Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘literature’

19 MARCH, 2013

The Philosophy of Style: Herbert Spencer on the Economy of Attention and the Ideal Writer (1852)

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“To have a specific style is to be poor in speech.”

Today’s abundance of advice on the art and craft of writing makes the phenomenon appear a modern meta-trope of the written word. And yet it is anything but new. In his 1852 treatise The Philosophy of Style (public library; public domain), Victorian-era philosopher, scientist, and liberal political theorist Herbert Spencer sets out to create a structural framework for good composition, guided by the emergent groundswell of formalist writing. Only 32 years old at the time, he defines language as “an apparatus of symbols for the conveyance of thought” and proceeds to map out its essential machinery.

Like Alexander Graham Bell, Spencer believes that engaging with good writing on a regular basis helps one internalize the secrets of the craft:

There can be little question that good composition is far less dependent upon acquaintance with its laws, than upon practice and natural aptitude. A clear head, a quick imagination, and a sensitive ear, will go far towards making all rhetorical precepts needless. He who daily hears and reads well-framed sentences, will naturally more or less tend to use similar ones. And where there exists any mental idiosyncrasy — where there is a deficient verbal memory, or an inadequate sense of logical dependence, or but little perception of order, or a lack of constructive ingenuity; no amount of instruction will remedy the defect. Nevertheless, some practical result may be expected from a familiarity with the principles of style. The endeavour to conform to laws may tell, though slowly. And if in no other way, yet, as facilitating revision, a knowledge of the thing to be achieved — a clear idea of what constitutes a beauty, and what a blemish — cannot fail to be of service.

A scientist at heart, he proposes an empirical approach to literary dogma:

However influential the truths thus dogmatically embodied, they would be much more influential if reduced to something like scientific ordination. In this, as in other cases, conviction will be greatly strengthened when we understand the why. And we may be sure that a comprehension of the general principle from which the rules of composition result, will not only bring them home to us with greater force, but will discover to us other rules of like origin.

Like Kurt Vonnegut, Spencer recognizes that the writer ought to pity the demands placed on the reader. One of his key concepts is thus the principle of economy of attention:

On seeking for some clue to the law underlying these current maxims, we may see shadowed forth in many of them, the importance of economizing the reader’s or hearer’s attention, To so present ideas that they may be apprehended with the least possible mental effort, is the desideratum towards which most of the rules above quoted point. … A reader or listener has at each moment but a limited amount of mental power available. To recognize and interpret the symbols presented to him, requires part of this power; to arrange and combine the images suggested requires a further part; and only that part which remains can be used for realizing the thought conveyed. Hence, the more time and attention it takes to receive and understand each sentence, the less time and attention can be given to the contained idea; and the less vividly will that idea be conceived.

One of his key aims is to liberate writing from “friction and inertia”:

Language must be regarded as a hindrance to thought, though the necessary instrument of it … Hence, carrying out the metaphor that language is the vehicle of thought, there seems reason to think that in all cases the friction and inertia of the vehicle deduct from its efficiency; and that in composition, the chief, if not the sole thing to be done, is, to reduce this friction and inertia to the smallest possible amount.

He cautions against the perilous burden the direct style — a technique that “conveys each thought into the mind step by step with little liability to error [and] gets the right thought conceived by a series of approximations” — places upon the reader’s attention, rendering it unfit for communicating complex or abstract ideas:

So long as the mind has not much to do, it may be well able to grasp all the preparatory clauses of a sentence, and to use them effectively; but if some subtlety in the argument absorb the attention — if every faculty be strained in endeavouring to catch the speaker’s or writer’s drift, it may happen that the mind, unable to carry on both processes at once, will break down, and allow the elements of the thought to lapse into confusion.

In a related aside, Spencer offers an apt aphorism:

What is bombast but a force of expression too great for the magnitude of the ideas embodied?

The same principle of economy of attention, Spencer argues, holds true of the creation of powerful imagery:

Not only in the structure of sentences, and the use of figures of speech, may economy of the recipient’s mental energy be assigned as the cause of force; but that in the choice and arrangement of the minor images, out of which some large thought is to be built up, we may trace the same condition to effect. To select from the sentiment, scene, or event described those typical elements which carry many others along with them; and so, by saying a few things but suggesting many, to abridge the description; is the secret of producing a vivid impression.

[…]

Whatever the nature of the thought to be conveyed, this skillful selection of a few particulars which imply the rest, is the key to success. In the choice of component ideas, as in the choice of expressions, the aim must be to convey the greatest quantity of thoughts with the smallest quantity of words.

Spencer uses this attention economy to admonish against saturation and advises on the proper sequence to achieve literary climax, advocating for variety:

As immediately after looking at the sun we cannot perceive the light of a fire, while by looking at the fire first and the sun afterwards we can perceive both; so, after receiving a brilliant, or weighty, or terrible thought, we cannot appreciate a less brilliant, less weighty, or less terrible one, while, by reversing the order, we can appreciate each.

[…]

The sensitiveness of the faculties must be continuously husbanded — includes much more than has been yet hinted. … We must progress from the less interesting to the more interesting; and why not only the composition as a whole, but each of its successive portions, should tend towards a climax. … [As] the easiest posture by and by becomes fatiguing, and is with pleasure exchanged for one less easy, so, the most perfectly-constructed sentences will soon weary, and relief will be given by using those of an inferior kind. … We may infer … not only that we should avoid generally combining our words in one manner, however good, or working out our figures and illustrations in one way, however telling; but that we should avoid anything like uniform adherence, even to the wider conditions of effect. … We must subordinate the component effect to the total effect.

In a worthy counterpart to Nabokov’s ideal reader, Spencer concludes by considering the ideal writer, with an implicit addition to history’s most eloquent definitions of art:

The ideal form for a poem, essay, or fiction, is that which the ideal writer would evolve spontaneously. One in whom the powers of expression fully responded to the state of feeling, would unconsciously use that variety in the mode of presenting his thoughts, which Art demands. … To have a specific style is to be poor in speech.

He ends with a proposition reminiscent of Anaïs Nin’s insistence on the importance of emotion in writing and urges:

The predominant feelings have by use trained the intellect to represent them. But while long, though unconscious, discipline has made it do this efficiently, it remains from lack of practice, incapable of doing the same for the less active feelings; and when these are excited, the usual verbal forms undergo but slight modifications. Let the powers of speech be fully developed, however — let the ability of the intellect to utter the emotions be complete; and this fixity of style will disappear. The perfect writer will express himself as Junius, when in the Junius frame of mind; when he feels as Lamb felt, will use a like familiar speech; and will fall into the ruggedness of Carlyle when in a Carlylean mood. Now he will be rhythmical and now irregular; here his language will be plain and there ornate; sometimes his sentences will be balanced and at other times unsymmetrical; for a while there will be considerable sameness, and then again great variety. His mode of expression naturally responding to his state of feeling, there will flow from his pen a composition changing to the same degree that the aspects of his subject change. He will thus without effort conform to what we have seen to be the laws of effect. And while his work presents to the reader that variety needful to prevent continuous exertion of the same faculties, it will also answer to the description of all highly organized products, both of man and of nature: it will be not a series of like parts simply placed in juxtaposition, but one whole made up of unlike parts that are mutually dependent.

Complement The Philosophy of Style with Stephen King’s militant case against adverbs, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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15 MARCH, 2013

A Calendar of Wisdom: Tolstoy on Knowledge and the Meaning of Life

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“The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life.”

On March 15, 1884, Leo Tolstoy, wrote in his diary:

I have to create a circle of reading for myself: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Pascal, The New Testament. This is also necessary for all people.

So he set out to compile “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people” — a florilegium five centuries after the golden age of florilegia and a Tumblr a century and a half before the golden age of Tumblr, a collection of famous words on the meaning of life long before the concept had become a cultural trope. The following year, he wrote to his assistant, describing the project:

I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers as Socrates, Epictetus, Arnold, Parker. … They tell us about what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue. … I would like to create a book … in which I could tell a person about his life, and about the Good Way of Life.

Armenian sculptor Sergei Dmitrievich Merkurov (1881-1952) working on his statue of Leo Tolstoy. (Public domain, Library of Congress)

Tolstoy spent the next seventeen years collecting those pieces of wisdom. In 1902, in his late seventies, seriously ill and confronting mortality, he finally sat down to write the book under the working title A Wise Thought for Every Day. Once he sent the manuscript to his publisher, he returned to the diary and exhaled:

I felt that I have been elevated to great spiritual and moral heights by communication with the best and wisest people whose books I read and whose thoughts I selected for my Circle of Reading.

Retitled to Thoughts of Wise Men, the book was first published in 1904, followed closely by an expanded and reorganized edition titled A Calendar of Wisdom, in which the quotes were organized around specific daily themes and which included several hundred of Tolstoy’s own thoughts. It wasn’t until 1997 that the compendium received its first English translation, by Peter Sekirin, titled A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts (public library).

Tolstoy writes in the introduction:

I hope that the readers of this book may experience the same benevolent and elevating feeling which I have experienced when I was working on its creation, and which I experience again and again, when I reread it every day, working on the enlargement and improvement of the previous edition.

Running through the book are several big-picture threads that string together the different quotations. One of them is Tolstoy’s intense preoccupation with the acquisition and architecture of knowledge, ignorance, and the meaning of life. Here are several of the insights he culls from other thinkers, along with the respective days of the year to which Tolstoy assigned them:

Better to know a few things which are good and necessary than many things which are useless and mediocre.

What a great treasure can be hidden in a small, selected library! A company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world, for thousands of years, can make the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us. The thought which they might not even reveal to their best friends is written here in clear words for us, people from another century. Yes, we should be grateful for the best books, for the best spiritual achievements in our lives.

(Ralph Waldo Emerson, January 1)

Read the best books first, otherwise you’ll find you do not have time.

(Henry David Thoreau, January 1)

Knowledge is real knowledge only when it is acquired by the efforts of your intellect, not by memory.

Only when we forget what we were taught do we start to have real knowledge.

(Henry David Thoreau, January 9)

A constant flow of thoughts expressed by other people can stop and deaden your own thought and your own initiative…. That is why constant learning softens your brain…. Stopping the creation of your own thoughts to give room for the thoughts from other books reminds me of Shakespeare’s remark about his contemporaries who sold their land in order to see other countries.

(Arthur Schopenhauer, January 9)

Real wisdom is not the knowledge of everything, but the knowledge of which things in life are necessary, which are less necessary, and which are completely unnecessary to know. Among the most necessary knowledge is the knowledge of how to live well, that is, how to produce the least possible evil and the greatest goodness in one’s life. At present, people study useless sciences, but forget to study this, the most important knowledge.

(Jean Jaques Rousseau, March 16)

Science can be divided into an infinite number of disciplines, and the amount of knowledge that can be pursued in each discipline is limitless. The most critical piece of knowledge, then, is the knowledge of what is essential to learn and what isn’t.

A huge amount of knowledge is accumulated at present. Soon our abilities will be too weak, and our lives too short, to study this knowledge. We have vast treasures of knowledge at our disposal but after we study them, we often do not use them at all. It would be better not to have this burden, this unnecessary knowledge, which we do not really need.

(Immanuel Kant, April 1)

What is important is not the quantity of your knowledge, but its quality. You can know many things without knowing that which is most important.

There are two types of ignorance, the pure, natural ignorance into which all people are born, and the ignorance of the so-called wise. You will see that many among those who call themselves scholars do not know real life, and they despise simple people and simple things.

(Blaise Pascal, April 18)

There is only one real knowledge: that which helps us to be free. Every other type of knowledge is mere amusement.

(Vishnu Purana, Indian Wisdom, June 23)

The way to true knowledge does not go through soft grass covered with flowers. To find it, a person must climb steep mountains.

(Josh Ruskin, September 20)

A sage is not afraid of lack of knowledge: he is not afraid of hesitations, or hard work, but he is afraid of only one thing — to pretend to know the things which he does not know.

You should study more to understand that you know little.

(Michel de Montaigne, October 1)

The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life.

(Seneca, November 14)

Armenian sculptor Sergei Dmitrievich Merkurov (1881-1952) working on his statue of Leo Tolstoy. (Public domain, Library of Congress)

But most poignant of all are Tolstoy’s own thoughts, which appear after the collected quotations on various days. A sampling:

The difference between real material poison and intellectual poison is that most material poison is disgusting to the taste, but intellectual poison, which takes the form of cheap newspapers or bad books, can unfortunately sometimes be attractive. (January 1)

A thought can advance your life in the right direction only when it answers questions which were asked by your soul. A thought which was first borrowed from someone else and then accepted by your mind and memory does not really much influence your life, and sometimes leads you in the wrong direction. Read less, study less, but think more.

Learn, both from your teachers and from the books which you read, only those things which you really need and which you really want to know. (January 9)

A scholar knows many books; a well-educated person has knowledge and skills; an enlightened person understands the meaning and purpose of his life.

There are a limitless number of different sciences, but without one basic science, that is, what is the meaning of life and what is good for the people, all other forms of knowledge and art become idle and harmful entertainment.

We live a senseless life, contrary to the understanding of life by the wisest people of all times. This happens because our young generations are educated in the wrong way—they are taught different sciences but they are not taught the meaning of life.

The only real science is the knowledge of how a person should live his life. And this knowledge is open to everyone. (January 18)

If all knowledge were good, then pursuit of every sort of knowledge would be useful. But many false meditations are disguised as good and useful knowledge; therefore, be strict in selecting the knowledge you want to acquire. (March 16)

If you see that some aspect of your society is bad, and you want to improve it, there is only one way to do so: you have to improve people. And in order to improve people, you begin with only one thing: you can become better yourself. (March 17)

Beware of false knowledge. All evil comes from it.

Knowledge is limitless. Therefore, there is a minuscule difference between those who know a lot and those who know very little. (April 1)

Ignorance in itself is neither shameful nor harmful. Nobody can know everything. But pretending that you know what you actually do not know is both shameful and harmful. (April 18)

Every person has only one purpose: to find perfection in goodness. Therefore, only that knowledge is necessary which leads us to this. (May 3)

There are two very clear indications of real science and real art: the first inner sign is that a scholar or an artist works not for profit, but for sacrifice, for his calling; the second, outer sign is that his works are understandable to all people. Real science studies and makes accessible that knowledge which people at that period of history think important, and real art transfers this truth from the domain of knowledge to the domain of feelings.

Creating art is not as elevated a thing as many people guess, but certainly it is a useful and kind thing to do, especially if it brings people together and arouses kind feelings in them. (July 2)

It is better to know less than necessary than to know more than necessary. Do not fear the lack of knowledge, but truly fear unnecessary knowledge which is acquired only to please vanity. (September 23)

Though much of A Calendar of Wisdom bears the dated religiosity of the era — and of an old man confronting his mortality in that era — many of the collected thoughts resonate with timeless secular sagacity. Complement it with Montaigne on the art of living and the collected wisdom of modern icons on the meaning of life.

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08 MARCH, 2013

Gertrude Stein Reads “A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson”

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“Very fine is my valentine and mine, very fine very mine and mine is my valentine.”

We lost Sherwood Anderson — beloved author, dispenser of timelessly poetic fatherly advice — on this day in 1941. And what better way to celebrate his legacy than with a rare recording of reconstructionist Gertrude Stein reading her 1922 poem “A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson,” with audio from my alma mater’s wonderful PennSound archive? Indebted to Anderson for the credibility his foreword had lent her 1922 volume Geography and Plays, Stein wrote him this “love poem,” found in A Stein Reader (public library), as a token of gratitude — but, of course, she was in love-love with her lifelong partner, Alice B. Toklas, to whom an earlier version of the poem titled “Idem the Same” had been dedicated.

Very fine is my valentine.

Very fine and very mine.

Very mine is my valentine very mine and very fine.

Very fine is my valentine and mine, very fine very mine and mine is my valentine.

Anderson had befriended Stein during his first trip to Paris after Sylvia Beach, the owner of the legendary English-language bookstore Shakespeare & Company, had spotted him browsing Stein’s then-obscure books and had written a letter of introduction between the two authors. Later, writing in his notebook, he described Stein with impeccable, admiring accuracy:

Imagine a strong woman with legs like stone pillars sitting in a room hung with Picassos… The woman is the very symbol of health and strength. She laughs. She smokes cigarettes. She tells stories with an American shrewdness in getting the tang and the kick into the telling.

A lifelong friendship unfolded.

For more Stein audio indulgence, hear her read from The Making of Americans and give a radio interview about understanding and joy.

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07 MARCH, 2013

Waving to Virginia: Patti Smith Reads Woolf

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“One man will single me out and will tell me what he has told no other person.”

What could be more soul-quenching than two grand dames of creative culture — Virginia Woolf and Patti Smith — coming together? In this short footage recorded at the opening of a 2008 Paris exhibition of four decades’ worth of Smith’s art and photography, she celebrates Woolf’s 1931 novel The Waves (public library; public domain) with a mesmerizing dramatic performance.

In fact, Smith’s choice of narrative is more conceptual — perhaps an allusion to her 1979 album Wave — than an actual “reading”: Only a single sentence comes from Woolf’s original text, and the rest is a kind of free improvisation in a creative homage to the beloved author. Enjoy:

Something within her refused to grow. Something endless, eternal. Something bold. Something warrior-like. She looked up at the stars, she could feel, she felt as if she could pluck them one by one and send them spinning into the world, like small beautiful elastic mercurial weapons. Now too, the time is coming.

Complement with Woolf on reading, film, and keeping a diary, then treat yourself to Smith’s advice to the young, her lettuce soup recipe for starving artists, and her beautiful homage to her soul mate.

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