Brain Pickings

The Silent Music of the Mind: Remembering Oliver Sacks

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“I had no room now for this fear, or for any other fear, because I was filled to the brim with music.”

I was a relative latecomer to the work of Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015), that great enchanter of storytelling who spent his life bridging science and the human spirit — partly because I was not yet born when he first bewitched the reading public with his writing, and partly because those early books never made it past the Iron Curtain and into the Bulgaria of my childhood. It was only in my twenties, having made my way to America, that I fell in love with Dr. Sacks’s writing and the mind from which it sprang — a mind absolutely magnificent, buoyed by a full heart and a radiant spirit.

His intellectual elegance bowled me over, and I felt a strange kinship with many of his peculiarities, from the youthful affair with iron — although the 300-pound squats of my bodybuilding days paled before his 600 pounds, which set a state record and earned him the moniker Dr. Squat — to our shared love of Beethoven and Mendelssohn.

Indeed, it was his uncommon insight into the role of music in the human experience that first drew me to Dr. Sacks’s writing. I landed into Musicophilia and soon devoured his older writings. Both his science and his life were undergirded by a profound reverence for music — music seemed to be this intellectual giant’s greatest form of spirituality. He knew that the life of the mind and the life of the body were one, and understood that music married the two — an understanding he carried in his synapses and his sinews.

Nowhere did this embodied awareness, nor his luminous soul, come more vibrantly alive than in the remarkable story of how he once saved his own life by song and literature while running from a raging bull in a Norwegian fjord, told in his 1974 memoir A Leg to Stand On (public library) — the story by which I shall always remember him.

To commemorate this irreplaceable man, I asked artist Debbie Millman to create a piece of art illustrating the passage that captures not only the heart of that heartening story, but the spirit in which Dr. Sacks inhabited and exited our world.

The artwork is available as a print and I am donating all proceeds to the Oliver Sacks Foundation.

As the broken instrument of his body is buried motionless and mute into the earth, may the symphony of his spirit live on in his writing with the same eternally resounding vigor as what Dr. Sacks called “one of the world’s great musical treasures” in his final communication with the world:

What a privilege for this world to have been graced with this extraordinary human animal and his fully embodied mind. The only thing left to say is what Dr. Sacks himself wrote to his beloved aunt Lennie, who shaped his life, as she lay dying: “Thank you, once again, and for the last time, for living — for being you.”

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Love, Kindness, and the Song of the Universe: The Night Jack Kerouac Kept a Young Woman from Taking Her Own Life

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“I felt his pain deeply, and his beauty, and his knowledge.”

In the late 1950s, a young woman named Lois Sorrells Beckwith did what many passionate book-lovers find themselves doing — she fell in love with an author through his work; not with the writing alone, but with the man. That man was Jack Kerouac and the book that tipped Lois over the edge of infatuation was his newly published novella The Subterraneans (public library), a semi-fictional account of a fervid romance.

But then Lois did something few ardent readers would dare to do.

A native New Englander then living in California, she moved back to the East Coast and, one fateful afternoon in 1958, mustered the timid brazenness to drive herself to Kerouac’s home in Northport, Long Island, hoping to meet him. She pulled up to the house and found him sitting under a tree in his front yard, meditating — a practice he had taken up some years earlier as he plunged into Buddhist philosophy.

So began a romance that lasted many years. Lois was twenty-three. Jack was thirty-six and had just published On the Road, the novel that would become a counterculture classic and catapult him into literary celebrity.

“I had fallen in love with the soul of this man,” Lois — the mother of my friend Sebastian Beckwith, whom I know through the wonderful and talented Wendy MacNaughton — tells me as she looks back on this unusual and electrifying adventure in love and literature.

The relationship continued, on and off, for years. The “on” phases were intensely beautiful — the two shared an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, an epicenter of the era’s creative culture, which they relished fully. Lois recounts:

We were drinking lots of wine and dancing and making love and listening to him read.

They went to poetry readings together and listened to music and led a life that Lois remembers as “pretty fast-paced and exhausting.” But it was also incredibly tender — every time he left the apartment, Jack wrote Lois a sweet note.

Writing, indeed, was not only what had brought them together but what kept them together. During the “off” phases, they wrote each other letters that sustained their romance. But marriage was never something either of them desired. Jack had already been married and divorced twice. Lois has fallen in love with his writing and respected it as his greatest commitment. She reflects:

I felt his pain deeply, and his beauty, and his knowledge. And I loved being with him. But I never thought of marrying him — he was a writer, and he had to write.

And then Lois lost her mother, with whom she had been incredibly close. Gutted by grief and mired in a thick depression, she went to stay with her father for a while.

Late one night, there was a knock at the door. It was Jack, with an enormous reel-to-reel tape recorder strapped to his back. Already one of the country’s most famous writers, he had been away on a book tour when he received Lois’s letter about her mother’s death and her depression. Terrified that she might commit suicide, he had flown in, walked five miles from the other side of town with the giant device, and come to play Lois a song to lift her spirits.

This man, in whom the tender and the troubled always coexisted, had recognized in his beloved the wounded part of himself. He had extended to Lois the comforting care he was ultimately unable to grant himself. Lois recounts:

As he became more famous, he drank more — it was very sad.

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Kerouac himself once wrote, and in this enormous gesture of kindness, he had transported himself to heaven, if only for a night.

Eventually, the couple parted ways as lovers but remained friends. In fact, it was Jack who introduced Lois to her husband, who became my friend Sebastian’s father.

And then, many years later, something unusual happened.

One day, when Lois was about to turn eighty and Jack had been dead for nearly half a century by the troubledness that eclipsed his radiant spirit, a piece of paper fell on her floor as she was moving some papers at home. On it, the phrase “universe — one song” was written in the handwriting of her youth.

Lois immediately remembered a vivid dream she had had all those years earlier, in that New York apartment. She recounts the dream:

I was just walking around on a very hot, sultry night — it was exciting, sensual — and I heard the most exquisite music. I asked someone what it was, and they said that it was the voices of all nationalities speaking. The dream was all about kindness — this huge love and kindness — so it made me think of Jack on the night of his heroic five-mile walk. And that’s still what I think about when I think about Jack.

Moved by the memory of the dream and Jack’s generous gesture, Lois penned a poem in remembrance of his kindness. Here she is, at eighty, reading it:

UNIVERSE — ONE SONG
    a letter to you Mr. Kerouac

how my mind was winter swept
bumped the spring time bud
o my god it could be quick
tho i will not attend —

in the middle of the night
my father answered the door
with great annoyance
i followed

you were there with tears in your eyes
you had walked five miles
with a heavy reel-to-reel
tape recorder on your back

you said
“i brought
St. Matthew’s Passion for you to hear
so you won’t commit suicide”

you had walked five miles
in the middle of that long dark night
to bring me your passion —

how my mind was winter swept
bumped the spring time bud —

i am still here Ti Jean
but wonder where you are on cold starry nights
my eyes as ever, tear bright!

Complement Lois’s beautiful story with Kerouac on kindness and the “Golden Eternity,” the difference between genius and talent, and his “beliefs and techniques” for prose and life.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

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August 31, 1837: Emerson’s Superb Speech on the Life of the Mind, the Art of Creative Reading, and the Building Blocks of Genius

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“Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary… A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think.”

On August 31, 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered one of the most extraordinary speeches of all time — a sweeping meditation on the life of the mind, the purpose of education, the art of creative reading, and the building blocks of of genius. He was only thirty-four.

Titled “The American Scholar,” the speech was eventually included in the indispensable volume Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — the source of Emerson’s enduring wisdom on the two pillars of friendship, the key to personal growth, what beauty really means, and how to live with maximum aliveness. Nearly two centuries later, his oratory masterwork speaks to some of the most pressing issues of our time and his piercing insight into the cultural responsibility and creative challenges of the scholar applies equally to the writer, the artist, and the journalist of today.

Long before our era’s foundational theories of how creativity works, Emerson argues that the fertile mind is one which connects the seemingly disconnected:

To the young mind, every thing is individual, stands by itself. By and by, it finds how to join two things, and see in them one nature; then three, then three thousand; and so, tyrannized over by its own unifying instinct, it goes on tying things together, diminishing anomalies, discovering roots running under ground, whereby contrary and remote things cohere, and flower out from one stem.

Echoing Goethe’s insistence upon the importance of building one’s mental library of influences, Emerson considers the singular value of books to the developing mind:

[A] great influence into the spirit of the scholar, is, the mind of the Past, — in whatever form, whether of literature, of art, of institutions, that mind is inscribed. Books are the best type of the influence of the past… The theory of books is noble. The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again… It was dead fact; now, it is quick thought. It can stand, and it can go. It now endures, it now flies, it now inspires. Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing.

Illustration from 'The Book of Memory Gaps' by Cecilia Ruiz. Click image for more.

But books — like any technology of thought, indeed — aren’t inherently valuable; we confer value upon them by the nature of our use. To deny ourselves the wealth of human genius contained in books, Emerson argues, is to rob ourselves of vital inspiration; but to rely on books as blind dogma is to blunt our own creative genius:

Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul. This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although, in almost all men, obstructed, and as yet unborn. The soul active sees absolute truth; and utters truth, or creates. In this action, it is genius; not the privilege of here and there a favorite, but the sound estate of every man. In its essence, it is progressive. The book, the college, the school of art, the institution of any kind, stop with some past utterance of genius. This is good, say they, — let us hold by this. They pin me down. They look backward and not forward. But genius looks forward: the eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead: man hopes: genius creates.

[…]

Instead of being its own seer, let it receive from another mind its truth, though it were in torrents of light, without periods of solitude, inquest, and self-recovery, and a fatal disservice is done. Genius is always sufficiently the enemy of genius by over influence

Genius, says Emerson, is best nurtured by a balance of reading books and “reading” life — in fact, even more important than being a scholar by the lamplight of the study is being a scholar in the luminous school of life:

Undoubtedly there is a right way of reading, so it be sternly subordinated. Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments. Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings. But when the intervals of darkness come, as come they must, — when the sun is hid, and the stars withdraw their shining, — we repair to the lamps which were kindled by their ray, to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is. We hear, that we may speak.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for a rare edition of Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451.' Click image for more.

And yet the pleasure of reading, Emerson reminds us in a remark that applies perfectly to this very speech, is unparalleled in granting us a sense of communion with kindred spirits and likeminds long gone:

It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books… There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had wellnigh thought and said.

But since the fruits of reading are ones we must actively reap, Emerson makes a beautiful case for the art of creative reading:

I would not be hurried … to underrate the Book. … As the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge… I only would say, that it needs a strong head to bear that diet. One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Tom Wolfe’s magnificent commencement address on the rise of the pseudo-intellectual, Emerson admonishes against mistaking the academic charades of knowledge for knowledge itself:

Colleges … can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame. Thought and knowledge are natures in which apparatus and pretension avail nothing. Gowns, and pecuniary foundations, though of towns of gold, can never countervail the least sentence or syllable of wit.

And yet the true scholar, Emerson argues, is the person able to bridge ideas with actions:

Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth. Whilst the world hangs before the eye as a cloud of beauty, we cannot even see its beauty. Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action… Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.

[…]

I do not see how any man can afford, for the sake of his nerves and his nap, to spare any action in which he can partake. It is pearls and rubies to his discourse. Drudgery, calamity, exasperation, want, are instructers in eloquence and wisdom. The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power. It is the raw material out of which the intellect moulds her splendid products.

[…]

He who has put forth his total strength in fit actions, has the richest return of wisdom.

In a sentiment that resonates with poet Sylvia Plath’s formative experience as a farm worker and philosopher Simone Weil’s decision to labor incognito at a car factory before entrusting her writings to a farmer, Emerson argues for “the dignity and necessity of labor to every citizen” and insists that the true scholar must acquire learning not only by reading but by living fully:

If it were only for a vocabulary, the scholar would be covetous of action. Life is our dictionary. Years are well spent in country labors; in town, — in the insight into trades and manufactures; in frank intercourse with many men and women; in science; in art; to the one end of mastering in all their facts a language by which to illustrate and embody our perceptions. I learn immediately from any speaker how much he has already lived, through the poverty or the splendor of his speech. Life lies behind us as the quarry from whence we get tiles and copestones for the masonry of to-day.

[…]

Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary. The stream retreats to its source. A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think. Does he lack organ or medium to impart his truths? He can still fall back on this elemental force of living them. This is a total act. Thinking is a partial act… The scholar loses no hour which the man lives.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Robert Graves's little-known children's book. Click image for more.

With this, he turns to the role of the scholar in society — a role he sees much as William Faulkner saw the role of the writer and Joseph Conrad saw that of the artist. Emerson writes:

The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.

But doing that, he points out, is an act of creative rebellion — one not for the faint of heart or timid of conviction, for those who insist on maintaining appearances will always push back against the tellers of truth. Asserting that the scholar must “defer never to the popular cry” — a piercing and timely incantation in our era of catering to the lowest common denominator of culture, where entire industries are built upon indulging the popular cry — Emerson urges:

In the long period of his preparation, [the true scholar] must betray often an ignorance and shiftlessness in popular arts, incurring the disdain of the able who shoulder him aside. Long he must stammer in his speech; often forego the living for the dead. Worse yet, he must accept, — how often! poverty and solitude. For the ease and pleasure of treading the old road, accepting the fashions, the education, the religion of society, he takes the cross of making his own, and, of course, the self-accusation, the faint heart, the frequent uncertainty and loss of time, which are the nettles and tangling vines in the way of the self-relying and self-directed; and the state of virtual hostility in which he seems to stand to society… For all this loss and scorn, what offset? He is to find consolation in exercising the highest functions of human nature. He is one, who raises himself from private considerations, and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts. He is the world’s eye. He is the world’s heart. He is to resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism, by preserving and communicating heroic sentiments, noble biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history. Whatsoever oracles the human heart, in all emergencies, in all solemn hours, has uttered as its commentary on the world of actions, — these he shall receive and impart.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for a rare edition of 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

In a remark particularly assuring amid the outrage culture of our time, Emerson admonishes against getting caught up in the fads of controversy:

The world of any moment is the merest appearance. Some great decorum, some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade, or war, or man, is cried up by half mankind and cried down by the other half, as if all depended on this particular up or down. The odds are that the whole question is not worth the poorest thought which the scholar has lost in listening to the controversy. Let him not quit his belief that a popgun is a popgun, though the ancient and honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom. In silence, in steadiness, in severe abstraction, let him hold by himself; add observation to observation, patient of neglect, patient of reproach; and bide his own time, — happy enough, if he can satisfy himself alone, that this day he has seen something truly.

[…]

Free should the scholar be, — free and brave… Brave; for fear is a thing, which a scholar by his very function puts behind him. Fear always springs from ignorance… The world is his, who can see through its pretension.

“The American Scholar” is a timeless and enormously nourishing read in its entirety, and a spiritually rejuvenating reread, as is just about everything in Emerson’s Essays and Lectures. Complement it with Parker Palmer, a modern-day Emerson, on the six pillars of the wholehearted life and Susan Sontag on storytelling and how to be a moral human being.

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Goethe on Beginner’s Mind and the Discipline of Discernment in Your Media Diet

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“One must be something in order to do something.”

By the turn of the 19th century, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (August 28, 1749–March 22, 1832) was not only the world’s most celebrated poet, “the Olympian” of literature, but also a polymath of varied interests, from his fascination with the science of clouds to his psychological theory of color and emotion.

In 1822, the German writer Johann Peter Eckermann met and befriended 73-year-old Goethe, who became his mentor and even let the young man, barely thirty at the time, live at his house for a while. For the remaining nine years later of his life, Goethe met regularly with Eckermann, who recorded their wide-ranging conversations and published them in three volumes between 1836 and 1848. They were eventually released in the single, spectacular tome Conversations of Goethe (public library) — the most direct glimpse into the beloved poet’s mind, spanning his views on art, science, poetry, philosophy, and the practicalities of life.

Goethe at age 79 (Oil painting by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828)

Eckermann writes in the introduction

That which we call the True, even in relation to a single object, is by no means something small, narrow, limited; rather is it, even if something simple, at the same time something comprehensive, which like the various manifestations of a deep and widely reaching natural law, cannot easily be expressed. It cannot be disposed of by a sentence, or by sentence upon sentence, or by sentence opposed to sentence, but, through all these, one attains just an approximation, not the goal itself… Goethe’s [remarks are] indeed often of manifest contradiction.

But all these contradictions are single sides of the True, and, taken together, denote the essence of truth itself, and lead to an approximation to it.

Among the many seeming contradictions by which Goethe so elegantly approximates the True — the same elusive art that Cheryl Strayed would capture two centuries later in extolling the value of holding two opposing truths in two hands and walking forward — is his simultaneous insistence on the fruitfulness of “beginner’s mind” on the one hand and the importance of a rich mental reservoir of carefully selected influences on the other.

Art by Delacroix for a rare edition of Goethe's Faust. Click image for more.

Over a cheerful dinner conversation with his young friend in early January of 1824, Goethe considers the creative paralysis that comes from comparing oneself to the great masters of one’s craft. He argues instead for the advantages of being an amateur, or what Orson Wells would come to call “the gift of ignorance” nearly a century and a half later. What Goethe tells Eckermann comes remarkably close to the Buddhist notion of “beginner’s mind”:

A dramatic talent of any importance … could not forbear to notice Shakespeare’s works, nay, could not forbear to study them. Having studied them, he must be aware that Shakespeare has already exhausted the whole of human nature in all its tendencies, in all its heights and depths, and that, in fact, there remains for him, the aftercomer, nothing more to do. And how could one get courage only to put pen to paper, if one were conscious in an earnest appreciating spirit, that such unfathomable and unattainable excellences were already in existence!

Legendary artist Louise Bourgeois experienced something quite similar after visiting a major retrospective of Picasso, whom she considered the “greatest master.” Indeed, Goethe suggests that having come of age in Germany, without exposure to the foundational classics of English literature, was to the advantage of his developing craft:

On and on I went in my own natural development… But had I been born an Englishman, and had all those numerous masterpieces been brought before me in all their power, at my first dawn of youthful consciousness, they would have overpowered me, and I should not have known what to do. I could not have gone on with such fresh light-heartedness, but should have had to bethink myself, and look about for a long time, to find some new outlet.

Art by Delacroix for a rare edition of Goethe's Faust. Click image for more.

In another conversation with Eckermann at the end of the same year, Goethe revisits the subject from a different angle. Long before the age of information overload, he stresses the importance of being incredibly selective of the material with which the creative person fills her or his mental catalog of influences:

Generally, beware of dissipating your powers, and strive to concentrate them.

But — and here is the seemingly contradictory yet, upon closer inspection, deeply complementary point to his “beginner’s mind” assertion — concentrating one’s powers is not achieved by avoiding all cultural influence wholesale; rather, it’s about being thoughtful and discerning in choosing what to allow into one’s mental catalog:

The great point is to make a capital that will not be exhausted. This you will acquire by the study of the English language and literature… Concentrate your powers for something good, and give up everything which can produce no result of consequence to you, and is not suited to you.

Four years later, in a conversation from October of 1828, Goethe circles back to the subject of seeing oneself as, to borrow Pete Seeger’s term, a link in the chain of creative culture. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing that everything builds on what came before and fortifying one’s creative toolkit with the most elevated works of the past upon which to build one’s own contribution:

One must be something in order to do something. Dante seems to us great; but he had the culture of centuries behind him. The house of Rothschild is rich; but it has taken more than one generation to accumulate such treasures… Whoever will produce anything great, must so improve his culture that, like the Greeks, he will be able to elevate the mere trivial actualities of nature to the level of his own mind, and really carry out that which … either from internal weakness or external obstacles, remains a mere intention.

Complement Conversations of Goethe with Goethe’s beautiful cloud poems and André Gide on the great poet’s paradoxical model of creativity, then revisit other noteworthy conversations with creative geniuses: Jorge Luis Borges, Susan Sontag, Pablo Picasso, Robert Graves, and Agnes Martin.

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