Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

14 MAY, 2015

The Heart and the Bottle: A Tender Illustrated Fable of What Happens When We Deny Our Difficult Emotions

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A gentle reminder of what we stand to lose when we lock away loss.

“Children … are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth,” E.B. White famously asserted in an interview, admonishing: “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.” And yet down we write still, deaf to White’s wisdom and to Tolkien’s insistence that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and to Gaiman’s crusade against the spiritual disservice of shielding children from difficult emotions.

Nowhere is this disservice clearer than in how we address children’s experience of life’s darkest moments, as evidenced by the minuscule the pool of intelligent and imaginative books that help kids make sense of death and loss. And nowhere is there more heartening an antidote than in The Heart and the Bottle (public library) by the inimitable Oliver Jeffers.

Jeffers tells the story of a little girl, “much like any other,” whose expansive and exuberant curiosity her father fuels by reading to her all sorts of fascinating books about the sea and the stars and the wonders of our world.

We witness the duo’s blissful explorations until, one day, we realize that the father is gone — the little girl finds herself facing the empty chair.

With exquisite subtlety and economy of words, Jeffers — whose mastery of the interplay between darkness and light extends as much to the paintbrush as it does to the psyche — silently uncorks the outpour of hollowing emotions engendered by loss.

But if grief is so disorienting and crushing an emotion for adults, how are unprepared little hearts expected to handle its weight? The little girl cannot, and so she doesn’t.

Feeling unsure, the girl thought the best thing was to put her heart in a safe place.

Just for the time being.

So she put it in a bottle and hung it around her neck.

And that seemed to fix things … at first.

But as Simone Weil knew when she considered how resisting our suffering splits the psyche asunder, and as Rilke knew when he wrote that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” the little girl soon finds out that locking away the pain also locks away her capacity for love and aliveness.

Although, in truth, nothing was the same.

She forgot about the stars… and stopped taking notice of the sea.

She was no longer filled with all the curiosities of the world and didn’t take much notice of anything…

One day, while walking on the beach where she had once strolled blissfully with her father, the “girl” — now a grown woman — encounters another girl still little and still filled with the boundless and buoyant curiosity that had once been hers. Suddenly, she is reminded of all she lost when she locked away loss.

So she sets out to liberate her heart from its glassy prison — but the bottle has been fortified by years of self-protection.

The bottle couldn’t be broken. It just bounced and bounced … right down to the sea.

But there, it occurred to someone smaller and still curious about the world that she might know a way.

The heart was put back where it came from. And the chair wasn’t so empty anymore.

Although such extensions typically tend to be gimmicky at best, if not a pure travesty of storytelling, the app version of the story is excellent beyond words.

Still, an app can never measure up to the tender, tangible magic of a book — and in a great book, even a detail as subtle as the endpapers never fails to enchant. E.B. White himself knew this and cared deeply about the endpapers of Charlotte’s Web even as he acknowledged that “probably not more than 1800 people in the United States have ever heard the word ‘endpaper.’” Jeffers clearly knows this as well — the book’s endpapers are a treat in their own right. The front set celebrates the bond between a little girl and her paternal figure in its various permutations — a father, a grandfather, perhaps a kindly uncle — and the back set tickles the science-lover’s curiosity with a minimalist illustrated anatomy of the human heart.

The Heart and the Bottle is an immeasurable delight from endpaper to endpaper. Complement it with other exceptional children’s books about grief — including the Japanese pop-up masterpiece Little Tree and the Norwegian gem My Father’s Arms Are a Boat — then revisit Jeffers’s equally wonderful Once Upon an Alphabet, one of the best children’s books of 2014.

Jeffers has also explored the subject of grief with equal subtlety and genius in a grownup project celebrating the art of bearing witness.

Illustrations courtesy of Oliver Jeffers; photographs my own

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13 MAY, 2015

From Dream to Nightmare: John Steinbeck on the Perils of Publicity and the Dark Side of Success

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“It is so hard to know anything. So impossible to trust oneself. Even to know what there is to trust.”

As much as we may aspire to adopt Thoreau’s luminous definition of success and seek to reap the intrinsic rewards of creative labor rather than its extrinsic material manifestations, we live in an era where creativity and commerce are harder and harder to disentangle. And yet, as Amanda Palmer aptly observed in considering the sticky question of success, “part of the struggle of actually finding happiness as an artist is the daily fight to not define success the way the rest of the world defines success.”

But this is hardly a modern problem.

Wedged in time between Thoreau and Palmer, and a generation before Joni Mitchell bemoaned the dark side of success, another icon of creative culture brushed up against the harsh reality of how personally and creatively trying public and commercial triumph can be. Having just attained significant critical acclaim, financial profit, and public recognition for the 1937 novella Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) found himself in an unfamiliar and surprisingly uncomfortable position.

“I beat poverty for a good many years and I’ll be damned if I’ll go down at the first little whiff of success,” he wrote in an extraordinary letter of creative courage as he all but destroyed a manuscript that didn’t live up to his standards of style and integrity, setting out to rework it into what became The Grapes of Wrath — the novel that earned Steinbeck a Pulitzer in 1940 and paved the way for his Nobel Prize two decades later. But even as he labored at his masterpiece, the demons of fame, publicity, and commercial success kept beckoning from the sidelines.

Writing in Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (public library) — his magnificent testament to the power of the diary as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt — Steinbeck laments in an entry from early 1938:

People I liked have changed. Thinking there is money, they want it. And even if they don’t want anything, they watch me and they aren’t natural any more… I’m tired of the struggle against all the forces that this miserable success has brought against me. I don’t know whether I could write a decent book now. That is the greatest fear of all. I’m working at it but I can’t tell. Something is poisoned in me.

So animated is Steinbeck by this inner tumult that he addresses his pages directly, casting them at once as the sin and the salvation:

You pages — ten of you — you are the dribble cup — you are the cloth to wipe up the vomit. Maybe I can get these fears and disgusts on you and then burn you up. Then maybe I won’t be so haunted. Have to pretend it’s that way anyhow.

When Of Mice and Men became a bestseller, Hollywood approached Steinbeck for a film adaptation — but he wasn’t without ambivalence about an offer the payoff of which would have dazzled most. If anything, he viewed it with double disgust, for he felt that the superficiality of such commercial courtship took him away from the deeper problems at the heart of his work: his profound concern with the fate of the destitute migrant workers who inspired The Grapes of Wrath.

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Movie poster for the Hollywood adaptation of 'Of Mice and Men.'

Over and over, Steinbeck makes clear that he sees working for profit as a failure of the imagination on behalf of the artist — a smallness of ambition that distracts from the larger human concerns that creative work ought to address. In the same diary entry, he winces at the gaping disconnect between Hollywood’s motives and his, underpinned by the vulnerable trepidation that engaging with such commercial work might gradually poison his own reasons for creating:

I really don’t care about the moving picture. Really don’t — but those people who are starving — what can be done? And the people with panaceas of all kinds. Will you lend your name to this and to this? What do I care about my name? It is battered and completely out of shape anyway. It hasn’t any meaning and I haven’t any meaning. “Seen about your luck.” I got no luck. “Send one hundred dollars.” Luck! He thinks it is luck. He is poor and he thinks I am rich. And he seen about my luck. In the cheap welter, he seen about my luck. He seen about my destruction only he couldn’t understand that. The Greeks seem to have known about this dark relationship between luck and destruction. It is so hard to know anything. So impossible to trust oneself. Even to know what there is to trust.

Although Steinbeck seems gladdened, however self-consciously, at the perks of fame — “Got the iron gate [in exchange] for an autograph,” he notes in one diary entry — by the fall he observes with contemptuous fascination the effect his public success has on his private life. In an entry from October 11, he writes:

Letter from my cousin Grace — first in 22 years… And the interest is solely because of the publicity. Seems to affect every one. She’ll be denying the relationship before long now. Every one will. To work.

A couple of days later, in an entry that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s admonition that “publicity in general is a very destructive thing, for any artist,” Steinbeck resolves with disgruntlement on par with Kierkegaard’s:

The mail this morning — just a mass of requests. Driving me crazy… It becomes increasingly apparent that I must make a stand against joining things as I have against speaking. The mail is full of requests to use my name. Another request to be a clay pigeon. I won’t do any of these public things. Can’t. It isn’t my nature and I won’t be stampeded. And so the stand must be made and I must keep out of politics. Now these two things are constantly working at me.

It’s hard not to think of C.S. Lewis who, in contemplating the ideal daily routine, pointed his warm wit at the issue and observed: “It is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail.” But for Steinbeck this became less a matter of happiness than one of spiritual survival.

In a supreme twist of irony, the very pestilence of publicity requests he so bemoaned as a distraction during the months he spent writing The Grapes of Wrath swelled to towering proportions once the novel was published — it sold feverishly, bringing the author fame and notoriety beyond his wildest expectations. “I don’t think I ever saw so much [money] in one place before,” he wrote to his friend Elizabeth Otis during the initial wave of excitement as he witnessed the fruition of a dream he had dreamt, however warily. But then excitement festered into resentment as the dream darkened into a nightmare.

So Sisyphean was the barrage of requests — invitations to countless committees, speaking offers, strangers asking for money — that it prompted Steinbeck to exclaim in an Associated Press interview a few months after the book’s publication:

Why do they think a writer, just because he can write, will make a good after-dinner speaker, or club committeeman, or even a public speaker? I’m no public speaker and I don’t want to be. I’m not even a finished writer yet, I haven’t learned my craft.

This, perhaps, is what Sontag meant in her admonition — that extraneous engagements of any kind are invariably at the expense of the very craft which rendered the artist desirable for whatever is being requested in the first place; that every yes to such publicity requests ripples into a thousand little no’s to the daily demands of the dogged labor upon which all great art is built. It takes enormous clarity of conviction and creative purpose to recognize that “busy is a decision” and remember that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Steinbeck’s Working Days remains the immensely inspiring record of how an artist of rare genius and integrity chose to spend his days — fighting self-doubt with discipline and finding joy not in extrinsic acclaim but in rewards as intimate as the pleasure of the perfect pen. Complement it with Steinbeck’s equally elevating and idealistic wisdom on falling in love and his meditation on the creative spirit and the meaning of life.

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12 MAY, 2015

How to Make Use of Our Suffering: Simone Weil on Ameliorating Our Experience of Pain, Hunger, Fatigue, and All That Makes the Soul Cry

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“To make use … of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us is better than inflicting discipline upon oneself.”

Long before scientists had empirical evidence of the astounding ways in which our minds affect our bodies, French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) — one of the most remarkable thinkers of the past century, whom Albert Camus aptly proclaimed “the only great spirit of our times” — examined the delicate relationship between our physical and spiritual suffering, between the anguish of the material body and that of the soul.

A few months before her painful yet stoic death from tuberculosis — despite her diagnosis and her doctor’s explicit orders to eat heartily, Weil consumed only what was rationed to her compatriots under the German Occupation in a remarkable gesture of solidarity, ultimately resulting in fatal malnutrition — she turned to the problem of pain in First and Last Notebooks (public library), the same out-of-print treasure that gave us Weil on temptation and the key to discipline.

In an entry from late 1942, Weil considers how our instinctive reaction to suffering often only amplifies our pain:

The way to make use of physical pain. When suffering no matter what degree of pain, when almost the entire soul is inwardly crying “Make it stop, I can bear no more,” a part of the soul, even though it be an infinitesimally small part, should say: “I consent that this should continue throughout the whole of time, if the divine wisdom so ordains.” The soul is then split in two. For the physically sentient part of the soul is — at least sometimes — unable to consent to pain. This splitting in two of the soul is a second pain, a spiritual one, and even sharper than the physical pain that causes it.

There is almost a Buddhist undertone to Weil’s insistence on accepting everything that is, as it is, without compounding pain with “the second arrow” of our tendency to resist any unpleasantness and judge it as a kind of personal failure, which in turn precipitates an even graver sense of dissatisfaction. One is reminded at once of the Chinese philosophy of wu-wei and of Rilke’s famous words — “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.”

Indeed, Weil’s philosophy of suffering embraces Rilke’s everythingness — she extends it beyond physical pain and into other forms of bodily and spiritual discomfort that we habitually exacerbate by stiffening with resistance to the unpleasantness:

A similar use can be made of hunger, fatigue, fear, and of everything that imperatively constrains the sentient part of the soul to cry: I can bear no more! Make it stop! There should be something in us that answers: I consent that it should continue up to the moment of death, or that it should not even finish then, but continue for ever. Then it is that the soul is as if divided by a two-edged sword.

To make use in this way of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us is better than inflicting discipline upon oneself.

Weil’s First and Last Notebooks, hard though it may be to find, is a perennially profound read from cover to cover — an intensely intimate glimpse of one of the most significant minds of the twentieth century, whose ideas influenced such luminaries as Susan Sontag, Iris Murdoch, Flannery O’Connor, and Cornel West. Complement this particular passage with C.S. Lewis on how suffering confers agency upon life and Nietzsche on why a full life requires embracing rather than running from suffering.

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05 MAY, 2015

Kierkegaard on Popular Opinion, the Petty Jealousies of Criticism, and the Only Cure for Embitterment in Creative Work

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“I need the enchantment of creative work to help me forget life’s mean pettinesses.”

“Publicity in general is a very destructive thing, for any artist,” Susan Sontag admonished in 1969. More than a century earlier, another sage of the ages and one of Sontag’s greatest influences made the same point in far less ambiguous terms in The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (public library) — the same fantastic volume that gave us the Danish philosopher’s prescient insights on why haters hate and why we conform to peer pressure.

Writing in 1843, long before our present age of relentless self-promotion and its tyranny of the “personal brand,” Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) laments:

Really, an author’s lot has gradually deteriorated to be the most wretched state of all. An author ordinarily must present himself … hat in hand, bowing and cringing, recommending himself with fine letters of introduction. How stupid: one who writes must understand that about which he writes better than he who reads; otherwise he would not write.

Or one must manage to become a shrewd little pocket-lawyer proficient at gulling the public. — That I will not do, no I won’t; no I won’t — no, the Devil take the whole caboodle. I write the way I want to, and that’s the way it’s going to be; the rest can do what they like, they can stop buying, stop reading, stop reviewing, etc.

Reviewers, in fact, had a special place in Kierkegaard’s heart — if he viewed self-appointed critics with pity, he reserved only the utmost contempt for the professional kind:

I loathe a literary critic as much as an ambulant barber-journeyman who runs after me with his shaving-bowl, which he uses for the beards of all his clients, and then dabs my face all over with his wet fingers.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from 'Enormous Smallness' by Mathhew Burgess a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

But the greatest threat to the written word, Kierkegaard believed, were writers themselves. One can only imagine what he would have made of today’s listicles and content-farmed mediocrity as he bemoans the business of letters:

In our day and age book-writing has become so poor, and people write about matters which they have never given any real thought, let alone experienced.

[…]

Everyone today can write a fairly decent article about all and everything; but no one can or will bear the strenuous work of following through a single solitary thought into the most tenuous logical ramifications. Instead, writing trivia is particularly appreciated today, and whoever writes a big book almost invites ridicule. In former days people read big books, and if they did read pamphlets or periodicals they did not quite like to admit it. Now everyone feels duty bound to read what is printed in a periodical or a pamphlet, but is ashamed to have read a big book through to the end, and he fears he may be considered weak in the head.

He arrives at the only logical conclusion, resolving:

I therefore have decided to read only the writings of men who have been executed or have risked their lives in some way.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

In another diary entry from 1846, Kierkegaard finds himself once again appalled by the business of literature and returns to the subject with renewed dismay:

Today the fees even for authors of repute are very small, whereas the tips being dropped in the hats of literary hacks are very considerable. The more contemptible a man of letters is today, the more money he earns.

And yet for Kierkegaard — as for anyone as deeply bestirred by the commercial assault on the written word — the only antidote to this deplorable commodification of creativity is the “spiritual electricity” of creative work itself. In an other entry from 1846, he writes:

I need the enchantment of creative work to help me forget life’s mean pettinesses.

A year later, he revisits this insight with rekindled passion:

Only when I write do I feel well. Then I forget all of life’s vexations, all its sufferings, then I am wrapped in though and am happy. If I stop for a few days, right away I become ill, overwhelmed and troubled; my head feels heavy and burdened.

[…]

It is hard and depressing that as a result of all this toil one becomes the butt of the craven jealousy of the aristocracy and of the mockery of the populace! … [But] being an author … is not self-chosen; it is concomitant with everything in my individuality and its deepest urge.

The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard remains a spectacular read, brimming with the Danish philosopher’s enduring ideas on writing, melancholy, anxiety, spirituality, science, and the creative experience. Complement it with Kierkegaard on the power of the minority, the benefits of boredom, and our greatest source of unhappiness.

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