Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

05 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Salinger and the Architecture of Personal Mythology

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How “a broken soldier and a wounded soul transformed himself, through his art, into an icon of the twentieth century and then, through his religion, destroyed that art.”

In 1951, The Catcher in the Rye catapulted J. D. Salinger into instant literary celebrity and the 65 million copies sold to date have stirred generations of dejected adolescents. Despite having spent his entire adult life aspiring to become a successful author, Salinger found himself unprepared for the avalanche of attention with which the novel swarmed him. He withdrew into himself, publishing new work less and less frequently, until in 1965, without warning or explanation, Salinger silently disappeared. But he kept writing every single day for the remaining forty-five years of his life.

What happened? Where did he go and why? What filled those private pages, and how did he fill his days?

That’s precisely what writer David Shields and screenwriter, producer, and director Shane Salerno investigate in Salinger: The Private War of J.D. Salinger (public library) — a masterwork of inquiry into the literary legend’s inner world, nearly a decade in the making, straddling Salinger’s death with five years on one side and three on the other.

J. D. Salinger spent ten years writing The Catcher in the Rye and the rest of his life regretting it.

Before the book was published, he was a World War II veteran with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; after the war, he was perpetually in search of a spiritual cure for his damaged psyche. In the wake of the enormous success of the novel about the “prep school boy,” a myth emerged: Salinger, like Holden, was too sensitive to be touched, too good for this world. He would spend the rest of his life trying and failing to reconcile these completely contradictory versions of himself: the myth and the reality.

[…]

The critical and popular game over the past half-century has been to read the man through his works because the man would not speak. Salinger’s success in epic self-creation, his obsession with privacy, and his meticulously maintained vault — containing a large cache of writing that he refused to publish — combined to form an impermeable legend.

Landing at Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

But the legend, it turns out, was composed largely of fanciful half-truths — half-truths deliberately and systematically architected by Salinger himself who, like Freud and unlike Joyce, engineered his own myth:

Salinger was an extraordinarily complex, deeply contradictory human being. He was not — as we’ve been told — a recluse for the final fifty-five years of his life; he traveled extensively, had many affairs and lifelong friendships, consumed copious amounts of popular culture, and often embodied many of the things he criticized in his fiction. Far from being a recluse, he was constantly in conversation with the world in order to reinforce its notion of his reclusion. … Much has been made of how difficult it must have been for Salinger to live and work under the umbrella of the myth, which is undeniably true; we show the degree to which he was also invested in perpetuating it.

Shields and Salerno’s claim to difference is that, unlike previous biographies — which they divide into the distinct trifecta of inferior categories: “academic exegeses; necessarily highly subjective memoirs; and either overly reverential or overly resentful biographies that, thwarted by lack of access to the principals, settle for perpetuating the agreed-upon narrative” — this one turns to nearly half a century’s worth of never-before-seen letters to and from Salinger’s friends, lovers, wartime brothers-in-arms, spiritual teachers, and other previously untapped sources from his inner circle, many of whom had refused to speak with biographers until after Salinger’s death.

Salinger at McBurney Prep School.

This biography’s quest, Shields and Salerno note, is three-fold: To understand why Salinger stopped publishing at the height of his success, why he disappeared, and what he spent the last forty-five years of his life writing. That understanding is anchored to two turning points in the author’s life, at once conflicting and osmotic — the brutality he witnessed during World War II and his submergence into the Vedanta religion branching out of Hindu philosophy — presenting a poetic, if heartbreaking symmetry to Salinger’s own inner contradictions. They write:

This is the story of a soldier and writer who escaped death during World War II but never wholly embraced survival, a half-Jew from Park Avenue who discovered at war’s end what it meant to be Jewish. This is an investigation into the process by which a broken soldier and a wounded soul transformed himself, through his art, into an icon of the twentieth century and then, through his religion, destroyed that art.

'The Four Musketeers': (L–R) J. D. Salinger, Jack Altaras, John Keenan, Paul Fitzgerald.

Paul Fitzgerald and J. D. Salinger with their beloved dogs.

And yet, without diminishing the remarkably rigorous research involved, it’s hard not to wonder whether Shields and Salerno, while sneering at the myth-weaving of previous biographies, are simply weaving a myth of their own — a story that is undeniably different from the commonly perpetuated mythology of Salinger’s life, but one that remains a story nonetheless, one driven by that ineffable yet palpably toxic desire to be right rather than to understand, to paint rather than to penetrate, to reduce the complexity and richness of a human being to a cultural currency of possibly shocking facts. As if to know one in life weren’t hard enough, to know one in death seems especially presumptuous. There’s an ever-so-slightly objectionable omniscience with which Shields and Salerno approach Salinger — not of his circumstances, but of his self; not of his biography, but of his being — to a point where he himself begins to read like a character:

Profoundly damaged (not only by the war), he became numb; numb, he yearned to see and feel the unity of all things but settled for detachment toward everyone’s pain except his own, which first overwhelmed and then overtook him. During his second marriage, he steadily distanced himself from his family, spending weeks at a time in his detached bunker, telling his wife, Claire, and children, Matthew and Margaret, “Do not disturb me unless the house is burning down.” Toward Margaret, who dared to embody the rebellious traits his fiction canonizes, he was startlingly remote. His characters Franny, Zooey, and Seymour Glass, despite or because of their many suicidal madnesses, had immeasurably more claim on his heart than his flesh-and-blood family.

Compounding those twinges of dramatization for effect, rather than inquiry for truth, is the fact that the biography accompanies the release of a documentary directed by Salerno, billing itself as “the motion picture event of the year,” complete with a Hollywood suspense-score and a thespian trailer:

And yet, though the trailer promises to reveal “the biggest secret of [Salinger’s] lifetime,” the book admits that there isn’t one — at least not in that dramatic, box-office-ready way:

Salinger’s vault, which we open in the final chapter, contains character- and career-defining revelations, but there is no “ultimate secret” whose unveiling explains the man. Instead, his life contained a series of interlocking events — ranging from anatomy to romance to war to fame to religion — that we disclose, track, and connect.

Creating a private world in which he could control everything, Salinger wrenched immaculate, immortal art from the anguish of World War II. And then, when he couldn’t control everything — when the accumulation of all the suffering was too much for a human as delicately constructed as he to withstand — he gave himself over wholly to Vedanta, turning the last half of his life into a dance with ghosts. He had nothing anymore to say to anyone else.

This begs a question about the direction of cultural debt: When someone swells into celebrity, does he owe the world the innermost contents of his life and private self as the price of public acclaim, or does the public owe him the right of privacy and integrity of self to which every human being is entitled?

That, perhaps, is the most valuable takeaway from Salinger, which, questions of motive aside, remains an exquisitely researched and beautifully engineered piece of storytelling about one of modern history’s most enigmatic personas. What Shields and Salerno give us, above all, is an unprecedented look at the elaborate blueprint of a masterful architect of personal mythology.

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04 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Charles Bukowski on Writing and His Crazy Daily Routine

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“Writing is like going to bed with a beautiful woman and afterwards she gets up, goes to her purse and gives me a handful of money.”

The latest addition to this ongoing omnibus of famous writers’ advice on the craft comes from none other than Charles Bukowski — curious creature of proud cynicism and self-conscious sensitivity, of profound pessimism and heartening insight on the meaning of life.

In Sunlight Here I Am: Interviews and Encounters 1963–1993 (public library) — the same indispensable gateway to the poet’s mind that gave us the first-hand backstory on his “friendly advice to a lot of young men” — Buk extols the intrinsic rewards of writing. Years before he would come to explore the subject in his famous poem “so you want to be a writer,” he echoes Borges’s sentiment that writing is a form of pleasant laziness and Bradbury’s insistence that one must create with joy or not create at all. The message, of course, is delivered with Buk’s signature blend of crudeness and sincerity:

Writing isn’t work at all… And when people tell me how painful it is to write I don t understand it because it’s just like rolling down the mountain you know. It’s freeing. It’s enjoyable. It’s a gift and you get paid for what you want to do.

I write because it comes out — and then to get paid for it afterwards? I told somebody, at some time, that writing is like going to bed with a beautiful woman and afterwards she gets up, goes to her purse and gives me a handful of money. I’ll take it.

When pressed about his daily routine, Buk scoffs and adds to the peculiar rituals of famous writers:

I never type in the morning. I don’t get up in the morning. I drink at night. I try to stay in bed until twelve o’clock, that’s noon. Usually, if I have to get up earlier, I don’t feel good all day. I look, if it says twelve, then I get up and my day begins. I eat something, and then I usually run right up to the race track after I wake up. I bet the horses, then I come back and Linda cooks something and we talk awhile, we eat, and we have a few drinks, and then I go upstairs with a couple of bottles and I type — starting around nine-thirty and going until one-thirty, to, two-thirty at night. And that’s it.

Complement Sunlight Here I Am, which exudes Buk’s inextinguishable spirit from every page, with more notable wisdom on the written word, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, 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, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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03 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Jorge Luis Borges on Writing: Wisdom from His Most Candid Interviews

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“A writer’s work is the product of laziness.”

Jorge Luis Borges is the most celebrated and influential Latin-American author of the twentieth century, his literary legacy resounding loud as ever and exuding far-reaching philosophical reverberations. In 1972, when Borges was in his seventies and completely blind, a bright and earnest young Argentinian man of letters by the name of Fernando Sorrentino, only thirty at the time, sat down with the beloved author for seven afternoons in a tiny, secluded room in the National Library and recorded their conversations — “low-key, casual chats, free from any bothersome adherence to a rigid format” — on tape. Published in 1974 as Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges (public library), the conversations, spanning everything from literature to politics, couldn’t be commercially distributed until the overthrow of Isabel Perón in 1976 due to the author’s anti-establishment political convictions and the frankness with which he discussed them with Sorrentino.

Culled here from the seven lengthy and meandering conversations is Borges’s wisdom on writing — a fine addition to famous writers’ collected advice on the craft.

On why, as Joyce Carol Oates elegantly put it, it’s toxic to imagine an ideal reader, defying Michael Lewis’s assertion that the awareness of an audience’s existence exerts “invisible pressures” on the writer:

An absurd statement; how is a person going to write better or worse because he’s thinking about who’s going to read him?

On finding one’s purpose and trusting the “intuition pumps” of life, and the yin-yang of reading and writing:

Before I ever wrote a single line, I knew, in some mysterious and therefore unequivocal way, that I was destined for literature. What I didn’t realize at first is that besides being destined to be a reader, I was also destined to be a writer, and I don’t think one is less important than the other.

On literature as a gateway to the human condition:

I believe in psychological literature, and I think that all literature is fundamentally psychological.

On not mistaking anonymous authorship for lack of creative exertion, and why fairy tales exemplify the refinement of storytelling:

Each year a person hears four or five anecdotes that are very good, precisely because they’ve been worked on. Because it’s wrong to suppose that the fact that they’re anonymous means they haven’t been worked on. On the contrary, I think fairy tales, legends, even the offcolor jokes one hears, are usually good because having been passed from mouth to mouth, they’ve been stripped of everything that might be useless or bothersome. So we could say that a folk tale is a much more refined product than a poem by Donne or by Góngora or by Lugones, for example, since in the second case the piece has been refined by a single person, and in the first case by hundreds.

On not getting lost in movements:

I no longer believe in literary schools now; I believe in the individual.

On the advantage of writing about history:

I believe that a writer should never attempt a contemporary theme or a very precise topography. Otherwise people are immediately going to find mistakes. Or if they don’t find them, they’re going to look for them, and if they look for them, they’ll find them. That’s why I prefer to have my stories take place in somewhat indeterminate places and many years ago.

On Shakespeare’s singular gift, echoing Virginia Woolf’s timeless meditation on craftsmanship, and the limitations of translation:

I think of Shakespeare above all as a craftsman of words. For example, I see him closer to Joyce than to the great novelists, where character is the most important thing. That’s the reason I’m skeptical about translations of Shakespeare, because since what is most essential and most precious in him is the verbal aspect, I wonder to what extent the verbal can be translated.

On why free verse is more challenging to write than metered poetry, the former embodying Bukowski’s poetic admonition that the only worthwhile writing is the kind that “comes out of your soul like a rocket”:

I find it harder to write free verse. Because if there isn’t some kind of inner drive it can’t be done. On the other hand, using a regular meter is a matter of patience, of application . . . Once you’ve written one line, you’re forced to use certain rhymes, the number of rhymes is not infinite; the rhymes that can be used without incongruity are few in number . . . That is, when I have to fabricate something, I fabricate a sonnet, but I wouldn’t be able to fabricate a poem in free verse.

Touching on Italo Calvino’s meditation on what makes a classic, Borges defines what makes a book timeless:

A timeless book … would be just as admirable if it had been published a hundred years before or if it were published a hundred years later. A book that can only be defined by its perfection.

On why the explicit pursuit of prestige warps the integrity of writing and how commercial pressures commodify literature:

It’s possible that the fact that literature has been commercialized now in a way it never was before has had an influence. That is, the fact that people now talk about “bestsellers,” that fashion has an influence (something that didn’t use to happen). I remember that when I began to write, we never thought about the success or failure of a book. What’s called “success” now didn’t exist at that time. And what’s called “failure” was taken for granted. One wrote for oneself and, maybe, as Stevenson used to say, for a small group of friends. On the other hand, one now thinks of sales. I know there are writers who publicly announce they’ve had their fifth, sixth, or seventh edition released and that they’ve earned such and such an amount of money. All that would have appeared totally ridiculous when I was a young man; it would have appeared incredible. People would have thought that a writer who talks about what he earns on his books is implying: “I know what I write is bad but I do it for financial reasons or because I have to support my family.” So I view that attitude almost as a form of modesty. Or of plain foolishness.

On trusting your inner compass for merit, in literature and in life:

I believe that whenever one does wrong, he knows he’s doing wrong. Still, he does it. I believe that no one thinks his own behavior is exemplary. And this holds true in literary matters as well.

On writing and aging:

To reach the point of writing in a more or less uncluttered manner, a more or less decorous manner, I’ve had to reach the age of seventy.

On the advice his father gave him about when not to take advice:

My father gave me that advice. He told me to write a lot, to discard a lot, and not to rush into print, so that the first book I had published, Fervor de Buenos Aires, was really my third book. My father told me that when I had written a book I judged to be not altogether unworthy of publication, he would pay for the printing of the book, but that it was each man for himself and I shouldn’t ask anyone for advice.

On the metric of literary merit:

A writer should always be judged by his or her best pages.

On his distaste for novels, a form Borges believed would eventually die out, and the advantage of short stories over them:

I never thought of writing novels. I think if I began to write a novel, I would realize that it’s nonsensical and that I wouldn’t follow through on it. Possibly this is an excuse dreamed up by my laziness.

[…]

The essential advantage I see in it is that the short story can be taken in at a single glance. On the other hand, in the novel the consecutive is more noticeable. And then there’s the fact that a work of three hundred pages depends on padding, on pages which are mere nexuses between one part and another. On the other hand, it’s possible for everything to be essential, or more or less essential, or — shall we say — appear to be essential, in a short story. I think there are stories of Kipling’s that are as dense as a novel, or of Conrad’s too. It’s true they’re not too short.

When Sorrentino pushes back against Borges’s self-alleged laziness — an incongruous notion given his prolific literary output — the author replies with a sublime affirmation that creative labor never feels like work and, to the extent that “laziness” is the avoidance of work, the best way to avoid work is by making a living out of what you love:

A writer’s work is the product of laziness, you see. A writer’s work essentially consists of taking his mind off things, of thinking about something else, of daydreaming, of not being in any hurry to go to sleep but to imagine something . . . And then comes the actual writing, and that’s his trade. That is, I don’t think the two things are incompatible. Besides, I think that when one is writing something that’s more or less good, one doesn’t feel it to be a chore; one feels it to be a form of amusement. A form of amusement that doesn’t exclude the use of intelligence, just as chess doesn’t exclude it, and chess is a game I’m very fond of and would like to know how to play — I’ve always been a poor chess player.

Towards the end of the final interview, Borges offers his counterpart to H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers and shares his own bit of wisdom:

I would advise that imaginary young man to study the classics; let him not try to be modern, because he already is; let him not try to be a man of a different epoch, to be a classical writer, because, indubitably, he cannot be this, since he is irreparably a young man of the twentieth century.

His parting words reflect on creativity, aging, hope, and legacy:

I believe one must not lose hope after fifty years. Besides, one learns by hard knocks, isn’t that so? I think I’ve committed all the literary errors possible and that this fact will allow me to succeed some day.

[…]

The image that I shall leave when I’m dead — we’ve already said that this is part of a poet’s works — and maybe the most important — I don’t know exactly what it will be, I don’t know if I’ll be viewed with indulgence, with indifference, or with hostility. Of course, that’s of little importance to me now; what does matter to me is not what I’ve written but what I am writing and what I’m going to write. And I think this is how every writer feels. Alfonso Reyes said that one published what he had written in order to avoid spending his life correcting it: one publishes a book in order to leave it behind, one publishes a book in order to forget it.

Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges is a treasure trove of insight in its entirety, its magic best captured by Borges himself in the prologue, penned on July 13, 1972:

Paradoxically, the dialogues which take place between a writer and a journalist bear less resemblance to a question-and-answer session than to a kind of introspection. For the interviewer, they can be a chore which is not entirely free of fatigue and tedium; for the interviewee, they are like an adventure in which the hidden and the unforeseeable lie in wait. Fernando Sorrentino knows my work — let us use that term — much better than I do; this is due to the obvious fact that I have written it one single time and he has read it many times, a fact which makes it less mine than his. As I dictate these lines, I do not wish to slight his kindly perspicacity: how many afternoons, speaking face to face, has he guided me, as though it were unintentional, to the inevitable answers which later astonished me and which he, no doubt, had prepared.

Fernando Sorrentino is, in a word, one of my most generous inventors. I wish to take advantage of this page to tell him of my gratitude and the certainty of a friendship that will not be erased by the years.

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29 AUGUST, 2013

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg: Lovely Illustrated Children’s Adaptation of Thoreau’s Philosophy, Full of Universal Wisdom for All

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An existential walk into what money can and can’t buy.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her sublime meditation on presence vs. productivity. There is hardly a more enduring embodiment of this spirit than Henry David Thoreau, for whom the very definition of success rested on the ability to greet one’s day with joy. Yet this philosophy of mindfulness and immersion in the richness of life is increasingly eroded by our culture’s cult of productivity, which eats away at our ability to truly see life as it unfolds before us.

That’s precisely what author and artist D. B. Johnson aims to counter with Henry Hikes to Fitchburg (public library) — an absolutely wonderful children’s story told through Johnson’s vibrant, minimalist, infinitely expressive colored-pencil-and-paint-on-paper illustrations. Based on a famous passage from Walden, it contrasts two different approaches to life — one prioritizing productivity and one worshiping wonder. It tells the tale of Thoreau and his unnamed friend, both cast as lovable bears, who decide to meet in the town of Fitchburg one summer evening, thirty miles away. Henry’s friend insists that the train is the most efficient way to get there and resolves to work until he has enough money to buy the 90-cent ticket, doing chores for neighbors — including some of Thoreau’s equally esteemed contemporaries, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. But Henry decides that walking, while less “efficient,” is the better way to get to Fitchburg — more present, more transcendent, more full of wonder.

Johnson tells young readers:

Henry David Thoreau was a real person who lived in Concord, Massachusetts, more than 150 years ago. He loved to take long walks through the woods and fields and write about the plants and animals he saw there. In his pockets he carried a pencil and paper, a jackknife, some string, a spyglass, a magnifying glass, and a flute. He could easily walk thirty miles in a day with an old music book under his arm for pressing plants and a walking stick that was notched for measuring things. … Henry thought people could live happily without big houses, lots of furniture, and high-paying jobs. They could spend less time working to earn money and more time doing things that interested them. Henry tried out these ideas. He built a small cabin at Walden Pond and for two years lived there alone.

As the two friends part ways and go about their plans, we begin to see how these divergent approaches frame each bear’s experience of life.

While Henry’s friend sweeps the post office for 5 cents, Henry walks five miles and carves a walking stick.

While his friend earns 15 cents ridding Mr. Hawthorne’s garden of weeds, Henry collects ferns and flowers to press in his book.

While his friend climbs bookcases to arrange Mr. Emerson’s study for another 15 cents, Henry climbs a tree and enjoys the view.

While his friend cleans out Mrs. Thoreau’s chicken house for 10 cents, Henry takes delight in a bird’s nest he discovers in a swamp 12 miles from Fitchburg.

On they go, each about his strategy of choice, until Henry’s friend finally races to catch the packed train, having earned his fare, while Henry takes a refreshing dive into a pond 7 miles from Fitchburg.

In the final scene, in which the two friends finally meet in Fitchburg, Johnson’s gift for saying so much in so few words and such subtle pictures shines with the utmost brilliance:

His friend was sitting in the moonlight when Henry arrived. “The train was faster,” he said.

Henry took a small pail from his pack. “I know,” he smiled. “I stopped for blackberries.”

More than a mere children’s primer on Thoreau’s philosophy, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg is both a stunning piece of art and an essential reminder for all of us about what money, no matter how much we worry about it, can and cannot buy, and that the art of living lies in how we choose to pay attention.

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