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Monday, November 25, 2013

It's a meaningful life

Yesterday I finally read a book that's been on my list, so to speak, for a while: Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.It only took a few hours, as it is a very short and compelling (though not light) read.If you look up the book or Frankl online, you will usually a see one long quote from the book, it's one about how much he thought about his wife.
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory. 
He also directs a friend to deliver this message:  ‘Listen, Otto, if I don’t get back home to my wife, and if you should see her again, tell her that I talked of her daily, hourly. You remember. Secondly, I have loved her more than anyone. Thirdly, the short time I have been married to her outweighs everything, even all we have been through here.’ ”  As it happens, the message never could get delivered. The NYT obituary reveals that his wife, who was pregnant, had already been killed, a fact that he only alludes to in the book.
 I didn't even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing -- which I have learned well by now. Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved.It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether of not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all ceases somehow to be of importance....
Had I known that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undistubed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying. [then he quotes from Song of Songs] " Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death." 
While this sounds very Romantic, Frankl really sees it as a way to keep going rather than clinging to the past. He married again (a Catholic this time) after the war.  

Finding meaning for life in love in this way is very Existential. In a nutshell, Frankl's philosophy and its application to psychology as logotherapy is Friedrich Nietzsche's assertion, “Those who have a why to live, can bear with almost any how.”

That is why he says that some people who had less physical strength survived the concentration camps than those with more -- because they had an inner life to draw on, something to make their suffering meaningful. He does admit, though, that these are not the majority of people, though he posits that any can pull it off attests to human capacity for spiritual (or, if you prefer, mental) dominance over physical conditions. 

However, one brief passage in the book that really struck me was his considering waking up a inmate who was suffering from a nightmare only to think better of it because no nightmare could be worse than their reality in the concentration camp. There is a type of suffering that can become overwhelming, even to the strong. And I do wonder why, as he demonstrates some familiarity with Scriptures, he didn't look at the story of Job. Perhaps he would say that the lesson there was also about finding meaning in suffering. Job could not take the pain when he could see no reason for it.

All this is pretty heavy stuff, but some lessons that he imparts have counterparts in much lighter contexts. Many years before Frankl published his pieces on logotherapy LM Montgomery wrote of one of his solutions. In one of the sequels to Anne of Green Gables (I believe it was Anne of the Island), Anne has a roommate of a rather flighty disposition.  She has difficulty making up her mind until the pastor that she ends up marrying advises her herself at 80 and consider what she would you have been glad she had done.  Frankl offers almost the exact same thing in his therapy for a woman who was suicidal. He has her visual looking back on her life at 80. That's when she realizes that, despite her present despair, her life is rich in meaning. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Public, or it didn't happen

The title is a variation on the "Pictures, or it didn't happen" demand that we sometimes see in comments on posts. The idea is that the visual is necessary to really convince the audience that the account is true. (Why seeing should be believing in the age of Photoshop and CGI is beyond me, but I can visualize things through descriptive texts).

To return to the title, though, it refers to the way some  extroverts see the world -- only things that happen in public really matter. In the introvert universe, though, what transpires in private counts just as much as what happens in public, sometimes even more so.

Lately, there's a trend to make introversion more socially acceptable by stressing that it's not a matter of being anti-social, just of needing to recharge with alone time. However, that really is an overly simplistic reduction. There are real differences between introverted and extroverted perspectives on interaction that extend beyond what one may prefer to do during leisure time to feel revitalized.

I believe that accounts for how extroverts forget about things that are very important to introverts but have no public impact. For example, after I had a baby and couldn't drive for a while, someone nearby promised she would drive my son, along with her own kids, into school. Even though she made the offer on her own and not in response to my request for a favor, she forgot all about it. Another woman I carpooled with for camp just failed to show up on the last day because she decided not to send her kid in then and couldn't even be bothered to let me know by phone.

 I don't think it's just a matter of general forgetfulness but the way extroverts process things require a more public event for them to rank as important. Letting down someone in private just doesn't count. On the other hand, should the introvert skip a party filled with people with no real common interests, well, that's a crime not to be forgiven.

More recently, I've seen this happen again in variations. The extroverts involved would, undoubtedly, claim that they are nice people. But they really have no empathy for the introverted way of thinking -- that which is private also matters, especially when it is a matter of keeping your word and not letting down someone who thought you could be relied on. But in their mind, only what happens in public is important.

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Masterpiece Marketing

The crowd waiting to get in to the Frick on Sunday, November 17th

Girl with a Pearl Earring
Today I visited the Frick Collection to see the special exhibit on view through January 19, 2014,  Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis. (Of course, I also went into the rest of the museum, but as I've there several times before, the real draw for me, as it was for the many people waiting around the whole stretch between 70th and 71st and even round back onto 71st -- in the rain as pictured here.)

The visiting  painting that is the unquestioned star of the special exhibit is  "Girl with a Pearl Earring." Not only does it illustrate all the promotions for the exhibit, but it  given pride of place -- the equivalent of a solo performance -- in the museum. It is the only painting hanging in the oval room. Its special position allows visitors enough room to cluster around it without blocking people's view.

The exhibition details tell a rags to riches story about the painting, both in terms of its restoration and in terms of its valuation. The audio guide, relayed that the star painting was sold for the equivalent of just $7, as relayed here:
The history of the acquisition of the Vermeer has by now become legendary. Des Tombe purchased Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring in 1881 at a sale at the Venduhuis der Notarissen in the Nobelstraat in The Hague for 2 guilders with a 30 cent premium.  ...After Des Tombe’s death on 16 December 1902 (his wife had died the year before and their marriage had remained childless) it turned out that he had secretly bequeathed 12 paintings to the Mauritshuis, including Vermeer’s famous Girl with a Pearl Earring."4(from Quentin Buvelot, "COLLECTING HISTORY: ON DES TOMBE, DONOR OF VERMEER'SGIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING"in the Mauritshuis Bulletin , volume 17, no. 1, March 2004)

 Why should a painting that originally sold for just $7 become such an attraction? The answer is simple.   It is now Vermeer's  best known painting,  thanks to Tracey Chevalier's 1999 novel, which was the basis of a very successful 2003 movie. Now that's an interesting point in terms of marketing value. The Frick is well aware of the film's role in the painting's popularity and so is offering a showing of it on Monday evening, November 18th, with an exhibition viewing to begin at 5:30 and the film at 6.  

 Not to say that the painting is not worth of attention, but I seriously doubt that it would be considered so great a star if not for the attention cast on it by a bestselling book and well-received movie. It's certainly not the only painting by Vermeer to feature a woman in pearl earrings. One of the three Vermeers that the Frick owns is a later work of his, "Mistress and Maid" pictured here.  But no one wrote a book to popularize the story that the painting seems to tell and then went on to dramatize the same in a film, despite the suggestiveness of the woman's expression at being handed a letter by her maid.

It's something to consider: commissioning a book that could turn into a popular film to cast the spotlight on a particular work of art.