Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘SoundCloud’

08 APRIL, 2015

The Power of Aesthetic Force: Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Lewis on Beauty as a Tool of Justice and a Catalyst for “Nonselfing”

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“The law represents a part of the people’s will but … the people’s will is moved by beauty.”

“Beauty, as a conscious element of experience, as a thing to be valued and explored, has gone into abeyance among us,” Marilynne Robinson wrote in her exquisite reflection on beauty. In our visually voracious culture of accelerating “aesthetic consumerism,” is there still room for beauty not as a trifled commodity but as both an elevating force of transcendence and a grounding force of moral solidity?

That’s what Harvard art historian Sarah Lewis, author of the excellent The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (public library) — one of the best psychology books of 2014 — explores in the final segment of her altogether fantastic New York Public Library conversation with artist, playwright, actor, and MacArthur genius Anna Deavere Smith.

Oe of the most piercing parts of the conversation calls to mind Susan Sontag — “The subtraction of beauty as a standard for art hardly signals a decline of the authority of beauty,” Sontag wrote in her characteristically elegant argument against the argument against beauty. “Rather, it testifies to a decline in the belief that there is something called art.” Smith reads from her 2009 interview with Harvard’s famed English and aesthetics professor Elaine Scarry, contemplating the role of beauty as a moral agent and a tool of justice:

We also know the limits of the law… That in the end the law represents a part of the people’s will but that the people’s will is moved by beauty.

[..]

[Scarry] is talking about beauty and she says, “Beauty was for a long time [was] not only eliminated from universities, but even from museums… Lots of different museum directors have told me that for a while it was as if you weren’t supposed to be talking about beauty, which is hard to imagine if you’re teaching literature or if you’re a museum curator, but I mean one thing is just the way in which beauty … does lead people I think to be concerned with justice. Beauty brings about what Iris Murdoch called “a nonselfing.” She said that when you suddenly see something beautiful — her example was suddenly seeing a bird lift off — it brings about a nonselfing. You can see beauty pressing us towards justice. There are certain attributes that beautiful things have. Some people would say symmetry. Any definition of justice always involves at its heart some idea of balance or symmetry. Even if you look back over lots of philosophers who are talking about forms of justice, they always have this idea, say, equal pay for equal work, that’s a symmetry.”

Okay, that’s my favorite part. But this is an important part. “But sometimes people will say to me, well, first of all that they believe that it’s right, that the whole unselfing part is right, but they don’t believe in symmetry, and I really do believe in it because — and I think part of the reason why in this country we don’t like to talk anymore about symmetry in art or in justice is because we’re so asymmetrical, with so much money and so many weapons and, you know … if we had to start saying the heart of beauty is symmetry everybody would have to say, ‘gee, you know, we’ve got a big problem.’”

And she calls beauty a life pact. But that whole idea of the nonselfing — you see, when you talk about that you’re there but you’re not quite there, I think that’s a really creative moment because it is that moment when you, like a bird, take that lift-off. You’re not here and you’re not there. You’re in the rise… It seems to me a kind of a lift.

Lewis, who notes that beauty “slips in the back door of our rational thought and gets us to see the world differently,” examines the subject in greater depth in one particularly fascinating chapter of her book — a penetrating look at the legacy of Frederick Douglass, who paved the way for contemporary visual culture and pioneered the power of “aesthetic force.” Lewis writes:

The words to describe aesthetic force suggest that it leaves us changed — stunned, dazzled, knocked out. It can quicken the pulse, make us gape, even gasp with astonishment. Its importance is its animating trait — not what it is, but what it does to those who behold it in all its forms. Its seeming lightness can make us forget that it has weight, force enough to bring about a self-correction, the acknowledgment of failure at the heart of justice — the moment when we reconcile our past with our intended future selves. Few experiences get us to this place more powerfully, with a tender push past the praetorian-guarded doors of reason and logic, than the emotive power of aesthetic force.

The Rise, which I’ve previously admired in greater detail, is a superb read in its entirety. Treat yourself to Lewis and Smith’s full conversation below — a wide-ranging and enormously stimulating dialogue exploring the role of failure in the conquest of greatness, the crucial difference between success and mastery, and what it takes to stay encouraged through rejection and roadblock in creative work — then please consider supporting The New York Public Library in making such ennobling cultural discourse possible and freely available to the public.

Instinct is your highest form of intelligence.” ~ Sarah Lewis

Find more of Smith’s galvanizing genius in her enduring wisdom on how to listen between the lines in a culture of speaking, what self-esteem really means, how to stop letting others define us.

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25 MARCH, 2015

Sense of Nonsense: Alan Watts on How We Find Meaning by Surrendering to Meaninglessness

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“It is in this kind of meaninglessness that we come to the profoundest meaning.”

In his early thirties, Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973) walked away from a career as an Episcopal priest and set out to popularize Zen teachings in the West. His singular fusion of secular philosophy and Eastern spirituality guided, and continues to guide, the openhearted and openminded toward figuring out how to live with presence, make sense of reality, master the art of timing, and become who we really are.

Between 1965 and 1972, Watts delivered a series of talks exploring various facets of Zen. The transcripts of eight of them were posthumously published as The Tao of Philosophy (public library). In the sixth lecture, titled “Sense of Nonsense,” Watts explores how we arrive at meaning by surrendering to meaninglessness — an inquiry that has rattled some of humanity’s greatest minds, from Leo Tolstoy in his existential search for meaning to Margaret Mead in her dream about the essence of life to Chinua Achebe in his creative struggle against meaninglessness.

Here is the original recording of Watts’s talk, found in the comprehensive compilation Out of Your Mind: Essential Listening from the Alan Watts Audio Archives — please enjoy:

Why do we love nonsense? Why do we love Lewis Carroll with his “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe, all mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe…”? Why is it that all those old English songs are full of “Fal-de-riddle-eye-do” and “Hey-nonny-nonny” and all those babbling choruses? Why is it that when we get “hep” with jazz we just go “Boody-boody-boop-de-boo” and so on, and enjoy ourselves swinging with it? It is this participation in the essential glorious nonsense that is at the heart of the world, not necessarily going anywhere. It seems that only in moments of unusual insight and illumination that we get the point of this, and find that the true meaning of life is no meaning, that its purpose is no purpose, and that its sense is non-sense. Still, we want to use the word “significant.” Is this significant nonsense? Is this a kind of nonsense that is not just chaos, that is not just blathering balderdash, but rather has in it rhythm, fascinating complexity, and a kind of artistry? It is in this kind of meaninglessness that we come to the profoundest meaning.

Complement The Tao of Philosophy, which is mind-bending and soul-stretching in its totality, with Watts on true happiness, the ego and the universe, and the vital difference between money and wealth, then revisit D.T. Suzuki — who was a major influence for Watts — on how Zen can help us cultivate our character.

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18 MARCH, 2015

Amanda Palmer Reads Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s Glorious Poem “Possibilities”

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“I prefer cunning kindness to the over-trustful kind.”

It is said — here, now — that one of the great markers of spiritual kinship is a love for the same poetry. For if two souls are equally moved by the same pulsating constellation of metaphor and meaning, they are not only bound by a common language and a shared sensibility but also exist in the same dimension of truth and possibility. Poetry, after all, is the ultimate meeting place.

I was recently delighted to bond with my friend and soul-sister Amanda Palmer — not only a magnificent musician but also a writer of great wisdom — over our shared love for the great Polish poet and translator Wislawa Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012). In 1996, Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.” Upon announcing the prize, the Nobel commission noted her reputation as “the Mozart of poetry” but aptly added that there is also “something of the fury of Beethoven in her creative work.”

To me, she is nothing short of Bach, that great cosmologist of the human spirit.

I asked Amanda, and she kindly agreed, to lend her beautiful voice to my favorite Szymborska poem: “Possibilities,” found in the altogether breathtaking volume Poems New and Collected (public library), translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.

Please enjoy:

POSSIBILITIES

I prefer movies.

I prefer cats.

I prefer the oaks along the Warta.

I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky.

I prefer myself liking people

to myself loving mankind.

I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand, just in case.

I prefer the color green.

I prefer not to maintain

that reason is to blame for everything.

I prefer exceptions.

I prefer to leave early.

I prefer talking to doctors about something else.

I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations.

I prefer the absurdity of writing poems

to the absurdity of not writing poems.

I prefer, where love’s concerned, nonspecific anniversaries

that can be celebrated every day.

I prefer moralists

who promise me nothing.

I prefer cunning kindness to the over-trustful kind.

I prefer the earth in civvies.

I prefer conquered to conquering countries.

I prefer having some reservations.

I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order.

I prefer Grimms’ fairy tales to the newspapers’ front pages.

I prefer leaves without flowers to flowers without leaves.

I prefer dogs with uncropped tails.

I prefer light eyes, since mine are dark.

I prefer desk drawers.

I prefer many things that I haven’t mentioned here

to many things I’ve also left unsaid.

I prefer zeroes on the loose

to those lined up behind a cipher.

I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars.

I prefer to knock on wood.

I prefer not to ask how much longer and when.

I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility

that existence has its own reason for being.

Complement with my reading of Mark Strand’s equally, if very differently, bewitching poem “Dreams” and Mary Oliver’s reading of her deeply enlivening “Wild Geese.”

Amanda’s music, like Brain Pickings, is free and supported by donations — a heartening celebration of the creative possibilities that open up when we actively stand behind the things we prefer; when we choose the absurdity of supporting artists over the absurdity of not supporting artists.

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.





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16 MARCH, 2015

Mark Strand on Dreams: A Lyrical Love Letter to Where We Go When We Go to Sleep

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“Something nameless hums us into sleep… We feel dreamed by someone else, a sleeping counterpart…”

The mystery of dreams has always bewitched humanity, tickling art and science in equal measure. Freud was besotted with it when he laid the foundation for the study of the subject, as was his eccentric niece Tom when she illustrated that gem of a vintage children’s book about dreams. Dostoyevsky found the meaning of life in a dream, and so did Margaret Mead. Leonard Bernstein sought the solution to his sexual identity confusion and the key to the creative process in his dreams.

However detached from the reality of life dreams may seem, they affect our every waking moment and even help us regulate our negative moods. And yet, try as we might to control our dreams, we still know so very little about where we go when we slip into that nocturnal wonderland. For all the advances science has made, it still seems best left to the poets — and the best of poets only.

Illustration by Tom Seidmann-Freud from 'David the Dreamer: His Book of Dreams' (1922). Click image for more.

In one of the many masterpieces in his Collected Poems (public library), Pulitzer-winning poet and MacArthur “genius” Mark Strand (April 11, 1934–November 29, 2014) explores the delicate and disorienting world of dreams with unparalleled elegance. The poem, which I’ve taken the pleasure of reading below, is a supreme testament to Strand’s belief that it is the artist’s task to bear witness to the universe, within and without.

DREAMS

Trying to recall the plot
And characters we dreamed,
     What life was like
Before the morning came,
We are seldom satisfied,
     And even then
There is no way of knowing
If what we know is true.
     Something nameless
Hums us into sleep,
Withdraws, and leaves us in
     A place that seems
Always vaguely familiar.
Perhaps it is because
     We take the props
And fixtures of our days
With us into the dark,
     Assuring ourselves
We are still alive. And yet
Nothing here is certain;
     Landscapes merge
With one another, houses
Are never where they should be,
     Doors and windows
Sometimes open out
To other doors and windows,
     Even the person
Who seems most like ourselves
Cannot be counted on,
     For there have been
Too many times when he,
Like everything else, has done
     The unexpected.
And as the night wears on,
The dim allegory of ourselves
     Unfolds, and we
Feel dreamed by someone else,
A sleeping counterpart,
     Who gathers in
The darkness of his person
Shades of the real world.
     Nothing is clear;
We are not ever sure
If the life we live there
     Belongs to us.
Each night it is the same;
Just when we’re on the verge
     Of catching on,
A sense of our remoteness
Closes in, and the world
     So lately seen
Gradually fades from sight.
We wake to find the sleeper
     Is ourselves
And the dreamt-of is someone who did
Something we can’t quite put
     Our finger on,
But which involved a life
We are always, we feel,
     About to discover.

Complement the immeasurably rewarding Collected Poems with Strand on the heartbeat of creative work and his lyrical love letter to clouds.

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.





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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.