Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

05 JUNE, 2013

The Quartet of Creativity: 28-Year-Old Susan Sontag on the Four People a Great Writer Must Be

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“A great writer has all 4 — but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2.”

The most recently released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 — which was among the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012 — gave us the author’s collected insights on writing. But the journals of Sontag’s younger self, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (public library), offer another fine addition to the collected wisdom of history’s greatest authors.

In an entry dated December 3, 1961, twenty-eight-year-old Sontag itemizes:

The writer must be four people:

  1. The nut, the obsédé
  2. The moron
  3. The stylist
  4. The critic

1 supplies the material; 2 lets it come out; 3 is taste; 4 is intelligence*.

A great writer has all 4 — but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2; they’re most important.

(* A bit of a redundancy between 3 and 4, since Sontag once observed, “Intelligence … is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.”)

Pair this list with Ezra Pound on the 6 types of writers — even though Sontag famously listed Pound among her dislikes.

Reborn — which has given us Sontag’s insights on art, marriage, and life, as well as her 10 rules for raising a child, her duties for being 24, and her list of beliefs at ages 14 vs. 24 — is full of such wonderful meditations, at once irreverent and profound.

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05 JUNE, 2013

Love Over Biology: Jennifer Finney Boylan on What It’s Like to Be a Transgender Parent

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Why there’s much more to the art of raising a human being than the science of chromosomal alignment.

Mother’s Day has come and gone, and along with it history’s finest letters of motherly advice as well as witty wisdom from women who have chosen not to have kids. But what, exactly, does it mean to be a mother? Surely, it can’t be the mere checklist of certain biological givens and processes — for, as Italo Calvino observed nearly forty years ago, “a human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions, but through an act of will and love on the part of other people.”

That — how much biology defines parenthood (hint: barely), how much that act of will and love does (hint: a great deal), and how much our experience of gender shapes it (hint: depends) — is precisely what Jennifer Finney Boylan, who used to be James Finney Boylan, explores in Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders (public library).

Boylan began transitioning at the age of 44, while her children were toddlers, and remains with her wife Deirdre — the two had been married for twelve years before James came out as Jennifer and recently celebrated their 25th anniversary — as the two raise their boys in a two-mom family. She writes with equal parts humor and humility:

I was a father for six years, a mother for ten, and for a time in between I was both, or neither, like some parental version of the schnoodle, or the cockapoo. Of course, as parents go, I was a rather feminine father; for that matter I suppose I’m a masculine mother. When I was their father I showed my boys how to make a good tomato sauce, how to fold a napkin, how to iron a dress shirt; as their mother I’ve shown them how to split wood with a maul. Whether this means I’ve had one parenting style or two, I am not entirely certain. I can assure you I am not a perfect parent and will be glad to review the long list of my mistakes. But in dealing with a parent who subverts a lot of expectations about gender, I hope my sons have learned to be more flexible and openhearted than many of their peers with traditionally gendered parents.

I would like to think that this has been a gift to them and not a curse. It is my hope that having a father who became a woman has made my two remarkable boys, in turn, into better men.

Jennifer Finney Boylan

In the anecdote of how her son learned to shave, Boylan finds a beautiful metaphor for her unique dual experience of manhood and womanhood:

Zach learned to shave when he was two years old, by watching me. He says that this is one of his primary memories of me as a man— the morning ritual of the razor and the hot steam from the basin. Zach stood upon a stool so that he could see his face in the bathroom mirror. I used to coat his young, pink cheeks with Gillette Foamy, and then give him a razor with the protective shield still on the blade. As I shaved my face, Zach would shave his. He’d mimic the contortions I’d make with my face in order to keep my skin taut. And he’d shave his own face in the same order I shaved mine — cheeks first, then the neck, then the chin, mustache last.

We stood there before the mirror, the two of us. I wiped the steam away from the top half of the mirror so I could see myself; Zach wiped a smaller hole away for himself at the bottom. Our expressions were so serious as we shaved, as men’s faces always are as they undertake this business, as if we are not shaving, but staring out across the bridge of our intergalactic star destroyers.

Afterward, we’d towel down our faces, removing the residual froth and smacking our smooth cheeks lightly with an air of manly satisfaction. “There,” he’d say. “I’m clean as a whistle!”

Where he got that phrase I can’t tell you.

He didn’t get it from me. That Christmas, Deedie bought Zach his own pretend shaving kit, complete with a plastic razor. When he opened this gift, though, he immediately burst into tears. “What?” said Deedie, discouraged that what had seemed like the perfect gift had gone so wrong.

“I don’t want a baby razor,” Zach wept, looking at me for backup. “I want a real one!”

Twelve years later, when Zach began to shave for real, he did it with an electric razor, one of those contraptions with the “floating heads.” I didn’t show him how to do it, although I tried. But he stopped me as he headed into the bathroom, and said, “Maddy. I got it from here.” A moment later, the door closed, and I sat down in the kitchen and listened to the faint buzzing sound coming through the wall.

I didn’t learn how to shave from my father either. Which turns out, I think, not to be so strange. One of the things about manhood I learned from my father is that it’s a solitary experience, a land of silences and understatements, a place where a lot of important things have to be learned alone. Whereas womanhood, a lot of the time, is a thing you get to share.

Recounting another anecdote, in which young Zach exhibits admirable character, Boylan reflects:

Looking down at my boy, I had a strange, nostalgic feeling — wishing that, when I’d been a guy, I’d had half the character now exhibited by my own near-grown son. It’s common enough, I guess, a thought such as this, demented though it may be. We look to our children as a kind of cosmic mulligan, our own best hope for a second chance. There were plenty of times I had looked at my son Zach as a better version of me, man-wise. He had the same goofy sense of humor, the same habit of wearing his heart right out there on his sleeve where anyone could crush it, the same buoyant hope that somehow love would prevail over all.

If I had failed as a man — and even those people who loved me most would have to admit this, what with the vagina and everything — then maybe Zach was a last chance to get it right. The man that I had once been clearly lived in him, although this time around we seemed to have been spared the melancholic lunacy.

Pair Stuck in the Middle with You, which comes a decade after Boylan’s critically acclaimed first memoir, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, with Dan Savage on redefining marriage and Caitlin Moran on how to be a woman.

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04 JUNE, 2013

Advice for Travel and Life: Founding Father Benjamin Rush’s 14 Rules for His Young Son, 1796

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“Remember at all times that while you are seeing the world, the world will see you.”

Founding father and American Enlightenment leader Benjamin Rush (1745 — 1813) is among the most diversely influential figures in modern history — he signed the Declaration of Independence and championed many reforms; he opposed slavery and capital punishment at a time when it was fashionable to favor them; he pioneered the free American public school and helped found five institutions of higher learning; he proposed a new model of education for women that included sciences, history, and moral philosophy; he worked for the humane treatment of the mentally ill; he was the first American to hold the title of professor of chemistry (at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania) and published the first American chemistry textbook; and he served as the treasurer of the United States Mint for sixteen years.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, painted by Charles Willson Peale, c. 1818

From Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the same wonderful anthology that gave us some of history’s greatest motherly advice and Sherwood Anderson’s counsel on the creative life — comes this letter Rush and his wife Julia sent to their twenty-one-year-old son John, the eldest of their thirteen children, after he finished a medical apprenticeship with his father and headed to India to practice his newly acquired skills. Despite the overwhelming religiosity of the letter — a reflection above all of the era’s monoculture — Rush’s advice on the four pillars of the good life includes timeless wisdom on the art of acquiring knowledge and reading books well, the benefits of keeping of diary, the importance of studying geography, and even primitive inklings of Michael Pollan’s modern food rules.

Directions and advice to Jno. Rush from his father and mother composed the evening before he sailed for Calcutta, May 18th, 1796

We shall divide these directions into four heads, as they relate to morals, knowledge, health, and business.

I. MORALS

1. Be punctual in committing your soul and body to the protection of your Creator every morning and evening. Implore at the same time his mercy in the name of his Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

2. Read in your Bible frequently, more especially on Sundays.

3. Avoid swearing and even an irreverent use of your Creator’s name. Flee youthful lusts.

4. Be courteous and gentle in your behavior to your fellow passengers, and respectful and obedient to the captain of the vessel.

5. Attend public worship regularly every Sunday when you arrive at Calcutta.

II. KNOWLEDGE

1. Begin by studying Guthrie’s Geography.

2. Read your other books through carefully, and converse daily upon the subjects of your reading.

3. Keep a diary of every day’s studies, conversations, and transactions at sea and on shore. Let it be composed in a fair, legible hand. Insert in it an account of the population, manners, climate, diseases, &c., of the places you visit.

4. Preserve an account of every person’s name and disease whom you attend.

III. HEALTH

1. Be temperate* in eating, more especially of animal food. Never taste distilled spirits of any kind, and drink fermented liquors very sparingly.

2. Avoid the night air in sickly situations. Let your dress be rather warmer than the weather would seem to require. Carefully avoid fatigue from all causes both of body and mind.

IV. BUSINESS

1. Take no step in laying out your money without the advice and consent of the captain or supercargo. Let no solicitations prevail with you to leave the captain and supercargo during your residence in Calcutta.

2. Keep an exact account of all your expenditures. Preserve as vouchers of them all your bills.

3. Take care of all your instruments, books, clothes, &c.

Be sober and vigilant. Remember at all times that while you are seeing the world, the world will see you. Recollect further that you are always under the eye of the Supreme Being. One more consideration shall close this parting testimony of our affection. Whenever you are tempted to do an improper thing, fancy that you see your father and mother kneeling before you and imploring you with tears in their eyes to refrain from yielding to the temptation, and assuring you at the same time that your yielding to it will be the means of hurrying them to a premature grave.

Benjn Rush
Julia Rush

* Rush was in fact a vehement proponent of temperance and designed “A Moral and Physical Thermometer” six years prior to penning the letter to his son:

Sadly, John was either ill-equipped to or chose not to follow his parents’ advice. John’s adult life was plagued by mental instability and, though he became a surgeon, his medical career was mediocre at most. Three years before his father’s death, John killed a friend in a duel and went insane. He was institutionalized at the Pennsylvania Hospital, his father’s place of work, where he remained for twenty-seven years until his last breath in 1837.

Posterity, however, is full of timeless epistolary wisdom from and to historical characters of decidedly more hopeful fates than John’s.

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