Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

02 OCTOBER, 2012

Graphic Canon vol. 2: Literary Comics from Lewis Carroll to the Brontë Sisters by Way of Darwin

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Celebrated contemporary graphic artists adapt some of the most memorable literature since 1800.

Earlier this year, Russ Kick gave us the the first installment of his Graphic Canon trilogy, which culls illustrated adaptations of 190 classic literary works from more than 130 contemporary graphic artists. Today marks the release of the second volume, The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2: From “Kubla Khan” to the Brontë Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray (public library), which covers a remarkable spectrum of literature since 1800 and spans everything from “the bad boys of Romanticism” — Keats, Byron, and Shelley — to cornerstones of science and philosophy like Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra to prior favorites like Matt Kish’s Moby-Dick illustrations. The tome is the best thing in literary comics since Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant and a fine complement to the best graphic nonfiction of the past few years.

Lord Byron's 'She Walks in Beauty,' adapted by David Lasky

Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, adapted by Matt Kish

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, adapted by Dave Morice

Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, adapted by Tim Fish

Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, adapted by Elizabeth Watasin

Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven,' adapted by Yien Yip

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, adapted by Huxley King & Terrence Boyce

Detail from the Incan play Apu Ollantay, adapted by Caroline Picard

Of particular fascination and delight to me, as a hopeless Lewis Carroll fan, are the gorgeous takes on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, “Jabberwocky,” and “The Hunting of the Snark.”

Lewis Carroll's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, adapted by Dame Darcy

Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark, adapted by Mahendra Singh

The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2, bound to enchant in innumerable ways, will be followed by volume 3 in March, which is now available for pre-order.

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02 OCTOBER, 2012

Saddam Hussein’s Speeches on Democracy (1977-1978)

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“The question of democracy is an extremely complicated one. It needs your great concern.”

“We aspire to make the child a source of enlightenment within the family, which includes his parents and his siblings, so that he may bring about positive changes. He may also teach his family some of the rules of good conduct and respect…” This isn’t Maria Montessori or Sir Ken Robinson or some other celebrated champion of education. It’s Saddam Hussein, speaking before Iraq’s Council of Planning and the Arab Baath Socialist Party as a young vice-president full of gargantuan ambition. On Democracy by Saddam Hussein (public library) — free on Kindle for Amazon Prime subscribers — collects the three speeches Hussein delivered to the Council in 1977-1978, shortly before he took the presidency in 1979 and, as humanitarian journalist Jeff Severns Guntzel puts it in the introduction, “his iron fist [was] first ungloved.” Accompanying the texts are a number of works by artist Paul Chan.

In the speeches, Hussein considers democracy as he argues that “the Arab Baath Socialist Party did not and should not become an authoritarian Party, because there is no objective justification for that.” Whether Hussein’s remarks are an expression of a conflicted man’s efforts to rationalize and reconcile opposing desires for domination and righteousness, or evidence of how power warps idealism and ideology, or merely the deft political spins of a conniving, vile dictator — or, perhaps, some combination of these and other complex motives — is left for the reader to decide. But whatever the underpinning drivers, the syllogism-encrusted speeches themselves stand as a jarring piece of cultural history and political philosophy, exploring how everything from education to the media can be used as a weapon of “democracy” — and, as history has proven, of its opposite.

Untitled

Paul Chan, 2006, charcoal on paper

The first speech, “Democracy: A Source of Strength for the Individual and Society,” was delivered on July 10, 1977. It was there Hussein extolled the virtues of using children as vehicles for the dissemination and defense of his ideology:

You should win over the adults through their children as well as by other means. Teach the student and the pupil to disapprove of his parents if he heard them talk about the State’s secrets, and to inform them that this is wrong. Teach them to criticize their parents politely if they heard them talk about the secrets of Party organizations. You should place in every corner a son devoted to the Revolution, with a reliable eye and a wise mind. He would receive his directives from the Revolution’s responsible center and carry them out, store old formulas and treat them in a proper way, psychologically and socially, while he maintains and respects family unity.

[…]

You should also teach the child at this stage to be wary of foreigners, because they act as spies for their countries and some of them are elements of subversion against the Revolution. Therefore befriending a foreigner and talking with him without supervision is not permissible.

Green Zone

Paul Chan, 2012, charcoal and fabric on paper

As is the case with much of the speeches, what begins as a benign enough, noble-seeming even, idea quickly unfolds into a disturbing distortion — in this case, a romanticizing of martyrdom:

Avoid being polite at the expense of doing the right thing. If you do so you will succeed and win people’s love, though you will face some difficulties.

[…]

Sustaining some losses is necessary not only as part of the sacrifice and the struggle in the circumstances of the underground stage; we have also to suffer losses as we develop and build up in the course of positive action. The first Iraqi who did away with the veil was the first victim made for the sake of all Iraqi women. The first woman who worked in a factory was the first victim made for the sake of all working women. The same goes for the first woman doctor, first woman lawyer, first real revolutionary, etc.

Hussein follows up with an equally incongruous treatise on justice:

Observing justice and fairness is a human duty that is faced with real difficulties in one’s home, among friends in the Party or in one’s relation with the minister or in the minister’s relation with the director-general or the undersecretary. Sometimes one might even reach a stage in his career where he says to himself: ‘Since people want to depart from justice, why should I continue to be just?’ An action such as this is certainly deviation, and it should never be part of our policy or conduct. Rather we should allow for some losses and accept a degree of sacrifice in order that the right and just course may be firmly established, because this is the way of real revolutionaries who believe in the justice of their cause and in their people.

It has been proved by experience that even the people whom you treat severely with justification would first reject you and be annoyed by you, but after a while they will like you. And when severity has nothing to do with personal intent or design to harm, they will accept it however harsh it is. Sometimes they accept some aspect of it even when it is wrong, provided that it is not related to a personal motive or a grudge, and it should not be a consistent policy.

Horse without rider

Paul Chan, 2012, charcoal and fabric on paper

The absurdity that arises from Hussein’s effort to reconcile paradoxical concepts rings even more deafening with the hindsight of a decades-long war:

There is no contradiction between democracy and legitimate power. No one should ever imagine that democracy would debilitate him or diminish respect for him and his legitimate power, because this is not true.

There is no contradiction between exercising democracy and legitimate central administrative control according to the well-known balance between centralization and democracy. It is only those who are poor in ability and knowledge who imagine that there is a contradiction between democracy and centralization, between care for others and comradely and brotherly treatment, on the one hand, and maintaining the role and position of leadership, on the other.

Democracy consolidates relations among people, and its main strength is respect. The strength that stems from democracy assumes a higher degree of adherence in carrying out orders with great accuracy and zeal.

[…]

Pay attention to citizens’ demands and grievances and do not feel weary or bored by the persistence of these demands, because if you save a wronged person, partially or totally, you will be doing a great service to the people and the principles of your Party. The sense of injustice is a serious thing. There is nothing more dangerous than a human being who feels he is wronged, because he will turn into a huge explosive force when he feels that no one in the State or in society is on his side to redress the injustice.

He begins the second speech, “Democracy: A Comprehensive Conception of Life,” delivered on July 26, 1977, with a direct meditation on the nature of democracy:

The question of democracy is an extremely complicated one. It needs your great concern, each from his own position and through correct practices.

[…]

If someone’s principles shake in practicing the correct formula of democracy, his relationship with people working with him and those who are lower than him in the Party or in professional ranks, and he does not treat that correctly by returning to democratic formula and means, including collective work, he is neither a true revolutionary nor a true advocate of principles. Any time, anywhere, a revolutionary person should, besides principled considerations that he should not forget, exchange places, metaphorically, with his juniors. Thus the picture is turned over and he imagines himself in the lower person’s shoes. He is the one suffering injustice and not the director-general or the Minister. He is the citizen, not the director-general; he is the Party member in the lowest rank and not the one in the highest rank. He imagines how he can deal with the relationship, how he considers it, from his position as a director-general, with a certain minister; how he suffers, gets annoyed, or revolts when democratic justice is not practiced toward him in the proper way. He has to imagine how he would feel when something wrong is done to him as a result of not practicing democracy, or as a result of practicing democracy in the wrong way between him and his superiors, and how he would stick to that and demand proper ways and means of practicing democracy.

One of Hussein’s most grimly prescient meditations, particularly in the timely context of censorship, explores the relationship between government and the mass media:

Democracy will remain one of the most difficult issues preoccupying human thought, political thought, and constitutional formula now and in the future, in Iraq and elsewhere, because democracy is a human as well as a major political issue. … Take, for example, the information media. They are revolutionary and democratic means for making people aware and open-minded, and also for superiors. In order that the information media carry out their task in a proper way, a great deal of care is needed not only from the person or persons directly in charge of it, but also from all of us. We are required to take good care of the media not to spoil them but guide them, cooperate with them, criticize them when mistakes are made, and provide them with the means of strength and development in order to play their role properly in orientation and supervision. Some Ministers or those lower in rank and responsibility complain of unconstructive criticism unleashed sometimes by certain information media against governmental departments. To start with, I admit that sometimes there are inaccurate and incorrect practices in this field. At the same time, those working in the media repeatedly complain of government departments being indifferent to them and uncooperative with them, sometimes of not being taken seriously, saying that a newspaper correspondent or a journalist is occasionally treated as an opponent or even as a foe when he comes to an office, instead of having the door open for him and being given correct information, so that his criticism of matters will be practiced and objective.

[…]

The proper way to make the media sector play its role in surveillance and public awareness is not by rejecting this role or defining it in such a narrow way as to make the task in its correct form almost impossible. Rather it should be put in the right form. And to make the media sector function in the proper form we all have to interact with it positively, faithfully, and assiduously.

Inadvertently presaging the mechanisms of the Arab Spring, Hussein admonishes:

When facing falsehood and deviation, the force of righteousness is turned into a great power. When the wronged person cannot express it with proper accuracy through his own individual effort, others will express it by other means. And it will take its correct course in expressing itself whether by the wronged person or by other people in society.

Towering the irony is Hussein’s vision for what we might call “open-source government” today:

Meet with the people who contact your offices, brothers, and meet with the civil servants working at your offices and respond to them according to proper contexts and procedures. Then you will find that you have benefitted a great deal, because the democratic issue and the practice of authority are not a scholastic issue. It is not like the old-fashioned teacher-student relationship, when a teacher used to come into class, give his lesson, and leave after the students had memorized it. The democratic issue and the practice of power require considerable interaction with people, for while you teach others a lesson, the people lower than you in responsibility will teach you many lessons through various types and through the views they voice from their own positions, and on the basis of their own experience and education.

[…]

What is required to understand people’s general concerns in society and work by inviting them to discuss the issue of production and productivity: listen to their views about the correct things they see in government departments that make them perform tasks in a better way, and interact with their views. Discuss the defects in government departments and in the work of the civil servants, then find the suitable solutions for them.

[…]

The relation between you and the people should not be supercilious. And remember that the correct framework of the relation is to be an interactive leadership relation.

Untitled

Paul Chan, 2012, charcoal and fabric on paper

In the third speech, “Democracy: A Principled and Practiced Necessity,” Hussein explores the national and international principles of democratic rule:

The democratic practice is a principled point of departure expressing the Party’s unwearied policy and its ideological perceptions, which derive their basic characteristics from the particularity of the Baath ideology and its practical applications. The democratic practice is thus the genuine, principled vision and expression of the people’s will and conscience within the framework of sound revolutionary perception, which avoids in its calculations the fall into the illusions of liberal ideas, and defines the spheres of this practice in their proper conscious tracks.

Democracy, in the Arab Baath Socialist Party’s view, is of a well-defined revolutionary base deriving its characteristics from its association with our socialist ideology. In its Baathist particularity, it motivates the citizen and the people and reactivates their hidden resources, formerly restricted by depression, deprivation, fear, and hesitation. This active motivation of the citizen’s and society’s capabilities turns their revolutionary movement into a great force on the path of the revolutionary process and its evolution. Keeping the sources of anxiety and fear in the life of the citizen and the people like a nightmare threatening their life and future will seriously reduce their power to the weakest state possible.

Untitled

Paul Chan, 2012, charcoal and fabric on paper

He cites a growing sense of global awareness:

Respect for the opinion of the individual along the path we guide him and not the path we are driven to is an urgent practical and political necessity in addition to being a principled duty. The general trends and development taking place in the world are in the interest of democracy. Naturally everything develops in this direction. Interaction with the people’s public life and respect of the people’s opinion have become a fact, receiving growing attention from peoples of the world. The authorities derive their powers from it.

The citizen has been able to benefit from the world’s culture and information. He now can receive any radio broadcast and listen to and watch world television, in line with the development of technology and science. Science and technology have developed to the extent that the citizen can see, through directly transmitted television, the political and social life of the world and learn a great deal. People’s awareness, education, and aspirations will expand accordingly.

…but not before taking a stab at America, with an embedded reminder that “democracy” is defined by cultural context:

We are in the age of democracy’s progress and dissemination in the world. This explains the Americans’ use of the issue of democratic freedoms against the Soviet Union and socialist states through the slogans of human rights and freedom, although in their general policies in and outside their country they strike hard at democratic freedoms and human rights as we understand them.

After criticizing the political regime in Egypt, he offers a perfect articulation of the gobsmacking syllogism at the very heart of all three speeches, this notion that “democracy” is a good, but a good to be bestowed selectively upon an idle citizenry by a deigning leadership:

The right way is to ask farmers, through a democratic procedure whose bases we lay down, to choose their representatives. Those whose stands are questionable and those affected by the agricultural reform laws should be excluded. This is people’s democracy, which means isolating the influence of anti-revolutionary elements on a class basis, and in their political and ideological stands and tendencies, in accordance with appropriate and well-defined formulas and methods and enabling the sons of the Revolution to exercise democracy according to the central conditions laid down by the leadership.

The End

Paul Chan, 2012, charcoal on paper

On Democracy by Saddam Hussein, absolutely fascinating and sufficiently unsettling in its entirety, comes from Chan’s Badlands Unlimited — a different breed of publishing outfit that believes the “historical distinctions between books, files, and artworks are dissolving rapidly” and seeks to publish “new works by artists and writers that embody the spirit of this emerging dissolution.”

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01 OCTOBER, 2012

How to Break Through Your Creative Block: Strategies from 90 of Today’s Most Exciting Creators

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Refining the machinery of creativity, or what heartbreak and hydraulics have to do with coaxing the muse.

What extraordinary energy we expend, as a culture and a civilization, on trying to understand where good ideas come from, how creativity works, its secrets, its origins, its mechanisms, and the five-step action plan for coaxing it into manifestation. And little compares to the anguish that comes with the blockage of creative flow.

In 2010, designer and musician Alex Cornell found himself stumped by a creative block while trying to write an article about creative block. Deterred neither by the block nor by the irony, he reached out to some of his favorite artists and asked them for their coping strategies in such an event. The response was overwhelming in both volume and depth, inspiring Cornell to put together a collection on the subject. The result is Breakthrough!: 90 Proven Strategies to Overcome Creative Block and Spark Your Imagination (public library) — a small but potent compendium of field-tested, life-approved insight on optimizing the creative process from some of today’s most exciting artists, designers, illustrators, writers, and thinkers. From the many specific strategies — walks in nature, porn, destruction of technology, weeping — a few powerful universals emerge, including the role of procrastination, the importance of a gestation period for ideas, and, above all, the reminder that the “creative block” befalls everyone indiscriminately.

Writer Michael Erard teases apart “creative block” and debunks its very premise with an emphasis on creativity as transformation:

First of all, being creative is not summoning stuff ex nihilo. It’s work, plain and simple — adding something to some other thing or transforming something. In the work that I do, as a writer and a metaphor designer, there’s always a way to get something to do something to do something else. No one talks about work block.

Also, block implies a hydraulic metaphor of thinking. Thoughts flow. Difficulty thinking represents impeded flow. This interoperation also suggests a single channel for that flow. A stopped pipe. A dammed river. If you only have one channel, one conduit, then you’re vulnerable to blockage. Trying to solve creative block, I imagine a kind of psyching Roto-Rootering.

My conceptual scheme is more about the temperature of things: I try to find out what’s hot and start there, even if it may be unrelated to what I need to be working on, and most of the time, that heats up other areas too. You can solve a lot with a new conceptual frame.

Designer Sam Potts suggests that heartbreak isn’t merely evolutionary adaptive strategy, it’s a creative one:

Have your heart broken. It worked for Rei Kawakubo. You’ll realize the work you’d been doing wasn’t anywhere near your potential.

From the inimitable Debbie Millman, who has kindly offered this hand-lettered version of the typeset list in the book:

  1. Get enough sleep! Sleep is the best (and easiest) creative aphrodisiac.
  2. Read as much as you can, particularly classics. If a master of words can’t inspire you, see number 3.
  3. Color code your library. That is fun, and you will realize how many great books you have that you haven’t read yet.
  4. More sleep! You can never get enough.
  5. Force yourself to procrastinate. Works every time!
  6. Look at the work of Tibor Kalman, Marian Bantjes, Jessica Hische, Christoph Niemann, and Paul Sahre.
  7. Weep. And then weep some more.
  8. Surf the Web. Write inane tweets. Check out your high school friends on Facebook. Feel smug.
  9. Watch Law & Order: SVU marathons. Revel in the ferocious beauty of Olivia Benson.
  10. Remember how L-U-C-K-Y you are to be a creative person to begin with and quit your bellyaching. Get to work now!

Illustrator Marc Johns, whose art I have on my arm, offers:

Pretend. Stop thinking like a designer or writer or whatever you are for a minute. Pretend you’re a pastry chef. Pretend you’re an elevator repair contractor. A pilot. A hot dog vendor. How do these people look at the world?

One of my favorite musicians, Alexi Murdoch, extends an infinitely important, infinitely timely contrarian critique of creativity-culture:

Beethoven drank buckets of strong, black coffee. Beethoven was creatively prodigious. (He also went deaf and, perhaps, mad.) Sound syllogism here? I’d like to think so.

The idea that creativity is some abundantly available resource waiting simply for the right application of ingenuity to extract, refine, and pipe it into the grid seems so axiomatic at this cultural juncture that the very distinction between creativity and productivity has been effectively erased.

And so it is that, when faced with a decreased flow in productivity, we ask not what it might be that’s interfering with our creative process, but rather what device might be quickly employed to raise production levels. This is standard, myopic, symptomatology-over-pathology response, typical of a pressurized environment of dislocated self-entitlement.

At the risk of going off brief here, can I just ask: What’s wrong with creative block? Might it not just be that periods — even extended ones — of productive hiatus are essential mechanisms of gestation designed to help us attain higher standards in our pursuit of creative excellence?

Writer Douglas Rushkoff rebels:

I don’t believe in writer’s block.

Yes, there may have been days or even weeks at a time when I have not written — even when I may have wanted to — but that doesn’t mean I was blocked. It simply means I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or, as I’d like to argue, exactly the right place at the right time.

The creative process has more than one kind of expression. There’s the part you could show in a movie montage — the furious typing or painting or equation solving where the writer, artist, or mathematician accomplishes the output of the creative task. But then there’s also the part that happens invisibly, under the surface. That’s when the senses are perceiving the world, the mind and heart are thrown into some sort of dissonance, and the soul chooses to respond.

That response doesn’t just come out like vomit after a bad meal. There’s not such thing as pure expression. Rather, because we live in a social world with other people whose perceptual apparatus needs to be penetrated with our ideas, we must formulate, strategize, order, and then articulate. It is that last part that is visible as output or progress, but it only represents, at best, 25 percent of the process.

Real creativity transcends time. If you are not producing work, then chances are you have fallen into the infinite space between the ticks of the clock where reality is created. Don’t let some capitalist taskmaster tell you otherwise — even if he happens to be in your own head.

Musician Jamie Lidell echoes Tchaikovsky:

Cheers. Watcha gonna do with a blocked toilet? I mean, that’s all it is, right? A bung that needs pulling to let the clear waters of inspiration flow.

Maybe. Or maybe it just takes showing up. Going back again and again to write or paint or sing or cook.

Some days the genius will be in you, and you will sail. Other days the lead will line the slippers, and you’ll be staring into the void of your so-called creative mind, feeling like a fraud. It’s all part of the big ole cycle of creativity, and it’s a healthy cycle at that.

As a notorious marginalian, I wholeheartedly second this bit from digital-media artist and data viz wunderkind Aaron Koblin, head of the Data Arts Team in Google’s Creative Lab:

They say an elephant never forgets. Well, you are not an elephant. Take notes, constantly. Save interesting thoughts, quotations, films, technologies…the medium doesn’t matter, so long as it inspires you. When you’re stumped, go to your notes like a wizard to his spellbook. Mash those thoughts together. Extend them in every direction until they meet.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett has a special term for his method:

My strategy for getting myself out of a rut is to sit at my desk reminding myself of what the problem is, reviewing my notes, generally filling my head with the issues and terms, and then I just get up and go do something relatively mindless and repetitive. At our farm in the summer, I paint the barn or mow the hayfield or pick berries or cut fire wood to length…. I don’t even try to think about the problem, but more often than not, at some point in the middle of the not very challenging activity, I’ll find myself mulling it over and coming up with a new slant, a new way of tackling the issue, maybe just a new term to use. Engaging my brain with something else to control and think about helps melt down the blockades that have been preventing me from making progress, freeing up the circuits for some new paths. My strategy could hardly be cruder, but it works so well so often that I have come to rely on it.

One summer, many years ago, my friend Doug Hofstadter was visiting me at my farm, and somebody asked him where I was. He gestured out to the big hayfield behind the house, which I was harrowing for a reseeding. ‘He’s out there on his tractor, doing his tillosophy,’ Doug said. Ever since then, tillosophy has been my term for this process. Try it; if it doesn’t work, at least you’ll end up with a painted room, a mowed lawn, a clean basement.

But as a tireless proponent of combinatorial creativity, my favorite comes from the inimitable Jessica Hagy of indexed fame, who pretty much articulates the Brain Pickings founding philosophy:

How can you defeat the snarling goblins of creative block? With books, of course. Just grab one. It doesn’t matter what sort: science fiction, science fact, pornography (soft, hard, or merely squishy), comic books, textbooks, diaries (of people known or unknown), novels, telephone directories, religious texts — anything and everything will work.

Now, open it to a random page. Stare at a random sentence.

[…]

Every book holds the seed of a thousand stories. Every sentence can trigger an avalanche of ideas. Mix ideas across books: one thought from Aesop and one line from Chomsky, or a fragment from the IKEA catalog melded with a scrap of dialog from Kerouac.

By forcing your mind to connect disparate bits of information, you’ll jump-start your thinking, and you’ll fill in blank after blank with thought after thought. The goblins of creative block have stopped snarling and have been shooed away, you’re dashing down thoughts, and your synapses are clanging away in a symphonic burst of ideas. And if you’re not, whip open another book. Pluck out another sentence. And ponder mash-ups of out-of-context ideas until your mind wanders and you end up in a new place, a place that no one else ever visited.

Marvelous.

At once practical and philosophical, Breakthrough! promises to help you burst through your own creative plateaus. Whether or not it succeeds, one thing it’s guaranteed to do is make you feel less alone in your mental struggles — and what greater reassurance than that could there be?

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.