Brain Pickings

Borges on Public Opinion, Literature vs. the Other Arts, and the True Measure of Success

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“When you come right down to it, opinions are the most superficial things about anyone.”

Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14 1986) is among humanity’s most beloved and influential writers. His work has inspired mathematical revelations, philosophical children’s books, and a universe of literature. After his death, Susan Sontag commemorated him in the most beautiful homage in the history of letters.

In 1972, in his seventies and already completely blind, Borges agreed to meet with a young Argentinian writer and passionate reader named Fernando Sorrentino for a series of conversations. On seven afternoons, the two men, separated by more than forty years and united by a profound love of literature, sat down in a secluded room at the National Library of Argentina and conversed candidly about literature and life. The record of these revelatory encounters, offering the most direct glimpse of the beloved author’s mind, was published as Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges (public library) in 1974 — the same magnificent volume that gave us Borges’s enduring wisdom on writing.

In one of the most timeless yet intensely timely portions of the conversation, Borges examines the question of success and its true measures through the lens of his extraordinary artistic integrity and cultural insight. When asked whether he cares about the opinions of readers and spectators, he considers the difference between literature and other arts:

It’s possible that a book won’t attract any attention when it’s published; it may be discovered afterward. On the other hand, in the case of a film (and this makes everything more dramatic; the same thing happens, let’s say, with the dancer’s or performer’s art), the failure or success has to be immediate… I think the circumstance of a hall filled with people in itself creates a special atmosphere.

Literature and fine art seem to share this time-scale of success, quite different from that of the popular and performance arts. One wonders whether Borges thought of his younger sister, Norah, in contemplating this question of latent recognition — while she was an enormously prolific graphic artist during her life, it was only after her death that she came to be celebrated as a pioneer of modern art.

Art by Norah Borges. Click image for more.

With an eye to the psychology of crowds, he adds:

When people join in a group they react in a more exaggerated way; this is something you must have noticed very often. For instance, if someone tells a joke in a small group, people laugh, but they don’t laugh in the same way that five hundred or a thousand people laugh when they hear a joke in a play or a movie. That is, there’s a tendency to greater exaggeration, a tendency for everything to happen in a more emphatic manner. And it’s strange, the fact that people let themselves go more when they’re in a group. On the other hand, a solitary reader, a solitary spectator, seems to have less of a reaction or to react more modestly than when with other people.

[…]

The solitary reading of a work is best for its true evaluation. But at any rate, it’s a different kind of evaluation.

Art by Norah Borges. Click image for more.

Returning to the travesty of evaluation by popular opinion — something Kierkegaard lamented and Georgia O’Keeffe admonished against — Borges observes:

When you come right down to it, opinions are the most superficial things about anyone.

In a sentiment triply poignant today, nearly half a century of commercialism later, Borges considers how the commodification of literature has warped its metrics of success:

It’s possible that the fact that literature has been commercialized now in a way it never was before has had an influence. That is, the fact that people now talk about “bestsellers,” that fashion has an influence (something that didn’t use to happen). I remember that when I began to write, we never thought about the success or failure of a book. What’s called “success” now didn’t exist at that time. And what’s called “failure” was taken for granted. One wrote for oneself and, maybe, as Stevenson used to say, for a small group of friends. On the other hand, one now thinks of sales. I know there are writers who publicly announce they’ve had their fifth, sixth, or seventh edition released and that they’ve earned such and such an amount of money. All that would have appeared totally ridiculous when I was a young man; it would have appeared incredible. People would have thought that a writer who talks about what he earns on his books is implying: “I know what I write is bad but I do it for financial reasons or because I have to support my family.” So I view that attitude almost as a form of modesty. Or of plain foolishness.

Art by Norah Borges. Click image for more.

This resonates with Borges’s earlier remark about the different time-scales of appreciation for literature versus more commercial arts like film and popular music. The notion of the “bestseller” shares cultural genes with the “blockbuster” and the “hit” — notice how very violent our laudatory language tends to be — and yet the success of literature, Borges suggests and countless other writers have corroborated, is measured by an entirely different metric of inner light.

Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges is a magnificent read in its entirety. Complement it with more of the beloved writer’s wisdom on writing and a marvelous children’s book inspired by his ideas about memory, then revisit Thoreau on defining your own success.

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Every Person in New York, Illustrated

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From sleeping strangers to subway cellists to Nick Cave, a loving portrait of a city whose vibrant vitality never stands still.

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” E.B. White wrote in his timeless love letter to New York, adding: “The city is like poetry.” In 2008, illustrator Jason Polan set out to capture the enormous human poetics compressed in Gotham’s geographic smallness by drawing every person in the city. The first seven years of this ongoing project, totaling drawings of 30,000 people, are now collected in Every Person in New York (public library) — a marvelous tome of Polan’s black-and-white line drawings, colored in with the intense aliveness of a city where, as White wrote more than half a century earlier, “wonderful events that are taking place every minute.” What emerges is itself a kind of poetry — fragmentary glimpses of ideas and images, commanded by an internal rhythm to paint a complete whole of this human hive.

Alongside the lively jumble of faces at Grand Central and the staple of sleeping strangers on just about every train line and the taxi drivers and the subway cellists and the many, many Taco Bell patrons (a recurring locale that tells us something about Polan’s own habitual affections) are some of the city’s most beloved public figures — there’s Marina Abramović performing her now-legendary The Artist Is Present show at the Museum of Modern art, Nick Cave at the Armory, Don DeLillo at Grand Central, Marc Jacobs in Soho, and Joan Didion walking, allotted an entire page in a subtle act of reverence.

Here and there, snippets of overheard conversation invite us to cast these anonymous citizens as characters in imaginary dramas that, however fanciful, might just be true — this, after all, is New York.

The seed for the project was planted many years earlier: While still in art school in Ann Arbor, Polan did a project titled I Want to Know All of You, in which he drew every single person in the school, offered the portraits for $10 each at a local gallery, and gave the $10 to the schoolmate whose likeness the drawing depicted. Eventually, Polan took to a canvas decidedly larger than the 800-person college and approached the whole of New York City with the same creative curiosity, openheartedness, and generosity of spirit.

Polan describes the aliveness of his process:

I try to be as authentic with the drawings as I can. I only draw the person while I can see them. The majority of the drawings are done (mostly) while looking at the person, not at the paper. If they are moving fast, the drawing is often very simple. If they move or get up from a pose, I cannot cheat at all by filling in a leg that has been folded or an arm pointing. This is why some of the people in the drawings might have an extra arm or leg — it had moved while I was drawing them. I think, hope, this makes the drawings better.

His selection criteria are just as organic and wholehearted:

I do not usually plan to make a drawing for this project. Sometimes I’ll go to an event to see a particular person and will know then that I want to draw them, but often the drawings happen completely randomly… I’m not looking for anything in particular, but as I think about it, I usually draw people if they: have an interesting haircut; are leaning a certain way; are a little kid who is doing something funny while wandering down the street with their mom; are playing an accordion; have a certain curve to their arm; are holding something interesting; have an interesting jaw line or lines in their neck; are particularly tall; were in the television show The West Wing; look like a nice person; are sleeping, eating, or focused on something; remind me of someone; or if I like the lines in their hands. These (and other traits that pop up every day) are certain things I find that I’m so excited to see and draw and share.

At the end of his introduction, Polan adds: “I hope you are in this book.” And, lo and behold:

Complement the wholly delightful Every Person in New York, a labor of love seven years in the making, with a similarly spirited yet decidedly different portrait of another city’s humanity, Wendy MacNaughton’s Meanwhile, in San Francisco, then revisit this charming illustrated tour of Gotham from a dog’s point of view.

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Simone Weil on the Paradox of Friendship and Separation

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“It is a fault to wish to be understood before we have made ourselves clear to ourselves.”

Friendship is one of life’s greatest graces, and yet we hardly understand the gossamer threads of sympathy and love by which it binds us together. C.S. Lewis likened it to philosophy, art, and the universe itself in that “it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” Aristotle saw it as a mirror we hold up to one another. For Emerson, it was the product of truth and tenderness. John O’Donohue found its essence in the ancient Celtic notion of anam cara. For David Whyte, it is “a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness.”

One of the most profound meditations on friendship comes from French philosopher Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943), a woman of immense insight on such complexities as how to make use of our suffering and what it takes to be a complete human being.

In the indispensable Gravity and Grace (public library) — which also gave us Weil on attention as a form of prayer — she writes:

It is a fault to wish to be understood before we have made ourselves clear to ourselves.

[…]

To desire friendship is a great fault. Friendship should be a gratuitous joy like those afforded by art or life. We must refuse it so that we may be worthy to receive it; it is of the order of grace. It is one of those things which are added unto us. Every dream of friendship deserves to be shattered… Friendship is not to be sought, not to be dreamed, not to be desired; it is to be exercised (it is a virtue).

[…]

Friendship cannot be separated from reality any more than the beautiful. It is a miracle, like the beautiful. And the miracle consists simply in the fact that it exists.

In keeping with this Zen-like notion, Weil argues that the sympathetic communion of friendship is a complement, not a counterpoint, to our essential capacity for solitude:

Keep your solitude… When you are given true affection there will be no opposition between interior solitude and friendship, quite the reverse.

But Weil’s most striking stance of friendship bridged the philosophical with the practical — the very survival of her ideas is the direct product of friendship.

In June of 1941, when the antisemitic laws of the Nazi administration barred her from teaching philosophy at the University, Weil decided to work on a farm in the country for the same reason she had labored incognito at a car factory some years earlier — to better understand the human experience and its most trying dimensions. A friend of Weil’s introduced her to a farmer named Gustave Thibon, six years her senior, who she hoped would take her on as a worker. (“Farm work is one of the best jobs for getting to know people as they really are,” young Sylvia Plath wrote just a few years later.)

Gustave Thibon

In the introduction to Gravity and Grace, Thibon — who eventually became a philosopher himself and lived to be ninety-seven, outliving Weil by nearly six decades — recounts his initial skepticism:

I am a little suspicious of graduates in philosophy, and so for intellectuals who want to return to the land, I am well enough acquainted with them to know that, with a few rare exceptions, they belong to that order of ranks whose undertakings generally come to a bad end. My first impulse was therefore to refuse.

Still, he relented and took a chance on this earnest young woman. The relationship, Thibon writes, was “friendly but uncomfortable” at first and the two “disagreed on practically everything.” But he soon came to see that Weil was indeed one of those rare exceptions — her combination of sincerity, goodwill, and genius won him over and the two developed a deep friendship that outlasted Weil’s weeks on the farm.

In 1942, as the Nazi occupation drove Weil out of her homeland and she reluctantly headed to New York, Thibon met her at the train station. She handed him a giant portfolio of her papers with the instruction of taking care of them during her exile. And so he did, binding them with the thread of friendship into a lasting volume of ideas that continue to ennoble and illuminate long after Weil’s untimely death — Thibon curated her writings for posterity, in the truest sense of the word, which has its roots in the Latin cura, “to care for.”

In a letter to Thibon, included in his book Simone Weil as We Knew Her, Weil writes from America:

The joy of meeting and the sorrow of separation … we should welcome these gifts … with our whole soul, and experience to the full, and with the same gratitude, all the sweetness or bitterness as the case may be. Meeting and separation are two forms of friendship that contain the same good, in the one case through pleasure and in the other through sorrow… Soon there will be distance between us. Let us love this distance which is wholly woven of friendship, for those who do not love each other are not separated.

In the introduction to Gravity and Grace, Thibon shares another 1942 letter from Weil, which further speaks to her idealism about friendship:

Dear Friend,

It seems as though the time has now really come for us to say goodbye to each other… Human existence is so fragile a thing and exposed to such dangers that I cannot love without trembling.

[…]

I also like to think that after the slight shock of separation you will not feel any sorrow … and that if you should sometimes happen to think of me you will do so as one thinks of a book one read in childhood. I do not want ever to occupy a different place from that in the hearts of those I love, because then I can be sure of never causing them any unhappiness.

A few months later, Weil left for England, where she died on August 24, 1943, at the age of only thirty-four. Her ideas, collected in Gravity and Grace, endure as the book one is always reading in childhood — that is, in the sincerest, truest, most ennobled part of the psyche.

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Buckminster Fuller’s Brilliant Metaphor for the Greatest Key to Transformation and Growth

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“What you do with yourself, just the little things you do yourself, these are the things that count.”

“The only transformation that interests me is a total transformation — however minute,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. It’s a sentiment both paradoxical and profound — we tend to think of the total and the minute as polarities, and yet any total transformation is the product of a series of minute, purposeful shifts. That, after all, is the transformative power of habit.

No one has articulated the machinery of transformation more succinctly and powerfully than architect, inventor, and philosopher Buckminster Fuller (July 12, 1895–July 1, 1983) — a man of timeless wisdom and prescience so extraordinary that he envisioned online education, TED, and Pandora decades before these ideas became a reality.

Buckminster Fuller, 1978 (Photograph: Fred Blocher courtesy of Stanford Libraries)

Fuller, who served in the U.S. Navy during WWI, offers a brilliant naval metaphor for how we transmute the minute into the momentous in transformation and growth, both as individuals and as a society. In an altogether fantastic 1972 Playboy interview, Fuller introduces the “trim tab” — a small mechanism that helps stabilize an enormous ship or aircraft — which would became a central metaphor in his philosophy.

In response to the interviewer’s question about how we can live with “a sense of the individual’s impotence to affect events, to improve or even influence our own welfare, let alone that of society,” Fuller offers his magnificent metaphor:

Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Elizabeth — the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, “Call me Trim Tab.”

The truth is that you get the low pressure to do things, rather than getting on the other side and trying to push the bow of the ship around. And you build that low pressure by getting rid of a little nonsense, getting rid of things that don’t work and aren’t true until you start to get that trim-tab motion. It works every time. That’s the grand strategy you’re going for. So I’m positive that what you do with yourself, just the little things you do yourself, these are the things that count. To be a real trim tab, you’ve got to start with yourself, and soon you’ll feel that low pressure, and suddenly things begin to work in a beautiful way. Of course, they happen only when you’re dealing with really great integrity.

When Fuller died a decade later, this ethos was inscribed into his gravestone.

Buckminster Fuller's gravestone at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts

The trim tab metaphor was subsequently appropriated (regrettably, without attribution to Fuller) by Stephen R. Covey in one of his books and expanded upon (with proper attribution) by Rabbi Rami Shapiro in his book Recovery: The Sacred Art (public library).

Complement with Emerson on our resistance to change and the key to personal growth, then revisit Fuller’s scientific revision of the Lord’s Prayer and his manifesto for the genius of generalists.

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