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09 FEBRUARY, 2015

Some Thoughts on Hope, Cynicism, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

By:

To live with sincerity in our culture of cynicism is a difficult dance — one that comes easily only to the very young and the very old. The rest of us are left to tussle with two polarizing forces ripping the psyche asunder by beckoning to it from opposite directions — critical thinking and hope.

Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.

Finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving the situation produces resignation — cynicism is both resignation’s symptom and a futile self-protection mechanism against it. Blindly believing that everything will work out just fine also produces resignation, for we have no motive to apply ourselves toward making things better. But in order to survive — both as individuals and as a civilization — and especially in order to thrive, we need the right balance of critical thinking and hope.

A plant needs water in order to survive, and needs the right amount of water in order to thrive. Overwater it and it rots with excess. Underwater it and it dries up inside.

I thought about this recently in observing my unease — my seething cauldron of deep disappointment — with an opinion piece commenting on Arianna Huffington’s decision to continue publishing necessary reporting on “what’s not working — political dysfunction, corruption, wrongdoing, etc.” but to begin giving more light to stories that embody the “perseverance, creativity, and grace” of which we humans are capable. The writer criticizing Huffington’s decision asserted, with ample indignation, that “to privilege happy stories over ‘unhappy’ ones is to present a false view of the world.”

Let’s consider for a moment the notion of an un-false view of the world — the journalistic ideal of capital-T truth. Let’s, too, put aside for now Hunter S. Thompson’s rather accurate assertion that the possibility of objectivity is a myth to begin with. Since the golden age of newspapers in the early 1900s, we’ve endured a century of rampant distortion toward the other extreme — a consistent and systematic privileging of harrowing and heartbreaking “news” as the raw material of the media establishment. The complaint which a newspaper editor issued in 1923, lamenting the fact that commercial interest rather than journalistic integrity determines what is published as the “news,” could well have been issued today — if anything, the internet has only exacerbated the problem.

The twentieth century was both the golden age of mass media and a century marked by two world wars, the Great Depression, the AIDS crisis, and a litany of genocides. Viewed through that lens, it is the worst century humanity has endured — even worse than the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages, for those deaths were caused by bacteria indifferent to human ideals and immune to human morality. This view of the twentieth century, then, is frightening enough if true, but doubly frightening if untrue — and Steven Pinker has made a convincing case that it is, indeed, untrue. Then, in a grotesque embodiment of Mark Twain’s wry remark that the worst things in his life never happened to him, we have spent a century believing the worst about ourselves as a species and a civilization.

Carl Sagan saw in books “proof that humans are capable of working magic.” The magic of humanity’s most enduring books — the great works of literature and philosophy — lies in the simple fact that they are full of hope for the human spirit. News has become the sorcerous counterpoint to this magic, mongering not proof of our goodness and brilliance but evidence of our basest capabilities.

A related point of cynicism bears consideration: Coupled with the assertion that giving positive stories more voice distorts our worldview was the accusation that Huffington’s motives were purely mercantile — a ploy to prey on Facebook’s algorithms, which incentivize heartening stories over disheartening ones. Could it be, just maybe, not that people are dumb and shallow, and algorithms dumber and shallower, but that we’ve endured a century of fear-mongering from the news industrial complex and we finally have a way of knowing we’re not alone in craving an antidote? That we finally have a cultural commons onto which we can rally for an uprising?

We don’t get to decry the alleged distortion of our worldview until we’ve lived through at least a century of good news to even the playing field so ravaged by the previous century’s extreme negativity bias.

As for Huffington, while we can only ever speculate about another person’s motives — for who can peer into the psyche of another and truly see into that person’s private truth? — this I continue to believe: The assumptions people make about the motives of others always reveal a great deal more about the assumers than the assumed-about.

This particular brand of cynicism is especially pronounced when the assumed-about have reached a certain level of success or public recognition. Take, for instance, an entity like TED — something that began as a small, semi-secret groundswell that was met with only warmth and love in its first few years of opening up to the larger world. And then, as it reached a tipping point of recognition, TED became the target of rather petty and cynical criticism. Here is an entity that has done nothing more nor less than to insist, over and over, that despite our many imperfections, we are inherently kind and capable and full of goodness — and yet even this isn’t safe from cynicism.

Let’s return, then, to the question of what is true and what is false, and what bearing this question has — if any — on what we call reality.

The stories that we tell ourselves, whether they be false or true, are always real. We act out of those stories, reacting to their realness. William James knew this when he observed: “My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.”

What storytellers do — and this includes journalists and TED and everyone in between who has a point of view and an audience, whatever its size — is help shape our stories of how the world works; at their very best, they can empower our moral imagination to envision how the world could work better. In other words, they help us mediate between the ideal and the real by cultivating the right balance of critical thinking and hope. Truth and falsehood belong to this mediation, but it is guided primarily by what we are made to believe is real.

What we need, then, are writers like William Faulkner, who came of age in a brothel, saw humanity at its most depraved, and yet managed to maintain his faith in the human spirit. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he asserted that the writer’s duty is “to help man endure by lifting his heart.” In contemporary commercial media, driven by private interest, this responsibility to work in the public interest and for the public good recedes into the background. And yet I continue to stand with E.B. White, who so memorably asserted that “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life”; that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down.”

Yes, people sometimes do horrible things, and we can speculate about why they do them until we run out of words and sanity. But evil only prevails when we mistake it for the norm. There is so much goodness in the world — all we have to do is remind one another of it, show up for it, and refuse to leave.

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09 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Agony of the Artist (with a capital A): E.E. Cummings on What It Really Means to Be an Artist and His Little-Known Line Drawings

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“The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.”

“You’re an artist when you say you are,” Amanda Palmer offered in her emboldening reflection on the creative life. “And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.” Nearly a century earlier, Sherwood Anderson advised his aspiring-artist son: “The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.” But one of the greatest meditations on what art is and isn’t, on the pleasures and perils of the creative life, comes from E.E. Cummings, whose lesser-known prose enchants very differently and yet by the same mechanism that his celebrated poetry does — by inviting the reader to “pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.”

A concentrated burst of such delight and recognition is delivered in E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised (public library) — a most unusual and satisfying compendium Cummings himself described as “a cluster of epigrams, forty-nine essays on various subjects, a poem dispraising dogmata, and several selections from unfinished plays.” Many of the pieces had been previously published under clever pseudonyms (for instance, “An Ex-Millionaire’s Rules for Success in Life” by a C.E. Niltse, “Success Editor” at Vanity Fair), and a few had appeared anonymously in various magazines. It was originally published as a limited edition in 1958, when Cummings was sixty-four, and reissued three years after his death to include a number of the author’s previously unseen line drawings — a fine addition to the canon of great authors with lesser-known talents in other fields, including Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly studies, J.R.R. Tolkien’s illustrations, Richard Feynman’s sketches, Sylvia Plath’s drawings, William Faulkner’s Jazz Age etchings, Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons, and Zelda Fitzgerald’s watercolors.

With his usual mischievous charisma and elegant acrobatics oscillating between wit and wisdom, Cummings writes in the preface to the original edition:

Taken ensemble, the forty-nine astonish and cheer and enlighten their progenitor. He’s astonished that, as nearly as anyone can make out, I wrote them. He’s cheered because, while re-reading them, I’ve encountered a great deal of liveliness and nothing dead. Last but not least; he’s enlightened via the realization that, whereas times can merely change, an individual may grow.

One of the finest pieces in the collection — an exquisite wellspring of such lively growth — is a satirical yet remarkably profound essay titled “The Agony of the Artist (with a capital A),” originally published in Vanity Fair in 1927 under Cummings’s own name. (A name the capitalization of which has itself been the subject of much misunderstanding.)

'THE DOG IN THE MANGER ... Aesop knew ...'

Cummings begins by a humorous taxonomy of the three types of artists:

First we have the ultrasuccessful artist, comprising two equally insincere groups: “commercial artists,” who concoct almost priceless pictures for advertising purposes, and “fashionable portrait painters,” who receive incredible sums for making unbeautifully rich women look richly beautiful. Very few people, of course, can attain the heights of commercial and fashionable art. Next we have the thousands upon thousands of “academicians” — patient, plodding, platitudinous persons, whose loftiest aim is to do something which “looks just like” something else and who are quite content so long as this undangerous privilege is vouchsafed them. Finally there exists a species, properly designated as the Artist (with capital A) which differs radically from the ultrasuccessful type and the academic type. On the one hand, your Artist has nothing to do with success, his ultimate function being neither to perpetuate the jeweled neck of Mrs. O. Howe Thingumbob nor yet to assassinate dandruff. On the other hand he bears no likeness to the tranquil academician — for your Artist is not tranquil; he is in agony.

'THE FIRST ROBIN ... if the punishment fitted the crime ...'

Cummings considers the source of the Artist’s disquiet:

Most people merely accept this agony of the Artist, as they accept evolution. The rest move their minds to the extent of supposing that anybody with Art school training, plus “temperament” — or a flair for agony — may become an Artist. In other words, the Artist is thought to be an unsublimated academician; a noncommercial, anti-fashionable painter who, instead of taking things easily, suffers from a tendency to set the world on fire and an extreme sensibility to injustice. Can this be true? If not, what makes an Artist and in what does an Artist’s agony consist?

The agony, Cummings argues, has to do with the path one takes to becoming a capital-A Artist. Half a century before Teresita Fernandez’s spectacular commencement address on what it really means to be an artist, Cummings jeers at the misleading cultural narratives about that path:

You may have always secretly admired poor Uncle Henry who, after suddenly threatening to become an Artist with a capital A, inadvertently drank himself to death with a small d instead… Or both you and I may have previously decided to become everything except Artists, without actually having become anything whatever. Briefly, a person may decide to become an Artist for innumerable reasons of great psychological importance; but what interests us is the consequences, not the causes, of our decisions to become Artists.

'THE HELPING HAND ... nobody is exempt ...'

The obvious decision for those who decide to become Artists, Cummings notes as he sets up his wry critique of standard education, is to go to Art school:

Must not people learn Art, just as people learn electricity or plumbing or anything else, for that matter? Of course, Art is different from electricity and plumbing, in that anybody can become an electrician or a plumber, whereas only people with temperament may become Artists. Nevertheless, there are some things which even people with temperament must know before they become Artists and these are the secrets which are revealed at Art school (how to paint a landscape correctly, how to make a face look like someone, what colors to mix with other colors, which way to sharpen pencils, etc.). Only when a person with temperament has thoroughly mastered all this invaluable information can be begin to create his own hook. If you and I didn’t absorb these fundamentals, reader, we could never become Artists, no matter how temperamental we were.

'THE SWAN AND LEDA ... protect your dear ones ...'

But the travesty of the system, Cummings points out, is that at Art school the future capital-A artist ends up at the mercy of the “academician” who learned from the “fashionable portrait painter.” The future Artist is being taught technique by “the renowned Mr. Z, who was formerly a pupil of the great Y,” who in turn “studied at various times under X, W and V and only came into the full possession of his own great powers shortly before his untimely death.” In a sentiment that calls to mind Pete Seeger’s assertion that all artists are “links in a chain,” Cummings concludes:

We are not really studying with Mr. Z at all. We are really studying through Mr. Z.

'THE GARDEN OF EDEN ... before the dawn of history ...'

He then turns to the prevalent notion, perhaps best captured by Anaïs Nin and tightly woven into the mythology of genius, that temperamental excess is essential for creativity:

If you and I didn’t have temperament, we should now become ordinary humdrum academicians. But, being temperamental, we scorn all forms of academic guidance and throw ourselves on the world, eager to suffer — eager to become, through agony, Artists with capital A.

He considers the particular problem of the American artist:

Our next problem is to find the necessary agony. Where is it, gentle reader?

Your answer: the agony lies in the fact that we stand no chance of being appreciated… Not only is there a complete absence of taste anent the domestic product, but once an Artist is found guilty of being a native of the richest country on earth he must choose between spiritual prostitution and physical starvation. What monstrous injustice!

'THE SPINSTER'S DILEMMA ... but a parrot did ...'

Cummings goes on to illustrate the pretentious and posturing of reducing art to objects and forgetting that it is primarily a contagious experience:

Let me show you a painting which cost the purchaser a mere trifle and which is the work (or better, play) of some illiterate peasant who never dreamed of value and perspective. How would you category this bit of anonymity? Is it beautiful? You do not hesitate: yes. Is it Art? You reply: it is primitive, instinctive, or uncivilized Art. Being “uncivilized,” the Art of this nameless painter is immeasurably inferior to the civilized Art of painters like ourselves, is it not? You object: primitive Art cannot be judged by the same standards as civilized Art. But tell me, how can you, having graduated from an Art school, feel anything but scorn for such a childish daub? Once more you object: this primitive design has an intrinsic rhythm, a life of its own, it is therefore Art.

And therein lies Cummings’s most serious — solemn, even — point: That what we learn about art through formulaic instruction takes us further away from what Jeanette Winterson aptly termed “the paradox of active surrender” which art asks of us in order to work us over with its transformative power. In a passage that could well be the Modernist’s manifesto, Cummings considers what ordains that hypothetical peasant’s painting capital-A Art:

It is Art because it is alive. It proves that, if you and I are to create at all, we must create with today and let all the Art schools and Medicis in the universe go hang themselves with yesterday’s rope. It teaches us that we have made a profound error in trying to learn Art, since whatever Art stands for is whatever cannot be learned. Indeed, the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself; and the agony of the Artist, far from being the result of the world’s failure to discover and appreciate him, arises from his own personal struggle to discover, to appreciate and finally to express himself.

'THE FRIEND IN NEED ... a boon to travelers ...'

This condition — which the wise and wonderful Ann Truitt would come to capture perfectly two decades later in considering the difference being doing art and being an artist, asserting that “artists have no choice but to express their lives” — is the sole requirement of being a capital-A Artist. With an eye toward a far more luminous and liberating definition of success, Cummings urges:

Look into yourself, reader, for you must find Art there, if at all… Art is not something which may or may not be acquired, it is something which you are not or which you are. If a thorough search of yourself fails to reveal the presence of this something, you may be perfectly sure that no amount of striving, academic or otherwise, can bring it into your life. But if you are this something — then, gentle reader, no amount of discrimination and misapprehension can possibly prevent you from becoming an Artist. To be sure, you will not encounter “success,” but you will experience what is a thousand times sweeter than “success.” You will know that when all’s said and done (and the very biggest Butter Baron has bought the very last and least Velasquez) “to become an Artist” means nothing: whereas to become alive, or one’s self, means everything.

Or, as Sherwood Anderson wrote three decades earlier his magnificent letter of life-advice to his son, “The thing of course, is to make yourself alive. Most people remain all of their lives in a stupor. The point of being an artist is that you may live.”

'THE DEATH OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN ... even prominent people ...'

E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised is, sadly, out of print — but it’s well worth the hunt. Complement it with Susan Cheever’s spectacular biography of Cummings and the unusual story of the fairy tales he wrote for his only daughter, then revisit Georgia O’Keeffe’s exquisite letter on success and what it means to be an artist and some of today’s most prominent artists contemplating this slippery subject.

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09 FEBRUARY, 2015

Mary Oliver on a Life Well Lived and How to Be Fully Alive

By:

“Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going?”

Few are those whose contribution to humanity — be it art, or music, or literature, or some other enchantment — fills the heart with uncontainable gratitude for their very existence. Mary Oliver — one of the greatest poets of all time, and perhaps the greatest of our time — is one such blessing of a writer. She, the patron saint of paying compassionate attention, has made a supreme art of bearing witness to our world — be it in her exquisite poems, or in the prose of that moving remembrance of her soul mate, or in her meditations on the craft of poetry itself.

In her immensely rewarding recent On Being conversation with Krista Tippett — triply magical because Oliver rarely gives interviews, and never ones this dimensional and revealing — she read several of her most beloved poems. While “Wild Geese” remains a favorite, I was especially taken with a four-part poem titled “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac,” found in Oliver’s sublime 2014 collection Blue Horses: Poems (public library). It is partly a bow to her recent triumph over cancer, and partly a score to the larger tango of life and death which we all, wittingly or not, are summoned to dance daily.

Like so much of her work, it is an uncommonly direct yet beguiling love letter to vitality itself, poured from the soul of someone utterly besotted with this world which we too are invited to embrace.

THE FOURTH SIGN OF THE ZODIAC (PART 3)

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

So why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

Complement the immeasurably wonderful Blue Horses with Oliver on what attention really means and what dogs teach us about the meaning of our human lives, then treat yourself to the full On Being conversation below and be sure to subscribe to Tippett’s consistently ennobling gift to the world.

Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.

How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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