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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

01 JULY, 2015

Legendary Victorian Art Critic John Ruskin on the Value of Imperfection and How Manual Labor Confers Dignity Upon Creative Work

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“It is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.”

Long before Anne Lamott admonished that perfectionism kills creativity, long before Joseph Campbell asserted that “what evokes our love … is the imperfection of the human being,” the great English art critic, draughtsman, watercolorist, and philanthropist John Ruskin (February 8, 1819–January 20, 1900) made history’s most beautiful and enlivening case for the value of imperfection in his 1853 book The Stones of Venice, eventually included in the altogether illuminating Ruskin anthology Unto This Last and Other Writings (public library).

Writing a generation after the Industrial Revolution had finished revolving society into a new era of manufacturing, Ruskin considers the dehumanizing effects of separating creative work from manual labor, arguing that any creatively fulfilling vocation must marry the two. He calls for “a right understanding … of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy” and a “determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labour.”

To put this “right understanding” into practice, he prescribes “the observance of three broad and simple rules”:

  1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which Invention has no share.
  2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.
  3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.

Ruskin adds:

The rule is simple: Always look for invention first, and after that, for such execution as will help the invention, and as the inventor is capable of without painful effort, and no more. Above all, demand no refinement of execution where there is no thought, for that is slaves’ work, unredeemed.

Cautioning against the perilous separation of head and hand, Ruskin counters the common objection that those who are creatively gifted in the art of ideation shouldn’t be wasting their time with the execution of their brilliant ideas but should instead be delegating that work to mere laborers:

All ideas of this kind are founded upon two mistaken suppositions: the first, that one man’s thoughts can be, or ought to be, executed by another man’s hands; the second, that manual labour is a degradation, when it is governed by intellect… We are always in these days endeavouring to separate the two; we want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers, and miserable workers… It is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.

Art from 'Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times,' a visual history of Soviet children's book illustration. Click image for more.

This dialogue between thought and labor, Ruskin argues, is precisely what demands a necessary degree of imperfection in any healthy creative work, for unskillfulness is evidence that the mind “had room for expression.” Ruskin puts it unambiguously:

No good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.

This, Ruskin asserts, happens for two reasons, “both based on everlasting laws.” The first — which Zadie Smith would eco a century and a half later in counseling aspiring writers to resign themselves to “the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied” — has to do with the necessary discontentment that drives all artists to continue creating:

No great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure: that is to say, his mind is always far in advance of his powers of execution, and the latter will now and then give way in trying to follow it; besides that he will always give to the inferior portions of his work only such inferior attention as they require; and according to his greatness he becomes so accustomed to the feeling of dissatisfaction with the best he can do, that in moments of lassitude or anger with himself he will not care though the beholder be dissatisfied also. I believe there has only been one man who would not acknowledge this necessity, and strove always to reach perfection, Leonardo; the end of his vain effort being merely that he would take ten years to a picture and leave it unfinished. And therefore, if we are to have great men working at all, or less men doing their best, the work will be imperfect, however beautiful. Of human work none but what is bad can be perfect, in its own bad way.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

The second reason springs from life’s inherent cycles of growth and decay, from the notion that our mortality confers meaning upon our lives. Imperfection, Ruskin argues, is both a reminder that we are on a journey the final destination of which is total decay, and a celebration of the beauty of our impermanence:

Imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent… And in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry. All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.

Accept this then for a universal law, that [no] noble work of man can be good unless it be imperfect.

Much more of Ruskin’s enduring wisdom on everything from art to morality can be found in Unto This Last and Other Writings. Complement this particular meditation with Simone Weil on how manual labor mediates creative work and discipline, Alan Lightman on why we long for permanence in a universe of constant change, and Anaïs Nin on the magic of bridging head and hand.

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30 JUNE, 2015

The Art of Constructive Criticism: Trailblazing Feminist Margaret Fuller Rejects Young Thoreau and Helps Him Improve His Writing

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“I can have no advice or criticism for a person so sincere; but, if I give my impression of him, I will say, ‘He says too constantly of Nature, she is mine.’ She is not yours till you have been more hers.”

Few things reveal your intellect and your generosity of spirit — the parallel powers of your heart and mind — better than how you give feedback, especially if it is to a friend and especially if the work in question leaves something to be desired. Evidence like Samuel Beckett’s masterwork of tough love and poet Thom Gunn’s role in Oliver Sacks’s evolution as a writer further impresses how rare the masters of this delicate, monumental art of constructive criticism are.

But there is no greater genius at it than trailblazing journalist, essayist, and editor Margaret Fuller, whose 1845 book Woman in the Nineteenth Century endures as a foundational text of feminism. It originated as an essay titled “The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women,” published two years earlier in the influential Transcendentalist magazine The Dial, of which Fuller had become founding editor — elected over Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was also being considered for the position — in 1839.

In the fall of 1841 — shortly after moving into Emerson’s house and around the time he was contemplating the true measure of meaningful labor in his famous diary — 24-year-old Henry David Thoreau, urged by Emerson, submitted one of his poems to The Dial. What he received from Fuller was a rejection on the surface but an enormous and generous gift at its heart — in a lengthy and immeasurably beautiful letter, she delineated the reasons for the poem’s rejection and offered caring constructive feedback on how to improve not only his writing but the very soul from which it springs.

Fuller’s masterpiece of constructive criticism is preserved in the original by Project REVEAL at Harry Ransom Center and was included in the 1907 volume Heralds of American Literature: A Group of Patriot Writers of the Revolutionary and National Periods (public library) by essayist and literary culture champion Annie Russell Marble.

Fuller's original handwritten letter to Thoreau (Harry Ransom Center)

On October 18, 1841, Fuller — herself only thirty-one — writes:

I do not find the poem on the mountains improved by mere compression, though it might be by fusion and glow. Its merits to me are, a noble recognition of Nature, two or three manly thoughts, and, in one place, a plaintive music.

With great sensitivity to every artist’s vulnerable tendency to take criticism of his or her work as criticism of his or her character, Fuller envelops her critique of Thoreau the poet in great warmth for Thoreau the person, assuring him that behind his mediocre poem lies great potential — but making clear that he must work diligently at it in order to attain it:

Yet, now that I have some knowledge of the man, it seems there is no objection I could make to his lines (with the exception of such offenses against taste as the lines about the humors of the eye…), which I would not make to himself. He is healthful, rare, of open eye, ready hand, and noble scope. He sets no limits to his life, nor to the invasions of nature; he is not willfully pragmatical, cautious, ascetic, or fantastical. But he is as yet a somewhat bare hill, which the warm gales of Spring have not visited… He will find the generous office that shall educate him…

Although she is only seven years Thoreau’s senior, barely in her thirties herself, Fuller brims with precocious wisdom. More than a century before Grace Paley asserted in her advice to aspiring writers that “in order to function in their trade, writers must live in the world,” Fuller gently points Thoreau to the greatest education for a writer — life itself, the richness of experience amassed by living it, and the enlarging effects of human relationships:

The unfolding of affections, a wider and deeper human experience, the harmonizing influences of other natures, will mould the man and melt his verse. He will seek thought less and find knowledge the more. I can have no advice or criticism for a person so sincere; but, if I give my impression of him, I will say, “He says too constantly of Nature, she is mine.” She is not yours till you have been more hers. Seek the lotus, and take a draught of rapture. Say not so confidently, all places, all occasions are alike. This will never come true till you have found it false.

After encouraging him to keep submitting his work and to write to her, Fuller — a century before George Orwell’s famous admonition against “stale metaphors, similes and idioms” — adds:

Will you finish the poem in your own way, and send it for the ‘Dial’? Leave out

“And seem to milk the sky.”

The image is too low; Mr. Emerson thought so too.

She ends with the kind of signature that embodies what Virginia Woolf meant in calling letter-writing “the humane art” and makes one wistful for its death:

Farewell! May truth be irradiated by Beauty! Let me know whether you go to the lonely hut, and write to me about Shakespeare, if you read him there. I have many thoughts about him, which I have never yet been led to express.

Margaret F.

Illustration from 'Henry Builds a Cabin,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

Thoreau did go to the lonely hut to be owned by Nature, sequestering himself in the humble cabin he built with his own hands to write the very work for which he is remembered today. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach,” he reflected in Walden — the most enduring masterwork of his meditations on those essential facts of life learned during his time in that lonely hut. There, he clearly took Fuller’s invaluable advice to heart — the shift she encouraged in his writing and his way of being is palpable both in Walden and in the beautiful journals he kept while living in the woods.

As for Shakespeare, he did read and admire him: “A genius — a Shakespeare, for instance — would make the history of his parish more interesting than another’s history of the world,” Thoreau wrote in the very journals that made the history of his interior parish more interesting than any history of the world.

Complement with Thoreau on the spiritual rewards of walking and what it really means to be awake.

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29 JUNE, 2015

Pathways to Bliss: Joseph Campbell on Why Perfectionism Kills Love and How to Save Your Relationship

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“Perfection is inhuman… What evokes our love … is the imperfection of the human being.”

“Where the myth fails, human love begins,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in 1941. “Then we love a human being, not our dream, but a human being with flaws.” Indeed, just like perfectionism kills creativity, it also kills love — the more we mythologize and idealize the person we love, the more disillusioned and disheartened we grow as we come to know their imperfect humanity which, if untainted by these blinding ideals, is the very wellspring of true love. That is what playwright Tom Stoppard captured in what is perhaps the greatest definition of love, in his notion of “the mask slipped from the face,” the stripping of the idealized projection, the surrender to the beautiful imperfection of a human being.

How to successfully navigate love’s maze of ideal and reality is what master-mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell explores in a section of the posthumously published Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation (public library), which offers a more personal complement to Campbell’s influential writings on bliss and the power of myth.

A century and a half after Stendhal’s insightful ideas on why we fall out of love, Campbell builds upon Carl Jung’s psychological theory of anima (the female ideal in the masculine unconscious) and animus (the male ideal in the feminine unconscious), and explores how our clinging to those ideals blinds us to the most rewarding part of romance.

His focus on marriage is especially timely and poignant today, when the institution of marriage is being reimagined to be more inclusive and more just, which also means it’s being challenged to rise to higher standards of integrity. Campbell writes:

Two people meet and fall in love. Then they marry, and the real Sam or Suzy begins to show through the fantasy, and, boy, is it a shock. So a lot of little boys and girls just withdraw their anima or animus. They get a divorce and wait for another receptive person, pitch the woo again, and, uh-oh, another shock. And so on and so forth.

Now the one undeniable fact: this disillusion is inevitable. You had an ideal. You married that ideal, then along comes a fact that does not correspond to that ideal. You suddenly notice things that do not quite fit with your projection. So what are you going to do when that happens? There’s only one attitude that will solve the situation: compassion. This poor, poor fact that I married does not correspond to my ideal; it’s only a human being. Well, I’m a human being, too. So I’ll meet a human being for a change; I’ll live with it and be nice to it, showing compassion for the fallibilities that I myself have certainly brought to life as a human being.

Decades later, Dan Savage would come to call this “the price of admission” — the most potent antidote to the perilous myth of “the one,” which is built upon a scaffolding of illusion and unattainable ideals. Campbell captures this with clarity at once grounding and elevating:

Perfection is inhuman. Human beings are not perfect. What evokes our love — and I mean love, not lust — is the imperfection of the human being. So, when the imperfection of the real person, compared to the ideal of your animus or anima, peeks through, say, this is a challenge to my compassion. Then make a try, and something might begin to get going here. You might begin to be quit of your fix on your anima.

Illustration by Olimpia Zagnoli from 'Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical' by Noémie Révah. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki’s assertion that “the ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow,” Campbell adds:

It’s just as bad to be fixed on your anima and miss as to be fixed on your persona: you’ve got to get free of that. And the lesson of life is to release you from it.

[…]

The principle of compassion is that which converts disillusionment into a participatory companionship. So when the fact shows through the animus or anima, what you must render is compassion. This is the basic love, the charity, that turns a critic into a living human being who has something to give to — as well as to demand of — the world.

This is how one is to deal with animus and anima disillusionment… That’s reality evoking a new depth of reality in yourself, because you’re imperfect, too. You may not know it. The world is a constellation of imperfections, and you, perhaps, are the most imperfect of all. By your love for the world you name it accurately and without pity and love what you have thus named… This discovery can help you save your marriage.

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

And yet, paradoxically, Campbell argues that this is the task of life — not to avoid these anima and animus projections, which we all carry, but to confront them with courage and do the work of disillusionment so we can get to the imperfect realness of which true love is woven. (This is what Rilke meant when he counseled his young friend that “for one human being to love another … is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks … the work for which all other work is but preparation.”) Campbell speaks to the necessity of both the preparation and the work itself:

One of the boldest things you could possibly do would be to marry that ideal that you’ve fallen for. Then you face a real job, because everything has been projected onto him or her. This goes beyond lust; this is something that goes way down. It pulls everything out. This anima/animus is the fish line that has caught your whole unconscious, and everything’s going to come up — the Midgard Serpent, everything down in the bottom. This is what you marry.

Pathways to Bliss is a magnificent, richly insightful read in its entirety. Complement it with Campbell on the eleven stages of the hero’s journey — which, in a way, apply just as aptly to the lover’s journey — and his timeless wisdom on how to have a fulfilling life, then revisit the great Wendell Berry on marriage and Susan Sontag on the complexities of love.

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29 JUNE, 2015

Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on Belonging and How to Be at Home in Yourself

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“Our sense of slight woundedness around not belonging is actually one of our core competencies.”

“Sit. Feast on your life,” Nobel-winning poet Derek Walcott exhorted in his breathtaking ode to being at home in ourselves. “We feel safest when we go inside ourselves and find home,” Maya Angelou observed in Letter to My Daughter, “a place where we belong and maybe the only place we really do.” But how do we find that place to make a home in, to set the table at which we can feast on our lives?

That’s what English poet and philosopher David Whyte — who has written beautifully about what maturity really means, how to break the tyranny of work/life balance, and the true meaning of love and friendship — explores in this soulful, lo-fi short monologue on the essence of belonging and what it means to come home to ourselves:

To feel as if you belong is one of the great triumphs of human existence — and especially to sustain a life of belonging and to invite others into that… But it’s interesting to think that … our sense of slight woundedness around not belonging is actually one of our core competencies; that though the crow is just itself and the stone is just itself and the mountain is just itself, and the cloud, and the sky is just itself — we are the one part of creation that knows what it’s like to live in exile, and that the ability to turn your face towards home is one of the great human endeavors and the great human stories.

It’s interesting to think that no matter how far you are from yourself, no matter how exiled you feel from your contribution to the rest of the world or to society — that, as a human being, all you have to do is enumerate exactly the way you don’t feel at home in the world — to say exactly how you don’t belong — and the moment you’ve uttered the exact dimensionality of your exile, you’re already taking the path back to the way, back to the place you should be.

You’re already on your way home.

Complement with Vonnegut’s magnificent commencement address on belonging, Hermann Hesse on what trees teach us about belonging, and Tove Jansson’s philosophical vintage Moomin comics on our quest for belonging, then revisit Whyte’s wisdom on anger and forgiveness.

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