Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

05 MAY, 2011

5 Guides to Life from Cultural Luminaries

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Finding practical applications for philosophy, or what Ovid can teach us about sex.

One of our favorite unattributed quotes goes as follows: “Life is a test. It is only a test. If this were your actual life, you would have been given better instructions.”

The good news is that guidance is in fact out there, which is why we’ve put together a short list of reads (and one documentary) that gather the best of what we’ve collectively learned about the tricky art of living. Where the self-help genre can be trite, a byproduct of the latest pop-culture trends, there’s comfort in knowing that these picks go deeper in their quest for human self-actualization.

ALL THINGS SHINING

In 2011, we live in an age without existential anchors, a state that leaves many of us feeling adrift in our day-to-day lives. So goes the argument behind All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. Though the book is co-written by academics with burnished credentials, All Things Shining is intended for the general reader, as the authors note in their forward.

[A]nyone who hopes to enrich his or her life by experiencing it in the light of classic philosophical and literary works can hope to find something here. Anyone who wants to lure back the shining things, to uncover the wonder we were once capable of experiencing… anyone who is done with indecision and waiting, with expressionlessness and lostness and sadness and angst, and who is ready for whatever it is that comes next.”

From Dante to David Foster Wallace, All Things Shining suggests that non-religious westerners look for sacraments in (sometimes surprising) new places. Places like the football field, as one of the book’s authors proposed during a recent appearance on The Colbert Report. Watch him get genially punted about by Colbert here:

EXAMINED LIFE

Director Astra Taylor has her subjects – and their minds – on the move in Examined Life: Philosophy Is in the Streets. What’s most refreshing about her excellent 2009 documentary is how it portrays today’s greatest living philosophers interacting with the world.

Cornel West expounds on the “funk” of birth from the backseat of a taxi cab driving through the streets of New York; Michael Hardt talks about political revolution while rowing a canoe through Central Park’s reservoir; and Slavoj Zizek holds forth on the Anthropocene while standing in the middle of a landfill. The Real doesn’t get much realer than this.

On the critical issues of justice, Martha Nussbaum (interviewed along Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive) remarks:

The Social Contract tradition is of course an academic, philosophical tradition, but it also has tremendous influence on popular culture and our general public life. Because every day we hear things like ‘those people don’t pay their own way’… So the idea that the good member of society is a producer who contributes advantage to everyone is a very live idea, and it lies behind the decline of welfare programs in this country.”

If their peripatetic musings leave you hungry for more, Taylor also published the complete interviews with eight of our most eminent contemporary minds as a book.

BREAKFAST WITH SOCRATES

In Breakfast with Socrates: An Extraordinary (Philosophical) Journey Through Your Ordinary Day, we were taken on a highly enjoyable tour of the mundane accompanied by the Buddha, Max Weber, and a host of other great thinkers. The book flows chronologically through a typical day, beginning with a chapter called “Waking Up,” logically, since both Descartes and Kant preside over the process of getting out of bed.

Running on the treadmill is an occasion for the following observation:

So let’s say Foucault is right: the gym is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an overtly friendly club on a covert mission to monitor not just your heart rate but your general regularity as a subject. Now turn that argument on its head: the state wouldn’t need to keep bodies docile if they didn’t hold the power to subvert it, which is to reconceive the body as a political weapon, an agent of resistance.”

What we liked most about Breakfast with Socrates was its absorption in the quotidian aspects of life, since, as its epigraph from the writer Annie Dillard reminds us, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

MORNING, NOON, AND NIGHT

Where Breakfast with Socrates walked us through the diurnal, the new publication Morning, Noon, and Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books has nothing less than our entire lives on its itinerary. Its author, Arnold Weinstein, has been teaching literature at Brown University for more than four decades, and he brings a compelling intimacy to his subject.

In Morning, Noon, and Night something quite personal is at stake; namely, Weinstein’s own reckoning with the passing of time. His readings in the book’s latter half are particularly sensitive to the irrefutable phenomenon of mortality. To wit:

Baudelaire and Freud are cartographers of a special sort: they are alive to the temporal destinies of cities and humans. What they tell us, in their own way, is that humans are also historical monuments, replete with stories, memories, scar tissue, and the living pith of days and works.”

Alongside classics like Ulysses, contemporary works from Marjane Satrapi and Jonathan Safran Foer also appear in Weinstein’s existential exigesis.

THE CONSOLATIONS OF PHILOSOPHY

No survey of life lessons derived from luminaries would be complete without a pick from writer Alain de Botton. In The Consolations of Philosophy we get his well-established blend of wit and wisdom applied, most comfortingly, to the aspects of life that cause the most anxiety. In a chapter entitled “Consolation for Not Having Enough Money,” de Botton trades on the legacy of the Greek philosopher Epicurus.

Wealth is of course unlikely ever to make anyone miserable. But the crux of Epicurus’s argument is that if we have money without friends, freedom and an analysed life, we will never truly be happy. And if we have them, but are missing the fortune, we will never be unhappy.”

Illustrations humorously illuminate de Botton’s other chapters, which draw on Seneca (how to address frustration and loss), Schopenhauer (on healing a broken heart), and Montaigne (for those suffering from feelings of inadequacy).

de Botton’s 2009 TED talk on “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success” has always been one of our favorites; and it touches on much the same anxious territory as The Consolations of Philosophy.

These five items draw deeply and across disciplines from the humanities and the social sciences, reminding us that we have a lot to learn still from those who have labored, lived, and loved before us. Better yet, we also get to be entertained on this long and winding road to enlightenment.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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05 MAY, 2011

Mapping the Human Condition

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What the empire of love has to do with the intellect forest and the bay of agoraphobia.

We love maps. There’s something about cartography that lends itself to visualizing much more than land and geography. We’ve previously looked at how the London tube map was appropriated as a visual metaphor for everything from The Milky Way to the Kabbalah, and today we turn to seven cartographic interpretations of the human condition, using the visual vocabulary of classical maps to interpret various facets of the human psyche — a genre that came of age during the late Renaissance, when it became known as “sentimental cartography.”

THE KINGDOM OF WISDOM

In 1961, Norton Juster wrote The Phantom Tollbooth, a timeless children’s classic and one of our essential children’s books with philosophy for grown-ups. It tells the story of a bored little boy named Milo who one day receives a magic tollbooth that transports him to a fantasy land called The Kingdom of Wisdom. Though at first he gets lost in the Doldrums, a grey place where thinking and laughing are not allowed, he goes on to incredible adventures before returning to his own room as magically as he had left it.

 

This map by mid-century American cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who illustrated the book, depicts the marvelous land that Milo finds himself in as he follows his own curiosity.

Thanks, @dethe

ISLE OF KNOWLEDGE

Last week, delicious new work by designer Marian Bantjes (whose latest book, I Wonder, is among the most ambitious and beautiful visual communication volumes ever published) made the rounds — and for good reason: Isle of Knowledge is a beautifully illustrated map of “the ‘known’ beyond which lie monsters,” created for the second installment in Bantjes’ column for UK illustration magazine Varoom on the theme of “Knowledge.”

The map is clearly — whether consciously or not — inspired by the Phantom Tollbooth map, which is perfectly fine: With the concept of combinatorial creativity in our DNA, we deeply believe that all creative work is derivative, everything is a remix, and good ideas come from other good ideas.

MAP OF AN ENGLISHMAN

English artist Grayson Perry‘s 2004 Map of an Englishman portrays his mind in a mock-Tudor etch of an imaginary island, surrounded by the “seas” of his perceived psychological flaws — desires, vanities, prejudices, fears. The island itself is vaguely brain-shaped, turning the map into a kind of cartographic phrenology of the self.

Map of an Englishman

Image courtesy of Grayson Perry and The Paragon Press via BBC

CARTE DE TENDRE

Carte de Tendre (Map of Tenderness) is a 17th-century French map by the writer Madeleine de Scudéry depicting the peaks and valleys of amorous pursuit, from the River of Inclination to Lake of Indifference to the Great Spirit. With its undetermined itinerary that offers you multiple routes to Tenderness, it’s part map, part choose-your-own-adventure narrative for love.

THE EMPIRE OF LOVE

We first featured this extraordinary antique German map of Das Reich der Liebe (The Empire of Love) more than three years ago, and it remains an absolute favorite. Created by Johann Gottlob Immanuel Breitkopf in 1777, it’s a pinnacle of sentimental cartography, as detailed and obsessive as love itself.

If you don’t sprechen Sie Deutch, here’s the gist:

  • GEBIET DER JUGEND = Land of Youth (Forest of Love, Kiss Field, Flirting Game, Charm Castle, Stream of Wishes, Worry-Free, Joy’s Home, Beautiful House, Source of Joy, Sweet Look, Wisecrack Place, Rich River, Warning Castle)
  • GEBIET DER RUHE = Land of Rest (Nightcap, Grandfather City, Equanimity, Manly Place)
  • GEBIET DER TRAURENDEN LIEBE = Land of Mourning Love (Anger’s Home, Flood of Tears, Whim Mountain,  Complaint Place, Hopeless Mountains, Loathing, Strict Place, Swamp of Profanity,  Desert of Melancholy)
  • GEBIET DER LUSTE = Land of Lust (Illness Valley, Weak Home, Intoxication Field, Lechery, Hospital)
  • GEBIET DER GLUCKLICHEN LIEBE = Land of Happy Love (Lust Wood, Answered Prayers, Pleasant View, Enjoyment, Tenderness, Good Times, Affection Farm, Satisfaction, Compliance Mountain, Fountain of Joy, Marriage Harbor, Reward City, Peace of Mind, Bliss Town)
  •  GEBIET DER HAGESTOLZE = Bachelor Country (Stupidity Town, Rejection Place, Irritation, Indifference, Place of Contempt, Reprehensibility, Old Age Mountains, Separation, Hat, Obstinacy, Wrangler Hall, Exasperation Heath, Hamlet of Death, Sea of Doubt)
  • GEBIET DER FIXEN IDEEN = Land of Obsessions (Place of Sighs, Desire Town, Unrest, City of Dreams, Bridge of Hope, Disloyalty, Sweet River of Tears, Little Town of Instincts)

Many of these maps can be found in these 7 must-read books on maps, particularly in the excellent You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination — a treasure trove of imaginary and imaginative cartographic explorations of self-conception.

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04 MAY, 2011

The Old Man and The Sea, Finger-Painted and Animated on Glass

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What Russian finger-painting has to do with iconic literature and the Oscars.

In 1953, Ernest Hemingway was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea, the iconic novella that catapulted him into international celebrity status. Nearly half a century later, Russian animator Aleksandr Petrov produced an exquisite animated adaptation of the book Composed of over 29,000 images that Petrov and his son Dimitri painted in a unique pastels-on-glass technique over the course of two years, it received the 2000 Academy Award for Animated Short Film and went on to garner wide acclaim across the international awards circuit.

For the kind of quality that will let you fully appreciate the exquisite artistry of the film, grab it on DVD.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.