Bluebeard is my favorite Vonnegut novel. I’ve only referenced it on this Tumblr once before, but now Matt Jones posted a quote from it today, one that I’ve kept tucked away in a bookmark, and one that speaks to how change happens.
Paul Slazinger has had all his clothes and writing materials brought here. He is working on his first volume of non-fiction, to which he has given this title: _The Only Way to Have a Successful Revolution in Any Field of Human Activity_.
For what it’s worth: Slazinger claims to have learned from history that most people cannot open their minds to new ideas unless a mind-opening team with a peculiar membership goes to work on them. Otherwise, life will go on exactly as before, no matter how painful, unrealistic, unjust, ludicrous, or downright dumb that life may be.
The team must consist of three sorts of specialists, he says. Otherwise, the revolution, whether in politics or the arts of the sciences or whatever, is sure to fail.
The rarest of these specialists, he says, is an authentic genius — a person capable of having seeminly good ideas not in general circulation. ‘A genius working alone,’ he says, ‘is invariably ignored as a lunatic.’
The second sort of specialist is a lot easier to find: a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad. ‘A person working like that alone,’ says Slazinger, ‘can only yearn out loud for changes, but fail to say what their shapes should be.’
The third sort of specialist is a person who can explain anything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people, no matter how stupid or pigheaded they may be. ‘He will say almost anything in order to be interesting or exciting,’ says Slazinger. ‘Working alone, depending solely on his own shallow ideas, he would be regarded as being as full of shit as a Christmas turkey.’
My friend Jen Lowe recently announced the School for Poetic Computation.
Our motto is: more poems less demos.
While theirs is a specific craft, the mission statement of SfPC has wide applicability to all places of learning. For example, in the following paragraph, substitute writer with any other creative role.
We are interested in craft, and the idea that every writer needs space and time to hone their trade. Our school aims to provide a safe haven – so you could get acquainted with the craft at your own pace, make it your own, find that part between your true creative process and the craft. This takes time, encouragement, the right push at the right time, conversations with colleagues, and more time.
Read the rest of the mission — that all schools embody the sensibilities contained in those last four paragraphs.
My kids are frequently asked something like this: “If you don’t go to school, then how will you learn?” We, as a society, have forgotten that learning predated schools. We have forgotten that human literacy is not the invention of our schooling system.
Iceland never had any bookshops between the sixteenth century and the mid-nineteenth. It also had no schools. Yet by the end of the eighteenth century the population was almost entirely literate. Families in farms scattered over an enormous area taught their own children to read—and the Icelanders read a great deal, especially during the long winter months. Aside from religious works, their reading matter consisted primarily of Nordic sagas, copied and recopied over many generations in manuscript books, thousands of them, which now form the principal collections in Iceland’s archives. Iceland therefore provides an example of a society that contradicts everything in my diagram. For three and a half centuries, it had a highly literate population given to reading books, yet it had virtually no printing presses, no bookshops, no libraries, and no schools. An aberration? Perhaps, but the experience of the Icelanders may tell us something about the nature of literary culture throughout Scandinavia and even in other parts of the world, especially in remote rural areas where oral and scribal cultures reinforced each other beyond the range of the printed word.
— Robert Darnton, “‘What is the History of Books?’ Revisited” (2007) (via Alan Jacobs)
Adam Greenfield on transparency as a force against the destructive cultural pressure to hide our shortcomings:
But there’s another reason to be forthright about our stumbles and setbacks, which is to push back a little against the relentless pressure that exists in our culture to always present oneself (and by extension, one’s organization) as on-message, serenely omnicompetent, and moving only and ever in a forward direction.
In the case of design firms, this pathological fear of appearing fallible is most likely a transfer from the culture of large-scale, publicly-held concerns, their obsession with “enhancing shareholder value” and their not entirely irrational dread of litigation at the slightest managerial misstep. But it’s clearly also a dynamic that exists in society at large, where Facebook tutors us in the ongoing presentation of self, and brutal economic conditions force each of us to position ourselves at all times as a plausible candidate for any opportunity that might arise. The invariably smooth and placid surfaces that get presented to the world contrast mightily with an interiority we know to be roiling with complication, in the case of individuals and institutions both.
Or to quote Charlie Kaufman:
We try to be experts because we’re scared; we don’t want to feel foolish or worthless; we want power because power is a great disguise.
He goes on:
This is from E. E. Cummings: ‘To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.’ The world needs you. It doesn’t need you at a party having read a book about how to appear smart at parties – these books exist, and they’re tempting – but resist falling into that trap. The world needs you at the party starting real conversations, saying, ‘I don’t know,’ and being kind.
Be wary of overconfidence and certainty. Favor and respect — but do not take advantage of — honesty, forthrightness, and vulnerability.
I just happened to read this yesterday, which was apparently a day about places.
The lesson which life repeats and constantly enforces is, “Look under foot.” You are always nearer the divine and the true sources of your power than you think. The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are. Do not despise your own place and hour. Every place is under the stars, every place is the centre of the world. Stand in your own dooryard and you have eight thousand miles of solid ground beneath you, and all the sidereal splendors overhead.
—John Burroughs, 1908 (via Caterina)