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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

17 APRIL, 2014

Posterity Is Stupid: 19-Year-Old Italo Calvino on Living with Integrity and How to Assert Yourself

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“Asserting oneself … doesn’t mean asserting a name and a person. It means asserting oneself with all that one has inside, and what he has inside, underneath that pigeon chest, is taking on more and more precise contours.”

“A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off,” Italo Calvino observed in one of his 14 definitions of what makes a classic. But while these were directed at literature, can a life be a classic, in how it is lived and what “pulviscular cloud” of cultural discourse it leaves behind? If there ever was a life imbued with a resounding “yes,” it’s Calvino’s own, and this is something he himself addresses implicitly, with equal parts wisdom and irreverent wit, in a letter to his friend Eugenio Scalfari from March 7, 1942, found in the altogether fantastic Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) — one of the best biographies and memoirs of 2013, which also gave us Calvino’s advice on writing, his prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life, his poetic resume, his thoughts on America, and his wonderfully timeless New Year’s resolution. At the time of his letter to Scalfari, young Calvino was taking his second year of studies at the University of Turin, where his father had previously taught courses in agronomy, following in his family’s footsteps and pursuing a degree in agriculture. After the war, he would eventually return to university, abandoning agriculture and turning toward a degree in the arts shortly before immersing himself in the literary world.

After noting what joy it is “to have a distant friend who writes long letters full of drivel and to be able to reply to him with equally lengthy letters full of drivel” — an observation bittersweet in our age of short-form instantaneous drivel — 19-year-old Calvino launches into an extended meditation on life and legacy:

When will you stop pronouncing in my presence phrases such as “all methods are fine as long as you succeed,” or “follow the current,” or “adapt to the times”? What do you mean by “adapting to the times”? Are these the ideas of a young man who ought to face life with pureness of intentions and clarity of ideals? And then you think you can claim to have understood me, to have taken me as a model? No, that deluded youth of Via Bogino, the prisoner of his dreams in Villa Meridiana does not think along those lines. A different heart beats beneath the pigeon chest of the cloud-catcher of San Giovanni. [Ed: The Calvino’s family home was the Villa Meridiana in San Remo, and they also had land in the countryside in the village of San Giovanni.] Asserting oneself — he says — doesn’t mean asserting a name and a person. It means asserting oneself with all that one has inside, and what he has inside, underneath that pigeon chest, is taking on more and more precise contours. And it is precisely in that that my certainty lies: this something does not represent today, it represents tomorrow. And it is this something that I want to assert, not italocalvino; italocalvino will die and won’t serve any purpose any more; the something will remain and will provide good seed.

He then chastises Scalfari for the all too human folly of fetishizing one’s own ideas:

Every idea you have, you become a fetishist of it, you think it’s the greatest and most original idea that any human mind ever had, you turn it into a philosophy of life and bore the backside off your friends. But you’re also a well-meaning sort, and you’ll be happy because you see the world only as you like to see it.

Even though he wasn’t yet a writer, Calvino considers his own vanity with the classic writerly blend of self-awareness and self-deprecation:

I accepted the praise you gave me at the start of your letter with barely restrained grunts of satisfaction. Although I am small, ugly and dirty, I am highly ambitious and at the slightest flattery I immediately start to strut like a turkey.

He adds a poignant reflection on our inescapable illusion of uniqueness, a special kind of human vanity:

This thought has always filled me with terror: that I might be one of those people, that I might be only one of those people. And if I have decided to be merely a modest agronomist this was not just because my family’s destiny forbade me the contemplative life, but also and principally because I was terrified by the thought of one day meeting a crowd of people like me, each one convinced that he and only he was a genius. Up here in Turin I know only students of agriculture, medicine, engineering, chemistry: all good guys who are thinking about getting a job, without a head full of nonsense, no mirages of glory, often without much intelligence. And as far as they are concerned, I am one of them: no one knows who italocalvino is, who he wanted or wants to be. With these people there is little talk of dreams and the future, though they too certainly think about such things.

And yet, a writer among agronomists — his “pigeon-chest” full of uncontainable ambition for eagleness in an aviary designed for pragmatic postal pigeons — young Calvino makes it clear where his stake is to be planted in the spectrum from realism to idealism:

Apart from the fact that the literary or pseudo-literary world has always aroused a certain dislike in me, for me it would only be discouraging. But instead, living like this, I feel happy in the knowledge that I am different from those around me, that I see things with a different eye to theirs, that I know how to appreciate or suffer from the world in my own way. And I feel myself superior. I prefer being the obscure, isolated figure hoping for the victory that will see his name on everyone’s lips rather than being one of the pack just following the destiny of a group. And you certainly can’t say that this kind of behavior of mine is accommodating. I may be accommodating in life, I’ll let myself be carried away passively in the course of my actions, but I will not prostitute my art.

The following day, March 8, he takes up the unfinished letter and adds before changing the subject:

I found this letter that I had started to write yesterday evening and I reread it with interest. Dammit, what a lot of drivel I managed to write! In the end it’s impossible to understand anything in it. But better that way: the less one understands the more posterity will appreciate my profundity of thought. In fact, let me say:

POSTERITY IS STUPID

Think how annoyed they’ll be when they read that!

And yet, stupid as we may be, it’s hard not to appreciate Calvino’s crystalline self-awareness and deep insight into the human soul, even in this concluding attempt at a disclaimer. No amount of self-deprecation can ever blunt a mind this sharp or dim a spirit this luminous.

Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 is a remarkably rich read, a ruffle of layer upon layer of appreciation for Calvino’s singular person and persona. Sample it further with more of his wisdom on writing and the meaning of human life.

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16 APRIL, 2014

The Wizard of Oz, Reimagined by Beloved Illustrator Lisbeth Zwerger

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An enchanting and original vision for L. Frank Baum’s classic ode to wonderment and joy.

As a lover of vintage children’s books, especially ones that have elicited exquisite illustrated reimaginings over the years, I was thrilled to come upon an extraordinary 1996 edition of The Wizard of Oz (public library), illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger — one of the most remarkable, original, and imaginative illustrators of our time, whose soft yet irreverent aesthetic calls to mind the sensitivity of Maurice Sendak, the visual poetics of Sophie Blackall, and the conceptual eeriness of Edward Gorey, and yet is gasp-gorgeous and decidedly distinctive in its own right.

More than anything, Zwerger’s unusual vision of Emerald City and its four legendary travelers makes L. Frank Baum’s original 1900 introduction to the book, an ode to wonderment and joy as an antidote to morality tales, sing all the more mellifluously:

Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.

Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.

Having this thought in mind, the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.

Though Zwerger’s The Wizard of Oz now rests in the bittersweet cemetery of out-of-print gems, surviving used copies can still be found online and at some libraries.

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16 APRIL, 2014

The Science of Humor and the Humor of Science: A Brilliant 1969 Reflection on Laughter as Self-Defense Against Automation

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“Our life has become so mechanized and electronified that one needs some kind of an elixir to make it bearable at all. And what is this elixir if not humor?”

What, exactly, makes a joke funny? How does an intelligent joke remain a joke without diluting the intellectual and remain intelligent without compromising the funny? From the altogether fantastic 1973 volume A Random Walk in Science (public library) — a compendium of comments, both lighthearted and serious, by scientists that “reveal their intensely human ambitions, frustrations and elation” and that “record some changing attitudes within science and mirror the interaction of science with society” — comes an essay titled “Keeping Up with Science” by Hungarian writer and satirist László Feleki, adapted from his 1969 paper published in UNESCO’s journal Impact of Science on Society. Feleki explores the role of humor — specifically educated humor and scientific humor, even more precisely — as a sort of cultural defense mechanism against the incomprehensibly fast-paced technological progress of modern society. Revisiting Feleki’s words more than four decades later — after then-unthinkable developments like personal genomics, 3-D printing, advanced robotic space probes, and the world wide web — gives them all the more amplified resonance. He writes:

With the invention of the steam engine the hell of science broke loose. Since then one admirable discovery has followed the other. Today no human brain is capable of comprehending the whole of science. Today there are part-sciences with part-scientists. Man has hopelessly surpassed himself. He can be proud of this, but he is no longer able to keep track of his own achievements.

Our life has become so mechanized and electronified that one needs some kind of an elixir to make it bearable at all. And what is this elixir if not humor? It is decisive for the present and future of mankind whether humor and science can keep in step…

Considering the question of humor to be one of “extraordinary importance,” Feleki notes that “to laugh at a joke without analyzing it is work half done” and sets out to explore what humor actually is:

The term “humor” itself means fluid or moisture, indicating that already the ancient Greeks must have known both moisture and humor. Humor as a fluid probably served to dilute the hard facts of life making it possible to swallow and digest them. Humor is, of course, palatable even without moisture; in such cases we are dealing with dry humor.

Still, Feleki concedes that one of the hallmarks of humor is how it eludes definition. He outlines, instead, “some partial truths about humor”:

It is evident that humor is difficult to write and therefore is certainly not “light” literature.

Parody is a humorous genre of literature. A really good parody or take-off is better than the original.

The basis of acid humor is ulcers. Many humorists have ulcers.

Truth is often humorous simply because it is so unusual that it makes people laugh.

The greatest blessing of humor is that it relaxes tension. It is really indispensable in situations when there is nothing left but a big laugh.

Feleki goes on to demonstrate the tenets of the science of humorology through a single joke, which he himself told to an acquaintance at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences:

Two geologists converse in a cafe. One of them says: “Yes, unfortunately fifteen years from now the Sun will cool, and then all life on Earth will perish.” A card-player nearby has been half listening to the joke, and turns in terror to the geologist: “What did you say? In how many years will the Sun cool?” “Fifteen billion years,” the scientist replies. The card-player lets out a sigh of relief: “Oh, I was afraid you said fifteen million!”

Soil sample containing Siberian actinobacteria, about half a million years old. Photograph by Rachel Sussman from her project 'The Oldest Living Things in the World.' Click image for details.

But as Feleki awaits an outburst of laughter, or at the very least an amused smile, from the professor, he is faced with nothing but “brown study — rock-bottom humiliation for a teller of jokes.” Just as he began to wonder whether his companion had understood the joke, the professor gave an appreciative nod, which he substantiated with a romp through the history of philosophical theories explaining humor:

The joke is good… If we accept Aristotle’s definition according to which the comic, the ridiculous is some fault, deficiency or ugliness which nonetheless causes no pain or trouble, we will find the joke just heard meets these criteria. The cooling of the Sun is certainly a deficiency, or more accurately heat deficiency, although it is not ugliness, for even a chill celestial object can be a very pleasing sight as there are several examples in the universe to demonstrate.

And, then, what about Hobbes’s hypothesis? In his treatise on the causes of laughter Hobbes pointed out that laughter is the feeling of pride, as seeing the weakness of others, we experience our own intellectual superiority.

The joke also satisfies the contrast theory. For, according to Kant, contrast is the essence of the comic. And in fact it would be difficult to imagine a sharper contrast than that existing between the ephemeral life of man and cosmic time.

In Schopenhauer’s terms, this can also be taken as the disharmony of a concept with some realistic object with which it is associated. Indeed, the card-player who sighs with relief at the idea that he can calmly continue his card-playing until the 14 millionth year of his life, for it will remain warm enough, entertains a most unrealistic thought within the context of a most realistic idea that men like to live as long as possible and dislike the cold.

Nor is Bergson’s theory of automatism left out of account, because the protagonist is jolted out of the mathematically induced natural time sense that measures human life.

To sum it up, I repeat that the joke is funny. Hence I am fully justified in laughing at it.

With this, the professor burst into uncontrollable laughter “so hard that tears flowed and he held his sides.” Faleki returns to the heart of the matter:

It was easy to laugh in the past at the modest jokes which involved the Little Idiot, the two traveling salesmen, someone’s mother-in-law, the drunk, or the Scotsman. Only a small surprise element had to be provided for the listener. A proper appreciation of scientific humor requires the proper scientific qualifications. The vital need to future generations is for a scientific education so they can have the incomparable surcease of humor in order to endure the state of perfection to which man and life will have been reduced by the process of science.

Just consider what degree of culture and education is required to understand the joke which is said to have practically drawn tears of laughter from Einstein and Oppenheimer. One photon asks the other photon weaving about in space: “Can’t you move straight? You must be drunk again!” The other photon protests vehemently: “What do you expect? Can’t you see that I am getting soaked in a gravitational field?” Yes, this is coming, this is what we have to get prepared for.

A Random Walk in Science is a fantastic read from cover to cover. In the introduction, editor Robert L. Weber captures the volume’s spirit perfectly by citing something he read in the Worm Runner’s Digest, a publication that began as one researcher’s “personal joke with the Scientific Establishment” and evolved into a bona fide journal without losing its sense of humor:

We know considerably more about flatworms than we do about people who study flatworms. The Establishment never questions its own motives; the true humorist always does.

The collection is thus the Establishment’s effort to inhabit the spirit of the humorist. The result is infinitely delightful.

Complement this particular meditation with Arthur Koestler’s seminal “bisociation” theory of how humor works.

Thanks, Lucinda

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