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22 JUNE, 2015

Desert Solitaire: An Uncommonly Beautiful Love Letter to Solitude and the Spiritual Rewards of Getting Lost

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“Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.”

“As the desert offers no tangible riches, as there is nothing to see or hear in the desert,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in his exquisite memoir of what the Sahara Desert taught him about the meaning of life, “one is compelled to acknowledge, since the inner life, far from falling asleep, is fortified, that man is first animated by invisible solicitations.” No one captures this invisible animation of inner life more bewitchingly than Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire (public library) — a miraculously beautiful book, originally published in 1968, which I discovered through a passing mention by the wonderful Cheryl Strayed. (How right Laurence Sterne was to call digression “the sunshine of narrative,” and Calvino to consider it, even, a hedge against mortality.)

In the late 1950s, Abbey took a job as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Monument in Utah’s Moab desert. “Why I went there no longer matters; what I found there is the subject of this book,” he writes. Between April and September, between the canyons and the pages of his journal, he found a great many of the things we spend our lives looking for — a Thoreau of the desert, mapping the maze of the interior landscape as he wanders the expanse of the exterior.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince. Click image for more.

Abbey writes:

The time passed extremely slowly, as time should pass, with the days lingering and long, spacious and free as the summers of childhood. There was time enough for once to do nothing, or next to nothing, and most of the substance of this book is drawn, sometimes direct and unchanged, from the pages of the journals I kept and filled through the undivided, seamless days of those marvelous summers. The remainder of the book consists of digressions and excursions into ideas and places that border in varied ways upon that central season in the canyonlands…

Abbey’s digressions, to be sure, are oases of meaning — he writes about the ideas that animate his spirit with unsentimental sincerity and deep respect for the aliveness of language itself:

In recording my impressions of the natural scene I have striven above all for accuracy, since I believe that there is a kind of poetry, even a kind of truth, in simple fact… Language makes a mighty loose net with which to go fishing for simple facts, when facts are infinite… Since you cannot get the desert into a book any more than a fisherman can haul up the sea with his nets, I have tried to cecate a world of words in which the desert figures more as medium than as material.

He begins with what is possibly the most charming, disarming disclaimer in all of literature:

I quite agree that much of the book will seem coarse, rude, bad-tempered, violently prejudiced, unconstructive — even frankly antisocial in its point of view. Serious critics, serious librarians, serious associate professors of English will if they read this work dislike it intensely;. at least I hope so. To others I can only say that if the book has virtues they cannot be disentangled from the faults; that there is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right.

But make no mistake — his are reflections undergirded not by grouchiness but by immense grace and generosity of spirit. Take, for instance, how he cushions against the potential complaint that the book is too concerned with the appearance of the landscape. (It is not.)

I am pleased enough with surfaces — in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of friend or lover, the silk of a girl’s thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind — what else is there? What else do we need?

There is, however, something else that we need — each of us, Abbey observes, longs for that most beautiful and sacred place where we feel wholly at home. His is this canyon-strewn desert, but these personal idyls are deeply subjective and as varied as our individual interior landscapes:

Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome—there’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment. Theologians, sky pilots, astronauts have even felt the appeal of home calling to them from up above, in the cold black outback of interstellar space.

Astronauts, in fact, have since come to describe this peculiar feeling as “the overview effect” — remember, Abbey is writing shortly before the first human foot touched the cratery desert of the moon — but Abbey himself finds this most beautiful of earthly places in the canyonlands, in “the red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky.” He describes one of his first mornings there:

I awake before sunrise, stick my head out of the sack, peer through a frosty window at a scene dim and vague with flowing mists, dark fantastic shapes looming beyond. An unlikely landscape.

[…]

The sun is not yet in sight but signs of the advent are plain to see. Lavender clouds sail like a fleet of ships across the pale green dawn; …the last fogbanks left over from last night’s storm are scudding away like ghosts, fading into nothing before the wind and the sunrise.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince. Click image for more.

It is, indeed, an unlikely landscape — one even unlikelier today, itself scudding away like a ghost. Abbey, writing more than half a century ago, rightly describes his book as “not a travel guide but an elegy” — as he recounts getting lost twenty miles into the interior of the desert, completely alone in the 33,000 acres of which he was the “sole inhabitant, usufructuary, observer and custodian,” one is left wondering how many such earthly interiors are left in which to get lost in order to find ourselves, how many such unlikely landscapes in the sacred solitude of which to access our own interiors. One is reminded of Wendell Berry, writing more than two decades later: “True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible… In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.” Or of Thoreau, writing a century earlier: “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit… I cannot easily shake off the village.”

Abbey captures this with piercing profundity:

Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not. In the second place most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock. Don’t drop it on your foot — throw it at something big and glassy. What do you have to lose?

And yet the tombstone Abbey thrusts into our hands is almost uncontainably vitalizing, emanating an uncommon sense of communion between his humanity — our humanity — and the inanimate yet deeply animating presence of the land; between his smallness — our smallness — and the grandeur of Earth. Over and over, he surrenders to the land’s rhythms and wishes — a great act of faith that requires, manyfold more so now than it did then, relinquishing the many small violences by which we seek to bend nature to our will.

Illustration from 'Flashlight' by Lizi Boyd. Click image for more.

Four decades after Henry Beston’s beautiful love letter to darkness, Abbey considers one such form of surrender:

I have a flashlight with me but will not use it unless I hear some sign of animal life worthy of investigation. The flashlight, or electrical torch as the English call it, is a useful instrument in certain situations but I can see the road well enough without it. Better, in fact.

There’s another disadvantage to the use of the flashlight: like many other mechanical gadgets it tends to separate a man from the world around him. If I switch it on my eyes adapt to it and I can see only the small pool of light which it makes in front of me; I am isolated. Leaving the flashlight in my pocket where it belongs, I remain a part of the environment I walk through and my vision though limited has no sharp or definite boundary.

[…]

The night flows back, the mighty stillness embraces and includes me; I can see the stars again and the world of starlight. I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation.

Abbey is writing two generations before the iPhone, and I find myself wondering whether when we point the illuminating Night Sky app into the night sky — and point it I blissfully do — we might be learning a great deal more about this lowercase marvel but inevitably communing with it a great deal less.

Landscape Arch, in the Devil's Garden Section of Arches National Park, is believed to be the longest stone arch in the world

Public domain photograph by David Hiser, The U.S. National Archives

With great sensitivity to our tendency to mistake grandeur for godliness, Abbey reminds us of the quiet causality with which nature inches toward its most miraculous creations — like the very arches after which his temporary dominion is named:

These are natural arches, holes in the rock, windows in stone, no two alike, as varied in form as in dimension … formed through hundreds of thousands of years by the weathering of the huge sandstone walls, or fins, in which they are found. Not the work of a cosmic hand, nor sculptured by sand-bearing winds, as many people prefer to believe, the arches came into being and continue to come into being through the modest wedging action of rainwater, melting snow, frost, and ice, aided by gravity…

Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman. An insane wish? Perhaps not — at least there’s nothing else, no one human, to dispute possession with me.

Through this possessiveness of the landscape Abbey arrives at what he has gone there to find — a kind of spiritual self-repossession:

I am here not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.

This is what makes Desert Solitaire so powerful, so enduring, so fiercely necessary today: Abbey’s writing is both a form of spiritual sustenance and a feat of conservation — for, being human and thus solipsistic, unless we appreciate the value of these experiences to our inner lives, we are rarely moved to honor their sacred value to all life.

Complement this treasure of a book, this packet of loveliness and quiet exultation, with Rebecca Solnit on how we find ourselves by getting lost, Georgia O’Keeffe on the singular mesmerism of the Southwestern sky, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s wonderful meditation on the spiritual rewards of the desert.

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22 JUNE, 2015

How to Own Your Story: Vivian Gornick on the Art of Personal Narrative and the Power of Textured Storytelling

By:

“The memoirist … must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom — or rather the movement toward it — that counts.”

I recently found myself in an intense conversation with a friend about privacy — why it matters; how much of it we’re relinquishing and what for; whether it is even possible to maintain even a modicum of control over our own privacy at this point — the same intense conversation being had everywhere from family dinner tables to courtrooms to public radio to the highest levels of government.

It suddenly struck me that our cultural narrative about privacy is completely backward: What we really fear is not that the internet — or a prospective employer, or a nosy lover, or Big Brother — knows too much about us, but that it knows too little; that it fails to encompass Whitman’s multitudes which each of contains; that it reduces the larger, complex truth of who we are to a few fragmented facts about what we do; that it hijacks our rich, ever-evolving personal stories and replaces them with disjointed anecdotal data.

Perhaps the most potent antidote to this increasingly disempowering cultural shift is to grow ever more thoughtful and deliberate about how we tell our own stories; to master the art of personal narrative so that we can write — writing being that most lucid mode of thinking and an indispensable form of talking to ourselves — about the expansive, dimensional, textured reality of who we are. That’s what writer Vivian Gornick explores in the timelessly wonderful and infinitely timely 2001 classic The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (public library).

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

Gornick writes:

Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.

She begins by illustrating the power of personal narrative with, befittingly, a personal narrative:

A pioneering doctor died and a large number of people spoke at her memorial service. Repeatedly it was said by colleagues, patients, activists in health care reform that the doctor had been tough, humane, brilliant; stimulating and dominant; a stern teacher, a dynamite researcher, an astonishing listener. I sat among the silent mourners. Each speaker provoked in me a measure of thoughtfulness, sentiment, even regret, but only one among them — a doctor in her forties who had been trained by the dead woman — moved me to that melancholy evocation of world-and-self that makes a single person’s death feel large.

[…]

The next morning I awakened to find myself sitting bolt upright in bed, the eulogy standing in the air before me like a composition. That was it, I realized. It had been composed. That is what had made the difference.

What made the eulogy so memorable, Gornick reflects, is precisely what lends personal narrative its power — a delicate mastery of structure, shapeliness, associative flow, and dramatic buildup. The way the younger doctor recounted coming of age under the influence of her departed mentor fused these essential elements of enchanting personal storytelling into what Gornick calls “narrative texture”:

The memory had acted as an organizing principle that determined the structure of her remarks. Structure had imposed order. Order made the sentences more shapely. Shapeliness increased the expressiveness of the language. Expressiveness deepened association. At last, a dramatic buildup occurred, one that had layered into it the descriptive feel of a young person’s apprenticeship, medical practices in a time of social change, and a divided attachment to a mentor who could bring herself only to correct, never to praise. This buildup is called texture. It was the texture that had stirred me; caused me to feel, with powerful immediacy, not only the actuality of the woman being remembered but — even more vividly — the presence of the one doing the remembering. The speaker’s effort to recall with exactness how things had been between herself and the dead woman — her open need to make sense of a strong but vexing relationship — had caused her to say so much that I became aware at last of all that was not being said; that which could never be said. I felt acutely the warm, painful inadequacy of human relations. This feeling resonated in me. It was the resonance that had lingered on, exactly as it does when the last page is turned of a book that reaches the heart.

Illustration from 'The Jacket.' Click image for details.

This ability, Gornick argues, requires a certain sensitivity to the mystery of personal identity over time, a certain intimacy with the stable of our former selves. She writes:

It was the act of imagining herself as she had once been that enriched her syntax and extended not only her images but the coherent flow of association that led directly into the task at hand.

The better the speaker imagined herself, the more vividly she brought the dead doctor to life.

It requires, too, a clarity of purpose and a discernment in choosing from among one’s multitudes only those selves that add texture to this particular story:

The speaker never lost sight of why she was speaking — or, perhaps more important, of who was speaking. Of the various selves at her disposal (she was, after all, many people — a daughter, a lover, a bird-watcher, a New Yorker), she knew and didn’t forget that the only proper self to invoke was the one that had been apprenticed. That was the self in whom this story resided. A self — now here was a curiosity — that never lost interest in its own animated existence at the same time that it lived only to eulogize the dead doctor. This last, I thought, was crucial: the element most responsible for the striking clarity of intent the eulogy had demonstrated. Because the narrator knew who was speaking, she always knew why she was speaking.

And so does Gornick — she recounts this anecdote with the clear purpose of adding dimension to the inquiry at the heart of her book, which deals with that immensely intricate art of writing about oneself not from the surface stream of solipsism or narcissism but from a deeper well of universal truth. More than a decade later, Cheryl Strayed captured this beautifully in asserting that “when you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice” — the singular task of the nonfiction writer of personal narrative, which Gornick elegantly distinguishes from the demands of all other writing:

To fashion a persona out of one’s own undisguised self is no easy thing. A novel or a poem provides invented characters or speaking voices that act as surrogates for the writer. Into those surrogates will be poured all that the writer cannot address directly — inappropriate longings, defensive embarrassments, anti-social desires — but must address to achieve felt reality. The persona in a nonfiction narrative is an unsurrogated one. Here the writer must identify openly with those very same defenses and embarrassments that the novelist or the poet is once removed from. It’s like lying down on the couch in public — and while a writer may be willing to do just that, it is a strategy that most often simply doesn’t work. Think of how many years on the couch it takes to speak about oneself, but without all the whining and complaining, the self-hatred and the self-justification that make the analysand a bore to all the world but the analyst. The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming low-level self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader.

Yet the creation of such a persona is vital in an essay or a memoir. It is the instrument of illumination. Without it there is neither subject nor story. To achieve it, the the writer of memoir or essay undergoes an apprenticeship as soul-searching as any undergone by novelist or poet: the twin struggle to know not only why one is speaking but who is speaking.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce's Ulysses. Click image for more.

This, Gornick argues, call for a clarity of intention that still makes room for complexity of feeling — that difficult art of holding opposing truths and walking forward with grace. The eulogist had to bridge this clarity of intent on the one hand (to celebrate and commemorate the dead), with recognition of her own mixed feelings on the other (the deceased mentor had been an often difficult but ultimately life-changing presence for the eulogist, “an agent of threat and promise”). Gornick considers how this particular task illuminates the general task of the writer of personal narrative:

First she sees that she has [these mixed feelings]. Then she acknowledges them to herself. Then she considers them as a way into the experience. Then she realizes they are the experience. She begins to write.

Penetrating the familiar is by no means a given. On the contrary, it is hard, hard work.

Returning to the essential interplay of situation and story, Gornick turns to the specific case of autobiography — perhaps the highest, most concentrated effort to take charge of one’s own narrative through a form of highly controlled privacy made public. (For a most enchanting exemplar, see Oliver Sacks’s masterwork of the genre.) She writes:

The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void. The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom — or rather the movement toward it — that counts… The poet, the novelist, the memoirist — all must convince the reader they have some wisdom, and are writing as honestly as possible to arrive at what they know. To the bargain, the writer of personal narrative must also persuade the reader that the narrator is reliable.

With an eye to the masters of the genre — Joan Didion, Edmund Gosse, Geoffrey Wolff — Gornick extracts the common denominator of uncommonly excellent personal narrative:

In each case the writer was possessed of an insight that organized the writing, and in each case a persona had been created to serve the insight.

[…]

I become interested then in my own existence only as a means of penetrating the situation in hand. I have created a persona who can find the story riding the tide that I, in my unmediated state, am otherwise going to drown in.

The Situation and the Story remains an indispensable read not only for writers of personal narrative, professional or aspiring, but for any thinking, feeling human being who longs to make sense of her or his own existence at the immutable intersection of situation and story called life. Complement it with Rebecca Goldstein on reconciling your present self with your past personae and master-memoirist Dani Shapiro’s superb meta-memoir of the writing life.

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19 JUNE, 2015

Oliver Sacks on Storytelling, the Curious Psychology of Writing, and What His Friendship with the Poet Thom Gunn Taught Him About Creativity and Originality

By:

“The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing… a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.”

Who we are and who we become is in large part the combinatorial product of the people and ideas we surround ourselves with — what William Gibson so memorably termed our “personal micro-culture” and Brian Eno called “scenius.” The more different those people are from us, the more they expand the echo chamber of our own mind, the more layered and beautiful the symphony of the spirit becomes. Nowhere is this self-expansion via relationship more evident than in the friendships between great artists and great scientists, one of the most heartening examples of which is the friendship between legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks and the poet Thom Gunn.

In On the Move: A Life (public library) — the immeasurable and incompressible rewards of which I have previously extolled at great length and with great love — Dr. Sacks, a Thoreau of the mind, recounts how his relationship with Gunn shaped his own evolution as a writer. In fact, his very autobiography is titled after Gunn’s poem “On the Move” from his 1959 collection Sense of Movement.

Thom Gunn in the early 1960s, around the time Dr. Sacks met him (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

To be sure, Sacks’s love affair with writing predates his meeting Gunn and even his foray into science. Nicknamed Inky as a boy for his voracious appetite for pen and paper, which covered everything in ink, he began journaling at an early age — a formative practice of learning to think on paper and converse with himself. Joining the extensive roster of celebrated writers who championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary and speaking to the potency of journaling as an antidote to Tom Waits’s complaint about the inopportune timing of the muse, Sacks writes:

I started keeping journals when I was fourteen and at last count had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones which I carry around with me to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside, for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts, and I try to have one by the swimming pool or the lakeside or the seashore; swimming too is very productive of thoughts which I must write, especially if they present themselves, as they sometimes do, in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs…

But for the most part, I rarely look at the journals I have kept for the greater part of a lifetime. The act of writing is itself enough; it serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings. The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.

My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.

Dr. Sacks captures a thought in his journal at Amsterdam's busy train station (Photograph: Lowell Handler)

He adds:

The need to think on paper is not confined to notebooks. It spreads onto the backs of envelopes, menus, whatever scraps of paper are at hand. And I often transcribe quotations I like, writing or typing them on pieces of brightly colored paper and pinning them to a bulletin board.

What Sacks is describing is akin to a commonplace book — that Medieval Tumblr in which thinkers recorded quotations and ideas from whatever they were reading, assembling a personal archive of the ideas that shaped their own minds. (Brain Pickings is essentially one giant commonplace book, and this very piece a sort of bulletin board pinned to which is my discourse with Sacks’s extraordinary text.)

Another thought recorded atop a car roof on the side of the road (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

By the time he was in graduate school, Sacks began externalizing these inner conversations, doing for others what he had been doing for himself on the pages of his journals — clarifying the complexities of mental life at the intersection of science and storytelling, honing the singular gift for which he is so beloved today.

He was so electrified by working with patients at a migraine clinic in the mid-1960s that he felt compelled to transmute these insights into a book. But when he finally finished the manuscript and showed it to his boss at the clinic — a prominent but petty and egomaniacal neurologist by the name of Arnold P. Friedman — he was curtly told that the manuscript was garbage, that he had to destroy it, and that he dare not think about turning it into a book ever again; or else, Friedman threatened, Sacks would be promptly fired and barred from getting another job anywhere in America. Friedman confiscated the manuscript and locked it away.

Still, Sacks trusted that he had written something substantive and important — something that might forever change our understanding of how the mind works. He suppressed his feelings for months but, finally, the resentment exploded into action: One night, with the help of the clinic’s janitor, he sneaked in and, between midnight and 3 A.M., arduously copied his own notes by hand. The next day, he told Friedman he was taking a long leave to London and when his boss demanded a reason, Sacks responded that he had no choice but to write the forbidden book.

He was fired via telegram a week later. And yet a strange sense of liberation set in, which he poured into the writing.

But if this wasn’t courageous enough an act, he soon performed what is perhaps the greatest act of creative courage — the same one John Steinbeck had performed three decades earlier in destroying a manuscript he didn’t feel was good enough and rewriting it from scratch into what would become his Pulitzer-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, the cornerstone of his Nobel Prize. Sacks recounts:

I was dissatisfied with my 1967 manuscript and decided to rewrite the book. It was the first of September, and I said to myself, “If I do not have the finished manuscript in Faber’s hands by September 10, I shall have to kill myself.” And under this threat, I started writing. Within a day or so, the feeling of threat had disappeared, and the joy of writing took over. I was no longer using drugs, but it was a time of extraordinary elation and energy. It seemed to me almost as though the book were being dictated, everything organizing itself swiftly and automatically. I would sleep for just a couple of hours a night. And a day ahead of schedule, on September 9, I took the book to Faber & Faber. Their offices were in Great Russell Street, near the British Museum, and after dropping off the manuscript, I walked over to the museum. Looking at artifacts there — pottery, sculptures, tools, and especially books and manuscripts, which had long outlived their creators — I had the feeling that I, too, had produced something. Something modest, perhaps, but with a reality and existence of its own, something that might live on after I was gone.

I have never had such a strong feeling, a feeling of having made something real and of some value, as I did with that first book, which was written in the face of such threats from Friedman and, for that matter, from myself. Returning to New York, I felt a sense of joyousness and almost blessedness. I wanted to shout, “Hallelujah!” but I was too shy. Instead, I went to concerts every night — Mozart operas and Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert — feeling exuberant and alive.

Sacks’s jubilant intuition wasn’t misplaced — that manuscript became his 1970 debut Migraine, which was welcomed with wholehearted critical acclaim and catapulted him into the status of masterful science storyteller. When the book came out, he found out that Friedman had adapted the original manuscript and attempted to publish it under his own name — a tragicomic testament to the fact that it is Sacks’s singular gift as a writer and storyteller, not his scientific genius alone, that make him the cultural icon he is today.

Dr. Sacks recovering in the hospital with nothing but a typewriter by his side. He had broken his leg in Norway, falling down a slippery canyon while being chased by a bull. (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Sacks had befriended Thom Gunn in the early 1960s, but it wasn’t until after the publication of Migraine that he was able to engage with the poet in conversations about writing more confidently — a confidence further nurtured by Gunn’s encouraging feedback which, alongside the staunch support of Sacks’s beloved aunt Lennie, was instrumental in emboldening the budding writer to embark upon this far from easy path.

He talked with Gunn about “the process of writing, the rushes and stoppages, the illuminations and darknesses, which seemed to be part and parcel of the creative process.” Long before cognitive scientists came to study the psychology of writing, Gunn captured the mysterious psychological messiness of the process in one of his letters to Sacks:

I am a bit slothful at the moment. My pattern seems to be: a long cessation of any coherent writing after I have completed a MS, then a tentative start followed by, during the next few years, various separate bursts of activity, ending with a sense of the new book as a whole, in which I make discoveries about my subject(s) that I have never anticipated. It’s strange, the psychology of being a writer. But I suppose it’s better not to be merely facile — the blocks, the feelings of paralysis, the time when language itself seems dead, these all help me in the end, I think, because when the “quickenings” do come they are all the more energetic by contrast.

Sacks reflects on the sincerity of his friend’s values:

It was crucial for Thom that his time be his own; his poetry could not be hurried but had to emerge in its own way… “My income,” [he] wrote, “averages about half that of a local bus-driver or street sweeper, but it is of my own choosing, since I prefer leisure to working at a full-time job.” But I do not think Thom felt too constrained by his slender means; he had no extravagances (though he was generous with others) and seemed naturally frugal. (Things eased up in 1992, when he received a MacArthur Award, and after this he was able to travel more and enjoy some financial ease, to indulge himself a bit.)

I was particularly taken, and felt a deep kinship, with Sacks’s parenthetical note about Gunn’s ethos regarding writing about the writing of others:

Thom rarely reviewed what he did not like, and in general his reviews were written in the mode of appreciation.

Despite knowing his friend’s disposition toward criticism, Sacks recounts:

I sometimes felt terrified of his directness — terrified, in particular, that he would find my writings, such as they were, muzzy, dishonest, talentless, or worse.

But their relationship lived up to Emerson’s assertion that “a friend is a person with whom [one] may be sincere” — Gunn’s feedback, always in the spirit of Samuel Beckett’s masterwork of constructive criticism, was monumentally beneficial to Sacks’s development as a writer, who was “eager for [Gunn’s] reactions, depended on them, and gave them more weight than those of anyone else.”

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

But the feedback that most touched him was about his 1973 book Awakenings — a cultural classic that has was eventually made into a film starring Robin Williams as Sacks. Gunn wrote:

Awakenings is, anyway, extraordinary. I remember when, some time in the late Sixties, you described the kind of book you wanted to write, simultaneously a good scientific book and worth reading as a well-written book, and you have certainly done it here… I have also been thinking of the Great Diary you used to show me. I found you so talented, but so deficient in one quality — just the most important quality — call it humanity, or sympathy, or something like that. And, frankly, I despaired of your ever becoming a good writer, because I didn’t see how one could be taught such a quality… Your deficiency of sympathy made for a limitation of your observation… What I didn’t know was that the growth of sympathies is something frequently delayed till one’s thirties. What was deficient in these writings is now the supreme organizer of Awakenings, and wonderfully so. It is literally the organizer of your style, too, and is what enables it to be so inclusive, so receptive, and so varied… I wonder if you know what happened. Simply working with the patients over so long, or the opening-up helped by acid, or really falling in love with someone (as opposed to being infatuated). Or all three…

Sacks adds:

I was thrilled by this letter, a bit obsessed, too. I did not know how to answer Thom’s question. I had fallen in love — and out of love — and, in a sense, was in love with my patients (the sort of love, or sympathy, which makes one clear-eyed).

But it was in Gunn’s poetry that Sacks found something else — something tremendously important to our understanding of how creativity works and the constant, necessary dialogue between influence and so-called originality mediated by our imperfect memory, of which Sacks has written beautifully. Reflecting on Gunn’s intricate tapestry of influences — his creative lineage of what Margaret Mead termed our “spiritual and mental ancestors” — Sacks writes:

I loved the sense of history, of predecessors, in many of Thom’s poems. Sometimes this was explicit, as in his “Poem After Chaucer” (which he sent me as a New Year’s card in 1971); more often it was implicit. It made me feel at times that Thom was a Chaucer, a Donne, a Lord Herbert, who now found himself in the America, the San Francisco, of the late twentieth century. This sense of ancestors, of predecessors, was an essential part of his work, and he often alluded to, or borrowed from, other poets and other sources. There was no tiresome insistence on “originality,” and yet, of course, everything he used was transmuted in the process.

Gunn himself, echoing Montaigne’s sentiments about originality, addressed this in an autobiographical essay:

I must count my writing as an essential part of the way in which I deal with life. I am however a rather derivative poet. I learn what I can from whom I can. I borrow heavily from my reading, because I take my reading seriously. It is part of my total experience and I base most of my poetry on my experience. I do not apologize for being derivative… It has not been of primary interest to develop a unique poetic personality, and I rejoice in Eliot’s lovely remark that art is the escape from personality.

Dr. Sacks at home on City Island, the Bronx (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

And yet art requires undisturbed personal space for the “quickenings” of the creative process to unfold slowly — something Sacks protected with great discipline as he blossomed into a prolific writer himself. In his house on City Island, he tacked a sign to the wall above his desk that simply read “NO!” — “reminding myself to say no to invitations so I could preserve writing time,” he explains. It is no accident that Sacks dedicates the final sentences in his autobiography to this great love of writing and, in a sentiment that calls to mind the psychology of flow, fuses it with his great gift for science:

I am a storyteller, for better and for worse.

I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.

The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place — irrespective of my subject — where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.

Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago.

Oliver Sacks writing in his seventies (Photograph: Bill Hayes)

Every page of the altogether magnificent On the Move emanates this contagious delight in writing and furnishes an equivalent delight in reading — a sense of being invited, in the most generous way possible, into a lifetime of Sacks’s conversations with his own luminous, incessantly quickening mind. Take another step inside.

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19 JUNE, 2015

Blaise Pascal on the Intuitive vs. the Logical Mind and How We Come to Know Truth

By:

“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know…”

“Your intuition and your intellect should be working together… making love,” Madeleine L’Engle asserted in contemplating how creativity works. Ray Bradbury believed that intuition and emotion should guide creative work, the intellect coming in only to revise after the act of creation, and Susan Sontag admonished against buying into this polarity in the first place: “The kind of thinking that makes a distinction between thought and feeling is just one of those forms of demagogy that causes lots of trouble for people.” But it’s hard to deny that in most minds there exists a combination of the two and in very few a perfect balance.

The duality of these two faculties and their interplay is what the great French physicist, philosopher, inventor, and mathematician Blaise Pascal (June 19, 1623–August 19, 1662) explores in Pensées (free ebook | public library) — the same masterwork of fragmentary reflections that gave us Pascal on the art of changing minds.

In a passage outlining the difference between the intuitive and the mathematical mind — “mathematical” meaning “logical” or “rational” — he writes:

In the intuitive mind the principles are found in common use, and are before the eyes of everybody. One has only to look, and no effort is necessary; it is only a question of good eyesight, but it must be good, for the principles are so subtle and so numerous, that it is almost impossible but that some escape notice. Now the omission of one principle leads to error; thus one must have very clear sight to see all the principles, and in the next place an accurate mind not to draw false deductions from known principles.

All mathematicians would then be intuitive if they had clear sight, for they do not reason incorrectly from principles known to them; and intuitive minds would be mathematical if they could turn their eyes to the principles of mathematics to which they are unused.

Suggesting that it is a greater failure to be unintuitive than to be unanalytical, Pascal adds:

The reason, therefore, that some intuitive minds are not mathematical is that they cannot at all turn their attention to the principles of mathematics. But the reason that mathematicians are not intuitive is that they do not see what is before them, and that, accustomed to the exact and plain principles of mathematics, and not reasoning till they have well inspected and arranged their principles, they are lost in matters of intuition where the principles do not allow of such arrangement. They are scarcely seen; they are felt rather than seen; there is the greatest difficulty in making them felt by those who do not of themselves perceive them. These principles are so fine and so numerous that a very delicate and very clear sense is needed to perceive them, and to judge rightly and justly when they are perceived, without for the most part being able to demonstrate them in order as in mathematics; because the principles are not known to us in the same way, and because it would be an endless matter to undertake it… Mathematicians wish to treat matters of intuition mathematically, and make themselves ridiculous.

Art from 'The Boy Who Loved Math,' a children's book about the life of legendary mathematician Paul Erdos. Click image for more.

But this mathematical (or logical) mind is only a subset of the intellect that stands opposite intuition:

There are then two kinds of intellect: the one able to penetrate acutely and deeply into the conclusions of given premises, and this is the precise intellect; the other able to comprehend a great number of premises without confusing them, and this is the mathematical intellect. The one has force and exactness, the other comprehension. Now the one quality can exist without the other; the intellect can be strong and narrow, and can also be comprehensive and weak.

Pascal argues that our failure to understand the principles of reality is due to both our impatience and a certain lack of moral imagination:

Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight, and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles, and being unable to see at a glance.

He considers what mediates the relationship between our intellect and our intuition:

The understanding and the feelings are moulded by intercourse; the understanding and feelings are corrupted by intercourse. Thus good or bad society improves or corrupts them. It is, then, all-important to know how to choose in order to improve and not to corrupt them; and we cannot make this choice, if they be not already improved and not corrupted. Thus a circle is formed, and those are fortunate who escape it.

Pascal makes a peculiar and rather poignant aside — doubly so in our divisive age of harsh snap-judgments directed at others via soundbites and status updates — suggesting that our inability to appreciate the singular gifts of other people is essentially a failure of our own intelligence, for the prerequisite for appreciation is comprehension:

The greater intellect one has, the more originality one finds in men. Ordinary persons find no difference between men.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's original watercolors for 'The Little Prince.' Click image for more.

Three centuries before the most beloved line from the most beloved children’s book“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” — Pascal observes:

The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know… We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart.

Nearly four centuries later, Pensées remains a revelatory read, full of timeless wisdom on everything from navigating uncertainty to the key to eloquence. Complement this particular portion with a fascinating read on the role of intuition in scientific discovery, Carl Sagan on the necessary balance between skepticism and openness, and Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning.

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