Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

08 APRIL, 2015

The Power of Aesthetic Force: Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Lewis on Beauty as a Tool of Justice and a Catalyst for “Nonselfing”

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“The law represents a part of the people’s will but … the people’s will is moved by beauty.”

“Beauty, as a conscious element of experience, as a thing to be valued and explored, has gone into abeyance among us,” Marilynne Robinson wrote in her exquisite reflection on beauty. In our visually voracious culture of accelerating “aesthetic consumerism,” is there still room for beauty not as a trifled commodity but as both an elevating force of transcendence and a grounding force of moral solidity?

That’s what Harvard art historian Sarah Lewis, author of the excellent The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (public library) — one of the best psychology books of 2014 — explores in the final segment of her altogether fantastic New York Public Library conversation with artist, playwright, actor, and MacArthur genius Anna Deavere Smith.

Oe of the most piercing parts of the conversation calls to mind Susan Sontag — “The subtraction of beauty as a standard for art hardly signals a decline of the authority of beauty,” Sontag wrote in her characteristically elegant argument against the argument against beauty. “Rather, it testifies to a decline in the belief that there is something called art.” Smith reads from her 2009 interview with Harvard’s famed English and aesthetics professor Elaine Scarry, contemplating the role of beauty as a moral agent and a tool of justice:

We also know the limits of the law… That in the end the law represents a part of the people’s will but that the people’s will is moved by beauty.

[..]

[Scarry] is talking about beauty and she says, “Beauty was for a long time [was] not only eliminated from universities, but even from museums… Lots of different museum directors have told me that for a while it was as if you weren’t supposed to be talking about beauty, which is hard to imagine if you’re teaching literature or if you’re a museum curator, but I mean one thing is just the way in which beauty … does lead people I think to be concerned with justice. Beauty brings about what Iris Murdoch called “a nonselfing.” She said that when you suddenly see something beautiful — her example was suddenly seeing a bird lift off — it brings about a nonselfing. You can see beauty pressing us towards justice. There are certain attributes that beautiful things have. Some people would say symmetry. Any definition of justice always involves at its heart some idea of balance or symmetry. Even if you look back over lots of philosophers who are talking about forms of justice, they always have this idea, say, equal pay for equal work, that’s a symmetry.”

Okay, that’s my favorite part. But this is an important part. “But sometimes people will say to me, well, first of all that they believe that it’s right, that the whole unselfing part is right, but they don’t believe in symmetry, and I really do believe in it because — and I think part of the reason why in this country we don’t like to talk anymore about symmetry in art or in justice is because we’re so asymmetrical, with so much money and so many weapons and, you know … if we had to start saying the heart of beauty is symmetry everybody would have to say, ‘gee, you know, we’ve got a big problem.’”

And she calls beauty a life pact. But that whole idea of the nonselfing — you see, when you talk about that you’re there but you’re not quite there, I think that’s a really creative moment because it is that moment when you, like a bird, take that lift-off. You’re not here and you’re not there. You’re in the rise… It seems to me a kind of a lift.

Lewis, who notes that beauty “slips in the back door of our rational thought and gets us to see the world differently,” examines the subject in greater depth in one particularly fascinating chapter of her book — a penetrating look at the legacy of Frederick Douglass, who paved the way for contemporary visual culture and pioneered the power of “aesthetic force.” Lewis writes:

The words to describe aesthetic force suggest that it leaves us changed — stunned, dazzled, knocked out. It can quicken the pulse, make us gape, even gasp with astonishment. Its importance is its animating trait — not what it is, but what it does to those who behold it in all its forms. Its seeming lightness can make us forget that it has weight, force enough to bring about a self-correction, the acknowledgment of failure at the heart of justice — the moment when we reconcile our past with our intended future selves. Few experiences get us to this place more powerfully, with a tender push past the praetorian-guarded doors of reason and logic, than the emotive power of aesthetic force.

The Rise, which I’ve previously admired in greater detail, is a superb read in its entirety. Treat yourself to Lewis and Smith’s full conversation below — a wide-ranging and enormously stimulating dialogue exploring the role of failure in the conquest of greatness, the crucial difference between success and mastery, and what it takes to stay encouraged through rejection and roadblock in creative work — then please consider supporting The New York Public Library in making such ennobling cultural discourse possible and freely available to the public.

Instinct is your highest form of intelligence.” ~ Sarah Lewis

Find more of Smith’s galvanizing genius in her enduring wisdom on how to listen between the lines in a culture of speaking, what self-esteem really means, how to stop letting others define us.

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06 MARCH, 2015

Gabriel García Márquez on His Unlikely Beginnings as a Writer

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“If you’re going to be a writer you have to be one of the great ones… After all, there are better ways to starve to death.”

Gabriel García Márquez (March 6, 1927–April 17, 2014) is one of the greatest authors of all time, and yet he had an unlikely path to greatness. His life-story is an emboldening antidote to the tyrannical myth that the crib is the crucible of creative genius, that only those who turn their childhood dreams into reality are destined for cultural significance, and that unless you have clarity about your purpose early in childhood, you’re doomed to a life of floundering and mediocrity.

García Márquez had no such precocious clarity. (For that matter, neither did Van Gogh.) Instead, the celebrated author’s life stands as a heartening testament to the fact that a purpose is not something you are born with but something you find and cultivate, something that reveals itself when you let your life speak — even when what your life has to say is not, at first, what you want to hear.

García Márquez grew up wanting to be a musician. “I had dreamed about the good life, going from fair to fair and singing with an accordion and a good voice, which always seemed to me to be the oldest and happiest way to tell a story,” he writes in his magnificent memoir, Living to Tell the Tale (public library), before recounting the unlikely beginnings of his career as a writer:

I did not have the courage and sense of independence of my brother Luis Enrique, who did only what he wanted to do. And who without a doubt would achieve a happiness that is not what one desires for one’s children but is what allows them to survive the immoderate affections, the irrational fears, and the joyful expectations of their parents.

The expectations of his parents were lofty. As a young boy, Gabo had always been an excellent student, a genial and unproblematic child — so much so that his grandmother, who was instrumental in raising him, frequently commended him for being “the perfect kid.” But now he was struggling through his secondary education, unhappy in a school that had a “bad reputation as a laboratory of political perversion.” Dejected, he started hanging out with questionable friends, abusing alcohol, and staying out well into the night — he had veered, as he aptly puts it, toward “the wrong path.”

His parents were understandably perturbed at the sudden change. García Márquez relays a pivotal conversation he had with his mother at the age of eighteen:

“Well, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said after a lethal silence, “because if we tell all this to your father he’ll die a sudden death. Don’t you realize you’re the pride of the family?”

For them it was simple: since there was no possibility I would be the eminent physician my father could not be because he did not have the money, they dreamed I would at least be a professional in something else.

“Well, I won’t be anything at all,” I concluded. “I refuse to let you force me into being what I don’t want to be or what you would like me to be, much less what the government wants me to be.”

These tense conversations recurred over the remainder of the week, until one day his mother, “as if by chance,” suggested something that profoundly surprised him:

“They say that if you put your mind to it you could be a good writer.”

I had never heard anything like it in the family. Since I was a child my inclinations had allowed me to suppose that I would draw, be a musician, sing in church, or even be a Sunday poet. I had discovered in myself a tendency, known to everyone, toward writing that was rather convoluted and ethereal, but this time my reaction was one of surprise.

Although his reply was one of cynical skepticism, in it — since cynicism is simply hope masked with fear — has the kernel of aspiration that would define his life:

“If you’re going to be a writer you have to be one of the great ones, and they don’t make them anymore,” I told my mother. “After all, there are better ways to starve to death.”

But once the veil of youthful cynicism was lifted, García Márquez saw he had no choice but to make himself “one of the great ones.” Four decades later, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts”.

Complement Living to Tell the Tale with celebrated writers’ collected wisdom on writing and this Literary Jukebox celebration of García Márquez.

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05 MARCH, 2015

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School: A Charming Catalog of Excuses and an Allegory for How Human Imagination Works

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A playful parable about the stories we tell to avoid being wrong and the combinatorial nature of human creativity.

Psychologists and behavioral economists now know that there is a strong positive correlation between creativity and dishonesty — the more intelligent and imaginative we are, the better we’re able to rationalize our misconduct. And since children’s minds reveal so much about how the human imagination develops, both psychological theory and parental practice confirm that kids come up with the most fanciful excuses for why they did those mischievous things they knew they weren’t supposed to do.

In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School (public library), celebrated children’s book author Davide Cali and French illustrator Benjamin Chaud weave a playful parable of this childhood tendency to come up with excuses so fantastical that they become charming stories in their own right — a crucible of creativity and a sandbox for the young mind to play with the building blocks of storytelling.

One morning, the little boy is late to school and when his teacher inquires about the reason for his tardiness, he proceeds to offer a litany of imaginative excuses. Giant ants ate his breakfast! Evil ninjas ambushed him on the way to the bus stop! A massive ape mistook the school bus for a banana! His uncle’s time machine misfired and sent him back to the dominion of dinosaurs!

There are “scary majorettes,” “an unusually large spiderweb,” an encounter with Bigfoot and Yeti, and a call from the president who demanded the boy’s “champion chess skills” in helping to “save the planet from an alien invasion.”

Underpinning the delightful story, with its acrobatics of the imagination and its disarming illustrations, is a subtle testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity — we create our “own” ideas by combining countless fragments of existing ones, of impressions and influences and bits of information, into novel combinations. Ursula K. Le Guin knew this when she considered where great ideas come from, as did Mark Twain when he contemplated originality in a letter to Helen Keller, asserting that “substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.”

The little boy’s tales are a testament to this machinery of ideation — many of them borrow subtle elements or entire plot lines from beloved fairy tales (there is the Little Red Riding Hood, beseeching him to help find her grandmother), pop culture tropes (a Godzilla-like ape seizes the school bus), and classic children’s stories (he grows tiny, then huge, à la Alice in Wonderland).

When the little boy is finished relaying his imaginative series of unfortunate events and his teacher inquires whether those fanciful misadventures were the reason for his tardiness, we get to the comically unremarkable truth — for truth, after all, is always unremarkable, and that is what makes it true.

In the final page, as the teacher perches over the boy in skeptical disapprobation of his excuses and their validity, a friendly dinosaur from the faulty avuncular time machine pokes its head through the classroom window — a gentle and generous gesture which seems to assure the young reader that the child’s experience is always real and valid, even if grownups don’t believe it is true.

One can’t help but think of Philip K. Dick’s definition of reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” — what we believe, after all, is the only reality we’ll ever know, and who can agree on this fluctuating fiction we call Truth anyway?

Complement the impossibly delightful A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School with another wonderful take on reconciling different realities, Peter Brown’s My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.)

Illustrations courtesy of Chronicle; book photographs my own

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03 MARCH, 2015

Roald Dahl on How Illness Emboldens Creativity: A Moving Letter to His Bedridden Mentor

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“I doubt I would have written a line … unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut.”

My daily rhythms of reading and writing were recently derailed by a temporary but acute illness that stopped, unceremoniously and without apology, the music to which mind and matter are entwined in their intimate tango. For the second time in my adult life — the first being a food poisoning episode — I was made palpably aware of how body and brain conspire in the thing we call being. The extreme physical weakness somehow short-circuited the “associative trails” upon which fruitful thinking is based and my card to the library of my own mind was mercilessly revoked, and yet I was granted access to a whole new terra incognita of the mind, a Wonderland of fragmentary ideas and sidewise gleams at Truth. Then, as recovery airlifted me out of the mental haze, returning to my mere baseline of cognitive function felt nothing short of miraculous — as soon as I resumed reading, everything sparked fireworks of connections and illuminated associative trails in all directions. It was as though the illness had catapulted me to a higher plane of what Oscar Wilde called the “temperament of receptivity.”

This, of course, is not an uncommon experience — both the tendency to treat illness as an abstraction until it befalls the concreteness of our body-minds, and the sense of not merely renewed but elevated mental and creative faculties coming out on the other end of a physically and mentally draining stretch. But no one has articulated this odd tradeoff more masterfully than beloved British children’s book author, novelist, and short story writer Roald Dahl (September 13, 1916–November 23, 1990).

In 1954, Dahl traveled to Jamaica with his friend and mentor Charles E. Marsh — a Texas publisher Dahl had come to see as a father figure and a model for the “geriatric child” the author himself would later become — where Marsh contracted cerebral malaria from a mosquito bite and suffered a series of small strokes that left his speech and mobility severely damaged. When Dahl returned to New York — Marsh was too weak to leave Jamaica — he set out to lift his mentor’s spirits with a magnificent letter of sympathetic solidarity and supportive assurance, found in Donald Sturrock’s altogether absorbing Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl (public library).

Dahl, who had barely survived a plane crash thirteen years earlier while working as a wartime fighter pilot in Britain’s Royal Air Force, reflects on how his own struggle with debilitating chronic pain provided the mental springboard for his career as a writer:

I just want to tell you this: I am an expert on being very ill and having to lie in bed. You are not. Even after you get up and get well after this, you still will be only an amateur at the game compared with us pros. Like any other business, or any unusual occupation, it’s a hell of a tough one to learn. But you know I’m convinced that it has its compensations — for someone like me it does anyway.

I doubt I would have written a line, or would have had the ability to write a line, unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut. You of course were already a philosopher before you became ill. But I predict that you will emerge a double philosopher, and a super philosopher after all this is over. I emerged a tiny-philosopher, a fractional philosopher from nothing, so it stands to reason that you will advance from straight philosopher to super philosopher.

I mean this. I know that serious illness is a good thing for the mind. It is always worth it afterwards. There’s something of the yogi about it, with all its self-disciplines and horrors. And it’s one of the few experiences that you’d never had up to now. So take my view and be kind of thankful that it came. And if afterwards, it leaves you with an ache, or a pain, or a slight disability, as it does me, it doesn’t matter a damn; at least not to anyone but yourself. And as you’ve taught me so well, that is the only unimportant person — oneself.

Whether or not Dahl’s final remark is a reference to the notion that the individual self is an illusion, which Alan Watts began popularizing around the same time and which some of today’s greatest thinkers also champion, is unclear — but it was certainly a notion in the cultural zeitgeist.

Much more of Dahl’s insight and genius spring to life in Storyteller, which chronicles the life of this beloved eternal child from his adventurous youth to his days as a fighter pilot (during which he dreamt up his gremlins) to the creation of Willy Wonka and beyond. For a lighter treat, complement it with some real recipes from Dahl’s beloved children’s books.

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