Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

15 DECEMBER, 2014

Being vs. Becoming: John Steinbeck on Creative Integrity, the Art of Changing Your Mind, the Humanistic Duty of the Artist

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“If I can’t do better I have slipped badly… I beat poverty for a good many years and I’ll be damned if I’ll go down at the first little whiff of success.”

The fact that we humans have such a notoriously hard time changing our minds undoubtedly has to do with the notion that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” which belies the great robbery of the human experience — by calling ourselves beings, we deny our ever-unfolding becomings. Only in childhood are we afforded the luxury of inhabiting our becoming, but once forced to figure out who we want to be in life, most of us are so anxious about planting that stake of being that we bury the alive, active process of our becoming. In our rush to arrive at who we want to be, we flee from the ceaseless mystery of our becoming.

To show up wholeheartedly for our becoming requires doing one of the hardest things in life — allow the possibility of being wrong and incur the anguish of admitting that error. It requires that we grieve every earlier version of ourselves and endure the implicit accusation that if the way we do a certain thing now is better than before, then the way we did it before is not only worse but possibly — and this is invariably crushing — even wrong. The uncomfortable luxury of changing our mind is thus central to the courage of facing our becoming with our whole being.

This constant tussle could be especially difficult for artists, who imbue their creative work with an enormous amount of their being at the point of creation but must also include it in the ongoing record of their becoming. Hardly any figure in creative history has faced that anguishing moment of changing one’s mind for the sake of creative integrity, and faced it publicly, with more courage than John Steinbeck.

In September of 1936 — more than a quarter century before he was awarded the Nobel Prize — 34-year old Steinbeck witnessed a gruesome clash between the migrant workers and growers in a lettuce strike in California. “There are riots in Salinas and killings in the streets of that dear little town where I was born,” he despaired in a letter to his friend George Albee. Deeply invested in the fate of the migrant workers — who were also suffering from massive floods, had no help from the government, and lived in conditions over which Steinbeck repeatedly expressed compassionate outrage in his letters — he began working on a manuscript titled L’Affaire Lettuceberg. But over the two years that followed, it unraveled into an angry and rather bitter satire of Salinas leadership. Steinbeck was very much of the conviction that, as E.B. White eloquently put it many years later, a writer should “lift people up, not lower them down.” And this text — a work of tearing down rather than building up — seemed to move young Steinbeck not closer but further away from the great champion of the human spirit he would one day become.

As soon as he finished the manuscript in mid-May of 1938, Steinbeck did something few people and perhaps even fewer artists are able to do: He murdered his darlings in a courageous letter to his editor, found in the altogether revelatory Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (public library | IndieBound). The missive is a masterwork of looking one’s becoming in the eye and somersaulting one’s entire being into a strenuous and seemingly backbreaking change of course for the sake of creative and spiritual integrity.

Steinbeck writes:

This is going to be a hard letter to write … this book is finished and it is a bad book and I must get rid of it. It can’t be printed. It is bad because it isn’t honest. Oh! these incidents all happened but — I’m not telling as much of the truth about them as I know. In satire you have to restrict the picture and I just can’t do satire…. I know, you could sell possibly 30,000 copies. I know that a great many people would think they liked the book. I myself have built up a hole-proof argument on how and why I liked it. I can’t beat the argument but I don’t like the book… Not once in the writing of it have I felt the curious warm pleasure that comes when work is going well. My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other and then I deliberately write this book the aim of which is to cause hatred through partial understanding. My father would have called it a smart-alec book. It was full of tricks to make people ridiculous. If I can’t do better I have slipped badly.

He attributes the misfire to a kind of creative complacency — another admission too anguishing for most of us to make — which made him forget that writing, as David Foster Wallace put it, is an art in which the horizon for self-improvement is infinite; forget the constant becoming that is any craft:

I had got smart and cocky you see. I had forgotten that I hadn’t learned to write books, that I will never learn to write them. A book must be a life that lives all of itself and this one doesn’t do that.

Steinbeck — who had just gotten significant critical acclaim for his warmup essays on the migrant workers’ plight, published in The Nation — is also exquisitely aware of how blinding success can become to that essential incompleteness of an artist’s creative journey:

I beat poverty for a good many years and I’ll be damned if I’ll go down at the first little whiff of success….

I think this book will be a good lesson for me. I think I got to believing critics — I thought I could write easily and that anything I touched would be good simply because I did it. Well any such idea conscious or unconscious is exploded for some time to come. I’m in little danger now of believing my own publicity….

Again I’m sorry. But I’m not ready to be a hack yet. Maybe later.

First-edition cover for 'The Grapes of Wrath,' published on April 14, 1939

Less than two weeks later, Steinbeck was already hard at work on The Grapes of Wrath — the iconic epic of the Great Depression that shines a light on the same uncomfortable and often gruesome subjects of class struggle, power, and oppression, but does so in a way that ennobles the characters, chooses dignity over depravity, and critiques a hopeless situation while granting hope. He gave himself a hundred days to finish the novel and recorded his creative process and personal journey in Working Days, which is in many ways as significant and rewarding as the novel it chronicles. The Grapes of Wrath earned Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize a year after its publication, became a cornerstone of his Nobel Prize two decades later, and endures as one of the most important works of social justice ever published in the English language.

Complement it with Steinbeck’s unforgettable letter of advice to his teenage son on falling in love.

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In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by 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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15 DECEMBER, 2014

The Moomin Guide to Identity and Belonging: Tove Jansson’s Vintage Philosophical Comics on Why We Join Groups and Seek Community

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“It’s rather difficult, when one has MANY friends, to show loyalty to them all at the same time…”

Tove Jansson (1914–2001) is one of the most imaginative and influential storytellers in modern history — an artist and writer of singular creative vision and a genius for rendering visible and comprehensible life’s subtlest nuances. She was Finland’s most revered literary celebrity and a recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award, and yet she lived simply and worked in the same studio for forty-seven years alongside the love of her life, the great Finnish sculptor and graphic arts pioneer Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä, who inspired Jansson’s endearing Too-ticky character. She had the courage and clarity of conviction to turn down Walt Disney’s commercial offer and instead built her own creative empire on a foundation of remarkable integrity and unflinching artistic vision. Neil Gaiman has called Jansson’s work “a surrealist masterpiece.”

In addition to her marvelously philosophical children’s books and her gorgeous vintage illustrations for special editions of such classics as The Hobbit in 1962 and Alice in Wonderland in 1966, Jansson also enlisted her iconic Moomin characters in a lesser-known but long-running London Evening News series of comic strips for grownups. To celebrate Jansson’s centennial, Drawn & Quarterly has collected the best of them — miraculously salvaged from rare scans-of-scans through a serendipitous twist of fate — in Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition (public library | IndieBound).

What makes Jansson’s comics timelessly delightful and particularly timely in today’s culture is that she addresses serious, often uncomfortable issues — uncertainty, heartbreak, mortality, natural disasters, our ample human imperfections — with great compassion and warmth, never chastising or preaching but instead celebrating the light in life and aiming its generous beam at the dark. There are no morality tales — life’s messiness is acknowledged, welcomed, and never forced into artificial tidiness. There is love, lots of it, and loneliness too — and, sometimes, the loneliness of love unrequited, but that too is welcomed with quiet consolation.

Tove Jansson in 1967 (photograph by Hans Gedda)

While all the twenty-one comics in this handsome centennial volume reveal various facets of Jansson’s spirit and creative vision, one in particular sang to me more mesmerically than all others. It captures the warm wisdom of her famous saying, “You are alone but that’s okay, we’re all alone.” — something she regularly offered not as a nihilistic lament but as affectionate assurance, one all the more sorely needed today.

Titled “Club Life in Moominvalley,” the story explores questions of identity, belonging, and our quintessential need for community. More than a century after her fellow Scandinavian Søren Kierkegaard’s piercing reflections on the individual vs. the crowd and why we conform, Jansson shines her gentle sagacity on the fine line between belonging to a group of kindred spirits and relinquishing our integrity in conforming.

One day, Moominpappa announces that he and his buddies have formed a Rebel Fathers Club. When Moominmamma — a rather feminist character in the series — inquires whether “rebel mothers” could join, she is unceremoniously declined.

With the classic in-group/out-group dynamic, the Fathers Club decides to define itself not by what it stands for but what it stands against. But they can’t pit themselves against the police because the police chief is an old friend of Moominpappa’s, and they can’t stand in opposition to the crime world because Stinky, the fuzzy perpetrator of Moominvalley mischief, is also an old friend. Eventually, they decide to form a rebel club for the sake thereof, rebelling nothing in particular, because “the important thing is, after all, to meet and have a good time” — “and wear a special tie.”

Moominmamma and her son, eager to join a club of their own, innocently agree to participate Stinky’s cryptic and obviously unwholesome plan, which requires that they don a disguise for a “meeting” in the middle of the night. “Their club hasn’t even a decent tie,” Moominmamma laments as she carries forth with the plan nonetheless. Once she arrives, it becomes clear that the club’s mission is to steal. “What sort of things do you steal for the poor?” charitable Moomintroll inquires, and Stinky responds that, like the Fathers Club, the Robbers Club has no particular focus — they’d steal anything. Moominmamma is reluctant and agrees to a “passive membership” at most, as Jansson pokes her subtle satire at our noncommittal tendencies of wanting to join causes but not wanting to do the work.

As passive members of the Robbers Club, Moominmamma and her son are asked to take a Fight Club-esque vow of silence: “May the ground open and devour me if I betray the club.” But when the police chief gets wind of the crime in the valley, Moominmamma finds herself in an ever-growing mesh of evasions, omissions, and almost-lies. (She is, after all, too charitable to explicitly lie — once again, Jansson winks at how we rationalize our actions.) When the chief asks if he can add Moominmamma to the crime-fighters club, she agrees once again only to a passive membership, only semi-aware of the conflict with her passive membership in Robbers Club.

After a series of misadventures involving the stolen cow, blackmail letters from Stinky, a valley-wide search for Moominmamma’s stolen bag, and various contradictory club-versus-club demands, she manages to steal her bag back with Stinky’s help — but it is still a crime and the police chief, who is rather hurt by the Moomins’ flip-flopping loyalties, must dispense punishment. He sentences the Moomins “to remain in all the clubs as active members for their whole lives!” — Jansson’s prescient comment on the absurdity of overzealous social networking and the punishing consequences of people-pleasing.

Jansson’s finest line in the story — one of her signature packets of simply worded, instantly pause-giving wisdom, the kind one might expect from Winnie the Pooh — is a comment on precisely that:

It’s rather difficult, when one has MANY friends, to show loyalty to them all at the same time…

The full strip and the remaining twenty in Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition — a fine addition to both the year’s best art books and best philosophy books — are immensely rewarding, unfolding new layers of Jansson’s wit and wisdom uncovered with each reading. Complement this treasure with Jansson’s Moomin-channeled ode to uncertainty, presence, and self-reliance.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by 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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12 DECEMBER, 2014

Pearl S. Buck, the Youngest Woman to Receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, on Art, Writing and the Nature of Creativity

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“The creative instinct is … an enormous extra vitality, a super-energy, born inexplicably in an individual… — an energy which no single life can consume.”

On December 10, 1938, novelist, essayist, and civil rights activist Pearl S. Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.” Buck was born in China to American missionary parents and spent the first four decades of her life living there — an experience she wove into her beloved book The Good Earth, which had won the Pulitzer Prize six years earlier. Although three other women had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature prior to Buck, she was and remains the youngest female laureate — at 46, she was nineteen years younger than the average laureate in the category and the third-youngest to that point, after Rudyard Kipling and, only narrowly, Harry Sinclair Lewis. The only younger laureate since Buck has been Albert Camus.

Two days after the announcement, on December 12, Buck took the stage at the Swedish Academy to deliver a superb acceptance address, eventually included Nobel Writers on Writing (public library | IndieBound). Although much of the speech is true to its title — “The Chinese Novel” — at its heart lies a broader, exquisitely timeless contemplation of the purpose of art and the vitalizing nature of creativity.

Buck considers the shimmering aliveness of which creative work is born:

The instinct which creates the arts is not the same as that which produces art. The creative instinct is, in its final analysis and in its simplest terms, an enormous extra vitality, a super-energy, born inexplicably in an individual, a vitality great beyond all the needs of his own living — an energy which no single life can consume. This energy consumes itself then in creating more life, in the form of music, painting, writing, or whatever is its most natural medium of expression. Nor can the individual keep himself from this process, because only by its full function is he relieved of the burden of this extra and peculiar energy — an energy at once physical and mental, so that all his senses are more alert and more profound than another man’s, and all his brain more sensitive and quickened to that which his senses reveal to him in such abundance that actuality overflows into imagination. It is a process proceeding from within. It is the heightened activity of every cell of his being, which sweeps not only himself, but all human life about him, or in him, in his dreams, into the circle of its activity.

Noting that art is deduced from this activity, Buck nonetheless cautions against preoccupation with forms and techniques at the expense of clarity of creative vision:

The process which creates is not the process which deduces the shapes of art. The defining of art, therefore, is a secondary and not a primary process. And when one born for the primary process of creation, as the novelist is, concerns himself with the secondary process, his activity becomes meaningless. When he begins to make shapes and styles and techniques and new schools, then he is like a ship stranded upon a reef whose propeller, whirl wildly as it will, cannot drive the ship onward. Not until the ship is in its element again can it regain its course.

She considers the primary — and rather primal, really — focus of the writer:

For the novelist the only element is human life as he finds it in himself or outside himself. The sole test of his work is whether or not his energy is producing more of that life. Are his creatures alive? That is the only question. And who can tell him? Who but those living human beings, the people? Those people are not absorbed in what art is or how it is made — are not, indeed, absorbed in anything very lofty, however good it is. No, they are absorbed only in themselves, in their own hungers and despairs and joys and above all, perhaps, in their own dreams. These are the ones who can really judge the work of the novelist, for they judge by that single test of reality. And the standard of the test is not to be made by the device of art, but by the simple comparison of the reality of what they read, to their own reality.

While William Faulkner, in his own Nobel acceptance speech, asserted that the writer’s role is to be a booster of the human spirit and its highest potentiality, Buck argues that the writer’s primary responsibility is to bear witness to human imperfection and, in the act of witnessing, to offer an assurance and an affirmation of our aliveness:

I have been taught, therefore, that though the novelist may see art as cool and perfect shapes, he may only admire them as he admires marble statues standing aloof in a quiet and remote gallery; for his place is not with them. His place is in the street. He is happiest there. The street is noisy and the men and women are not perfect in the technique of their expression as the statues are. They are ugly and imperfect, incomplete even as human beings, and where they come from and where they go cannot be known. But they are people and therefore infinitely to be preferred to those who stand upon the pedestals of art.

A visual history of Nobel Prizes and laureates. Click image for details.

Complement Nobel Writers on Writing with more superb acceptance speeches by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Elie Wiesel, then revisit this growing library of notable wisdom on writing from famous authors.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by 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.