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Ursula K. Le Guin on Redeeming the Imagination from the Commodification of Creativity and How Storytelling Teaches Us to Assemble Ourselves

“Literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we’re visiting, life.”

Ursula K. Le Guin on Redeeming the Imagination from the Commodification of Creativity and How Storytelling Teaches Us to Assemble Ourselves

“The imagination,” wrote the trailblazing philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft in a 1794 letter, “is the true fire, stolen from heaven, to animate this cold creature of clay, producing all those fine sympathies that lead to rapture, rendering men social by expanding their hearts, instead of leaving them leisure to calculate how many comforts society affords.” And yet somehow, in the centuries since, we have increasingly lost sight of the imagination’s rapturous rewards and come to see it as a commodity of what we now call “the creative industry” — something calculable and efficient, useful in maximizing society’s comforts and business’s profits. Much as today’s archetypal Silicon Valley characters are pragmatizing Eastern philosophy and ancient meditation practices as tools for “optimizing” their “performance,” the imagination — that pinnacle of our cognitive evolution and seedbed of our core humanity — is being co-opted for purposes that have little to do with animating our sympathies and expanding our hearts.

More than two centuries after Wollstonecraft, Ursula K. Le Guin, another woman of extraordinary intellect and imaginative prowess, sets out to redeem the imagination from the grip of consumerist commodification in a magnificent 2002 lecture titled “Operating Instructions,” later included in Le Guin’s altogether fantastic nonfiction collection Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016, with a Journal of a Writer’s Week (public library).

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Le Guin writes:

In America the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order. Poetry and plays have no relation to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don’t work. Fantasy is for children and primitive peoples. Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions. I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination.

I hear voices agreeing with me. “Yes, yes!” they cry. “The creative imagination is a tremendous plus in business! We value creativity, we reward it!” In the marketplace, the word creativity has come to mean the generation of ideas applicable to practical strategies to make larger profits. This reduction has gone on so long that the word creative can hardly be degraded further. I don’t use it any more, yielding it to capitalists and academics to abuse as they like. But they can’t have imagination.

Imagination is not a means of making money. It has no place in the vocabulary of profit-making. It is not a weapon, though all weapons originate from it, and their use, or non-use, depends on it, as with all tools and their uses. The imagination is an essential tool of the mind, a fundamental way of thinking, an indispensable means of becoming and remaining human.

Le Guin observes that like any tool, the imagination requires that we first learn how to use it — or, rather, that we unlearn how to squander it. Storytelling, she argues, is the sandbox in which we learn to use the imagination:

Children have imagination to start with, as they have body, intellect, the capacity for language: things essential to their humanity, things they need to learn how to use, how to use well. Such teaching, training, and practice should begin in infancy and go on throughout life. Young human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive.

When children are taught to hear and learn the central literature of their people, or, in literate cultures, to read and understand it, their imagination is getting a very large part of the exercise it needs.

Nothing else does quite as much for most people, not even the other arts. We are a wordy species. Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. Music, dance, visual arts, crafts of all kinds, all are central to human development and well-being, and no art or skill is ever useless learning; but to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón

Virginia Woolf considered memory the seamstress that threads our lives together, but it is story — our inner storytelling — that orders memory into a coherent thread; it is story that, as Susan Sontag memorably observed, can “reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.” Our life-paths are paved with story — stretching back, the stories we tell ourselves about what happened to us, why it did, and how it made us who we are; stretching forward, the stories we tell ourselves about what is possible, what we want to achieve, and who we want to become.

In consonance with Rebecca West’s assertion that “art is not a plaything, but a necessity… a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted,” Le Guin considers this essential function of story in sculpting our ability to be at home in the world and its formative role in our becoming:

Through story, every culture defines itself and teaches its children how to be people and members of their people.

[…]

A child who doesn’t know where the center is — where home is, what home is — that child is in a very bad way.

Home isn’t Mom and Dad and Sis and Bud. Home isn’t where they have to let you in. It’s not a place at all. Home is imaginary.

Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can’t get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it—whoever your people are. They may not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.

All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people.

Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova for ‘The Jacket’ by Kirsten Hall. Click image for more.

But that self-invention, Le Guin cautions, is not a solitary act — it takes place at the communal campfire where our essential stories of being are co-created and told. Building on the ideas in her exquisite earlier meditation on telling and listening, she writes:

Human beings have always joined in groups to imagine how best to live and help one another carry out the plan. The essential function of human community is to arrive at some agreement on what we need, what life ought to be, what we want our children to learn, and then to collaborate in learning and teaching so that we and they can go on the way we think is the right way.

[…]

Nobody can do anything very much, really, alone.

What a child needs, what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along lines that make sense to us and allow some freedom, and listen to them. Not hear passively, but listen.

Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence.

Reading is a means of listening.

Seven decades after Hermann Hesse made his beautiful case for why we read and always will, however technology may evolve, Le Guin adds:

The technology is not what matters. Words are what matter. The sharing of words. The activation of imagination through the reading of words.

The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we’re visiting, life.

Words Are My Matter is a tremendous read in its totality, exploring questions of art, storytelling, gender, freedom, dignity, and what happens when we go to sleep. Complement this particular portion with William Blake’s searing defense of the imagination and Ada Lovelace on its two core faculties, then revisit Le Guin on being a “man,” the sacredness of public libraries, imaginative storytelling as a force of freedom, what beauty really means, where good ideas come from, and writing as falling in love.

BP

The Dinner Party: Artist Judy Chicago’s Iconic Antidote to the Erasure of Women in the History of Creative Culture

From Hypatia to Susan B. Anthony to Virginia Woolf, a sacrament and an insurrection restoring women’s place in history.

“I spent the morning in needle-work,” pioneering astronomer Caroline Herschel wrote in her journal on an unexceptional July morning in 1786. To persuade her conservative mother to let her leave home and join her brother in his astronomical endeavors, Herschel knitted a year’s worth of stockings for the family. But even as this tiny five-foot woman was gazing at the cosmos by night through her twenty-foot Newtonian telescope, making comet discoveries that paved the way for women in science, by day she remained consistently engaged in craftwork. Just before her seventy-eighth birthday, Herschel became the first woman awarded the prestigious Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. That week, her nephew, the astronomer John Herschel, wrote to congratulate her on the accolade and offered in the same breath: “My mother … begs me to thank you for your kind and beautiful present of needlework (which even I could admire).”

At the age of eighty-one, beloved artist Louise Bourgeois — who came from a long lineage of craftspeople — reflected on her lifelong fascination with “the magic and power of the needle” in her diary: “The needle is used to repair the damage. It’s a claim to forgiveness. It is never aggressive, it’s not a pin.”

Hand-embroidered runner for Caroline Herschel by Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party.
Hand-embroidered runner for Caroline Herschel (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

That redemptive and rebellious aspect of needlework is a centerpiece of The Dinner Party (public library) — the iconic 1979 project by artist Judy Chicago (b. July 20, 1939), celebrating women’s heritage in creative culture.

At once a sacrament and an insurrection, the project was born out of and into the women’s empowerment movement of the 1970s. But any hubristic impulse we may have had, until recently, to dismiss its central point as no longer relevant or needed has been swiftly disarmed by the political situation of our day — a situation that is foisting upon us the unwanted, discomfiting awareness that misogyny and other forms of bigotry are alive and well, that we live in a society not nearly as woke as we may have thought, and that somehow we must break bread with people who have a very different view of the present and of the tapestry of former presents we call history.

Chicago’s words from decades ago stun with their relevance today:

Women had always made a significant contribution to the development of human civilization, but these were consistently ignored, denied, or trivialized.

Caroline Herschel plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Caroline Herschel plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

The monumental installation, every meticulous detail of which is painstakingly crafted by hand, features an open triangular table, each side 46 ½ feet long, covered with fine white cloths embroidered in gold. Thirty-nine place settings grace the table, thirteen per side — a number of deliberate duality, referring to both the thirteen apostles at the Last Supper and the number of witches in a coven, contrasting the holiness of maleness with the demonization of women.

At the center of each place setting is an exquisite hand-painted fourteen-inch china plate, representing a particular period in Western civilization and a particular woman — artist, writer, scientist, saint, mythic figure — who made a powerful mark on that period. Among the women are Susan B. Anthony, Caroline Herschel, Georgia O’Keeffe, Hypatia of Alexandria, Emily Dickinson, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Virginia Woolf. Painted onto each plate is the vibrant, symbolically stylized vulva of each woman.

Mary Wollstonecraft plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Mary Wollstonecraft plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Georgia O'Keeffe plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Georgia O’Keeffe plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Hrosvitha plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Hrotsvitha plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Susan B. Anthony plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Susan B. Anthony plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

Surrounding each plate are a golden chalice, lustered ceramic flatware, and a gold-embroidered napkin, resting upon a generous runner embroidered in the needlework style specific to the period and region in which the respective woman lived.

Embroidery detail: illuminated capital from Virginia Woolf runner (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Embroidery detail: illuminated capital from Virginia Woolf runner (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Virginia Woolf plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Virginia Woolf plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Elizabeth Blackwell plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Elizabeth Blackwell plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Emily Dickinson plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Emily Dickinson plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Amazon plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Amazon plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Anne Hutchinson plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Anne Hutchinson plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Ishtar plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Ishtar plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Sappho plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Sappho plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Hypatia plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Hypatia plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

The table itself stands on an enormous triangular floor covered in 2,300 handcrafted ceramic tiles, inscribed in gold luster with the names of 999 notable women grouped around the women represented at the table — a constellation of influences and affiliations celebrating the long and interwoven history of women’s accomplishment.

Table overview (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979, Brooklyn Museum)
Table overview (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979, Brooklyn Museum)

Chicago details the extraordinary craftsmaship process that brought the project to life in Embroidering Our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework (public library) — from her decision to learn china-painting after becoming enchanted by the quality of color in an antique porcelain plate to her assembly of a diverse team of craftswomen collaborators to learning about the rich cultural history of needlework and ceramics.

Chicago writes:

Studying china-painting exposed me, for the first time, to the world of women’s traditional arts. I learned a great deal from the women with whom I trained — not only about china-painting, but also about a very different way of being an artist. Most china-painters see teaching as part of their work. Their teaching takes a number of forms; they give classes and seminars, but most importantly, at least for me, they teach by example. During exhibitions, they sit in their booths and paint while crowds of people watch them. This act and the public response to it intrigued me; the china-painters’ activity was in stark contrast with the isolated and private act of creation associated with twentieth-century “high art.”

In an homage to these women and their countercultural approach to art, Chicago decided to do same with The Dinner Party — a project that began as a solo endeavor, but after a year and a half of work, made it clear that completion would require a studio of skilled workers.

Woven banners hanging at the entry of the installation, greeting visitors (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Woven banners hanging at the entry of the installation, greeting visitors (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

Four years elapsed between the time Chicago enlisted the help of her team of craftswomen and the time The Dinner Party was completed and exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 1979. Once a week, the bustling rhythm of labor at the studio was halted for an evening of discussion, lectures, and a potluck dinner. The materials and fabrication of the finished project cost more than $250,000 — close to $875,000 in today’s money.

Chicago reflects on the wonderfully emboldening grassroots spirit of the project — the same spirit in which the vast majority of art in human history was made:

We worked as I had worked for fifteen years: without knowing where the money would come from. I’d sell a drawing, we’d get a small grant, someone would make a donation — and we’d have enough money for another month or two.

The installation itself, as powerful today as it was four decades ago and at least as culturally necessary, is currently housed at the Brooklyn Museum and lives on, alongside essays detailing its creative process and exploring its cultural significance, in the commemorative volume The Dinner Party.

BP

An Illustrated Celebration of Jane Austen’s Life

“She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow.”

After visiting my alma mater to deliver a commencement address, the faculty kindly took me out for brunch. Dining with us was also one of the Annenberg School’s star students. Over organic pancakes, she professed an obsession — her word — with Jane Austen (December 16, 1775–July 18, 1817) and proceeded to rhapsodize about how much of herself and her values she saw mirrored in Austen’s heroines. That a highly educated young African-American woman heading into the business world of the twenty-first century should find such besotting resonance with a mostly homeschooled English novelist who died nearly two centuries earlier bespeaks Austen’s incomparable stature as one of the most beloved, psychologically compelling, and timelessly enchanting authors our civilization has produced.

And yet biographical information about Austen’s life is notoriously scarce, most of it reconstructed by historians based on second-hand accounts by family and friends — accounts invariably warped by personal subjectivities and faded by the passage of time. Standing in stark contrast to today’s thriving genre of revelatory memoirs by writers who have made a public craft of their private lives, the paucity of insight into Austen’s inner world only amplifies the aura of almost mystical reverence that surrounds her.

In Jane Austen: An Illustrated Biography (public library), writer Zena Alkayat and artist Nina Cosford draw on Austen’s surviving letters and various existing biographies to paint a compact and charming portrait of her life.

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Part of the same Library of Luminaries series that gave us that lovely illustrated biography of Virginia Woolf, the book follows Austen from her childhood surrounded by books to the blossoming of her uncommon literary talent to her untimely death at the age of forty-one from a disease the retrospective diagnosis of which remains disputed. Central to her life is the loving relationship with her sister and dearest friend, Cassandra.

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Jane’s father was a parson and a farmer, but to supplement his family’s income, he and Mrs. Austen turned the rectory into a small boys’ boarding school. So Jane was used to being around male company — and lots and lots of books.

As young children, Jane and Cassandra were inseparable. The sisters went to boarding school together, where they learned spelling, French, math, needlework, and dance.

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Punctuating the narrative of a life almost entirely confined to her immediate family is Austen’s first and only big love — a romance with a young law student named Tom Lefroy, a neighbor’s nephew, which ended in heartbreak as Tom chose the social ladder over the financially precarious twenty-year-old Jane. (The intense experience no doubt influenced the advice on marriage Austen gave her niece many years later.)

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Tom was under pressure to do well in his career and marry advantageously. And Jane was a girl with no fortune. As quickly as she had fallen for him, he disappeared from her life.

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But Austen transmuted that heartbreak into fuel for creative work:

By October 1796 she had begun writing First Impressions, which would go on to become Pride and Prejudice. She finished the manuscript in less than a year and returned to Sense and Sensibility to restructure and revise it.

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Although every life is largely a function of its time and place, and all art is informed by the artist’s milieu, Austen came of age in a particularly transformative cultural era:

All around Jane, small fissures were appearing in the established social structure. Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (published in 1792) was a controversial indictment of sexual inequality. And Jane was a keen fan of moralist Samuel Johnson, whose essays supported service to one’s fellow man and diligence (not inheritance) as a path to prosperity.

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By the time Austen finished Sense and Sensibility, her brother Henry, who acted as her literary agent, found a publisher who agreed to print the book at the author’s expense. The first printing sold out and Austen earned £140 in royalties over the next two years, estimated to equal about £5,000 in today’s money.

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Despite the financial and critical success, Austen continued leading an intensely domestic life, one of tea and piano practice amid her family, and went on writing novels that would bewitch critics, royalty, and common readers alike.

But then she fell ill. Despite her obstinate and heroic effort to continue working as usual, her health plummeted into a downward spiral from which she never emerged. In April of 1817, bedridden but still in denial about her illness, she privately made her will. In a letter panned the following month, she wrote:

If I live to be an old woman I must expect to wish I had died now, blessed in the tenderness of such a family, before I survived either them or their affection.

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On July 18, 1817, Jane died peacefully with her head resting on her sister’s lap. She was forty-one.

Later that month, Cassandra wrote:

She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow.

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Complement Jane Austen: An Illustrated Biography with Austen on creative integrity, her advice on writing, and the parodic history of England she wrote as a teenager, illustrated by Cassandra, then revisit other wonderful illustrated biographies celebrating Louise Bourgeois, e.e. cummings, Pablo Neruda, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, and Nellie Bly.

Illustrations © Nina Cosford courtesy of Chronicle Books; photographs by Maria Popova

BP

Debbie Millman’s Touching Letter to Children About How Books Solace Our Heartbreak and Salve Our Existential Loneliness

“Books — like dogs — are among a handful of things on this planet that just want to be loved. And they will love you back, generously and selflessly, requiring very little in return.”

Debbie Millman’s Touching Letter to Children About How Books Solace Our Heartbreak and Salve Our Existential Loneliness

In her visionary 1826 novel The Last Man — an apocalyptic journey to the end of humanity, unfolding into a sublime philosophical meditation on how to live with unutterable existential loneliness — Mary Shelley, whose brilliant mother had died giving birth to her and who had buried three of her own children, her sister, and the love of her life by the age of twenty-five, poses to her autobiographically based protagonist the supreme challenge of existence: In a world made desolate by a plague that has snatched all his loved ones, all his compatriots, and eventually all his fellow human beings, leaving him the solitary endling of the species, how does he go on living? Where does he find sustenance not just for the biological process but for his mental, emotional, and spiritual survival?

Shelley sends him to Rome — the city where, after laying the body of her infant daughter in an unmarked grave, she herself had slowly been resuscitated from grief. Wandering the streets of the Eternal City, alone and alien, accompanied only by a loyal dog, her protagonist finds his first taste of consolation, his first glimmer of the will to live, in the verses of Virgil, in the books at the majestic library of Rome, containing the sum total of humanity’s wisdom — for the work of literature and philosophy, as Montaigne reminds us across the abyss of epochs, is to teach us how to live with death.

Reading The Last Man in a desolate season of my own life and finding in it the meta-solace Shelley’s protagonist found in literature, I was suddenly grateful anew for how books can so buoy us from the pit of being, and was reminded of Debbie Millman’s wonderful contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library).

Original art by Dasha Tolstikova for Debbie Millman’s letter from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick.

She writes:

Dear Reader,

I want to tell you that everything will be okay.

I want to tell you that it will get better.

I want to tell you that it all works out in the end.

But sometimes it doesn’t.

Most times it is hard and we usually end up getting used to it. But there is something you can do in response: read.

Read until your heart breaks and you can’t stand it anymore. Read until you have paper cuts from turning pages or blisters from swiping a screen.

You see, here’s the thing: even at their worst, books won’t abandon you. If they make you cry it’s only because they are that good.

You can depend on books. They will always be there for you. Their patience is infinite and they have been known to save lives. They can help you become a smarter, more interesting person. Books can probably help you get dates, though I don’t recommend you ask that much of them too often (you don’t want to limit their power).

Books — like dogs — are among a handful of things on this planet that just want to be loved. And they will love you back, generously and selflessly, requiring very little in return — until they are complete, their light and their wisdom and their hearts sputtering to an inevitable, lonely end.

Debbie Millman

For more tastes of A Velocity of Being — a labor of love eight years in the making, all proceeds from which benefit the New York public library system — savor other wondrous letters to children: Rebecca Solnit, Jane Goodall, Alain de Botton, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alexander Chee, Kevin Kelly, and 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin, then feast your eyes and heart on some stunning original art from the book, celebrating the joys, consolations, and life-expanding rewards of reading.

BP

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