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Broadcasters of the Self: Ian McEwan on Our Age of Identity and How the Politics of Modern Selfhood Imperils the Art of Listening

“When you make the self the outer limit of your politics, you then begin to ignore a great deal of the attitudes, situations, dilemmas, misery of others.”

Broadcasters of the Self: Ian McEwan on Our Age of Identity and How the Politics of Modern Selfhood Imperils the Art of Listening

“A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her ode to correspondence — or what she called “the humane art.” But in today’s highly combustible culture, the mutual response at the heart of co-respondence has been replaced by a kind of mutual reactivity, a co-reaction — we fling intransigent opinions at one another, all the while continually contracting our humanity and calcifying our selves in order to shield against the hard-edged opinions of others. We are increasingly averse to engaging in the uncomfortable luxury of changing our minds, which is, of course, the primary practice of personal change and growth. The radiant self-revision of becoming, that most beautiful and hope-giving feature of the human experience, has given way to a stubborn self-righteousness of being.

A century and a half after Walt Whitman contemplated identity and the paradox of the self, the great English essayist and novelist Ian McEwan examines the subject from an inventive angle in his novel Nutshell (public library) — a modern reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, told from the perspective of the yet-unborn protagonist observing, reacting to, and rebelling against the classic murder plot from within his mother’s womb. Through the garden gate of playfulness, McEwan ushers us into to the wilderness of our messiest, most pressing civilizational and existential problems.

In one particularly poignant passage, he caricatures the identity politics of the modern self through his unborn narrator:

A strange mood has seized the almost-educated young. They’re on the march, angry at times, but mostly needful, longing for authority’s blessing, its validation of their chosen identities. The decline of the West in new guise perhaps. Or the exaltation and liberation of the self. A social-media site famously proposes seventy-one gender options — neutrois, two spirit, bigender…any colour you like, Mr. Ford. Biology is not destiny after all, and there’s cause for celebration. A shrimp is neither limiting nor stable. I declare my undeniable feeling for who I am. If I turn out to be white, I may identify as black. And vice versa. I may announce myself as disabled, or disabled in context. If my identity is that of a believer, I’m easily wounded, my flesh torn to bleeding by any questioning of my faith. Offended, I enter a state of grace. Should inconvenient opinions hover near me like fallen angels or evil djinn (a mile being too near), I’ll be in need of the special campus safe room equipped with Play-Doh and looped footage of gambolling puppies. Ah, the intellectual life! I may need advance warning if upsetting books or ideas threaten my very being by coming too close, breathing on my face, my brain, like unwholesome dogs.

I’ll feel, therefore I’ll be. Let poverty go begging and climate change braise in hell. Social justice can drown in ink. I’ll be an activist of the emotions, a loud, campaigning spirit fighting with tears and sighs to shape institutions around my vulnerable self. My identity will be my precious, my only true possession, my access to the only truth. The world must love, nourish and protect it as I do. If my college does not bless me, validate me and give me what I clearly need, I’ll press my face into the vice chancellor’s lapels and weep. Then demand his resignation.

In his wonderful On Point conversation with Jane Clayson, which originated this recording of McEwan reading from his novel, he addresses the problem of modern selfhood directly — a Gödelian incompleteness problem, as it were:

We live in a new era — mostly of self-expression, but not so much of listening. We are not Hamlet so much these days — we are broadcasters of the self… Selfhood is extremely important, of course — who can deny it? — but when you make the self the outer limit of your politics, you then begin to ignore a great deal of the attitudes, situations, dilemmas, misery of others. So there should be a limit, I think, on the limiting factor of selfhood.

Listening — that is, abandoning the self and abandoning yourself to another’s point of view — is what the internet has not really given us. It’s given us trolls, it’s given us tsunamis of opinion. Perhaps it’ll take a bend in the future that we can’t yet foresee.

Complement this fragment of the singularly satisfying Nutshell with philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of personhood in literature and life and Amin Maalouf on how we inhabit our identity.


A Cry of Gratitude: Baudelaire’s Magnificent Fan Mail to Wagner

“However used to fame a great artist may be, he cannot be insensible to a sincere compliment, especially when that compliment is like a cry of gratitude.”

A Cry of Gratitude: Baudelaire’s Magnificent Fan Mail to Wagner

“After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Aldous Huxley wrote in his enthralling meditation on the power of music, adding: “When the inexpressible had to be expressed, Shakespeare laid down his pen and called for music.” Nietzsche believed that “without music life would be a mistake” — perhaps the most extreme addition to the extensive canon of great writers extolling the power of music.

But perhaps the sincerest, most beautiful, most touching testament to the power of music came not in the form of a pointed essay but in a letter — that most intimate and immediate packet of sentiment.

A century before Albert Camus reached across the Iron Curtain to Boris Pasternak for a warm embrace of appreciation, his compatriot Charles Baudelaire (April 9, 1821–August 31, 1867) reached across another cultural divide to pay his gratitude for the transcendent gift of music. A thirty-eight-year-old Baudelaire, not yet celebrated as one of the finest poet-philosophers who ever lived, sent the great German composer and conductor Richard Wagner (May 22, 1813–February 13, 1883) a largehearted letter of appreciation, later included in The Conquest of Solitude: Selected Letters of Charles Baudelaire (public library). It stands as a touching testament to both the power of music and the power of a generous gesture.


Baudelaire writes on February 17, 1860:

Dear Sir:

I have always imagined that however used to fame a great artist may be, he cannot be insensible to a sincere compliment, especially when that compliment is like a cry of gratitude; and finally that this cry could acquire a singular kind of value when it came from a Frenchman, which is to say from a man little disposed to be enthusiastic, and born, moreover, in a country where people hardly understand painting and poetry any better than they do music. First of all, I want to tell you that I owe you the greatest musical pleasure I have ever experienced. I have reached an age when one no longer makes it a pastime to write letters to celebrities, and I should have hesitated a long time before writing to express my admiration for you, if Id did not daily come across shameless and ridiculous articles in which every effort is made to libel your genius. You are not the first man, sir, about whom I have suffered and blushed for my country. At length indignation impelled me to give you an earnest of my gratitude; I said to myself, “I want to stand out from all those imbeciles.”

In a sentiment that calls to mind Anthony Burgess’s recollection of how he fell in love with music as a little boy — Burgess wrote of “a psychedelic moment… an instant of recognition of verbally inexpressible spiritual realities” — Baudelaire recounts how Wagner first enchanted him:

The first time I went to the Italian Theatre in order to hear your works, I was rather unfavorably disposed and indeed, I must admit, full of nasty prejudices, but I have an excuse: I have been so often duped; I have heard so much music by pretentious charlatans. But you conquered me at once. What I felt is beyond description, and if you will be kind enough not to laugh, I shall try to interpret it for you. At the outset it seemed to me that I knew this new music, and later, on thinking it over, I understood whence came this mirage; it seemed to me that this music was mine, and I recognized it in the way that any man recognizes the things he is destined to love. To anybody but an intelligent man, this statement would be immensely ridiculous, especially when it comes from one who, like me, does not know music.

Baudelaire is echoing Tolstoy’s famous theory of art, in which the great Russian author asserted that emotional “infectiousness” is the single most significant criterion for great art. But he is also far ahead of his time — the word “empathy” only entered the popular lexicon half a century later and was first used to describe the imaginative act of projecting oneself into a work of art, inhabiting it, possessing it whilst being possessed by it in much the same way that Baudelaire did Wagner’s music.

The Gnomes: "He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes."
One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

In language strikingly reminiscent of how astronauts describe the cosmic awe of “the overview effect,” Baudelaire articulates the transcendent effect Wagner’s music had on him:

The thing that struck me the most was the character of grandeur. It depicts what is grand and incites to grandeur. Throughout your works I found again the solemnity of the grand sounds of Nature in her grandest aspects, as well as the solemnity of the grand passions of man. One feels immediately carried away and dominated.

Writing a generation before Oscar Wilde made his memorable case for why a “temperament of receptivity” is essential for savoring art, Baudelaire attests to how this willing receptivity, which great art unleashes in its audience, swings open the doors of perception:

Quite often I experienced a sensation of a rather bizarre nature, which was the pride and the joy of understanding, of letting myself be penetrated and invaded — a really sensual delight that resembles that of rising in the air or tossing upon the sea. And the music at the same time would now and then resound with the pride of life. Generally these profound harmonies seemed to me like those stimulants that quicken the pulse of the imagination… There is everywhere something rapt and enthralling, something aspiring to mount higher, something excessive and superlative. For example, if I may make analogies with painting, let me suppose I have before me a vast expanse of dark red. If this red stands for passion, I see it gradually passing through all the transitions of red and pink to the incandescent glow of a furnace. It would seem difficult, impossible even, to reach anything more glowing; and yet a last fuse comes and traces a whiter streak on the white of the background. This will signify, if you will, the supreme utterance of a soul at its highest paroxysm.

Baudelaire ends by reminding Wagner of the grand and heartbreaking truth of artistic appreciation: that most of it happens in the shadows, in the sinews, in the silence of private experiences, and that artists only ever glimpse a fraction through the grateful words of the few willing to return the gift by articulating those ineffable but transformative experiences that the artist has afforded them. Baudelaire writes:

From the day when I heard your music, I have said to myself endlessly, and especially at bad times, “If I only could hear a little Wagner tonight!” There are doubtless other men constituted like myself… Once again, sir, I thank you; you brought me back to myself and to what is great, in some unhappy moments.

Ch. Baudelaire

I do not set down my address because you might think I wanted something from you.

Complement with Baudelaire on the genius of childhood, beauty and strangeness, and his increasingly timely open letter to the privileged about the political power of art, then revisit other luminous beams of appreciation between great minds: Isaac Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan, Charles Dickens’s letter of admiration to George Eliot, teenage James Joyce’s grateful letter to Ibsen, his great hero, Darwin’s touching letter of appreciation to his best friend and greatest supporter, and the virtuous cycle of mutual admiration between Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse.


The Power Paradox: The Surprising and Sobering Science of How We Gain and Lose Influence

“We rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst.”

The Power Paradox: The Surprising and Sobering Science of How We Gain and Lose Influence

“There are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout,” Thoreau wrote as he contemplated how silence ennobles speech. In the century and a half since, we have created a culture that equates loudness with leadership, abrasiveness with authority. We mistake shouting for powerful speech much as we mistake force for power itself. And yet the real measure of power is more in the realm of Thoreau’s “fine things.”

So argues UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner in The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence (public library) — the culmination of twenty years of research exploring what power is, what confers it upon an individual, and how it shapes the structure of a collective, a community, and a culture. Drawing on a wealth of social science studies and insights from successful teams ranging from companies like Pixar and Google to restorative justice programs in San Quentin State Prison, he demonstrates “the surprising and lasting influence of soft power (culture, ideas, art, and institutions) as compared to hard power (military might, invasion, and economic sanctions).”

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Keltner writes:

Life is made up of patterns. Patterns of eating, thirst, sleep, and fight-or-flight are crucial to our individual survival; patterns of courtship, sex, attachment, conflict, play, creativity, family life, and collaboration are crucial to our collective survival. Wisdom is our ability to perceive these patterns and to shape them into coherent chapters within the longer narrative of our lives.

Power dynamics, Keltner notes, are among the central patterns that shape our experience of life, from our romantic relationships to the workplace. But at the heart of power is a troubling paradox — a malignant feature of human psychology responsible for John Dalberg-Acton’s oft-cited insight that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Keltner explains the psychological machinery of this malfunction and considers our recourse for resisting its workings:

The power paradox is this: we rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst. We gain a capacity to make a difference in the world by enhancing the lives of others, but the very experience of having power and privilege leads us to behave, in our worst moments, like impulsive, out-of-control sociopaths.

How we handle the power paradox guides our personal and work lives and determines, ultimately, how happy we and the people we care about will be. It determines our empathy, generosity, civility, innovation, intellectual rigor, and the collaborative strength of our communities and social networks. Its ripple effects shape the patterns that make up our families, neighborhoods, and workplaces, as well as the broader patterns of social organization that define societies and our current political struggles.


Much of what is most unsettling about human nature — stigma, greed, arrogance, racial and sexual violence, and the nonrandom distribution of depression and bad health to the poor — follows from how we handle the power paradox.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep
Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep, an illustrated parable of how power changes us

What causes us to mishandle the power paradox, Keltner argues, is our culture’s traditional understanding of power — a sort of time-capsule that no longer serves us. Predicated on force, ruthlessness, and strategic coercion, it was shaped by Niccolò Machiavelli’s sixteenth-century book The Prince — but it is as antiquated today as the geocentric model of the universe that dominated Machiavelli’s day. What governs the modern world, Keltner demonstrates through two decades of revelatory studies, is a different kind of power — softer, more relational, predicated on reputation rather than force, measured by one’s ability to affect the lives of others positively and shift the course of the world, however slightly, toward the common good. He writes:

Perhaps most critically, thinking of power as coercive force and fraud blinds us to its pervasiveness in our daily lives and the fact that it shapes our every interaction, from those between parents and children to those between work colleagues.


Power defines the waking life of every human being. It is found not only in extraordinary acts but also in quotidian acts, indeed in every interaction and every relationship, be it an attempt to get a two-year-old to eat green vegetables or to inspire a stubborn colleague to do her best work. It lies in providing an opportunity to someone, or asking a friend the right question to stir creative thought, or calming a colleague’s rattled nerves, or directing resources to a young person trying to make it in society. Power dynamics, patterns of mutual influence, define the ongoing interactions between fetus and mother, infant and parent, between romantic partners, childhood friends, teens, people at work, and groups in conflict. Power is the medium through which we relate to one another. Power is about making a difference in the world by influencing others.

In a sentiment that parallels Thoreau’s wisdom on silence and shouting, Keltner adds:

A new wave of thinking about power reveals that it is given to us by others rather than grabbed. We gain power by acting in ways that improve the lives of other people in our social networks.

One key consequence of the fact that power is given to us by others is its reputational nature — an insight both disquieting to the ego and comforting to the soul, for we are inescapably social creatures. Keltner observes:

Our influence, the lasting difference that we make in the world, is ultimately only as good as what others think of us. Having enduring power is a privilege that depends on other people continuing to give it to us.

“Enduring” is an operative word in Keltner’s premise. The “power paradox” is paradoxical precisely because those who manage to wrest power forcibly by the Machiavellian model may have power, or perceived power, for a certain amount of time, but that amount is finite. Its finitude springs from the attrition of the person’s reputation. But the most troubling aspect of the power paradox is that even if a person rises to power by counter-Machiavellian means — kindness, generosity, concern with the common good — power itself will eventually warp her priorities and render her less kind, less generous, less concerned with the common good, which will in turn erode her power as her reputation for these counter-qualities grows.

Keltner cites a number of studies demonstrating these tendencies empirically — poor people give to charity a greater portion of their income than rich people, those in positions of power exhibit more entitled behaviors, people who drive expensive cars are significantly crueler to pedestrians at crosswalks, and so forth.

But in reading these alarmingly consistent studies, I had to wonder about one crucial confound that remains unaddressed: People in positions of power also tend to be busier — that is, they tend to have greater demands on their time. We know from the now-iconic 1970s Good Samaritan study that the single greatest predictor of uncaring, unkind, and uncompassionate behavior, even among people who have devoted their lives to the welfare of others, is a perceived lack of time — a feeling of being rushed. The sense of urgency seems to consume all of our other concerns — it is the razor’s blade that severs our connection to anything outside ourselves, anything beyond the task at hand, and turns our laser-sharp focus of concern onto the the immediacy of the self alone.

Art from Anne Sexton’s little-known children’s book

We know this empirically, and we know its anecdotal truth intimately — I doubt I’m alone in the awareness that despite a deep commitment to kindness, I find myself most likely to, say, be impatient with a fellow cyclist when I feel pressed for time, when I know I’m running late. Even Keltner’s famous and tragicomical study, which found that drivers of expensive cars are most inconsiderate to pedestrians, might suffer from the same confound — those who can afford expensive cars are typically people we would deem “successful,” who also typically have far greater demands on their time. So could it be that a scarcity of time — that inescapable hum of consciousness — rather than an excess of power is the true corrupting agent of the psyche?

And so another paradox lives inside the power paradox — the more powerful a person becomes, the busier and more rushed she is, which cuts her off from the very qualities that define the truly powerful. What would the studies Keltner cites look like if we controlled not only for power, but for time — for the perception of being rushed and demand-strained beyond capacity? (Kierkegaard condemned the corrosive effect of busyness nearly two centuries ago.)

Still, Keltner’s central point — that power in the modern world is “gained and maintained through a focus on others” — remains valid and important. He considers the conscious considerations we can make in order to bypass the perils of the power paradox:

Handling the power paradox depends on finding a balance between the gratification of your own desires and your focus on other people. As the most social of species, we evolved several other-focused, universal social practices that bring out the good in others and that make for strong social collectives. A thoughtful practitioner of these practices will not be misled by the rush of the experience of power down the path of self-gratification and abuse, but will choose instead to enjoy the deeper delights of making a lasting difference in the world. These social practices are fourfold: empathizing, giving, expressing gratitude, and telling stories. All four of these practices dignify and delight others. They constitute the basis of strong, mutually empowered ties. You can lean on them to enhance your power at any moment of the day by stirring others to effective action.

But “power” is one of those words — like “love” and “happiness” — to have become grab-bag terms for a constellation of behaviors, states, emotions, and phenomena. Noting that “a critical task of science is to provide clear nomenclature — precise terms that sharpen our understanding of patterned phenomena in the outside world and inside the mind,” Keltner offers elegant and necessary definitions of the distinct notions comprising the constellation of power in modern society:

POWER your capacity to make a difference in the world by influencing the states of other people.

STATUS the respect that you enjoy from other people in your social network; the esteem they direct to you. Status goes with power often but not always.

CONTROL your capacity to determine the outcomes in your life. You can have complete control over your life — think of the reclusive hermit — but have no power.

SOCIAL CLASS the mixture of family wealth, educational achievement, and occupational prestige that you enjoy; alternatively, the subjective sense you have of where you stand on a class ladder in society, high, middle, or low. Both forms of social class are societal forms of power.

In the remainder of The Power Paradox, Keltner goes on to examine, through a robust body of research bridged with intelligent insight, what we can do both as individuals and as a society to cultivate the qualities that empower us by empowering others and counter those that feed the most selfish and small-spirited tendencies of human nature. Complement it with Blaise Pascal’s timeless 17th-century wisdom on the art of persuasion and philosopher Martha Nussbaum on human dignity and the nuanced relationship between agency and victimhood.

HT Shankar Vedantam / Hidden Brain


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