Collecting Playing Cards: 4 Simple Tips That Save HOURS


Collecting Playing Cards Collecting playing cards is one of the most fun (and easiest) ways to supercharge your passion for magic! In this informative post, you’ll discover 4 Expert Solutions (and powerful tips) on how to start growing your own playing card collection—on a shoestring budget. That means you can experience the thrill and pride […]

The post Collecting Playing Cards: 4 Simple Tips That Save HOURS appeared first on Conjuror Community.



Source link

Rachel Carson’s Birdsong Notation, Set to Music


A melodic homage to the patron saint of the modern environmental conscience.


Rachel Carson’s Birdsong Notation, Set to Music

One of the loveliest discoveries in my research for Figuring came at Yale’s magical Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where Rachel Carson’s papers are housed: Among her ample letters, manuscripts, and field notebooks I found a piece of railway stationery from the now-defunct Portland Rose train line, onto which Carson had counted bird calls and scribbled the notation of a birdsong melody — that is how this quiet visionary loved our living world, which she set out to protect at immense personal cost as she catalyzed the environmental movement with her landmark 1962 book Silent Spring, titled after the chapter on the devastating pesticide-induced deaths of songbirds.

Bird call counts and birdsong notation in Rachel Carson’s hand. (Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library)

Carson’s scribbles so touched me that I decided they must adorn the cover of the 300 signed and numbered limited editions of Figuring, stamped in gold onto deep sky blue vegan leather — it felt like the most perfect poetic symbology for a book animated by the cherishment of nature, the longing for truth and beauty, and the way in which the personal tendernesses of change agents fomented their epoch-making cultural contributions.

What a sweet surprise, then, when my supremely talented, supremely generous and warmhearted singer-songwriter friend Dawn Landes drew the melody out of Carson’s penciled notation and set it to music — birdsong transfigured into a mesmerizing arrangement of guitar, piano, synth, layers of violin, and two harmonizing voices: Dawn and her sometime-bandmate Lauren Balthrop. Sit back with a pair of good headphones, think of Carson, and savor:

Couple with a very different musical tribute to Carson’s legacy, then revisit Neil Gaiman’s splendid poem celebrating her courage, read by Amanda Palmer.


donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


newsletter

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most unmissable reads. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.



Source link

Herman Melville’s Passionate, Beautiful, Heartbreaking Love Letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne


“Your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s… It is a strange feeling — no hopefulness is in it, no despair. Content — that is it… The divine magnet is in you, and my magnet responds.”


Herman Melville’s Passionate, Beautiful, Heartbreaking Love Letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne

The summer when nineteen-year-old Emily Dickinson met the love of her life — the orphaned mathematician-in-training Susan Gilbert, who would come to be the poet’s greatest muse, her mentor, her primary reader and editor, her fiercest lifelong attachment, her “Only Woman in the World” — another intense, label-defying love was igniting in the heart of another literary titan-to-be some fifty miles westward. That other love unfolds alongside Dickinson’s in Figuring — a book I wrote to explore, among other existential perplexities, the bittersweet beauty of asymmetrical and half-requited loves. (This essay is adapted from the book.)

On August 5, 1850, Herman Melville met Nathaniel Hawthorne at a literary gathering in the Berkshires. Hawthorne was forty-six. The achingly shy, brooding writer, once celebrated as “handsomer than Lord Byron,” had risen to celebrity a decade earlier, much thanks to a glowing endorsement by Margaret Fuller. Melville — whose debut novel had rendered him a literary star in his twenties — had just turned thirty-one.

Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne

A potent intellectual infatuation ignited between the two men — one that, at least for Melville, seems to have grown from the cerebral to the corporeal. Within days, the young author reviewed Hawthorne’s short story collection Mosses from an Old Manse in Literary World under the impersonal byline “a Virginian Spending July in Vermont.” No claim of this intentional ambiguity was true — Melville was a New Yorker, the month was August, and he was spending it in Massachusetts.

The review, nearing seven thousand words, was nothing less than an editorial serenade. “A man of a deep and noble nature has seized me in this seclusion… His wild, witch voice rings through me,” Melville wrote of reading Hawthorne’s stories in a remote farmhouse nestled in the summer foliage of the New England countryside. “The soft ravishments of the man spun me round in a web of dreams.” Melville couldn’t have known that his allusions to witchcraft, intended as compliment, had disquieting connotations for Hawthorne. Born Nathaniel Hathorne, he had added a w to the family name in order to distance himself from his ancestor John Hathorne — a leading judge involved in the Salem witch trials, who, unlike the other culpable judges, never repented of his role in the murders. Unwitting of the dark family history, Melville found himself under “this Hawthorne’s spell” — a spell cast first by his writing, then by the constellation of personal qualities from which the writing radiated. Who hasn’t fallen in love with an author in the pages of a beautiful book? And if that author, when befriended in the real world, proves to be endowed with the splendor of personhood that the writing intimates, who could resist falling in love with the whole person? Melville presaged as much:

No man can read a fine author, and relish him to his very bones, while he reads, without subsequently fancying to himself some ideal image of the man and his mind… There is no man in whom humor and love are developed in that high form called genius; no such man can exist without also possessing, as the indispensable complement of these, a great, deep intellect, which drops down into the universe like a plummet. Or, love and humor are only the eyes, through which such an intellect views this world. The great beauty in such a mind is but the product of its strength.

After comparing Hawthorne to Shakespeare, he writes:

In this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth, — even though it be covertly, and by snatches.

“I am Posterity speaking by proxy,” Melville bellows from the page, “when I declare — that the American, who up to the present day, has evinced, in Literature, the largest brain with the largest heart, that man is Nathaniel Hawthorne.” In an aside on the process of composing his review, he notes that twenty-four hours into writing, he found himself “charged more and more with love and admiration of Hawthorne.” Quoting an especially beguiling line of Hawthorne’s, he insists that “such touches… can not proceed from any common heart.” No, they bespeak “such a depth of tenderness, such a boundless sympathy with all forms of being, such an omnipresent love” that they render their author singular in his generation — as singular as the place he would come to occupy in Melville’s heart.

Hawthorne’s home, Old Manse. Concord, Massachusetts. (Boston Public Library.)

Fervid correspondence and frequent visits followed over the next few months. Only ten of Melville’s letters to Hawthorne survive, but their houses were just six miles apart and they saw each other quite often — “discussing the Universe with a bottle of brandy & cigars,” as Melville put it in one invitation, and talking deep into the night about “time and eternity, things of this world and of the next, and books, and publishers, and all possible and impossible matters,” as Hawthorne recounted in his diary. Punctuating the invisible log of all that was written but destroyed is all that was spoken but unwritten, all that was felt but unspoken.

Melville’s ardor was most acute during the period of writing Moby-Dick, which he dedicated to Hawthorne. Printed immediately after the title page was “In Token of My Admiration for his Genius, This Book is Inscribed to Nathanial [sic] Hawthorne.”

Art by Matt Kish from Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page

One November evening over dinner, a restlessly excited Herman presented Nathaniel with a lovingly inscribed copy of the novel whose now-legendary protagonist sails from Nantucket into the existential unknown. I can picture the brooding Hawthorne turning the leaf and suppressing a beam of delight upon discovering the printed dedication. In the following century, Virginia Woolf would perform a similar gesture with her groundbreaking, gender-bending novel Orlando, inspired by her lover Vita Sackville-West and later described by Vita’s son as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” On the day of Orlando’s publication, Vita would receive a package containing not only the printed book, but also Virginia’s original manuscript, bound specially for her in Niger leather and stamped with her initials on the spine.

But after the elated private presentation, a very different public fate awaited Moby-Dick. Its 1851 publication was met with a damning review in New York’s Literary World, which set the tone for its American reception and precipitated its decades-long plunge into obscurity. The reviewer’s chief complaint was that the novel “violated and defaced” “the most sacred associations of life”—an indictment aimed at the homoeroticism of Melville’s choice to depict Ishmael and Queequeg as sharing a “marriage bed” in which they awaken with their arms around each other.

Queequeg’s favorite dish, cooked and photographed by artist Dinah Fried for her project Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals.

Ten days later, Hawthorne lamented the obtuseness of the review and praised Moby-Dick as Melville’s best work yet. Touched to the point of delirium by this “exultation-breeding letter,” Melville hastened to reply:

Your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s… It is a strange feeling — no hopefulness is in it, no despair. Content — that is it; and irresponsibility; but without licentious inclination. I speak now of my profoundest sense of being, not of an incidental feeling.

Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips — lo, they are yours and not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces.

Aware of how his intemperate fervor might incinerate his relationship with the cooler-tempered Hawthorne, Melville reasons with himself for a moment, then chooses to abandon reason:

My dear Hawthorne, the atmospheric skepticisms steal into me now, and make me doubtful of my sanity in writing you thus. But, believe me, I am not mad, most noble Festus! But truth is ever incoherent, and when the big hearts strike together, the concussion is a little stunning.

After signing, he adds a feverish postscript:

I can’t stop yet. If the world was entirely made up of [magicians], I’ll tell you what I should do. I should have a paper-mill established at one end of the house, and so have an endless riband of foolscap rolling in upon my desk; and upon that endless riband I should write a thousand — a million — billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter to you. The divine magnet is in you, and my magnet responds. Which is the biggest? A foolish question — they are One.

The intensity proved too concussing for Hawthorne — he pulled away from the divine magnet. Melville seems to have presaged the eclipse of their relationship in the review in which the magnetism had begun:

It is that blackness in Hawthorne… that so fixes and fascinates me. It may be, nevertheless, that it is too largely developed in him. Perhaps he does not give us a ray of his light for every shade of his dark.

As Hawthorne retreated into his cool darkness, Melville suffered with the singular anguish of unreturned ardor—anguish that stayed with him for the remaining four decades of his life, for he eulogized it in one of his last poems, “Monody,” penned in his final year:

To have known him, to have loved him,
After loneness long;
And then to be estranged in life,
And neither in the wrong;
And now for death to set his seal —
Ease me, a little ease, my song!

By wintry hills his hermit-mound
The sheeted snow-drifts drape,
And houseless there the snow-bird flits
Beneath the fir-tree’s crape:
Glazed now with ice the cloistral vine
That hid the shyest grape.

Herman Melville in his final years.

Meanwhile, the gaps of the invisible and the unspoken are filled with posterity’s questions about specifics that vibrate with the universal: What happened between Melville and Hawthorne in the unrecorded hours? Why did Nathaniel ultimately repel the divine magnet of Herman’s love? Most probably, we’ll never know. Possibly, they themselves never fully did. It is almost banal to say, yet it needs to be said: No one ever knows, nor therefore has grounds to judge, what goes on between two people, often not even the people themselves, half-opaque as we are to ourselves. One thing is certain: The quotient of intimacy cannot be contained in a label. The human heart is an ancient beast that roars and purrs with the same passions, whatever labels we may give them. We are so anxious to classify and categorize, both nature and human nature. It is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos, to construct a foothold so we may climb toward higher truth. It is also a limiting one, for in naming things we often come to mistake the names for the things themselves. The labels we give to the loves of which we are capable — varied and vigorously transfigured from one kind into another and back again — cannot begin to contain the complexity of feeling that can flow between two hearts and the bodies that contain them.


donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


newsletter

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most unmissable reads. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.



Source link

Salvation by Words: Iris Murdoch on Language as a Vehicle of Truth and Art as a Force of Resistance to Tyranny


“Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify. The good artist is a vehicle of truth.”


Salvation by Words: Iris Murdoch on Language as a Vehicle of Truth and Art as a Force of Resistance to Tyranny

“To create today is to create dangerously,” Albert Camus wrote in the late 1950s as he contemplated the role of the artist as a voice of resistance. “In our age,” W.H. Auden observed around the same time across the Atlantic, “the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act.” This unmerciful reality of human culture has shocked and staggered every artist who has endeavored to effect progress and lift her society up with the fulcrum of her art, but it is a fundamental fact of every age and every society. Half a century after Camus and Auden, Chinua Achebe distilled its discomfiting essence in his forgotten conversation with James Baldwin:

Those who tell you “Do not put too much politics in your art” are not being honest. If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.

Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) — a rare philosopher with a poet’s pen, and one of the most incisive minds of the past century — explores the role of art as a force of resistance to tyranny and vehicle of cultural change in an arresting address she delivered to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in the spring of 1972, later included in the altogether revelatory posthumous collection Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (public library).

Dame Iris Murdoch by Ida Kar (National Portrait Gallery)

Two decades after the Soviet communist government forced Boris Pasternak to relinquish his Nobel Prize in Literature, Murdoch writes:

Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify. The good artist is a vehicle of truth, he formulates ideas which would otherwise remain vague and focuses attention upon facts which can then no longer be ignored. The tyrant persecutes the artist by silencing him or by attempting to degrade or buy him. This has always been so.

In consonance with Baldwin’s assertion that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” Murdoch adds:

At regular intervals in history the artist has tended to be a revolutionary or at least an instrument of change in so far as he has tended to be a sensitive and independent thinker with a job that is a little outside established society.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the maelstrom of vicious opprobrium hurled at E.E. Cummings for his visionary defiance of tradition, which revolutionized literature, Murdoch considers how art often catalyzes ideological and cultural revolutions by first revolutionizing the art-form itself:

A motive for change in art has always been the artist’s own sense of truth. Artists constantly react against their tradition, finding it pompous and starchy and out of touch… Traditional art is seen as far too grand, and is then seen as a half-truth.

Art by Salvador Dalí from a rare 1969 edition of Alice in Wonderland

Murdoch counts among the “multifarious enemies of art” not only the deliberate assaults of political agendas and ideologies, but the half-conscious lacerations of our technology — that prosthetic extension of human intention, the unforeseen consequences and byproducts of which invariably eclipse its original intended uses. In a passage of sundering pertinence to our present political pseudo-reality, reinforced by the gorge of incessant newsfeeds, she writes:

A technological society, quite automatically and without any malign intent, upsets the artist by taking over and transforming the idea of craft, and by endlessly reproducing objects which are not art objects but sometimes resemble them. Technology steals the artist’s public by inventing sub-artistic forms of entertainment and by offering a great counterinterest and a rival way of grasping the world.

[…]

Today technology further disturbs the artist and his client not only by actually threatening the world, but by making its wretchedness apparent upon the television screen. The desire to attack art, to neglect it or to harness it or to transform it out of recognition, is a natural and in a way respectable reaction to this display.

Dame Iris Murdoch by Madame Yevonde (National Portrait Gallery)

In a lovely parallel to Kurt Gödel’s landmark incompleteness theorem, demonstrating the existence of certain mathematical truths which mathematical logical simply cannot prove, Murdoch extols incompleteness as the hallmark of art — not its weakness but its supreme strength:

Great art, especially literature, but the other arts too, carries a built-in self-critical recognition of its incompleteness. It accepts and celebrates jumble, and the bafflement of the mind by the world. The incomplete pseudo-object, the work of art, is a lucid commentary upon itself… Art makes a place for precision in the midst of chaos by inventing a language in which contingent details can be lovingly noticed and obvious truths stated with simple authority. The incompleteness of the pseudo-object need not affect the lucidity of the mode of talk which it bodies forth; in fact, the two aspects of the matter ideally support each other. In this sense all good art is its own intimate critic, celebrating in simple and truthful utterance the broken nature of its formal complexity. All good tragedy is anti-tragedy. King Lear. Lear wants to enact the false tragic, the solemn, the complete. Shakespeare forces him to enact the true tragic, the absurd, the incomplete.

Great art, then,… inspires truthfulness and humility.

Much as the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay had ranked an art other than her own as the greatest — “Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is,” she exulted in one of literature’s most splendid passages about the power of music — Murdoch concedes the superior power of art at the expense of her own primary vocation:

Great art is able to display and discuss the central area of our reality, our actual consciousness, in a more exact way than science or even philosophy can.

A decade and a half before Toni Morrison delivered her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the power of language and a quarter century before Susan Sontag’s poignant address on “the conscience of words,” Murdoch writes:

There is no doubt which art is the most practically important for our survival and our salvation, and that is literature. Words constitute the ultimate texture and stuff of our moral being, since they are the most refined and delicate and detailed, as well as the most universally used and understood, of the symbolisms whereby we express ourselves into existence. We became spiritual animals when we became verbal animals. The fundamental distinctions can only be made in words. Words are spirit.

Art by Ofra Amit from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In a sentiment of grave poignancy amid our dispiriting and decivilizing atmosphere of “alternative facts,” Murdoch adds:

The quality of a civilisation depends upon its ability to discern and reveal truth, and this depends upon the scope and purity of its language.

Any dictator attempts to degrade the language because this is a way to mystify. And many of the quasi-automatic operations of capitalist industrial society tend also toward mystification and the blunting of verbal precision.

With an eye to C.P. Snow’s famed 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures” — a watershed case for the necessity of desegregating science and the humanities, of bridging investigation with imaginative experience — Murdoch exhorts:

We must not be tempted to leave lucidity and exactness to the scientist. Whenever we write we ought to write as well as we can… in order to defend our language and render subtle and clear that stuff which is the deepest texture of our spirit.

[…]

There are not two cultures. There is only one culture and words are its basis; words are where we live as human beings and as moral and spiritual agents.

Her closing words are part manifesto and part benediction — a meta-testament to the mobilizing, spiritualizing power of great writing:

Both art and philosophy constantly re-create themselves by returning to the deep and obvious and ordinary things of human existence and making there a place for cool speech and wit and serious unforced reflection. Long may this central area remain to us, the homeland of freedom and of art. The great artist, like the great saint, calms us by a kind of unassuming simple lucidity, he speaks with the voice that we hear in Homer and in Shakespeare and in the Gospels. This is the human language of which, whenever we write, as artists or as word-users of any other kind, we should endeavour to be worthy.

Existentialists and Mystics — which also gave us Murdoch on storytelling and the key to great writing — is a timelessly incisive read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Toni Morrison on the power of language, then revisit Murdoch on causality, chance, and how love gives meaning to our existence and her almost unbearably beautiful love letters.


donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


newsletter

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most unmissable reads. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.



Source link

Tell us: what books are the most shocking or disturbing?


On this week’s books podcast, we discuss the works that we struggled to finish – or even had to hide – because they were so shocking.

  • Share your literary terrors in the comments below

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us,” Franz Kafka once wrote. “If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?”

That’s all very well, Kafka, but how about the books literally about wounding and stabbing? On this week’s books podcast, the Guardian’s resident thriller fan Alison Flood struggled to finish The Flower Girls, a new thriller by Alice Clark-Platts, the plot of which contains similarities to the James Bulger murder case. This sparked a discussion on the books desk about the books that have most disturbed us: commissioning editor Richard Lea had nightmares after reading Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One; I once had someone hide my copy of American Psycho so I’d stop dwelling on it; and associate culture editor Claire Armitstead once destroyed a copy of Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, because she was so disturbed by a particular scene: “I put it in the fire! I have never destroyed another book … but I didn’t want anyone else to read what I’ve read.”

Well… Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands (unabridged, 2008) was for me (a male at the sensitive age of 56!) – a pretty unsettling book! However it was a mind opening, terrific read – and not a book you can forget in a hurry! Memorable too – but not for the usual reasons! pic.twitter.com/0RCPJX6xiZ

The Silent Companions by @spookypurcell because of the ending, super sinister! And The Silent Patient by @AlexMichaelides because I thought my head was going to

There must have been several, but I finished Charlotte Brontë’s Villette late at night, and couldn’t sleep afterwards. That narrator is so enigmatic.

The Puttermesser Papers. Such a horrible death for the central character. Ozick’s a great writer but I wish I’d never read it.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, descriptions of POW life brilliant – Richard Flanagan builds a sense of dread so perfectly and with poetry. I had to put the book in another room one night as I couldn’t sleep with it beside me, I was so disturbed. The scenes just haunt you.

The Lovely Bones really disturbed me. Had to get the book out the house once I’d finished it!

Continue reading…



Source link

Reading group: Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin is our book for February


This month’s choice is a groundbreaking gay love story that impressed even prejudiced critics

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin has come out of the hat and will be our book about love for this month’s reading group.

Baldwin’s second novel was written in 1956 when the author lived in Paris. As he explained in a 1980 interview, this story of failing to find love and a young man doomed to death was partly inspired by real life:

“We all met in a bar, there was a blond French guy sitting at a table, he bought us drinks. And, two or three days later, I saw his face in the headlines of a Paris paper. He had been arrested and was later guillotined … I saw him in the headlines, which reminded me that I was already working on him without knowing it.”

Related: James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room: an antidote to shame

Continue reading…



Source link

Anatomy of Deception and Self-Delusion: Walter Lippmann on Public Opinion, Our Slippery Grasp of Truth, and the Discipline of Apprehending Reality Clearly


“If the connection between reality and human response were direct and immediate, rather than indirect and inferred, indecision and failure would be unknown.”


Anatomy of Deception and Self-Delusion: Walter Lippmann on Public Opinion, Our Slippery Grasp of Truth, and the Discipline of Apprehending Reality Clearly

“Truth always rests with the minority … because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion,” Kierkegaard wrote in his journal in the middle of the nineteenth century as he tussled with the eternal question of why we conform. Around the same time, across the Atlantic, Emerson fumed in his own diary as he contemplated the supreme existential challenge of individual integrity in a mass society: “Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence… I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them.” A century later, Eleanor Roosevelt would sharpen this sentiment in her abiding meditation on happiness and conformity: “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else, you surrender your own integrity [and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.”

Why even the soundest-minded of us are so susceptible to such unconscious surrender and what it takes to uphold a clear view of reality is what the great writer, media theorist, and political critic Walter Lippmann (September 23, 1889–December 14, 1974) — whose moral courage of shedding light on the pitfalls of society and the human psyche Eleanor Roosevelt greatly admired, and whom Theodore Roosevelt considered the “most brilliant young man of his age in all the United States” — explores in his timelessly insightful 1922 book Public Opinion (free ebook | public library).

Walter Lippmann

Lippmann — who coined the word stereotype in its contemporary sense — begins by considering just how porous to ambient information we are in the constitution of our inner landscape opinion, and how absurd it is to regard ourselves as having firm and final grasp of reality when the entire history of our species is the history of misapprehension and pseudoreality tightly held as truth. He writes:

Looking back we can see how indirectly we know the environment in which nevertheless we live. We can see that the news of it comes to us now fast, now slowly; but that whatever we believe to be a true picture, we treat as if it were the environment itself. It is harder to remember that about the beliefs upon which we are now acting, but in respect to other peoples and other ages we flatter ourselves that it is easy to see when they were in deadly earnest about ludicrous pictures of the world. We insist, because of our superior hindsight, that the world as they needed to know it, and the world as they did know it, were often two quite contradictory things. We can see, too, that while they governed and fought, traded and reformed in the world as they imagined it to be, they produced results, or failed to produce any, in the world as it was. They started for the Indies and found America. They diagnosed evil and hanged old women. They thought they could grow rich by always selling and never buying. A caliph, obeying what he conceived to be the Will of Allah, burned the library at Alexandria.

Nearly a century before the Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman came to study how our minds mislead us and observed that “the confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence but of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct,” Lippmann illustrates this elemental human tendency with the example of the sixth-century Alexandrian monk Cosmas, who set out to disprove pre-Christian geographers’ assertion that our planet is spherical.

Cosmas’s map of the Earth

Although the belief that Earth is flat had been steadily falling out of favor over the preceding three centuries, Cosmas held tightly to his religious mythology, positing that Earth was structurally modeled on the house of worship God describes to Moses during the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. Determined to reconcile reality and religion, Cosmas devised a theoretical model of the universe he called “Christian Topography.” Drawn centuries before the development of perspective, his map depicts the world as a flat parallelogram, twice as wide from east to west as it is high from north to south, containing the Earth at the center, surrounded by an ocean, in turn contained by another Earth, where humans lived before the flood of the Genesis myth. Atop this other Earth — Noah’s point of embarkation — is a conical mountain, behind which the Sun and Moon revolve like a celestial chandelier spinning to turn day into night. Specific compartments of this universe-within-a-world are allotted to the mortals, the blessed, and the angels.

Mountain detail from Cosmas’s model of the universe

Cosmas enfolded the map into his treatise Christian Opinion Concerning the World, and yet he seemed unwitting of the fact that the map was indeed an opinion rather than a representation of reality. He did what we have always done as human beings — mistake our labels and models of things for the things themselves. In the ancient monk, Lippmann finds a living allegory for the human pathology to see what we wish to believe:

For Cosmas there was nothing in the least absurd about his map. Only by remembering his absolute conviction that this was the map of the universe can we begin to understand how he would have dreaded Magellan or Peary or the aviator who risked a collision with the angels and the vault of heaven by flying seven miles up in the air. In the same way we can best understand the furies of war and politics by remembering that almost the whole of each party believes absolutely in its picture of the opposition, that it takes as fact, not what is, but what it supposes to be the fact.

Our opinions of the world and of other people, Lippmann argues, form much the way Cosmas constructed his map — governed less by a clear view of the relevant facts and the inner motives of others than by our theoretical models of what happened and why it happened, informed largely by our own beliefs and feelings. Decades before neuroscientists located the central mystery of consciousness in qualia — the subjective interiority of any human experience, so opaque to outside observers — Lippmann writes:

The only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of that event. That is why until we know what others think they know, we cannot truly understand their acts.

(A century later, that impossibility stands as the greatest challenge to artificial intelligence.)

One of Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for the essays of Montaigne

The most interesting question, then, as well as the most pressing in matters both political and personal, is what makes us vulnerable to such self-inflicted blindnesses and delusions, and what can be done about it. Lippmann writes:

It is clear enough that under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities, and that in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond.

[…]

In [such] instances we must note particularly one common factor. It is the insertion between man and his environment of a pseudo-environment. To that pseudo-environment his behavior is a response. But because it is behavior, the consequences, if they are acts, operate not in the pseudo-environment where the behavior is stimulated, but in the real environment where action eventuates. If the behavior is not a practical act, but what we call roughly thought and emotion, it may be a long time before there is any noticeable break in the texture of the fictitious world. But when the stimulus of the pseudo-fact results in action on things or other people, contradiction soon develops. Then comes the sensation of butting one’s head against a stone wall, of learning by experience, and witnessing Herbert Spencer’s tragedy of the murder of a Beautiful Theory by a Gang of Brutal Facts, the discomfort in short of a maladjustment. For certainly, at the level of social life, what is called the adjustment of man to his environment takes place through the medium of fictions.

Fictions, Lippmann is careful to point out, need not be blatant lies — they can be, and most often are, the subtle deformations of reality in which a sapling of truth is grafted onto a robust trunk of Cosmian interpretation to produce a bramble of pseudo-reality. Three centuries after Galileo admonished against the folly of believing our preconceptions, as he defied the geocentric model of the universe nearly at the cost of his life, Lippmann writes:

By fictions I do not mean lies. I mean a representation of the environment which is in lesser or greater degree made by man himself… A work of fiction may have almost any degree of fidelity, and so long as the degree of fidelity can be taken into account, fiction is not misleading. In fact, human culture is very largely the selection, the rearrangement, the tracing of patterns upon, and the stylizing of, what William James called “the random irradiations and resettlements of our ideas.” The alternative to the use of fictions is direct exposure to the ebb and flow of sensation. That is not a real alternative, for however refreshing it is to see at times with a perfectly innocent eye, innocence itself is not wisdom, though a source and corrective of wisdom. For the real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it. To traverse the world men must have maps of the world. Their persistent difficulty is to secure maps on which their own need, or someone else’s need, has not sketched in the coast of Bohemia.

‘Fool’s Cap Map of the World’ (1580–1590), from Cosmigraphics

And yet the maps two people make of the same reality may be so staggeringly divergent as to lead us to believe that the mappers inhabit different worlds. Once again anticipating the notion of qualia, Lippmann refines the sentiment by pointing out that “they live in the same world, but they think and feel in different ones.” It is through this draughtsmanship of thought and feeling that we draw the highly subjective maps by which we navigate the real world:

What each man does is based not on direct and certain knowledge, but on pictures made by himself or given to him. If his atlas tells him that the world is flat he will not sail near what he believes to be the edge of our planet for fear of falling off. If his maps include a fountain of eternal youth, a Ponce de Leon will go in quest of it. If someone digs up yellow dirt that looks like gold, he will for a time act exactly as if he had found gold. The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do. It does not determine what they will achieve. It determines their effort, their feelings, their hopes, not their accomplishments and results.

[…]

The very fact that men theorize at all is proof that their pseudo-environments, their interior representations of the world, are a determining element in thought, feeling, and action. For if the connection between reality and human response were direct and immediate, rather than indirect and inferred, indecision and failure would be unknown.

Our inferences about and representations of reality, Lippmann observes, are so misshapen because the world we try to apprehend is invariably “out of reach, out of sight, out of mind” — a world that, especially politically, must be “explored, reported, and imagined” in order for us to have any picture of it at all. (Trailblazing astronomer and key Figuring figure Maria Mitchell captured this native limitation of the human mind exquisitely: “We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”) Lippmann writes:

Man is no Aristotelian god contemplating all existence at one glance. He is the creature of an evolution who can just about span a sufficient portion of reality to manage his survival, and snatch what on the scale of time are but a few moments of insight and happiness. Yet this same creature has invented ways of seeing what no naked eye could see, of hearing what no ear could hear, of weighing immense masses and infinitesimal ones, of counting and separating more items than he can individually remember. He is learning to see with his mind vast portions of the world that he could never see, touch, smell, hear, or remember. Gradually he makes for himself a trustworthy picture inside his head of the world beyond his reach.

But the pictures our mind’s eye constructs by inference and common sense — that most pernicious traitor of reality — are inherently untrustworthy. They are always partial and gravely warped by the illusion of completeness — especially when it comes to what we call public opinion. Lippmann anchors his argument to a definition:

Those features of the world outside which have to do with the behavior of other human beings, in so far as that behavior crosses ours, is dependent upon us, or is interesting to us, we call roughly public affairs. The pictures inside the heads of these human beings, the pictures of themselves, of others, of their needs, purposes, and relationship, are their public opinions. Those pictures which are acted upon by groups of people, or by individuals acting in the name of groups, are Public Opinion with capital letters.

Considering why our mental pictures so habitually misrepresent reality, Lippmann identifies our limited access to facts as the key factor — we simply don’t have the time and opportunity to take into account every relevant data point and contextual quotient in forming our opinions about a person or situation. Half a century after the English mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford extolled the discipline of doubt and plainly observed that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence,” and nearly a century before our so-called social media, Lippmann laments “the distortion arising because events have to be compressed into very short messages,” compounded by the flattening of dimension and the erasure of nuance induced by compressing a complex world into a limited vocabulary. More than half a century before James Baldwin admonished that “people who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction,” Lippmann observes that these distortions and deceptions converge to foment a “fear of facing those facts which would seem to threaten the established routine of men’s lives.” In other words, we instinctively partake in willful blindness, attending only to those facts which corroborate our existing model of reality — the model by which our lives operate with the lowest degree of friction.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of Alice in Wonderland

Lippmann returns to the central causality of our misapprehension — our limited access to facts, barred from us by various layers of circumstantial opacity and deliberate privacy — and offers a vital calibration of the confidence we have in our world-picture:

Whether the reasons for privacy are good or bad, the barriers exist. Privacy is insisted upon at all kinds of places in the area of what is called public affairs. It is often very illuminating, therefore, to ask yourself how you got at the facts on which you base your opinion. Who actually saw, heard, felt, counted, named the thing, about which you have an opinion? Was it the man who told you, or the man who told him, or someone still further removed? And how much was he permitted to see?

[…]

You can ask yourself these questions, but you can rarely answer them. They will remind you, however, of the distance which often separates your public opinion from the event with which it deals. And the reminder is itself a protection.

In a single succinct prescription for effective critical thinking, Lippmann distills the antidote to our susceptibility to outside manipulation and our propensity for self-deception:

In truly effective thinking the prime necessity is to liquidate judgments, regain an innocent eye, disentangle feelings, be curious and open-hearted.

In the remainder of Public Opinion — a sobering and immensely insightful read in its entirety — Lippmann goes on to examine “how in the individual person the limited messages from outside, formed into a pattern of stereotypes, are identified with his own interests as he feels and conceives them,” “how opinions are crystallized into what is called Public Opinion,” and “how a National Will, a Group Mind, a Social Purpose, or whatever you choose to call it, is formed.” Complement it with James Baldwin on resisting the mindless majority and Egon Schiele on why visionaries tend to come from the minority, then revisit Bertrand Russell on our most effective self-defense against propaganda and Karl Popper on seeking truth over certainty.


donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


newsletter

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most unmissable reads. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.



Source link

Shelf policing: how books (and cacti) make women too 'spiky' for men


‘To create a new relationship,’ a life coach advises single women to empty their boudoir of distractions such as books – particularly if they’re downbeat

“How to avoid turning your home into a MANrepeller”, the Daily Mail proclaimed from atop the mountain on Sunday. “Interiors therapist reveals the items that could be making your abode offputting to men.”

It could be forgiven for wanting to jump on the Marie Kondo bandwagon, but the twist obviously had to be that the gaze you must please is not your own, but a man’s.

Continue reading…



Source link

Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster has been keeping vermontlogger up at night:

Another first-class read. A middle-aged mother, recently widowed, must learn to live a new life and shows a brave independence. Emotion is made to appear through writing of perfect clarity and simplicity.

Towards the end I had a horrible certainty as to how it would finish and lay awake worrying.

I hesitate to mention it, but I’m almost finished War and Peace. I say hesitate, because people tend to look at you a bit funny when you say you’re reading W&P – my wife simply said “Oh my god” as if I’d taken leave of my senses. And I also hesitate because actually I’m re-reading it. According to the date inside the cover (Penguin, 2 volumes, Tr. Edwards) I last read this in 1974, when I was clearly much too young to really appreciate it, since I remembered nothing of it except that I thought the philosophical bits rather dull.

I can see now that waiting 44 years to come back to it was a serious mistake. I suppose I was put off by its length and “classic” status, but I have to say it’s a cracking good read, and I’d recommend it to anyone: I’ve hugely enjoyed it.

I’m on Zündel’s Exit which is (as you say of the other) terse and bitter, but also full of great lines and belly laughs (Hoffman did the translation). Like a funnier Bernhard. It’s hitting the spot like you wouldn’t believe.

A bold sequel to A Wizard Of Earthsea – bold in that it’s initially unclear that it bears any relationship to the first novel, other than being set on the same world (if you weren’t aware of the sequel, you might not have recalled that Atuan is even mentioned in AWOE).

It’s a better book than its predecessor, I think, and asks some interesting questions about religion, power structures, and gender. A fine book and beautifully written. And although ostensibly YA, it’s much more grown up than about 75% of the adult literature that I read…

It really is astonishing, mixing post-nuclear apocalyptic disaster (new Ice Age) with feminism, often hallucinogen at times, dreamlike and sometimes stream of consciousness from an unreliable narrator searching for a strange, ephemeral girl and as ice closes in and the world turns to shit. Details are left vague and the three protagonists are nameless. The author spent most of her life addicted to heroin so there are obvious metaphors here. The writing is beautiful and I can only compare her descriptions of the freezing world as similar to Doris Lessing’s The Making of the Representative for Planet 8.

Describing the frustrations of ‘camping’ on the Appalachian Trail with little or no equipment, walking for miles in hopes of encountering the next small town with motel and restaurant, and the revelations of walking with his friend Katz who is in no shape to take on such a trial. All true, very enlightening, not only about human nature but about the dismal ‘care’ the U.S. National Park System and associates ‘lavish’, so to speak on unforgettable, fabulous nature, out there for any of us to partake. Of course there are always the spoiled Ralph Lauren hiking outfit types, simply out for a night of camping and extreme drinking. Altogether an entertaining, wonderfully hilarious and thought-provoking comment on society, history, nature and ourselves.

Racing through Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels which I’ve never read before. Plots utterly confusing but what a great writer. I loved Marlowe’s advice on giving up alcohol:

“It’s a different world. You have to get used to a paler set of colours, a quieter lot of sounds, you have to allow for relapses. All the people you used to know well will get to be a little strange. You won’t even like most of them and they won’t like you too well.”

Avoid “wan intensifiers”. Random House copy chief Benjamin Dryer explains why in this “brilliant” interview.

A podcast that breaks down Harry Potter chapter by chapter has been a big hit.

On a “Tolstoyan anarchist community” in Essex – and Penelope Fitzgerald.

Poet and critic Dan Chiasson has been allowed to continue his ongoing review of the US President.

Just in case you missed that astonishing Dan Mallory story in the New Yorker.

“The other main category of puddings – milk puddings – is the kind of thing that one would prefer to pass over in silence, but it must be mentioned, since these dishes are, unfortunately, characteristic of Britain.” George Orwell’s essay on food has finally been published. (Hat tip to Magrat123)

Continue reading…



Source link

Project fear: what will Brexit gothic fiction look like?


The genre has always been adept at condensing social anxieties into memorable villains – so what will the horrific embodiment of our age be?

Gothic has always been a particularly reactive genre. It responds to trends and to what sells. But most of all it reacts to fear. The gothic has a flair for metaphors of anxiety, especially in its monsters. Frankenstein’s depiction of scientific hubris, Dracula’s immigrant vampire, the corrupted masculinity of both Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Stevenson’s Mr Hyde: each of these iconic grotesques was birthed as an embodiment of prevailing social anxiety.

The technique endures. In Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and The Stepford Wives (1972), Ira Levin used satanists and robots as metaphors for the attack on a woman’s ownership of her body and reproductive rights. The shock and awfulness of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1992) obscures a wry examination of individualism under assault by Reaganomics, with serial killer Patrick Bateman’s meticulous descriptions of violence sitting uneasily alongside his equally detailed lists of clothes and on-trend nightclubs. The juxtaposition exposes the violence that the latter performs upon the psyche of the modern American urbanite.

When Nigel Farage expresses concern about Romanian men moving in next door, it makes one wonder if he has read Dracula

Continue reading…



Source link