Trailblazing Philosopher Susanne Langer on the Purpose of Art, How It Works Us Over, and How Abstract Thinking Gives Shape to Human Emotion
“In the history of language, in the growth of human understanding, the principle of metaphorical expression plays a vastly greater role than most people realize. For it is the natural instrument of our greatest mental achievement — abstract thinking.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in what remains a supreme
articulation of what it means to be an artist, counseled his aspiring-artist correspondent: “Go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create.” Half a century later, young Susan Sontag wrote as she contemplated art in her diary: “All great art contains at its center contemplation, a dynamic contemplation.”
Art is an act of translation — inner into outer into inner, artist to art to audience, part Rilke and part Sontag. It translates the innumerable dialects in which we each cry for connection into a universal language of belonging. Great art, therefore, requires a dual contemplation — it asks the artist to contemplate her interior life and give shape to what she finds there in abstract form; it asks the audience to contemplate the abstraction and glean from it transcendent resonance with our own interior life, engaging in what Jeanette Winterson so memorably called “the paradox of active surrender” and enlarging ourselves in the act of contemplation. In the process of that two-way translation, art transforms us.
That process is what trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer (December 20, 1895–July 17, 1985), whose work shaped the course of philosophy of mind and philosophy of art, explores in her 1957 book Problems of Art (public library) — a collection of ten philosophical meditations on various aspects of creativity. A decade and a half after her elegant case for how our questions shape our answers, Langer examines how art works us over by posing before us abstracted questions.
In the seventh chapter, titled “Imitation and Transformation in Art,” Langer considers how art represents and transforms our experience by giving shape to the elusive and opaque interiority of the human heart. She writes:
What we call “art” in the liberal sense does not differ from craft, or “art” in an older sense, in matter or technique; but it differs radically in its aim. Like any craft, a so-called “fine art” is the manipulation of crude matter — stone, wood, clay, pigment, metal, etc., or (by an extension of the concept of “matter”) sounds, words, gestures, or other stuff, for the purpose of constructing a desired object, an artefact. But, whereas most artefacts are made for an instrumental purpose, what we call a work of art is made for the ultimate purpose of achieving certain qualitative effects, which have expressive value.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s crucial distinction between truth and meaning, Langer considers what art ultimately expresses:
Every work of art expresses, more or less purely, more or less subtly, not feelings and emotions which the artist has, but feelings and emotions which the artist knows; his* insight into the nature of sentience, his pictures of vital experience, physical and emotive and fantastic.
Such knowledge is not expressible in ordinary discourse. The reason for this ineffability is not that the ideas to be expressed are too high, too spiritual, or too anything-else, but that the forms of feeling and the forms of discursive expression are logically incommensurate, so that any exact concepts of feeling and emotion cannot be projected into the logical form of literal language. Verbal statement, which is our normal and most reliable means of communication, is almost useless for conveying knowledge about the precise character of the affective life. Crude designations like “joy,” “sorrow,” “fear,” tell us as little about vital experience as general words like “thing,” “being,” or “place,” tell us about the world of our perceptions.
What does convey these higher magnitudes of meaning and nuance, Langer argues, is symbolic expression:
As soon as human conception finds an adequate symbol, it grows like Jack’s beanstalk, and outgrows the highest reaches of what seemed such an adequate form of expression. The better the symbolism, the faster it has to grow, to keep up with the thought it serves and fosters. That is clearly demonstrated by language. A child with ten words to its credit has certainly more than ten concepts at its command, because every word lends itself at once to generalization, transfer of meaning, suggestion of related ideas, all sorts of subtle shades and variations created in use. The same thing holds for artistic expression. Just as language grows in subtlety, in syntactical forms and idioms as well as in vocabulary, so the power of articulation through sensuous form grows with the needs of the conceiving mind.
Such exponentially concept-expanding symbolic expression, Langer argues, is what furnishes the core purpose of art:
The aim of art is insight, understanding of the essential life of feeling. But all understanding requires abstraction. The abstractions which literal discourse makes are useless for this particular subject-matter, they obscure and falsify rather than communicate our ideas of vitality and sentience. Yet there is no understanding without symbolization, and no symbolization without abstraction. Anything about reality, that is to be expressed and conveyed, must be abstracted from reality. There is no sense in trying to convey reality pure and simple. Even experience itself cannot do that. What we understand, we conceive, and conception always involves formulation, presentation, and therefore abstraction.
Noting that abstraction has played a vital role in advancing human understanding and that the first scientific insights were conveyed via inventive figures of speech, Langer adds:
Time, when it was first conceived as a scientific notion rather than a fateful Being, flowed in a one-dimensional stream from the throne of God. Space was chaos and abyss, abstracted from the rest of existence in mystic symbols, before this abstraction grew familiar enough to have a dead common-sense name and be defined by all the propositions of descriptive geometry.
Of course, there is always the flipside — incomplete understanding furnishes imperfect abstractions, nowhere more so than in our long history of imperfect metaphors for time. And yet the power of metaphor remains unsurpassed:
The most powerful users of language or other symbolism … can force us to see more than the ordinary accepted meaning in familiar symbols.
Art by Isabelle Arsenault from Mr. Gauguin’s Heart, a children’s book about how Paul Gauguin became an artist
But the abstractions of art, Langer points out, work us over differently than those of metaphor:
The arts, like language, abstract from experience certain aspects for our contemplation. But such abstractions are not concepts that have names…. Artistic expression abstracts aspects of the life of feeling which have no names, which have to be presented to sense and intuition rather than to a word-bound, note-taking consciousness.
Echoing Rothko’s assertion that “beauty conforms to the demands of the spirit,” Langer adds:
When we say that a work has a definite feeling about it, we do not mean that it either symptomizes this feeling, as weeping symptomizes an emotional disturbance in the weeper, nor that it stimulates us to feel a certain way. What we mean is that it presents a feeling for our contemplation… Nothing is so elusive as an unsymbolized conception. It pulsates and vanishes like the very faint stars, and inspires rather than fixes expression.
Art, Langer argues, allows us to grasp that elusiveness by giving it shape. She echoes young Virginia Woolf’s observation that all the arts “imitate as far as they can the one great truth that all can see,” but adds that abstraction transcends mere imitation and becomes amplification, then, at its best, transformation. She writes:
Whenever a feeling is conveyed by such an indirect rendering, it marks a height of artistic expression. Among the forthright and familiar conventions of imitation, a sensuous transformation acts much as a strong metaphor does among the well-understood conventions of literal speech: its feeling is more poignant and its meaning more impressive than the import of ordinary communication. It conveys a summation and an essence. Why?
For the same reason that a metaphor is apt to be more revealing than a literal statement… In the history of language, in the growth of human understanding, the principle of metaphorical expression plays a vastly greater role than most people realize. For it is the natural instrument of our greatest mental achievement — abstract thinking.
With this, Langer arrives at the ultimate purpose of art:
Art is the articulation, not the stimulation or catharsis, of feeling; and the height of technique is simply the highest power of this sensuous revelation and wordless abstraction.
Complement Langer’s enduringly illuminating Problems of Art with James Baldwin on the artist’s role in society, Jeanette Winterson on how art transforms us, and Proust on what it does for the soul.
How Pioneering Physicist Lise Meitner Discovered Nuclear Fission, Paved the Way for Women in
Science, and Was Denied the Nobel Prize
“Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity; it teaches people to accept reality, with wonder and admiration, not to mention the deep joy and awe that the natural order of things brings to the true scientist.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
In the fall of 1946, a South African little girl aspiring to be a
scientist wrote to Einstein and ended her letter with a self-conscious entreatment: “I hope you will not think any the less of me for being a girl!” Einstein responded with words of assuring wisdom that resonate to this day: “I do not mind that you are a girl, but the main thing is that you yourself do not mind. There is no reason for it.”
And yet reasons don’t always come from reason. The history of science, like the history of the world itself, is the history of unreasonable asymmetries of power, the suppressive consequences of which have meant that the comparatively few women who rose to the top of their respective field did so due to inordinate brilliance and tenacity.
Among the most outstanding yet under-celebrated of these pioneering women is the Austrian physicist Lise Meitner (November 7, 1878–October 27, 1968), who led the team that discovered nuclear fission but was excluded from the Nobel Prize for the discovery, and whose story I first encountered in Alan Lightman’s illuminating 1990 book The Discoveries. This diminutive Jewish woman, who had barely saved her own life from the Nazis, was heralded by Einstein as the Marie Curie of the German-speaking world. She is the subject of the excellent biography Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (public library) by chemist, science historian, and Guggenheim fellow Ruth Lewin Sime.
Meitner was born in Vienna a little more than a year after pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science across the Atlantic, admonished the first class of female astronomers: “No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” Although Meitner showed a gift for mathematics from an early age, there was little correlation between aptitude and opportunity for women in 19th-century Europe. At the end of her long life, she would recount, not bitterly but wistfully:
Thinking back to … the time of my youth, one realizes with some astonishment how many problems then existed in the lives of ordinary young girls, which now seem almost
Lise Meitner, 1906
unimaginable. Among the most difficult of these problems was the possibility of normal intellectual training.
Sime herself, who spent decades as the only woman at her university department, captures the broader cultural necessity of telling Meitner’s story: “I was known as the woman the all-male chemistry department did not want to hire; under such circumstances one becomes, and remains, a feminist.” She writes of Meitner’s Sisyphean rise to stature:
Her schooling in Vienna ended when she was fourteen, but a few years later, the university admitted women, and she studied physics under the charismatic Ludwig Boltzmann. As a young woman she went to Berlin without the slightest prospects for a future in physics, but again she was fortunate, finding a mentor and friend in Max Planck and a collaborator in Otto Hahn, a chemist just her age. Together Meitner and Hahn made names for themselves in radioactivity, and then in the 1920s Meitner went on, independent of Hahn, into nuclear physics, an emerging field in which she was a pioneer. In the Berlin physics community she was, as Einstein liked to say, “our Marie Curie”; among physicists everywhere, she was regarded as one of the great experimentalists of her day… The painfully shy young woman had become an assertive professor — “short, dark, and bossy,” her nephew would tease — and although at times she was haunted by the insecurity of her youth, she never doubted that physics was worth it.
Meitner never married nor had children and, as far as her personal papers indicate, never had a serious romance. But her life was a full one, warmed by deep human connection — she was an exceptionally devoted friend and surrounded herself with people she cherished, in Meitner’s own words, as “great and lovable personalities” who provided a “magic musical accompaniment” to her life. Above all, she was besotted with science — so much so that she patiently chipped away at and eventually broke through every imaginable obstruction to pursuing her passion.
Since her formal schooling had ended at the age of fourteen, Meitner spent a few years repressing her scientific ambitions. But they burned in her with irrepressible ardor. Finally, when Austrian universities began admitting women in 1901, she obtained her high school certification at the age of twenty-three after compressing eight years’ worth of logic, literature, mathematics, Greek, Latin, botany, zoology, and physics into twenty months of study in order to take the examination that would qualify her for university. She received her Ph.D. in 1905, one of a handful of women in the world to have achieved a doctorate in physics by that point.
But when 29-year-old Meitner traveled to Berlin, hoping to study with the great Max Planck, she seemed to have entered a time machine — German universities still had their doors firmly
Illustration of Lise Meitner from Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky
shut to women. She had to ask for a special permission to attend Planck’s lectures.
In the fall of 1907, she met Otto Hahn — a German chemist four months her junior, as interested in radioactivity as she was, and unopposed to working with women. But women were forbidden from entering, much less working at, Berlin’s Chemical Institute, so in order to collaborate, Meitner and Hahn had to work in a former carpentry shop converted into a lab in the basement of the building. Hahn was allowed to climb up the floors, but Meitner was not — a hard fact that fringes on metaphor.
The two scientists filled each other’s gaps with their respective aptitudes — Meitner, trained in physics, was a brilliant mathematician who thought conceptually and could design highly original experiments to test her ideas; Hahn, trained in chemistry, excelled at punctilious lab work. Over the thirty years they collaborated, Meitner and Hahn emerged as pioneers in the study of radioactivity. Eventually, Meitner gained independence from Hahn — she published fifty-six papers on her own between 1921 and 1934.
But as her career was taking off, the Nazis began usurping Europe. Meitner and Hahn’s third collaborator, a junior scientist named Fritz Strassmann, had already gotten in trouble for refusing to join Nazi organizations. In 1938, just as the three scientists were performing their most visionary experiments, Nazi troops marched into Austria. Meitner refused to hide her Jewish heritage. Her only remaining option was to leave, but the Nazis had already put anti- Semitic laws in place prohibiting university professors from exiting the country. On July 13, with the help of Hahn and a few other scientist friends, Meitner made a narrow escape across the Dutch border. From Holland, she migrated to Denmark, where she stayed with her friend Niels Bohr. She finally found a permanent home at the Nobel Institute for Physics in Sweden. (Three centuries earlier, Descartes, supreme champion of reason, had also fled to Sweden to avoid the Inquisition after witnessing the trial of Galileo.)
That November, Hahn and Meitner met secretly in Copenhagen to discuss some perplexing results Hahn and Strassmann had obtained: After bombarding the nucleus of a uranium atom (atomic number 92) with a single neutron, they had ended up with the nucleus of radium (atomic number 88) — a seemingly magical transmutation that didn’t make physical sense. That a tiny neutron moving at low speed would destabilize and downright shatter something as robust as an atom, knocking down its atomic number into a wholly different element, seemed as mythic as David taking out Goliath with a slingshot.
Meitner and Hahn in their basement laboratory, 1913
Lise Meitner shortly before her exile
At that point, Hahn was one of the world’s best radiochemists and Meitner one of the world’s best physicists. She told him unequivocally that his chemical reaction made no sense on physical grounds and urged him to repeat the experiment.
Meitner herself continued to ponder the perplexity. The epiphany arrived on Christmas day, during a walk with her nephew and collaborator, Otto Robert Frisch. In recounting the occasion in his memoir, Frisch would inadvertently provide the most perfect metaphor for how women make progress in science relative to their male peers:
We walked up and down in the snow, I on skis and she on foot (she said and proved that she could get along just as fast that way).
In making sense of the nonsensical results, Meitner and Frisch came up with what they would call nuclear fission — a word used for the very first time in the seventh paragraph of the paper they published the following month. The notion that a nucleus can split and be transformed into another element was radical — no one had fathomed it before. Meitner had provided the first understanding of how and why this happened.
Nuclear fission would prove to be one of the most powerful — and dangerous — discoveries in the history humanity, a power that succumbed to our dual capacities for good and evil: It was central to the invention of the deadliest weapon in human history, the atomic bomb. In fact, later in life Meitner was cruelly referred to as “the Jewish mother of the atomic bomb,” even though her discovery was purely scientific, it predated this malevolent application by many years, and once she saw it put into practice to destructive ends, she adamantly refused to work on the bomb. She, like the rest of the world, saw the bomb as a grave turning point for
Illustration from Our Friend the Atom, a 1956 Disney primer on nuclear energy
humanity. Years later, she would issue a bittersweet lamentation for the era that ended with its invention:
One could love one’s work and not always be tormented by the fear of the ghastly and malevolent thins that people might do with beautiful scientific findings.
The discovery of fission itself was a supreme example of these beautiful scientific findings — a triumph of the human intellect over the mysteries of nature, as well as a testament to interpretation as a creative act. The nonsensical empirical results were Hahn’s, but what extracted meaning from them was Meitner’s interpretation — she had dis-covered, in the proper sense of uncovering something obscured from view, the underlying principle that made sense of the grand perplexity.
Hahn took her groundbreaking insight and ran with it, publishing the discovery without mentioning her name. It is beside the point whether his reasons were personal jealousies or the political cowardice of incensing the Nazi authorities — the point is that Meitner felt deeply betrayed by the injustice. She wrote to her brother Walter:
I have no self confidence… Hahn has just published absolutely wonderful things based on our work together … much as these results make me happy for Hahn, both personally and scientifically, many people here must think I contributed absolutely nothing to it — and now I am so discouraged.
In 1944, the discovery of nuclear fission was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry — to Hahn alone. Sime writes:
The distortion of reality and the suppression of memory are recurrent themes in any study of Nazi Germany and its aftermath. By any normal standard of scientific attribution, there would have been no doubt about Meitner’s role in the discovery of fission. For it is clear from the published record and from private correspondence that this was a discovery to which Meitner contributed from beginning to end — an inherently interdisciplinary discovery that would, without question, have been recognized as such, were it not for the artifact of Meitner’s forced emigration. But nothing about this discovery was untouched by the politics of Germany in 1938. The same racial policies that drove Meitner out of Germany made it impossible for her to be part of Hahn and Strassmann’s publication, and dangerous for Hahn to acknowledge their continuing ties. A few weeks after the discovery was made, Hahn claimed it for chemistry alone; before long, he suppressed and denied not only his hidden collaboration with a “non-Aryan” in exile but the value of nearly everything she had done before as well. It was self-deception, brought on by fear. Hahn’s dishonesty distorted the record of this discovery and almost cost Lise Meitner her place in
Lise Meitner at age 50
Meitner received countless accolades in her lifetime and even had a chemical element, meitnerium, posthumously named after her, but the slight was never righted. Although every imaginable roadblock had been placed before her in pursuing a scientific education, she had survived Nazi persecution, and had endured the anguish of exile, she considered the Nobel omission that most irredeemable sorrow of her life.
Except for a few brief statements, she did not campaign on her own behalf; she did not write an autobiography, nor did she authorize a biography during her lifetime. Only seldom did she speak of her struggle for education and acceptance, although the insecurity and isolation of her formative years affected her deeply later on. And she almost never spoke of her forced emigration, shattered career, or broken friendships. She would have preferred that the essentials of her life be gleaned from her scientific publications, but she knew that in her case that would not suffice.
Scientist that she was, she preserved her data. Her rich collection of personal papers, in addition to archival material from other sources, provides the basis for a detailed understanding of her work, her life, and the exceptionally difficult period in which she lived.
Sime considers the more systemic implications of Meitner’s case:
To insist that Meitner contributed nothing to the fission discovery, to imply that Meitner and Frisch had been given an unfair advantage — these were ways of denying that she had been treated unjustly and, in a larger sense, of refusing to confront the injustice and crimes of the Nazi period. Rather than acknowledging that Meitner’s exclusion from fission was political, Hahn and his hangers-on invented spurious scientific reasons for it. Arrogantly, and with misplaced national pride, they denied the injustice, created new injustice — and implicated themselves.
Given the echo chamber of interpretive opinion we call history, Hahn’s view was readily echoed by his followers and, in turn, by generations of journalists and uncritical commentators on the history of science. The Nobel exclusion was the most obvious, but the egregious erasure of Meitner’s legacy didn’t end there. The fission apparatus — the very instrument she had used in her Berlin laboratory to make her discoveries — was on display at Germany’s premiere science museum for thirty-five years without so much as mentioning her name.
This, of course, was far from the last time that a woman was excluded from a Nobel Prize for a discovery she either made or made possible with her significant contribution: There is, perhaps most famously, Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars, to say nothing of Vera Rubin, whose
confirmation of the existence of dark matter furnished a major leap in our understanding of the universe and yet remains, decades later, bereft of a Nobel. But as physicist and novelist Janna Levin wrote in her excellent NPR op-ed about the foibles of scientific acclaim, “scientists do not devote their lives to the sometimes lonely, agonizing, toilsome investigation of an austere universe because they want a prize.”
Meitner herself articulated the same sentiment in a speech she gave in Vienna at the age of 75:
Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity; it teaches people to accept reality, with wonder and admiration, not to mention the deep joy and awe that the natural order of things brings to the true scientist.
Meitner died peacefully in her sleep on October 27, 1968, days before her ninetieth birthday. Otto Robert, one of her dearest friends, chose the inscription for her headstone:
Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.
Complement the intensely interesting and important Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics with pioneering astrophysicist Vera Rubin on what it’s like to be a woman in science, Margot Lee Shetterly on the untold story of the black women mathematicians who powered space exploration, and this illustrated homage to trailblazing women in science.
10 Learnings from 10 Years of Brain Pickings
Fluid reflections on keeping a solid center.
BY MARIA POPOVA
I remember my first awareness of mortality as a child in Bulgaria. I was nine and my father was relaying an anecdote from his youth. I asked him when it had taken place. With unconcerned casualness, he replied: “About a decade ago.” I was astonished that people could segment their lives into blocks this big — my own life hadn’t yet lasted a decade. In realizing that “a decade ago” I hadn’t existed — the self I now so vividly experienced daily was then a nonentity — I also realized that in several more of those ten-year blocks, my dad, and eventually I, will cease to exist.
Lise Meitner late in life (Photograph: Sara Darling)
After one such time-block, I left Bulgaria for America, lured by the liberal arts education promise of being taught how to live. As the reality fell short of that promise, I began keeping my own record of what I was reading and learning outside the classroom in mapping this academically unaddressed terra incognita of being.
All the while, I was working numerous jobs to pay my way through school. What I was learning at night and on weekends, at the library and on the internet — from Plato to pop art — felt too uncontainably interesting to keep to myself, so I decided to begin sharing these private adventures with my colleagues at one of my jobs. On October 23, 2006, Brain Pickings was born as a plain-text email to seven friends. Halfway through my senior year of college, juggling my various jobs and academic course load, I took a night class to learn coding and turned the short weekly email into a sparse website, which I updated manually every Friday, then, eventually, every weekday.
The site grew as I grew — an unfolding record of my intellectual, creative, and spiritual development. At the time, I had no idea that this small labor of love and learning would animate me with a sense of purpose and become both my life and my living, nor that its seven original readers would swell into several million. I had no idea that this eccentric personal record, which I began keeping in the city where Benjamin Franklin founded the first subscription library in America, would one day be included in the Library of Congress archive of “materials of historical importance.”
And now, somehow, a decade has elapsed.
Because I believe that our becoming, like the synthesis of meaning itself, is an ongoing and dynamic process, I’ve been reluctant to stultify it and flatten its ongoing expansiveness in static opinions and fixed personal tenets of living. But I do find myself continually discovering, then returning to, certain core values. While they may be refined and enriched in the act of living, their elemental substance remains a center of gravity for what I experience as myself.
I first set down some of these core beliefs, written largely as notes to myself that may or may not be useful to others, when Brain Pickings turned seven (which kindred spirits later adapted into a beautiful poster inspired by the aesthetic of vintage children’s books and a cinematic short film). I expanded upon them to mark year nine. Today, as I round the first decade of Brain Pickings, I feel half-compelled, half-obliged to add a tenth learning, a sort of crowning credo drawn from a constellation of life-earned beliefs I distilled in a commencement address I delivered in the spring of 2016.
Here are all ten, in the order that they were written.
With dad, year 0
From year seven:
- Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
- Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.
- Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.
- Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.
Most important, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking moment, dictates our social rhythm, and even mediates our negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?
- When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as important, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great
deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
- Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a
culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
- “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman, for it’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. As I’ve reflected elsewhere, the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.
From year nine:
- Seek out what magnifies your spirit. Patti Smith, in discussing William Blake and her creative influences, talks about writers and artists who magnified her spirit — it’s a beautiful phrase and a beautiful notion. Who are the people, ideas, and books that magnify your spirit? Find them, hold on to them, and visit them often. Use them not only as a remedy once spiritual malaise has already infected your vitality but as a vaccine administered while you are healthy to protect your radiance.
- Don’t be afraid to be an idealist. There is much to be said for our responsibility as creators and consumers of that constant dynamic interaction we call culture — which side of the fault line between catering and creating are we to stand on? The commercial enterprise is conditioning us to believe that the road to success is paved with catering to existing demands — give the people cat GIFs, the narrative goes, because cat GIFs are what the people want. But E.B. White, one of our last great idealists, was eternally right when he asserted half a century ago that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down” — a role each of us is called to with increasing urgency, whatever cog we may be in the machinery of society. Supply creates its own demand. Only by consistently supplying it can we hope to increase the demand for the substantive over the superficial — in our individual lives and in the collective dream called culture.
And as I round the decade:
10. Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively. Fight it in yourself, for this ungainly beast lays dormant in each of us, and counter it in those you love and engage with, by modeling its opposite. Cynicism often masquerades as nobler faculties
and dispositions, but is categorically inferior. Unlike that great Rilkean life- expanding doubt, it is a contracting force. Unlike critical thinking, that pillar of reason and necessary counterpart to hope, it is inherently uncreative, unconstructive, and spiritually corrosive. Life, like the universe itself, tolerates no stasis — in the absence of growth, decay usurps the order. Like all forms of destruction, cynicism is infinitely easier and lazier than construction. There is nothing more difficult yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincerity and acting from a place of largehearted, constructive, rational faith in the human spirit, continually bending toward growth and betterment. This remains the most potent antidote to cynicism. Today, especially, it is an act of courage and resistance.
Since such a time machine of reflection would get nowhere without the substance that fueled it, here are ten of the things I most loved reading and writing about in this first decade of Brain Pickings:
1. Love, Lunacy, and a Life Fully Lived: Oliver Sacks, the Science of Seeing, and the Art of Being Seen
2. Virginia Woolf on the Relationship Between Loneliness and Creativity
3. Telling Is Listening: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Magic of Real Human Conversation
4. James Baldwin on Freedom and How We Imprison Ourselves
5. Cry, Heart, But Never Break: A Remarkable Illustrated Meditation on Loss and Life
6. Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What It Means to Be a Moral Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers
7. James Gleick on How Our Cultural Fascination with Time Travel Illuminates Memory, the Nature of Time, and the Central Mystery of Human Consciousness
8. The Magic of the Book: Hermann Hesse on Why We Read and Always Will
9. Patti Smith on Time, Transformation, and How the Radiance of Love Redeems the Rupture of Loss
10. What Makes a Person: The Seven Layers of Identity in Literature and Life
Moral Courage at Knifepoint: One Man’s Remarkable Response to His Mugger Reminds Us of What Is Best in Us
An extraordinary true story that amplifies love over hate and empathy over fear.
BY MARIA POPOVA
“You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you,” James Baldwin proclaimed in his timely 1970 conversation with Margaret Mead about identity. “If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” And yet while such telling might be a necessary condition, it is not a sufficient one — the world treats us not merely on the basis of how we tell it to treat us but, much more so, on the basis of how we treat it; it responds to our actions far more readily than it does to our words.
An intuitive grasp of this dependency is what led social worker Julio Diaz to have a completely counterintuitive reaction to the attacker who mugged him on the way home after a long day’s work in the Bronx. Diaz’s astonishing moral courage at knifepoint stands as a testament to Rebecca Solnit’s assertion that “hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away.”
Diaz tells the story in this wonderful short animation, part of the #WhoWeAre initiative by StoryCrops — an elevating and ennobling series of true stories that “amplify love over hate and empathy over fear,” beckoning forth our highest selves amid a media culture built on exploiting our basest instincts.
You treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.
For more of StoryCorps’s heartening and humanizing stories, see this moving personal account of how libraries save lives.
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He was robbed at knifepoint and handled it in a most unusual way. | #