Brain Pickings

Virginia Woolf on Why the Best Mind Is the Androgynous Mind

By:

“In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female… The androgynous mind is resonant and porous… naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.”

In addition to being one of the greatest writers and most expansive minds humanity ever produced, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) was also a woman of exceptional wisdom on such complexities of living as consciousness and creativity, the consolations of aging, how one should read a book, and the artist’s eternal dance with self-doubt.

So incisive was her insight into the human experience that, many decades before scientists demonstrated why “psychological androgyny” is essential to creativity, Woolf articulated this idea in a beautiful passage from her classic 1929 book-length essay A Room of One’s Own (public library).

A year after she subverted censorship and revolutionized the politics of gender identity with her novel Orlando, Woolf writes:

The mind is certainly a very mysterious organ … about which nothing whatever is known, though we depend upon it so completely. Why do I feel that there are severances and oppositions in the mind, as there are strains from obvious causes on the body? What does one mean by “the unity of the mind”? … Clearly the mind has so great a power of concentrating at any point at any moment that it seems to have no single state of being. It can separate itself from the people in the street, for example, and think of itself as apart from them, at an upper window looking down on them. Or it can think with other people spontaneously, as, for instance, in a crowd waiting to hear some piece of news read out.

Long before cognitive scientists were able to tell us exactly how the mind does this, Woolf concludes:

Clearly the mind is always altering its focus, and bringing the world into different perspectives.

Illustration from 'I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!,' a 1970 picture-book satirizing limiting gender norms. Click image for details.

Since male and female are the very first categories of experience into which we are placed as newborns and which continue to shape society’s expectations of us throughout our lives, the perspectives attached to each gendered experience are among the most profound and persistent sources of difference in human culture. But Woolf argues that the most fertile mental and spiritual landscape is one where there is ample cross-pollination between the two:

When I saw the couple get into the taxicab the mind felt as if, after being divided, it had come together again in a natural fusion. The obvious reason would be that it is natural for the sexes to co-operate. One has a profound, if irrational, instinct in favour of the theory that the union of man and woman makes for the greatest satisfaction, the most complete happiness. But the sight of the two people getting into the taxi and the satisfaction it gave me made me also ask whether there are two sexes in the mind corresponding to the two sexes in the body, and whether they also require to be united in order to get complete satisfaction and happiness? And I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain the woman predominates over the man. The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating. If one is a man, still the woman part of his brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her.

Illustration by Yang Liu from 'Man Meets Woman,' a pictogram critique of gender stereotypes. Click image for details.

Turning to Samuel Taylor Coleridge for ratification — “The truth is,” the celebrated poet and philosopher wrote in 1832, “a great mind must be androgynous.” — she adds:

Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine, I thought. But it would be well to test what one meant by man-womanly, and conversely by woman-manly, by pausing and looking at a book or two.

Coleridge … meant, perhaps, that the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided. In fact one goes back to Shakespeare’s mind as the type of the androgynous, of the man-womanly mind… And if it be true that it is one of the tokens of the fully developed mind that it does not think specially or separately of sex, how much harder it is to attain that condition now than ever before… No age can ever have been as stridently sex-conscious as our own…

A Room of One’s Own remains one of the most rewarding and rereadable books ever written. Complement this particular point of genius with Ursula K. Le Guin’s spectacular essay on being a man and the contemporary cognitive science of psychological androgyny, then revisit Woolf on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, the malady of middlebrow, her little-known children’s book, and the only surviving recording of her voice.

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.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

How We Elevate Each Other: Viktor Frankl on the Human Spirit and Why Idealism Is the Best Realism

By:

“If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we overestimate him … we promote him to what he really can be.”

Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl (March 26, 1905–September 2, 1997) is a timeless testament to the luminous tenacity of the human spirit. His 1946 psychological memoir Man’s Search for Meaning (public library) is one of the most vital books ever written, and one of the most vitalizing one could ever read — a wealth of insight on how to persevere through troubled times and what it means to live fully.

In this 1972 lecture footage, brimming with his humble wisdom and disarming wit, Frankl makes a beautiful case for believing in each other and viewing the human spirit with hope rather than cynicism:

If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we overestimate him … we promote him to what he really can be. So we have to be idealists, in a way — because then we wind up as the true, the real realists.

Complement with Frankl’s indispensable Man’s Search for Meaning, then see another great champion of the human spirit echo the same ennobling sentiment: Isaac Asimov on choosing optimism over cynicism.

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.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Outstanding in the Rain: A Die-Cut Adventure in Words and Meaning

By:

How to turn an ice man into a nice man.

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf asserted in the only surviving recording of her voice, and out of that belonging sometimes spring miraculous surprises. In Outstanding in the Rain (public library), illustrator, graphic designer, and MTA subway artist Frank Viva takes us on a trip to Coney Island — but it is no ordinary trip. Rather, it’s a most unusual adventure in wordplay and meaning.

Partway between Italian graphic designer Bruno Munari’s pioneering vintage “interactive” picture-books, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer’s mashup masterwork Tree of Codes, and Indian artist Ramsingh Urveti’s imaginative die-cut adaptation of a 17th-century trick poem, the story — sweet, warm, and just the right amount of mischievous — is punctuated by cleverly placed die-cut holes through which one word peeks into another as the narrative progresses. Each turn of the page delights with its unexpected twist of word-wielding and meaning-morphing.

At its heart is a wondrous celebration of words and how we arrange those strange symbols called letters to make sense of the world and how that sense changes when we rearrange those symbols even slightly — something that calls to mind the unusual alphabet book Take Away the A. And yet, conceptual parallels and influences aside, Viva’s work is wholly original in both style and sensibility — vibrant and honest and full of joy.

Complement Outstanding in the Rain with the die-cut wonder I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tale.

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.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Chinua Achebe Reads His Little-Known Poems

By:

“We called him visionary missionary revolutionary and, you know, all the other naries that plague the peace…”

Although Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930–March 21, 2013) is one of the greatest writers of the past century and his 1958 debut novel Things Fall Apart is still the single most widely read book in African literature, few people are familiar with his lesser-known yet no less powerful poetry — so much so, that Achebe himself joked in a 1998 lecture at Portland’s Literary Arts that there is a conspiracy theory against his poetry. (Achebe’s ardent love of poetry dates back to the dawn of his career as a writer — the title of his magnum opus is borrowed from a line in Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.”)

In this edited excerpt from his nearly two-hour Literary Arts lecture, Achebe reads three of his poems, later published in the 2004 anthology Collected Poems (public library).

Complement with Achebe on the meaning of life and the writer’s responsibility to society, then treat yourself to other beautiful recordings of authors readings their own work: Mary Oliver, Sylvia Plath, Denise Levertov, Frank O’Hara, Susan Sontag, T.S. Eliot, Dorianne Laux, Maya Angelou, Seamus Heaney, and Dorothy Parker.

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.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.