Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘public domain’

07 FEBRUARY, 2014

Charles Dickens on Grief and How to Heal a Mourning Heart

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“The disturbed mind and affections, like the tossed sea, seldom calm without an intervening time of confusion and trouble.”

In addition to being one of literary history’s most celebrated authors, no doubt in part thanks to being such a disciplined early riser, Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812–June 9, 1870) was also a man of extraordinary wisdom — from the timeless life-advice he gave his youngest son to his generous fan letter to George Eliot to his insightful and amusing observations on the rites of dating. But some of his most poignant wisdom addressed a subject of the gravest sort — the healing of a grieving heart.

In 1862, Dickens’s younger sister, Letitia, lost her husband of twenty-five years, the architect and artist Henry Austin. In a letter from early October of that year, found in The Letters of Charles Dickens (public library; free download), Dickens envelops Letitia with equal parts compassionate consolation and a call to psychoemotional arms:

I do not preach consolation because I am unwilling to preach at any time, and know my own weakness too well. But in this world there is no stay but the hope of a better, and no reliance but on the mercy and goodness of God. Through those two harbours of a shipwrecked heart, I fully believe that you will, in time, find a peaceful resting-place even on this careworn earth. Heaven speed the time, and do you try hard to help it on! It is impossible to say but that our prolonged grief for the beloved dead may grieve them in their unknown abiding-place, and give them trouble. The one influencing consideration in all you do as to your disposition of yourself (coupled, of course, with a real earnest strenuous endeavour to recover the lost tone of spirit) is, that you think and feel you can do. . . . I rather hope it is likely that through such restlessness you will come to a far quieter frame of mind. The disturbed mind and affections, like the tossed sea, seldom calm without an intervening time of confusion and trouble.

But nothing is to be attained without striving. In a determined effort to settle the thoughts, to parcel out the day, to find occupation regularly or to make it, to be up and doing something, are chiefly to be found the mere mechanical means which must come to the aid of the best mental efforts.

The Dickens family with friends, 1864

Complement with Joan Didion on grief. For a more uplifting Dickens treat, see Neil Gaiman’s reading of A Christmas Carol.

The Letters of Charles Dickens is an enormously absorbing read in its entirety, full of the beloved writer’s meditations on life, literature, love, and loss.

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25 SEPTEMBER, 2013

The Hole Book: Politically Incorrect, Charmingly Illustrated Verses from 1908

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When kids with firearms were still a source of humor, not horror.

Norwegian artist Øyvind Torseter recently brought us The Hole — an exquisitely illustrated existential meditation, incorporating a die-cut hole running through the entire book. It turns out, however, that this wasn’t the first instance of a cover-to-cover hole employed as a storytelling device. More than a century earlier, in 1908, American artist Peter Newell, known for his humorous drawings and poems for such esteemed publications as Harper’s Bazaar, Scribner’s Magazine, and The Saturday Evening Post, published The Hole Book (public library; public domain) — the story of little Tom Potts who, while playing with a gun he didn’t know was loaded, shoots an unstoppable bullet that punches holes of humorous havoc through various scenes until it finally comes to rest in an unrelenting cake. (What tragicomic commentary on an era that was both unconcerned with gun control and untainted by the grief of armed kids producing outcomes far more devastating than devastated cakes.)

Full of Newell’s topsy-turvy illustrations and charming verses, the book is an absolute delight for children and irreverent grown-ups alike.

The Hole Book was preceded by Newell’s 1893 debut as a children’s author and illustrator, the equally wonderful Topsys and Turvys, which he penned when he was only thirty-one.

Thanks, Graham

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29 AUGUST, 2013

John Locke on Human Understanding and the Folly of Our Borrowed Opinions

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“The understanding, like the eye, whilst it makes us see and perceive all other things, takes no notice of itself; and it requires an art and pains to set it at a distance and make it its own object.”

English philosopher and physician John Locke (August 29, 1632–October 28, 1704), endures as one of the most influential figures of the Enlightenment, whose work shaped the course of modern thought, permeated the American Declaration of Independence, and laid the foundation for today’s understanding of the self and human identity. One of his most central tenets was the idea, radical at the time, that we are born without innate ideas and that knowledge instead is acquired through direct experience and sense perception. That’s precisely what Locke explores in his seminal 1690 masterwork An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding (public library; free download), often considered the catalyst for contemporary Western conceptions of the self — a dimensional inquiry into “the [origin], certainty, and extent of human knowledge, together with the grounds and degrees of belief, opinion, and assent.”

Locke writes:

Every step the mind takes in its progress towards Knowledge makes some discovery, which is not only new, but the best too, for the time at least.

For the understanding, like the eye, judging of objects only by its own sight, cannot but be pleased with what it discovers, having less regret for what has escaped it, because it is unknown. Thus he who has raised himself above the alms-basket, and, not content to live lazily on scraps of begged opinions, sets his own thoughts on work, to find and follow truth, will (whatever he lights on) not miss the hunter’s satisfaction; every moment of his pursuit will reward his pains with some delight; and he will have reason to think his time not ill spent, even when he cannot much boast of any great acquisition.

Like Thoreau, who nearly two centuries later similarly admonished against adopting the thoughts of others without critical thinking, Locke is especially dismissive of such borrowed opinions:

It is not worth while to be concerned what he says or thinks, who says or thinks only as he is directed by another.

He argues that since our capacity for understanding is what makes us human, it is our duty to explore how our understanding works — but these processes, not unlike attention, operate beneath the threshold of our awareness and thus require deliberate effort:

The understanding, like the eye, whilst it makes us see and perceive all other things, takes no notice of itself; and it requires an art and pains to set it at a distance and make it its own object. But whatever be the difficulties that lie in the way of this inquiry; whatever it be that keeps us so much in the dark to ourselves; sure I am that all the light we can let in upon our minds, all the acquaintance we can make with our own understandings, will not only be very pleasant, but bring us great advantage, in directing our thoughts in the search of other things.

Equally, Locke argues, we need to direct our awareness to how our “knowledge” — what we’ve come to believe and embraced as conviction — comes to be:

I can give any account of the ways whereby our understandings come to attain those notions of things we have; and can set down any measures of the certainty of our knowledge; or the grounds of those persuasions which are to be found amongst men, so various, different, and wholly contradictory; and yet asserted somewhere or other with such assurance and confidence, that he that shall take a view of the opinions of mankind, observe their opposition, and at the same time consider the fondness and devotion wherewith they are embraced, the resolution and eagerness wherewith they are maintained, may perhaps have reason to suspect, that either there is no such thing as truth at all, or that mankind hath no sufficient means to attain a certain knowledge of it. … It is therefore worth while to search out the bounds between opinion and knowledge; and examine by what measures, in things whereof we have no certain knowledge, we ought to regulate our assent and moderate our persuasion.

Ultimately, Locke maintains that all ideas coalesce from the confluence of sensation and deliberate thought — an early conception of later models for how creativity works:

All Ideas come from Sensation or Reflection. Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas: — How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience. In that all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself. Our observation employed either, about external sensible objects, or about the internal operations of our minds perceived and reflected on by ourselves, is that which supplies our understandings with all the materials of thinking. These two are the fountains of knowledge, from whence all the ideas we have, or can naturally have, do spring.

[…]

External objects furnish the mind with the ideas of sensible qualities, which are all those different perceptions they produce in us; and the mind furnishes the understanding with ideas of its own operations.

An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, very much worth a read in its entirety, is in the public domain and is thus available as a free download.

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