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Sunday, December 25, 2016

Brain Pickings

Hannah Arendt on how tyrants use loneliness as a weapon of oppression, Susan Sontag on the conscience of words and the writer's task, David Bohm on creativity, and more.Email formatted oddly or truncated?
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WelcomeHello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition – Marina Abramović's manifesto for solitude and silence, physicist David Bohm on dialogue and what is keeping us from listening to one another, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you missed the annual special of the year's overall best books, those are here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation â€“ in 2016, I spent thousands of hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.

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Hannah Arendt on Loneliness as the Common Ground for Terror and How Tyrannical Regimes Use Isolation as a Weapon of Oppression

“Loneliness is personal, and it is also political,” Olivia Laing wrote in The Lonely City, one of the finest books of the year. Half a century earlier, Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) examined those peculiar parallel dimensions of loneliness as a profoundly personal anguish and an indispensable currency of our political life in her intellectual debut, the incisive and astonishingly timely 1951 classic The Origins of Totalitarianism (public library).
Arendt paints loneliness as “the common ground for terror” and explores its function as both the chief weapon and the chief damage of oppressive political regimes. Exactly twenty years before her piercing treatise on lying in politics, she writes:
Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men* as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.
Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)
What perpetuates such tyrannical regimes, Arendt argues, is manipulation by isolation — something most effectively accomplished by the divisiveness of â€œus vs. them”narratives. She writes:
Terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other… Therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together…; isolated men are powerless by definition.
Although isolation is not necessarily the same as loneliness, Arendt notes that loneliness can become both the seedbed and the perilous consequence of the isolation effected by tyrannical regimes:
In isolation, man remains in contact with the world as the human artifice; only when the most elementary form of human creativity, which is the capacity to add something of one’s own to the common world, is destroyed, isolation becomes altogether unbearable… Isolation then becomes loneliness.
[…]
While isolation concerns only the political realm of life, loneliness concerns human life as a whole. Totalitarian government, like all tyrannies, certainly could not exist without destroying the public realm of life, that is, without destroying, by isolating men, their political capacities. But totalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it is not content with this isolation and destroys private life as well. It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.
This is why our insistence on belonging, community, and human connection is one of the greatest acts of courage and resistance in the face of oppression — for, in the words of the beloved Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, â€œthe ancient and eternal values of human life — truth, unity, goodness, justice, beauty, and love — are all statements of true belonging.”

The Conscience of Words: Susan Sontag on the Wisdom of Literature, the Danger of Opinions, and the Writer’s Task

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf observed in the only surviving recording of her voice“Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote many decades later in contemplating the magic of real conversation. The poet David Whyte marveled at “their beautiful hidden and beckoning uncertainty” as he set out to reclaim the deeper meanings of everyday words. But what do words actually do â€” what is their responsibility to us and ours to them?
That’s what Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) explores in her spectacular 2001 Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech, published as “The Conscience of Words” in At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library) — the indispensable posthumous anthology that gave us Sontag on moral courage and the power of principled resistance to injusticeliterature and freedombeauty vs. interestingness, and her advice to writers.
Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar
Sontag begins by weighing the elasticity of language and the way in which words can expand meaning as much as they can contract it:
We fret about words, we writers. Words mean. Words point. They are arrows. Arrows stuck in the rough hide of reality. And the more portentous, more general the word, the more they also resemble rooms or tunnels. They can expand, or cave in. They can come to be filled with a bad smell. They will often remind us of other rooms, where we’d rather dwell or where we think we are already living. They can be spaces we lose the art or the wisdom of inhabiting. And eventually those volumes of mental intention we no longer know how to inhabit will be abandoned, boarded up, closed down.
What do we mean, for example, by the word “peace”? Do we mean an absence of strife? Do we mean a forgetting? Do we mean a forgiveness? Or do we mean a great weariness, an exhaustion, an emptying out of rancor? It seems to me that what most people mean by “peace” is victory. The victory of their side. That’s what “peace” means to them, while to the others peace means defeat… Peace becomes a space people no longer know how to inhabit.
Reflecting on the complete name of the prize that occasioned her speech — the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society — Sontag reflects on the writer’s relationship to words as a tool of personal agency:
It isn’t what a writer says that matters, it’s what a writer is
Writers — by which I mean members of the community of literature — are emblems of the persistence (and the necessity) of individual vision.
And yet because “there are contradictory impulses in everything,” as Sontag herself so poignantly observed a quarter century earlier, there is a dark side to this notion of individual vision. In a passage of particular timeliness amid our age of identity and self-broadcasting, Sontag, who lived through â€œthe century of the self,” writes:
The unceasing propaganda in our time for “the individual” seems to me deeply suspect, as “individuality” itself becomes more and more a synonym for selfishness. A capitalist society comes to have a vested interest in praising “individuality” and “freedom” — which may mean little more than the right to the perpetual aggrandizement of the self, and the freedom to shop, to acquire, to use up, to consume, to render obsolete.
I don’t believe there is any inherent value in the cultivation of the self. And I think there is no culture (using the term normatively) without a standard of altruism, of regard for others. I do believe there is an inherent value in extending our sense of what a human life can be. If literature has engaged me as a project, first as a reader and then as a writer, it is as an extension of my sympathies to other selves, other domains, other dreams, other words, other territories of concern.
In a sentiment almost countercultural today, as we watch entire careers be built upon rampant opinion-slinging, Sontag considers the true task of the writer:
A writer ought not to be an opinion-machine… The writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth … and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation. Literature is the house of nuance and contrariness against the voices of simplification. The job of the writer is to make it harder to believe the mental despoilers. The job of the writer is to make us see the world as it is, full of many different claims and parts and experiences. 
It is the job of the writer to depict the realities: the foul realities, the realities of rapture. It is the essence of the wisdom furnished by literature (the plurality of literary achievement) to help us to understand that, whatever is happening, something else is always going on.
Sontag’s words radiate an aching recognition of our contemporary tendency to form instant opinions and to mistake for informed opinions what are really reactions to reactions. She observes:
There is something vulgar about public dissemination of opinions on matters about which one does not have extensive first-hand knowledge. If I speak of what I do not know, or know hastily, this is mere opinion-mongering.
[…]
The problem with opinions is that one is stuck with them. And whenever writers are functioning as writers, they always see … more.
Attesting to literature power to reinstate nuance and celebrate what the poet Elizabeth Alexander calls â€œmultivocality, polyphony, gumbo yaya,” Sontag adds:
If literature itself, this great enterprise that has been conducted (within our purview) for nearly three millennia, embodies a wisdom — and I think it does and is at the heart of the importance we give to literature — it is by demonstrating the multiple nature of our private and our communal destinies. It will remind us that there can be contradictions, sometimes irreducible conflicts, among the values we most cherish.
Susan Sontag’s diary meditations on art, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton
Out of this recognition of multiplicity and complementarity arises the highest task of literature, as well as its greatest reward. Centuries after Hegel, one of her great influences, admonished against the peril of fixed opinions, Sontag writes:
The wisdom of literature is quite antithetical to having opinions… Furnishing opinions, even correct opinions — whenever asked — cheapens what novelists and poets do best, which is to sponsor reflectiveness, to pursue complexity.
In a sentiment of especial relevance today, as we increasingly struggle to live with wisdom in the age of information, Sontag echoes her hero Walter Benjamin’s timeless ideas about the crucial difference between information and illumination and considers the ultimate task of the storyteller:
Information will never replace illumination… Let the others, the celebrities and the politicians, talk down to us; lie. If being both a writer and a public voice could stand for anything better, it would be that writers would consider the formulation of opinions and judgments to be a difficult responsibility.
Another problem with opinions. They are agencies of self-immobilization. What writers do should free us up, shake us up. Open avenues of compassion and new interests. Remind us that we might, just might, aspire to become different, and better, than we are. Remind us that we can change.
At the Same Time is a terrific and timely read in its totality. Complement it with Sontag’s abiding wisdom on the power of musicthe role of silence in creative workstorytelling and what it means to be a moral human beinghow photography helps us navigate complexity, and her spectacular Letter to Borges.

Physicist David Bohm on Creativity

“The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver wrote in her exquisite meditation on the central commitment of the creative life“are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” The past century has sprouted a great many theories of how creativity works and what it takes to master it, and yet its innermost nature remains so nebulous and elusive that the call of creative work may be as difficult to hear as it is to answer.
What to listen for and how to tune the listening ear is what the trailblazing physicist David Bohm (December 20, 1917–October 27, 1992) explores in the 1968 title essay in On Creativity (public library) — his previously unpublished writings on art, science, and originality, edited by Lee Nichol.
Bohm, who maintained a lively affinity for the arts in his forty-five years as a theoretical physicist, argues that the creative impulse in both art and science aims at “a certain oneness and totality, or wholeness, constituting a kind of harmony that is felt to be beautiful.” He writes: 
The scientist emphasizes the aspect of discovering oneness and totality in nature. For this reason, the fact that his work can also be creative is often overlooked. But in order to discover oneness and totality, the scientist has to create the new overall structures of ideas which are needed to express the harmony and beauty that can be found in nature.
[…]
The artist, the musical composer, the architect, the scientist all feel a fundamental need to discover and create something new that is whole and total, harmonious and beautiful. Few ever get a chance to try to do this, and even fewer actually manage to do it. Yet, deep down, it is probably what very large numbers of people in all walks of life are seeking when they attempt to escape the daily humdrum routine by engaging in every kind of entertainment, excitement, stimulation, change of occupation, and so forth, through which they ineffectively try to compensate for the unsatisfying narrowness and mechanicalness of their lives.
Illustration from What Can I Be?, a vintage concept book about how creativity works
Creativity, Bohm notes, isn’t a matter of mere talent, for “there are a tremendous number of highly talented people who remain mediocre.” (A century earlier, Schopenhauer made his famous distinction between talent and genius.) With an eye to Einstein — a scientist whose uncommonly creative vision is revolutionizing science a century later â€” Bohm points out that he possessed something greater than mere talent, for he had many contemporaries who knew more about physics and were better skilled at mathematics than him; what Einstein possessed was a certain quality of originality. Half a millennium after Galileo’s elegant admonition against the peril of clinging to one’s preconceptions, Bohm considers a central demand of originality:
One prerequisite for originality is clearly that a person shall not be inclined to impose his preconceptions on the fact as he sees it. Rather, he must be able to learn something new, even if this means that the ideas and notions that are comfortable or dear to him may be overturned.
Elizabeth Gilbert has a rather poetic term for this orientation of mind: â€œa state of uninterrupted marvel.”Bohm argues that we are born with it — a child, for instance, learns to walk by “trying something out and seeing what happens, then modifying what he does (or thinks) in accordance with what has actually happened.” But as we grow older, we become indoctrinated in the standard way of doing things and our originality is gradually blunted as we relinquish the willingness to see alternative ways. Bohm considers what is needed for the conservation of creativity:
The action of learning is the essence of real perception, in the sense that without it a person is unable to see, in any new situation, what is a fact and what is not… But real perception that is capable of seeing something new and unfamiliar requires that one be attentive, alert, aware, and sensitive.
Long before pioneering psychologist Carol Dweck demonstrated this empirically in her trailblazing work on fixed vs. growth mindsets, Bohm articulates a key difference between the creatively fertile and the creatively withered mind:
One thing that prevents us from thus giving primary emphasis to the perception of what is new and different is that we are afraid to make mistakes… If one will not try anything until he is assured that he will not make a mistake in whatever he does, he will never be able to learn anything new at all. And this is more or less the state in which most people are. Such a fear of making a mistake is added to one’s habits of mechanical perception in terms of preconceived ideas and learning only for specific utilitarian purposes. All of these combine to make a person who cannot perceive what is new and who is therefore mediocre rather than original.
In a sentiment which John Cleese would come to echo a quarter century later in his famous assertion that creativity is not a talent but a way of operating, Bohm adds:
The ability to learn something new is based on the general state of mind of a human being. It does not depend on special talents, nor does it operate only in special fields, such as science, art, music or architecture. But when it does operate, there is an undivided and total interest in what one is doing. Recall, for example, the kind of interest that a young child shows when he is learning to walk. If you watch him, you will see that he is putting his whole being into it. Only this kind of whole-hearted interest will give the mind the energy needed to see what is new and different, especially when the latter seems to threaten what is familiar, precious, secure, or otherwise dear to us. 
It is clear that all the great scientists and artists had such a feeling for their work.
Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne
In a point of importance which cannot be understated, Bohm asserts that because the nature of originality requires a lively attentiveness to the new and different, pioneers often end up creating entire fields that didn’t previously exist, often at great personal expense. (The history of creative work is strewn with examples, from Van Gogh, who took enormous creative risks only redeemed posthumously, to gravitational astronomy pioneer Joe Weber, who died a tragic hero of science but opened up the brand new field that eventually furnished one of the most significant discoveries in the entire history of science.) A decade after artist Ben Shahn’s exquisite case for why nonconformists are society’s engine of growth and greatness, Bohm writes:
Such an opportunity arises in many fields which may at first show little promise, especially because (at least at first) society is not in the habit of recognizing them to be potentially creative. Indeed, real originality and creativity imply that one does not work only in fields that are recognized in this way, but that one is ready in each case to inquire for oneself as to whether there is or is not a fundamentally significant difference between the actual fact and one’s preconceived notions that opens up the possibility for creative and original work… Creativity of some kind may be possible in almost any conceivable field… It is always founded on the sensitive perception of what is new and different from what is inferred from previous knowledge.
From these prerequisites Bohm extrapolates the central orientation of the creative mind in any field:
The creative state of mind … is, first of all, one whose interest in what is being done is wholehearted and total, like that of a young child. With this spirit, it is always open to learning what is new, to perceiving new differences and new similarities, leading to new orders and structures, rather than always tending to impose familiar orders and structures in the field of what is seen.
Echoing Annie Dillard’s warm wisdom on why a generosity of spirit is the greatest animating force of creative work, Bohm adds:
This kind of action of the creative state of mind is impossible if one is limited by narrow and petty aims, such as security, furthering of personal ambition, glorification of the individual or the state… Although such motives may permit occasional flashes of penetrating insight, they evidently tend to hold the mind a prisoner of its old and familiar structure of thought and perception. Indeed, merely to inquire into what is unknown must inevitably lead one into a situation in which all that is done may well constitute a threat to the successful achievement of those narrow and limited goals. A genuinely new and untried step may either fail altogether or else, even if it succeeds, lead to ideas that are not recognized until after one is dead. 
Besides, such aims are not compatible with the harmony, beauty, and totality that is characteristic of real creation.
Above all, Bohm argues, creativity demands the willingness to relinquish even our most dearly held ideas if they are contradicted by experiment and experience:
No really creative transformation can possibly be effected by human beings, either in nature or in society, unless they are in the creative state of mind that is generally sensitive to the differences that always exist between the observed fact and any preconceived ideas, however noble, beautiful, and magnificent they may seem to be.
In a sentiment of especial poignancy today, in a cultural climate dominated by reaction rather than creative response, Bohm emphasizes that creativity is predicated on rising above our mechanical reactions, which are conditioned by society and by habitual forms of thought, and which render us in “a painful and unpleasant state of dissatisfaction and conflict, covered up by self-sustaining confusion.” He considers the ennobling alternative:
For as long as the individual cannot learn from what he does and sees, whenever such learning requires that he go outside the framework of his basic preconceptions, then his action will ultimately be directed by some idea that does not correspond to the fact as it is. Such action is worse than useless, and evidently cannot possibly give rise to a genuine solution of the problems of the individual and of society.
[…]
If one is serious about being original and creative, it is necessary for him first to be original and creative about reactions that are making him mediocre and mechanical. Then eventually the natural creative action of the mind may fully awaken, so that it will start to operate in a basically new order that is no longer determined mainly by the mechanical aspects of thought… Just as the health of the body demands that we breathe properly, so, whether we like it or not, the health of the mind requires that we be creative.
[…]
But, of course, to awaken the creative state of mind is not at all easy. On the contrary, it is one of the most difficult things that could possibly be attempted. Nevertheless, for the reasons that I have given, I feel that it is for each of us individually and for society as a whole the most important thing to be done in the circumstances in which humanity now finds itself.
The orientations of mind and spirit most conducive to doing that — in science, in art, and in all domains of human life — is what Bohm goes on to examine in the remainder of the thoroughly awakening On Creativity. Complement it with pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner on the six pillars of creativity and Leonard Cohen on its mystique, then revisit Bohm on what is keeping us from listening to one anotherhow our perceptions shape our reality, and his magnificent conversation with the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti about intelligence and love.
BP

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