At the end of last week, Plaidoyer pour l’altruisme (The Case for Altruism), a 920 page-book on which I have been intensely working for 5 years, came out in French (the English publication is scheduled for January 2015).
Cooperation, wrote Martin Nowak, is “the architect of creativity throughout evolution, from cells to multicellular creatures to anthills to villages to cities. Without cooperation there can be neither construction nor complexity in evolution”(1).
It seems that, today, we need to move to the next level of cooperation to face the many challenges that our times are confronted with. Each of these challenges has its temporality and priority. A major difficulty consists in reconciling three different time scales and three different types of preoccupations: the economy in the short term, life satisfaction in the mid-term, and environment in the long term.
The economy and finance are evolving at an ever-faster pace. Life satisfaction is measured on the scale of a life project, a career, a family, a generation and a life time. The evolution of the environment used to be measured in terms of millennia and era, but the pace of environmental changes has now considerably accelerated.
We should not however give up the idea of reconciling these three time scales. Altruism is the vital thread that can link them together and harmonize their requirements. Altruism is not merely a noble, somewhat naive ideal; today, more than ever, it is a necessity.
If we have more consideration for others, we will not indulge in wild, self-oriented speculations with the savings of those who have placed their trust in us.
If we have more consideration for others, we will care for the quality of life of those around us, we will make sure that their situation improves.
Finally, if we have more consideration for future generations, we will not blindly sacrifice the world that we hand down to them in favor of our short-term wants and desires.
Altruism is thus the key to our survival and the determining factor of the quality of our current and future existence. We must have the insight to recognize it and the audacity to say so.
In its essence, altruism is a benevolent state of mind, consisting of feeling concerned for the fate of all those around us, and wishing them well, strengthened by our determination to act for their benefit. Valuing others is the most fundamental state of mind that leads to altruism. When it is our “default mode”, it expresses itself as benevolence towards anyone who might come into the field of one’s attention and translates itself as goodwill, readiness and willingness to care. As shown by psychologist Daniel Batson, when there is a need that is perceived in others, we readily develop empathic concern, bringing about the urge to fulfill that need. When the need is related to a yearning for happiness, valuing others and benevolence will foster the realization of that aspiration. When the need is related to suffering, valuing others and compassion will induce us to remedy the suffering and its causes.
On the individual level, collaboration between neuroscientists and contemplatives has shown that altruism and compassion are skills that can be cultivated with training. These studies have also distinguished the differences between empathy (the faculty to resonate with the feelings of others), loving-kindness (the wish that others may be happy) and compassion (the wish that they might be free from suffering).
At the society level, research in the field of cultural evolution has also shown that human cultural values can change faster than our genes, and bring about significant transformations in societies. How can we bring about a shift towards a more altruistic, compassionate culture? First of all we need to recognize the importance of altruism. We then need to cultivate it at an individual level and, from there, bring about cultural changes. Cultures and individuals mutually shape each other, just as two knife blades can be used to sharpen the other.
Ricard, M. (2013). Plaidoyer pour l’altruisme. Nil Editions.
(1) Nowak, M., & Highfield, R. (2011). SuperCooperators (Reprint.). Free Press
Born in France in 1946 as the son of French philosopher Jean-François Revel and artist Yahne Le Toumelin, Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk, author, translator, and photographer. He first visited India in 1967 where he met great spiritual masters from Tibet. After completing his Ph.D. degree in cell genetics in 1972, he moved to the Himalayan region where he has been living for the past 40 years.
Matthieu Ricard is the author of several books, such as Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Why Meditate? (The Art of Meditation in the UK), The Quantum and the Lotus (a dialogue with the astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan), and The Monk and the Philosopher, a dialogue with his father. His books have been translated into over twenty languages.Translations of Buddhist texts
Matthieu Ricard has dedicated his life to the study and practice of Buddhism following the teachings of the greatest Tibetan spiritual masters of our time. He has been the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama since 1989. He is the author of several volumes of Buddhist texts translated from the Tibetan, such as The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin, The Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones, and The Heart of Compassion: The Thirty-seven Verses on the Practice of a Bodhisattva (teachings by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche).
Matthieu Ricard is an active member of the Mind and Life Institute, an organization dedicated to broadening the understanding of how the mind works by exploring the intersection between contemplative traditions and contemporary scientific inquiry.
He contributes to the research on the effect of meditation on the brain at various universities in the USA and Europe and is the co-author of several scientific publications.Humanitarian commitment
All proceeds from Matthieu Ricard’s books, photographs, and events are donated to Karuna-Shechen (www.karuna-shechen.org/), the humanitarian association he created. Based on the ideal of “compassion in action”, Karuna-Shechen develops education, medical, and social projects for the most destitute populations of the Himalayan region.
For more information on Karuna-Shechen : www.karuna-shechen.org
Saul Bellow: Letters
In the newly published collected correspondence of Saul Bellow…
BY LEO ROBSON PUBLISHED 11 NOVEMBER 2010
Saul Bellow, edited by Benjamin Taylor
Penguin, 571pp, £30
“Of course I am not a Freudian,” Saul Bellow wrote to Philip Roth in 1974. “For one fierce interval I was a Reichian. At the moment I have no handle of any sort. I can neither be picked up nor put down.” But it wasn’t true. While at work on Humboldt’s Gift (1975), Bellow had developed an interest in the work of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy. And although he insisted, in a letter to the English barrister and “historian of consciousness” Owen Barfield, that he could not call himself a Steinerian, he was using – and refusing – the handle as a measure of knowledge rather than appetite. In 1973, he started attending meetings of the Anthroposophical Society of Chicago; two decades on, he wrote that he had read Steiner’s books “by the score”. Asked by an interviewer to account for the appeal of this work, he said: “When Steiner tells me I have a soul and a spirit, I say, yes, I always knew that.”
So while Bellow, who was happy to identify himself as “American, Jew, novelist, modernist”, did not deem himself fit to be called a Steinerian, he had, in another sense, “always” been one. Some of the most fascinating letters in this book are addressed to Barfield, for whose work Bellow expressed great admiration but from whom he received little in return. This was a rare case. Though he showed a tendency towards paranoia (in 1948, “I am a born slightee”; in 1980, “a favourable letter from me is a kiss of death”), most of his correspondence was conducted on the understanding that he was the senior – and busier – figure. And while Barfield evidently enjoyed Bellow’s company and encouraged his interest in Steiner, he was unable to finish the Steiner-heavy Humboldt’s Gift. Almost desperate, Bellow wrote in 1979, “I can’t easily accept your dismissal of so much investment of soul.” In defence of “‘novelistic’ expression”, he quoted Steiner: “If a man has no ordinary sense of realities, no interest in the details of others’ lives, if he is so ‘superior’ that he sails through life without troubling about its details, he shows he is not a genuine seer.”
To Bellow, the brainy product of immigrant Chicago, anthroposophy offered support for his lifelong intuitions about the relationship between the street and the universe. It was a matter of discrimination. To locate the possibilities for transcendence in city life, you must first identify what Charlie Citrine, the Steiner-mad narrator of Humboldt’s Gift, calls “the accidental, the merely phenomenal, the wastefully and randomly human”; Bellow and Citrine also borrowed Wyndham Lewis’s phrase “the moronic inferno” (a place, according to a 1981 letter, “as hot as ever”). In 1978, during an alimony dispute, Bellow wrote to Barfield: “Today I was asked for an inventory of my personal belongings, and I wonder whether the court would hesitate to put them on auction. One never knows. I manage nevertheless to concentrate daily on the distinctions between the essential and the inessential.” And in the final letter printed here – from 2004, when Bellow was 88 – he recalls: “My mother coveted for me a pair of patent-leather sandals with an elegantissimo strap. I finally got them – I rubbed them with butter to preserve the leather. This is when I was six or seven years old. Amazing how it all boils down to a pair of patent-leather sandals.” And what do the sandals boil down from? What is “it”? In one letter, Bellow talks of “the total human situation”; in another, with a hint of irony, “Life, that grand enterprise”.
Bellow’s spiritual or metaphysical vocabulary was intimately related to a bodily one. In 1966, he reread War and Peace and saw a kindred spirit: “I’m convinced that Leo was a somatological moralist. Eyes, lips and noses, the colour of the skin, the knuckles and the feet do not lie . . . It’s not a bad system. I seem to have used it myself, most of the time.” He was right to spot the connection; much of his own art lay in finding the mind’s construction in the face. (“Your looking things in the face is not inferior to mine,” he told Roth in 1981, the metaphor slipping its moorings.) Through the corporeal, Bellow believed, he could reach something, even somewhere, else. The belief persisted until the end. Chick, the narrator of his last novel, Ravelstein(2000), reflects: “I have always been inclined to give a special diagnostic importance to the upper lip. If there is a despotic tendency it will reveal itself there.” The swift-nibbed describer is at one with the novelist of ideas.
Broadly, Bellow’s work has two modes: third-person monochrome and first-person technicolour. In each mode, he produced stunning work – Seize the Day (1956) and Herzog (1964) in the former, The Adventures of Augie March (1953) and Humboldt’s Gift in the latter. When we read of Augie as “a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand” and of Herzog as “the nemesis of the would-be forgotten”, we know that these books, though scrawled in ink of different colours, come from the same pen. My view, supported by these letters, is that we encounter the true Bellow in the gabby wonder of the first-person books, which also include Henderson the Rain King (1959), and that his other, more reticent mode, which also produced Mr Sammler’s Planet(1970) and The Dean’s December (1982), reflected not so much his world-view as his take on American society
at the time of writing – always disappointed, often appalled.
Whatever his temperament, Bellow was obsessed with rumination. Ideas are what his characters cleave to, for all the good it does them. These ideas served thematic and narrative purposes; they were not to be propounded. To Roth, he writes that “there should be a certain detachment from the writer’s own passions”. Fiction had powerful advantages over other approaches; it was, he thought, the only way to get human beings down on paper. In another letter to Roth, he expresses annoyance with the Freudian idea that “a man’s life is nothing but a front for the operations of his unconscious”. “The trouble with anthropology,” he writes elsewhere, “is that it doesn’t consider people at full depth.” As for sociologists: “I can’t make out their Man. Surely that’s not homo sapiens, mon semblable!” To look at man in terms of his environment, or rituals, or traumas was to miss each man’s quiddity; Charlie Citrine is no distance at all from Bellow’s own passions when he reflects, “there are no nonpeculiar people”. Here, in these letters, we are given extended access to Bellow’s man, a spiritual being washed up on the corporeal earth, “writing Ulysses all day long, within himself”.
These beautifully sincere letters reveal Bellow’s constancy. In 1949, he writes that Europe, where he has been living in Paris, “has taught me a great deal about what and who I am. That is, really, what and who others are”; and 47 years later: “There is something radically mysterious in the specificity of another human being which everybody somehow responds to. Love is not a bad word for this response.” Bellow is forever issuing professions of love, friendship and desire, together with reassurances, apologies and tributes. To Martin Amis: “you have found a way of writing entirely your own”. To an unhappy novelist friend: “Don’t forget that you are Wright Morris and the books you’ve given your countrymen are beyond price.” Remembering (in a eulogy) his friend and one-time housemate Ralph Ellison, he writes hat Invisible Man “holds its own among the best novels of the century”. He describes the portrayal of friends in his fiction as “a diabolically complex problem”; letters show that he thought hard about the problem when writing his most autobiographical (and biographical) books, Humboldt’s Gift andRavelstein.
There is also a generous helping of contempt, the sine qua non of literary letters. To Cynthia Ozick, one of the few younger writers he admired, he wrote: “It gives me something less than pleasure to be listed with the Styrons, Vonneguts, Mailers.” He acquiesces in a friend’s description of John Updike as “an anti-Semitic pornographer” and doesn’t much like Updike’s chief outlet, the New Yorker. Or, for that matter, the journal he calls the New York Review of Each Other’s Books. Or the Jewish magazine Commentary: “the language of the contributors is something like the kapok that life jackets used to be stuffed with”.
Followers of Jacques Lacan and Paul de Man “can be identified by a rictus of jeering rejection” (that tell-all face again). There is not much love, either, for Gore Vidal (“a specialist in safe scandal”), George Steiner (“of all pains in the ass, the most unbearable”), or another of Steiner’s eminent dissers, Vladimir Nabokov (“At his gruesome worst he pins feminine roses to simian bosoms”). And then there is this: “[Christopher] Hitchens appeals to Amis. This is a temptation I understand. But the sort of people you like to write about aren’t always fit company, especially at the dinner table.” However much one admires the target of this bitching (and he is just about Bellow’s wisest admirer), there is still a pang of disappointment at this update: “Cordial relations would subsequently develop between Hitchens and the Bellows.”
This is just letting off steam, but Bellow was quite capable of myopia and meanness, as he recognised. “God knows,” he wrote to Jack Ludwig, who was the basis for Valentin in Herzog, “I am not stainless faultless Bellow. I leave infinities on every side to be desired.” And though he is loud and clear in his distaste for psychoanalysis, it wouldn’t take a crack shrink to sense denial in his protesting account of his son’s response to his parents’ divorce (Bellow’s first of four): “Gregory is not so disturbed as you might imagine. He knows how strong his parents’ love for him is. He does not feel abandoned by me, in fact we have never been closer. I have never loved him more.” And here is a balanced account of that break-up: “Her rigid unlovingness has driven me out – that and nothing else.” It is easy to see why Bellow took refuge in Steiner’s “soul-spirit” rather than Freud’s “unconscious”; there was too much lurking down there.
Benjamin Taylor, the editor of this book, has done Bellow’s readers an almost-great service. The existence of the collection is a cause for celebration, but there are shortcomings, especially in the provision of contextual detail. It is the nature of this kind of book that we are given only one side of the story, yet there are ways of softening the blow, giving us more than half, rather than less. To Ann Malamud, he writes: “. . . you bowled me over when you identified Dick Rovere in The Dean’s December. That was either clairvoyance or genius.” Well, whichever it was, we would like to decide for ourselves. To Roger Shattuck in 1990, shortly before Bellow’s 75th birthday, he apologises: “It was unforgivable to burst into your office with a list of references . . .” In a letter to James Salter: “I loved the Nabokov taxi-cab anecdote.” The reader becomes, at such maddening moments, hungry from deprivation, weary with conjecture.
But most of the time we are the opposite of hungry and weary. I read these 550 pages with an overpowering feeling of joy. The book is not, thankfully, what the blurb says it is – “the autobiography Bellow never wrote”; such a book would be written with the kind of long-view clarity for which Augie March produced the ideal formula: “I see this now. At that time not.” The sense strongly imparted is not of cool reflection, but of continual longing, fighting and striving, of writing being done “in a fit”; not of laurels being rested on, but of more, and better, work to be done, that early sense of destiny still to be realised. It was a life well, if stressfully and unevenly, lived. These letters, now its clearest record, are among its richest fruit.
Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer.
Saul Bellow: a life in letters
1915 Born Solomon Bellow to Russian immigrant parents in Lachine, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal
1924 Moves with family to the Humboldt Park district of Chicago
1933 Enters the University of Chicago
1935 Moves to Northwestern University. Gains BA with honours in anthropology and sociology two years later
1944 Completes his first novel, Dangling Man, while serving in the merchant navy
1953 His third novel, The Adventures of Augie March, is published
1964 Publishes Herzog
1976 Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Humboldt’s Gift, his eighth novel. Wins the Nobel Prize in Literature
1995 Nearly dies from toxin ingested in red snapper while on holiday
2000 Publishes his final novel, Ravelstein
2005 Dies in Brookline, Massachusetts
My life as a concert pianist can be frustrating, lonely, demoralising and exhausting. But is it worth it? Yes, without a shadow of a doubt.
After the inevitable “How many hours a day do you practice?” and “Show me your hands”, the most common thing people say to me when they hear I’m a pianist is “I used to play the piano as a kid. I really regret giving it up”. I imagine authors have lost count of the number of people who have told them they “always had a book inside them”. We seem to have evolved into a society of mourned and misplaced creativity. A world where people have simply surrendered to (or been beaten into submission by) the sleepwalk of work, domesticity, mortgage repayments, junk food, junk TV, junk everything, angry ex-wives, ADHD kids and the lure of eating chicken from a bucket while emailing clients at 8pm on a weekend.
Do the maths. We can function – sometimes quite brilliantly – on six hours’ sleep a night. Eight hours of work was more than good enough for centuries (oh the desperate irony that we actually work longer hours since the invention of the internet and smartphones). Four hours will amply cover picking the kids up, cleaning the flat, eating, washing and the various etceteras. We are left with six hours. 360 minutes to do whatever we want. Is what we want simply to numb out and give Simon Cowell even more money? To scroll through Twitter and Facebook looking for romance, bromance, cats, weather reports, obituaries and gossip? To get nostalgically, painfully drunk in a pub where you can’t even smoke?
What if you could know everything there is to know about playing the piano in under an hour (something the late, great Glenn Gould claimed, correctly I believe, was true)? The basics of how to practise and how to read music, the physical mechanics of finger movement and posture, all the tools necessary to actually play a piece – these can be written down and imparted like a flat-pack furniture how-to-build-it manual; it then is down to you to scream and howl and hammer nails through fingers in the hope of deciphering something unutterably alien until, if you’re very lucky, you end up with something halfway resembling the end product.
What if for a couple of hundred quid you could get an old upright on eBay delivered? And then you were told that with the right teacher and 40 minutes proper practice a day you could learn a piece you’ve always wanted to play within a few short weeks. Is that not worth exploring?
What if rather than a book club you joined a writer’s club? Where every week you had to (really had to) bring three pages of your novel, novella, screenplay and read them aloud?
What if, rather than paying £70 a month for a gym membership that delights in making you feel fat, guilty and a world away from the man your wife married you bought a few blank canvases and some paints and spent time each day painting your version of “I love you” until you realised that any woman worth keeping would jump you then and there just for that, despite your lack of a six-pack?
I didn’t play the piano for 10 years. A decade of slow death by greed working in the City, chasing something that never existed in the first place (security, self-worth, Don Draper albeit a few inches shorter and a few women fewer). And only when the pain of not doing it got greater than the imagined pain of doing it did I somehow find the balls to pursue what I really wanted and had been obsessed by since the age of seven – to be a concert pianist.
Admittedly I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight. And the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I’d envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.
My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure (playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices, my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching), and perhaps most crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of self-forgiveness, be “good enough”.
And yet. The indescribable reward of taking a bunch of ink on paper from the shelf at Chappell of Bond Street. Tubing it home, setting the score, pencil, coffee and ashtray on the piano and emerging a few days, weeks or months later able to perform something that some mad, genius, lunatic of a composer 300 years ago heard in his head while out of his mind with grief or love or syphilis. A piece of music that will always baffle the greatest minds in the world, that simply cannot be made sense of, that is still living and floating in the ether and will do so for yet more centuries to come. That is extraordinary. And I did that. I do it, to my continual astonishment, all the time.
The government is cutting music programmes in schools and slashing Arts grants as gleefully as a morbidly American kid in Baskin Robbins. So if only to stick it to the man, isn’t it worth fighting back in some small way? So write your damn book. Learn a Chopin prelude, get all Jackson Pollock with the kids, spend a few hours writing a Haiku. Do it because it counts even without the fanfare, the money, the fame and Heat photo-shoots that all our children now think they’re now entitled to becauseHarry Styles has done it.Charles Bukowski, hero of angsty teenagers the world over, instructs us to “find what you love and let it kill you“. Suicide by creativity is something perhaps to aspire to in an age where more people know Katie Price better than the Emperor concerto.
an ability to go with the natural flow
of the moment.
the feeling of moments flowing in time –
it is the feeling of time –
it is what time is.
it is interactive,
time engaging and the mind responding
and showing and then the reverse takes hold.
it is very good.
is the minds way
of establishing a boundary
whereas the world is
and is expanding
in its existence and particulars.
a mind can deal with
a limited subset
but with time
can learn to see
some of the possible subsets
and combine them in a mental impression.
being allows no more.
the mental impressions are ultimately
of the internal
sets of constructs
the world is vast and is infinite
right in front of us
every moment and in all moments.
we are not capable of ingesting
and I am in awe of its enormity
I have called this being scattered.
it is not.
it is a simultaneous dissipation and assembly.
as in zen
it is all.
any mental category is
arbitrary and artificial.
the world is everything
and all at once.
it is a wonderful challenge
to expand ones ability to experience the all,
piece by piece.
and yet to use the mind to unravel its creations,
its mental categories
go back to the senses
and to experience that which
is real and ever present.
aging proves that the world acts linearly
aging in humans, animals, plants
– youth, growth, death.
there is the finite within time
as we pass through linearity.
within our time
we can reach out
to the infinite and
find the end.