Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

05 FEBRUARY, 2015

Kafka’s Beautiful and Heartbreaking Love Letters

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“I belong to you… But for this very reason I don’t want to know what you are wearing; it confuses me so much that I cannot deal with life.”

“Relationships are probably our greatest learning experiences,” a wise woman once said, echoing Rilke’s memorable proclamation that love is “perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.” When we fall in love, we are asked to rise to this task — a polarizing pull that stretches the psyche in opposite directions as we crave surrender and safety in equal measure.

The discomfort of this wildly disorienting bidirectional pull is what 29-year-old Franz Kafka articulated in a beautiful and heartbreaking letter to Felice Bauer, a marketing rep for a dictation machine company whom the young author had met at the home of his friend and future biographer Max Brod in August of 1912. Young Franz and Felice immediately began a correspondence of escalating intensity, with Kafka frequently exasperated — as was Vladimir Nabokov at the start of his lifelong romance with Véra — over his beloved’s infrequent and insufficiently romantic response. Over the five-year course of their turbulent, mostly epistolary relationship, they were engaged twice, even though they met in person only a few times. During that period, Kafka produced his most significant work, including The Metamorphosis. Five hundred of his letters survive and were posthumously published in the intensely rewarding and revelatory Letters to Felice (public library).

In November of 1912, three months after he met Felice, Kafka writes:

Fräulein Felice!

I am now going to ask you a favor which sounds quite crazy, and which I should regard as such, were I the one to receive the letter. It is also the very greatest test that even the kindest person could be put to. Well, this is it:

Write to me only once a week, so that your letter arrives on Sunday — for I cannot endure your daily letters, I am incapable of enduring them. For instance, I answer one of your letters, then lie in bed in apparent calm, but my heart beats through my entire body and is conscious only of you. I belong to you; there is really no other way of expressing it, and that is not strong enough. But for this very reason I don’t want to know what you are wearing; it confuses me so much that I cannot deal with life; and that’s why I don’t want to know that you are fond of me. If I did, how could I, fool that I am, go on sitting in my office, or here at home, instead of leaping onto a train with my eyes shut and opening them only when I am with you?

Whether out of self-protective rationalization or mere pragmatism — the onset of tuberculosis was, after all, what ended the relationship five years later — he plaintively points to a physiological reason, almost as an excuse for the psychological:

Oh, there is a sad, sad reason for not doing so. To make it short: My health is only just good enough for myself alone, not good enough for marriage, let alone fatherhood. Yet when I read your letter, I feel I could overlook even what cannot possibly be overlooked.

He resumes his plea, which seems directed more at himself than at her:

If only I had mailed Saturday’s letter, in which I implored you never to write to me again, and in which I gave a similar promise. Oh God, what prevented me from sending that letter? All would be well. But is a peaceful solution possible now? Would it help if we wrote to each other only once a week? No, if my suffering could be cured by such means it would not be serious. And already I foresee that I shan’t be able to endure even the Sunday letters. And so, to compensate for Saturday’s lost opportunity, I ask you with what energy remains to me at the end of this letter…

He closes in true Kafkaesque fashion:

If we value our lives, let us abandon it all… I am forever fettered to myself, that’s what I am, and that’s what I must try to live with.

It makes sense, of course, for a man who associated pleasure with pain — nowhere more vividly than in his famous proclamation that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” — to experience love as at once elating and anguishing. But the paradox of love is perhaps the same as that of art, which Jeanette Winterson so elegantly termed “the paradox of active surrender” — in order for either to transform us, we must let it turn us over and inside-out. That is what Rilke called love’s great exacting claim, and in that claim lies its ultimate reward.

Illustration from 'My First Kafka' by Matthue Roth, a children's-book adaptation of Kafka for kids. Click image for more.

Complement the exquisite Letters to Felice with the breathtaking love letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, Vladimir Nabokov to his wife Véra, Oscar Wilde to Bosie, and Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera.

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03 FEBRUARY, 2015

Bertrand Russell on Immortality, Why Religion Exists, and What “The Good Life” Really Means

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“There are forces making for happiness, and forces making for misery. We do not know which will prevail, but to act wisely we must be aware of both.”

Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) is one of humanity’s most grounding yet elevating thinkers, his writing at once lucid and luminous. There is something almost prophetic in the way he bridges timelessness and timeliness in contemplating ideas urgently relevant to modern life a century earlier — from how boredom makes happiness possible to why science is the key to democracy. But nowhere does his genius shine more brilliantly than in What I Believe (public library).

Published in 1925, the book is a kind of catalog of hopes — a counterpoint to Russell’s Icarus, a catalog of fears released the previous year — exploring our place in the universe and our “possibilities in the way of achieving the good life.”

Russell writes in the preface:

In human affairs, we can see that there are forces making for happiness, and forces making for misery. We do not know which will prevail, but to act wisely we must be aware of both.

One of Russell’s most central points deals with our civilizational allergy to uncertainty, which we try to alleviate in ways that don’t serve the human spirit. Nearly a century before astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser’s magnificent manifesto for mystery in the age of knowledge — and many decades before “wireless” came to mean what it means today, making the metaphor all the more prescient and apt — Russell writes:

It is difficult to imagine anything less interesting or more different from the passionate delights of incomplete discovery. It is like climbing a high mountain and finding nothing at the top except a restaurant where they sell ginger beer, surrounded by fog but equipped with wireless.

Long before modern neuroscience even existed, let alone knew what it now knows about why we have the thoughts we do — the subject of an excellent recent episode of the NPR’s Invisibilia — Russell points to the physical origins of what we often perceive as metaphysical reality:

What we call our “thoughts” seem to depend upon the organization of tracks in the brain in the same sort of way in which journeys depend upon roads and railways. The energy used in thinking seems to have a chemical origin; for instance, a deficiency of iodine will turn a clever man into an idiot. Mental phenomena seem to be bound up with material structure.

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

Nowhere, Russell argues, do our thought-fictions stand in starker contrast with physical reality than in religious mythology — and particularly in our longing for immortality which, despite a universe whose very nature contradicts the possibility, all major religions address with some version of a promise for eternal life. With his characteristic combination of cool lucidity and warm compassion for the human experience, Russell writes:

God and immortality … find no support in science… No doubt people will continue to entertain these beliefs, because they are pleasant, just as it is pleasant to think ourselves virtuous and our enemies wicked. But for my part I cannot see any ground for either.

And yet, noting that the existence or nonexistence of a god cannot be proven for it lies “outside the region of even probable knowledge,” he considers the special case of personal immortality, which “stands on a somewhat different footing” and in which “evidence either way is possible”:

Persons are part of the everyday world with which science is concerned, and the conditions which determine their existence are discoverable. A drop of water is not immortal; it can be resolved into oxygen and hydrogen. If, therefore, a drop of water were to maintain that it had a quality of aqueousness which would survive its dissolution we should be inclined to be skeptical. In like manner we know that the brain is not immortal, and that the organized energy of a living body becomes, as it were, demobilized at death, and therefore not available for collective action. All the evidence goes to show that what we regard as our mental life is bound up with brain structure and organized bodily energy. Therefore it is rational to suppose that mental life ceases when bodily life ceases. The argument is only one of probability, but it is as strong as those upon which most scientific conclusions are based.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, from Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

But evidence, Russell points out, has little bearing on what we actually believe. (In the decades since, pioneering psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated that the confidence we have in our beliefs is no measure of their accuracy.) Noting that we simply desire to believe in immortality, Russell writes:

Believers in immortality will object to physiological arguments [against personal immortality] on the ground that soul and body are totally disparate, and that the soul is something quite other than its empirical manifestations through our bodily organs. I believe this to be a metaphysical superstition. Mind and matter alike are for certain purposes convenient terms, but are not ultimate realities. Electrons and protons, like the soul, are logical fictions; each is really a history, a series of events, not a single persistent entity. In the case of the soul, this is obvious from the facts of growth. Whoever considers conception, gestation, and infancy cannot seriously believe that the soul in any indivisible something, perfect and complete throughout this process. It is evident that it grows like the body, and that it derives both from the spermatozoon and from the ovum, so that it cannot be indivisible.

Long before the term “reductionism” would come to dismiss material answers to spiritual questions, Russell offers an elegant disclaimer:

This is not materialism: it is merely the recognition that everything interesting is a matter of organization, not of primal substance.

Art by Roz Chast from her illustrated meditation on aging, illness, and death. Click image for more.

Our obsession with immortality, Russell contends, is rooted in our fear of death — a fear that, as Alan Watts has eloquently argued, is rather misplaced if we are to truly accept our participation in the cosmos. Russell writes:

Fear is the basis of religious dogma, as of so much else in human life. Fear of human beings, individually or collectively, dominates much of our social life, but it is fear of nature that gives rise to religion. The antithesis of mind and matter is … more or less illusory; but there is another antithesis which is more important — that, namely, between things that can be affected by our desires and things that cannot be so affected. The line between the two is neither sharp nor immutable — as science advances, more and more things are brought under human control. Nevertheless there remain things definitely on the other side. Among these are all the large facts of our world, the sort of facts that are dealt with by astronomy. It is only facts on or near the surface of the earth that we can, to some extent, mould to suit our desires. And even on the surface of the earth our powers are very limited. Above all, we cannot prevent death, although we can often delay it.

Religion is an attempt to overcome this antithesis. If the world is controlled by God, and God can be moved by prayer, we acquire a share in omnipotence… Belief in God … serves to humanize the world of nature, and to make men feel that physical forces are really their allies. In like manner immortality removes the terror from death. People who believe that when they die they will inherit eternal bliss may be expected to view death without horror, though, fortunately for medical men, this does not invariably happen. It does, however, soothe men’s fears somewhat even when it cannot allay them wholly.

In a sentiment of chilling prescience in the context of recent religiously-motivated atrocities, Russell adds:

Religion, since it has its source in terror, has dignified certain kinds of fear, and made people think them not disgraceful. In this it has done mankind a great disservice: all fear is bad.

Science, Russell suggests, offers the antidote to such terror — even if its findings are at first frightening as they challenge our existing beliefs, the way Galileo did. He captures this necessary discomfort beautifully:

Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.

Art from 'You Are Stardust,' a children's book teaching kids about the universe. Click image for more.

But Russell’s most enduring point has to do with our beliefs about the nature of the universe in relation to us. More than eight decades before legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser’s exquisite proclamation — “If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be.” — Russell writes:

Optimism and pessimism, as cosmic philosophies, show the same naïve humanism; the great world, so far as we know it from the philosophy of nature, is neither good nor bad, and is not concerned to make us happy or unhappy. All such philosophies spring from self-importance, and are best corrected by a little astronomy.

He admonishes against confusing “the philosophy of nature,” in which such neutrality is necessary, with “the philosophy of value,” which beckons us to create meaning by conferring human values upon the world:

Nature is only a part of what we can imagine; everything, real or imagined, can be appraised by us, and there is no outside standard to show that our valuation is wrong. We are ourselves the ultimate and irrefutable arbiters of value, and in the world of value Nature is only a part. Thus in this world we are greater than Nature. In the world of values, Nature in itself is neutral, neither good nor bad, deserving of neither admiration nor censure. It is we who create value and our desires which confer value… It is for us to determine the good life, not for Nature — not even for Nature personified as God.

Russell’s definition of that “good life” remains the simplest and most heartening one I’ve ever encountered:

The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.

Knowledge and love are both indefinitely extensible; therefore, however good a life may be, a better life can be imagined. Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.

What I Believe is a remarkably prescient and rewarding read in its entirety — Russell goes on to explore the nature of the good life, what salvation means in a secular sense for the individual and for society, the relationship between science and happiness, and more. Complement it with Russell on human nature, the necessary capacity for “fruitful monotony,” and his ten commandments of teaching and learning, then revisit Alan Lightman on why we long for immortality.

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02 FEBRUARY, 2015

Carl Jung’s Delightfully Disgruntled Review of Ulysses and His Letter to James Joyce

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“You may gather from my article what Ulysses has done to a supposedly balanced psychologist.”

“Stop! I cannot think this fast! Or rather I cannot grow this fast!” young Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating the pleasures of rereading. One of the literary canon’s least common candidates for rereading is James Joyce’s sprawling 735-page novel Ulysses, serialized in installments between 1918 and 1920, and eventually published in its totality by legendary literary steward Sylvia Beach on Joyce’s fortieth birthday: February 2, 1922. It is a book that few people begin, even fewer finish, and fewer still reread. (Marilyn Monroe did all three — a fact that might surprise the judgmental and those who subscribe to limiting beliefs about the false divide between pop culture and “high” culture.) With its protracted stream-of-consciousness narrative, which stretches a single day across 735 pages, Ulysses can be particularly challenging and frustrating for a mind longing for speed of thought.

This frustration is what led legendary Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung — founding father of modern analytical psychology, and a great champion of the human spirit — to write a blistering review of Ulysses a decade after the novel’s release, published in the German journal Europäische Revue in September of 1932. Found in the second volume of Robert Deming’s James Joyce: The Critical Heritage (public library), the review is intriguing and even irresistibly delightful — especially for me, as someone who believes that the “critic” better serves the public as a celebrator rather than eviscerator — because Jung’s disgruntlement seems directed at his own exasperation, almost as though he was more upset with his own response to reading the book than with Joyce for writing it. It is the experience that Jung criticizes — well capable of admitting Joyce’s artistic genius, he remains nonetheless amusingly aggravated by the book’s effect on him. But this strange and all too human duality is best exemplified by a curious letter Jung sent to Joyce shortly after the review was published, reproduced below.

Jung writes in his review:

Ulysses is a book which pours along for seven hundred and thirty-five pages, a stream of time of seven hundred and thirty-five days which all consist in one single and senseless every day of Everyman, the completely irrelevant 16th day of June 1904, in Dublin — a day on which, in all truth, nothing happens. The stream beings in the void and ends in the void. Is all of this perhaps one single, immensely long and excessively complicated Strindbergian pronouncement upon the essence of human life, and one which, to the reader’s dismay, is never finished? Perhaps it does touch upon the essence of life; but quite certainly it touches upon life’s ten thousand surfaces and their hundred thousand color gradations. As far as my glance reaches, there are in those seven hundred and thirty-five pages no obvious repetitions and not a single hallowed island where the long-suffering reader may come to rest. There is not a single place where he can seat himself, drunk with memories, and from which he can happily consider the stretch of the road he has covered, be it one hundred pages or even less… But no! The pitiless and uninterrupted stream rolls by, and its velocity or precipitation grows in the last forty pages till it sweeps away even the marks of punctuation. It thus gives cruelest expressions to that emptiness which is both breath taking and stifling, which is under such tension, or is so filled to bursting, as to grow unbearable. This thoroughly hopeless emptiness is the dominant note of the whole book. It not only begins and ends in nothingness, but it consists of nothing but nothingness. It is all infernally nugatory.

Of course, this outrage over hopelessness and nothingness is only natural for a man who believed that “man cannot stand a meaningless life” and that “the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” Jung, indeed, is self-aware enough to separate his deep disappointment in the book’s substance from the genius of Joyce’s style, adding a reluctant recognition of the latter:

If we regard the book from the side of technical artistry, it is a positively brilliant and hellish monster-birth.

And yet this creative merit does nothing in the way of alleviating Jung’s escalating irritation, which he goes on to articulate ever more floridly:

I had an uncle whose thinking was always to the point. One day he stopped me on the street and asked, “Do you know how the devil tortures the souls in hell?” When I said no, he declared, “He keeps them waiting.” And with that he walked away. This remark occurred to me when I was ploughing through Ulysses for the first time. Every sentence raises an expectation which is not fulfilled; finally, out of sheer resignation, you come to expect nothing any longer. Then, bit by bit, again to your horror, it dawns upon you that in all truth you have hit the nail on the head. It is actual fact that nothing happens and nothing comes of it, and yet a secret expectation at war with hopeless resignation drags the reader from page to page… You read and read and read and you pretend to understand what you read. Occasionally you drop through an air pocket into another sentence, but when once the proper degree of resignation has been reached you accustom yourself to anything. So I, too, read to page one hundred and thirty-five with despair in my heart, falling asleep twice on the way… Nothing comes to meet the reader, everything turns away from him, leaving him gaping after it. The book is always up and away, dissatisfied with itself, ironic, sardonic, virulent, contemptuous, sad, despairing, and bitter…

But what lends Jung’s indignation and bitterness great humanity, integrity, and even sweetness is the letter he sent to Joyce on September 27, 1932 — almost immediately after the review was published. A testament to the admirable civility of letter-writing at its best, it was a missive that both irked Joyce and validated him — one of which he was reportedly rather proud.

Jung writes:

Dear Sir,

Your Ulysses has presented the world such an upsetting psychological problem that repeatedly I have been called in as a supposed authority on psychological matters.

Ulysses proved to be an exceedingly hard nut and it has forced my mind not only to most unusual efforts, but also to rather extravagant peregrinations (speaking from the standpoint of a scientist). Your book as a whole has given me no end of trouble and I was brooding over it for about three years until I succeeded to put myself into it. But I must tell you that I’m profoundly grateful to yourself as well as to your gigantic opus, because I learned a great deal from it. I shall probably never be quite sure whether I did enjoy it, because it meant too much grinding of nerves and of grey matter. I also don’t know whether you will enjoy what I have written about Ulysses because I couldn’t help telling the world how much I was bored, how I grumbled, how I cursed and how I admired. The 40 pages of non stop run at the end is a string of veritable psychological peaches. I suppose the devil’s grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn’t.

Well, I just try to recommend my little essay to you, as an amusing attempt of a perfect stranger that went astray in the labyrinth of your Ulysses and happened to get out of it again by sheer good luck. At all events you may gather from my article what Ulysses has done to a supposedly balanced psychologist.

With the expression of my deepest appreciation, I remain, dear Sir,

Yours faithfully,
C.G. Jung

For his part, Joyce must have appreciated the integrity of Jung’s gesture and his ability to both criticize the novel and celebrate its capacity to produce fruitful friction in the reader, thus achieving the hallmark of great art — transforming us by unsettling us. Two years later, Joyce sent his daughter, Lucia, to be treated by Jung, who was the first to correctly diagnose the troubled girl’s symptoms as schizophrenia and to get her the proper psychiatric treatment.

Complement James Joyce: The Critical Heritage with Joyce’s most revealing interview, conducted by Djuna Barnes shortly after Ulysses was published, his recently discovered children’s book, and his humorous morphology of the many myths about him.

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29 JANUARY, 2015

How to Listen Between the Lines: Anna Deavere Smith on the Art of Listening in a Culture of Speaking

By:

“Some people use language as a mask. And some want to create designed language that appears to reveal them but does not.”

In his exquisite taxonomy of the nine kinds of silence, Paul Goodman included “the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear.” And yet so often we think of listening as merely an idle pause amid the monologue of making ourselves clear. Hardly anyone has done more to advance the art of listening in a culture of speaking more than artist, actor, playwright, educator, and enchantress of words Anna Deavere Smith, founder and director of Harvard’s Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, and recipient of the prestigious MacArthur “genius” fellowship and the National Humanities Medal.

Half a century after John Cage demonstrated that we only hear what we listen for, Smith set out to explore her intuition that in order to develop a voice, one has to “develop an ear”; that words can be as much “the most important doorway into the soul of a person” as “the doorway into the soul of a culture.” She spent twenty-five years traveling and interviewing, at first, anyone who would talk to her — from the YMCA lifeguard to the lady at the clothing store register to a convicted murderer in a women’s prison — and, eventually, public figures like Christopher Hitchens and Studs Terkel, all the way up to then-President Bill Clinton. Smith would later use these interviews to “perform” the person in her acclaimed one-woman plays. The singular, immeasurably rewarding record of Smith’s journey lives on in Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines (public library), subsequently released in paperback under the title Talk to Me: Travels in Media and Politics — an unusual meditation on public life via private identity, an investigation of truth-telling and lying, and an uncommonly insightful manifesto for the art of listening and the power of words in the architecture of character.

Smith writes:

The creation of language is the creation of a fiction. The minute we speak we are in that fiction. It’s a fiction designed, we hope, to reveal a truth. There is no “pure” language. The only “pure language” is the initial sounds of a baby. All of us lose that purity, and as we get more “of” the world, we even lose sometimes the capacity to keep that breath moving in our language.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Adrienne Rich’s crystalline conception of the liar as someone who loses sight of “the possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people,” Smith adds:

Our ability to create reality, by creating fictions with language, should not be abused. The abuse is called lying. Perhaps we understand the precariousness of our situation. We as linguistic animals. At the very least language is currency as we create “reality.” To abuse language, to lie, is to fray reality, to tatter it. Those in public life who create our values are especially asked not to “lie.” Yet most of us say, at least, that we believe we are often being lied to.

As Smith undertook this experiment in “what happens when you dare to move out of the margins and into another place,” a pivotal point in her journey of listening came when she met a linguist at a random party. She recounts trying to articulate to her the intuitive seed for the project — this effort to listen between the lines in the hope of hearing the realness people conceal beneath the comfort of familiar words:

We can learn a lot about a person in the very moment that language fails them. In the very moment that they have to be more creative than they would have imagined in order to communicate. It’s the very moment that they have to dig deeper than the surface to find words, and at the same time, it’s a moment when they want to communicate very badly. They’re digging deep and projecting out at the same time.

[…]

The idea is that the psychology of people is going to live right inside those moments when their grammar falls apart and, like being in a shipwreck, they are on their own to make it all work out.

Smith was looking for a way to get at precisely that unrehearsed language, so the linguist suggested three questions to crack the shell of verbal habit: “Have you ever come close to death?”; “Do you know the circumstances of your birth?”; and “Have you ever been accused of something that you did not do?” Armed with a simple Panasonic tape recorder and dogged dedication to what was at first merely an intuitive insight, Smith made these questions the springboard for her interviews. She eventually stopped asking them, but the questions, she notes, taught her how to listen. She recalls:

After I asked the questions, I would listen like I had never listened before for people to begin to sing to me. That singing was the moment when they were really talking.

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

In the early 1980s, she began taking that recorder — which eventually evolved as the technology did — all over America, culminating with Washington, D.C., and the President’s office, where she listened “for the talk, the talk of the big talkers, to turn, if only for a moment, into a song that they and only they can sing.”

Reflecting on the countless messages with which contemporary culture bombards us, from political propaganda to mundanities like airline safety instructions, Smith asks:

Who’s listening anymore? What does it take to get people to listen? When do people feel they need to listen? When do they feel they have to listen? … We get so used to hearing things that they have no meaning… We live with the expectation that words mean very little, because we have seen it all before, heard it all before. And that is why I find myself going on a quest down memory lane for a time when words meant something in my family, in my church, in my city, in my world.

She turns a particularly scrupulous eye to the professional purveyors of such meaningless din:

The press gather the information. But they do a lot more than gather and disseminate information. At their best moments, they use their wit to make us question power in a way that we may not have. And they must get our attention in the first place. They have to creep into the brains of the readers, or listeners, and alter the flow of our ideas.

[…]

It’s like a constant drip that affects the way we think, and the way we see the world. They can change us without our full awareness. It happens slowly, bit by bit, that we take on attitudes that are perpetuated in the media. How can we as a public regain control of words?

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Leonard Weisgard. Click image for more.

The effort to reclaim the realness of words — of culture, of public life, of private truth — through acting may seem, at first, like a counterintuitive, even paradoxical approach. But Smith writes:

Acting is the furthest thing from lying that I have encountered. It is the furthest thing from make-believe. It is the furthest thing from pretending. It is the most unfake thing there is. Acting is a search for the authentic. It is a search for the authentic by using the fictional as a frame, a house in which the authentic can live. For a moment. Because, yes indeed, real life inhibits the authentic.

Citing the great director Joseph Chaikin’s formulation of presence as “the gift of the actor,” a “kind of deep libidinal surrender which the performer reserves for his anonymous audience,” she adds:

Presence is that quality that makes you feel as though you’re standing right next to the actor, no matter where you’re sitting in the theater. It’s the feeling you have that the performer is right in front of you, speaking to you and only you. It’s that wonderful moment when Jessye Norman sings in a quiet, so quiet you can hear a pin drop concert hall to an audience that is attentive like no other. It’s a moment when she seems to be singing as she’s never sung, and the audience seem to be listening as they’ve never listened. It’s the moment when it’s clear that everyone is there for the same reason… These moments have a kind of authenticity, because they reach the heart. They speak to us. They speak to us not because they are natural in the sense of normal. They speak to us because they are real in their effort to be together with a very large you, the you being all men and women.

Politicians and media manipulators, Smith argues, often try to borrow these skills, but the result is mere simulacra speaking to very few. More than a decade before the golden age of social media, Smith offers a perspective of extraordinary prescience and urgent timeliness today:

That genuine moment, that “real” connection, is no small thing. It is not something that happens every day. Is it rare because it calls for a special talent? Is it a moment that can happen only when we don’t know each other, when we have so much to learn about each other that we hang on every breath together? It is hard to find those moments in our culture because we think we know so much about each other. Perhaps it is a moment that is dependent not only on the performer or the leader, but on the audience as well. Does this era of focus groups and polls, this desire to get at and quantify the mysteriousness of that “deep libidinal surrender,” make it nearly impossible to find those moments of true engagement? Does the overdetermined nature of our time, and the inherent desire to control the public, to control their thoughts, particularly how they work those thoughts into actions that are favorable to the marketplace, create an atmosphere where only the predictable can occur? Those moments of deep libidinal surrender are in fact all about that which is not predictable. And there is no anonymous audience. At least that’s what the pollsters would like, what commerce would like. They would like to make the anonymous audience fully identifiable. With no anonymous audience, there can be no deep libidinal surrender.

[…]

We’re having a hard time connecting in public.

Photograph by Molly Malone Cook from 'Our World' by Mary Oliver. Click image for more.

At once a lament and a call to action, Smith’s observation rings even truer today:

We are in a communications revolution. Yet, as the great Americanist Studs Terkel tells us, “We’re more and more into communications and less and less into communication.” In this time of a global economy and business mergers happening as often as sunrise and sunset, where is the human merger? Where is real human engagement?

It’s interesting to note, here, that in the decade since Smith’s contemplation, the word “engagement” itself has been co-opted by the mass media as precisely the kind of marketable metric that dehumanizes how we connect in public. In the language of online media, “engagement” measures meaningless statistics about “user” behavior — and what better way to indicate that one is not listened to than being called a “user”? — that become simulacra for the genuine moments, those moments of “deep libidinal surrender,” which Smith so aptly identifies as the true measure of connection. “Engagement,” under the tyranny of this vocabulary, is interested in the very smallest you, not Smith’s large you of our shared humanity.

If there is any hope for us, it lies in relearning to tell the truth and hear it, in reclaiming ourselves as a listening species.

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

Smith traces her love of words and her fascination with their power to her grandfather — a “tall, thin, and aristocratic looking” patriarch called Pop who, despite only having an eight-grade education himself, managed to send all six of his kids to college. “He and I were good friends, because he liked to talk, and I liked to listen,” Smith recalls. “He is the one who taught me the kernel of all that I understand about acting.” That kernel was contained in a single sentence her grandfather liked to repeat, which eventually became the lens for Smith’s art:

I take the words I can get and try to occupy them. Using the idea that my grandfather gave me — “If you say a word often enough it becomes you” — I borrow people for a moment, by borrowing their words. I borrow them for a moment to understand something about them, and to understand something about us. By “us,” I mean humans.

In these borrowed words, and in the act of borrowing itself — which is predicated on the act of listening — Smith found a rare gateway into the depths of the human experience:

Placing myself in other people’s words, as in placing myself in other people’s shoes, has given me the opportunity to get below the surface — to get “real.”

[…]

Some people use language as a mask. And some want to create designed language that appears to reveal them but does not. Yet from time to time we are betrayed by language, if not in the words themselves, in the rhythm with which we deliver our words. Over time, I would learn to listen for those wonderful moments when people spoke a kind of personal music, which left a rhythmic architecture of who they were. I would be much more interested in those rhythmic architectures than in the information they might or might not reveal.

[…]

I wanted to get people to talk to me, in a true way. Not true in the sense of spilling their guts. Not true in the sense of the difference between truth and lies. I wanted to hear — well — authentic speech, speech that you could dance to, speech that had the possibility of breaking through the walls of the listener, speech that could get to your heart, and beyond that to someplace else in your consciousness.

She contemplates what makes speaking from an authentic place so challenging for most of us and why we protect that place by shrouding it in all kinds of pre-learned patterns of packaged speech:

Speaking calls for risk, speaking calls for a sense of what one has to lose. Not just what one has to gain.

Talk to Me is a dimensional and immensely insightful read in its totality, perhaps even timelier today than when it was first released in 2001. Complement it with Smith on what self-esteem really means and how to stop letting others define us, then revisit John Francis on what the ragged edge of silence taught him about listening.

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