Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

12 JULY, 2012

Henry David Thoreau on Defining Your Own Success

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“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success.”

Legendary philosopher and poet Henry David Thoreau remains best-known for one of history’s most important texts on protest and for Walden (public library; public domain), his beautiful 1854 paean to solitude, simplicity, and self-sufficiency, which inspired much of John Cage’s philosophy and generations of intellectuals and creators. Nine years prior, Thoreau had moved into a cabin by Walden Pond in an effort to remove himself from social life, instead absorbing nature and letting himself be absorbed by it. The book synthesizes Thoreau’s insights derived over the two years he spent there, woven of exquisite language full of magnificent metaphors and whimsical descriptions, and spanning everything from the nature of the self to consumer culture.

My favorite part, however, deals with a familiar subject — how to define your own success, find your purpose and do what you love:

If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies. The faintest assured objection which one healthy man feels will at length prevail over the arguments and customs of mankind. No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.

Then, in nearing the conclusion:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

Revelatory in its entirety, Walden is a classic for a reason — the kind of spectacular read that stays with you for life. Complement it with Thoreau on walking, the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

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11 JULY, 2012

No Man’s Land: A Meditation on Mortality and Self-Delusion from French Illustrator Blexbolex

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“And still, that insinuating, ever-growing silence.”

French comic artist and illustrator Blexbolex may be best-known for his contemplative meditations on people and time, aimed at children yet agelessly delightful and thought-provoking, but he is also a masterful explorer of complex grown-up themes. No Man’s Land (public library), from London indie publisher No Brow, is a poignant satire of the mind’s well-documented gift for fooling itself and seducing us into our own hand-spun illusory realities. Printed in three spot-colors, screenprint-like, on beautiful matte paper — Blexbolex’s signature style — it tells the story of a hero spiraling into an implausible dreamland in hopeless escapism from the processes of mortality.

And still, that insinuating, ever-growing silence.

Hell. I survived hell; you don’t even have the beginning of the slightest idea.

At once an exquisitely crafted artifact and a beautiful, unsettling story, No Man’s Land is the kind of treasure chest in which you find new gems with each reading, uncover new slivers of existential truth, peel away new layers of the human condition.

Thanks, Claudia

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11 JULY, 2012

The Family That Dwelt Apart: Lovely Vintage Animated Film Based on an E. B. White Short Story

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Misadventures in happy isolation.

E. B. White was a timeless champion of literary style, crusader for the writer’s social responsibility, vocal pundit on matters of the free press, unsuspected New Yorker cover artist, and one of my two favorite authors of all time.

This wonderful 1973 animated short film is based on White’s New Yorker story The Family That Dwelt Apart, directed by Yvon Mallette, produced by the National Film Board of Canada, and narrated by White himself.

The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at the 47th Academy Awards, but lost to the claymation short Closed Mondays. It appears in the 1974 compilation More Animation Greats.

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10 JULY, 2012

Book Spine Poetry vol. 6: A Working Theory of Love

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It’s been a while since the last installment of book spine poetry, so here’s another snippet of life-truth, rendered in literary titles:

Bursts,
music,
big questions:
A working theory of love

The books:

Catch up on all previous book spine poems: The Future, Get Smarter, This Is New York, Music, and The Meaning of Life.

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