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Virginia Woolf on How Our Illusions Keep Us Alive

“Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life.”

Long before psychologists began exploring the curious cognitive mechanism of how our delusions keep us sane, even before the poet W.H. Auden contemplated the crucial difference between false and true enchantment, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) explored the powerful positive side of illusions in Orlando: A Biography (public library) — her groundbreaking 1928 novel, aptly considered “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” which gave us Woolf’s fiction-veiled insight into perennial truths about the elasticity of time, the fluidity of gender, and our propensity for self-doubt in creative work.


Woolf writes:

Illusions are the most valuable and necessary of all things.

When illusions are “shattered by contact with reality,” Woolf observes, the collision “leaves the mind rocking from side to side” and makes for “a moment fraught with the highest danger for the human spirit.” With her uncommon gift for poetic truth, she defends the vitalizing power of our illusions:

Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the colour fades. The earth we walk on is a parched cinder. It is marl we tread and fiery cobbles scorch our feet. By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life.

Perhaps our illusions, like all wishful or magical thinking, contain core truths about who we are — after all, our hopes and fears both spring from and in turn inform our identity. Perhaps, then, our illusions are an even more truthful record of our becoming than the biographical facts of our lives. They grow as we grow, until we shed them like snakeskin when they no longer serve us, only to replace them with new ones. Woolf’s Orlando intuits this when she whispers to herself: “I am growing up… I am losing my illusions, perhaps to acquire new ones.”

Complement the thoroughly magnificent Orlando with the true story of the great love that inspired it, then revisit Woolf on the relationship between loneliness and creativity, what makes love last, and the epiphany that taught her what it means to be an artist.


Aristotle’s Aperture: An Animated History of Photography, from the Camera Obscura to the Camera Phone

…and how a greedy attitude to intellectual property made the camera’s primary competitor perish.

“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted,” Susan Sontag wrote in her timeless and increasingly timely treatise on photography a century and a half after the invention of this worldview-changing technology, making a resounding case for what photography can do that the other arts can’t. But how did this relatively nascent art, succeeding cave paintings by millennia, become the dominant visual narrative form of our time?

In this short film, the Cooperative of Photography takes us on a five-minute animated gallop through some of the 100 ideas that changed photography, tracing the co-evolution of technology, art, and culture:

Complement with Italo Calvino on photography and the art of presence, Steven Johnson’s 600-year history of the selfie, Rebecca Solnit on how Muybridge’s pioneering chronophotography changed our consciousness, and Sontag on how photography mediates our relationship with life and death.

HT Open Culture


Jorge Luis Borges on Collective Tragedy and Collective Joy

“There was the emotion over what had occurred, and there was also the emotion of knowing that thousands of people, millions of people, maybe all the people in the world, were feeling great emotion over what was occurring.”

“This must be the mission of every man of goodwill: to insist, unflaggingly, at risk of becoming a repetitive bore, but to insist on the achievement of a world in which the mind will have triumphed over violence,” legendary composer Leonard Bernstein urged in his stirring clarion call for the only true antidote to violence in response to John F. Kennedy’s assassination. “I have seen much of suffering and death in my lifetime, but I have never lived through a more terrible moment,” the great cellist Pau Casals wrote of his own reaction to the tragedy. “It was as if a beautiful and irreplaceable part of the world had suddenly been torn away.”

Bernstein and Casals were but two of millions anguished by deep personal pain in parallel with everyone else heartbroken by the unspeakable brutality of the loss. They were articulating a profound collective grief — the kind we experience whenever something or someone widely cherished has been violently ripped from humanity’s shared embrace, which is perhaps the most palpable evidence we have of a “planetary übermind,” or what Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious.”

That’s what Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) contemplates in a particularly poignant portion of the 1974 treasure trove Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges (public library) by Fernando Sorrentino, which gave us the beloved author’s abiding wisdom on writing.

Borges reflects on the grim afternoon of November 22, 1963, when he learned of JFK’s assassination:

I received that piece of news with an emotion I wouldn’t know how to analyze. I remember I was walking through this neighborhood, the one in which the National Library is; I heard someone say: “Kennedy’s dead.” I assumed this “Kennedy” was some Irishman in the neighborhood, and later, as I was entering the Library, someone said to me: “He’s been killed…!” And then I understood, from the tone in which he said it, whom he was talking about. And I recall, during that same day, having stopped in the street with people I didn’t know and who didn’t know me, and our having embraced each other as a way of expressing what we were feeling.

Echoing his contemporary Primo Levi’s celebration of how space exploration brings humanity closer together, Borges considers the collective joy of these transcendent leaps of human achievement as a counterpoint to the collective tragedy of human destructiveness:

That day there was a sort of communion among men, as there was also that Sunday on which the first men landed on the moon. That is, there was the emotion over what had occurred, and there was also the emotion of knowing that thousands of people, millions of people, maybe all the people in the world, were feeling great emotion over what was occurring. With the difference that in Kennedy’s case we felt that something tragic had happened and, on the other hand, in the case of men landing on the moon, I think we all felt it as a personal joy. I would go even further; I would say I felt a kind of personal pride, as if I had somehow been one of the creators of that prodigious feat, since we’ve all looked at the moon, since we’ve all thought about the moon.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly invigorating Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges with Susan Sontag’s timeless tribute to Borges’s legacy, then revisit JFK on poetry, power, and the artist’s role in society — one of the greatest speeches ever given, and a testament to all that made him so eternally irreplaceable.


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