Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

26 JANUARY, 2015

Anne Lamott on How We Endure and Find Meaning in a Crazy World

By:

“The world is always going to be dangerous, and people get badly banged up, but how can there be more meaning than helping one another stand up in a wind and stay warm?”

We live in a culture of dividedness and fragmentation of the self. When we contemplate what it takes to live a full life, we extol mindfulness and wholeheartedness. But being wholehearted is only sufficient if your heart is your whole self; being mindful is only sufficient if your mind is all you are. We are, of course, so much more expansive than our hearts and our minds and our perfect abs, or whatever fragment we choose to fixate on. But we compartmentalize our experience in this way, divide it into fragments, as if to divide and conquer it. I’ve written before about our resistance to speaking of the soul, of which those of us who uphold secular ideals of rationalism are especially culpable. And yet I find, over and over, that the fullest people — the people most whole and most alive — are those unafraid and unashamed of the soul.

The soul has had no greater champion in this age of fragments than Anne Lamott — a writer of exceptional lucidity and enchantment, with a rare way of becalming our modern anxieties and ancient anguishes, from grief and gratitude to the perils of perfectionism to how we keep ourselves small with people-pleasing. In Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair (public library), Lamott lays bare the deepest, most worn yet most resilient threads of the soul and laces out of the loose ends an extraordinary lattice of assurance and grace — assurance that there is hope for awakening in ourselves “a deeper sense of immediacy or spirit or playfulness” amid the slumber of ordinary life, and for those moments when we feel like all such hope is lost, the grace of trusting “that we do endure, and that out of the wreckage something surprising will rise.”

Artwork by Maira Kalman from 'Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag.' Click image for more.

A century and a half after Tolstoy tussled with the search for meaning in a seemingly meaningless world, Lamott writes in the opening essay, titled “Beginning”:

We so often lose our way.

It is easy to sense and embrace meaning when life is on track. When there is a feeling of fullness — having love, goodness, family, work, maybe God* as parts of life — it’s easier to navigate around the sadness that you inevitably stumble across. Life holds beauty, magic and anguish. Sometimes sorrow is unavoidable, even when your kids are little, when the marvels of your children, and your parental amazement, are all the meaning you need to sustain you, or when you have landed the job and salary for which you’ve always longed, or the mate. And then the phone rings, the mail comes, or you turn on the TV…

What is the point of it all when we experience the vortex of interminable depression or, conversely, when we recognize that time is tearing past us like giddy greyhounds? It’s frightening and disorienting that time skates by so fast, and while it’s not as bad as being embedded in the quicksand of loss, we’re filled with dread each time we notice life hotfoot it out of town.

One rarely knows where to begin the search for meaning, though by necessity, we can only start where we are… It somehow has to do with sticking together as we try to make sense of chaos, and that seems a way to begin.

In a living testament to Faulkner’s assertion that the writer’s duty is “to help man endure by lifting his heart” and to E.B. White’s conviction that the writer “should tend to lift people up, not lower them down,” Lamott captures the precarious goodwill of the human spirit:

We try to help where we can, and try to survive our own trials and stresses, illnesses and elections. We work really hard at not being driven crazy by noise and speed and extremely annoying people, whose names we are too polite to mention. We try not to be tripped up by major global sadness, difficulties in our families or the death of old pets…

We work hard, we enjoy life as we can, we endure. We try to help ourselves and one another. We try to be more present and less petty. Some days go better than others. We look for solace in nature and art and maybe, if we are lucky, the quiet satisfaction of our homes…

We’re social, tribal, musical animals, walking percussion instruments. Most of us do the best we can. We show up. We strive for gratitude, and try not to be such babies.

And then there’s a mass shooting, a nuclear plant melts down, just as a niece is born, or as you find love. The world is coming to an end. I hate that. In environmental ways, it’s true, and in existential ways, it has been since the day each of us was born.

[…]

Where is meaning in the meteoric passage of time, the speed in which our lives are spent? Where is meaning in the pits? In the suffering? I think these questions are worth asking.

But in asking these questions, Lamott observes — as Meghan Daum did in her eloquent defiance of the platitude industrial complex — that we rarely afford adversity anything more than the status of a complacent metaphor:

Our lives and humanity are untidy: disorganized and careworn. Life on earth is often a raunchy and violent experience. It can be agony just to get through the day.

And yet, I do believe there is ultimately meaning in the chaos, and also in the doldrums. What I resist is not the truth but when people put a pretty bow on scary things instead of saying, “This is a nightmare. I hate everything. I’m going to go hide in the garage.”

[…]

My understanding of incarnation is that we are not served by getting away from the grubbiness of suffering. Sometimes we feel that we are barely pulling ourselves forward through a tight tunnel on badly scraped-up elbows. But we do come out the other side, exhausted and changed.

[…]

To heal, it seems we have to stand in the middle of the horror, at the foot of the cross, and wait out another’s suffering where that person can see us.

Photograph by Mark Nixon from 'Much Loved,' a collection of people's childhood teddy bears loved down to bare threads. Click image for more.

Echoing Emerson’s notion that life is a series of surprises, which we mostly resist, Lamott considers the inevitable ebb and flow of the human experience — the same cycling of impoverishment and excess that Rilke memorably extolled — and writes:

No matter what happens to us — to our children, to our town, to our world — we feel it is still a gift to be human and to have a human life, as long as we ignore the commercials and advertisements and the static that the world beams at us, and understand that we and our children are going to get knocked around, sometimes so cruelly that it will take our breath away. Life can be wild, hard and sweet, but it can also be wild, hard and cruel.

The bad news is that after the suffering, we wait at the empty tomb for a while, the body of our beloved gone, grieving an unsurvivable loss.

It’s a terrible system. But the good news is that then there is new life. Wildflowers bloom again… They’re both such surprises. Wildflowers stop you in your hiking tracks. You want to savor the colors and scents, let them breathe you in, let yourself be amazed. And bulbs that grow in the cold rocky dirt remind us that no one is lost.

But nowhere are these surprises at their most acute, or their most unwelcome, than in loss. “Grief, when it comes,” Joan Didion wrote in her indispensable memoir of loss, “is nothing like we expect it to be” — a notion Lamott enlivens with her touch of poetic precision:

Most of us have figured out that we have to do what’s in front of us and keep doing it… Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice…

We live stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky. If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching. And maybe the stitching is crude, or it is unraveling, but if it were precise, we’d pretend that life was just fine and running like a Swiss watch. This is not helpful if on the inside our understanding is that life is more often a cuckoo clock with rusty gears.

In the aftermath of loss, we do what we’ve always done, although we are changed, maybe more afraid. We do what we can, as well as we can.

[…]

A great truth, attributed to Emily Dickinson, is that “hope inspires the good to reveal itself.” This is almost all I ever need to remember. Gravity and sadness yank us down, and hope gives us a nudge to help one another get back up or to sit with the fallen on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from 'The River.' Click image for more.

That solidarity, Lamott argues in a sentiment that calls to mind Jeanette Winterson’s exquisite notion of “the paradox of active surrender,” is often what art gives us:

When you love something like reading — or drawing or music or nature — it surrounds you with a sense of connection to something great. If you are lucky enough to know this, then your search for meaning involves whatever that Something is. It’s an alchemical blend of affinity and focus that takes us to a place within that feels as close as we ever get to “home.” It’s like pulling into our own train station after a long trip — joy, relief, a pleasant exhaustion.

If a writer or artist creates from a place of truth and spirit and generosity, then I may be able to enter and ride this person’s train back to my own station. It’s the same with beautiful music and art.

Beauty is meaning.

But rather than a compendium of philosophical reflections suspended mid-air by the free-hanging laziness of aphorism, Lamott’s book is a tapestry of real stories — “real” in the rawest, most soul-shaking sense of the word — from which her firmly grounded yet elevating wisdom springs. In another essay, Lamott — a staunch champion of the uncomfortable art of letting yourself be seen — recounts her own journey from a difficult childhood to self-destruction to recovery and meaning. In a passage that evokes Henry Miller’s assertion that “it takes only one friend, if he is a man of faith, to work miracles,” she writes:

What saved me was that I found gentle, loyal and hilarious companions, which is at the heart of meaning: maybe we don’t find a lot of answers to life’s tougher questions, but if we find a few true friends, that’s even better. They help you see who you truly are, which is not always the loveliest possible version of yourself, but then comes the greatest miracle of all — they still love you.

[…]

I also learned that you didn’t come onto this earth as a perfectionist or control freak. You weren’t born a person of cringe and contraction. You were born as energy, as life, made of the same stuff as stars, blossoms, breezes. You learned contraction to survive, but that was then. You have paid through the nose — paid but good. It is now your turn to reap.

[…]

It can be healthy to hate what life has given you, and to insist on being a big mess for a while. This takes great courage. But then, at some point, the better of two choices is to get back up on your feet and live again.

In the fourth essay, Lamott revisits this subject of how we embolden each other to go on living. Echoing Emerson’s unforgettable contention that “people wish to be settled [but] only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them,” she writes:

Alone, we are doomed, but by the same token, we’ve learned that people are impossible, even the ones we love most — especially the ones we love most: they’re damaged, prickly and set in their ways. Also, they’ve gotten old and a little funny, which can be draining. It is most comfortable to be invisible, to observe life from a distance, at one with our own intoxicating superior thoughts. But comfort and isolation are not where the surprises are. They are not where hope is… Only together do we somehow keep coming through unsurvivable loss, the stress of never knowing how things will shake down, to the biggest miracle of all, that against all odds, we come through the end of the world, again and again — changed but intact (more or less)… Insofar as I have any idea of “the truth,” I believe this to be as true as gravity and grace.

[…]

I’ve always loved funky rustic quilts more than elegant and maybe lovelier ones. You see the beauty of homeliness and rough patches in how they defy expectations of order and comfort. They have at the same time enormous solemnity and exuberance. They may be made of rags, torn clothes that don’t at all go together, but they somehow can be muscular and pretty. The colors are often strong, with a lot of rhythm and discipline and a crazy sense of order. They’re improvised, like jazz, where one thing leads to another, without any idea of exactly where the route will lead, except that it will refer to something else maybe already established, or about to be. Embedded in quilts and jazz are clues to escape and strength, sanctuary and warmth. The world is always going to be dangerous, and people get badly banged up, but how can there be more meaning than helping one another stand up in a wind and stay warm?

Artwork by Maira Kalman from 'Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag.' Click image for more.

Stitches is a soul-stretching read in its totality — the kind you revisit again and again, and find especially assuaging assurance in during life’s darkest moments. Complement it with Lamott on the greatest gift of friendship, Meghan Daum on how we become who we are, and Victoria Safford on what hope really means.

* Elsewhere in the book, Lamott explains that she uses the word “God” as “shorthand for the Good, for the animating energy of love; for Life, for the light that radiates from within people and from above; in the energies of nature, even in our rough, messy selves.”

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

26 JANUARY, 2015

Emerson on Talent vs. Character, Our Resistance to Change, and the Key to True Personal Growth

By:

“People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

“Cut short of the floundering and you’ve cut short the possible creative outcomes,” Denise Shekerjian wrote in contemplating the capacity for “staying loose” that many MacArthur geniuses have in common. “Cheat on the chaotic stumbling-about, and you’ve robbed yourself of the raw stuff that feeds the imagination.” And yet part of the human paradox is that even in the face of overwhelming evidence for this uncomfortable truth, despite full intellectual awareness of it, we continue to seek certainty and resist change, stunting our personal growth with stubborn self-righteousness and staunch defiance of the very discomfort from which self-transcendence springs.

From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — the same indispensable volume that gave us the great philosopher on the two essential requirements of true friendship — comes a layered and immeasurably insightful 1841 essay titled “Circles,” exploring the pillars of personal growth and how we can learn to stop resisting the very things that help us transcend our self-imposed limitations.

A century and a half before psychologists examined “the backfire effect” of our ideological stubbornness, Emerson considers how we arrive at our beliefs and why we have such a hard time with the uncomfortable luxury of changing our minds:

The key to every man is his thought. Sturdy and defying though he look, he has a helm which he obeys, which is the idea after which all his facts are classified. He can only be reformed by showing him a new idea which commands his own. The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end. The extent to which this generation of circles, wheel without wheel, will go, depends on the force or truth of the individual soul. For it is the inert effort of each thought, having formed itself into a circular wave of circumstance … to heap itself on that ridge, and to solidify and hem in the life. But if the soul is quick and strong, it bursts over that boundary on all sides, and expands another orbit on the great deep, which also runs up into a high wave, with attempt again to stop and to bind. But the heart refuses to be imprisoned; in its first and narrowest pulses, it already tends outward with a vast force, and to immense and innumerable expansions.

The balance of steadfastness and spontaneity that jazz legend Bill Evans saw as necessary for his art, Emerson sees as necessary for the art of personal development:

Let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker… Yet this incessant movement and progression which all things partake could never become sensible to us but by contrast to some principle of fixture or stability in the soul.

Illustration by Rob Hunter from 'A Graphic Cosmogony.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment that Bertrand Russell would come to echo nearly a century later in his ten timeless commandments of learning“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” — Emerson considers our resistance to change, both as individuals and as a culture:

Every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series… The new statement is always hated by the old, and, to those dwelling in the old, comes like an abyss of skepticism.

[…]

In nature every moment is new; the past is always swallowed and forgotten… Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit. No love can be bound by oath or covenant to secure it against a higher love. No truth so sublime but it may be trivial to-morrow in the light of new thoughts. People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.

Life is a series of surprises.

But Emerson’s most pressing point has to do with how this courage for embracing uncertainty and change — especially unwelcome change — is the foundation of what we call character:

The difference between talents and character is adroitness to keep the old and trodden round, and power and courage to make a new road to new and better goals. Character makes an overpowering present; a cheerful, determined hour, which fortifies all the company, by making them see that much is possible and excellent that was not thought of. Character dulls the impression of particular events. When we see the conqueror, we do not think much of any one battle or success… The great man is not convulsible or tormentable; events pass over him without much impression. People say sometimes, ‘See what I have overcome; see how cheerful I am; see how completely I have triumphed over these black events.’ Not if they still remind me of the black event. True conquest is the causing the calamity to fade and disappear, as an early cloud of insignificant result in a history so large and advancing.

Illustration by Oliver Jeffers from the unusual and wonderful 'Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters.' Click image for more.

He returns to the notion of life’s self-evolving circle:

The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment. The great moments of history are the facilities of performance through the strength of ideas… They ask the aid of wild passions… to ape in some manner these flames and generosities of the heart.

Emerson’s Essays and Lectures is a sublimely rewarding read in its entirety, full of enduring wisdom on discipline, language, love, beauty, ethics, illusion, self-reliance, and nearly every other substantial aspect of the human experience. Complement it with fifteen ideas for self-refinement through the wisdom of the ages, including one from Emerson himself.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

22 JANUARY, 2015

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

By:

“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.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

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

By:

“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.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.