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John Cheever on the Pain of Loneliness and How It Feeds the Beauty and Creative Restlessness of Youth

“A lonely man is a lonesome thing, a stone, a bone, a stick, a receptacle for Gilbey’s gin, a stooped figure sitting at the edge of a hotel bed, heaving copious sighs like the autumn wind.”

John Cheever on the Pain of Loneliness and How It Feeds the Beauty and Creative Restlessness of Youth

“If I could catch the feeling, I would; the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world,” Virginia Woolf wrote in contemplating the relationship between loneliness and creativity. Half a century later, Hannah Arendt considered how tyrants use loneliness as the common ground of terror. “Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorise, [and] it can run deep in the fabric of a person,” Olivia Laing observed in her exquisite inquiry into the texture of loneliness in art and life.

Few writers have captured the way in which loneliness can rip the fabric of the psyche asunder between the poles of the creative and the tyrannical more articulately than John Cheever (May 27, 1912–June 18, 1982). Loneliness — its anguish, its expression, its antidotes, its eventual acceptance — permeates The Journals of John Cheever (public library), one of those rare masterworks of introspection radiating enormous insight into the universal human experience.

John Cheever (based on photograph by Nancy Crampton)

The journals — which Cheever’s son knew his father wanted published — were as much a workbook for the Pulitzer-winning writer’s fiction as they were a workbook for his character, his struggles, and his very self. His son, Benjamin Cheever, writes in the preface:

By 1979 John Cheever had become a literary elder statesman. “I’m a brand name,” he used to say, “like corn flakes, or shredded wheat.” He seemed to enjoy this status. He must have suspected that the publication of the journals would alter it.


Few people knew of his bisexuality. Very few people knew the extent of his infidelities. And almost nobody could have anticipated the apparent desperation of his inner life, or the caustic nature of his vision. But I don’t think he cared terribly about being corn flakes. He was a writer before he was a breakfast food. He was a writer almost before he was a man.


He saw the role of the serious writer as both lofty and practical in the same instant. He used to say that literature was one of the first indications of civilization. He used to say that a fine piece of prose could not only cure a depression, it could clear up a sinus headache. Like many great healers, he meant to heal himself.

And what he sought to heal most of all, what saturated his psyche more than anything, was his loneliness. His son writes:

For much of his life he suffered from a loneliness so acute as to be practically indistinguishable from a physical illness.


He meant by his writing to escape this loneliness, to shatter the isolation of others… With the journals … he meant to show others that their thoughts were not unthinkable.

His was a bone-deep loneliness that had afflicted him since childhood, despite his seemingly idyllic upbringing in a well-to-do family nestled into a genteel New England suburb. Cheever captures this hollowing alienation in an early journal entry:

Walking back from the river I remember the galling loneliness of my adolescence, from which I do not seem to have completely escaped. It is the sense of the voyeur, the lonely, lonely boy with no role in life but to peer in at the lighted windows of other people’s contentment and vitality. It seems comical — farcical — that, having been treated so generously, I should be stuck with this image of a kid in the rain walking along the road shoulders of East Milton.

Art by Isol from Daytime Visions

Throughout his life, this loneliness remained a constant companion, swelling into an all-consuming presence at times of transformation and uncertainty:

In middle age there is mystery, there is mystification. The most I can make out of this hour is a kind of loneliness. Even the beauty of the visible world seems to crumble, yes even love.

As he peers into the far end of life, it is again loneliness — the ultimate loneliness — that he sees:

Drying the dishes I think of my dead mother, lying in her grave; and death appears to me to be a force of loneliness, only hinted at by the most ravening loneliness we know in life; the soul does not leave the body but lingers with it through every stage of decomposition and neglect, through heat and cold and the long nights.

In another entry, he makes offers an unsentimental spiritual diagnosis:

Loneliness is a kind of madness.

When Cheever can gain just enough distance from the maddening immediacy of his personal anguish and from his “mastery over some territories of loneliness that [seem] endless,” he slips effortlessly into the poetic:

A lonely man is a lonesome thing, a stone, a bone, a stick, a receptacle for Gilbey’s gin, a stooped figure sitting at the edge of a hotel bed, heaving copious sighs like the autumn wind.

Throughout the journal, he often conveys this bellowing loneliness not directly but with a sidewise gleam of great subtlety and simplicity:

I sit at the kitchen table, drinking black coffee and thinking of Verdi.

With a wistful awareness of how his inner inclination toward loneliness in turn inclined him toward a life that amplifies it, he watches his loneliness grow “exacerbated by travel, motel rooms, bad food, public readings, and the superficiality of standing in reception lines.” With an eye to Hemingway, who made loneliness a centerpiece of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Cheever writes in one of the final entries:

Loneliness I taste. The chair I sit in, the room, the house, none of this has substance. I think of Hemingway, what we remember of his work is not so much the color of the sky as it is the absolute taste of loneliness. Loneliness is not, I think, an absolute, but its taste is more powerful than any other. I think that endeavoring to be a serious writer is quite a dangerous career.

And yet a loneliness so central to one’s being can’t but be part of the vital force responsible for one’s creative contribution to the world — something Cheever captures beautifully in one of his last journal entries:

I think of the susceptibility and loneliness of youth, of how this contributes to youth’s drive and youth’s beauty.

The Journals of John Cheever is a richly rewarding read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with some beautiful thoughts on the positive counterpart to loneliness — Louise Bourgeois on how solitude enriches creative work, Sara Maitland on how to be alone, and Elizabeth Bishop on why everyone should experience at least one prolonged period of solitude in life.


James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe’s Forgotten Conversation About Beauty, Morality, and the Political Power of Art

“Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’ are not being honest. If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.”

James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe’s Forgotten Conversation About Beauty, Morality, and the Political Power of Art

“Art,” Jeanette Winterson told an interviewer, “can make a difference because it pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.”

On April 9, 1980, exactly a decade after his legendary conversation with Margaret Mead, James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) sat down with Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930–March 21, 2013) for a dialogue about beauty, morality, and the political duties of art and the artist — a dialogue that continues to pull us up short with its sobering wisdom. Later included in the 1989 anthology Conversations with James Baldwin (public library), this meeting of titanic minds touches on a great many of our own cultural challenges and friction points, and radiates timeless, timely insight into how we might begin to stop accepting a deeply flawed status quo at face value.


Achebe begins by defining an aesthetic as “those qualities of excellence which culture discerns from its works of art” and argues that our standards for this excellence are mutable — constantly changing, in a dynamic interaction with our social, cultural, and political needs:

Aesthetic cannot be fixed, immutable. It has to change as the occasion demands because in our understanding, art is made by man* for man, and, therefore, according to the needs of man, his qualities of excellence. What he looks for in art will also change… We are not simply receivers of aesthetics … we are makers of aesthetics.

Art, Achebe argues, arises out of its social context and must always be in dialogue with that social element:

Art has a social purpose [and] art belongs to the people. It’s not something that is hanging out there that has no connection with the needs of man. And art is unashamedly, unembarrassingly, if there is such a word, social. It is political; it is economic. The total life of man is reflected in his art.

In a sentiment evocative of what Adrienne Rich has called “the long, erotic, unended wrestling” of art and politics, Achebe considers those who chastise artists for making their art political. All art is inherently political, he notes, but what such critics consider the artist’s objectionable “politics” is simply opposition to their politics and their comfortable alignment with the status quo:

Those who tell you “Do not put too much politics in your art” are not being honest. If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is.

And what they are saying is not don’t introduce politics. What they are saying is don’t upset the system. They are just as political as any of us. It’s only that they are on the other side.

Most art, Achebe argues, arises out of the status quo because — and perhaps this is a version of civilizational confirmation bias, with undertones of the backfire effect — we like to be affirmed in our values:

If you look at our aesthetics you will find … that art is in the service of man. Art was not created to dominate and destroy man. Art is made by man for his own comfort.

He turns to African art — particularly the tradition of his own heritage, the Ibo people — to illustrate the central concern of all art:

Our art is based on morality. Perhaps this sounds old-fashioned to you, but it is not to us. The earth goddess among the Ibo people is the goddess of morality. An abomination is called an abomination against the arts. So you see in our aesthetic you cannot run away from morality. Morality is basic to the nature of art.

Using, as he tended to, the word “poet” in the larger sense of any artist, any person of poetic orientation, Baldwin responds by affirming this core moral function of art and enlarges its human dimension:

When Chinua talks about aesthetic, beneath that world sleeps — think of it — the word morality. And beneath that word we are confronted with the way we treat each other. That is the key to any morality.

Invariably, this question of how we treat each other turns to race relations. But then, as if to illustrate the urgency of Baldwin’s point, the conversation is interrupted by a voice that had somehow hijacked the auditorium speaker system. The hostile male voice comes pouring out of Baldwin’s own microphone: “You gonna have to cut it out Mr. Baldwin. We can’t stand for this kind of going on.” At this point, a riled but composed Baldwin speaks authoritatively into the microphone before a shocked audience:

Mr. Baldwin is nevertheless going to finish his statement. And I will tell you now, whoever you are, that if you assassinate me in the next two minutes, I’m telling you this: it no longer matters what you think. The doctrine of white supremacy on which the Western world is based has had its hour — has had its day! It’s over!

As the audience enthusiastically applauds Baldwin, the moderator — a Sri Lankan-American professor of Ethnic Studies named Ernest Champion — rises and makes the perfect remark to restore order:

It is quite obvious that we are in the eye of the hurricane. But having this dialogue is quite important so all of us in this room will take it seriously.

With this, the anonymous antagonist vanishes just as he had appeared and the conversation continues, returning to the central duty of art. Achebe observes:

An artist is committed to art which is committed to people.

Baldwin nods in agreement:

The poet is produced by the people because the people need him.

Echoing his earlier thoughts on how the artist’s struggle for integrity illuminates the human struggle, he adds:

I know the price an artist pays… I know the price a man pays. And I am here to try to say something which perhaps only a poet can attempt to say… We are trying to make you see something. And maybe this moment we can only try to make you see it. But there ain’t no money in it.

In answering an audience question, Achebe builds on what that “something” is:

There is something we [black artists] are committed to of fundamental importance, something everybody should be committed to. We are committed to the process of changing our position in the world… We have followed your way and it seems there is a little problem at this point. And so we are offering a new aesthetic. There is nothing wrong with that… Picasso did that. In 1904 he saw that Western art had run out of breath so he went to the Congo — the despised Congo — and brought out a new art… He borrowed something which saved his art. And we are telling you what we think will save your art. We think we are right, but even if we are wrong it doesn’t matter. It couldn’t be worse than it is now.

Considering the implications of the latter statement, Baldwin makes an observation of chilling resonance today:

We are in trouble. But there are two ways to be in trouble. One of them is to know you’re in trouble. If you know you’re in trouble you may be able to figure out the road.

This country is in trouble. Everybody is in trouble — not only the people who apparently know they are in trouble, not only the people who know they are not white. The white people in this country … think they are white: because “white is a state of mind.” I’m quoting my friend Malcolm X … white is a moral choice… I can write if you can live. And you can live if I can write.

Responding to another audience question about the notion that “there can be no great art without great prejudice,” using Joseph Conrad as an example, Achebe echoes his central conviction about the role of the artist and readjusts the moral compass of art:

Great art flourishes on problems or anguish or prejudice. But the role of the writer must be very clear. The writer must not be on the side of oppression. In other words there must be no confusion. I write about prejudice; I write about wickedness; I write about murder; I write about rape: but I must not be caught on the side of murder or rape. It is as simple as that.

Quoting the Ibo proverb that “where something stands, something else will stand beside it,” Achebe argues that great art is built on pluralism and comes from the artist’s ability to embrace — to borrow Walt Whitman’s wonderful phrase — her or his multitudes:

Single-mindedness … leads to totalitarianism of all kinds, to fanaticism of all kinds. And I can’t help the feeling that somehow at the base, art and fanaticism are not loggerheads.


Wherever something is, something else also is. And I think it is important that whatever the regimes are saying — that the artist keeps himself ready to enter the other plea. Perhaps it’s not tidy — perhaps we are contradicting ourselves. But one of your poets has said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well.”

Conversations with James Baldwin abounds with abiding wisdom on art and life from one of the fiercest minds of the past century and a number of his venerated peers. Complement it with Baldwin on the creative process, freedom and how we imprison ourselves, his advice to aspiring writers, and his forgotten conversation with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered, then revisit Achebe on the writer’s responsibility to the world.

* 1980 was still well within the era in which every writer, every artist, every human being was, as Ursula K. Le Guin noted in her timelessly brilliant commentary on gendered language, “a man.”


Baudelaire on Beauty and Strangeness

“Beauty always has an element of strangeness… simple, unintended, unconscious strangeness [which] gives it the right to be called beauty.”

Baudelaire on Beauty and Strangeness

“The secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1855 as he contemplated what beauty is and how it enchants us. That selfsame year, on the other side of the Atlantic, another poet laureate of art’s intersection with philosophy was puzzling over the same subject from the same angle.

In an essay about Paris’s Exposition Universelle of 1855, found in Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Literature (public library), the great French poet, essayist, and critic Charles Baudelaire (April 9, 1821–August 31, 1867) made an elegant case for why the interestingness of irregularity is precisely what lends beauty its allure.

Portrait of Baudelaire by Emile Deroy, 1844
Portrait of Baudelaire by Emile Deroy, 1844

Baudelaire writes:

Beauty always has an element of strangeness. I do not mean a deliberate cold form of strangeness, for in that case it would be a monstrous thing that had jumped the rails of life. But I do mean that it always contains a certain degree of strangeness, of simple, unintended, unconscious strangeness, and that this form of strangeness is what gives it the right to be called beauty. It is its hallmark, its special characteristic. Reverse the proposition and try to imagine a commonplace beauty! And how could this necessary, incompressible, infinitely varied strangeness, dependent upon environment, climate, habits, upon race, religion and the temperament of the artist, ever be controlled, amended, corrected by utopian rules, excogitated in some little temple or other of learning somewhere on the planet, without mortal danger to art itself? This element of strangeness which constitutes and defines individuality, without which there is no beauty, plays in art (and may the precision of this comparison excuse its triviality) the role of taste or flavouring in cookery; if the individual usefulness or the degree of nutritious value they contain be excepted, viands differ from each other only by the idea they reveal to the tongue.

In another essay from the same volume, Baudelaire revisits the subject of beauty from the perspective of culinary metaphor:

Beauty is made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose quantity it is excessively difficult to determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be, if you like, whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions. Without this second element, which might be described as the amusing, enticing, appetizing icing on the divine cake, the first element would be beyond our powers of digestion or appreciation, neither adapted nor suitable to human nature. I defy anyone to point to a single scrap of beauty which does not contain these two elements.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly indispensable Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Literature with Susan Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness, poet and philosopher John O’Donohue on beauty and desire, Ursula K. Le Guin on what beauty really means, and Frida Kahlo on how love amplifies beauty, then revisit Baudelaire’s timeless, acutely timely open letter to the privileged and powerful about the political and humanitarian power of art.


The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: Astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on the Transcendence of Nature and Fishing as a Metaphor for the Pursuit of Knowledge

“We are surrounded by mystery, by what we don’t know and, more dramatically, by what we can’t know.”

The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: Astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on the Transcendence of Nature and Fishing as a Metaphor for the Pursuit of Knowledge

“You put that line,” the great director Robert Altman enthused about his love of fishing, “and you don’t know what’s on the other end. Your imagination is under there.”

In The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher’s Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything (public library), Dartmouth astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser argues that angling into the unknown to plumb its imaginative possibilities is also what science does. At the age of eleven, well before he became a theoretical physicist and came to study questions once considered outside the realm of science — question about the origin and nature of the universe — Gleiser grew enchanted with fishing as “a portal into a spiritual dimension of being, a way to transcend the clutch of time.”

Like gardening, an activity of larger metaphorical dimensions, fishing, Gleiser found, offers an apt metaphor for the essence of the scientific spirit. He writes:

Fishing teaches us to be patient, tolerant, humble — key qualities needed in research. How often do fishermen go to the water with their rods, dreaming of the day’s catch, only to come home empty-handed? Likewise, how often do scientists passionately explore an idea for days, weeks, months, years even, only to be forced to accept that it leads nowhere? Notwithstanding the frequent failures, and just as in fishing, they keep coming back, even if the odds for success are pretty low. The thrill is in beating the odds, occasionally landing a big fish or an idea that reveals something new about the world.

In fishing and in science we flirt with the elusive. We stare at the water, and sometimes we see a fish stir underneath the surface or even jump, betraying its presence. But the watery world is not our own, and we can only conjecture about what really goes on down there, polarized lenses and all. The line and the hook are our probes into this other realm, which we perceive only very imperfectly.

Art by Shaun Tan for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Click image for more.

Echoing pioneering biochemist Erwin Chargaff’s beautiful meditation on the poetics of curiosity and our natural blinders to reality, Gleiser adds:

We see very little of what really goes on around us. Science is our probe into invisible realms, be it the world of the very small, of bacteria, of atoms, of elementary particles, or the world of the very large, of stars, galaxies, and even the Universe as a whole. We see these through our tools of exploration– our reality amplifiers — the telescopes, the microscopes, and the many other instruments of detection, the rod and line of the natural scientist. If we are persistent, once in a while we see Nature stir, even jump, revealing the simple beauty of the unexpected.

In one particularly poetic passage, Gleiser recounts his own encounter with that simple, scintillating beauty during a walk in the wilderness after a lecture in England. He writes:

A public footpath meanders along the river. I approached it through a narrow alleyway just beneath the castle. A huge sycamore bowed ceremoniously over the dark green water. I paused to appreciate the view, infused with a deep sense of peace. A cloud of mayflies wobbled just above the current, joyfully celebrating their twenty-four-hour existence. Suddenly, out of the depths, a salmon leaped some three feet into the air, swallowed one of them, and dived back with a noisy splash. The fish must have been at least six pounds, maybe more. I just stood there, motionless, mouth agape.


Was it an omen? Of course it was! Only a fool, blind, sad rationalist would wave away something like this, dismissing it as a mere coincidence. When an event is meaningful it becomes more than a mere coincidence. I’m not saying that some supreme supernatural power or some river spirit planted the message just for me. That would be nonsensical and hopelessly self-centered. The salmon jumped, and I happened to be right there to see it. Why take away from the simple beauty of what had just happened, attributing it to an invisible and elusive conductor? What should be worshipped here is not some invisible, unknowable magic hand but the serendipity of the event, the emotional impact it had on me. The salmon’s timeline and my own overlapped for a few brief seconds of pure and absolute bliss. There is no need to bring anyone or anything else into the picture.

The gap between our expectations and this marvel of the unexpected, of course, is what gave rise to ancient mythologies and superstitions. But learning to inhabit that gap is at the heart of what Alan Lightman has so memorably called “the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.” It is part of, and perhaps the whole of, our search for meaning. Gleiser writes:

The meaning of life is to find meaning in life.

“The Unborn Fish” by Bhajju Shyam from Creation, an illustrated cosmogony of ancient Indian myths

With a lucid eye to how our ancestors went about finding meaning, Gleiser notes:

The whole notion of a supernatural influence doesn’t really make sense. After all, an “influence” denotes a physical occurrence or an event. And an occurrence is something that happens in the physical world through some kind of energy exchange. Any kind of energy exchange or force is very natural and requires a very natural cause. In other words, as soon as the supernatural becomes physical enough to be noticed or detected in some way, it can’t remain supernatural anymore. A “supernatural influence” is an oxymoron.


The unexplainable — to be distinguished from the not-yet-explained, which is the province of science — is unavoidable. And should be welcomed. We are surrounded by mystery, by what we don’t know and, more dramatically, by what we can’t know.

Echoing Hannah Arendt’s insistence on the importance of unanswerable questions and building upon his own earlier work about the mystery of nature and the nature of mystery, Gleiser considers the necessity of embracing doubt as an integral part of our pursuit of knowledge:

If our accumulated knowledge of the world makes up an island, the island grows as we learn more. (It may also occasionally shrink, as we discard an erroneous theory or explanation.) As with every island, this one is also surrounded by an ocean, in this case the ocean of the unknown. However — and here is the twist — as the island grows, so do the shores of our ignorance, the boundary between the known and the unknown. In other words, new knowledge generates new unknowns. Unless we stop asking questions about Nature, there is no possible end to our search.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Bertrand Russell’s timeless clarion call for the discipline of doubt, Gleiser adds:

We must conclude that this ever-growing body of knowledge called science cannot explain all there is for the simple reason that we won’t ever know all there is to explain. How could we possibly know all the questions to ask? To presume that we can know all there is to know only shows how supremely arrogant some people can be. It also flies against all that we have learned about how science generates knowledge.


But … understand the limitations of science is not the same as labeling it as weak or exposing it to the criticism of antiscience groups, such as Bible literalists. It is, in fact, liberating to those who consider it, as it frees science from the burden of being godlike, all-knowing and all-powerful. It protects its integrity in a time when so many claims from scientists get inflated beyond their validity, either by those making them (they should know better) or by the media… Furthermore … why should we want to know everything? Imagine how sad it would be if, one day, we arrived at the end of knowledge. With no more questions to ask, our creativity would be stifled, our fire within extinguished. That, to me, would be incomparably worse than embracing doubt as the unavoidable partner of a curious mind. Science remains our most effective tool to explore the world in its myriad manifestations. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is a human invention and that, as such, it does have limitations. Every system of knowledge is fallible.

And yet limited as it may be, science is still our finest searchlight for knowledge amid the darkness of the unknown — knowledge which we transmute into wisdom, out of which we then wrest meaning — or, rather, meanings. Looking back on his own path to becoming a scientist with the modern makings of a natural philosopher, Gleiser reflects:

This manifold devotion, this search for different ways to connect with something bigger than I am, can only be called love. Einstein called it the experience of the mysterious — “the cosmic religious feeling” — to him the most significant we could have, the awe we feel as we contemplate Creation. (By “Creation” with a capital C I mean the totality of Nature.) In my view, it is the purest form of spirituality, the manifold experience of our profound connection with the cosmos. From Nature we came, in Nature we are, to Nature we go.

Complement Gleiser’s altogether excellent The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected with Alan Lightman on the transcendence of discovery and 19-year-old Sylvia Plath on finding nonreligious divinity in nature.


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