Without a touch of masochism, the meaning of life is not complete

I hope you will forgive the double post, but I could not resist some excerpts from another of Joseph Brodsky’s wonderful essays in ‘On Grief and Reason.’ This one is titled ‘Speech at a stadium,’ and was delivered for a commencement speech at the University of Michigan in 1988:

To covet what somebody else has is to forfeit your uniqueness; on the other hand, of course, it stimulates mass production. But as you are running through life only once, it is only sensible to try to avoid the most obvious cliches, limited editions included. The notion of exclusivity, mind you, also forfeits your uniqueness, not to mention that it shrinks your sense of reality to the already achieved.

Joseph Brodsky | Poetry Foundation

At all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim. Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty. A pointed finger is a victim’s logo-the opposite of the V sign and a synonym for surrender. No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, childhood, toilet training, etc. The menu is vast and tedious, and this vastness and tedium alone should be offensive enough to set one’s intelligence against choosing from it. The moment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything; it could be argued even that that blame-thirsty finger oscillates as wildly as it does because the resolve was never great enough in the first place. After all, victim status is not without its sweetness. It commands compassion, confers distinction, and whole nations and continents bask in the murk of mental discounts advertised as the victim’s conscience. There is an entire victim culture, ranging from private counselors to international loans. The professed goal of this network notwithstanding, its net result is that of lowering one’s expectations from the threshold, so that a measly advantage could be perceived or billed as a major breakthrough. Of course, this is therapeutic and, given the scarcity of the world’s resources, perhaps even hygienic, so for want of a better identity, one may embrace it-but try to resist it. However abundant and irrefutable is the evidence that you are on the losing side, negate it as long as you have your wits about you, as long as your lips can utter “No. “

On the whole, try to respect life not only for its amenities but for its hardships, too. They are a part of the game, and what’s good about a hardship is that it is not a deception. Whenever you are in trouble, in some scrape, on the verge of despair or in despair, remember: that’s life speaking to you in the only language it knows well. In other words, try to be a little masochistic: without a touch of masochism, the meaning of life is not complete. If this is of any help, try to remember that human dignity is an absolute, not a piecemeal notion; that it is inconsistent with special pleading, that it derives its poise from denying the obvious. Should you find this argument a bit on the heady side, think at least that by considering yourself a victim you but enlarge the vacuum of irresponsibility that demons or demagogues love so much to fill, since a paralyzed will is no dainty for angels

For my favorite commencement speech of all time, check out David Foster Wallace’s This is Water

One-Dimensional Man

As someone who neither plays nor watches sport, I am surprised to find myself recommending a second piece of sports writing this month (see my post on David Foster Wallace’s tennis essay here).

This piece ran with ESPN back in 2018 and profiles one of the most famous baseball players of all time – Ichiro Suzuki. I had never heard of him before this, but a skim of his Wikipedia page and a conversation with a knowledgeable friend presents Ichiro as the Messi of baseball.

The essay is equal parts profile and meditation on the price of excellence. One passage that stood out to me:

Like nearly all obsessive people, Ichiro finds some sort of safety in his patterns. He goes up to the plate with a goal in mind, and if he accomplishes that goal, then he is at peace for a few innings. Since his minor league days in Japan, he has devised an achievable, specific goal every day, to get a boost of validation upon completion. That’s probably why he hates vacations. In the most public of occupations, he is clearly engaged in a private act of self-preservation. He’s winnowed his life to only the cocoon baseball provides. His days allow for little beyond his routine, like leaving his hotel room at 11:45, or walking through the lobby a minute later, or going to the stadium day after day in the offseason — perhaps his final offseason. Here in the freezing cold, with a 27-degree wind chill, the hooks ping off the flagpoles. The bat in his hand is 33.46 inches long. He steps into the cage and sees 78 pitches. He swings 75 times.

Up close, he looks a lot like a prisoner.

The whole piece is well worth reading.

This Is Water

Every few months I read David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech, “This is Water.” In trying to select a passage to put here, I highlighted about 70% of the speech, which is my way of telling you to read it. This time around – it varies with each read – the following passage stood out:

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

After twenty nine years on this earth, I have reached the cautious conclusion that living is a long series of attempts to understand, in the same pre-reflexive way you reach for your phone before you’re fully awake or know left from right, the truisms all around us.

Most of us know to think for ourselves, listen to our hearts, confront mortality, pay attention, love others (and ourselves), take risks, make hard decisions, be grateful, laugh, and yet, we are usually unable to.

This suggests that life is not an information problem (Remember? There is nothing new under the sun). Life is an attention and decision problem; being conscious enough to notice the parade of decisions and courageous enough to take them.

David makes a similar point twice in the speech:

The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance…

….On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

I highly recommend it.

The full transcript.

In video format (original length) (shortened and animated).

Sports writing

The bestseller sections of certain bookstores, the ones where glossy covers outnumber matte, usually contain several sports memoirs. As someone who never played sport, the genre projects an aura that keeps me moving past it to the cramped shelves where they keep the history books.

I re-read David Foster Wallace’s tennis essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” yesterday. It is one of my favorite pieces of writing, in part because he eloquently makes the case that those memoirs, cheesy titles and all, contain transcendental truths. A few snippets:

There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man.

This memoir could have been about both the seductive immortality of competitive success and the less seductive but way more significant fragility and impermanence of all the competitive venues in which mortal humans chase immortality.

Please do read the whole thing.