Puritanical Hedonism

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Let me open with a quote from Marilynne Robinson:

My own life is full of profound satisfactions, and I’m distracted from the fact that the world is not in good shape. I cherish time, for instance, and for the most part I have control over my time, which is a marker of a very high standard of living as far as I’m concerned. At some point I created an artificial tropic for myself, where I could do exactly what I wanted to do and be rewarded for it. There’s a puritanical hedonism in my existence.

I have previously described myself as a Rational Romantic, but frankly that simply does not do my life justice! Nor is this adequate, although it is accurate: I am serious about being playful.

I had originally titled this post as My Paris Review Interviews: Vol. II. but as I read her answer to an interviewer question, I thought it actually reflects my own life (most weekdays, pre-6 pm 😏) perfectly!  This week alone, we completed three papers for publication – one on Quantum Communications,  one on Electric Vehicles and one on Healthcare Insurance –  and gave an invited talk on Organ Transplantation, thanks Saumya and Ankur for dinner, at University of Minnesota ISyE Department, while enjoying a variety of wonderful cocktails (and wine) in luxurious settings (Pure Hedonism, after 6pm ☺️ ).

And tonight, we have tickets to Shemekia Copeland at Dakota. ☺️

In Weston Brahmin, writing about the time just after SmartOps was acquired by SAP, I had mused about the various stages of life, where I provided the origins of Sridhara Navatva-Shastra ☺️ and my mantra:

Leisure, Luxury and Pursuit of Newness.

Clearly SmartOps represented my Academic Capitalist days,  OrganJet is me being an Academic Philanthropist and I have previously framed my current way of life as Transcendental Engagement. It has four pillars: Intellectual Enjoyment, Economic Vibrancy, Spiritual Nourishment and Philosophical Reflections. I could have titled this post, emphasizing the first pillar, as:

Academic Hedonist.😉

As you know, in the first instalment of My Paris Review Interviews, I intertwined the interviews – Welty, Wodehouse, Thurber, Greene, Faulkner, Garcia-Marquez – focusing, beyond writing, on humor and movies. For this sequel, I decided to thread interviews that are (beyond writing) about science and religion.

INTERVIEWER

What were the particular guides that helped you?

BARTH

The great guides were the books I discovered in the Johns Hopkins library, where my student job was to file books away. One was more or less encouraged to take a cart of books and go back into the stacks and not come out for seven or eight hours. So, I read what I was filing. My great teachers (the best thing that can happen to a writer) were Scheherazade, Homer, Virgil, and Boccaccio; also, the great Sanskrit tale-tellers. I was impressed forever with the width as well as the depth of literature.

INTERVIEWER

Would you ever make a compromise in your books to gain more readers?

BARTH

I would, but I can’t. I start every new project saying, “This one’s going to be simple, this one’s going to be simple.” It never turns out to be. My imagination evidently delights in complexity for its own sake. Much of life, after all, and much of what we admire is essentially complex. For a temperament such as mine, the hardest job in the world—the most complicated task in the world—is to become simpler. There are writers whose gift is to make terribly complicated things simple. But I know my gift is the reverse: to take relatively simple things and complicate them to the point of madness. But there you are: one learns who one is, and it is at one’s peril that one attempts to become someone else.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start to write?

LAHIRI

Almost as soon as I learned to read, I started writing my own versions of stories, in notebooks I’d steal from my teacher’s cabinet at school. I was painfully shy, and it was partly my way of making friends—I’d sit with other girls and we’d pass a notebook around, writing a story together.

INTERVIEWER

What do you like about keeping a journal?

LAHIRI

I’ve kept one for decades—it’s the font of all my writing. I recently taught a class on the diary at Barnard, where we read real ones by Pavese, Woolf, Sontag, André Gide, and Carolina Maria de Jesus, as well as work by Joyce, Ernaux, and others. These days people are more excited about digressive, almost unpresentable writing, the kind that exists in some private, intimate dimension, but for a long time, there was a sense of a literary hierarchy, with the novel at the top and any record of real-time experience, especially women’s experience, at the bottom—you know, “There she goes, pouring her heart out again.” That mode, which involves carving out a space in which no one is watching or listening, is how I’ve always operated. I remember that during an event for Interpreter of Maladies in London—this was before it won the Pulitzer, but it was a pretty big crowd—someone asked me, “Who do you write for?” And I stood on that stage, this incredibly green writer, and said, “I write for myself.” There was total silence.

INTERVIEWER

“Clearly she has no empathy!”

LAHIRI

Precisely. But I believe it’s like Woolf says— “the only certain value is one’s own pleasure.” When I think about my output over the years, everything I’ve published is only the half of it. All the diaries in my drawers—that’s its own body of work.

INTERVIEWER

Do you revise very much?

LAHIRI

I’m constantly adding in the margins and crossing things out, and rearranging words for the sake of rhythm. I loathe Track Changes, so I’ve always printed out each typed draft to make handwritten corrections, and I end up with infinite annotated copies. I need a physical manuscript even when a book is in its final stages.

INTERVIEWER

One of the intriguing things about your books is that you are very interested in science, but also explore very effectively some of those magical concerns, some of those divisions between the scientific investigator and the charlatan.

BYATT

I remember reading an article by Frank Kermode in which he said in a rather small voice, “Will no one stand up for reason?” Actually, I think I am a rationalist. But I think our descriptions of the world are inadequate. I think most of the scientific descriptions of the human place in the world are as inadequate as those of the magicians or religious people, though I’m completely on the side of the scientists.

INTERVIEWER

Ames believes that one of the benefits of religion is “it helps you concentrate. It gives you a good basic sense of what is being asked of you and also what you might as well ignore.” Is this something that your faith and religious practice has done for you?

ROBINSON

Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about. Religion has been profoundly effective in enlarging human imagination and expression. It’s only very recently that you couldn’t see how the high arts are intimately connected to religion.

INTERVIEWER

How does science fit into this framework?

ROBINSON

I read as much as I can of contemporary cosmology because reality itself is profoundly mysterious. Quantum theory and classical physics, for instance, are both lovely within their own limits and yet at present they cannot be reconciled with each other. If different systems don’t merge in a comprehensible way, that’s a flaw in our comprehension and not a flaw in one system or the other.

INTERVIEWER

Are religion and science simply two systems that don’t merge?

ROBINSON

The debate seems to be between a naive understanding of religion and a naive understanding of science. When people try to debunk religion, it seems to me they are referring to an eighteenth-century notion of what science is. I’m talking about Richard Dawkins here, who has a status that I can’t quite understand. He acts as if the physical world that is manifest to us describes reality exhaustively. On the other side, many of the people who articulate and form religious expression have not acted in good faith. The us-versus-them mentality is a terrible corruption of the whole culture.

The science that I prefer tends toward cosmology, theories of quantum reality, things that are finer-textured than classical physics in terms of their powers of description. Science is amazing. On a mote of celestial dust, we have figured out how to look to the edge of our universe. I feel instructed by everything I have read. Science has a lot of the satisfactions for me that good theology has.

INTERVIEWER

Most people know you as a novelist, but you spend a lot of your time writing nonfiction. What led you to start writing essays?

ROBINSON

To change my own mind. I try to create a new vocabulary or terrain for myself, so that I open out—I always think of the Dutch claiming land from the sea—or open up something that would have been closed to me before. That’s the point and the pleasure of it. I continuously scrutinize my own thinking. I write something and think: How do I know that that’s true? If I wrote what I thought I knew from the outset, then I wouldn’t be learning anything new.

In this culture, essays are often written for the sake of writing the essay. Someone finds a quibble of potential interest and quibbles about it. This doesn’t mean the writer isn’t capable of doing something of greater interest, but we generate a lot of prose that’s not vital. The best essays come from the moment in which people really need to work something out.

INTERVIEWER

You once said that you “proceed from the assumption that the distinctions available to us in this world are not arrayed between good and bad but between bad and worse.” Do you ever worry that you’re too pessimistic?

ROBINSON

I worry that I’m not pessimistic enough. My own life is full of profound satisfactions, and I’m distracted from the fact that the world is not in good shape. I cherish time, for instance, and for the most part I have control over my time, which is a marker of a very high standard of living as far as I’m concerned. At some point I created an artificial tropic for myself, where I could do exactly what I wanted to do and be rewarded for it. There’s a puritanical hedonism in my existence.

2 comments

  1. Yes, Shemekia is great. I’ve heard her 4 – 6 times, in Ann Arbor, Portland, Dallas, and more. Her dad is Johnny Copeland.

  2. She was wonderful! Funny and entertaining.

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