know Coetzee is a vegetarian and active animal rights advocate, though in The Lives of Animals it becomes difficult to distinguish between Elizabeth Costello’s views and J. M. Coetzee’s. He has written several op-eds for the Sydney Herald about beliefs we can safely say are his own.

In one article, Coetzee criticizes the manner in which consumers tend to idealize family farms:
It would be a mistake to idealize traditional animal husbandry as the standard by which the animal products industry falls short. Traditional animal husbandry is brutal enough, just on a smaller scale. A better standard by which to judge both practices would be the simple standard of humanity: is this truly the best that humans are capable of?
In another, Coetzee expresses his optimism concerning the compassion of children: “It takes but one glance into a slaughterhouse to turn a child into a lifelong vegetarian.”

6. V.S. Naipaul
V.S. Naipaul has a visceral response to the sight and smell of meat. Naipaul was born in Trinidad; unusual among Indian laborers in the Caribbean region, Naipaul’s paternal grandfather was a Brahmin—the highest ranked caste among Hindus in India. Naipaul’s father also claimed this distinction, though the validity of his claim is less clear. Often, due to general caste rules, Brahmins distinguish themselves from other castes by adhering to a strict vegetarian diet. All Hindus aspire to transcend this life through self-realization—halting the transmigration from one body to the next. To do so, in their daily lives they must act in accordance with the tenets of Sattva Guna (mode of goodness) laid out in the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture which includes the abstention of flesh meat.

For many Hindus who follow a lacto-vegetarian diet, the ideological reasons for not eating animals are still ever present—for others, it is merely a distinction inherited from the cultural context into which they were born. I don’t know which category Naipaul fits into. He has, to the best of my knowledge, never spoken openly about any ideological reason for his vegetarianism.

He has, however, written about his disgust at the sight of meat. What is perhaps the first mention is in his early work Between Father and Son: Family Letters. A young Naipaul received a scholarship to study at Oxford, where he found himself struggling with depression and loneliness. In a bid to bridge the distance between continents, he wrote letters to his family—a correspondence that lasted four years and ended with the death of his father. In a letter to his elder sister Kamla, dated Sept. 21, 1949, he recapitulates a distressing situation during an Old Boy’s Association dinner: “Special arrangements, I was informed after dinner, had been made for me but these appeared to have been limited to serving me potatoes in different ways—now fried, now boiled.” Turtle soup was served to the other diners; being vegetarian, Naipaul asked the manager for corn soup instead. “He ignored this and the waiter bought me a plateful of green slime. This was the turtle soup. I was nauseated and annoyed and told the man to take it away. This, I was told, was a gross breach of etiquette.”

7. Leo Tolstoy
Vegetarianism was the focal point of several of his essays and tied in with his pre-existing beliefs in the benefits of abstinence. In On Civil Disobedience, for example, Tolstoy writes, “A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.”

Tolstoy originally wrote The First Step as the foreword to The Ethics of Diet by Howard Williams. In it, Tolstoy encourages readers to practice harmlessness: “If a man aspires towards a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from injury to animals.” He also suggests that vegetarianism is humanity’s natural state: “So strong is humanity’s aversion to all killing. But by example, by encouraging greediness, by the assertion that God has allowed it, and above all by habit, people entirely lose this natural feeling.”

He wrote extensively about violence, and in a letter to Mahatma Gandhi published later as A Letter to a Hindu, Tolstoy convinced Gandhi to use nonviolent resistance to gain independence from the British colonial rule in the Indian peninsula. In his essay “What I Believe,” Tolstoy emphasizes his conviction that we become more violent by inflicting suffering upon animals: “As long as there are slaughter houses there will always be battlefields.”

Four years after Tolstoy’s death, his private secretary Valentin Bulgakov wrote an article for London-based The Vegetarian News to celebrate Tolstoy’s “great service to the vegetarian movement” during the last 23 years of his life. The article ends like this:
I close what I have to say with the words of Leo Tolstoy himself: “Here, indeed, outwardly, are we met but inwardly we are bound to every living creature. Already are we conscious of many of the motions of the spiritual world, but others have not yet been borne in upon us. Nevertheless they come, even as the earth presently comes to see the light of the stars, which to our eyes at this moment is invisible.”
Image: Flickr/ilovebutter

Year-End Reflections: The Great and The Good

The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.

-William Butler Yeats, from “The Choice”
I.  Art & Life
If you’re like me, your year-end mail and email are filled with requests for charitable giving.  As I consider all the different organizations pleading their cause, I realize that they are basically divided between two types of missions: artistic and social.

For many years I worked as a grant writer and fundraising consultant for nonprofit organizations.  I started out working for social-change groups and gradually shifted to the arts.  While seeking funding for the latter, an inevitable obstacle presented itself in the form of funder requirements that the organization address “poverty, education, or underrepresented groups” in some direct, demonstrable way.  We’d sit around conference tables talking about how we might incorporate a “social component” or “education project” into the arts program, only to (wisely) realize that such a project would just be a poorly-executed pinky-finger effort, a tacked-on afterthought. (Similarly, I once took the lead on an arts education program for a community development organization, which promptly dissolved once I left.)

The undercurrent of these discussions was that carrying out a program or a mission required both intention and expertise.  It wasn’t that we weren’t genuinely excited about being challenged into new territory; but we knew our own expertise, and we’d witnessed the pitfalls of breadth over depth which many growing organizations fell into.

II. Greatness & Goodness
A graduate school professor said to our class on Day One of our writing workshop: “The Great is the enemy of The Good.”  I’m not sure if he was coining his own expression, or perhaps paraphrasing Voltaire’s, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien” (Dictionnaire Philosophique, 1764) — literally translated, “The best is the enemy of the good.”  In either case, I couldn’t help, in my youth, but be a little offended; it was Day One, after all, and you’d think he might at least get to know us a little before discouraging too-high writerly aspirations.

Over the years, however, that expression has stuck with me, and its meaning has morphed into something quite different — the conflict in my mind now not one between artistic brilliance and mediocrity, but between created and creator.

III. Lou Kahn and the “Inevitable” Conflict Between Great and Good
I recently re-watched the film My Architect, a bio-documentary on Louis Kahn, written and directed by his son Nathaniel Kahn.  Lou Kahn was a visionary architect, well known for completing just a handful of monumental masterpieces, including the National Assembly Building (Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban) of Bangladesh, the Salk Institute in La Jolla, two buildings at Yale University, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and the Phillips Exeter Academy library.  Such celebrity architects as I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, and Moshe Safdie have praised Kahn as the quintessential architect-as-artist — a brilliant but oddball character who stayed true to his aesthetic visions at the expense of commercial success.  Indian architect B.V. Doshi described Kahn as a guru, a yogi.  Kahn was found dead of a heart attack in a public restroom at Penn Station one night in 1974, at the age of 73; it took three days to identify him.  At the time of his death, he was deeply in debt.

Nathaniel was Lou Kahn’s third child, each child born of a different mother; only Sue Ann, the eldest, was “legitimate.” Nathaniel was 11 years old when his father died and made the film, 30 years later, as a way of finding and knowing his father.  Through the film we come to learn that Lou did not suffer much over his three-family situation, while the women and children involved did.

This is not at all a film about villain and victims; avoiding such maudlin simplicities is perhaps its greatest accomplishment.  And yet the film’s core inquiry does seem to be this question of whether or not a great man is capable of also being a good man.  In the film’s emotional climax, Bangladeshi architect and teacher Shamsul Wares, who worked closely with Kahn on the Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban, says to Nathaniel, teary-eyed and overcome with both admiration and sadness:
It was almost impossible, a building for a country like ours; 30-50 years back, it was nothing, only paddy fields… he gave us democracy…he has given us the institution for democracy… he paid his life for this.  And that is why he is great, and we will remember him.  But he was also human. Now his failure to satisfy the family life is a [sic] inevitable association of great people.  But I think his son will understand this and will have no sense of grudge or no sense of being neglected…. He cared in a very different manner, but it takes a lot of time to understand that… He has given us this building, and we feel all the time for him… He has given love for us.  He would not probably give the right kind of love for you, but for us, he has given the people the right kind of love… you have to understand that.  He had an enormous amount of love.   He loved everybody.  To love everybody he sometimes did not see the very closest ones, and that is inevitable for men of his stature.
The transcript alone might be easily dismissed as thin justification.  I recommend watching the film, or at least the scene here at YouTube, for full effect.  That scene, and Wares’s deep conviction, haunt me.

IV. Literarians Who Embrace Both/And
Meanwhile, most of us try to do Good, even as we grapple with Great.  Theologian and Harvard Professor Peter Gomes noted in his book The Good Life that his students were impatient with an either/or conception:
One student asked me at the [public service] summit meeting, more in sadness than in anger, “Why can’t Harvard be both great and good at the same time?”…The question is neither peculiar to Cambridge nor to this generation, but in this generation the search for goodness, both institutional and personal, has reappeared as a defining characteristic in young people’s renewed search for the good life.
It’s a thread I sense in most writers I know — that if a good amount of our first-fruit time and energy are going to be spent either in solitude or promoting our own work, we want also to make sure we are not atrophying in our human connectedness.  On these last days of 2009, as we all go forth into 2010 with our optimism tainted by the realism of the past year — and perhaps vaguely haunted by the Lou Kahns of the world, great artists at odds with The Good — here are a few inspired/inspiring folks for whom The Great and The Good are on better-than-friendly terms:

Rachel Fershleiser, co-editor of the popular Six-Words Memoir series, and senior editor at SMITH, also wears the hat of Director of Events at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, a nonprofit whose ultimate mission is to generate proceeds for nutrition, shelter, housing, health, and employment services — provided by its parent organization Housing Works, Inc. — for homeless New Yorkers who are HIV-positive.
I really believe  [the Six-Words Memoirs projects] help people. I’ve gotten hundreds of emails about contributors reigniting their passion for writing, families brought together in brainstorming each others’ memoirs, and even teens claiming they’re alive today because the community of friends they found on smithteens.com brought them back from edge… Still when I’m staying in the Marriott Courtyard in Brookline Massachusetts raiding the minifridge and obsessing over why some other author got on The Today Show and I only got on The Early Show, it can all feel a little superficial. Housing Works’s mission is essential on a basic level: food, shelter, medicine. The unique position I’m in — that I can use my skills in organizing cultural events to effect those things (rather than, say, writing sometimes and ladling out soup sometimes) — makes me feel especially lucky.
Mary Ellen Sanger, essayist and poet whose work has appeared in such Mexican publications as Luna Zeta and Zocalo and in the anthology Mexico, a Love Story, was a finalist for the A Room of Her Own (AROHO) Foundation’s Gift of Freedom in 2007, and winner of AROHO’s Fall 2009 Orlando Poetry Prize.  She is currently writing a collection of stories inspired by the women of Ixcotel State Penitentiary in Oaxaca, Mexico, where she spent 33 days and nights falsely imprisoned in the fall of 2003. Mary Ellen leads a writing workshop for Mexican immigrants through New York Writers Coalition and another for people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and volunteers as a mentor in the PEN Prison Writing Program.  She writes:
I joined NYWC and the PEN as much out of a search for communities that reflected my social interests, as for a selfish desire to be with writers who were not caught up solely in the mechanics of craft and publication. I was into renewal at that point – and preferred communities where the simple rush of creativity was the glue.  My experiences in Mexico brought me close to marginalized communities where I witnessed that “outsiders” are not doomed to a sentence of silence. Both PEN and NYWC facilitate creativity from strong voices that are not always the first to be heard… My work with them…has more than once pulled me through… moments when I wonder why I bother to write at all.
And finally, Masha Hamilton is author of four acclaimed novels, most recently 31 Hours, a Washington Post selection for one of the best novels of the year and an Indie Choice pick by independent booksellers.  Hamilton founded two world literacy programs: the Camel Book Drive, begun in 2007 to supply a camel-borne library in northeastern Kenya, and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project:
…being an active part of the world is something I am passionate about. Each of my novels was torn directly from the world, from the things that scare me and thrill me and make me laugh. For my work to be part of the world, I’ve always thought I need to be part of it too.

Of course, everything we do conflicts with our artistic impulses, because the day only has so many hours and the body only so much energy. But even as my active engagement with the outside world takes time, it also feeds my engagement with my inner world, how I understand both myself and what it means to be human.

So starting [the Camel Book Drive and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project] has occurred naturally—they have sprung out of what already excites me. My involvement with both projects has been an enormous gift.
“Lucky,” “pulled me through,” “gift.” There is the commonality of inner imperative here, the give impulse and the receive impulse bound into one.  Your goodness must have some edge to it, wrote Emerson, – else it is none.  That edge, perhaps, is an understanding — an indulgence — of this two-way engagement.

And the world engagement of the artist has, I think, particular power in its passion for seeing and knowing the human condition at its truest and most bare; an artist’s compulsion (maybe “selfish” at its core) for authentic meaning coupled with a love for the good can’t help but translate into work that addresses the profound basics of human existence, body and soul.  Yeats’s “perfection” and Voltaire’s “le mieux” are perhaps where we get tripped up; to be alive, after all, is to be a work-in-progress.  Who knows how Lou Kahn may have evolved had he lived, what Nathaniel and his mother and his half-siblings may have learned of him, this special love of his, over time: “…but it takes a lot of time to understand that…”

[Image credit: Photography Burns]

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