Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

24 AUGUST, 2012

Tchaikovsky on the Paradox of Patronage and Creative Purpose vs. Commissioned Work

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“I should be guilty of artistic dishonesty were I to abuse my technical skill and give you false coin in exchange for true only with a view to improving my pecuniary situation.”

The origin of altruism has long intrigued scientists and philosophers alike, and one of its most enduring manifestations is the practice of patronage, from the Medici to Kickstarter. From The Life & Letters of Pete Ilich Tchaikovsky (public domain), the same 1905 tome that gave us Tchaikovsky’s priceless insight on work ethic vs. inspiration, comes the celebrated composer’s meditation on the paradoxes of patronage and the timeless tension between creative purpose and commissioned work.

On May 1st, 1877, he sent his lifelong benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, the following letter, bespeaking so many of the modern-day maladies of work-for-hire, the flawed on-demand paradigm of inspiration, and the enormous psychological barriers many of us erect against accepting financial help:

HONOURED NADEJDA FILARETOVNA,

In spite of obstinate denials on the part of a friend who is well known to both of us, I have good reason to suppose that your letter, which I received early this morning, is due to a well-intentioned ruse on his part. Even your earlier commissions awoke in me a suspicion that you had more than one reason for suggesting them: on the one hand, you really wished to possess arrangements of some of my works; on the other knowing my material difficulties you desired to help me through them. The very high fees you sent me for my easy tasks forced me to this conclusion. This time I am convinced that the second reason is almost wholly answerable for your latest commission. Between the lines of your letter I read your delicacy of feeling and your kindness, and was touched by your way of approaching me. At the same time, in the depths of my heart, I felt such an intense unwillingness to comply with your request that I cannot answer you in the affirmative. I could not bear any insincerity or falsehood to creep into our mutual relations. This would undoubtedly have been the case had I disregarded my inward promptings, manufactured a composition for you without pleasure or inspiration, and received from you an unsuitable fee in return. Would not the thought have passed through your mind that I was ready to undertake any kind of musical work provided the fee was high enough? Would you not have had some grounds for supposing that, had you been poor, I should not have complied with your requests?

Finally, our intercourse is marred by one painful circumstance in almost all our letters the question of money crops up. Of course it is not a degradation for an artist to accept money for his trouble; but, besides labour, a work such as you now wish me to undertake demands a certain degree of what is called inspiration, and at the present moment this is not at my disposal. I should be guilty of artistic dishonesty were I to abuse my technical skill and give you false coin in exchange for true only with a view to improving my pecuniary situation.

But Von Meek’s response, exuding the poetic faux-solipsism of altruism, reveals that the paradox of patronage is no paradox at all — what’s at stake is not a transaction but, as Henry Miller has eloquently argued, an exchange of mutual gratification:

I am looking after you for my own sake. My most precious beliefs and sympathies are in your keeping; your very existence gives me so much enjoyment, for life is the better for your letters and your music; finally, I want to keep you for the service of the art I adore, so that it may have no better or worthier acolyte than yourself. So, you see, my thought for your welfare is purely egotistical and, so long as I can satisfy this wish, I am happy and grateful to you for accepting my help.

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23 AUGUST, 2012

What Makes a Great City: Anaïs Nin on the Poetics of New York

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“Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power.”

Recently, in preparing for a talk and pondering the question of what makes for a thriving city brimming with robust public life, I was reminded of a passage from a letter Anaïs Nin wrote to her lover Henry Miller, found in the sublime A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller, 1932-1953 (public library) — a tome you might recall from recent literary jukebox installments.

Dated December 3, 1934, this letter stands in stark contrast to Nin’s grim take on New York in comparison to Paris some five years later, but it bespeaks the same exhilarating enthusiasm for the city that Jan Morris captured a decade later and that New Yorkers and visitors of all eras have been — sometimes reluctantly, sometimes wholeheartedly, always inevitably — infected with:

I’m in love with N.Y. It matches my mood. I’m not overwhelmed. It is the suitable scene for my ever ever heightened life. I love the proportions, the amplitude, the brilliance, the polish, the solidity. I look up at Radio City insolently and love it. It is all great, and Babylonian. Broadway at night. Cellophane. The newness. The vitality. True, it is only physical. But it’s inspiring. Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power. I’m not moved, not speechless. I stand straight, tough, and I meet the impact. I feel the glow and the dancing in everything. The radio music in the taxis, scientific magic, which can all be used lyrically. That’s my last word. Give New York to a poet. He can use it. It can be poetized. Or maybe that’s a mania of mine, to poetize. I live lightly, smoothly, actively, ears and eyes wide open, alert, oiled! I feel a kind of exhilaration and the tempo is like that of my blood. I’m at once beyond, over and in New York, tasting it fully.

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21 AUGUST, 2012

What Actually Happens While You Sleep and How It Affects Your Every Waking Moment

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“We are living in an age when sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive.”

The Ancient Greeks believed that one fell asleep when the brain filled with blood and awakened once it drained back out. Nineteenth-century philosophers contended that sleep happened when the brain was emptied of ambitions and stimulating thoughts. “If sleep doesn’t serve an absolutely vital function, it is the greatest mistake evolution ever made,” biologist Allan Rechtschaffen once remarked. Even today, sleep remains one of the most poorly understood human biological functions, despite some recent strides in understanding the “social jetlag” of our internal clocks and the relationship between dreaming and depression. In Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep (public library), journalist David K. Randall — who stumbled upon the idea after crashing violently into a wall while sleepwalking — explores “the largest overlooked part of your life and how it affects you even if you don’t have a sleep problem.” From gender differences to how come some people snore and others don’t to why we dream, he dives deep into this mysterious third of human existence to illuminate what happens when night falls and how it impacts every aspect of our days.

Most of us will spend a full third of our lives asleep, and yet we don’t have the faintest idea of what it does for our bodies and our brains. Research labs offer surprisingly few answers. Sleep is one of the dirty little secrets of science. My neurologist wasn’t kidding when he said there was a lot that we don’t know about sleep, starting with the most obvious question of all — why we, and every other animal, need to sleep in the first place.

But before we get too anthropocentrically arrogant in our assumptions, it turns out the quantitative requirement of sleep isn’t correlated with how high up the evolutionary chain an organism is:

Lions and gerbils sleep about thirteen hours a day. Tigers and squirrels nod off for about fifteen hours. At the other end of the spectrum, elephants typically sleep three and a half hours at a time, which seems lavish compared to the hour and a half of shut-eye that the average giraffe gets each night.

[…]

Humans need roughly one hour of sleep for every two hours they are awake, and the body innately knows when this ratio becomes out of whack. Each hour of missed sleep one night will result in deeper sleep the next, until the body’s sleep debt is wiped clean.

What, then, happens as we doze off, exactly? Like all science, our understanding of sleep seems to be a constant “revision in progress”:

Despite taking up so much of life, sleep is one of the youngest fields of science. Until the middle of the twentieth century, scientists thought that sleep was an unchanging condition during which time the brain was quiet. The discovery of rapid eye movements in the 1950s upended that. Researchers then realized that sleep is made up of five distinct stages that the body cycles through over roughly ninety-minute periods. The first is so light that if you wake up from it, you might not realize that you have been sleeping. The second is marked by the appearance of sleep-specific brain waves that last only a few seconds at a time. If you reach this point in the cycle, you will know you have been sleeping when you wake up. This stage marks the last drop before your brain takes a long ride away from consciousness. Stages three and four are considered deep sleep. In three, the brain sends out long, rhythmic bursts called delta waves. Stage four is known as slow-wave sleep for the speed of its accompanying brain waves. The deepest form of sleep, this is the farthest that your brain travels from conscious thought. If you are woken up while in stage four, you will be disoriented, unable to answer basic questions, and want nothing more than to go back to sleep, a condition that researchers call sleep drunkenness. The final stage is REM sleep, so named because of the rapid movements of your eyes dancing against your eyelids. In this stage of sleep, the brain is as active as it is when it is awake. This is when most dreams occur.

(Recall the role of REM sleep in regulating negative emotions.)

Randall’s most urgent point, however, echoes what we’ve already heard from German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg, who studies internal time — in our blind lust for the “luxuries” of modern life, with all its 24-hour news cycles, artificial lighting on demand, and expectations of round-the-clock telecommunications availability, we’ve thrown ourselves into a kind of circadian schizophrenia:

We are living in an age when sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive. Even the worst dorm-room mattress in America is luxurious compared to sleeping arrangements that were common not long ago. During the Victorian era, for instance, laborers living in workhouses slept sitting on benches, with their arms dangling over a taut rope in front of them. They paid for this privilege, implying that it was better than the alternatives. Families up to the time of the Industrial Revolution engaged in the nightly ritual of checking for rats and mites burrowing in the one shared bedroom. Modernity brought about a drastic improvement in living standards, but with it came electric lights, television, and other kinds of entertainment that have thrown our sleep patterns into chaos.

Work has morphed into a twenty-four-hour fact of life, bringing its own set of standards and expectations when it comes to sleep … Sleep is ingrained in our cultural ethos as something that can be put off, dosed with coffee, or ignored. And yet maintaining a healthy sleep schedule is now thought of as one of the best forms of preventative medicine.

Reflecting on his findings, Randall marvels:

As I spent more time investigating the science of sleep, I began to understand that these strange hours of the night underpin nearly every moment of our lives.

Indeed, Dreamland goes on to explore how sleep — its mechanisms, its absence, its cultural norms — affects everyone from police officers and truck drivers to artists and entrepreneurs, permeating everything from our decision-making to our emotional intelligence.

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