Brain Pickings

A Minimalist, Maximally Imaginative Geometric Allegory for the Essence of Friendship and Creativity

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What a circle and a square can teach us about empathy, collaboration, and the origin of great ideas.

For more than a decade, Brooklyn’s family-owned indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion has been publishing immeasurably thoughtful and lyrical picture-books that invite young minds of all ages to explore such subtleties of the human experience as loneliness, loyalty, loss, the unknown, and the rhythms of life.

Now comes Wednesday (public library | IndieBound), the American debut of French children’s book author and illustrator Anne Bertier. It is translated by Enchanted Lion founder and editor Claudia Zoe Bedrick herself, a longtime Peace Corps volunteer, who continues to do for contemporary children’s books what Ursula Nordstrom did for the most beloved classics of the twentieth century.

Partway between Norton Juster’s 1963 gem The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics and the endearing Sendak-illustrated Let’s Be Enemies, this unusual, minimalist, maximally imaginative book tells the story of two friends, Little Round and Big Square, who get together to play their favorite game every Wednesday — a game of association and transformation, where “as soon as one of them says a word, they transform themselves into it.” Together, they transmogrify into fanciful shapes — a butterfly, a flower, a mushroom, a kite.

But the fun is abated when Little Round begins to feel littler, unimportant and insufficient, as Big Square begins to parade a repertoire of words beyond Little Round’s transformation capacities.

They retreat to opposite corners, each gripped with indignation — until Little Round, undoubtedly aware that mutual understanding is at the heart of friendship, comes up with a reconciliatory idea and proposes that they come up with the words together rather than taking turns. Their first collaborative formation exudes subtle symbolism in speaking to how the I-ego keeps us separate from the universe:

“I’m going to hold myself very tall and straight.”

“And I’ll be the dot,” says Little Round.

“Our i really works!”

On they go with this collaborative creation, joyfully transforming together into a candy, a clown, a hat, a boat, a bowl, and increasingly abstract combinations that eventually take shape into recognizable forms.

The story is at once simple in its playfulness and a beautiful allegory for the combinatorial nature of creativity and thought itself, for the way we transform the building blocks we assemble by way of being alive and awake to the world — impressions, experiences, memories, influences — into new combinations that we call our own ideas. There is a reason Einstein called his thought process “combinatory play.”

Complement Wednesday with other Enchanted Lion treasures, including The Lion and the Bird, Fox’s Garden, The River, Little Boy Brown, and Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

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Some Thoughts on “Privilege”

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To assume that one’s voice and cultural contribution don’t count because one was born into “privilege” is as narrow and toxic as to deny one’s voice because one was born into poverty.

This is by no means to discount the idea that, as Shankar Vedantam put it in his elegant and nuanced meditation on unconscious bias, “those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers; those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine.” But the simple fact remains that some of humanity’s greatest, most enduring, most influential minds came from one direction of the current and some from the other. Marcus Aurelius was born into a prominent family and became Emperor of Rome. Today, he is celebrated as one of the most influential philosophers of the ages. Incidentally, he was a pupil of Epictetus and was profoundly influenced by his teacher’s ideas. Epictetus was born a slave.

Photograph by James Mollison from 'Where Children Sleep,' a portrait of poverty and privilege around the world. Click image for more.

And when we point the privilege finger, where do we draw the line anyway? The concept itself is so abstract and nebulous. Is privilege merely about coming from a family of means and prominence? Or is it also about benefiting from nurturing parenting and a happy childhood, of which wealth and prominence are no guarantee?

Pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, was born into a poor Quaker family of nine children, decades before women had access to formal education or the right to vote. But she had a father who insisted on giving his daughter an education equal to that of his sons, who introduced her to astronomy at an early age, and who created the kind of nurturing intellectual and creative environment in which her talent could flourish. What part is the poverty and what the privilege, and does either warrant that we dismiss Mitchell’s monumental contributions to science and culture?

James Mollison / 'Where Children Sleep.' Click image for more.

It is equally narrow to mistake purposeful achievement for privilege. Take Seth Godin. He spent decades toiling and received hundreds of rejections from the establishment before publishing his own books and becoming a best-selling author with one of the most popular sites on the internet. Millions of people heed his advice and devour his perspective. The “privilege” of this hard-earned status is a direct result of the sheer doggedness of writing daily for years, about things that matter and ideas that are helpful and enriching and ennobling for his readers. And yet when people tell Godin, as they often do, “Well that’s easy for you because you have a really popular blog,” misguided accusations of privilege emanate from the complaint — as though, of course, his ideas would be worth any less in the first place if he did indeed have the ease of “privilege.”

Behind every accusation of “privilege” is the self-pitying complaint that the accuser wasn’t granted the same advantage by the fickle bestowers of favor. To that, Joseph Brodsky had the only appropriate answer: “A pointed finger is a victim’s logo.”

To deny a person’s merit or talent or voice on account of the circumstances with which he or she was blessed or cursed — without any say in the matter — is not only to victimize ourselves as individuals but to cheat ourselves, as a culture, of the essential gift of the human spirit.

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The Mystery of Personal Identity: What Makes You and Your Childhood Self the Same Person Despite a Lifetime of Change

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Dissecting the philosophical conundrum of our “integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be.”

Philosophers and New Age sages have long insisted that the self is a spiritual crutch — from Alan Watts’s teachings on how our ego keeps us separate from the universe to Jack Kerouac’s passionate renunciation of the Self Illusion to Sam Harris’s contemporary case for self-transcendence. Modern psychologists have gone a step further to assert that the self is a socially constructed illusion. Whatever the case, one thing is certain and easily verifiable via personal hindsight — our present selves are unrecognizably different from our past selves and woefully flawed at making our future selves happy.

In a remarkable passage from Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (public library | IndieBound), her biography of the great 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, philosopher, writer, and MacArthur Fellow Rebecca Goldstein considers the perplexity of personal identity:

Personal identity: What is it that makes a person the very person that she is, herself alone and not another, an integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be — until she does not continue any longer, at least not unproblematically?

I stare at the picture of a small child at a summer’s picnic, clutching her big sister’s hand with one tiny hand while in the other she has a precarious hold on a big slice of watermelon that she appears to be struggling to have intersect with the small o of her mouth. That child is me. But why is she me? I have no memory at all of that summer’s day, no privileged knowledge of whether that child succeeded in getting the watermelon into her mouth. It’s true that a smooth series of contiguous physical events can be traced from her body to mine, so that we would want to say that her body is mine; and perhaps bodily identity is all that our personal identity consists in. But bodily persistence over time, too, presents philosophical dilemmas.

Illustration by Salvador Dalí from his rare 1969 'Alice in Wonderland' series. Click image for more.

To probe those dilemmas, Goldstein pulls into question the biographical and biological criteria we use to confirm that our childhood selves are indeed our childhood selves — roughly the same criteria we apply in identifying that the world’s oldest organisms are indeed continuously living individuals. Goldstein writes:

The series of contiguous physical events has rendered the child’s body so different from the one I glance down on at this moment; the very atoms that composed her body no longer compose mine. And if our bodies are dissimilar, our points of view are even more so. Mine would be as inaccessible to her … as hers is now to me. Her thought processes, prelinguistic, would largely elude me.

Yet she is me, that tiny determined thing in the frilly white pinafore. She has continued to exist, survived her childhood illnesses, the near-drowning in a rip current on Rockaway Beach at the age of twelve, other dramas. There are presumably adventures that she — that is that I — can’t undergo and still continue to be herself. Would I then be someone else or would I just no longer be? Were I to lose all sense of myself — were schizophrenia or demonic possession, a coma or progressive dementia to remove me from myself — would it be I who would be undergoing those trials, or would I have quit the premises? Would there then be someone else, or would there be no one?

She then turns to the quintessential threat to such bodily continuity, the source of our greatest existential anxiety and most profound longing:

Is death one of those adventures from which I can’t emerge as myself? The sister whose hand I am clutching in the picture is dead. I wonder every day whether she still exists.

Echoing Meghan O’Rourke’s poetic assertion that “the people we most love [become] ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created,” Goldstein writes:

A person whom one has loved seems altogether too significant a thing to simply vanish altogether from the world. A person whom one loves is a world, just as one knows oneself to be a world. How can worlds like these simply cease altogether? But if my sister does exist, then what is she, and what makes that thing that she now is identical with the beautiful girl laughing at her little sister on that forgotten day? Can she remember that summer’s day while I cannot?

Alan Watts had an answer, but Goldstein is more interested in the question itself as a gateway to our deepest humanity:

Personal identity poses a host of questions that are, in addition to being philosophical and abstract, deeply personal. It is, after all, one’s very own person that is revealed as problematic. How much more personal can it get?

Complement with pioneering educator Annemarie Roeper on the “I” of the beholder, Anaïs Nin’s bold defense of the fluid self, experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe on the mind-bending psychology of how we know who we are, and psychologist Daniel Gilbert on how your present self’s delusions limit your future self’s happiness.

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