Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

22 JUNE, 2012

Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: Tracing the Evolution of Women’s Rights in a Victorian Lady’s Journals


How the most private of frontiers became a public front for the gender dialogue.

If one were to purchase a leather-bound diary in mid-nineteenth-century England, the pages might have carried these instructions: “Use your diary with the utmost familiarity and confidence…conceal nothing from its pages nor suffer any other eye than your own to scan them.” The diary in its most secret form, locked with a key or hidden away under the bed, was a distinct product of the nineteenth century. The Romantics and their poetry had turned a nation inwards, and its people were ready to examine their desires in a private narrative of their own lives. Even Queen Victoria herself kept a journal, dotted with drawings from court.

The Victorians had a passion for the lives of others — biographies, memoirs, journals, and travel narratives — but the diary held tantalizing secrets of the heart, and none were so tantalizing as the writings of Isabella Robinson, whose private thoughts were publicly laid out in a London divorce court in 1858. Author Kate Summerscale explains in Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady (public library):

Of all the written life stories that fascinated the Victorians, the diary was the most subjective and raw.

Queen Victoria kept a very rigorous diary for most of her life. Here the young queen describes her wedding day and draws a picture of her headdress.

The diary of forty-one year old Isabella Robinson — a twice-married housewife on trial for adultery with a young doctor and family friend ten years her junior — revealed a woman who felt passionately while living a life of constrained dullness, monotony, and normalcy. In France, Gustave Flaubert put a name to this temperament — Madame Bovary had been published in 1856 but was considered too scandalous to be translated.

Augustus Leopold Egg, 'Past and Present,' 1858. A husband discovers his wife's adultery in a letter. This painting was part of a moralizing triptych exhibited at the Royal Academy just weeks before the Robinson trial.

The French had sanctioned divorce due to incompatibility in 1792, and one out of every eight marriages in the next ten years ended in divorce — the Revolution itself being a particularly violent form of divorce of a people from their king. But in nineteenth-century England, an Act of Parliament was required to end a marriage, and only 325 divorces had been granted since 1670, a rate of approximately two a year. In 1857, the Matrimonial Causes Act made divorce much easier to obtain — for the husband. A man had to prove adultery, a woman both cruelty and adultery. (A woman’s adultery was considered more serious because she could produce a bastard heir.)

A Victorian divorce court, c. 1870. Isabella Robinson was not allowed to appear as a witness for the defense. Her only voice in court was her diary.

In her diary, Isabella would fall deeply in love with different family friends — and once, her children’s tutor — eager to talk, read, and share ideas, yet always stymied by physical desire. She was at times anxious, frustrated, and depressed with her multitude of feeling. She wrote to her doctor:

[Women like me] exist quietly who bring up families…to tread in the purposeless steps of those who went before them — what motive — what hope may be found strong enough to enable them to bear up against trials, separations, old age, and death itself?

Her doctor cautioned that she should think less about herself and more about others:

Intellect alone does not fill the vacuum of human desire.

The world 'diarist' was first used in 1818. Published diaries doubled in the 1820s, and by the 1850s blank diaries were sold in the thousands.

In her trial, the prosecution used this flightiness as a condemnation:

[This diary is] the product of extravagance, of excitement, and of irritability, bordering on, if not actually in, the domain of madness. There never was a document which bore on the face of it marks of so flighty, extravagant, excitable, romantic, irritable foolish and disordered a mind as this diary of Mrs. Robinson.

George Elgar Hicks, 'Woman's Mission: Companion of Manhood' 1863. (Tate Britain)

Isabella won her case, but the winning was bittersweet. Now friendless, she retained her allowance from her husband and access to her children — all because she remained married. The public judgement placed on her private passions was a first rough step towards an understanding of women who wouldn’t conform socially or sexually, making Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace a fascinating chronicle of an ordinary woman’s life exposed in extraordinary circumstances.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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21 JUNE, 2012

Against Positive Thinking: Uncertainty as the Secret of Happiness


Exploring the “negative path” to well-being.

Having studied under Positive Psychology pioneer Dr. Martin Seligman, and having read a great deal on the art-science of happiness and the role of optimism in well-being, I was at first incredulous of a book with the no doubt intentionally semi-scandalous title of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (public library). But, as it often turns out, author Oliver Burkeman argues for a much more sensible proposition — namely, that we’ve created a culture crippled by the fear of failure, and that the most important thing we can do to enhance our psychoemotional wellbeing is to embrace uncertainty.

Besides, the book has a lovely animated trailer — always a win.

Burkeman writes in The Guardian:

[Research] points to an alternative approach [to happiness]: a ‘negative path’ to happiness that entails taking a radically different stance towards those things most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. This involves learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. In order to be truly happy, it turns out, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them.

The American edition (once again with an uglified, dumbed down, and contrived cover design) won’t be out until November, but you can snag a British edition here, or hunt it down at your favorite public library.

Thanks, Natascha

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21 JUNE, 2012

Sartre on Why “Being-in-the-World-Ness” is the Key to the Imagination


On the figure-ground relationship between the real and the irreal.

Though French existentialist philosopher, novelist, and political activist Jean-Paul Sartre remains best-known for shaping much of 20th-century sociology, political ideology, and critical theory, some of his most interesting work deals with the imagination. In The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination (public library), originally published in 1940, he examines the concepts of nothingness and freedom to argue that, contrary to popular conceptions of imagining as a kind of internal perception, the two stand in stark contrast — perception is incomplete (you only see one side of a chair, the rest obscured from that point of view) whereas the imaginary is complete (when you imagine a chair, it arrives whole, known from all directions). What enables the imagination is consciousness and the totality of our experience — everything we know, everything we’ve seen and heard and read, everything we’ve accumulated in the course of being fully awake to the world. The imagination, in other words, is a combinatorial phenomenon — something artists, designers, writers, and scientists understand.

This particular excerpt crystallizes this “being-in-the-world-ness” as the necessary condition for the imagination:

I will call the different immediate modes of apprehension of the real as a world ‘situations’. We can then say that the essential condition for a consciousness to imagine is that it be ‘situated in the world’ or more briefly that it ‘be-in-the-world’. It is the situation-in-the-world, grasped as a concrete and individual reality of consciousness, that is the motivation for the constitution of any irreal object whatever and the nature of that irreal object is circumscribed by this motivation. Thus the situation of consciousness must appear not as a pure and abstract condition of possibility for all of the imaginary, but as the concrete and precise motivation for the appearance of a certain particular imaginary.

From this point of view, we can finally grasp the connection of the irreal to the real. First of all, even if no image is produced at the moment, every apprehension of the real as a world tends of its own accord to end up with the production of irreal objects since it is always, in a sense, free nihilation of the world and this always from a particular point of view. So, if consciousness is free, the noematic correlate of its freedom should be the world that carries in itself its possibility of negation, at each moment and from each point of view, by means of an image, even while the image must as yet be constituted by a particular intention of consciousness. But, reciprocally, an image, being a negation of the world from a particular point of view, can appear only on the ground of the world and in connection with that ground. Of course, the appearance of the image requires that the particular perceptions be diluted in the syncretic wholeness world and that this whole withdraws. But it is precisely the withdrawal of the whole that constitutes it as ground, that ground on which the irreal form must stand out. So although, by means of the production of the irreal, consciousness can momentarily appear delivered from its ‘being-in-the-world’, on the contrary this ‘being-in-the-world’ is the necessary condition of imagination.

For a fine complement to , see this 1957 meditation on the role of intuition and the imagination in scientific discovery and creativity.

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