Sarah Manguos on writing from what is small, cheap, and false

We’ve been reading Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty (pdf) in our class on justice. Our focus is on the first bits–the ideas about noninterference and coercion. This time reading it, I found myself much more interested in the second half material on self-mastery than I have ever been. Berlin and Aristotle have proved to be a fairly potent combination in playing about my mind throughout this week.

Philosophy in the latter part of the 20th century makes mastering the self more difficult because it becomes less clear, at a metaphysical level, what the self is, and it has gotten rather complicated, and mastering it even more so, but let’s just go with the idea that there is a self and you have some ability to discipline it for now. (There is less evidence of this in my case than I care to discuss, but…moving on.)

These ideas were floating around in my head this morning as I read this lovely essay from Sarah Manguso in the New York Times on writers and envy:

In 1818, Keats wrote to his publisher, “I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.” His poem “Endymion” had recently been savaged by critics, one of whom called it “imperturbable driveling idiocy.” Keats’s terminal tuberculosis didn’t take full hold for at least another year, but Byron wryly remarked that Keats was ultimately “snuff’d out” by a bad review. But Keats also wrote, to another of his publishers, “If Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” As leaves to a tree. A tree does not leaf out of envy of other trees. It leafs out all by itself, within a system of life and light, matter and time. Writing out of envy will not produce a tree in bloom. It will produce an expression of envy, and envy’s voice is ugly, small, cheap and false.

So inspiring. Write on, friends, from life and light, matter and time. Stretch your branches into the sun.