Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘advice’

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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17 JULY, 2014

How to Find Yourself

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“Little triumphs are the pennies of self-esteem.”

At the age of twenty-one, artist and writer James Harmon chanced upon a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and found himself mesmerized. Rilke’s elegant exploration of the deepest human concerns — love, fear, art, doubt, sex — prompted young Harmon to wonder what the best advice to young people might be a century after Rilke — something that stood as an antidote to the “toxic cloud of tepid-broth wisdom” found in books “with the shelf life of a banana” that the contemporary publishing world peddled, so he reached out to some of the most “outspoken provocateurs, funky philosophers, cunning cultural critics, social gadflies, cyberpunks, raconteurs, radical academics, literary outlaws, and obscure but wildly talented poets.” For the next decade, he dedicated himself to this labor-of-love project, released in 2002 as Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two (public library) — a compendium of sensitive, no-bullshit, luminous, life-tested letters of advice, including Martha Nussbaum on learning not to despise your inner world, Judith Butler on doubting love, and more contributions from such cultural icons as Mark Helprin, Lynda Barry, Katharine Hepburn, Cindy Sherman, George Saunders, Bette Davis, and William S. Burroughs.

One of the most refreshing letters in the anthology comes from the American novelist, essayist, and journalist Florence King (b. 1936). Her message — about deconditioning our compulsion for instant success, cultivating the building blocks of self-esteem, and learning what it really means to be present with ourselves — runs boldly against the grain of our culturally-entrenched convention with a kind of Cheryl Strayed brutal, poetic honesty and applies just as poignantly to recent college graduates as it does to anyone, at any stage of life, looking to rediscover their inner center.

But adding to the timelessness of King’s advice is a peculiar kind of timeliness — anyone who has ever tussled with the stereotypical millennial in the workplace or the classroom would instantly see what wonders King’s counsel could do for the generation typified as entitled, impatient, devoid of humility, and allergic to hard work.

King writes:

When I was getting ready to graduate from college in 1957, I was fed up and ready to drop from exhaustion, but still my mind kept telling me, “Hurry, hurry, hurry.” I felt I had to do something, go on to the next step, whatever it was — career, graduate school, as long as it was important.

This is an American disease. Put yourself on cruise control and go into limbo for a year. I’m not talking about a neo-grand tour; don’t bop around Europe, you’ll just get in trouble. Nor am I talking about what your parents’ generation called “dropping out.” I mean forget about success for a while, get yourself an ordinary job, an ordinary place to live, and live without worrying about what Americans call, in uppercase, the Future.

Go somewhere different, but stay away from big cities. If you’re from a place you call “godforsaken,” go to a small city in another part of the country…

Get a dead-end job — they’re plentiful now because nobody wants them. Tell your employer the truth: that you’ll be around only a year or so, but promise to work hard. Keep your promise. Little triumphs are the pennies of self-esteem. If you do well in such a job and make yourself indispensable to somebody, you will realize Robert E. Lee’s farewell words to his men after the surrender at Appomattox: “You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from a knowledge of duty faithfully performed.”

Live alone, even at a financial sacrifice. If you have a roommate, the whole college uproar will just start all over again. Get a one-room apartment, or simply a room in the home of a nice widow. Get to know her. She’s dying to tell somebody the story of her life, so listen.

Have a radio for emergency news, but no TV. Read, read, read. When you don’t have to worry about passing exams on them, subjects you studied in school suddenly become interesting. Read my “desert island book,” the one I’d want with me if I were shipwrecked: The Prodigal Women by Nancy Hale, a novel published in 1942. Girls will love it, and boys will learn more about women from it than anything I know of.

Stay chaste during your limbo year. Sex ruins reflection and self-knowledge; you’re so busy analyzing the other person that you never get around to analyzing yourself.

What I am recommending is traditionally called “finding yourself.” The difference is, there is no bohemian excess here, none of the “experiencing everything” that comprises nostalgia de la boue. It’s productive, constructive goofing-off. The widow will remember you ever afterward as “the nice boy/girl who used to live here,” and your employer will shake his head wondering and say, “By God, I wish I could find more like that!”

Take My Advice is a magnificent read in its 79-letter entirety. Complement it with another equally enchanting riff on the Rilke classic, Anna Deavere Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist.

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