I can’t move on, not just yet…Still thinking about Tom Stoppard’s trilogy, Coast of Utopia, and about Isaiah Berlin’s insightful Russian Thinkers, the book that launched Stoppard’s interest in writing about this historical period in the first place. Here is another quote from Aileen Kelly’s excellent introduction to Berlin’s book, a quote that is so apropos to our current circumstances, politically and culturally:
Berlin suggests that pluralist visions of the world are frequently the product of historical claustrophobia, during periods of intellectual and social stagnation, when a sense of the intolerable cramping of human faculties by the demand for conformity generates a demand for “more light,” an extension of the areas of individual responsibility and spontaneous action. But, as the dominance of monistic doctrines throughout history shows, men are much more prone to agoraphobia: and at moments of historical crisis, when the necessity of choice generates fears and neuroses, men are eager to trade the doubts and agonies of moral responsibility for determinist visions, conservative or radical, which give them “the peace of imprisonment, a contented security, a sense of having at last found one’s proper place in the cosmos.” He points out that the craving for certainties has never been stronger than at the present time; and his [writings] are a powerful warning of the need to discern, through a deepening of moral perceptions–a “complex vision” of the world–the cardinal fallacies on which such certainties rest.
In addition to that larger arc of America’s current political mindset, this quote also addresses the predicament of life on a personal level as well. My good friend Susana Jacobson poses the following question to her students to help them determine if the life of a fine artist was for them: Can you imagine living your entire life in uncertainty? That’s what being an artist is: You’ll never know if your work is any good, you’ll never get the kind of feedback that other professions provide. So if certainty is important to you, find a different path.
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