Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “joseph campbell”

Billy Collins Reads His Homage to Aristotle

A wonderful ode to how the great Greek philosopher shaped the paradigm of storytelling.

Billy Collins Reads His Homage to Aristotle

Long, long before Kurt Vonnegut diagramed the shapes of stories and Joseph Campbell outlined the eleven stages of the hero’s journey, Aristotle formulated for the first time the notion that a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end — a notion so commonsensical to us today that it appears banal, which of course is always the proof of a meme’s successful uptake in culture over time.

To celebrate the centrality of this concept in the human experience, beloved poet Billy Collins (b. March 22, 1941) paid homage to the Ancient Greek philosopher’s imprint on storytelling in a beautiful poem titled “Aristotle,” found in his altogether wonderful 1998 poetry collection Picnic, Lightning (public library).

In this recording from his spoken-word album The Best Cigarette, Collins reads his ode to Aristotle:

This is the beginning.
Almost anything can happen.
This is where you find
the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,
the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.
Think of an egg, the letter A,
a woman ironing on a bare stage
as the heavy curtain rises.
This is the very beginning.
The first-person narrator introduces himself,
tells us about his lineage.
The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.
Here the climbers are studying a map
or pulling on their long woolen socks.
This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn.
The profile of an animal is being smeared
on the wall of a cave,
and you have not yet learned to crawl.
This is the opening, the gambit,
a pawn moving forward an inch.
This is your first night with her,
your first night without her.
This is the first part
where the wheels begin to turn,
where the elevator begins its ascent,
before the doors lurch apart.

This is the middle.
Things have had time to get complicated,
messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore.
Cities have sprouted up along the rivers
teeming with people at cross-purposes—
a million schemes, a million wild looks.
Disappointment unshoulders his knapsack
here and pitches his ragged tent.
This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,
where the action suddenly reverses
or swerves off in an outrageous direction.
Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
to why Miriam does not want Edward’s child.
Someone hides a letter under a pillow.
Here the aria rises to a pitch,
a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.
And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge
halfway up the mountain.
This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
This is the thick of things.
So much is crowded into the middle—
the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,
Russian uniforms, noisy parties,
lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall—
too much to name, too much to think about.

And this is the end,
the car running out of road,
the river losing its name in an ocean,
the long nose of the photographed horse
touching the white electronic line.
This is the colophon, the last elephant in the parade,
the empty wheelchair,
and pigeons floating down in the evening.
Here the stage is littered with bodies,
the narrator leads the characters to their cells,
and the climbers are in their graves.
It is me hitting the period
and you closing the book.
It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen
and St. Clement with an anchor around his neck.
This is the final bit
thinning away to nothing.
This is the end, according to Aristotle,
what we have all been waiting for,
what everything comes down to,
the destination we cannot help imagining,
a streak of light in the sky,
a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.

Complement with Collins’s reading of his poem “Marginalia,” then revisit Aristotle’s abiding wisdom on doing the right thing and the ethic of friendship.


James Joyce’s Love Letters

“If I am to write anything fine or noble in the future I shall do so only by listening at the doors of your heart.”

As an ardent lover of love letters, I have encountered few exemplars of the genre more piercing than those penned by James Joyce (February 2, 1882–January 13, 1941).

In 1904, just after his first major essay was rejected from publication, 22-year-old Joyce met Nora Barnacle — a young chambermaid he described as “a simple honorable soul,” one “incapable of any of the deceits which pass for current morality.” From the moment they met until Joyce’s dying day, the two were bound by an uncommon love that translated into a relationship unconventional in many ways, especially by the era’s standards — they had a son and a daughter out of wedlock and didn’t marry until 27 years into their lifelong relationship.

Nora’s unselfish honesty was intensely alluring to Joyce. Only with her was he, a man otherwise guarded and chronically mistrustful, capable of complete self-revelation — she was the nonjudgmental, loving receptacle for his dueling enormities of ambition and self-consciousness that often bled into self-loathing. The unflinching trust that developed between them became the supreme engine of their love — for what is love if not the net we trust will catch us as we fall from grace into our deepest imperfections, then bounce us back up to our highest selves?

In a letter from October of 1909, found in Joyce’s altogether spectacular Selected Letters — the same treasure trove that gave us the teenage author’s beautiful letter of appreciation to Ibsen, his greatest hero, and his poetic plea to Lady Gregory — 27-year-old Joyce writes to Nora during a trip to Dublin:

You dear strange little girl! And yet you write to ask if I am tired of you! I shall never be tired of you, dearest… I cannot write you so often this time as I [am] dreadfully busy from morning to night. Do not fret, darling. If you do you will ruin my chances of doing anything. After this I hope we shall have many many many long years of happiness together.

My dear true good little Nora do not write again doubtfully of me. You are my only love. You have me completely in your power. I know and feel that if I am to write anything fine or noble in the future I shall do so only by listening at the doors of your heart.

Two days later, still away and working hard to have Dubliners published, Joyce is seized with longing for Nora and grows even more homesick:

My darling Tonight the old fever of love has begun to wake again in me. I am a shell of a man: my soul is in Trieste [the couple’s home]. You alone know me and love me.

A century before philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s terrific treatise on why embracing our neediness is essential for healthy relationships, Joyce embraces his and pleads with Nora in the same letter:

I am a jealous, lonely, dissatisfied, proud man. Why are you not more patient with me and kinder with me? The night we went to Madame Butterfly together you treated me most rudely. I simply wanted to feel your soul swaying with languor and longing as mine did when she sings the romance of her hope in the second act Un bel di: “One day, one day, we shall see a spire of smoke rising on the furthest verge of the sea; and then the ship appears.” I am a little disappointed in you. Then another night I came home to your bed from the café and I began to tell you of all I hoped to do, and to write, in the future and of those boundless ambitions which are really the leading forces in my life. You would not listen to me. It was very late I know and of course you were tired out after the day. But a man whose brain is on fire with hope and trust in himself must tell someone of what he feels. Whom should I tell but you?

But after this lamentation, the letter rises above these trifling resentments and takes a most heartening turn toward the ultimate assurance of love — that however short we may fall of our highest selves, however much we may disappoint our loved ones, they will love us anyway and love us not despite but because of our imperfect humanity. Decades before Joseph Campbell admonished against the deadliness of perfectionism in love, Joyce writes:

I love you deeply and truly, Nora. I feel worthy of you now. There is not a particle of my love that is not yours. In spite of these things which blacken my mind against you I think of you always at your best… Nora, I love you. I cannot live without you. I would like to give you everything that is mine, any knowledge I have (little as it is), any emotions I myself feel or have felt, any likes or dislikes I have, any hopes I have or remorse. I would like to go through life side by side with you, telling you more and more until we grew to be one being together until the hour should come for us to die. Even now the tears rush to my eyes and sobs choke my throat as I write this. Nora, we have only one short life in which to love. O my darling be only a little kinder to me, bear with me a little even if I am inconsiderate and unmanageable and believe me we will be happy together. Let me love you in my own way. Let me have your heart always close to mine to hear every throb of my life, every sorrow, every joy.

But against the backdrop of this all-consuming love, an unexpected drama unfolded — that fall, during the same trip to Dublin, Joyce was led to mistakenly believe that Nora had been unfaithful to him in the early days of their romance five years earlier, a period he cherished as one of sacred intimacy. He wrote to her from what he would later characterize as a state of “utter despair,” attacking her for the betrayal, berating himself for being unworthy of her love, and treating her infidelity as proof of his unworthiness. In the midst of all this, Nora — who had been tasked with singlehandedly managing the household and raising the children while Joyce was away trying to get Dubliners published — grew increasingly frustrated and threatened to leave him.

When it became apparent that the whole thing had been a misunderstanding and Nora had never been unfaithful, he proceeded to send her a series of letters, both breathtakingly beautiful and utterly heartbreaking, further berating himself for having so misjudged his beloved’s character and beseeching her to forgive him. In an intensely self-flagellating letter from early November of 1909, Joyce writes:

You write like a queen. As long as I live I shall always remember the quiet dignity of that letter, its sadness and scorn, and the utter humiliation it caused me.

I have lost your esteem. I have worn down your love. leave me then. Take away your children from me to save them from the curse of my presence. Let me sink back again into the mire I came from. Forget me and my empty words. Go back to your own life and let me go alone to my ruin. It is wrong for you to live with a vile beast like me or to allow your children to be touched by my hands.


Leave me. It is a degradation and a shame for you to live with a low wretch like me. Act bravely and leave me. you have given me the finest things in this world but you were only casting pearls before swine.

If you leave me I shall live for ever with your memory, holier than God to me. I shall pray to your name.

Nora, remember something good of the poor wretch who dishonored you with his love. Think that your lips have kissed him and your hair has fallen over him and that your arms have held him to you.

I will not sign my name because it is the name you called me when you loved me and honoured me and have me your young tender soul to wound and betray.

Art by Mimmo Paladino for a special edition of Ulysses

And yet the most hope-giving part of the episode is that the perceived breach of trust only strengthened their bond. Perhaps it is no accident that we use the heart — a mighty muscle — as the symbolic seedbed of love. It’s a biologically apt metaphor: We can’t build our bodily muscles without first tearing down the fibers of which their tissue is woven — hypertrophy, or muscle growth, occurs when the body repairs the fibers torn down during exercise, thickening them in the repair process. Trust, too, grows by hypertrophy.

A day later, Joyce writes to Nora — or of Nora, for he uses the third person to relay to her a diaristic vignette intended to convey the depth of his feelings for her:

I received two very kind letters from her today so that perhaps after all she still cares for me. Last night I was in a state of utter despair when I wrote to her. Her slightest word has an enormous power over me. She asks me to try to forget the ignorant Galway [Nora’s hometown] girl that came across my life and says I am too kind to her. Foolish good-hearted girl! Does she not see what a worthless treacherous fool I am? Her love for me perhaps blinds her to it.

I shall never forget how her short letter to me yesterday cut me to the quick. I felt that I had tried her goodness too far and that at last she had turned on me with quiet scorn.

Today I went to the hotel where she lived when I first met her. I halted in the dingy doorway before going in I was so excited.


I have been in the room where she passed so often, with a strange dream of love in her young heart. My God, my eyes are full of tears! Why do I cry? I cry because it is so sad to think of her moving about that room, eating little, simply dressed, simple-mannered and watchful, and carrying always with her in her secret heart the little flame which burns up the souls and bodies of men.

I cry too with pity for her that she should have chosen such poor ignoble love as mine: and with pity for myself that I was not worthy to be loved by her.


Twice while I was writing these sentences tonight the sobs gathered quickly in my throat and broke from my lips.

I have loved in her the image of the beauty of the world, the mystery and beauty of life itself, the beauty and doom of the race of whom I am a child, the images of spiritual purity and pity which I believe in as a boy.

Her soul! Her name! Her eyes! They seem to me like strange beautiful blue wild-flowers growing in some tangled, rain-drenched hedge. And I have felt her soul tremble beside mine, and have spoken her name softly to the night, and have wept to see the beauty of the world passing like a dream behind her eyes.

Jim and Nora remained together for the remainder of the author’s days. Complement the amorous portion of Joyce’s wholly magnificent Selected Letters with the love letters of Iris Murdoch, Vladimir Nabokov, Charlotte Brontë, Oscar Wilde, Ludwig van Beethoven, James Thurber, Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, and Frida Kahlo.


Jane Austen’s Advice on Love, Marriage, and How to Rebuff a Suitor with Clarity and Kindness

“Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection.”

“We can never know what to want,” Milan Kundera wrote in contemplating the central ambivalences of life and love. Ambivalence about what we want may be among the defining features of being human and the uncomfortable luxury of changing one’s mind among life’s most essential arts, but nowhere is our indecisive oscillation more potentially disastrous than in love.

How to navigate this all too common peril is what Jane Austen (December 16, 1775–July 18, 1817) addressed in a cycle of correspondence with her beloved niece Fanny Catherine Knight, whom Austen considered “almost another sister.”

In a series of missives written shortly after the publication of Pride and Prejudice and found in Jane Austen’s Letters (public library) — the volume that gave us the celebrated author’s advice on writing to her other niece, Anna — she counsels 21-year-old Fanny through a courtship by a certain “Mr. A,” who had rendered the young woman first besotted, then disenchanted, and at last thoroughly confused about her feelings.

After hearing of Fanny’s fairly rapid loss of interest in the suitor with whom she had been so infatuated, Austen writes:

I was certainly a good deal surprised at first, as I had no suspicion of any change in your feelings, and I have no scruple in saying that you cannot be in love. My dear Fanny, I am ready to laugh at the idea, and yet it is no laughing matter to have had you so mistaken as to your own feelings. And with all my heart I wish I had cautioned you on that point when first you spoke to me; but though I did not think you then much in love, I did consider you as being attached in a degree quite sufficiently for happiness, as I had no doubt it would increase with opportunity, and from the time of our being in London together I thought you really very much in love. But you certainly are not at all — there is no concealing it.

With an eye to the most perplexing part of romance — our tendency to find frustration satisfying, resulting in the paradoxical push-and-pull of love — Austen marvels:

What strange creatures we are! It seems as if your being secure of him had made you indifferent… And yet, after all, I am surprised that the change in your feelings should be so great. He is just what he ever was, only more evidently and uniformly devoted to you. This is all the difference. How shall we account for it?

Drawing of Fanny Knight by Austen's watercolorist sister, Cassandra
Drawing of Fanny Knight by Austen’s watercolorist sister, Cassandra

Twelve years earlier, Austen had undergone a similar change of heart herself — initially accepting the only known marriage proposal she ever received, by an unattractive and tactless but educated and financially secure man named Harris Bigg-Wither, by the following morning she had decided that the sensible practicality of the arrangement wasn’t an adequate substitute for love and retracted her acceptance. Perhaps it’s through this lens of personal experience that she gives Fanny a disclaimer of sorts:

I am feeling differently every moment, and shall not be able to suggest a single thing that can assist your mind. I could lament in one sentence and laugh in the next, but as to opinion or counsel I am sure that none will be extracted worth having from this letter.

And yet, immediately, she changes her mind yet again and offers pointedly opinionated counsel:

Oh, dear Fanny! Your mistake has been one that thousands of women fall into. He was the first young man who attached himself to you. That was the charm, and most powerful it is. Among the multitudes, however, that make the same mistake with yourself, there can be few indeed who have so little reason to regret it; his character and his attachment leave you nothing to be ashamed of.

Having at first assured Fanny that she doesn’t seem to be in love, Austen pivots again and makes a case for Mr. A:

Upon the whole, what is to be done? You have no inclination for any other person. His situation in life, family, friends, and, above all, his character, his uncommonly amiable mind, strict principles, just notions, good habits, all that you know so well how to value, all that is really of the first importance, — everything of this nature pleads his cause most strongly. You have no doubt of his having superior abilities, he has proved it at the University…

Oh, my dear Fanny! the more I write about him the warmer my feelings become, — the more strongly I feel the sterling worth of such a young man, and the desirableness of your growing in love with him again. I recommend this most thoroughly.

In a sentiment that Joseph Campbell would come to echo a century and a half later in reflecting on how perfectionism kills love, Austen adds:

There are such beings in the world, perhaps one in a thousand, as the creature you and I should think perfection, where grace and spirit are united to worth, where the manners are equal to the heart and understanding; but such a person may not come in your way, or, if he does, he may not be the eldest son of a man of fortune, the near relation of your particular friend, and belonging to your own county.

Think of all this, Fanny. Mr. A. has advantages which we do not often meet in one person. His only fault, indeed, seems modesty. If he were less modest, he would be more agreeable, speak louder, and look impudenter; and is not it a fine character of which modesty is the only defect? I have no doubt he will get more lively and more like yourselves as he is more with you; he will catch your ways if he belongs to you.

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

Austen then advises Fanny to take the only honorable course of action in such situations — seek clarity in one’s own feelings and, if the seed of love is not found, be kind but clear in letting the other person know that the interest is not mutual, which may inflict pain in the immediacy of the disappointment but in the grand scheme of things is far more compassionate and noble than leading the person on without real reciprocity. Austen writes:

And now, my dear Fanny, having written so much on one side of the question, I shall turn round and entreat you not to commit yourself farther, and not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection; and if his deficiencies of manner, etc., etc., strike you more than all his good qualities, if you continue to think strongly of them, give him up at once. Things are now in such a state that you must resolve upon one or the other, — either to allow him to go on as he has done, or whenever you are together behave with a coldness which may convince him that he has been deceiving himself. I have no doubt of his suffering a good deal for a time, — a great deal when he feels that he must give you up; but it is no creed of mine, as you must be well aware, that such sort of disappointments kill anybody.

But by the end of the month, Fanny has only grown more conflicted. In her final letter on the matter, Austen once again pivots and urges the young woman not to relinquish her independence for someone with whom she isn’t in love and who isn’t a true peer:

You will think me perverse, perhaps; in my last letter I was urging everything in his favor, and now I am inclining the other way, but I cannot help it; I am at present more impressed with the possible evil that may arise to you from engaging yourself to him — in word or mind — than with anything else. When I consider how few young men you have yet seen much of, how capable you are (yes, I do still think you very capable) of being really in love, and how full of temptation the next six or seven years of your life will probably be (it is the very period of life for the strongest attachments to be formed), — I cannot wish you, with your present very cool feelings, to devote yourself in honor to him. It is very true that you never may attach another man his equal altogether; but if that other man has the power of attaching you more, he will be in your eyes the most perfect. I shall be glad if you can revive past feelings, and from your unbiassed self resolve to go on as you have done, but this I do not expect; and without it I cannot wish you to be fettered.

Fanny didn’t marry Mr. A, nor any other suitor during Austen’s lifetime. Perhaps Steinbeck put it best 130 years later, when he counseled his teenage son on love: “If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”

Complement this particular portion of Jane Austen’s Letters with Kafka’s advice on love and patience, philosopher Alain Badiou on why we fall and stay in love, the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn on how to love, and philosopher Erich Fromm on what’s keeping us from mastering the art of loving.


The Intelligence of Emotions: Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on How Storytelling Rewires Us and Why Befriending Our Neediness Is Essential for Happiness

“Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.”

The Intelligence of Emotions: Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on How Storytelling Rewires Us and Why Befriending Our Neediness Is Essential for Happiness

“The power of ‘the Eye of the Heart,’ which produces insight, is vastly superior to the power of thought, which produces opinions,” the great British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher wrote in his 1973 meditation on how we know what we know. He was responding to the Persian poet and philosopher Rumi who, seven centuries earlier, extolled “the eye of the heart” as seventy-fold more seeing than the “sensible eyes” of the intellect. To the intellectually ambitious, this might sound like a squishy notion — or a line best left to The Little Prince. But as contemporary scientists continue to shed light on how our emotions affect our susceptibility to disease, it is becoming increasingly clear that our emotional lives are equipped with a special and non-negligible kind of bodily and cognitive intelligence.

The nature of that intelligence and how we can harness its power is what Martha Nussbaum, whom I continue to consider the most compelling and effective philosopher of our time, examines in her magnificent 2001 book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (public library). Titled after Proust’s conception of the emotions as “geologic upheavals of thought,” Nussbaum’s treatise offers a lucid counterpoint to the old idea that our emotions are merely animal energies or primal impulses wholly separate from our cognition. Instead, she argues that they are a centerpiece of moral philosophy and that any substantive theory of ethics necessitates a substantive understanding of the emotions.

Martha Nussbaum

Nussbaum writes:

A lot is at stake in the decision to view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to the perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, and if they contain in themselves an awareness of value or importance, they cannot, for example, easily be sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment, as so often they have been in the history of philosophy. Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning. We cannot plausibly omit them, once we acknowledge that emotions include in their content judgments that can be true or false, and good or bad guides to ethical choice. We will have to grapple with the messy material of grief and love, anger and fear, and the role these tumultuous experiences play in thought about the good and the just.


Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.

One of Nussbaum’s central points is that the complex cognitive structure of the emotions has a narrative form — that is, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we feel shape our emotional and ethical reality, which of course is the great psychological function of literature and the reason why art can function as a form of therapy. What emerges is an intelligent manifesto for including the storytelling arts in moral philosophy.

But this narrative aspect also means that our emotions have a temporal dimension stretching back to our formative experiences. Nussbaum writes:

We cannot understand [a person’s] love … without knowing a great deal about the history of patterns of attachment that extend back into [the person’s] childhood. Past loves shadow present attachments, and take up residence within them. This, in turn, suggests that in order to talk well about them we will need to turn to texts that contain a narrative dimension, thus deepening and refining our grasp of ourselves as beings with a complicated temporal history.

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

Nussbaum considers the essential features of the emotions as they relate to moral philosophy:

Insofar as they involve acknowledgment of neediness and lack of self-sufficiency, emotions reveal us as vulnerable to events that we do not control.


Emotions seem to be characterized by ambivalence toward their objects. In the very nature of our early object relations … there lurks a morally subversive combination of love and resentment, which springs directly from the thought that we need others to survive and flourish, but do not at all control their movements. If love is in this way always, or even commonly, mixed up with hatred, then, once again, this might offer us some reasons not to trust to the emotions at all in the moral life, but rather to the more impersonal guidance of rules of duty.

In a sentiment that psychoanalyst Adam Phillips would come to echo more than a decade later in examining the essential role of ambivalence in love, Nussbaum points to the particular case of romance as an acute manifestation of this latter aspect:

Personal love has typically been thought too wonderful to remove from human life; but it has also been seen (not only by philosophers) as a source of great moral danger because of its partiality and the extreme form of vulnerability it involves, which make a connection with jealousy and anger virtually inevitable.

She returns to the role of the emotions as acknowledgements, both necessary and disorienting, of our neediness and lack of self-sufficiency:

Emotions … involve judgments about important things, judgments in which, appraising an external object as salient for our own well-being, we acknowledge our own neediness and incompleteness before parts of the world that we do not fully control.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

She revisits the rationale behind the book’s title:

Emotions should be understood as “geological upheavals of thought”: as judgments in which people acknowledge the great importance, for their own flourishing, of things that they do not fully control — and acknowledge thereby their neediness before the world and its events.

But this neediness — a notion invariably shrouded in negative judgment and shame, for it connotes an admission of our lack of command — is one of the essential features that make us human. Nussbaum writes:

Human beings appear to be the only mortal finite beings who wish to transcend their finitude. Thus they are the only emotional beings who wish not to be emotional, who wish to withhold these acknowledgments of neediness and to design for themselves a life in which these acknowledgments have no place. This means that they frequently learn to reject their own vulnerability and to suppress awareness of the attachments that entail it. We might also say … that they are the only animals for whom neediness is a source of shame, and who take pride in themselves to the extent to which they have allegedly gotten clear of vulnerability.

And yet neediness, Nussbaum argues, is central to our developmental process as human beings. Much like frustration is essential for satisfaction, neediness becomes essential for our sense of control:

The process of development entails many moments of discomfort and frustration. Indeed, some frustration of the infant’s wants by the caretaker’s separate comings and goings is essential to development — for if everything were always simply given in advance of discomfort, the child would never try out its own projects of control.


The child’s evolving recognition that the caretaker sometimes fails to bring it what it wants gives rise to an anger that is closely linked to its emerging love. Indeed, the very recognition that both good things and their absence have an external source guarantees the presence of both of these emotions — although the infant has not yet recognized that both take a single person as their object.

But while these formative experiences can nurture our emotional intelligence, they can also damage it with profound and lifelong consequences, as in the case of one patient Nussbaum cites — a man known as B, whose mother was so merciless in requiring perfection of herself that she construed her infant’s neediness as her own personal failing, resenting every sign of basic humanness and rejecting it as imperfection in both her child and herself. Nussbaum traces the developmental repercussions:

As B makes contact with these memories of a holding that was stifling, the patient gradually becomes aware of his own demand for perfection in everything – as the corollary of his inability to permit himself to be a needy child. Because his mother wanted perfection (which he felt as a demand for immobility and even death), he could not allow himself to be dependent on, or to trust, anyone.

Illustration by Sophie Blackall from her book The Baby Tree

Above all, emotionally skillful parenting — or “holding” — early in life awakens the child to a simultaneous sense of being omnipotent and being thoroughly dependent:

The parents’ (or other caregivers’) ability to meet the child’s omnipotence with suitably responsive and stable care creates a framework within which trust and interdependence may thus gradually grow: the child will gradually relax its omnipotence, its demand to be attended to constantly, once it understands that others can be relied on and it will not be left in a state of utter helplessness. This early framework of steadiness and continuity will provide a valuable resource in the later crisis of ambivalence. On the other hand, to the extent that a child does not receive sufficiently stable holding, or receives holding that is excessively controlling or intrusive, without space for it to relax into a relationship of trust, it will cling, in later life, to its own omnipotence, demanding perfection in the self and refusing to tolerate imperfection either in object relations or in the inner world.


The infant’s ambivalent relation to its own lack of omnipotence can be shaped for better or worse by interactions that either exacerbate primitive shame or reduce it. A primitive shame at one’s weakness and impotence is probably a basic and universal feature of the emotional life. But a parent who takes delight in having a child who is a child, and who reveals in interacting with the child that it is all right to be human, eases the ambivalence of later object relations

This quality of parental response to neediness in the first few months of life, Nussbaum argues, imprints us deeply and lastingly. It shapes how we relate to neediness in ourselves — we come to see it either as a shameful sign of helplessness, with absolute and therefore unattainable perfection as the only admissible state of which we continually fall short, or as a natural and wholly acceptable part of the human experience. (Lest we forget, the sixth of Neil Gaiman’s eight rules of writing applies not only to literature but to all of life: “Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.” Pathological perfectionism, after all, is how we keep ourselves small.)

Nussbaum considers the complexities of shame, which becomes the dominant emotional response to our own neediness under the tyranny of perfectionism:

All infant omnipotence is coupled with helplessness. When an infant realizes that it is dependent on others, we can therefore expect a primitive and rudimentary emotion of shame to ensue. For shame involves the realization that one is weak and inadequate in some way in which one expects oneself to be adequate.58 Its reflex is to hide from the eyes of those who will see one’s deficiency, to cover it. If the infant expects to control the world, as to some extent all infants do, it will have shame, as well as anger, at its own inability to control.

Notice, then, that shame is far from requiring diminished self-regard. In a sense, it requires self-regard as its essential backdrop. It is only because one expects oneself to have worth or even perfection that one will shrink from or cover the evidence of one’s nonworth or imperfection. To the extent that all infants enjoy a sense of omnipotence, all infants experience shame at the recognition of their human imperfection: a universal experience underlying the biblical story of our shame at our nakedness. But a good development will allow the gradual relaxing of omnipotence in favor of trust, as the infant learns not to be ashamed of neediness and to take a positive delight in the playful and creative “subtle interplay” of two imperfect beings.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for The Juniper Tree: And Other Tales from Grimm

This interplay of two imperfect beings is, as Joseph Campbell memorably observed, the essence of romantic love. An intolerance for imperfection and for the basic humanity of our own neediness, Nussbaum notes, can impede our very capacity for connection and make our emotions appear as blindsiding, incomprehensible events that befall us rather than a singular form of our natural intelligence:

The emotions of the adult life sometimes feel as if they flood up out of nowhere, in ways that don’t match our present view of our objects or their value. This will be especially true of the person who maintains some kind of false self-defense, and who is in consequence out of touch with the emotions of neediness and dependence, or of anger and aggression, that characterize the true self.

Nussbaum returns to the narrative structure of the emotions and how storytelling can help us rewire our relationship to neediness:

The understanding of any single emotion is incomplete unless its narrative history is grasped and studied for the light it sheds on the present response. This already suggests a central role for the arts in human self-understanding: for narrative artworks of various kinds (whether musical or visual or literary) give us information about these emotion-histories that we could not easily get otherwise. This is what Proust meant when he claimed that certain truths about the human emotions can be best conveyed, in verbal and textual form, only by a narrative work of art: only such a work will accurately and fully show the interrelated temporal structure of emotional “thoughts,” prominently including the heart’s intermittences between recognition and denial of neediness.

Narrative artworks are important for what they show the person who is eager to understand the emotions; they are also important because of what they do in the emotional life. They do not simply represent that history, they enter into it. Storytelling and narrative play are essential in cultivating the child’s sense of her own aloneness, her inner world. Her capacity to be alone is supported by the ability to imagine the good object’s presence when the object is not present, and to play at presence and absence using toys that serve the function of “transitional objects.” As time goes on, this play deepens the inner world; it becomes a place for individual creative effort and hence for trusting differentiation of self from world.

In the remainder of Upheavals of Thought, which remains a revelatory read in its hefty totality, Nussbaum goes on to explore how the narrative arts can reshape our psychoemotional constitution and how understanding the intelligence of the emotions can help us navigate the messiness of grief, love, anger, and fear.

Complement it with Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility and her terrific letter of life-advice to the young, then revisit the social science writer John W. Gardner on what infants teach us about risk, failure, and personal growth.


View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.