Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

19 DECEMBER, 2012

In Defense of the Fluid Self: Why Anaïs Nin Turned Down a Harper’s Bazaar Profile

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“I am more interested in human beings than in writing, more interested in lovemaking than in writing, more interested in living than in writing.”

Celebrated diarist Anaïs Nin has been on heavy rotation here this year, but it is only because her daily private reflections reverberate with timeless, universal resonance. Nin’s gift for articulating the paradoxes and vulnerabilties of the human condition shines with exceptional brilliance in this particular entry found in The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (UK; public library).

In December of 1946, Harper’s Bazaar editor Leo Lerman asked Nin for a short auto-biography to use in a profile feature. She respectfully declined. Her letter to Lerman — disarmingly honest, brave and vulnerable at the same time — digs deep beneath the paralyzing discomfort many of us can relate to in being written about, in interviews and features and profiles, to uncover the shaky softnesses underpinning it: The struggle with anxiety, the anguish of having one’s sincerity mistaken for pretense, and above all the agony of being fossilized while still growing, a kind of violent rebellion against the myth of fixed personality.

Dear Leo

[…]

I see myself and my life each day differently. What can I say? The facts lie. I have been Don Quixote, always creating a world of my own. I am all the women in the novels, yet still another not in the novels. It took me more than sixty diary volumes until now to tell about my life. Like Oscar Wilde I put only my art into my work and my genius into my life. My life is not possible to tell. I change every day, change my patterns, my concepts, my interpretations. I am a series of moods and sensations. I play a thousand roles. I weep when I find others play them for me. My real self is unknown. My work is merely an essence of this vast and deep adventure. I create a myth and a legend, a lie, a fairy tale, a magical world, and one that collapses every day and makes me feel like going the way of Virginia Woolf. I have tried to be not neurotic, not romantic, not destructive, but may be all of these in disguises.

It is impossible to make my portrait because of my mobility. I am not photogenic because of my mobility. Peace, serenity, and integration are unknown to me. My familiar climate is anxiety. I write as I breathe, naturally, flowingly, spontaneously, out of an overflow, not as a substitute for life. I am more interested in human beings than in writing, more interested in lovemaking than in writing, more interested in living than in writing. More interested in becoming a work of art than in creating one. I am more interesting than what I write. I am gifted in relationship above all things. I have no confidence in myself and great confidence in others. I need love more than food. I stumble and make errors, and often want to die. When I look most transparent is probably when I have just come out of the fire. I walk into the fire always, and come out more alive. All of which is not for Harper’s Bazaar.

I think life tragic, not comic, because I have no detachment. I have been guilty of idealization, guilty of everything except detachment. I am guilty of fabricating a world in which I can live and invite others to live in, but outside of that I cannot breathe. I am guilty of too serious, too grave living, but never of shallow living. I have lived in the depths. My first tragedy sent me to the bottom of the sea; I live in a submarine, and hardly ever come to the surface. I love costumes, the foam of aesthetics, noblesse oblige, and poetic writers. At fifteen I wanted to be Joan of Arc, and later, Don Quixote. I never awakened from my familiarity with mirages, and I will end probably in an opium den. None of that is suitable for Harper’s Bazaar.

I am apparently gentle, unstable, and full of pretenses. I will die a poet killed by the nonpoets, will renounce no dream, resign myself to no ugliness, accept nothing of the world but the one I made myself. I wrote, lived, loved like Don Quixote, and on the day of my death I will say: ‘Excuse me, it was all a dream,’ and by that time I may have found one who will say: ‘Not at all, it was true, absolutely true.’

The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 also gave us Nin’s exquisite words on the role of emotional excess in creativity, her timely reflection on technology and the meaning of life, and her keen profile of architect Lloyd Wright.

Other Nin diary volumes have explored embracing the unfamiliar, Paris vs. New York, parenting and personal responsibility, the joy of handcraft and letterpress, the psychology of mass movements, and love.

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19 DECEMBER, 2012

All the 2012 Best-of Reading Lists, Together at Last

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The year’s finest reading, organized by subject.

By popular demand, here are all of this year’s best-of omnibus reading lists, in one shareable place:

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18 DECEMBER, 2012

Mark Twain on Morality vs. Intelligence

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“If intellect is welcome anywhere in the other world, it is in hell, not heaven.”

“His voice seemed to say like the river, ‘Why hurry? Eternity is long; the ocean can wait,’” Helen Keller marveled upon meeting Mark Twain. Indeed, while Twain may be America’s most celebrated humorist, underpinning — and fueling — his remarkable wit was unparalleled insight into the human condition, a kind of profound philosophical prism through which his comedic genius was bent. That gift of Twain’s comes to life with astounding eloquence and elegance in this passage from Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1 (UK; public library), in which he turns a cautious eye towards the relationship between human morality and the intellect, wincing at our anthropocentric sense of entitlement — something all the more tragically palpable a century later, amidst environmental degradation, overpopulation, and economic collapse. Twain writes:

We have no respectworthy evidence that the human being has morals. He is himself the only witness. Persons who do not know him value his testimony. They think he is not shallow and vain because he so despises the peacock for possessing these qualities. They are deceived into not regarding him as a beast and a brute, because he uses these terms to disapprovingly describe qualities which he possesses, yet which are not possessed by any creature but himself. On his verbal testimony they take him for every creditable thing which he particularly isn’t, and (intentionally?) refrain from examining the testimony of his acts. It is the safest way, but man did not invent it, it was the polecat. From the beginning of time the polecats have quite honestly and naively regarded themselves as representing in the animal kingdom what the rose represents in the vegetable kingdom. This is because they do not examine.

[…]

However, moralless man, bloody and atrocious man, is high above the other animals in his one great and shining gift — intellectuality. It took him ages and ages to demonstrate the full magnitude and majesty of his gift, but he has accomplished it at last. For ages it was a mean animal indeed that was not vastly his superior in certain splendid faculties. In the beginning he had nothing but the puny strength of his unweaponed hands to protect his life with, and he was as helpless as a rabbit when the lion, the tiger, the elephant, the mastodon and the other mighty beasts came against him; in endurance he was far inferior to the other creatures; in fleetness on the land there was hardly an animal in the whole list that couldn’t shame him; in fleetness in the water every fish could excel him; his eyesight was a sarcasm: for seeing minute things it was blindness as compared to the eyesight of the insects, and the condor could see a sheep further than he could see a hotel. But by the ingenuities of his intellect he has equipped himself with all these gifts artificially and has made them unapproachably effective. His locomotive can outstrip all birds and beasts in speed and beat them all in endurance; there are no eyes in the animal world that can compete with his microscope and his telescope; the strength of the tiger and the elephant is weakness, compared with the force which he carries in his mile-range terrible gun. In the beginning he was given ‘dominion’ over the animal creation — a very handsome present, but it was mere words and represented a non-existent sovereignty. But he has turned it into an existent sovereignty, himself, and is master, of late. In physical talents he was a pauper when he started; by grace of his intellect he is incomparably the richest of all the animals now. But he is still a pauper in morals — incomparably the poorest of the creatures in that respect. The gods value morals alone; they have paid no compliments to intellect, nor offered it a single reward. If intellect is welcome anywhere in the other world, it is in hell, not heaven.

In the century since, philosopher Thomas Nagel has spoken to the importance of intellectual humility in understanding our place in the universe, behavioral economist Dan Ariely has put Twain’s insight to the test in the lab, demonstrating the positive correlation between creative intelligence and immorality, and Albert Einstein, Anne Lamott, and Steve Jobs have all made passionate cases for intuition over the intellect.

But perhaps it was philosopher Bertrand Russell who had it right in balancing the intellectual and the moral with his simple, timelessly wise words: “Love is wise, hatred is foolish.”

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