Brain Pickings

Alice in Wonderland as a Subway Map

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“‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.”

As a lover of all things Alice in Wonderland and of visual metaphors based on subway maps, I was instantly taken with this transit map of Wonderland, juxtaposing the extreme organizational structure of a subway system with the extreme surreal chaos of the Lewis Carroll classic.

‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where -‘ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.

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Why I Write: George Orwell’s Four Universal Motives of Writing and Creative Work

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“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.”

Literary legend Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, remains best remembered for authoring the cult-classics Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but he was also a formidable, masterful essayist. Among his finest short-form feats is the 1946 essay Why I Write (public library) — a fine addition to other timeless insights on writing, including Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and various invaluable insight from other great writers.

Orwell begins with some details about his less than idyllic childhood — complete with absentee father, school mockery and bullying, and a profound sense of loneliness — and traces how those experiences steered him towards writing, proposing that such early micro-traumas are essential for any writer’s drive. He then lays out what he believes to be the four main motives for writing, most of which extrapolate to just about any domain of creative output.

I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write. Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time.

After a further discussion of how these motives permeated his own work at different times and in different ways, Orwell offers a final and rather dystopian disclaimer:

Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don’t want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a POLITICAL purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

This, of course is to be taken with a grain of salt — the granularity of individual disposition, outlook, and existential choice, that is. I myself subscribe to the Ray Bradbury model:

Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it. Ignore the authors who say ‘Oh, my God, what word? Oh, Jesus Christ…’, you know. Now, to hell with that. It’s not work. If it’s work, stop and do something else.

Why I Write is part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series, excellent in its entirety.

Photo via The Atlantic

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Alan Turing: Church, State, and the Tragedy of Gender-Defiant Genius

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On the man who was caught between the past and the future in clothes a size too small, and profoundly changed our lives anyway.

Little about your day so far, including reading this, would be the same were it not for logician, mathematician, avid reader, and computer science pioneer Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954). While he remains celebrated as instrumental in the invention of the computer, responsible for coining the very concepts of “computation” and “algorithm” in their present form, Turing — who has shaped nearly every facet of our modern lives — is also one of history’s most tragic figures. Beyond his intellectual prowess, another aspect of his character permeated his intellectual contribution and ultimately led to his untimely death, yet it remains at best a silent echo.

In 1952, Turing was criminally prosecuted by the U.K. government for his homosexuality, illegal at the time, and forced to take female hormones to “cure” his unlawful “disorder” — a process known as chemical castration — as an alternative to a prison sentence. Less than two years later, shortly before his forty-second birthday, Turing committed suicide. In The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer (public library), David Leavitt offers a poignant lens on how Turing’s homosexuality factored into his intellectual and creative triumphs and tribulations:

In a letter written to his friend Norman Routeledge near the end of his life, Turing linked his arrest with his accomplishments in an extraordinary syllogism:

Turing believes machines think
Turing lies with men
Therefore machines cannot think

His fear seems to have been that his homosexuality would be used not just against him but against his ideas. Nor was his notion of the rather antiquated biblical locution ‘to lie with’ accidental: Turing was fully aware of the degree to which both his homosexuality and his belief in computer intelligence posed a threat to organized religion. After all, his insistence on questioning humankind’s exclusive claim to the faculty of thought had brought on him a barrage of criticism in the 1940s, perhaps because his call to ‘fair play’ to machines encoded a subtle critique of social norms that denied to another population — that of homosexual men and women — the right to a legitimate existence. For Turing — remarkably, given the era in which he came of age — seems to have taken it as a given that there was nothing wrong with being homosexual; more remarkably, this conviction came to inform even some of his most arcane mathematical writings. To some extent his ability to make unexpected connections reflected the startlingly original — and at the same time startlingly literal — nature of his imagination.

Alan Turing

To further illustrate this odd duality of the disenfranchised and the prodigious that defined Turing’s existence, Leavitt cites the writings of novelist Lyn Irvine, whose husband was the mathematician Max Newman, and her brief recollection of Turing published in the late 1950s — an insightful portrait of him as a man unable to fit into the standard social molds, torn between the past and the future:

Alan certainly had less of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in him than most of his contemporaries. One must go back three centuries (or on [forward] two perhaps) to place him…

This tension of belonging, elusively just beyond reach, comes up a few paragraphs later, where Irvine writes:

He never looked right in his clothes, neither in his Burberry, well-worn, dirty, and a size too small, nor when he took pains and wore a clean white shirt or his best tweed suit. An Alchemist’s robe, or chain mail would have suited him, the first one fitting in with his abstracted manner, the second with that dark and powerful head, with its chin like a ship’s prow and its nose short and curved like the nose of an enquiring animal. The chain mail would have gone with his eyes too, blue to the brightness and richness of stained glass.

Leavitt laments:

The alchemist took logical principles, wire, and electronic circuits, and made a machine. The knight defended the right of that machine to a future.

If only he had been able to save himself.

The most tragic irony — or, perhaps, greatest frontier for redemption — is that today, we’re still debating the very civil liberty and basic human right the violation of which precipitated Turing’s suicide, but we’re waging our wars, fueling and following that debate, largely via the machine he invented. More than half a century later, how many Turings are we forcing to be smaller than they are, and how many are we losing completely?

But, for now, a much more upbeat way to celebrate Turing — a LEGO Turing Machine, recreating the famous 1936 Turing Machine, the first simulation of a computer algorithm, in everyone’s favorite brick toy:

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