Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

29 MAY, 2013

Be Like Water: The Philosophy and Origin of Bruce Lee’s Famous Metaphor for Resilience

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“In order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.”

With his singular blend of physical prowess and metaphysical wisdom, coupled with his tragic untimely death, legendary Chinese-American martial artist, philosopher, and filmmaker Bruce Lee (1940-1973) is one of those rare cultural icons whose ethos and appeal remain timeless, attracting generation after generation of devotees. Inspired by the core principles of Wing Chun, the ancient Chinese conceptual martial art, which he learned from his only formal martial arts teacher, Yip Man, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. When he left Hong Kong in 1959, Lee adapted Wing Chun into his own version, Jun Fan Gung Fu — literal translation: Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu — and popularized it in America.

In 1971, at the peak of his career, Lee starred in four episodes of the short-lived TV series Longstreet. In one of them, he delivered his most oft-cited metaphor for the philosophy of Gung Fu, based on the Chinese concept of wu wei:

But the famed snippet belies the full dimensionality of the metaphor and says nothing about how Lee arrived at it. Luckily, in Bruce Lee: Artist of Life (public library) — a compendium of his never-before-published private letters, notes, and poems, offering unprecedented insight into his philosophy on life and his convictions about martial arts, love, and parenthood — Lee traces the thinking that originated his famous metaphor, which came after a period of frustration with his inability to master “the art of detachment” that Yip Man was trying to impart on him. Lee writes:

When my acute self-consciousness grew to what the psychologists refer to as the “double-bind” type, my instructor would again approach me and say, “Loong, preserve yourself by following the natural bends of things and don’t interfere. Remember never to assert yourself against nature; never be in frontal opposition to any problems, but control it by swinging with it. Don’t practice this week: Go home and think about it.”

And so he did, spending the following week at home:

After spending many hours meditating and practicing, I gave up and went sailing alone in a junk. On the sea I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched the water! Right then — at that moment — a thought suddenly struck me; was not this water the very essence of gung fu? Hadn’t this water just now illustrated to me the principle of gung fu? I struck it but it did not suffer hurt. Again I struck it with all of my might — yet it was not wounded! I then tried to grasp a handful of it but this proved impossible. This water, the softest substance in the world, which could be contained in the smallest jar, only seemed weak. In reality, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.

Suddenly a bird flew by and cast its reflection on the water. Right then I was absorbing myself with the lesson of the water, another mystic sense of hidden meaning revealed itself to me; should not the thoughts and emotions I had when in front of an opponent pass like the reflection of the birds flying over the water? This was exactly what Professor Yip meant by being detached — not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked. Therefore in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.

Bruce Lee (right) with his only formal martial art instructor, Yip Man

Quoting from Lao Tzu’s famous teachings, Lee writes:

The natural phenomenon which the gung fu man sees as being the closest resemblance to wu wei [the principle of spontaneous action governed by the mind and not the senses] is water:

Nothing is weaker than water,
But when it attacks something hard
Or resistant, then nothing withstands it,
And nothing will alter its way.

The above passages from the Tao Te Ching illustrate to us the nature of water: Water is so fine that it is impossible to grasp a handful of it; strike it, yet it does not suffer hurt; stab it, and it is not wounded; sever it, yet it is not divided. It has no shape of its own but molds itself to the receptacle that contains it. When heated to the state of steam it is invisible but has enough power to split the earth itself. When frozen it crystallizes into a mighty rock. First it is turbulent like Niagara Falls, and then calm like a still pond, fearful like a torrent, and refreshing like a spring on a hot summer’s day. So is the principle of wu wei:

The rivers and seas are lords of a hundred valleys. This is because their strength is in lowliness; they are kings of them all. So it is that the perfect master wishing to lead them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, men do not feel him to be an injury. And since he will not strive, none strive with him.

Bruce Lee: Artist of Life is fantastic in its entirety.

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28 MAY, 2013

Gay Talese’s Portrait of the Tallest Man in New York

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“His knuckles are like golf balls and, when he shakes your hand, he envelops your wrist in lukewarm flesh.”

In 1961, 29-year-old Gay Talese penned New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey (public library) — the most glorious portrait of Gotham’s vibrant life since E.B. White’s Here Is New York, the same obscure out-of-print gem that gave us Talese’s illustrated taxonomy of the social order of New York cats. What makes Talese’s writing characteristically sublime are the nuances with which he examines New York’s living fabric through fascinating characters like a seventy-year-old George Washington impersonator, a cat psychologist, a professional mourner paid to cry at funerals, and the city’s only chauffeur who has a chauffeur, portrayed not with the gawking censoriousness of a freak-show spectator but with the sensitive curiosity of a humanist. Among them is the tallest person in New York — a young man of great humor and humility, whose physical givens have tossed him into an amplified, tangible version of the psychological paradoxes of which most of us are woven.

Edward Carmel (Photograph by Martin Lichtner, New York: A Serendipiter's Journey)

The tallest man in New York, Edward Carmel, stands 8 feet 2 inches, weighs 475 pounds, eats like a horse, and lives in the Bronx. His knuckles are like golf balls and, when he shakes your hand, he envelops your wrist in lukewarm flesh. He pays $150 for each pair of shoes, $275 for each tailor-made suit, and sleeps at right angles on a seven-foot bed. At the movies he either sits or stands in the rear, or tries to get a front-row seat so he can extend his legs. He was born twenty-five years ago in Tel Aviv, and at birth weighed 15 pounds. At 11 years of age, he was a 6-footer; at 14, a 7-footer; at 18, an 8-footer. “I never recall being shorter than my father,” he says.

The father of the Tallest Man in New York, an insurance salesman, is 5 feet 6 inches. His mother is 5 feet 5 inches. But his great-grandfather, Emanuel, stood 7 feet 7 inches, and was billed The Tallest Rabbi in the World.

So far, Ed Carmel has earned his living from six sources, although his yearly income from all is probably less than $10,000. He has acted in monster movies, been hired as a Happy Clown, appeared as a wrestler, delivered deep-voiced radio commercials, played the “World’s Tallest Cowboy” in the Garden for Ringling Bros., and sold Mutual Funds. … In his latest film, The Head That Would Not Die, which did not win an Oscar, Ed played the Son of Frankenstein. In this picture he chewed on a doctor’s arm, hurled a half-naked girl over a table, burned down a house, and would have committed even more mayhem except, he said, “it was a low-budget film.”

“A year ago,” he said, “a wrestling promoter spotted me and they immediately billed me as ‘Eliezer Har Carmel — World’s Wrestling Champion from Israel.’ I’d never wrestled before I became champion. All they asked me to do was appear at some wrestling shows, strangle the ring announcer, make like a real lunatic, and watch as all the other wrestlers jumped out of my way. So I put in a few appearances, but never did get a match. I retired undefeated.

Ed Carmel came to America with his parents when he was three and a half. “My childhood,” he said, “was awfully, awfully rough.” He was the butt of jokes, was reticent in school and reclusive out of it.

[…]

After his graduation from Taft High School in 1954, he attended City College, where he acted in the dramatic group, wrote sports for the campus newspaper, ran for vice-president of his class — and won. “After two years at CCNY, I thought I could go out into the cold world and get a job as an announcer or actor,” he said. “So I quit school, but everywhere I went they asked, ‘What have you done?’ I tried out for the lead in the Broadway show, The Tall Story, which was about a basketball player, but I was too tall.”

The only employment he could find on television was in monster roles, and his acting lines thus far have consisted of a series of grunts and groans. If he gets any comfort at all from his life, it is perhaps in his conviction that it’s better to be very conspicuous in New York than not to be conspicuous at all. “In New York,” said the Tallest Man, “I feel I’m somebody. I feel I have to give an illusion of prosperity in the subway, that I can’t go out without wearing a suit and tie. I know that everybody I meet in New York is going to be attracted to me — or repelled by me — because of my size.”

The Tallest Man in New York has a wry smile, is extremely intelligent, and possesses a sense of humor dipped in vitriol. “New York,” he mused, “is an exciting town. Every day represents a new challenge — a new step forward on the road to getting an ulcer. In this city you’re invariably waiting for some son-of-a-bitch to call — and he doesn’t.”

New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey, should you be so fortunate to track down a surviving copy, is the kind of treasure that tosses you into outrage over why we allow such books to go out of print. Complement it with the equally human Mapping Manhattan, Berenice Abbott’s breathtaking Changing New York, and the indispensable New York Diaries.

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27 MAY, 2013

Marguerite Duras on Immortality, Life & the Art of Seeing, Illustrated

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“The art of seeing has to be learned.”

Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie,Stephen King proclaimed, and a beacon of this conviction is The Lover (public library) — a short and stirring 1984 autobiographical novel by Marguerite Duras, with a cover as iconic as the book itself, designed by the inimitable Louise Fili.

For this latest installment in the Brain Pickings artist series, designer and artist Kerri Augenstein has illustrated some of my marginalia from this masterpiece, including a poetic meditation on the recently explored question of immortality, in the style of her magnificent Dumb Dots Figure Studies series. Each is in reality a 10-foot drawing, so the screen does it little justice, but their elegant beauty still mesmerizes:

It’s while it’s being lived that life is immortal, while it’s still alive. Immortality is not a matter of more or less time, it’s not really a question of immortality but of something else that remains unknown. It’s as untrue to say it’s without beginning or end as to say it begins and ends with the life of the spirit, since it partakes both of the spirit and of the pursuit of the void.

The art of seeing has to be learned.

Both pieces are available on Etsy as limited-edition 5.5″ x 9.5″ prints in Kerri’s Etsy shop. You can find out about the philosophy behind her Figure Studies series here.

The Lover is a sublime and timeless read that, though semi-fictional, offers keen insight into the complex machinery of love on par with these 5 essential books on the art and science of love.

Previous artist series have included Susan Sontag on art and on love illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton, Anaïs Nin on love and more love illustrated by Debbie Millman, Salvador Dalí’s creative credo illustrated by Moly Crabapple, and Anaïs Nin on life illustrated by Lisa Congdon.

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:





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