Was it cancer? Julia Baird on getting the diagnosis

Was it cancer? Julia Baird on getting the diagnosis

Julia Baird

When I came out of the hospital, everyone suddenly seemed
consumed with irrelevant, foolish, temporal worries. Reading the fine
print of your mortality is a great sifter of rubbish. I frowned at the
complaints posted on social media when I was recovering — people who had
the flu, were annoyed by politicians, burdened by work, or who were
juggling jobs and children — and wanted to scream: BUT YOU ARE ALIVE!!!!
Alive! Each day is a glory, especially if upright and able to move with
ease, without pain.

I am still grappling with what all of this means. But in this short time, three age-old truths became even more apparent to me.

First, stillness and faith can give you extraordinary strength. Commotion drains.

"brave" warrior talk that so often surrounds cancer rang false to me. I
didn't want war, tumult or battle. Instead, I just prayed to God. And I
think what I found is much like what Greek philosophers called
ataraxia, a suspended kind of calm in which you can find a surprising

Second, you may find yourself trying to comfort
panicked people around you. But those who rally and come to mop your
brow when you look like a ghost, try to make you laugh, distract you
with silly stories, cook for you — or even fly for 20 hours just to hug
you — are companions of the highest order. Your family is everything.

we should not have to retreat to the woods like Henry David Thoreau to
"live deliberately." It would be impossible and frankly exhausting to
live each day as if it were your last. But there's something about
writing a will that has small children as beneficiaries that makes the
world stop.

My doctor asked me a few days ago how I
became so calm before the surgery. I told her: I prayed, I locked out
negativity and drama and drew my family and tribe — all big-hearted,
pragmatic people — near. I tried to live deliberately.

"Can I just say," she said, "you should do that for the rest of your life."

This column first appeared on the New York Times website.

Julia Baird is a Sydney Morning Herald contributor who is working on a biography of Queen Victoria.


Richard Feynman on Science vs. Religion and Why Uncertainty Is Central to Morality | Brain Pickings

Richard Feynman on Science vs. Religion and Why Uncertainty Is Central to Morality | Brain Pickings


“It is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong.”
“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his timeless treatise on science and spirituality, “we will have failed.” Perhaps because, as Krista Tippett has astutely observed,
science and religion “ask different kinds of questions altogether,
probing and illuminating in ways neither could alone,” some of
humanity’s greatest scientific minds have contemplated the relationship
between these two modes of inquiry — Galileo in his legendary letter to the Duchess of Tuscany; Ada Lovelace in her meditation on the interconnectedness of everything; Einstein in his answer to little girl’s question about whether scientists pray; Jane Goodall in her poetic take on science and spirit; Sam Harris in his elegant case for spirituality without religion; and physicist Margaret Wertheim in turning to Dante for an answer.

Among the tireless investigators of this duality is legendary physicist and science-storyteller Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988), who explores this very inquiry in the final essay in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library) — the same spectacular compendium that gave us the Great Explainer on good, evil, and the Zen of science, the universal responsibility of scientists, and the meaning of life.

Feynman writes:

I do not believe that science can disprove the existence
of God; I think that is impossible. And if it is impossible, is not a
belief in science and in a God — an ordinary God of religion — a
consistent possibility?

Yes, it is consistent. Despite the fact that I said that more than half of the scientists don’t believe in God, many scientists do
believe in both science and God, in a perfectly consistent way. But
this consistency, although possible, is not easy to attain, and I would
like to try to discuss two things: Why it is not easy to attain, and
whether it is worth attempting to attain it.
Clarifying that by “God” he means the personal deity typical of
Western religions, “to whom you pray and who has something to do with
creating the universe and guiding you in morals,” Feynman considers the
key difficulties in reconciling the scientific worldview with the
religious one. Building on his assertion that the universal responsibility of the scientist is to remain immersed in “ignorance and doubt and uncertainty,” he points out that the centrality of uncertainty in science is incompatible with the unconditional faith required by religion:

It is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely
necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental
part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding, we must
remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or
proved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown,
not because you know the answer. And as you develop more information in
the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that
you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.

That is, if we investigate further, we find that the statements of
science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of
what is known to different degrees of certainty… Every one of the
concepts of science is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but at
neither end of, absolute falsity or absolute truth.

Piece from Richard Feynman's little-known sketches, edited by his daughter. Click image for more.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Wendell Berry on the wisdom of ignorance, Feynman adds:

It is necessary, I believe, to accept this idea, not only
for science, but also for other things; it is of great value to
acknowledge ignorance. It is a fact that when we make decisions in our
life, we don’t necessarily know that we are making them correctly; we
only think that we are doing the best we can — and that is what we
should do.
Befriending uncertainty, Feynman argues, becomes a habit of mind that
automates thought to a point of no longer being able to retreat from
doubt’s inquiry. The question then changes from the binary “Is there God?” to the degrees-of-certainty ponderation “How sure is it that there is a God?” He writes:

This very subtle change is a great stroke and represents a
parting of the ways between science and religion. I do not believe a
real scientist can ever believe in the same way again. Although there
are scientists who believe in God, I do not believe that they think of
God in the same way as religious people do… I do not believe that a
scientist can ever obtain that view — that really religious
understanding, that real knowledge that there is a God — that absolute
certainty which religious people have.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and
philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, from
Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding
the universe. Click image for more.
A believing scientist, then, is one from whom the degree of certainty
outweighs but doesn’t displace the degree of doubt — in the scientist,
unlike in the religious person, doubt remains a parallel presence with
any element of faith. Feynman illustrates this sliding scale of
uncertainty by putting our human existence in cosmic perspective:

The size of the universe is very impressive, with us on a
tiny particle whirling around the sun, among a hundred thousand million
suns in this galaxy, itself among a billion galaxies… Man is a
latecomer in a vast evolving drama; can the rest be but a scaffolding
for his creation?

Yet again, there are the atoms of which all appears to be
constructed, following immutable laws. Nothing can escape it; the stars
are made of the same stuff, and the animals are made of the same stuff,
but in such complexity as to mysteriously appear alive — like man
With an eye to the immutable mystery at the heart of all knowledge — something Feynman memorably explored in his now-iconic ode to a flower — he adds:

It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe
beyond man, to think of what it means without man — as it was for the
great part of its long history, and as it is in the great majority of
places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery
and majesty of matter are appreciated, to then turn the objective eye
back on man viewed as matter, to see life as part of the universal
mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is rarely
described. It usually ends in laughter, delight in the futility of
trying to understand. These scientific views end in awe and mystery,
lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so
impressive that the theory that it is all arranged simply as a stage for
God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems to be inadequate.
But even if one comes to doubt the factuality of divinity itself,
Feynman argues that religious myths remain a valuable moral compass, the
basic ethical tenets of which can be applied to life independently of
the religious dogma:

In the end, it is possible to doubt the divinity of
Christ, and yet to believe firmly that it is a good thing to do unto
your neighbor as you would have him do unto you. It is possible to have
both these views at the same time; and I would say that I hope you will
find that my atheistic scientific colleagues often carry themselves well
in society.
Having grown up in communist Bulgaria — a culture where blind
nonbelief was as dogmatically mandated by the government as blind belief
is by the church elsewhere — I find Feynman’s thoughts on the dogma of
atheism particularly insightful:

The communist views are the antithesis of the scientific,
in the sense that in communism the answers are given to all the
questions — political questions as well as moral ones — without
discussion and without doubt. The scientific viewpoint is the exact
opposite of this; that is, all questions must be doubted and discussed;
we must argue everything out — observe things, check them, and so change
them. The democratic government is much closer to this idea, because
there is discussion and a chance of modification. One doesn’t launch the
ship in a definite direction. It is true that if you have a tyranny of
ideas, so that you know exactly what has to be true, you act very
decisively, and it looks good — for a while. But soon the ship is
heading in the wrong direction, and no one can modify the direction
anymore. So the uncertainties of life in a democracy are, I think, much
more consistent with science.
He revisits the ethical aspect of religion — its commitment to
guiding us toward a more moral life — and its interplay with our human

We know that, even with moral values granted, human
beings are very weak; they must be reminded of the moral values in order
that they may be able to follow their consciences. It is not simply a
matter of having a right conscience; it is also a question of
maintaining strength to do what you know is right. And it is necessary
that religion give strength and comfort and the inspiration to follow
these moral views. This is the inspirational aspect of religion. It
gives inspiration not only for moral conduct — it gives inspiration for
the arts and for all kinds of great thoughts and actions as well.
Noting that all three aspects of religion — metaphysical divinity,
morality, and inspiration — are interconnected and that “to attack one
feature of the system is to attack the whole structure,” Feynman zeroes
in on the inescapable conflict between the empirical findings of science
and the metaphysical myths of faith:

The result … is a retreat of the religious metaphysical
view, but nevertheless, there is no collapse of the religion. And
further, there seems to be no appreciable or fundamental change in the
moral view.

After all, the earth moves around the sun — isn’t it best to turn the
other cheek? Does it make any difference whether the earth is standing
still or moving around the sun?


In my opinion, it is not possible for religion to find a set of
metaphysical ideas which will be guaranteed not to get into conflicts
with an ever-advancing and always-changing science which is going into
an unknown. We don’t know how to answer the questions; it is impossible
to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong. The
difficulty arises because science and religion are both trying to answer
questions in the same realm here.

On the other hand, I don’t believe that a real conflict with science
will arise in the ethical aspect, because I believe that moral questions
are outside of the scientific realm.

Another 16th-century painting by Francisco de Holanda from 'Cosmigraphics.'Click image for more.
And so we get to the most enduring challenge — the fact that, in Tippett’s words, “how we ask our questions affects the answers we arrive at.” Arguing that science isn’t aimed at the foundations of morality, Feynman writes:

The typical human problem, and one whose answer religion aims to supply, is always of the following form: Should I do this? Should we do this? Should the government do this? To answer this question we can resolve it into two parts: First — If I do this, what will happen? — and second — Do I want that to happen? What would come of it of value — of good?

Now a question of the form: If I do this, what will happen?
is strictly scientific. As a matter of fact, science can be defined as a
method for, and a body of information obtained by, trying to answer
only questions which can be put into the form: If I do this, what will happen? The technique of it, fundamentally, is: Try it and see.
Then you put together a large amount of information from such
experiences. All scientists will agree that a question — any question,
philosophical or other — which cannot be put into the form that can be
tested by experiment … is not a scientific question; it is outside the
realm of science.

I claim that whether you want something to happen or not — what value
there is in the result, and how you judge the value of the result
(which is the other end of the question: Should I do this?), must lie outside of science because it is not a question that you can answer only by knowing what happens; you still have to judge
what happens — in a moral way. So, for this theoretical reason I think
that there is a complete consistency between the moral view — or the
ethical aspect of religion — and scientific information.
But therein lies the central friction — because of the
interconnectedness of all three parts of religion, doubt about the
metaphysical aspect invariably chips away at the authority of the moral
and inspirational aspects, which are fueled by the believer’s emotional
investment in the divine component. Feynman writes:

Emotional ties to the moral code … begin to be severely
weakened when doubt, even a small amount of doubt, is expressed as to
the existence of God; so when the belief in God becomes uncertain, this
particular method of obtaining inspiration fails.
He concludes, appropriately, like a scientist rather than a dogmatist
— by framing the right questions rather than asserting the right

I don’t know the answer to this central problem — the
problem of maintaining the real value of religion, as a source of
strength and of courage to most [people], while, at the same time, not
requiring an absolute faith in the metaphysical aspects.

Western civilization, it seems to me, stands by two great heritages.
One is the scientific spirit of adventure–the adventure into the
unknown, an unknown which must be recognized as being unknown in order
to be explored; the demand that the unanswerable mysteries of the
universe remain unanswered; the attitude that all is uncertain; to
summarize it — the humility of the intellect. The other great heritage
is Christian ethics — the basis of action on love, the brotherhood of
all men, the value of the individual — the humility of the spirit.

These two heritages are logically, thoroughly consistent. But logic
is not all; one needs one’s heart to follow an idea. If people are going
back to religion, what are they going back to? Is the modern church a
place to give comfort to a man who doubts God — more, one who
disbelieves in God? Is the modern church a place to give comfort and
encouragement to the value of such doubts? So far, have we not drawn
strength and comfort to maintain the one or the other of these
consistent heritages in a way which attacks the values of the other? Is
this unavoidable? How can we draw inspiration to support these two
pillars of Western civilization so that they may stand together in full
vigor, mutually unafraid? Is this not the central problem of our time?
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
is a trove of the Great Explainer’s wisdom on everything from education
to integrity to the value of science as a way of life. Complement it
with Feynman on why everything is connected to everything else, how his father taught him about the most important thing, and his little-known drawings, then revisit Alan Lightman — a Great Explainer for our day — on science and the divinity of the unknowable.


Edward Bernays and the Art of Public Manipulation

Uploaded on 22 Aug 2009
The book, Propaganda by Edward Bernays.


YouTube documentary about Edward Bernays:

Edward Louis James Bernays (/bərˈnz/; German: [bɛɐ̯ˈnaɪs]; November 22, 1891 − March 9, 1995) was an Austrian-American pioneer in the field of public relations and propaganda, referred to in his obituary as "the father of public relations".[1] He combined the ideas of Gustave Le Bon and Wilfred Trotter on crowd psychology with the psychoanalytical ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud.

He felt this manipulation was necessary in society, which he regarded as irrational and dangerous as a result of the "herd instinct" that Trotter had described.[2] Adam Curtis's award-winning 2002 documentary for the BBC, The Century of the Self,
pinpoints Bernays as the originator of modern public relations, and
Bernays was named one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th
century by Life magazine.[3]



Top 17 Alan Watts Videos (With Summaries) - Cutting-Edge Solutions For a Better Life

Top 17 Alan Watts Videos (With Summaries) - Cutting-Edge Solutions For a Better Life

These are all short and most have music, which makes them more
inspiring.  1.5X means this is the preferable speed I listen to it at.

I give a short explanation because the first time I listened to many
of these videos I didn’t fully understand what he was saying, but it
sounded good.  Anyway, these are my interpretations that make sense to
me.  I ordered them roughly in how much I appreciate them.

I relisten to these sometimes as occasional reminders.

1) Time to Wake Up (1.5X)
– on watching, letting things be, accepting our destiny because we
can’t control it.  The concept of Judo- go along with it, go along with

2) Live Fully Now – on the ridiculousness of the rat race.  You must live for the present.

3) The Way of Waking Up –
on simply being.  When shedding the ego, the world becomes a general
experience that’s not different from anyone else’s experience and so
whenever someone is born, in a way it’s as if you are born.   If you can
imagine your own consciousness being destroyed (by using LSD), a
different one reemerges and it’s no different as if you died and were
reborn.  A bit gimmicky and not clear logic, but good music.

4) The Secret of Life –
The false idea that we must keep living and be successful.  On the
importance of allowing life to be lived spontaneously, without goals,
commands or control.   On being and experiencing the world.  On playing,
instead of working.

5) Follow Your Heart –
Following your passion, trusting your future, destiny and intuition.
 Acting as if money were no object.  Time is limited.  What do I desire?
You’ll know when you find it. Stay hungry, stay foolish.

6) Playing The Game of Life –
on forever being a candidate for living, but never actually living.
 All wretch and no vomit.  Until you are retired and sick.  On working
to make money to buy pleasure, which doesn’t cause happiness.  Making
plans for the future is of use only to people who are capable of living
in the present.

7) Let Go of Controlling Everything (1.5X)
– Trusting your nature, giving up control, and letting the universe
decide for you.  Trying to control will antagonize your flow and you’ll
live less experientially. Trusting the real you and the universe is a
way to become one with it.

8)  Be Yourself –
the real you.  Your experience is all that is there. Our perception
of reality is only brought into being by our senses. Red is really a
wave, but eyes see red, not waves.  Sound is vibrations and noise is a
creation of our ear drums.  So in that sense, we are god, because we
create sound, light and everything we experience, and that’s all that
there is.  Your experiences are you and nothing else is you.

9) The Illusion of Ego (1.5X)
– On trying to use the Ego to control our lives, which only causes
strain because what we think of as ‘Me’ can’t actually control anything.
 Therefore, all we can do is watch, which is the state of meditation.
 On the distortions that the Ego causes – accentuates good and bad,
pleasant and painful.  In reality, everything is vibrations (matter is
vibrations).  In Zen, you act immediately, instead of thinking about
acting.  We only know something because of contrast – only know hard
because of soft, light because of dark, etc…So what we know isn’t an
absolute experience, just perceptions – they’re really just vibrations.
 The Ego is a similar kind of illusion.  Life is about appreciating the
vibrations, but realizing that vibrations are just that.

10) The Illusion of Self – follow ideas to the extreme.

Life is like an onion.  Some try to peel an onion as fast as we can
to get to core or some future point, until we realize that an onion is
all skins and no center.  You must enjoy the skins if you are to enjoy
the onion.  In the same way, you must enjoy your current experience.

The story of a man who fights a bear that is capable of reading his
thoughts.  Since the bear knows in advance how the man will hit it, the
only way for the man to win the fight is to hit it by accident.

A student trying to learn from his Zen master is trying to
purposefully do something in a formal way, which is antithetical to Zen.
 In Zen, life is about experience.  The master can’t teach you anything
because there is nothing to learn.  And so the student is on a goal
oriented journey to get somewhere, but eventually he must
realize/internalize that there’s no where to go and nothing to learn.

11) The Way of Waking up (1.5X)
– There’s no where you have to go or nothing to do to be happy.  You’re
here.  If you’re ready to wake up…you’re going to wake up.

12) The Mind -worrying that we worry, addiction to thinking, constant distraction from ourselves, shutting down the mind,

13) It Starts Now –
as long as we try to control and get somewhere, meditation isn’t
possible.  On the endless obsession of frivolous superiority – one is
slightly more evolved than another.  On being in the present and not
using excuses to explain your present, but just accepting it.  You can’t
blame anyone for where you are.

14) Alan Watts and South Park (1.5X)- cute, good mix of Alan Watts.

15) Living In Nothingness –
on the importance of imagining that all your possessions were
destroyed.  Nothingness is the fundamental reality and viewing the world
in such a way…but in nothing there is everything.   Gives opposite
perspectives of living, both of which are true.

16) The Dream of Life/What If God Became Bored (similar) (1.5X)
– Why planning and dreaming of the future is silly – because in a way
the spontaneous and unknowableness of our present and future…. is a
dream that we would’ve planned if given the chance.  I don’t fully ‘get
it’, but sounds cool.

17) Creating Who You Are –
you don’t know what you want because you have it, and you don’t know
yourself because you never can.  Instead of trying to create (through
will) who we are, we should let go and just accept whatever we
are/desire.  The more we try to control, the more energy we exert and
the more we are in defensive mode (constantly trying to keep everything
in line).  When we give up control, we gain a new power.  Only once we
realize that we can’t control, is when we start to give it up.


Work Is Bullshit: The Argument For "Antiwork" | Co.Exist | ideas + impact

Work Is Bullshit: The Argument For "Antiwork" | Co.Exist | ideas + impact

Be honest: Do you actually need to do your job?

If you're like most employed Americans, you hate your job—or, at best, you're checked out at work.
But as much as you might complain about the place where you spend most
of your waking hours, there's a good chance you don't ever question the
fundamental idea that you should be working.

A fascinating essay by U.K.-based writer Brian Dean argues that we need to reframe the idea of work itself—and maybe replace it with "antiwork" instead. He explains:
Antiwork is a moral alternative to the obsession with
"jobs" that has plagued our society for too long. It’s a project to
radically reframe work and leisure. It’s also a cognitive antidote to
the pernicious culture of "hard work," which has taken over our minds as
well as our precious time.


"Survivorship Bias and the Psychology of Luck" - 2014: David McRaney,

How to be lucky. Unlucky people are narrowly focused, goal oriented,
seek security and control, and prefer routines. Lucky people are open to
new experiences, easily abandon routines, and fail often. Lucky people
go to a different tree in the apple orchard every time. Luck is just how
people interact with chance and "lucky" people are better at
interacting with chance than "unlucky" people.

Advice from successful people isn't as useful as everyone thinks because they don't
truly understand why they are successful because of survivorship bias.
Most success boils down to serially avoiding catastrophic failure while
routinely absorbing manageable damage. But in order to know how to avoid
catastrophic failure, you need to know about the failures, not just the
successes, but you never know because the failures disappear leaving
only the successes. Survivorship bias causes a "missing data" problem
that leads to incorrect decisions.


Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation and Other Essays - The Beloved Writer on the Perils of Treating Art and Cultural Material as “Content” | Brain Pickings

Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation and Other Essays - The Beloved Writer on the Perils of Treating Art and Cultural Material as “Content” | Brain Pickings


“Our task is not to find the maximum amount of
content in a work of art… Our task is to cut back content so that we can
see the thing at all.”
“There are no facts, only interpretations,” Nietzsche wrote in his notebook in the late 1880s. Nearly a century later, Susan Sontag
(January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004), perhaps his only true
intellectual peer in the history of human though, used Nietzsche’s
assertion as the springboard for one of the greatest essays ever written
— her 1964 masterwork “Against Interpretation,” found in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (public library).

Sontag — a woman of penetrating and enduring insight on such aspects of the human experience as courage and resistance, the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture, the clash between beauty and interestingness, and how stereotypes imprison us
— examines our culture’s generally well-intentioned but ultimately
perilous habit of interpretation, which she defines as “a conscious act
of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain ‘rules’ of
interpretation,” a task akin to translation.

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from 'Hide/Seek:
Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.' Click image for details.
Only thirty-one at the time but already with two decades of intense and intensive reading under her belt, Sontag writes:

Interpretation … presupposes a discrepancy between the
clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks
to resolve that discrepancy. The situation is that for some reason a
text has become unacceptable; yet it cannot be discarded. Interpretation
is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too
precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without
actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t
admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by
disclosing its true meaning. However far the interpreters alter the text
… they must claim to be reading off a sense that is already there.
This, of course, warrants the necessary meta-observation that
Sontag’s now-iconic essay was perhaps, at least on some level, her way
of admonishing people like you and me against interpreting her own work
to its detriment — that is, misinterpreting it, or merely
over-interpreting to a point of stripping it of the sheer sensory
pleasure of Sontag’s style, of the elegance with which her mind spills
onto the page in its essential form.

Even half a century ago, in fact, Sontag was wary of the violence embedded in the act itself:

The contemporary zeal for the project of interpretation
is often prompted by an open aggressiveness… The old style of
interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning
on top of the literal one. The modern style of interpretation
excavates, and as it excavates, destroys…


Interpretation is not (as most people assume) an absolute value, a
gesture of mind situated in some timeless realm of capabilities.
Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of
human consciousness. In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a
liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping
the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary,
impertinent, cowardly, stifling.

Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling.
Although Sontag presaged with astounding accuracy the compulsions of the social web,
one can’t help but wince at a gruesome modern illustration of her
point: I recently witnessed a commenter on Facebook throw a rather
unwholesome epithet at Sontag herself, in reacting solely to an auto-generated thumbnail image, rather than responding
to the 2,000-word article about Sontag, which Facebook’s mindless
algorithm had chosen to “interpret” by that thumbnail image — human and
machine colluding in an especially violent modern form of

In that respect, Sontag’s condemnation of such reactionary cowardice
echoes the insightful observation Kierkegaard — another peer whose ideas
she absorbed early and revisited over her lifetime — made in his diary a
century earlier, contemplating the psychology of why haters hate.
Hate, after all, is a form of interpretation — a particularly
“reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling” one. In a remark
astoundingly timely in our age of lazy reactivity and snap-judgments,
often dispensed from behind the veil of anonymity, Sontag illuminates
the underlying psychology of such “interpretations” with piercing

Interpretation is not simply the compliment that
mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of
understanding something, and is applied to works of every quality.
Interpretation, she argues, is at its most perilous when applied to the arts:

Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.
Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To
interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a
shadow world of “meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.)

Susan Sontag's diary meditations on art, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.
In a spectacular answer to the eternal and elusive question of what art is and what its duties are, she adds:

Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing
the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames
the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.
In another stroke of prescient and urgently timely insight, Sontag
considers this notion of “content” — perhaps the vilest term by which
professional commodifiers refer to cultural material today — and how it
defiles art:

Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a
work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art
into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of
As an antidote to such violating interpretation, Sontag points to
“making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose
momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be …
just what it is.” In a sentiment that Wendell Berry would come to echo
two decades later in his bewitching case for the value of form, Sontag writes:

What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art.
If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation,
more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence.
What is needed is a vocabulary — a descriptive, rather than
prescriptive, vocabulary — for forms.
This notion of vocabulary once again calls to mind the modern
fixation on “content” — a term by which no self-respecting writer or
artist would refer to what she makes, and yet one forcefully seared onto
writing and art by the tyrannical vocabulary of commercial media, that
hotbed of professionalized consumerism concerned not with the
stewardship of culture but with the profitable commodification of it.

Sontag points to cinema as the perfect example of a form that resists the violence of interpretation. “Cinema is the most alive, the most exciting, the most important of all art forms right now,”
she writes — a remark partially quoted all over the internet, almost
always with the “right now” portion missing, in a testament to exactly
what Sontag warns against; her point, after all, was that cinema’s
aliveness in the “right now” of 1964 was due to its being such a young art. She writes:

Perhaps the way one tells how alive a particular art form
is, is by the latitude it gives for making mistakes in it, and still
being good… In good films, there is always a directness that entirely
frees us from the itch to interpret… The fact that films have not been
overrun by interpreters is in part due simply to the newness of cinema
as an art.
But Sontag’s greatest admonition against interpretation has to do
with its tendency to de-sensualize art — to render impossible the “active surrender” by which great art makes its claim on our souls:

Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work
of art for granted, and proceeds from there… Ours is a culture based on
excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in
our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life — its material
plenitude, its sheer crowdedness — conjoin to dull our sensory
faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our
capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the
critic must be assessed.

What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.
She returns to that timeless, devastatingly timely question of “content”:

Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a
work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is
already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the
thing at all.

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art —
and, by analogy, our own experience — more, rather than less, real to
us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.
The entirety of Against Interpretation and Other Essays
is all genius, no mediocrity — the kind of reading that plants itself
in the garden of the mind, remains there a lifetime, and blossoms anew
with each passing year. Complement it with Sontag on literature and freedom, the writer’s role in society, boredom, sex, censorship, aphorisms, why lists appeal to us, and the joy of rereading beloved books.


Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves? Leo Tolstoy on Why We Drink | Brain Pickings

Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves? Leo Tolstoy on Why We Drink | Brain Pickings

In a word, it is impossible to avoid understanding that the use of
stupefiers, in large or small amounts, occasionally or regularly, in the
higher or lower circles of society, is evoked by one and the same
cause, the need to stifle the voice of conscience in order not to be
aware of the discord existing between one’s way of life and the demands
of one’s conscience.
But one need only think of the matter seriously and
impartially not trying to excuse oneself to understand, first, that if
the use of stupefiers in large occasional doses stifles man’s
conscience, their regular use must have a like effect (always first
intensifying and then dulling the activity of the brain) whether they
are taken in large or small doses. Secondly, that all stupefiers have
the quality of stifling conscience, and have this always both when under
their influence murders, robberies, and violations are committed, and
when under their influence words are spoken which would not have been
spoken, or things are thought and felt which but for them would not have
been thought and felt; and, thirdly, that if the use of stupefiers is
needed to pacify and stifle the consciences of thieves, robbers, and
prostitutes, it is also wanted by people engaged in occupations
condemned by their own consciences, even though these occupations may be
considered proper and honorable by other people.