8 min read

Circling Around a Philosophy


My friend Brandon Taylor wrote recently about why the new Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion is neither a good adaptation nor a good movie. Most of the tweets I've seen about the movie are from people who feel similarly about it to him, though I have also seen a few who found it pleasant.

Most of Brandon's letter is about the ways that the film departs from the source material, but he also wrote a bit about adaptation in general:

At its best, that is what adaptation does—it is not an act of mere preservation, but of translation and modification. It’s always so gratifying when you engage a work and recognize the smart ways it’s playing with a source text. It’s rewarding if the adaptation is smart and engaged with the underlying story. . . . Where it goes wrong is when the adaptation betrays a lack of interest or real understanding of the source material.

I suppose what this puts me most in mind of is the ways that I've thought about Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films over the years. As you probably know, I've been spending a lot of time on TikTok over the past 8 months or so, and there's a thriving Tolkien fan community there. I find it fascinating that the Tolkien fandom, both on TikTok and at large, seems to have more or less reached a consensus that the movies are different from the books, but both are good in their own right. I've long since past the point where I want to argue about the movies—people can and should like whatever they like without any interference from me, and I am legitimately happy for them to do so. But I've also never personally been able to enjoy the movies because of the nature of the changes they make. It has always seemed to me that Jackson either didn't understand or didn't care about the parts of the story that were most important to me, to Tolkien, and to the story itself. And while I've always acknowledged that Jackson's visual presentation of Middle-Earth was stunning and perhaps even perfect, I've also always felt that his interpretation of the text, characters, and interactions was surface-level and superficial. I'm certainly in the minority in this opinion but, to me, these movies are not good adaptations. Still, does that make them bad movies? I've found very few people who say so, except people who are generally uninterested in fantasy or adventure.

I can't help thinking, too, about some other movies that play very loosely with their source material, but which I love. I've never read The Orchid Thief, but it couldn't be more obvious that Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation is an entirely different story. And I love both Diana Wynne Jones's and Hayao Miyazaki's versions of Howl's Moving Castle, but the two stories not only have wildly different plots, they also have almost completely different central themes. I think both Kaufman and Miyazaki's movies are artful, beautiful, moving, and well-crafted, but are they good adaptations? Are they engaged with the source material, or are they just using the books as jumping-off points to make something entirely new? Or are those incompatible? I'm not really sure, to be honest.


I've been reading Robin Wall Kimmerer's book Braiding Sweetgrass for the past few weeks. It's as beautiful and wise as everyone has said, but for whatever reason I've just been taking it slowly. (And feeling mildly guilty about not being more engaged, and about letting some recent galleys languish in my inbox, though really none of this is really here or there.) The other night, I was reading the chapter "Allegiance to Gratitude," which is about the Onondaga people and their Thanksgiving Address, which they also call the Words That Come Before All Else, a form of gratitude, consensus-building, and ecological list that begins any meeting or school day in that culture. Kimmerer writes,

You can't listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness. The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need. Gratitude doesn't send you out shopping to find satisfaction; it comes as a gift rather than a commodity, subverting the foundation of the whole economy. That's good medicine for land and people alike.

I can't help thinking of the Buddhist concept that desire is the root of suffering, a concept that seems so obvious on its face to me, but one that I've struggled with a bit. Entirely leaving behind desire and attachment has always seemed to ultimately imply a total passivity to the world and its injustices. (My understanding is that this isn't true, that Buddhist teachers like Thích Nhat Hanh have shown how Buddhism and activism can be compatible. Though, my understanding is also that at least in the beginning, some teachers did find the concept of engaged Buddhism to be controversial.) Perhaps what appeals to me about Kimmerer's words is she shows me that I could reframe the conundrum by focusing on moving toward gratitude and contentment instead of away from desire and attachment.

The whole idea of contentment does seem to be one that's incompatible with the American way of life. It's one that my kids' mom and I used to argue about sometimes, before the divorce—I thought contentment seemed like a goal, she thought it seemed like giving up and selling yourself short. I can't say that I was right or that she was wrong, but I can say that it makes sense in many ways for us to have moved down separate paths. That, in fact, we had done so for many years before our divorce started.


My friend Martha Crawford wrote about moral failure in a newsletter a couple of weeks ago:

The evil urge, temptation, sin, error, failed moral reasoning are the mechanism that grant us humility, for how, without such failures, would we ever modulate our self-righteousness? This is the negative virtue that emerges from moral failure. There is no way to be humbled without failing ourselves and others. The sweet relief of humility is only attained through guilt, error, and failure. We can only come to understand and have compassion [for] ourselves and our fellow human beings, by failing to be good.

Those last three words put me in mind of Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese," which in turn reminds me of one of Summer Brennan's recent newsletters, in which she pointed out that one must understand "Wild Geese" in the context of being paired with the poem "Rage" in Oliver's 1986 collection Dream Work:

Rage is the scorched internal landscape on which the “sun and the clear pebbles of the rain” from Wild Geese are falling. Rage’s dark sky is what clears to become “clean and blue”, with wild geese flying across it, “announcing your place in the family of things”. It is what happened to the “soft animal of the body,” of her body, before it found a way to simply “love what it loves.”

I've been thinking a lot about my own moral failures. I suppose this is nothing new for me—I seem in many ways to be most comfortable picking at my own emotional scabs. But it is no surprise that during an ongoing divorce, I'd be especially inclined toward this sort of introspection. It is nice to think that some good might come out of having hurt someone else, and, of course, it's true that everyone fails in this way sometimes. I nevertheless find myself a little suspicious of anything that makes it easier for me to let myself off the hook. I don't think this is what Martha intends here, but I can feel a part of myself drifting that way all the same.

What I can never quite settle in my mind is how to both hold myself accountable for my harms and failures and how to feel sincere compassion toward myself. How to live with myself after hurting someone, failing them, and failing myself. It is easy enough to remind oneself that shame and self-flagellation help no one, that they are a form of ego, of self-centering, methods by which we keep ourselves from growing. It's harder to feel it. But I suppose that one's own moral failure is a bit like loss, in a way. You live with it by living. You don't get over it so much as you, hopefully, make peace with it.


In Devin Kelly's newsletter last weekend, he wrote about Hieu Minh Nguyen's poem "Heavy," and about shame:

Shame muddies our certainty. It throws all of ourselves against the backdrop of the world and makes it difficult to remember what we want, what we need, and what we love. And I think this shame is exacerbated by living in a society that continually markets new ways for us to live. Not just for us to live. But how we should live. It’s a society that commodifies our attention and then, once it has our attention, throws our attention away from our ordinariness, which is also our complexity, which is also our wholeness.

Mary Oliver makes an appearance here, too—as she seems to be doing more and more in my life and thoughts lately—where Devin points out that that one line from "The Summer Day" is so often taken out of the context of a poem in praise of idleness and attention, and deployed toward a sense of mortal and capitalistic urgency.

I suppose that lately I have been skeptical of answers, of salvation, of comfort, of soothing. As skeptical as I am hungry for them. I keep returning to Anahid Nersessian's essay about John Keats's ode "To Autumn," from her book Keats's Odes: A Lover's Discourse:

That we can be here—on this planet, in this time, confined by these exact habits of survival—and still find things to call beautiful and to love or to be unable to stop loving is indefensible. But we are here, and we do.

Though, I suppose also it is my own tendency toward self-criticism that keeps me stuck on that passage when, just a few pages later, Nersessian gives us the example of Diane di Prima's "Revolutionary Letter #7":

Here is how di Prima inches past Keats, as far as loving the world goes. Whereas Keats makes us sit in the discomfort of our own receptivity to beauty—the beauty of nature and of his poem—di Prima reminds us that we have to live for something and then orders us to do it, and to do it with each other. . . . Di Prima's language is not Keats's (how could it be?), but they are making the same promise: to hold so tight onto poetry it surrenders its shape, to hold so tight onto us that we do, too.

Maybe this is what I'm circling toward, or what I've come to and left and needed to be reminded of again. Kelly sees in Nguyen's poem a generosity, a reminder that the world can be a salve. Nersessian sees in di Prima's poem a call to take the salve of the world and use it to keep the fire of revolution burning. The world is bigger than the part we touch. One person's life is more than any one thing they've done, any one thing they've felt. Comfort and salve are verbs as much as they are nouns. What you do is more important than what you are, and at least it is more within your control.

Ah, hell, I think I've managed to tie this up more neatly than I expected.


Wavy lines of light showing through a patterned curtain in front of a window with Venetian blinds

Take care,