William James: “By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief…”

William James

William James

“This thoroughly ‘pragmatic’ view of religion has usually been taken as a matter of course by common men. They have interpolated divine miracles into the field of nature, they have built a heaven out beyond the grave. It is only transcendentalist metaphysicians who think that, without adding any concrete details to Nature, or subtracting any, but by simply calling it the expression of absolute spirit, you make it more divine just as it stands. I believe the pragmatic way of taking religion to be the deeper way. It gives it body as well as soul, it makes it claim, as everything real must claim, some characteristic realm of fact as its very own. What the more characteristically divine facts are, apart from the actual inflow of energy in the faith-state and the prayer-state, I know not. But the over-belief on which I am ready to make my personal venture is that they exist. The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning for our life also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in. By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief, I seem to myself to keep more sane and true. I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist’s attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor of which W. K. Clifford once wrote, whispering the word ‘bosh!’ Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow ‘scientific’ bounds. Assuredly, the real world is of a different temperament — more intricately built than physical science allows. So my objective and my subjective conscience both hold me to the over-belief which I express. Who knows whether the faithfulness of individuals here below to their own poor over-beliefs may not actually help God in turn to be more effectively faithful to his own greater tasks?” — William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

F. Scott Fitzgerald on what it takes

fitzgeraldYou’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Modern Library Association voted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, as the 2nd best novel of the 20th century. (James Joyces’s Ulysses was first). The story is superb. The novel is ultimately a meditation on the social and moral decay of the 1920s, that’s brought about by an unchecked desire and greed for money and pleasure. The book was required reading when I was in High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in the 1980s. I’ve read the novel at least three times since then and each time I discover something else interesting or insightful about the book I didn’t see before. I guess that’s the real genius of art. It always speaks to us at that moment in time about something that’s timeless.

For me it’s interesting to hear great artists talk about their craft and how they approach the creative process. The philosopher in me wants to understand how the artist conceptualizes. I want to know how the artist thinks about their craft. For novelists, it’s about how they approach the craft of writing and how they develop their own unique style.

Fitzgerald’s prose and poetic depth are captivating. You may recall these haunting lines from The Great Gatsby:

Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

And who could forget the final lines from this novel that was ultimately inscribed on Fitzgerald’s tombstone:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Some of the best insights about writing, philosophy, and life come from the private letters of great writers and thinkers. Below is a specimen from a collection of Fitzgerald’s letters that I found very interesting and insighful. In this letter Fitzgerald talks to Frances about the high price that must be paid for “professional work.”

November 9, 1938

Dear Frances:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.

This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.

The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming — the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.

That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is ‘nice’ is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the ‘works.’ You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.

In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,

Your old friend,

F. Scott Fitzgerald

P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent — which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.

Why I blog

When I consider why I wanted to start this blog (or write), my first thoughts were of George Orwell’s piece, Why I Write. Orwell, in his trademark candor, lays out four general motives he believes animates every writer in varying degrees. Instead of me racking my brain trying to find the words to explain why I’m blogging, I’ll just let Orwell explain:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

Now, I can’t say everything Orwell said above applies to me. For example, I won’t consider myself amongst the “minority of the gifted,” but I would say that I’m one of those “willful people” determined to live life on my own terms. If I had to choose, I’d say historical impulse is the strongest motive in me. But then, maybe that’s just sheer egoism to say that. I do enjoy writing and the sound, beauty and craft of good prose. So aesthetic enthusiasm is certainly there.

As for political purpose, well, as one writer put: “One can no more stay out of politics than one can stay out of the frost.” It’s impossible to affirm or criticize any public policy, proposal or political figure without appearing to take sides. So I don’t worry about it. I’m a staunch Independent. I write what I believe to be true at the time, based on the evidence at the time, without regard for ideology or party. Also, In the broadest political sense, I guess, I do have a “desire to push the world in a certain direction.” For me, that “push” will always be toward a just, fair, stable, and vibrant society.