Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

06 MARCH, 2015

Iterations: A Lyrical Animated Film about How We Grow as Human Beings and the Iterative Nature of Self-Transformation

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“I am recycled cells, I learn to like myself more with each iteration…”

Psychologists now know that a “growth mindset” is one of the greatest predictors of a fulfilling life. And yet only children are at ease with the discomfort necessary for growth — the rest of us are chronically resistant to stretching ourselves in the very ways that push us to transcend the lesser versions of ourselves. Emerson knew this when he contemplated our resistance to change and wrote: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” How is it, then, that we bestir ourselves to grow?

In 2005, actor and director Joseph Gordon-Levitt founded hitRECord with his brother — a global creative community and independent multimedia production company, uniting artists from around the world on a variety of projects. The endeavor’s first decade has produced a wonderland of magical collaborations, including the fantastic Tiny Book of Tiny Stories series, but none more wonderful than Iterations — a beautiful and bewitching musical film created by artists from Hungary, Cyprus, Scotland, Canada, and the United States, with enchanting original music by Irish singer/songwriter Sarah Daly, better known as Metaphorest.

The artists were tasked with interpreting the theme of “The Road” and this musical journey was the result — a lyrical story of our incremental growth as human beings and the iterative nature of self-transformation.

Have you seen my old self?
I think I must have lost her
I wonder if I cost her
Her life?

Have you seen my second self?
She seems to grow younger
More delicate than ever
But never better

I’m an experiment
Each trial is a test
Constant recalibration

I am recycled cells
I learn to like myself
more with each iteration

Where is my restore point?
I found an old sore point
All disjointed
My file corrupted

Where is my replacement part?
I need another new heart
The other one’s beat was
Interrupted

I am recycled cells
I learn to like myself
more with each iteration

I’m an experiment
Each trial is a test
Constant recalibration

Complement with Susan Sontag on rereading as rebirth and some timeless ideas for self-refinement from the wisdom of the ages.

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05 MARCH, 2015

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School: A Charming Catalog of Excuses and an Allegory for How Human Imagination Works

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A playful parable about the stories we tell to avoid being wrong and the combinatorial nature of human creativity.

Psychologists and behavioral economists now know that there is a strong positive correlation between creativity and dishonesty — the more intelligent and imaginative we are, the better we’re able to rationalize our misconduct. And since children’s minds reveal so much about how the human imagination develops, both psychological theory and parental practice confirm that kids come up with the most fanciful excuses for why they did those mischievous things they knew they weren’t supposed to do.

In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School (public library), celebrated children’s book author Davide Cali and French illustrator Benjamin Chaud weave a playful parable of this childhood tendency to come up with excuses so fantastical that they become charming stories in their own right — a crucible of creativity and a sandbox for the young mind to play with the building blocks of storytelling.

One morning, the little boy is late to school and when his teacher inquires about the reason for his tardiness, he proceeds to offer a litany of imaginative excuses. Giant ants ate his breakfast! Evil ninjas ambushed him on the way to the bus stop! A massive ape mistook the school bus for a banana! His uncle’s time machine misfired and sent him back to the dominion of dinosaurs!

There are “scary majorettes,” “an unusually large spiderweb,” an encounter with Bigfoot and Yeti, and a call from the president who demanded the boy’s “champion chess skills” in helping to “save the planet from an alien invasion.”

Underpinning the delightful story, with its acrobatics of the imagination and its disarming illustrations, is a subtle testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity — we create our “own” ideas by combining countless fragments of existing ones, of impressions and influences and bits of information, into novel combinations. Ursula K. Le Guin knew this when she considered where great ideas come from, as did Mark Twain when he contemplated originality in a letter to Helen Keller, asserting that “substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.”

The little boy’s tales are a testament to this machinery of ideation — many of them borrow subtle elements or entire plot lines from beloved fairy tales (there is the Little Red Riding Hood, beseeching him to help find her grandmother), pop culture tropes (a Godzilla-like ape seizes the school bus), and classic children’s stories (he grows tiny, then huge, à la Alice in Wonderland).

When the little boy is finished relaying his imaginative series of unfortunate events and his teacher inquires whether those fanciful misadventures were the reason for his tardiness, we get to the comically unremarkable truth — for truth, after all, is always unremarkable, and that is what makes it true.

In the final page, as the teacher perches over the boy in skeptical disapprobation of his excuses and their validity, a friendly dinosaur from the faulty avuncular time machine pokes its head through the classroom window — a gentle and generous gesture which seems to assure the young reader that the child’s experience is always real and valid, even if grownups don’t believe it is true.

One can’t help but think of Philip K. Dick’s definition of reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” — what we believe, after all, is the only reality we’ll ever know, and who can agree on this fluctuating fiction we call Truth anyway?

Complement the impossibly delightful A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School with another wonderful take on reconciling different realities, Peter Brown’s My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.)

Illustrations courtesy of Chronicle; book photographs my own

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04 MARCH, 2015

David the Dreamer: Extraordinary Philosophical 1922 Children’s Book Illustrated by Freud’s Cross-Dressing Niece Named Tom

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The kind of book that reads you as you read it.

“The earth is heavy and opaque without dreams,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary before our nocturnal fancies became the subject of science — an inquiry catalyzed by the publication of Freud’s seminal 1900 book The Interpretation of Dreams, which the legendary psychoanalyst considered in part his “own self-analysis” and in which he declared that “the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.”

Two decades later, humorist, essayist, and children’s poet Ralph Bergengren wrote David the Dreamer: His Book of Dreams (public library). This most unusual 1922 book is doubly notable for the absolutely striking illustrations by Austrian artist and writer Tom Seidmann-Freud — Sigmund Freud’s eccentric niece Martha, who at the age of fifteen took on a male name and began wearing men’s clothes, and who went on to be a visionary and exceptionally talented artist of the German Art Nouveau movement before committing suicide at the age of thirty-seven.

Several years before Seidmann-Freud authored her own visionary “interactive” picture-book, she illustrated Bergengren’s whimsical tale of an androgynous-looking little boy’s dream about his dog’s third birthday party — a choice especially curious given her famous uncle’s classic treatise, which paved the way for the contemporary study of the psychology of dreams.

David knew he was dreaming because he had on the white suit, very much like the Clown’s in the Circus, that he often wore in dreams, and never anywhere else. Fido was also dressed in a white suit, with neat ruffles around his legs, and the neatest ruffle of all around his tail. Fido always spoke doggerel in dreams, and David was not at all surprised when he said, jumping up and down and wagging his ruffled tail,

“This is a great day for me.
This is my birthday, you see.
Last year I was two,
And this year I am three.
And so what say you
To a birthday partee?”

Playful and whimsical as the story may be, running through it are also darker undercurrents of subtle philosophical lamentation — perhaps something that drew Seidmann-Freud to the story. Take, for instance, this passage touching on the various dimensions of losing control in life:

There is something very disorienting about being out of sight of land in a small boat, especially when you find out, with a sinking heart, that you don’t know which way to row to get home again. It is like getting lost anywhere else, only much worse; for there isn’t any Policeman or Kind Lady to help you, and, although a lot of people you don’t know all looking at you at once is bad enough, nobody at all looking at you makes you feel even more serious. Very-Little-David felt serious indeed… He told himself sensibly that it would do no good to cry, but he did cry. So there you are.

David the Dreamer is, alas, deeply out of print — a fact at once sad and unsurprising, for it is the kind of book you simply don’t see today: fabric-bound and kissed by gold leaf, utterly experimental and rather dark in sensibility, the kind of unclassifiable children’s-book-for-grownups for which contemporary commercial publishers seem to neither allocate the proper budget nor muster the proper bravery.

Perhaps Bergengren intuited this. In the third chapter of the book, titled “How a Book Read David,” the little boy comes to pear tree under which he finds “two very fine pears and a book.” But it isn’t any ordinary book — it’s responsive and alive:

The odd thing about this book was that when David began reading the book, the book began reading David… The letters ran around, and changed places, and many of them jumped off the book out of sight… It was a queer book. And another odd thing about it was the way the leaves left as soon as you had read them. When you started to turn a leaf over, it just disappeared. But there were always plenty of new leaves, so that it was the kind of book that would easily last you to read as long as you lived.

A century later, this gem of a book is as alive as ever to the private reader, even if commercially dead. It would take a rare and courageous publisher to reinstate its cultural aliveness with a reprint — here’s to hoping there are other bastions of books out there besides “mediocre ladies in influential positions.” (I, for one, believe there are.)

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02 MARCH, 2015

89 Clouds: Miraculously Beautiful Poetry and Painting about Clouds and Everything They Mean

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“Clouds are thoughts without words…”

Scientists may now be able to tell us how a cloud keeps the weight of 100 elephants in the air and even to demonstrate the psychology of why cloudy days help us think more clearly, but there is something eternally elusive about the immaterial mesmerism of clouds — something, perhaps, which only the poet and the artist can access. (And, most of all, the ultimate poet-artist: Joni Mitchell.)

In 1999, Pulitzer-winning poet Mark Strand, a man of enormous wisdom on the heartbeat of creative work, and artist Wendy Mark teamed up on a most unusual collaboration: a miracle of a book titled 89 Clouds (public library) — a single poem composed of eighty-nine numbered reflections on the atmospheric phenomena that have tickled the human imagination since the dawn of our species, alongside the artist’s subtle and breathtaking paintings of clouds.

The poem stretches between the poignant and the playful, the cryptic and the profound, the meditative and the mirthful. It projects onto clouds, once the screen of children’s simple fantasies, the complex preoccupations of an adult reality — our anxieties, our loves and losses, our longing for grace, our restless pursuit of self-transcendence. In Strand’s carefully crafted words one finds, if one is looking, beautiful and poignant metaphors for the human experience — for relationships, for self-doubt, for the maps of our interior worlds, for the fleeting flash of existence we call a life.

Strand — who started out as a visual artist and studied under the great Josef Albers — writes mesmeric lines like:

1. A cloud is never a mirror

2. Words about clouds are clouds themselves

3. If snow falls inside a cloud, only the cloud knows

Some seem at first silly, but like Gertrude Stein’s love letters to language and meaning, become more and more beautiful, more and more sapient, with each reading:

5. A cloud dreams only of triangles

20. Clouds are thoughts without words

Some weave alternative mythologies, the fanciful stories with which ancient folklore explained the unfathomable facets of the natural world:

12. If a parrot is lost in a cloud, it turns into a rainbow

13. Clouds are drawn by invisible birds

In some, Strand’s elegant precision cuts straight to heart of love and longing, and simply takes the breath away:

13. Clouds are in love with horizons

18. The cloud that was gone would never come back

35. Every lake desires a cloud

Some are ingenious play with language:

25. A cloud without you is only a clod

Clouds are also spaces for experience:

52. A cloud is a cathedral without belief

54. A cloud is mansion without corners

55. A cloud lit from within is somebody’s study

Some are pleasurably mischievous and lyrical at once:

67. Clouds cannot see what we do under the umbrella

80. A poet looks at a cloud the way a man looks at a shrub

89 Clouds is the kind of book so deeply rewarding to hold and behold, to read and reread — a “calming object, held in the hand,” to borrow Maira Kalman’s perfect phrase — that no pixel or prose can do it justice. Although it is long out of print, surviving copies are findable and more than worth the search.

For more of Mark Strand’s subtle and electrifying genius, see his moving reflection on the artist’s task of bearing witness to the universe.

Thanks, Liz

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