Brain Pickings

Adrienne Rich on Lying, What “Truth” Really Means, and the Alchemy of Human Possibility

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“The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.”

Long before Sam Harris’s memorable assertion that lying is “both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood,” long before psychologists identified the four most reliable ways to spot a liar, Adrienne Rich wrote beautifully about what is actually at stake when we lie and how lying in all of its permutations — especially those subtle everyday evasions and untruths we tend to attribute to circumstance or to the misguided mercy of sparing others pain — chips away at our basic humanity.

In a 1975 speech-turned-essay titled “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” found in the indispensable volume On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978 (public library | IndieBound) — which also gave us Rich on how relationships refine our truths and her spectacular commencement address on claiming an education — she writes:

Lying is done with words, and also with silence.

Rich considers how, in relationships, we often use lying as a hedge against the discomfort of being truly seen:

The liar lives in fear of losing control. She cannot even desire a relationship without manipulation, since to be vulnerable to another person means for her the loss of control.

The liar has many friends, and leads an existence of great loneliness.

But the pathology of lying, she argues, doesn’t merely alienate us from others — it engenders the greatest loneliness of all, by cutting us off from ourselves:

The liar often suffers from amnesia. Amnesia is the silence of the unconscious.

To lie habitually, as a way of life, is to lose contact with the unconscious. It is like taking sleeping pills, which confer sleep but blot out dreaming. The unconscious wants truth. It ceases to speak to those who want something else more than truth.

The question of lies, Rich notes, invariably invokes the question of honesty and what “truth” really is:

There is nothing simple or easy about this idea. There is no “the truth,” “a truth” — truth is not one thing, or even a system. It is an increasing complexity. The pattern of the carpet is a surface. When we look closely, or when we become weavers, we learn of the tiny multiple threads unseen in the overall pattern, the knots on the underside of the carpet.

This is why the effort to speak honestly is so important. Lies are usually attempts to make everything simpler — for the liar — than it really is, or ought to be.

In lying to others we end up lying to ourselves. We deny the importance of an event, or a person, and thus deprive ourselves of a part of our lives. Or we use one piece of the past or present to screen out another. Thus we lose faith even within our own lives.

The unconscious wants truth, as the body does. The complexity and fecundity of dreams come from the complexity and fecundity of the unconscious struggling to fulfill that desire.

Pointing out the long history of “the lie as a false source of power,” Rich turns to women’s particular responsibility to one another in matters of truth:

Women have been driven mad, “gaslighted,” for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience. The truth of our bodies and our minds has been mystified to us. We therefore have a primary obligation to each other: not to undermine each other’s sense of reality for the sake of expediency; not to gaslight each other.

Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.

[…]

When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.

This notion of possibility, Rich argues, is central to the power of truth and the peril of lies in all human relationships:

The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.

When relationships are determined by manipulation, by the need for control, they may possess a dreary, bickering kind of drama, but they cease to be interesting. They are repetitious; the shock of human possibilities has ceased to reverberate through them.

Rich weighs the difference between honesty and oversharing — one particularly poignant today, in an age of compulsive oversharing and very little actual honesty — in the context of honorable human relationships:

It isn’t that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you.

It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.

The possibility of life between us.

To fully inhabit this possibility requires, it seems, understanding the subtle but vital difference between trust and faith. Rich considers why “we feel slightly crazy when we realize we have been lied to in a relationship”:

We take so much of the universe on trust. You tell me: “In 1950 I lived on the north side of Beacon Street in Somerville.” You tell me: “She and I were lovers, but for months now we have only been good friends.” You tell me: “It is seventy degrees outside and the sun is shining.” Because I love you, because there is not even a question of lying between us, I take these accounts of the universe on trust: your address twenty-five years ago, your relationship with someone I know only by sight, this morning’s weather. I fling unconscious tendrils of belief, like slender green threads, across statements such as these, statements made so unequivocally, which have no tone or shadow of tentativeness. I build them into the mosaic of my world. I allow my universe to change in minute, significant ways, on the basis of things you have said to me, of my trust in you.

[…]

When we discover that someone we trusted can be trusted no longer, it forces us to reexamine the universe, to question the whole instinct and concept of trust. For a while, we are thrust back onto some bleak, jutting ledge, in a dark pierced by sheets of fire, swept by sheets of rain, in a world before kinship, or naming, or tenderness exist; we are brought close to formlessness.

Noting that common liar’s excuse of “I didn’t want to cause pain” is merely the liar’s unwillingness to deal with the other’s pain, Rich writes:

The lie is a short-cut through another’s personality.

Truthfulness, honor, is not something which springs ablaze itself; it has to be created between people.

[…]

Truthfulness anywhere means a heightened complexity. But it’s a movement into evolution.

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence is a spectacular read in its totality, a trove of timeless truths spoken by one of the most intensely interesting and important voices of the past century. Complement it with Rich on love, loss, and creativity, why an education is something you claim rather than something you get, her soul-stirring poem “Gabriel,” and the courageous letter in which she became the only person to decline the National Medal of Arts.

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Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds: An Unusual Counting Book about the Power of Small Kindnesses

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“A library is no place for three lost mice.”

However anguishing the art of asking for help may be, little is more gladdening than the act of giving it. That’s the premise behind Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds (public library | IndieBound) — a most unusual and gorgeously illustrated counting book by Jim Stoten, using Mr. Tweed’s small acts of kindness to teach kids the numbers and sneak in a subtle lesson on the power of grace.

On his daily walk into town, Mr. Tweed encounters various friends and neighbors, each having misplaced something valuable or dear. The search for these missing items becomes as much a counting game as it does a portal into Mr. Tweed’s whimsical, psychedelic world.

Little Colin Rocodile is missing his one kite and Mrs. Fluffycuddle her two kittens.

Mr. Tweed crawls up the numbers as he lends each a helping hand — there he is at the library, looking for Mr. McMeow’s three lost mice, for “a library is no place for three lost mice”; there he is on the bridge, consoling Little Penny Paws, who has dropped the seven flowers for mother into the river. There is a “Where’s Waldo” feel as a busy, vibrant scene of thoughtfully organized colorful chaos invites a visual scavenger hunt for the missing items.

After a long day of small kindnesses for his friends and neighbors, Mr. Tweed is summoned to a surprise party they have thrown to thank him, where he is presented with exactly ten gifts.

Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds comes from independent British picture-book press Flying Eye Books, whose roster of heartening gems includes a sweet celebration of connection and inner softness, the delightful field guide of mythic monsters, a visual chronicle of Shackleton’s historic polar expedition, and some illustrated rocket fuel for the souls of budding Sagans.

For sending young ones off into a different stage of life with the same message, see George Saunders’s fantastic commencement address on the power of kindness. For another take on numbers, see Paul Rand’s wonderful vintage children’s book Little 1.

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The Fluid Dynamics of “The Starry Night”: How Vincent Van Gogh’s Masterpiece Explains the Scientific Mysteries of Movement and Light

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“In a period of intense suffering, Van Gogh was somehow able to perceive and represent one of the most supremely difficult concepts nature has ever brought before mankind.”

In 1889, inspired by a famous astronomical drawing that had been circulating in Europe for four decades, Vincent van Gogh painted his iconic masterpiece “The Starry Night,” one of the most recognized and reproduced images in the history of art. At the peak of his lifelong struggle with mental illness, he created the legendary painting while staying at the mental asylum into which he had voluntarily checked himself after mutilating his own ear.

But more than a masterwork of art, Van Gogh’s painting turns out to hold astounding clues to understanding some of the most mysterious workings of science.

This fascinating short animation from TED-Ed and Natalya St. Clair, author of The Art of Mental Calculation, explores how “The Starry Night” sheds light on the concept of turbulent flow in fluid dynamics, one of the most complex ideas to explain mathematically and among the hardest for the human mind to grasp. From why the brain’s perception of light and motion makes us see Impressionist works as flickering, to how a Russian mathematician’s theory explains Jupiter’s bright red spot, to what the Hubble Space Telescope has to do with Van Gogh’s psychotic episodes, this mind-bending tour de force ties art, science, and mental health together through the astonishing interplay between physical and psychic turbulence.

Van Gogh and other Impressionists represented light in a different way than their predecessors, seeming to capture its motion, for instance, across sun-dappled waters, or here in star light that twinkles and melts through milky waves of blue night sky.

The effect is caused my luminance, the intensity of the light in the colors on the canvas. The more primitive part of our visual cortex — which sees light contrast and motion, but not color — will blend two differently colored areas together if they have the same luminance. But our brains primate subdivision will see the contrasting colors without blending. With these two interpretations happening at once, the light in many Impressionist works seems to pulse, flicker and radiate oddly.

That’s how this and other Impressionist works use quickly executed prominent brushstrokes to capture something strikingly real about how light moves.

Sixty years later, Russian mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov furthered our mathematical understanding of turbulence when he proposed that energy in a turbulent fluid at length R varies in proportion to the five-thirds power of R. Experimental measurements show Kolmogorov was remarkably close to the way turbulent flow works, although a complete description of turbulence remains one of the unsolved problems in physics.

A turbulent flow is self-similar if there is an energy cascade — in other words, big eddies transfer their energy to smaller eddies, which do likewise at other scales. Examples of this include Jupiter’s great red spot, cloud formations and interstellar dust particles.

In 2004, using the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists saw the eddies of a distant cloud of dust and gas around a star, and it reminded them of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” This motivated scientists from Mexico, Spain, and England to study the luminance in Van Gogh’s paintings in detail. They discovered that there is a distinct pattern of turbulent fluid structures close to Kolmogorov’s equation hidden in many of Van Gogh’s paintings.

The researchers digitized the paintings, and measured how brightness varies between any two pixels. From the curves measured for pixel separations, they concluded that paintings from Van Gogh’s period of psychotic agitation behave remarkably similar to fluid turbulence. His self-portrait with a pipe, from a calmer period in Van Gogh’s life, showed no sign of this correspondence. And neither did other artists’ work that seemed equally turbulent at first glance, like Munch’s ‘The Scream.”

While it’s too easy to say Van Gogh’s turbulent genius enabled him to depict turbulence, it’s also far too difficult to accurately express the rousing beauty of the fact that in a period of intense suffering, Van Gogh was somehow able to perceive and represent one of the most supremely difficult concepts nature has ever brought before mankind, and to unite his unique mind’s eye with the deepest mysteries of movement, fluid and light.

Complement with Van Gogh on art and the power of love and a peek inside his never-before-revealed sketchbooks.

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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.





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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.