Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

09 OCTOBER, 2012

The Wisdom of the Heart: Henry Miller on the Art of Living

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“On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.”

Henry Miller (1891-1980) — voracious reader, masterful letter-writer, champion of combinatorial creativity, one disciplined writer — spent a good portion of his career freelancing for various literary periodicals. In April of 1939, Modern Mystic magazine commissioned him to write a piece about the work of psychoanalyst E. Graham Howe. Two years later, the essay was republished in the eponymous volume The Wisdom of the Heart (public library) — a collection of Miller’s short stories, profiles, and literary essays.

In the piece, like in all memorable profile writing, Miller uses the synthesis and critique of his subject’s ethos as a springboard for his own and, ultimately, for broader commentary on the culture of the time and the universality of the human condition.

He begins with a riff on Howe’s book War Dance:

The art of living is based on rhythm — on give and take, ebb and flow, light and dark, life and death. By acceptance of all aspects of life, good and bad, right and wrong, yours and mine, the static, defensive life, which is what most people are cursed with, is converted into a dance, ‘the dance of life,’ metamorphosis. One can dance to sorrow or to joy; one can even dance abstractly. … But the point is that, by the mere act of dancing, the elements which compose it are transformed; the dance is an end in itself, just like life. The acceptance of the situation, any situation, brings about a flow, a rhythmic impulse towards self-expression. To relax is, of course, the first thing a dancer has to learn. It is also the first thing a patient has to learn when he confronts the analyst. It is the first thing any one has to learn in order to live. It is extremely difficult, because it means surrender, full surrender.

[…]

Life, as we all know, is conflict, and man, being part of life, is himself an expression of conflict. If he recognizes the fact and accepts it, he is apt, despite the conflict, to know peace and to enjoy it. But to arrive at this end, which is only a beginning (for we haven’t begun to live yet!), a man has got to learn the doctrine of acceptance, that is, of unconditional surrender, which is love.

Later, Miller turns to the illusory nature of what stands between us and this complete surrender:

‘Normality,’ says Howe, ‘is the paradise of escapologists, for it is a fixation concept, pure and simple.’ ‘It is better, if we can,’ he asserts, ‘to stand alone and to feel quite normal about our abnormality, doing nothing whatever about it, except what needs to be done in order to be oneself.’

It is just this ability to stand alone, and not feel guilty or harassed about it, of which the average person is incapable. The desire for a lasting external security is uppermost, revealing itself in the endless pursuit of health, happiness, possessions an so on, defense of what has been acquired being the obsessive idea, and yet no real defense being possible, because one cannot defend what is undefendable. All that can be defended are imaginary, illusory, protective devices.

Miller zooms in on the “key words in howe’s doctrine of wholeness” — balance, discipline, illumination:

For the awakened individual, however, life begins now, at any and every moment; it begins at the moment when he realizes that he is part of a great whole, and in the realization becomes himself whole. In the knowledge of limits and relationships he discovers the eternal self, thenceforth to move with obedience and discipline in full freedom.

Writing at the time surround WWII, Miller reflects on a cultural era not at all dissimilar to our own today, a transitional period he calls “an equinoctial solstice of the soul”:

There is an illusion of ‘end,’ a stasis seemingly like death. But it is only an illusion. Everything, at this crucial point, lies in the attitude which we assume towards the moment.

In an argument reminiscent of Joan Didion’s definition of character as “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life,” Miller turns from the personal to the political, a direction consistent with his then-lover Anaïs Nin’s contention that understanding the individual is the key to understanding mass movements:

Those who are trying to put the onus of responsibility for the dangers which threaten on the shoulders of the ‘dictators’ might well examine their own hearts and see whether their allegiance is really ‘free’ or a mere attachment to some other form of authority, possibly unrecognized. … Those who are preaching revolution are also defenders of the status quo — their status quo. Any solution to the world’s ills must embrance all mankind. We have got to relinquish our precious theories, our buttresses and supports, to say nothing of our defenses and possessions. We have got to become more inclusive, not more exclusive. What is not acknowledged and assimilated through experience piles up in the form of guilt and creates a real Hell, the literal meaning of which is — where the unburnt must be burnt!

Returning to our relationship with the present moment, Miller summarizes Howe’s proposition:

An attempt, in short, to arrive at a total grasp of the universe, and thus keep man anchored in the moving stream of life, which embraces known and unknown. Any and every moment, from this viewpoint, is therefore good or right, the best for whoever it be, for on how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.

He brings it all back to love:

Real love is never perplexed, never qualifies, never rejects, never demands. It replenishes, by grace of restoring unlimited circulation. It burns, because it knows the true meaning of sacrifice. It is life illuminated.

The Wisdom of the Heart is a beautiful read in its entirety — highly recommended.

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05 OCTOBER, 2012

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Intelligent Design as a Philosophy of Ignorance

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Why even Newton was susceptible to cognitive cop-outs.

Today marks the 54th birthday of the inimitable Neil deGrass Tyson, who blends the “Great Explainer” quality of Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan’s penchant of the poetry of the cosmos with a brand of eloquence all his own. He’s previously made a political case for space exploration, showed us why we’re wired for science, and bantered with Colbert about scientific literacy, education, and the universe. In this short excerpt from a longer lecture, Tyson exposes intelligent design as a kind of dead-end cop-out that even some of history’s greatest intellectuals resorted to when stumped — including Sir Isaac Newton, who invented calculus at the tender age of 25.

Intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance. It is you get to something you don’t understand, and then you stop. You say, ‘God did it,’ and you no longer progress beyond that point.

Tyson dives deeper into the subject in his excellent 2007 book, Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries.

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04 OCTOBER, 2012

Susan Sontag on Life, Death, Art, and Freedom

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“Oh, where is the out-going freedom, the instrumental freedom from, freedom that is not this enormous possession of one’s own heart which is death?”

The first installment of Susan Sontag’s published diaries, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (public library), has already given us the celebrated thinker’s list of “rules + duties for being 24″ and her 10 rules for raising a child. On February 13, 1951, shortly after Sontag’s 18th birthday, she jotted down some fragmented notes on her current reading — War and Peace, Caudewll, a biography of Dostoyevsky — then turned the existential lens inwards, as one inevitably, and often reluctantly, does around personal milestones, adding to other cultural icons’ meditations on the meaning of life:

From Rilke:

… the great question-dynasty: … if we are continually inadequate in love, uncertain in decision, + impotent in the face of death, how is it possible to exist?’

Yet we do exist, + affirm that. We affirm the life of lust. Yet there is more. One flees not from one’s real nature which is animal, id, to a self-torturing externally imposed conscience, super-ego, as Freud would have it– but the reverse, as Kierkegaard says. Our ethical sensitivity is what is natural to man + we flee from it to the beast; which is merely to say that I reject weak, manipulative, despairing lust, I am not a beast, I will not to be a futilitarian. I believe in more than the personal epic with the hero-thread, in more than my own life: above multiple spuriousness + despair, there is freedom + transcendence. One can know worlds one has not experienced, choose a response to life that has never been offered, create an inwardness utterly strong + fruitful.  

But how, when one can, to instrument the fact of wholeness + love? One must attempt more than the surety of reflexive nurturing. If ‘life is a hollow form, a negative mold, all the grooves + indentations of which are agony, disconsolations + the most painful insights, then the casting from this … is happiness, assent– most perfect + most certain bliss.’ But how protected + resolved one would have to be! And this leads one outside art to the dying, the madness– oh, where is the out-going freedom, the instrumental freedom from, freedom that is not this enormous possession of one’s own heart which is death?

More of Sontag’s meditations on life — including her thoughts on love, writing, censorship, and aphorisms — are collected in the second volume of her diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980.

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