Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

29 MAY, 2014

Maya Angelou on Identity and the Meaning of Life

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“Life loves the liver of it. You must live and life will be good to you.”

The light of the world has grown a little dimmer with the loss of the phenomenal Maya Angelou, but her legacy endures as a luminous beacon of strength, courage, and spiritual beauty. Angelou’s timeless wisdom shines with unparalleled light in a 1977 interview by journalist Judith Rich, found in Conversations with Maya Angelou (public library) — the same magnificent tome that gave us the beloved author’s conversation with Bill Moyers on freedom — in which Angelou explores issues of identity and the meaning of life.

Reflecting on her life, Angelou — who rose to cultural prominence through the sheer tenacity of her character and talent, despite being born into a tumultuous working-class family, abandoned by her father at the age of three, and raped at the age of eight — tells Rich:

I’ve been very fortunate… I seem to have a kind of blinkers. I just do not allow too many negatives to soil me. I’m very blessed. I have looked quite strange in most of the places I have lived in my life, the stages, spaces I’ve moved through. I of course grew up with my grandmother: my grandmother’s people and my brother are very very black, very lovely. And my mother’s people were very very fair. I was always sort of in between. I was too tall. My voice was too heavy. My attitude was too arrogant — or tenderhearted. So if I had accepted what people told me I looked like as a negative yes, then I would be dead. But I accepted it and I thought, well, aren’t I the lucky one.

She later revisits the question of identity, echoing Leo Buscaglia’s beautiful meditation on labels, as she reflects on the visibility her success granted her and the responsibility that comes with it:

What I represent in fact, what I’m trying like hell to represent every time I go into that hotel room, is myself. That’s what I’m trying to do. And I miss most of the time on that: I do not represent blacks or tall women, or women or Sonomans or Californians or Americans. Or rather I hope I do, because I am all those things. But that is not all that I am. I am all of that and more and less. People often put labels on people so they don’t have to deal with the physical fact of those people. It’s easy to say, oh, that’s a honkie, that’s a Jew, that’s a junkie, or that’s a broad, or that’s a stud, or that’s a dude. So you don’t have to think: does this person long for Christmas? Is he afraid that the Easter bunny will become polluted? … I refuse that… I simply refuse to have my life narrowed and proscribed.

To be sure, beneath Angelou’s remarkable optimism and dignity lies the strenuous reality she had to overcome. Reflecting on her youth, she channels an experience all too familiar to those who enter life from a foundation the opposite of privilege:

It’s very hard to be young and curious and almost egomaniacally concerned with one’s intelligence and to have no education at all and no direction and no doors to be open… To go figuratively to a door and find there’s no doorknob.

And yet Angelou acknowledges with great gratitude the kindness of those who opened doors for her in her spiritual and creative journey. Remembering the Jewish rabbi who offered her guidance in faith and philosophy and who showed up at her hospital bedside many years later after a serious operation, Angelou tells Rich:

The kindnesses … I never forget them. And so they keep one from becoming bitter. They encourage you to be as strong, as volatile as necessary to make a well world. Those people who gave me so much, and still give me so much, have a passion about them. And they encourage the passion in me. I’m very blessed that I have a healthy temper. I can become quite angry and burning in anger, but I have never been bitter. Bitterness is a corrosive, terrible acid. It just eats you and makes you sick.

Painting by Basquiat from Angelou's 'Life Doesn't Frighten Me.' Click image for more.

At the end of the interview, Angelou reflects on the meaning of life — a meditation all the more poignant as we consider, in the wake of her death, how beautifully she embodied the wisdom of her own words:

I’ve always had the feeling that life loves the liver of it. You must live and life will be good to you, give you experiences. They may not all be that pleasant, but nobody promised you a rose garden. But more than likely if you do dare, what you get are the marvelous returns. Courage is probably the most important of the virtues, because without courage you cannot practice any of the other virtues, you can’t say against a murderous society, I oppose your murdering. You got to have courage to do so. I seem to have known that a long time and found great joy in it.

The totality of Conversations with Maya Angelou is a powerful portal into the beloved writer’s soul. Complement it with Angelou on home, belonging, and (not) growing up, her children’s verses about courage illustrated by Basquiat, and her breathtaking reading of “Phenomenal Woman.”

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28 MAY, 2014

Discipline, Quality vs. Quantity, and the Power of Intellectual Elegance: Remembering Massimo Vignelli

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“Quality stems from intellectual elegance, and is precluded from the vulgar mind.”

“We’re all going from point A to point B — how we get there is the conductor’s problem,” legendary graphic designer Massimo Vignelli once said at an event we both attended several years ago. Heartbreaking as it is to learn that, after a long illness, Vignelli has reached his final point B, he lives on as a masterful conductor of design and life, whose legacy endures as a luminous reminder that there is no greater feat of the creative spirit than the marriage of good work and good personhood, talent and integrity, poise and principle.

It is that singular spirit that imbues the 2007 monograph Vignelli: From A to Z (public library) — a sort of alphabet book of the Vignelli ethos, spanning from big-picture philosophy to the practical particulars of various projects.

One of the most poignant parts of the book appears under the letter D, for “Discipline.” It is a message that applies not only to design but to just about every endeavor — an iteration of a sentiment shared by creators as diverse as celebrated composer Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), novelist Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), painter Chuck Close (Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), beloved author E.B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), and Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (“My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.”). Vignelli gives the notion his own uncompromising touch:

This is the most important virtue for a designer to possess. Discipline is the god of design that governs every aspect of a project… Without it, it is total anarchy, total randomness, pure chaos. Discipline is the attitude that helps us discern right from wrong and guides us to achieve consistency of language in whatever we do. Discipline is what helps us navigate through the social context in which we operate. Discipline is what makes us responsible toward ourselves, toward our clients, toward the society in which we live. It is through discipline that we are able to improve ourselves, mentally and physically; to offer the best of ourselves to everything around us, including every project on which we work…

Discipline is the supreme state of mind, the master of passion, and the governing structure of nature.

There is no design without discipline. There is no discipline without intelligence.

Vignelli returns to another aspect of the subject under the letter Q, for “Quality or Quantity?,” exploring the relationship between discipline and quality. He shares an anecdote of his formative philosophy that, while rooted in the client business, applies equally to any type of work that involves an external “other” — a client, a collaborator, an audience. Vignelli writes:

Early in my professional life I had to make a decision about clients. I realized that only certain types of clients can produce a consistently high level of quality in their [work]. Other clients never seem to reach any satisfactory level of quality. I noticed that what we call a good client — the one that has vision, courage, and clarity of mind — usually gives a good briefing and lets you do your work. Invariably, they get the best results. The only problem is that this kind of client is rare. The other kind, the bad client, is the one that has no briefing, changes course during the process, continuously interferes with you and most of the time, at the end, is also unhappy with the results. Most clients tend to belong to this category. Therefore, early on I had to make a decision — whether to have a large quantity of bad clients or a few good ones… So I made the decision to pursue quality, even if it was less profitable…

To work for quality requires discipline and determination, from both the designer and the client. It is important that the client understand that your efforts are aimed to achieve the best possible quality for the product, company, or institution. Quantity often follows quality; rarely does the opposite happen. In other terms, quantity almost always follows success. To strive for quality is an attitude that demands tremendous rigor toward ourselves and toward the entire process of a project.

Vignelli considers the notion of “intellectual elegance,” which he discussed with exquisite eloquence in his fantastic interview with Debbie Millman, at the root of quality:

Quality stems from intellectual elegance, and is precluded from the vulgar mind. The great utopia is to have quality in great quantity. To some extent, industrialization can multiply an object of quality in great quantity and make it accessible to large numbers of people. This is the aim of our profession. This is the responsibility of the designers and their clients. This is the ethical commitment that every designer should make and follow. The moral imperative should be to reduce the ugliness around us, the vulgarity that surrounds us, and replace it with decent, unselfish designs. Every day we face this opportunity and we should not lose the chance to take it.

In the section headed S, for “Style,” Vignelli echoes Schopenhauer and returns to this notion of intellectual elegance vs. vulgarity:

Style is a byproduct of a person’s being. It reflects a way of thinking; behavioral patterns, attitudes and, above all, a culture… A person can be primitive and illiterate, but still have a lot of style, because style (or intellectual elegance) is the projection of a person’s intelligence. Lack of intelligence generates vulgarity. We could say that an object has style if the intelligence that generated it had style, had intellectual elegance. Very humble objects, like old tools, had the direct elegance generated by a culture sensitive to the requirements of that tool and its user. Style is the way things, ideas, attitudes take form. Style is the tangible aspect of intangible things.

Vignelli: From A to Z, though presently hard to find, is a spectacular read and well worth the hunt. For a deeper dive into Vignelli’s expansive mind and spirit, see Debbie Millman’s interview with him on intellectual elegance, education, and love, then bid one final farewell with their live conversation, filmed by the late and great Hillman Curtis:

You are missed, Massimo, and thank you for everything.

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28 MAY, 2014

The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine: Donald Barthelme’s Irreverent Vintage Children’s Book

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“Mysteries are not to be avoided. Rather they are a locus of hope, they enrich and complicate. That is why we have them.”

What a wonderful surprise to find out that the great Donald Barthelme, upon turning forty, joined the ranks of award-winning authors of “grown-up” literature who also wrote generally little-known and invariably lovely children’s books — a phenomenon that gave us gems by Mark Twain, J.R.R. Tolkien, Carson McCullers, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Gertrude Stein.

In 1971, Barthelme penned The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine (public library), a quirky tale illustrated with Victorian engravings that straddle the spectrum from the earnest to the sarcastic.

It tells the story of young Mathilda who, one fine morning in 1887, strolls into the backyard to discover that “a mysterious Chinese house, only six feet high, had grown there overnight.” Having wished for a fire engine instead, she finds herself intrigued by the Chinese house nonetheless — in no small part because emanating from it are strange growls, howls, whispers, and trumpeting. Once she walks in, Mathilda encounters all sorts of oddities — an enormous popcorn-popping machine, an elephant that falls downhill once a day and, like a high-end Manhattan restaurant, is “closed on Mondays,” a despondent captured pirate, and all in all “every kind of flawless flourishy footlooseness,” governed by a “hithering tithering djinn.”

When her nurse calls for her, Mathilda scurries back out and returns indoors. The next morning, she awakes to find the Chinese house gone, but the djinn has left her one final surprise, the fire engine she so desired — except “instead of being sparkling red, it was bright green.”

“The djinn must not know too much about fire engines,” Mathilda thought. “But green is a beautiful color too.”

And Mathilda’s father and mother, that gay and laughing couple, were very glad to have a bright green fire engine to ride in when they went out for an evening, and Mathilda lent it to them whenever they wished.

Like Mark Twain, whose signature witty irreverence in writing for adults springs equally alive in his writings for children, Barthelme takes great care not to insult children’s inherent intelligence by talking down to them from the podium of the All-Knowing Adult or boring them with the predictable patterns of classic children’s tales — the journey, the miracle, the happily-ever-after. More than that, Barthelme tickles a meta-awareness of these patterns and instead invites children to play with them, to engage the story as a game not of make-believe but of playful parody. The coupling of traditional Victorian engravings with wryly ironic captions that wink at society’s hypocrisies only amplifies Barthelme’s bold invitation.

The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine won the National Book Award that year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Barthelme concluded his acceptance speech with one of his signature packets of subtle, soul-expanding wisdom.

Mysteries are not to be avoided. Rather they are a locus of hope, they enrich and complicate. That is why we have them. That is perhaps one of the reasons we have children.

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