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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

08 DECEMBER, 2014

On “Beauty”: Marilynne Robinson on Writing, What Storytelling Can Learn from Science, and the Splendors of Uncertainty

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“We are part of a mystery, a splendid mystery within which we must attempt to orient ourselves if we are to have a sense of our own nature.”

Since 1984, Portland-based nonprofit Literary Arts has been inviting some of the world’s most celebrated authors to share their ideas on the craft — ideas like Ursula K. Le Guin’s spectacular meditation on where creativity comes from and the “secret” to great writing. To mark the 30th anniversary of the series, Literary Arts has collected some of the best such lectures — including Le Guin’s aforementioned piece, as well as contributions by Margaret Atwood, E.L. Doctorow, Chimamanda Adichie, and Jeanette Winterson — in the magnificent anthology The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write (public library | IndieBound).

In one particularly fantastic piece titled On “Beauty,” Pulitzer-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson (b. November 26, 1943) explores that elusive concept we are so deeply wired to desire, even to dangerously overdesire, yet so profoundly conflicted about that desire and, on occasion, brilliantly self-aware of its paradoxes.

Robinson writes:

It has seemed to me for some time that beauty, as a conscious element of experience, as a thing to be valued and explored, has gone into abeyance among us. I do not by any means wish to suggest that we suffer from any shortage of beauty, which seems to me intrinsic to experience, everywhere to be found. The pitch of a voice, the gesture of a hand, can be very beautiful. I need hardly speak of daylight, warmth, silence.

Reflecting on her own journey as a writer, Robinson observes the enduring sense that she “must try to be an interpreter of the true and absolute world, the very planet,” and considers how the paradoxes of “beauty” bristle amid that quest:

The word beauty has always seemed to me unsatisfactory. I have often felt there is an essential quality for which we have no word, and that therefore I am driven back on beauty, or elegance, which has the same problem. It is interesting that both these words are French, that they displaced Old English precursors. In any case, the word beauty has never seemed to me quite suited to the uses I have had to make of it, as though it were never really naturalized into my interior language, or what I might call my aesthetic experience, if that did not oblige me to use the word aesthetic. Why this awkwardness? Why must we lapse into French or Greek to speak of an experience that is surely primary and universal? Perhaps the awkwardness of the language refers to the fact that the experience of beauty is itself complex. We all know we can be conditioned to see beauty where our culture or our generation tells us to see it… And we know beauty can be fraudulent, compromised. Whenever power or privilege wishes to flaunt itself, it recruits beauty into its service, or something that can at least pass as beauty and will achieve the same effect. So it is entirely appropriate to regard beauty with a critical eye. But the point should be to discover an essential beauty, not to abandon the intuition altogether.

In a remark of terrific timeliness in the context of today’s news landscape, Robinson laments the loss of the nineteenth-century reverence for the dignity of ordinary language, the language of the people, and its ability to “do as much as the mind can ask of it, and do it with extraordinary integrity.” With an eye to journalism, publishing, and the media, which “are no true gauge of what public feeling is, or what it could be if it formed under other influences or had other choices,” she writes:

What we have lost with this awareness is respect for people in general, to whom we condescend, as though we were not all ourselves members in good standing of people in general. We explain others to ourselves without reference to what were once called their souls, to their solitary and singular participation in this mystery of being. We are not much in awe of one another these days. We do not hesitate to deprive each other of dignity or privacy, or even to deprive ourselves of them.

Echoing Dostoyevsky’s case for the human spirit, she adds:

What reason can there be for protecting the privacy and freedom of the conscience, or even the franchise, of anyone, if we assume nothing good about those whom we are protecting and enfranchising?

Reflecting on the political and social polarizations afflicting contemporary culture, she laments:

Neither [side] acts in a way that acknowledges the beauty and complexity of individual human experience. Neither treats the public—the people—with real respect.

One recurring such toxic polarization, particularly as it pertains to the deeper questions of beauty, is that between physical and metaphysical pursuits of truth, between science and spirituality — an age-old tension that has spurred such famous reflections as Carl Sagan on science and religion, Flannery O’Connor on dogma, belief, and the difference between religion and faith, Alan Lightman on science and spirituality, Albert Einstein on whether scientists pray, Ada Lovelace on the interconnectedness of everything, Alan Watts on the difference between belief and faith, C.S. Lewis on the paradox of free will, and Jane Goodall on science and spirit. Robinson adds to this lineage of wisdom:

There are those who believe we have outlived every beautiful notion about what human life must be, because this is the age of science. These people must not have been paying attention. Science, being one of the unequivocally human undertakings, describes humanity to itself, for weal and woe, in everything it does. Mathematicians and physicists have a habit of using the words beautiful and elegant to endorse theories that are likelier to cleave to the nature of things because of their efficiency and soundness of structure. I would like to see language brought to a similar standard. If this were at all a philosophic age, we might be wondering why it is that beauty can test reality and solve its encryptions in the modest, yet impressive, degree our humanity allows. For me, this is a core definition of beauty: that it is both rigorous and dynamic and that it somehow bears a deep relationship to truth.

Echoing Sagan’s deep conviction in embracing rather than eradicating our ignorance and Hannah Arendt’s celebration of unanswerable questions, Robinson adds:

We are part of a mystery, a splendid mystery within which we must attempt to orient ourselves if we are to have a sense of our own nature… I believe that there is a penumbra of ignorance and error and speculation that exceeds what might be called the known world by a very large factor indeed. I believe this penumbra is as beautiful in its own way as what I have called truth because it is the action of the human consciousness. It is most human and most beautiful because it wants to be more than consciousness; it wants to be truth.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Donald Barthelme’s notion of writing as an art of not-knowing, Robinson contemplates the mesmerizing mysteries of science — mysteries like the “great spiral structures in space so vast that no account can be made of them” — and makes a beautiful case for why science and the humanities belong together:

To what can we compare these things but to the mind that discovered and described them, the human mind, which, over the centuries, has amassed by small increments the capacity for knowing about them. Planet earth is not even a speck of dust in the universe, and how uncanny it is that we have contrived to see almost to the edge of what time and light will allow, to look back billions of years and see suns forming. When I read about such things, I think how my own heroes would have loved them. What would Melville have done with dark energy, or Poe with spooky action at a distance? Whitman could only have loved the accelerating expansion of the universe. Dickinson probably knew already that our sun is atremble with sound waves, like a great gong. It is a loss of the joy of consciousness that keeps us from appropriating these splendors for the purposes of our own thought.

Marilynne Robinson by Danny Wilcox Frazier

Robinson considers the wisdom of the ancients, who “recognized a special destiny for humankind, when grueling labor and early death would have consumed most of them,” as she returns to the question of beauty:

The destiny we have made for ourselves may well be the end of us; we all know that, and they seem to have known it too. Still, there is magnificence in it all. So the supposed conflict of science and religion is meaningless, because these two most beautiful ventures of expression of the human spirit are reduced to disembodied fragments of themselves with no beauty about them at all, which is a great pity, since their beauty should have been the basis for harmony between them.

Like science, she argues, writing deals in the potentialities of reality, weaving similar “webs of possibility fashioned from conjecture and observation” — and language, style, and form are the essential tools of this observation, inseparable from the possibilities conjectured:

To approach any utterance as if its meaning were separable from its presentation is to disallow art in every positive sense of that word. It is to strip away the individuation that might make a work a new witness, and it is to violate the bond of reader and writer. The essence of our art lies in creating a lingering dream, good or bad, that other souls can enter. Dreaming one’s soul into another’s is an urgent business of the human mind: the dreaming itself, not whatever agenda can supposedly be extracted from it. As art, it plays on the nerves and the senses like a dream. It unfolds over time like a dream. It makes its own often disturbing and often inexplicable appeal to memory and emotion, creating itself again in the consciousness of the reader or hearer.

The abeyance of beauty, Robinson suggests, can be attributed in no small part to the rift between dreams and agendas upon which the news-media industrial complex — be it CNN or Buzzfeed, it’s worth adding — is built:

Everything we are asked to look at is abrupt, bright, and loud in the visual sense of the word, especially the evening news. We are expected to react to it, not to consider it. It is addressed to our nervous systems, never to our minds.

And yet Robinson is no techno-dystopian — she fully accounts for the role of choice and personal responsibility in reclaiming our higher potentialities:

There is no inevitability in any of it. The visual technologies are blamed, but in fact no more beautiful studies of the human face exist than those made in film while it was still possible for the camera to pause for a moment.

Revisiting “the epic battle between parody science and parody religion,” Robinson finds similar parody in the institutions and industries purporting to represent public life:

Anything stripped of the beauty and dignity proper to it is a parody. Public life itself is now entirely too vivid an instance of this phenomenon. We are losing an atmosphere that is necessary to our survival. We are losing the motive and the rationale that supported everything we claim to value. But the solution is everywhere around us and is as simple as seeing and hearing. We are a grand and tragic creature, humankind, and we must see ourselves as we are … alone in our capacity for awe, and in that fact altogether worthy of awe… Now, because we have devoted so much ingenuity to the project, we have devised more ways to tell ourselves more stories, which means only that an ancient impulse is still so strong in us as to impel the invention of new means and occasions for telling and hearing to satisfy this appetite for narrative. At the most fundamental level, narrative is how we make sense of things — that is, our experience of ongoing life is a story we tell ourselves, more or less true, depending on circumstance. I believe this narrative is the essential mode of our being in the world, individually and collectively. Maintaining its integrity — maintaining a sense of the essentially provisional or hypothetical character of the story we tell ourselves — is, I will suggest, our greatest practical, as well as moral and ethical, problem.

This crucial role of the hypothetical is also what makes the parallel between science and storytelling so apt:

I tend to draw analogies from science because I believe that our sense of the world is always hypothesis, and we are sane in the sense that we understand this.

In sentiment that evokes the essence of Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit and Jacob Bronowski’s admonition about the dark side of certainty, she adds:

All thought always inclines toward error. The prejudices that would exclude one tradition of thought, be it science or be it theology, from this tendency are simply instances of the tendency toward error… The mind is prolific in generating false narrative. Like the immune system, it can turn against itself, defeat itself.

[…]

We have all forgotten what ought to be the hypothetical character of our thinking… We are inappropriately loyal to our hypotheses, rather than to the reality of which they are always a tentative sketch. This is a special problem in a climate of urgency and anxiety.

But in this very tendency lies the greatest promise of storytelling as a tool of questioning and a hedge against the paralyzing modern notion that “the great questions are closed.” Inviting us to “participate in the mystery of these facts as surely as Shakespeare ever did” — Shakespeare, lest we forget, was inspired by Galileo’s scientific discoveries — Robinson writes:

There is no reason to suppose the invention of narrative is in any way a marginal activity. Narratives define whole civilizations to themselves, for weal or woe.

[…]

The human situation is beautiful and strange. We are in fact Gilgamesh and Oedipus and Lear. We have achieved this amazing levitation out of animal circumstance by climbing our rope of sand, insight, and error — corrective insight and persistent error. The working of the mind is astonishing and beautiful.

[…]

Meaning is essentially a new discovery of the joy of consciousness—and, of course, the perils of it. We live in uncertainty, which means that we are always exposed to the possibility of learning more, for weal and woe. I would call this awareness humanism, an ultimate loyalty to ourselves that we are all too ready to withhold.

The World Split Open is an emboldening read in its entirety and a remarkable addition to the collected wisdom of great authors.

For more perspectives on why writers write, see George Orwell’s four universal motives, Mary Gaitskill’s six creative impulses, Joan Didion on writing as access to her own mind, David Foster Wallace on the fun of it, Michael Lewis on how it exorcises the the necessary self-delusions of creativity, Joy Williams on how it offers a gateway from the darkness to the light, and Italo Calvino on its assurance of belonging to a collective enterprise.

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08 DECEMBER, 2014

Georgia O’Keeffe on Public Opinion and What It Means to Be an Artist, in a Letter to Sherwood Anderson

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“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant—there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing—and keeping the unknown always beyond you…”

Georgia O’Keeffe, celebrated as America’s first great female artist, was a woman of strong opinions on art, life, and setting priorities and an uncommon gift for committing to words what she committed to canvas. But some of her most revelatory insights on art and the creative experience were shared in a series of letters to writer Sherwood Anderson, who had befriended legendary photographer Alfred Stieglitz — O’Keeffe’s husband and her correspondent in volumes of passionate love letters. Encountering O’Keeffe’s art in the early 1920s had inspired Anderson to pick up the paintbrush for the first time and begin painting himself. Meanwhile, the two developed an epistolary fellowship around their shared ideas about art and their amicable intellectual disagreements. (Only three years later, Anderson would come to articulate his own unforgettable wisdom on art in a letter to his son, very likely influenced by O’Keeffe and their creative rapport.)

Found in Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters (public library) — an altogether unputdownable out-of-print volume released in 1987, a year after O’Keeffe’s death, to mark her centennial — the letters stand as a sublime paean to the kind of creative integrity that rises above public opinion and blazes with crystalline clarity of conviction. At the same time, one can’t help but wonder how O’Keeffe’s art — how her sanity — might have suffered had she lived in our present era of perpetual sprinting on the social-media hamster wheel of public opinion.

Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

On August 1, 1923, she writes to Anderson:

This morning I saw an envelope on the table Stieglitz addressed to you—I’ve wanted so often to write you—two things in particular to tell you—but I do not write—I do not write to anyone—maybe I do not like telling myself to people—and writing means that.

First I wanted to tell you—way back in the winter that I liked your “Many Marriages”—and that what others have said about it amused me much—I realize when I hear others speak of it that I do not seem to read the way they do—I seem to—like—or discard—for no particular reason excepting that it is inevitable at the moment.—At the time I read it I saw no particular reason why I should write you that I liked it—because I do not consider my liking—or disliking of any particular consequence to anyone but myself—And knowing you were trying to work I felt that opinions on what was past for you would probably be like just so much rubbish—in your way for the clear thing ahead—And when I think of you—I think of you rather often—it is always with the wish—a real wish—that the work is going well—that nothing interferes —

I think of you often because the few times you came to us were fine—like fine days in the mountains—fine to remember—clear sparkling and lots of air—fine air.

After a characteristically evocative note about Stieglitz’s health that spring had rendered him “just a little heap of misery—sleepless—with eyes—ears—nose—arm—feet—ankles—intestines—all taking their turn at deviling him,” O’Keeffe expresses deep gratitude for the very thing that led Virginia Woolf to term letter writing “the humane art”—the soul-salving power of a letter sent by one human being to another:

You can see why I appreciated your letters—maybe more than he did—because of what they gave him—I don’t remember now what you wrote—I only remember that they made me feel that you feel something of what I know he is—that it means much to you in your life—adds much to your life—and a real love for him seemed to have grown from it

And in his misery he was very sad—and I guess I had grown pretty sad and forlorn feeling too—so your voice was kind to hear out of faraway and I want to tell you that it meant much—Thanks

Aware of misfortune’s one-way mirror of hindsight, she adds, “I can only write you this now because things are better.”

'The Lawrence Tree' by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1929

O’Keeffe and Anderson continue their correspondence and in another letter sent a month later, she defies her self-professed distaste for “telling [herself] to people” and instead divulging — with the exhilarating intensity of expression that both her art and her letters to loved ones emanate — a magnificent glimpse of her inner life and creative spirit. She considers the role of form in art and the experience from which art stems:

I feel that a real living form is the result of the individual’s effort to create the living thing out of the adventure of his spirit into the unknown—where it has experienced something—felt something—it has not understood—and from that experience comes the desire to make the unknown—known. By unknown—I mean the thing that means so much to the person that wants to put it down—clarify something he feels but does not clearly understand—sometimes he partially knows why—sometimes he doesn’t—sometimes it is all working in the dark—but a working that must be done—Making the unknown—known—in terms of one’s medium is all-absorbing—if you stop to think of the form—as form you are lost—The artist’s form must be inevitable—You mustn’t even think you won’t succeed—Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant—there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing—and keeping the unknown always beyond you—catching crystallizing your simpler clearer version of life—only to see it turn stale compared to what you vaguely feel ahead—that you must always keep working to grasp—the form must take care of its self if you can keep your vision clear.

In a remark of extraordinary humility and wisdom, especially in the hindsight of both O’Keeffe’s present status in the canon of art and Anderson’s in that of literature, she considers the feebleness of any present metric of success against a creator’s ultimate significance for posterity:

You and I don’t know whether our vision is clear in relation to our time or not—No matter what failure or success we may have—we will not know—But we can keep our integrity—according to our own sense of balance with the world and that creates our form—

In a sentiment that calls to mind Maurice Sendak’s famous dissent with a common classification of his work — “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” — O’Keeffe adds:

What others have called form has nothing to do with our form—I want to create my own and I can’t do anything else—if I stop to think of what others—authorities or the public—or anyone—would say of my form I’d not be able to do anything.

I can never show what I am working on without being stopped—whether it is liked or disliked I am affected in the same way—sort of paralyzed—.

All of Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters is a treat for eye and spirit alike. Complement this particular bit with Anna Deavere Smith on how to stop letting others define us and Rilke on why external interference in the artist’s private experience poisons the art.

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05 DECEMBER, 2014

Margaret Mead on the Root of Racism and the Liability of Law Enforcement

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“The more complex a society becomes, the more fully the law must take into account the diversity of the people who live in it… It is a matter in which the whole society is involved.”

On her ascent to fame as the world’s best-known and most influential cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead became one of modern history’s greatest academic celebrities. As she toured the world to give university lectures, public talks, and presentations at various institutions, she brought with her the essential tools of anthropology — the art of looking, coupled with a great capacity for listening, for asking and answering questions. In 1963, Redbook Magazine began publishing Mead’s answers to the best questions she had received from audiences over her extensive career.

After Mead’s death in late 1978, her partner of a quarter-century, the anthropologist and Redbook editor Rhoda Metraux, collected the best of these questions and answers in Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views (public library) — a compendium of Mead’s timeless insight into the human condition, bearing remarkably timely relevance to contemporary culture and public life even today. Many of Mead’s views — particularly her beliefs on equal parenting and the fluidity of human sexuality — were decades ahead of her time, but one particular subject stuns with its prescience half a century later, in the heartbreaking aftermath of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner: Mead’s piercing wisdom on the root of racism and the liability of law enforcement.

In January of 1969, Mead rebuffs the then-common belief among psychologists that children are born knowing how to love and are taught to hate, addressing the greater question of the root of intolerance and racial injustice:

Love and hate are two aspects of the same human capacity to react to other human beings in terms of experience. The infant whose world is warm, giving and reliable responds with love that echoes the love he has received. But the infant who is continually hungry, cold and neglected will come to hate those who hurt him and do not attend to his needs. In a sense, both love and hate are learned: the infant is born with the capacity to respond, and experience guides his learning.

It does seem true that hatred of a given person or a category of persons or things must be learned. We have to be taught whom to hate, and if we are not taught to hate people in categories, we won’t.

More than half a century after Tolstoy and Gandhi corresponded about war and why we hurt each other, Mead notes that modern wars are fought not out of personal human hatred but out of institutionalized economic and political agendas. Understanding learned hate, she argues, is more relevant to race and ethnic conflict than to war. She writes:

Children’s initial response to the strange often is one of fear. A brown-skinned child, seeing a white person for the first time, may scream with fear. A white-skinned child, seeing a dark person for the first time, may also. If the screaming, fearful child is comforted, reassured and given a chance to learn to know and trust the stranger, he will have one kind of response — one of trust and expectation of friendship. But if his fear is unassuaged or is reinforced by the attitude of the older children and adults around him, he may come to hate what he has feared.

This is why it is so important in a multiracial world and a multiracial society like ours that children have many experiences with individuals of races different from their own. Only in this way can we hope surely to dispel their early fear of the strange and enable them to distinguish among individuals, caring for some and disliking others, not because they belong to a category of loved or hated people, but because of their own personality, as individuals.

(Many decades earlier, Mark Twain had articulated the same sentiment, then even more ahead of its time, in his moving meditation on slavery and injustice.)

Margaret Mead sitting between two Samoan girls, ca. 1926, during her pioneering work in the Samoan Islands (Library of Congress)

In a question from 1964, just as the term “Negro” was beginning to fall out of popular use and shortly before it was replaced by the more politically dignified “African American,” Mead was asked to explain the statistic that “the Chinese, who live as unassimilated a life in America as Negroes do and who have suffered similarly from the effects of poverty and prejudice, have been so remarkably free of a criminal record.” With great sensitivity to nuance, she addresses the complex systemic issues at hand through the lens of anthropology, sociology, and political history:

In spite of superficial resemblances, the experiences of Chinese in America and of American Negroes have been very different. For the most part, Chinese migrants to the United States came of their own accord, and while they lived and worked here most of them remained closely related to their own society, to which, in theory if not always in practice, they expected to return. The Chinese have an ancient tradition of living in extraterritorial communities, and those who settled here organized a way of living which in some respects paralleled the way of living organized for Europeans and Americans who went to Chinese cities. Except for the scholars who came as students, most of those who left China were very poor, and they bettered their lot — and sometimes the lot of their families in China — by coming. Until recently the overwhelming majority were men, and the few women and children were protected within the Chinese community.

This role of independent, self-governing communities within the larger organism of American society, Mead argues, was a crucial factor in maintaining order and moral behavior within the Chinese immigrant communities, allowing them to “exact conforming behavior and punish infractions of accepted rules without, in general, appealing to American law-enforcing agencies.” Such autonomy made possible a self-regulating ecosystem of conduct as the Chinese essentially became “members of a self-selected colony” temporarily taking advantage of “the economic possibilities of an alien land.” Mead, of course, acknowledges the racism to which Chinese immigrants have been subjected in America, but points out a crucial qualitative difference:

When Americans exploited the Chinese through their unfamiliarity with our style of life or treated them to the kind of racism we have meted out to other non-Caucasians (or sometimes to non-Northern Europeans or non-English-speaking peoples), the Chinese colonists were angry and resentful, but the individual was not effectively damaged as a person. The greatest damage was to American clarity – to our own ability to see and understand a people different from ourselves.

Mead contrasts this with the “strikingly different” historical and social backdrop for African Americans, inflicted by the atrocity of slavery:

The ancestors of these Americans were brought from Africa by force, torn from a score of very different societies, speaking many different languages, without any traditional way of bridging the gaps between them and without a means of communicating with their own people still in Africa. Under slavery the family system, which was as strong in Africa as it was in China, was destroyed, and men were denied the right to have responsibility for their women and children. From the beginning, white men ruthlessly abused African women, and a new population grew up that was both bound in speech and custom to its white ancestry and punished by social ostracism and poverty for every trace of its African ancestry.

In a remark particularly — and devastatingly — prescient half a century later as we bear witness to the gruesome fallout of such historical baggage, Mead considers how such factors shaped these respective groups’ relationship with the law enforcement structures of the dominant society:

Unlike the Chinese, Negro Americans have had no ongoing style of social regulation to fall back on; what they have shared is the knowledge that the law is administered in one way for the white men and in other ways for themselves. Whereas the Chinese community has been able to protect its members, control its children, mete out informal punishment and reward, and cover for its members who break American laws, Negro Americans have had until very recently few means of protecting themselves to give them a sense of security and pride as a group.

But Mead’s most poignant and stunningly timely remark comes in her answer to another question about crime, law enforcement, and race in March of 1968:

The difficulty is that laws that attempt to enforce special forms of moral behavior breed disrespect for the law and for law-enforcing agencies among those who do not share the beliefs on which these regulations are based. And where disrespect and lawbreaking by the respectable are combined, one also finds connivance with crime in other areas of living.

The more complex a society becomes, the more fully the law must take into account the diversity of the people who live in it. The approach to crime is not a matter for the police and the courts — or even the lawmakers — alone. It is a matter in which the whole society is involved.

Mead, after all, is the person credited with the undying maxim, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views is an infinitely insightful read in its entirety, spanning sixteen years of Mead’s thoughts on love, sex, religion, politics, social dynamics, gender equality, personal choices, and the human condition. It is a pity that this treasure is long out of print — or, perhaps, evidence that even the most timeless and urgently necessary of humanity’s wisdom is seen by the publishing industry as disposable marketable commodity and quickly abandoned for some new fad — but used copies can still be found and are well, well worth the hunt.

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05 DECEMBER, 2014

The Psychology of Flow: What Game Design Reveals about the Deliberate Tensions of Great Writing

By:

“The books that give us the most pleasure, the deepest pleasure, combine uncertainty and satisfaction, tension and release.”

A full creative life requires equally that we cultivate a capacity for boredom, as legendary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips asserted, and learn to welcome rather than avoid difficulty, as Nietzsche believed. Great stories, like great life-stories, are woven of the same interplay between fertile ennui and surmountable frustration — so argues writer Peter Turchi in one especially rewarding section of the altogether stimulating A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic (public library | IndieBound).

In a sentiment that illuminates the psychological machinery behind Nabokov’s famous assertion that “a good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader,” Turchi recounts poet C. Dale Young’s experience of reading and rereading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

The first time he read it, he said, the book seemed perfectly clear. Why did people make such a fuss? Moved to reread it, he found Conrad’s tale increasingly elusive, more complicated. Richer. However it happens, the appeal of the books we return to is often, at least in part, a fascination with what we can’t quite reach.

This notion of the elusive, Turchi goes on to argue, is essential to the alchemy of storytelling. Turning to pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work on flow — that state of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger — Turchi explores the role of challenge in the “flow channel” of narrative.

He cites game designer and Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell’s book The Art of Game Design, which identifies the four elements necessary to put a game player (and, by extension, a reader) into a fruitful “flow state”:

  1. clear goals
  2. no distractions
  3. direct feedback
  4. continuous challenge

The last one, Turchi argues, is of especially delicate balance. He quotes Schell:

If we start to think we can’t achieve [the goal], we feel frustrated, and our minds start seeking an activity more likely to be rewarding. On the other hand, if the challenge is too easy, we feel bored, and again, our minds start seeking more rewarding activities.

Turchi considers this tricky balance against the great trickster that is time:

Simply establishing a constant state of challenge turns out not to be effective for long. Instead, the ideal situation, flow-channel-wise, is to keep the game player or reader moving within a tolerable range of new challenge and acquired skill — or, as Csikszentmihalyi puts it, between anxiety and boredom.

A child might be challenged by playing tic-tac-toe, for instance; but once someone learns how to win or force a draw every time, the game holds less interest. Books of sudoku and crossword puzzles are often labeled easy, medium, or hard because few people will pay for a book of puzzles they can’t do, and not many more will spend time with puzzles that are too simple. With a game like chess, new players might have trouble remembering how the different pieces move; after that, the level of difficulty changes with the opponents they play.

A similar mechanism is at work in the game of narrative:

This cycle of satisfaction and frustration is familiar to every writer. We write sentences or drafts that disappoint us, and we feel frustrated. But then a sentence or paragraph or image delights us, and that success encourages us to continue. If we never felt pleasure from anything we wrote, we’d stop; but if we were completely satisfied, if we didn’t feel the urge to move beyond what we have accomplished or to take on a new challenge, we’d lose interest.

This is essentially what Zadie Smith captured in the last of her ten rules of writing: “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.” Except the sadness is simultaneously a stimulant for the satisfaction, for both reader and writer. Turchi captures this elegantly:

Most serious poetry and fiction is unlike a game in that it doesn’t intend to become increasingly difficult, but it is like a game in that we want the reader to be engaged and to experience some combination of intrigue, delight, challenge, surprise, provocation, and satisfaction. The ideal reading experience might be comparable to that flow state. The books that give us the most pleasure, the deepest pleasure, combine uncertainty and satisfaction, tension and release.

Returning to Schell’s theories of game design, Turchi relates the basic paradigm to writing:

It isn’t enough for the story to be somewhere in between too hard and too easy; ideally, the story will provide the reader an ongoing series of challenges and satisfactions.

He illustrates the interplay between challenge and satisfaction with a befitting metaphor:

If, on a hike, all we care about is convenient travel — the physical equivalent of reading a kitchen appliance manual — we’re happy to have big stepping stones, close together, and a quietly flowing stream. But if we’re looking for an interesting experience, if the stream is quiet, the stepping stones can be smaller or farther apart. If the stream is wide and the water is rushing by, we want the security of flat, broad stones. Eventually, some of us will seek out greater adventures — a deep, rushing stream and small, uneven stones that are a long, uncertain stride apart — but if that experience goes on too long, we’re likely to grow exhausted (or fall and be swept to our death; happily, such a dire fate is unlikely when we tackle Absalom! Absalom or Ulysses).

To keep her readers in that vitalizing flow state, Turchi argues, a great writer ought to deliberately move them “between stages of frustration and satisfaction, of tension and release.”

Complement A Muse and a Maze with this evolving archive of advice on the craft from famous writers, including Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, and more.

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