Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

10 JULY, 2015

Art and the Mind’s Eye: How Drawing Trains You to See the World More Clearly and to Live with a Deeper Sense of Presence

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A passionate case for learning “to search into the cause of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness.”

“It’s only when we look with eyes of love that we see as the painter sees,” Henry Miller wrote in his forgotten 1968 gem To Paint Is to Love Again. Drawing, indeed, transforms the secret passageway between the eye and the heart into a two-way street — while we are wired to miss the vast majority of what goes on around us, learning to draw rewires us to see the world differently, to love it more intimately by attending to and coming to cherish its previously invisible details. This, perhaps, is why beloved artist Lynda Barry teaches visual storytelling as the infinitely rewarding art of “being present and seeing what’s there.”

More than a century before Miller and a century and a half before Barry, the great Victorian art critic, philosopher, and philanthropist John Ruskin (February 8, 1819–January 20, 1900) examined the psychology of why drawing helps us see the world more richly in a fantastic piece unambiguously titled Essay on the Relative Dignity of the Studies of Painting and Music, and the Advantages to be Derived from Their Pursuit, penned when he was only nineteen. It is included in the first volume of the altogether indispensable The Works of John Ruskin (public library | free ebook).

It’s a beautiful meditation triply timely today, in an age when we — having succumbed to the “aesthetic consumerism” of photography — are likelier to view the world through our camera phones and likelier still to point those at ourselves rather than at nature’s infinite and infinitely overlooked enchantments. To draw today is to reclaim the dignity and private joy of seeing amid a culture obsessed with looking in public.

Self-portrait by John Ruskin, 1861

Ruskin writes:

Let two persons go out for a walk; the one a good sketcher, the other having no taste of the kind. Let them go down a green lane. There will be a great difference in the scene as perceived by the two individuals. The one will see a lane and trees; he will perceive the trees to be green, though he will think nothing about it; he will see that the sun shines, and that it has a cheerful effect, but that the trees make the lane shady and cool; and he will see an old woman in a red cloak; — et voilà tout!

But what will the sketcher see? His eye is accustomed to search into the cause of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. He looks up, and observes how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light, and the motes dance in the green, glittering lines that shoot down upon the thicker masses of clustered foliage that stand out so bright and beautiful from the dark, retiring shadows of the inner tree, where the white light again comes flashing in from behind, like showers of stars; and here and there a bough is seen emerging from the veil of leaves, of a hundred varied colours, where the old and gnarled wood is covered with the brightness, — the jewel brightness of the emerald moss, or the variegated and fantastic lichens, white and blue, purple and red, all mellowed and mingled into a garment of beauty from the old withered branch. Then come the cavernous trunks, and the twisted roots that grasp with their snake-like coils at the steep bank, whose turfy slope is inlaid with flowers of a thousand dyes, each with his diadem of dew: and down like a visiting angel, looks one ray of golden light, and passes over the glittering turf — kiss, — kiss, — kissing every blossom, until the laughing flowers have lighted up the lips of the grass with one bright and beautiful smile, that is seen far, far away among the shadows of the old trees, like a gleam of summer lightening along the darkness of an evening cloud.

Is not this worth seeing? Yet if you are not a sketcher you will pass along the green lane, and when you come home again, have nothing to say or to think about it, but that you went down such and such a lane.

Art from Lynda Barry's 'Syllabus,' a field guide to visual storytelling. Click image for more.

Drawing not only grants us a more intimate presence with the world but also extends an irresistible invitation for storytelling — that old woman in the red cloak, Ruskin argues, would be a mere passing stranger for the non-sketcher but the sketcher’s mind will envelop her in “an immense deal of speculation” as he seeks to place her properly in the context of the landscape, invariably playing out various possible stories of who she is and how she ended up there. This impulse for creative speculation, Ruskin asserts, is at the core of how the artist sees the world differently:

From the most insignificant circumstance, — from a bird on a railing, a wooden bridge over a stream, a broken branch, a child in a pinafore, or a waggoner in a frock, does the artist derive amusement, improvement, and speculation. In everything it is the same; where a common eye sees only a white cloud, the artist observes the exquisite gradations of light and shade, the loveliness of the mingled colours — red, purple, grey, golden, and white; the graceful roundings of form, the shadowy softness of the melted outline, the brightness without lustre, the transparency without faintness, and the beautiful mildness of the deep heaven that looks out among the snowy cloud with its soft blue eyes; — in fact, the enjoyment of the sketcher from the contemplation of nature is a thing which to another is almost incomprehensible. If a person who had no taste for drawing were at once to be endowed with both the taste and power, he would feel, on looking out upon nature, almost like a blind man who had just received his sight.

The Works of John Ruskin is a trove of timeless wisdom in its totality. Complement this particular piece with Miller’s wonderful To Paint Is to Love Again and Ruskin on the value of imperfection in creative work. If you’re looking to learn this enormously rewarding way of seeing, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is by far the best initiation.

Thanks, Rob

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09 JULY, 2015

Musicked Down the Mountain: How Oliver Sacks Saved His Own Life by Literature and Song

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The extraordinary survival story of “a creature of muscle, motion and music, all inseparable and in unison with each other.”

“Without music I should wish to die,” the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in a 1920 letter to a friend. One fateful afternoon half a century later, beloved British neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks (b. July 9, 1933) — a Millay of the mind, a lover of poetry, and a scientist of enormous spiritual exuberance — came to live this sentiment as more than a dramatic hyperbole.

In his superb 1984 memoir A Leg to Stand On (public library), Dr. Sacks tells the story of an extraordinary experience he had atop a Norwegian mountain a decade earlier, on “an afternoon of peculiar splendor, earth and air conspiring in beauty, radiant, tranquil, suffused in serenity,” many miles from the nearest human being — an experience in which the only thing that stood between him and his death was music; an experience that brought him not merely near death but in an intimate tango with it danced to the sound of life itself.

Oliver Sacks by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

With his Thoreauesque prose, Dr. Sacks recounts the August day on which he set out to climb a Norwegian fjørd up a steep mountain path and before descending into hell:

Saturday the 24th started overcast and sullen, but there was promise of fine weather later in the day… I looked forward to the walk with assurance and pleasure.

I soon got into my stride — a supple swinging stride, which covers ground fast. I had started before dawn, and by half past seven had ascended, perhaps, to 2,000 feet. Already the early mists were beginning to clear. Now came a dark and piney wood, where the going was slower, partly because of knotted roots in the path and partly because I was enchanted by the world of tiny vegetation which sheltered in the wood, and was always stopping to examine a new fern, a moss, a lichen. Even so, I was through the woods by a little after nine, and had come to the great cone which formed the mountain proper and towered above the fjørd to 6,000 feet.

There, to his surprise, was a fence bearing an even more surprising sign: “BEWARE OF THE BULL!” Accompanying the cautionary verbal message was a visual one in the universal language of comic art: “a rather droll picture of a man being tossed.”

So absurd was the sign, so bizarre the very notion of a dangerous bull living up in the fjørd, that Dr. Sacks took it for a prank by the local villagers and carried on, walking past the fence and up the path, determined to make it to the top of the mountain by noon. Unperturbed by the awareness of this “not exactly a populous part of the world,” he felt rather liberated by the sense of solitude — the kind of soul-stretching solitude where, as Wendell Berry memorably put it, “one’s inner voices become audible.”

And, suddenly, his solitude was ruptured by a most prominent presence:

There were ambiguous moments when I would stop in uncertainty, while I descried the shrouded shapes before me. … But when it happened, it was not at all ambiguous!

The real Reality was not such a moment, not touched in the least by ambiguity or illusion. I had, indeed, just emerged from the mist, and was walking round a boulder as big as a house, the path curving round it so that I could not see ahead, and it was this inability to see ahead which permitted the Meeting. I practically trod on what lay before me — an enormous animal sitting in the path, and indeed totally occupying the path, whose presence had been hidden by the rounded bulk of the rock. It had a huge horned head, a stupendous white body and an enormous mild milk-white face. It sat unmoved by my appearance, exceedingly calm, except that it turned its vast white face up towards me. And in that moment, in my terror, it changed, before my eyes, becoming transformed from magnificent to utterly monstrous. The huge white face seemed to swell and swell, and the great bulbous eyes became radiant with malignance. The face grew huger and huger all the time, until I thought it would blot out the universe. The bull became hideous — hideous beyond belief, hideous in strength, malevolence and cunning. It seemed now to be stamped with the infernal in every feature. It became, first a monster, and now the Devil.

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Mustering a semblance of composure, Dr. Sacks spun on his heel mid-stride, turned around, and coolly began his descent. But the calm facade soon gave way to the irrepressible inner terror of the encounter:

I ran for dear life — ran madly, blindly, down the steep, muddy, slippery path, lost here and there in patches of mist. Blind, mad panic! — there is nothing worse in the world — nothing worse, and nothing more dangerous. I cannot say exactly what happened. In my plunging flight down the treacherous path I must have mis-stepped — stepped on to a loose rock, or into mid-air. It is as if there is a moment missing from my memory — there is “before” and “after,” but no “in-between.” One moment I was running like a madman, conscious of heavy panting and heavy thudding footsteps, unsure whether they came from the bull or from me, and the next I was lying at the bottom of a short sharp cliff of rock, with my left leg twisted grotesquely beneath me, and in my knee such a pain as I had never, ever known.

Always a master of extrapolating from the facts of his life the greater truths of human existence, he adds:

To be full of strength and vigor one moment and virtually helpless the next, in the pink and pride of health one moment and a cripple the next, with all one’s powers and faculties one moment and without them the next — such a change, such suddenness, is difficult to comprehend, and the mind casts about for explanations.

True to our tendency to leave our bodies after trauma, Dr. Sacks found himself, despite the excruciating pain, an almost disembodied observer of what was happening — but he used this disembodiment to his advantage, recasting his role in the unfolding drama from that of the patient to that of the professional physician. As if performing for an invisible audience of his students, he examined himself to determine the extent of the injury — “a complete rupture of the quadriceps tendon… muscle paralyzed and atonic.. unstable knee-joint… ripped out the cruciate ligaments.. considerable swelling, probably tissue and joint fluid, but tearing of blood vessels can’t be excluded…” — and proclaimed, aloud into the solitary stillness of the mountain air, that it was “a fascinating case!”

But he soon remembered that he was also the patient, the “case” in question:

Now, all of a sudden, the fearful sense of my aloneness rushed in upon me.

He realized, too, that at this altitude and latitude, he could easily freeze to death overnight, so his survival depended on being rescued before nightfall. He knew he had to climb down the mountain, closer to the villages, where his chances of being found would be higher.

What happened next was nothing short of astonishing — a supreme feat of the human spirit.

Mobilized by the life-or-death choice before him, Dr. Sacks found himself suddenly “very calm and composed.” Thanks to his personal quirk of carrying an umbrella at all times, he had used one as a walking stick up the mountain and had somehow clutched it by instinct during his fall. Ripping his anorak in two and snapping off the umbrella handle, he fashioned a makeshift splint for his limp leg — without one, he realized, he wouldn’t have been able to move.

Speaking to a truth we all too often forget or gloss over — the fact that “luck” is a contextual grace, relative rather than absolute — Dr. Sacks adds:

Mercifully, then, I had not torn an artery, or major vessel, internally… I had not fractured my spine or my skull in my fall. I had three good limbs, and the energy and strength to put up a good fight. And, by God, I would! This would be the fight of my life — the fight of one’s life which is the fight for life.

What followed is a remarkable testament to how great art lodges itself in the soul, a Trojan horse of hope, installing in us a kind of dormant software of knowledge and resourcefulness activated in moments of acute need — like the need to fight for one’s life. As Neil Gaiman observed in his magnificent meditation on how stories last, great art “can furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better.” That’s precisely what Dr. Sacks experienced as he realized that if he didn’t make it off the mountain by nightfall, he would likely freeze to death. Suddenly, he remembered Tolstoy’s Master and Man — a moving 1885 short story about a selfish master who undergoes a spiritual awakening as he brings his peasant back from the brink of hypothermia by lying on top of him to save his life. The memory of this story sparked a life-saving epiphany:

If only I had had a companion with me! The thought suddenly came to me once again, in the words from the Bible not read since childhood, and not consciously recollected, or brought to mind, at all: “Two are better than one … for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, for he hath not another to help him up.” And, following immediately upon this, came a sudden memory, eidetically clear, of a small animal I had seen in the road, with a broken back, hoisting its paralyzed hindlegs along. Now I felt exactly like that creature. The sense of my humanity as something apart, something above animality and mortality — this too disappeared at that moment, and again the words of Ecclesiastes came to my mind: “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; as the one dieth, so dieth the other … so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast.”

A series of such life-saving literary epiphanies followed, carrying Dr. Sacks’s spirit over the abyss of desperation and connecting once more to his work with patients:

While splinting my leg, and keeping myself busy, I had again “forgotten” that death lay in wait. Now, once again, it took the Preacher to remind me. “But,” I cried inside myself, “the instinct of life is strong within me. I want to live — and, with luck, I may still do so. I don’t think it is yet my time to die.” Again the Preacher answered, neutral, non-committal: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time …” This strange, profound emotionless clarity, neither cold, nor warm, neither severe nor indulgent, but utterly, beautifully, terribly truthful, I had encountered in others, especially in patients, who were facing death and did not conceal the truth from themselves; I had marvelled, though in a way uncomprehendingly, at the simple ending of Tolstoy’s “Hadji Murad” — how, when Hadji has been fatally shot, “images without feelings” stream through his mind; but now, for the first time, I encountered this — in myself.

With this unfeeling clarity, he came up with the kind of idiosyncratic ingenuity that only grave necessity sparks:

I proceeded, using a mode of travel I had never used before — roughly speaking, gluteal and tripedal. That is to say, I slid down on my backside, heaving or rowing myself with my arms and using my good leg for steering and, when needed for braking, with the splinted, flail leg hanging nervelessly before me. I did not have to think out this unusual, unprecedented, and — one might think — unnatural way of moving. I did it without thinking, and very soon got accustomed to it. And anyone seeing me rowing swiftly and powerfully down the slopes would have said, “Ah, he’s an old hand at it. It’s second nature to him.”

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Always extrapolating from the particular to the universal and using his personal experience as raw material for advancing his scientific work to the benefit of all humanity, he adds:

So the legless don’t need to be taught to use crutches: it comes “unthinkingly” and “naturally,” as if the person had been practicing it, in secret, all his life. The organism, the nervous system, has an immense repertoire of “trick movements” and “back-ups” of every kind — completely automatic strategies, which are held “in reserve.” We would have no idea of the resources which exist in potentia, if we did not see them called forth as needed.

In a sentiment that speaks to the same alignment of haste and hopelessness against which Kierkegaard admonished two centuries earlier, Dr. Sacks remarks:

I could not hurry — I could only hope.

At that point, he thought of crying for help, and did — “lustily, with huge yells, which seemed to echo and resound from one peak to another.” But the cries suddenly reawakened his terror of the bull and made him fear a vengeful attack by the beastly overlord of the fjørd. So he descended in perfect silence, too afraid to even whistle, as “the hours passed, silently, slithering.”

Suddenly, he came upon a seemingly insurmountable obstacle — a stream he had been reluctant to cross even on his able-bodied way up, which he now had to traverse somehow. Unable to “row” himself across it with his gluteal-tripedal technique, he flipped into a facedown position and, with rigid outstretched arms — lest we forget, Dr. Sacks had been a weightlifting champion just a few years earlier — he propelled himself across the rapid-flowing, ice-cold stream, his head barely above water, exhorting himself:

Hold on, you fool! Hold on for dear life! I’ll kill you if you let go — and don’t you forget it!

But when he made it to the other shore, he faced another fork in this otherworldly road between life and death, one chillingly familiar to mountaineers and polar adventurers alike:

Somehow my exhaustion became a sort of tiredness, an extraordinarily comfortable, delicious languor.

“How nice it is here,” I thought to myself. “Why not a little rest — a nap maybe?”

The apparent sound of this soft, insinuating, inner voice suddenly woke me, sobered me and filled me with alarm. It was not “a nice place” to rest and nap. The suggestion was lethal and filled me with horror, but I was lulled by its soft, seductive tones.

“No,” I said fiercely to myself. “This is Death speaking — and in its sweetest, deadliest Siren-voice. Don’t listen to it now! Don’t listen to it ever! You’ve got to go on whether you like it or not. You can’t rest here — you can’t rest anywhere. You must find a pace you can keep up, and go on steadily.”

This good voice, this “life” voice, braced and resolved me.

Another, life-saving Siren took over — music’s miraculous power to enliven, which he had witnessed in his patients and recorded in his now-legendary book-turned-movie Awakenings, published just a few months before his encounter with the taurine devil. He recounts:

There came to my aid now melody, rhythm and music. Before crossing the stream, I had muscled myself along — moving by main force, with my very strong arms. Now, so to speak, I was musicked along. I did not contrive this. It happened to me. I fell into a rhythm, guided by a sort of marching or rowing song, sometimes the Volga Boatmen’s Song, sometimes a monotonous chant of my own, accompanied by these words “Ohne Haste, ohne Rast! Ohne Haste, ohne Rast!” (“Without haste, without rest”), with a strong heave on every Haste and Rast. Never had Goethe’s words been put to better use!

Oh, how Goethe, himself an ardent advocate of science, would have rejoiced in knowing that his art was nothing short of life-saving for one of humanity’s greatest scientific minds. This melodic transcendence uncorked a surprising reservoir of perfectly paced strength Dr. Sacks didn’t know he had:

I no longer had to think about going too fast or too slow. I got into the music, got into the swing, and this ensured that my tempo was right. I found myself perfectly co-ordinated by the rhythm — or perhaps subordinated would be a better term: the musical beat was generated within me, and all my muscles responded obediently — all save those in my left leg which seemed silent — or mute? Does not Nietzsche say that when listening to music, we “listen with our muscles?” I was reminded of my rowing days in college, how the eight of us would respond as one man to the beat, a sort of muscle-orchestra conducted by the cox.

Somehow, with this “music,” it felt much less like a grim anxious struggle. There was even a certain primitive exuberance, such as Pavlov called “muscular gladness.” And now, further, to gladden me more, the sun burst from behind the clouds, massaged me with warmth and soon dried me off. And with all this, and perhaps other things, I found my internal weather was most happily changed.

More than thirty years later, in his 2007 book Musicophilia, Dr. Sacks would come to illuminate the neurological underpinnings of this astounding connection between music and the mind. But here, one limp foot over the precipice of death atop the Norwegian mountain, he simply observed with awe the way in which music led his mind to mobilize his body into the rhythmic motion that would carry him to survival:

It was only after chanting the song in a resonant and resounding bass for some time that I suddenly realized that I had forgotten the bull. Or, more accurately, I had forgotten my fear — partly seeing that it was no longer appropriate, partly that it had been absurd in the first place. I had no room now for this fear, or for any other fear, because I was filled to the brim with music. And even when it was not literally (audibly) music, there was the music of my muscle-orchestra playing — “the silent music of the body,” in Harvey’s lovely phrase. With this playing, the musicality of my motion, I myself became the music — “You are the music, while the music lasts.” A creature of muscle, motion and music, all inseparable and in unison with each other — except for that unstrung part of me, that poor broken instrument which could not join in and lay motionless and mute without tone or tune.

As a child I had once had a violin which got brutally smashed in an accident. I felt for my leg, now, as I felt long ago for that poor broken fiddle. Admixed with my happiness and renewal of spirit, with the quickening music I felt in myself, was a new and sharper and most poignant sense of loss for that broken musical instrument which had once been my leg. When will it recover? I thought to myself. When will it sound its own tune again? When will it rejoin the joyous music of the body?

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

At last, he could see the village in the distance — close enough to see it but not close enough for his cries for help to be heard, a tortuous rift between possibility and impossibility that once again reminded him of the interconnectedness of all life:

An anguish of yearning sharpened my eyes, a violent need to see my fellow men and, even more, to be seen by them. Never had they seemed dearer, or more remote… There was something impersonal, or universal, in my feeling. I would not have cried “Save me, Oliver Sacks!” but “Save this hurt living creature! Save life!,” the mute plea I know so well from my patients — the plea of all life facing the abyss, if it be strongly, vividly, rightly alive.

Slowly losing hope that he would live to see another tomorrow, his mind began unraveling the yarn of yesterdays of which a life is woven:

As the blue and golden hours passed, I continued steadily on my downward trek, which had become so smooth, so void of difficulties, that my mind could move free of the ties of the present… Hundreds of memories would pass through my mind, in the space between one boulder and the next, and yet each was rich, simple, ample, complete, and conveyed no sense of being hurried through… Entire scenes were re-lived, entire conversations re-played, without the least abbreviation. The very earliest memories were all of our garden — our big old garden in London, as it used to be before the war. I cried with joy and tears as I saw it — our garden with its dear old iron railings intact, the lawn vast and smooth, just cut and rolled (the huge old roller there in a corner); the orange-striped hammock with cushions bigger than myself, in which I loved to roll and swing for hours; and the enormous sunflowers, whose vast inflorescences fascinated me endlessly and showed me at five the Pythagorean mystery of the world…

All of these thoughts and images, involuntarily summoned and streaming through my mind, were essentially happy, and essentially grateful. And it was only later that I said to myself “What is this mood?” and realized that it was a preparation for death. “Let your last thinks all be thanks,” as Auden says.

Just as the sun set and dusk began descending with its promise of darkness and death, the improbable happened: Two reindeer hunters, a father and a son, emerged atop a nearby rock as though out of thin air, saw that struggling “creature of muscle, motion and music,” and ran toward him. Dr. Sacks recounts:

I had become almost totally unaware of the environment, having, at some level, given up all thoughts of rescue and life, so that rescue, when it came, came from nowhere, a miracle, a grace, at the very last moment.

As if this miraculous salvation by literature, music, and human kindness wasn’t already a most remarkable testament to Dr. Sacks’s genius and tenacity of spirit, the story took an even more moving turn as he found himself at the hospital, at once immensely grateful for his life and terrified of the long journey toward an uncertain recovery:

There was to be another story or, perhaps, another act in the same strange complex drama, which I found utterly surprising and unexpected at the time and almost beyond my comprehension or belief.

Dr. Sacks during his recovery (photograph courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Bedridden in a small Norwegian hospital, in the so-called care of an uncaring and downright hostile nurse, he found most anguishing of all the complete privation of music. He longed for it “hungrily, thirstily, desperately.” At last, a friend brought him a tape recorder with a single cassette — Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

Dr. Sacks recounts the reprise of music’s enlivening role in the story of his survival:

It was (and remains) a matter of amazement to me that this charming, trifling piece of music should have had such a profound and, as it turned out, decisive effect on me. From the moment the tape started, from the first bars of the Concerto, something happened, something of the sort I had been panting and thirsting for, something that I had been seeking more and more frenziedly with each passing day, but which had eluded me. Suddenly, wonderfully, I was moved by the music. The music seemed passionately, wonderfully, quiveringly alive — and conveyed to me a sweet feeling of life. I felt, with the first bars of the music, a hope and an intimation that life would return to my leg — that it would be stirred, and stir, with original movement, and recollect or recreate its forgotten motor melody. I felt, in those first heavenly bars of music, as if the animating and creative principle of the whole world was revealed, that life itself was music, or consubstantial with music; that our living moving flesh, itself, was “solid” music — music made fleshy, substantial, corporeal.

[…]

The sense of hopelessness, of interminable darkness, lifted… A sense of renewal grew upon me.

Dr. Sacks during his recovery (photograph courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

In the remainder of A Leg to Stand On — a book as invigorating as Mendelssohn’s concerto — Dr. Sacks goes on to explore the mysterious machinery that carries the human mind and body to recovery after serious injury. Complement it with Dr. Sacks on storytelling and the psychology of writing and his breathtaking autobiography, which remains one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life.

Original illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton

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08 JULY, 2015

Why the Sky Enchants Us: Our Longing for Transcendence and How Myths Elevate Human Life

By:

“Human beings have always been mythmakers… We are meaning-seeking creatures.”

“We have such a young culture that there is an opportunity to contribute wonderful new myths to it,” Kurt Vonnegut said in a forgotten 1974 interview. Indeed, we have always used myths both to make sense of the world and to codify our civilizational intentions toward it, by building frameworks of good and evil.

A generation after Joseph Campbell’s trailblazing work on the power of myth in human life, religion historian Karen Armstrong — who studies the secular, psychological, and philosophical underpinnings of religion, like compassion and the true meaning of the Golden Rule — offers a magnificent complementary perspective in A Short History of Myth (public library).

Armstrong writes:

Human beings have always been mythmakers… We are meaning-seeking creatures. Dogs, as far as we know, do not agonize about the canine condition, worry about the plight of dogs in other parts of the world, or try to see their lives from a different perspective. But human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.

The Unborn Fish of ancient Indian mythology, from 'Creation' by Bhajju Shyam. Click image for more.

One of the most fascinating expressions of mythmaking in our search for meaning has to do with the sky, the sweeping mystery of which has enchanted human beings since the dawn of our species. Ancient astronomers tried to interpret it, Goethe wrote breathtaking poems for it, and Georgia O’Keeffe captured its mesmerism perfectly in a letter to her best friend: “There is something wonderful about the bigness and the lonelyness and the windyness of it all.”

Armstrong traces the origin of the sky’s ancient allure:

Some of the very earliest myths, probably dating back to the Paleolithic period, were associated with the sky, which seems to have given people their first notion of the divine. When they gazed at the sky — infinite, remote and existing quite apart from their puny lives — people had a religious experience. The sky towered above them, inconceivably immense, inaccessible and eternal. It was the very essence of transcendence and otherness. Human beings could do nothing to affect it. The endless drama of its thunderbolts, eclipses, storms, sunsets, rainbows and meteors spoke of another endlessly active dimension, which had a dynamic life of its own. Contemplating the sky filled people with dread and delight, with awe and fear. The sky attracted them and repelled them. It was by its very nature numinous, in the way described by the great historian of religion, Rudolph Otto. In itself, without any imaginary deity behind it, the sky was mysterium tremendum, terribile et fascinans [the terrible, fascinating, and fearsome mystery].

Illustration from 'The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina.' Click image for more.

This, Armstrong argues, sheds light on an essential element of our mythical and spiritual consciousness: We often assume that people turn to religion because they want to enlist some higher power in bending the world to their will, to persuade a god or goddess to grant them health and wealth and immortality — but beneath this impulse lies a deeper longing for transcendence all the more resonant amid our secular culture. She writes:

This very early hierophany shows that worship does not necessarily have a self-serving agenda. People did not want anything from the sky, and they knew perfectly well that they could not affect it in any way. From the very earliest times, we have experienced our world as profoundly mysterious; it holds us in an attitude of awe and wonder, which is the essence of worship… The experience of pure transcendence was in itself profoundly satisfying. It gave people an ecstatic experience by making them aware of an existence that utterly transcended their own and lifted them emotionally and imaginatively beyond their own limited circumstances. It was inconceivable that the sky could be “persuaded” to do the will of poor, weak human beings.

And yet, paradoxically, in any successful mythology transcendence exists on a bell curve of satisfaction — too little, and we feel spiritually bereft; too much, and we feel cut off from the reality of life. Armstrong explains:

The sky would continue to be a symbol of the sacred long after the Paleolithic period. But a very early development showed that mythology would fail if it spoke of a reality that was too transcendent. If a myth does not enable people to participate in the sacred in some way, it becomes remote and fades from their consciousness.

The element of air in ancient Indian mythology, from 'Creation' by Bhajju Shyam. Click image for more.

At some point in human history, we did to the sky what we did to animals — we personified it in order to better understand its mystery and relate it to human life. Cultures around the world began praying to various versions of a “Sky God” or “High God” who was believed to have created heaven and earth out of nothing. But the underlying longing remained the same:

When people aspired towards the transcendence represented by the sky, they felt that they could escape from the frailty of the human condition and pass to what lies beyond. That is why mountains are so often holy in mythology: midway between heaven and earth, they were a place where men such as Moses could meet their god. Myths about flight and ascent have appeared in all cultures, expressing a universal desire for transcendence and liberation from the constraints of the human condition.

In order to reap the richness of these myths and their ability to elevate everyday human life, Armstrong argues, it’s important to see them as what they are — not factual accounts of real events but powerful metaphors for transcendence:

When we read of Jesus ascending to heaven, we are not meant to imagine him whirling through the stratosphere. When the Prophet Muhammad flies from Mecca to Jerusalem and then climbs up a ladder to the Divine Throne, we are to understand that he has broken through to a new level of spiritual attainment. When the prophet Elijah ascends to heaven in a fiery chariot, he has left the frailty of the human condition behind, and passed away into a sacred realm that lies beyond our earthly experience.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.' Click image for more.

How we’ve sought to transcend the fragility of the human condition is what Armstrong explores in the remainder of the wholly fascinating A Short History of Myth. For a more playful counterpart, treat yourself to a visual field guide to monster myths and a beautiful illustrated cosmogony of ancient Indian origin myths, then revisit Bertrand Russell on immortality and why religion exists.

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06 JULY, 2015

The Aesthetics of Silence: Susan Sontag on Art as a Form of Spirituality and the Paradoxical Role of Silence in Creative Culture

By:

“The art of our time is noisy with appeals for silence. A coquettish, even cheerful nihilism. One recognizes the imperative of silence, but goes on speaking anyway.”

“The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,” Adrienne Rich asserted in her spectacular 1997 lecture Arts of the Possible. But it was exactly three decades earlier that another of humanity’s most incisive intellects made the finest — and timeliest today — case for the generative function of silence in a creative culture drowning in noise.

In The Aesthetics of Silence, the first essay from her altogether indispensable 1969 collection Styles of Radical Will (public library), Susan Sontag examines how silence mediates the role of art as a form of spirituality in an increasingly secular culture.

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from 'Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.' Click image for details.

Shortly after she wrote in her diary that “art is a form of consciousness” and shortly before Pablo Neruda penned his beautiful ode to silence and Paul Goodman — who shared a mutual admiration with Sontag — enumerated the nine kinds of silence, she writes:

Every era has to reinvent the project of “spirituality” for itself. (Spirituality = plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at resolving the painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation, at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.)

In the modern era, one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual project is “art.” The activities of the painter, the musician, the poet, the dancer, once they were grouped together under that generic name (a relatively recent move), have proved a particularly adaptable site on which to stage the formal dramas besetting consciousness, each individual work of art being a more or less astute paradigm for regulating or reconciling these contradictions. Of course, the site needs continual refurbishing. Whatever goal is set for art eventually proves restrictive, matched against the widest goals of consciousness. Art, itself a form of mystification, endures a succession of crises of demystification; older artistic goals are assailed and, ostensibly, replaced; outworn maps of consciousness are redrawn.

But modern art, Sontag argues, is as much a form of consciousness as an answer to our longing for anti-consciousness, speaking to what she calls “the mind’s need or capacity for self-estrangement”:

Art is no longer understood as consciousness expressing and therefore, implicitly, affirming itself. Art is not consciousness per se, but rather its antidote — evolved from within consciousness itself.

As such, art usurps the role religion and mysticism previously held in human life — something to satisfy our “craving for the cloud of unknowing beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech.” The spiritual satiation that arises from this dialogue between art and anti-art, Sontag points out, necessitates the pursuit of silence. For the serious artist, silence becomes “a zone of meditation, preparation for spiritual ripening, an ordeal that ends in gaining the right to speak.”

In a counterpart to her later admonition that publicity is “a very destructive thing” for any artist, Sontag considers the zeal the artist must have in protecting that zone of silence — a notion of particular urgency in our age of tyrannical expectations regarding artists’ engagement with social media:

So far as he is serious, the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience. Silence is the furthest extension of that reluctance to communicate, that ambivalence about making contact with the audience… Silence is the artist’s ultimate other-worldly gesture: by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, consumer, antagonist, arbiter, and distorter of his work.

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

And yet, in a sentiment that calls to mind Kierkegaard’s astute observation that expressing contempt is still a demonstration of dependence, Sontag recognizes that the gesture of silence in abdication from society is still “a highly social gesture.” She writes:

An exemplary decision of this sort can be made only after the artist has demonstrated that he possesses genius and exercised that genius authoritatively. Once he has surpassed his peers by the standards which he acknowledges, his pride has only one place left to go. For, to be a victim of the craving for silence is to be, in still a further sense, superior to everyone else. It suggests that the artist has had the wit to ask more questions than other people, and that he possesses stronger nerves and higher standards of excellence.

Silence, then, is exercised not in the absolute but in degrees, mediating between art and anti-art, between consciousness and anti-consciousness:

The exemplary modern artist’s choice of silence is rarely carried to this point of final simplification, so that he becomes literally silent. More typically, he continues speaking, but in a manner that his audience can’t hear…

Modern art’s chronic habit of displeasing, provoking, or frustrating its audience can be regarded as a limited, vicarious participation in the ideal of silence which has been elevated as a major standard of “seriousness” in contemporary aesthetics.

But it is also a contradictory form of participation in the ideal of silence. It is contradictory not only because the artist continues making works of art, but also because the isolation of the work from its audience never lasts… Goethe accused Kleist of having written his plays for an “invisible theatre.” But eventually the invisible theatre becomes “visible.” The ugly and discordant and senseless become “beautiful.” The history of art is a sequence of successful transgressions.

[…]

Committed to the idea that the power of art is located in its power to negate, the ultimate weapon in the artist’s inconsistent war with his audience is to verge closer and closer to silence.

And yet, Sontag points out, silence is relational — while it may be the intention of the artist, it can never be the experience of the audience. (For a supreme example, we need not look further than John Cage, who even during his most forceful imposition of silence was in dynamic dialogue with the audience upon which silence was being imposed.)

Sontag, in fact, shined a sidewise gleam on this notion three years earlier in her masterwork Against Interpretation — for what is interpretation if not the act of filling the artist’s silence with the audience’s noise? She writes:

Silence doesn’t exist in a literal sense, however, as the experience of an audience. It would mean that the spectator was aware of no stimulus or that he was unable to make a response… As long as audiences, by definition, consist of sentient beings in a “situation,” it is impossible for them to have no response at all.

[…]

There is no neutral surface, no neutral discourse, no neutral theme, no neutral form. Something is neutral only with respect to something else — like an intention or an expectation. As a property of the work of art itself, silence can exist only in a cooked or non-literal sense. (Put otherwise: if a work exists at all, its silence is only one element in it.) Instead of raw or achieved silence, one finds various moves in the direction of an ever receding horizon of silence — moves which, by definition, can never be fully consummated.

Illustration by John Vernon Lord from a rare edition of 'Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.' Click image for more.

She illustrates this with the classic scene from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, where Alice encounters a shop “full of all manner of curious things,” and yet whenever she looks closely at any one shelf, it appears “quite empty, though the others round it were crowded full as they could hold.” Silence, similarly, is relational rather than absolute:

“Silence” never ceases to imply its opposite and to depend on its presence: just as there can’t be “up” without “down” or “left” without “right,” so one must acknowledge a surrounding environment of sound or language in order to recognize silence…

A genuine emptiness, a pure silence is not feasible — either conceptually or in fact. If only because the artwork exists in a world furnished with many other things, the artist who creates silence or emptiness must produce something dialectical: a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence. Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech (in many instances, of complaint or indictment) and an element in a dialogue.

Silence, Sontag argues, is also a way of steering the attention. In a passage triply timely today, half a century of attention-mauling media later, she writes:

Art is a technique for focusing attention, for teaching skills of attention… Once the artist’s task seemed to be simply that of opening up new areas and objects of attention. That task is still acknowledged, but it has become problematic. The very faculty of attention has come into question, and been subjected to more rigorous standards…

Perhaps the quality of the attention one brings to bear on something will be better (less contaminated, less distracted), the less one is offered. Furnished with impoverished art, purged by silence, one might then be able to begin to transcend the frustrating selectivity of attention, with its inevitable distortions of experience. Ideally, one should be able to pay attention to everything.

Many years later, Sontag would advise aspiring writers to learn to “pay attention to the world” as the most important skill of storytelling. Silence, she argues here, invites us to pay selfless and unselfconscious attention to the world the artist is creating. In a sentiment that explains why there are no comments on Brain Pickings and captures today’s acute spiritual hunger for a space for unreactive contemplation amid a culture of reactive opinion-slinging, Sontag writes:

Contemplation, strictly speaking, entails self-forgetfulness on the part of the spectator: an object worthy of contemplation is one which, in effect, annihilates the perceiving subject… In principle, the audience may not even add its thought. All objects, rightly perceived, are already full.

[…]

The efficacious artwork leaves silence in its wake. Silence, administered by the artist, is part of a program of perceptual and cultural therapy, often on the model of shock therapy rather than of persuasion. Even if the artist’s medium is words, he can share in this task: language can be employed to check language, to express muteness… Art must mount a full-scale attack on language itself, by means of language and its surrogates, on behalf of the standard of silence.

Once again, Sontag’s extraordinary prescience shines its brilliant beam upon our time, across half a century of perfectly anticipated cultural shifts. Much like she presaged the downsides of the internet’s photo-fetishism in the 1970s and admonished against treating cultural material as “content” in the 1960s, she captures the entire ethos of our social media in 1967:

The art of our time is noisy with appeals for silence. A coquettish, even cheerful nihilism. One recognizes the imperative of silence, but goes on speaking anyway. Discovering that one has nothing to say, one seeks a way to say that.

The Aesthetics of Silence is an immeasurably rewarding read in its entirety, as is the remainder of Styles of Radical Will. Complement it with Sontag on love, “aesthetic consumerism” and the violence of visual culture, how polarities imprison us, why lists appeal to us, her diary meditations on art, and her advice to aspiring writers.

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