Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

20 APRIL, 2015

The Virtues of a Wandering Heart: How External Crushes Fortify Your Relationship

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“The marriages that last are the ones in which the two members regularly develop (but do not act upon) extramarital infatuations.”

Even as we arrive at an actual mathematical formula for lasting love, we remain tragicomically unskilled at anticipating — to say nothing of domesticating — the unpredictable, nonlinear dynamics of the human heart.

That’s what novelist and Believer magazine founding editor Heidi Julavits, who joins the ranks of history’s notable diarists, touches on with equal parts gentleness and precision in a couple of related meditations from the kaleidoscopically illuminating The Folded Clock: A Diary (public library).

In one entry, as she comforts a friend suspecting spousal infidelity, Julavits relays the curious findings of a study she had recently come across:

The marriages that last are the ones in which the two members regularly develop (but do not act upon) extramarital infatuations.

This, of course, makes sense — we know that love is a mode of “interbeing” and a “dynamic interaction” in which the opportunity to choose each other over and over is what sustains the longevity of a couple’s bond.

Illustration from 'An ABZ of Love,' a vintage Danish guide to romance, which Kurt Vonnegut sent to his wife. Click image for details.

In another entry a few months later, pondering the curious psychology of the TV show The Bachelorette, Julavits revisits this subject and corroborates the empirical with the anecdotal:

Crushes thrive in small spaces. Humans must be programmed to respond positively when faced with a small sampling of other humans in, say, caves.

[…]

This has happened to me many times. It happened to me on a canoe trip; the minute we returned to civilization, I recanted my crush on the guy I’d angled to sit next to at the nightly campfires. I have been so cognizant of this phenomenon, and its inevitability, that I got nervous in college while waiting to hear where in France I was to spend my semester abroad, because I knew that a guy my friend was dating, someone I’d always found abstractly cute, was also going to France. Fortunately we were sent to different cities. Had we been in the same city, I am certain we would have fallen in love, or the sort of love that occurs in those situations, call it what you will, probably a mistake. This is also why I get nervous about going to art colonies, especially now that I am happily married to a man I met at an art colony. I don’t want to fall for anyone else — I am pointedly not looking to fall for anyone — but these situations conspire against our best intentions. Art colonies, often located in remote woods or on beautiful estates, are communities in which all the residents sever ties to the real world within hours of arrival; they are like singles mixers for the married or otherwise spoken for. (I was married when I met my now-husband, who was otherwise spoken for.) When I arrive at a colony these days, I take a measure of the room, I identify the potential problems, I reinforce my weak spots, and then I relax.

Illustration from 'The Missing Piece Meets the Big O,' Shel Silverstein's minimalist allegory of true love. Click image for more.

This kind of considered candor in the service of a larger truth is what makes The Folded Clock an immensely pleasurable read in its entirety. Julavits — who is at times self-deprecating to the point of tears that, having no other recourse in order to continue reading this undeniably marvelous text, eventually transmogrify into tears of delight — captures the book’s sensibility perfectly in one of the entires:

I’ve felt okay occasionally describing my diary as a “contemporary take on Walden.” Like Thoreau, I am pretending that I wrote this diary over the course of a year, when in fact I wrote it over the course of two years, two months, and two days (give or take). Like Thoreau, I wanted to “live deliberately” and was worried that if I did not I might, “when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Like Thoreau, I wanted to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

Unlike Thoreau, I have no fondness for sparse living. I do not covet hardship. I liked the idea of Walden, however, because it was written in a cabin in the woods. It’s a sort-of nature book that took place (at least the writing did) inside. Interiors are where I do my exploring. Interiors are my nature. I am an outdoorsman of the indoors… When I am there I am happiest. In my outbuilding I am sucking out optimum marrow.

Couple with some actual Thoreau, then fortify with the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to love, Dan Savage on the unsettling secret of lasting love, Wendell Berry on freedom and marriage, and Kafka’s beautiful and heartbreaking love letters.

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17 APRIL, 2015

Young Delacroix on the Importance of Solitude in Creative Work and How to Resist Social Distractions

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“Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul… Seek solitude.”

“One can never be alone enough to write,” Susan Sontag lamented in her journal. “People who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger,” the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky admonished the young. And yet despite the vast creative and psychological benefits of boredom, we have grown so afraid of it that we have unlearned — or refused to learn altogether — the essential art of being alone, so very necessary for contemplation and creative work.

The great French artist and dedicated diarist Eugène Delacroix (April 26, 1798–August 13, 1863) examined this paradox with enormous elegance and prescience two centuries before our present epidemic of compulsive sociality and allergy to solitude.

As he approached his twenty-sixth birthday, Delacroix began to formulate what would become a defining concern of his youth and one of increasing urgency for us today, amid our age of exponentially swelling social demands and distractions — the challenge of mediating between the allure of social life and the “fertile solitude” necessary for creative work, which Hemingway grimly extolled in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Eugène Delacroix, self-portrait, 1837

Writing in The Journal of Eugène Delacroix (public library) in early January of 1824, the young artist addresses himself directly, as he often does in the diary:

Poor fellow! How can you do great work when you’re always having to rub shoulders with everything that is vulgar. Think of the great Michelangelo. Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude. If your life is well ordered your health will not suffer.

By the end of March, he is fully consumed by the polarizing pull of these conflicting needs for sociality and solitude. (A century and a half later, the great Wendell Berry captured their yin-yang beautifully when he wrote that in solitude “one’s inner voices become audible [and] one responds more clearly to other lives.”) In his growing contempt for the vulgarity of the art world’s posturing and the charade of networking, Delacroix finds himself doubly tormented by this polarity:

I must work alone. I think that going into society from time to time, or just going out and seeing people, does not do much harm to one’s work and spiritual progress, in spite of what many so-called artists say to the contrary. Associating with people of that kind is far more dangerous; their conversation is always commonplace. I must go back to being alone. Moreover, I must try to live austerely, as Plato did. How can one keep one’s enthusiasm concentrated on a subject when one is always at the mercy of other people and in constant need of their society? … The things we experience for ourselves when we are alone are much stronger and much fresher. However pleasant it may be to communicate one’s emotions to a friend there are too many fine shades of feeling to be explained, and although each probably perceives them, he does so in his own way an d thus the impression is weakened for both.

The first Sunday of April, shortly before his twenty-sixth birthday, he revisits the subject with greater resolve:

Everything tells me that I need to live a more solitary life. The loveliest and most precious moments of my life are slipping away in amusements which, in truth, bring me nothing but boredom. The possibility, or the constant expectation, of being interrupted is already beginning to weaken what little strength I have left after wasting my time for hours the night before. When my memory has nothing important to feed on, it pines and dies. My mind is continually occupied in useless scheming. Countless valuable ideas miscarry because there is no continuity in my thoughts. They burn me up and lay my mind to waste. The enemy is within my gates, in my very heart; I feel his hand everywhere.

Two decades before Kierkegaard’s memorable case for the value of being “idle” in one’s own company and a century before Bertrand Russell’s incisive insistence on the rewards of “fruitful monotony,” young Delacroix exhorts himself:

Think of the blessings that await you, not of the emptiness that drives you to seek constant distraction. Think of having peace of mind and a reliable memory, of the self-control that a well-ordained life will bring, of health not undermined by endless concessions to the passing excesses which other people’s society entails, of uninterrupted work, and plenty of it.

Illustration by Carson Ellis from her book 'Home.' Click image for more.

The Journal of Eugène Delacroix is a magnificent read in its entirety — a treasure trove of insight on art and life from one of the most luminous and creatively restless minds in history. (A word of caution here: The 1995 Phaidon edition by Hubert Wellington, while affordable and more readily available, is printed on paper so woefully thin it is nearly translucent, making reading difficult and unpleasant — to say nothing of underlining, even the gentlest form of which practically tears the page. The 1995 Princeton University Press edition by Michele Hannosh, while out of print and prohibitively expensive, is far superior — pleasurably printed, intelligently edited, and a true masterwork of scholarship reconstructing missing documents. Perhaps a smart publisher invested in cultural preservation will consider bringing it back into print.)

For a complementary perspective, see Wendell Berry on despair and solitude, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why “productive solitude” is essential for the healthy psyche, and Sara Maitland on how to be alone in our age of inescapable togetherness, then revisit famous writers and artists — including Delacroix himself — on the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

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09 APRIL, 2015

John Steinbeck’s Pen: How the Joy of Handwriting Helps Us Draft the Meaning of Life

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“The perfect pen and the perfect paper and me working on work that pleases me and has no note for the critics.”

Edgar Allan Poe believed that handwriting is an indication of character, revealing our “mental qualities.” Mary Gordon saw in its “flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper” a reminder that “however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.” Indeed, the marks we leave on the paper are our most human trails of thought. Few things exercise — and exorcise — the not always seamless collaboration between brain and body like that direct line between the tip of the pen and the tip of the neuron. To be particular about one’s writing instrument is, then, to be particular about thought itself — one can’t afford to be careless about the corporeal transmitter of creative flow.

John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) captures this curious role of the pen as a negotiator between brain and body in a series of disarming observations in Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (public library) — that remarkable volume that gave us a glimpse of how the great writer used the diary as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt when he embarked on the most intense writing experience of his life, the masterwork that earned him the Pulitzer Prize and paved the way for his Nobel Prize.

In mid-July of 1938, three weeks into the work, Steinbeck makes an endearing note of his writing companion — that trusty conduit of thought:

This good pen holds up beautifully. I guess it will last out the entire book.

Then, on July 25, he records the growing intimacy with his writing instrument:

This pen writes thinner if it is steeper. This has been a good pen to me so far. Never had such a good one.

By mid-August, he is fully in love:

What a wonderful pen this is. It has and is giving me perfect service — never stops flowing for a second and never overflows and blots a word.

Like all love affairs, this one suffers occasional practical challenges. On September 7, Steinbeck decries his fate:

Burned my pen finger with a match the other day and the blister comes right where the pen fits. And it hurts like hell and my handwriting reaches new heights of badness because of it.

Even in the face of temptation by the new and shiny, Steinbeck upholds his calligraphic fidelity. By the following July, he is fully committed:

There is no doubt that this fine old pen is better and smoother than the newer one. I think I’ll keep with this good old pen. I’ve done a lot of writing with it. I only hope it holds up.

Ultimately, Steinbeck’s relationship with his pen parallels the promise of all great romances — a source of sensory satisfaction, but only in the service of the greater spiritual fulfillment. On July 26, 1940, he observes with nonjudgmental curiosity the irrational but deeply nourishing nature of that relationship:

My fingers get a little sticky in this weather so I rub alcohol on them so the pen will be slick in my hand. That seems to be important to me. I don’t know why. But it does. The good feeling of the pen should be kept — should be dry and a smooth point and fine paper like this. There’s something very good about this kind of affair.

He adds what seems to be his most concrete definition of success anywhere in the diary — success not in terms of public acclaim and commercial gain, the idea of which he deeply detested, but in Thoreau’s sense of profound private fulfillment. Steinbeck writes:

The perfect pen and the perfect paper and me working on work that pleases me and has no note for the critics.

His language becomes increasingly poetic as his romance with the pen intensifies. On September 29 of 1940, he writes:

Oh! Lord, how good this paper feels under this pen. I can sit here writing and the words slipping out like grapes out of their skins and I feel so good doing it.

That day, as he tussles with news of ongoing wartime devastation, Steinbeck captures in a single exquisite passage the almost mystical quality of writing by hand — that strange way in which the pen becomes a projection of the psyche, channeling its deepest longings and languishings as the hand drafts the meaning of life itself:

Here is a strange thing — almost like a secret. You start out putting words down and there are three things — you, the pen, and the page. Then gradually the three things merge until they are all one and you feel about the page as you do about your arm. Only you love it more than you love your arm. Some day I will be all alone and lonely — either dead and alone or alive and alone, and what will I do then? Then those things I have now and do not know will become so desperately dear that they will be aches. Then what? There will be no way to cure those aches, no way. In that coldness nothing will come. Things are leaving me now because they came too fast — too many of them — and being unable to receive them I threw them out and soon they will not come any more. This process is called life or living or any one of a number of things like that. In other words these are the soundless words, the words that have no being at all. The grey birds of loneliness hopping about. I thought that there might be a time or a condition different from that. But I know now — there isn’t any other way.

Complement Steinbeck’s Working Days, which is rife with a myriad such rewarding asides and doubly rewarding in its central substance, with some of humanity’s most celebrated writers on the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

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07 APRIL, 2015

Simone Weil on Temptation, the Key to Discipline, and How to Be a Complete Human Being

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“Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.”

“The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention,” Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating our moral responsibility as human beings. This relationship between morality and attention was a primary concern for French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) — one of the most incisive thinkers of the past century, who dedicated her short life to the dual task of refining the truth of the human experience and alleviating its suffering, then pursued that task with the uncommon combination of transcendent idealism and piercing lucidity. Her ideas influenced such luminaries as Sontag, Iris Murdoch, Flannery O’Connor, and Cornel West. At the age of nineteen, she placed first in France’s competitive exam for certification in “General Philosophy and Logic”; Simone de Beauvoir placed second. Albert Camus — himself a man of strong opinions on our greatest moral obligation — referred to her as “the only great spirit of our times.” But what makes Weil’s mind so miraculous is that no matter the passage of time and the changing conditions of each era, hers remains one of the great and necessary spirits for all time.

Her death was a continuation of her life — that grand act of love and sympathy for the suffering of others: After joining the French Resistance in London and toiling tirelessly for the cause, she came down with tuberculosis; in a remarkable gesture of solidarity, despite the doctor’s orders to eat heartily, she consumed only what was rationed to her compatriots under the German Occupation. Most scholars believe that this sympathetic starvation was the cause of Weil’s death. Although other theories have emerged, her first English biographer, Sir Richard Rees, puts it best in concluding: “As for her death, whatever explanation one may give of it will amount in the end to saying that she died of love.”

The deliberate architecture of Weil’s character comes alive in First and Last Notebooks (public library) — a rare, revelatory, and infectiously unselfconscious self-portrait of this extraordinary mind-spirit. As Rees writes in the introduction, she “is not so much making notes as meditating, coherently and lucidly, with a pen in her hand.”

In 1933, shortly before taking a yearlong leave of absence from her teaching position to labor incognito at a car factory in order to better understand the struggles of the working class, 24-year-old Weil penned a notebook entry reminiscent of young André Gide’s rules of conduct, capturing the incredible moral vigor and ethical ambition with which she set about becoming the person she aspired to be — the person she ultimately was.

Weil writes:

List of temptations (to be read every morning)

Temptation of idleness (by far the strongest)

Never surrender to the flow of time. Never put off what you have decided to do.

Temptation of the inner life

Deal only with those difficulties which actually confront you. Allow yourself only those feelings which are actually called upon for effective use or else are required by thought for the sake of inspiration. Cut away ruthlessly everything that is imaginary in your feelings.

Temptation of self-immolation

Subordinate to external affairs and people everything that is subjective, but never the subject itself — i.e. your judgement. Never promise and never give to another more than you would demand from yourself if you were he.

Temptation to dominate

Temptation of perversity

Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.

In an entry shortly thereafter, she adds:

Refuse to be an accomplice. Don’t lie — don’t keep your eyes shut…

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

Some days later, Weil revisits this moral framework and considers the particularly problematic issue of time — that peculiar dual pull of hurrying and waiting, that elastic ongoingness:

Two internal obstacles to be overcome

—Cowardice before the flight of time (mania for putting things off — idleness…)

Illusion that time, of itself, will bring me courage and energy…. In fact, it is usually the contrary (sleepiness). Say to yourself: And suppose I should remain always what I am at this moment? … Never put something off indefinitely, but only to a definitely fixed time. Try to do this even when it is impossible (headaches…). Exercises: decide to do something, no matter what, and do it exactly at a certain time.

You live in a dream. You are waiting to begin to live….

This discipline, she goes on to reason, is best cultivated through the transformative power of habit. Echoing William James’s memorable wisdom, she writes:

One must develop a habit. Training.
Distinguish between the things I can put off, and those [I cannot].
Begin the training with small things, those for which inspiration is useless…

Every day, do 2 or 3 things of no interest at some definitely appointed time.

Reach the point where punctuality is automatic and effortless. — Lack of flexibility of imagination. An obstacle to be methodically overcome. The second screen between reality and yourself. Much more difficult. What is needed is something quite different from a methodical training… But precious.

She considers the trifecta of faculties necessary for attaining the optimal habit of mind:

Discipline of the attention for manual work — no distraction or dreaming. But no obsession either. One must continually watch what one is doing, without being carried away by it. Another kind of discipline is needed for using the mind with support from the imagination. And yet a third kind for reflection. You scarcely possess even the third kind. A complete being possesses all 3. You ought to be a complete being.

Of special interest to Weil is the subject of the will, which she sees as the great mediator between body and mind, between the conditions of the present and the aspirations of the future. A few days later, in a related meditation, she examines its role in the carrying out of those moral resolutions:

The will. It is not difficult to do anything when one is inspired by the clear perception of a duty. But what is hard is that when one is suffering this clear perception vanishes, and all that remains is awareness of a suffering which it is impossible to bear.

But the converse is also true: at the moment of taking the decision, the duty is present and the suffering is still far away. The will could not triumph if it had not fight against forces stronger than itself. The whole art of willing consists in taking advantage of the moment before the struggle begins to contrive in advance that one’s objective situation at the moment when one is weak shall be as one desires it to be…

The will’s only weapon is that it is able, in so far as it consists of thought, to embrace the different moments of time, whereas the body is limited to the present. Therefore, in short, it is simply a matter of withholding the assistance of thought from the passions.

It is not a question of “making resolutions” but of trying one’s hands in advance.

Complement First and Last Notebooks, which is deeply out of print but well worth the hunt, with young Leo Tolstoy’s search for moral direction, André Gide’s rules of conduct, and Susan Sontag on what it means to be a moral human being.

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