“People who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make up for not thinking with doing.”
In 1926, having just divorced her first husband at the age of twenty-five, the American poet, critic, essayist, and short story writer Laura Riding (January 16, 1901–September 2, 1991) moved to England and founded, together with her friend the poet Robert Graves, a small independent press. Like Anaïs Nin’s publishing venture, all of their early publications — which included work by Gertrude Stein — were typeset and printed by hand.
In 1930, Riding and Graves moved their offices to Majorca. That year, 29-year-old Riding wrote a series of letters to 8-year-old Catherine — the daughter of Graves and the artist Nancy Nicholson. Originally published by a Parisian press in a limited edition of 200 copies each signed by the author, Four Unposted Letters to Catherine (public library) endures as a small, miraculous book, reminiscent in spirit of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and in style and substance of the Zen teachings of Seung Sahn or Thich Hhat Hanh. With great simplicity and unpretentious sincerity, both comprehensible and enchanting as much to this particular little girl as to any child or even any wakeful grownup at all, Riding addresses some of the most elemental questions of existence — how to live a life of creativity and integrity, why praise and prestige are corrosive objects of success, and above all what it means to be oneself.
Riding eventually returned to America in 1939, remarried and became Laura (Riding) Jackson, continued to write, and lived to be ninety — a long life animated by the conviction that language is “the essential moral meeting-ground.” When she reflected on these letters three decades after writing them, she remarked wistfully that she might no longer be inclined to write “such easy-speaking letters, treating with so much diffident good-humor the stupendous, incessantly-urgent matter of Virtue and the lack of it,” by which she meant “the eternal virtue of good Being, not the mortal virtue of good Custom.” And yet, mercifully, she did once write them, and they did survive, and today they continue to nourish souls of all ages with their unadorned wisdom and transcendent truthfulness.
In the first of the four letters, a meandering meditation on young Catherine’s remark that grownups sometimes seem to “know everything about everything,” Riding explores the nature of knowledge and its essential seedbed of self-knowledge. She writes:
A child should be allowed to take as long as she needs for knowing everything about herself, which is the same as learning to be herself. Even twenty-five years if necessary, or even forever. And it wouldn’t matter if doing things got delayed, because nothing is really important but being oneself.
Nearly a century after Kierkegaard extolled the virtues of idleness and two decades before the German philosopher Joseph Pieper argued that not-doing is the basis of culture, Riding urges young Catherine not to worry about being accused of laziness and considers the basic goodness of simply being oneself:
You seem to spend a lot of time dreaming about nothing at all. And yet you are, as the few people who really know you recognise, a perfect child… This is because when you seem to be dreaming about nothing at all you are not being lazy but thinking about yourself. One doesn’t say you are lazy or selfish. If a person is herself she can’t be a bad person in any way; she is always a good person in her own way. For instance, you are very affectionate, but that’s because you are a good person. You are not a good person just because you are affectionate. It wouldn’t matter if you weren’t affectionate, because you are a good person. You are yourself, and whatever you do is sure to be good.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss
In a passage that radiates a prescient admonition against the perils of our modern Parenting Industrial Complex, Riding adds:
It is very sad then that so many children are hurried along and not given time to think about themselves. People say to them when they think that they have been playing long enough: “You are no longer a child. You must begin to do something.” But although playing is doing nothing, you are really doing something when you play; you are thinking about yourself. Many children play in the wrong way. They make work out of play. They not only seem to be doing something, they really are doing something. They are imitating the grown-ups around them who are always doing as much instead of as little as possible. And they are often encouraged to play in this way by the grown-ups. And they are not learning to be themselves.
In an essential caveat that teases out the nuance of her point, Riding notes that rather than selfishness or narcissism, such thinking about oneself is the only way to conceive of one’s place within a larger world and therefore to think of the world itself. In a sentiment that calls to mind Diane Ackerman’s wonderful notion of “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” Riding offers an almost Buddhist perspective:
People are by themselves in being themselves, but together with everyone and everything else in being everything. And this is what makes a world, and people in it. Things that don’t think about themselves aren’t people; they are just everything. And by themselves they are nothing. And even all together, as everything, they are nothing because they know nothing about everything. We are something because we think about ourselves. And being part of everything we think about everything too and make something of it.
In the second letter in the book, Riding picks up the subject from another angle and examines, well before the golden age of modern productivity, how our compulsive doing is keeping us from being — that is, from the essential self-knowledge out of which our entire experience of life arises. She writes to young Catherine:
There are many people who are not entirely themselves because as children they were not given time to think about themselves. And because they don’t know everything about themselves they can’t know everything about everything. But no one likes to admit that she doesn’t know everything about everything. And so these people try to make up for not knowing everything about everything by doing things.
People who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make up for not thinking with doing. They try to pretend that doing is thinking.
Noting that doing certainly has its uses, she considers its misuses. In a passage that calls to mind Bruce Lee’s wisdom on the crucial difference between pride and self-esteem and Anna Deavere Smith’s own letters to young artists about the true measure of confidence, Riding writes:
The wrong kind of doing is doing that people do not for comfort or fun but in order to prove to themselves and to other people that they are people. Of course, the only kind of people that people of this sort could impress would be people like them, who wished to seem people in a general way although they weren’t particularly speaking people. In a place where most of the people were like this the object of life would be busyness. And, dear Catherine, this is the way the world is. Only a small part of the doings in it are done for comfort or fun. The rest is just showing-off.
Writing only a decade after women claimed the right to vote, Riding adds:
The greatest showers-off and busy-bodies are men. And so this world is ruled by men, because it is a world not of doing but over-doing. A world of simple doing would need no ruling. It takes really very little doing to keep comfortably and happily alive. We ought not to pay much more attention to doing than to breathing.
All this extra doing interferes, in fact, with comfort and fun and makes a bad kind of laziness instead of a good kind. Good laziness is thinking — knowing about yourself and knowing also about everything when you want to… You would not be surprised if you realised that it didn’t take brains to do things. Birds, bees, ants, dogs, tress, earth, the sky — all these and everything do the most marvelous things, but they haven’t brains like ours. Never be impressed by what people do, dear Catherine. Doing is only natural.
Once again admonishing against the way in which praise and prestige come to displace the true confidence that comes from self-knowledge, she offers an incisive definition:
Praise … is the confidence in yourself that you get from people whom you have succeeded in pleasing when you haven’t any confidence in yourself.
Riding considers how self-knowledge becomes the foundational structure upon which all other knowledge is built:
If a person knows everything about herself, then she is herself, which is a part of everything. But if she can think further than this, then she can perhaps make that part into a whole, into everything — not just an everything that is everything and anything, but an everything that is herself, or, you might say, an everything that is precious instead of just ordinary. This good thing, this little everything — well, it might be a poem or anything that a thinking might be, and it would be a good thing because it wasn’t a doing.
A poem or anything like that that is thinking and not doing … is of course much harder work than making a chair, but it is work done with laziness not with busyness. By this I mean that in making a poem there is no hurry or purpose as there is in making a chair; it has nothing to do with fun or comfort, it is better than fun or comfort. Having fun and being comfortable is connected with being alive for a good long time, a year or maybe a hundred years. But making a poem is like being alive for always: this is what I mean by laziness and there being no hurry or purpose. A good poem, then, or any good thinking thing, wouldn’t try to give comfort or fun to people: it would be good because of what it was, not because of what it did, and so give people something better than comfort or fun — a feeling of laziness, of being alive for always. Only someone who knows herself in an everything way could make such a thing, but to make such a thing is nothing to be proud of or show off about. For if you are able to make a poem, it doesn’t seem a wonderful thing to do; it seems just a necessary-natural thing to do.
But this ability to make a good poem, Riding argues, springs from the same source as the ability to make a good chair — that is, a poem or chair that doesn’t show off — which is, at bottom, what also makes a good person. (Nearly a century later, the poet Mary Oliver would call that source “the third self.”) Riding writes:
A person might be able to make poems but be unable to make chairs, not because she could only make poems, but because it didn’t happen to her to make chairs. In the long run a person who could make good poems would certainly come round to making good chairs, and the other way round.
Four Unposted Letters to Catherine is an enormously rewarding read in its slim totality. Complement it with Rilke on what it takes to be an artist and the poet Ann Lauterbach on why we make art and how art makes us.
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