Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

02 OCTOBER, 2014

Joan Didion Answers the Proust Questionnaire

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“Misery is feeling estranged from people I love. Misery is also not working. The two seem to go together.”

In the 1880s, long before he claimed his status as one of the greatest authors of all time, teenage Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871–November 18, 1922) filled out an English-language questionnaire given to him by his friend Antoinette, the daughter of France’s then-president, as part of her “confession album” — a Victorian version of today’s popular personality tests, designed to reveal the answerer’s tastes, aspirations, and sensibility in a series of simple questions. Proust’s original manuscript, titled “by Marcel Proust himself,” wasn’t discovered until 1924, two years after his death. Decades later, the French television host Bernard Pivot, whose work inspired James Lipton’s Inside the Actor’s Studio, saw in the questionnaire an excellent lubricant for his interviews and began administering it to his guests in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1993, Vanity Fair resurrected the tradition and started publishing various public figures’ answers to the Proust Questionnaire on the last page of each issue.

In 2009, the magazine released Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life (public library) — a compendium of answers by such cultural icons as Jane Goodall, David Bowie, Allen Ginsberg, Hedy Lamarr, Gore Vidal, and Julia Child.

Unsurprisingly, some of the most wonderful answers come from 69-year-old Joan Didion — a woman who has endured more personal tragedy than most and has written about it with great dignity and grace, extracting from her experience wisdom on such subtle and monumental aspects of existence as grief, self-respect, keeping a notebook.

Portrait of Joan Didion by Robert Risko for Vanity Fair

Didion’s answers are particularly poignant for their timing — she answered The Proust Questionnaire in October of 2003, several weeks before her husband died of a heart attack while her only daughter lay comatose in the ICU; though Didion’s daughter did recover from the coma, acute pancreatitis took her life eighteen months later.

What is your greatest fear?

I have an irrational fear of snakes. When my husband and I moved to a part of Los Angeles County with many rattlesnakes, I tried to desensitize myself by driving every day to a place called Hermosa Reptile Import-Export and forcing myself to watch the anacondas. This seemed to work, but a few yeas later, when we were living in Malibu and I had a Corvette, a king snake (a “good” snake, not poisonous, by no means anaconda-like) dropped from a garage rafter into my car. My daughter, then four, brought it to show me. I am ashamed to say I ran away. I still think about what would have happened had I driven to the market and noticed my passenger, the snake, on the Pacific Coast Highway.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

I find “speaking one’s mind” pretty overrated, in that it usually turns out to be a way of aggrandizing the speaker at the expense of the helpless listener.

What is your favorite journey?

A long time ago, before they showed movies on airplanes and decided to make you close the blinds, I used to love flying west and watching the country open up, the checkerboarded farms of the Midwest giving way to the vast stretches of nothing. I also loved flying over the Pole from Europe to Los Angeles during the day, when you could see ice floes and islands s in the sea change almost imperceptibly to lakes in the land. This shift in perception was very thrilling to me.

On what occasion do you lie?

I probably lie constantly, if the definition of lying includes white lies, social lies, lies to ease a situation or make someone feel better. My mother was incapable of lying. I remember her driving into a blinding storm to vote for an acquaintance in an S.P.C.A. election. “I told Dorothy I would,” she said when I tried to dissuade her. “How will Dorothy know?” I asked. “That’s not the point,” my mother said. I’m sorry to report that this was amazing to me.

What do you dislike most about your appearance?

For a while there I disliked being short, but I got used to it. Which is not to say I wouldn’t have preferred to be five-ten and get sent clothes by designers.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Most people who write find themselves overusing certain words or constructions (if they worked once, they get hardwired), so much so that a real part of the exercise is getting those repetitions out.

When and where were you happiest?

Once, in a novel, Democracy, I had the main character, Inez Victor, consider this very question, which was hard for her. She drinks her coffee, she smokes a cigarette, she thinks it over, she comes to a conclusion: “In retrospect she seemed to have been most happy in borrowed houses, and at lunch. She recalled being extremely happy eating lunch by herself in a hotel room in Chicago, once when snow was drifting on the window ledges. There was a lunch in Paris that she remembered in detail: a late lunch with Harry and the twins at Pré Catelan in the rain.” These lunches and borrowed houses didn’t come from nowhere.

What talent would you most like to have?

I long to be fluent in languages other than English. I am resigned to the fact that this will not happen. A lot of things get in the way, not least a stubborn fear of losing my only real asset since childhood, the ability to put English sentences together.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I’m afraid that “one thing” would just lead to another thing, making this a question only the truly greedy would try to answer.

What is your most treasured possession?

I treasure things my daughter has given me, for example (I think of this because it is always on my desk), a picture book called Baby Animals and Their Mothers.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Misery is feeling estranged from people I love. Misery is also not working. The two seem to go together.

Where would you like to live?

I want to live somewhere else every month or so. Right now I would like to be living on Kailua Beach, on the windward side of Oahu. Around November, I’m quite sure I will want to be living in Paris, preferably in the Hotel Bristol. I like hotels a lot. When we were living in houses in Los Angeles I used to make charts showing how we could save money by living in a bungalow in Bel-Air, but my husband never bought it.

What is your favorite occupation?

I like making gumbo. I like gardening. I like writing, at least when it’s going well, maybe because it seems to be exactly as tactile a thing to do as making gumbo or gardening.

What is your most marked characteristic?

If I listened to other people, I would think my most marked characteristic was being thin. What strikes me about myself, however, is no t my thinness but a certain remoteness. I tune out a lot.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

Axel Heyst in Joseph Conrad’s Victory has always attracted me as a character. Standing out on that dock in, I think (I may be wrong, because I have no memory), Sumatra. His great venture, the Tropical Belt Coal Company, gone to ruin behind him. And then he does something so impossibly brave that he can only be doing it because he has passed entirely beyond concern for himself.

Sample Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire further with answers from Jane Goodall and David Bowie, complement it with LIFE magazine’s similarly-spirited compendium of wisdom from cultural icons The Meaning of Life, then revisit Didion’s remarkable meditation on grief.

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02 OCTOBER, 2014

Heidegger in the Kitchen: What a Shrimp Can Teach Us About the Meaning of Life

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How to break free from the chatter that muffles the essence of Being.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger (September 26, 1889–May 26, 1976) is among the most influential minds in modern history. His ideas on the central problems of existence, best articulated in his seminal 1927 book Being and Time (public library), are lodged so deeply in the intellectual lineage of our culture that their echoes can be sensed in everything from the works of such celebrated subsequent thinkers as Hannah Arendt and Jean-Paul Sartre to a wealth of postmodernist art and criticism.

In this imaginative video essay, The School of Life — maker of wonderful field guides to modern living covering everything from how to be alone to staying sane to how to finding fulfilling work — enlists the magic of metaphor in shedding light on Heidegger’s work and its enduring legacy.

Existence, or Being, is finite, fragile, and very temporary — but we rarely appreciate our temporary existences. Much of Heidegger’s philosophy is devoted to trying to wake us up to the fragility of our life and the strangeness of existing on this delicate, exhaustible planet, spinning in an otherwise seemingly silent, alien, and entirely uninhabited universe.

At certain moments of insight — and Heidegger wants us to have lots of these — we may think, “I am so small, so temporary. I am a nothing in the cosmos of lifeless otherness.” It is at moments like this that we feel what Heidegger called “the mystery of existence” — it can be beautiful, it can be intense; most of all, it can be terrifying. We live wisely and philosophically, and by always acknowledging our precariousness against the Nothing.

It isn’t just us who are so temporary — it is all living beings, all living things — the animals, the trees, the clouds. They, too, exist briefly against the background of nothingness. Once we are aware that we, and all living beings, share this fragile state, we might learn to identify more with them, to recognize our kinship with all living things and with the Earth itself. They are like us, briefly alive against the backdrop of nothingness.

The feeling of the unity of all things might come to you when you see, for example, how much connects us with the quail, the shrimp, the snail, the lamb, the pig, the dinosaur. Normally, we separate ourselves from these others, but Heidegger urges us to see the interconnections.

However, Heidegger is very aware of the way in which we hide from confrontation with Being, escaping into the warm folds of daily life, of society, and of what he termed its endless chatter, Das Gerede. We can imagine Das Gerede as an enormous pancake-like dough layer that smothers our connection with Being. Chatter is everywhere — it comes in via the airwaves, the media, our social circle — and it seeks to reassure us that trivia actually matters, that our jobs count, that what we are doing and thinking has importance. It hides us from the nature of Being in a world of death. So the task of philosophy is to remove us from the doughy comfort of chatter and introduce us, systematically, to the bracing concept of Nothingness.

Heidegger wants to free us from the pull of chatter, so as to focus on the intensity of existence.

Complement with Hannah Arendt on the life of the mind and Seneca on the shortness of life.

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01 OCTOBER, 2014

The Unsung Heroes of Innovation: A 1964 Manifesto for the Role of the Critic-Curator in How Ideas Spread

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“It would be a mistake to distinguish too sharply between those who contribute a new way of doing and those who contribute a new way of thinking.”

“Art doesn’t explain itself,” music critic Greil Marcus observed in considering what the history of rock ‘n’ roll reveals about innovation. The role of context — that mesh of explanations enveloping an idea in a sheath of meaning to reveal why it matters and why we should pay attention — is essential in the cultural uptake of any new concept. I have long believed the role of the cultural critic or curator — the celebrator of ideas — to be one of helping people discern what matters in the world and understand why it matters, of elevating the meaningful from the fleeting and, in the process, elevating the human spirit toward progress. The great social science writer John W. Gardner explores this notion with unparalleled elegance and economy of words in a section of Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society (public library) — his excellent, forgotten field guide to keeping your company and your soul vibrantly alive, written in 1964 but enormously relevant to modern entrepreneurship, politics, and personal growth.

The most meaningful, impactful, and enduring innovations, Gardner argues, often come quietly, even surreptitiously:

The new thing rarely comes on with a flourish or trumpets. The historic innovation looks exciting in the history books, but if one could question those who lived at the time, the typical response would be neither “I opposed it” nor “I welcomed it,” but “I didn’t know it was happening.”

The unsung heroes of innovation, Gardner suggests, are those who shed light on the new and noteworthy, who extend an invitation to people to pay attention and care — a function all the more vital today, half a century later, when there is so much more vying for our attention and it is so much more straining to distinguish between the noteworthy and the merely noisy.

Illustration from 'Flashlight' by Lizi Body. Click image for more.

Those who bring attention to valuable ideas, then, are themselves vital agents of change, without whom the inventors and their creations would slide under the cultural radar and into obscurity. Editor Ursula Nordstrom did this for a young and insecure Maurice Sendak. Publisher John Martin did it for Charles Bukowski. Ralph Waldo Emerson did it for young Walt Whitman.

To give a great idea wings, Gardner suggests, is at least as valuable as to hatch it:

The capacity of public somnolence to retard change illuminates the role of the critic… Critics who call attention to an area that requires renewal are very much a part of the innovative process…

One of the most serious obstacles to clear thinking about renewal is the excessively narrow conception of the innovator that is commonly held. It focuses on technology and on the men who intent specific new devices: Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone; Marconi and wireless; Edison and the phonograph; the Wright Brothers and the airplane.

Gardner returns to the underappreciated, vital role of the critic-celebrator in amplifying the ideas that improve society and precipitate progress:

We tend to think of innovators as those who contribute to a new way of doing things. But many far-reaching changes have been touched off by those who contributed to a new way of thinking about things…

It would be a mistake to distinguish too sharply between those who contribute a new way of doing and those who contribute a new way of thinking.

Today, Gardner himself is an underappreciated celebrator of the human spirit and his Self-Renewal endures as a timeless manifesto for what true progress requires. Sample it further with Gardner on what children can teach us about risk, failure, and personal growth, then see some related thoughts on how to cultivate wisdom in the age of information.

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