Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

26 JUNE, 2015

Emerson on What Beauty Really Means, How to Cultivate Its True Hallmarks, and Why It Bewitches the Human Imagination

By:

“The secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting.”

Creative culture is woven of invisible threads of influence — someone sees something created by another and it sparks something else in their own mind. We can trace some of these influences, but thanks to the psychological phenomenon of cryptomnesia, few of these unconscious impressions are remembered by those who receive them, even fewer recorded, and fewer still retained by posterity — and yet the rare chance to witness the cross-pollination of great minds is nothing short of magical.

Every once in a while, I chance upon one such previously invisible thread of influence and am infinitely delighted to participate however obliquely, across space and time, in the continual weaving of our cultural fabric. This is precisely what happened when I was revisiting Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library; free download) — the beautiful writings of the trailblazing astronomer who paved the way for women in science.

In a journal entry from November of 1855, seven years after she became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 37-year-old Mitchell recounts attending a lecture by Emerson, which “turned at length upon beauty” and impressed her greatly. Embedded in her intellectually smitten account is timeless insight into what makes a great public speech:

Last night I heard Emerson give a lecture. I pity the reporter who attempts to give it to the world. I began to listen with a determination to remember it in order, but it was without method, or order, or system. It was like a beam of light moving in the undulatory waves, meeting with occasional meteors in its path; it was exceedingly captivating. It surprised me that there was not only no commonplace thought, but there was no commonplace expression. If he quoted, he quoted from what we had not read; if he told an anecdote, it was one that had not reached us.

I was tickled to track down this “beam of light” and — at the risk of being that pitiable reporter — to recover the ideas that so moved Mitchell, as articulated by Emerson in the original. Fortunately, I happened to have a copy of his Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — the same magnificent volume that gave us Emerson on the two pillars of friendship, the key to personal growth, and how to live with maximum aliveness — and struck gold: On page 1093, under the title “Beauty,” there appears the very lecture Mitchell attended.

To picture the great astronomer sitting awestruck in the audience that night only lends Emerson’s already luminous thoughts more electrifying sparkle.

He considers what beauty really means:

Beauty is the form under which the intellect prefers to study the world. All privilege is that of beauty; for there are many beauties; as, of general nature, of the human face and form, of manners, of brain, or method, moral beauty, or beauty of the soul.

[…]

The question of Beauty takes us out of surfaces, to thinking of the foundations of things. Goethe said, “The beautiful is a manifestation of secret laws of Nature, which, but for this appearance, had been forever concealed from us.” And the working of this deep instinct makes all the excitement — much of it superficial and absurd enough — about works of art, which leads armies of vain travelers every year to Italy, Greece, and Egypt. Every man values every acquisition he makes in the science of beauty, above his possessions. The most useful man in the most useful world, so long as only commodity was served, would remain unsatisfied. But, as fast as he sees beauty, life acquires a very high value.

And yet Emerson is wary of confining beauty to a concrete definition, which constricts its expansiveness and inevitably damages its essence. Instead of a complete definition, he sets out to enumerate “a few of its qualities,” beginning with simplicity and a certain clarity of feeling:

We ascribe beauty to that which is simple; which has no superfluous parts; which exactly answers its end; which stands related to all things; which is the mean of many extremes. It is the most enduring quality, and the most ascending quality.

Art from an animated primer on why bees build perfect hexagons. Click image to watch.

Nature, Emerson argues, is masterful at such unsuperfluous beauty:

Beauty rests on necessities. The line of beauty is the result of perfect economy. The cell of the bee is built at that angle which gives the most strength with the least wax; the bone or the quill of the bird gives the most alar strength, with the least weight. “It is the purgation of superfluities,” said Michelangelo… In rhetoric, this art of omission is a chief secret of power, and, in general, it is proof of high culture, to say the greatest matters in the simplest way.

From this unsuperfluous form springs an elegance and efficiency of function:

Elegance of form in bird or beast, or in the human figure, marks some excellence of structure: or beauty is only an invitation from what belongs to us… It is a rule of largest application, true in a plant, true in a loaf of bread, that in the construction of any fabric or organism, any real increase of fitness to its end, is an increase of beauty… The cat and the deer cannot move or sit inelegantly… The tint of the flower proceeds from its root, and the lusters of the sea-shell begin with its existence.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the ideals of Japanese aesthetics, Emerson adds:

Hence our taste in building rejects paint, and all shifts, and shows the original grain of the wood: refuses pilasters and columns that support nothing, and allows the real supporters of the house honestly to show themselves. Every necessary or organic action pleases the beholder. A man leading a horse to water, a farmer sowing seed, the labors of haymakers in the field, the carpenter building a ship, the smith at his forge, or, whatever useful labor, is becoming to the wise eye… Nothing interests us which is stark or bounded, but only what streams with life, what is in act or endeavor to reach somewhat beyond. The pleasure a palace or a temple gives the eye, is, that an order and method has been communicated to stones, so that they speak and geometrize, become tender or sublime with expression. Beauty is the moment of transition, as if the form were just ready to flow into other forms.

Illustration from 'Geometrical Psychology,' a series of 19th-century diagrams of consciousness. Click image for more.

But Emerson argues that this flow from one form into another requires a certain elegance of transition — an insight that defies our present fetishism of “disruptive innovation” and instead considers the key to meaningful, lasting works of beauty:

The fashions follow a law of gradation, and are never arbitrary. The new mode is always only a step onward in the same direction as the last mode; and a cultivated eye is prepared for and predicts the new fashion. This fact suggests the reason of all mistakes and offense in our own modes. It is necessary in music, when you strike a discord, to let down the ear by an intermediate note or two to the accord again: and many a good experiment, born of good sense, and destined to succeed, fails, only because it is offensively sudden.

Beauty, Emerson argues, is what lends things their immortality — after all, if he wasn’t the thinker of beautiful thoughts and writer of beautiful words that made awestruck attendees preserve his ideas in their journals, these very writings on beauty wouldn’t be here today. He captures this elegantly:

Beauty is the quality which makes to endure… Burns writes a copy of verses, and sends them to a newspaper, and the human race take charge of them that they shall not perish.

What Neil Gaiman asserted of stories — that they’re symbiotic organisms propagating by evolutionary laws — Emerson asserted of beauty more than a century and a half earlier:

In our cities, an ugly building is soon removed, and is never repeated, but any beautiful building is copied and improved upon, so that all masons and carpenters work to repeat and preserve the agreeable forms, whilst the ugly ones die out.

The pinnacle of beauty, Emerson argues, is the human female form:

The felicities of design in art, or in works of Nature, are shadows or forerunners of that beauty which reaches its perfection in the human form. All men are its lovers. Wherever it goes, it creates joy and hilarity, and everything is permitted to it. It reaches its height in woman… A beautiful woman is a practical poet, taming her savage mate, planting tenderness, hope, and eloquence, in all whom she approaches. Some favors of condition must go with it, since a certain serenity is essential, but we love its reproofs and superiorities.

Illustration by Olimpia Zagnoli from 'Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical' by Noémie Révah. Click image for more.

And yet Emerson is careful to point out that true beauty isn’t something one objectifies — a static quality to behold — but something in dynamic dialogue with the intellect. The true beauty of a woman, as a supreme form of all true beauty, is something far more expansive than her aesthetic attributes:

We all know this magic very well, or can divine it. It does not hurt weak eyes to look into beautiful eyes never so long… They heal us of awkwardness by their words and looks. We observe their intellectual influence on the most serious student. They refine and clear his mind; teach him to put a pleasing method into what is dry and difficult. We talk to them, and wish to be listened to; we fear to fatigue them, and acquire a facility of expression which passes from conversation into habit of style.

[…]

And yet — it is not beauty that inspires the deepest passion. Beauty without grace is the hook without the bait. Beauty, without expression, tires… The radiance of the human form, though sometimes astonishing, is only a burst of beauty for a few years or a few months, at the perfection of youth, and in most, rapidly declines. But we remain lovers of it, only transferring our interest to interior excellence.

Long before Kurt Vonnegut admonished that “the most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not,” Emerson notes:

The secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting.

To this I’ll add a necessary corollary: The key to being interesting is being interested — in the world, in other people, in the seething cauldron of phenomena and experiences and ideas we call life. Curiosity, therefore, is a supreme manifestation of beauty.

Emerson returns to the ineffable aspect of beauty and argues that much of what lends it its luster is precisely this quality of escaping the intellect’s analysis but enchanting the imagination. In a sentiment that calls to mind Stendhal’s theory of why we fall out of love, Emerson writes:

Things are pretty, graceful, rich, elegant, handsome, but, until they speak to the imagination, not yet beautiful. This is the reason why beauty is still escaping out of all analysis. It is not yet possessed, it cannot be handled… It is properly not in the form, but in the mind. It instantly deserts possession, and flies to an object in the horizon. If I could put my hand on the north star, would it be as beautiful? The sea is lovely, but when we bathe in it, the beauty forsakes all the near water. For the imagination and senses cannot be gratified at the same time.

Illustration by Lorenzo Mattotti from Lou Reed's adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven.' Click image for more.

He examines the deepest source of beauty:

The new virtue which constitutes a thing beautiful, is a certain cosmical quality, or, a power to suggest relation to the whole world, and so lift the object out of a pitiful individuality. Every natural feature — sea, sky, rainbow, flowers, musical tone — has in it somewhat which is not private, but universal, speaks of that central benefit which is the soul of Nature, and thereby is beautiful.

He remarks of the men and women we come to admire:

They have a largeness of suggestion, and their face and manners carry a certain grandeur, like time and justice.

[…]

All beauty points at identity, and whatsoever thing does not express to me the sea and sky, day and night, is somewhat forbidden and wrong. Into every beautiful object, there enters somewhat immeasurable and divine, and just as much into form bounded by outlines, like mountains on the horizon, as into tones of music, or depths of space. Polarized light showed the secret architecture of bodies; and when the second-sight of the mind is opened, now one color or form or gesture, and now another, has a pungency, as if a more interior ray had been emitted, disclosing its deep holdings in the frame of things…

This is that haughty force of beauty, “vis superba formæ,” which the poets praise — under calm and precise outline, the immeasurable and divine: Beauty hiding all wisdom and power in its calm sky.

Centuries after Francis Bacon wrote of beauty as a function of virtue and shortly before social reformer Frederick Douglass pioneered the notion of “aesthetic force” as a powerful agent of change, Emerson arrives at the deepest well from which beauty springs — a kind of moral virtue:

All high beauty has a moral element in it… Gross and obscure natures, however decorated, seem impure shambles; but character gives splendor to youth, and awe to wrinkled skin and gray hairs. An adorer of truth we cannot choose but obey, and the woman who has shared with us the moral sentiment — her locks must appear to us sublime. Thus there is a climbing scale of culture, from the first agreeable sensation which a sparkling gem or a scarlet stain affords the eye, up through fair outlines and details of the landscape, features of the human face and form, signs and tokens of thought and character in manners, up to the ineffable mysteries of the intellect.

Emerson’s Essays and Lectures remains an indispensable read. Follow the invisible threads of cultural influence in this particular portion to Ursula K. Le Guin’s sublime meditation on what beauty really means and Susan Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

26 JUNE, 2015

Proust on What Art Does for the Soul and How to Stop Letting Habit Blunt Our Aliveness

By:

“Artists are people who strip habit away and return life to its deserved glory.”

“There are few things humans are more dedicated to than unhappiness,” philosopher Alain de Botton writes in the opening sentence of the intensely rewarding How Proust Can Change Your Life (public library). Among the key culprits in our spiritual doldrums, he argues, are “the deadening effects of habit” — something Kierkegaard had also arrived at a century and a half earlier in contemplating our greatest source of unhappiness. Indeed, although habit may be how we give shape to our lives, it can also lull us into a mindless trance in which we glide across the surface of existence.

How Proust can help us snap out of our habitual unhappiness is what De Botton explores in this animated essay chronicling how the events of Proust’s own life translated into the “systematic exploration of the three possible sources of the meaning of life” in his great novel In Search of Lost Time (which, at 1,267,069 words, is officially the longest novel of all time, twice the length of Tolstoy’s War and Peace).

For Proust, the great artists deserve acclaim because they show us the world in a way that is fresh, appreciative, and alive… The opposite of art, for Proust, is something he calls habit. For Proust, much of life is ruined for us by a blanket or shroud of familiarity that descends between us and everything that matters. It dulls our senses and stops us appreciating everything, from the beauty of a sunset to our work and our friends.

Children don’t suffer from habit, which is why they get excited by some very key but simple things — like puddles, jumping on the bed, sand, and fresh bread. But we adults get ineluctably spoiled, which is why we seek ever more powerful stimulants, like fame and love.

The trick, in Proust’s eyes, is to recover the powers of appreciation of a child in adulthood, to strip the veil of habit and therefore to start to look upon daily life with a new and more grateful sensitivity.

This, for Proust, is what one group in the population does all the time: artists. Artists are people who strip habit away and return life to its deserved glory.

This film is part of a wonderful series of animated meditations by The School of Life, founded by De Botton, exploring such facets of our quest for meaning as what great books do for the soul, how to find fulfilling work, what philosophy is for, and what comes after religion.

Complement How Proust Can Change Your Life with De Botton on harnessing the seven psychological functions of great art and what Nietzsche can teach us about true fulfillment.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

23 JUNE, 2015

Beloved Composer Leonard Bernstein on the Importance of Believing in Each Other and How Art Fortifies Our Mutual Dignity

By:

“We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspirational side of man… We must believe, without fear, in people.”

“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their prescient 1970 conversation on race, “because we are still each other’s only hope.” It is in such troubled times as ours — times of shootings, beatings, and the only kind of violence there is: the senseless kind — that we most need to heed Baldwin, to be reminded of who we can be to each other, of the tender and tenacious common humanity that undergirds all surface otherness.

Count on legendary composer Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918–October 14, 1990) — one of the most lucid and luminous minds of the past century, a man of immense insight into the creative impulse, deep capacity for gratitude, and complex emotional life — to do the reminding.

A decade before the assassination of JFK prompted Bernstein to write his unforgettable speech on the only true antidote to violence, he penned a beautiful and elevating short essay for NPR’s This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (public library) — the same altogether magnificent compendium that gave us Thomas Mann on time and features other ennobling reflections from beloved luminaries like Eleanor Roosevelt, John Updike, Errol Morris, Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, and Andrew Sullivan.

Leonard Bernstein by Jack Mitchell

Bernstein writes:

I believe in people. I feel, love, need, and respect people above all else, including the arts, natural scenery, organized piety, or nationalistic superstructures. One human figure on the slope of a mountain can make the whole mountain disappear for me. One person fighting for the truth can disqualify for me the platitudes of centuries. And one human being who meets with injustice can render invalid the entire system which has dispensed it.

A century after Thoreau wrote that there is “no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor,” Bernstein kisses awake our capacity for self-transcendence, from which our capacity to change the world springs:

I believe that man’s noblest endowment is his capacity to change. Armed with reason, he can see two sides and choose: He can be divinely wrong. I believe in man’s right to be wrong. Out of this right he has built, laboriously and lovingly, something we reverently call democracy. He has done it the hard way and continues to do it the hard way — by reason, by choosing, by error and rectification, by the difficult, slow method in which the dignity of A is acknowledged by B, without impairing the dignity of C. Man cannot have dignity without loving the dignity of his fellow.

I believe in the potential of people. I cannot rest passively with those who give up in the name of “human nature.” Human nature is only animal nature if it is obliged to remain static. Without growth, without metamorphosis, there is no godhead. If we believe that man can never achieve a society without wars, then we are condemned to wars forever. This is the easy way. But the laborious, loving way, the way of dignity and divinity, presupposes a belief in people and in their capacity to change, grow, communicate, and love.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Neruda’s exquisite metaphor for why we make art, Bernstein considers the power of art as a medium of love that confers dignity upon existence — our own and each other’s:

I believe in man’s unconscious mind, the deep spring from which comes his power to communicate and to love. For me, all art is a combination of these powers; for if love is the way we have of communicating personally in the deepest way, then what art can do is to extend this communication, magnify it, and carry it to vastly greater numbers of people. Therefore art is valid for the warmth and love it carries within it, even if it be the lightest entertainment, or the bitterest satire, or the most shattering tragedy.

Exhorting us to believe “in one another, in our ability to grow and change, in our mutual dignity,” Bernstein echoes John Steinbeck’s memorable assertion that “the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world” and adds:

We must encourage thought, free and creative. We must respect privacy. We must observe taste by not exploiting our sorrows, successes, or passions. We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspirational side of man. We must not enslave ourselves to dogma. We must believe in the attainability of good. We must believe, without fear, in people.

Complement the wholly wonderful This I Believe with Bernstein on motivation, his beautiful letter of gratitude to his mentor, and his electrifying tribute to JFK, then revisit Viktor Frankl on why it pays to believe in each other.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

22 JUNE, 2015

How to Own Your Story: Vivian Gornick on the Art of Personal Narrative and the Power of Textured Storytelling

By:

“The memoirist … must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom — or rather the movement toward it — that counts.”

I recently found myself in an intense conversation with a friend about privacy — why it matters; how much of it we’re relinquishing and what for; whether it is even possible to maintain even a modicum of control over our own privacy at this point — the same intense conversation being had everywhere from family dinner tables to courtrooms to public radio to the highest levels of government.

It suddenly struck me that our cultural narrative about privacy is completely backward: What we really fear is not that the internet — or a prospective employer, or a nosy lover, or Big Brother — knows too much about us, but that it knows too little; that it fails to encompass Whitman’s multitudes which each of contains; that it reduces the larger, complex truth of who we are to a few fragmented facts about what we do; that it hijacks our rich, ever-evolving personal stories and replaces them with disjointed anecdotal data.

Perhaps the most potent antidote to this increasingly disempowering cultural shift is to grow ever more thoughtful and deliberate about how we tell our own stories; to master the art of personal narrative so that we can write — writing being that most lucid mode of thinking and an indispensable form of talking to ourselves — about the expansive, dimensional, textured reality of who we are. That’s what writer Vivian Gornick explores in the timelessly wonderful and infinitely timely 2001 classic The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (public library).

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

Gornick writes:

Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.

She begins by illustrating the power of personal narrative with, befittingly, a personal narrative:

A pioneering doctor died and a large number of people spoke at her memorial service. Repeatedly it was said by colleagues, patients, activists in health care reform that the doctor had been tough, humane, brilliant; stimulating and dominant; a stern teacher, a dynamite researcher, an astonishing listener. I sat among the silent mourners. Each speaker provoked in me a measure of thoughtfulness, sentiment, even regret, but only one among them — a doctor in her forties who had been trained by the dead woman — moved me to that melancholy evocation of world-and-self that makes a single person’s death feel large.

[…]

The next morning I awakened to find myself sitting bolt upright in bed, the eulogy standing in the air before me like a composition. That was it, I realized. It had been composed. That is what had made the difference.

What made the eulogy so memorable, Gornick reflects, is precisely what lends personal narrative its power — a delicate mastery of structure, shapeliness, associative flow, and dramatic buildup. The way the younger doctor recounted coming of age under the influence of her departed mentor fused these essential elements of enchanting personal storytelling into what Gornick calls “narrative texture”:

The memory had acted as an organizing principle that determined the structure of her remarks. Structure had imposed order. Order made the sentences more shapely. Shapeliness increased the expressiveness of the language. Expressiveness deepened association. At last, a dramatic buildup occurred, one that had layered into it the descriptive feel of a young person’s apprenticeship, medical practices in a time of social change, and a divided attachment to a mentor who could bring herself only to correct, never to praise. This buildup is called texture. It was the texture that had stirred me; caused me to feel, with powerful immediacy, not only the actuality of the woman being remembered but — even more vividly — the presence of the one doing the remembering. The speaker’s effort to recall with exactness how things had been between herself and the dead woman — her open need to make sense of a strong but vexing relationship — had caused her to say so much that I became aware at last of all that was not being said; that which could never be said. I felt acutely the warm, painful inadequacy of human relations. This feeling resonated in me. It was the resonance that had lingered on, exactly as it does when the last page is turned of a book that reaches the heart.

Illustration from 'The Jacket.' Click image for details.

This ability, Gornick argues, requires a certain sensitivity to the mystery of personal identity over time, a certain intimacy with the stable of our former selves. She writes:

It was the act of imagining herself as she had once been that enriched her syntax and extended not only her images but the coherent flow of association that led directly into the task at hand.

The better the speaker imagined herself, the more vividly she brought the dead doctor to life.

It requires, too, a clarity of purpose and a discernment in choosing from among one’s multitudes only those selves that add texture to this particular story:

The speaker never lost sight of why she was speaking — or, perhaps more important, of who was speaking. Of the various selves at her disposal (she was, after all, many people — a daughter, a lover, a bird-watcher, a New Yorker), she knew and didn’t forget that the only proper self to invoke was the one that had been apprenticed. That was the self in whom this story resided. A self — now here was a curiosity — that never lost interest in its own animated existence at the same time that it lived only to eulogize the dead doctor. This last, I thought, was crucial: the element most responsible for the striking clarity of intent the eulogy had demonstrated. Because the narrator knew who was speaking, she always knew why she was speaking.

And so does Gornick — she recounts this anecdote with the clear purpose of adding dimension to the inquiry at the heart of her book, which deals with that immensely intricate art of writing about oneself not from the surface stream of solipsism or narcissism but from a deeper well of universal truth. More than a decade later, Cheryl Strayed captured this beautifully in asserting that “when you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice” — the singular task of the nonfiction writer of personal narrative, which Gornick elegantly distinguishes from the demands of all other writing:

To fashion a persona out of one’s own undisguised self is no easy thing. A novel or a poem provides invented characters or speaking voices that act as surrogates for the writer. Into those surrogates will be poured all that the writer cannot address directly — inappropriate longings, defensive embarrassments, anti-social desires — but must address to achieve felt reality. The persona in a nonfiction narrative is an unsurrogated one. Here the writer must identify openly with those very same defenses and embarrassments that the novelist or the poet is once removed from. It’s like lying down on the couch in public — and while a writer may be willing to do just that, it is a strategy that most often simply doesn’t work. Think of how many years on the couch it takes to speak about oneself, but without all the whining and complaining, the self-hatred and the self-justification that make the analysand a bore to all the world but the analyst. The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming low-level self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader.

Yet the creation of such a persona is vital in an essay or a memoir. It is the instrument of illumination. Without it there is neither subject nor story. To achieve it, the the writer of memoir or essay undergoes an apprenticeship as soul-searching as any undergone by novelist or poet: the twin struggle to know not only why one is speaking but who is speaking.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce's Ulysses. Click image for more.

This, Gornick argues, call for a clarity of intention that still makes room for complexity of feeling — that difficult art of holding opposing truths and walking forward with grace. The eulogist had to bridge this clarity of intent on the one hand (to celebrate and commemorate the dead), with recognition of her own mixed feelings on the other (the deceased mentor had been an often difficult but ultimately life-changing presence for the eulogist, “an agent of threat and promise”). Gornick considers how this particular task illuminates the general task of the writer of personal narrative:

First she sees that she has [these mixed feelings]. Then she acknowledges them to herself. Then she considers them as a way into the experience. Then she realizes they are the experience. She begins to write.

Penetrating the familiar is by no means a given. On the contrary, it is hard, hard work.

Returning to the essential interplay of situation and story, Gornick turns to the specific case of autobiography — perhaps the highest, most concentrated effort to take charge of one’s own narrative through a form of highly controlled privacy made public. (For a most enchanting exemplar, see Oliver Sacks’s masterwork of the genre.) She writes:

The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void. The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom — or rather the movement toward it — that counts… The poet, the novelist, the memoirist — all must convince the reader they have some wisdom, and are writing as honestly as possible to arrive at what they know. To the bargain, the writer of personal narrative must also persuade the reader that the narrator is reliable.

With an eye to the masters of the genre — Joan Didion, Edmund Gosse, Geoffrey Wolff — Gornick extracts the common denominator of uncommonly excellent personal narrative:

In each case the writer was possessed of an insight that organized the writing, and in each case a persona had been created to serve the insight.

[…]

I become interested then in my own existence only as a means of penetrating the situation in hand. I have created a persona who can find the story riding the tide that I, in my unmediated state, am otherwise going to drown in.

The Situation and the Story remains an indispensable read not only for writers of personal narrative, professional or aspiring, but for any thinking, feeling human being who longs to make sense of her or his own existence at the immutable intersection of situation and story called life. Complement it with Rebecca Goldstein on reconciling your present self with your past personae and master-memoirist Dani Shapiro’s superb meta-memoir of the writing life.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.