Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

31 MARCH, 2014

The Evolutionary Mystery of Left-Handedness and What It Reveals About How the Brain Works


From Medieval sword-fighters to Broca’s brains, or why the hand may hold the key to the link between creativity and mental illness.

“Sahara is too little price / to pay for thy Right hand,” Emily Dickinson wrote in a poem. “The right hand = the hand that is aggressive, the hand that masturbates,” Susan Sontag pondered in her diary in 1964. “Therefore, to prefer the left hand! … To romanticize it, to sentimentalize it!” The human hand has long carried cultural baggage, and yet we still struggle to unclutch from it the myths and reveal the realities.

The question of why some humans are left-handed — including such notable specimens as Plato, Charles Darwin, Carl Sagan, Debbie Millman, Stephen Jay Gould, Noam Chomsky, and Albert Einstein* — has perplexed scientists for centuries. For Southpaws themselves — the affectionate term for lefties — this biological peculiarity has been everything from a source of stigma to a point of pride. But at the heart of it remains an evolutionary mystery — one that Wired contributing editor David Wolman, himself (but of course) a lefty, sets out to investigate in A Left-Hand Turn Around the World: Chasing the Mystery and Meaning of All Things Southpaw (public library).

Wolman, who spoke about the oddity of handedness in a fantastic recent Radiolab episode about conflict, traces 200 years of biological and psychological perplexity as he scours the world for answers, from a Parisian science museum that houses pioneering French surgeon and scholar Paul Broca’s bottled brains to a castle in Scotland that hides clues to the heritability of left-handedness to the neuroscience labs of Berkeley to the golf courses of Japan.

To be sure, a Southpaw wasn’t always a mere scientific curiosity, let alone the “lefty superiority complex” which Wolman both notes and embodies — for centuries, it was the subject of superstition, which bestowed upon its owner a serious social curse. Wolman writes:

In the Western world, left-handedness has long been associated with the worst of the worst: sin, devil worship, Satan himself, and just an all-around bad position with God. Catholic schoolteachers used to tell students that left-handedness was “the mark of the Beast,” the Scots say a person with terrible luck must have been baptized by a left-handed priest, and orthodox Jews wrap their left arms in the leather strap of tefillin as if to say, in the words of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner: “Here I am, standing with my dangerous side bridled, ready to pray ” The Bible is full of references to hands, and usually they are about God doing something benevolent and holy with his right hand. I’ll spare you the run-through and stick to a token example, like this one from Psalms 118: “The right hand of the Lord is exalted. The right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly.”

Carl Sagan, a lefty

While Carl Sagan once hypothesized that the cultural link between left-handedness and badness arose due to the left hand’s use for hygiene purposes in nonindustrialized countries, Wolman points out that the association has much deeper roots, including the very etymology of the word “left”:

The Anglo-Saxon lyft means weak or broken, and even modern dictionaries include such meanings for left as “defective,” “crippled,” “awkward,” “clumsy,” “inept,” and “maladroit,” the latter one borrowed from French, translated literally as “bad right.” Most definitions of left reduce to an image of doubtful sincerity and clumsiness, and the Latin word for left, sinister, is a well-known beauty. From this version springs my favorite term for left-handedness, “the bend sinister,” which Vladimir Nabokov used for the title of a book that has nothing to do with handedness.

Even today, our understanding of handedness is muddled by misconceptions. While it’s currently estimated that 10-12% of the human population is left-handed, the very definition of handedness is cause for confusion:

Most people presume the hand used for writing is the litmus test for determining whether someone is lefty or righty, and for anyone content to live with a pedestrian level of knowledge on the subject, this narrow reading will serve well enough. [And yet] everyday tasks, like throwing and eating, also influence the popular understanding of hand dominance, sometimes nearly as strongly as writing. These different behaviors lead immediately to a quintessential problem of handedness inquiries: how to define handedness itself. The definition of lefty or righty varies, sometimes to a frustrating degree, and that variation has troubled researchers who want to get a better handle on why it is that humans have hand preference and performance discrepancies in the first place, where these discrepancies come from, and why as a population we usually favor the right hand.

Also to be accounted for is the fact that many people are born with a natural inclination to write with the left hand but are schooled out of it for various reasons. (I myself, an adult righty, am among them. The most visceral evidence is found on my left thumb, whose pad an elongated scar splits vertically. It was inflicted while carving a watermelon jack-o-lantern at age six and accidentally flipping the knife the wrong way, pressing onto its edge rather than its blunt side. The fact that I held the knife in my left hand is cited to this day as indication of my natural left-handedness. The fact that I held the knife at all is cited as indication of questionable parenting.)

The most commonly used test for handedness is this imperfect inventory created in the early 1970s, which generates what researchers call a laterality quotient:

Still, even if we were able to codify handedness, the question of why the dichotomy exists in the first place remains open. But before diving into the various theories, Wolman offers an essential primer on how the brain works:

It’s a well-known aspect of the brain-body relationship that control of movement is crisscrossed. That is, the act of swatting at a buzzing mosquito with the right hand is controlled by the left side of the brain, or more specifically by a certain area of the left hemisphere known as the left motor cortex, which sends the necessary signals to muscles in the right arm. The reverse is true for actions carried out with the left hand, and all of this is irrespective of handedness. The hemisphere on the same side as a movement isn’t entirely silent … but for the most part motor control comes from the opposite hemisphere. This contralateral control, first described by Hippocrates himself, isn’t limited to hands. It applies to arms, legs, eyes, ears, and indeed almost all motor faculties, which is why people who’ve had a stroke or tumor on one side of the brain often experience partial or total paralysis on the opposite side of the body.


The left and right sides of the brain are physically quite distinct. The brain is made up of two mostly separate halves, each composed of billions and billions of neural connections. Yet despite popular notions to the contrary, left-handed people do not think in the right hemisphere of the brain, nor do right-handers think in the left hemisphere. The motor cortex, that part of each hemisphere cross-wired to control the other side of the body, is only one relatively minor aspect of this dizzyingly complex organ, and it says nothing or nearly nothing about a person’s thoughts or personality.

So what can the brain reveal about handedness? One of the first scientists to ponder the mystery of left-handedness was pioneering French surgeon Paul Broca, whom Wolman calls “the closest thing the religion of Southpaw has to a prophet.” In 1861, just two years after Darwin had discovered the principles of evolution, Broca encountered two patients who stumped him profoundly. One was an epileptic man named Leborgne but known as “Tan,” nicknamed after the only syllable he was capable of uttering. Leborgne was able to understand spoken language but couldn’t articulate his thoughts in speech — something that perplexed Broca enormously, doubly so given that one of Leborgne’s first symptoms was a weakening of function in the right side of his body, which progressed to more loss of motor control and eventually the loss of sight and some of his mental faculties.

When Leborgne died at the age of 51, Broca decided to crack the mystery — literally. He dissected Leborgne’s brain and found a massive lesion in the left frontal cortex, likely due to a tumor. Broca concluded that this must somehow be related to Leborgne’s symptoms, of which the loss of speech was the most dramatic. But a direct link would take longer to recover.

Then came Lelong, an elderly patient who had ended up in Broca’s care after a fall, only able to utter a few words. When Lelong died two weeks later, Broca discovered a similarly dramatic lesion in the left side of his brain, which is preserved to this day in Paris.

But the most perplexing of Broca’s patients were the few who had either had damage to the left hemisphere but no difficulties with speech or who had lost their ability to speak but only had damage in the right hemisphere. This led Broca to conclude that for a minority of people, the speech centers were located in the right rather than left hemispheres, which he at first thought might be tied to handedness, but later surmised that both phenomena were anomalous exceptions and weren’t correlated. Still, his work was the first significant spark for the study of handedness and stirred quite the flurry within the scientific community. Wolman points out the clash between science and popular culture that ensued:

Because some people are an exception to the language-to-the-left rule, and because a similarly small proportion of people are left-handed, everyone and his cousin in the medical establishment figured the two must go hand in hand; lefties should have language lateralized to the right. What’s interesting about this conclusion is that few people in nineteenth-century Europe would have admitted to being left-handed. Detecting someone’s left-handedness would have been difficult, with eating, writing, and other major tasks all usually carried out with the right hand. What’s also interesting about this conclusion is that it’s wrong. Nearly 99 percent of right-handers have language located in the left hemisphere, and about 70 percent of lefties do. A different proportion, yes, but hardly the opposite; most lefty brains are like righty brains, at least as far as speech function is concerned. The rest either have language in the right hemisphere, or have it distributed more evenly between the two sides of the brain.

Paul Broca

Though Broca himself had gently dismissed the link between handedness and right-hemispheric speech dominance, he hadn’t gone out of his way to assert the dissociation, so the myth that lefties had their speech located in the right hemisphere persisted for nearly half a century. It wasn’t until WWI, when physicians began to notice that injured veterans who were lefties didn’t necessarily have right-hemispheric language localization, that the myth began to erode and the quest for new theories gained momentum.

Wolman points to several of the notable theories that followed, each in turn disproven by science but offering a valuable piece of the still-unfinished puzzle. One of the earliest proposed that handedness in humans was originally evenly distributed, but hand-to-hand battle in the ancient world killed off the lefties because they held the sword with their left hand and the shield in their right, thus leaving the heart much less protected than for righties, who held the shield on the left. As the lefties perished on the battlefield, so did their genes.

The theory was disproven for a number of reasons, including the fact that there is evidence of left-handedness long before the invention of the sword and shield as well as the biological reality that the heredity of handedness isn’t so straightforward.

A later theory proposed pretty much the opposite — that left-handedness gave warriors a competitive advantage “for much the same reason left-handed tennis players, boxers, or fencers have an advantage.” Wolman cites the example of a left-handed 16th-century Scottish warrior from the famous Kerr clan:

The lefty advantage exists because, in a world with far fewer lefties than righties, right-handed, or even left-handed, opponents have comparatively little practice facing off against left-handers. Lefty forehands are hit from that less familiar side, their stronger punches originate from that less comfortable side, and their opposing stance differs from what people are accustomed to, namely right-handed opponents. For Andrew Kerr, the matter was of far greater import than for, say, John McEnroe serving up another ace to the ad-court at Wimbledon; for Kerr, success with the sword was a matter of life and death.


French scientists recently hypothesized that fighting advantages for left-handers in prehistoric human societies ensured reproductive success. To test the idea, they looked at the homicide rates in various societies, wondering if the Southpaw advantage might be magnified within historically more violent populations. From the results, it looks like it was, with proportions of left-handedness ranging from 3.4 percent in an especially pacifist African community in Burkina Faso to 22.6 percent in a notoriously violent culture in South America. Southpaws aren’t more violent, of course, but may have had a survival advantage in societies that were.

Still, these hypotheses were never proven with any degree of verifiability. Fast-forward to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Harvard neurologist Norman Geschwind proposed a theory that endured for many years: He suggested that high levels of testosterone in the womb led to a minor mutation in the brain, which caused its organization to shift away from right-handedness. One support point cited for his theory is the fact that there are slightly more male lefties than female.

An earlier womb theory had posited that the fetus’s orientation inside fosters its sense of stability, so handedness is based on whether the fetus uses the left or right hand for balance — the free hand, in most cases the right, can then move and explore, eventually becoming the dominant one.

Once again, neither theory found sufficient support. And so we return to the brain and genetics. Wolman cites the work of English researcher Marian Annett, who discovered the key to the messy heredity patterns of handedness:

In 1972, Annett … published a paper titled, “The Distribution of Manual Asymmetry,” which, although of little notice at the time, would later serve as the foundation for one of the most widely accepted explanations of human handedness. She called it the Right Shift Theory, and she later expanded it in a 1985 volume of the same name. Annett argues that whereas human handedness is comparable to the left- or right-side preferences exhibited by other creatures with hands, paws, feet, or what have you, the approximate 90 percent predominance of right-handedness in the human population sets us apart. All other animals have a 50-50 split between righties and lefties. According to Annett’s model, handedness in nature rests on a continuum, ranging from strong left, through mixed, and then to strong right-handedness. But for humanity the distribution of preference and performance is dramatically shifted to the right. Human bias to the right, Annett explains, was triggered by a shift to the left hemisphere of the brain for certain cognitive functions, most likely speech. . . . That momentous shift was caused by a gene.

Of course, that question had perplexed generations of scientists since Darwin — who, by the way, was a victim of the confounding heredity of handedness: his wife and father-in-law were lefties, but only two of Darwin and Emma’s ten children were. But Annett’s Right Shift Theory was the first systematic explanation for the genetics of handedness. Still, Wolman observes the complexities of genetics:

In many ways, the genes-versus-environment dichotomy is a misleading one because so often the two work hand in hand. Say, for instance, a gene or genes instructs for a certain amount of testosterone in the womb. If the level of that hormone varies and somehow influences the development of the fetus, should traits affected by the level of testosterone be dubbed genetic or environmental? One could argue that the biochemical conditions in the womb-the fetus’s surroundings-qualify as environmental factors, but those conditions are shaped by genetic instructions. Yet within the DNA of every cell of that newborn baby, there will be no information specific to the child’s conditions in the womb. Can we call that a genetic trait? Luckily, Annett’s theory supposes a less ambivalent role for a gene, or possibly a few genes. Inside the nuclei of nearly every cell in the body are left-twisting bundles of DNA that either do or do not contain what Annett has dubbed the “Right Shift factor.”

What this series of hypotheses reveals, more than anything, is just how little we know about the inner workings of the body — despite having sequenced the human genome, here we are still struggling to explain as seemingly simple a characteristic as handedness. And yet, Wolman argues, Annett’s research was groundbreaking and immensely valuable for three reasons: “the idea of a handedness continuum; the chance-based gene predicting not individual handedness but shifted population distribution; and finally the suggestion that people are not left-handed or right-handed, but right-handed or non-right-handed.”

Vintage artwork from 'A Visual History of Magic.' Click images for details.

Perhaps the most interesting theory, however, is a rather fringe proposition that ties handedness to “magical ideation” — one’s tendency to believe in metaphysical phenomena beyond that aren’t scientifically verifiable, from supernatural forces to extrasensory perception to reincarnation and other concepts that wouldn’t hold up to Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit. Wolman cites New Zealand scholar Michael Corballis, who has written about the potential link between more brain symmetry — something found in lefties — and magical ideation:

Hemispheric asymmetry itself may lead to more decisive and controlled action, and perhaps a better ability to organize hierarchical processes, as in language, manufacture, and theory of mind. Those individuals who lack cerebral asymmetry [a.k.a. increased symmetry] may be more susceptible to superstition and magical thinking, but more creative and perhaps more spatially aware.

On the magical ideation scale — the measure of belief in such phenomena — lefties tend to score higher than righties. And yet, Wolman points out, “anecdotal evidence that lefties are highly represented in low-bullshit-tolerating professions such as journalism and science doesn’t exactly support this notion,” suggesting instead that the magical ideation hypothesis is best “recalibrated as a degree-not-direction descriptor.”

What makes this theory intriguing, however, isn’t its verifiability or lack thereof but what it reveals about our culture’s beliefs about creativity and mental illness, or cognitive abnormality. Wolman writes:

The magical ideation line of thinking loops back to creativity when we consider findings indicating an increased proportion of left-handers who suffer from such disorders as schizophrenia. With due acknowledgment once again to Corballis for synthesis of this idea, it’s plausible that schizophrenia and magical ideation sprout from similar neurological roots. Research demonstrating connections between mixed-handedness and either of these two conditions advances that plausibility.


Consider for a moment that there’s a thin, perhaps blurred line between genius and mental illness. What if some types of genius stem from the same aspect of the brain — or influence on the brain — as, say, magical ideation and schizophrenia, and that subtle variation in the arrangement of certain brain circuits determines the difference between the next da Vinci, the next graphology believer, the next Hendrix-like guitar god, or the next schizophrenic?

Albert Einstein's brain (Photograph: NMHM, Silver Spring, MD via Nature)

Wolman points to Kim Peek, the autistic “megasavant” on whom the film Rain Man is based, and perhaps most notably Albert Einstein, celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius”:

Examination of his brain after death showed unusual anatomical symmetry that … can mean above-normal interhemispheric connections. Then there’s the fact that Einstein’s genius is often linked with an imagination supercharged with imagery, a highly right hemisphere-dependent function. It was that kind of imagination that ignited questions leading eventually to the Theory of Relativity: what does a person on a moving train see compared with what a person standing still sees, and how would the body age if traveling near the speed of light in a spaceship compared to the aging process observed on Earth? Is it such a stretch to speculate that Einstein landed on the fortunate end of the same brain organization spectrum upon which other, less lucky individuals land in the mental illness category? And what if handedness too is influenced by this organizational crapshoot?

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for 'On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein.' Click image for details.

The investigation is ever-ongoing, but Wolman offers a wealth of other pause-giving findings and theories in the rest of A Left-Hand Turn Around the World.

* Einstein’s handedness is somewhat a matter of debate. While he is often cited among history’s famous lefties, laterality scholars have surmised that he was mixed-handed — which is not to be confused with ambidextrous: mixed-handed people use the right hand for some things and the left for others, whereas the ambidextrous can use both hands equally well for most tasks.

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28 MARCH, 2014

March 28, 1941: Virginia Woolf’s Suicide Letter and Its Cruel Misinterpretation in the Media


A humbling reminder that self-righteousness is the enemy of compassion and judging another human being’s private struggle is a disgrace to our own humanity.

On March 28, 1941, shortly after the devastating dawn of WWII, Virginia Woolf filled her overcoat pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse behind her house never to emerge alive. A relapse of the all-consuming depression she had narrowly escaped in her youth had finally claimed her life. She left behind a remarkable body of work — from her poignant diaries to her magnificent essays to her little-known children’s books to “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” — and a cohort of heartbroken friends, but the most stirring thing she left behind was her suicide letter to her husband Leonard:


I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

What made the letter especially heartbreaking, however, wasn’t just that it embodied so excruciatingly modernity’s tragic epidemic but also that its fate reflected the ugliest aspects of media and journalism. In Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf (public library), scholar Sybil Oldfield notes that after Woolf’s letter was made public, members of the British press took it upon themselves to bestow upon the beloved author a last judgment — a painfully ungenerous one. On April 27, a month after Woolf’s death, The Sunday Times ran the following self-righteous evisceration by a Mrs. Kathleen Hicks, wife of the Bishop of Lincoln:

Sir, — I read in your issue of Sunday last that the coroner at the inquest on Mrs. Virginia Woolf said that she was “undoubtedly much more sensitive than most people to the general beastliness of things happening in the world to-day.” What right has anyone to make such an assertion?

If he really said this, he belittles those who are hiding their agony of mind, suffering bravely and carrying on unselfishly for the sake of others. Many people, possibly even more “sensitive,” have lost their all and seen appalling happenings, yet they take their part nobly in this fight for God against the devil.

Where are our ideals of love and faith? And what shall we all be if we listen to and sympathize with this sort of “I cannot carry on?”

Mrs. Hicks’s ideals of love and faith, apparently, did not include empathy. Upon reading this, Leonard Woolf was so appalled that he immediately sent to the newspaper an emotionally charged fact-check rebuttal:

I feel that I should not silently allow to remain on record that Virginia Woolf committed suicide because she could not face the “terrible times” through which all of us are going. For this is not true… Then newspapers give her words as:

“I feel I cannot go on any longer in these terrible times.”

This is not what she wrote: the words which she wrote are:

“I feel that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times.”

She had had a mental breakdown about twenty-five years ago; the old symptoms began to return about three weeks before she took her life, and she felt that this time she would not recover. Like everyone else, she felt the general strain of the war, and the return of her illness was partly due to that strain. But the words of her letter and everything which she has ever said prove that she took her life, not because she could not “carry on,” but because she felt she was going mad again and would not this time recover.

But, devastatingly, even Leonard’s rebuttal, too, was twisted out of context. Published under the already misleading headline “I Cannot Carry On” — the then-version of clickbait — the article replaced the phrase “those terrible times,” Virginia’s reference to her first acute bout of depression in her youth, with “these terrible times,” changing the meaning completely and making it a reference to World War II, an interpretation that aligned quite conveniently with the media’s spin of Woolf’s suicide as an act of unpatriotic cowardice rather than a personal tragedy. To make matters even more lamentable, the Times reprinted the misquotation several days later — the then-version of reblogging or retweeting without critical analysis and fact-checking. Similar attacks, some of which were even unleashed on Woolf’s posthumously published work, continued in the press for more than a year.

The incident is particularly unsettling for two reasons: At its root is a testament to what a cruel and indiscriminate predator depression is, capable of consuming even humanity’s greatest minds, yet the uncompassionate response illustrates just how poorly we understand the condition. Above all, however, embedded in the media’s treatment of Virginia’s suicide is a grotesque reminder that the only thing more morally repugnant than passing judgment on another human being’s private struggle and inner world — than choosing self-righteousness over compassionate understanding — is doing so publicly, especially as a currency of tabloidism. What a spectacular failing of the awareness that it’s far more rewarding to understand than to be right. One can only hope this awareness has evolved for us, both as a culture and as individuals, since Woolf’s time.

Afterwords is a moving read in its entirety — sample it with these letters of condolence from some of Woolf’s famous friends, including T.S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, E.M. Foster, Elizabeth Bowen, and H.G. Wells, then see Patti Smith’s moving remembrance of Virginia.

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26 MARCH, 2014

Viktor Frankl on the Art of Presence as a Lifeline in Troubled Times and How Suffering Helps Us Contact the Meaning of Life


“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer… his unique opportunity lies in the way he bears his burden.”

The life-story of Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, born on March 26, 1905, is one of history’s greatest testaments to the tenacity of the human spirit. In his remarkable 1946 psychological memoir Man’s Search for Meaning (public library), previously discussed at length here, Frankl reflects on what his devastating time at Auschwitz taught him about the most essential driver of life — the inextinguishable human hunger for meaning, which separated those who survived from those who perished.

In one particularly poignant passage of the book, Frankl reminds us that the art of presence — an art so central to our everyday well-being — isn’t merely about savoring the pleasant moments of everyday blessedness. Rather, its canvas stretches all the more exquisitely in precisely the opposite circumstances — those most trying and turbulent moments, when the ability to inhabit the present makes all the difference between life and death, both figuratively in matters of the soul and, in Frankl’s Auschwitz experience, literally and bodily:

A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts. In a different connection, we have already spoken of the tendency there was to look into the past, to help make the present, with all its horrors, less real. But in robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist. Regarding our “provisional existence” as unreal was in itself an important factor in causing the prisoners to lose their hold on life; everything in a way became pointless. Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless.

To be sure, Frankl is far from advocating for filtering the present through rose-colored glasses in order to soften its intolerable pain. Quite the opposite — much like John Cage came to believe when he discovered Buddhism, Frankl argues that presence comes from leaning into suffering, not from tensing against it:

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

Frankl points to commitment, be it to human relationships — “the soft bonds of love [which] are indifferent to life and death,” to use Isaac Asimov’s poetic language — or to purposeful work and cultural contribution, as the essential anchor of presence, the umbilical cord that links those in the most trying of circumstances to their own lives:

This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love… A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

Man’s Search for Meaning is a remarkable read, life-changing in the most earnest sense of the phrase. See more of it here, though no annotated excerpt could possibly do justice to the expansive richness of its entirety.

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25 MARCH, 2014

Flannery O’Connor on Why the Grotesque Appeals to Us, Plus a Rare Recording of Her Reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”


“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.”

Flannery O’Connor (March 25, 1925–August 3, 1964) is among the titans of twentieth-century literature (in addition to being a lesser-known satirical cartoonist). In 1960, O’Connor penned an essay titled “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” eventually included in the altogether fantastic posthumous collection of her unpublished lectures, essays, and critical articles, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (public library). While the essay focuses on Southern literature, it touches on a number of bigger questions in all literature, most crucially how the qualifiers and variables attached to a writer — in this case, religion and regional geography — affect the writerliness of the writer. (At the heart of the inquiry is the same concern Margaret Atwood had decades later in examining how and whether being a “woman writer” impacts being a writer.)

In this rare recording, taped at the Dorothy Lamar Blount Lecture Series at Wesleyan College the year the essay was published, O’Connor reads a portion of an early draft of the piece. Highlights from the full final version, including the passage O’Connor reads, below.

I think that if there is any value in hearing writers talk, it will be in hearing what they can witness to and not what they can theorize about. My own approach to literary problems is very like the one Dr. Johnson’s blind housekeeper used when she poured tea — she put her finger inside the cup.

These are not times when writers in this country can very well speak for one another. . . . Today each writer speaks for himself, even though he may not be sure that his work is important enough to justify his doing so.


When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic. But for this occasion, we may leave such misapplications aside and consider the kind of fiction that may be called grotesque with good reason, because of a directed intention that way on the part of the author.

In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life. We find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left. Yet the characters have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected. It is this kind of realism that I want to consider.

All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality.


Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.

(More than half a century later, Neil Gaiman explored the grip of ghosts in a beautiful related meditation.)

O’Connor goes on to consider another explanation for the singular sensibility of the Southern writer:

There is another reason in the Southern situation that makes for a tendency toward the grotesque and this is the prevalence of good Southern writers. I think the writer is initially set going by literature more than by life. When there are many writers all employing the same idiom, all looking out on more or less the same social scene, the individual writer will have to be more than ever careful that he isn’t just doing badly what has already been done to completion. The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.

The Southern writer is forced from all sides to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm which is the concern of prophets and poets. . . .

For the kind of writer I have been describing, a literature which mirrors society would be no fit guide for it, and one which did manage, by sheer art, to do both these things would have to have recourse to more violent means than middlebrow subject matter and mere technical expertness.

She reflects on what amplifies the appeal of the grotesque in fiction:

The novelist must be characterized not by his function but by his vision, and we must remember that his vision has to be transmitted and that the limitations and blind spots of his audience will very definitely affect the way he is able to show what he sees.

O’Connor offers a broader meditation on why we read:

There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his senses tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.

She follows this with a mirror-image question of why writers write and, echoing Eudora Welty on the poetic of place, ties this back to the regional roots of literature:

I am often told that the model of balance for the novelist should be Dante, who divided his territory up pretty evenly between hell, purgatory, and paradise. There can be no objection to this, but also there can be no reason to assume that the result of doing it in these times will give us the balanced picture that it gave in Dante’s. Dante lived in the thirteenth century, when that balance was achieved in the faith of his age. We live now in an age which doubts both fact and value, which is swept this way and that by momentary convictions. Instead of reflecting a balance from the world around him, the novelist now has to achieve one from a felt balance inside himself.


The problem for such a novelist will be to know how far he can distort without destroying, and in order not to destroy, he will have to descend far enough into himself to reach those underground springs that give life to big work. This descent into himself will, at the same time, be a descent into his region.

And just for good measure, here is O’Connor reading the title story of her most celebrated collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, published in 1955. The recording, found on the Criterion Collection disc Wise Blood, was long believed to be the only recording of O’Connor reading, though the one above clearly disproves the case.

Mystery and Manners is a terrific tome in its entirety. Complement it with young O’Connor’s little-known satirical cartoons.

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