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Colette on Writing, the Blissful Obsessive-Compulsiveness of Creative Work, and Withstanding Naysayers

“A lack of money, if it be relative, and a lack of comfort can be endured if one is sustained by pride. But not the need to be astounded.”

Colette on Writing, the Blissful Obsessive-Compulsiveness of Creative Work, and Withstanding Naysayers

“In rare moments of deep play, we can lay aside our sense of self, shed time’s continuum, ignore pain, and sit quietly in the absolute present,” Diane Ackerman wrote in her magnificent inquiry into the human impulse for deep play. This transcendent state, closely related to what psychologists call flow and yet not entirely the same, is fondly familiar to all who endeavor in the creative life and have devoted themselves to the type of work that calls to mind psychotherapist Janna Malamud Smith’s poetic term, “an absorbing errand.”

In fact, much of what we celebrate as genius has a certain obsessive-compulsive quality, nowhere more discernible than in the lives of writers, who possess the rare gift of being able to articulate these forces of creative compulsion with electrifying clarity.

That’s what the great French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (January 28, 1873–August 3, 1954), better known as the commanding Colette, does in the posthumously published, out-of-print treasure Earthly Paradise: An Autobiography of Colette Drawn from Her Lifetime Writings (public library).

colette1

In her early thirties, shortly after separating from her first husband and a good decade before her literary career took off, Colette felt like “a woman of letters who has turned out badly.” Dejected, she denied herself “the pleasure, the luxury of writing.” And yet what she stifled outwardly remained fully ablaze inside.

She captures that inner fire in a passage both beautiful and bittersweet, for it speaks not only to the eternal psychological machinery of composition but to the long-endangered, if not almost entirely extinct, creaturely joy of writing by hand:

To write, to be able to write, what does it mean? It means spending long hours dreaming before a white page, scribbling unconsciously, letting your pen play around a blot of ink and nibble at a half-formed word, scratching it, making it bristle with darts, and adorning it with antennae and paws until it loses all resemblance to a legible word and turns into a fantastic insect or a fluttering creature half butterfly, half fairy.

To write is to sit and stare, hypnotized, at the reflection of the window in the silver inkstand, to feel the divine fever mounting to one’s cheeks and forehead while the hand that writes grows blissfully numb upon the paper. It also means idle hours curled up in the hollow of the divan, and then the orgy of inspiration from which one emerges stupefied and aching all over, but already recompensed and laden with treasures that one unloads slowly on to the virgin page in the little round pool of light under the lamp.

To write is to pour one’s innermost self passionately upon the tempting paper, at such frantic speed that sometimes one’s hand struggles and rebels, overdriven by the impatient god who guides it — and to find, next day, in place of the golden bough that boomed miraculously in that dazzling hour, a withered bramble and a stunted flower.

Using “idleness” in the Kierkegaardian sense, Colette adds:

To write is the joy and the torment of the idle.

Over the decade that followed, Colette surrendered to that irrepressible impulse. By the end of the 1920s, she was regularly celebrated as France’s greatest living female writer. A queer woman amid the conservative and bigoted culture of the early twentieth century, she tirelessly championed women’s sexual liberation through her art. At the age of 75, she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. (She lost to T.S. Eliot. By that point, only five women had received the prestigious accolade since its inception half a century earlier.)

colette

In the final years of her life, looking back from the fortunate platform of a great longevity and a thriving literary career, Colette addresses one of the most perennial struggles that bedevil the creative life — the question of how to withstand naysayers:

I grow less and less afraid of the presence of skeptics and of their opinions. Little by little, I am escaping from their grasp, on the understanding that they provide me with food for my ohs! and ahs!, which don’t make a great noise but come from a long way down, and on condition also that they furnish me with my daily subject of amazement. A lack of money, if it be relative, and a lack of comfort can be endured if one is sustained by pride. But not the need to be astounded. Astound me, try your hardest. These last flashes of astonishment are what I cannot do without.

With an admiring eye to her compatriot George Sand — a writer whose formidable talent inspired Dostoyevsky to write a most effusive eulogy upon learning of her death — Colette marvels:

It has taken me a great deal of time to scratch out forty or so books. So many hours that could have been used for travel, for idle strolls, for reading, even for indulging a feminine and healthy coquetry. How the devil did George Sand manage? Robust laborer of letters that she was, she was able to finish off one novel and begin another within the hour. She never lost either a lover or a puff of her hookah by it… and I am completely staggered when I think of it. Pell-mell, and with ferocious energy she piled up her work, her passing griefs, her limited felicities.

And yet Colette herself was no idler — even through her final years, she remained animated by the same creative restlessness, the same uncontainable compulsion to write, that filled her youth. Shortly before her death at the age of eighty-one, she writes:

My goal has not been reached; but I am practicing. I don’t yet know when I shall succeed in learning not to write; the obsession, the obligation are half a century old. My right little finger is slightly bent; that is because the weight of my hand always rested on it as I wrote, like a kangaroo leaning back on its tail. There is a tired spirit deep inside of me that still continues its gourmet’s quest for a better word, and then for a better one still.

Complement this particular portion of the thoroughly inspired and inspiring Earthly Paradise with this excellent advice on how to handle criticism from some of the greatest writers of the past century and this growing library of great writers’ advice on the craft, including wisdom from Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Susan Sontag, W.H. Auden, James Baldwin, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, and other beloved authors.

BP

An Absorbing Errand: The Psychology of Mastery in Creative Work

“Life is better when you possess a sustaining practice that holds your desire, demands your attention, and requires effort.”

An Absorbing Errand: The Psychology of Mastery in Creative Work

“It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness,” botanist and storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her beautiful meditation on gardening and life’s largest satisfactions a century after Virginia Woolf’s unforgettable flower-garden epiphany about the meaning of life. Surely, the garden, quite apart from its tangible satisfactions, fertilizes the imagination with ample metaphors for the tilling of our interior landscape — metaphors nowhere more precise and poetic than in the opening pages of psychotherapist and writer Janna Malamud Smith’s altogether magnificent exploration of the creative life, An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery (public library).

Although Malamud Smith had grown up amid artists of various stripes, it wasn’t until she watched her elderly mother’s immersive and invigorating communion with the garden that she grasped the underlying psychological pattern of creative work. She writes:

The good life is lived best by those with gardens — a truth that was already a gnarled old vine in ancient Rome, but a sturdy one that still bears fruit. I don’t mean one must garden qua garden… I mean rather the moral equivalent of a garden — the virtual garden. I posit that life is better when you possess a sustaining practice that holds your desire, demands your attention, and requires effort; a plot of ground that gratifies the wish to labor and create — and, by so doing, to rule over an imagined world of your own.

[…]

As with the literal act of gardening, pursuing any practice seriously is a generative, hardy way to live in the world. You are in charge (as much as we can ever pretend to be — sometimes like a sea captain hugging the rail in a hurricane); you plan; you design; you labor; you struggle. And your reward is that in some seasons you create a gratifying bounty.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener

But between the garden and the gardening lies the essential transmutation of intention into mastery. I’m reminded of writer and art curator Sarah Lewis’s elegant definition of mastery as “not merely a commitment to a goal, but to a curved-line, constant pursuit.” Malamud Smith considers the heart of that commitment:

One must work hard to learn technique and form, and equally hard to learn how to bear the angst of creativity itself… The effort brings with it a whole herd of psychological obstacles — rather like a wooly mass of obdurate sheep settled on the road blocking your car. For you to move forward, these creatures must be outwitted, dispersed, befriended, or herded, their impeding genius somehow overcome or co-opted.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Adrienne Rich’s terrific tribute to Marie Curie“her wounds came from the same source as her power” — Malamud Smith writes:

You may be unaware of how the necessary struggles of your own unconscious mind, if misunderstood, will bruise your heart, arrest your efforts prematurely, and prevent your staying absorbed in your errand. Yet, the same struggles, appreciated, will enable your creativity and the larger processes of mastery.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis for Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown

She considers why the mastery of creative work beckons us at all — how it extends its promise of making us “feel stimulated, warm, slightly elated, or otherwise moved; content; purposeful,” of aligning us with our innermost selves:

Whether by design or by accident, many of us seem to find enduring gratification in struggling to master and then repeatedly applying some difficult skill that allows us at once to realize and express ourselves.

Echoing Wendell Berry’s beautiful assertion that in true solitude “one’s inner voice becomes audible,” she adds:

The feelings and purposes around art-making … ricochet among private, public, and communal places, but the creative process often demands seclusion to germinate its seed.

She returns to the metaphor of the garden:

The work grows as our minds (conscious and unconscious) and our bodies would have it grow. Technique may require discipline and set the order of things, apprenticeships may demand periods of subordination, but the imaginative acts that propel the effort are themselves serendipitous. In your garden you may set out to clip the roses, but you notice a weed you want to pull from among the coreopsis, except that first there is a rogue branch to be snipped from the holly shrub—and on and on until dark finally settles, ending your day. An occasional task has to be done just now and just so. But mostly, you delight in meandering, allowing the work to command your attention variously — with its method inscribed by the way you encounter your plants.

Such work guards a quality of timelessness within an ever-more-time-bound world.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

This timelessness is rather the astonishing elasticity of time that Virginia Woolf so memorably described — a state of suspended and infinitely extended attention partway between Gaston Bachelard’s intuition of the instant and Einstein’s eternity of truth and beauty.

Malamud Smith considers the singular temporal dimension of creative work:

One pleasure of art-making is its resolute inefficiency… The necessary thought may come today or next week. Yet it’s not the same as leisure. The struggle toward that next thought is rigorous, held within an isometric tension… You must hold still and wait, and yet you must push forward.

Still, in his 1948 manifesto for why leisure is the basis of culture, the German philosopher Joseph Pieper made an elegant case for why unrushed time and unburdened cognitive space are essential for creative work. Malamud Smith recognizes this notion, too, albeit somewhat differently:

Because the point of arrival is enigmatic, elusive, receding, because it wavers like a mirage on the road, always before us and only briefly with us, devoting oneself to mastering a practice unexpectedly leads through a time warp where past, present, and future commingle. I find the contradictory notion comforting. Contemporary life is all excerpts, fragments, reversals, and interruptions; it offends and delights us with its astounding, noisy discontinuity, but the work of mastery is very much as it was when artists thousands of years ago carved Cycladic figures or cast the Benin gold.

[…]

Our common creative labors restore older, more familiar rhythms of humanity, and by doing so they ground us and temper the particular fragmentation and disconnections that define our age.

In the remainder of the wholly invigorating An Absorbing Errand, Malamud Smith goes on to explore how identity, fear, shame, solitude, and other facets of the human experience illuminate the psychoemotional machinery of that tempering in creative work. Complement it with Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life, Anne Truitt on the vital difference between being an artist and doing art, and Agnes Martin on cultivating the optimal atmosphere for creative work.

Thanks, Dani

BP

The Effortless Effort of Creativity: Jane Hirshfield on Storytelling, the Art of Concentration, and Difficulty as a Consecrating Force of Creative Attention

“In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.”

The Effortless Effort of Creativity: Jane Hirshfield on Storytelling, the Art of Concentration, and Difficulty as a Consecrating Force of Creative Attention

“The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us,” James Baldwin wrote in lamenting the artist’s struggle at a time “when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make.” We no longer have Baldwin to awaken us to the gravest perils of our own era — one in which the poetic spirit isn’t merely neglected but is being forced to surrender at gunpoint. To produce poets, in this largest Baldwinian sense of creative seers of human truth, seems to be among the most urgent tasks of our time.

The mastery of that task is what the poet Jane Hirshfield examines in her 1997 essay collection Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (public library).

Defining poetry as “the clarification and magnification of being,” she writes: “Here, as elsewhere in life, attentiveness only deepens what it regards.” In the superb opening essay, titled “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration,” Hirshfield examines the nature of this clarified, magnified deepening of being — concentration as consecration — by probing its six main components: music, rhetoric, image, emotion, story, and voice. Although focused on the reading and writing of poetry, her insight ripples outward in widening circles (as Rilke might say) to encompass every kind of writing, all art, and even the art of living itself.

Jane Hirshfield (Photograph: Nick Rozsa)
Jane Hirshfield (Photograph: Nick Rozsa)

Hirshfield writes:

Every good poem begins in language awake to its own connections — language that hears itself and what is around it, sees itself and what is around it, looks back at those who look into its gaze and knows more perhaps even than we do about who are, what we are. It begins, that is, in the mind and body of concentration.

By concentration, I mean a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open. This quality of consciousness, though not easily put into words, is instantly recognizable. Aldous Huxley described it as the moment the doors of perception open; James Joyce called it epiphany. The experience of concentration may be quietly physical — a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, a mind thought “too deep for tears.” Within action, it is felt as a grace state: time slows and extends, and a person’s every movement and decision seem to partake of perfection. Concentration can also be placed into things — it radiates undimmed from Vermeer’s paintings, from the small marble figure of a lyre-player from ancient Greece, from a Chinese three-footed bowl — and into musical notes, words, ideas. In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.

Considering the unparalleled pleasures of practicing familiar to all who endeavor in the “absorbing errand” of creative work, particularly to those who attain mastery, Hirshfield points to deliberate practice as an essential aspect of concentration — one that transcends mechanical skill and reaches into the psychological, even the spiritual:

Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. They are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence, free from the distractions of interest or boredom.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from The White Cat and the Monk
Illustration by Sydney Smith from The White Cat and the Monk, a 9th-century ode to the joy of uncompetitive purposefulness

With an eye to the obsessive daily routines and strange creative rituals of many writers, and to the state of intense focus in the creative act known as “flow,” Hirshfield explores the path to concentration:

Immersion in art itself can be the place of entry… Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears — paradoxically — at the moment willed effort drops away… At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present — a feeling of joy, or even grief — but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself.

This may explain why the creative is so often described as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something “breathed in.” We refer, however metaphorically, to the Muse, and speak of profound artistic discovery and revelation. And however much we may come to believe that “the real” is subjective and constructed, we still feel art is a path not just to beauty, but to truth: if “truth” is a chosen narrative, then new stories, new aesthetics, are also new truths.

A century after Rilke extolled the soul-expanding power of difficulty and urged us to “arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult,” Hirshfield writes:

Difficulty itself may be a path toward concentration — expended effort weaves us into a task, and successful engagement, however laborious, becomes also a labor of love. The work of writing brings replenishment even to the writer dealing with painful subjects or working out formal problems, and there are times when suffering’s only open path is through an immersion in what is. The eighteenth-century Urdu poet Ghalib described the principle this way: “For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river — / Unbearable pain becomes its own cure.”

Illustration by Andrea Dezsö for a special edition of the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Echoing Nietzsche’s insistence that a full life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty and Alfred Kazin’s beautiful case for the reality-enlarging quality of contradiction, Hirshfield adds:

Difficulty then, whether of life or of craft, is not a hindrance to an artist. Sartre called genius “not a gift, but the way a person invents in desperate circumstances.” Just as geological pressure transforms ocean sediment into limestone, the pressure of an artist’s concentration goes into the making of any fully realized work. Much of beauty, both in art and in life, is a balancing of the lines of forward-flowing desire with those of resistance — a gnarled tree, the flow of a statue’s draped cloth. Through such tensions, physical or mental, the world in which we exist becomes itself. Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life. We seek in art the elusive intensity by which it knows.

Hirshfield turns to the role of language in concentration and the role of concentration in language, in writing, in poetry itself:

Great sweeps of thought, emotion, and perception are compressed to forms the mind is able to hold — into images, sentences, and stories that serve as entrance tokens to large and often slippery realms of being… Words hold fast in the mind, seeded with the surplus of beauty and meaning that is concentration’s mark.

More than a century after William James asserted that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity” in his seminal theory of how our bodies affect our feelings, Hirshfield examines the dimensions of time and space in language through the focusing lens of the body:

Shaped language is strangely immortal, living in a meadowy freshness outside of time.

But it also lives in the moment, in us. Emotion, intellect, and physiology are inseparably connected in the links of a poem’s sound. It is difficult to feel intimacy while shouting, to rage in a low whisper, to skip and weep at the same time.

Well before scientists came to study how repetition beguiles the brain, Hirshfield considers the enchantment of rhythmic regularity. In a passage that calls to mind pioneering Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner’s notion of “effective surprise” as the pillar of creativity, she describes the affective surprise at the heart of every great work of art:

A regular returning in one dimension can bring unexpected turns in another: hunting a rhyme, the mind falls on a wholly surprising idea. This balancing between expected and unforeseen, both in aesthetic and cognitive structures, is near the center of every work of art. Through the gate of concentration, defining yet open, both aspects enter.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

Hirshfield examines the role of rhetoric as a gatekeeper of concentration:

Before we can concentrate easily, we need to know where we stand. This is the work of rhetoric… Traditionally defined as the art of choosing the words that will best convey the speaker’s intent, rhetoric’s concern is the precise and beautiful movement of mind in language.

In a sentiment of exceeding timeliness today — one that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s masterwork on lying in politics and Aldous Huxley’s lamentation of our mistrust of sincerity — Hirshfield adds:

Americans distrust artful speech, believing that sincerity and deliberation cannot coexist… Romantic temperament … equates spontaneity and truth. But the word art is neighbor to artifice, and in human culture, as in the animal and vegetable worlds, desirability entails not only the impulse of the moment but also enchantment, exaggeration, rearrangement, and deception. We don’t find the fragrance of night-scented flowering tobacco or the display of a peacock’s tail insincere — by such ruses this world conducts its erotic business. To acknowledge rhetoric’s presence in the beauty of poems, or any other form of speech, is only to agree to what already is.

In another thought cast at poetry but ablaze with truth about all art and about life itself, Hirshfield observes:

To be aware of a poem’s effects … requires only our alert responsiveness, our presence to each shift in the currents of language with an answering shift in our being… at a level closer to daydream. But daydream with an added intensity: while writing, the mind moves between consciousness and the unconscious in the effortless effort of concentration. The result, if the poet’s intensity of attention is sufficient, will be a poem that brims with its own knowledge, water trembling as if miraculously above the edge of a cup. Such a poem will be perfect in the root sense of the word: “thoroughly done.”

Daydreaming is indeed an apt analogy, for the making of poetry — as, again, the making of all art — radiates from a communion of the conscious and the unconscious, a more wakeful counterpart to that “something nameless” which Mark Strand elegized in his sublime ode to dreams. Hirshfield captures this beautifully:

Making a poem is neither a wholly conscious activity nor an act of unconscious transcription — it is a way for new thinking and feeling to come into existence, a way in which disparate modes of meaning and being may join. This is why the process of revising a poem is no arbitrary tinkering, but a continued honing of the self at the deepest level.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

This dreamlike aspect comes most fully alive in one of poetry’s great powers — phanopoeia, the making of images. Hirshfield writes of the poetic image:

The deepest of image’s meanings is its recognition of our continuity with the rest of existence: within a good image, outer and subjective worlds illuminate one another, break bread together, converse. In this way, image increases both vision and what is seen. Keeping one foot braced in the physical and the other in the realm of inner experience, image enlivens both.

But in bridging inner reality with the outer world, Hirshfield argues, this halfway house of transcendence brings home something even larger, even more monumental:

Poetry moves consciousness toward empathy.

Intelligence and receptivity are connected — human meaning is made by seeing what is… The outer world can be transformed by a subjectively infused vision; inner event placed into the language of the physical takes on an equally mysterious addition.

A powerful poetic image, Hirshfield suggests, both wrests truth out of reality and confers truth upon it:

In a good image, something previously unformulated (in the most literal sense) comes into the realm of the expressed. Without precisely this image, we feel, the world’s store of truth would be diminished; and conversely, when a writer brings into language a new image that is fully right, what is knowable of existence expands.

[…]

Thinking within the fields of image, the mind crosses also into the knowledge the unconscious holds — into the shape-shifting wisdom of dream. Poetic concentration allows us to bring the dream-mind’s compression, displacement, wit, depth, and surprise into our waking minds. It is within dreamlife we first learn to read rain as grief, or the may that a turtle’s walking may speak of containment and an awkward, impeccable fortitude.

But the aspect of concentration perhaps most widely relevant beyond poetry is that of narrative — our supreme hedge against the entropy of existence. Hirshfield writes:

Storytelling, like rhetoric, pulls us in through the cognitive mind as much as through the emotions. It answers both our curiosity and our longing for shapely forms: our profound desire to know what happens, and our persistent hope that what happens will somehow make sense. Narrative instructs us in both these hungers and their satisfaction, teaching us to perceive and to relish the arc of moments and the arc of lives. If shapeliness is an illusion, it is one we require — it shields against arbitrariness and against chaos’s companion, despair. And story, like all the forms of concentration, connects. It brings us to a deepened coherence with the world of others and also within the many levels of the self.

[…]

Story remains a basic human path toward the discovery and ordering of meaning and beauty.

Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova from The Jacket by Kirsten Hall, a sweet illustrated story about how we fall in love with books

Echoing Ursula K. Le Guin’s abiding wisdom on how imaginative storytelling expands our repertoire of possibilities, Hirshfield adds:

Story, at its best, becomes a canvas to which the reader as well as the writer must bring the full range of memory, intellect, and imaginative response. The best stories are almost mythlike in their ability to support alternative readings, different conclusions.

[…]

Narrative carries the knowledge of our alteration through the shifting currents of circumstance and time.

Narrative’s essential counterpart is voice — the waveform of the soul in writing. Hirshfield writes:

A person’s heard voice is replete with information. So it is with the voice of a poem.

[…]

Voice … is the body language of a poem — the part that cannot help but reveal what it is. Everything that has gone into making us who we are is held there. Yet we also speak of writers “finding their voice.” The phrase is both meaningful and odd, a perennial puzzle: how can we “find” what we already use? The answer lies, paradoxically, in the quality of listening that accompanies self-aware speech: singers, to stay in tune, must hear not only the orchestral music they sing with, but also themselves. Similarly, writers who have “found a voice” are those whose ears turn at once inward and outward, both toward their own nature, thought patterns, and rhythms, and toward those of the culture at large.

In the essay’s closing passages, Hirshfield once again captures a central truth about poetry that sets free a larger truth about life itself — about the limits of attention, about the relationship between what is known and what is knowable, about the nature of transformation, about the perennial incompleteness of being. She writes:

No matter how carefully we read or how much attention we bring to bear, a good poem can never be completely entered, completely known. If it is the harvest of true concentration, it will know more than can be said in any other way. And because it thinks by music and image, by story and passion and voice, poetry can do what other forms of thinking cannot: approximate the actual flavor of life, in which subjective and objective become one, in which conceptual mind and the inexpressible presence of things become one.

Letting this wideness of being into ourselves, as readers or as writers, while staying close to the words themselves, we begin to find in poems a way of entering both language and being on their own terms. Poetry leads us into the self, but also away from it. Transparency is both capacious and focused. Free to turn inward and outward, free to remain still and wondering amid the mysteries of mind and world, we arrive, for a moment, at a kind of fullness that overspills into everything. One breath taken completely; one poem, fully written, fully read — in such a moment, anything can happen. The pressed oil of words can blaze up into music, into image, into the heart and mind’s knowledge. The lit and shadowed placed within us can be warmed.

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry is a small but immensely largehearted book, replete with radiant wisdom on the creative act of composing a life, in poetry or in pulse. Complement it with Hirshfield’s beautiful ode to the leap day, then revisit Mary Oliver on what attention really means, Elizabeth Alexander on what poetry does for the human spirit, and great writers’ collected wisdom on the craft.

BP

The Art of Living: The Great Humanistic Philosopher Erich Fromm on Having vs. Being and How to Set Ourselves Free from the Chains of Our Culture

“The full humanization of man requires the breakthrough from the possession-centered to the activity-centered orientation, from selfishness and egotism to solidarity and altruism.”

The Art of Living: The Great Humanistic Philosopher Erich Fromm on Having vs. Being and How to Set Ourselves Free from the Chains of Our Culture

A pioneer of what he called “radical-humanistic psychoanalysis,” the great German social psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) was one of the most luminous minds of the twentieth century and a fountain of salve for the most abiding struggles of being human.

In the mid-1970s, twenty years after his influential treatise on the art of loving and four decades after legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead turned to him for difficult advice, Fromm became interested in the most basic, most challenging art of human life — the art of being. At the height of a new era that had begun prioritizing products over people and consumption over creativity, Fromm penned a short, potent book titled To Have or To Be? — an inquiry into how the great promise of progress, seeded by the Industrial Revolution, failed us in our most elemental search for meaning and well-being. But the question proved far too complex to tackle in a single volume, so Fromm left out a significant portion of his manuscript.

Those pages, in many ways even richer and more insightful than the original book, were later published as The Art of Being (public library) — a sort of field guide, all the timelier today, to how we can shift from the having mode of existence, which is systematically syphoning our happiness, to a being mode.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being

Fromm frames the inquiry:

The full humanization of man requires the breakthrough from the possession-centered to the activity-centered orientation, from selfishness and egotism to solidarity and altruism.

But any effort to outline the steps of this breakthrough, Fromm cautions, must begin with the foundational question of what the goal of living is — that is, what we consider the meaning of life to be, beyond its biological purpose. He writes:

It seems that nature — or if you will, the process of evolution — has endowed every living being with the wish to live, and whatever he believes to be his reasons are only secondary thoughts by which he rationalizes this biologically given impulse.

[…]

That we want to live, that we like to live, are facts that require no explanation. But if we ask how we want to live — what we seek from life, what makes life meaningful for us — then indeed we deal with questions (and they are more or less identical) to which people will give many different answers. Some will say they want love, others will choose power, others security, others sensuous pleasure and comfort, others fame; but most would probably agree in the statement that what they want is happiness. This is also what most philosophers and theologians have declared to be the aim of human striving. However, if happiness covers such different, and mostly mutually exclusive, contents as the ones just mentioned, it becomes an abstraction and thus rather useless. What matters is to examine what the term “happiness” means…

Art from Kenny’s Window, Maurice Sendak’s forgotten philosophical children’s book

Most definitions of happiness, Fromm observes, converge at some version of having our needs met and our wishes fulfilled — but this raises the question of what it is we actually want. (As Milan Kundera memorably wrote, “we can never know what to want.”) It’s essentially a question about human nature — or, rather, about the interplay of nature and nurture mediated by norms. Adding to the vocabulary of gardening as a metaphor for understanding happiness and making sense of mastery, Fromm illustrates his point:

This is indeed well understood by any gardener. The aim of the life of a rosebush is to be all that is inherent as potentiality in the rosebush: that its leaves are well developed and that its flower is the most perfect rose that can grow out of this seed. The gardener knows, then, in order to reach this aim he must follow certain norms that have been empirically found. The rosebush needs a specific kind of soil, of moisture, of temperature, of sun and shade. It is up to the gardener to provide these things if he wants to have beautiful roses. But even without his help the rosebush tries to provide itself with the optimum of needs. It can do nothing about moisture and soil, but it can do something about sun and temperature by growing “crooked,” in the direction of the sun, provided there is such an opportunity. Why would not the same hold true for the human species?

Even if we had no theoretical knowledge about the reasons for the norms that are conducive to man’s optimal growth and functioning, experience tells us just as much as it tells the gardener. Therein lies the reason that all great teachers of man have arrived at essentially the same norms for living, the essence of these norms being that the overcoming of greed, illusions, and hate, and the attainment of love and compassion, are the conditions for attaining optimal being. Drawing conclusions from empirical evidence, even if we cannot explain the evidence theoretically, is a perfectly sound and by no means “unscientific” method, although the scientists’ ideal will remain, to discover the laws behind the empirical evidence.

He distills the basic principle of life’s ultimate aim:

The goal of living [is] to grow optimally according to the conditions of human existence and thus to become fully what one potentially is; to let reason or experience guide us to the understanding of what norms are conducive to well-being, given the nature of man that reason enables us to understand.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from The Little Gardener

But one of the essential ingredients of well-being, Fromm notes, has been gruesomely warped by capitalist industrial society — the idea of freedom and its attainment by the individual:

Liberation has been exclusively applied to liberation from outside forces; by the middle class from feudalism, by the working class from capitalism, by the peoples in Africa and Asia from imperialism.

Such external liberation, Fromm argues, is essentially political liberation — an inherently limiting pseudo-liberation, which can obscure the emergence of various forms of imprisonment and entrapment within the political system. He writes:

This is the case in Western democracy, where political liberation hides the fact of dependency in many disguises… Man can be a slave even without being put in chains… The outer chains have simply been put inside of man. The desires and thoughts that the suggestion apparatus of society fills him with, chain him more thoroughly than outer chains. This is so because man can at least be aware of outer chains but be unaware of inner chains, carrying them with the illusion that he is free. He can try to overthrow the outer chains, but how can he rid himself of chains of whose existence he is unaware?

Any attempt to overcome the possibly fatal crisis of the industrialized part of the world, and perhaps of the human race, must begin with the understanding of the nature of both outer and inner chains; it must be based on the liberation of man in the classic, humanist sense as well as in the modern, political and social sense… The only realistic aim is total liberation, a goal that may well be called radical (or revolutionary) humanism.

The two most pernicious chains keeping us from liberation, Fromm observes, are our culture’s property-driven materialism and our individual intrinsic tendencies toward narcissism. He writes:

If “well-being” — [defined as] functioning well as a person, not as an instrument — is the supreme goal of one’s efforts, two specific ways stand out that lead to the attainment of this goal: Breaking through one’s narcissism and breaking through the property structure of one’s existence.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Bearskin from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

He offers the crispest definition of narcissism I’ve encountered (something that took Kafka a 47-page letter to articulate):

Narcissism is an orientation in which all one’s interest and passion are directed to one’s own person: one’s body, mind, feelings, interests… For the narcissistic person, only he and what concerns him are fully real; what is outside, what concerns others, is real only in a superficial sense of perception; that is to say, it is real for one’s senses and for one’s intellect. But it is not real in a deeper sense, for our feeling or understanding. He is, in fact, aware only of what is outside, inasmuch as it affects him. Hence, he has no love, no compassion, no rational, objective judgment. The narcissistic person has built an invisible wall around himself. He is everything, the world is nothing. Or rather: He is the world.

But because narcissism can come in many guises, Fromm cautions, it can be particularly challenging to detect in oneself in order to then eradicate — and yet without doing so, “the further way to self-completion is blocked.”

A parallel peril to well-being comes from the egotism and selfishness seeded by our ownership-driven society, a culture that prioritizes having over being by making property its primary mode of existence. Fromm writes:

A person living in this mode is not necessarily very narcissistic. He may have broken through the shell of his narcissism, have an adequate appreciation of reality outside himself, not necessarily be “in love with himself”; he knows who he is and who the others are, and can well distinguish between subjective experience and reality. Nevertheless, he wants everything for himself; has no pleasure in giving, in sharing, in solidarity, in cooperation, in love. He is a closed fortress, suspicious of others, eager to take and most reluctant to give.

Growth, he argues, requires a dual breakthrough — of narcissism and of property-driven existence. Although the first steps toward this breaking from bondage are bound to be anxiety-producing, this initial discomfort is but a paltry price for the larger rewards of well-being awaiting us on the other side of the trying transformation:

If a person has the will and the determination to loosen the bars of his prison of narcissism and selfishness, when he has the courage to tolerate the intermittent anxiety, he experiences the first glimpses of joy and strength that he sometimes attains. And only then a decisive new factor enters into the dynamics of the process. This new experience becomes the decisive motivation for going ahead and following the path he has charted… [An] experience of well-being — fleeting and small as it may be — … becomes the most powerful motivation for further progress…

Awareness, will, practice, tolerance of fear and of new experience, they are all necessary if transformation of the individual is to succeed. At a certain point the energy and direction of inner forces have changed to the point where an individual’s sense of identity has changed, too. In the property mode of existence the motto is: “I am what I have.” After the breakthrough it is “I am what I do” (in the sense of unalienated activity); or simply, “I am what I am.”

In the remainder of The Art of Being, Fromm explores the subtleties and practicalities of enacting this transformation. Complement it with legendary social scientist John W. Gardner, a contemporary of Fromm’s, on the art of self-renewal, then revisit Fromm’s abiding wisdom on what is keeping us from mastering the art of love.

BP

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