Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

03 AUGUST, 2015

Two Nine-Year-Olds’ Magnificent Open Letter to Disney About Racial and Gender Stereotypes

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“Like most people we love your attractions, but we found some problems with some of them and those problems are stereotypes.”

In the spring of 2015, a nine-year-old boy named Dexter went to Disneyland with his family and found himself deeply unsettled — not by a scary ride or the unpleasantness of waiting in line, but by some of the most unsettling cultural issues of our time: racial and gender stereotypes. Disney, the world’s most prolific purveyor of pink plastic, has a long history of perpetuating gender stereotypes and feeding our unconscious biases, but what Dexter so astutely observed seemed like a particularly acute symptom of a larger cultural malady.

I’ve known Dexter since he was a peanut — the son of my dear friends Jake Barton and Jenny Raymond, he is the smartest, most sensitive child I know — so I was hardly surprised by what happened next: Upon returning to New York, Dexter conferred with his classmate Sybilla, who had just had a similar experience while visiting Disney World in Orlando with her family; with the disarming sincerity and simplicity of which only children are capable, the two third graders wrote a magnificent, precocious, immensely insightful open letter to Disney, calling out the problematic treatment of race and gender, and suggesting more intelligent and culturally sensitive alternatives.

Dexter (left) with his mother, little sister, and Minnie Mouse

Dexter and Sybilla go to The Cathedral School of St. John the Divine in Harlem — one of those New York City schools proactive about teaching kids about white privilege and its consequences — and their teacher, Ms. Elena Jaime, had instilled in them a deep concern with social justice around identity. But beyond that foundation, out of which their disappointment with Disney sprang, there was no adult hand in the letter — the kids dreamt it up, drafted it, revised it, and mailed it all by themselves.

Dear Disney,

Like most people we love your attractions, but we found some problems with some of them and those problems are stereotypes. Stereotypes are something that some people believe are true but sometimes may not be true. For example say somebody said “girls only like pink,” that’s a stereotype, some girls might like yellow and not pink. You can never really judge.

We are third graders from New York City at The Cathedral School. We learn about stereotypes, and the impact they have on people’s identities. For instance, in the jungle cruise, all the robotic people have dark skin and are throwing spears at you. We think this reinforces some negative associations, we think you should replace them with monkeys throwing rotten fruit.

We noticed that on our trips to Disneyland and Disneyworld that all the cast members call people Prince, Princess, or Knight, judging by what the child “looks like” and assuming gender. We think some feelings could get hurt, say by accident you called someone a Prince who wasn’t a Prince or a Princess, or a Knight, or who was identifying differently than what they were called. We suggest you say “Hello, Your Royalty” instead.

With the Princess Makeovers, we think you are excluding other people who might want a makeover to be something else, including boys and transgender people. When we went to the Princess Castle, the characters only greeted the people they thought were visiting girls, not the visiting boys and again said “Hi Princess.”

We hope you know we had an awesome time at Disney and these are suggestions to make it more inclusive and magical for everyone. Please reply and let us know your thoughts.

Sincerely,

Sybilla and Dexter, The Cathedral School

The robotic attackers in the Jungle Cruise (Photograph: Loren Javier)

Dexter and Sybilla mailed the letter to Bob Chapek, chairman of Walt Disney Parks, in June of 2015. They are yet to hear back.

Complement with a fantastic and culturally necessary read on how unconscious biases afflict even the best-intentioned of us.

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03 AUGUST, 2015

Bukowski on Writing, True Art, and the Courage to Create Outside Society’s Forms of Approval

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“Art is its own excuse, and it’s either Art or it’s something else. It’s either a poem or a piece of cheese.”

“There are contradictory impulses in everything,” Susan Sontag observed in lamenting how our inability to sit with duality makes us fall into perilous polarities. Few creators exorcised those contradictory impulses more intensely than Charles Bukowski (August 16, 1920–March 9, 1994) — a writer of uncommon attentiveness to the rawness of life, to both its pain and its beauty, with an unselfconscious capacity for sincerity, a crazy daily routine, and zero tolerance for creative pretensions. His enormous inner tumult and strong opinions often came off as bitterness, but he was at heart far from embittered, always in self-conscious — and sometimes self-destructive — search for that which nourishes the spirit. Unifying all of his writing — his poetry, his prose, his correspondence — is an electrifying and unapologetic aliveness.

On Writing (public library), edited by Abel DeBritto, collects Bukowski’s thoughts on the craft — sometimes wild, often wise, always impassioned to a point of ferocity — culled from his prolific letters to friends and comrades on the trying yet tremendously rewarding creative path.

The question of what poetry is and isn’t has been addressed by some of humanity’s greatest poets, from Wordsworth to Elizabeth Alexander. But in a 1959 letter to his friend Anthony Linick, 29-year-old Bukowski argues that the only thing of importance when it comes to poetry is not what it is but that it is — a notion that gets at the heart of all great art:

I should think that many of our poets, the honest ones, will confess to having no manifesto. It is a painful confession but the art of poetry carries its own powers without having to break them down into critical listings. I do not mean that poetry should be raffish and irresponsible clown tossing off words into the void. But the very feeling of a good poem carries its own reason for being… Art is its own excuse, and it’s either Art or it’s something else. It’s either a poem or a piece of cheese.

In a letter to another friend, he laments the something-elseness of most of what tries to pass for Art:

Almost all poetry written, past and present, is a failure because the intent, the slant and accent, is not a carving like stone or eating a good sandwich or drinking a good drink, but more like somebody saying, “Look, I have written a poem … see my POEM!”

In another letter to the same friend a few months later, Bukowski revisits this problematic charade:

It’s when you begin to lie to yourself in a poem in order to simply make a poem, that you fail. That is why I do not rework poems but let them go at first sitting, because if I have lied originally there’s no use driving the spikes home, and if I haven’t lied, well hell, there’s nothing to worry about.

Bukowski traces his distaste for restrictive rules back to his days as a community college student in L.A., when he received a D in English, and writes in a letter to Linick:

I didn’t pay a hell of a lot of attention to grammar, and when I write it is for the love of the word, the color, like tossing paint on a canvas, and using a lot of ear and having read a bit here and there, I generally come out ok, but technically I don’t know what’s happening, nor do I care.

In his next letter to Linick, he revisits the subject:

I think some writers do suffer this fate mainly because at heart they are rebellious and the rules of grammar like many of the other rules of our world call for a herding in and a confirmation that the natural writer instinctively abhors, and, furthermore, his interest lies in the wider scope of subject and spirit… Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Saroyan were a few that reshaped the rules, especially in punctuation and sentence flow and breakdown. And, of course, James Joyce went even further. We are interested in color, shape, meaning, force… the pigments that point up the soul.

Illustration from R. Crumb's collaboration with Bukowski. Click image for more.

Above all, Bukowski was especially contemptuous of the literary establishment, its pomposity, and its self-important arbiters of merit, which he saw as the seedbed of the unimaginative grayness robbing art of those soul-pigments. In a characteristically indignant 1959 letter to a fellow poet, 29-year-old Bukowski scoffs:

I do not feel it is pedantic or ignoble to demand freedom from the opiate of clannishness and leech-brotherhood that dominates many many of our so-called avant-garde publications.

Bemoaning what he considered to be the inexorable creative blandness of commercial publications, he adds:

If this be writing, if this be poesy, I ask a helminthagogun: I’ve earned $47 in 20 years of writing and I think that $2 a year (omitting stamps, paper, envelopes, ribbons, divorces and typewriters) entitles one to the special privacy of a special insanity and if I need hold hands with paper gods to promote a little scurvy rhyme, I’ll take the encyst and paradise of rejection.

With an eye to a magazine he found particularly full of pseudo-poetry, he adds:

When you flip the pages, nothing but butterflies, near bloodless butterflies. I am actually shocked when I go through this magazine because nothing is happening. And I guess that’s what they think a poem is. Say, something not happening. A neat lined something, so subtle you can’t even feel it. This makes the whole thing intelligent art. Balls! The only thing intelligent about a good art is if it shakes you alive, otherwise it’s hokum.

And although he believed that poetry is its own manifesto, in a particularly animated letter to the poet, novelist, and film and television writer John William Corrington, 31-year-old Bukowski sets down what is essentially a magnificent manifesto not only for poetry but for creative freedom in all its permutations and for the courage to create outside the formulaic conventions of How It’s Done:

The sanctuary of the rule means nothing to the pure creator. There is an excuse for poor creation if we are dithered by camouflage or wine come down through staring eyes, but there isn’t any excuse for a creation crippled by directives of school and fashion, or the valetudinarian prayer book that says: form, form, form!! put it in a cage!

Let’s allow ourselves space and error, hysteria and grief. Let’s not round the edge until we have a ball that rolls neatly away like a trick. Things happen — the priest is shot in the john; hornets blow heroin without arrest; they take down your number; your wife runs off with an idiot who’s never read Kafka; the crushed cat, its guts glueing its skull to the pavement, is passed by traffic for hours; flowers grow in the smoke; children die at 9 and 97; flies are smashed from screens… the history of form is evident.

[…]

Really, we must let the candle burn—pour gasoline on it if necessary. The sense of the ordinary is always ordinary, but there are screams from windows too … an artistic hysteria engendered out of breathing in the necropolis … sometimes when the music stops and leaves us 4 walls of rubber or glass or stone, or worse — no walls at all — poor and freezing in the Atlanta of the heart. To concentrate on form and logic … seems imbecility in the midst of the madness…

Creation is our gift and we are ill with it. It has sloshed about my bones and awakened me to stare at 5 a.m. walls.

By that point, with his passion amplified by a drink or a dozen, he does away with even the most basic convention of capitalization and wanders off, as if deeper into his own marvelous mind:

rub your hands and prove that you are alive. seriousness will not do. walk the floor. this is the gift, this is the gift…

Complement On Writing, densely insightful in its totality, with Bukowski on the meaning of life, his beautiful letter of gratitude to the man who helped him quit his soul-sucking day-job to become a full-time writer, and a breathtaking animated adaptation of his poem “Bluebird.”

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30 JULY, 2015

Neil Gaiman’s Philosophical Dream, in a Whimsical Animation Narrated by Amanda Palmer

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A weird and wonderful journey into the woodland of the subconscious.

“A dream can be so strange that it seems that another subject has come to dream with us,” philosopher Gaston Bachelard observed in his reflection on dreams and reverie. And yet our dream-selves and our waking selves are somehow the same person, linked by an even more mysterious continuity of consciousness than that between our childhood selves and our present selves. As scientists continue to probe the enigma of why we dream, we continue dreaming and interpreting our dreams, hoping to find in them answers to our greatest existential perplexities.

Beloved writer Neil Gaiman may be a sage of storytelling in his wakeful life and one of the most interesting people alive, but he is also a masterful weaver of whimsical, intensely interesting stories while asleep. Over the years, his wife — musician, patronage crusader, and friend-of-Brain-Pickings Amanda Palmer — has been his dutiful dreamkeeper. She regularly amuses herself by engaging half-asleep Neil in semi-sensical conversation, plunging into this unguarded rabbit hole into the surreal wonderland of his mind and writing down the best such conversations in a notepad.

One day, when she didn’t have paper on hand, Amanda slipped into the bathroom and quietly recounted a particularly fantastic dream of Neil’s in a voice memo. A year later, she discovered the recording on her phone. Newly enchanted by its whimsy, she decided to bring it to life in a short film, enlisting the help of her Patreon supporters, of whom I am proudly one. (All of Amanda’s work is freely offered and, like Brain Pickings, relies on audience support.)

She composed an original score and teamed up with animator Avi Ofer to create something utterly magical — something weird and whimsical and strangely philosophical, partway between that curious vintage children’s book about dreaming, illustrated by Freud’s eccentric cross-dressing niece, and Mark Strand’s beautiful poem “Dreams.” Please enjoy:

Complement with the science of dreams and why we have nightmares and the story of how Dostoyevsky discovered the meaning of life in a dream, then revisit Ofer’s wonderful animations of the fluid dynamics of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and Jane Goodall’s remarkable life-story.

Join me in supporting Amanda on Patreon, where she has written about how this piece of magic came to be.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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30 JULY, 2015

Art as a Form of Active Prayer and What Writers Really Labor For

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“Immerse yourself in the common ground of the universe so that your true voice — not the egoistic voice that clamors vainly for power (for it will ruin you if you listen to it) — your authentic voice … may be heard.”

Why do we humans create — why do artists make art, why do writers write? Pablo Neruda gave a beautiful answer in his metaphor of the hand through the fence. For Joan Didion, the impulse is a vital gateway to her own mind. David Foster Wallace saw it as a mode of fun-having and truth-telling. For Italo Calvino, it was a matter of belonging to “a collective enterprise.” William Faulkner simply believed it to be “the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet.” But even more important, perhaps, is the question of why — and how — artists continue to make art in the face of the rejection, ridicule, and indifference with which their society often meets them.

That immutable inquiry is what novelist, short story writer, and journalist Melissa Pritchard explores with unparalleled luminosity in an essay titled “Spirit and Vision” from her altogether magnificent first nonfiction collection, A Solemn Pleasure: To Imagine, Witness, and Write (public library). The piece — a sort of open letter to writers and, by extension, all artists — bears that cynicism-disarming quality of a commencement address and enchants the psyche like an incantation.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from 'Enormous Smallness' by Matthew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

Pritchard writes:

Great writers are witnesses to the spirit of their age. They need not be accepted by their times; they rarely are. Speaking the truth, they may go unheard, be misunderstood or criticized. Later, posthumously, it is said they were ahead of their time.

This she illustrates with a supreme example of the posthumously anointed literary genius: Walt Whitman, whose exquisite serenade to the soul, Leaves of Grass, fell on deaf ears — the same unfeeling audience that had been wholly nonplussed by Thoreau’s wholly plussing Walden and had snubbed Moby-Dick, leaving Melville to die in embittered poverty. Where the public was indifferent, reviewers were downright hostile — one famously advised Whitman to simply commit suicide. Middle-aged and penniless, the poet was friendless in an artless world — save for Emerson, who alone found Leaves of Grass to be full of “incomparable things said incomparably well” and declared it “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”

Art from 'Whitman Illuminated' by Allen Crawford. Click image for more.

And yet Whitman didn’t give up writing, buoyed by the same mysterious force that has kept countless artists from throwing in the brush or pen or lyre when met with mockery or, worse, indifference. Pritchard considers his plight:

Walt Whitman had violated all the polite norms of his age, and Leaves of Grass was on a collision course with conventional literature. He had assaulted the institution of literature, had torn apart language and invented his own. In fact, Whitman laid the groundwork for much modernist writing from Kafka and Beckett to Borges.

With this, Pritchard arrives at the central inquiry, addressing writers with grounding yet elevating directness:

Why write? Why add to the tumult of the world? Your competition is fierce … from television, film, video, all social media, from the books of other writers living and dead. There currently exists in America an insidious numbness to literature. It is increasingly difficult to publish what is called “literary fiction”; even the best-seller market is not what it was. Stacks of books are returned to warehouses every day, even those blockbuster books publishing houses rely upon to finance more serious, less lucrative books. And how have we, as writers of that literature, become increasingly alienated from the soul of our culture? How have we become so nearly unnecessary? In other parts of the world, to be a writer is to place yourself in physical peril; your words might invite your own death. In other parts of the world, to be a writer is a heroic vocation, for which you may be imprisoned, tortured, “disappeared.” On the other hand, thousands of people may assemble to listen to you; as a poet you may be elected to the highest political office. In parts of this world, the power of language is still deeply connected to the soul of the people. Whitman’s work was initially met with indifference. By the time of his death he was regarded as a genius and a saint or a derelict and degenerate, depending on your stand. He was in no way dismissible.

In a sentiment that calls to mind poet Mark Strand’s memorable meditation on the artist’s task and Annie Dillard’s assertion that “writers serve as the memory of a people,” Pritchard adds:

We are in danger, I believe, of becoming accustomed to indifference, of being kept within writing workshops, conferences, and seminars where we write and read to a dwindling, closed circle of admirers. Nearly resigned to this peripheral fate, we are then tempted to take ourselves too seriously as far as ego recognition goes, in terms of literary prizes, grants, and publications in journals, yet not seriously enough as essential witnesses to our time.

But make no mistake — Pritchard’s is not a complaint but a clarion call, issued from the depths of a chest that cages a heart emanating uncontainable love for art and its spiritual rewards:

All great literature has an uncreeded and luminous theology behind it… Art [is] a form of active prayer.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'The Big Green Book' by Robert Graves. Click image for more.

For writers, Pritchard argues — especially writers like Whitman, who stay true to their art in the face of repeated rejection — literature is a “sacred vocation”; there is no preciousness or pretense about its sanctity — only earnest and inexorable purposefulness. She exhorts writers to contact this invisible theology of their craft and elevate it to its height:

Many of the tenets of sainthood are also to be cultivated in the committed writer: selflessness, the death of the little self, purity of spirit leading to intensity of vision, a suspension of judgment in regard to your fellow human beings, an intimate acquaintance with ecstasy, sorrow, and revelation. Consider for a moment your work as analogous to intimate prayer in which you address God, and thereby divineness, in all matter.

[…]

We can begin with a metaphysic that recognizes a divine reality substantial to the world of things, lives, and minds, a psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine reality, an ethic placing humanity’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent ground of all being. This is a universal, immemorial idea put forth by all religions, much folklore, and, uncounted times, by great artists. Whitman believed in the poet as agent of transcendent power; he was literal when he referred to his ecstasies, his illuminations.

This divine reality is of such a nature that it cannot be understood directly except by those who choose to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and rich in spirit. I am talking about mystics, saints, prophets, sages, enlightened ones, the Sufis of Islam, the gurus of India, the Catholic mystics, the Quakers’ tradition of inner light that so influenced Walt Whitman, the shamans, and medicine women and men of the Native American tribes. It is from these people and others that we learn of the detachment, charity, and humility essential to being immersed in the one divine reality. It is my assertion that as writers, we bring as many of these same qualities to bear in our work as we possibly can… This consciousness, supernatural consciousness, is what transformed Whitman from an ordinary hack writer to a composer of transcendent works.

The shining of this inner light onto the outer world, Pritchard asserts, is the task of the artist and the source of that mysterious force that carries the creative spirit forward, however glib the external reception of that art:

Enduring literature is suffused with compassion and love. And because we then act in the foolish, vain, mad, self-destructive, and sometimes criminal ways we do, all so characteristically human, this is much of what our stories and poems and novels concern themselves with. And just as the author labors in solitude but is never alone, so the artist, the author, is never poor.

Our one great Promethean labor is to reconcile humanity to itself and to reconnect, through language, humankind to the universe. If we begin with this ambition, then all the techniques, the seminars and workshops to promote confidence and craftsmanship make sense, are valid and valuable.

Art from 'Whitman Illuminated' by Allen Crawford. Click image for more.

This, indeed, is Pritchard’s most piercing point — however radiant that source of inner light, it cannot exist in isolation from the rest of the universe and must be emanated outward, shone in the direction of universal Truth. With an eye to iconic champions of truth-telling like Nadine Gordimer and Grace Paley, Pritchard addresses the writers of our own time:

If your commitment isn’t to truth, then you are in the wrong line of work. The poetics of silence still exist in America, but as writers I feel we have a responsibility to engage in history, in painful history, to be responsible witnesses to our own time. We are not separate; we are not an indulgent elite. We are not blind to suffering. We are, in fact, aware of our intimate relation to all other beings, and are thus accountable, deeply responsible. We must connect the personal with the political, the political with the spiritual. And though we can only work from our particular place, our given spot in the world, the particular can be a place of great power — the cry of the human heart and the yearning of the human spirit are, after all, universal.

She ends the piece like one might a commencement address — and if this were one, it would certainly be among the greatest commencement addresses of all time — urging writers:

What you have chosen is a profound vocation of healing, and your stories and poems are as sacraments, as visible blessings. Be at the heart and soul of your time, not resigned to what is safe or peripheral. Try to free yourself from attachment to results, to awards, publications, praise, to indifference, rejection, and misunderstanding. Immerse yourself in the common ground of the universe so that your true voice — not the egoistic voice that clamors vainly for power (for it will ruin you if you listen to it) — your authentic voice, supported by sacred reality, may be heard. May your words illuminate your vision, find you compassionate, attuned to human suffering and committed to its alleviation.

Complement A Solemn Pleasure, seriously pleasurable in its entirety, with Susan Sontag’s advice to writers, Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, and Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense wisdom on the craft, then revisit this evolving archive of great writers’ advice on writing.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





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