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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Brain Pickings

Jennifer Egan's advice on writing, Borges on the divided self, an illustrated cosmogony inspired by Pinocchio, Teju Cole on how the paradox of photography captures the central anxiety of human existence, and more.Email formatted oddly or truncated?
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WelcomeHello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition – what makes a hero, an illustrated serenade to the art of listening to one's inner voice amid the noise of modern life, Ta-Nehisi Coates on living beyond fear, and more – 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.

Pinocchio: An Alternative Origin Story Exploring the Grandest Questions of Existence

“Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them,” Albert Camus wrote. Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, observed a century earlier as she contemplated the nature of the imagination and its three core faculties“Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently… that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us.”
This “discovering faculty” of the imagination, which breathes life into both the most captivating myths and the deepest layers of reality, is what animated Italian artist Alessandro Sanna one winter afternoon when he glimpsed a most unusual tree branch from the window of a moving train — a branch that looked like a sensitive human silhouette, mid-fall or mid-embrace. 
As Sanna cradled the enchanting image in his mind and began sketching it, he realized that something about the “body language” of the branch reminded him of a small, delicate, terminally ill child he’d gotten to know during his visits to Turin’s Pediatric Hospital. In beholding this common ground of tender fragility, Sanna’s imagination leapt to a foundational myth of his nation’s storytelling — the Pinocchio story. 
In the astonishingly beautiful and tenderhearted Pinocchio: The Origin Story (public library), Sanna imagines an alternative prequel to the beloved story, a wordless genesis myth of the wood that became Pinocchio, radiating a larger cosmogony of life, death, and the transcendent continuity between the two. 
A fitting follow-up to The River â€” Sanna’s exquisite visual memoir of life on the Po River in Northern Italy, reflecting on the seasonality of human existence — this imaginative masterwork dances with the cosmic unknowns that eclipse human life and the human mind with their enormity: questions like what life is, how it began, and what happens when it ends.
Origin myths have been our oldest sensemaking mechanism for wresting meaning out of these as-yet-unanswered, perhaps unanswerable questions. But rather than an argument with science and our secular sensibility, Sanna’s lyrical celebration of myth embodies Margaret Mead’s insistence on the importance of poetic truth in the age of facts.
The tree is an organic choice for this unusual cosmogony — after all, trees have inspired centuries of folk tales around the world; a 17th-century English gardener marveled at how they â€œspeak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons” and Hermann Hesse called them â€œthe most penetrating of preachers.”
It is both a pity and a strange comfort that Sanna’s luminous, buoyant watercolors and his masterful subtlety of scale don’t fully translate onto this screen — his analog and deeply humane art is of a different order, almost of a different time, and yet woven of the timeless and the eternal. 
The story begins with a comet that crashes onto earth, bringing with it the seed of life. Out of it a tree grows. Lightning strikes it, severing a small branch that comes alive and begins roaming the earth. 
As the branch-body encounters the world and its creatures, it lives and dies and lives again — in the bellies of beasts, in the bellowing depths of the ocean, in the moon-kissed valleys of the earth — until it crawls out of the primordial seas of existence as the promise of a new tree. 
Reminiscent in spirit to the Japanese pop-up masterpiece Little Tree, though dramatically different both conceptually and aesthetically, Sanna’s modern myth explores the commonest story of all — the shared journey of existence and its counterpoint — with uncommon imaginative elegance. 
Pinocchio: The Origin Story, inarticulably beautiful in its analog entirety, comes from Brooklyn-based Enchanted Lion, modern mythmaker of such inspired treasures as The Lion and the BirdCry, Heart, But Never Break, and Louis I, King of the Sheep.
Complement it with this illustrated celebration of ancient Indian origin myths and its contemporary Western counterpart, A Graphic Cosmogony, then revisit Sanna’s beguiling previous book, The River.

The Private Person and the Public Persona: Borges on the Divided Self

“A person’s identity,”Amin Maalouf wrote as he contemplated what he so poetically called the genes of the soul“is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” And yet, inseparable as the parts may be from the whole, we each contain multitudes — not only psychologically, but even biologically â€” nowhere more so than when it comes to the bifurcation between our inner and outer selves. â€œNothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator,” Hannah Arendt observed in her insightful inquiry into being vs. appearing and our impulse for self-display. For each of us, there is a public persona encasing the private person, an aspirational self radiating from the real self. 
However integrated the our layered identity may be, our twined nature stands like a stereogram — two separate and noticeably different views, composed into a single three-dimensional image of personhood only through the special focal mechanism of our own consciousness. 
No one has addressed this existential sundering more elegantly than Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) in â€œBorges and I” â€” his classic parable of selfhood, exploring the divide between private person and public persona that each of us must live with and live into. It appears in Labyrinths (public library) — a collection of Borges’s stories, essays, parables, and other writings, originally published in 1962.
Borges writes:
The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things. Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.
I do not know which of us has written this page.
“Borges and I” went on to inspire some of the greatest writers of the past century to reflect on the divided self in hand-drawn self-portraits. Complement it with philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of personhood in literature and life and Rebecca Goldstein on what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of change, then revisit Borges on writingpublic opinion, and our private participation in collective joy and collective tragedy.

Jennifer Egan on Writing, the Trap of Approval, and the Most Important Discipline for Aspiring Writers

“Be a good steward of your gifts,” the poet Jane Kenyon urged in what remains the finest advice on writing I’ve encountered. And yet for even the most gifted artists, the practice of that stewardship remains a constant and rather slippery domain of discipline. 
Its elusive mastery is what Pulitzer-winning writer Jennifer Egan (b. September 7, 1962) explores in Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library) — the wonderful anthology edited by Meredith Maran, which gave us Michael Lewis on the necessary self-delusion of creative work, Susan Orlean’s advice to aspiring writers, Isabelle Allende on how to summon the muse, and Mary Karr on the madness and magnetism of the written word.
Jennifer Egan (Photograph: Pieter M. Van Hattem)
Beginning with the central question of why writers write — which has wrested some memorable answers from W.H. AudenPablo NerudaJoan DidionDavid Foster WallaceItalo Calvino, and William Faulkner â€” Egan considers the act of writing as a form of vital self-care:
When I’m not writing I feel an awareness that something’s missing. If I go a long time, it becomes worse. I become depressed. There’s something vital that’s not happening. A certain slow damage starts to occur. I can coast along awhile without it, but then my limbs go numb. Something bad is happening to me, and I know it. The longer I wait, the harder it is to start again. 
When I’m writing, especially if it’s going well, I’m living in two different dimensions: this life I’m living now, which I enjoy very much, and this completely other world I’m inhabiting that no one else knows about.
For Egan, as for many artists, this different mode of inhabiting reality embodies pioneering psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow â€” a supreme form of what science writer Diane Ackerman has called deep play, a state of essential evolutionary and existential significance. Egan speaks to it beautifully:
When I’m writing fiction I forget who I am and what I come from. I slip into utter absorption mode. I love the sense that I’ve become so engaged with the other side, I’ve slightly lost my bearings here. If I’m going from the writing mind-set to picking my kids up from school, I often feel a very short but acute kind of depression, as if I have the bends. Once I’m with them it totally disappears, and I feel happy again. Sometimes I forget I have children, which is very strange. I feel guilty about it, as if my inattention will cause something to happen to them, even when I’m not responsible for them…
Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings
Echoing Colette’s marvel at the the transcendent obsessive-compulsiveness of writing, Egan adds:
When the writing’s going well — I’m trying not to sound clichéd — I feel fueled by a hidden source. During those times it doesn’t matter if things are going wrong in my life; I have this alternate energy source that’s active. When the writing’s going poorly, it’s as bad or worse than not writing at all. There’s a leak or a drain, and energy is pouring out of it. Even when the rest of my life is fine, I feel like something’s really bad. I have very little tolerance for anything going wrong, and I take little joy from the good things. It was worse before I had kids. I appreciate that they make me forget what’s going on professionally.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Joni Mitchell’s reflections on the dark side of artistic success and John Steinbeck’s lamentation about the perils of public approval, Egan considers the psychoemotional aftermath of her Pulitzer win:
The attention and approval I’ve been getting for Goon Squad â€” the very public moments of winning the Pulitzer and the other prizes — is exactly the opposite of the very private pleasure of writing. And it’s dangerous. Thinking that I’ll get this kind of love again, that getting it should be my goal, would lead me to creative decisions that would undermine me and my work. I’ve never sought that approval, which is all the more reason that I don’t want to start now.
My whole creative endeavor is the repudiation of my last work with the new one. If I start craving approval, trying to replicate what I did with Goon Squad, it’s never going to lead to anything good. I know that. Stop getting better? There’s no excuse for that.
With an eye to our propensity for what psychologists call the “end of history illusion” — best captured by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert’s aphoristic summation that â€œhuman beings are works in progress [who] mistakenly think they’re finished” â€” Egan adds:
We all have such a tendency to think the present moment will last forever. Maybe when I’m not the flavor of the month anymore I’ll be devastated and shocked, and I’ll forget everything I’m saying this minute. But my hope is that I have the tools to handle it.
She ends by offering three points of advice to aspiring writers:
  • Read at the level at which you want to write. Reading is the nourishment that feeds the kind of writing you want to do. If what you really love to read is y, it might be hard for you to write x.
  • Exercising is a good analogy for writing. If you’re not used to exercising you want to avoid it forever. If you’re used to it, it feels uncomfortable and strange not to. No matter where you are in your writing career, the same is true for writing. Even fifteen minutes a day will keep you in the habit.
  • You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly. You can’t write regularly and well. One should accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.
Complement Why We Write with great writers’ collected wisdom on the craft, then revisit Maran’s sequel, Why We Write About Ourselves â€” some of today’s most celebrated memoirists on the art of telling personal stories that unravel universal truth.

The Möbius Strip of Remembering and Forgetting: Teju Cole on How the Paradox of Photography Captures the Central Anxiety of Existence

“The life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself,”Italo Calvino wrote in 1970 as he reflected on photography and the art of presence. That same decade, Susan Sontag considered how photography mediates life’s relationship with death, that ultimate commemoration, observing: â€œWe no longer study the art of dying, a regular discipline and hygiene in older cultures; but all eyes, at rest, contain that knowledge. The body knows. And the camera shows, inexorably.” A year later, she would go on to expand on these ideas in her timeless treatise on photography, exploring its function not only as commemoration but as â€œaesthetic consumerism” â€” an insight which time has proven astoundingly prescient as we confront the insatiable voraciousness of visual culture in the age of the social web.
Nearly half a century later, the Nigerian-American writer, art historian, and photographer Teju Cole â€” perhaps Sontag’s closest contemporary counterpart — examines this dual role of photography as commemoration and consumerism in an essay titled â€œMemories of Things Unseen,” found in the altogether spectacular Known and Strange Things: Essays (public library).
Teju Cole (Photography: Martin Lengemann)
Cole writes:
Photography is inescapably a memorial art. It selects, out of the flow of time, a moment to be preserved, with the moments before and after falling away like sheer cliffs. At a dinner party earlier this year, I was in conversation with someone who asked me to define photography. I suggested that it is about retention: not only the ability to make an image directly out of the interaction between light and the tangible world but also the possibility of saving that image. A shadow thrown onto a wall is not photography. But if the wall is photosensitive and the shadow remains after the body has moved on, that is photography. Human creativity, since the beginning of art, has found ways to double the visible world. What photography did was to give the world a way to double its own appearance: the photograph results directly from what is, from the light that travels from a body through an aperture onto a surface.
But when the photograph outlives the body 00 when people die, scenes change, trees grow or are chopped down — it becomes a memorial. And when the thing photographed is a work of art or architecture that has been destroyed, this effect is amplified even further. A painting, sculpture, or temple, as a record of both human skill and emotion, is already a site of memory; when its only remaining trace is a photograph, that photograph becomes a memorial to a memory. Such a photograph is shadowed by its vanished ancestor.
But memory itself is an imperfect memorial: The events of our lives are similarly shadowed by the photographs of those events. Who hasn’t looked at an early childhood photograph of oneself, predating the age of conscious remembering, and not felt the mirage of a memory in beholding that moment? In those instances, what we remember is what was captured, which releases in us a believable conjecture about what was, and the conjecture becomes calcified into an unremembered memory.
The same Möbius strip of representation and remembrance, Cole suggests, exists in our collective memory. He recounts a visit to the Metropolitan Museum’s collection of works from the ancient Middle East, just as the news media were reporting on the accelerating destruction of artifacts in Syria and Iraq. (That the “news” as we know it is an overwhelmingly photography-driven industry, selling the immediacy of the present using what is invariably in the past as its chief currency, is a paradox so self-evident that it need not be belabored.) Cole writes:
Next to a selection of second- and third-century Syrian gravestones (many of them fresh with the pain of loss and inscribed with the names of the dead and the word “Alas!”), there was an old photograph reproduced from a book of the Temple of Bel, an important archaeological complex in Palmyra. About a week later, the iconoclastic fanatics of ISIS blew up this very temple. The photograph was unchanged; it was still there on the wall of Room 406 at the Met, but it was now filled up with the loss of what it depicted. The Roman-era columns of the temple still stand in rows in the grainy image — ravaged by time, but standing. In life, they’re gone.
The Institute for Digital Archaeology, a joint project of Harvard and Oxford Universities, uses sophisticated imaging techniques to aid conservation, epigraphy, archaeology, and art history. One of the institute’s current efforts, the Million Image Database project, involves photographing artifacts that are at risk of being destroyed for military or religious reasons, a bleak necessity in a world in which the beauty or importance of an object does not guarantee its safety. The goal of the project is to distribute up to five thousand modified cameras, to professionals and to amateurs, and use them to capture a million 3-D images. Already, more than a thousand cameras have been distributed, and the 3-D data from them are being received (though the directors of the project, to protect their associates on the ground, are leaving a lag of several months before they make the images publicly available). In the event of some of the objects being destroyed, the detailed visual record could be enough to facilitate a reconstruction. Photography is used to ward off total oblivion.
The camera obscura, one of the 100 ideas that changed photography
And yet photography, after all, is a technology — both of thing and of thought — and like any technology, it is animated by a dual capacity for good and evil. Parallel to this constructive use of photography as reconstruction of collective memory, Cole points to its destructive counterpart — its use in monitoring and manipulation, a kind of “aesthetic control” to Sontag’s “aesthetic consumerism.” He writes:
Our own appearances and faces are now stored and saved in hundreds, thousands, of photographs: photographs made by ourselves, photographs made by others. Our faces are becoming not only unforgettable but inescapable. There is so much documentation of each life, each scene and event, that the effect of this incessant visual notation becomes difficult to distinguish from surveillance. And in fact, much of the intent behind the collection of these images is indeed surveillance: the government retains our images in order to fight terrorism, and corporations harvest everything they can about us in order to sell us things.
But the most disquieting aspect of this perpetual photographic documentation is that we have reached a point where these images of us will long outlive us and might, in theory, last forever. â€œAll eternity is in the moment,” but when the moment ceases to be ephemeral and instead lasts forever, it ceases to exist. Paradoxically, rather than furnishing a greater gateway to eternity, eradicating the moment extinguishes eternity altogether. When everything is eternal, nothing is eternal. 
Sequenced image of a rotating sulky wheel with self-portrait by Eadweard Muybridge, who changed modern consciousness by freezing the flow of existence.
Cole illustrates our confused relationship to temporality with a sobering anecdote of a self-annihilating exchange with a friend via SnapChat, one of our few deliberately ephemeral technologies:
The voiding of the record on Snapchat was startling. But it was also a relief. Our real selves remained, but the photographs were no longer there, and something about this felt like a sequence more preferable to the other way around, where the image lives on and the model is irretrievable. But just as nothing can be permanently retained, nothing is ever really gone. Somewhere out there, perhaps in the Cloud or in some clandestine server, is the optical afterimage of our interaction: the faces, the shoes, the texts. In these all-seeing days, the traffic between memory and forgetting becomes untrackable. Photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses: we need it there for how it helps us frame our losses, but we can also sense it crowding in on ongoing experience, imposing closure on what should still be open.
I’m reminded of Sarah Manguso’s magnificent meditation on time and memory, in which she crystallized the paradox: â€œPerhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.” I take from Cole — an inference that no doubt suffers the typical bedevilments of interpretation â€” that the camera lens has become the supreme focal point of that existential anxiety, through which we exorcise the ultimate fixation on freezing the flow of existence. To commemorate life in the act of living it seems to be the human condition — or the human curse. 
Complement the wholly terrific Known and Strange Things with Sontag on selfies, selfhood, and how the camera helps us navigate complexity and this animated history of photography, from the camera obscura to the camera phone, then revisit Israel Rosenfield’s trailblazing exploration of consciousness, memory, and how our sense of self arises