Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

02 SEPTEMBER, 2015

Bruce Lee on the Power of Repose and the Strength of Yielding

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“One should be in harmony with, and not rebellion against, the strength of the opponent.”

When he emigrated from Hong Kong to America in 1959, Bruce Lee (November 27, 1940–July 20, 1973) adapted the ancient Chinese conceptual martial art Wing Chun into his own version, Jun Fan Gung Fu, literally translated as “Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu,” and popularized it in America. Over the course of his short life, he became not only a trailblazing martial artist but a modern philosopher whose ideas on personal development and the cultivation of character have continued to inspire generations.

On his ascent to superstardom, Lee was too poor to afford long-distance phone calls. Instead, he turned to letters not only as a medium for keeping in touch with his loved ones and collaborators but also as a creative sandbox for fleshing out the ideas that informed his philosophy. Those letters are now collected in Bruce Lee: Letters of the Dragon (public library) — the most direct record of the views, beliefs, and ideals that shaped Lee’s enduring legacy.

In a 1964 letter to Taky Kumura, his first student and one of his dearest friends, 24-year-old Lee outlines the learning process of gung fu. Under the heading “Self-cultivation,” he considers the essential purpose of leisure in spiritual development and writes:

The point where [one is] to rest being known, the object of pursuit is then determined; and, that being determined, a calm unperturbedness may be attained too. To that calmness there will succeed a tranquil repose. In that repose there may be careful deliberation, and that deliberation will be followed by the attainment of the desired end.

Wishing to cultivate oneself, one first rectifies his heart.

Wishing to rectify his heart, one seeks to be sincere in his thoughts.

Wishing to be sincere in his thoughts, one first extends to the utmost of his knowledge — such extension of knowledge lies in the investigation of things.

Only in repose, Lee points out, can the mind begin to investigate the nature of things, empty itself of interferences, and learn not to let external triggers induce internal states of fear, anger, sorrow, and anxiety. He writes of this contemplative space:

A gung fu man rests therein, and because he rests, he is at peace. Because he is at peace, he is quiet. One who is at peace and is quiet, no sorrow or harm can enter; therefore his inner power remains whole and his spirit intact.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Under the captions “NO MIND” and “NO THOUGHT,” Lee adds:

Discard all thoughts of reward, all hopes of praise and fears of blame, all awareness of one’s bodily self. And, finally, [close] the avenues of sense perception and let the spirit out, as it will.

The highest skill operates on an unconscious level.

Sincere thought means thought of concentration (quiet awareness). The thought of a distracted mind cannot be sincere. Man’s mind and his behavior are one, his inner thought and outer expression cannot contradict each other. Therefore a man should set up his right principle and this right mind (principle) will influence his action.

Under the heading “Yielding,” he writes:

Yielding will overcome anything superior to itself; its strength is boundless.

The yielding will has a reposeful ease, soft as downy feathers — a quietude, a shrinking from action, an appearance of inability to do (the heart is humble, but the work is forceful). Placidly free from anxiety one acts in harmony with the opponent’s strength. One does not move ahead but responds to the fitting influence.

In a sentiment he would later hone into his famous metaphor for resilience, Lee adds:

Nothing in the world is more yielding and softer than water; yet it penetrates the hardest. Insubstantial, it enters where no room is. It is so fine that it is impossible to grasp a handful of it; strike it, yet it does not suffer hurt; stab it, and it is not wounded.

Illustration by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Click image for more.

Under the heading “Law of Non-Interfering,” Lee elaborates on this philosophy of yielding as an act of strength:

One should be in harmony with, and not rebellion against, the strength of the opponent.

[…]

The strongest is he that makes use of his opponent’s strength — be the bamboo tree which bends toward the wind; and when the wind ceases, it springs back stronger than before.

Writing to his editor at Black Belt magazine on September 2 of that year, Lee draws a graphic representation of this idea and elaborates on the notion of strength and suppleness as complementary rather than contradictory forces:

Just as an object needs a subject, the person in attack is not taking an independent position but is acting as an assistant. After all, you need your opponent to complete the other half of a whole.

The gentleness/firmness is one inseparable force of one unceasing interplay of movement. If a person riding a bicycle wishes to go somewhere, he cannot pump on both [of] the pedals at the same time or not pump on them at all. In order to move forward he has to pump on one pedal and release the other. So the movement of going forward requires this “oneness” of pumping and releasing, and vice versa, each being the cause of the other.

Bruce Lee: Letters of the Dragon is a trove of timeless wisdom in its entirety. Complement it with the great Zen master D.T. Suzuki on what freedom really means, Aldous Huxley on the necessity of integrating mind and body in education, and a biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk and his philosopher father in conversation about the true measure of personal strength.

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26 AUGUST, 2015

Amanda Palmer’s Extraordinary BBC Open Letter on the Choice to Have a Child as a Working Artist

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“We’re artists — not art factories.”

“Being an artist is not just about what happens when you are in the studio,” Teresita Fernández wrote in her devastatingly beautiful meditation on being an artist. “The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote, the words that come out of your mouth … will also become the raw material for the art you make.” And yet we continue clinging to limiting ideas about what it means to be an artist. Our bipolar culture renders the choice not to have children a controversial act of courage while at the same time pitting parenthood against other aspects of personhood, including the identity of being a creative warrior, and insisting that there is an inescapable tradeoff.

In April of 2015, musician Amanda Palmer received a letter from a self-proclaimed “fan” affirming one of every artist’s worst nightmares — the “fan,” also a woman, argued that Palmer’s newly announced pregnancy would be to the grave detriment of her art; that, what’s more, it was a form of perpetrating fraud on her fanbase by accepting Patreon micro-patronage (I myself am a proud supporter) for art bound to devolve into motherly mediocrity. The “fan” seemed unaware that the history of creative culture is strewn with brilliant women who had children without compromising their genius — from Susan Sontag, who entered motherhood at the age of nineteen and went on to become one of the greatest intellectual titans of the twentieth century, to Patti Smith, who became a mother at forty-one and has continued to bestow her brilliant badassery upon the world in the decades since, often performing with her daughter.

At a live recording of BBC’s excellent Four Thought, Palmer addressed the “fan” in a vulnerable, courageous, and unflinchingly loving open letter that speaks to the mire of cultural complexities in reconciling one’s new identity as a parent with one’s lifelong identity as a working artist.

When you’re a crowdfunding artist, it shouldn’t matter what your choices are — as long as you’re delivering your side of the bargain: the art, the music. It shouldn’t matter whether you’re spending money on guitar picks, rent, printer paper, diapers, college loans, or the special brand of organic absinthe you use to find your late-night muse — as long as art is making it out the other side and making your patrons happy.

We’re artists — not art factories. The money we need to live is often indistinguishable from the money we need to make art.

[…]

I’m just about to jump into this net that I’m praying will appear to catch me, my art, and this baby — all at the same time.

A full transcript of the reading can be found here. Join me in weaving that art-affirming, life-affirming net under Amanda by supporting her on Patreon — the payoff is reliably magical.

For a complement and a counterpoint, see some equally courageous perspectives on the choice not to have children, then revisit Amanda’s suddenly triply poignant reading of Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Life While-You-Wait” and her fierce performance art piece for the New York Public Library’s children’s book donation drive.

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17 AUGUST, 2015

Louise Bourgeois on Art, Integrity, the Trap of False Humility, and the Key to Creative Confidence

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“To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer.”

French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (December 11, 1911– May 31, 2010), nicknamed Spiderwoman for her iconic large-scale spider sculptures, is one of the most influential creative icons of the past century. She survived a traumatic childhood, which — as is often the case for great artists — became the raw material for a lifetime of art, and no less than a lifetime of creative tenacity is what it took for her to attain formal acclaim: Bourgeois had been informally admired in the art world for some time, but she was seventy-one when she received her first major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Celebrated as the founder of confessional art, she mistrusted words as an adequate medium for conveying one’s innermost ideas, yet she began keeping a diary at the age of twelve and never stopped. Dualities permeated her work — destruction and creation, anguish and happiness, violence and tenderness, loneliness and communion — but she was, above all, a woman of crystalline conviction and artistic integrity. Nowhere does this come more blazingly alive than in Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father / Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews, 1923–1997 (public library) — a remarkable and revelatory volume, which came about after curator extraordinaire Hans Ulrich Obrist visited Bourgeois in her New York apartment in 1994 for a series of interviews; over the course of them he discovered a trove of previously unpublished notes, letters, fragments, speeches, and poetical writings by this enigmatic, luminous mind.

Bourgeois was also immensely insightful about the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of art, wise beyond her years since an early age — something best captured in the correspondence with her friend and fellow artist Colette Richarme. Although Bourgeois was seven years her friend’s junior, she often took on the role of a mentor and offered advice that was perhaps directed as much at herself as it was at Richarme. In a letter from March of 1938, 26-year-old Bourgeois — still an aspiring artist herself — writes:

You must put the essence of what you want to say into a painting. The rest is arbitrary. Chosen with discernment, but chosen, and choice involves elimination. Once the drawing is established and composed, you compose the other values in the same way.

A few years later, Bourgeois gives herself a more expansive version of the same advice in a barely punctuated passage from her diary:

A painting must not be a battlefield it must be a statement. Set out with something to say and not with the vague desire to say something. Things never simplify themselves they always complicate themselves on the way from the brain to the canvas. Set out, taking your precautions.

[…]

You have to realize that you aren’t working in a blind way for the good of humanity in general. You have to set up a scale of objectives and values and work systematically.

In another letter to Richarme from early 1939, Bourgeois offers a timeless piece of advice on the trap of false humility and the key to creative confidence:

To convince others, you have to convince yourself; and a conciliatory or even an unduly understanding attitude — in that it is inevitably superficial — is not helpful to creativity.

In a letter penned shortly after she moved from Paris to New York at the age of twenty-nine, Bourgeois recounts the transformative experience of visiting a Picasso retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art — the very institution that would stage her own first retrospective more than four decades later:

There was an exhibition of 400 paintings by Picasso here (forty years’ work). It was so beautiful, and it revealed such genius and such a collection of treasures that I did not pick up a paintbrush for a month. Complete shutdown. I cleaned brushes, palettes, etc. and tidied everything.

[…]

I’ve seen some things recently that are so beautiful that I can’t find any strength or self-confidence.

Writing of a newly published monograph of Van Gogh’s work, which she had just received, Bourgeois echoes the same sentiment:

What wealth!! What can one add that is new when there is such genius around? If art is for personal satisfaction only, it is too much of a selfish pleasure.

Meanwhile, her native Paris was mere months away from being occupied by the Nazis — a constant backdrop of impending destruction and devastation which Bourgeois, like all artists creating in a wartime climate, had to reconcile with the creative impulse. In the same letter to Richarme, she laments:

I have been listening to political discussions, conversations whose sole aim is to conceal the frightful term “neutrality.” I assure you, it’s useful living abroad: it helps one to understand how propaganda and false information is circulated for whatever secret purposes.

That summer, writing again to her friend as Paris already lay occupied by the Nazis, Bourgeois captures the malady of American media that afflicts us in ever-proliferating forms to this day:

I don’t know what to say about the behavior of the Americans. On the whole they are irresponsible. The newspapers, without exception, are trying to mold public opinion. The news they carry is correct, but the slant they put on events is tendentious — or, most of the time, false.

Bourgeois saw art as the most potent counterpoint to society’s falsehoods — a supreme reach for truth, which she espoused in her own work and found in the work of the artists she most admired. Much like her compatriot André Gide, who extolled the creative value of sincerity, she believed earnestness and integrity were essential to true art. That is why she saw Picasso — an artist who never compromised in his art, a rare beacon of sincerity amid a culture of cynicism — as her “great master.” In a diary entry from March of 1939, she writes:

Picasso paints what is true; true movements, true feelings. He is sane and strong and simple and sensitive… Picasso is an enthusiast. He says so, and that is why his works are young. Skepticism is the beginning of decadence. It’s a form of abdication and bankruptcy.

Like many diarists — including her compatriot, the great painter Delacroix, who used his journal as a form of self-counsel — Bourgeois urges herself:

Never depart from the truth even though it seems banal at first… All movements painted by Picasso have been seen and felt; he is never theatrical. The Surrealists are theatrical. New York painting, the painting that wants to be or is fashionable, is theatrical. Theater is the image of life and Picasso sees life or rather reality! Keep your integrity. You will only count, for yourself and in your art, to the extent that you keep your integrity.

It is astounding how aptly this applies to writing, journalism, and the media industry as well — the very mecca of agenda-driven opinion-manipulation, which Bourgeois had previously lamented. So much of what passes for journalism, triply so in our day, is “theatrical” — from the customary clickbait of headline composition to the glaringly performative gimmicks of cat listicles. In this new context, Bourgeois’s words resonate as an even more powerful incantation for writers, artists, and journalists alike: “Keep your integrity.”

Louise Bourgeois: 'Self Portrait' / Cat. No. 324.2/VIII, variant, 2006 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

But integrity is something that takes place as much within the artist as it does around the artist — it is both a function of one’s interior personal commitment and, to borrow William Gibson’s marvelous term, of the “personal micro-culture” in which one immerses oneself. I have long believed that nothing sustains the creative spirit more powerfully than the sense of belonging to a circle of kindred spirits — something seen in such heartwarming affinities as those between Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe, Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, Mark Twain and Helen Keller, and Ursula Nordstrom and Maurice Sendak.

Bourgeois, too, intuited this deep connection between artistic integrity and creative kinship. In August of 1984, already well into her seventies, she writes in the diary:

I love all artists and I understand them (flock of deaf mutes in subway). They are my family and their existence keeps me from being lonely.

To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer… Audience is bullshit, unnecessary. Communication is rare; art is a language, like the Chinese language. Who gets it? The deaf mutes in the subway.

Reconciliation is the sweetest feeling.

Louise Bourgeois: 'Mercy Merci,' 1992 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

In another diary entry penned three years later, she revisits the subject with even more piercing poignancy:

You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love. That is why geometrically speaking the circle is a one.

Louise Bourgeois: Writings and Interviews is a treasure trove of wisdom from cover to cover. Complement it with Georgia O’Keeffe on public opinion and what it means to be an artist, Denise Levertov on how great works of art are born, and Henry Miller on why good friends are essential for creative work.

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12 AUGUST, 2015

Sylvia Plath’s First Job: How the Beloved Poet’s Formative Experience as a Farm Worker Shaped Her Writing

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“Farm work is one of the best jobs for getting to know people as they really are.”

Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) began honing her craft by reaping the creative rewards of keeping a diary from a young age and was barely a teenager when she first started writing poetry. By the time she graduated high school, she had amassed dozens of rejection slips and only a few acceptances. Young Plath studied both carefully and noticed a curious pattern — much like the response her first tragic poem had garnered, her sadder pieces tended to be the ones accepted, while her more exuberant and joyous poetry and prose ended up rejected. It would be quite crass to seek in this a direct metaphor for Plath’s life — certainly, despite her enormous capacity for livingness, Plath perished by her own hand; but had she not held on to that very capacity for joy and wonderment, had she not defended it tirelessly against the behemoth of her mental illness, she may have lost the battle far sooner, without gifting the world some of the most beautiful poetry ever written — the very record of her tussle with light and darkness.

Nothing fed Plath’s appetite for exuberance and light more powerfully and enduringly than her formative first job as a farm worker, which she took with her brother the summer after graduating from high school in 1950. It made so strong an impression on her that fragments of it slipped into her writing throughout her life.

Sylvia Plath's high school graduation portrait

In an entry from her scrapbook-journal, included by her mother in the preface to the posthumously published Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us the young poet’s thoughts on writing as salvation for the soul — Plath recounts that creatively and spiritually invigorating experience:

And so there are summers every year, but the one which brought my first job is unique. Warren and I went up to Lookout Farm [in Dover, Massachusetts] right after I graduated… Every day we biked up together early in the morning, left our bikes at Wellesley College usually and hitched a ride with one of the other hands. I can never go back to those days spent in the fields, in sun and rain, talking with the negroes and the hired hands. I can only remember how it was and go on living where I am… But … this Farm Summer will always be The First Job and the sweetest.

In an unpublished manuscript, included in the letters volume, Plath reflects on the experience:

I am now firmly convinced that farm work is one of the best jobs for getting to know people as they really are. As you work side by side in the rows, your hands move automatically among the leaves and your thoughts are free to wander at will. What, then, is more natural than to drift into conversation with your neighbor? It is really amazing what a receptive ear can do by way of encouraging confidences…

One of Sylvia Plath's little-known drawings. Click image for more.

That First Job sprouted Plath’s ongoing fascination with botany and her love of the land, which she would come to channel both in her poetry and, perhaps most directly, in her little-known drawings. But the farm work was also the seedbed for her first true sense of professional success: The experience produced a poem and an article, both published in The Christian Science Monitor — the first major publication not only to accept Plath’s work but to embolden her with a note from the editor: “We hope that you will try us again soon with articles and essays for these columns.” Only a year later, she was already seen as someone “born to write.”

In the closing words of that seminal article, published under the title “The Rewards of a New England Summer,” Plath captures the spiritual awakening kindled by that formative farm job, channeled with the same pensive beauty that marks her poetry:

When you see me pause and stare a bit wistfully at nothing in particular, you’ll know that I am deep at the roots of memory, back on the Farm, hearing once more the languid, sleepy drone of bees in the orange squash blossoms, feeling the hot, golden fingers of sun on my skin, and smelling the unforgettable spicy tang of apples which is, to me, forever New England.

Letters Home is a devastatingly beautiful read in its totality. Complement this particular excerpt with French philosopher Gaston Bachelard on the spiritual rewards of housework, then revisit Plath on life, death, hope, and happiness, her breathtaking reading of her poem “A Birthday Present,” and the little-known children’s book she wrote for her own kids.

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