You Must Change Your Life

In You Must Change Your Life, Rachel Corbett elucidates the unlikely friendship between French sculptor Auguste Rodin and Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke.  Not only was Rodin 35 years Rilke’s senior, but their personalities were polar opposites. Rilke was sensitive, delicate, refined, while Rodin was robust and carnal.  At the time of their meeting in 1902, Rodin was famous and admired, while Rilke was still unknown. his poetic gifts unformed.   Their meeting was transformative for them both.  Rilke was transfixed by the older artist, and they developed a master-disciple relationship that lasted until Rodin’s death.

rainer_maria_rilke_1900
Photograph of Rainer Maria Rilke Photographer unknown

You Must Change Your Life provides a sketch of both artists’ biographies.  Corbett includes information on the most significant relationships of the two men’s lives, especially the women who surrounded them.  (I wrote a previous blog post here on one of these

NPG x6573; Auguste Rodin by George Charles Beresford
Photo of Auguste Rodin by George Charles Beresford

fascinating women: Lou Andreas-Salome.) Corbett is most interested, however, in exploring the process of creativity and artistic development.  In doing so, she delves into the intellectual and artistic currents of late 19th century in order to explain to readers the influences on both Rilke and Rodin.  She explores not only aesthetic theories, but also on other intellectual currents such as philosophy, psychoanalysis, and the newly explored concept of empathy.  Corbett also illuminates the significance of particular places in creativity—especially the city of Paris, which has been the incubator of so many artists.

Of all the many influences on Rilke, Rodin was one of the most important. Rilke allowed himself to be like clay in his master’s hands, yearning to be shaped into something memorable.   He learned many things from the sculptor, especially “the meaning of structure.  [Rodin] had given [Rilke] the blueprint to build his poetry like a carpenter builds four walls around him” (246).  Learning structure was immensely valuable to the poet.

However, Rilke also misunderstood some of Rodin’s advice, much to his detriment.  Rodin urged Rilke to “travailler, toujours travailler” (work, always work).   Unfortunately, Rilke followed this advice literally, sacrificing close relationships and many of the pleasures of his life in order to pursue his art more fervently.  “He had sat around empty hotel rooms, stared at cathedral towers and caged lions, slept in empty beds.  But deep within the body of this lifelong observer was the trace of a ‘still feelable heart’ that had been ‘painfully buried-alive by images,’” observes Corbett.  Rilke had abandoned life “in anticipation of future payoff” (247).

It was only later that Rilke realized that “Rodin had not made any of the sacrifices that he, Rilke, had.  Rodin was no martyr for his art.  How did he live? Full of pleasure, and exactly as he pleased, it turned out” (247).   At first, Rilke felt disillusioned when he realized his mentor was not what he thought he was.   Eventually, though, Rilke realized that nobody, no master, could tell their disciple how to live.  The artist has to figure it out for themselves.  The important thing about art, Rilke realized later in his life, is that “there was never anything waiting on the other side: There was no god, no secret thing, and in most cases no reward.  There was only the doing” (247).   Rilke does, of course, become a great poet.  Corbett does not suggest that Rodin was the only reason for Rilke’s greatness.  He was, nonetheless, a pivotal figure in Rilke’s artistic development.

I found Corbett’s book fascinating.  I would recommend it to readers who are interested in the arts, in creativity, in the cultural and intellectual currents of late 19th century Europe, or even in the city of Paris.  The book contains a number of different “threads,” of which I only touched on a few here.  Perhaps one could fault Corbett for trying to cover too many different topics, leaving a somewhat “meandering” feel to the book.  I, however, enjoyed her excursions into some of the facets of fin-de-siecle European art.

Teaser Tuesday

The Purple Booker hosts a weekly meme known as Teaser Tuesday.  Here is my tease:

Parisians seemed to feel the will to live more keenly than others.  Rushing commuters “made no detour around me but ran over me full of contempt,” as if Rilke were a pothole in the street, he wrote.  (80)

This is from Rachel Corbett’s nonfiction book You Must Change Your Life, about the friendship between sculptor Auguste Rodin and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke in the late 19th-early 20th century.  Corbett illumines the two artists’ struggles with what it means to be an artist and how an artist should live.  It is an intellectual history that explores creativity, aesthetics, urban living, modernity, friendship, empathy, and much more.

What are you reading?

ERVL0016505

Corbett, Rachel.  You Must Change Your Life.  New York: Norton, 2016.

Here is more information on Teaser Tuesday:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers! Everyone loves Teaser Tuesday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Truman: A Biography by David McCullough

Harry S. Truman (photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Harry S. Truman (photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

I recently started reading David McCullough’s biography of President Harry S. Truman. I chose it because  I am interested in learning more about Truman and because McCullough is a very engaging writer. However, at over 1000 pages, the book is rather daunting.I thought it might motivate me to read all of it if I posted on it periodically, rather than waiting until the end.  Right now, I have read about 200 pages.

What has struck me most so far is astonishment that Truman ever became president of the United States.  I do not mean this in a derogatory way to Truman.  I simply mean that he grew up in such ordinary circumstances, far from money, power, or any other kind of privilege.  He was born in 1884 in Missouri, and grew up on a farm near Independence, Missouri.  He had a happy childhood, but it was far from pampered. He worked hard on the farm and also was quite a book worm, with a particular love of history.

He did not go to college because his family could not afford to send him.  Instead, he did a variety of jobs, including farming and working in a bank. Although he worked hard all everything he undertook, he was not particularly successful at anything.  He entered World War I even though he did not have to; he was over 30, with bad eyesight and he was the sole support of his mother and sister.  It was during the war that he realized he had a gift for leadership and he thirsted for more opportunities to exercise it.

If McCullough is to be believed, Truman was squeaky clean morally, with sterling integrity.  He genuinely liked people and got along with most of them.  According to Truman, the only woman he was ever romantically interested in was Bess, who eventually became his wife–only after he returned from WWI and was in his thirties..

It was not until Truman was well into his forties that he became involved in politics.  Even that was as a judge (an administrative positive) at the county level.  Then, when he was around 50, he ran for and was elected as a  Democratic senator on the national level.  The irony of his election is that despite his squeaky clean personal reputation, he was elected because of the famous Kansas Pendergrast “machine,” which had mob connections.  He came to Washington, then, under a cloud of suspicion because “he was sent to Washington by gangsters.”

That’s as far as I have read up to this point.  McCullough is a wonderfully engaging writer, so that the book reads almost like a novel, not at all dry.

Stay tuned for more updates!

David McCullough (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
David McCullough (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

IT’S MONDAY! WHAT ARE YOU READING?

Sheila at Book Journey hosts a weekly meme in which we share what we are reading that day.  Ideally, we will get ideas from each other on some intriguing titles we hadn’t heard of before.

Shop Class

I am reading Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford.  In this book, Crawford makes a strong case that we as a society have gone in the wrong direction by steering young people away from skilled trades and into four-year colleges to become “knowledge workers.”  He believes that many office workers (what he calls “knowledge workers”) often feel a sense of meaninglessness because we have lost the connection to the material world.  Instead, he thinks more people should be encouraged to experience the intrinsic satisfactions and cognitive challenges of skilled manual labor.

He emphasizes that he is not speaking in his book about rote assembly-line work, but about skilled workers such as electricians, carpenters, and mechanics.  In fact, he point about that skilled tradespeople often experience more cognitive stimulation than many “knowledge workers,” whose work has  become more and more rote over the years.

I think Crawford makes a strong case, and I completely agree with him.  I think it is misguided to insist that everybody is better off with a four-year college degree or to believe that manual trades are somehow “less” than “white-collar work.”  I think this argument needs to be made more often, so that more people get the message.

My main critique of Shop Class as Soulcraft has to do with the style in which it is written.  Although Crawford has worked as a mechanic and electrician, he also has a Ph.D. in Political Philosophy. This book is written by a philosopher, which gives it depth and richness, but also a certain inaccessibility.   I have nothing against academics in the humanities (being one myself), but I do wish he had tried harder to remove the “academic-ese” from his book so that it could reach a larger audience.

To give you an example of what I mean, here is an example of his style:

Since the standards of craftsmanship issue from the logic of things rather than the art of persuasion, practiced submission to them perhaps gives the craftsman some psychic ground to stand on against fantastic hopes aroused by demagogues, whether commercial or political.  Plato makes a distinction between technical skill and rhetoric on the grounds that rhetoric “has no account to give of the real nature of things, and so cannot tell the cause of any of them.”  The craftsman’s habitual deference is not towards the New, but toward the objective standards of his craft.  (18)

Couldn’t he have gotten his ideas across in a more accessible style?

Despite my reservations about his academic style, I do appreciate what Crawford is doing in this book.

What are you reading?

WHO CARES ABOUT POOR WOMEN?

Half the Sky

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, Half the Sky:  Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”

It took me longer than expected to read Half the Sky, not because it was badly written or uninteresting.  It took me a long time because the content made me sick, and I needed to set the book aside periodically to regain my composure.

It has taken me awhile to get around to blogging about the book for the same reason.  Even now, I feel nauseated as I write this post.  I am also afraid I will not be able to write for very long without descending into an incoherent howl of rage.

For these reasons, my post will be shorter than it probably should be.  The short version of this post is this:  READ THIS BOOK and then TAKE ACTION.  (At the end of the book, the authors provide the readers with specific, easy things we can do to help.)

The subject of Half the Sky is the oppression of women around the world.  Kristof and WuDunn, a husband-and-wife journalist team, call the oppression of women (especially poor, uneducated women) “the central moral challenge” of our time, and rightly so.

Kristoff and Wudunn
Kristoff and Wudunn

In their book they focus on a few major topics:  the sexual slave trade, female genital mutilation, honor killings, rape, and preventable maternal mortality.  I thought I was reasonably well-educated about the plight of women in the world today, and I had heard about the existence of all of these horrors.  However, I had no idea how wide-spread these abuses of women were.

Half the Sky is full of statistics.  Here are few examples:

  • “Our own estimate is that there are 3 million women and girls (and a very small number of boys) worldwide who can be fairly termed enslaved in the sex trade” (10).
  • “Approximately once every ten seconds, a girl somewhere in the world is pinned down. Her legs are pulled apart, and a local woman with no medical training pulls out a knife or razor blade and slices off some or all of the girl’s genitals.  In most cases, there is no anesthetic.”  (221)
  • A major study by the World Health Organization found that in most countries, between 30 percent and 60 percent of women had experienced physical or sexual violence by a husband or boyfriend. “Violence against women by an intimate partner is a major contributor to the ill health of women,” said the former director-general of WHO, Lee Jong-wook. (61)

Most people, though, do not respond emotionally to statistics.  We respond to stories of real people, and so that is what Kristoff and WuDunn focus on their book.  They get to know women from around the world who have endured horrific abuses, and they share their stories with us.

The positive message from this book, and it is a major one, is that these abuses of women are not inevitable.  The women interviewed by Kristof and WuDunn are not just victims; they are survivors who have gone on to achieve some success in their lives.

How did these success stories happen?   I am oversimplifying the answer, but basically it is education and microfinance.   Women everywhere, of every class, can be victims of oppression, but poor, uneducated ones are the most vulnerable.   This exchange between Kristof and an Indian policeman monitoring the border between India and Nepal exemplifies the callous attitude many people have towards poor women, especially when they are uneducated.  The Indian officer explained to Kristof that he was looking for terrorists or terror supplies.

“What about trafficked girls?”  Nick asked.  “Are you keeping an eye out for them? There must be a lot.”

“Oh, a lot.  But we don’t worry about them.  There’s nothing you can do about them.”

“Well, you could arrest the traffickers.  Isn’t trafficking girls as important as pirating DVDs?”

The intelligence officer laughed genially and threw up his hands.

“Prostitution is inevitable.”  He chuckled.  “There has always been prostitution in every country.  And what’s a young man going to do from the time when he turns eighteen until when he gets married at thirty?”

“Well, is the best solution really to kidnap Nepali girls and imprison them in Indian brothels?”

The officer shrugged, unperturbed.  “It’s unfortunate,” he agreed.  “These girls are sacrificed so that we can have harmony in society.  So that good girls can be safe.”

“But many of the Nepali girls being trafficked are good girls, too.”

“Oh, yes, but those are peasant girls.  They can’t even read.  They’re from the countryside.  The good Indian middle-class girls are safe.” (23-24)

 Clearly, poor, uneducated women are expendable.  One way to help remedy this situation, is to provide poor women with the opportunity to be educated and to have ways to support themselves financially.

Doing this, obviously, takes money, but not that much by western standards.   Kristof and WuDunn document many, many cases of women’s lives that are transformed when they are given the opportunity to learn and the opportunity to start small businesses.  Sometimes as little as $100 can be enough to start a woman on her own successful business.

At the end of their book, they list some very specific things we readers can do to help ease the sufferings of at least one woman.  As they write in their preface:

 “We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts.  That is the process under way—not a drama of victimization but of empowerment, the kind that transforms bubbly teenage girls from brothel slaves into successful businesswomen.

This is a story of transformation.  It is change that is already taking place, and change that can accelerate if you’ll just open your heart and join in.”  (xxii)

For information on how you can help, click here