Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

01 MAY, 2013

Margaret Atwood on Literature’s Women Problem

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“No male writer is likely to be asked to sit on a panel addressing itself to the special problems of a male writer.”

The recent sexism cries over Wikipedia’s segregation of American women novelists into a separate category removed from American novelists, and the subsequent debate, reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s remarkably prescient words on the subject in the introduction to the 1998 anthology Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (public library), a gender-ghettoization of The Paris Review’s Writers at Work series.

Atwood recounts an all-too-familiar anecdote:

Some years ago I was on a panel — that polygonal form of discourse so beloved of the democratic twentieth century — consisting entirely of women, including Jan Morris, who used to be James Morris, and Nayantara Sahgal of India. From the audience came the question “How do you feel about being on a panel of women?” We all prevaricated. Some of us protested that we had been on lots of panels that included men; others said that most panels were male, with a woman dotted here and there for decorative effect, like parsley. Jan Morris said that she was in the process of transcending gender and was aiming at becoming a horse, to which Nayantara Sahgal replied that she hoped it was an English horse, since in some other, poorer countries, horses were not treated very well. Which underlined, for all of us, that there are categories other than male or female worth considering.

I suppose all should have said, “Why not?” Still, I was intrigued by our collective uneasiness. No woman writer wants to be overlooked and undervalued for being a woman; but few, it seems, wish to be defined solely by gender, or constrained by loyalties to it alone — an attitude that may puzzle, hurt, or enrage those whose political priorities cause them to view writing as a tool, a means to an end, rather than as a vocation subject to a Muse who will desert you if you break trust with your calling.

Atwood cites the first interview in the collection, in which Dorothy Parker, witty and wise as ever, nails the subject to its cultural cross:

I’m a feminist, and God knows I’m loyal to my sex, and you must remember that from my very early days, when this city was scarcely safe from buffaloes, I was in the struggle for equal rights for women. But when we paraded through the catcalls of men and when we chained ourselves to lampposts to try to get our equality — dear child, we didn’t foresee those female writers.

Impeccable humor aside, Atwood strikes at the heart of the issue:

Male writers may suffer strains on their single-minded dedication to their art for reasons of class or race or nationality, but so far no male writer is likely to be asked to sit on a panel addressing itself to the special problems of a male writer, or be expected to support another writer simply because he happens to be a man. Such things are asked of women writers all the time, and it makes them jumpy.

Joyce Carol Oates, who voiced her indignation over the recent Wikipedia controversy in a tweet and whose interview closes the anthology, quips to the interviewer upon being asked to name “the advantages of being a woman writer”:

Advantages! Too many to enumerate, probably. Since, being a woman, I can’t be taken altogether seriously by the sort of male critics who rank writers 1, 2, 3 in the public press, I am free, I suppose, to do as I like.

Atwood’s solution, seemingly simple, is as poignant today — in part because it’s so simple yet so evidently difficult to indoctrinate — as it was fifteen years ago:

Despite the title of this book, the label should probably read, “WWAWW,” Writers Who Are Also Women.

(But this, I suppose, does’t quite roll off the tongue as a Wikipedia category title.)

Complement with Margaret Atwood’s 10 rules of writing and Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, then wash down with some timeless wisdom on the craft from some excellent Writers Who Are Also Women: Susan Orlean, Mary Gordon, Susan Sontag, Zadie Smith, Mary Karr, Joan Didion, Helen Dunmore, Isabel Allende, and Joy Williams.

Photograph via Random House

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30 APRIL, 2013

Cosmic Apprentice: Dorion Sagan on Why Science and Philosophy Need Each Other

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“A good scientific theory shines its light, revealing the world’s fearful symmetry. And its failure is also a success, as it shows us where to look next.”

As if to define what science is and what philosophy is weren’t hard enough, to delineate how the two fit together appears a formidable task, one that has spurred rather intense opinions. But that’s precisely what Dorion Sagan, who has previously examined the prehistoric history of sex, braves in the introduction to Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science (public library) as he sets out to explore the intricate ways in which the two fields hang “in a kind of odd balance, watching each other, holding hands”:

The difference between science and philosophy is that the scientist learns more and more about less and less until she knows everything about nothing, whereas a philosopher learns less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything. There is truth in this clever crack, but, as Niels Bohr impressed, while the opposite of a trivial truth is false, the opposite of a great truth is another great truth.

I would say that applies to the flip side of the above flip takedown: Science’s eye for detail, buttressed by philosophy’s broad view, makes for a kind of alembic, an antidote to both. This intellectual electrum cuts the cloying taste of idealist and propositional philosophy with the sharp nectar of fact yet softens the edges of a technoscience that has arguably lost both its moral and its epistemological compass, the result in part of its being funded by governments and corporations whose relationship to the search for truth and its open dissemination can be considered problematic at best.

Sagan refutes the popular perception of science as rationally objective, a vessel of capital-T Truth, reminding us that every scientific concept and theory was birthed by a subjective, fallible human mind:

All observations are made from distinct places and times, and in science no less than art or philosophy by particular individuals. … Although philosophy isn’t fiction, it can be more personal, creative and open, a kind of counterbalance for science even as it argues that science, with its emphasis on a kind of impersonal materialism, provides a crucial reality check for philosophy and a tendency to overtheorize that [is] inimical to the scientific spirit. Ideally, in the search for truth, science and philosophy, the impersonal and autobiographical, can “keep each other honest,” in a kind of open circuit. Philosophy as the underdog even may have an advantage, because it’s not supposed to be as advanced as science, nor does it enjoy science’s level of institutional support — or the commensurate heightened risks of being beholden to one’s benefactors.

Like Richard Feynman, who argued tirelessly for the scientist’s responsibility to remain unsure, Sagan echoes the idea that willful ignorance is what drives science and the fear of being wrong is one of its greatest hindrances:

Science’s spirit is philosophical. It is the spirit of questioning, of curiosity, of critical inquiry combined with fact-checking. It is the spirit of being able to admit you’re wrong, of appealing to data, not authority, which does not like to admit it is wrong.

In noting that a scientific theory must transcend the purely epistemological and reflect both pragmatic and aesthetic sensibilities, Sagan observes:

Some perspectives, some theories lead to many new questions, new devices, and enriched worldviews. They must be counted not just as true and productive but beautiful and stimulating, like poems or paintings, except that their medium is not pigments or words but our perception and intellection.

Sagan reflects on his father’s conviction that “the effort to popularize science is a crucial one for society,” one he shared with Richard Feynman, and what made Carl’s words echo as profoundly and timelessly as they do:

Science and philosophy both had a reputation for being dry, but my father helped inject life into the former, partly by speaking in plain English and partly by focusing on the science fiction fantasy of discovering extraterrestrial life.

In that respect, science could learn from philosophy’s intellectual disposition:

Philosophy today, not taught in grade school in the United States, is too often merely an academic pursuit, a handmaiden or apologetics of science, or else a kind of existential protest, a trendy avocation of grad students and the dark-clad coffeehouse set. But philosophy, although it historically gives rise to experimental science, sometimes preserves a distinct mode of sustained questioning that sharply distinguishes it from modern science, which can be too quick to provide answers.

[…]

Philosophy is less cocksure, less already-knowing, or should be, than the pundits’ diatribes that relieve us of the difficulties of not knowing, of carefully weighing, of looking at the other side, of having to think things through for ourselves. Dwell in possibility, wrote Emily Dickinson: Philosophy at its best seems a kind of poetry, not an informational delivery but a dwelling, an opening of our thoughts to the world.

Like Buckminster Fuller, who vehemently opposed specialization, Sagan attests to the synergetic value of intellectual cross-pollination, attesting to the idea that true breakthroughs in science require cross-disciplinary connections and originality consists of linking up ideas whose connection was not previously suspected:

It is true that science requires analysis and that it has fractured into microdisciplines. But because of this, more than ever, it requires synthesis. Science is about connections. Nature no more obeys the territorial divisions of scientific academic disciplines than do continents appear from space to be colored to reflect the national divisions of their human inhabitants. For me, the great scientific satoris, epiphanies, eurekas, and aha! moments are characterized by their ability to connect.

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points,” advised Martine in his wonderful 1866 guide to the art of conversation, “ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” Science, Sagan suggests — at least at its most elegant — is a conversation of constant revision, where each dead end brings to life a new fruitful question:

Theories are not only practical, and wielded like intellectual swords to the death … but beautiful. A good one is worth more than all the ill-gotten hedge fund scraps in the world. A good scientific theory shines its light, revealing the world’s fearful symmetry. And its failure is also a success, as it shows us where to look next.

Supporting Neil deGrasse Tyson’s contention that intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance, Sagan applies this very paradigm of connection-making to the crux of the age-old science vs. religion debate, painting evolution not as a tool of certitude but as a reminder of our connectedness to everything else:

Connecting humanity with other species in a single process was Darwin’s great natural historical accomplishment. It showed that some of the issues relegated to religion really come under the purview of science. More than just a research program for technoscience, it provides a eureka moment, a subject of contemplation open in principle to all thinking minds. Beyond the squabbles over its mechanisms and modes, evolution’s epiphany derives from its widening of vistas, its showing of the depths of our connections to others from whom we’d thought we were separate. Philosophy, too … in its ancient, scientifico-genic spirit of inquiry so different from a mere, let alone peevish, recounting of facts, needs to be reconnected to science for the latter to fulfill its potential not just as something useful but as a source of numinous moments, deep understanding, and indeed, religious-like epiphanies of cosmic comprehension and aesthetic contemplation.

The essays in Cosmic Apprentice go on to explore such inevitably captivating subjects as our sense of identity, the nonlinearity of time, and the ethical dilemmas of biopolitics.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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30 APRIL, 2013

How One of Literature’s Greatest Loves Began: The Fateful Meeting of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein

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“She had remarkable eyes, very large and lively, the kind that seem to send off sparks, that sometimes look glowing with an inner fire.”

Alice B. Toklas, born on April 30, 1877, is remembered for two things: being Gertrude Stein’s great love and writing her unusual, revered memoir-disguised-as-cookbook chronicling their life together. On September 8, 1907, her first day as an American expat in Paris, Toklas met Stein. The two fell instantly in love and remained together for the next 39 years, until Stein’s death. Stein often referred to Toklas as her “wifey” and addressed her as “baby precious.” Writing late into the night, the author liked to leave notes next to the pillow for Alice to find in the morning, signed “Y.D,” short for “Your Darling.” In an ideal, civilized world of human rights and equality, theirs would have been a marriage — and it would have been one of the happiest and most exemplary in literary history.

In her memoir, What Is Remembered (public library), Alice relays the fateful encounter, conveying with admirably few words the immense, intense mesmerism of their relationship:

It was Gertrude Stein who held my complete attention, as she did for all the many years I knew her. I knew her until her death, and all these empty ones since then. She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair. She was dressed in a warm brown corduroy suit. She wore a large round coral brooch and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else’s voice — deep, full, velvety, like a great contralto’s, like two voices.

In the foreword to the Folio illustrated edition of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, M. F. K. Fisher paints an expressive portrait of Toklas, which seems to begin rather ungenerous but quickly turns lovable, bewitching even:

Her face was sallow, her nose was big or even huge, and hooked and at the same time almost fleshy, the kind that artists try not to draw. And she had a real moustache, not the kind that old women often grow, but the sturdy kind, which started when she was first going into adolescence. I don’t think she ever tried to shave it, or have it plucked out or removed chemically or with hormones, as a woman might do today. She wore it unblinkingly, as far as I can tell, although of course as a person of unusual awareness she must have known that some people were taken aback by it. A friend of mine who admired her greatly, and often traveled with her in her last years, wrote that Miss Toklas wore her close-cropped hair, which stayed black well into her eighties, in bangs “faintly echoed by a dark down on her lip.” This amuses me. It is typical of the general reaction to something that would have been unnoticed except for her obvious femaleness. Another friend said more aptly, or at least better for my own picture, that her strong black moustache made other faces look nude.

She had remarkable eyes, very large and lively, the kind that seem to send off sparks, that sometimes look glowing with an inner fire. Probably people who were intimidated at first by her fixed upon them with relief … that is, until they forgot their shyness in the deft, supple way she moved and talked.

She was a tiny person, not five feet tall, I think, and she dressed with a studied daintiness, except for the clunky sandals on her pretty feet. … She loved dramatic hats, and after Miss Stein’s death she wore them oftener in rare gaddings … big extravagant creations with feathers and wide brims, and always the elegant suits and those clunky sandals. Nobody has ever written, though, that she looked eccentric. Perhaps it was because of her eyes. . . .

Slim and simply worded yet incredibly moving, What Is Remembered endures as a projection of Toklas herself, one that stays with you long after the lights have gone out.

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