Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

03 JANUARY, 2013

How To Be a Woman

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“Pop is the cultural bellwether of social change.”

We seem to have come a long way since the days of anti-Suffragette postcards and lists of don’ts for female cyclists. And yet, in How To Be a Woman (UK; public library), British media personality Caitlin Moran argues that “we still also need a bit of analysis-y, argument-y, ‘this needs to change-y’ stuff. You know. Feminism.” Her sort-of-memoir — witty, honest, feisty without trying too hard, opinionated without being preachy — begins at the beginning:

1) Feminism is too important to be discussed only by academics. And, more pertinently:

2) I’m not a feminist academic, but, by God, feminism is so serious, momentous, and urgent that now is really the time for it to be championed by a lighthearted broadsheet columnist and part-time TV critic who has appalling spelling. If something’s thrilling and fun, I want to join in — not watch from the sidelines. I have stuff to say! Camille Paglia has Lady Gaga ALL WRONG! The feminist organization Object is nuts when it comes to pornography! Germaine Greer, my heroine, is crackers on the subject of transgender issues! And no one is tackling OK! Magazine, £600 handbags, Brazilians, stupid bachelorette parties, or Katie Price.

She turns to social science to draw a compelling analogy between the current occupation of feminism and broken windows theory:

[A]ll those littler, stupider, more obvious day-to-day problems with being a woman are, in many ways, just as deleterious to women’s peace of mind. It is the ‘Broken Windows’ philosophy, transferred to female inequality. In the Broken Windows theory, if a single broken window on an empty building is ignored and not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may break into the building and light fires, or become squatters.

Similarly, if we live in a climate where female pubic hair is considered distasteful, or famous and powerful women are constantly pilloried for being too fat or too thin, or badly dressed, then, eventually, people start breaking into women, and lighting fires in them. Women will get squatters. Clearly, this is not a welcome state of affairs.

But rather than sorting out the complexities of the issue in the halls of the academy, Moran argues pop’s inherent qualities make it a perfect arena:

Pop is the cultural bellwether of social change. Because of its immediacy, reach, and power — no two-year turnover, like movies; no three-year writing process, like the novel; no ten-year campaigning process, like politics — any thought or feeling that begins to foment in the collective unconscious can be number one in the charts two months later. And as soon as a pop idea gets out there, it immediately triggers action and reaction in other artists, whose responses are equally rapid — leading to an almost quantum overnight shift in the landscape.

And though touting Lady Gaga as a feminist icon might appear anything from misguided to hackneyed at first glance, Moran makes a well-argued and layered case, looking at how Gaga’s influence might reverberate through the generations:

While it’s always too early to call a career until it’s ten years in, the sheer scope, scale, impact, and intent of Gaga’s first two years as a pop star thrill me more than any female artist to emerge since Madonna. Indeed, much as I acknowledge, as a Western woman, my eternal indebtedness to Madonna — I would never have had the courage to paraglide with my muff hanging out or shag Vanilla Ice if it weren’t for the pioneering work Madonna did in Sex — it should also be noted that Gaga ascended to the world stage wearing an outfit made of raw meat and protesting against the U.S. Army’s homophobia, when she was just 24. At 24, Madonna was still working at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Brooklyn.

[…]

The end point of her songs is not to excite desire in potential lovers, but the thrill of examining her own feelings, then expressing them to her listeners, instead. … For women, finding a sympathetic, nonjudgmental arena is just as important as getting the right to vote. We needed not just the right legislation, but the right atmosphere, too, before we could finally start to found our canons — then, eventually, cities and empires. Ultimately, I think it’s going to be very difficult to oppress a generation of teenage girls who’ve grown up with a liberal, literate, bisexual pop star…

In the rest of How To Be a Woman, Moran goes on to explore everything from the politics of parenting to the bargaining chips of love, using the disarming honesty of her own experience as a broader lens on some of contemporary culture’s most deep-seated, widely resonating biases and frictions.

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01 JANUARY, 2013

Famous Resolution Lists: Jonathan Swift, Susan Sontag, Marilyn Monroe, Woody Guthrie

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“Stay glad. Keep hoping machine running. Love everybody. Make up your mind.”

‘Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions, but instead of regurgitating the most common ones — like changing habit loops, exercising more, and being more productive — here is a look at some of history’s more unusual resolution lists from the diaries, letters, and personal effects of cultural icons:

JONATHAN SWIFT

Writing in A Tale of a Tub in 1699, at the age of 32, Jonathan Swift — best-known as the author of Gulliver’s Travels — compiled a list of 17 aspirations for his far future, titled “When I come to be old.” Focusing on wisdom, humility, patience, and justice, the list brings to mind Benjamin Franklin’s famous thirteen virtues, penned around the same time.

When I come to be old. 1699.

Not to marry a young Woman.
Not to keep young Company unless they reely desire it.
Not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious.
Not to scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions, or Men, or War, &c.
Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly.
Not to tell the same story over and over to the same People.
Not to be covetous.
Not to neglect decency, or cleenlyness, for fear of falling into Nastyness.
Not to be over severe with young People, but give Allowances for their youthfull follyes and weaknesses.
Not to be influenced by, or give ear to knavish tatling servants, or others.
Not to be too free of advise, nor trouble any but those that desire it.
To desire some good Friends to inform me wch of these Resolutions I break, or neglect, and wherein; and reform accordingly.
Not to talk much, nor of my self.
Not to boast of my former beauty, or strength, or favor with Ladyes, &c.
Not to hearken to Flatteryes, nor conceive I can be beloved by a young woman, et eos qui hereditatem captant, odisse ac vitare.
Not to be positive or opiniative.
Not to sett up for observing all these Rules; for fear I should observe none.

via Lists of Note

SUSAN SONTAG

In 1972, 39-year-old Susan Sontag noted in her diary:

Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, gelatin silver print, 1975

Kindness, kindness, kindness.

I want to make a New Year’s prayer, not a resolution. I’m praying for courage.

Then, in early 1977, she resolved:

Starting tomorrow — if not today:

I will get up every morning no later than eight. (Can break this rule once a week.)

I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus]. (‘No, I don’t go out for lunch.’ Can break this rule once every two weeks.)

I will write in the Notebook every day. (Model: Lichtenberg’s Waste Books.)

I will tell people not to call in the morning, or not answer the phone.

I will try to confine my reading to the evening. (I read too much — as an escape from writing.)

I will answer letters once a week. (Friday? — I have to go to the hospital anyway.)

MARILYN MONROE

In the winter of 1955, a 29-year-old Marilyn Monroe resolved in her leather-bound address book to do things better. The list comes from Fragments, the fantastic tome that gave us Monroe’s moving unpublished poetry.

Must make effort to do
Must have the dicipline to do the following –

z — go to class — my own always — without fail

x — go as often as possible to observe Strassberg’s other private classes

g — never miss actor’s studio sessions

v — work whenever possible — on class assignments — and always keep working on the acting exercises

u — start attending Clurman lectures — also Lee Strassberg’s directors lectures at theater wing — enquire about both

l — keep looking around me — only much more so — observing — but not only myself but others and everything — take things (it) for what they (it’s) are worth

y — must make strong effort to work on current problems and phobias that out of my past has arisen — making much much much more more more more more effort in my analisis. And be there always on time — no excuses for being ever late.

w — if possible — take at least one class at university — in literature –

o — follow RCA thing through.

p — try to find someone to take dancing from — body work (creative)

t — take care of my instrument — personally & bodily (exercise)

try to enjoy myself when I can — I’ll be miserable enough as it is.

WOODY GUTHRIE

In 1942, 30-year-old Woody Guthrie penned a 33-point compendium of “New Years Rulin’s.” The list, originally featured here in 2011, is equal parts brave and vulnerable, brimming with a kind of heart-warming earnestness we’ve come to be tragically cynical about.

  1. Work more and better
  2. Work by a schedule
  3. Wash teeth if any
  4. Shave
  5. Take bath
  6. Eat good — fruit — vegetables — milk
  7. Drink very scant if any
  8. Write a song a day
  9. Wear clean clothes — look good
  10. Shine shoes
  11. Change socks
  12. Change bed cloths often
  13. Read lots good books
  14. Listen to radio a lot
  15. Learn people better
  16. Keep rancho clean
  17. Dont get lonesome
  18. Stay glad
  19. Keep hoping machine running
  20. Dream good
  21. Bank all extra money
  22. Save dough
  23. Have company but dont waste time
  24. Send Mary and kids money
  25. Play and sing good
  26. Dance better
  27. Help win war — beat fascism
  28. Love mama
  29. Love papa
  30. Love Pete
  31. Love everybody
  32. Make up your mind
  33. Wake up and fight

Now, wash these down with this brief history of the to-do list and the psychology of its success and revisit last year’s resolution to read more and write better.

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01 JANUARY, 2013

What Is Love? Famous Definitions from 400 Years of Literary History

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“Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get — only with what you are expecting to give — which is everything.”

After those collections of notable definitions of art, science, and philosophy, what better way to start a new year than with a selection of poetic definitions of a peculiar phenomenon that is at once more amorphous than art, more single-minded than science, and more philosophical than philosophy itself? Gathered here are some of the most memorable and timeless insights on love, culled from several hundred years of literary history — enjoy.

Kurt Vonnegut, who was in some ways an extremist about love but also had a healthy dose of irreverence about it, in The Sirens of Titan:

A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.

Anaïs Nin, whose wisdom on love knew no bounds, in A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller, 1932-1953:

What is love but acceptance of the other, whatever he is.

Stendhal in his fantastic 1822 treatise on love:

Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will. … there are no age limits for love.

C. S. Lewis, who was a very wise man, in The Four Loves:

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

Lemony Snicket in Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid:

Love can change a person the way a parent can change a baby — awkwardly, and often with a great deal of mess.

Susan Sontag, whose illustrated insights on love were among last year’s most read and shared articles, in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980:

Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.

Charles Bukowski, who also famously deemed love “a dog from hell,” in this archival video interview:

Love is kind of like when you see a fog in the morning, when you wake up before the sun comes out. It’s just a little while, and then it burns away… Love is a fog that burns with the first daylight of reality.

Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.

Ambrose Bierce, with the characteristic wryness of The Devil’s Dictionary:

Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.

Katharine Hepburn in Me : Stories of My Life:

Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get — only with what you are expecting to give — which is everything.

Philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, he of great wisdom, in The Conquest of Happiness:

Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky puts it even more forcefully in The Brothers Karamazov:

What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in a letter to his ten-year-old daughter explaining the importance of evidence in science and in life:

People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise you’d never be confident of things like ‘My wife loves me’. But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn’t purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.

Paulo Coelho in The Zahir: A Novel of Obsession:

Love is an untamed force. When we try to control it, it destroys us. When we try to imprison it, it enslaves us. When we try to understand it, it leaves us feeling lost and confused.

James Baldwin in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-fiction, 1948-1985:

Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.

Haruki Murakami in Kafka on the Shore:

Anyone who falls in love is searching for the missing pieces of themselves. So anyone who’s in love gets sad when they think of their lover. It’s like stepping back inside a room you have fond memories of, one you haven’t seen in a long time.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in Airman’s Odyssey: Night Flight / Wind Sand & Stars / Flight to Arras:

Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.

Honoré de Balzac, who knew a thing or two about all-consuming love, in Physiologie Du Mariage:

The more one judges, the less one loves.

Louis de Bernières in Corelli’s Mandolin:

Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion, it is not the desire to mate every second minute of the day, it is not lying awake at night imagining that he is kissing every cranny of your body. No, don’t blush, I am telling you some truths. That is just being “in love”, which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.

E. M. Forster in A Room with a View:

You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.

English novelist Iris Murdoch, cited by the great Milton Glaser in How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer:

Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.

But perhaps the truest, if humblest, of them all comes from Agatha Christie, who echoes Anaïs Nin above in her autobiography:

It is a curious thought, but it is only when you see people looking ridiculous that you realize just how much you love them.

Archival postcards courtesy the New York Public Library

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