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09 JULY, 2014

What Makes a Great City: E.B. White on the Poetics of New York

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“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.”

A great city is like a great love — it makes you feel closer to your own center, envelops you in its immutable and caring magic, and no matter how far from it you may travel, it always beckons you with steadfast, unshakable mesmerism.

But what makes a great city? Scholars, social scientists, and urban planners have pondered the question for centuries, pointing to everything from walkability to the social life of small urban spaces. And yet the most timeless answer is a poetic rather than a pragmatic one. From the 1949 gem Here Is New York (public library) — one of the best books about New York ever written, and undoubtedly one of the best books about anything — comes an exquisite articulation by E.B. White, who captures the singular mesmerism of Gotham and all the “enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute.”

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street, Manhattan. Photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1930s. Click image for more

In one of the most spectacular passages, he writes:

New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation; and better than most dense communities it succeeds in insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute. … New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a thousand-foot liner out of the East or a twenty-thousand-man convention out of the West) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants; so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul.

But White’s words also emanate the universal exhilaration of any large city that cajoles humanity into a state of constant interaction:

A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

Stone and William Street, Manhattan. Photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1930s. Click image for more

Here Is New York is a sublime read in its entirety, as “miraculously beautiful” itself as the city it serenades. Complement it with White’s moving obituary for his beloved dog Daisy and his beautiful letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity.

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09 JULY, 2014

Visionary Neurologist Oliver Sacks on What Hallucinations Reveal about How the Mind Works

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“We see with the eyes, but we see with the brain as well.”

While our delusions may keep us sane, hallucinations — defined as perceptions that arise independently of external reality, as when we see, hear, or sense things that aren’t really there — are an entirely different beast, a cognitive phenomenon that mimics mysticism and has no doubt inspired mystical tales over the millennia. In the 18th century, Swiss lawyer-turned-naturalist Charles Bonnet, the first scientist to use the term evolution in a biological context, turned to philosophy after deteriorating vision rendered him unable to perform the necessary observations of science. Blindness eventually gave him a special form of complex visual hallucinations, known today as Charles Bonnet syndrome, but he was otherwise fully lucid and marveled, as a cognitive scientist might, at “how the theater of the mind could be generated by the machinery of the brain.”

Some 250 years later, pioneering neurologist Oliver Sacks (b. July 9, 1933) — who has previously explored the necessary forgettings of creativity and how music impacts the mind — picked up Bonnet’s inquiry in his immeasurably fascinating book Hallucinations (public library). In this TED talk based on the book, Sacks draws on his extensive clinical experience of working with patients, illuminating that astounding “theater of the mind” to shed light on what hallucinations reveal about how the mind works.

We see with the eyes, but we see with the brain as well. And seeing with the brain is often called imagination. And we are familiar with the landscapes of our own imagination, our inscapes. We’ve lived with them all our lives. But there are also hallucinations as well, and hallucinations are completely different. They don’t seem to be of our creation. They don’t seem to be under our control. They seem to come from the outside, and to mimic perception.

In the book, Sacks offers a detailed definition of hallucinations, contrasting them with regular perception and peering into their promise for better understanding the brain and the human mind:

When the word “hallucination” first came into use, in the early sixteenth century, it denoted only “a wandering mind.” It was not until the 1830s that Jean-Étienne Esquirol, a French psychiatrist, gave the term its present meaning — prior to that, what we now call hallucinations were referred to simply as “apparitions.” Precise definitions of the word “hallucination” still vary considerably, considerably, chiefly because it is not always easy to discern where the boundary lies between hallucination, misperception, and illusion. But generally, hallucinations are defined as percepts arising in the absence of any external reality— seeing things or hearing things that are not there.

Perceptions are, to some extent, shareable — you and I can agree that there is a tree; but if I say, “I see a tree there,” and you see nothing of the sort, you will regard my “tree” as a hallucination, something concocted by my brain or mind, and imperceptible to you or anyone else. To the hallucinator, though, hallucinations seem very real; they can mimic perception in every respect, starting with the way they are projected into the external world.

[…]

When you conjure up ordinary images— of a rectangle, or a friend’s face, or the Eiffel Tower —the images stay in your head. They are not projected into external space like a hallucination, and they lack the detailed quality of a percept or a hallucination. You actively create such voluntary images and can revise them as you please. In contrast, you are passive and helpless in the face of hallucinations: they happen to you, autonomously — they appear and disappear when they please, not when you please.

[…]

Hallucinations are “positive” phenomena, as opposed to the negative symptoms, the deficits or losses caused by accident or disease, which neurology is classically based on. The phenomenology of hallucinations often points to the brain structures and mechanisms involved and can therefore, potentially, provide more direct insight into the workings of the brain.

Hallucinations, which goes on to explore how advances in neuroimagining in the last few decades have greatly enhanced our understanding of hallucinations and the brain, is a mind-bending read in its entirety. Complement it with Sacks on the psychology of plagiarism.

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09 JULY, 2014

Bohemians: A Graphic History of Creative Mavericks

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Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Josephine Baker, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, Thelonious Monk, and other creative mavericks of semi-subversive status.

Long before there were hipsters and squares, even before there were beatniks, there were Bohemians — named after Bohemia, a geographical area part of the modern Czech Republic, which mid-nineteenth-century French journalists mistakenly believed to be the source of Europe’s Roma population, the “gypsies” who symbolized carefree romanticism.

In Bohemians: A Graphic History (public library), editors Paul Buhle and David Berger assemble an all-star roster of contemporary comic artists — many familiar from the excellent Graphic Canon series — to trace back the origin of the Bohemian movement to the artist studios of 1850s Paris and celebrate its greatest luminaries from the century that followed. This graphic nonfiction counterpart to the story of Mark Twain’s West Coast Bohemia explores the worlds of literature, art, modern dance, jazz, and more through such cultural icons as Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass is celebrated as the greatest American poem, Henry Miller, “the Thoreau of Big Sur,” who bequeath us timeless wisdom on everything from creative discipline to growing old to the meaning of life, Oscar Wilde, whose opinions on art were as bold as were his romantic exploits, and Gertrude Stein, the Queen Bee of the literary expat community.

Buhle writes in the introduction:

Bohemians have occupied a semi-subversive status in modern society without being, in any consistent way, political-minded or even organized. The danger that they pose for the fretful of every generation since the 1850s is also the secret of their lasting appeal, in particular, to the disaffected and the young… They belong to no clear or certain social class, yet they continue to be the transgressive class.

Complement Bohemians: A Graphic History with more excellent graphic nonfiction on everything from Freud’s life and legacy to the inner workings of the brain to the unsung heroes of black history, as well as some excellent graphic biographies of Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, and Steve Jobs.

Images courtesy of Verso Books

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