Brain Pickings

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02 MARCH, 2012

The Seven Lady Godivas: Dr. Seuss’s Little-Known “Adult” Book of Nudes

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What Peeping Toms have to do with failure and the expectations of genius.

Theodor Seuss Geisel, better-known as Dr. Seuss, was a legendary children’s book author, radical ideologist, and a lover of reading. Among his many creative feats is a fairly unknown, fairly scandalous one: In 1939, when Geisel left Vanguard for Random House, he had one condition for his new publisher, Bennett Cerf — that he would let Geisel do an “adult” book first. The result was The Seven Lady Godivas: The True Facts Concerning History’s Barest Family, which tells the story of nudist sisters who, after their father’s death, pledge not to wed until each of them has “brought to the light of the world some new and worthy Horse Truth, of benefit to man.”

Geisel wrote in the foreword:

A beautiful story of love, honor and scientific achievement has too long been gathering dust in the archives.”

The humorous story is based on the Lady Godiva legend, according to which in 1037 the Earl of Coventry’s wife rode naked on horseback through the streets of Coventry, protesting against her husband’s unfair taxes. The citizens of Coventry were ordered to remain indoors, shuttered, as she rode. But one man, Peeping Tom, peered out and was then struck blind.

The book, however, was a complete flop. Ten thousand copies were printed on the first run, and only about 2,500 were sold. The Seven Lady Godivas eventually went out of print, causing Geisel to later say:

I attempted to draw the sexiest babes I could, but they came out looking absurd.

Absurd as they might be, and oddly unerotic despite the nudity, the illustrations are a treat, perhaps in that so-bad-it’s-good kind of way, or perhaps because they offer endearing reassurance that even genius can falter.

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02 MARCH, 2012

David Foster Wallace on Art vs. TV and the Motivation to be Smart

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“…what we need…is seriously engaged art that can teach us again that we’re smart.”

In early 1996, journalist David Lipsky accompanied 34-year-old David Foster Wallace on the last leg of his tour for his breakout novel, Infinite Jest for an ambitious Rolling Stone interview. The feature was never published, but in 2010, some 14 years after the road trip and two years after Wallace’s suicide, Lipsky released the transcript in Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. Among the many thoughtful, revealing conversations is this remarkably sharp insight by Wallace on the TV vs. the arts, the capacity for intellectual stimulation, and the challenge of creating the motivation for it in the first place:

You teach the reader that he’s way smarter than he thought he was. I think one of the insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you’re dumb. This is all you can do. This is easy, and you’re the sort of person who really just wants to sit in a chair and have it easy. When in fact there are parts of us, in a way, that are a lot more ambitious than that. And what we need… is seriously engaged art that can teach again that we’re smart. And that’s the stuff that TV and movies — although they’re great at certain things — cannot give us. But that have to create the motivations for us to want to do the extra work, to get those other kinds of art… Which is tricky, because you want to seduce the reader, but you don’t want to pander or manipulate them. I mean, a good book teaches the reader how to read it.

Clay Shirky, of course, has written a great deal about the enormous intellectual and creative resources that are being opened up as we shift away from TV in Cognitive Surplus. But Wallace’s point about motivations resonates particularly deeply with me as I consider my role — and Brain Pickings’ highest aspiration — to motivate people to be interested in things they didn’t know they were interested in until they are.

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02 MARCH, 2012

What Is Character? Debunking the Myth of Fixed Personality

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On the emotional scaffolding of the self, or how the dynamics of temperament fluctuate with social context.

We’ve previously explored what it means to be human and what defines a “person.” Much of our understanding of personhood hinges on what we call “character” — but what, exactly, is it? Here is an omnibus of definitions and insights from notable cross-disciplinary thinkers, from philosophy to neuroscience to literature, underpinning which is a shared sentiment that “character” is fluid and responsive to context, rather than a static and unflinching set of traits.

Philip K. Dick, from The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick 1972-1973:

A person’s authentic nature is a series of shifting, variegated planes that establish themselves as he relates to different people; it is created by and appears within the framework of his interpersonal relationships.

(via Feltron)

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher in This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking:

Personality is composed of two fundamentally different types of traits: those of ‘character;’ and those of ‘temperament.’ Your character traits stem from your experiences. Your childhood games; your family’s interests and values; how people in your community express love and hate; what relatives and friends regard as courteous or perilous; how those around you worship; what they sing; when they laugh; how they make a living and relax: innumerable cultural forces build your unique set of character traits. The balance of your personality is your temperament, all the biologically based tendencies that contribute to your consistent patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving. As Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, put it, ‘I am, plus my circumstances.’ Temperament is the ‘I am,’ the foundation of who you are.

Psychologists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon in A General Theory of Love:

An infant’s emotional scaffold provides for temperament and for innate abilities like reading facial expressions. Limbic contact with his parents hones that pluripotential structure into the template of emotional life — the neural core of emotional identity. Once this quintessence is firm, we say that a person exists, and we can know the individuated attributes of his emotional self. Ongoing experience gradually transforms his neural configuration, changing him from who he was into who he is, one synapse at a time. Emotional identity drifts over a lifetime — if fast and far enough, one might encounter a stranger’s heart where a friend’s or a lover’s once dwelt.”

Julian Baggini in The Ego Trick: In Search of the Self:

The topic of personal identity is strictly speaking nonexistent. It’s important to recognize that we are not the kind of things that simply popped into existence at birth, continue to exist, the same thing, then die off the cliff edge or go into another realm. We are these very remarkably ordered collections of things. It is because we’re so ordered that we are able to think of ourselves as being singular persons. But there is no singular person there, that means we’re forever changing.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoted in A General Theory of Love:

Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue… Temperament is the iron wire on which the beads are strung.

William James, writing in The Principles of Psychology in 1890, sums it up perhaps best of all:

A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him.

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