Brain Pickings

Ursula K. Le Guin on Being a Man

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A journey to where the semicolon meets the soul.

Who are we when we, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s enduring words, “are together with no one but ourselves”? However much we might exert ourselves on learning to stop letting others define us, the definitions continue to be hurled at us — definitions predicated on who we should be in relation to some concrete or abstract other, some ideal, some benchmark beyond the boundaries of who we already are.

One of the most important authors of our time, Ursula K. Le Guin has influenced such celebrated literary icons as Neil Gaiman and Salman Rushdie. At her best — and to seek the “best” in an altogether spectacular body of work seems almost antithetical — she blends anthropology, social psychology, and sheer literary artistry to explore complex, often difficult subjects with remarkable grace. Subjects, for instance, like who we are and what gender really means as we — men, women, ungendered souls — try to inhabit our constant tussle between inner and outer, individual and social, private and performative. This is what Le Guin examines in an extraordinary essay titled “Introducing Myself,” which Le Guin first wrote as a performance piece in the 1980s and later updated for the beautifully titled, beautifully written, beautifully wide-ranging 2004 collection The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library). To speak of a subject so common by birth and so minced by public discourse in a way that is completely original and completely compelling is no small feat — in fact, it is the kind of feat of writing Jack Kerouac must have had in mind when he contemplated the crucial difference between genius and talent.

Le Guin writes:

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter… I predate the invention of women by decades. Well, if you insist on pedantic accuracy, women have been invented several times in widely varying localities, but the inventors just didn’t know how to sell the product. Their distribution techniques were rudimentary and their market research was nil, and so of course the concept just didn’t get off the ground. Even with a genius behind it an invention has to find its market, and it seemed like for a long time the idea of women just didn’t make it to the bottom line. Models like the Austen and the Brontë were too complicated, and people just laughed at the Suffragette, and the Woolf was way too far ahead of its time.

Illustration from 'The Human Body,' 1959. Click image for details.

Noting that when she was born (1929), “there actually were only men” — lest we forget, even the twentieth century’s greatest public intellectuals of the female gender used the pronouns “he” to refer to the whole lot of human beings — Le Guin plays with this notion of the universal pronoun:

That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon.

Le Guin turns to the problem of the body, which is indeed problematic in the context of this Generic He:

I admit it, I am actually a very poor imitation or substitute man, and you could see it when I tried to wear those army surplus clothes with ammunition pockets that were trendy and I looked like a hen in a pillowcase. I am shaped wrong. People are supposed to be lean. You can’t be too thin, everybody says so, especially anorexics. People are supposed to be lean and taut, because that’s how men generally are, lean and taut, or anyhow that’s how a lot of men start out and some of them even stay that way. And men are people, people are men, that has been well established, and so people, real people, the right kind of people, are lean. But I’m really lousy at being people, because I’m not lean at all but sort of podgy, with actual fat places. I am untaut.

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

For an example of someone who did Man right, Le Guin points to Hemingway, He with “the beard and the guns and the wives and the little short sentences,” and returns to her own insufficient Manness with a special wink at semicolons and a serious gleam at the significance of how we die:

I don’t have a gun and I don’t have even one wife and my sentences tend to go on and on and on, with all this syntax in them. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than have syntax. Or semicolons. I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after “semicolons,” and another one after “now.”

And another thing. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than get old. And he did. He shot himself. A short sentence. Anything rather than a long sentence, a life sentence. Death sentences are short and very, very manly. Life sentences aren’t. They go on and on, all full of syntax and qualifying clauses and confusing references and getting old. And that brings up the real proof of what a mess I have made of being a man: I am not even young. Just about the time they finally started inventing women, I started getting old. And I went right on doing it. Shamelessly. I have allowed myself to get old and haven’t done one single thing about it, with a gun or anything.

But between the half-assed semicolons and the guns lies the crux of the gender-imitation problem — the tyranny of how we think and talk about sex:

Sex is even more boring as a spectator sport than all the other spectator sports, even baseball. If I am required to watch a sport instead of doing it, I’ll take show jumping. The horses are really good-looking. The people who ride them are mostly these sort of nazis, but like all nazis they are only as powerful and successful as the horse they are riding, and it is after all the horse who decides whether to jump that five-barred gate or stop short and let the nazi fall off over its neck. Only usually the horse doesn’t remember it has the option. Horses aren’t awfully bright. But in any case, show jumping and sex have a good deal in common, though you usually can only get show jumping on American TV if you can pick up a Canadian channel, which is not true of sex. Given the option, though I often forget that I have an option, I certainly would watch show jumping and do sex. Never the other way round. But I’m too old now for show jumping, and as for sex, who knows? I do; you don’t.

Le Guin parlays this subtle humor into her most serious and piercing point, partway between the tragic and the hopeful — the issue of aging:

Here I am, old, when I wrote this I was sixty years old, “a sixty-year-old smiling public man,” as Yeats said, but then, he was a man. And now I am over seventy. And it’s all my own fault. I get born before they invent women, and I live all these decades trying so hard to be a good man that I forget all about staying young, and so I didn’t. And my tenses get all mixed up. I just am young and then all of a sudden I was sixty and maybe eighty, and what next?

Not a whole lot.

I keep thinking there must have been something that a real man could have done about it. Something short of guns, but more effective than Oil of Olay. But I failed. I did nothing. I absolutely failed to stay young. And then I look back on all my strenuous efforts, because I really did try, I tried hard to be a man, to be a good man, and I see how I failed at that. I am at best a bad man. An imitation phony second-rate him with a ten-hair beard and semicolons. And I wonder what was the use. Sometimes I think I might just as well give the whole thing up. Sometimes I think I might just as well exercise my option, stop short in front of the five-barred gate, and let the nazi fall off onto his head. If I’m no good at pretending to be a man and no good at being young, I might just as well start pretending that I am an old woman. I am not sure that anybody has invented old women yet; but it might be worth trying.

Ursula K. Le Guin by Laura Anglin

The Wave in the Mind, like Le Guin’s mind, is joltingly original in its totality, Chinook salmon in the wild. Complement this particular bit with Anna Deavere Smith on how to stop letting others define us.

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Are Writers Born or Made? Jack Kerouac on the Crucial Difference Between Talent and Genius

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“Genius gives birth, talent delivers.”

“All of us, we’re links in a chain,” Pete Seeger observed in pondering the nature of creative work. Mark Twain put it much less mildly in his lively letter of solidarity to Helen Keller: “Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them.” Indeed, there is compelling evidence that we as a culture are allergic to originality.

But count on Jack Kerouac to offer a provocative counterpoint in a 1962 essay for Writer’s Digest titled “Are Writers Made or Born?,” later included in The Portable Jack Kerouac (public library) — the same treasure trove of stories, poems, letters, and essays on Buddhism that gave us Kerouac on kindness, the self illusion and the “Golden Eternity.”

Portrait of Jack Kerouac by Tom Palumbo

Kerouac begins with bombast:

Writers are made, for anybody who isn’t illiterate can write; but geniuses of the writing art like Melville, Whitman or Thoreau are born.

He turns to the word “genius” itself — the history of which has a played a powerful role in shaping creative culture — and examines its meaning:

[Genius] doesn’t mean screwiness or eccentricity or excessive “talent.” It is derived from the Latin word gignere (to beget) and a genius is simply a person who originates something never known before. Nobody but Melville could have written Moby-Dick, not even Whitman or Shakespeare. Nobody but Whitman could have written Leaves of Grass; Whitman was born to write Leaves of Grass and Melville was born to write Moby-Dick.

Kerouac takes particular issue with the conflation of “talent” and “genius”:

Some perfect virtuoso who can interpret Brahms on the violin is called a “genius,” but the genius, the originating force, really belongs to Brahms; the violin virtuoso is simply a talented interpreter — in other words, a “Talent.” Or you’ll hear people say that so-and-so is a “major writer” because of his “talent.” There can be no major writers without original genius. Artists of genius, like Jackson Pollock, have painted things that have never been seen before… Take the case of James Joyce: people say he “wasted” his “talent” on the stream-of-consciousness style, when in fact he was simply born to originate it.

In a sentiment that Joni Mitchell would later come to echo in asserting that “an artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion,” Kerouac adds:

Some geniuses come with heavy feet and march solemnly forward… Geniuses can be scintillating and geniuses can be somber, but it’s that unescapable sorrowful depth that shines through — originality.

But because originality, by definition, requires breaking out of the common canon, “geniuses” — as Kierkegaard so eloquently lamented — are often subjected to ridicule and rejection before they come to be revered. Kerouac returns to Joyce, who endured his share of derogatory attacks:

Joyce was insulted all his life by practically all of Ireland and the world for being a genius. Some Celtic Twilight idiots even conceded he had some talent. What else were they going to say, since they were all going to start imitating him? But five thousand university-trained writers could put their hand to a day in June in Dublin in 1904, or one night’s dreams, and never do with it what Joyce did with it: he was simply born to do it.

[...]

When the question is therefore asked, “Are writers born or made?” one should first ask, “Do you mean writers of talent or writers of originality?” Because everybody can write but not everybody invents new forms of writing. Gertrude Stein invented new forms of writing and her imitators are just “talents.”

Half a century later, in our age of bringing “genius” to the psychology lab and quantifying the cultivation of talent, Kerouac’s concluding words ring with double poignancy:

The criterion for judging talent or genius is ephemeral, speaking rationally in this world of graphs, but one gets the feeling definitely when a writer of genius amazes him by strokes of force never seen before and yet hauntingly familiar…

The main thing to remember is that talent imitates genius, because there’s nothing else to imitate. Since talent can’t originate, it has to imitate, or interpret…

Genius gives birth, talent delivers. What Rembrandt or Van Gogh saw in the night sky can never be seen again… Born writers of the future are amazed already at what they’re seeing now, what we’ll all see in time for the first time, and see many times imitated by made writers.

Speaking to the jealousy behind all mockery, Kerouac signs off with a remark particularly prescient in our age of quick, loud, widely trumpeted judgments, riffing on Sy Oliver and James Young’s famous 1950s jazz tune “Tain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That Cha Do It)”:

Oftentimes the originator of new language forms is called “pretentious” by jealous talents. But it ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.

More of Kerouac’s enduring opinionation can be found in The Portable Jack Kerouac. For a modern-day counterpoint to Kerouac’s counterpoint, see Steven Pinker on how and why great writers can be made, then revisit this growing library of acclaimed writers’ advice on the craft.

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A Stocking for a Kitten: Beautiful Vintage Children’s Book Illustrations of Domestic Life in Eastern Europe

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Entitlement, empathy, and ethics, with a large helping of grandmotherly love.

Every summer during my childhood, my parents would ship me off to my maternal grandmother in rural Bulgaria — a land of colorful rugs and handcrafted pottery and grandmothers constantly knitting mittens and stockings and scarves. It seems like a different lifetime now, but those memories were brought back with vitalizing vividness when I chanced upon the 1965 gem A Stocking for a Kitten (public library) — a sweet out-of-print children’s book by Helen Kay, featuring exquisite illustrations of Eastern European domestic life by New York City-born artist Yaroslava.

The story follows little Tanya, who watches her Babushka sit knitting stockings for the grandchildren all day long. As Christmas approaches, one of Tanya’s sisters, Olga, grows impatient — entitled, even — and demands that Babushka hurry up with the knitting so her new stockings would be done already. Babushka takes this as a good opportunity to teach the little girl about patience — a recurring theme in children’s books from that era, it seems — by refusing to complete the stockings until Olga has learned some forbearance and humility. (And as anyone who grew up in Eastern Europe can tell you, negative reinforcement is the name of the game in disciplining there — whether by grandparents or by the government.)

Meanwhile, Tanya puts Babushka’s strike to constructive use and convinces the grandmother to teach her to knit, so that the little girl could make a pair of stockings for her kitten.

In the end, Tanya is overcome with compassion for her sister and stays up all night, finishing Olga’s stockings herself. But in the meantime, the kitten does what kittens do, producing a series of entertaining domestic misadventures.

While the story is decidedly heartwarming — there is entitlement and empathy and even ethics, alongside a large helping of grandmotherly love — it is Yaroslava’s striking art, shaped by her lifelong interest in Slavic folklore, that makes the book so captivating. It is also a gentle reminder that so much of human culture has historically taken place in the domestic sphere, where women make things in rooms, with selflessness, with passion, with quiet integrity.

A Stocking for a Kitten is out of print but well worth the hunt. Complement it with the delightful Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book.

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