Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘literature’

26 SEPTEMBER, 2012

T. S. Eliot on Idea Incubation, Inhibition, and the Mystical Quality of Creativity + a Rare Recording

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“We do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on.”

In this passage from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (public library), cited in the 1942 gem Anatomy of Inspiration, celebrated poet, playwright, and cultural critic T. S. Eliot adds to previously explored theories of how creativity works by taking a curious look at how physical illness brings a near-mystical quality of poetry, driven by two key elements of creativity: the presence of an incubation period when unconscious processing of existing ideas takes place, and the removal of habitual inhibitions, or something John Keats has termed “negative capability”.

That there is an analogy between mystical experience and some of the ways in which poetry is written I do not deny … though, as I have said, whether the analogy is of significance for the student of religion or only to the psychologist, I do not know. I know, for instance, that some forms of ill-health, debility or anaemia, may (if other circumstances are favourable) produce an efflux of poetry in a way approaching the condition of automatic writing — though, in contrast to the claims sometimes made for the latter, the material has obviously been incubating within the poet, and cannot be suspected of being a present form a friendly or impertinent demon. What one writes in this way may succeed in standing the examination of a more normal state of mind; it gives me the impression, as I have said, of having undergone a long incubation, though we do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on. To me it seems that at these moments, which are characterised by the sudden lifting of the burden of anxiety and fear which presses upon our daily life so steadily that we are unaware of it, what happens is something negative: that is to say, not ‘inspiration’ as we commonly think of it, but the breaking down of strong habitual barriers — which tend to re-form very quickly. Some obstruction is momentarily whisked away. The accompanying feeling is less like what we know as positive pleasure, than a sudden relief from an intolerable burden. … This disturbance of our quotidian character which results in an incantation, an outburst of words which we hardly recognise as our own (because of the effortlessness), is a very different thing from mystical illumination. The latter is a vision which may be accompanied by the realisation that you will never be able to communicate it to anyone else, or even by the realisation that when it is past you will not be able to recall it to yourself; the former is not a vision but a motion terminating in an arrangement of words on paper.

Complement this with a rare recording of Eliot reading his celebrated 1915 stream-of-consciousness poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” found in his Selected Poems:

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24 SEPTEMBER, 2012

F. Scott Fitzgerald Responds to Hate Mail

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“The Rosseaus, Marxes, Tolstois — men of thought, mind you, ‘impractical’ men, ‘idealist’ have done more to decide the food you eat and the things you think + do than all the millions of Roosevelts and Rockerfellars.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald — literary legend, master of the muse, star of early book ads, and one amazing dad — was born 116 years ago today.

In 1920, shortly after the publication of his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, he received a piece of “hate mail” criticizing the book as an affront to the respectable members of society, particularly those in power. Fitzgerald’s feisty, brilliant response, found in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters (public library), pulls into question — just as his fiction famously does — the superficial values high society holds so dear, touching on everything from education to ethics to politics to creative legacy with equal parts insight and irreverence:

TO: Robert D. Clark
38 W 59th St.
New York City

Feb 9th 1920

Dear Bob:

Your letter riled me to such an extent that I’m answering immediatly. Who are all these ‘real people’ who ‘create business and politics’? and of whose approval I should be so covetous? Do you mean grafters who keep sugar in their ware houses so that people have to go without or the cheap-jacks who by bribery and high-school sentiment manage to controll elections. I can’t pick up a paper here without finding that some of these ‘real people’ who will not be satisfied only with ‘a brilliant mind’ (I quote you) have just gone up to Sing Sing for a stay — Brindell and Hegerman, two pillars of society, went this morning.

Who in hell ever respected Shelley, Whitman, Poe, O. Henry, Verlaine, Swinburne, Villon, Shakespeare ect when they were alive. Shelley + Swinburne were fired from college; Verlaine + O Henry were in jail. The rest were drunkards or wasters and told generally by the merchants and petty politicians and jitney messiahs of their day that real people wouldn’t stand it And the merchants and messiahs, the shrewd + the dull, are dust — and the others live on.

Just occasionally a man like Shaw who was called an immoralist 50 times worse than me back in the 90ties, lives on long enough so that the world grows up to him. What he believed in 1890 was heresy then — by by now its almost respectable. It seems to me I’ve let myself be dominated by ‘authorities’ for too long — the headmaster of Newman, S.P. A, Princeton, my regiment, my business boss — who knew no more than me, in fact I should say these 5 were all distinctly my mental inferiors. And that’s all that counts! The Rosseaus, Marxes, Tolstois — men of thought, mind you, ‘impractical’ men, ‘idealist’ have done more to decide the food you eat and the things you think + do than all the millions of Roosevelts and Rockerfellars that strut for 20 yrs. or so mouthing such phrases as 100% American (which means 99% village idiot), and die with a little pleasing flattery to the silly and cruel old God they’ve set up in their hearts.

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20 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Gertrude Stein on Understanding and Joy: Rare 1934 Radio Interview

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“If you enjoy it, you understand it.”

Gertrude Stein — beloved writer, poet, and art collector, fierce public intellectual, little-known author of children’s books. From PennSound, the audio archives of my alma mater (previously), comes this rare interview with Stein, most likely conducted upon her arrival at the Algonquin Hotel in November of 1934. After the interviewer asks her to explain her “Van or Twenty Years After. A Second Portrait of Carl Van Vechten” (1923), she proceeds to chide him for trying to “understand” the verse with the same kind of brilliant indignation with which Flannery O’Connor once scolded an English teacher for letting interpretation rob reading of joy.

Look here. Being intelligible is not what it seems. You mean by understanding that you can talk about it in the way that you have a habit of talking, putting it in other words. But I mean by understanding enjoyment. If you enjoy it, you understand it. And lots of people have enjoyed it so lots of people have understood it. . . . But after all you must enjoy my writing, and if you enjoy it you understand it. If you do not enjoy it, why do you make a fuss about it? There is the real answer.

Open Culture; Image: Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso, 1906

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