Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

18 OCTOBER, 2012

Displays of Affection: Iconic French Cartoonist Sempé Explores Relationship Clichés

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Charming illustrated voyeurism into the lives of people falling in and out of love.

“I prefer drawing to talking,” Le Corbusier famously proclaimed. “Drawing is faster and leaves less room for lies.” The best of drawing can reveal deep and tender truths with just a few simple, expressive lines. That’s what Jean-Jacques Sempé, France’s most celebrated cartoonist, does in Displays of Affection (public library) — a wonderful “book of people falling in (and out) of love,” originally published in 1981. Among other delights of the heart, the charming narrative explores two of my favorite things: bikes and love.

Edward Koren writes in the introduction:

The success of a social satirist can be measured by how much enthusiasm for his work the subjects (and objects) of his satire are willing to show. The great popularity in France enjoyed by Sempé attests to the fond way the French have come to view themselves through his eyes and ears, and to rely on his extraordinary sensibility to get a view of themselves. … The people in Sempé’s world are more the denizens of a global petite bourgeoisie, equally identifiable on both hemispheres and on all the inhabited continents. They live in the humdrum shadow of greatness that for them is chronically out of reach. Inspiration, passion, joy, immortality are some of the ideals never achieved by Sempé’s people, who must content themselves with mundane issues of sustenance, security, uncertainty, anxiety, anger, timidity, and self-importance, to name but a few. All this (and many more subtle and sensitive ingredients) is made laughable and sad by Sempé, who mixes his people into situations that are clichés of modern life.

The enchantment of it, of course, is that even in the most centered and confident of us lives a Sempé character who, if let loose, can steer the wheel — or pedal the bicycle, as it were — in disheartening directions. Koren continues:

Displays of Affection has Sempé fixing his voyeuristic eye and eavesdropping ear on that most clichéd of all subjects — relationships. The great ideal of the grand and lasting passion smiles down on the bumbling solitude of his lovers and mates, who fight, scold, daydream, protect themselves with envelopes of self-importance, always ending up in the same routinized lives they started with. And what is amazing to those of us enmeshed in the deadly seriousness of these matters is how Sempé, with Olympian dispassion, makes it all familiar, personal, real, and truly funny.

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17 OCTOBER, 2012

Action Philosophers: Two Millennia of Philosophy in Comic Form

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John Stuart Mill meets Peanuts, or how to handle mummies like Carl Jung.

Graphic nonfiction has established itself as a storytelling medium for educational entertainment and entertaining education, from the history of the atomic bomb to the life and times of Hunter S. Thompson to the Zen of Steve Jobs. Action Philosophers! (public library), a mega-tome collecting all nine volumes of the celebrated series by graphic artist Ryan Dunlavey and writer Fred Van Lente, takes you on an ideological journey from the pre-Socratics to Jacques Derrida, by way of Rene Descartes, John Stuart Mill, and Carl Jung, giving those literary action figures a run for the money.

Open Culture

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17 OCTOBER, 2012

No Decent Woman or Girl is Ever Seen Wearing Trousers: 12 Conduct Rules for Women from Rural Spain

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“No decent woman or girl is ever seen on a bicycle.”

It’s one thing to look at a Victorian list of don’ts for women on bicycles with amusement-softened outrage, perhaps because we have the luxury of looking back on those times with the detached smugness of an evolved society. But it’s quite something else to encounter a similar list from an era too uncomfortably close to our own. Such is the case of a poster James Michener makes note of in Iberia, which he encounters pinned to a church door while traveling across rural Spain in the late 1960s. Dated July 11, 1943, and laid out by a bishop as a code of conduct for local life, the twelve-point directive bespeaks religion’s persistent, matter-of-factly subjugation of women:

  1. Women shall not appear on the streets of this village with dresses that are too tight in those places which provoke the evil passions of men.
  2. They must never wear dresses that are too short.
  3. They must be particularly careful not to wear dresses that are low-cut in front.
  4. It is shameful for women to walk in the streets with short sleeves.
  5. Every woman who appears in the streets must wear stockings.
  6. Women must not wear transparent or network cloth over those parts which decency requires to be covered.
  7. At the age of twelve girls must begin to wear dresses that reach to the knee, and stockings at all times.
  8. Little boys must not appear in the streets with their upper legs bare.
  9. Girls must never walk in out-of-the-way places because to do so is both immoral and dangerous.
  10. No decent woman or girl is ever seen on a bicycle.
  11. No decent woman is ever seen wearing trousers.
  12. What they call in the cities ‘modern dancing’ is strictly forbidden.

The most jarring part, however, is that the poster is made all the more tragicomic by new evidence that, in many ways, things have hardly gotten better.

The Atlantic @FaisalSethi

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17 OCTOBER, 2012

How the Invention of Walls Gave Rise to Eavesdropping

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A brief history of personal opacity and public space.

In Eavesdropping: An Intimate History (public library), biolinguist John L. Locke takes a fascinating look at the ubiquitous yet largely unexamined cultural phenomenon, from medieval voyeurism to Hitchcock’s Rear Window to Twitter and Facebook, by way of chimpanzee behavior and bird calls. He points to two conflicting features of eavesdropping that make it particularly interesting: On the one hand, it feeds on activity that is inherently intimate, with the “sender(s)” of the information unaware of its “receiver”; on the other hand, the information relayed is stolen by the receiver rather than donated by the sender.

But one of Locke’s most intriguing insights traces how the evolution of human civilization, and the rise of urbanization in particular, shaped the norms of — and necessity for — eavesdropping:

Our distant ancestors were secure because they could see each other at all times. They were either trusted, or did not need to be. But on the way to modernity many things happened. A sequence of factors — from sedentism and population growth to the construction of durable housing — nudged our ancestors along a path that could only lead to long periods of personal opacity. The process took many millennia but only began to seriously impact supplies of social knowledge in the last several thousand years.

When residential walls were erected, it was the beginning of truer and deeper forms of intimacy. Walls also made it difficult — and ultimately unnecessary — to look around every few seconds to see what others were doing. A human vigil, one beginning with ancestors that we share with apes, was reduced to manageable proportions, freeing up many hours of undistracted time per day. This would gradually increase opportunities to develop the kind of personal, marital, and familial relationships that we now hold dear.

At one time, the isolation-cum-privacy enabled by walls was about as welcome as incipient blindness. By blocking the eye, walls placed a premium on something that they knew very little about: trust. What was trust? Who could be trusted? With so few previous opportunities to violate trust, it was hard to tell. Predictably, suspiciousness and fear rose precipitously. If walls were to continue, more penetrant means of perception would be needed. Fortunately, a suitable cognitive mechanism was waiting in the wings.

It was eavesdropping, a term that I will use in its conventional sense to mean surreptitious observation as a technique for sampling the intimate experiences of others — whether the surveillant is peeking through a keyhole or just feigning inattention to ambient activity. But I also use the term metaphorically to represent the lifelong quest of all humans to know what is going on in the personal and private lives of others.

Nota Bene: For some bizarre reason, at the time of this writing, Amazon is selling the $35 book for $3 — grab a copy before the algorithm changes its mind.

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