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Posts Tagged ‘books’

29 JANUARY, 2013

Anton Chekhov on the 8 Qualities of Cultured People

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“In order to feel comfortable among educated people, to be at home and happy with them, one must be cultured to a certain extent.”

What does it mean to be “cultured”? Is it about being a good reader, or knowing how to talk about books you haven’t read, or having a general disposition of intellectual elegance? That’s precisely the question beloved Russian author Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) considers in a letter to his older brother Nikolai, an artist. The missive, written when Anton was 26 and Nikolai 28 and found in Letters of Anton Chekhov to his Family and Friends (public domain; public library), dispenses a hearty dose of tough love and outlines the eight qualities of cultured people — including honesty, altruism, and good habits:

MOSCOW, 1886.

… You have often complained to me that people “don’t understand you”! Goethe and Newton did not complain of that…. Only Christ complained of it, but He was speaking of His doctrine and not of Himself…. People understand you perfectly well. And if you do not understand yourself, it is not their fault.

I assure you as a brother and as a friend I understand you and feel for you with all my heart. I know your good qualities as I know my five fingers; I value and deeply respect them. If you like, to prove that I understand you, I can enumerate those qualities. I think you are kind to the point of softness, magnanimous, unselfish, ready to share your last farthing; you have no envy nor hatred; you are simple-hearted, you pity men and beasts; you are trustful, without spite or guile, and do not remember evil…. You have a gift from above such as other people have not: you have talent. This talent places you above millions of men, for on earth only one out of two millions is an artist. Your talent sets you apart: if you were a toad or a tarantula, even then, people would respect you, for to talent all things are forgiven.

You have only one failing, and the falseness of your position, and your unhappiness and your catarrh of the bowels are all due to it. That is your utter lack of culture. Forgive me, please, but veritas magis amicitiae…. You see, life has its conditions. In order to feel comfortable among educated people, to be at home and happy with them, one must be cultured to a certain extent. Talent has brought you into such a circle, you belong to it, but … you are drawn away from it, and you vacillate between cultured people and the lodgers vis-a-vis.

Cultured people must, in my opinion, satisfy the following conditions:

  1. They respect human personality, and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others. They do not make a row because of a hammer or a lost piece of india-rubber; if they live with anyone they do not regard it as a favour and, going away, they do not say “nobody can live with you.” They forgive noise and cold and dried-up meat and witticisms and the presence of strangers in their homes.
  2. They have sympathy not for beggars and cats alone. Their heart aches for what the eye does not see…. They sit up at night in order to help P…., to pay for brothers at the University, and to buy clothes for their mother.
  3. They respect the property of others, and therefor pay their debts.
  4. They are sincere, and dread lying like fire. They don’t lie even in small things. A lie is insulting to the listener and puts him in a lower position in the eyes of the speaker. They do not pose, they behave in the street as they do at home, they do not show off before their humbler comrades. They are not given to babbling and forcing their uninvited confidences on others. Out of respect for other people’s ears they more often keep silent than talk.
  5. They do not disparage themselves to rouse compassion. They do not play on the strings of other people’s hearts so that they may sigh and make much of them. They do not say “I am misunderstood,” or “I have become second-rate,” because all this is striving after cheap effect, is vulgar, stale, false….
  6. They have no shallow vanity. They do not care for such false diamonds as knowing celebrities, shaking hands with the drunken P., [Translator’s Note: Probably Palmin, a minor poet.] listening to the raptures of a stray spectator in a picture show, being renowned in the taverns…. If they do a pennyworth they do not strut about as though they had done a hundred roubles’ worth, and do not brag of having the entry where others are not admitted…. The truly talented always keep in obscurity among the crowd, as far as possible from advertisement…. Even Krylov has said that an empty barrel echoes more loudly than a full one.
  7. If they have a talent they respect it. They sacrifice to it rest, women, wine, vanity…. They are proud of their talent…. Besides, they are fastidious.
  8. They develop the aesthetic feeling in themselves. They cannot go to sleep in their clothes, see cracks full of bugs on the walls, breathe bad air, walk on a floor that has been spat upon, cook their meals over an oil stove. They seek as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct…. What they want in a woman is not a bed-fellow … They do not ask for the cleverness which shows itself in continual lying. They want especially, if they are artists, freshness, elegance, humanity, the capacity for motherhood…. They do not swill vodka at all hours of the day and night, do not sniff at cupboards, for they are not pigs and know they are not. They drink only when they are free, on occasion…. For they want mens sana in corpore sano [a healthy mind in a healthy body].

And so on. This is what cultured people are like. In order to be cultured and not to stand below the level of your surroundings it is not enough to have read “The Pickwick Papers” and learnt a monologue from “Faust.” …

What is needed is constant work, day and night, constant reading, study, will…. Every hour is precious for it…. Come to us, smash the vodka bottle, lie down and read…. Turgenev, if you like, whom you have not read.

You must drop your vanity, you are not a child … you will soon be thirty.
It is time!
I expect you…. We all expect you.

A. P. Chekhov (left) with Nikolai Chekhov (right), 1882; public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

For more epistolary notes on the building of character, complement with history’s finest letters of fatherly advice.

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28 JANUARY, 2013

The Science of Love: How Positivity Resonance Shapes the Way We Connect

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The neurobiology of how the warmest emotion blurs the boundaries by you and not-you.

We kick-started the year with some of history’s most beautiful definitions of love. But timeless as their words might be, the poets and the philosophers have a way of escaping into the comfortable detachment of the abstract and the metaphysical, leaving open the question of what love really is on an unglamorously physical, bodily, neurobiological level — and how that might shape our experience of those lofty abstractions. That’s precisely what psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, who has been studying positive emotions for decades, explores in the unfortunately titled but otherwise excellent Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become (UK; public library). Using both data from her own lab and ample citations of other studies, Fredrickson dissects the mechanisms of love to reveal both its mythologies and its practical mechanics.

She begins with a definition that parallels Dorion Sagan’s scientific meditation on sex:

First and foremost, love is an emotion, a momentary state that arises to infuse your mind and body alike. Love, like all emotions, surfaces like a distinct and fast-moving weather pattern, a subtle and ever-shifting force. As for all positive emotions, the inner feeling love brings you is inherently and exquisitely pleasant — it feels extraordinarily good, the way a long, cool drink of water feels when you’re parched on a hot day. Yet far beyond feeling good, a micro-moment of love, like other positive emotions, literally changes your mind. It expands your awareness of your surroundings, even your sense of self. The boundaries between you and not-you — what lies beyond your skin — relax and become more permeable. While infused with love you see fewer distinctions between you and others. Indeed, your ability to see others — really see them, wholeheartedly — springs open. Love can even give you a palpable sense of oneness and connection, a transcendence that makes you feel part of something far larger than yourself.

[…]

Perhaps counterintuitively, love is far more ubiquitous than you ever thought possible for the simple fact that love is connection. It’s that poignant stretching of your heart that you feel when you gaze into a newborn’s eyes for the first time or share a farewell hug with a dear friend. It’s even the fondness and sense of shared purpose you might unexpectedly feel with a group of strangers who’ve come together to marvel at a hatching of sea turtles or cheer at a football game. The new take on love that I want to share with you is this: Love blossoms virtually anytime two or more people — even strangers — connect over a shared positive emotion, be it mild or strong.

Fredrickson zooms in on three key neurobiological players in the game of love — your brain, your levels of the hormone oxytocin, and your vagus nerve, which connects your brain to the rest of your body — and examines their interplay as the core mechanism of love, summing up:

Love is a momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events: first, a sharing of one or more positive emotions between you and another; second, a synchrony between your and the other person’s biochemistry and behaviors; and third, a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care.

She shorthands this trio “positivity resonance” — a concept similar to limbic revision — and likens the process to a mirror in which you and your partner’s emotions come into sync, reflecting and reinforcing one another:

This is no ordinary moment. Within this mirrored reflection and extension of your own state, you see far more. A powerful back-and-forth union of energy springs up between the two of you, like an electric charge.

What makes “positivity resonance” so compelling a concept and so arguably richer than traditional formulations of “love” is precisely this back-and-forthness and the inclusiveness implicit to it. Fredrickson cautions against our solipsistic view of love, common in the individualistic cultures of the West:

Odds are, if you were raised in a Western culture, you think of emotions as largely private events. you locate them within a person’s boundaries, confined within their mind and skin. When conversing about emotions, your use of singular possessive adjectives betrays this point of view. You refer to ‘my anxiety,’ ‘his anger,’ or ‘her interest.’ Following this logic, love would seem to belong to the person who feels it. Defining love as positivity resonance challenges this view. Love unfolds and reverberates between and among people — within interpersonal transactions — and thereby belong to all parties involved, and to the metaphorical connective tissue that binds them together, albeit temporarily. … More than any other positive emotion, then, love belongs not to one person, but to pairs or groups of people. It resides within connections.

Citing various research, Fredrickson puts science behind what Anaïs Nin poetically and intuitively cautioned against more than half a century ago:

People who suffer from anxiety, depression, or even loneliness or low self-esteem perceive threats far more often than circumstances warrant. Sadly, this overalert state thwarts both positivity and positivity resonance. Feeling unsafe, then, is the first obstacle to love.

But perhaps the insight hardest to digest in the age of artificial semi-connectedness — something Nin also cautioned against a prescient few decades before the internet — has to do with the necessary physicality of love:

Love’s second precondition is connection, true sensory and temporal connection with another living being. You no doubt try to ‘stay connected’ when physical distance keeps you and your loved ones apart. You use the phone, e-mail, and increasingly texts or Facebook, and it’s important to do so. Yet your body, sculpted by the forces of natural selection over millennia, was not designed for the abstractions of long-distance love, the XOXs and LOLs. Your body hungers for more.

[…]

True connection is one of love’s bedrock prerequisites, a prime reason that love is not unconditional, but instead requires a particular stance. Neither abstract nor mediated, true connection is physical and unfolds in real time. It requires sensory and temporal copresence of bodies .The main mode of sensory connection, scientists contend, is eye contact. Other forms of real-time sensory contact — through touch, voice, or mirrored body postures and gestures — no doubt connect people as well and at times can substitute for eye contact. Nevertheless, eye contact may well be the most potent trigger for connection and oneness.

[…]

Physical presence is key to love, to positivity resonance.

While Fredrickson argues for positivity resonance as a phenomenon that can blossom between any set of people, not just lovers, she takes care to emphasize the essential factor that separates intimate love from other love: time.

Love is a many-splendored thing. This classic saying is apt, not only because love can emerge from the shoots of any other positive emotion you experience, be it amusement, serenity, or gratitude, but also because of your many viable collaborators in love, ranging from our sister to your soul mate, your newborn to your neighbor, even someone you’ve never met before.

[…]

At the level of positivity resonance, micro-moments of love are virtually identical regardless of whether they bloom between you and a stranger or you and a soul mate; between you and an infant or you and your lifelong best friend. The clearest difference between the love you feel with intimates and the love you feel with anyone with whom you share a connection is its sheer frequency. Spending more total moments together increases your chances to feast on micro-moments of positivity resonance. These micro-moments change you.

[…]

Whereas the biological synchrony that emerges between connected brains and bodies may be comparable no matter who the other person may be, the triggers for your micro-moments of love can be wholly different with intimates. The hallmark feature of intimacy is mutual responsiveness, that reassuring sense that you and your soul mate — or you and your best friend — really ‘get’ each other. This means that you come to your interactions with a well-developed understanding of each other’s inner workings, and you use that privileged knowledge thoughtfully, for each other’s benefit. Intimacy is that safe and comforting feeling you get when you can bask in the knowledge that this other person truly understands and appreciates you. You can relax in this person’s presence and let your guard down. Your mutual sense of trust, perhaps reinforced by your commitments of loyalty to each other, allows each of you to be more open with each other than either of you would be elsewhere.

(As the silent half of Penn & Teller once poignantly remarked, “Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”)

Complement Love 2.0, a fine addition to these essential books on the psychology of love, with the indispensable A General Theory of Love.

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28 JANUARY, 2013

Stephen King on Gun Control and Violence

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“Assault weapons will remain readily available to crazy people until the powerful pro-gun forces … accept responsibility, recognizing that responsibility is not the same as culpability.”

More than merely resurfacing the discourse on gun control, the recent tragedy in Newtown illustrated the futile ebb-and-flow of these debates as school shooting after school shooting shakes the nation yet fails to bubble up into actionable government policy. So argues Stephen King in Guns — a short Kindle e-book in which the celebrated novelist brings his uncompromising lens, at once passionate and rationally composed, to the issue of gun violence in America. He argues that while the mere presence of guns may not be a direct cause of violence, access to them in a formidable enabler of existing problems and pathologies in perpetrators who might not otherwise resort to outward violence, harming many.

He begins:

Here’s how it shakes out.

First there’s the shooting. Few of the trigger-pullers are middle-aged, and practically none are old. Some are young men; many are just boys. The Jonesboro, Arkansas, school shooters were 13 and 11.

Second, the initial TV news reports, accompanied by flourishes of music and dramatic BREAKING NEWS logos at the bottom of your screen. No one really knows what the fuck is going on, but it’s exciting. You get your still photo of the location; you get your map from Google or Bing. The cable news producers are busting their asses, trying to get some local news reporter on the phone.

[…]

Twentieth, there’s a killer tornado in Louisiana, or an outbreak of hostilities in the Mideast, or a celebrity dead of a drug overdose. Out comes the dramatic music and the BREAKING NEWS chyrons. The shooting is relegated to second place. Pretty soon it’s in third place. Then it’s a squib behind that day’s funny YouTube video.

Twenty-first, any bills to change existing gun laws, including those that make it possible for almost anyone in America to purchase a high-capacity assault weapon, quietly disappear into the legislative swamp.

Twenty-second, it happens again and the whole thing starts over.

That’s how it shakes out.

King cites the case of his early novel Rage, published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, which resurfaced in the late 1980s and 1990s in four separate incidents of mass shootings, both attempted and actual, by teenagers who had read and seemingly imitated the novel. Even though by the time of the fourth incident in 1997 the book was already part of an omnibus, King insisted it be pulled by the publisher. While his argument bears a faint hue of apologism (one can only imagine the cognitive dissonance that comes with a situation like this), King makes a lucid case for the triggers of violence, be those guns or novels, as precisely that — triggers — rather than singular causes:

These were unhappy boys with deep psychological problems, boys who were bullied at school and bruised at home by parental neglect or outright abuse. They seem to have been operating in a dream, two of them verbally asking themselves afterward why they did what they did.

[…]

My book did not break [them] or turn them into killers; they found something in my book that spoke to them because they were already broken. Yet I did see Rage as a possible accelerant, which is why I pulled it from sale. You don’t leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it.

Nevertheless, I pulled it with real regret. Not because it was great literature — with the possible exception of Arthur Rimbaud, teenagers rarely pen great literature — but because it contained a nasty glowing center of truth that was more accessible to me as an adolescent.

King goes on to argue how profoundly our adolescent experience shapes us, something science has corroborated:

Adults do not forget the horrors and shamings of their childhood, but those feelings tend to lose their immediacy (except perhaps in dreams, where even old men and women find themselves taking tests they have not studied for with no clothes on). The violent actions and emotions portrayed in Rage were drawn directly from the high school life I was living five days a week, nine months of the year. The book told unpleasant truths, and anyone who doesn’t feel a qualm of regret at throwing a blanket over the truth is an asshole with no conscience.

As far as I’m concerned, high school sucked when I went, and probably sucks now. I tend to regard people who remember it as the best four years of their lives with caution and a degree of pity. For most kids, it’s a time of doubt, stress, painful self-consciousness, and unhappiness. They’re actually the lucky ones. For the bullied underclass — the wimps, the shrimps, and the girls who are routinely referred to as scags, bags, or hos — it’s four years of misery and two kinds of hate: the kind you feel for yourself and the kind you feel for the jackwads who bump you in the halls, pull down your shorts in gym class, and pick out some charming nickname like Queerboy or Frogface that sticks to you like glue.

In likening the current state of American political dialogue, including the debate on gun control, to “drunks in a barroom,” King argues the solution lies in the bursting of the “filter bubble”:

If I could wave a magic wand and have one wish granted, I’d wish for an end to world hunger; the small shit could wait in line. If, however, the god or genie who bestowed the magic wand told me my one wish had to do with American politics, I think I’d wave it and make the following proclamation: ‘Every liberal in the country must watch Fox News for one year, and every conservative in the country must watch MSNBC for one year.’ (Middle-of-the-roaders could stick with CSI.)

Can you imagine what that would be like? For the first month, the screams of ‘What IS this shit???’ would echo high to the heavens. For the next three, there would be a period of grumbling readjustment as both sides of the political spectrum realized that, loathsome politics aside, they were still getting the weather, the sports scores, the hard news, and the Geico Gecko. During the next four months, viewers might begin seeing different anchors and commentators, as each news network’s fringe bellowers attracted increasing flak from their new captive audiences. Adamantly shrill editorial stances would begin to modify as a result of tweets and emails saying, ‘Oh, wait a minute, Slick, that’s fucking ridiculous.’ Finally, the viewers themselves might change. Not a lot; just a slide-step or two away from the kumbayah socialists of the left and the Tea Partiers of the right. I’m not saying they’d re-colonize the all-but-deserted middle (lot of cheap real estate there, my brothers and sisters), but they might close in on it a trifle.

[…]

Think of the quiet that might ensue if all that shrill rhetoric were turned down a few notches! Think of the dinner table arguments that might not happen! There might even be (o lost and shining city) a resumption of actual dialogue.

In trying to peer past the us-vs-them rhetoric of the gun control debate, King speaks to the cluster of contradictions inherent to each of us:

When I think of the politically conservative gun enthusiasts who are opposed to any form of gun control, no matter how many innocents die in acts of gun violence, I remember something a Democratic member of the House of Representatives is reputed to have said about Gerald Ford: ‘If he saw a hungry child as he walked to work, he would give that child his bag lunch without hesitation, then go ahead and vote against school lunch subsidies without ever seeing the contradiction.’

Most anti-control firearms enthusiasts have similarly split personalities, and the slogan you sometimes see pasted to the bumpers of their station wagons, campers, and SUVs — YOU WILL TAKE MY GUN WHEN YOU PRY IT FROM MY COLD DEAD HANDS — does not make them bad people. It only makes them walking contradictions, and which of us does not have a few contradictions in our personalities? Most Americans who insist upon their right to own as many guns (and of as many types) as they want see themselves as independent folk who stand on their own two feet; they may send food or clothes to the victims of a natural disaster, but they sure-God don’t want charity themselves. They are, by and large, decent citizens who help their neighbors, do volunteer work in the community, and would not hesitate to stop and help a stranger broke down by the side of the road.

The only assertion I find worrisome is the bombastic certainty with which King dismisses how the “culture of violence” dominating the media, especially entertainment media aimed at young people, affects the development of the human psyche — not so much because I happen to have logged considerable academic hours studying developmental psychology in my own ancient past and remember well Bandura’s famous behavior modeling studies of violence, but mostly because sandwiched in King’s questionably substantiated contention is an outright affront to the general public’s capacity for intellectual stimulation:

The assertion that Americans love violence and bathe in it daily is a self-serving lie promulgated by fundamentalist religious types and America’s propaganda-savvy gun-pimps. It’s believed by people who don’t read novels, play video games, or go to many movies. People actually in touch with the culture understand that what Americans really want (besides knowing all about Princess Kate’s pregnancy) is The Lion King on Broadway, a foul-talking stuffed toy named Ted at the movies, Two and a Half Men on TV, Words with Friends on their iPads, and Fifty Shades of Grey on their Kindles. To claim that America’s ‘culture of violence’ is responsible for school shootings is tantamount to cigarette company executives declaring that environmental pollution is the chief cause of lung cancer.

What a tragic conception of culture, if we were to subscribe to the binary choice between violence and intellectually vacant entertainment. Let’s instead stay with David Foster Wallace, who reminded us that “what we need…is seriously engaged art that can teach us again that we’re smart” and embrace E. B. White’s conviction that the role of the media is “to lift people up, not lower them down.”

Ultimately, King returns to the ethics and rationale behind his decision to revoke Rage, echoing Anaïs Nin on character and responsibility:

I didn’t pull Rage from publication because the law demanded it; I was protected under the First Amendment, and the law couldn’t demand it. I pulled it because in my judgment it might be hurting people, and that made it the responsible thing to do. Assault weapons will remain readily available to crazy people until the powerful pro-gun forces in this country decide to do a similar turnaround. They must accept responsibility, recognizing that responsibility is not the same as culpability. They need to say, ‘We support these measures not because the law demands we support them, but because it’s the sensible thing.’

Until that happens, shooting sprees will continue. We will see the BREAKING NEWS chyrons, the blurry cellphone videos of running people, the tearful relatives, the rolling hearses. We will also see, time and time and time again, how easy it is for the crazies among us to get their hands on portable and efficient weapons of mass destruction.

Because, boys and girls, that’s how it shakes out.

Guns comes as a kind of follow-up to King’s 2008 op-ed on video game violence and, at just $0.99, is well worth a read.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

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