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Posts Tagged ‘books’

19 MAY, 2015

Beware the Rise of the Pseudo-Intellectual: Tom Wolfe’s Boston University Commencement Address

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“We live in an age in which ideas, important ideas, are worn like articles of fashion.”

Few things bypass our culture’s codified shell of cynicism more elegantly and powerfully than the commencement address — that singular mode of intravenous wisdom-delivery wherein an elder steps onto a stage and plugs straight into what Oscar Wilde called the “temperament of receptivity,” so elusive in all hearts and doubly so in the young. History’s greatest commencement addresses — masterworks like Joseph Brodsky’s “Speech at the Stadium” and David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” — deliver not vacant platitudes but hard-earned, life-tested insight into the beliefs, behaviors, and habits of mind that embolden us to live good, rewarding, noble lives.

That is what celebrated writer Tom Wolfe (b. March 2, 1931) delivered when he took the podium at Boston University in 2000 with a magnificent address included in Way More than Luck: Commencement Speeches on Living with Bravery, Empathy, and Other Existential Skills (public library).

Tom Wolfe by Henry Leutwyler

Wolfe begins by putting in perspective the value — the gift — of an education:

As someone who grew up in the Great Depression of the 1930s, I know that a commencement is a family triumph. Forget money. Aside from love, the cardinal virtues, and time, there is no greater gift parents can give a child than an education.

And yet much of the true value of education, Wolfe argues, is being eclipsed by what he calls “pernicious enlightenment” — our idea-fetishism, continually fueled by the challenge of finding wisdom in the age of information, which leads us to mistake surface impressions for substantive understanding. Wolfe writes:

We live in an age in which ideas, important ideas, are worn like articles of fashion — and for precisely the same reason articles of fashion are worn, which is to make the wearer look better and to feel à la mode.

He examines the role of the middle class in the dissemination and uptake of ideas:

The truth is that there is a common bond among all cultures, among all peoples in this world … at least among those who have reached the level of the wheel, the shoe, and the toothbrush. And that common bond is that much-maligned class known as the bourgeoisie — the middle class… They are all over the world, in every continent, every nation, every society, every culture, everywhere you find the wheel, the shoe, and the toothbrush, and wherever they are, all of them believe in the same things. And what are those things? Peace, order, education, hard work, initiative, enterprise, creativity, cooperation, looking out for one another, looking out for the future of children, patriotism, fair play, and honesty. How much more do you want from the human beast? How much more can you possibly expect?

I say that the middle class around the world … is the highest form of evolution. The bourgeoisie! — the human beast doesn’t get any better! The worldwide bourgeoisie makes what passes today for aristocrats — people consumed by juvenility who hang loose upon society — look like shiftless children.

Perhaps with an eye to Virginia Woolf’s legendary rant against the malady of middlebrow, Wolfe notes:

We writers spent the entire twentieth century tearing down the bourgeoisie! … We in the arts have been complicit in the denigration of the best people on earth. Why? Because so many of the most influential ideas of our time are the product of a new creature of the twentieth century, a creature that did not exist until 1898 — and that creature is known as “the intellectual.”

The true enemy of the assimilation of substantive ideas, Wolfe argues, isn’t the middlebrow person but the pseudo-intellectual or, even, the “intellectual” — for anyone who describes himself as an “intellectual” (to say nothing of a “public intellectual”) already implies the “pseudo” by the very act of such self-description. (You know the type — perhaps he has an exaggerated “European accent” of unidentifiable Germanic origin, perhaps he quotes Voltaire excessively, perhaps he slips one too many French words into ordinary speech where a perfectly good English option exists.) Wolfe makes an important distinction:

We must be careful to make a distinction between the intellectual and the person of intellectual achievement. The two are very, very different animals. There are people of intellectual achievement who increase the sum of human knowledge, the powers of human insight, and analysis. And then there are the intellectuals. An intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others. Starting in the early twentieth century, for the first time an ordinary storyteller, a novelist, a short story writer, a poet, a playwright, in certain cases a composer, an artist, or even an opera singer could achieve a tremendous eminence by becoming morally indignant about some public issue. It required no intellectual effort whatsoever. Suddenly he was elevated to a plane from which he could look down upon ordinary people. Conversely — this fascinates me — conversely, if you are merely a brilliant scholar, merely someone who has added immeasurably to the sum of human knowledge and the powers of human insight, that does not qualify you for the eminence of being an intellectual.

Art by Maira Kalman from 'And the Pursuit of Happiness.' Click image for more.

Having often thought about the role of cynicism in our culture — how we use its self-righteous hubris to mask our insecurity and vulnerability — I find myself nodding vigorously with Wolfe’s observation about the use of “moral indignation” in public discourse:

One of the things that I find really makes it worth watching all the Academy Awards, all the Emmys, all those awards ceremonies, is to see how today’s actors and television performers have discovered the formula. If you become indignant, this elevates you to the plane of “intellectual.” No mental activity is required. It is a rule, to which there has never been an exception, that when an actor or a television performer rises up to the microphone at one of these awards ceremonies and expresses moral indignation over something, he illustrates Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “moral indignation is a standard strategy for endowing the idiot with dignity.”

Wolfe leaves graduates with a clarion call for cultivating the critical discernment necessary for making up one’s own mind in the face of such wearable intellectualism:

You’re not going to find many traditional judges who can lead you any longer, since they now wander helplessly, bemused by the willful ignorance of that bizarre twentieth-century organism, the intellectual. You’re going to have to make the crucial judgments yourselves. But you are among the very handful of those who can do it.

Way More than Luck, which also includes advice from Bradley Whitford, Debbie Millman, Nora Ephron, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Safran Foer, is an elevating read in its entirety. Complement it with this evolving archive of the greatest commencement addresses of all time, then revisit Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking.

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18 MAY, 2015

Bertrand Russell on Love, Sex, the Good Life, and How Moral Superstitions Limit Our Happiness

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“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge. Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.”

Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) endures as one of humanity’s most lucid yet luminous thinkers, his ideas tracking between the timeless and the prophetic. A century before our age of distraction and restless productivity, Russell admonished against its perilous effects and championed the role of boredom and stillness in our conquest of happiness. His ten commandments of teaching remain some of the most succinct tenets of education ever committed to words. His insight into human nature illuminates everything from our impulse for destruction to our longing for grace. But nowhere does Russell’s blazing brilliance warm the mind and spirit more thoroughly than in What I Believe (public library) — his 1925 catalog of credos, a kind of moral ecology that also gave us Russell on immortality and why religion exists.

After establishing his definition of the good life — “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” Russell writes. “Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.” — he turns to the more essential of these two ingredients, the one humanity has spent centuries trying to define and dedicated entire philosophies to mastering. Russell writes:

Although both love and knowledge are necessary, love is in a sense more fundamental, since it will lead intelligent people to seek knowledge, in order to find out how to benefit those whom they love. But if people are not intelligent, they will be content to believe what they have been told, and may do harm in spite of the most genuine benevolence.

Once again, Russell’s prescience reveals itself — many decades later, the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanhs would come to write that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.” But Russell is careful to note that knowing how to love first requires that we come to know love’s many dimensions:

Love is a word which covers a variety of feelings; I have used it purposely, as I wish to include them all. Love as an emotion — which is what I am speaking about, for love “on principle” does not seem to me genuine — moves between two poles: on one side, pure delight in contemplation; on the other, pure benevolence. Where inanimate objects are concerned, delight alone enters in; we cannot feel benevolence towards a landscape or a sonata. This type of enjoyment is presumably the source of art. It is stronger, as a rule, in very young children than in adults, who are apt to view objects in a utilitarian spirit. It plays a large part in our feelings towards human beings, some of whom have charm and some the reverse, when considered simply as objects of aesthetic contemplation.

Illustration by Oliver Jeffers from 'The Heart and the Bottle.' Click image for more.

The alchemy of a complete love, Russell argues, fuses these two elements of delight and benevolence in beholding the beloved:

Love at its fullest is an indissoluble combination of the two elements, delight and well-wishing. The pleasure of a parent in a beautiful and successful child combines both elements; so does sex-love at its best. But in sex-love benevolence will only exist where there is secure possession, since otherwise jealousy will destroy it, while perhaps actually increasing the delight in contemplation. Delight without well-wishing may be cruel; well-wishing without delight easily tends to become cold and a little superior. A person who wishes to be loved wishes to be the object of a love containing both elements.

The imbalance between the two is, perhaps, what unnerved Susan Sontag as she contemplated “love, sex, and the world between half a century later. For Russell, this two-legged love is inseparable from the second element of the good life: knowledge. But he is careful to note that this knowledge is scientific — a knowledge of the world in its full fact and glimmering reality — rather than ethical. Morality, he argues, is a wholly different matter — and yet, strangely, it too circles back to a psychological force we’ve come to associate with love: desire. In a sentiment that calls to mind the crossroads of Should and Must, he writes:

All moral rules must be tested by examining whether they tend to realize ends that we desire. I say ends that we desire, not ends that we ought to desire. What we “ought” to desire is merely what someone else wishes us to desire. Usually it is what the authorities wish us to desire — parents, school-masters, policemen, and judges. If you say to me “you ought to do so-and-so,” the motive power of your remark lies in my desire for your approval — together, possibly, with rewards or punishments attached to your approval or disapproval. Since all behavior springs from desire, it is clear that ethical notions can have no importance except as they influence desire. They do this through the desire for approval and the fear of disapproval. These are powerful social forces, and we shall naturally endeavor to win them to our side if we wish to realize any social purpose.

Desire, Russell insists, is a driver so potent that it can’t be legislated against or controlled via any other sticks-and-carrots system — it can only be harnessed and cultivated:

There is no conceivable way of making people do things they do not wish to do. What is possible is to alter their desires by a system of rewards and penalties, among which social approval and disapproval are not the least potent. The question for the legislative moralist is, therefore: How shall this system of rewards and punishments be arranged so as to secure the maximum of what is desired by the legislative authority? … Outside human desires there is no moral standard.

Thus, what distinguishes ethics from science is not any special kind of knowledge but merely desire.

And yet our conception of morality, Russell argues, seems completely divorced from the realities of the human experience:

Current morality is a curious blend of utilitarianism and superstition, but the superstitious part has the stronger hold, as is natural, since superstition is the origin of moral rules. Originally, certain acts were thought displeasing to the gods, and were forbidden by law because the divine wrath was apt to descend upon the community, not merely upon the guilty individuals. Hence arose the conception of sin, as that which is displeasing to God. No reason can be assigned as to why certain acts should be thus displeasing.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

This, of course, calls to mind not only Mark Twain’s general lament about how we’ve used religion to justify injustice but also the particular superstition with which homosexuality has been historically regarded. But even as early as 1925, Russell — a conscientious critic of religion — recognizes the absurdity of such thinking and points to the critical thinking required for making up one’s own mind in evaluating the alleged dangers of what such superstition condemns as “immoral”:

It is evident that a man with a scientific outlook on life cannot let himself be intimidated by texts of Scripture or by the teaching of the Church. He will not be content to say “such-and-such an act is sinful, and that ends the matter.” He will inquire whether it does any harm or whether, on the contrary, the belief that it is sinful does harm. And he will find that, especially in what concerns sex, our current morality contains a very great deal of which the origin is purely superstitious. He will find also that this superstition, like that of the Aztecs, involves needless cruelty, and would be swept away if people were actuated by kindly feelings towards their neighbors. But the defenders of traditional morality are seldom people with warm hearts… One is tempted to think that they value morals as affording a legitimate outlet for their desire to inflict pain; the sinner is fair game, and therefore away with tolerance!

How remarkable to consider that Russell’s admonition comes two decades before those same heartless defenders of so-called morality drove computing pioneer Alan Turing, one of humanity’s most magnificent and significant minds, into the grave and nearly a century before the equality of love triumphed over DOMA. Many decades later, Oliver Sacks would remark in his moving autobiography that “sex is one of those areas — like religion and politics — where otherwise decent and rational people may have intense, irrational feelings.” Indeed, Russell addresses this matter directly:

It should be recognized that, in the absence of children, sexual relations are a purely private matter, which does not concern either the State or the neighbors. Certain forms of sex which do not lead to children are at present punished by the criminal law: this is purely superstitious, since the matter is one which affects no one except the parties directly concerned.

Much of this, he argues, is the task of education, something at least as urgent today, when creationism — the most standardized mode of superstition — is still being taught in classrooms:

In all stages of education the influence of superstition is disastrous. A certain percentage of children have the habit of thinking; one of the aims of education is to cure them of this habit. Inconvenient questions are met with ‘hush, hush’, or with punishment.

Half a century before The Little Red Schoolbook and before Italo Calvino made his passionate case for reproductive rights, Russell points ever so elegantly at the misogynistic “morality” espoused by the church:

At puberty, the elements of an unsuperstitious sexual morality ought to be taught. Boys and girls should be taught that nothing can justify sexual intercourse unless there is mutual inclination. This is contrary to the teaching of the Church, which holds that, provided the parties are married and the man desires another child, sexual intercourse is justified however great may be the reluctance of the wife. Boys and girls should be taught respect for each other’s liberty; they should be made to feel that nothing gives one human being rights over another, and that jealousy and possessiveness kill love. They should be taught that to bring another human being into the world is a very serious matter, only to be undertaken when the child will have a reasonable prospect of health, good surroundings, and parental care. But they should also be taught methods of birth control, so as to insure that children shall only come when they are wanted.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Returning to the relationship between morality and the two pillars of the good life, Russell — predating Martin Luther King’s famous proclamation that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” by several decades — writes:

Moral rules ought not to be such as to make instinctive happiness impossible.

[…]

The good life, we said, is a life inspired by love and guided by knowledge… [But] in all that differentiates between a good life and a bad one, the world is a unity, and the man who pretends to live independently is a conscious or unconscious parasite.

[…]

To live a good life in the fullest sense a man must have a good education, friends, love, children (if he desires them), a sufficient income to keep him from want and grave anxiety, good health, and work which is not uninteresting. All these things, in varying degrees, depend upon the community, and are helped or hindered by political events. The good life must be lived in a good society, and is not fully possible otherwise.

What I Believe is a timeless trove of wisdom from cover to cover. Complement it with Russell on the power of “fruitful monotony” and why science is essential to democracy.

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18 MAY, 2015

Love, Lunacy, and a Life Fully Lived: Oliver Sacks, the Science of Seeing, and the Art of Being Seen

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A touching celebration of the “intense sense of love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.”

“I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,” visionary neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in his poignant, beautiful, and courageous farewell to life. In one final gesture of generosity, this cartographer of the mind and its meaning maps the landscape of his remarkable character and career in On the Move: A Life (public library) — an uncommonly moving autobiography, titled after a line from a poem by his dear friend Thom Gunn: “At worst,” wrote Gunn, “one is in motion; and at best, / Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, / One is always nearer by not keeping still.” Sacks’s unstillness is that of a life defined by a compassionate curiosity — about the human mind, about the human spirit, about the invisibilia of our inner lives.

The book is not so much an autobiography in the strict sense as a dialogue with time on the simultaneous scales of the personal (going from world-champion weightlifter to world-renowned neurologist), the cultural (being a gay man looking for true love in the 1960s was nothing like it is in our post-DOMA, beTindered present), and the civilizational (watching horseshoe crabs mate on the beaches if City Island exactly as they did 400 million years ago on the shores of Earth’s primordial seas). This record of time pouring through the unclenched fingers of the mind’s most magnanimous patron saint has become one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — one I came to with deep reverence for Dr. Sacks’s intellectual footprint and left with deep love for his soul.

Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Like Marie Curie, whose wounds and power sprang from the same source, Dr. Sacks’s character springs from the common root of his pain and his pleasure. At eighty, he reflects on a defining feature of his interior landscape:

I am shy in ordinary social contexts; I am not able to “chat” with any ease; I have difficulty recognizing people (this is lifelong, though worse now my eyesight is impaired); I have little knowledge of and little interest in current affairs, whether political, social, or sexual. Now, additionally, I am hard of hearing, a polite term for deepening deafness. Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner, to look invisible, to hope I am passed over. This was incapacitating in the 1960s, when I went to gay bars to meet people; I would agonize, wedged into a corner, and leave after an hour, alone, sad, but somehow relieved. But if I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests — volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever — then I am immediately drawn into animated conversation…

But Dr. Sacks’s intense introversion is also what made him such an astute listener and observer — the very quality that rendered him humanity’s most steadfast sherpa into the strange landscape of how minds other than our own experience the seething cauldron of mystery we call life.

On one particular occasion, the thrill of observation swelled to such proportions that it eclipsed his chronic introversion. He recounts:

I almost never speak to people in the street. But some years ago, there was a lunar eclipse, and I went outside to view it with my little 20x telescope. Everyone else on the busy sidewalk seemed oblivious to the extraordinary celestial happening above them, so I stopped people, saying, “Look! Look what’s happening to the moon!” and pressing my telescope into their hands. People were taken aback at being approached in this way, but, intrigued by my manifestly innocent enthusiasm, they raised the telescope to their eyes, “wowed,” and handed it back. “Hey, man, thanks for letting me look at that,” or “Gee, thanks for showing me.”

In a sense, Dr. Sacks has spent half a century pushing a telescope into our hands and inviting us, with the same innocent and infectious enthusiasm, to peer into an object even more remote and mysterious — the human mindscape — until we wow. And although he may paint himself as a comically clumsy genius — there he is, dropping hamburger crumbs into sophisticated lab equipment; there he is, committing “a veritable genocide of earthworms” in an experiment gone awry; there he is, watching nine months of painstaking research fly off the back of his motorcycle into New York’s densest traffic — make no mistake: This is a man of enormous charisma and grace, revealed as much by the details of his life as by the delight of his writing.

Dr. Sacks's official portrait as a UCLA resident, taken at the neuropathology lab in 1964 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Nowhere does Dr. Sacks’s grace shine most luminously than in the disarming vulnerability — sometimes pensive, often poignant, always profound — with which this great seer discusses the heartbreak of not being seen himself, especially when it comes to the most intimate frontier of the human psyche. He recounts a pivotal conversation with his father as he was about to depart for his university studies at Oxford at the age of eighteen:

“You don’t seem to have many girlfriends,” he said. “Don’t you like girls?”

“They’re all right,” I answered, wishing the conversation would stop.

“Perhaps you prefer boys?” he persisted.

“Yes, I do — but it’s just a feeling — I have never ‘done’ anything,” and then I added, fearfully, “Don’t tell Ma — she won’t be able to take it.” But my father did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a face of thunder, a face I had never seen before. “You are an abomination,” she said. “I wish you had never been born.” Then she left and did not speak to me for several days. When she did speak, there was no reference to what she had said (nor did she ever refer to the matter again), but something had come between us.

Photograph by Oliver Sacks, 1960s (Courtesy of Dr. Sacks for Brain Pickings)

This experience, which left an indelible imprint of shame on young Oliver’s mind, is doubly perplexing and heartbreaking in the context of his parents’ credentials — both were prominent physicians, which would ordinarily imply the unsuperstitious critical thinking that science espouses. In fact, his mother, a female surgeon and anatomist at the dawn of the twentieth century, was a trailblazer for women in science — so much so that his father would jokingly refer to himself as “the husband of the eminent gynecologist Elsie Landau.” And yet even here, Dr. Sacks is able to transcend the personal devastation and perform the great act of empathic inquiry that became the raw material of his work — a dedication to considering the complex reality of another, very different mind:

We are all creatures of our upbringings, our cultures, our times. And I have needed to remind myself, repeatedly, that my mother was born in the 1890s and had an Orthodox upbringing and that in England in the 1950s homosexual behavior was treated not only as a perversion but as a criminal offense. I have to remember, too, that sex is one of those areas — like religion and politics — where otherwise decent and rational people may have intense, irrational feelings.

And herein blooms a vibrant example of the very thing that makes the book so extraordinary — the elegance with which Dr. Sacks bridges the observations of the mind with the tribulations of the heart:

My mother did not mean to be cruel, to wish me dead. She was suddenly overwhelmed, I now realize, and she probably regretted her words or perhaps partitioned them off in a closeted part of her mind. But her words haunted me for much of my life and played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt what should have been a free and joyous expression of sexuality.

That paralyzing inhibition followed him into university, but because guilt is a judgment of reason and the heart has its own emotive will, he eventually found himself falling in love for the first time — in spite of himself, in spite of his mother’s anguishing admonition, in spite of his brother’s well-meaning but woefully misguided effort to alleviate his sexual shyness by introducing him to a kindly French prostitute, who sensed young Oliver’s predicament and instead had “a nice cup of tea” with him.

Oliver Sacks in Oxford in 1953 (Photograph: David Drazin)

At Oxford, he met a young fellow named Richard Selig — a Rhodes scholar of enormous “vitality and love of life,” who “bore himself like a lion.” Dr. Sacks recounts those first flutterings of love:

We got talking; I suspect that it was he who started a conversation, for I was always too shy to initiate any contact and his great beauty made me even shyer… His knowledge of the world was far greater than mine, even given the disparity of age (he was twenty-four; I was twenty), far greater than that of most undergraduates who had gone straight from school to university with no experience of real life in between. He found something interesting in me, and we soon became friends — and more, for I fell in love with him. It was the first time in my life I had fallen in love. I fell in love with his face, his body, his mind, his poetry, everything about him. He would often bring me just-written poems, and I would give him some of my physiology essays in return.

[…]

We would go on long walks together, talking about poetry and science. Richard loved to hear me wax enthusiastic about chemistry and biology, and I lost my shyness when I did so. While I knew that I was in love with Richard, I was very apprehensive of admitting this; my mother’s words about “abomination” had made me feel that I must not say what I was. But, mysteriously, wonderfully, being in love, and in love with a being like Richard, was a source of joy and pride to me, and one day, with my heart in my mouth, I told Richard that I was in love with him, not knowing how he would react. He hugged me, gripped my shoulders, and said, “I know. I am not that way, but I appreciate your love and love you too, in my own way.” I did not feel rebuffed or brokenhearted. He had said what he had to say in the most sensitive way, and our friendship continued, made easier now by my relinquishing certain painful and hopeless longings.

But just as young Oliver was making peace with the fact that he and Richard will only ever be friends — lifelong friends, perhaps — life took one of its cruel turns. One day, Richard showed up in Oliver’s room, concerned about a lump in his groin and asked his friend — since he was a medical student — to take a look. Oliver’s fears were confirmed — it was a malignant tumor. Richard was told he had no more than two years to live, and he never spoke to Oliver again. “I was the first to recognize the deadly import of his tumor,” Dr. Sacks writes with wistfulness so palpably and heartbreakingly unmitigated by the lapse of six decades, “and perhaps he saw me now as a sort of messenger or symbol of death.”

He was so devastated that his studies began to suffer and his parents decided it was best for him to take a leave from Oxford and spend some time in “a friendly and supportive community with hard physical work from dawn till dusk” — so, in 1955, he joined a kibbutz. The experience was transformative in not just the intended ways:

I had gone to the kibbutz as a pallid, unfit 250 pounds, but when I left it three months later, I had lost nearly 60 pounds and, in some deep sense, felt more at home in my own body.

Oliver Sacks in Greenwich Village in 1961, on his new BMW R60 (Photograph: Douglas White)

This was the start of Dr. Sacks’s love affair with the world of physique and strength training — a deeply personal proto-demonstration of something he’d later come to demonstrate as a pioneering neurologist: that the mind is indivisible from the body. In the years that followed, as he returned to clinical work, he also began weight training with a clinician’s systematic rigor. Eventually, he sliced through the country on the back of his beloved motorbike, armed with a camera and a newfound love for landscape photography — this, it bears repeating, is a man of ample talents — and made his way to Venice’s famous Muscle Beach. There, he came to be known as Dr. Squat for squatting with a gobsmacking 600 pounds — a feat by which he set the California state record in 1961. (Having done bodybuilding myself in a past life, my admiration for Dr. Sacks doubled.)

Dr. Squat setting the California state record in 1961

Eventually, Dr. Squat traded in his bike leathers and weightlifting belt for the white coat of Dr. Sacks. He fell in love again with a young man named Mel, only to have his heart broken by Mel’s conflicted rejection:

We enjoyed each other’s company for a year — the year of my internship at Mount Zion. We would go on weekend motorbike rides together, camping out, swimming in ponds and lakes, and sometimes wrestling together. There was an erotic frisson here for me, and perhaps for Mel too. Erotic with the urgent opposition of our bodies, though there was no explicit sexual element, nor would an observer have thought we were anything more than a couple of young men wrestling together. Both of us were proud of our washboard abdominals and would do sets of sit-ups, a hundred or more at a time. Mel would sit astride me, punching me playfully in the stomach with each sit-up, and I would do the same with him.

This I found sexually exciting, and I think he did too; Mel was always saying, “Let’s wrestle,” “Let’s do abs,” though it was not a purposively sexual act. We could work our abdominals or wrestle and get pleasure from it, at one and the same time. So long as things went no further.

I felt Mel’s fragility, his not fully conscious, lurking fear of sexual contact with another man, but also the special feeling he had for me, which, I dared to think, might transcend these fears. I realized I would have to go very gently.

But like those of us who have experienced the devastating disappointment of failing to dissolve another’s private conflictedness by the sheer force of love, Dr. Sacks discovered that all the gentleness in the world was hapless against the hard edges of Mel’s inner inhibitions. When the erotic and romantic tension between them became too much to bear, Mel left, leaving behind the cold ashes of a could-have-been. Its unlived potentiality — like all great unrealized longings — reveals itself as scar tissue of the soul as Dr. Sacks looks back a lifetime later:

I had had dreams, in our “honeymoon” period, that we would spend our lives together, even into a happy old age; I was all of twenty-eight at the time. Now I am eighty, trying to reconstruct an autobiography of sorts. I find myself thinking of Mel, of us together, in those early, lyrical, innocent days, wondering what happened to him, whether he is still alive… I wonder if he will read what I have just written and think more kindly of our ardent, young, very confused selves.

Photograph by Oliver Sacks, 1960s (Courtesy of Dr. Sacks for Brain Pickings)

The heartbreak of this almost-romance catapulted Dr. Sacks into a harrowing bout of amphetamine addiction, which he barely survived. After a couple of other short-lived infatuations, he entered a somewhat undeliberate period of celibacy that would last nearly four decades. What he didn’t find in romantic love he found in his work with patients — a profound sense of purpose and a deep love for how his work touched human lives. He writes:

It was crucial for me to find something with meaning, and this, for me, was seeing patients… I found my patients fascinating, and I cared for them. I started to taste my own clinical and therapeutic powers and, above all, the sense of autonomy and responsibility which I had been denied when I was still a resident in training.

Over the decades that followed, that fusion of fascination and love propelled Dr. Sacks into becoming the most influential neurologist of our time, irrevocably changing our understanding of the human mind and how it shapes the spirit. And because life has a way of dancing with its own strangeness, it was through the love of his work that Dr. Sacks finally found the love of his life. (As some wise friends have memorably advised, “If you are looking for the love of your life, stop; they will be waiting for you when you start doing things you love.”) Dr. Sacks writes:

Shortly after my seventy-fifth birthday in 2008, I met someone I liked. Billy, a writer, had just moved from San Francisco to New York, and we began having dinners together. Timid and inhibited all my life, I let a friendship and intimacy grow between us, perhaps without fully realizing its depth. Only in December of 2009, still recuperating from knee and back surgeries and racked with pain, did I realize how deep it was. Billy was going to Seattle to spend Christmas with his family, and just before he went, he came to see me and (in the serious, careful way he has) said, “I have conceived a deep love for you.” I realized, when he said this, what I had not realized, or had concealed from myself before — that I had conceived a deep love for him too — and my eyes filled with tears. He kissed me, and then he was gone.

[…]

There was an intense emotionality at this time: music I loved, or the long golden sunlight of late afternoon, would set me weeping. I was not sure what I was weeping for, but I would feel an intense sense of love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.

Oliver Sacks (Photograph: Nicholas Naylor-Leland)

On the Move, the dedication page of which reads simply “for Billy,” is unsynthesizably transcendent in its totality — so immensely rewarding, so rich in private human truth and shared human wisdom, that compressing it into anything less than the full 416 pages is an injustice. As Dr. Sacks bids the world adieu, he leaves us with this miracle of a book — the ultimate gift of “love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.”

Photographs courtesy of Oliver Sacks; special thanks to Kate Edgar

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15 MAY, 2015

Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on Anger, Forgiveness, and What Maturity Really Means

By:

“To forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt.”

“Our emotional life maps our incompleteness,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote in her luminous letter of advice to the young. “A creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger.” Anger, indeed, is one of the emotions we judge most harshly — in others, as well as in ourselves — and yet understanding anger is central to mapping out the landscape of our interior lives. Aristotle, in planting the civilizational seed for practical wisdom, recognized this when he asked not whether anger is “good” or “bad” but how it shall be used: directed at whom, manifested how, for how long and to what end.

This undervalued soul-mapping quality of anger is what English poet and philosopher David Whyte explores in a section of Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — the same breathtaking volume “dedicated to WORDS and their beautiful hidden and beckoning uncertainty,” which gave us Whyte on the deeper meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak.

David Whyte (Nicol Ragland Photography)

Many of Whyte’s meditations invert the common understanding of each word and peel off the superficial to reveal the deeper, often counterintuitive meaning — but nowhere more so than in his essay on anger. Whyte writes:

ANGER is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt. Stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for. What we usually call anger is only what is left of its essence when we are overwhelmed by its accompanying vulnerability, when it reaches the lost surface of our mind or our body’s incapacity to hold it, or when it touches the limits of our understanding. What we name as anger is actually only the incoherent physical incapacity to sustain this deep form of care in our outer daily life; the unwillingness to be large enough and generous enough to hold what we love helplessly in our bodies or our mind with the clarity and breadth of our whole being.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for E.T.A. Hoffmann's 'Nutcracker.' Click image for more.

Such a reconsideration renders Whyte not an apologist for anger but a peacemaker in our eternal war with its underlying vulnerability, which is essentially an eternal war with ourselves — for at its source lies our tenderest, timidest humanity. In a sentiment that calls to mind Brené Brown’s masterful and culturally necessary manifesto for vulnerability“Vulnerability,” she wrote, “is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.” — Whyte adds:

What we have named as anger on the surface is the violent outer response to our own inner powerlessness, a powerlessness connected to such a profound sense of rawness and care that it can find no proper outer body or identity or voice, or way of life to hold it. What we call anger is often simply the unwillingness to live the full measure of our fears or of our not knowing, in the face of our love for a wife, in the depth of our caring for a son, in our wanting the best, in the face of simply being alive and loving those with whom we live.

Our anger breaks to the surface most often through our feeling there is something profoundly wrong with this powerlessness and vulnerability… Anger in its pure state is the measure of the way we are implicated in the world and made vulnerable through love in all its specifics.

One need only think of Van Gogh — “I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do,” he wrote in a letter as he tussled with mental illness — to appreciate Whyte’s expedition beyond anger’s surface tumults and into its innermost core: profound frustration swelling with a sense of personal failure. (Hannah Arendt captured another facet of this in her brilliant essay on how bureaucracy breeds violence — for what is bureaucracy if not the supreme institutionalization of helplessness?)

With remarkable intellectual elegance and a sensitivity to the full dimension of the human spirit, Whyte illuminates the vitalizing underbelly of anger:

Anger truly felt at its center is the essential living flame of being fully alive and fully here; it is a quality to be followed to its source, to be prized, to be tended, and an invitation to finding a way to bring that source fully into the world through making the mind clearer and more generous, the heart more compassionate and the body larger and strong enough to hold it. What we call anger on the surface only serves to define its true underlying quality by being a complete but absolute mirror-opposite of its true internal essence.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

In a related meditation, Whyte considers the nature of forgiveness:

FORGIVENESS is a heartache and difficult to achieve because strangely, it not only refuses to eliminate the original wound, but actually draws us closer to its source. To approach forgiveness is to close in on the nature of the hurt itself, the only remedy being, as we approach its raw center, to reimagine our relation to it.

Echoing Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s historic dialogue on forgiveness, Whyte — who has also asserted that “all friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness” — explores the true source of forgiveness:

Strangely, forgiveness never arises from the part of us that was actually wounded. The wounded self may be the part of us incapable of forgetting, and perhaps, not actually meant to forget, as if, like the foundational dynamics of the physiological immune system our psychological defenses must remember and organize against any future attacks — after all, the identity of the one who must forgive is actually founded on the very fact of having been wounded.

Stranger still, it is that wounded, branded, un-forgetting part of us that eventually makes forgiveness an act of compassion rather than one of simple forgetting. To forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt, to mature and bring to fruition an identity that can put its arm, not only around the afflicted one within but also around the memories seared within us by the original blow and through a kind of psychological virtuosity, extend our understanding to one who first delivered it. Forgiveness is a skill, a way of preserving clarity, sanity and generosity in an individual life, a beautiful way of shaping the mind to a future we want for ourselves; an admittance that if forgiveness comes through understanding, and if understanding is just a matter of time and application then we might as well begin forgiving right at the beginning of any drama rather than put ourselves through the full cycle of festering, incapacitation, reluctant healing and eventual blessing.

To forgive is to put oneself in a larger gravitational field of experience than the one that first seemed to hurt us. We reimagine ourselves in the light of our maturity and we reimagine the past in the light of our new identity, we allow ourselves to be gifted by a story larger than the story that first hurt us and left us bereft.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

This question of maturity, so intimately tied to forgiveness, is the subject of another of Whyte’s short essays. Echoing Anaïs Nin’s assertion that maturity is a matter of “unifying” and “integrating,” he writes:

MATURITY is the ability to live fully and equally in multiple contexts; most especially, the ability, despite our grief and losses, to courageously inhabit the past the present and the future all at once. The wisdom that comes from maturity is recognized through a disciplined refusal to choose between or isolate three powerful dynamics that form human identity: what has happened, what is happening now and what is about to occur.

Immaturity is shown by making false choices: living only in the past, or only in the present, or only in the future, or even, living only two out of the three.

Maturity is not a static arrived platform, where life is viewed from a calm, untouched oasis of wisdom, but a living elemental frontier between what has happened, what is happening now and the consequences of that past and present; first imagined and then lived into the waiting future.

Maturity calls us to risk ourselves as much as immaturity, but for a bigger picture, a larger horizon; for a powerfully generous outward incarnation of our inward qualities and not for gains that make us smaller, even in the winning.

Maturity, Whyte seems to suggest, becomes a kind of arrival at a sense of enoughness — a willingness to enact what Kurt Vonnegut considered one of the great human virtues: the ability to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?” Whyte writes:

Maturity beckons also, asking us to be larger, more fluid, more elemental, less cornered, less unilateral, a living conversational intuition between the inherited story, the one we are privileged to inhabit and the one, if we are large enough and broad enough, moveable enough and even, here enough, just, astonishingly, about to occur.

Consolations, it bears repeating, is an absolutely magnificent read — the kind that reorients your world and remains a compass for a lifetime. Complement it with Whyte on ending relationships and breaking the tyranny of work-life balance.

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