Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

01 MAY, 2013

Brand Thinking: Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink, and Other Mavens on How and Why We Define Ourselves Through Stuff

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“In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?”

If you’re lucky, on a few occasions in your lifetime you will comes upon an author in whose writing you experience a rare kind of homecoming, a spiritual embrace. For me, such singular homecomings have taken place in the arms of only a handful of writers — to wit, Virginia Woolf, Ursula K. Le Guin, Italo Calvino, Susan Sontag, Rebecca Solnit, Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, E.B White, and, most recently, Mary Ruefle.

It is doubly exulting when one of those rare writers finds the words and rhythms with which to convey what it is, exactly, that transpires in one of those rare moments of homecoming — what reading, at its best, does for the human soul. That’s precisely what Ruefle does in the gorgeously titled 2003 piece “Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World,” found in the altogether unputdownable Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures (public library).

One of Maurice Sendak's little-known vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading. Click image for more.

Ruefle — a prolific poet and voracious reader herself, having read an estimated 2,400 books in her life — reflects on “the mirrored erotics of this compulsive activity, reading”:

We don’t often watch people very closely when they read, though there are many famous painting of women reading (none that I know of men) in which a kind of quiet eroticism takes place, like that of nursing. Of course, it is we who are being nursed by the books, and then I think of the reader asleep, the open book on his or her chest.

[…]

We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love — a connection between things. This arcane bit of knowledge is respoken every day into the ears of readers of great books, and also appears to perpetually slip under a carpet, utterly forgotten.

'A Young Woman Reading' by Gustave Courbet, ca. 1866–1868

In one pause-giving anecdote, Ruefle illustrates the way that reading ignites the miraculous alchemy of associations that is the hallmark of the human mind. She recalls encountering on “page 248″ of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn an interview with an English farmer who at one point says to Sebald, “I have always kept ducks, even as a child, and the colours of their plumage, in particular the dark green and snow white, seemed to me the only possible answer to the questions that are on my mind.”

Ruefle found it “an odd thing to say,” but made nothing of it, attributing it to the general quality of Sebald’s book as “a long walk of oddities.” But a few hours later, as she was perusing the dictionary,* she remembered the passage with a jolt as she read the multiple definitions of the word speculum — among them, “a medieval compendium of all knowledge” and “a patch of color on the secondary wings of most ducks and some other birds.”

Illustration by Jon Klassen from 'What’s Your Favorite Animal?' Click image for more.

She marvels at the serendipitous alignment of words and worlds:

Did Sebald know that a compendium of all knowledge and the ducks’ plumage were one and the same? Did Abrams? Or was I the only one for whom the duck passage made perfect, original sense? I sat in my chair, shocked. I am not a scholar, but for the imaginative reader there can be discoveries, connections between books, that explode the day and one’s heart and the long years that have led to the moment.

Imagine my own shock, then, as a mere sentence later I came upon a passage that bears a striking resemblance to Alain de Botton’s recent meditation on the value of reading, and predates it by more than a decade. Ruefle:

In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single lifespan, to watch the great impersonal universe at work again and again, to watch the great personal psyche spar with it, to suffer affliction and weakness and injury, to die and watch those you love die, until the very dizziness of it all becomes a source of compassion for ourselves, and our language, which we alone created, and without which the letter that slipped under the door could never have been written, or, once in a thousand lives—is that too much to ask?—retrieved, and read.

Then, De Botton:

It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.

Did De Botton plagiarize the passage, consciously or not, perhaps in a bout of cryptomnesia? Or is this an honest case of the same idea occurring independently to two minds unaware of each other’s existence? Whatever the case, the very ability to ask such unanswerable questions is a gift granted by the mental cross-connections that books alone make possible.

Painting from 'My Favorite Things' by Maira Kalman. Click image for more.

But Ruefle’s most evocative point has to do with reading’s role as a dual gateway to our inner wholeness and our connectedness with the universe:

That is why I read: I want everything to be okay. That’s why I read when I was a lonely kid and that’s why I read now that I’m a scared adult. It’s a sincere desire, but a sincere desire always complicates things — the universe has a peculiar reaction to our sincere desires. Still, I believe the planet on the table, even when wounded and imperfect, fragmented and deprived, is worthy of being called whole. Our minds and the universe — what else is there? Margaret Mead described intellectuals as those who are bored when they don’t have the chance to talk interestingly enough. Now a book will talk interestingly to you. George Steiner describes the intellectual as one who can’t read without a pencil in her hand. One who wants to talk back to the book, not take notes but make them: one who might write, “The giraffe speaks!” in the margin. In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?

From cover to cover, Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures is the kind of book that beckons the pencil to its margins. Complement it with Rebecca Solnit on the shared intimacy of reading and writing, then revisit Kafka — whom Ruefle quotes in the same essay — on what books do for the human spirit.

* Ruefle isn’t merely the type of person who reads the dictionary, but also the type who spends years planning a theoretical course called “Footnotes,” which would require students to read every book mentioned in the footnotes of a definitive text

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30 APRIL, 2013

April 30, 1945: Mussolini Executed

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Fifty-four seconds on the outermost fringes of our moral comfort zone.

On April 27, 1945, Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was captured by Communist partisans while attempting to flee to Switzerland with his mistress, Clara Petacci. He was executed the following day, shot alongside the other members of his 15-person train of Socialist officials. His body was taken to Milan as public proof of the dictator’s death, hung upside down on meat hooks, then stoned by spectators. On April 30, the day that Mussolini’s comrade Hitler committed suicide in his bunker, American TV station Universal broadcast a short newsreel about Mussolini’s gruesome execution, deeming it “a fitting and glorious end.” More than half a century later, as we grapple with new punishment dilemmas surrounding the age-old dichotomy of good and evil, the footage pushes us to the most uncomfortable precipice of our moral tolerance, raising the difficult question of whether even a bloodthirsty despot deserves the very inhumanity for which he is being punished, and what that makes of his executioners.

For a dimensional exploration of what turns a human being into an inhumane tyrant, see R. J. B. Bosworth’s biography, Mussolini.

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29 APRIL, 2013

A Natural History of Love

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“A one-syllable word heavy as a heartbeat … a sort of traffic accident of the heart.”

“You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better,” a wise woman wrote. But what, exactly, is love? Literary history has given us a wealth of beautiful definitions, mathematicians have calculated its odds, and psychologists have dissected its mechanisms. Love has been hacked, illustrated, coached, and reimagined. And yet the heart’s supreme potential remains ever-elusive.

Written nearly two decades ago, A Natural History Of Love (public library) by prolific science historian Diane Ackerman, Carl Sagan’s favorite cosmic poet, endures as one of the most dimensional explorations of humanity’s highest emotion. Ackerman begins with a meditation on love’s many faces, inescapable power, and ineffable nature:

Love is the great intangible. In our nightmares, we can create beasts out of pure emotion. Hate stalks the streets with dripping fangs, fear flies down narrow alleyways on leather wings, and jealousy spins sticky webs across the sky. In daydreams, we can maneuver with poise, foiling an opponent, scoring high on fields of glory while crowds cheer, cutting fast to the heart of an adventure. But what dream state is love? Frantic and serene, vigilant and calm, wrung-out and fortified, explosive and sedate — love commands a vast army of moods. Hoping for victory, limping from the latest skirmish, lovers enter the arena once again. Sitting still, we are as daring as gladiators.

[…]

Love is the white light of emotion. It includes many feelings which, out of laziness and confusion, we crowd into one simple word. Art is the prism that sets them free, then follows the gyrations of one or a few. When art separates this thick tangle of feelings, love bares its bones. But it cannot be measured or mapped. Everyone admits that love is wonderful and necessary, yet no one can agree on what it is.

Even the very etymology of love shies away from explaining how, when, and why we imbued love with such immense significance:

What a small word we use for an idea so immense and powerful it has altered the flow of history, calmed monsters, kindled works of art, cheered the forlorn, turned tough guys to mush, consoled the enslaved, driven strong women mad, glorified the humble, fueled national scandals, bankrupted robber barons, and made mincemeat of kings. How can love’s spaciousness be conveyed in the narrow confines of one syllable? If we search for the source of the word, we find a history vague and confusing, stretching back to the Sanskrit lubhyati (“he desires”). I’m sure the etymology rambles back much farther than that, to a one-syllable word heavy as a heartbeat. Love is an ancient delirium, a desire older than civilization, with taproots stretching deep into dark and mysterious days.

Our long history of ambivalence towards love, Ackerman argues, is rooted in the necessary vulnerability and uncontrolled surrender true love requires:

We think of it as a sort of traffic accident of the heart. It is an emotion that scares us more than cruelty, more than violence, more than hatred. We allow ourselves to be foiled by the vagueness of the word. After all, love requires the utmost vulnerability. We equip someone with freshly sharpened knives; strip naked; then invite him to stand close. What could be scarier?

Still, uncomfortable as it may be, love is also inescapable and subject to our own imagination in redefining it:

Common as child birth, love seems rare nonetheless, always catches one by surprise, and cannot be taught. Each child rediscovers it, each couple redefines it, each parent reinvents it. People search for love as if it were a city lost beneath the desert dunes, where pleasure is the law, the streets are lined with brocade cushions, and the sun never sets.

Ackerman offers an important disclaimer on how we think about the history of love, which is in effect a universal reflection on all of history and something we too often forget — the idea that everything builds on what came before:

It’s tempting to think of love as a progression, from ignorance toward the refined light of reason, but that would be a mistake. The history of love is not a ladder we climb rung by rung leaving previous rungs below. Human history is not a journey across a landscape, in the course of which we leave one town behind as we approach another. Nomads constantly on the move, we carry everything with us, all we possess. We carry the seeds and nails and remembered hardships of everywhere we have lived, the beliefs and hurts and bones of every ancestor. Our baggage is heavy. We can’t bear to part with anything that ever made us human. The way we love in the twentieth century is as much an accumulation of past sentiments as a response to modern life.

Much like the study of psychology, which has a long history of treating pathology by bringing our emotions from the negative to the neutral and only a nascent interest in the kind of “positive psychology” that elevates us above the neutral, Ackerman points out that the science of love has been largely confined to examining the negative — and yet, that misses the most rewarding marvels of all:

After all, there are countless studies on war, hate, crime, prejudice, and so on. Social scientists prefer to study negative behaviors and emotions. Perhaps, they don’t feel as comfortable studying love per se. I add that “per se” because they are studying love — often they’re studying what happens when love is deficient, thwarted, warped, or absent. … We have the great fortune to live on a planet abounding with humans, plants, and animals; and I often marvel at the strange tasks evolution sets them. Of all the errands life seems to be running, of all the mysteries that enchant us, love is my favorite.

A Natural History Of Love goes on to explore such intoxicatingly fascinating subjects as why love evolved, how culture and customs shape its expressions, what makes erotic and nonerotic love different, and much more. It comes as a fantastic addition to these essential books on the psychology of love.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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