Brain Pickings

Page 6

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Opaque to Ourselves: Milan Kundera on Writing and the Key to Great Storytelling

A torch for traversing “the territory where no one possesses the truth… but where everyone has the right to be understood.”

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Opaque to Ourselves: Milan Kundera on Writing and the Key to Great Storytelling

This might be the most transcendent capacity of consciousness, and the most terrifying: that in the world of the mind, we can construct models of the real world built upon theories of exquisite internal consistency; that those theories can have zero external validity when tested against reality; and that we rarely get to test them, or wish to test them. Just ask Ptolemy.

In its clinical manifestation, we call this tendency delusion. In its creative manifestation, we call it art — the novel, the story, the poem, the song are each a model, an imagistic impression of the world not as it is but as the maker pictures it to be, inviting us to step into this imaginary world in order to better understand the real, including ourselves.

Art from Thomas Wright’s 1750 treatise An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, depicting the Solar System as it was then understood. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

Because we are always partly opaque to ourselves even at our most self-aware, fiction and real life have something wonderful in common, wonderful and disorienting: the ability to surprise even the author — of the story or the life.

Both are a form of walking through the half-mapped territory of being, real or imagined, making the path in the act of walking and so revising the map with each step.

In both, we can set out for one destination and arrive at another, or as another.

In both, we are propelled partly by our directional intentionality and partly by something else, something ineffable yet commanding that draws its momentum from the energy of uncertainty.

The great Czech-French novelist Milan Kundera articulates this something else with uncommon clarity in The Art of the Novel (public library), published two years after The Unbearable Lightness of Being — the 1984 classic that might be read as one long elegiac entreaty for embracing the uncertainties of love and life, challenging Nietzsche’s notion of “the eternal return.”

Double rainbow from Les phénomènes de la physique, 1868. Available as a print and face mask.

With an eye to storytellers’ ability to surprise themselves in the telling as the story crosses the terrain of imagined existence under its self-generated momentum, Kundera writes:

When Tolstoy sketched the first draft of Anna Karenina, Anna was a most unsympathetic woman, and her tragic end was entirely deserved and justified. The final version of the novel is very different, but I do not believe that Tolstoy had revised his moral ideas in the meantime; I would say, rather, that in the course of writing, he was listening to another voice than that of his personal moral conviction. He was listening to what I would like to call the wisdom of the novel. Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work.

Kundera locates that suprapersonal wisdom in “the wisdom of uncertainty” — something his poet-contemporary Wisława Szymborska named as the crucible of all creativity in her superb Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In a sentiment evocative of physicist Richard Feynman’s astute observation that uncertainty is the prerequisite for truth and morality, in science as in life, Kundera writes:

The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals. It is the territory where no one possesses the truth, neither Anna nor Karenin, but where everyone has the right to be understood, both Anna and Karenin.

Art from Johannes Kepler’s 1619 treatise The Harmony of the World. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

Great storytelling, then, deals in the illumination of complexity — sometimes surprising, sometimes disquieting, always enlarging our understanding and self-understanding as we come to see the opaque parts of ourselves from a new angle, in a new light. Kundera writes:

Every novel says to the reader, “Things are not as simple as they seem.” That is the novel’s eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers that come faster than the question and block it off.

So understood, storytelling becomes a way of walking with uncertainty and sitting with nuance, which is in turn a way of broadening the possibilities of existence in each of our lives. Echoing Adrienne Rich’s notion that all forms of literary imagination are “the arts of the possible,” Kundera writes:

A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man* can become, everything he’s capable of. Novelists draw up the map of existence by discovering this or that human possibility. But… to exist means “being-in-the-world.” Thus both the character and his world must be understood as possibilities… [Novels] thereby make us see what we are, and what we are capable of.

A quarter century earlier, James Baldwin had captured this in his lovely notion that the artist’s role, the writer’s role, the storyteller’s role is “to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.”

Complement this portion of Kundera’s altogether illuminating The Art of the Novel with Iris Murdoch on storytelling as resistance, Toni Morrison on storytelling as sacrament to beauty, Susan Sontag storytelling as moral calibration, and Ursula K. Le Guin on storytelling as transformation, then revisit poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s advice on writing, Anton Chekhov’s six rules for a great story, and psychologist Jerome Bruner on the psychology of what makes a great story.

BP

Water as a Portal to Transcendence

“The sea holds an abundance of comfort and inspiration and danger, all that a person needs in order to rise to the full largesse of beauty… If you allow this beauty to become a blank, if you turn your back to the blues and deny your dependence on them, you might lose your place in the world, your actions would become small, your soul disengaged.”

Water as a Portal to Transcendence

“Every story is a story of water,” the Native American poet Natalie Diaz wrote in her stunning poem “lake-loop.” Water is central to the creation myths of every indigenous culture, central to Bruce Lee’s metaphor for resilience, central to the pulse-beat of life on this Pale Blue Dot.

“Like all profound mysteries,” the Scottish poet and mountaineer Nan Shepherd wrote as she regarded the might and mystery of water, “it is so simple that it frightens me.” Across the Atlantic, contemplating the ocean as a lens on the meaning of life, the poetic marine biologist Rachel Carson reverenced Earth’s waters as a portal to comprehending “our place in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea… in which there is no finality, no ultimate and fixed reality.”

A generation after her, Ellen Meloy (June 21, 1946–November 4, 2004) — another uncommonly lyrical observer of the natural world, who channeled the native poetry of its processes and phenomena in her perceptive prose — celebrated water as a portal to transcendence in a passage from The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky (public library) — the slender masterpiece that came to life months before her untimely death.

Art by Indian tribal artist Subhash Vyam from his book Water.

Midway through her exquisite inquiry into the conscience of color, from chemistry to culture, Meloy writes:

As a desert dweller, I believe that water is a truer entry to Place. In the West, aridity defines us.

There is abundant water here in the Yucatán — ocean, marsh, lagoon, underground rivers, cenotes (natural wells where freshwater surfaces), a tropical forest swollen with transpiration. Storms bring a hurricane’s eyewall of torrents or nothing at all; even jungles have droughts. By invasion and sheer presence, the sea pushes itself into what is drinkable and what is heard, or what you miss hearing when you are distant from the surf.

In a sentiment evocative of Rachel Carson’s scientific-poetic serenade to the blues of the sea, Meloy adds:

The sea holds an abundance of comfort and inspiration and danger, all that a person needs in order to rise to the full largesse of beauty. It seems that if you allow this beauty to become a blank, if you turn your back to the blues and deny your dependence on them, you might lose your place in the world, your actions would become small, your soul disengaged.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Japanese artist Hokusai, 1831. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Complement this small fragment of Meloy’s wholly soul-slaking The Anthropology of Turquoise with We Are Water Protectors — an illustrated celebration of nature, Native heritage, and ecological responsibility — then revisit Olivia Laing on life, loss, and the wisdom of rivers.

BP

The Optimism of the Oyster

From the rudiments of consciousness to the redemptions of conservation, with a side of existential reckoning.

The Optimism of the Oyster

“Obviously, if you don’t love life, you can’t enjoy an oyster,” Eleanor Clark wrote in the book that won her the National Book Award, published exactly 100 years after On the Origin of Species. For Darwin, these strange and quietly wondrous creatures furnished a different kind of enjoyment. He had come under their spell as a college student, accompanying two of his mentors as they waded into tidal pools to collect oyster specimens. By twenty-five, having fused the enchantment of oysters with his growing passion for the deep time of geology, he was exulting to a friend:

When puzzling about stratifications, etc., I feel inclined to cry “a fig for your big oysters, and your bigger megatheriums” [extinct prehistoric giant sloths].

As natural history, evolution, and anatomy began revealing the unsuspected complexity of this organism long perceived as incredibly simple — and, in consequence, treated more like a lifeless rock than like a creature — to “enjoy” an oyster in the culinary sense became a less carefree endeavor. The biologist and anatomist T.H. Huxley — Darwin’s greatest champion against the first tidal wave of dogmatic attacks on evolutionary theory — captured the dismantling of the convenient delusion:

I suppose that when the sapid and slippery morsel — which is gone like a flash of gustatory summer lightning — glides along the palate, few people imagine that they are swallowing a piece of machinery (and going machinery too) greatly more complicated than a watch.

Art from “The Oyster: A Popular Summary of a Scientific Study,” 1891. (Available as face mask, and stationery cards, benefitting the Billion Oyster Project.)

From the dawning scientific knowledge of the oyster, a different kind of enjoyment arose — a kind consonant with Richard Feynman’s Ode to a Flower. Here was a creature at once rugged and tender, like life itself. Here was an emissary of a primordial Earth that carries the ancestral root of consciousness — that crucible of our capacity for enjoyment — in its tiny brain and nervous system fringed with a dark mantle of myriad nerve endings ceaselessly scanning the environment for threat and dispatching signals to the brain to slam the shell shut.

Out of such simplicity arose cognition, consciousness, the emotional machinery of love. All these billions of years of evolution, and still the same impulse animates our days and our songs — what to seal in, what to keep out, what to trust.

Art from “The Oyster: A Popular Summary of a Scientific Study,” 1891. (Available as a print, a face mask, and stationery cards, benefitting the Billion Oyster Project.)

But the history of our species is the history of convenient delusions — those willful blindnesses that allow us to live with ourselves: By the end of the nineteenth century, oysters were being sold by the bushel at three for a penny and eaten by the dozen at fine restaurants and street foodcarts alike. An entire industry of shuckers employed a whole new labor force. There were oyster-eating championships and champions who could open and eat 100 oysters in three minutes. Travelers remarked that in New York, “oysters in every size and variety of flavor are as cheap as oranges are at Havana.”

By the final decade of the century, early voices of dissent and ecological wakefulness were being raised. In the 1891 book The Oyster: A Popular Summary of a Scientific Study, the Johns Hopkins University zoologist William K. Brooks cautioned:

The fact, which for many years we strove to hide even from ourselves, [is] that our indifference and lack of foresight, and our blind trust in our natural advantages, have brought this grand inheritance to the verge of ruin. Unfortunately this is now so clear that it can no longer be hidden from sight nor explained away, and every one knows that, proud as our citizens once were of our birthright in our oyster-beds, we will be unable to give to our children any remnant of our patrimony unless the whole oyster industry is reformed without delay. We have wasted our inheritance by improvidence and mismanagement and blind confidence.

Gilded oyster from the cover of “The Oyster: A Popular Summary of a Scientific Study,” 1891. (Available as a print, a face mask, and stationery cards, benefitting the Billion Oyster Project.)

More than a century later, with the Atlantic Coast oyster beds overfished to the brink of ruin and entire marine ecosystems devastated by pollution, Mark Kurlansky picks up the admonition and hones it on an edge of optimism in his fascinating book The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell (public library). Lamenting that “the only thing New Yorkers ignore more than nature is history” — a statement as true if we substituted “Americans” (as a national identity) or “modern humans” (as a civilizational identity) for “New Yorkers” — he writes:

The history of New York oysters is a history of New York itself — its wealth, its strength, its excitement, its greed, its thoughtlessness, its destructiveness, its blindness and — as any New Yorker will tell you — its filth. This is the history of the trashing of New York, the killing of its great estuary.

New York is a city that does not plan; it creates situations and then deals with them. Most of its history is one of greedily grabbing beautiful things, destroying them, being outraged about the conditions, tearing them down, then building something else even further from nature’s intention in their place.

Writing nearly a decade before the founding of the Billion Oyster Project — one of the most inspired and inspiring restoration, conservation, and ecological education endeavors of our time — Kurlansky regards the extraordinary resilience of the oyster against a century of overfishing and pollution to envision a future in which the restoration of the oyster is both a function of and a catalyst for the restoration of our humbler and more harmonious relationship with the natural world:

A fresh oyster from a clean sea fills the palate with the taste of all the excitement and beauty — the essence — of the ocean. If the water is not pure, that, too, can be tasted in the oyster. So if someday New Yorkers can once again wander into their estuary, pluck a bivalve, and taste the estuary of the Hudson in all the “freshness and sweetness” that was once there, the cataclysm humans have unleashed on New York will have been at last undone.

For a lovely real-life helping of actionable optimism, join me in supporting the noble work of the Billion Oyster Project with a donation, then revisit the great marine biologist and epoch-making voice of ecological conscience Rachel Carson on science as a portal to our spiritual bond with nature and how the ocean illuminates the meaning of life.

BP

José Ortega y Gasset on the True Meaning and Measure of Intelligence

“Intelligence asserts itself above all not in art, nor in science, but in intuition of life.”

José Ortega y Gasset on the True Meaning and Measure of Intelligence

In her spare, stunning poem “Optimism,” Jane Hirshfield reverences the “blind intelligence” by which a tree relentlessly orients toward the light to survive — a kind of unreasoning, life-hungry intuition distinctly different from the way we humans define and measure our own intelligence, our measurements and definitions mired in myriad cultural biases and blind spots. The Western model of intelligence, with its fixation on the logical-mathematical mind, is in some deep sense the ultimate “blind intelligence,” dappled with blind spots that obscure so much of the raw, unmediated attentiveness to life that make it not only survivable but worth living.

That is what the great Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (May 9, 1883–October 18, 1955) explores in a wonderful aside toward the end of On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme (public library) — the gauntlet he throws at our culturally inherited, unexamined ideas about love and what makes us who we are.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Lamenting the “extremely small” number of truly intelligent people, Ortega hastens to anchor the lament in a definition of intelligence rooted not in the intellectual snobbery of Western high culture, which equates intelligence with erudition and acumen in the narrow domain of verbal-mathematical ability, but in something more akin to the Eastern notion of mindfulness — the sort of unclouded perception and clarity of consciousness at the heart of Buddha-nature and Zen-mind. In consonance with Simone de Beauvoir’s insistence that intelligence “is nothing else but the presence which is attentive to the world and to itself,” Ortega writes:

By intelligence I mean only that the mind react to happenings with a certain sharpness and precision, that the radish not be perpetually seized by its leaves, that the gray not be confused with brown and, above all, that objects in front of one be seen with a little exactness and accuracy, without supplanting sight by mechanically repeated words.

Echoing Sherwood Anderson’s observation that “most people remain all of their lives in a stupor,” Ortega rues that most people spend most of their lives with the radish fully engulfed by the leaves:

Ordinarily, one has the impression of living amid somnambulists who advance through life buried in an hermetic sleep from which it is impossible to stir them in order to make them aware of their surroundings.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Observing how much more influenced by our environment and cultural milieu we are than we realize — something reflected in the original Latin use of the word genius in the phrase genius loci, “the spirit of a place” — and how much our habits sculpt our fate, he adds:

Probably, humanity has almost always lived in this somnambulistic state in which ideas are not a wide-awake, conscious reaction to things, but a blind, automatic habit, drawn from a repertory of formulae which the atmosphere infuses into the individual.

Much of the erudition we mistake for intelligence is the product of this trance, intoxicated with the atmosphere of ideologies invisible to those living under the dome of their time and place — we need only look at eugenics and phrenology, once regarded as pinnacles of science, to shudder with the fact of such culturally constructed fictions. Half a century before Siddhartha Mukherjee confronted these damaging “slips between biology and culture” in his superb inquiry into the dark cultural history of IQ and why we cannot measure intelligence, Ortega writes:

It is undeniable that a large pat of science and literature has also been produced in a somnambulistic trance; that is to say, by creatures who are not at all intelligent… Science and literature, as such, do not imply perspicacity; but, undoubtedly, their cultivation is a stimulant which favors the awakening of the mind and preserves it in that luminous state of alertness which constitutes intelligence. The difference between the intelligent person and the fool is, after all, that the former lives on guard against their own foolishness, recognizes it as soon as it appears, and strives to eliminate it, whereas the fool enchantedly surrenders to their foolishness without reservations.

Art from the 19th-century French physics textbook Les monde physique. (Available as a print, as stationery cards, and as a face mask.)

Half a millennium after the polymathic physicist, philosopher, inventor, and mathematician Blaise Pascal considered the limits of the logical mind against intuition, and a generation before philosopher Martha Nussbaum made her penetrating case for the intelligence of emotions, Ortega offers an antidote to the common cultural snobbery about what intelligence means — the kind of snobbery particularly virulent among the privileged and overeducated. Echoing Henri Bergson’s perceptive and paradoxical observation that “the intellect is characterized by a natural inability to comprehend life,” he writes:

I consider it a grave misfortune if, in any period or nation, intelligence remains, practically speaking, reduced to the limits of the intellectual. Intelligence asserts itself above all not in art, nor in science, but in intuition of life. The intellectual, however, barely lives; they are usually a person with poverty of intuition; their acts in the world are few and they have very little knowledge of [love], [work], pleasure, and passion. They lead an abstract existence, and can barely throw a morsel of authentic live meat to the sharp-pointed teeth of intellect.

Complement with Proust on how our intellect blinds us to the wisdom of the heart, then revisit Ortega’s sweeping meditation on love, attention, and the invisible architecture of our being, in the final pages of which he shines this sidewise gleam on intelligence.

BP

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