Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘interview’

24 MAY, 2013

The Philosophy of Immortality

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“Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”

“If we are continually inadequate in love, uncertain in decision and impotent in the face of death, how is it possible to exist?,” Rilke famously asked. “The idea that you’d have to say ‘goodbye’ to all this — even though it’s infuriating and maddening and frightening and horrible, some of the time — is even more infuriating and maddening and horrible: How do you spend this time without perpetually being so broken-hearted about saying the eventual goodbye?,” Maira Kalman pondered.

In this short interview for Brain Pickings, pop-philosophy hunter-gatherer Filip Matous sits down with Cambridge University philosopher Stephen Cave to crack open some of the insights from his fascinating book, Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (public library) — which also gave us this stimulating, if unsettling meditation on the mortality paradox.

The crux of Cave’s argument falls somewhere between Montaigne’s reflections on death and the art of living and John Cage’s affinity for Zen Buddhism.

We, like all living things, want to live on — we want to project ourselves into the future, we have this will to live. And yet, unlike other living things, we have to live in a knowledge that this will is going to be thwarted, that we’re going to die. And so we might have to live with this sense of personal apocalypse — the worst thing that could possibly happen, will. This is what it means to be mortal.

But this very sense of our inevitable mortality might also be a steering wheel for life: Cave reminds us that “busy is a choice” and that how we spend our time shapes who we become:

The American novelist Susan Ertz says, “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” I think there’s a lot of truth in that: Actually, it’s the fear of death rather than the love of life, often, that’s motivating us. If people complain that they don’t have enough time, why do they watch so much TV? It doesn’t seem, actually, when we look at the way people behave, that lack of time is their problem. On the contrary … when you look at how much time we waste, [it seems] that life is already too long — so long that we become complacent and we waste great swathes, so many hours. And, in fact, being conscious of the fact that our time is limited is what makes us really value and appreciate the time that we have.

Cave touches on Tolstoy’s wisdom, observing:

There’s a kind of conspiracy of silence… We, culturally, don’t like to talk about death. I think we need to talk about death because only by talking about our mortality can we understand the lives we’re leading and why we’re leading them the way we’re leading them.

Immortality remains a must-read, and the Ernest Becker book mentioned in the conversation, The Denial of Death, is also very much worth a read.

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06 MAY, 2013

Love and Art: The Secret to a Romantic Relationship That’s Also a Creative Collaboration

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“Relationships are our greatest learning experiences.”

If you, like me, thought it wasn’t possible to admire the writer-illustrator battery of genius behind the recent gem Lost Cat any more, you’re about to be, like I was, promptly proven wrong. In a recent episode of her award-winning Design Matters radio show, interviewer extraordinaire and Renaissance woman Debbie Millman talks to the talented duo — writer Caroline Paul and friend-of-Brain-Pickings Wendy MacNaughton — about their individual creative evolution, their remarkable collaboration, and the secret of not merely balancing a romantic relationship with a professional one but actually making an art of both.

Here are some favorite highlights of the conversation about the intricacies of creative collaboration, our chronic compulsion for control, our capacity for self-transcendence, and the wonderful Lost Cat — a tender illustrated memoir about the quest to find out where Caroline’s 13-year-old tabby had gone and what it reveals about human relationships and the secret of love.

On mastering the balance of a creative collaboration and a romantic relationship, and the secret of how the two fuel each other:

It took a little while for us to figure out, like in any relationship, how to talk about [our creative differences] without taking it personally, and how to end up coming to the best creative conclusion. … We managed to figure out a system, with structure, and then stick to that — so it took the pressure off, so we could make collaborative decisions in an easier way.

On what Lost Cat teaches us about humanity:

The biggest thing I learned is that you cannot know everything about the creature that you love, and you also can’t control that relationship. And maybe that’s okay — because we can’t control relationships. In fact, if we did control them to the degree that we want, it would probably provide us with nothing. Relationships are probably our greatest learning experiences.

On one of my favorite illustrations from the book and how it captures the inner “Tibby” we all harbor:

On what Lost Cat teaches us about human relationships:

On what true love necessitates:

And what humans are capable of when in love, and what it takes to pull ourselves out of a depression:

Wendy, on designing for the first democratic election in Rwanda and why her ad agency dream job turned out not to be so existentially dreamy after all:

I thought that I could, in advertising, make people ask questions and make them think. And advertising is a fantastic thing where you come up with ideas, but it’s not as much about asking people to think than just telling them what to think.

Wendy on why drawing is like a muscle that bridges hand and brain, and needs constant stimulation to prevent atrophy:

Caroline, who spent several years as one of fifteen female firefighters on San Francisco’s 1,500-person Fire Department and wrote an extraordinary memoir about it, on gender differences in the experience of fear:

If you talk about being scared, you kind of become scared… If you’re a woman, and you’re one of the few, whatever you do reflects on all women.

Caroline on the allure of blending fiction and nonfiction in East Wind, Rain, her scintillating novel about the attack on Pearl Harbor, based on a fascinating true story:

The philosophical moral of the Lost Cat story, read in the world’s best voice:

You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better.

Treat yourself to the soul-warmer that is Lost Cat, listen to the full interview below, and be sure to subscribe to Design Matters on iTunes or SoundCloud for more infinitely stimulating conversations at the intersection of creative culture and philosophy.

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18 APRIL, 2013

David Foster Wallace on Ambition, Animated

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“If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.”

On March 4, 1996, WNYC’s Leonard Lopate sat down with David Foster Wallacecultural critic, articulator of the ineffable, tragic prophet of the meaning of life — to talk about Infinite Jest, the 1,079-page, three-pound-three-ounce novel that catapulted Wallace into literary fame. Now, the wonderful folks of Blank on Blank and animator Patrick Smith have teamed up with PBS Digital Studios to bring Wallace’s wisdom on ambition, education, and writing to life. Highlights below:

Like Neil Gaiman, who famously admonished, “Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving,” Wallace cautions against the lose-lose mindset of perfectionism:

You know, the whole thing about perfectionism. The perfectionism is very dangerous, because of course if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in– It’s actually kind of tragic because it means you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.

Like Sister Corita Kent, Wallace sees learning and teaching as intertwined:

I was a very difficult person to teach when I was a student and I thought I was smarter than my teachers and they told me a lot of things that I thought were retrograde or outdated or B.S. And I’ve learned more teaching in the last three years than I ever learned as a student.

Pair with Wallace on true heroism and why writers write.

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