Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

27 FEBRUARY, 2015

Rilke on Our Fear of the Unexplainable

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“Fear of the unexplainable has not only impoverished our inner lives, but also diminished relations between people.”

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his spectacular lecture-turned-book on science and spirituality, “we will have failed.” More than a decade earlier, in delivering the same annual Gifford Lecture, Hannah Arendt argued that our appetite for “unanswerable questions” is what defines our humanity. But it was another great mind, not a scientist but a poet, who delivered this message with the most luminous immediacy many decades earlier: Rainer Maria Rilke.

In an exquisite passage from his Letters to a Young Poet — a secular masterwork with the timeless resonance of scripture, and the source of Rilke’s wisdom on what love asks of us and how to live the questions — later included in Joanna Macy’s infinitely ennobling A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke (public library), the poet writes in 1904:

The tendency of people to be fearful of those experiences they call apparitions or assign to the “spirit world,” including death, has done infinite harm to life. All these things so naturally related to us have been driven away through our daily resistance to them, to the point where our capacity to sense them has atrophied… Fear of the unexplainable has not only impoverished our inner lives, but also diminished relations between people; these have been dragged, so to speak, from the river of infinite possibilities and stuck on the dry bank where nothing happens. For it is not only sluggishness that makes human relations so unspeakably monotonous, it is the aversion to any new, unforeseen experience we are not sure we can handle.

Nearly two decades later, he revisits this slippery subject from another angle in a letter to Countess Margot Sizzo-Noris-Crouy:

The person who has not, in a moment of firm resolve, accepted — yes, even rejoiced in — what has struck him with terror — he has never taken possession of the full, ineffable power of our existence. He withdraws to the edge; when things play out, he will be neither alive nor dead.

To discover the unity of dread and bliss, these two faces of the same divinity (indeed, they reveal themselves as a single face that presents itself differently according to the way in which we see it): that is the essential meaning…

Complement the magnificent A Year with Rilke — which spans from Rilke’s early poems to the last sonnet he wrote days before his death from leukemia, and includes fragments of his letters, diaries, and prose — with Rilke on how befriending death can help us live more fully and astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge.

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26 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Well of Being: An Extraordinary Children’s Book for Grownups about the Art of Living with Openhearted Immediacy

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A lyrical invitation to awaken from the trance of the limiting stories we tell ourselves and just live.

“This is the greatest damn thing about the universe,” Henry Miller wrote in his magnificent meditation on the meaning of existence, “that we can know so much, recognize so much, dissect, do everything, and we can’t grasp it.” Paradoxically enough, the fragment of the universe we seem least equipped to grasp is the truth of who we ourselves are. Who are we, really, when we silence the ego’s shrill commands about who we should be, and simply listen to the song of life as it sings itself through us?

That’s what French-born, Baltimore-based artist Jean-Pierre Weill explores in The Well of Being (public library) — an extraordinary “children’s book for adults,” three years in the making, that peers into the depths of the human experience and the meaning of our existence, tracing how the stories we tell ourselves to construct our personae obscure the truth of our personhood, and how we can untell them in order to just be.

Succumbing neither to religiosity nor to scientism, neither to myth nor to materialism, Weill dances across the Big Bang, the teachings of the 18th-century Italian philosopher and mystic Ramchal, evolution, 9/11, and life’s most poetic and philosophical dimensions. He tells the lyrical story of a man — an androgynous being who “represents Everyman and also Everywoman,” as Weill explains in the endnotes — moving from the origin of the universe to the perplexities of growing up to the mystery of being alive. At the center of it is the unity of life and the connectedness of the universe, “our encounter with One, well-being.”

What emerges from Weill’s ethereal watercolors and enchanting words is a secular scripture, at once grounding and elevating — a gentle prod to awaken from the trance of our daily circumstances and live with openhearted immediacy, a message partway between Seneca’s exhortation to stop living in expectancy and Mary Oliver’s invitation to begin belonging to this world.

I see that you’re reading.

As the train is late let me take you on an excursion to the place we long for.

I ask of you one thing: bring attention to your thoughts, those that take you from this book, quiet them… and value this listening as if it were a mysterious gift yours for the taking.

Let us string a bead of thought, an article of faith.

Our existence is not an accident but a mystery… We can entrust ourselves to this mystery, for we are part of it. Indeed we are it.

I don’t say there isn’t much work to do, for there is.

And some tracks lead to excruciating darkness, where a person can tumble from the sky on a clear September morning.

Yet is the world not whole? Is it not beautiful?

For now, let’s consider well-being a choice, something you can try on and wear. When we put on the hat and coat of well-being we incline towards joy without special occasion.

At the heart of the lyrical story is the somewhat discomfiting yet necessary reminder that although our self-delusions are an adaptive crutch and the masks we wear are a protective survival mechanism, unless we learn to revise our inner storytelling and let ourselves be seen, we will continue to keep ourselves small with the stories we tell ourselves.

Weill writes:

We organize our circumstances into stories, stories we pick up along the way and carry with us.

Stories that declare, I’m lacking.

Why me? stories.

I’m alone, stories.

What will I amount to? stories.

Stories about who we should be.

Or think we are.

They are interior maps whose familiar roads we travel. Over and over. Yet when we apprehend these maps, these stories, these patterns … we awaken and rise, as it were, to a new perspective, to new possibilities.

Complement the immeasurably wonderful The Well of Being with Seth Godin’s very different and yet similar-in-spirit “children’s book for grownups” about creative courage and living with vulnerability, then revisit Dostoyevsky’s existential epiphany and drink from Anne Lamott’s well of being with her soul-stretching inquiry into how we find meaning in a crazy world.

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26 FEBRUARY, 2015

E.B. White on How to Write for Children and the Writer’s Responsibility to All Readers

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“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”

The loving and attentive reader of children’s books knows that the best of them are not one-dimensional oversimplifications of life but stories that tackle with elegant simplicity such complexities as uncertainty, loneliness, loss, and the cycle of life. And anyone who sits with this awareness for a moment becomes suddenly skeptical of the very notion of a “children’s” book. Maurice Sendak certainly knew that when he scoffed in his final interview: “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” Seven decades earlier, J.R.R. Tolkien had articulated the same sentiment, with more politeness and academic rigor, in his terrific essay on why there is no such thing as writing “for children.” But one of the finest, most charming and most convincing renunciations of the myths about writing for children comes from E.B. White, nearly two decades after he sneezed Charlotte’s Web.

In a 1969 interview, included in the altogether unputdownable The Paris Review Interviews, vol. IV (public library) — which also features wonderfully wide-ranging conversations with Haruki Murakami, Maya Angelou, Ezra Pound, Marilynne Robinson, William Styron and more — White turns his formidable amalgam of wit and wisdom to our culture’s limiting misconceptions about storytelling “for children.”

When the interviewer asks whether there is “any shifting of gears” in writing children’s books, as opposed to the grownup nonfiction for which he is best known, White responds with the rare combination of conviction and nuance:

Anybody who shifts gears when he writes for children is likely to wind up stripping his gears. But I don’t want to evade your question. There is a difference between writing for children and for adults. I am lucky, though, as I seldom seem to have my audience in mind when I am at work. It is as though they didn’t exist.

Echoing Ursula Nordstrom — the visionary editor and patron saint of childhood who brought to life not only Charlotte’s Web but also such classics as Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Giving Tree, and who famously insisted that children never want a blunt creative edge — White adds:

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In Charlotte’s Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.

E. B. White's drawings of the vectors of the web-spinning process. Click image for more.

Long before psychologists knew that language is central to how human imagination evolves, White is especially adamant about the blunting of language:

Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn’t know. This emasculates the prose and, I suspect, bores the reader. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. I’m lucky again: my own vocabulary is small, compared to most writers, and I tend to use the short words. So it’s no problem for me to write for children. We have a lot in common.

Like C.S. Lewis, who contemplated what writing for children reveals about the key to authenticity in all writing, White extrapolates the writer’s responsibility to all audiences:

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter… A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.

[…]

A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me.

The Paris Review Interviews, vol. IV is a treasure trove in its totality. Complement this particular gem with E.B. White on the future of reading, what makes a great city, his satirical take on the difference between love and passion, and his beautiful letter to a man who had lost faith in life.

Donating = Loving

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