Wednesday, August 31, 2011

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Words make the best bandages. || "On Self-Respect" (Didion): A Response

I first encountered an excerpt from On Self-Respect through a writing prompt in Mrs. Krug's AP English class this year. I immediately fell in love with Didion's tone and style (as evidenced by the praises sung to her in my earlier post about On Keeping a Notebook). I set out to look for the whole essay, only to find that what I thought was a unique discovery of mine is actually quite a well-known piece! I promised myself to read only one paragraph of the essay per day, in an attempt to make it last as long as possible, but that didn't work for long. I read the whole piece yesterday and was impressed and inspired all over again.

By simply defining the essence of real self-respect, Didion makes her case for it. The piece is absolutely brilliant, and so instead of just attaching a link to it, I have pasted the entire text at the end of this post. It is comprised of a mere twelve incredible paragraphs, but if you feel you do not have the time to read it in its entirety, I would encourage even reading the few especially noteworthy sentences I have marked in bold below. 

To read the response I wrote to this for my English class, please click this link: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/5018004/On%20Self-Respect.doc. Be aware that the prompt asked for an examination of only paragraphs one through three of the essay, and my opinions of the piece have shifted slightly after having read the whole piece. In particular, I argue in my essay that Didion's views are "selfless" -- this point perhaps stems from my earlier (and more common) view of "selfless" as an entirely positive descriptor. Having read the remainder of the essay (and, of course, Rand's The Fountainhead), I would wish to reexamine that statement, and would love to discuss it further with anyone interested!

1961
2011

I find it very interesting that Didion's essay was first published in Vogue magazine in 1961! Imagine a fashion magazine aiming to raise self-respect! I would read fashion magazines if they published such gems today!



The essay:

Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. Although now, some years later, I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor, I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. It was a matter of misplaced self-respect.

I had not been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. This failure could scarcely have been more predictable or less ambiguous (I simply did not have the grades), but I was unnerved by it; I had somehow thought myself a kind of academic Raskolnikov, curiously exempt from the cause-effect relationships which hampered others. Although even the humorless nineteen-year-old that I was must have recognized that the situation lacked real tragic stature, the day that I did not make Phi Beta kappa nonetheless marked the end of something, and innocence may well be the word for it. I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honor, and the love of a good man; lost a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and proved competence on the Stanford-Binet scale. To such doubtful amulets had my self-respect been pinned, and I faced myself that day with the nonplussed apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire and has no crucifix at hand.

Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself; no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through ones’ marked cards the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed. The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others – who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without.

To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that deals one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there’s the hurt on X’s face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, the Phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commissions and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice, or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.

To protest that some fairly improbably people, some people who could not possibly respect themselves, seem to sleep easily enough is to miss the point entirely, as surely as those people miss it who think that self-respect has necessarily to do with not having safety pins in one’s underwear. There is a common superstition that “self-respect” is a kind of charm against snakes, something that keeps those who have it locked in some unlighted Eden, out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general. It does not at all. It has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation. Although the careless, suicidal Julian English in Appointment in Samara and the careless, incurably dishonest Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby seem equally improbable candidates for self-respect, Jordan Baker had it, Julian English did not. With that genius for accommodation more often seen in women than men, Jordan took her own measure, made her own peace, avoided threats to that peace: “I hate careless people,” she told Nick Carraway. “It takes two to make an accident.”

Like Jordan Baker, people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties; nor do they complain unduly of the unfairness, the undeserved embarrassment, of being named co-respondent. In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of mortal nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues. The measure of its slipping prestige is that one tends to think of it only in connection with homely children and United States senators who have been defeated, preferably in the primary, for reelection. Nonetheless, character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs.

Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts. It seemed to the nineteenth century admirable, but not remarkable, that Chinese Gordon put on a clean white suit and held Khartoum against the Mahdi; it did not seem unjust that the way to free land in California involved death and difficulty and dirt. In a diary kept during the winter of 1846, an emigrating twelve-yaer-old named Narcissa Cornwall noted coolly: “Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke out about it.” Even lacking any clue as to what Mother said, one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the entire incident: the father reading, the Indians filing in, the mother choosing the words that would not alarm, the child duly recording the event and noting further that those particular Indians were not, “fortunately for us,” hostile. Indians were simply part of the donnee.

In one guise or another, Indians always are. Again, it is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.

That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth. It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my had in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a Food Fair bag. There is a similar case for all the small disciplines, unimportant in themselves; imagine maintaining any kind of swoon, commiserative or carnal, in a cold shower.

But those small disciplines are valuable only insofar as they represent larger ones. To say that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton is not to say that Napoleon might have been saved by a crash program in cricket; to give formal dinners in the rain forest would be pointless did not the candlelight flickering on the liana call forth deeper, stronger disciplines, values instilled long before. It is a kind of ritual, helping us to remember who and what we are. In order to remember it, one must have known it.

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love, and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out – since our self-image is untenable – their false notion of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. Of course I will play Francesca to your Paolo, Helen Keller to anyone’s Annie Sullivan; no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us.

It is the phenomenon sometimes called “alienation from self.” In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"On Keeping a Notebook" (Didion): A Reaction

I spent last night anxiously rushing through tons of reading material, trying to find something that spoke to me. I picked up 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology because essays are one of my favorite forms of expression. Seeing Didion's name in the table of contents reminded me of another essay by her of which I had read an excerpt (On Self-Respect) and absolutely loved, so I started On Keeping a Notebook.

Didion's style just makes me smile. It's not even happy; I just love her flow. The point of her essay was a nice one, and one I will keep in mind during my year (as this blog is for others, but I should also keep a private notebook for myself). The essence of her opinion is as follows: "I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not."

But more than her points, her phrasing is really appealing to me. I believe there are elements of her diction in some of the prose I write, but her witty precision is delightful. I'm sure her style isn't for everyone, but I would strongly encourage you to read her six-page essay to see what I'm talking about. Just click below.
http://www.ranablog.com/pdfs/didion.pdf

Monday, August 29, 2011

"Nature" (Emerson): A Response

Ever since we read an abridged version of the essay Nature in eleventh grade, I have been a big fan of Emerson. The experience of going back to read the whole piece was an interesting, and, at times, well, boring one.

The Introduction and (very brief) Chapter I are a MUST-READ (here is the full text of the essay: http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/emerson/nature-contents.html).
Emerson's statement "our age is retrospective" is an inspiring one, and reminded me strongly of The Fountainhead this time around. I wish I had read the first chapter (Nature) during my time in Banff, as it would have given me an even stronger appreciation from the beautiful lap of nature in which we basked while there.

But as Emerson goes on to lay out his philosophy, the reading becomes increasingly convoluted, with smile-worthy gems emerging occasionally (as "the poet finds something ridiculous in his delight, until he is out of the sight of men"). He tries to cover a lot in this early essay, and I am sure further perusal of his other, more focused works will prove more satisfactory.

Reading this piece while being in the process of reading Hawking was very interesting. Each writer strives to uncover a similar theory, and there are certain passages of Emerson which more closely resemble science than philosophy, and some of Hawking which leave the former to approach the latter.

Another thing I observed (even as I found myself lost at points) was how much of Emerson's philosophy I unknowingly espoused in my "Inspiration" speech as an eighth grader! Especially similar are our discussion of children, individuality, and the physical world. Below, find the original text of my speech as delivered in 2007.


Watching Inspirations has always been a mesmerizing experience for me. Listening to all the awesome presentations this year, I often wondered what actually inspired me the most. But if someone is really inspired by something, shouldn’t it come to him or her right away? I felt guilty that mine wasn’t obvious to me. Was this because nothing inspired me enough, or simply because far too many things did? What inspires me? Singing, trees, Priya, Latin, little kids, India, school . . . How would I have fit all that onto the first slide of my PowerPoint? And so I wondered, “Did these things have anything at all in common?” And then suddenly it struck me. Of course they did. They were all nature: in its many forms. Mother Nature in all its glory around us, Human Nature and our natural instinct to reach out and relate to one another, and Acquired Nature, all the glorious talents human beings have developed over time.

We have all been outdoors. Our planet is beautiful beyond measure. But in order to appreciate nature’s splendor, we must take each and every aspect of it into consideration. I have never been overly observant. I do not spend tons of time admiring and researching flowers. In fact, when I told my mom that I had come up with the perfect Inspiration topic, she said, “But Ratna, does nature really inspire you? I have never seen you take a walk outside or ask me about anything growing in our garden...” So I wondered, can something with which one does not constantly interact still be one’s Inspiration? And must only nature’s obviously beautiful pieces be considered inspiring? I love feeling the sun’s rays on my back, but I enjoy singing in the rain much more. Full, green trees are marvelous, but I gaze at sparse trees’ silhouettes twice as often. My sister, Priya, often looks out the window and exclaims, “What a lousy day!” I explain to her that though it may not be the stereotype of a picture perfect day in terms of the weather, this does not mean that the day, and all it offers, is worthless. Although Mother Nature is gorgeous, its more unusual forms inspire me even further.

I love people. Human Nature fascinates me. The chance to observe, listen to, and interact with humans is what wakes me up in the morning. From embracing my human alarm clock (my dad), to interpreting the words of my close friends (the Beatles), to greeting my precious bus driver (Dee Dee), people are what I live for. Children are my favorites. They are always pondering. No small detail is insignificant enough for them to overlook. Everything is an adventure for them. They never stop asking questions. They are the purest forms of human beings, the epitome of innocence. Whether they realize it or not, they are always ecstatic to be alive! What is more inspiring than that? Anyone who walks down the hallway with me to my classes either watches in astonishment or bursts out laughing at how many children I know, and especially at how many children I do not know, but will greet anyway. I rarely meet a child who will refuse a Husky high-five. Life is just an ongoing picnic for them, where everyone invited is their friend. I wish I could live my life that way.

Age, and all the responsibility that comes with it, perhaps prevents most of us from continuing to think of life as a dream. We all have a natural desire to be nice and make friends. Each and every one of us is spontaneous and loving most of the time. We all enjoy interacting with one another. We are determined; we persevere. We all strive to be the best we possibly can be, to excel, to shine. All of these qualities are natural, of or relating to nature. These characteristics, when used positively, have a tremendous influence upon me. But what happens when our desire to excel pushes its limits, when we want success so badly that we are willing to offend the environment and the people who made our success possible in the first place? What about when we start chopping down 400 trees per second? Have our natural instincts gone too far when they begin to devastate Mother Nature herself? Different aspects of nature can sometimes contradict one another, and we must master the art of balancing ourselves in order to exist in harmony with our surroundings.

While Human Nature is the way people behave naturally, Acquired Nature refers to the skills we learn during our lifetime. Language and art have been a part of human culture since it has existed. From prehistoric cave paintings, to the sophisticated Latin language, to Native American music today, language and art are almost a natural instinct for many of us. The etymology and roots of words fascinate me. I find it remarkable that one can infer the meaning of an English word they do not know just by knowing its Latin stem or any of its derivatives in another language. Furthermore, the overpowering influence of visual art as well as music is astounding to me. Music is one of the only phenomena I know that can completely engage one’s full attention and move one to an immeasurable extent. Music makes us forget; it makes us remember. It evokes emotions in us and changes our moods. It is fascinating to think that something so seemingly simple creates one of the most incredible sensations known to mankind. Everyone has access to it and we can all enjoy it. Although only some of us consider ourselves “gifted” at music and art, it affects all of us deeply and is a big part of all of our lives.

Sonya Chartoff made magnets for her friends last year: they were collages made on the back of playing cards, random magazine cut-outs of a common color pasted together on a solid background. She assigned a different color to each of her friends. The collage was lovely, but she gave me green. I have always wondered about that. Me, green? Although I may like to think so, I have never really been a committed environmentalist. For me, green symbolizes so much more than only protecting Mother Nature. Green to me is the essence of nature, in all its manifestations: physical, human, and acquired. In this way, Sonya was correct; green is indeed my color. If there is one thing I would like for you to gain from my Inspiration today, it is advice from the founder of an Art of Living course I took recently. In an article on how to better succeed as a person, he says, “Play with a small child as you played when you were a child. Talk with an elderly person remembering that one day you will be like that. Communicate with a person of your age group like you are his or her best friend.” I try my best to conduct myself in this manner, and I wish that I continue to do so forever. Only when we learn to create a balance between ourselves and all the other phases of nature will our planet exist in bliss.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Summer 2011

Spent in sixteen cities in four countries, this summer has been a marathon.

Three days after graduation, the extraordinary Flint Hill Classics Club set out for Italy to see the sights we study -- in Rome, Siena, and Florence. The ten-day trip was full of games of Ghost, rap battles, and loads of learning.

Soon after our return, the Gill family headed to CancĂșn, Mexico. I had the privilege of accompanying the World Bank's country team for Mexico on its ecological explorations of Chetumal and Tulum, including a day spent swimming through a natural channel connecting two lagoons in a mangrove forest in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve!

When we got home, Priya and I hit the books hard as we prepared for this year's National Junior Classical League Convention in Richmond, Kentucky. The Convention was a blast, made extra special since I got to room with my sister, who was enjoying her first Convention as a JCLer as I marked my last, and also because my close friend Daniel Kim was elected NJCL President for the 2011-2012 year!

Next, we left for Canada, spending a week with our cousins in Vancouver and making day trips to tourist destinations such as Harrison Hot Springs, Whistler, and Victoria. After hectic days, we took some time to slow it down with jam sessions in the afternoon: I sang, accompanied by Aashish on guitar (and sometimes Priya on piano!) under Divya's direction.



We set out for Alberta from British Columbia, driving through Glacier National Park on our way to Banff. This trip was full of some of the most stunning sights I have ever seen. Our family's favorite spots were Lake Louise and Lake Moraine (pictured below), but every drive from our hotel in Canmore was absolutely breathtaking. We even explored Jasper and Yoho National Parks before flying out from Calgary.

After a few days spent at home in Vienna, Virginia, we ventured into the impending Hurricane Irene to attend the Sweet Sixteen of my cousin Supreet in Edison, NJ. The party was a blast, especially the non-stop dancing!! I also performed a surprise song for Supreet -- "Sixteen Going On Seventeen" from "The Sound of Music" (one of my favorites!).



We left New Jersey just in the nick of time to arrive home, safe and sound, and start preparing for the school/work/gap year!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A sonnet a day keeps the cobwebs away!

Reading is to be a big part of my year.

I plan to start each of the first 154 days with one of Shakespeare's sonnets. The rest of my reading list will all sorts of novels, plays, poems, etc. One source I am using as a guideline of reading material is the Literature syllabus for Yale's amazing Directed Studies program (http://directedstudies.yale.edu/literature-books).

I welcome any and all reading suggestions!

I recently finished Rand's The Fountainhead and am just starting Hawking's A Brief History of Time. (See a complete reading list on the right.)

Friday, August 5, 2011

Summer Cleaning

Locking away memories is a tricky ordeal. You can’t be discriminating. You realize that the crumpled first place ribbon has just as much reason to go as the perfectly preserved “5 days late!” paper. The failures you locked away with the adrenaline of “I’ll be graduating soon!” start to resurface, and you realize that you were as dissatisfied then as you are now, but it was easier then, because at least you had something to be dissatisfied about. Your high school career was a sparkling success, as seen in the thank you cards with allusions to honors and accolades. But no one knows about that now. No one in Cambridge, or even at the internship you’re hoping to get. You’re hoping they’ll figure it out -- you’re bright -- because you made it, right? You’re here, you’re now, you’re this new generation with a moral obligation to save the world, and you will, you will, you’ve always wanted to. Even the words don’t flow well anymore. Maybe you shouldn’t have locked away the list of words to use to avoid “show” in formal writing. Maybe you should have been the responsible one and scanned it to send to that rising senior who will follow in your footsteps. Maybe, maybe. You promised yourself to have “no regrets,” and you don’t have any, it’s just that you don’t have that many reasons to rejoice either. Because you still pack stuff you’ll need soon into your neon/argyle backpack to take to high school, and you still trip over words when you’re somewhat inspired but not inspired enough for the words to really flow. So you go back to cleaning your room.