Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

25 MAY, 2015

Emerson on Small Mercies, the True Measure of Wisdom, and How to Live with Maximum Aliveness

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“To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.”

In contemplating the shortness of life, Seneca considered what it takes to live wide rather than long. Over the two millennia between his age and ours — one in which, caught in the cult of productivity, we continually forget that “how we spend our days is … how we spend our lives” — we’ve continued to tussle with the eternal question of how to fill life with more aliveness. And in a world awash with information but increasingly vacant of wisdom, navigating the maze of the human experience in the hope of arriving at happiness is proving more and more disorienting.

How to orient ourselves toward buoyant aliveness is what Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803–April 27, 1882) examines in a beautiful essay titled “Experience,” found in his Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — that bible of timeless wisdom that gave us Emerson on the two pillars of friendship and the key to personal growth.

Emerson writes:

We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them… To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom. It is not the part of men, but of fanatics … to say that the shortness of life considered, it is not worth caring whether for so short a duration we were sprawling in want or sitting high. Since our office is with moments, let us husband them. Five minutes of today are worth as much to me as five minutes in the next millennium. Let us be poised, and wise, and our own, today. Let us treat the men and women well; treat them as if they were real; perhaps they are… Without any shadow of doubt, amidst this vertigo of shows and politics, I settle myself ever the firmer in the creed that we should not postpone and refer and wish, but do broad justice where we are, by whomsoever we deal with, accepting our actual companions and circumstances, however humble or odious as the mystic officials to whom the universe has delegated its whole pleasure for us. If these are mean and malignant, their contentment, which is the last victory of justice, is a more satisfying echo to the heart than the voice of poets and the casual sympathy of admirable persons.

Indeed, Emerson highlights the practice of kindness as a centerpiece of the full life, suggesting that our cynicism about the character and potential of others — much like our broader cynicism about the world — reflects not the true measure of their merit but the failure of our own imagination in appreciating their singular gifts:

I think that however a thoughtful man may suffer from the defects and absurdities of his company, he cannot without affectation deny to any set of men and women a sensibility to extraordinary merit. The coarse and frivolous have an instinct of superiority, if they have not a sympathy, and honor it in their blind capricious way with sincere homage.

An equally toxic counterpart to such self-righteousness, Emerson argues, is our propensity for entitlement, which he contrasts with the disposition of humility and gratefulness:

I am thankful for small mercies. I compared notes with one of my friends who expects everything of the universe and is disappointed when anything is less than the best, and I found that I begin at the other extreme, expecting nothing, and am always full of thanks for moderate goods.

Illustration by Julia Rothman from 'Nature Anatomy.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment almost Buddhist in its attitude of accepting life exactly as it unfolds, and one that calls to mind his friend and Concord neighbor Thoreau’s superb definition of success, Emerson bows before the spiritual rewards of this disposition of gratefulness unburdened by fixation:

In the morning I awake and find the old world, wife, babes, and mother, Concord and Boston, the dear old spiritual world and even the dear old devil not far off. If we will take the good we find, asking no questions, we shall have heaping measures. The great gifts are not got by analysis. Everything good is on the highway. The middle region of our being is the temperate zone. We may climb into the thin and cold realm of pure geometry and lifeless science, or sink into that of sensation. Between these extremes is the equator of life, of thought, of spirit, of poetry, — a narrow belt.

Only by surrendering to life’s uncontrollable and unknowable unfolding graces — or what Thoreau extolled as the gift of “useful ignorance” — can we begin to blossom into our true potentiality:

The art of life has a pudency, and will not be exposed. Every man is an impossibility until he is born; every thing impossible until we see a success.

Or, as a modern-day wise woman admonished in one of the greatest commencement addresses of all time, it pays not to “determine what [is] impossible before it [is] possible.”

A century and a half before Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert illuminated how our present illusions hinder the happiness of our future selves, Emerson adds:

The results of life are uncalculated and uncalculable. The years teach much which the days never know… The individual is always mistaken. It turns out somewhat new and very unlike what he promised himself.

Emerson’s Essays and Lectures is indispensable in its totality. Complement it with his kindred spirit Thoreau on what it really means to be awake and the true measure of meaningful work.

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25 MAY, 2015

The Brothers Grimm in Three Transcendent Dimensions: Shaun Tan’s Breathtaking Sculptural Illustrations for the Beloved Tales

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Hauntingly beautiful visual vignettes in paper and clay.

In his magnificent meditation on fairy tales and the psychology of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien famously asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” — something that has since been echoed by C.S. Lewis, who admonished against considering children a special species, E.B. White, who insisted that one should write up to children rather than down, and Neil Gaiman, who believes that we do a disservice to children by shielding them from darker elements. Hardly any other form of storytelling honors children’s inherent intelligence more than the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, which have been extending a luminous invitation into the dark for more than two centuries.

Perhaps because they bewitch the ageless dimension of the human imagination, a range of celebrated artists have reimagined these beloved tales over the years: Maurice Sendak for a spectacular 150th-anniversary edition, David Hockney for an unusual vintage volume, Andrea Dezsö for the little-known original tales, Edward Gorey for three of the best-known ones, and Lorenzo Mattotti for a retelling by Neil Gaiman. But one of the most uncommon and imaginative comes from Australian artist and author Shaun Tan, creator of such modern masterpieces as The Lost Thing and The Arrival.

In 2012, shortly after the release of Philip Pullman’s retelling of the Grimm classics, which was published unillustrated in the UK and the US, a publisher approached Tan about creating a cover and possibly some internal artwork for a German edition of Pullman’s fifty tales.

Tan was at first reluctant — he had toyed with the idea of illustrating fairy tales over the years and had invariably ended up convinced that these highly abstract masterworks of storytelling, abloom at the intersection of the weird and the whimsical, didn’t lend themselves to representational imagery. In fact, Pullman himself notes this in the introduction, remarking on the flatness of the Grimms’ characters and the two-dimensional, cardboard-cutout-like illustrations of the early editions, which served as mere decoration and did little to enhance the storytelling experience.

But the challenge is precisely what captivated Tan. He found himself suddenly transported to his own childhood — a time when he was obsessed not with painting and drawing but with the imaginative materiality of sculpture. His long-lost love for clay, papier mache, and soapstone was reawakened and magically fused with his longtime interest in Inuit and Aztec folk art.

The result of this testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity is Grimms Märchen (public library) — a glorious German edition of Pullman’s retelling, illustrated in Tan’s breathtaking visual vignettes. Sometimes haunting, sometimes whimsical, always deeply dreamlike, these miniature handcrafted sculptures made of paper, clay, sand, and wax give the Grimm classics a new dimension of transcendent mesmerism.

Rapunzel

The Fisherman's Wife

The Golden Bird

Hansel and Gretel

Godfather Death

Faithful John

The Story of One Who Set Out to Study Fear

Cat and Mouse in a House

The Frog King

Complement Tan’s beguiling Grimms Märchen with the decidedly different but no less important early-twentieth-century illustrations by artist and diarist Wanda Gág, who influenced creative legends like Maurice Sendak, then revisit Sendak’s own remarkable vintage Grimm illustrations.

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22 MAY, 2015

Body, Soul, and the Elusive Seedbed of Our Identity: Lewis Carroll on the Material and Immaterial Forces of Life, in a Letter to a Little Girl

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The perplexity of why your identity endures even if all the cells in your body are wholly replaced every seven years.

“I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul,” Rilke wrote in a beautiful 1921 letter, “since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.” The relationship between the material and immaterial forces of life has occupied poets and physicists like for as long as we humans have been aware of our mortality and able to articulate that awareness. More recently, it has prompted philosophers to pose such fascinating questions as how we know who we are if our present selves are unrecognizably different from past ones.

That immutable inquiry is what mathematician and writer Charles Dodgson, better-known as Lewis Carroll (January 27, 1832–January 14, 1898), explores in one of the many witty and wise missives collected in The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (public library; free download) — the indispensable volume that also gave us Carroll on how to alleviate our discomfort with change and his three tips for overcoming creative block.

In the fall of 1885, one of Carroll’s “child-friends” — he had many largely epistolary friendships with children throughout his life, including the real-life little girl who inspired his Wonderland — wrote to him after reading Thomas Carlyle’s 1836 philosophical novel Sartor Resartus and finding herself particularly captivated by Carlyle’s treatment of the relationship between the body and the soul. The subject — perhaps unsurprisingly, given the profound transcendentalist undertones of Alice in Wonderland, published two decades earlier — was also of deep interest to Carroll, who wrote to his young friend:

My dear Edith, —

One subject you touch on — “the Resurrection of the Body” — is very interesting to me, and I have given it much thought (I mean long ago). My conclusion was to give up the literal meaning of the material body altogether. Identity, in some mysterious way, there evidently is; but there is no resisting the scientific fact that the actual material usable for physical bodies has been used over and over again — so that each atom would have several owners. The mere solitary fact of the existence of cannibalism is to my mind a sufficient reductio ad absurdum of the theory that the particular set of atoms I shall happen to own at death (changed every seven years, they say) will be mine in the next life — and all the other insuperable difficulties (such as people born with bodily defects) are swept away at once if we accept S. Paul’s “spiritual body ,” and his simile of the grain of corn. I have read very little of “Sartor Resartus,” and don’t know the passage you quote: but I accept the idea of the material body being the “dress” of the spiritual — a dress needed for material life.

Complement The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, which is nothing short of addictive in its totality, with Carroll on how to feed the mind, his four rules for digesting information, and his tips for making email more civil, then revisit Carl Sagan’s timeless treatise on science and spirituality and Rebecca Goldstein on the perplexity of why you and your childhood self are the same person despite a lifetime of material changes.

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21 MAY, 2015

Project 1 in 4: Drawings Illuminating the Everyday Realities of Life with Mental Illness

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A revelatory reality check and a clarion call for life-saving compassion.

“One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless,” Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother from the grip of mental illness. The great Dutch painter endures as one of the key figures we’ve enlisted in perpetuating the perilous “tortured genius” myth — a travesty of the the actual relationship between creativity and mental illness and among the many symptoms of our culture’s pathological delusions about what it’s really like to live with a mind that continually and uncompromisingly antagonizes, sabotages, and corrupts one’s wellbeing.

Project 1 in 4 by School of Visual Arts student Marissa Betley explores the everyday realities of life with mental illness — which affects one in four people in America and adds up to a societal cost of $300 billion per year — through a series of drawings based on the experiences, struggles, and coping strategies of people Betley interviewed, who had been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, PTSD, and a range of other disorders.

With elegant directness, she exposes the stigmas and misconceptions to which we continue to cling as we oscillate between the equally perilous poles of romanticizing and invalidating psychoemotional anguish. Beneath the mere relaying of these experiences, however revelatory in and of itself, is a deeper call for compassion — a reminder that, as Betley puts it, “love and support makes all the difference.”

Reminiscent in spirit of artist Bobby Baker’s courageous visual diary of mental illness and the breath-stopping Drawing Autism project, but substantially different in style, Betley’s deliberately unelaborate drawings capture the concrete and acute suffering that mental illness engenders — a piercing counterpoint to the epidemic of mistaken beliefs that mental illness amounts to something as vague as a sense or as light as a mood.

Project 1 in 4 is part of the annual 100 Days Project initiative by the SVA Masters in Branding program, which assigns students the task of envisioning a creative operation, performing it for one hundred consecutive days, and documenting the ongoing process publicly. It has previously sprouted such wonderful efforts as Randy Gregory’s 100 Ways to Improve the NYC Subway and Jennifer Beatty’s 100 Hoopties, and was originally inspired by legendary graphic designer Michael Bierut’s assignment to his students at the Yale School of Art.

Betley’s project is part public service, part private inquiry — a beautiful embodiment of Aristotle’s famous proclamation that one’s greatest potential for purposeful contribution lies at the intersection of one’s passions and the world’s needs. When I spoke with her about the project, she shared the personal motivation behind the dry statistics of mental illness:

I’ve seen firsthand how serious and debilitating these illnesses can be. They can be remarkably devastating. While professional help is key, what’s equally important is unwavering support from family and friends. I thought, if I could just find a real human way to raise greater awareness then maybe I could help break down the stigmas surrounding mental illness that are preventing people from getting the help they need. Maybe the project could even save lives.

See more on the project site, complement it with the fascinating research on the relationship between REM sleep and depression, and heed positive psychology founding father Martin Seligman’s simple exercise for bolstering mental health.

For some pause-giving perspective, revisit the story of how trailblazing journalist Nellie Bly forever changed our treatment of mental illness.

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