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21 MAY, 2015

Montaigne on “Curation,” the Illusion of Originality, and How We Form Our Opinions

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“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

I often think of reading not as the acquisition of static knowledge but as the active springboard for thinking and dynamic contemplation — hence the combinatorial, LEGO-like nature of creativity, wherein we assemble building blocks of existing knowledge into new formations of understanding that we consider our original ideas. But long before our contemporary conceptions of how creativity works, French Renaissance polymath and proto-blogger Michel de Montaigne (February 28, 1533–September 13, 1592) articulated this magpielike quality of the mind, so very central to ideation.

In Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays (public domain; public library) — the same indispensable volume that gave us the great philosopher’s ideas on death and the art of living — he writes:

A competent reader often discovers in other men’s writings other perfections than the author himself either intended or perceived, a richer sense and more quaint expression.

Portrait of Michel de Montaigne by Salvador Dalí, 1947. Click image for details.

Half a millennium before Mark Twain proclaimed that “substantially all ideas are second-hand” and long before we drained the term “curation” of meaning by compulsive and indiscriminate application, Montaigne observed:

I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.

But what makes Montaigne’s meditation so incisive — and such an urgently necessary fine-tuning of how we think of “curation” today — is precisely the emphasis on the thread. This assemblage of existing ideas, he argues, is nothing without the critical thinking of the assembler — the essential faculty examining those ideas to sieve the meaningful from the meaningless, assimilating them into one’s existing system of knowledge, and metabolizing them to nurture a richer understanding of the world. Montaigne writes:

We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make it our own. We are in this very like him, who having need of fire, went to a neighbor’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any with him home… What good does it do us to have the stomach full of meat, if it do not digest, if it be not incorporated with us, if it does not nourish and support us?

Three centuries later, Thoreau — another of humanity’s most quotable and overquoted minds — made a similar point about the perils of mindlessly parroting the ideas of those who came before us, which produces only simulacra of truth. The mindful reflection and expansion upon existing ideas and views, on the other hand, is a wholly different matter — it is the path via which we arrive at more considered opinions of our own, cultivate our critical faculties, and inch closer to truth itself. Montaigne writes:

Aristotle ordinarily heaps up a great number of other men’s opinions and beliefs, to compare them with his own, and to let us see how much he has gone beyond them, and how much nearer he approaches to the likelihood of truth; for truth is not to be judged by the authority and testimony of others; which made Epicurus religiously avoid quoting them in his writings. This is the prince of all dogmatists, and yet we are told by him that the more we know the more we have room for doubt.

Complement Montaigne’s Complete Essays — a timeless trove of insight on such diverse facets of existence as happiness, education, fear, and the imagination — with his enduring wisdom on how to live and Salvador Dalí’s rare and whimsical illustrations for his essays.

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20 MAY, 2015

Anne Sexton’s Sensual Love Poem “Song for a Lady,” in an Animation Inspired by Oliver Sacks

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“So many doors open when you are present with an angle.”

“It is through [the] invisible holes in reality that poetry makes its way,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her sublime meditation on the art of the possible. Nothing gashes through reality more invisibly yet powerfully than love and nothing fills that rapturous rip more wholly than Anne Sexton’s 1969 volume Love Poems (public library) — a remarkable collection Sexton described as “a celebration of touch… physical and emotional touch,” published two years after she received the Pulitzer Prize.

In our second collaboration following a series of visual haikus based on Denise Levertov’s poetry, I asked the multidimensionally talented and thoughtful Montreal-based artist and musician Ohara Hale to bring to life my reading of Sexton’s “Song for a Lady” — one of the most bewitching and beautiful poems in the volume, and in any volume by any poet, celebrating the sensual love between two women.

Hale’s resulting animation, for which she composed an original score, is quite like poetry in that it distills the essence of a thing through an exquisite economy of form, using only line and perspective to channel an immensity of meaning.

SONG FOR A LADY

On the day of breasts and small hips
the window pocked with bad rain,
rain coming on like a minister,
we coupled, so sane and insane.
We lay like spoons while the sinister
rain dropped like flies on our lips
and our glad eyes and our small hips.

“The room is so cold with rain,” you said
and you, feminine you, with your flower
said novenas to my ankles and elbows.
You are a national product and power.
Oh my swan, my drudge, my dear wooly rose,
even a notary would notarize our bed
as you knead me and I rise like bread.

Hale’s concept, predicated on the mesmerism of angles, was inspired by legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks and his work on how the blind see the world. It sparked in her a fascination with how they construct a kaleidoscope of angularity, which led her to imagine how a dog is perceived not as a single dog but as a million dogs, each “seen” from a different angle. Many of the angles don’t resemble a “dog” in the pictorial sense but still contribute to the understanding of what a dog is.

This way of deconstructing the world into fragments and reconstructing them into a wholeness of understanding is so different from how we see via regular vision that, as Dr. Sacks so movingly wrote in The Mind’s Eye, the newly sighted are often utterly overwhelmed by having to process information in this new way and revert to “blindness,” closing their eyes and continuing to navigate the world scanning for angles.

Hale explains how this fascinating phenomenon planted the seed for her Sexton animation:

I love the idea of an unrecognized shape being called a “dog.” It doesn’t look like a dog, but it is a dog. If you look close enough you might see more than what you assume is in front of you.

Each frame is a piece of artwork to me. My favorite frames are the ones that look nothing like the object at hand, yet it is the object.

In this animation, we are looking at each angle of a swan, slowly. Sometimes, you may not recognize it at all; sometimes, you may. The lines are true and present and simple — inviting the viewer to appreciate each frame as its very own piece of art; to sit with it.

The swan, of course, is the object of this love poem. To love something is to truly love every angle, inside and out — the attractive and the unattractive, the familiar and the unfamiliar. To love something fully is to appreciate and understand each angle.

To me, this animation is an example of love, an experience of love, a viewpoint of love. So many doors open when you are present with an angle.

Like a poet, moving from the particular to the universal, Hale zooms out into a wider perspective on how our intimacy with all angles helps us swing open the doors of perception. She adds:

Life is made of many angles. It is important to investigate as many angles as you can. Perspectives. This is true in the physical world as it in the mental and spiritual world, too — true to all angles of existence.

If we approach life with this type of eyes, we can widen our perspective and see more: The more you can understand, the more you can love, the more compassion you have, and in a world of compassion, will you find peace. Suddenly, you find in the palm of your hand the entire universe — exactly where it has always been.

See more of Hale’s multidisciplinary magic here and inhale Sexton’s Love Poems in its full twenty-five-piece splendor, then re-appreciate how Dr. Sacks’s lifetime of compassionate curiosity forever changed our understanding of the human mind.

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20 MAY, 2015

How to Change Minds: Blaise Pascal on the Art of Persuasion

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“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.”

If it weren’t for the “backfire effect” — the strange psychological phenomenon behind our propensity for self-righteousness — changing people’s minds wouldn’t be such an uncomfortable luxury. One might even say that moving minds — our own as well as those of others — is among the most effortful labor there is.

Nearly half a millennium before modern psychologists identified the three elements of persuasion — attunement, buoyancy, and clarity — French physicist, philosopher, inventor, and mathematician Blaise Pascal (June 19, 1623–August 19, 1662) intuited this mechanism as he arrived at a great truth about the secret of persuasion: Pascal came to see that the surest way of defeating the erroneous views of others is not by bombarding the bastion of their self-righteousness but by slipping in through the backdoor of their beliefs.

In Pensées (free ebook | public library) — his foundational masterwork consisting of 923 fragmentary philosophical and theological meditations — Pascal examines the best strategy for changing people’s minds, distilling the art of persuasion to its essence:

When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.

Long before we invented psychology and learned to apply it in reverse, Pascal adds:

People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.

In a sentiment that David Foster Wallace would come to echo centuries later in his enduring definition of what makes a great leader, Pascal frames persuasion not as a factor of control but as something predicated first and foremost on empathy — on empathic insight into the context and concerns that animate the other person’s mind:

Eloquence … persuades by sweetness, not by authority… Eloquence is an art of saying things in such a way — (1) that those to whom we speak may listen to them without pain and with pleasure; (2) that they feel themselves interested, so that self-love leads them more willingly to reflection upon it.

It consists, then, in a correspondence which we seek to establish between the head and the heart of those to whom we speak on the one hand, and, on the other, between the thoughts and the expressions which we employ. This assumes that we have studied well the heart of man so as to know all its powers, and then to find the just proportions of the discourse which we wish to adapt to them. We must put ourselves in the place of those who are to hear us, and make trial on our own heart of the turn which we give to our discourse in order to see whether one is made for the other, and whether we can assure ourselves that the hearer will be, as it were, forced to surrender.

Ultimately, Pascal suggests, the art of persuasion by eloquence is not one that grants permission for prettifying falsehoods but one that invites the beauty of reality to reveal itself:

[Eloquence] requires the pleasant and the real; but the pleasant must itself be drawn from the true.

[…]

Eloquence is a painting of thought; and thus those who, after having painted it, add something more, make a picture instead of a portrait.

Pensées is rife with Pascal’s eloquent revelations about the human experience, exploring everything from morality to the myth of originality to the relationship between intuition and the intellect. Complement this particular except with contemporary psychology’s lens on why changing minds is so challenging, Daniel Pink on how to move people with integrity, and Kahlil Gibran’s breathtakingly beautiful poem about the absurdity of our self-righteousness.

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19 MAY, 2015

Arts of the Possible: Adrienne Rich on Writing, Capitalism, Freedom, and How Silence Fertilizes the Human Imagination

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“The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence.”

“When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” John F. Kennedy proclaimed in his piercing eulogy to Robert Frost, contemplating the artist’s role in society and urging us to “never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” More than three decades later, another of humanity’s greatest poets and custodians of dignity explored this enduring relationship between art, power, and truth more closely and dimensionally than anyone before or since.

The poet was Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) and the exploration a remarkable 1997 lecture that became the title piece in Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (public library) — the same anthology that gave us the spectacular letter with which Rich became the only person to decline the National Medal of Arts in one of creative culture’s most courageous acts of political dissent.

Rich begins by considering the perilous interplay of the market and the mind in capitalist culture:

We have become a pyramidic society of the omnivorously acquisitive few, an insecure, dwindling middle class, and a multiplying number of ill-served, throwaway citizens and workers [resulting in] a kind of public breakdown, with symptoms along a spectrum from acute self-involvement to extreme anxiety to individual and group violence.

Exactly two decades after E.F. Schumacher’s ennobling case for reimagining capitalist society to prioritize people over products and creativity over consumption, Rich laments “the self-congratulatory self-promotion of capitalism” around the world and considers “the corruptions of language employed to manage our perceptions of all this” — for, lest we forget, the space between words and their true meanings is vast and filled with the fog of confusion. She writes:

In the vocabulary kidnapped from liberatory politics, no word has been so pimped as freedom.

[…]

Capitalism presents itself as obedience to a law of nature, man’s “natural” and overwhelming predisposition toward activity that is competitive, aggressive, and acquisitive. Where capitalism invokes freedom, it means the freedom of capital. Where, in any mainstream public discourse, is this self-referential monologue put to the question?

Illustration by Anne Simon from Corinne Maier's graphic biography of Karl Marx. Click image for more.

Perhaps it is the poet in Rich most riled by this propagandic corruption of language — for what is a poet if not one who remedies “the feeling that the contemporary language is not equivalent to the contemporary fact”? But the legacy of this disconnect, Rich reminds us in a sentiment tenfold more urgent today, transcends the poetic and bleeds into the practicalities of civic life:

Our past is seeded in our present and is trying to become our future.

These concerns engage me as a citizen, feeling daily in my relationships with my fellow citizens the effects of a system based in the accumulation of wealth — the value against which all other values must justify themselves. We all feel these effects, almost namelessly, as we go about our individual lives…

But these are also my concerns as a poet, as the practitioner of an ancient and severely tested art. In a society in such extreme pain, I think these are any writer’s, any artist’s, concerns: the unnamed harm to human relationships, the blockage of inquiry, the oblique contempt with which we are depicted to ourselves and to others, in prevailing image making; a malnourishment that extends from the body to the imagination itself. Capital vulgarizes and reduces complex relations to a banal iconography.

Lamenting that terms like “consumers” and “baby boomers” feed the dual demon of contempt and self-contempt — one reduces people to their acquisition of commodities and the other “infantilizes and demeans an entire generation” — Rich examines how this collapse of language into shallowness impacts the artist’s responsibility to tussle with human relationships, which she has long considered the raw material of our private truths. She writes:

Any artist faces the necessity to explore, by whatever means, human relationships — which may or may not be perceived as political. But there are also, and always, the changing questions of the medium itself, the craft and its demands.

That craft, Rich argues, is honed in the sacred space of silence. In a sentiment that calls to mind Paul Goodman’s nine types of silence, she writes:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes its way — certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice any art at its deeper levels. The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence, and the first question we might ask any poem is, What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?

Although silence externally enforced, Rich notes, is a tool of oppression and censorship, silence willfully elected is a force of growth. She writes:

Silence … can be fertilizing, it can bathe the imagination, it can, as in great open spaces — I think of those plains stretching far below the Hopi mesas in Arizona — be the nimbus of a way of life, a condition of vision. Such living silences are more and more endangered throughout the world, by commerce and appropriation.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Echoing Wendell Berry’s conception of silence as a sanctuary where “one’s inner voices become audible [and], in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives,” Rich places the extinction of such fertilizing silence in its cultural context:

Even in conversation, here in North America, we who so eagerly unpack our most private concerns before strangers dread the imaginative space that silence might open between two people or within a group. Television, obviously, abhors such silence.

I am reminded here of a wonderful 19th-century guide to the art of conversation, which asserted that “the power of preserving silence is the very first requisite to all who wish to shine, or even please in discourse.” The writer, Rich argues, is one who honors the silence while creating a space for connection and conversation:

Whatever her or his social identity, the writer is, by the nature of the act of writing, someone who strives for communication and connection, someone who searches, through language, to keep alive the conversation with what Octavio Paz has called “the lost community.” Even if what’s written feels like a note thrust into a bottle to be thrown into the sea.

But the successful transmission of the bottle requires a benevolent sea, which brings us back to the political dimension of art as a technology of freedom. Rich captures the true measure of democracy:

The survival of a great diversity of books … depends on diverse interests having the means to make such books available.

It also means a nonelite but educated audience, a population who are literate, who read and talk to each other, who may be factory workers or bakers or bank tellers or paramedicals or plumbers or computer consultants or farmworkers, whose first language may be Croatian or Tagalog or Spanish or Vietnamese but who are given to critical thinking, who care about art, an intelligentsia beyond intellectual specialists.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451.' Click image for more.

Nearly three decades after James Baldwin remarked that the whole capitalist system “is standing on the back of some black miner in South Africa,” Rich considers the prerequisite for such a nonelitist, democratic landscape of thought and imagination:

If we are writers writing first of all from our own desire and need, if this is irresistible work for us, if in writing we experience certain kinds of power and freedom that may be unavailable to us in other ways — surely it would follow that we would want to make that kind of forming, shaping, naming, telling, accessible for anyone who can use it. It would seem only natural for writers to care passionately about literacy, public education, public libraries, public opportunities in all the arts. But more: if we care about the freedom of the word, about language as a liberatory current, if we care about the imagination, we will care about economic justice.

For the pull and suck of Capital’s project tend toward reducing, not expanding, overall human intelligence, wit, expressiveness, creative rebellion.

[…]

Writing and teaching are kinds of work, and the relative creative freedom of the writer or teacher depends on the conditions of human labor overall and everywhere.

For what are we, anyway, at our best, but one small, persistent cluster in a greater ferment of human activity — still and forever turning toward, tuned for, the possible, the unrealized and irrepressible design?

Arts of the Possible is a trove of lucid idealism in its entirety. Complement it with Rich on what “truth” really means, her superb 1977 commencement address on the real value of education, and her homage to Marie Curie.

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