Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

01 JULY, 2015

Legendary Victorian Art Critic John Ruskin on the Value of Imperfection and How Manual Labor Confers Dignity Upon Creative Work

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“It is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.”

Long before Anne Lamott admonished that perfectionism kills creativity, long before Joseph Campbell asserted that “what evokes our love … is the imperfection of the human being,” the great English art critic, draughtsman, watercolorist, and philanthropist John Ruskin (February 8, 1819–January 20, 1900) made history’s most beautiful and enlivening case for the value of imperfection in his 1853 book The Stones of Venice, eventually included in the altogether illuminating Ruskin anthology Unto This Last and Other Writings (public library).

Writing a generation after the Industrial Revolution had finished revolving society into a new era of manufacturing, Ruskin considers the dehumanizing effects of separating creative work from manual labor, arguing that any creatively fulfilling vocation must marry the two. He calls for “a right understanding … of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy” and a “determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labour.”

To put this “right understanding” into practice, he prescribes “the observance of three broad and simple rules”:

  1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which Invention has no share.
  2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.
  3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.

Ruskin adds:

The rule is simple: Always look for invention first, and after that, for such execution as will help the invention, and as the inventor is capable of without painful effort, and no more. Above all, demand no refinement of execution where there is no thought, for that is slaves’ work, unredeemed.

Cautioning against the perilous separation of head and hand, Ruskin counters the common objection that those who are creatively gifted in the art of ideation shouldn’t be wasting their time with the execution of their brilliant ideas but should instead be delegating that work to mere laborers:

All ideas of this kind are founded upon two mistaken suppositions: the first, that one man’s thoughts can be, or ought to be, executed by another man’s hands; the second, that manual labour is a degradation, when it is governed by intellect… We are always in these days endeavouring to separate the two; we want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers, and miserable workers… It is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.

Art from 'Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times,' a visual history of Soviet children's book illustration. Click image for more.

This dialogue between thought and labor, Ruskin argues, is precisely what demands a necessary degree of imperfection in any healthy creative work, for unskillfulness is evidence that the mind “had room for expression.” Ruskin puts it unambiguously:

No good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.

This, Ruskin asserts, happens for two reasons, “both based on everlasting laws.” The first — which Zadie Smith would eco a century and a half later in counseling aspiring writers to resign themselves to “the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied” — has to do with the necessary discontentment that drives all artists to continue creating:

No great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure: that is to say, his mind is always far in advance of his powers of execution, and the latter will now and then give way in trying to follow it; besides that he will always give to the inferior portions of his work only such inferior attention as they require; and according to his greatness he becomes so accustomed to the feeling of dissatisfaction with the best he can do, that in moments of lassitude or anger with himself he will not care though the beholder be dissatisfied also. I believe there has only been one man who would not acknowledge this necessity, and strove always to reach perfection, Leonardo; the end of his vain effort being merely that he would take ten years to a picture and leave it unfinished. And therefore, if we are to have great men working at all, or less men doing their best, the work will be imperfect, however beautiful. Of human work none but what is bad can be perfect, in its own bad way.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

The second reason springs from life’s inherent cycles of growth and decay, from the notion that our mortality confers meaning upon our lives. Imperfection, Ruskin argues, is both a reminder that we are on a journey the final destination of which is total decay, and a celebration of the beauty of our impermanence:

Imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent… And in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry. All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.

Accept this then for a universal law, that [no] noble work of man can be good unless it be imperfect.

Much more of Ruskin’s enduring wisdom on everything from art to morality can be found in Unto This Last and Other Writings. Complement this particular meditation with Simone Weil on how manual labor mediates creative work and discipline, Alan Lightman on why we long for permanence in a universe of constant change, and Anaïs Nin on the magic of bridging head and hand.

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19 JUNE, 2015

Oliver Sacks on Storytelling, the Curious Psychology of Writing, and What His Friendship with the Poet Thom Gunn Taught Him About Creativity and Originality

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“The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing… a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.”

Who we are and who we become is in large part the combinatorial product of the people and ideas we surround ourselves with — what William Gibson so memorably termed our “personal micro-culture” and Brian Eno called “scenius.” The more different those people are from us, the more they expand the echo chamber of our own mind, the more layered and beautiful the symphony of the spirit becomes. Nowhere is this self-expansion via relationship more evident than in the friendships between great artists and great scientists, one of the most heartening examples of which is the friendship between legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks and the poet Thom Gunn.

In On the Move: A Life (public library) — the immeasurable and incompressible rewards of which I have previously extolled at great length and with great love — Dr. Sacks, a Thoreau of the mind, recounts how his relationship with Gunn shaped his own evolution as a writer. In fact, his very autobiography is titled after Gunn’s poem “On the Move” from his 1959 collection Sense of Movement.

Thom Gunn in the early 1960s, around the time Dr. Sacks met him (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

To be sure, Sacks’s love affair with writing predates his meeting Gunn and even his foray into science. Nicknamed Inky as a boy for his voracious appetite for pen and paper, which covered everything in ink, he began journaling at an early age — a formative practice of learning to think on paper and converse with himself. Joining the extensive roster of celebrated writers who championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary and speaking to the potency of journaling as an antidote to Tom Waits’s complaint about the inopportune timing of the muse, Sacks writes:

I started keeping journals when I was fourteen and at last count had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones which I carry around with me to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside, for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts, and I try to have one by the swimming pool or the lakeside or the seashore; swimming too is very productive of thoughts which I must write, especially if they present themselves, as they sometimes do, in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs…

But for the most part, I rarely look at the journals I have kept for the greater part of a lifetime. The act of writing is itself enough; it serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings. The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.

My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.

Dr. Sacks captures a thought in his journal at Amsterdam's busy train station (Photograph: Lowell Handler)

He adds:

The need to think on paper is not confined to notebooks. It spreads onto the backs of envelopes, menus, whatever scraps of paper are at hand. And I often transcribe quotations I like, writing or typing them on pieces of brightly colored paper and pinning them to a bulletin board.

What Sacks is describing is akin to a commonplace book — that Medieval Tumblr in which thinkers recorded quotations and ideas from whatever they were reading, assembling a personal archive of the ideas that shaped their own minds. (Brain Pickings is essentially one giant commonplace book, and this very piece a sort of bulletin board pinned to which is my discourse with Sacks’s extraordinary text.)

Another thought recorded atop a car roof on the side of the road (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

By the time he was in graduate school, Sacks began externalizing these inner conversations, doing for others what he had been doing for himself on the pages of his journals — clarifying the complexities of mental life at the intersection of science and storytelling, honing the singular gift for which he is so beloved today.

He was so electrified by working with patients at a migraine clinic in the mid-1960s that he felt compelled to transmute these insights into a book. But when he finally finished the manuscript and showed it to his boss at the clinic — a prominent but petty and egomaniacal neurologist by the name of Arnold P. Friedman — he was curtly told that the manuscript was garbage, that he had to destroy it, and that he dare not think about turning it into a book ever again; or else, Friedman threatened, Sacks would be promptly fired and barred from getting another job anywhere in America. Friedman confiscated the manuscript and locked it away.

Still, Sacks trusted that he had written something substantive and important — something that might forever change our understanding of how the mind works. He suppressed his feelings for months but, finally, the resentment exploded into action: One night, with the help of the clinic’s janitor, he sneaked in and, between midnight and 3 A.M., arduously copied his own notes by hand. The next day, he told Friedman he was taking a long leave to London and when his boss demanded a reason, Sacks responded that he had no choice but to write the forbidden book.

He was fired via telegram a week later. And yet a strange sense of liberation set in, which he poured into the writing.

But if this wasn’t courageous enough an act, he soon performed what is perhaps the greatest act of creative courage — the same one John Steinbeck had performed three decades earlier in destroying a manuscript he didn’t feel was good enough and rewriting it from scratch into what would become his Pulitzer-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, the cornerstone of his Nobel Prize. Sacks recounts:

I was dissatisfied with my 1967 manuscript and decided to rewrite the book. It was the first of September, and I said to myself, “If I do not have the finished manuscript in Faber’s hands by September 10, I shall have to kill myself.” And under this threat, I started writing. Within a day or so, the feeling of threat had disappeared, and the joy of writing took over. I was no longer using drugs, but it was a time of extraordinary elation and energy. It seemed to me almost as though the book were being dictated, everything organizing itself swiftly and automatically. I would sleep for just a couple of hours a night. And a day ahead of schedule, on September 9, I took the book to Faber & Faber. Their offices were in Great Russell Street, near the British Museum, and after dropping off the manuscript, I walked over to the museum. Looking at artifacts there — pottery, sculptures, tools, and especially books and manuscripts, which had long outlived their creators — I had the feeling that I, too, had produced something. Something modest, perhaps, but with a reality and existence of its own, something that might live on after I was gone.

I have never had such a strong feeling, a feeling of having made something real and of some value, as I did with that first book, which was written in the face of such threats from Friedman and, for that matter, from myself. Returning to New York, I felt a sense of joyousness and almost blessedness. I wanted to shout, “Hallelujah!” but I was too shy. Instead, I went to concerts every night — Mozart operas and Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert — feeling exuberant and alive.

Sacks’s jubilant intuition wasn’t misplaced — that manuscript became his 1970 debut Migraine, which was welcomed with wholehearted critical acclaim and catapulted him into the status of masterful science storyteller. When the book came out, he found out that Friedman had adapted the original manuscript and attempted to publish it under his own name — a tragicomic testament to the fact that it is Sacks’s singular gift as a writer and storyteller, not his scientific genius alone, that make him the cultural icon he is today.

Dr. Sacks recovering in the hospital with nothing but a typewriter by his side. He had broken his leg in Norway, falling down a slippery canyon while being chased by a bull. (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Sacks had befriended Thom Gunn in the early 1960s, but it wasn’t until after the publication of Migraine that he was able to engage with the poet in conversations about writing more confidently — a confidence further nurtured by Gunn’s encouraging feedback which, alongside the staunch support of Sacks’s beloved aunt Lennie, was instrumental in emboldening the budding writer to embark upon this far from easy path.

He talked with Gunn about “the process of writing, the rushes and stoppages, the illuminations and darknesses, which seemed to be part and parcel of the creative process.” Long before cognitive scientists came to study the psychology of writing, Gunn captured the mysterious psychological messiness of the process in one of his letters to Sacks:

I am a bit slothful at the moment. My pattern seems to be: a long cessation of any coherent writing after I have completed a MS, then a tentative start followed by, during the next few years, various separate bursts of activity, ending with a sense of the new book as a whole, in which I make discoveries about my subject(s) that I have never anticipated. It’s strange, the psychology of being a writer. But I suppose it’s better not to be merely facile — the blocks, the feelings of paralysis, the time when language itself seems dead, these all help me in the end, I think, because when the “quickenings” do come they are all the more energetic by contrast.

Sacks reflects on the sincerity of his friend’s values:

It was crucial for Thom that his time be his own; his poetry could not be hurried but had to emerge in its own way… “My income,” [he] wrote, “averages about half that of a local bus-driver or street sweeper, but it is of my own choosing, since I prefer leisure to working at a full-time job.” But I do not think Thom felt too constrained by his slender means; he had no extravagances (though he was generous with others) and seemed naturally frugal. (Things eased up in 1992, when he received a MacArthur Award, and after this he was able to travel more and enjoy some financial ease, to indulge himself a bit.)

I was particularly taken, and felt a deep kinship, with Sacks’s parenthetical note about Gunn’s ethos regarding writing about the writing of others:

Thom rarely reviewed what he did not like, and in general his reviews were written in the mode of appreciation.

Despite knowing his friend’s disposition toward criticism, Sacks recounts:

I sometimes felt terrified of his directness — terrified, in particular, that he would find my writings, such as they were, muzzy, dishonest, talentless, or worse.

But their relationship lived up to Emerson’s assertion that “a friend is a person with whom [one] may be sincere” — Gunn’s feedback, always in the spirit of Samuel Beckett’s masterwork of constructive criticism, was monumentally beneficial to Sacks’s development as a writer, who was “eager for [Gunn’s] reactions, depended on them, and gave them more weight than those of anyone else.”

Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

But the feedback that most touched him was about his 1973 book Awakenings — a cultural classic that has was eventually made into a film starring Robin Williams as Sacks. Gunn wrote:

Awakenings is, anyway, extraordinary. I remember when, some time in the late Sixties, you described the kind of book you wanted to write, simultaneously a good scientific book and worth reading as a well-written book, and you have certainly done it here… I have also been thinking of the Great Diary you used to show me. I found you so talented, but so deficient in one quality — just the most important quality — call it humanity, or sympathy, or something like that. And, frankly, I despaired of your ever becoming a good writer, because I didn’t see how one could be taught such a quality… Your deficiency of sympathy made for a limitation of your observation… What I didn’t know was that the growth of sympathies is something frequently delayed till one’s thirties. What was deficient in these writings is now the supreme organizer of Awakenings, and wonderfully so. It is literally the organizer of your style, too, and is what enables it to be so inclusive, so receptive, and so varied… I wonder if you know what happened. Simply working with the patients over so long, or the opening-up helped by acid, or really falling in love with someone (as opposed to being infatuated). Or all three…

Sacks adds:

I was thrilled by this letter, a bit obsessed, too. I did not know how to answer Thom’s question. I had fallen in love — and out of love — and, in a sense, was in love with my patients (the sort of love, or sympathy, which makes one clear-eyed).

But it was in Gunn’s poetry that Sacks found something else — something tremendously important to our understanding of how creativity works and the constant, necessary dialogue between influence and so-called originality mediated by our imperfect memory, of which Sacks has written beautifully. Reflecting on Gunn’s intricate tapestry of influences — his creative lineage of what Margaret Mead termed our “spiritual and mental ancestors” — Sacks writes:

I loved the sense of history, of predecessors, in many of Thom’s poems. Sometimes this was explicit, as in his “Poem After Chaucer” (which he sent me as a New Year’s card in 1971); more often it was implicit. It made me feel at times that Thom was a Chaucer, a Donne, a Lord Herbert, who now found himself in the America, the San Francisco, of the late twentieth century. This sense of ancestors, of predecessors, was an essential part of his work, and he often alluded to, or borrowed from, other poets and other sources. There was no tiresome insistence on “originality,” and yet, of course, everything he used was transmuted in the process.

Gunn himself, echoing Montaigne’s sentiments about originality, addressed this in an autobiographical essay:

I must count my writing as an essential part of the way in which I deal with life. I am however a rather derivative poet. I learn what I can from whom I can. I borrow heavily from my reading, because I take my reading seriously. It is part of my total experience and I base most of my poetry on my experience. I do not apologize for being derivative… It has not been of primary interest to develop a unique poetic personality, and I rejoice in Eliot’s lovely remark that art is the escape from personality.

Dr. Sacks at home on City Island, the Bronx (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

And yet art requires undisturbed personal space for the “quickenings” of the creative process to unfold slowly — something Sacks protected with great discipline as he blossomed into a prolific writer himself. In his house on City Island, he tacked a sign to the wall above his desk that simply read “NO!” — “reminding myself to say no to invitations so I could preserve writing time,” he explains. It is no accident that Sacks dedicates the final sentences in his autobiography to this great love of writing and, in a sentiment that calls to mind the psychology of flow, fuses it with his great gift for science:

I am a storyteller, for better and for worse.

I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.

The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place — irrespective of my subject — where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.

Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago.

Oliver Sacks writing in his seventies (Photograph: Bill Hayes)

Every page of the altogether magnificent On the Move emanates this contagious delight in writing and furnishes an equivalent delight in reading — a sense of being invited, in the most generous way possible, into a lifetime of Sacks’s conversations with his own luminous, incessantly quickening mind. Take another step inside.

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12 JUNE, 2015

Elizabeth Gilbert on Inspiration, What Tom Waits Taught Her About Creativity, and the Most Dangerous Myth for Artists to Believe

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“It’s a relationship, it’s a conversation, and all [the muse] wants is to be treated with respect and dignity — and it will return ten thousand times over.”

Few writers enchant the modern imagination with such soulful, pleasurable prose and sheer generosity of spirit as Elizabeth Gilbert. The famous Ole! with which she ends her magnificent TED talk, one of the most viewed talks of all time, has become a clarion call for the creative spirit by which we stubbornly summon the ever-elusive muse, and it reverberates throughout her most recent book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (public library) — an investigation of the somewhat miraculous, somewhat methodical workings of inspiration.

Since all creative work is the product of extensive incubation, as T.S. Eliot believed, the inquiry into creativity itself is no exception: Long before the release of the book, Gilbert incubated many of these ideas in her long, layered, and thoroughly rewarding conversation with The New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber. Here are some particularly delectable highlights.

On the machinery of inspiration and the artist’s immutable frustration at failing to will the muse, which F. Scott Fitzgerald articulated brilliantly a century earlier:

You know, it’s the same thing as the question of free will and destiny, the question of creativity — you, the artist, you’re not the puppet of the piano, you’re not the puppet of the muse, but you’re not its master, either. It’s a relationship, it’s a conversation, and all it wants is to be treated with respect and dignity — and it will return ten thousand times over.

On profiling Tom Waits and what the encounter taught her about the relationship between inspiration and perspiration — something Leonard Cohen addresses beautifully in the now-legendary interview from which Holdengräber is quoting:

ELIZABETH GILBERT: I loved him so much and I loved so much what he said about the process of songwriting that can apply also to the process of making art, the process of writing a book.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: What did he say?

EG: He said that every single song has an individual character. He believes in the magic and the muse and the true believin’ — he’s on our team. He said, “Every single song has its own individual character and you can’t treat each song the same way, because it wants to be treated differently and there are songs that are like scared birds that you have to sneak up on over the course of months in the woods.”

PH: And he had an experience which is not unlike that poet where he’s caught in traffic precisely.

EG: He was caught in traffic. He had one song, and he talks about songs that you have to bully and songs that are like dreams through a straw, and then this one: He said that there are songs that don’t want to exist, and you have to let them go, and you have to let them not haunt you — which is another way to not become insane as an artist. And he was driving down the freeway one day…

PH: …in Los Angeles…

EG: …in Los Angeles, and he heard a little tiny trace of a beautiful melody, and he panicked because he didn’t have his waterproof paper, and he didn’t have his tape recorder, and he didn’t have a pen, he didn’t have a pencil — he had no way to get it.

PH: He only had his car in Los Angeles.

EG: And he thought, “How am I going to catch this song?” And he started to have all that old panic and anxiety that artists have about feeling like you’re going to miss something, and then he just slowed down and he looked up at the sky, and he looked up and he said, “Excuse me, can you not see that I’m driving? If you’re serious about wanting to exist, come back and see me in the studio. I spend six hours a day there, you know where to find me, at my piano. Otherwise, go bother somebody else. Go bother Leonard Cohen.”

PH: And I love that, and I love that because … Leonard Cohen, when asked about inspiration, he said, “If I knew where inspiration came from, I would go there more often.”

EG: But you know, there’s a way to go there more often, and it’s to show up at your desk at six o’clock every morning.

PH: The Herzog line, “get back to work.”

EG: It’s the Sitzfleisch. How do you say it?

PH: I’ll tell you. Sitzfleisch.

EG: Sitzfleisch.

PH: Sitzfleisch means literally the meat you have on your tushie.

EG: Ass flesh, in less —

PH: …to keep yourself sitting.

EG: The ability to sit.

On Norman Mailer and the perils of buying into the Tortured Genius archetype — a criticism to which the stark contrast with Gilbert’s usual radiance of mind and deeply uncynical perspective only adds import:

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: There’s a line which you like to quote which happened here on this stage when I brought Günter Grass together with Norman Mailer when Mailer said that “every one of my books has killed me a little more.”

ELIZABETH GILBERT: Honestly, that’s how I feel about that… I’m sorry: Norman Mailer was a great man, he was a great — well, he wasn’t a great man, he was a great writer in certain regards — but it just bores me. I find myself very gently falling asleep when I hear somebody like that, who lived a long, robust life…

PH: …very robust…

EG: …wrote a pile of books that made him famous, that made every woman in the world want to sleep with him — and he did — say that his work was killing him. I just, I’m like, pff, just boo, you know? I’m sorry, rest in peace, Norman, but you know.

PH: You’re writing against that.

EG: I am so vividly against that and I also just think, are you kidding? First of all, who are you kidding? You know, he was the biggest narcissist in the world — it gave him a platform, it gave him attention, it gave him fame, it gave him notoriety, it gave him a way to run for mayor of New York, it gave him everything: It gave him life. And the ingratitude of it is what irritates me, because I feel like if you’re lucky enough — if you’re lucky enough ever in your life to be able to walk in a creative path — then at least be grateful. And it sounds like an indignant, spoiled rich child to me, and I hate it… I just hate it.

And you know why? I don’t hate it for him — because I don’t really care about Norman Mailer’s life — I hate it for the people who were in that audience that night, and who thought, “Oh, yes, true,” you know, or “I’m an aspiring writer, and therefore I must feel that, I should be feeling that way too,” and he’s teaching that and perpetuating it. And it’s a cancer.

Many of Mailer’s contemporaries pushed back — from Ray Bradbury, who tirelessly championed the sheer love of writing and often proclaimed that he never worked a day in his life, to Susan Sontag, who was a true celebrator of writing and of writers (and who, incidentally, once publicly eviscerated another of Mailer’s toxic attitudes).

Few writers in our own time provide more vitalizing an antidote to that cancer than Gilbert, a concentrated dose of which she delivers in Big Magic.

The event was part of the library’s LIVE from the NYPL series, which has also given us such stimulations as Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense advice to aspiring writers, Malcolm Gladwell on criticism, tolerance, and the art of changing your mind and Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Lewis on aesthetic force. The audio recordings of the series belong to the finest podcasts for a fuller life. Join me in supporting The New York Public Library so they may continue making such gifts to the public possible.

Photographs by Jori Klein for NYPL

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09 JUNE, 2015

Oliver Jeffers on the Paradox of Ownership and the Allure of Duality

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“We only own something because everybody agrees that we do.”

Oliver Jeffers is one of the most talented and thoughtful children’s book authors and artists of our time. Whether he is exploring love and loss in his unusual stories for young readers or the facts and fictions of memory in his fine art, undergirding his work is a deep fascination with duality and paradox.

In the foreword to the magnificent monograph Neither Here Nor There: The Art of Oliver Jeffers, Richard Seabrook remarks on this recurring theme, “the concept that something can mean one thing to one person, and something entirely different to another.” Nowhere does this come more vibrantly alive than in Jeffers’s This Moose Belongs to Me (public library) — a disarming story about a boy who believes he owns his pet moose Marcel, only to discover that so do other people, who call him by different names, while the moose himself doesn’t quite get the concept of being owned and is thus oblivious to the boy’s list of rules for being a good pet.

What emerges is an allegory for our rather human tendency to dig in our heels when things don’t go our way, forgetting Henry Miller’s timeless taunt — “And your way, is it really your way?” — and snapping into self-righteousness. When the moose doesn’t obey the rules of being a pet, the boy storms off “embarrassed and enraged” — another curious psychoemotional duality the richness of which Jeffers captures with great economy of words.

Sometimes the moose wasn’t a very good pet. He generally ignored Rule 7: going whichever way Wilfred wanted to go.

But the story is, above all, a parable about the nature of ownership as a mutually agreed upon figment and the comical sense of entitlement it engenders. What makes it especially enchanting is the conceptual meta-message — for the backgrounds of his illustrated vignettes, Jeffers reapporpriates classical landscape paintings by a mid-century Slovakian painter named Alexander Dzigurski, rendering the project a sort of posthumous collaboration and a creative mashup of which Montaigne would have approved.

Jeffers’s message is subtle but resounding: In art — as in science, as in all of human culture — the ideas we call our own are but the combinatorial product of countless borrowings from the intellectual “property” of others. Perhaps Mark Twain put it best in his supportive letter to Helen Keller when she was accused of plagiarism: “Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.”

With another delightfully thoughtful touch, Jeffers reminds us that these borrowings can come not only from others but from ourselves — in one of the scenes, the lumberjack-bear protagonist of his previous book, The Great Paper Caper, makes a cameo against the backdrop of a borrowed landscape painting.

In his wholly wonderful Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman, Jeffers tells the story of this moosely mashup and how he tracked down the grandson of the Slovakian painter for permissions, then reflects on the deeper elements of duality in his body of work. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy:

On the conceptual confluences that sprouted This Moose Belongs to Me, which was essentially Arthur Koestler’s seminal bisociation theory of creativity in action:

I was reading, at that time, a history of Manhattan and I read about the sale of Manhattan to the Dutch. And the natives who were on the land were like, “Yeah, sure, you can buy it!” But nobody really owns land anyway, so they had to leave — and that was to the great confusion of the Dutch… There was an element of truth in that… We only own something because everybody agrees that we do.

I just thought this was a really interesting concept and applied it to owning a pet…

And then, when I was sketching the drawings … I knew that I wanted to use oil paintings… and I’d started off making all those oil paintings… At that point, I glanced over my studio and there were all of these old landscape paintings lined up for another project. And I’m thinking about this story, and the rules of how to be a good pet, and the moose doesn’t really get that he’s supposed to be a pet — and two things connected to each other. And I thought, “Well, if it is about ownership, then I should probably just reappropriate these paintings into this book… It seems conceptually a fit.”

[…]

The book ended up mostly being a collaboration between me and this long-ago dead guy.

On the roots of his obsession with duality and its particular manifestation in a collaboration with a doctor of quantum physics around the famed fact that light can appear to be both a particle and a wave, depending on how the question is asked and how the answer is measured:

There was a sense of duality I grew up with — [Belfast] was a split city, really. There was a lot of violence, but there was also a lot of happiness. And really, that being the backbone of the culture and the existence in which I grew up, and choosing to get past, I think it leaves its marks way down there.

But then, I fell in with this project with Professor Quantum Physics, and through that I discovered the actual theory of duality, which looks at light in particular — light when measured in particles becomes a particle and light when measured in waves becomes a wave. What I took from that was that it’s up to us, then, how we define it — we choose the equipment with which we measure, so therefore it’s up to us… That was what fascinated me — that we have the ability to look at anything and make it anything we want, to some degree.

That’s why I started making art about that sense of, “Can we look at things logically and emotionally, all at the same time?”

Subscribe to Design Matters here. For more of Jeffers’s magic, see Once Upon an Alphabet, which was among the best children’s books of 2014, and The Heart and the Bottle, a tender illustrated fable about what happens when we deny our difficult emotions.

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