Brain Pickings

Happy Birthday, Gabriel García Márquez: The Beloved Author’s Unlikely Beginnings as a Writer

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“If you’re going to be a writer you have to be one of the great ones… After all, there are better ways to starve to death.”

Gabriel García Márquez (March 6, 1927–April 17, 2014) is one of the greatest authors of all time, and yet he had an unlikely path to greatness. His life-story is an emboldening antidote to the tyrannical myth that the crib is the crucible of creative genius, that only those who turn their childhood dreams into reality are destined for cultural significance, and that unless you have clarity about your purpose early in childhood, you’re doomed to a life of floundering and mediocrity.

Márquez had no such precocious clarity. (For that matter, neither did Van Gogh.) Instead, the celebrated author’s life stands as a heartening testament to the fact that a purpose is not something you are born with but something you find and cultivate, something that reveals itself when you let your life speak — even when what your life has to say is not, at first, what you want to hear.

Márquez grew up wanting to be a musician. “I had dreamed about the good life, going from fair to fair and singing with an accordion and a good voice, which always seemed to me to be the oldest and happiest way to tell a story,” he writes in his magnificent memoir, Living to Tell the Tale (public library) — a worthy belated addition to the best memoirs of 2014 — before recounting the unlikely beginnings of his career as a writer:

I did not have the courage and sense of independence of my brother Luis Enrique, who did only what he wanted to do. And who without a doubt would achieve a happiness that is not what one desires for one’s children but is what allows them to survive the immoderate affections, the irrational fears, and the joyful expectations of their parents.

The expectations of his parents were lofty. As a young boy, Gabo had always been an excellent student, a genial and unproblematic child — so much so that his grandmother, who was instrumental in raising him, frequently commended him for being “the perfect kid.” But now he was struggling through his secondary education, unhappy in a school that had a “bad reputation as a laboratory of political perversion.” Dejected, he started hanging out with questionable friends, abusing alcohol, and staying out well into the night — he had veered, as he aptly puts it, toward “the wrong path.”

His parents were understandably perturbed at the sudden change. Márquez relays a pivotal conversation he had with his mother at the age of eighteen:

“Well, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said after a lethal silence, “because if we tell all this to your father he’ll die a sudden death. Don’t you realize you’re the pride of the family?”

For them it was simple: since there was no possibility I would be the eminent physician my father could not be because he did not have the money, they dreamed I would at least be a professional in something else.

“Well, I won’t be anything at all,” I concluded. “I refuse to let you force me into being what I don’t want to be or what you would like me to be, much less what the government wants me to be.”

These tense conversations recurred over the remainder of the week, until one day his mother, “as if by chance,” suggested something that profoundly surprised him:

“They say that if you put your mind to it you could be a good writer.”

I had never heard anything like it in the family. Since I was a child my inclinations had allowed me to suppose that I would draw, be a musician, sing in church, or even be a Sunday poet. I had discovered in myself a tendency, known to everyone, toward writing that was rather convoluted and ethereal, but this time my reaction was one of surprise.

Although his reply was one of cynical skepticism, in it — since cynicism is simply hope masked with fear — has the kernel of aspiration that would define his life:

“If you’re going to be a writer you have to be one of the great ones, and they don’t make them anymore,” I told my mother. “After all, there are better ways to starve to death.”

But once the veil of youthful cynicism was lifted, Márquez saw he had no choice but to make himself “one of the great ones.” Four decades later, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts”.

Complement Living to Tell the Tale with celebrated writers’ collected wisdom on writing and this Literary Jukebox celebration of Márquez.

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Iterations: A Lyrical Animated Film about How We Grow as Human Beings and the Iterative Nature of Self-Transformation

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“I am recycled cells, I learn to like myself more with each iteration…”

Psychologists now know that a “growth mindset” is one of the greatest predictors of a fulfilling life. And yet only children are at ease with the discomfort necessary for growth — the rest of us are chronically resistant to stretching ourselves in the very ways that push us to transcend the lesser versions of ourselves. Emerson knew this when he contemplated our resistance to change and wrote: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” How is it, then, that we bestir ourselves to grow?

In 2005, actor and director Joseph Gordon-Levitt founded hitRECord with his brother — a global creative community and independent multimedia production company, uniting artists from around the world on a variety of projects. The endeavor’s first decade has produced a wonderland of magical collaborations, including the fantastic Tiny Book of Tiny Stories series, but none more wonderful than Iterations — a beautiful and bewitching musical film created by artists from Hungary, Cyprus, Scotland, Canada, and the United States, with enchanting original music by Irish singer/songwriter Sarah Daly, better known as Metaphorest.

The artists were tasked with interpreting the theme of “The Road” and this musical journey was the result — a lyrical story of our incremental growth as human beings and the iterative nature of self-transformation.

Have you seen my old self?
I think I must have lost her
I wonder if I cost her
Her life?

Have you seen my second self?
She seems to grow younger
More delicate than ever
But never better

I’m an experiment
Each trial is a test
Constant recalibration

I am recycled cells
I learn to like myself
more with each iteration

Where is my restore point?
I found an old sore point
All disjointed
My file corrupted

Where is my replacement part?
I need another new heart
The other one’s beat was
Interrupted

I am recycled cells
I learn to like myself
more with each iteration

I’m an experiment
Each trial is a test
Constant recalibration

Complement with Susan Sontag on rereading as rebirth and some timeless ideas for self-refinement from the wisdom of the ages.

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Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti on Our Fear of Being Touched, the Four Attributes of Crowds, and the Paradox of Why We Join Them

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“Direction is essential for the continuing existence of the crowd… A crowd exists so long as it has an unattained goal.”

“The evolution of the world tends to show the absolute importance of the category of the individual apart from the crowd,” Kierkegaard wrote in his diary in 1847. And yet our world is largely an ecosystem of crowds — nations, faiths, political ideologies, art movements, fan bases. But Kierkegaard wasn’t necessarily wrong — if anything, he intuited (as he frequently did) one of the great inner conflicts of the human experience: We worship individuality and long for freedom, but we are invariably drawn to crowds, which leaves us with a resentful ambivalence toward ourselves and others. E.B. White knew this too when he wrote in his timeless 1949 love letter to New York that the city “has never been so uncomfortable, so crowded, so tense” and yet it is “cheerful and filthy and crowded.”

But no one has captured the paradoxical psychology of crowds more elegantly and dimensionally than Elias Canetti (July 25, 1905–August 14, 1994). Born in Bulgaria (like myself), Canetti emigrated with his family at the age of six, living in various places across Western Europe before settling in Vienna at the age of nineteen, where he immersed himself in the literary world and began writing in German. In 1981, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature “for writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power.” Among his most influential and enduring ideas, and a cornerstone of the prize, was his 1960 treatise Crowds and Power (public library) — a fiercely insightful inquiry into what defines crowds, why we join them, and how they shape the meaning of power.

Canetti begins by considering the deepest psychological driver beneath our conflicted attitude toward crowds — the common root of our aversion and our attraction to them:

There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching toward him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it. Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange… All the distances which men create round themselves are dictated by this fear.

Half a century before cognitive scientists came to study the psychology of the “step-and-slide” — the pedestrian jig of avoiding contact and collision in crowded cities — Canetti captures the dynamics driving it:

The repugnance of being touched remains with us when we go about among people; the way we move in a busy street, in restaurants, trains or buses, is governed by it. Even when we are standing next to them and are able to watch and examine them closely, we avoid actual contact if we can. If we don’t avoid it, it is because we feel attracted to someone; and then it is we who make the approach.

The promptness with which apology is offered for an unintentional contact, the tension with which it is awaited, our violent and sometimes even physical reaction when it is not forthcoming, the antipathy and hatred we feel for the offender, even when we cannot be certain who it is — the whole knot of shifting and intensely sensitive reactions to an alien touch — proves that we are dealing here with a human propensity as deep-seated as it is alert and insidious; something which never leaves a man when he has once established the boundaries of his personality.

Illustration from Shel Silverstein's 'The Missing Piece Meets the Big O.' Click image for more.

But the great paradox of this deep-seated aversion is that our fear of touch is best assuaged by immersion in a crowd — another facet of the greater paradox proving, over and over, that the anguish of control is best alleviated by surrender. Canetti writes:

It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched. That is the only situation in which the fear changes into its opposite. The crowd he needs is the dense crowd, in which body is pressed to body; a crowd, too, whose psychical constitution is also dense, or compact, so that he no longer notices who it is that presses against him. As soon as man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch.

More than an antidote to our fear and isolation, a crowd is also a powerful equalizing force. Interjecting a remark that instantly reminds us what a profound source of otherness gender was before Betty Friedan gave shape to the problem, Canetti writes:

Ideally, all are equal there; no distinctions count, not even sex. The man pressed against him is the same as himself. He feels him as he feels himself. Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body. This is perhaps one of the reasons why a crowd seeks to close in on itself: it wants to rid each individual as completely as possible of the fear of being touched. The more fiercely people press together, the more certain they feel that they do not fear each other. This reversal of the fear of being touched belongs to the nature of crowds. The feeling of relief is most striking where the density of the crowd is the greatest.

Illustration from 'How to Be a Nonconformist,' 1968. Click image for more.

Canetti calls the core driver of this unification discharge and explains:

The most important occurrence within the crowd is the discharge. Before this the crowd does not actually exist; it is the discharge which creates it. This is the moment when all who belong to the crowd get rid of their differences and feel equal.

These differences, he argues, are externally defined — hierarchies of status and material possession — and yet they invariably shape our interior lives and self-definition. In being unshakably conscious of them, we use them to differentiate ourselves and thus to distance ourselves from others. Canetti captures this with piercing poeticism:

A man stands by himself on a secure and well defined spot, his every gesture asserting his right to keep others at a distance. He stands there like a windmill on an enormous plain, moving expressively; and there is nothing between him and the next mill. All life, so far as he knows it, is laid out in distances — the house in which he shuts himself and his property, the positions he holds, the rank he desires — all these serve to create distances, to confirm and extend them. Any free or large gesture of approach towards another human being is inhibited. Impulse and counter impulse ooze away as in a desert. No man can get near another, nor reach his height. In every sphere of life, firmly established hierarchies prevent him touching anyone more exalted than himself, or descending, except in appearance, to anyone lower.

But as much as these rankings of status anchor us and help us orient ourselves amid the chaos of the world, in anchoring us they also immobilize us. The crowd reconciles these conflicting needs:

These hierarchies … exist everywhere and everywhere gain a decisive hold on men’s minds and determine their behavior to each other. But the satisfaction of being higher in rank than others does not compensate for the loss of freedom of movement. Man petrifies and darkens in the distances he has created. He drags at the burden of them, but cannot move. He forgets that it is self-inflicted, and longs for liberation. But how, alone, can he free himself?

[…]

Only together can men free themselves from their burdens of distance; and this, precisely, is what happens in a crowd… Each man is as near the other as he is to himself; and an immense feeling of relief ensues. It is for the sake of this blessed moment, when no-one is greater or better than another, that people become a crowd.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'The Nutcracker.' Click image for more.

Canetti outlines the four key defining attributes found in varying degrees in any crowd:

  1. The crowd always wants to grow. There are no natural boundaries to its growth. Where such boundaries have been artificially created — e.g. in all institutions which are used for the preservation of closed crowds — an eruption of the crowd is always possible and will, in fact, happen from time to time. There are no institutions which can be absolutely relied on to prevent the growth of the crowd once and for all.
  2. Within the crowd there is equality. This is absolute and indisputable and never questioned by the crowd itself. It is of fundamental importance and one might even define a crowd as a state of absolute equality. A head is a head, an arm is an arm, and differences between individual heads and arms are irrelevant. It is for the sake of this equality that people become a crowd and they need to overlook anything which might detract from it. All demands for justice and all theories of equality ultimately derive their energy from the actual experience of equality familiar to anyone who has been part of a crowd.
  3. The crowd loves density. It can never feel too dense. Nothing must stand between its parts or divide them; everything must be the crowd itself. The feeling of density is strongest in the moment of discharge. One day it may be possible to determine this density more accurately and even to measure it.
  4. The crowd needs a direction. It is in movement and it moves towards a goal. The direction, which is common to all its members, strengthens the feeling of equality. A goal outside the individual members and common to all of them drives underground all the private differing goals which are fatal to the crowd as such. Direction is essential for the continuing existence of the crowd. Its constant fear of disintegration means that it will accept any goal. A crowd exists so long as it has an unattained goal.

In the remainder of Crowds and Power, which is immensely insightful in its entirety, Canetti goes on to classify crowds according to their five prevailing emotions, exploring how these dynamics shape everything from political movements to religion to music concerts and how they shed light on the complexities and true meaning of power. Complement it with Kierkegaard on the individual vs. the crowd and why we conform, then revisit Tove Jansson’s vintage philosophical cartoons on why we join groups.

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