Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

09 DECEMBER, 2014

How We Become Who We Are: Meghan Daum on Nostalgia, Aging, and Why We Romanticize Our Imperfect Younger Selves

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“Life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally—and sometimes maddeningly—who we are.”

In her mind-bending meditation on what makes you and your young self the same person despite a lifetime of changes, philosopher Rebecca Goldstein pondered the philosophical conundrum of our “integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be.” Psychologists, meanwhile, have demonstrated that we’re woefully flawed at predicting the priorities of our future selves. Even so, Joan Didion was right to counsel in her classic essay on keeping a notebook that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” But the most confounding thing about our relationship with the evolution of our own selves is that we tend to romanticize our youth even if we don’t find the versions of ourselves that inhabited it “attractive company” at all.

This conundrum is one of the many human perplexities Meghan Daum, one of the finest essayists of our time, explores in The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion (public library | IndieBound) — a magnificent collection of personal essays examining “the tension between primal reactions and public decorum” and aiming at “a larger discussion about the way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses,” driven by a valiant effort to unbridle those messy, complex experiences from the simplistic templates with which we address them, both privately and publicly.

Meghan Daum (Photograph: Laura Kleinhenz)

In the introduction, Daum echoes Zadie Smith’s piercing critique of our platitudes-paved road to self-actualization and laments the hijacking of our darker, more disquieting emotions by the happiness industrial complex:

For all the lip service we pay to “getting real,” we remain a culture whose discourse is largely rooted in platitudes. We are told — and in turn tell others — that illness and suffering isn’t a ruthless injustice, but a journey of hope. Finding disappointment in places where we’re supposed to find joy isn’t a sign of having different priorities as much as having an insufficiently healthy outlook. We love redemption stories and silver linings. We believe in overcoming adversity, in putting the past behind us, in everyday miracles. We like the idea that everything happens for a reason. When confronted with the suggestion that life is random or that suffering is not always transcendent we’re apt to not only accuse the suggester of rudeness but also pity him for his negative worldview. To reject sentimentality, or even question it, isn’t just uncivilized, it’s practically un-American.

In one of the collection’s most pause-giving essays, titled “Not What It Used to Be,” Daum reflects on the conflicted, paradoxical nostalgia we tend to place on our youth — nostalgia woven of an openness of longing, as the infinite possibilities of life stretch ahead, but also of many misplaced longings for the wrong things, the dangerous things, the dangerously safe things. Daum writes:

Most of us have unconscious disbeliefs about our lives, facts that we accept at face value but that still cause us to gasp just a little when they pass through our minds at certain angles. Mine are these: that my mother is dead, that the Vatican actually had it in itself to select a pope like Pope Francis, and that I am now older than the characters on thirtysomething. That last one is especially upending. How is it that the people who were, for me, the very embodiment of adulthood, who, with their dinner parties and marital spats and career angst represented the place in life I’d like to get to but surely never will, are on average six to eight years my junior? How did I get to be middle-aged without actually growing up?

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Maya Angelou’s unforgettable words on growing up, Daum adds:

Luckily, even some of the most confounding questions have soothingly prosaic answers. On the subject of growing up, or feeling that you have succeeded in doing so, I’m pretty sure the consensus is that it’s an illusion. Probably no one ever really feels grown-up, except for certain high school math teachers or members of Congress. I suspect that most members of AARP go around feeling in many ways just as confused and fraudulent as most middle school students. You might even be able to make a case that not feeling grown-up is a sign that you actually are, much as worrying that you’re crazy supposedly means you’re not.

Daum’s astonishment is especially resonant for those of us who compounded our dissatisfying college experience with the culturally inflicted guilt of feeling like not finding satisfaction there was a profound personal failure:

I managed to have such a mediocre time at a place that is pretty much custom designed for delivering the best years of your life. I’d like to say that I wasn’t the same person back then that I later became and now am. But the truth is that I was the exact same person. I was more myself then than at any other time in my life. I was an extreme version of myself. Everything I’ve always felt I felt more intensely. Everything I’ve always wanted, I wanted more. Everything I currently dislike, I downright hated back then. People who think I’m judgmental, impatient, and obsessed with real estate now should have seen me in college. I was bored by many of my classmates and irked by the contrived mischief and floundering sexual intrigues of dormitory life. I couldn’t wait to get out and rent my own apartment, preferably one in a grand Edwardian building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In that sense, I guess my college experience was just as intense as my husband’s. I just view that intensity negatively rather than nostalgically, which perhaps is its own form of nostalgia.

To illuminate that curious misplacing of nostalgia, Daum invokes an imaginary encounter between her present self and her older self — the concept behind an emboldening old favorite of letters by luminaries to their younger selves — in which Older Self ambushes Younger Self “like a goon sent in to settle a debt”:

At first, Younger Self is frightened and irritated (Older Self speaks harshly to her) but a feeling of calm quickly sets in over the encounter. Younger Self sits there rapt, as though receiving the wisdom of Yoda or of some musician she idolizes, such as Joni Mitchell. But Older Self is no Yoda. Older Self is stern and sharp. Older Self has adopted the emphatic, no-nonsense speaking style of formidable women with whom she worked in countless New York City offices before deciding she never again wanted to work anywhere but her own home (a place where, over the years, she has lost a certain amount of people skills and has been known to begin conversations as though slamming a cleaver into a side of raw beef). Older Self begins her sentences with “Listen” and “Look.” She says, “Listen, what you’re into right now isn’t working for you.” She says, “Look, do yourself a favor and get out of this situation right now. All of it. The whole situation. Leave this college. Forget about this boy you’re sleeping with but not actually dating. Stop pretending you did the reading for your Chaucer seminar when you didn’t and never will.”

To which Younger Self will ask, “Okay, then what should I do?” And of course Older Self has no answer, because Older Self did not leave the college, did not drop the boy, did not stop pretending to have read Chaucer. And the cumulative effect of all those failures (or missed opportunities, blown chances, fuckups, whatever) is sitting right here, administering a tongue-lashing to her younger self (which is to say herself) about actions or inactions that were never going to be anything other than what they were. And at that point the younger and older selves merge into some kind of floating blob of unfortunate yet inevitable life choices, at which point I stop the little game and nudge my mind back into real time and try to think about other things, such as what I might have for dinner that night or what might happen when I die. Such is the pendulum of my post-forty thoughts.

And yet the most paradoxical, most endearingly human thing is that most of us invariably fail to see our Younger Self as part of that amalgamated blob and instead romanticize it as the counterpoint to those “unfortunate yet inevitable life choices,” as our highest potentiality at a point before crumbling into the reality of necessary concessions and mediocrities. For all its cluelessness, for all its complicity in the making of our present dissatisfactions, we continue to worship youth — especially our own.

Reflecting on the disorienting fact — because that fact is always disorienting to those of whom it becomes factual — that nothing she ever does will ever be preceded by the word young again, Daum writes:

Any traces of precocity I ever had are long forgotten. I am not and will never again be a young writer, a young homeowner, a young teacher. I was never a young wife. The only thing I could do now for which my youth would be a truly notable feature would be to die. If I died now, I’d die young. Everything else, I’m doing middle-aged.

I am nostalgic for my twenties (most of them, anyway; twenty and twenty-one were squandered at college; twenty-four was kind of a wash, too) but I can tell you for sure that they weren’t as great as I now crack them up to be. I was always broke, I was often lonely, and I had some really terrible clothes. But my life was shiny and unblemished. Everything was ahead of me. I walked around with an abiding feeling that, at any given time, anything could go in any direction. And it was often true.

In a passage that makes one wonder whether contemporary adults are thrust into an illusory sense of youth by the constant stimulation and endless temptations of the internet, Daum describes the ceaseless fear of missing out — FOMO, as the Information Age has shorthanded it — that characterized her youth:

I didn’t want to miss anything. I wanted to stretch out over the city like a giant octopus. I wanted enough appendages to be able to ring every door buzzer simultaneously. There was some switch turned on in my brain that managed to make 90 percent of conversations feel interesting or useful or, if nothing else, worth referencing later if only by way of describing how boring this person was who I got stuck talking to.

And then, echoing Joan Didion’s memorable lament that “memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember,” she adds: “Or at least it’s easy to remember it that way.”

Illustration from 'Lost in Translation' by Ella Frances Sanders, an illustrated compendium of untranslatable words from around the world. Click image for more.

But the sense she describes is a palpable, familiar one, perhaps best captured by the untranslatable Portuguese word saudade. Daum writes:

This was a time in my life when I was so filled with longing for so many things that were so far out of reach that at least once a day I thought my heart would implode from the sheer force of unrequited desire.

By desire I am not referring to apartments I wanted to occupy or furniture I wanted to buy or even people I was attracted to (well, I’m referring to those things a little) but, rather, a sensation I can only describe as the ache of not being there yet.

She revisits the imaginary encounter between her two selves and considers how gobsmacked Younger Self would be by the notion that a few decades later, she’d be reminiscing fondly about the cumulative timescape of the very things presently exasperating her:

I can imagine her looking at Older Self in horrified astonishment. “I’m going to be reminiscing about this?” she’d ask while the ATM spat out her card and flashed “insufficient funds” across the screen. “You’re telling me that when I’m forty-five I’ll be pining for the temp jobs and cheap shoes that now comprise my life? You’re telling me this is as good as it gets? You’re telling me, contrary to everything I tell myself, that it’s actually all downhill from here?”

To which I’d hope that Older Self would have the good sense to assure Younger Self that that is not what she is saying, that indeed things will only go up from here. Maybe not right away and certainly not without some deep valleys to offset the peaks (as well as a few sharp left turns, as long as we’re speaking in euphemisms) but with enough steadiness to suggest that whatever she is doing now more or less constitutes being on the right track.

What makes this imaginary exchange especially alluring as a thought experiment is precisely the fact that it’s fictional — fictional not because such a fold in the space-time continuum of personal identity is impossible in real life, but because it unfolds in a microscopic level every second of every minute of every day of our real lives. What makes the encounter fictional is the very idea of a static, all-knowing Older Self at any point in life — we are, indeed, “works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” and the dividing line between our past selves and our present ones is a constantly shifting one, not so much a line as a scatterplot of impressions clustering here and there to form some aspect of our present identity, only to disperse again into the ether of our fluid personhood and reassemble in a different formation on which we hang our daily fragment of identity.

But this, perhaps, is what Daum is ultimately getting at. She follows that alluring fiction to its inevitable, necessary end:

“Listen,” Older Self might say. “The things that right now seem permanently out of reach, you’ll reach them eventually. You’ll have a career, a house, a partner in life. You will have much better shoes. You will reach a point where your funds will generally be sufficient — maybe not always plentiful, but sufficient.”

But here’s what Older Self will not have the heart to say: some of the music you are now listening to — the CDs you play while you stare out the window and think about the five million different ways your life might go — will be unbearable to listen to in twenty years. They will be unbearable not because they will sound dated and trite but because they will sound like the lining of your soul. They will take you straight back to the place you were in when you felt that anything could happen at any time, that your life was a huge room with a thousand doors, that your future was not only infinite but also elastic. They will be unbearable because they will remind you that at least half of the things you once planned for your future are now in the past and others got reabsorbed into your imagination before you could even think about acting on them. It will be as though you’d never thought of them in the first place, as if they were never meant to be anything more than passing thoughts you had while playing your stereo at night.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

Daum ends by reflecting on how we manage to romanticize such anguishing times by excising the anguish and framing into our memory only the sense of that octopoid reach into possibility:

Now that I am almost never the youngest person in any room I realize that what I miss most about those times is the very thing that drove me so mad back when I was living in them. What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life. But what I forget is the loneliness of all that. If everything is ahead then nothing is behind. You have no ballast. You have no tailwinds either. You hardly ever know what to do, because you’ve hardly done anything. I guess this is why wisdom is supposed to be the consolation prize of aging. It’s supposed to give us better things to do than stand around and watch in disbelief as the past casts long shadows over the future.

With an eye toward the profound rift between who we think we’ll become and who we end up becoming, Daum concludes:

The problem, I now know, is that no one ever really feels wise, least of all those who actually have it in themselves to be so. The Older Self of our imagination never quite folds itself into the older self we actually become. Instead, it hovers in the perpetual distance like a highway mirage. It’s the destination that never gets any closer even as our life histories pile up behind us in the rearview mirror. It is the reason that I got to forty-something without ever feeling thirty-something. It is why I hope that if I make it to eighty-something I have the good sense not to pull out those old CDs. My heart, by then, surely would not be able to keep from imploding. My heart, back then, stayed in one piece only because, as bursting with anticipation as it was, it had not yet been strained by nostalgia. It had not yet figured out that life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally — and sometimes maddeningly — who we are.

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08 DECEMBER, 2014

On “Beauty”: Marilynne Robinson on Writing, What Storytelling Can Learn from Science, and the Splendors of Uncertainty

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“We are part of a mystery, a splendid mystery within which we must attempt to orient ourselves if we are to have a sense of our own nature.”

Since 1984, Portland-based nonprofit Literary Arts has been inviting some of the world’s most celebrated authors to share their ideas on the craft — ideas like Ursula K. Le Guin’s spectacular meditation on where creativity comes from and the “secret” to great writing. To mark the 30th anniversary of the series, Literary Arts has collected some of the best such lectures — including Le Guin’s aforementioned piece, as well as contributions by Margaret Atwood, E.L. Doctorow, Chimamanda Adichie, and Jeanette Winterson — in the magnificent anthology The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write (public library | IndieBound).

In one particularly fantastic piece titled On “Beauty,” Pulitzer-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson (b. November 26, 1943) explores that elusive concept we are so deeply wired to desire, even to dangerously overdesire, yet so profoundly conflicted about that desire and, on occasion, brilliantly self-aware of its paradoxes.

Robinson writes:

It has seemed to me for some time that beauty, as a conscious element of experience, as a thing to be valued and explored, has gone into abeyance among us. I do not by any means wish to suggest that we suffer from any shortage of beauty, which seems to me intrinsic to experience, everywhere to be found. The pitch of a voice, the gesture of a hand, can be very beautiful. I need hardly speak of daylight, warmth, silence.

Reflecting on her own journey as a writer, Robinson observes the enduring sense that she “must try to be an interpreter of the true and absolute world, the very planet,” and considers how the paradoxes of “beauty” bristle amid that quest:

The word beauty has always seemed to me unsatisfactory. I have often felt there is an essential quality for which we have no word, and that therefore I am driven back on beauty, or elegance, which has the same problem. It is interesting that both these words are French, that they displaced Old English precursors. In any case, the word beauty has never seemed to me quite suited to the uses I have had to make of it, as though it were never really naturalized into my interior language, or what I might call my aesthetic experience, if that did not oblige me to use the word aesthetic. Why this awkwardness? Why must we lapse into French or Greek to speak of an experience that is surely primary and universal? Perhaps the awkwardness of the language refers to the fact that the experience of beauty is itself complex. We all know we can be conditioned to see beauty where our culture or our generation tells us to see it… And we know beauty can be fraudulent, compromised. Whenever power or privilege wishes to flaunt itself, it recruits beauty into its service, or something that can at least pass as beauty and will achieve the same effect. So it is entirely appropriate to regard beauty with a critical eye. But the point should be to discover an essential beauty, not to abandon the intuition altogether.

In a remark of terrific timeliness in the context of today’s news landscape, Robinson laments the loss of the nineteenth-century reverence for the dignity of ordinary language, the language of the people, and its ability to “do as much as the mind can ask of it, and do it with extraordinary integrity.” With an eye to journalism, publishing, and the media, which “are no true gauge of what public feeling is, or what it could be if it formed under other influences or had other choices,” she writes:

What we have lost with this awareness is respect for people in general, to whom we condescend, as though we were not all ourselves members in good standing of people in general. We explain others to ourselves without reference to what were once called their souls, to their solitary and singular participation in this mystery of being. We are not much in awe of one another these days. We do not hesitate to deprive each other of dignity or privacy, or even to deprive ourselves of them.

Echoing Dostoyevsky’s case for the human spirit, she adds:

What reason can there be for protecting the privacy and freedom of the conscience, or even the franchise, of anyone, if we assume nothing good about those whom we are protecting and enfranchising?

Reflecting on the political and social polarizations afflicting contemporary culture, she laments:

Neither [side] acts in a way that acknowledges the beauty and complexity of individual human experience. Neither treats the public—the people—with real respect.

One recurring such toxic polarization, particularly as it pertains to the deeper questions of beauty, is that between physical and metaphysical pursuits of truth, between science and spirituality — an age-old tension that has spurred such famous reflections as Carl Sagan on science and religion, Flannery O’Connor on dogma, belief, and the difference between religion and faith, Alan Lightman on science and spirituality, Albert Einstein on whether scientists pray, Ada Lovelace on the interconnectedness of everything, Alan Watts on the difference between belief and faith, C.S. Lewis on the paradox of free will, and Jane Goodall on science and spirit. Robinson adds to this lineage of wisdom:

There are those who believe we have outlived every beautiful notion about what human life must be, because this is the age of science. These people must not have been paying attention. Science, being one of the unequivocally human undertakings, describes humanity to itself, for weal and woe, in everything it does. Mathematicians and physicists have a habit of using the words beautiful and elegant to endorse theories that are likelier to cleave to the nature of things because of their efficiency and soundness of structure. I would like to see language brought to a similar standard. If this were at all a philosophic age, we might be wondering why it is that beauty can test reality and solve its encryptions in the modest, yet impressive, degree our humanity allows. For me, this is a core definition of beauty: that it is both rigorous and dynamic and that it somehow bears a deep relationship to truth.

Echoing Sagan’s deep conviction in embracing rather than eradicating our ignorance and Hannah Arendt’s celebration of unanswerable questions, Robinson adds:

We are part of a mystery, a splendid mystery within which we must attempt to orient ourselves if we are to have a sense of our own nature… I believe that there is a penumbra of ignorance and error and speculation that exceeds what might be called the known world by a very large factor indeed. I believe this penumbra is as beautiful in its own way as what I have called truth because it is the action of the human consciousness. It is most human and most beautiful because it wants to be more than consciousness; it wants to be truth.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Donald Barthelme’s notion of writing as an art of not-knowing, Robinson contemplates the mesmerizing mysteries of science — mysteries like the “great spiral structures in space so vast that no account can be made of them” — and makes a beautiful case for why science and the humanities belong together:

To what can we compare these things but to the mind that discovered and described them, the human mind, which, over the centuries, has amassed by small increments the capacity for knowing about them. Planet earth is not even a speck of dust in the universe, and how uncanny it is that we have contrived to see almost to the edge of what time and light will allow, to look back billions of years and see suns forming. When I read about such things, I think how my own heroes would have loved them. What would Melville have done with dark energy, or Poe with spooky action at a distance? Whitman could only have loved the accelerating expansion of the universe. Dickinson probably knew already that our sun is atremble with sound waves, like a great gong. It is a loss of the joy of consciousness that keeps us from appropriating these splendors for the purposes of our own thought.

Marilynne Robinson by Danny Wilcox Frazier

Robinson considers the wisdom of the ancients, who “recognized a special destiny for humankind, when grueling labor and early death would have consumed most of them,” as she returns to the question of beauty:

The destiny we have made for ourselves may well be the end of us; we all know that, and they seem to have known it too. Still, there is magnificence in it all. So the supposed conflict of science and religion is meaningless, because these two most beautiful ventures of expression of the human spirit are reduced to disembodied fragments of themselves with no beauty about them at all, which is a great pity, since their beauty should have been the basis for harmony between them.

Like science, she argues, writing deals in the potentialities of reality, weaving similar “webs of possibility fashioned from conjecture and observation” — and language, style, and form are the essential tools of this observation, inseparable from the possibilities conjectured:

To approach any utterance as if its meaning were separable from its presentation is to disallow art in every positive sense of that word. It is to strip away the individuation that might make a work a new witness, and it is to violate the bond of reader and writer. The essence of our art lies in creating a lingering dream, good or bad, that other souls can enter. Dreaming one’s soul into another’s is an urgent business of the human mind: the dreaming itself, not whatever agenda can supposedly be extracted from it. As art, it plays on the nerves and the senses like a dream. It unfolds over time like a dream. It makes its own often disturbing and often inexplicable appeal to memory and emotion, creating itself again in the consciousness of the reader or hearer.

The abeyance of beauty, Robinson suggests, can be attributed in no small part to the rift between dreams and agendas upon which the news-media industrial complex — be it CNN or Buzzfeed, it’s worth adding — is built:

Everything we are asked to look at is abrupt, bright, and loud in the visual sense of the word, especially the evening news. We are expected to react to it, not to consider it. It is addressed to our nervous systems, never to our minds.

And yet Robinson is no techno-dystopian — she fully accounts for the role of choice and personal responsibility in reclaiming our higher potentialities:

There is no inevitability in any of it. The visual technologies are blamed, but in fact no more beautiful studies of the human face exist than those made in film while it was still possible for the camera to pause for a moment.

Revisiting “the epic battle between parody science and parody religion,” Robinson finds similar parody in the institutions and industries purporting to represent public life:

Anything stripped of the beauty and dignity proper to it is a parody. Public life itself is now entirely too vivid an instance of this phenomenon. We are losing an atmosphere that is necessary to our survival. We are losing the motive and the rationale that supported everything we claim to value. But the solution is everywhere around us and is as simple as seeing and hearing. We are a grand and tragic creature, humankind, and we must see ourselves as we are … alone in our capacity for awe, and in that fact altogether worthy of awe… Now, because we have devoted so much ingenuity to the project, we have devised more ways to tell ourselves more stories, which means only that an ancient impulse is still so strong in us as to impel the invention of new means and occasions for telling and hearing to satisfy this appetite for narrative. At the most fundamental level, narrative is how we make sense of things — that is, our experience of ongoing life is a story we tell ourselves, more or less true, depending on circumstance. I believe this narrative is the essential mode of our being in the world, individually and collectively. Maintaining its integrity — maintaining a sense of the essentially provisional or hypothetical character of the story we tell ourselves — is, I will suggest, our greatest practical, as well as moral and ethical, problem.

This crucial role of the hypothetical is also what makes the parallel between science and storytelling so apt:

I tend to draw analogies from science because I believe that our sense of the world is always hypothesis, and we are sane in the sense that we understand this.

In sentiment that evokes the essence of Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit and Jacob Bronowski’s admonition about the dark side of certainty, she adds:

All thought always inclines toward error. The prejudices that would exclude one tradition of thought, be it science or be it theology, from this tendency are simply instances of the tendency toward error… The mind is prolific in generating false narrative. Like the immune system, it can turn against itself, defeat itself.

[…]

We have all forgotten what ought to be the hypothetical character of our thinking… We are inappropriately loyal to our hypotheses, rather than to the reality of which they are always a tentative sketch. This is a special problem in a climate of urgency and anxiety.

But in this very tendency lies the greatest promise of storytelling as a tool of questioning and a hedge against the paralyzing modern notion that “the great questions are closed.” Inviting us to “participate in the mystery of these facts as surely as Shakespeare ever did” — Shakespeare, lest we forget, was inspired by Galileo’s scientific discoveries — Robinson writes:

There is no reason to suppose the invention of narrative is in any way a marginal activity. Narratives define whole civilizations to themselves, for weal or woe.

[…]

The human situation is beautiful and strange. We are in fact Gilgamesh and Oedipus and Lear. We have achieved this amazing levitation out of animal circumstance by climbing our rope of sand, insight, and error — corrective insight and persistent error. The working of the mind is astonishing and beautiful.

[…]

Meaning is essentially a new discovery of the joy of consciousness—and, of course, the perils of it. We live in uncertainty, which means that we are always exposed to the possibility of learning more, for weal and woe. I would call this awareness humanism, an ultimate loyalty to ourselves that we are all too ready to withhold.

The World Split Open is an emboldening read in its entirety and a remarkable addition to the collected wisdom of great authors.

For more perspectives on why writers write, see George Orwell’s four universal motives, Mary Gaitskill’s six creative impulses, Joan Didion on writing as access to her own mind, David Foster Wallace on the fun of it, Michael Lewis on how it exorcises the the necessary self-delusions of creativity, Joy Williams on how it offers a gateway from the darkness to the light, and Italo Calvino on its assurance of belonging to a collective enterprise.

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08 DECEMBER, 2014

Georgia O’Keeffe on Public Opinion and What It Means to Be an Artist, in a Letter to Sherwood Anderson

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“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant—there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing—and keeping the unknown always beyond you…”

Georgia O’Keeffe, celebrated as America’s first great female artist, was a woman of strong opinions on art, life, and setting priorities and an uncommon gift for committing to words what she committed to canvas. But some of her most revelatory insights on art and the creative experience were shared in a series of letters to writer Sherwood Anderson, who had befriended legendary photographer Alfred Stieglitz — O’Keeffe’s husband and her correspondent in volumes of passionate love letters. Encountering O’Keeffe’s art in the early 1920s had inspired Anderson to pick up the paintbrush for the first time and begin painting himself. Meanwhile, the two developed an epistolary fellowship around their shared ideas about art and their amicable intellectual disagreements. (Only three years later, Anderson would come to articulate his own unforgettable wisdom on art in a letter to his son, very likely influenced by O’Keeffe and their creative rapport.)

Found in Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters (public library) — an altogether unputdownable out-of-print volume released in 1987, a year after O’Keeffe’s death, to mark her centennial — the letters stand as a sublime paean to the kind of creative integrity that rises above public opinion and blazes with crystalline clarity of conviction. At the same time, one can’t help but wonder how O’Keeffe’s art — how her sanity — might have suffered had she lived in our present era of perpetual sprinting on the social-media hamster wheel of public opinion.

Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

On August 1, 1923, she writes to Anderson:

This morning I saw an envelope on the table Stieglitz addressed to you—I’ve wanted so often to write you—two things in particular to tell you—but I do not write—I do not write to anyone—maybe I do not like telling myself to people—and writing means that.

First I wanted to tell you—way back in the winter that I liked your “Many Marriages”—and that what others have said about it amused me much—I realize when I hear others speak of it that I do not seem to read the way they do—I seem to—like—or discard—for no particular reason excepting that it is inevitable at the moment.—At the time I read it I saw no particular reason why I should write you that I liked it—because I do not consider my liking—or disliking of any particular consequence to anyone but myself—And knowing you were trying to work I felt that opinions on what was past for you would probably be like just so much rubbish—in your way for the clear thing ahead—And when I think of you—I think of you rather often—it is always with the wish—a real wish—that the work is going well—that nothing interferes —

I think of you often because the few times you came to us were fine—like fine days in the mountains—fine to remember—clear sparkling and lots of air—fine air.

After a characteristically evocative note about Stieglitz’s health that spring had rendered him “just a little heap of misery—sleepless—with eyes—ears—nose—arm—feet—ankles—intestines—all taking their turn at deviling him,” O’Keeffe expresses deep gratitude for the very thing that led Virginia Woolf to term letter writing “the humane art”—the soul-salving power of a letter sent by one human being to another:

You can see why I appreciated your letters—maybe more than he did—because of what they gave him—I don’t remember now what you wrote—I only remember that they made me feel that you feel something of what I know he is—that it means much to you in your life—adds much to your life—and a real love for him seemed to have grown from it

And in his misery he was very sad—and I guess I had grown pretty sad and forlorn feeling too—so your voice was kind to hear out of faraway and I want to tell you that it meant much—Thanks

Aware of misfortune’s one-way mirror of hindsight, she adds, “I can only write you this now because things are better.”

'The Lawrence Tree' by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1929

O’Keeffe and Anderson continue their correspondence and in another letter sent a month later, she defies her self-professed distaste for “telling [herself] to people” and instead divulging — with the exhilarating intensity of expression that both her art and her letters to loved ones emanate — a magnificent glimpse of her inner life and creative spirit. She considers the role of form in art and the experience from which art stems:

I feel that a real living form is the result of the individual’s effort to create the living thing out of the adventure of his spirit into the unknown—where it has experienced something—felt something—it has not understood—and from that experience comes the desire to make the unknown—known. By unknown—I mean the thing that means so much to the person that wants to put it down—clarify something he feels but does not clearly understand—sometimes he partially knows why—sometimes he doesn’t—sometimes it is all working in the dark—but a working that must be done—Making the unknown—known—in terms of one’s medium is all-absorbing—if you stop to think of the form—as form you are lost—The artist’s form must be inevitable—You mustn’t even think you won’t succeed—Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant—there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing—and keeping the unknown always beyond you—catching crystallizing your simpler clearer version of life—only to see it turn stale compared to what you vaguely feel ahead—that you must always keep working to grasp—the form must take care of its self if you can keep your vision clear.

In a remark of extraordinary humility and wisdom, especially in the hindsight of both O’Keeffe’s present status in the canon of art and Anderson’s in that of literature, she considers the feebleness of any present metric of success against a creator’s ultimate significance for posterity:

You and I don’t know whether our vision is clear in relation to our time or not—No matter what failure or success we may have—we will not know—But we can keep our integrity—according to our own sense of balance with the world and that creates our form—

In a sentiment that calls to mind Maurice Sendak’s famous dissent with a common classification of his work — “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” — O’Keeffe adds:

What others have called form has nothing to do with our form—I want to create my own and I can’t do anything else—if I stop to think of what others—authorities or the public—or anyone—would say of my form I’d not be able to do anything.

I can never show what I am working on without being stopped—whether it is liked or disliked I am affected in the same way—sort of paralyzed—.

All of Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters is a treat for eye and spirit alike. Complement this particular bit with Anna Deavere Smith on how to stop letting others define us and Rilke on why external interference in the artist’s private experience poisons the art.

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05 DECEMBER, 2014

Margaret Mead on the Root of Racism and the Liability of Law Enforcement

By:

“The more complex a society becomes, the more fully the law must take into account the diversity of the people who live in it… It is a matter in which the whole society is involved.”

On her ascent to fame as the world’s best-known and most influential cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead became one of modern history’s greatest academic celebrities. As she toured the world to give university lectures, public talks, and presentations at various institutions, she brought with her the essential tools of anthropology — the art of looking, coupled with a great capacity for listening, for asking and answering questions. In 1963, Redbook Magazine began publishing Mead’s answers to the best questions she had received from audiences over her extensive career.

After Mead’s death in late 1978, her partner of a quarter-century, the anthropologist and Redbook editor Rhoda Metraux, collected the best of these questions and answers in Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views (public library) — a compendium of Mead’s timeless insight into the human condition, bearing remarkably timely relevance to contemporary culture and public life even today. Many of Mead’s views — particularly her beliefs on equal parenting and the fluidity of human sexuality — were decades ahead of her time, but one particular subject stuns with its prescience half a century later, in the heartbreaking aftermath of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner: Mead’s piercing wisdom on the root of racism and the liability of law enforcement.

In January of 1969, Mead rebuffs the then-common belief among psychologists that children are born knowing how to love and are taught to hate, addressing the greater question of the root of intolerance and racial injustice:

Love and hate are two aspects of the same human capacity to react to other human beings in terms of experience. The infant whose world is warm, giving and reliable responds with love that echoes the love he has received. But the infant who is continually hungry, cold and neglected will come to hate those who hurt him and do not attend to his needs. In a sense, both love and hate are learned: the infant is born with the capacity to respond, and experience guides his learning.

It does seem true that hatred of a given person or a category of persons or things must be learned. We have to be taught whom to hate, and if we are not taught to hate people in categories, we won’t.

More than half a century after Tolstoy and Gandhi corresponded about war and why we hurt each other, Mead notes that modern wars are fought not out of personal human hatred but out of institutionalized economic and political agendas. Understanding learned hate, she argues, is more relevant to race and ethnic conflict than to war. She writes:

Children’s initial response to the strange often is one of fear. A brown-skinned child, seeing a white person for the first time, may scream with fear. A white-skinned child, seeing a dark person for the first time, may also. If the screaming, fearful child is comforted, reassured and given a chance to learn to know and trust the stranger, he will have one kind of response — one of trust and expectation of friendship. But if his fear is unassuaged or is reinforced by the attitude of the older children and adults around him, he may come to hate what he has feared.

This is why it is so important in a multiracial world and a multiracial society like ours that children have many experiences with individuals of races different from their own. Only in this way can we hope surely to dispel their early fear of the strange and enable them to distinguish among individuals, caring for some and disliking others, not because they belong to a category of loved or hated people, but because of their own personality, as individuals.

(Many decades earlier, Mark Twain had articulated the same sentiment, then even more ahead of its time, in his moving meditation on slavery and injustice.)

Margaret Mead sitting between two Samoan girls, ca. 1926, during her pioneering work in the Samoan Islands (Library of Congress)

In a question from 1964, just as the term “Negro” was beginning to fall out of popular use and shortly before it was replaced by the more politically dignified “African American,” Mead was asked to explain the statistic that “the Chinese, who live as unassimilated a life in America as Negroes do and who have suffered similarly from the effects of poverty and prejudice, have been so remarkably free of a criminal record.” With great sensitivity to nuance, she addresses the complex systemic issues at hand through the lens of anthropology, sociology, and political history:

In spite of superficial resemblances, the experiences of Chinese in America and of American Negroes have been very different. For the most part, Chinese migrants to the United States came of their own accord, and while they lived and worked here most of them remained closely related to their own society, to which, in theory if not always in practice, they expected to return. The Chinese have an ancient tradition of living in extraterritorial communities, and those who settled here organized a way of living which in some respects paralleled the way of living organized for Europeans and Americans who went to Chinese cities. Except for the scholars who came as students, most of those who left China were very poor, and they bettered their lot — and sometimes the lot of their families in China — by coming. Until recently the overwhelming majority were men, and the few women and children were protected within the Chinese community.

This role of independent, self-governing communities within the larger organism of American society, Mead argues, was a crucial factor in maintaining order and moral behavior within the Chinese immigrant communities, allowing them to “exact conforming behavior and punish infractions of accepted rules without, in general, appealing to American law-enforcing agencies.” Such autonomy made possible a self-regulating ecosystem of conduct as the Chinese essentially became “members of a self-selected colony” temporarily taking advantage of “the economic possibilities of an alien land.” Mead, of course, acknowledges the racism to which Chinese immigrants have been subjected in America, but points out a crucial qualitative difference:

When Americans exploited the Chinese through their unfamiliarity with our style of life or treated them to the kind of racism we have meted out to other non-Caucasians (or sometimes to non-Northern Europeans or non-English-speaking peoples), the Chinese colonists were angry and resentful, but the individual was not effectively damaged as a person. The greatest damage was to American clarity – to our own ability to see and understand a people different from ourselves.

Mead contrasts this with the “strikingly different” historical and social backdrop for African Americans, inflicted by the atrocity of slavery:

The ancestors of these Americans were brought from Africa by force, torn from a score of very different societies, speaking many different languages, without any traditional way of bridging the gaps between them and without a means of communicating with their own people still in Africa. Under slavery the family system, which was as strong in Africa as it was in China, was destroyed, and men were denied the right to have responsibility for their women and children. From the beginning, white men ruthlessly abused African women, and a new population grew up that was both bound in speech and custom to its white ancestry and punished by social ostracism and poverty for every trace of its African ancestry.

In a remark particularly — and devastatingly — prescient half a century later as we bear witness to the gruesome fallout of such historical baggage, Mead considers how such factors shaped these respective groups’ relationship with the law enforcement structures of the dominant society:

Unlike the Chinese, Negro Americans have had no ongoing style of social regulation to fall back on; what they have shared is the knowledge that the law is administered in one way for the white men and in other ways for themselves. Whereas the Chinese community has been able to protect its members, control its children, mete out informal punishment and reward, and cover for its members who break American laws, Negro Americans have had until very recently few means of protecting themselves to give them a sense of security and pride as a group.

But Mead’s most poignant and stunningly timely remark comes in her answer to another question about crime, law enforcement, and race in March of 1968:

The difficulty is that laws that attempt to enforce special forms of moral behavior breed disrespect for the law and for law-enforcing agencies among those who do not share the beliefs on which these regulations are based. And where disrespect and lawbreaking by the respectable are combined, one also finds connivance with crime in other areas of living.

The more complex a society becomes, the more fully the law must take into account the diversity of the people who live in it. The approach to crime is not a matter for the police and the courts — or even the lawmakers — alone. It is a matter in which the whole society is involved.

Mead, after all, is the person credited with the undying maxim, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views is an infinitely insightful read in its entirety, spanning sixteen years of Mead’s thoughts on love, sex, religion, politics, social dynamics, gender equality, personal choices, and the human condition. It is a pity that this treasure is long out of print — or, perhaps, evidence that even the most timeless and urgently necessary of humanity’s wisdom is seen by the publishing industry as disposable marketable commodity and quickly abandoned for some new fad — but used copies can still be found and are well, well worth the hunt.

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