Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

05 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Montaigne and the Double Meaning of Meditation


“There is no exercise that is either feeble or more strenuous … than that of conversing with one’s own thoughts.”

“We all have the same inner life,” beloved artist Agnes Martin said in a wonderful lost interview. “The difference lies in the recognition. The artist has to recognize what it is.” But in an age where we compulsively seek to optimize our productivity, the art of presence with and recognition of our inner lives, while infinitely more rewarding, is one fewer and fewer of us are able or willing to master. Of those who seek to cultivate it despite the cultural current, many turn to meditation. And yet meditation itself has an ambivalent history that reflects this tug-of-war between productivity and presence.

Among the timeless trove of musings collected in his Complete Essays (public library; public domain) is the following passage Michel de Montaigne penned sometime in the second half of the 16th century:

Meditation is a rich and powerful method of study for anyone who knows how to examine his mind, and to employ it vigorously. I would rather shape my soul than furnish it. There is no exercise that is either feeble or more strenuous, according to the nature of the mind concerned, than that of conversing with one’s own thoughts. The greatest men make it their vocation, “those for whom to live is to think.”

Portrait of Michel de Montaigne by Salvador Dalí, 1947. Click image for details.

“Meditation,” here, is taken to mean “cerebration,” vigorous thinking — the same practice John Dewey addressed so eloquently a few centuries later in How We Think. This conflation, at first glance, seems rather antithetical to today’s notion of meditation — a practice often mistakenly interpreted by non-practitioners as non-thinking, an emptying of one’s mind, a cultivation of cognitive passivity. In reality, however, meditation requires an active, mindful presence, a bearing witness to one’s inner experience as it unfolds. In that regard, despite the semantic evolution of the word itself, Montaigne’s actual practice of meditation was very much aligned with the modern concept and thus centuries ahead of his time, as were a great deal of his views.

In How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (public library) — that remarkable distillation of timeless lessons on the art of living from the godfather of “blogging,” explored more closely here — British philosophy scholar Sarah Bakewell points to Montaigne’s oft-quoted aphorism — “When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep.” — noting that he “achieved an almost Zen-like discipline” and remarking on his “ability to just be,” the essence of meditation:

It sounds so simple, put like this, but nothing is harder to do. This is why Zen masters spend a lifetime, or several lifetimes, learning it. Even then, according to traditional stories, they often manage it only after their teacher hits them with a big stick — the keisaku, used to remind meditators to pay full attention. Montaigne managed it after one fairly short lifetime, partly because he spent so much of that lifetime scribbling on paper with a very small stick… Observing the play of inner states is the writer’s job. Yet this was not a common notion before Montaigne, and his peculiarly restless, free-form way of doing it was entirely unknown.

Meditation, then, isn’t merely the product of solitude — that increasingly endangered art of learning how to be alone — but is also aided by an active record of one’s inward gaze, the very practice that makes keeping a diary so spiritually and creatively beneficial, particularly for writers.

1947 illustration for the essays of Montaigne by Salvador Dalí. Click image for details.

How to Live is revelational in its entirety, full of Montaigne’s timeless and ever-timely wisdom on the most central questions of leading a meaningful life.

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04 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Werner Herzog’s No-Bullshit Advice to Aspiring Filmmakers and Creative Entrepreneurs


Why all creative work is the product of “a furious inner excitement” and how to cultivate the best possible “climate of excitement of the mind.”

Psychologists have long championed the idea that the ability to remember and integrate experiences is a central component of creative work. In Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (public library) — the same wide-ranging beast of an interview that gave us the legendary filmmaker’s thoughts on creativity, self-reliance, and how to make a living doing what you loveWerner Herzog lays out a spectacular case for the value of experience, of having lived wide, as the essential tool of creativity.

A decade before Kickstarter, he offers idealistic yet practical advice to aspiring filmmakers, which applies with equal poignancy and precision to just about any field of creative endeavor:

The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not to wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. If you can’t afford to make a million-dollar film, raise $10,000 and produce it yourself. That’s all you need to make a feature film these days. Beware of useless, bottom-rung secretarial jobs in film-production companies. Instead, so long as you are able-bodied, head out to where the real world is. Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Drive a taxi for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a film. Walk on foot, learn languages and a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema. Filmmaking — like great literature — must have experience of life at its foundation. Read Conrad or Hemingway and you can tell how much real life is in those books. A lot of what you see in my films isn’t invention; it’s very much life itself, my own life. If you have an image in your head, hold on to it because — as remote as it might seem — at some point you might be able to use it in a film. I have always sought to transform my own experiences and fantasies into cinema.

Later in his conversation with interviewer Paul Cronin, Herzog goes on to outline his unconventional vision for the ideal film school based on this very notion that all creative work must be rooted in lived experience and not in theoretical teaching or technical skill:

You would be allowed to submit an application only after having travelled, alone and on foot, let’s say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of nearly two thousand miles. While walking, write about your experiences, then give me your notebooks. I would immediately be able to tell who had really walked and who had not. You would learn more about filmmaking during your journey than if you spent five years at film school. Your experiences would be the very opposite of academic knowledge, for academia is the death of cinema. Somebody who has been a boxer in Africa would be better trained as a filmmaker than if he had graduated from one of the “best” film schools in the world. All that counts is real life.

My film school would allow you to experience a certain climate of excitement of the mind, and would produce people with spirit, a furious inner excitement, a burning flame within. This is what ultimately creates films. Technical knowledge inevitably becomes dated; the ability to adapt to change will always be more important. At my utopian film academy there would be a vast loft with a boxing ring in one corner. Participants, working every day with a trainer, would learn to somersault, juggle and perform magic tricks. Whether you would be a filmmaker by the end I couldn’t say, but at least you would emerge as a confident and fearless athlete. After this vigorous physical work, sit quietly and master as many languages as possible. The end result would be like the knights of old who knew how to ride a horse, wield a sword and play the lute.

A diverse repertoire of experience, Herzog argues, offers the creative person “legs to stand on” — a kind of insurance against the loss of dignity and independence:

If a filmmaker has no other legs to stand on, he can be easily broken. When someone knows how to milk a cow, there is something solid about him. A farmer who grows potatoes or breeds sheep is never ridiculous; nor is a cattle rancher or a chef able to feed a table full of hungry guests. The eighty-year-old man who brought me a bottle of wine from his vineyard before my first opera opened in Bologna could never be an embarrassment, but the film producer who takes to the red carpet at every opportunity and keeps his awards polished will always look foolish. I have seen dignified ninety-year-old cello players and photographers, but never filmmakers. My way of dealing with the inevitable is to step out of my job whenever I can. I travel on foot, I stage operas, I raise children, I cook, I write. I focus on things that give me independence beyond the world of cinema.

His most important advice, however, is also the one that seems most obvious but remains the hardest to stomach — a straightforward formulation of the psychology-backed idea that grit rather than mere talent is the key to success:

Things rarely happen overnight. Filmmakers should be prepared for many years of hard work. The sheer toil can be healthy and exhilarating.

Elsewhere in the interview, Herzog addressed one of the eternal struggles in filmmaking and other creative careers, offering his no-bullshit advice on the question of funding. Indeed, A Guide for the Perplexed — not to be confused with E.F. Schumacher’s equally engrossing 1978 philosophy book of the same title — is an immeasurable trove of idealism and practical wisdom in its entirety. Complement it with Ira Glass on the secret of success in creative work and advice to aspiring writers.

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04 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau: Cultural Stereotypes Subverted in a Subtle Celebration of Diversity


A sweet reminder that however different the hats we wear may be, we are united by a common thread of goodwill.

The loveliest children’s books have a way of distilling the complexities of our most universal emotions into simple, symbolic stories that invite us to restore our faith in the human spirit. Such is the gift of Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau (public library), written by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts — the story of an unusual day in the otherwise routine life of “the world’s finest hatmaker,” who spends her days crafting exquisite one-of-a-kind hats for “the hatless but hopeful” that show up at her atelier. Ordinarily, once the bustle of her busy day is done, Madame Chapeau returns to her quarters and dines alone, with only her dog and her cat to keep company.

One night a year, on her birthday, she takes out her most elegant dress and chooses a special birthday bonnet, then walks to the town’s finest restaurant to dine alone in her festive outfit.

But on this particular birthday stroll, something unexpected happens — Madame Chateau trips and feels her birthday bonnet fly off as a crow snatches it mid-air. (Sound familiar?) Outraged and devastated, she runs through the town chasing after the crow as various townspeople — a chef, a mime, a cowboy, a police officer — try to console her by offering their respective hats.

None of them will do — Madame Chapeau yearns for her singular birthday bonnet. Meanwhile, a quiet little girl, the daughter of one of Madame Chapeau’s clients, witnesses the commotion with equal parts curiosity and compassion.

Resigned to the bonnet’s fate, the disheartened hatmaker feels like retreating home to despair in private — but she suddenly remembers that her restaurant reservation awaits, with a birthday cake already ordered. Reluctantly, she sits at her fancy table with a sigh, holding back tears.

Just then, the little girl politely approaches and presents her with a colorfully quirky knit cap that she herself had crafted with her tiny little-girl hands.

The girl held a brightly knit cap in her hand,
with thin purple stripes and a wide orange band.
Its earflaps were yellow. Its pom-pom was green.
A freakier headpiece has never been seen.

“It looks rather odd,” said the Lady Chapeau.
“This hat has no baubles. No beads. And no bow!
It’s stretchy… it’s cozy… it’s easy to squish.
It’s knitted with love and your best birthday wish!”

“How wonderfully perfect! The right hat for me!
A true birthday bonnet, I’m sure you’ll agree!”

And, just like that, the day is saved by a sweet and simple gesture of generosity. The townspeople join Madame Chapeau and her new little friend in a joyous birthday celebration, feasting on chocolate cake and dancing into the night — a grand finale made all the merrier by Roberts’s vibrant vintage-inspired illustrations and Beaty’s Dr. Seussean verses.

But there is something else that makes this gem so magical — a subtle yet enormously empowering subversion of limiting cultural stereotypes.

Because the golden age of modern children’s books took place in the middle of the twentieth century, on the cusp of the civil rights movement and decades before the second wave of feminism, it is unsurprising that the genre, even today, is burdened by the cultural baggage of inequality — only 31 percent of contemporary children’s books feature female heroines, many of which purvey limiting gender expectations, and of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013 only 93 featured people of color.

And yet here is a book about an independent middle-aged woman who defies the still-prevalent stigma against singletons and is financially self-sufficient by her own creative labor, who is white and services a wealthy black client, and who is helped into the dénouement of her challenge not by a patronizing Prince Charming but by a little black girl dressed in preppy plaid. There is, too, the many-hatted citizenry of wildly diverse backgrounds and callings, joined together in a common cause of goodwill.

More than a mere treat of storytelling and illustration, Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau offers a subtle but profound deconditioning of our most toxic cultural tropes. There are no stereotypes in this charming book, only the diversity of human experience in its real dimensions.

Illustrations courtesy of Abrams Books for Young Readers; photographs my own

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