Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

15 OCTOBER, 2012

Freud on Creative Writing and Daydreaming

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“The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real.”

“Writing is a little door,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. “Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.”

Sigmund Freud — key figure in the making of consumer culture, deft architect of his own myth, modern plaything — spent a fair amount of his career exploring the psychology of dreams. In 1908, he turned to the intersection of fantasies and creativity, and penned a short essay titled “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,” eventually republished in the anthology The Freud Reader (public library). Though his theories have been the subject of much controversy and subsequent revision, they remain a fascinating formative framework for much of the modern understanding of the psyche.

Predictably, Freud begins by tracing the subject matter to its roots in childhood, stressing, as Anaïs Nin eloquently did — herself trained in psychoanalysis — the importance of emotional investment in creative writing:

Should we not look for the first traces of imaginative activity as early as in childhood? The child’s best-loved and most intense occupation is with his play or games. Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or, rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him? It would be wrong to think he does not take that world seriously; on the contrary, he takes his play very seriously and he expends large amounts of emotion on it. The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real. In spite of all the emotion with which he cathects his world of play, the child distinguishes it quite well from reality; and he likes to link his imagined objects and situations to the tangible and visible things of the real world. This linking is all that differentiates the child’s ‘play’ from ‘phantasying.’

The creative writer does the same as the child at play. He creates a world of phantasy which he takes very seriously — that is, which he invests with large amounts of emotion — while separating it sharply from reality.

He then considers, as Henry Miller did in his famous creative routine three decades later, the time scales of the creative process:

The relation of phantasy to time is in general very important. We may say that it hovers, as it ware, between three times — the three moments of time which our ideation involves. Mental work is linked to some current impression, some provoking occasion in the present which has been able to arouse one of the subject’s major wishes. From here it harks back to a memory of an earlier experience (usually an infantile one) in which this wish was fulfilled; and now it creates a situation relating to the future which represents the fulfillment of the wish. What it thus creates is a day-dream or phantasy, which carries about it traces of its origin from the occasion which provoked it and from the memory. Thus, past, present and future are strung together, as it were, on the thread of the wish that runs through them.

'Calypso' by Lynda Barry

Original watercolor from my personal collection

He synthesizes the parallel between creative writing and play:

[A] piece of creative writing, like a day-dream, is a continuation of, and a substitute for, what was once the play of childhood.

He goes on to explore the secretive nature of our daydreams, suggesting that an element of shame keeps us from sharing them with others — perhaps what Jack Kerouac meant when he listed the unspeakable visions of the individual as one of his iconic beliefs and techniques for prose — and considers how the creative writer transcends that to achieve pleasure in the disclosure of these fantasies:

How the writer accomplishes this is his innermost secret; the essential ars poetica lies in the technique of overcoming the feeling of repulsion in us which is undoubtedly connected with the barriers that rise between each single ego and the others. We can guess two of the methods used by this technique. The writer softens the character of his egoistic day-dreams by altering and disguising it, and he bribes us by the purely formal — that is, aesthetic — yield of pleasure which he offers us in the presentation of his phantasies. We give the name of an incentive bonus, or a fore-pleasure, to a yield of pleasure such as this, which is offered to us so as to make possible the release of still greater pleasure arising from deeper psychical sources. In my opinion, all the aesthetic pleasure which a creative writer affords us has the character of a fore-pleasure of this kind, and our actual enjoyment of an imaginative work proceeds from a liberation of tensions in our minds. It may even be that not a little of this effect is due to the writer’s enabling us thenceforward to enjoy our own day-dreams without self-reproach or shame.

For more famous insights on writing, see Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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12 OCTOBER, 2012

Some of Today’s Hottest Scientific Mysteries, Illustrated by Some of Today’s Coolest Artists

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A beautiful celebration of the unknown at the intersection of art and science.

As a lover of the intersection of art and science, I find myself more excited about The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science (public library) than I’ve been about a book in ages. In this gem, as intellectually stimulating as it is visually stunning, creative trifecta Julia Rothman ( ), Jenny Volvovski and Matt Lamothe, better-known as Also Online, invite some of today’s most celebrated artists to create scientific illustrations and charts to accompany short essays about the most fascinating unanswered questions on the minds of contemporary scientists across biology, astrophysics, chemistry, quantum mechanics, anthropology, and more. The questions cover such mind-bending subjects as whether there are more than three dimensions, why we sleep and dream, what causes depression, how long trees live, and why humans are capable of language.

The images, which come from a mix of well-known titans and promising up-and-comers, including favorites like Lisa Congdon, Gemma Correll, and Jon Klassen, borrow inspiration from antique medical illustrations, vintage science diagrams, and other historical ephemera from periods of explosive scientific curiosity.

Above all, the project is a testament to the idea that ignorance is what drives discovery and wonder is what propels science — a reminder to, as Rilke put it, live the questions and delight in reflecting on the mysteries themselves. The trio urge in the introduction:

With this book, we wanted to bring back a sense of the unknown that has been lost in the age of information. … Remember that before you do a quick online search for the purpose of the horned owl’s horns, you should give yourself some time to wonder.

The motion graphics book trailer is an absolute masterpiece itself:

Pondering the age-old question of why the universe exists, Brian Yanny asks:

Was there an era before our own, out of which our current universe was born? Do the laws of physics, the dimensions of space-time, the strengths and types and asymmetries of nature’s forces and particles, and the potential for life have to be as we observe them, or is there a branching multi-verse of earlier and later epochs filled with unimaginably exotic realms? We do not know.

What existed before the big bang?

Illustrated by Josh Cochran

Exploring how gravity works, Terry Matilsky notes:

[T]he story is not finished. We know that general relativity is not the final answer, because we have not been able to synthesize gravity with the other known laws of physics in a comprehensive “theory of everything.”

How does gravity work?

Illustrated by The Heads of State

In one of the more elegant explanations of the Higgs boson, often referred to — to the annoyance of some — as the “god” particle, Albert de Roeck writes:

The Higgs boson*, sometimes also called by its more complete name the Higgs-Brout-Englert boson, is a hypothetical massive elementary particle predicted to exist in the Standard Model of particle physics. The Standard Model is the best theory we have to date in particle physics that describes the interactions between elementary particles. However, the problem with the Standard Model (without a Higgs field) is that, in order for it to work, all elementary particles would have to be massless. Since we know that particles have mass, we know that the Standard Model without an additional mechanism to give mass to particles is incomplete. Hence, the Higgs field is the name we give to the field which does the job of imparting mass to particles. And, since a field cannot exist without a matching particle, that gives us the Higgs boson.

What is the 'god' particle?

Illustrated by Jordin Isip

Zooming in on the microcosm of our own bodies and their curious behaviors, Jill Conte considers why we blush:

The ruddy or darkened hue of a blush occurs when muscles in the walls of blood vessels within the skin relax and allow more blood to flow. Interestingly, the skin of the blush region contains more blood vessels than do other parts of the body. These vessels are also larger and closer to the surface, which indicates a possible relationship among physiology, emotion, and social communication. While it is known that blood flow to the skin, which serves to feed cells and regulate surface body temperature, is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, the exact mechanism by which this process is activated specifically to produce a blush remains unknown.

What is dark matter?

Illustrated by Betsy Walton

Equal parts delightful and illuminating, The Where, the Why, and the How is the kind of treat bound to tickle your brain from both sides.

* Earlier this year, likely after the book went to print, scientists at CERN (sort of) confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson.

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12 OCTOBER, 2012

Do Not Despise Your Inner World: Advice on a Full Life from Philosopher Martha Nussbaum

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“Our emotional life maps our incompleteness: A creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger.”

When he was twenty-one, artist and writer James Harmon stumbled into a bookstore and found himself mesmerized by a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, the central concerns in which — love, fear, art, doubt, sex — resonated powerfully with his restless young mind and inspired him to envision what advice to young people might look like a century after Rilke. So he set out to create 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 and 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. The result, a decade in the making and the stubborn survivor of ample publishing pressure to grind it into precisely the kind of mush Harmon was determined to avoid, is Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two (public library) — an anthology of thoughtful, honest, brave, unfluffed advice from 79 cultural icons, including Mark Helprin, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and William S. Burroughs.

One of the most poignant letters comes from philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who makes an eloquent case for the importance of cultivating a rich inner life by celebrating emotional excess as a generative force, embracing vulnerability, not fearing feelings, and harnessing the empathic power of storytelling.

Martha Nussbaum as a college freshman

Do not despise your inner world. That is the first and most general piece of advice I would offer… Our society is very outward-looking, very taken up with the latest new object, the latest piece of gossip, the latest opportunity for self-assertion and status. But we all begin our lives as helpless babies, dependent on others for comfort, food, and survival itself. And even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve. As we grow, we all develop a wide range of emotions responding to this predicament: fear that bad things will happen and that we will be powerless to ward them off; love for those who help and support us; grief when a loved one is lost; hope for good things in the future; anger when someone else damages something we care about. Our emotional life maps our incompleteness: A creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger. But for that very reason we are often ashamed of our emotions, and of the relations of need and dependency bound up with them. Perhaps males, in our society, are especially likely to be ashamed of being incomplete and dependent, because a dominant image of masculinity tells them that they should be self-sufficient and dominant. So people flee from their inner world of feeling, and from articulate mastery of their own emotional experiences. The current psychological literature on the life of boys in America indicates that a large proportion of boys are quite unable to talk about how they feel and how others feel — because they have learned to be ashamed of feelings and needs, and to push them underground. But that means that they don’t know how to deal with their own emotions, or to communicate them to others. When they are frightened, they don’t know how to say it, or even to become fully aware of it. Often they turn their own fear into aggression. Often, too, this lack of a rich inner life catapults them into depression in later life. We are all going to encounter illness, loss, and aging, and we’re not well prepared for these inevitable events by a culture that directs us to think of externals only, and to measure ourselves in terms of our possessions of externals.

What is the remedy of these ills? A kind of self-love that does not shrink from the needy and incomplete parts of the self, but accepts those with interest and curiosity, and tries to develop a language with which to talk about needs and feelings. Storytelling plays a big role in the process of development. As we tell stories about the lives of others, we learn how to imagine what another creature might feel in response to various events. At the same time, we identify with the other creature and learn something about ourselves. As we grow older, we encounter more and more complex stories — in literature, film, visual art, music — that give us a richer and more subtle grasp of human emotions and of our own inner world. So my second piece of advice, closely related to the first, is: Read a lot of stories, listen to a lot of music, and think about what the stories you encounter mean for your own life and lives of those you love. In that way, you will not be alone with an empty self; you will have a newly rich life with yourself, and enhanced possibilities of real communication with others.

Complement with some timeless meditations on the meaning of life from other cultural icons.

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