Brain Pickings

Pulitzer-Winning Poet Mark Strand on the Heartbeat of Creative Work and the Artist’s Task to Bear Witness to the Universe

By:

“It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.”

In the 1996 treasure Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention (public library) — the same invaluable trove of insight that demonstrated why “psychological androgyny” is essential to creative genius and gave us Madeleine L’Engle on creativity, hope, and how to get unstuck — pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviewed 91 prominent artists, writers, scientists, and other luminaries, seeking to uncover the common tangents of the creative experience at its highest potentiality. Among the interviewees was the poet Mark Strand (April 11, 1934–November 29, 2014) — a writer of uncommon flair for the intersection of mind, spirit and language, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, and served as poet laureate of the United States.

For Strand, Csikszentmihalyi writes, “the poet’s responsibility to be a witness, a recorder of experience, is part of the broader responsibility we all have for keeping the universe ordered through our consciousness.” He quotes the poet’s own reflection — which calls to mind Rilke’s — on how our sense of mortality, our awareness that we are a cosmic accident, fuels most creative work:

We’re only here for a short while. And I think it’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention. In some ways, this is getting far afield. I mean, we are — as far as we know — the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious. We could even be the universe’s form of consciousness. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itself. I don’t know that, but we’re made of the same stuff that stars are made of, or that floats around in space. But we’re combined in such a way that we can describe what it’s like to be alive, to be witnesses. Most of our experience is that of being a witness. We see and hear and smell other things. I think being alive is responding.

Illustration by Bárður Oskarsson from 'The Flat Rabbit,' an unusual Scandinavian children's book about making sense of mortality. Click image for more.

But that response is not a coolly calculated, rational one. Echoing Mary Oliver’s memorable assertion that “attention without feeling … is only a report,” Strand describes the immersive, time-melting state of “flow” that Csikszentmihalyi himself had coined several years earlier — the intense psychoemotional surrender that the creative act of paying attention requires:

[When] you’re right in the work, you lose your sense of time, you’re completely enraptured, you’re completely caught up in what you’re doing, and you’re sort of swayed by the possibilities you see in this work. If that becomes too powerful, then you get up, because the excitement is too great. You can’t continue to work or continue to see the end of the work because you’re jumping ahead of yourself all the time. The idea is to be so… so saturated with it that there’s no future or past, it’s just an extended present in which you’re, uh, making meaning. And dismantling meaning, and remaking it. Without undue regard for the words you’re using. It’s meaning carried to a high order. It’s not just essential communication, daily communication; it’s a total communication. When you’re working on something and you’re working well, you have the feeling that there’s no other way of saying what you’re saying.

Echoing Chuck Close’s notion that the artist is a problem-finder rather than a problem-solver — a quality recent research has emphasized as essential to success in any domain — Csikszentmihalyi adds:

The theme of the poem emerges in the writing, as one word suggests another, one image calls another into being. This is the problem-finding process that is typical of creative work in the arts as well as the sciences.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis from 'Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People.' Click image for more.

Strand speaks to this himself:

One of the amazing things about what I do is you don’t know when you’re going to be hit with an idea, you don’t know where it comes from. I think it has to do with language. Writers are people who have greater receptivity to language, and I think that they will see something in a phrase, or even in a word, that allows them to change it or improve what was there before. I have no idea where things come from. It’s a great mystery to me, but then so many things are. I don’t know why I’m me, I don’t know why I do the things I do. I don’t even know whether my writing is a way of figuring it out. I think that it’s inevitable, you learn more about yourself the more you write, but that’s not the purpose of writing. I don’t write to find out more about myself. I write because it amuses me.

Like T.S. Eliot, who championed the importance of idea-incubation, Strand considers the inner workings of what we call creative intuition, or what Virginia Woolf called the “wave in the mind”:

I am always thinking in the back of my mind, there’s something always going on back there. I am always working, even if it’s sort of unconsciously, even though I’m carrying on conversations with people and doing other things, somewhere in the back of my mind I’m writing, mulling over. And another part of my mind is reviewing what I’ve done.

And yet too much surrender to this pull of the unconscious, Csikszentmihalyi cautions, can lead to a “mental meltdown that occurs when he gets too deeply involved with the writing of a poem.” He cites the practical antidotes Strand has developed:

To avoid blowing a fuse, he has developed a variety of rituals to distract himself: playing a few hands of solitaire, taking the dog for a walk, running “meaningless errands,” going to the kitchen to have a snack. Driving is an especially useful respite, because it forces him to concentrate on the road and thus relieves his mind from the burden of thought. Afterward, refreshed by the interval, he can return to work with a clearer mind.

Driving, coincidentally or not, is also something Joan Didion memorably extolled as a potent form of self-transcendence, and rhythmical movement in general is something many creators — including Twain, Goethe, Mozart, and Kelvin — have found stimulating. But perhaps most important is the general notion of short deliberate distractions from creative work — something more recent research has confirmed as the key to creative productivity.

Csikszentmihalyi crystallizes Strand’s creative process, with its osmotic balance of openness and structure, reveals about the optimal heartbeat of creative work:

Strand’s modus operandi seems to consist of a constant alternation between a highly concentrated critical assessment and a relaxed, receptive, nonjudgmental openness to experience. His attention coils and uncoils, its focus sharpens and softens, like the systolic and diastolic beat of the heart. It is out of this dynamic change of perspective that a good new work arises. Without openness the poet might miss the significant experience. But once the experience registers in his consciousness, he needs the focused, critical approach to transform it into a vivid verbal image that communicates its essence to the reader.

Csikszentmihalyi points out another necessary duality of creative work that Strand embodies:

Like most creative people, he does not take himself too seriously… But that does not mean that he takes his vocation lightly; in fact, his views of poetry are as serious as any. His writing grows out of the condition of mortality: Birth, love, and death are the stalks onto which his verse is grafted. To say anything new about these eternal themes he must do a lot of watching, a lot of reading, a lot of thinking. Strand sees his main skill as just paying attention to the textures and rhythms of life, being receptive to the multifaceted, constantly changing yet ever recurring stream of experiences. The secret of saying something new is to be patient. If one reacts too quickly, it is likely that the reaction will be superficial, a cliché.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind one of Paul Goodman’s nine kinds of silence“the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts” — Strand himself offers the simple, if not easy, secret of saying something new and meaningful:

Keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut. For as long as possible.

Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity remains a must-read and features enduring insights on the psychology of discovery and invention from such luminaries as astronomer Vera Rubin, poet Denise Levertov, sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, social scientist John Gardner, and science writer Stephen Jay Gould.

For more of Strand’s genius in the wild, treat yourself to his sublime Collected Poems (public library), released a few weeks before his death.

The opening piece in the collection, which is one of my all-time favorite poems, offers a remembrance particularly befitting in the context of Strand’s lifelong serenade to mortality:

WHEN THE VACATION IS OVER FOR GOOD

It will be strange
Knowing at last it couldn’t go on forever,
The certain voice telling us over and over
That nothing would change,

And remembering too,
Because by then it will all be done with, the way
Things were, and how we had wasted time as though
There was nothing to do,

When, in a flash
The weather turned, and the lofty air became
Unbearably heavy, the wind strikingly dumb
And our cities like ash,

And knowing also,
What we never suspected, that it was something like summer
At its most august except that the nights were warmer
And the clouds seemed to glow,

And even then,
Because we will not have changed much, wondering what
Will become of things, and who will be left to do it
All over again,

And somehow trying,
But still unable, to know just what it was
That went so completely wrong, or why it is
We are dying.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Young Tolstoy’s Diaries: Time, Moral Development, and the Search of Self

By:

“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?”

Some of humanity’s greatest writers championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary, but hardly any literary titan has explored the medium’s spiritual and existential value more intimately than Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 10, 1910). The same intense inward gaze that produced Tolstoy’s record of spiritual awakening became, by the end of his life, an effort to assemble a manual on the meaning of existence. But the most psychologically formative and creatively intriguing journaling is that of Tolstoy’s youth.

Tolstoy wrote his first diary entry at the age of eighteen, in March of 1847, while relegated to a hospital bed during treatment for a venereal disease. He was already on the cusp of being expelled from university for poor academic performance, so the forced sabbatical at the hospital led him to begin a journey of self-exploration — in the dual sense of both examining himself and contemplating the notion of the self — which would stretch and coil across his entire life.

That journey is what Russian literature scholar and historian Irina Paperno explores in “Who, What Am I?”: Tolstoy Struggles to Narrate the Self (public library) — a remarkably insightful account of the beloved author’s “paradoxical efforts to create a narrative representation of both the self and the selfless being,” and an inquiry into the broader, more universal concerns with what actually constitutes a self, that elusive and often self-defeating appendage of existence.

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by Ivan Kramskoy, 1873

What makes these diaries especially intriguing is their parallel existence in the past and the future — Tolstoy combined narrative reflections on the micro scale of autobiography with moral resolutions on the macro scale of character. But what emerges, above all, is the sense that Tolstoy was a man of intense intellect, continually crucified by the compulsive shoulds in which that very intellect was trapped. Caught up in his obsessive project of intentional moral organization, he saw the self as a forceful function of supposed to rather than a peaceful bearing witness to being, an embracing of is.

Tolstoy liked to trace the origin of his fascination with this question to his old nanny, who used to lie in solitude, listening to the clock and hearing in its ticking a question: “Who are you — what are you? Who are you — what are you?” In the clock’s question, Paperno argues, Tolstoy found his eternal quest:

This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?

And so for the young Tolstoy lying at the hospital, the diary was as much “an instrument of self-perfection” with which to steer his wayward life as it was “an experimental project aimed at exploring the nature of self” through concepts like morality, memory, consciousness, and time.

Tolstoy’s early journals, in fact, were at once a moral checklist and narrative cartography of time. Paperno points to one particularly intriguing notebook from his mid-twenties, titled Journal for Weaknesses, which fell partway between Benjamin Franklin’s agenda of virtues and Isaac Newton’s litany of self-professed sins. Like Franklin, Tolstoy marked his moral development along the temporal progression of the calendar but, like Newton, he focused on his follies rather than his feats — he divided the page of his calendar-notebook into columns for potential weaknesses like laziness, indecision, and vanity, marking with small crosses the days on which the respective vice manifested.

Alongside this notebook, Paperno notes, Tolstoy kept another, titled Journal of Daily Occupations — a time-log in which each page was divided into two vertical columns, one for the future and one for the past. The first listed Tolstoy’s agenda for the next day, and the second marked the fruition of those plans the following day. Each day’s entry thus began by using the previous day’s as a reference point, producing what was essentially an evaluation — and always an unfavorable one — of how the actuality of is measured up against the aspiration of should be.

Indeed, the fact that there was no column for the present at all further intensifies the sense that Tolstoy was driven by the tyranny of should, always leaning forward into a better imagined future and yet always plagued by hindsight’s sense of having fallen short.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Tolstoy's 1852 book 'Nikolenka's Childhood.' Click image for more.

Paperno quotes one illustrative entry from March 24, 1851, in which Tolstoy scrupulously interjects into the narrative of his day the moral weaknesses that led to having fallen short on the previous day’s resolutions:

Arose somewhat late and read, but did not have time to write. Poiret came, I fenced, and did not send him away (sloth and cowardice). Ivanov came, I spoke with him for too long (cowardice). Koloshin (Sergei) came to drink vodka, I did not escort him out (cowardice). At Ozerov’s argued about nothing (habit of arguing) and did not talk about what I should have talked about (cowardice). Did not go to Beklemishev’s (weakness of energy). During gymnastics did not walk the rope (cowardice), and did not do one thing because it hurt (sissiness). — At Gorchakov’s lied (lying). Went to the Novotroitsk tavern (lack of fierté). At home did not study English (insufficient firmness). At the Volkonskys’ was unnatural and distracted, and stayed until one in the morning (distractedness, desire to show off, and weakness of character).

He then proceeds to outline his agenda for the next day, March 25:

From 10 to 11 yesterday’s diary and to read. From 11 to 12 — gymnastics. From 12 to 1 — English. Beklemishev and Beyer from 1 to 2. From 2 to 4 — on horseback. From 4 to 6 — dinner. From 6 to 8 — to read. From 8 to 10 — to write. — To translate something from a foreign language into Russian to develop memory and style. — To write today with all the impressions and thoughts it gives rise to.

But when the 25th arrives, Tolstoy produces once again a litany of his shortcomings as he contemplates his failed shoulds:

Awoke late out of sloth. Wrote my diary and did gymnastics, hurrying. Did not study English out of sloth. With Begichev and with Islavin was vain. At Beklemishev’s was cowardly and lack of fierté. On Tver Boulevard wanted to show off. I did not walk on foot to the Kalymazhnyi Dvor (sissiness). Rode with a desire to show off. For the same reason rode to Ozerov’s. — Did not return to Kalymazhnyi, thoughtlessness. At the Gorchakovs’ dissembled and did not call things by their names, fooling myself. Went to L’vov’s out of insufficient energy and the habit of doing nothing. Sat around at home out of absentmindedness and read Werther inattentively, hurrying.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Tolstoy's 1852 book 'Nikolenka's Childhood.' Click image for more.

And yet the harsh self-flagellation Tolstoy exercised in these youthful journals, Paperno suggests, became a foundational experiment in the elasticity of time and the struggle for moral development — the elements that eventually came to define the very fiction for which Tolstoy is so enduringly beloved. She writes:

He was involved in a struggle with the constraints that language and narrative impose on one’s ability to know and represent the “I.” Ultimately, Tolstoy refused to accept that the self — his self — was limited to what could be told. Inherent in the structure of any verbal narrative is a view of life that accords a predominant role to linear temporal order, which implies finitude. Tolstoy’s lifelong attempt to describe his life (or self) was a project with philosophical, moral, and religious implications.

[…]

His lifelong search for the true self turned into an impossible mission: to define the non-self of the true being that lay outside language and time. Tolstoy was tormented with the paradoxical desire to write himself into a state of silence.

[…]

His personal struggles with a sense of self left their mark: For many of his readers, in Russia and beyond, Tolstoy has been an example by which they seek to orient their own lives.

“Who, What Am I?”: Tolstoy Struggles to Narrate the Self is a magnificent and layered read in its entirety. Complement it with Tolstoy’s search for meaning, his reading list for every stage of life, and his letters to Gandhi on the truth of the human spirit. For more pause-giving perspectives on the question of the self, see Rebecca Goldstein on the mystery of personal identity, Joshua Knobe on how we know who we are, Meghan Daum on how we become the people we are, and Alan Watts on the self illusion.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

The Absurdity of Infinity: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Explains Whether the Universe Is Infinite or Finite in Letters to Her Mother

By:

“The simpler the insight, the more profound the conclusion.”

In 1998, while on the cusp of becoming one of the most significant theoretical cosmologists of our time, mathematician-turned-astrophysicist Janna Levin left her post at Berkeley and moved across the Atlantic for a prestigious position at Cambridge University. During the year and a half there, she had the time and space to contemplate the question that would eventually become the epicenter of her career — whether the universe is infinite or finite. What began as a series of letters to her mother, Sandy, eventually became an unusual diary of Levin’s “social exile as a roaming scientist,” and was finally published as How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space (public library) — a most unusual and absorbing account of the paradoxes of finitude.

“I’m writing to you because I know you’re curious but afraid to ask,” Levin offers in the opening letter — a “you” that instantly becomes as much her mother as the person Virginia Woolf memorably termed “the common reader.” From there, she springboards into remarkably intelligent yet inviting explorations of some of the biggest questions that the universe poses — questions most of us contemplate, sometimes consciously but mostly not, just by virtue of being sentient participants in the chaos and enchantment of existence.

A 1617 depiction of the notion of non-space, long before the concept of vacuum existed, found in Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

In an entry from September 3, 1998, Levin fleshes out her ideas on infinity and writes with exquisite Saganesque sensitivity to the poetics of science:

For a long time I believed the universe was infinite. Which is to say, I just never questioned this assumption that the universe was infinite. But if I had given the question more attention, maybe I would have realized sooner. The universe is the three-dimensional space we live in and the time we watch pass on our clocks. It is our north and south, our east and west, our up and down. Our past and future. As far as the eye can see there appears to be no bound to our three spatial dimensions and we have no expectation for an end to time. The universe is inhabited by giant clusters of galaxies, each galaxy a conglomerate of a billion or a trillion stars. The Milky Way, our galaxy, has an unfathomably dense core of millions of stars with beautiful arms, a skeleton of stars, spiraling out from this core. The earth lives out in the sparsely populated arms orbiting the sun, an ordinary star, with our planetary companions. Our humble solar system. Here we are. A small planet, an ordinary star, a huge cosmos. But we’re alive and we’re sentient. Pooling our efforts and passing our secrets from generation to generation, we’ve lifted ourselves off this blue and green water-soaked rock to throw our vision far beyond the limitations of our eyes.

The universe is full of galaxies and their stars. Probably, hopefully, there is other life out there and background light and maybe some ripples in space. There are bright objects and dark objects. Things we can see and things we can’t. Things we know about and things we don’t. All of it. This glut of ingredients could carry on in every direction forever. Never ending. Just when you think you’ve seen the last of them, there’s another galaxy and beyond that one another infinite number of galaxies.

Illustration from Thomas Wright’s visionary 1750 treatise 'An Original Theory,' found in Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

But having painted this bewitching backdrop for our intuitive beliefs, Levin sublimates the poet to the scientist, pointing out that however alluring these intuitions may feel, they are nonetheless ungrounded in empirical fact:

No infinity has ever been observed in nature. Nor is infinity tolerated in a scientific theory — except we keep assuming the universe itself is infinite.

It wouldn’t be so bad if Einstein hadn’t taught us better. And here the ideas collide so I’ll just pour them out unfiltered. Space is not just an abstract notion but a mutable, evolving field. It can begin and end, be born and die. Space is curved, it is a geometry, and our experience of gravity, the pull of the earth and our orbit around the sun, is just a free fall along the curves in space. From this huge insight people realized the universe must be expanding. The space between the galaxies is actually stretching even if the galaxies themselves were otherwise to stay put. The universe is growing, aging. And if it’s expanding today, it must have been smaller once, in the sense that everything was once closer together, so close that everything was on top of each other, essentially in the same place, and before that it must not have been at all. The universe had a beginning. There was once nothing and now there is something. What sways me even more, if an ultimate theory of everything is found, a theory beyond Einstein’s, then gravity and matter and energy are all ultimately different expressions of the same thing. We’re all intrinsically of the same substance. The fabric of the universe is just a coherent weave from the same threads that make our bodies. How much more absurd it becomes to believe that the universe, space and time could possibly be infinite when all of us are finite.

A decade and a half later, Alan Lightman would come to write with a similar scientific poeticism about why we long for permanence in a universe defined by constant change. But however poetic the premise, Levin brings a mathematician’s precision to her “reasons for believing the universe is finite, unpopular as they are in some scientific crowds.” In another entry twelve days later, she writes:

Infinity is a demented concept…

Infinity is a limit and is not a proper number. No matter how big a number you think of, I can add 1 to it and make it that much bigger. The number of numbers is infinite. I could never recite the infinite numbers, since I only have a finite lifetime. But I can imagine it as a hypothetical possibility, as the inevitable limit of a never-ending sequence. The limit goes the other way, too, since I can consider the infinitely small, the infinitesimal. No matter how small you try to divide the number 1, I can divide it smaller still. While I could again imagine doing this forever, I can never do this in practice. But I can understand infinity abstractly and so accept it for what it is.

Pointing out that all titans of science — including Galileo, Aristotle, and Cantor — were besotted with the notion of infinity at some point, “each visiting the idea for a time and then abandoning the pursuit,” Levin notes that we can neither accept nor dismiss infinity on the basis of popular opinion alone. In early October, she writes:

Where in the hierarchy of infinity would an infinite universe lie? An infinite universe can host an infinite amount of stuff and an infinite number of events. An infinite number of planets. An infinite number of people on those planets. Surely there must be another planet so very nearly like the earth as to be indistinguishable, in fact an infinite number of them, each with a variety of inhabitants, an infinite number of which must be infinitely close to this set of inhabitants. Another you, another me. Or there’d be another you out there with a slightly different life and a different set of siblings, parents, offspring. This is hard to believe. Is it arrogance or logic that makes me believe this is wrong? There’s just one me, one you. The universe cannot be infinite.

[…]

I welcome the infinite in mathematics, where … it is not absurd nor demented. But I’d be pretty shaken to find the infinite in nature. I don’t feel robbed living my days in the physical with its tender admission of the finite. I still get to live with the infinite possibilities of mathematics, if only in my head.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

Understanding the infinite — both as a mathematical possibility and an impossibility of the physical universe — might be more a matter of coming to terms with infinite simplicity than with infinite complexity. In an entry from early February of 1999, Levin echoes Margaret Mead’s famous proclamation about clarity and writes:

I try to find a simple expression for my ideas. I figure if there is none, the ideas must be wrong. When I first started to work on topology I wondered about complex properties of spaces and didn’t take my own suggestions seriously until I realized the simple way to ask the question: is the universe infinite? Einstein’s simplest insights were profound. The simpler the insight, the more profound the conclusion.

In the remainder of How the Universe Got Its Spots, which is unbearably beautiful in both intellectual elegance and stylistic splendor, Levin goes on to explore questions of quantum relativity and freewill, death and black holes, spacetime and Wonderland, and more. Complement it with Levin on science, free will, and the human spirit, then revisit Alan Lightman on how dark energy explains why we exist and treat yourself to this poetic primer on the universe written in the 1,000 most common words in the English language.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.