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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Brain PIckings

Virginia Woolf on what makes love last, Alison Bechdel on writing, therapy, and self-doubt, James Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, and the source of Richard Feynman's geniusEmail formatted oddly or truncated?
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W.H. Auden on Writing, Belief, Doubt, False vs. True Enchantment, and the Most Important Principle of Making Art

“We must believe before we can doubt, and doubt before we can deny.”

A Lovely Vintage Children’s Concept Book About How the Imagination Works, Newly Discovered and Illustrated

A poetic game of possibility in the language of shape and color. 

Pioneering Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott on the Mother’s Contribution to Society

“Every man or woman who is sane, every man or woman who has the feeling of being a person in the world, and for whom the world means something, every happy person, is in infinite debt to a woman.”

In Praise of the Tamed Metaphysicist: Einstein on Reality, Rationality, and the Human Passion for Comprehension

“There exists a passion for comprehension, just as there exists a passion for music. That passion is rather common in children, but gets lost in most people later on.”

Lou Andreas-Salomé, the First Woman Psychoanalyst, on Depression and Creativity in Letters to Rilke

“A great deal of poetic work has arisen from various despairs.”

A Largeness of Contemplation: Bertrand Russell on Intuition, the Intellect, and the Nature of Time

“Both in thought and in feeling, even though time be real, to realise the unimportance of time is the gate of wisdom.”

WelcomeHello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition – anger and forgiveness, Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek on complementarity and why reality is woven of opposing truths, an uncommonly tender illustrated meditation on the cycle of life, and a very special musical treat – you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation â€“ I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.

Alison Bechdel on Writing, Therapy, Self-Doubt, and How the Messiness of Life Feeds the Creative Conscience

“One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes,” Virginia Woolf lamented in her diary midway through writing To the Lighthouse. And yet: â€œNothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator,” Hannah Arendt — another woman of searing intellect and uncommon insight into the human spirit — observed exactly half a century later in contemplating how the rift between being and appearing rips us asunder. So if the seismic core of being we call soul exists, as I emphatically believe it does, how do we reconcile its elemental demand for spectatorship with the impossibility of writing about the drama that animates it?
That improbable, sublime feat is what cartoonist Alison Bechdel accomplishes in Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama (public library), a psychological sequel of sorts to Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic â€” Bechdel’s spectacular memoir-turned-Broadway-hit about her childhood and her closeted father’s suicide. In plumbing the catacombine depths of her ambivalent relationship with her mother — which she does with astonishing self-awareness and vulnerability, climaxing in reluctant self-compassion — Bechdel speaks to some of the most elemental and most universal aspects of the human experience: loneliness, love, the perennial perplexities of the child-parent relationship, our longing for unconditional acceptance and adoration, and the pathological onslaught of self-doubt with which those engaged in a creative life live. 
I pause here to note that this is one of very few books I’ve encountered which, in addition to being creatively and intellectually superb, I consider absolutely life-changing — so much so, that anything I write here about the book is bound to be a woefully deficient representation of what the book is.
Although she sets out to write a book about her mother’s life, it ends up being a memoir of Bechdel’s own (somewhat like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is really Gertrude Stein’s memoir of her own life, illuminated via a sidewise gleam refracted through her wife’s). Her mother’s resistance to the merits of memoir as a genre only enriches the meta-story of both their relationship and the archetypal yearning for approval in every parent-child relationship:
(I am reminded here of A.M. Homes and her unforgettable insight into the art of memoir“Making art is all about humans and our psychology: who we are, how we behave, what we do with the hand we’ve been dealt. It’s closer to your own bone when it’s a memoir, but the bone is still the bone.”)
In one of the opening pages, Bechdel captures the Woolfian paradox of this entire meta-project:
You can’t live and write at the same time.
And yet she has been writing about life, perhaps in order to avoid experiencing life, since childhood. The journal, after all, is a technology of thought and selfhood; like any technology, it is the intention behind its use that determines whether its effect is constructive or destructive. Rather than a medium of creative expression, Bechdel’s early diary became an obsessive compulsion, to the point where her mother had to intervene. In looking back on the episode, she invokes a passage from Virginia Woolf’s diary: â€œWhat a disgraceful lapse! Nothing added to my disquision, & life allowed to waste like a tap left running. Eleven days unrecorded.”
“My mother composed me as I now compose her,”Bechdel observes of one of the many role-reversals that mark their parent-child relationship, and I’m reminded of the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s wonderful phrase â€œcomposing a life” â€” for isn’t every life, after all, a composition? 
Bechdel writes:
For a long time I resisted including my present-day interactions with mom in this book precisely because they’re so “ordinary.”
Then I started seeing how the transcendent would almost always creep into the everyday.
Indeed, it is in the most mundane of moments that the monumental is revealed — in Bechdel’s life, as in any life. One such moment: her mother’s unease about the publication of Bechdel’s now-legendary lesbian comic. The tension of their culminant conversation broke open an unexpected ease around Bechdel’s anguishing, elemental, lifelong need she had always experienced as unmet, which was now suddenly revealed as unmeetable:
The book is a kind of modern-day florilegium composed of Bechdel’s marginalia on books she is consumed with — above all, the novels and diaries of Virginia Woolf and the work of pioneering psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott, alongside cultural classics like Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child (“that endlessly consoling ode to sensitive children everywhere”), Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, and On Lies, Secrets, and Silenceby Adrienne Rich (who sent a personal rejection, uncushioned yet somehow mobilizing, to Bechdel’s first submission to a major literary journal).
It is also a masterwork of dot-connecting — in a testament to my longtime conviction that literature is the original Internet, Bechdel follows the web of “hypertext” references that lead her from one book to the next, from one thinker to another. But, more than that, she links concepts across wildly divergent books with remarkable virtuosity. It takes a rare kind of mind to go from Winnicott’s influential notion of transitional objects to Winnie the Pooh, the iconic stuffed toy being one such object that just so happens to bear a striking linguistic similarity to the pioneering psychoanalyst’s name. 
No doubt the great Vannevar Bush, in contemplating how the future of information will shape human thought in 1945, had in mind rare geniuses like Bechdel when he envisioned “a new profession of trail blazers … who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”
The book is also a sort of elegy for therapy — at once a celebration and a lamentation, reminding us of our inescapable human fragility and of how imperfect even our most refined, best-intentioned mechanisms for fixing our brokenness are. 
Each chapter begins with a strange and particularly psychologically illuminating dream Bechdel has at an existentially pivotal point, then unfolds into the strangeness of her waking life, as if to remind us that the â€œsleeping counterpart” who does our dreaming springs from the same self that also does our living. 
Her sleeping self is stranded by her father at a picnic, falls off an icy cliff that melts to reveal her childhood home, and marvels at a perfect spider’s web on a blanket. Her wakeful self tries to dissipate a fight with her girlfriend by walking into a mass service only to get trapped in a Christmas pageant, kicks a hole in the wall in a fit of jealous rage over an infidelity before falling asleep cuddling her childhood teddy bear, and contends with the fact that her father killed himself by jumping in front of a bread truck. Which world is the stranger of the two? 
Anyone who attends to his or her life with the same granular attention with which Bechdel constructs her memoir knows that the answer lies in the thin membrane of consciousness and selfhood separating the two worlds — a membrane as porous and permeable as the one separating our so-called personal and professional lives. 
At the end, as she nears the completion of this meta-memoir, Bechdel comes full circle to the paradox with which she began, newly illuminated:
I would argue that for both my mother and me, it’s by writing… by stepping back a bit from the real thing to look at it, that we are most present.
Complement the brilliant, layered, and immeasurably insightful Are You My Mother? with Bechdel’s magnificent Design Matters interview, in which she discusses her life, her work, and the constant dynamic interaction between the two:
I do think there is something about just the fact of being able to show stuff that enables you to convey an order of meaning that, once you attach language to it, something gets lost.

James Baldwin on Freedom and How We Imprison Ourselves

“Everything can be taken from a man,” Viktor Frankl wrote in his timeless treatise on the human search for meaning“but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”And yet, as Adrienne Rich observed in her sublime meditation on writing, capitalism, and freedom, “in the vocabulary kidnapped from liberatory politics, no word has been so pimped as freedom.” How, then, are we to choose our own way amid a capitalist society that continually commodifies our liberty? 
The peculiar manner in which personal and political freedom magnetize each other is what James Baldwin(August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) explores in a piece titled “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel,” originally delivered as an address at the 1960 Esquire symposium on the writer’s role in society and later included in his altogether spectacular essay collection Nobody Knows My Name (public library).
Baldwin writes:
Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be. One hasn’t got to have an enormous military machine in order to be un-free when it’s simpler to be asleep, when it’s simpler to be apathetic, when it’s simpler, in fact, not to want to be free, to think that something else is more important.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer’s piercing words on the writer’s responsibility as a bastion of freedom, Baldwin adds:
The importance of a writer is continuous… His importance, I think, is that he is here to describe things which other people are too busy to describe.
Perhaps the most vital things for the writer to describe, Baldwin argues, are the habitual ways in which we imprison ourselves and relinquish our own freedom. Exactly half a century after Lebanese poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran’s stirring reflections on the seeming self vs. the appearing self and shortly before Hannah Arendt formulated her enduring ideas on being vs. appearing and our impulse for self-display, Baldwin writes:
There is an illusion about America, a myth about America to which we are clinging which has nothing to do with the lives we lead and I don’t believe that anybody in this country who has really thought about it or really almost anybody who has been brought up against it — and almost all of us have one way or another — this collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.
Two years before he came to converse with Margaret Mead about reimagining democracy for a post-consumerist world, Baldwin observes:
We have some idea about reality which is not quite true. Without having anything whatever against Cadillacs, refrigerators or all the paraphernalia of American life, I yet suspect that there is something much more important and much more real which produces the Cadillac, refrigerator, atom bomb, and what produces it, after all, is something which we don’t seem to want to look at, and that is the person.
Echoing Eleanor Roosevelt’s clarion call for our individual role in democracy and social change, Baldwin adds:
A country is only as good… only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become… I don’t believe any longer that we can afford to say that it is entirely out of our hands. We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.
Complement this particular fragment of the wholly invigorating Nobody Knows My Name with Susan Sontag on literature and freedom and the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki on what freedom really means, then revisit Baldwin on the artist’s struggle for integritythe revelation that taught him to see, his forgotten conversations with Margaret Mead about identity, race, power, and forgivenessand with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered, and his advice to aspiring writers.

Virginia Woolf on What Makes Love Last

“Real love,” wrote philosopher Alain Badiou in contemplating how we fall and stay in love“is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.” But what, exactly, adrenalizes that triumph, particularly against the tidal tedium of time that washes over any long-term relationship? 
That’s what Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) explores in a beautiful short passage from her diary, which I rediscovered in W.H. Auden’s commonplace book and which originally appeared in A Writer’s Diary (public library) — that indispensable portal into one of humanity’s finest, sharpest minds, and the source of Woolf’s abiding wisdom on the elasticity of timethe paradox of the soul, and the creative benefits of keeping a diary.
In an entry from the early fall of 1926, fourteen years into her unconventional marriage to Leonard, 44-year-old Woolf writes under the heading The married relation:
Arnold Bennett says that the horror of marriage lies in its “dailiness.” All acuteness of a relationship is rubbed away by this. The truth is more like this: life — say 4 days out of 7 — becomes automatic; but on the 5th day a bead of sensation (between husband and wife) forms which is all the fuller and more sensitive because of the automatic customary unconscious days on either side. That is to say the year is marked by moments of great intensity. Hardy’s “moments of vision.” How can a relationship endure for any length of time except under these conditions?

The Source of Richard Feynman’s Genius

In his taxonomy of the two types of geniuses, probability theory pioneer Mark Kac distinguishes between “ordinary geniuses” and “magicians,” pointing to Richard Feynman(May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988) as a rare example of the latter. One of the most celebrated minds of the past century, Feynman was a champion of scientific knowledge so effective and so beloved that he has generated an entire canon of personal mythology. And yet he held uncertainty at the center of his intellectual and creative life. The pursuit and stewardship of knowledge was his life’s work, but the ecstasy of not-knowing was the wellspring of his magic. â€œIt is imperative,” he wrote“to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature.”
In his spectacular biography Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (public library), James Gleick examines what seeded this peculiar orientation of mind and spirit, and how it came to shape Feynman’s life and legacy. 
In chronicling Feynman’s childhood in the Far Rockaways in the first half of the twentieth century, which unfolded in an era predating television and even the earliest visions of the web, Gleick does what makes him a biographer of such uncommon mastery — through the elements of his subject’s life, he constructs a diorama of an entire cultural epoch and stuns us into appreciating the imperceptible tectonic shifts that drifted us into the world we’ve come to take for granted. He writes:
Knowledge was rarer then. A secondhand magazine was an occasion. For a Far Rockaway teenager merely to find a mathematics textbook took will and enterprise. Each radio program, each telephone call, each lecture in a local synagogue, each movie at the new Gem theater on Mott Avenue carried the weight of something special. Each book Richard possessed burned itself into his memory.
[…]
Even with the radio era in full swing, one’s senses encountered nothing like the bombardment of images and sounds that television would bring—accelerated, flash-cut, disposable knowledge. For now, knowledge was scarce and therefore dear.
It’s easy to imagine how this mismatch between his intellectual voraciousness and the availability of knowledge would enamor young Ritty with “the pleasure of finding things out” — a phrase that grew to be so integral to Feynman’s identity that it became the title of his collected works
It’s also suddenly easy, and somewhat alarming, to grasp how profoundly we are shaped by our formative environment and how much what we celebrate as genius is not just a function of personhood but of the confluence of person, place, and time. Can there be a comparable “pleasure of finding things out” in our era of informational morass, which burdens us with the deeply unpleasant task of sifting what is worth knowing from the deluge of what is knowable? When Feynman came of age, the cultural landscape was such that everything knowable was worth knowing — and worth going out of one’s way to know. Young Ritty and his friends “traded mathematical tidbits like baseball cards.”
Gleick writes:
It was the same for scientists. The currency of scientific information had not yet been devalued by excess. For a young student, that meant that the most timely questions were surprisingly close to hand. Feynman recognized early the special, distinctive feeling of being close to the edge of knowledge, where people do not know the answers.
One of Richard Feynman’s little-known sketches
This feeling, Gleick intimates, is also what led Feynman to consistently feel out the frontiers of competence by teaching himself a wide and wild array of skills, always romancing the intoxicating uncertainty of not-quite-knowing:
Democratically, as if he favored no skill above any other, he taught himself how to play drums, to give massages, to tell stories, to pick up women in bars, considering all these to be crafts with learnable rules. 
[…]
He made islands of practical knowledge in the oceans of personal ignorance that remained: knowing nothing about drawing, he taught himself to make perfect freehand circles on the blackboard; knowing nothing about music, he bet his girlfriend that he could teach himself to play one piece, “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” and for once failed dismally; much later he learned to draw after all, after a fashion, specializing in sweetly romanticized female nudes and letting his friends know that a concomitant learned skill thrilled him even more — how to persuade a young woman to disrobe. In his entire life he could never quite teach himself to feel a difference between right and left, but his mother finally pointed out a mole on the back of his left hand, and even as an adult he checked the mole when he wanted to be sure. He taught himself how to hold a crowd with his not-jazz, not-ethnic improvisational drumming; and how to sustain a two-handed polyrhythm of not just the usual three against two and four against three but — astonishing to classically trained musicians — seven against six and thirteen against twelve. He taught himself how to write Chinese, a skill acquired specifically to annoy his sister and limited therefore to the characters for “elder brother also speaks.” … He taught himself how to discourage autograph seekers and refuse lecture invitations; how to hide from colleagues with administrative requests; how to force everything from his field of vision except for his research problem of the moment; how to hold off the special terrors of aging that shadow scientists; then how to live with cancer, and how to surrender to it.
After he died several colleagues tried to write his epitaph. One was Schwinger, in a certain time not just his colleague but his preeminent rival, who chose these words:
“An honest man, the outstanding intuitionist of our age, and a prime example of what may lie in store for anyone who dares to follow the beat of a different drum.” … When Feynman was gone, he had left behind — perhaps his chief legacy — a lesson in what it meant to know something in this most uncertain of centuries.