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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

21 OCTOBER, 2014

Happy Birthday, Ursula Le Guin: Dogs, Cats, and the Human Burdens of Beauty

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“There are a whole lot of ways to be perfect, and not one of them is attained through punishment.”

“A Dog is, on the whole, what you would call a simple soul,” T.S. Eliot simpered in his beloved 1930s poem “The Ad-dressing of Cats,” proclaiming that “Cats are much like you and me.” Indeed, cats have a long history of being anthropomorphized in dissecting the human condition — but, then again, so do dogs. We’ve always used our feline and canine companions to better understand ourselves, but nowhere have Cat and Dog served a more poignant metaphorical purpose than in the 1992 essay “Dogs, Cats, and Dancers: Thoughts about Beauty” by Ursula K. Le Guin (b. October 21, 1929), found in the altogether spectacular volume The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library), which also gave us Le Guin, at her finest and sharpest, on being a man.

Le Guin contrasts the archetypal temperaments of our favorite pets:

Dogs don’t know what they look like. Dogs don’t even know what size they are. No doubt it’s our fault, for breeding them into such weird shapes and sizes. My brother’s dachshund, standing tall at eight inches, would attack a Great Dane in the full conviction that she could tear it apart. When a little dog is assaulting its ankles the big dog often stands there looking confused — “Should I eat it? Will it eat me? I am bigger than it, aren’t I?” But then the Great Dane will come and try to sit in your lap and mash you flat, under the impression that it is a Peke-a-poo.

Artwork from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Cats, on the other hand, have a wholly different scope of self-awareness:

Cats know exactly where they begin and end. When they walk slowly out the door that you are holding open for them, and pause, leaving their tail just an inch or two inside the door, they know it. They know you have to keep holding the door open. That is why their tail is there. It is a cat’s way of maintaining a relationship.

Housecats know that they are small, and that it matters. When a cat meets a threatening dog and can’t make either a horizontal or a vertical escape, it’ll suddenly triple its size, inflating itself into a sort of weird fur blowfish, and it may work, because the dog gets confused again — “I thought that was a cat. Aren’t I bigger than cats? Will it eat me?”

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton based on Gay Talese's taxonomy of cats. Click image for details.

More than that, Le Guin notes, cats are aesthetes, vain and manipulative in their vanity. In a passage that takes on whole new layers of meaning twenty years later, in the heyday of the photographic cat meme, she writes:

Cats have a sense of appearance. Even when they’re sitting doing the wash in that silly position with one leg behind the other ear, they know what you’re sniggering at. They simply choose not to notice. I knew a pair of Persian cats once; the black one always reclined on a white cushion on the couch, and the white one on the black cushion next to it. It wasn’t just that they wanted to leave cat hair where it showed up best, though cats are always thoughtful about that. They knew where they looked best. The lady who provided their pillows called them her Decorator Cats.

Artwork from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Cats.' Click image for more.

A master of bridging the playful and the poignant, Le Guin returns to the human condition:

A lot of us humans are like dogs: we really don’t know what size we are, how we’re shaped, what we look like. The most extreme example of this ignorance must be the people who design the seats on airplanes. At the other extreme, the people who have the most accurate, vivid sense of their own appearance may be dancers. What dancers look like is, after all, what they do.

Echoing legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham’s contemplation of dance as “the human body moving in time-space,” Le Guin considers the dancers she knows and their extraordinary lack of “illusions or confusions about what space they occupy.” Recounting the anecdote of one young dancer who upon scraping his ankle exclaimed, “I have an owie on my almost perfect body!” Le Guin writes:

It was endearingly funny, but it was also simply true: his body is almost perfect. He knows it is, and knows where it isn’t. He keeps it as nearly perfect as he can, because his body is his instrument, his medium, how he makes a living, and what he makes art with. He inhabits his body as fully as a child does, but much more knowingly. And he’s happy about it.

Photograph from Helen Keller's life-changing visit to Martha Graham's dance studio. Click image for details.

What dance does, above all, is offer the promise of precisely such bodily happiness — not of perfection, but of satisfaction. Dancers, Le Guin argues, are “so much happier than dieters and exercisers.” She considers the impossible ideals of the latter, which cripple them in the same way that perfectionism cripples creativity in writing and art:

Perfection is “lean” and “taut” and “hard” — like a boy athlete of twenty, a girl gymnast of twelve. What kind of body is that for a man of fifty or a woman of any age? “Perfect”? What’s perfect? A black cat on a white cushion, a white cat on a black one . . . A soft brown woman in a flowery dress . . . There are a whole lot of ways to be perfect, and not one of them is attained through punishment.

Photograph by Zed Nelson from his project 'Love Me.' Click image for more.

And just like that, Le Guin pirouettes, elegantly but imperceptibly, from the lighthearted to the serious. Reflecting on various cultures’ impossible and often painful ideals of human beauty, “especially of female beauty,” she writes:

I think of when I was in high school in the 1940s: the white girls got their hair crinkled up by chemicals and heat so it would curl, and the black girls got their hair mashed flat by chemicals and heat so it wouldn’t curl. Home perms hadn’t been invented yet, and a lot of kids couldn’t afford these expensive treatments, so they were wretched because they couldn’t follow the rules, the rules of beauty.

Beauty always has rules. It’s a game. I resent the beauty game when I see it controlled by people who grab fortunes from it and don’t care who they hurt. I hate it when I see it making people so self-dissatisfied that they starve and deform and poison themselves. Most of the time I just play the game myself in a very small way, buying a new lipstick, feeling happy about a pretty new silk shirt.

Ursula K. Le Guin by Laura Anglin

Le Guin, who writes about aging with more grace, humor, and dignity than any other writer I’ve read, turns to the particularly stifling ideal of eternal youth:

One rule of the game, in most times and places, is that it’s the young who are beautiful. The beauty ideal is always a youthful one. This is partly simple realism. The young are beautiful. The whole lot of ’em. The older I get, the more clearly I see that and enjoy it.

[...]

And yet I look at men and women my age and older, and their scalps and knuckles and spots and bulges, though various and interesting, don’t affect what I think of them. Some of these people I consider to be very beautiful, and others I don’t. For old people, beauty doesn’t come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young. It has to do with bones. It has to do with who the person is. More and more clearly it has to do with what shines through those gnarly faces and bodies.

But what makes the transformations of aging so anguishing, Le Guin poignantly observes, isn’t the loss of beauty — it’s the loss of identity, a frustratingly elusive phenomenon to begin with. She writes:

I know what worries me most when I look in the mirror and see the old woman with no waist. It’s not that I’ve lost my beauty—I never had enough to carry on about. It’s that that woman doesn’t look like me. She isn’t who I thought I was.

[...]

We’re like dogs, maybe: we don’t really know where we begin and end. In space, yes; but in time, no.

[...]

A child’s body is very easy to live in. An adult body isn’t. The change is hard. And it’s such a tremendous change that it’s no wonder a lot of adolescents don’t know who they are. They look in the mirror — that is me? Who’s me?

And then it happens again, when you’re sixty or seventy.

Artwork from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls Rilke to mind — “I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul,” he memorably wrote, “since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.” — Le Guin admonishes against our impulse to intellectualize out of the body, away from it:

Who I am is certainly part of how I look and vice versa. I want to know where I begin and end, what size I am, and what suits me… I am not “in” this body, I am this body. Waist or no waist.

But all the same, there’s something about me that doesn’t change, hasn’t changed, through all the remarkable, exciting, alarming, and disappointing transformations my body has gone through. There is a person there who isn’t only what she looks like, and to find her and know her I have to look through, look in, look deep. Not only in space, but in time.

[...]

There’s the ideal beauty of youth and health, which never really changes, and is always true. There’s the ideal beauty of movie stars and advertising models, the beauty-game ideal, which changes its rules all the time and from place to place, and is never entirely true. And there’s an ideal beauty that is harder to define or understand, because it occurs not just in the body but where the body and the spirit meet and define each other.

And yet for all the ideals we impose on our earthy embodiments, Le Guin argues in her most poignant but, strangely, most liberating point, it is death that ultimately illuminates the full spectrum of our beauty — death, the ultimate equalizer of time and space; death, the great clarifier that makes us see that, as Rebecca Goldstein put it, “a person whom one loves is a world, just as one knows oneself to be a world.” With this long-view lens, Le Guin remembers her own mother and the many dimensions of her beauty:

My mother died at eighty-three, of cancer, in pain, her spleen enlarged so that her body was misshapen. Is that the person I see when I think of her? Sometimes. I wish it were not. It is a true image, yet it blurs, it clouds, a truer image. It is one memory among fifty years of memories of my mother. It is the last in time. Beneath it, behind it is a deeper, complex, ever-changing image, made from imagination, hearsay, photographs, memories. I see a little red-haired child in the mountains of Colorado, a sad-faced, delicate college girl, a kind, smiling young mother, a brilliantly intellectual woman, a peerless flirt, a serious artist, a splendid cook—I see her rocking, weeding, writing, laughing — I see the turquoise bracelets on her delicate, freckled arm — I see, for a moment, all that at once, I glimpse what no mirror can reflect, the spirit flashing out across the years, beautiful.

That must be what the great artists see and paint. That must be why the tired, aged faces in Rembrandt’s portraits give us such delight: they show us beauty not skin-deep but life-deep.

The Wave in the Mind remains the kind of book that stays with you for life — the kind of book that is life.

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21 OCTOBER, 2014

Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark on Trust, Integrity, Human Nature, and Why a Steady Moral Compass Is the Best Investment

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“What surprises me, in a way, is how almost universally people are trustworthy and good.”

In 2007, Y Combinator founding partner Jessica Livingston set out “to establish a fund of experience that everyone can learn from” by interviewing some of the most successful entrepreneurs at the time — the founders and first employees of such celebrated companies as Apple, PayPal, Flickr, Adobe, and Firefox. The resulting conversations were published in the now-classic volume Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days (public library), titled after the Paris Review’s iconic Writers at Work.

Today, in a culture that talks a great deal about “creating value” but seems to care very little about upholding values, and writes history with the same bias, I keep coming back to the most heartening interview in the volume — Livingston’s conversation with craigslist founder Craig Newmark, whose beloved lo-fi website began in 1994 as a hunch, became a humble side-project email list in 1995 highlighting interesting events in the San Francisco area, and turned into Newmark’s full-time labor-of-love business in 1999. In 2004, eBay purchased a 25% stake in the company from a former employee, but craigslist remains independent and privately owned, helping millions of people in several hundred cities around the world find everything from used couches to true love. Underpinning the site’s success is Newmark’s own idealism, his adamant refusal to surrender to cynicism or succumb to commercialism, and his unflinching faith in the human spirit.

Newmark’s most powerful tool as an entrepreneur and a human being is the very thing Kurt Vonnegut believed was the key to happiness — the knowledge that one has enough. Recounting a pivotal point at which advertisers began approaching him about running banner ads on his free site, Newmark gets to the heart of the values question:

I thought about my own values and I was thinking, “Hey, how much money do I need?” … So I figured I would just not do that.

At that point, I got the first inkling of what I now call my “moral compass.” I better understood it later—particularly since the presidential elections, because then I realized that people were claiming a moral high ground who actually didn’t practice what they preached, and it’s about time for people of goodwill to reassert their idea of what’s right and what’s wrong.

Newmark was able to stay true to his own values by making very deliberate choices about not letting outside interests interfere with his vision — specifically investors, who invariably bring their own financial interests and thus begin to warp values in favor of narrowly defined “value.” Newmark tells Livingston:

I’ve stepped away from a huge amount of money, and I’m following through.

[...]

I coasted on savings for several months… I funded it with my own time. In no form did we ever take investment money… For the most part, for the first few years, it was just putting my own time and energy into it. If I was billing for my own hours, it would have been a great deal of money.

And that energy was considerable — when Livingston asks whether craigslist garnered “a positive response pretty quickly,” Newmark speaking to the idea that one should “expect anything worthwhile to take a long time” and responds:

Our traffic has always been slow but sure. We’re the tortoise, not the hare. Now and then we’ll get a surge of growth, but it’s been slow but steady.

At this intersection of firm values and steadfast dedication lies Newmark’s most essential insight. While “follow your gut” is a common platitude often dismissed with a scoff, especially in our culture of great impatience for any semblance of earnestness, there is something to be said for the difference between a throwaway aphorism and an ideal enacted in one’s own life as a “quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer.” Newmark’s greatest learning is very much the latter:

The biggest entrepreneurial lesson I’ve learned has been that you really do need to follow your instincts.

[...]

Trust your instincts and your moral compass… The deal is: we’re not pious about this. We try hard not to be sanctimonious. This is the way people really live; we just don’t talk about it. I’d prefer to be cynical and not talk about it, and yet, that’s real life.

Therein lies his most heartening conviction — the same one Isaac Asimov shared in his spectacular short meditation on cynicism and the human spirit. Newmark, like Asimov, speaks from a place of resolute humanism, echoing legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser’s memorable perspective on the universe. He tells Livingston:

What surprises me, in a way, is how almost universally people are trustworthy and good. There are problems, and sometimes people bicker, which is a pain in the ass, but people are good. No matter what your religious background, we share pretty much the same values. There are some minor differences that we disagree on, but the differences are at the 5 percent level. That’s pretty good.

Artwork from Sophie Blackall's illustrated craigslist missed connections. Click image for more.

After noting that the two most important factors in his company culture were an atmosphere of trust and a keen moral compass, Newmark considers how that reverberates throughout the craigslist community itself. When Livingston asks whether he ever worried about spammers and other ill-willed people trying to take advantage of the site, he answers:

We have a really good culture of trust on the site — of goodwill. You know, we’re finding that pretty much everyone out there shares, more or less, the same moral compass as we do and as my personal one. People are good. There are some bad guys out there, but they are a very tiny minority and our community is self-policing. People want other people to play fair, and that works… It works great in all sorts of ways, and it’s also an expression of our values. Mutual trust. This is kind of democracy in real life. Everyone wins, except for the bad guys.

Founders at Work is a trove of wisdom in its entirety, from Paul Graham’s characteristically contrarian and inspiring introduction to the remaining interviews with legendary entrepreneurs like Steve Wozniak, Caterina Fake, and Brewster Kahle.

Complement this particular excerpt with the question posed by Alan Watts — what would you do if money was no object? — which should underpin every entrepreneurial pursuit, then revisit this field guide to finding your purpose.

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17 OCTOBER, 2014

Ursula K. Le Guin on Being a Man

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A journey to where the semicolon meets the soul.

Who are we when we, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s enduring words, “are together with no one but ourselves”? However much we might exert ourselves on learning to stop letting others define us, the definitions continue to be hurled at us — definitions predicated on who we should be in relation to some concrete or abstract other, some ideal, some benchmark beyond the boundaries of who we already are.

One of the most important authors of our time, Ursula K. Le Guin has influenced such celebrated literary icons as Neil Gaiman and Salman Rushdie. At her best — and to seek the “best” in an altogether spectacular body of work seems almost antithetical — she blends anthropology, social psychology, and sheer literary artistry to explore complex, often difficult subjects with remarkable grace. Subjects, for instance, like who we are and what gender really means as we — men, women, ungendered souls — try to inhabit our constant tussle between inner and outer, individual and social, private and performative. This is what Le Guin examines in an extraordinary essay titled “Introducing Myself,” which Le Guin first wrote as a performance piece in the 1980s and later updated for the beautifully titled, beautifully written, beautifully wide-ranging 2004 collection The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library). To speak of a subject so common by birth and so minced by public discourse in a way that is completely original and completely compelling is no small feat — in fact, it is the kind of feat of writing Jack Kerouac must have had in mind when he contemplated the crucial difference between genius and talent.

Le Guin writes:

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter… I predate the invention of women by decades. Well, if you insist on pedantic accuracy, women have been invented several times in widely varying localities, but the inventors just didn’t know how to sell the product. Their distribution techniques were rudimentary and their market research was nil, and so of course the concept just didn’t get off the ground. Even with a genius behind it an invention has to find its market, and it seemed like for a long time the idea of women just didn’t make it to the bottom line. Models like the Austen and the Brontë were too complicated, and people just laughed at the Suffragette, and the Woolf was way too far ahead of its time.

Illustration from 'The Human Body,' 1959. Click image for details.

Noting that when she was born (1929), “there actually were only men” — lest we forget, even the twentieth century’s greatest public intellectuals of the female gender used the pronouns “he” to refer to the whole lot of human beings — Le Guin plays with this notion of the universal pronoun:

That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon.

Le Guin turns to the problem of the body, which is indeed problematic in the context of this Generic He:

I admit it, I am actually a very poor imitation or substitute man, and you could see it when I tried to wear those army surplus clothes with ammunition pockets that were trendy and I looked like a hen in a pillowcase. I am shaped wrong. People are supposed to be lean. You can’t be too thin, everybody says so, especially anorexics. People are supposed to be lean and taut, because that’s how men generally are, lean and taut, or anyhow that’s how a lot of men start out and some of them even stay that way. And men are people, people are men, that has been well established, and so people, real people, the right kind of people, are lean. But I’m really lousy at being people, because I’m not lean at all but sort of podgy, with actual fat places. I am untaut.

Illustration by Yang Liu from 'Man Meets Woman,' a pictogram critique of gender stereotypes. Click image for details.

For an example of someone who did Man right, Le Guin points to Hemingway, He with “the beard and the guns and the wives and the little short sentences,” and returns to her own insufficient Manness with a special wink at semicolons and a serious gleam at the significance of how we die:

I don’t have a gun and I don’t have even one wife and my sentences tend to go on and on and on, with all this syntax in them. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than have syntax. Or semicolons. I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after “semicolons,” and another one after “now.”

And another thing. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than get old. And he did. He shot himself. A short sentence. Anything rather than a long sentence, a life sentence. Death sentences are short and very, very manly. Life sentences aren’t. They go on and on, all full of syntax and qualifying clauses and confusing references and getting old. And that brings up the real proof of what a mess I have made of being a man: I am not even young. Just about the time they finally started inventing women, I started getting old. And I went right on doing it. Shamelessly. I have allowed myself to get old and haven’t done one single thing about it, with a gun or anything.

But between the half-assed semicolons and the guns lies the crux of the gender-imitation problem — the tyranny of how we think and talk about sex:

Sex is even more boring as a spectator sport than all the other spectator sports, even baseball. If I am required to watch a sport instead of doing it, I’ll take show jumping. The horses are really good-looking. The people who ride them are mostly these sort of nazis, but like all nazis they are only as powerful and successful as the horse they are riding, and it is after all the horse who decides whether to jump that five-barred gate or stop short and let the nazi fall off over its neck. Only usually the horse doesn’t remember it has the option. Horses aren’t awfully bright. But in any case, show jumping and sex have a good deal in common, though you usually can only get show jumping on American TV if you can pick up a Canadian channel, which is not true of sex. Given the option, though I often forget that I have an option, I certainly would watch show jumping and do sex. Never the other way round. But I’m too old now for show jumping, and as for sex, who knows? I do; you don’t.

Le Guin parlays this subtle humor into her most serious and piercing point, partway between the tragic and the hopeful — the issue of aging:

Here I am, old, when I wrote this I was sixty years old, “a sixty-year-old smiling public man,” as Yeats said, but then, he was a man. And now I am over seventy. And it’s all my own fault. I get born before they invent women, and I live all these decades trying so hard to be a good man that I forget all about staying young, and so I didn’t. And my tenses get all mixed up. I just am young and then all of a sudden I was sixty and maybe eighty, and what next?

Not a whole lot.

I keep thinking there must have been something that a real man could have done about it. Something short of guns, but more effective than Oil of Olay. But I failed. I did nothing. I absolutely failed to stay young. And then I look back on all my strenuous efforts, because I really did try, I tried hard to be a man, to be a good man, and I see how I failed at that. I am at best a bad man. An imitation phony second-rate him with a ten-hair beard and semicolons. And I wonder what was the use. Sometimes I think I might just as well give the whole thing up. Sometimes I think I might just as well exercise my option, stop short in front of the five-barred gate, and let the nazi fall off onto his head. If I’m no good at pretending to be a man and no good at being young, I might just as well start pretending that I am an old woman. I am not sure that anybody has invented old women yet; but it might be worth trying.

Ursula K. Le Guin by Laura Anglin

The Wave in the Mind, like Le Guin’s mind, is joltingly original in its totality, Chinook salmon in the wild. Complement this particular bit with Anna Deavere Smith on how to stop letting others define us.

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