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25 SEPTEMBER, 2014

William Faulkner on Writing, the Human Dilemma, and Why We Create: A Rare 1958 Recording

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“It’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do.”

The writer’s duty, William Faulkner (September 25, 1897–July 6, 1962) asserted in his magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950, is “to help man endure by lifting his heart.” Faulkner’s idealism about and intense interest in the human spirit permeated all of his creative pursuits, from his views on writing and the meaning of life to his only children’s book to his little-known Jazz Age drawings.

In 1957 and 1958, the period halfway between his two Pulitzer Prizes, Faulkner served as a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. On the last day of his residency in May of 1958, he read from his favorite novel, The Sound and the Fury, at an event open to the general public. After the reading, he answered questions — wonderfully Southern-drawled questions — from the audience. The surviving recording, found in the University of Virginia’s Faulkner archives, is of questionable audio quality but makes up for it in sheer richness of insight into Faulkner’s views on writing and the project of art. Transcribed highlights below.

On why he considers The Sound and the Fury his favorite novel:

I think that no writer is ever quite satisfied with the book — that’s why he writes another one; that he is trying to put on paper something that is going to be a little better than anybody else has put on paper up to date… This is my favorite one because I worked the hardest on it — not to accomplish what I hoped to do with it, but I anguished and raged over it more than over any other to try to make something out of it, that it was impossible for me to do. It’s the same feeling that the parent may have toward the incorrigible or the abnormal child, maybe.

On his influences and the notion that our ideas are the combinatorial product of our lived experience:

I read everything I could get my hands on without any discretion or judgment at one time, and I’m sure that everything I’ve read from the telephone book up has influenced what I’ve done since. I think that’s true of any writer.

[…]

Any experience the writer has ever suffered is going to influence what he does, and that is not only what he’s read, but the music he’s heard, the pictures he’s seen.

The question of why writers write — why artists make art — has been addressed, in one form or another, at one point or another, by nearly every significant writer in history. For instance, George Orwell listed four universal motives and Mary Gaitskill outlined six. For Joan Didion, the impulse grants her access to her own mind and for David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Michael Lewis finds in it a way to exorcise the the necessary self-delusions of creativity and Joy Williams a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket, while for Italo Calvino it was about the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise. When an audience member poses this very question, Faulkner offers his private answer, at the center of which are some beautifully articulated creative universalities:

You’re alive in the world. You see man. You have an insatiable curiosity about him, but more than that you have an admiration for him. He is frail and fragile, a web of flesh and bone and mostly water. He’s flung willy nilly into a ramshackle universe stuck together with electricity. The problems he faces are always a little bigger than he is, and yet, amazingly enough, he copes with them — not individually but as a race.

He endures.

He’s outlasted dinosaurs. He’s outlasted atom bombs. He’ll outlast communism. Simply because there’s some part in him that keeps him from ever knowing that he’s whipped, I suppose; that as frail as he is, he lives up to his codes of behavior. He shows compassion when there’s no reason why he should. He’s braver than he should be. He’s more honest.

The writer is so interested — he sees this as so amazing and you might say so beautiful… It’s so moving to him that he wants to put it down on paper or in music or on canvas, that he simply wants to isolate one of these instances in which man — frail, foolish man — has acted miles above his head in some amusing or dramatic or tragic way… some gallant way.

That, I suppose, is the incentive to write, apart from it being fun. I sort of believe that is the reason that people are artists. It’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do. You’re never bored. You never reach satiation.

He later revisits the subject in answering another question:

I’m writing about people. Man involved in the human dilemma, facing the problems bigger than he, whether he licks them or whether they lick him. But man as frail and fragile as he is, yet he will keep on trying to be brave and honest and compassionate, and that, to me, is very fine and very interesting — and that is the reason I think any writer writes

Faulkner echoes Schopenhauer in answering a question about style:

I prefer to think that no writer has got time to be too concerned with style, that he is simply telling this dramatic instance in the most effective way he knows, that the book, the story, creates its own style.

Long and involved sentences — I don’t like them any more than the people that have to read them do, but I couldn’t think of any, to me, better, more effective, way to tell what I was trying to tell. And it’s not really an evolution — simply that one story in my opinion demanded, compelled a certain diction and style. The story next to it has compelled a completely different one.

Having endured his share of derision early in life, Faulkner smirks at the question of whether criticism hurts him or causes him to change direction:

I don’t read critics. I’d rather read imaginary fiction.

(Susan Sontag once put it even more forcefully: “Reading criticism clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas: cultural cholesterol.”)

Complement with Faulkner on the purpose of art and the strange story of the children’s book he wrote for the daughter of the woman he was courting.

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24 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Edge of the Sky: An Unusual and Poetic Primer on the Universe Written in the 1,000 Most Common Words in the English Language

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“Perhaps the All-There-Is is not all there is.”

“If one cannot state a matter clearly enough so that even an intelligent twelve-year-old can understand it,” pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote in the 1979 volume Some Personal Views, “one should remain within the cloistered walls of the university and laboratory until one gets a better grasp of one’s subject matter.” Whether or not theoretical cosmologist Roberto Trotta read Mead, he embodies her unambiguous ethos with heartening elegance in The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is (public library) — an unusual “short story about what we think the All-There-Is is made of, and how it got to be the way it is,” told in the one thousand most common words in the English language. Under such admirable self-imposed restriction — the idea for which was given to Trotta by Randall Munroe, who knows a thing or two about illuminating complexity through simplicity — Trotta composes a poetic primer on the universe by replacing some of the densest terminology of astrophysics with invariably lyrical synonyms constructed from these common English words. The universe becomes the “All-There-Is,” Earth our “Home World,” the planets “Crazy Stars,” our galaxy a “Star-Crowd” — because, really, whoever needs supersymmetric particles when one could simply say “Mirror Drops”?

What emerges is a narrative that explains some of the most complex science in modern astrophysics, told in language that sounds like a translation of ancient storytelling, like the folkloric fables of African mythology, the kinds of tales written before we had the words for phenomena, before we had the understanding that demanded those words. Language, after all, always evolves as a mashup of our most commonly held ideas.

Trotta’s story, which spans from the Big Bang (“Big Flash”) to the invention of the telescope (“Big-Seer”) to the discoveries and unknowns that play out at the Large Hadron Collider (“Big Ring”), also features a thoughtfully equalizing play of gender pronouns, casting both women and men as “student-people” — the protagonist-scientists in the history of cosmology and astrophysics.

The story is peppered with appropriately lyrical illustrations by French artist Antoine Déprez.

DARK MATTER: 'In the time it takes you to blink, the number of dark matter drops that fly through your hand is two times the number of people living today in the city that never sleeps.'

In a particularly poetic chapter on space-time and the quest to grasp the scale of the universe, Trotta, who works at the astrophysics group of Imperial College London and has held research positions at Oxford and the University of Geneva, chronicles Einstein’s most enduring legacy:

Doctor Einstein was to become one of the most important student-people ever. He had a quick brain and he had been thinking carefully about the building blocks of the All-There-Is. To his surprise, he found that light was the key to understanding how far-away things in the sky — Crazy Stars, our Star-Crowd, and perhaps even the White Shadows — appear to us.

[…]

You could not explain this using the normal idea of space and time. Mr. Einstein then said that space and time had to be married and form a new thing that he called space-time. Thanks to space-time, he found that time slows down if you fly almost as fast as light and that your arm appears shorter in the direction you are going.

He then asked himself what would happen if you put some heavy stuff, as heavy as a star, in the middle of space-time. He was the first to understand that matter pulls in space-time and changes the way it looks. In turn, the form of space-time is what moves matter one way or another.

It followed that light from stars and the White Shadows in the sky would also be dragged around by the form of space-time. Understanding space-time meant understanding where exactly and how far away from us things are in the sky.

[…]

Mr. Einstein then began to wonder what would happen if he used his space-time idea for the entire All-There-Is.

LARGE HADRON COLLIDER: 'Near that city, student-people have built a large ring under the ground. It would take you over five hours to walk around that Big Ring.'

But Trotta’s greatest feat is the grace with which he addresses the greatest question of cosmology, the one at the heart of the ancient tension between science and religion — the idea that the universe we have seems like a miraculous accident since, despite an infinity of other possible combinations, it somehow cultivated the exact conditions that make life viable. Science rejects the idea of a grand “Creator” who orchestrated these conditions, and religious traditions are predicated on the terror of admitting to such purely accidental origin — a bind with which humanity still tussles vigorously to this day, yet one Trotta untangles with extraordinary intellectual elegance:

Imagine for a minute the following situation.

You enter a room where you find a table with a large number of small, gray, round pieces on it — of the type that you can use to buy a coffee, or a paper, or to pay for parking. The ones with one head on one side and some other picture on the flip side.

Let’s say that there are four hundred of the gray pieces on the table. And they all show heads.

You would not believe for a second that they were all just thrown on the table and happened to land this way. Although this could happen, it would be a hard thing to accept.

It would be easier to imagine that someone had walked into the room before you and had put them all down like this, heads up, all four hundred of them.

The strange thing about the Dark Push is that it is a bit like the four hundred heads-up gray pieces in the room.

If the Dark Push were only a tiny bit larger than it is, then everything we see around us would be very different.

It is as if changing only one of the heads in the four hundred would make the entire world change.

Change the Dark Push by a little bit, and Star-Crowds could not form; none of the stars we see in the sky would be there; the Sun would not be there; our Home-World would not be there; and life, as we know it, could not be here.

We wouldn’t be here to talk about this in the first place.

So the question is: Who or what put down all four hundred heads exactly this way?

MULTIVERSE THEORY: 'Let’s say that there are four hundred of the gray pieces on the table. And they all show heads.'

Trotta offers an answer through a remarkably succinct explanation of the concept of the multiverse and the notion of parallel universes:

Some student-people came to believe that they could understand this by imagining more rooms. A very large number of rooms.

In each of them, the four hundred gray pieces are all thrown up in the air and flipped. And they land in some way, however they may.

In most of the rooms, some of pieces will land heads, and some won’t.

But if you have enough rooms, in the end you’ll find one room where all of the pieces have landed heads-up. Just like that.

There is no need to imagine anyone setting them up in this way.

It’s only a question of having enough rooms and trying them all.

And so the idea is that perhaps the All-There-Is is not all there is.

Trotta also chronicles the origin of the universe and the mechanics of the Big Bang with elegant simplicity:

The All-There-Is started from a single point, but then grew very, very quickly to become very, very large.

It is almost not possible to picture how fast it grew. Imagine breathing into a colored party ball, so that with every breath the ball becomes ten times bigger than before. If every breath took you an hour, you would have to keep going for over three days to make the ball grow as much as the All-There-Is grew right after the Big Flash. By that time, your party ball would have become much bigger than the White Road, so that one hundred party balls would fill the entire part of the All-There-Is we can see!

We don’t know what made it grow so much, so fast.

THE BIG BANG: 'Nearly every matter drop had a Sister Drop flying around, and when they met, they hugged each other and disappeared in a flash of light.'

He distills what we do know about those first few moments of cosmic import, painting a sensual portrait of the science:

At the beginning, all the matter drops were hot and moved around quickly. Nearly every matter drop had a Sister Drop flying around, and when they met, they hugged each other and disappeared in a flash of light. All the drops would have gone and only light would be left over, if it wasn’t for a strange fact.

Imagine a number of matter drops as large as the number of people who live in the land of Mr. Mao today. Each one of them had a matching Sister Drop, and when they found it, both disappeared.

Except for one.

Everything we see around us today is made of the few matter drops that did not have a Sister Drop and that escaped their death hug. As space continued to grow bigger and bigger, it cooled down. During the next three minutes, when the left-over matter drops met another drop they liked, they kissed each other and stuck together. Most matter drops did not find any other drop to kiss, so they stayed alone. We call them the Single Drops.

Almost all the matter drops that kissed each other ended up as Heavier Drops, made of two pairs of different drops. Very few matter drops stuck together to form even bigger drops than the Heavier Drops.

At the end, there were about ten times as many Single Drops as Heavier Drops. Single Drops and Heavier Drops are the same kind of drops that today make up most of the Sun.

Also, a whole lot of much lighter Very Small Drops were still flying around like crazy.

After three minutes, the All-There-Is had grown too much for matter drops to kiss: they simply could not find each other any more in all that big, empty space! Once matter drops stopped kissing one another, nothing much happened for a long time.

The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is is one part children’s book for grownups, one part imaginative exercise in economical yet lyrical language, and wholly wonderful. For a counterpoint that might well be written in the one thousand least common words in English but is utterly mind-expanding and at least as delightful, see Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe.

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24 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Mary Oliver Reads Her Beloved Poem “Wild Geese”

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“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination…”

Mary Oliver (b. September 10, 1935) is among the most beloved and most prolific poets of the past century — a devoted craftswoman of exquisite poems and a sage of the secrets of the craft itself.

In this recording from a 2001 event held by the Lannan Foundation — the same reading that gave us Oliver on the magic of punctuation — the beloved writer reads the poem that would go on to become one of her most celebrated and lend its title to her 2004 volume Wild Geese: Selected Poems (public library). Oliver’s work speaks so deeply and with such courageous honesty to some of our most profound human perplexities, struggles, and exaltations that it is read everywhere from commencement addresses to yoga classes, endlessly replicated on the social web and borrowed for those formulaic chapter-opening quotations in pop-psychology and self-help books. And yet despite the vast exposure, something singular, something mesmeric and immutably moving happens as Oliver swirls the intricate thought-things of her poem in her own mouth — to say nothing of the impossibly charming George Eliot anecdote with which she prefaces the reading:

WILD GEESE

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Wild Geese: Selected Poems is a soul-stretching read in its entirety. Complement it with Oliver’s deeply endearing Dog Songs, one of the best books of 2013.

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