Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

22 JANUARY, 2015

Control, Surrender and the Paradox of Self-Transcendence: Wisdom from a Vintage Scandinavian Children’s Book

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“It’s a pity that exciting things always stop happening when you’re not afraid of them anymore and would like to have a little fun.”

“It is the first thing any one has to learn in order to live,” Henry Miller wrote in comparing the art of living to dance, driven by rhythm into which the dancer must relax. “It is extremely difficult, because it means surrender, full surrender.” Surrender, it turns out, is an essential part of testing the limits, which is in turn an essential part of transcending them — in other words, the raw material of creative breakthroughs. But the beautiful term that Jeanette Winterson used to describe the experience of letting art transform us — “the paradox of active surrender” — applies just as aptly to the art of living itself: Paradoxical as it may sound, to stop resisting that which we cannot control is the only choice we have, but it is also one we must actively make in order to transcend our limits.

That’s what beloved Scandinavian children’s book author and artist Tove Jansson (1914–2001) explores with imaginative insight and sensitivity in Moominland Midwinter (public library) — the same deeply delightful and subtly philosophical vintage fable that gave us Jansson’s quiet wisdom on uncertainty, presence, and self-reliance.

Toward the end of the story, Jansson’s iconic Moomintroll protagonist finds himself elevated by the spirit of sauntering amid the wintry wonderland:

He felt more and more unburdened as he walked along. In the end he was nearly exhilarated. He started to whistle and kicked a lump of ice with great skill along his path. And then it slowly started to snow.

But the picturesque snowfall soon transmogrifies into a terrifying tempest:

The sky darkened suddenly again. Moomintroll, who had never seen a blizzard, expected a thunderstorm and braced himself against the first claps of thunder that he thought would soon ring out.

But no thunder came, and no lightning either.

Instead a small whirl of snow rose from the white cap on one of the boulders by the shore.

Worried gusts of wind were rushing to and fro over the ice and whispering in the wood by the shore. The dark-blue wall rose higher, and the gusts became stronger.

Suddenly it was as if a great door had blown wide open, the darkness yawned, and everything was filled with wet, flying snow.

This time it didn’t come from above, it darted along the ground, it was howling and shoving like a living thing… Time and all the world were lost. Everything he could feel and look at had blown away, and only a bewitched whirl of damp and dancing darkness was left. Any sensible person could have told him that this was the very moment when the long spring was born.

But there didn’t happen to be any sensible person on the shore, but only a confused Moomin crawling on all fours against the wind, in a totally wrong direction. He crawled and crawled, and the snow bunged up his eyes and formed a little drift on his nose.

A different kind of storm begins to rage in Moomintroll himself — that great and despairing fury with which we shake our fists at the sky when life doesn’t go our way; that defiant resistance with which we tense against what happens to us, taking it so very personally and refusing to surrender to the impersonal twists of a universe driven by chance and chaos. Jansson captures this inner tumult with exquisite elegance:

Moomintroll became more and more convinced that this was a trick the winter had decided to play on him, with the intention of showing him simply that he couldn’t stand it.

First it had taken him in by its beautiful curtain of slowly falling flakes, and then it threw all the beautiful snow in his face at the very moment he believed that he had started to like winter.

By and by Moomintroll became angry.

He straightened up and tried to shout at the gale. He hit out against the snow and also whimpered a little, as there was nobody to hear him.

And then, when his inner fury reaches its absolute crescendo and yet proves itself absolutely futile in abating the storm, Moomintroll does something radical — something that is always our only option in the face of that which we cannot change or control, not so much a choice as a last reflex: He surrenders. And, in Jansson’s story as in life itself, this becomes his moment of self-transcendence — “the paradox of active surrender”:

He turned his back to the blizzard and stopped fighting it.

Not until then did Moomintroll notice that the wind felt warm. It carried him along into the whirling snow, it made him feel light and almost like flying.

“I’m nothing but air and wind, I’m part of the blizzard,” Moomintroll thought and let himself go. “It’s almost like last summer. You first fight the waves, then you turn around and ride the surf, sailing along like a cork among the little rainbows of the foam, and land laughing and just a little frightened in the sand.”

Moomintroll spread out his arms and flew… And the winter danced him all along the snowy shore, until he stumbled across the snowed-up landing stage and plowed his nose through a snowdrift.

When he looks up, Moomintroll finds himself in the warm safety of his destination, but then mutters wryly, “a little crestfallen”:

It’s a pity that exciting things always stop happening when you’re not afraid of them anymore and would like to have a little fun.

Moominland Midwinter is absolutely wonderful in its entirety, full of countless such subtle yet intensely shrewd insights into the perplexities of the human experience. Complement it with Jansson’s The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My, one of the greatest children’s books of all time, and her philosophical Moomin comics on identity, belonging, and why we join groups, then revisit her rare vintage illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit.

For another beautiful meditation on this most uncooperative of seasons, see Rilke on what winter teaches us about the tenacity of the human spirit.

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21 JANUARY, 2015

To Paint Is to Love Again: Henry Miller on Art, How Hobbies Enrich Us, and Why Good Friends Are Essential for Creative Work

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“What sustains the artist is the look of love in the eyes of the beholder. Not money, not the right connections, not exhibitions, not flattering reviews.”

One particularly icy winter day not too long ago, I reluctantly retired my bike, took the subway into Manhattan, and gave up my seat to a kindly woman a few decades my senior. We struck up a conversation — an occurrence doubly delightful for its lamentable rarity on the New York City subway. For this radical act we were rewarded with an instant kinship of spirit — she turned out to be the wonderful artist Sheila Pinkel, visiting from the West Coast for a show she was having at a New York gallery, and bonded over our mutual love of Henry Miller, lamenting how much of his magnificent and timeless writing has perished out of print — things like his beautiful reflections on the greatest gift of growing old and on money and on the meaning of life.

Right before I hopped out at my stop, Sheila mentioned one particular book that had made a strong impression early in life, but which she had been unable to find since — Miller’s 1968 lost gem To Paint Is to Love Again (public library). Naturally, I tracked down a surviving copy as soon as possible and was instantly enchanted by this rare and wonderful treasure trove of Miller’s paintings — for he was among the famous writers who were drawn to the visual arts, producing such lesser-known treats as J.R.R. Tolkien’s illustrations, Sylvia Plath’s drawings, William Faulkner’s Jazz Age etchings, Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons, Zelda Fitzgerald’s watercolors, and Nabokov’s butterfly studies — enveloped in his devastatingly honest and insightful words on art, sincerity, kindness, hardship, and the gift of friendship.

With his characteristic blend of irreverence, earnestness, and unapologetic wisdom, Miller — who began painting at the age of thirty-seven in 1928, while he was “supposed to be at work on the great American novel” but was yet to publish anything at all, bought his first watercolors and brushes in the midst of poverty, and was soon painting “morning, noon and night” — explores the eternal question of what art is and what makes one an artist.

Henry Miller: 'The Hat and the Man' (Collection of Leon Shamroy)

Somewhere between the great scientist as a master at the art of observation and the writer, whom Susan Sontag memorably defined as “a professional observer,” Miller places the painter:

What is more intriguing than a spot on the bathroom floor which, as you sit emptying your bowels, assumes a hundred different forms, figures, shapes? Often I found myself on my knees studying a stain on the floor — studying it to detect all that was hidden at first sight. No doubt the painter, studying the face of the sitter whose portrait he is about to do, must be astonished by the things he suddenly recognizes in the familiar visage before him. Looking intently at an eye or a pair of lips, or an ear — particularly an ear, that weird appendage! — one is astounded by the metamorphoses a human countenance undergoes. What is an eye or an ear? The anatomy books will tell you one thing, or many things, but looking at an eye or ear to render it in form, texture, color yields quite another kind of knowledge. Suddenly you see — and it’s not an eye or an ear but a little universe composed of the most extraordinary elements having nothing to do with sight or hearing, with flesh, bone, muscle, cartilage.

In this art of seeing Miller finds the essential question of what a painting really is:

A picture… is a thousand different things to a thousand different people. Like a book, a piece of sculpture, or a poem. One picture speaks to you, another doesn’t… Some pictures invite you to enter, then make you a prisoner. Some pictures you race through, as if on roller skates. Some lead you out by the back door. Some weigh you down, oppress you for days and weeks on end. Others lift you up to the skies, make you weep with joy or gnash your teeth in despair.

Henry Miller: 'Man and Woodpecker' (Collection of William Webb)

But in contemplating this spectrum of the viewer’s emotional experience, Miller counters Tolstoy’s idea of “emotional infectiousness” between artist and audience and writes:

What happens to you when you look at a painting may not be at all what the artist who painted it intended to have happen. Millions of people have stood and gazed in open-mouthed wonder at the Mona Lisa. Does anyone know what was going on in Da Vinci’s mind when he did it? If he were to come to life again and look at it with his own two eyes it is dubious, in my mind, that he would know himself precisely what it was that made him present her in this immortal fashion.

And yet the intensity of the artist’s own emotion, Miller argues, is the true lifeblood of art and of optimism about the human spirit:

To paint is to love again. It’s only when we look with eyes of love that we see as the painter sees. His is a love, moreover, which is free of possessiveness. What the painter sees he is duty-bound to share. Usually he makes us see and feel what ordinarily we ignore or are immune to. His manner of approaching the world tells us, in effect, that nothing is vile or hideous, nothing is stale, flat and unpalatable unless it be our own power of vision. To see is not merely to look. One must look-see. See into and around.

Henry Miller: 'Street Scene: Minsk or Pinsk' (Collection of Henry Miller)

He recounts the profound transformation he witnessed within himself when he “first began to view the world with the eyes of a painter” and learned a whole new way of paying attention — a way that lives up to Mary Oliver’s beautiful assertion that attention without feeling … is only a report.” Miller writes:

The most familiar things, objects which I had gazed at all my life, now became an unending source of wonder, and with the wonder, of course, affection. A tea pot, an old hammer, or chipped cup, whatever came to hand I looked upon as if I had never seen it before. I hadn’t, of course. Do not most of us go through life blind, deaf, insensitive? Now as I studied the object’s physiognomy, its texture, its way of speaking, I entered into its life, its history, its purpose, its association with other objects, all of which only endeared it the more… Have you ever noticed that the stones one gathers at the beach are grateful when we hold them in our hands and caress them? Do they not take on a new expression? An old pot loves to be rubbed with tenderness and appreciation. So with an axe: kept in good condition, it always serves its master lovingly.

Unlike his longtime lover and lifelong friend Anaïs Nin, who believed that “if one changes internally, one should not continue to live with the same objects,” Miller extols the gladdening assurance of the old:

I have always cherished old things, used things, things marked by the passage of time and human events. I think of my own self this way, as something much handled, much knocked about, as worn and polished with use and abuse. As something serviceable, perhaps I should say. More serviceable for having had so many masters, so many wretched, glorious, haphazard experiences and encounters. Which explains, perhaps, why it is that when I start to do a head it always turns into a “self-portrait.” Even when it becomes a woman, even when it bears no resemblance to me at all. I know myself, my changing faces, my ineradicable Stone Age expression. It’s what happened to me that interests me, not resemblances. I am a worn, used creature, an object that loves to be handled, rubbed, caressed, stuffed in a coat pocket, or left to bake in the sun. Something to be used or not used, as you like.

Henry Miller: 'Girl with Bird' (Collection of Leon Shamroy)

Noting that he never dares to call himself a painter and yet he does paint, Miller considers the psychology behind this ambivalent attitude — something at the heart of Ann Truitt’s insightful meditation on the difference between “doing art” and being an artist — and writes:

I turn to painting when I can no longer write. Painting refreshes and restores me; it enables me to forget that I am temporarily unable to write. So I paint while the reservoir replenishes itself.

This, of course, is a strategy that many celebrated creators used — Madeleine L’Engle read science to enrich her writing and Einstein, who termed his creative process “combinatory play,”, is said to have come up with his greatest physics breakthroughs during his violin breaks. But it also makes sense under more formal psychological models of how creativity works, all of which require some form of incubation period, or what Alexander Graham Bell called “unconscious cerebration” — a stage during which “no effort of a direct nature” is made toward one’s creative goal and the mind is instead allowed to perform its essential background processing.

This notion comes very much alive in Miller’s account of those early days when he first became besotted with painting and its singular way of seeing the world:

Though my mind was intensely active, for I was seeing everything in a new light, the impression I had was of painting with some other part of my being. My mind went on humming, like a wheel that continues to spin after the hand has let go, but it didn’t get frazzled and exhausted as it would after a few hours of writing. While I played, for I never looked on it as work, I whistled, hummed, danced on one foot, then the other, and talked to myself.

[…]

It was a joy to go on turning [paintings] out like a madman — perhaps because I didn’t have to prove anything, either to the world or to myself. I wasn’t hepped on becoming a painter. Not at all. I was simply wiggling out of the strait-jacket.

He draws a further contrast between painting and writing in their respective effects on the creator’s psyche:

I enjoy talking to painters more than to writers… Painters give me the impression of being less used up by their daily task than writers or musicians. Also, they use words in a more plastic way, as if conscious of their very substantial originals. When they write … they reveal a poetic touch which writers often lack. Perhaps this is due to living continuously with flesh, textures, objects, and not merely with ideas, abstractions, complexes. Often they are mimes or story tellers, and nearly always good cooks. The writer, on the other hand, is so often pale, awkward, incompetent in everything except the business of putting words together.

The disposition of the painter and the writer, Miller observes with the warm wryness of someone very much aware that he is first a writer, differs not only in their psychic state during creation but also in how each relates to their finished work:

To paint is to love again, live again, see again. To get up at the crack of dawn in order to take a peek at the water colors one did the day before, or even a few hours before, is like stealing a look at the beloved while she sleeps. The thrill is even greater if one has first to draw back the curtains. How they glow in the cold light of early dawn! … Is there any writer who rouses himself at daybreak in order to read the pages of his manuscript? Perish the thought!

And yet Miller notes that many celebrated writers were also “painters, musicians, actors, ambassadors, mathematicians,” of which he observes:

When one is an artist all mediums open up… Every artist worth his salt has his [hobby]. It’s the norm, not the exception.

Henry Miller: 'Marcel Proust' (Collection of Henry Miller)

For Miller, part of the allure of painting lies in its superior, almost primitive sincerity, of which only children and the rare adult artist are true masters — for the same reason that children have a wealth to teach us about risk, failure, and growth. Miller writes:

For me the paintings of children belong side by side with the works of the masters… The work of a child never fails to make appeal, to claim us, because it is always honest and sincere, always imbued with the magic certitude born of the direct, spontaneous approach.

[…]

Paul Klee … had the ability to return us to the world of the child as well as to that of the poet, the mathematician, the alchemist, the seer. In the paintings of Paul Klee we are privileged to witness the miracle of the pedagogue slaying the pedagogue. He learned in order to forget, it would seem. He was a spiritual nomad endowed with the most sensitive palps… He almost never failed, and he never, never, never said too much.

Paul Klee: Senecio (1922)

Miller compares his own way of learning to that of children:

We all learn as much as we wish to and no more. We learn in different ways, sometimes by not learning…. My way is by trial and error, by groping, stumbling, questioning.

Noting that very few American painters excite him at all — among the exceptions he admiringly cites Georgia O’Keeffe and Jackson Pollock — Miller condemns the toxic effect of consumerism, something he had spiritedly condemned three decades earlier, on the creative spirit:

To paint is to love again, and to love is to live to the fullest. But what kind of love, what sort of life can one hope to find in a vacuum cluttered with every conceivable gadget, every conceivable money maker, every last comfort, every useless luxury? To live and love, and to give expression to it in paint, one must also be a true believer. There must be something to worship. Where in this broad land is the Holy of Holies hidden?

[…]

The practice of any art demands more than mere savoir faire. One must not only be in love with what one does, one must also know how to make love. In love self is obliterated. Only the beloved counts. Whether the beloved be a bowl of fruit, a pastoral scene, or the interior of a bawdy house makes no difference. One must be in it and of it wholly. Before a subject can be transmuted aesthetically it must be devoured and absorbed. If it is a painting it must perspire with ecstasy.

Echoing Nietzsche’s conviction that a full life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, he adds:

The lure of the master lies in the struggle he engenders… [In America] for everything which taxes our patience, our skill, our understanding, we have short cuts… Only the art of love, it would seem, still defies the short cut.

Decades before Lewis Hyde’s now-legendary manifesto for the gift economy and half a century before its modern-day counterpart, Amanda Palmer’s manifesto for the art of asking, Miller writes:

Certainly the surest way to kill an artist is to supply him with everything he needs. Materially he needs but little. What he never gets enough of is appreciation, encouragement, understanding. I have seen painters give away their most cherished work on the impulse of the moment, sometimes in return for a good meal, sometimes for a bit of love, sometimes for no reason at all — simply because it pleased them to do so. And I have seen these same men refuse to sell a cherished painting no matter what the sum offered. I believe that a true artist always prefers to give his work away rather than sell it. A good artist must also have a streak of insanity in him, if by insanity is meant an exaggerated inability to adapt. The individual who can adapt to this mad world of to-day is either a nobody or a sage. In the one case he is immune to art and in the other he is beyond it.

Henry Miller: 'A Bridge Somewhere' (Collection of Howard Welch)

Miller traces this purity of intention back to one of his first mentors and greatest influences, the painter Lilik Schatz, who never condemned Miller’s lack of technique in painting but had no tolerance for “lack of feeling, lack of daring.” Miller quotes Schatz’s memorable advice:

Do anything you like, but do it with conviction!

For their sincerity and integrity of conviction, Miller held painters in high regard his whole life. He describes them as “all lovable souls, and some … possessed of a wisdom altogether uncommon.” Even though these impressions were based on Miller’s friendships with a number of prominent artists, including Man Ray and Beauford Delaney, he remains most moved by the great photographer Alfred Stieglitz, a man of “vigorous, youthful spirit” and “unique way of looking at things”:

No one had ever talked painting to me the way Stieglitz did. It wasn’t his talk alone either, but the look in his eyes which accompanied it. That he was not a painter amazed me…. If ever the artist had a friend, a spokesman, a champion defender, it was in the person of Alfred Stieglitz… He was one of the very few Americans … whose approach to a work of art inspired reverence for the artist, for his work, for art itself. Lucky for us who come under his spell that he was not a painter, that he had created for himself the role of interpreter and defender.

Miller’s deep appreciation for such champions of the artist echoes, coincidentally, what Georgia O’Keeffe — the love of Stieglitz’s life, and a legendary artist whose own career was sparked by a friend’s unflinching faith — once wrote of the only true measure of success in art. In a sentiment that Robert Krulwich would come to echo half a century later in his magnificent commencement address on the importance of “friends in low places,” Miller extols the enormous spiritual value of such supporters:

Usually the artist has two life-long companions, neither of his own choosing… — poverty and loneliness. To have a friend who understands and appreciates your work, one who never lets you down but who becomes more devoted, more reverent, as the years go by, that is a rare experience. It takes only one friend, if he is a man of faith, to work miracles.

Henry Miller: 'Young Boy' (Collection of Henry Miller)

But Miller’s timeliest point is his word of advice and admonition to young artists, heeding which is doubly important in our networked and networking age preoccupied with how large an artist’s Twitter following is or how “successful” her Kickstarter campaign:

How distressing it is to hear young painters talking about dealers, shows, newspaper reviews, rich patrons, and so on. All that comes with time — or will never come. But first one must make friends, create them through one’s work. What sustains the artist is the look of love in the eyes of the beholder. Not money, not the right connections, not exhibitions, not flattering reviews.

Miller intuits with great poetic precision what we now know empirically about grit being more important than “genius”:

To win through by sheer force of genius is one thing; to survive and continue to create when every last door is slammed in one’s face is another. Nobody acquires genius — it is God-given. But one can acquire patience, fortitude, wisdom, understanding. Perhaps the greatest gift [is] to love what one does whether it causes a stir or not.

In yet another stroke of prescience, Miller reveals himself as an early proponent of the pay-what-you-wish model of funding creative endeavor — the model that makes Brain Pickings possible — and adds:

Who knows what is good for man in this life? Poverty is one of the misfortunes people seem to dread even more than sickness… But is it so dreadful? For me this seemingly bleak period was a most instructive one, because not being able to write for money I had to turn to something else to keep going. It could have been shining shoes; it happened to be water colors. To make water colors for money never gave me the least qualm. I set no price on my labors. Whatever the buyer chose to offer, whatever he thought he could afford, no matter how ridiculous the sum, I said yes… I earned just enough to keep my head above water. It was like writing songs and getting paid to whistle them.

Henry Miller: 'Clown' (Collection of Hoki Miller)

Having written about the beautiful osmosis of giving and receiving nearly three decades earlier, Miller closes with a wonderfully touching personal anecdote — the kind found in Charles Bukowski’s beautiful letter of gratitude to his first patron. Illustrating the mutually ennobling effects of this kindness economy, Miller recounts one such early friendly spirit to whom he owes his creative destiny:

All this good fortune — of being able to work like a dog in happy poverty — was the result of a chance encounter with Attilio Bowinkel who ran an art shop in Westwood Village. One day I entered his shop to buy two tubes of paint. I asked for the cheapest water colors he had. When he asked me if that was all I needed I told him frankly that that was all I could afford at the moment. Whereupon the good Mr. Bowinkel put me a few discreet but pertinent queries. I answered briefly and truthfully. Then he said, and I shall never forget it: “Choose what you like … paper, paints, brushes, whatever you need. It’s a gift.” A few days later he came to the Green House to inspect my work. I blushed when I showed him what I had on hand. He didn’t say whether they were good or bad but on leaving he took a few with him, and the next day, on passing his shop, I noticed two of them in the window, beautifully framed. They were sold that very day, to Arthur Freed of M.G.M., a collector of modern European paintings… In Attilio Bowinkel I found a friend and a saviour.

To Paint Is to Love Again is hard to find but well worth the effort — it is indeed the kind of book that might one day possess you to do something as crazy as telling a stranger on the New York subway about it. Complement it with Miller on the art of living, the secret to remaining young at heart, the greatest thing about the universe, and his eleven commandments of writing.

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21 JANUARY, 2015

Bertrand Russell on the Vital Role of Boredom and “Fruitful Monotony” in the Conquest of Happiness

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“A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men… of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

Between the time Kierkegaard contemplated boredom and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips made his bewitching case for why the capacity for it is essential for a full life, Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) tussled with the subject more elegantly than any other thinker before or since. In a chapter titled “Boredom and Excitement” from his altogether indispensable 1930 classic The Conquest of Happiness (public library) — an effort “to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer” — he teases apart the paradoxical question of why, given how vital it is to our wholeness, we dread boredom as much as we do. Long before our present anxieties about how the age of distraction and productivity is thwarting our capacity for presence — a capacity essential for that very conquest of happiness — Russell shines timeless wisdom and remarkably timely insight on the deep-seated demons of human nature that keep us small and unhappy, and offers sage assurance for transcending them by bringing greater awareness to our own perilous pathologies.

With the same astounding prescience that defines most of his work, Russell writes:

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.

He makes an especially timely note of how the hedonic treadmill of consumerism becomes our chronic, and chronically futile, refuge for running from boredom:

As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense. Those who can afford it are perpetually moving from place to place, carrying with them as they go gaiety, dancing and drinking, but for some reason always expecting to enjoy these more in a new place. Those who have to earn a living get their share of boredom, of necessity, in working hours, but those who have enough money to be freed from the need of work have as their ideal a life completely freed from boredom. It is a noble ideal, and far be it from me to decry it, but I am afraid that like other ideals it is more difficult to achievement than the idealists suppose. After all, the mornings are boring in proportion as the previous evenings were amusing. There will be middle age, possibly even old age. At twenty men think that life will be over at thirty… Perhaps it is as unwise to spend one’s vital capital as one’s financial capital. Perhaps some element of boredom is a necessary ingredient in life. A wish to escape from boredom is natural; indeed, all races of mankind have displayed it as opportunity occurred… Wars, pogroms, and persecutions have all been part of the flight from boredom; even quarrels with neighbors have been found better than nothing. Boredom is therefore a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.

And yet Russell recognizes the vitalizing value of this greatly reviled state, outlining two distinct types of boredom:

Boredom, however, is not to be regarded as wholly evil. There are two sorts, of which one is fructifying, while the other is stultifying. The fructifying kind arises from the absence of drugs and the stultifying kind from the absence of vital activities.

Our frantic flight from boredom, he admonishes, results in a paradoxical relationship with excitement, wherein we’re at once addicted to its intake and desensitized to its effects:

What applies to drugs applies also, within limits, to every kind of excitement. A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure. A person accustomed to too much excitement is like a person with a morbid craving for pepper, who comes last to be unable even to taste a quantity of pepper which would cause anyone else to choke. There is an element of boredom which is inseparable from the avoidance of too much excitement, and too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty… A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young.

Indeed, the cultivation of this core capacity early in life fortifies the psychological immune system of the adult. Nearly a century before the iPad, which is now swiftly shoved in the screen-hungry hands of every toddler bored to disgruntlement, Russell writes:

The capacity to endure a more or less monotonous life is one which should be acquired in childhood. Modern parents are greatly to blame in this respect; they provide their children with far too many passive amusements… and they do not realize the importance to a child of having one day like another, except, of course, for somewhat rare occasions.

DIY indoor boomerang from the vintage gem 'How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself.' Click illustration for more.

Instead, he exhorts parents to allow children the freedom to experience “fruitful monotony,” which invites inventiveness and imaginative play — in other words, the great childhood joy and developmental achievement of learning to “do nothing with nobody all alone by yourself,” a testament to Kierkegaard’s insistence that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.” Russell writes:

The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness. Pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theatre, should occur very rarely. The excitement is in the nature of a drug, of which more and more will come to be required, and the physical passivity during the excitement is contrary to instinct. A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.

I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony… A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from 'Mr. Tweed's Good Deeds.' Click image for details.

Even humanity’s greatest works of literature, Russell points out, have boredom baked into their very substance — something he illustrates with an entertaining example all the more perfectly parodic of contemporary publishing:

All great books contain boring portions, and all great lives have contained uninteresting stretches. Imagine a modern American publisher confronted with the Old Testament as a new manuscript submitted to him for the first time. It is not difficult to think what his comments would be, for example, on the genealogies.

“My dear sir,” he would say, “this chapter lacks pep; you can’t expect your reader to be interested in a mere string of proper names of persons about whom you tell him so little. You have begun your story, I will admit, in fine style, and at first I was very favorably impressed, but you have altogether too much wish to tell it all. Pick out the highlights, take out the superfluous matter, and bring me back your manuscript when you have reduced it to a reasonable length.”

So the modern publisher would speak, knowing the modern reader’s fear of boredom. He would say the same sort of thing about the Confucian classics, the Koran, Marx’s Capital, and all the other sacred books which have proved to be bestsellers.

(Of course, it’s triply tragicomic to imagine what Russell might make of the listicle — today’s ultimate reactionary hedge against our fear of boredom.)

Illustration from 'An ABZ of Love,' Kurt Vonnegut's favorite vintage Danish illustrated guide to sexuality. Click image for more.

He uses the most intimate of metaphors to illustrate the existential emptiness that such groping for fleeting excitement engenders:

Consider the difference between love and mere sex attraction. Love is an experience in which our whole being is renewed and refreshed as is that of plants by rain after drought. In sex intercourse without love there is nothing of this. When the momentary pleasure is ended, there is fatigue, disgust, and a sense that life is hollow. Love is part of the life of Earth; sex without love is not.

This, indeed, is both Russell’s most timeless and most devastatingly timely point — that our dread of boredom is a self-inflicted wound resulting from the singular modern violence of our break with nature. But here is the most striking part: The sight of a man walking down the street transfixed by a glowing rectangle, completely blind to the sky and deaf to the birds and hardened to the wind’s caress, would have been completely foreign to Russell. Many decades before such violent forms of severance from nature existed, he admonishes:

The special kind of boredom from which modern urban populations suffer is intimately bound up with their separation from the life of Earth. It makes life hot and dusty and thirsty, like a pilgrimage in the desert. Among those who are rich enough to choose their way of life, the particular brand of unendurable boredom from which they suffer is due, paradoxical as this may seem, to their fear of boredom. In flying from the fructifying kind of boredom, they fall a prey to the other far worse kind. A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.

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

The Conquest of Happiness is a spectacular, existentially necessary read in its entirety. Complement it with Russell on human nature, his heartening message to descendants, and his ten commandments of teaching and learning.

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