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Hipsters and Squares: Psychologist Jerome Bruner on Myth, Identity, “Creative Wholeness” and How We Limit Our Happiness

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How our cult of creativity, which replaced religion, is becoming a source of anguish rather than happiness.

Today, we hang so much of our identity on our capacity to create, often confusing what we do for who we are. And while creativity, by and large, is a positive force in the external world, its blind pursuit can be damaging to the inner. So admonishes the influential Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (b. October 1, 1915), celebrated for his contributions to cognitive psychology and learning theory in education, in his altogether fantastic 1962 anthology On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (public library) — the same wonderful collection of essays that gave us Bruner’s theory of “effective surprise” and the 6 essential conditions for creativity. One of the essays, titled “Myth and Identity,” explores precisely that relationship between our modern myths, which shape our beliefs about creativity and happiness, and our often conflicted sense of identity.

Bruner begins with some essential definitions:

Myth … is at once an external reality and the resonance of the internal vicissitudes of man.

But while he acknowledges that the central function of myth is “to effect some manner of harmony between the literalities of experience and the night impulses of life,” Bruner cautions against assuming an opposition of the two — of “the grammar of experience and the grammar of myth” — as they are complementary rather than clashing, something best manifested in the relationship between myth and personality. Bruner writes:

Consider first myth as projection, to use the conventional psychoanalytic term. I would prefer the term “externalization” better to make clear that we are dealing here with … the human preference to cope with events that are outside rather than inside. Myth, insofar as it is fitting, provides a ready-made means of externalizing human plight by embodying and representing them in storied plot and characters.

Externalizing our inner life in such a way, Bruner argues, provides a “basis for communion” among us:

By the subjectifying of our worlds through externalization, we are able, paradoxically enough, to share communally in the nature of internal experience.

Jerome Bruner (Photograph: B.F. Herzog)

It also enables us to work through our inner turmoils in a unique way, something Adam Phillips echoed more than half a century later in reflecting on the parallels between psychoanalysis and storytelling. Bruner puts it elegantly as he considers the defining psychic malady of our time:

If one is to contain the panicking spread of anxiety, one must be able to identify and put a comprehensible label upon one’s feelings better to treat them again, better to learn from experience… Myth, perhaps, serves in place of or as a filter for experiences.

[…]

What is the art form of myth? Principally it is drama; yet for all its concern with preternatural forces and characters, it is realistic drama that … tells of “origins and destinies”… Knowing through art has the function of connecting through metaphor what before had no apparent kinship [and] the art form of the myth connects the daemonic world of impulse with the world of reason by a verisimilitude that conforms to each.

Considering the early myths — those of Ancient Greece and the Christian tradition — Bruner points to two key mythic plots that emerge in the struggle to give shape to our experiences: “the plot of innocence and the plot of cleverness.” But modernity, he argues, has thrown into tumult both ideals, resulting in an “internal clamor of identities” that ends up threatening our happiness and our capacity for creative fulfillment.

Illustration from 'The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Giant Golden Book' by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for details.

In one particularly prescient passage, Bruner writes:

In our own time, in the American culture, there is a deep problem generated by the confusion that has befallen the myth of the happy [person]… We are no longer a “mythologically instructed community.” And so one finds a new generation struggling to find or to create a satisfactory and challenging mythic image.

Two such images seem to be emerging in the new generation. One is that of the hipsters and the squares; the other is the idealization of creative wholeness. The first is the myth of the uncommitted wandering hero, capable of the hour’s subjectivity — its “kicks” — participating in a new inwardness. It is the theme of reduction to the essential persona, the hero able to filter out the clamors of an outside world, an almost masturbatory ideal.

Bruner points to the original “hipsters” and notes the similarity between the mythmaking of real-life identity and that of character in fiction:

It is not easy to create a myth and to emulate it at the same time. James Dean and Jack Kerouac, Kingsley Amis and John Osborne, the Teddy Boys and the hipsters: they do not make a mythological community. They represent mythmaking in process as surely as Hemingway’s characters or Scott Fitzgerald’s.

Bruner considers one especially toxic and limiting myth — that of “the full creative [person],” a notion all the more zealously pursued in our present age of endless creativity conferences, spiritual retreats for corporate executives, and workplaces that seek to disguise a cubicle farm as a hybrid of playground and university. Bruner describes the ancestry of our modern condition:

It is … the middle-aged executive sent back to the university by the company for a year, wanting humanities and not sales engineering; it is this man telling you that he would rather take life classes Saturday morning at the museum school than be president of the company; it is the adjectival extravaganza of the word “creative,” as in “creative advertising.” It is as if, given the demise of the myths of creation and their replacement by a scientific cosmogony that for all its formal beauty lacks metaphoric force, the theme of creating becomes internalized, creating anguish rather than, as in the externalized myths, providing a basis for psychic relief and sharing. Yet this self-contained image of creativity becomes, I think, the basis for a myth of happiness. But perhaps between the death of one myth and the birth of its replacement there must be a reinternalization, even to the point of [a cult of the ego]. That we cannot yet know. All that is certain is that we live in a period of mythic confusion that may provide the occasion for a new growth of myth, myth more suitable for our times.

One is left wondering whether our present time is one of reconciliation or of even greater “mythic confusion.”

On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand is a magnificent read in its entirety, further exploring questions of creativity, identity, metaphor, and the role of art in the human experience. Complement with Maya Angelou on the internalization of identity.

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19-Year-Old Sylvia Plath on the Transcendent Simplicity and Reverence of Nature

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“No matter what the ideas or conduct of others, there is a unique rightness and beauty to life which can be shared in openness, in wind and sunlight, with a fellow human being who believes in the same basic principles.”

Carl Sagan believed that nature itself is a source of spiritual awe. Alan Lightman captured this beautifully in his account of a secular transcendent experience. And yet it’s not the scientists but the poets and writers who are best able to capture that sense of earthly reverence, from Virginia Woolf’s intoxicating account of visiting Stonehenge to Hans Christian Andersen’s chronicle of climbing Vesuvius.

From The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library) — the same volume that gave us the young poet’s exuberant celebration of curiosity and life and her thoughts on life, death, hope and happiness — comes an achingly beautiful meditation on the transcendent simplicity of nature, spurred by the feeling awakened in Plath by “an anonymous part of the Massachusetts coastline.”

In July of 1951, a few months before her 19th birthday, she writes in her diary:

On a relatively unfrequented, stony beach there is a great rock which juts out over the sea. After a climb, an ascent from one jagged foothold to another, a natural shelf is reached where one person can stretch at length, and stare down into the tide rising and falling below, or beyond to the bay, where sails catch light, then shadow, then light, as they tack far out near the horizon. The sun has burned these rocks, and the great continuous ebb and flow of the tide has crumbled the boulders, battered them, worn them down to the smooth sun-scalded stones on the beach which rattle and shift underfoot as one walks over them. A serene sense of the slow inevitability of the gradual changes in the earth’s crust comes over me; a consuming love, not of a god, but of the clean unbroken sense that the rocks, which are nameless, the waves which are nameless, the ragged grass, which is nameless, are all defined momentarily through the consciousness of the being who observes them. With the sun burning into rock and flesh, and the wind ruffling grass and hair, there is an awareness that the blind immense unconscious impersonal and neutral forces will endure, and that the fragile, miraculously knit organism which interprets them, endows them with meaning, will move about for a little, then falter, fail, and decompose at last into the anonomous [sic] soil, voiceless, faceless, without identity.

From this experience I emerged whole and clean, bitten to the bone by sun, washed pure by the icy sharpness of salt water, dried and bleached to the smooth tranquillity that comes from dwelling among primal things.

From this experience also, a faith arises to carry back to a human world of small lusts and deceitful pettiness. A faith, naïve and child like perhaps, born as it is from the infinite simplicity of nature. It is a feeling that no matter what the ideas or conduct of others, there is a unique rightness and beauty to life which can be shared in openness, in wind and sunlight, with a fellow human being who believes in the same basic principles.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath is a sublime read in its entirety. Complement it with Plath’s little-known drawings, her verses for kids illustrated by Quentin Blake, and her moving reading of “A Birthday Present.”

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Shonda Rhimes on Dreaming vs. Doing, the Tradeoffs of Success, and the Blinders of Entitlement

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“You want to be a writer? A writer is someone who writes every day — so start writing.”

By far the finest 2014 addition to the greatest commencement addresses of all time comes from Dartmouth College and Golden Globe-winning television writer and producer Shonda Rhimes, creator of some of the most acclaimed scripted dramas of the past decade. Rhimes, who graduated from Dartmouth herself in 1991, is in admirable company — the only other alums to ever give a commencement address at the university are Robert Frost and Mr. Rogers. Rather than regurgitating the usual commencement cliches, Rhimes offers honest, no-bullshit advice on what it takes to succeed (“Dreams do not come true just because you dream them — it’s hard work that makes things happen… Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer.”), why most middle-class millennials’ complaints are a failure of perspective (“Hard is relative… I’m allowed to own my freedom, my rights, my voice, and my uterus… Elsewhere in the world, girls are harmed simply because they want to get an education, slavery still exists, children still die from malnutrition.”), and how the choices we make around the priorities we set come with inevitable tradeoffs (“That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother… Anyone who tells you they are doing it all perfectly is a liar.”). Hardly anyone has addressed the winding road of success with more lucidity since Bill Watterson in 1990, nor resilience with more measured assurance since Neil Gaiman in 2012, nor women with cooler conviction since Adrienne Rich in 1977.

Treat yourself to this gem of a talk — transcribed highlights below.

Rhimes reminds graduates that grit, work ethic and dogged dedication, not dreaming, is what sets apart those who succeed from those who dwindle in disappointment:

When people give these kinds of speeches, they usually tell you all kinds of wise and heartfelt things. They have wisdom to impart. They have lessons to share. They tell you: Follow your dreams. Listen to your spirit. Change the world. Make your mark. Find your inner voice and make it sing. Embrace failure. Dream. Dream and dream big. As a matter of fact, dream and don’t stop dreaming until all of your dreams come true.

I think that’s crap.

I think a lot of people dream. And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, engaged, powerful people, are busy doing.

The dreamers — they stare at the sky and they make plans and they hope and they talk about it endlessly… The buttoned-up ones meet for cocktails and they brag about their dreams, and the hippie ones have vision boards and they meditate about their dreams. Maybe you write in journals about your dreams or discuss it endlessly with your best friend or your girlfriend or your mother. And it feels really good. You’re talking about it, and you’re planning it. Kind of. You are blue-skying your life. And that is what everyone says you should be doing. Right? I mean, that’s what Oprah and Bill Gates did to get successful, right?

No.

Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams — fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them — it’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change. So… ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer.

Maybe you know exactly what it is you dream of being, or maybe you’re paralyzed because you have no idea what your passion is. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring and dreams are not real. Just do.

So you think, “I wish I could travel.” Great. Sell your crappy car, buy a ticket to Bangkok, and go. Right now. I’m serious. You want to be a writer? A writer is someone who writes every day — so start writing. You don’t have a job? Get one. Any job. Don’t sit at home waiting for the magical opportunity… Do something until you can do something else.

Rhimes puts things in perspective in a beautiful way that humbles — which is a fine but palpable line away from shaming, the cultural trope these days — millennials out of their tendency for entitlement:

Tomorrow is going to be the worst day ever for you. But don’t be an asshole. Here’s the thing. Yes, it is hard out there. But hard is relative.

I come from a middle-class family, my parents are academics, I was born after the civil rights movement, I was a toddler during the women’s movement, I live in the United States of America — all of which means I’m allowed to own my freedom, my rights, my voice, and my uterus. And I went to Dartmouth and I earned an Ivy League degree. The lint in my navel that accumulated while I gazed at it as I suffered from feeling lost about how hard it was to not feel special after graduation… That navel lint was embarrassed for me.

Elsewhere in the world, girls are harmed simply because they want to get an education, slavery still exists, children still die from malnutrition. In this country, we lose more people to handgun violence than any other nation in the world. Sexual assault against women in America is pervasive and disturbing and continues at an alarming rate.

So, yes, tomorrow may suck for you, as it did for me.

But as you stare at the lint in your navel, have some perspective. We are incredibly lucky. We have been given a gift… Now it’s time to pay it forward.

Addressing the graduating women and men (because “fatherhood is being redefined at a lightning-fast rate”), Rhimes speaks candidly about the inconvenient truth of a tradeoff — a truth that doesn’t exactly make for marketable books but reveals, instead, one of the most profound paradoxes of modern life:

As you try to figure out the impossible task of juggling work and family, [you will] hear over and over and over again that you just need a lot of help or you just need to be organized or you just need to try just a little bit harder… As a very successful woman, a single mother of three, who constantly gets asked the question “How do you do it all?,” for once I am going to answer that question with 100% honesty here for you now — because it’s just us… Because somebody has to tell you the truth.

“Shonda, how do you do it all?”

The answer is this: I don’t.

Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another area of my life. If I am killing it on a Scandal script for work, I am probably missing bath and story time at home. If I am at home sewing my kids’ Halloween costumes, I’m probably blowing off a rewrite I was supposed to turn in. If I am accepting a prestigious award, I am missing my baby’s first swim lesson. If I am at my daughter’s debut in her school musical, I am missing Sandra Oh’s last scene ever being filmed at Grey’s Anatomy.

If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the tradeoff. That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother.

You never feel a hundred percent okay. You never get your sea legs — you are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost, something is always missing.

And yet.

I want my daughters to see me and know me as a woman who works. I want that example set for them. I like how proud they are when they come to my offices and know that they come to Shondaland. There is a land, and it is named after their mother. In their world, mothers run companies. In their world, mothers own Thursday nights. In their world, mothers work — and I am a better mother for it. The woman I am because I get to run Shondaland, because I get write all day, because I get to spend my days making things up, that woman is a better person — and a better mother — because that woman is happy, that woman is fulfilled, that woman is whole.

I wouldn’t want them to know the me who didn’t get to do this all day long. I wouldn’t want them to know the me who wasn’t doing.

So… anyone who tells you they are doing it all perfectly is a liar.

For more spectacular commencement addresses, see Kurt Vonnegut on kindness and the power of great teachers, Anna Quindlen on the essentials of a happy life, Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, George Saunders on the power of kindness, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Patti Smith on life and making a name for yourself, and Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life.

via @lenadunham

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