Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘literature’

31 JULY, 2012

The Father of Modern Meteorology Pays Homage to Jonathan Swift in a Scientific Verse, 1920

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Literature and science converge in a playful riff on a riff on a riff.

Remember the first poem published in a scientific journal? The one that turned out not to be the first? Reader Marco F. Barozzi ups the dramatic ante by pointing out in an email that while J. Storey’s may have been the first scientific paper written entirely in verse, verses already appeared in a work of the English physicist and mathematician Lewis F. Richardson (1881-1953), who pioneered the application of physics and computational mathematics to weather forecasting. In 1920, he used a quatrain as an epigraph of his paper “The supply of energy from and to Atmospheric Eddies,” published in Issue 686, Volume 97 of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.

After his studies of air turbulence led him to develop the Richardson criterion, a measure of the ratio of buoyant to mechanical turbulence, he delivered his breakthrough in a clever rhyme playing on “Poetry, a Rhapsody,” a famous Jonathan Swift poem about fleas, and on the parody of Swift by Augustus De Morgan, A Budget of Paradoxes:

Big whorls have little whorls
That feed on their velocity,
And little whorls have lesser whorls
And so on to viscosity

The riff on Swift:

So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ’em;
And so proceed ad infinitum.

And the riff on De Morgan:

Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on;
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.

What a beautiful testament to the notion that “those persons who have risen to eminence in arts, letters or sciences have frequently possessed considerable knowledge of subjects outside their own sphere of activity” and to history’s contention that the greatest, most original scientists are those who have cultivated wide interests and indiscriminate curiosity.

Everything is, indeed, a remix.

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25 JULY, 2012

Susan Sontag on Writing

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“There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work.”

The newly released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), from whence Sontag’s thoughtful meditations on censorship and aphorisms came, is an absolute treasure trove of rare insight into one of the greatest minds in modern history. Among the tome’s greatest gifts are Sontag’s thoughts on the art, craft, and ideology of writing.

Unlike more prescriptive takes, like previously examined advice by Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck, and David Ogilvy, Sontag’s reflections are rather meditative — sometimes turned inward, with introspective curiosity, and other times outward, with a lens on the broader literary landscape — yet remarkably rich in cultural observation and universal wisdom on the writing process, somewhere between Henry Miller’s creative routine, Jack Kerouac’s beliefs and techniques, George Orwell’s four motives for writing, and E. B. White’s vision for the responsibility of the writer.

Gathered here are the most compelling and profound of Sontag’s thoughts on writing, arranged chronologically and each marked with the date of the respective diary entry.

I have a wider range as a human being than as a writer. (With some writers, it’s the opposite.) Only a fraction of me is available to be turned into art.
(8/8/64)

Words have their own firmness. The word on the page may not reveal (may conceal) the flabbiness of the mind that conceived it. > All thoughts are upgrades — get more clarity, definition, authority, by being in print — that is, detached from the person who thinks them.

A potential fraud — at least potential — in all writing.
(8/20/64)

Writing is a little door. Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.
(8/30/64)

If only I could feel about sex as I do about writing! That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.
(11/1/64)

Science fiction —
Popular mythology for contemporary negative imagination about the impersonal
(11/1/64)

Greatest subject: self seeking to transcend itself (Middlemarch, War and Peace)
Looking for self-transcendence (or metamorphosis) — the cloud of unknowing that allows perfect expressiveness (a secular myth for this)
(undated loose sheets, 1965)

Kafka the last story-teller in ‘serious’ literature. Nobody has known where to go from there (except imitate him)
(undated loose sheets, 1965)

John Dewey — ‘The ultimate function of literature is to appreciate the world, sometimes indignantly, sometimes sorrowfully, but best of all to praise when it is luckily possible.’
(1/25/65)

I think I am ready to learn how to write. Think with words, not with ideas.
(3/5/70)

‘Writing is only a substitute [sic] for living.’ — Florence Nightingale
(12/18/70)

French, unlike English: a language that tends to break when you bend it.
(6/21/72)

A writer, like an athlete, must ‘train’ every day. What did I do today to keep in ‘form’?
(7/5/72)

In ‘life,’ I don’t want to be reduced to my work. In ‘work,’ I don’t want to be reduced to my life.
My work is too austere
My life is a brutal anecdote
(3/15/73)

The only story that seems worth writing is a cry, a shot, a scream. A story should break the reader’s heart

[…]

The story must strike a nerve — in me. My heart should start pounding when I hear the first line in my head. I start trembling at the risk.
(6/27/73)

I’m now writing out of rage — and I feel a kind of Nietzschean elation. It’s tonic. I roar with laughter. I want to denounce everybody, tell everybody off. I go to my typewriter as I might go to my machine gun. But I’m safe. I don’t have to face the consequences of ‘real’ aggressivity. I’m sending out colis piégés [‘booby-trapped packages‘] to the world.
(7/31/73)

The solution to a problem — a story that you are unable to finish — is the problem. It isn’t as if the problem is one thing and the solution something else. The problem, properly understood = the solution. Instead of trying to hide or efface what limits the story, capitalize on that very limitation. State it, rail against it.
(7/31/73)

Talking like touching
Writing like punching somebody
(8/14/73)

To be a great writer:

know everything about adjectives and punctuation (rhythm)
have moral intelligence — which creates true authority in a writer
(2/6/74)

‘Idea’ as method of instant transport away from direct experience, carrying a tiny suitcase.

‘Idea’ as a means of miniaturizing experience, rendering it portable. Someone who regularly has ideas is — by definition — homeless.

Intellectual is a refugee from experience. In Diaspora.

What’s wrong with direct experience? Why would one ever want to flee it, by transforming it — into a brick?
(7/25/74)

Weakness of American poetry — it’s anti-intellectual. Great poetry has ideas.
(6/14/76)

Not only must I summon the courage to be a bad writer — I must dare to be truly unhappy. Desperate. And not save myself, short-circuit the despair.

By refusing to be as unhappy as I truly am, I deprive myself of subjects. I’ve nothing to write about. Every topic burns.
(6/19/76)

The function of writing is to explode one’s subject — transform it into something else. (Writing is a series of transformations.)

Writing means converting one’s liabilities (limitations) into advantages. For example, I don’t love what I’m writing. Okay, then — that’s also a way to write, a way that can produce interesting results.
(11/5/76)

‘All art aspires to the condition of music’ — this utterly nihilistic statement rests at the foundation of every moving camera style in the history of the medium. But it is a cliché, a 19th c[entury] cliché, less an aesthetic than a projection of an exhausted state of mind, less a world view than a world weariness, less a statement of vital forms than an expression of sterile decadence. There is quite another pov [point of view] about what ‘all art aspires to’ — that was Goethe’s, who put the primary art, the most aristocratic one, + the one art that cannot be made by the plebes but only gaped at w[ith] awe, + that art is architecture. Really great directors have this sense of architecture in their work — always expressive of immense line of energy, unstable + vital conduits of force.
(undated, 1977)

One can never be alone enough to write. To see better.
(7/19/77)

Two kinds of writers. Those who think this life is all there is, and want to describe everything: the fall, the battle, the accouchement, the horse-race. That is, Tolstoy. And those who think this life is a kind of testing-ground (for what we don’t know — to see how much pleasure + pain we can bear or what pleasure + pain are?) and want to describe only the essentials. That is, Dostoyevsky. The two alternatives. How can one write like T. after D.? The task is to be as good as D. — as serious spiritually, + then go on from there.
(12/4/77)

Only thing that counts are ideas. Behind ideas are [moral] principles. Either one is serious or one is not. Must be prepared to make sacrifices. I’m not a liberal.
(12/4/77)

When there is no censorship the writer has no importance.

So it’s not so simple to be against censorship.
(12/7/77)

Imagination: — having many voices in one’s head. The freedom for that.
(5/27/78)

Language as a found object
(2/1/79)

Last novelist to be influenced by, knowledgeable about science was [Aldous] Huxley

One reason [there are] no more novels — There are no exciting theories of relation of society to self (soc[iological], historical, philosophical)

Not SO — no one is doing it, that’s all
(undated, March 1979)

There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work
(undated, March 1979)

To write one must wear blinkers. I’ve lost my blinkers.

Don’t be afraid to be concise!
(3/10/79)

A failure of nerve. About writing. (And about my life — but never mind.) I must write myself out of it.

If I am not able to write because I’m afraid of being a bad writer, then I must be a bad writer. At least I’ll be writing.

Then something else will happen. It always does.

I must write every day. Anything. Everything. Carry a notebook with me at all times, etc.

I read my bad reviews. I want to go to the bottom of it — this failure of nerve
(7/19/79)

The writer does not have to write. She must imagine that she must. A great book: no one is addressed, it counts as cultural surplus, it comes from the will.
(3/10/80)

Ordinary language is an accretion of lies. The language of literature must be, therefore, the language of transgression, a rupture of individual systems, a shattering of psychic oppression. The only function of literature lies in the uncovering of the self in history.
(3/15/80)

The love of books. My library is an archive of longings.
(4/26/80)

Making lists of words, to thicken my active vocabulary. To have puny, not just little, hoax, not just trick, mortifying, not just embarrassing, bogus, not just fake.

I could make a story out of puny, hoax, mortifying, bogus. They are a story.
(4/30/80)

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is exquisite in its entirety — I couldn’t recommend it more heartily.

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13 JULY, 2012

Francis Bacon on Studies: “Reading Maketh a Full Man; Conference a Ready Man; Writing an Exact Man”

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“Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.”

Francis Bacon might be best-known as a pioneer of the scientific method, but he was also a prolific and thoughtful philosopher, writer, and scholar of the arts and humanities. His Complete Essays (public library; public domain) explore everything from love (“Nuptial love maketh mankind; friendly love perfecteth it; but wanton love corrupteth, and embaseth it.”) to envy (“A man that hath no virtue in himself, ever envieth virtue in others.”) to delays (“There is surely no greater wisdom, than well to time the beginnings, and onsets, of things.”) to death (“Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children, is increased with tales, so is the other.”), and just about everything in between.

But among Bacon’s most timeless and prescient reflections is the essay Of Studies, which touches on a number of familiar and urgent contemporary issues — the brokenness of the education system, the osmosis of reading and non-reading, and the importance of finding your element.

Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight, is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment, and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best, from those that are learned.

To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need proyning, by study; and studies themselves, do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation.

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not.

Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abeunt studia in mores. [Studies permeate and shape manners.] Nay, there is no stond or impediment in the wit, but may be wrought out by fit studies; like as diseases of the body, may have appropriate exercises. Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast; gentle walking for the stomach; riding for the head; and the like. So if a man’s wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again. If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the Schoolmen; for they are cymini sectores. If he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study 197 the lawyers’ cases. So every defect of the mind, may have a special receipt.

Complement with Bacon on friendship, beauty, and love.

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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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