Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘advice’

26 AUGUST, 2014

Pioneering Muckraker Lincoln Steffens’s Beautiful Letter of Life-Advice to His Baby Son

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“Keep your baby eyes (which are the eyes of genius) on what we don’t know.”

Lincoln Steffens was one of the original muckrakers — that increasingly rare breed of capital-J Journalists driven not by vanity-motives but by the irrepressible urge to speak truth to power. His ambitious series of McClure magazine exposés on corruption in local government, a masterwork that pioneered the investigative reporting genre, was eventually collected in the influential 1904 book The Shame of the Cities. Steffens’s passion for justice extended not only to the public sphere, but also to the private — he was an early proponent of equal parenting and once proclaimed that “the father’s place is in the home.” He got to practice his preaching when, at the late age of 58, he was given the gift of fatherhood — a gift that took him by surprise, but one he welcomed with great delight and care.

From Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the wonderful anthology that gave us Albert Einstein’s advice to his son on the secret to learning anything, Sherwood Anderson on the key to the creative life, Benjamin Rush on travel and life, and some of history’s greatest motherly advice — comes a spectacular letter 60-year-old Steffens wrote to his two-year-old son, Peter, celebrating the importance of finding ourselves in the unknown.

Lincoln Steffens with his wife, Ella Winters, and young Peter

On a visit to Germany in June of 1926, while working on his autobiography, Steffens writes with equal parts humor and crystalline conviction:

This place will suit you I think. Down three flights of stairs is a restaurant through which you will go to either an open café in front or on a side toward the town to a large graveled playground. There is not much for a little fellow like you to do on this playground. It is the grown-up idea for a place for kids. A bare yard where there is nothing to break and nothing to get hurt on… Sometimes we can go in back of the house to a playground for grown-ups. That has a net and balls ’n’ everything to amuse the big children who can’t play with nothing like a baby. They have a game called tennis which they work at hard rather than do anything useful. It’s thought to be degrading to work; and it is.

He parlays this into a beautiful meditation on the difference between work and labor and the rewards of fulfilling work:

It is a sure sign that your father was an honest man and never got any graft, if you have to work for your living. I hope to arrange it so that you will not be ashamed of me; I leave you my graft and I’ll show you how to get more if you need it. If you work, you will work as a scientist or an artist, for fun, not for money. Money cannot be made by labor. But work, real work, for what we call duty or the truth, that is more fun than tennis.

Steffens’s most vital point, however, has to do with the self-transcendence that happens once we surrender to not-knowing:

Nobody understands things as they are and the proof of this is that nobody, — not the greatest scientist, not the tenderest poet, not the most sensitive painter; only for a moment, the kindest lover can see that all is beautiful. I can’t, I only believe that.

It may be wrong; there may be ugliness … but I have a funny old faith that, if a little fellow like you is shown everything and allowed to look at everything and not lied to by anybody or anything, he, even Pete, might do better even than Joyce did what Ulysses was meant to do; he might see and show that there is exquisite beauty everywhere except in an educated mind.

Steffens, indeed, was a vocal opponent of formal education, which he — like William Styron — believed only blunted children’s natural ability and inherent curiosity. In fact, his famous line asserting that a father belongs at home goes on to argue that there, he can “stay — on guard — to protect my child from education.” And so it is unsurprising that he takes a fitting jab at education in this letter to his own son, adding one final piece of advice about the importance of preserving children’s remarkable tolerance for taking risk and the soul-vitalizing power of taking care to continually expand one’s own range, capacities, and horizons:

An educated mind is nothing but the God-given mind of a child after his parents’ and his grandparents’ generation have got through molding it. We can’t help teaching you; you will ask that of us; but we are prone to teach you what we know, and I am going, now and again, to warn you:

Remember we really don’t know anything. Keep your baby eyes (which are the eyes of genius) on what we don’t know. That is your playground, bare and graveled, safe and unbreakable.

This is precisely what Rebecca Solnit so elegantly contemplated nearly a century later, when she wrote about the “art of being at home in the unknown.”

Complement Posterity with more timeless fatherly advice, including Ted Hughes, Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, John Steinbeck, and Jackson Pollock’s dad.

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14 AUGUST, 2014

Barbara Walters on Gossip

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“You’re never just a spectator: unless you put a stop to it, you’re a participant.”

“It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table,” C.S. Lewis remarked in reflecting on the mealtime reading portion of his ideal daily routine. “What one wants is a gossipy, formless book.” And yet this is perhaps the only instance in which anything “gossipy” can have even a marginally fruitful function. Gossip, by and large, is as easy to go down as candy and just as bad for us in the long run — the kind of social malady that infects all parties involved with toxic poison under the guise of sugar-water.

From the out-of-print 1970 gem How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything (public library) — the same witty, perceptive guide that gave us Walters on the art of conversation and what Truman Capote teaches us about being interesting — comes a section on the perils of perpetuating gossip, which rings with tenfold the poignancy four decades later, in the age of constant social web chatter and clickbait entertainment “journalism.”

Walters admonishes:

Gossip can be fun when it’s gossip about famous people who’ll never hear of your discussion and couldn’t care less if they did. For me, gossip about Liz and Richard [Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton], or Jackie and Ari [Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis], is entirely fair, enormously interesting, and probably completely untrue. But gossip about people you know is not only morally wrong, it is also tactically wrong because it almost always gets back to the person involved.

And don’t kid yourself into false virtue because you kept silent when others were lacerating someone’s reputation. You’re never just a spectator: unless you put a stop to it, you’re a participant. Change the subject in a firm voice; say, “I like Jane very much and I’m sure none of us here is glad that she’s having problems. Let’s talk about something else…”

When all else fails, Walters suggests a clever counterstrategy of the reverse-psychology variety:

There’s always the classic line when someone is running down a mutual friend. You look amazed and say, “Funny, she always speaks so well of you.” I dare the gossip to go on after that, especially if you follow up your line with a compliment that the friend actually paid the gossip in your hearing.

Conversely, if you meet someone who you’ve heard has made a bitchy comment about you, try to be big about it. We all have said unkind things that we didn’t really mean, tricked by something nervous in the situation or in ourselves.

Her most heartbreaking observation on the culture — or, rather, culturelessness — of gossip comes as an almost throwaway remark:

Sometimes people gossip just because they feel they must in order to be interesting.

Noting that if the person who gossiped about you is someone you know and if there’s a grain of constructive criticism in the comment, you might be able to learn from it, Walters nonetheless makes room for our fallible humanity, which she illustrates with a disarming personal anecdote:

You’re only human though, and there are times when it’s a strain to be civilized. I had an experience with Joan Rivers before we ever met that made me doubt we could ever be polite, much less pals. She was being interviewed by The New York Times on the subject of femininity among female television performers. As examples of tough women, she quipped, “I’d love to put Barbara Walters and Jacqueline Susann in the same room and see which one came out alive.”

By a quirk of fate, I had just written Joan what amounted to a fan letter. She was about to do a brand-new interview show on NBC and I wanted to welcome her to the network. She received my note the day before her comment about me was to appear in the Times and although we’d never met, she telephoned me in agony to apologize.

I had written the note in all innocence, but I later thought that it was the perfect variation on the “funny-but-she-always-speaks-well-of-you” ploy. Anyway, Joan and I both felt so terrible about the incident that we’ve been friends ever since.

Joan Rivers and Barbara Walters, 2011 (Photograph: Rob Rich)

How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything, should you be able to track down a surviving copy, is well worth the read — rather than dated, most of Walters’s points of advice, aimed at helping you “get beyond the superficial forgettable small talk that most people use as a substitute for communication,” ring with all the more resonance in today’s vastly more public, many-voiced, conversation-based culture.

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07 AUGUST, 2014

Rilke on Body and Soul

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“I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.”

Modern science is only beginning to shed light on how our minds actually affect our bodies, but entrenched deep in our cultural mythology is a dangerous divide between the two, which are often pitted against one another as an either/or proposition. Even the starving artist trope — which, like a proper cliché, became a victim of its own semantic success — is predicated on the idea that one must sacrifice the body in order to manifest the mind and set free the creative soul, the mythic “spiritual electricity” of art.

Count on Rainer Maria Rilke — literary history’s high priest of metaphysics, a writer of breathtaking letters, and a wise advisor of the young — to bridge the two and compromise neither. In a 1921 letter to a young girl who had asked him for advice, found in the collection Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke: 1910–1926 (public library; public domain), 46-year-old Rilke writes:

I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion. All the soarings of my mind begin in my blood, for which reason I precede my work, through a pure and simple way of life that is free from irritants and stimulants, as with an introductory prelude, so that I cannot be deceived over the true spiritual joy that consists in a concord, happy and as if transfigured, with the whole of Nature.

[...]

If I look into my conscience I see but one law, relentlessly commanding: to lock myself into myself and in one stretch to end this task that was dictated to me at the very center of my heart. I am obeying. . . . I have no right whatever to change the direction of my will before I have ended the act of my sacrifice and my obedience.

Channeling the philosophy of the main character in his only novel, the semi-autobiographical The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke goes on to reflect on the essence of art:

You must, in order that it shall speak to you, take a thing during a certain time as the only one that exists, as the only phenomenon which through your diligent and exclusive love finds itself set down in the center of the universe. . . . Don’t be frightened at the expression “fate” … I call fate all external events (illnesses, for example, included) which can inevitably step in to interrupt and annihilate a disposition of mind and training that is by nature solitary. . . .

That went through me like an arrow, when I learned it, but like a flaming arrow that, while it pierced my heart through, left it in a conflagration of clear sight. There are few artists in our day who grasp this stubbornness, this vehement obstinacy. But I believe that without it one remains always at the periphery of art, which is rich enough as it is to allow us pleasant discoveries, but at which, nevertheless, we halt only as a player at the green table who, while he now and again succeeds with a “coup”, remains none the less at the mercy of chance, which is nothing but the docile and dexterous ape of the law.

Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke: 1910–1926, which covers the period between the completion of Rilke’s novel and the writer’s death, offers a treasure trove of his timeless wisdom on love, life, and literature. Complement it with Rilke’s passionate love letters and his beloved posthumous volume Letters to a Young Poet, which moved generations and inspired a wealth of modern homages and reimaginings, from Anna Deavere Smith’s indispensable Letters to a Young Artist to Christopher Hitchens’s Letters to a Young Contrarian to James Harmon’s fantastic compendium of luminaries’ letters of advice to the young.

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