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Hello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition â€“ Erich Fromm on the art of living, William James on attention, multitasking, and the habit of mind that sets geniuses apart, Junot DÃaz on race and our limiting mythologies of success, and more â€“ you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation â€“ I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
An advocate for the creative benefits of keeping a diary, Virginia Woolf saw this informal practice as training ground on which one can â€œloosen the ligamentsâ€ for formal writing. But hardly anyone has put private writing to more fruitful use as a creative and psychological sandbox for public-facing art than John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902â€“December 20, 1968).
Thirteen years after he completed the remarkable and psychologically revelatory journal he kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck enlisted another private medium of informal writing in perfecting his public prose. In January of 1951, as he was setting out to write East of Eden â€” a book he considered the most difficult he ever attempted, the ultimate test of his talent and discipline as a writer â€” Steinbeck decided to loosen his creative ligaments by writing a daily â€œletterâ€ to his dear friend and editor, Pascal Covici.
An ardent believer in the spiritual rewards of handwriting with the perfect writing instrument, Steinbeck began pouring his compact longhand into the large-format ruled notebook Covici had given him. He wrote a letter a day, each over a thousand words on average, until the first draft of the novel was finished 276 days later. A hobbyist woodworker, Steinbeck delivered the manuscript to Covici in a special wooden box he lovingly carved to hold the masterwork his wife considered his magnum opus.
On the pages of the blue-lined notebook, Steinbeck worked out and fine-tuned his ideas about writing, the creative process, family life, the purpose of art, and his most elemental convictions. These letters were eventually published as Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (public library) â€” an extraordinary document illuminating not only the mental, spiritual, and creative interiority of one of the most formidable artists who ever lived, but the very nature of creativity itself.
One of the most beautiful aspects of the letters is the sincerity with which they reveal the inseparability of an artistâ€™s selfhood and personal life, with all of its elations and anguishes, from his art. (Patti Smith addressed this indivisibility in her moving letter to Robert Mapplethorpe.) Particularly touching is Steinbeckâ€™s love for his two young sons, four and a half and six and a half at the time, to whom he addressed the novel.
I am choosing to write this book to my sons. They are little boys now and they will never know what they came from through me, unless I tell them. It is not written for them to read now but when they are grown and the pains and joys have tousled them a little. And if the book is addressed to them, it is for a good reason. I want them to know how it was, I want to tell them directly, and perhaps by speaking directly to them I shall speak directly to other people.
One can go off into fanciness if one writes to a huge nebulous groupâ€¦
John Steinbeck with his sons, Thom and John, in Paris, 1954. (Photograph courtesy of The Bancroft Library at University of California, Berkeley.)
But what makes the novel so abidingly powerful is that in speaking to his children, Steinbeck speaks to the most innocent parts of all of us â€” something he captures in articulating why his boys are the perfect objects of his artistic intent:
They have no background in the world of literature, they donâ€™t know the great stories of the world as we do. And so I will tell them one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest story of all â€” the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness. I shall try to demonstrate to them how these doubles are inseparable â€” how neither can exist without the other and how out of their groupings creativeness is born.
Among these inseparable doubles are also the batteries of knowing and not-knowing, of the possible and the impossible. In an exquisite passage that captures the heart of why artists make art, Steinbeck adds:
I shall tell them this story against the background of the county I grew up in and along the river I know and do not love very much. For I have discovered that there are other rivers. And this my boys will not know for a long time nor can they be told. A great many never come to know that there are other rivers. Perhaps that knowledge is saved for maturity and very few people ever mature. It is enough if they flower and reseed. That is all that nature requires of them. But sometimes in a man or a woman awareness takes place â€” not very often and always inexplainable. There are no words for it because there is no one ever to tell. This is a secret not kept a secret, but locked in wordlessness. The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through â€” not ever much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it canâ€™t be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible. There is another kind who pulls in his horizons, drops his mind as one lowers rifle sights. And giving up the impossible he gives up writing.
In Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation (public library), French-Moroccan sociologist Eva Illouz examines how the social organization of modern life has profoundly altered the hues and texture of our experience of romantic agony by transforming three elemental aspects of the self: â€œthe will (how we want something), recognition (what matters for our sense of worth), and desire (what we long for and how we long for it).â€
Illustration from An ABZ of Love Kurt Vonnegutâ€™s favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality
Although unrequited love and the anguish of longing have a perennial place in our experience of romantic pain, Illouz is concerned with the pain that lives within actualized romantic relationships. She writes:
When relationships do get formed, agonies do not fade away, as one may feel bored, anxious, or angry in them; have painful arguments and conflicts; or, finally, go through the confusion, self-doubts, and depression of break-ups or divorcesâ€¦. Despite the widespread and almost collective character of these experiences, our culture insists they are the result of faulty or insufficiently mature psyches.
The rise of clinical psychology in the twentieth century only solidified and granted scientific legitimacy to this notion that our romantic misery is a function of our psychological failings â€” an idea that caught on in large part because implicit to it was the promise that those failings can be deconditioned. And yet, Illouz argues, such overemphasis on individual shortcomings gravely warps the broader reality â€” a reality in which the systems, institutions, and social contracts that govern our existence seed the core ambivalence of love and life: what we really want.
In the same way that at the end of the nineteenth century it was radical to claim that poverty was the result not of dubious morality or weak character, but of systematic economic exploitation, it is now urgent to claim not that the failures of our private lives are the result of weak psyches, but rather that the vagaries and miseries of our emotional life are shaped by institutional arrangementsâ€¦ What is wrong are not dysfunctional childhoods or insufficiently self-aware psyches, but the set of social and cultural tensions and contradictions that have come to structure modern selves and identities.
The reason why love is so central to our happiness and identity is not far from the reason why it is such a difficult aspect of our experience: both have to do with the ways in which self and identity are institutionalized in modernityâ€¦ Love contains, mirrors, and amplifies the â€œentrapmentâ€ of the self in the institutions of modernity, institutions, to be sure, shaped by economic and gender relations.
What Marx demonstrated about commodities in the marketplace Illouz aims to demonstrate about the economy of love:
[Love] is shaped and produced by concrete social relations [and] circulates in a marketplace of unequal competing actorsâ€¦ Some people command greater capacity to define the terms in which they are loved than others.
Illouz argues that sociology â€” a discipline, more than any other, â€œborn out of a frantic and anxious questioning about the meaning and consequences of modernityâ€ â€” is the most revelatory lens through which to examine how modern life, marked by the period beginning at the end of WWI, has restructured the romantic self. Nearly a century after Bertrand Russellâ€™s inquiry into why religion arose in human life and what is supplanting it, she considers how the displacement of religion by secular culture has impacted our ideals and our interior experience of love:
Modernity sobered people up from the powerful but sweet delusions and illusions that had made the misery of their lives bearable. Devoid of these fantasies, we would lead our lives without commitment to higher principles and values, without the fervor and ecstasy of the sacred, without the heroism of saints, without the certainty and orderliness of divine commandments, but most of all without those fictions that console and beautify.
Such sobering up is nowhere more apparent than in the realm of love, which for several centuries in the history of Western Europe had been governed by the ideals of chivalry, gallantry, and romanticism. The male ideal of chivalry had one cardinal stipulation: to defend the weak with courage and loyalty. The weakness of women was thus contained in a cultural system in which it was acknowledged and glorified because it transfigured male power and female frailty into lovable qualitiesâ€¦ Womenâ€™s social inferiority could thus be traded for menâ€™s absolute devotion in love, which in turn served as the very site of display and exercise of their masculinity, prowess, and honor. More: womenâ€™s dispossession of economic and political rights was accompanied (and presumably compensated) by the reassurance that in love they were not only protected by men but also superior to them. It is therefore unsurprising that love has been historically so powerfully seductive to women; it promised them the moral status and dignity they were otherwise denied in society and it glorified their social fate: taking care of and loving others, as mothers, wives, and lovers. Thus, historically, love was highly seductive precisely because it concealed as it beautified the deep inequalities at the heart of gender relationships.
To perform gender identity and gender struggles is to perform the institutional and cultural core dilemmas and ambivalence of modernity, dilemmas that are organized around the key cultural and institutional motives of authenticity, autonomy, equality, freedom, commitment, and self-realization. To study love is not peripheral but central to the study of the core and foundation of modernity.
As sexuality became unmoored from morality, love became a currency for social mobility. Illouz places this shift alongside the Scientific Revolution, the invention of the printing press, and the rise of capitalism in its effects on our lives and our basic experience of identity. She writes:
While love has played a considerable role in the formation of what historians call â€œaffective individualism,â€ the story of love in modernity tends to present it as a heroic one, from bondage to freedom. When love triumphs, so this story goes, marriages of convenience and interest disappear, and individualism, autonomy, and freedom are triumphant. Nevertheless, while I agree that romantic love challenged both patriarchy and the family institution, the â€œpure relationshipâ€ also rendered the private sphere more volatile and the romantic consciousness unhappy. What makes love such a chronic source of discomfort, disorientation, and even despair â€¦ can be adequately explained only by sociology and by understanding the cultural and institutional core of modernity.
By juxtaposing the ideal of romantic love with the institution of marriage, modern polities embed social contradictions in our aspirations, contradictions which in turn take a psychological life. The institutional organization of marriage (predicated on monogamy, cohabitation, and the pooling of economic resources together in order to increase wealth) precludes the possibility of maintaining romantic love as an intense and all-consuming passion. Such a contradiction forces agents to perform a significant amount of cultural work in order to manage and reconcile the two competing cultural frames. This juxtaposition of two cultural frames in turn illustrates how the anger, frustration, and disappointment that often inhere in love and marriage have their basis in social and cultural arrangements.
â€œEmotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature,â€ Martha Nussbaum â€” one of the most insightful and influential philosophers of our time â€” asserted in her terrific treatise on the intelligence of the emotions. â€œThey are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creatureâ€™s reasoning itself.â€ Itâ€™s an idea proposed â€” and resisted â€” for centuries, if not millennia. â€œThe heart has its reasons, which reason does not know,â€ Blaise Pascal wrote in contemplating intuition and the intellect in the 17th century.
But perhaps the most beautiful meditation on this abiding tug-of-war between reason and emotion comes not from a hoary philosopher but from a teenage boy â€” one who would grow up to become the greatest psychological writer of all time.
To know more, one must feel less, and vice versaâ€¦ Nature, the soul, love, and God, one recognizes through the heart, and not through the reason. Were we spirits, we could dwell in that region of ideas over which our souls hover, seeking the solution. But we are earth-born beings, and can only guess at the Idea â€” not grasp it by all sides at once. The guide for our intelligences through the temporary illusion into the innermost centre of the soul is called Reason. Now, Reason is a material capacity, while the soul or spirit lives on the thoughts which are whispered by the heart. Thought is born in the soul. Reason is a tool, a machine, which is driven by the spiritual fire. When human reason â€¦ penetrates into the domain of knowledge, it works independently of the feeling, and consequently of the heart.
He comes full-circle to the divergent ways in which poetry and philosophy bring us into contact with truth, both necessary but one, in his view, superior:
Philosophy cannot be regarded as a mere equation where nature is the unknown quantity! Remark that the poet, in the moment of inspiration, comprehends God, and consequently does the philosopherâ€™s work. Consequently poetic inspiration is nothing less than philosophical inspiration. Consequently philosophy is nothing but poetry, a higher degree of poetry!
This paradoxical nature of artistic success is what Aldous Huxley (July, 26 1894â€“November 22, 1963) addresses in an essay titled â€œSincerity in Art,â€ found in the altogether magnificent and, lamentably, out-of-print 1960 volume On Art & Artists (public library).
Reflecting on an article by a literary agent who contended to have the key to what makes a bestseller, Huxley winces at how the very question shrinks the creative endeavor:
What are the qualities that cause a book to sell like soap or breakfast food or Ford cars? It is a question the answer to which we should all like to know. Armed with that precious recipe, we should go to the nearest stationerâ€™s shop, buy a hundred sheets of paper for sixpence, blacken them with magical scribbles, and sell them again for six thousand pounds. There is no raw material so richly amenable to treatment as paper. A pound of iron turned into watch springs is worth several hundreds or even thousands of times its original value; but a pound of paper turned into popular literature may be sold at a profit of literally millions per cent. If only we knew the secret of the process by which paper is turned into popular literature!
Amid all this mysterious transmutation by which the human imagination transforms the cheap raw material into priceless works of art, Huxley takes particular issue with the literary agentâ€™s assertion that the sole determinant of the bestseller is that it must be sincere. He digs beneath this unhelpful truism:
All literature, all art, best seller or worst, must be sincere, if it is to be successfulâ€¦ A man cannot successfully be anything but himselfâ€¦ Only a person with a Best Seller mind can write Best Sellers; and only someone with a mind like Shelleyâ€™s can write Prometheus Unbound. The deliberate forger has little chance with his contemporaries and none at all with posterity.
But while sincerity in life is a conscious choice â€” we choose to be sincere or insincere at will â€” Huxley argues that sincerity in art is a matter of skill that canâ€™t simply be willed:
The truth is that sincerity in art is not an affair of will, of a moral choice between honesty and dishonesty. It is mainly an affair of talent. A man may desire with all his soul to write a sincere, a genuine book and yet lack the talent to do it. In spite of his sincere intentions, the book turns out to be unreal, false, and conventional; the emotions are stagily expressed, the tragedies are pretentious and lying shams and what was meant to be dramatic is badly melodramatic.
In matters of art â€œbeing sincereâ€ is synonymous with â€œpossessing the gifts of psychological understanding and expression.â€
All human beings feel very much the same emotions; but few know exactly what they feel or can divine the feelings of others. Psychological insight is a special faculty, like the faculty for understanding mathematics or music. And of the few who possess that faculty only two or three in every hundred are born with the talent of expressing their knowledge in artistic form.
Huxley illustrates this point with the most universal experience, love:
Many people â€” most people, perhaps â€” have been at one time or another violently in love. But few have known how to analyze their feelings, and fewer still have been able to express themâ€¦ They feel, they suffer, they are inspired by a sincere emotion; but they cannot write. Stilted, conventional, full of stock phrases and timeworn rhetorical tropes, the average love letter of real life would be condemned, if read in a book, as being in the last degree â€œinsincere.â€
We read the love letters of Keats with a passionate interest; they describe in the freshest and most powerful language the torments of a soul that is conscious of every detail of its agony. Their â€œsincerityâ€ (the fruit of their authorâ€™s genius) renders them as interesting, as artistically important as Keatsâ€™s poems; more important, even, I sometimes think.
In another essay from the same volume, titled â€œArt and the Obvious,â€ Huxley revisits the subject of sincerity from a different angle â€” our resistance to it, all the more relevant today, amid a culture that wields cynicism like a rubber sword against the perceived weakness of sincerity. He writes:
All great truths are obvious truths. But not all obvious truths are great truths.
Huxley defines great truths as universally significant facts that â€œrefer to fundamental characteristics of human natureâ€ and contrasts them with obvious truths â€œlacking eternal significance,â€ like the time it takes to fly from London to Paris, which â€œmight cease to be true without human nature being in the least changed in any of its fundamentals.â€ He considers the role of each in popular art:
Popular art makes use, at the present time, of both classes of obvious truths â€” of the little obviousnesses as well as the great. Little obviousnesses fill (at a moderate computation) quite half of the great majority of contemporary novels, stories, and films. The great public derives an extraordinary pleasure from the mere recognition of familiar objects and circumstances. It tends to be somewhat disquieted by works of pure fantasy, whose subject matter is drawn from other worlds than that in which it lives, moves, and has its daily being. Films must have plenty of real Ford cars and genuine policemen and indubitable trains. Novels must contain long descriptions of exactly those rooms, those streets, those restaurants and shops and offices with which the average man and woman are most familiar. Each reader, each member of the audience must be able to say â€” with what a solid satisfaction! â€” â€œAh, thereâ€™s a real Ford, thereâ€™s a policeman, thatâ€™s a drawing room exactly like the Brownâ€™s drawing room.â€ Recognizableness is an artistic quality which most people find profoundly thrilling.
But audiences, Huxley argues, are equally voracious for the other, grander class of obviousnesses:
The public at large â€¦ also demands the great obvious truths. It demands from the purveyors of art the most definite statements as to the love of mothers for children, the goodness of honesty as a policy, the uplifting effects produced by the picturesque beauties of nature on tourists from large cities, the superiority of marriages of affection to marriages of interest, the brevity of human existence, the beauty of first love, and so forth. It requires a constantly repeated assurance of the validity of these great obvious truths.
The downfall of popular art, Huxley argues, is the inept fusion of these two types of obviousnesses, stripping the former of its uncomplicated rewards of recognizableness and trivializing the latter by bleeding into the banal:
The purveyors of popular art do what is asked of them. They state the great, obvious, unchanging truths of human nature â€” but state them, alas, in most cases with an emphatic incompetence, which, to the sensitive reader, makes their affirmations exceedingly distasteful and even painfulâ€¦ The sensitive can only wince and avert their faces, blushing with a kind of vicarious shame for the whole of humanity.
In a lamentation at once prophetic and rather ironic amid our era of Hallmark cards and lululemon totes and tea bag fortunes, Huxley adds:
Never in the past have these artistic outrages been so numerous as at presentâ€¦ The spread of education, of leisure, of economic well-being has created an unprecedented demand for popular art. As the number of good artists is always strictly limited, it follows that this demand has been in the main supplied by bad artists. Hence the affirmations of the great obvious truths have been in general incompetent and therefore odiousâ€¦ The breakup of all the old traditions, the mechanization of work and leisure â€¦ have had a bad effect on popular taste and popular emotional sensibilityâ€¦ Popular art is composed half of the little obvious truths, stated generally with a careful and painstaking realism, half of the great obvious truths, stated for the most part (since it is very hard to give them satisfactory expression) with an incompetence which makes them seem false and repellent.
Some of the most sensitive and self-conscious artists â€¦ have become afraid of all obviousness, the great as well as the little. At every period â€¦ many artists have been afraid â€” or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, have been contemptuous â€” of the little obvious truthsâ€¦ The excess of popular art has filled them with a terror of the obvious â€” even of the obvious sublimities and beauties and marvels. Now, about nine tenths of life are made up precisely of the obvious. Which means that there are sensitive modern artists who are compelled, by their disgust and fear, to confine themselves to the exploitation of only a tiny fraction of existence.
In a sentiment of particular poignancy in the context of modern atrocities like BuzzFeed, Huxley adds:
Nor is it only in regard to the subject matter that the writerâ€™s fear of the obvious manifests itself. He has a terror of the obvious in his artistic medium â€” a terror which leads him to make laborious efforts to destroy the gradually perfected instrument of languageâ€¦ It is extraordinary to what lengths a panic fear can drive its victims.
He concludes with a word of advice to aspiring artists, all the timelier today:
If young artists really desire to offer proof of their courage they should attack the monster of obviousness and try to conquer it, try to reduce it to a state of artistic domestication, not timorously run away from it. For the great obvious truths are there â€” factsâ€¦ By pretending that certain things are not there, which in fact are there, much of the most accomplished modern art is condemning itself to incompleteness, to sterility, to premature decrepitude and death.