Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

06 MAY, 2014

E.B. White’s Beautiful Letter to a Man Who Had Lost Faith in Humanity

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What sailors teach us about hope and the resilience of the human spirit.

In 1973, more than two decades after a young woman wrote to Albert Einstein with a similar concern, one man sent a distressed letter to E.B. White, lamenting that he had lost faith in humanity. The beloved author, who was not only a masterful letter-writer but also a professional celebrator of the human condition and an unflinching proponent of the writer’s duty to uplift people, took it upon himself to boost the man’s sunken heart with a short but infinitely beautiful reply, found in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library) — the wonderful collection based on Shaun Usher’s labor-of-love website, which also gave us young Hunter S. Thompson on how to live a meaningful life.

White’s missive, penned on March 30, 1973, when he was 74, endures as a spectacular celebration of the human spirit:

Dear Mr. Nadeau:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Sincerely,

E. B. White

Every single epistle in Letters of Note is soul-stretching beyond measure. Sample the book further with this timeless wisdom on how to find your purpose in life, then explore more of White’s wit and wisdom with his ideas on the writer’s responsibility in society and the future of reading, his timely admonition about sponsored content, and his moving obituary for his dog Daisy.

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05 MAY, 2014

Picasso on Success and Why You Should Never Compromise in Your Art

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“One must have the courage of one’s vocation and the courage to make a living from one’s vocation.”

“Imagine immensities. Pick yourself up from rejection and plow ahead. Don’t compromise,” Debbie Millman advised in her magnificent meditation on what it takes to design a good life. But how does one resist compromising one’s creative ideals when straining to meet the practical essentials of survival? An uncompromising answer comes from one of the greatest creators humanity has ever known.

In 1932, the famed Hungarian photographer Brassaï, nicknamed by Henry Miller “the eye of Paris,” was asked to photograph Picasso’s sculptures, which at the time were practically unknown, for the first issue of the pioneering surrealist art review Minotaure, edited by André Breton. Picasso had just turned fifty. While already an established artist, he was still on the cusp of achieving worldwide acclaim.

But when Brassaï arrived at 23 rue La Boétie and entered Picasso’s studio, he quickly realized that beyond his modest photographic assignment lay a much greater reward — an invitation into Picasso’s private world and the gift of intimate perspective into his singular mind. After each session, Brassaï would return home and carefully record his talks with Picasso on scraps of paper, which he’d then stuff into a giant vase — not with the intent of future publication, but with the intuition that Picasso’s thoughts on life and art would be enormously valuable to posterity. This went on for thirty years, over the course of which the two got to know each other — intellectually, creatively, spiritually — while they explored together such timelessly alluring subjects as the ego, the creative process, the role of romantic infatuation in art, and a universe more.

In 1964, Brassaï — who was as talented a writer as he was a photographer — reached into his vase and decided to make his affectionate records of these dimensional tête-à-têtes public in the remarkable volume Conversations with Picasso (public library).

Picasso by Brassaï

One of these conversations took place on May 3, 1944. Though Brassaï was by then a successful commercial photographer — the very reputation by which he had entered Picasso’s life — he had dabbled in drawing twenty years prior, and had shown Picasso some of his early art. On that particular spring afternoon, Picasso expressed his admiration for Brassaï’s gift for drawing, insisted that he must have an exhibition, and began probing the photographer about why he had abandoned the pencil. Despite Brassaï’s success as a photographer, Picasso saw the relinquishing of any sort of talent — in this case, drawing — as creative cowardice, as compromising, as selling oneself short of fulfillment. Never one to bite his lip, he gave Brassaï a piece of his mind. While unsolicited, his words ring with timeless advice to all struggling artists on the importance of long-run perseverance and faith in one’s sense of purpose:

When you have something to say, to express, any submission becomes unbearable in the long run. One must have the courage of one’s vocation and the courage to make a living from one’s vocation. The “second career” is an illusion! I was often broke too, and I always resisted any temptation to live any other way than from my painting… In the beginning, I did not sell at a high price, but I sold. My drawings, my canvases went. That’s what counts.

When Brassaï protests that few artists are gifted enough to be successful, citing something Matisse had once told him — “You have to be stronger than your gifts to protect them.” — Picasso counters by bringing down the ivory tower and renouncing the myth that “art suffers the moment other people start paying for it.” Unlike those who maintain that commercial success is the enemy of creative integrity — including such well-meaning idealists as Sherwood Anderson — Picasso was sensitive to the layered, dissonant nature of the issue. He understood the fragility of the creative impulse as a serf of the human ego — an ego that thrives, much to our dismay and inner turmoil, on constant positive reinforcement. He tells Brassaï:

Well, success is an important thing! It’s often been said that an artist ought to work for himself, for the “love of art,” that he ought to have contempt for success. Untrue! An artist needs success. And not only to live off it, but especially to produce his body of work. Even a rich painter has to have success. Few people understand anything about art, and not everyone is sensitive to painting. Most judge the world of art by success. Why, then,leave success to “best-selling painters”? Every generation has its own. But where is it written that success must always go to those who cater to the public’s taste? For myself, I wanted to prove that you can have success in spite of everyone, without compromise. Do you know what? It’s the success I had when I was young that became my wall of protection. The blue period, the rose period, they were screens that shielded me.

Picasso translates this ethos of not compromising from the ideological to the pragmatic as he sends Brassaï off with some practical advice on selling his drawings:

Don’t price them too high. What matters is that you sell a large number of them. Your drawings must go out into the world.

Brassaï and Picasso

Conversations with Picasso is an absolute treasure in its entirety, the brilliance of which Henry Miller captures in the preface:

In some inexplicable way it seems to me that the spirit which animates Picasso can never be fully accounted for by his work, no matter how prodigious it may be. Not that I deny the greatness of his work, but that the man himself is and will remain far greater than anything or everything which he accomplishes with his hands. He is so much more than the painter, sculptor, or whatever he may choose to be while breathing is in him. He is outsized, a human phenomenon.

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05 MAY, 2014

Kierkegaard on Our Greatest Source of Unhappiness

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Hope, memory, and how our chronic compulsion to flee from our own lives robs us of living.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard memorably wrote in reflecting on why presence matters more than productivity. “On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it,” Henry Miller asserted in his beautiful meditation on the art of living. And yet we spend our lives fleeing from the present moment, constantly occupying ourselves with overplanning the future or recoiling with anxiety over its impermanence, thus invariably robbing ourselves of the vibrancy of aliveness.

In a chapter of the altogether indispensable 1843 treatise Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (public library), the influential Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855), considered the first true existentialist philosopher, explores precisely that — how our constant escapism from our own lives is our greatest source of unhappiness.

Kierkegaard, who was only thirty at the time, begins with an observation all the timelier today, amidst our culture of busy-as-a-badge-of-honor:

Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.

(It’s worth remembering, here, that “busy is a decision” — one we constantly make, and often to our own detriment.)

In a latter chapter, titled “The Unhappiest Man,” he returns to the subject and its deeper dimension:

The unhappy person is one who has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, the essence of his being, in some manner outside of himself. The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself. But one can be absent, obviously, either in the past or in the future. This adequately circumscribes the entire territory of the unhappy consciousness.

He considers how the very architecture of our language perpetuates our proclivity for absence:

The unhappy one is absent. But one is absent when living in the past or living in the future. The form of expression is important, for it is evident, as philology also teaches us, that there is a tense that expresses present in the past, and a tense that expresses presence in the future; but the same science also teaches us that there is a pluperfect tense in which there is no present, as well as a future perfect tense with the same characteristics. These are the hoping and remembering individuals. Inasmuch as they are only hoping or only remembering, these are indeed in a sense unhappy individuals, if otherwise it is only the person who is present to himself that is happy. However, one cannot strictly call an individual unhappy who is present in hope or in memory. For what one must note here is that he is still present to himself in one of these. From which we also see that a single blow, be it ever so heavy, cannot make a person the unhappiest. For one blow can either deprive him of hope, still leaving him present in memory, or of memory, leaving him present in hope.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Kierkegaard goes on to explore these two key forms of escapism from presence, via hope and via memory:

Consider first the hoping individual. When, as a hoping individual (and of course to that extent unhappy), he is not present to himself, he becomes unhappy in a stricter sense. An individual who hopes for an eternal life is, indeed, in a certain sense an unhappy individual to the extent that he renounces the present, but nevertheless is strictly not unhappy, because he is present to himself in the hope and does not come in conflict with the particular moments of finitude. But if he cannot become present to himself in hope, but loses his hope, hopes again, and so on, then he is absent from himself not just in the present but also in the future, and we have a type of the unhappy. Though the hoping individual does not hope for something that has no reality for him, he hopes for something he himself knows cannot be realized. For when an individual loses hope, and instead of becoming a remembering individual, wants to remain a hoping one, then we get this form.

Similarly if we consider the remembering individual. If he finds himself present in the past, strictly he is not unhappy; but if he cannot do that but remains constantly absent from himself in a past, then we have a form of the unhappy.

Memory is pre-eminently the real element of the unhappy, as is natural seeing the past has the remarkable characteristic that it is gone, the future that it is yet to come; and one can therefore say in a sense that the future is nearer the present than is the past. That future, for the hoping individual to be present in it must be real, or rather must acquire reality for him. The past, for the remembering individual to be present in it, must have had reality for him. But when the hoping individual would have a future which can have no reality for him, or the remembering individual remember a past which had had no reality for him, then we have the genuinely unhappy individuals. Unhappy individuals who hope never have the same pain as those who remember. Hoping individuals always have a more gratifying disappointment. The unhappiest one will always, therefore, be found among the unhappy rememberers.

For a potent antidote, pair this with Alan Watts on how to live with presence and Anna Quindlen on how to live rather than exist, then see Albert Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons.

Either/Or is a consciousness-expanding read in its entirety. Complement it with Kierkegaard on the relationship between creativity and anxiety.

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