Hey christine! If you missed last week's edition – what books do for the human soul, the mind-bender of what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of change, an illustrated catalog of the unusual, deeply human stories behind people's tattoos, a minimalist geometric allegory for friendship and creativity, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.
Celebrated as the first true existentialist philosopher, Danish writer and thinker Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) may have only lived a short life, but it was a deep one and its impact radiated widely outward, far across the centuries and disciplines and schools of thought. He was also among the multitude of famous writers who benefited from keeping a diary and nowhere does his paradoxical blend of melancholy and idealism, of despair about the human condition and optimism about the purpose of life, shine more brilliantly than in The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (public library) – a compendium of Kierkegaard's frequently intense, always astoundingly thoughtful reflections on everything from happiness and melancholy to writing and literature to self-doubt and public opinion.
In an immeasurably insightful entry from 1847, 34-year-old Kierkegaard observes a pervasive pathology of our fallible humanity, explaining the same basic psychology that lurks behind contemporary phenomena like bullying, trolling, and the general assaults of the web's self-appointed critics, colloquially and rather appropriately known as haters.
There is a form of envy of which I frequently have seen examples, in which an individual tries to obtain something by bullying. If, for instance, I enter a place where many are gathered, it often happens that one or another right away takes up arms against me by beginning to laugh; presumably he feels that he is being a tool of public opinion. But lo and behold, if I then make a casual remark to him, that same person becomes infinitely pliable and obliging. Essentially it shows that he regards me as something great, maybe even greater than I am: but if he can't be admitted as a participant in my greatness, at least he will laugh at me. But as soon as he becomes a participant, as it were, he brags about my greatness.
That is what comes of living in a petty community.
It is unlikely that Kierkegaard was aware of what would become known as the Benjamin Franklin Effect – the Founding Father formulated his famous reverse-psychology trick for handling haters – and yet he goes on to relay an anecdote that embodies it perfectly. He recounts coming upon three young men outside his gate who, upon seeing him, "began to grin and altogether initiated the whole gamut of insolence." As he approached them, Kierkegaard noticed that they were smoking cigars and turned to one of them, asking for a light. Suddenly, the men's attitude took a dramatic U-turn – the seemingly simple exchange had provided precisely that invitation for participation in greatness:
Instantly, all three doffed their hats and it would seem I had done them a service by asking for a light. Ergo: the same people would be happy to cry bravo for me if I merely addressed a friendly, let alone, flattering word to them; as it is, they cry pereat [he shall perish!] and are defiant... All it amounts to is play-acting. But how invaluably interesting to have one's knowledge of human psychology enriched in this way.
The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard may be short in both pages and lifetime covered, but it is a treasure trove of equally penetrating insights into the human experience. Complement it with Kierkegaard on our greatest source of unhappiness, then revisit Anne Lamott's brilliant modern manifesto for handling haters.
:: MORE / SHARE ::
"Learning how to be a good reader is what makes you a writer," the magnificent Zadie Smith told the audience at the 15th annual New Yorker Festival on a late Friday night, echoing Susan Sontag's assertion that fruitful writing is born out of fruitful reading, out of a "book-drunken life." This osmotic relationship between reading and writing has been extolled in forms as piercingly poetic as Kafka's letter on the purpose of books and as scientifically grounded as the work of Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker, but hardly anyone has expressed it more lyrically and with more shimmering aliveness than another of our era's greatest essayists, Rebecca Solnit, in The Faraway Nearby (public library) – the equally, if differently, rewarding follow-up to her spectacular essay collection A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
In the fourth of the book's thirteen extraordinary essays, titled "Flight," Solnit writes:
Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.
Solnit recounts how, as a child, she "took up imaginative residence for many years" in C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia – one of the most beloved children's books of all time, the enduring appeal of which is, perhaps paradoxically, a testament to Lewis's own assertion that there is actually no such thing as writing "for children." Indeed, Solnit affirms Lewis's point obliquely, elegantly, by seeing in his classic, as in children's books in general, a sandbox for precisely the solitary intimacy that all reading requires:
These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtences we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time.
It seems almost vulgar to strip Solnit's writing of its lyrical specificity, to excerpt only the resounding wisdom of her universals, at which she arrives through the intricate observation of particulars – palpable childhood memories, meticulously chosen vignettes from history, allegorical anecdotes. So with the caveat that one ought to read her complete essay, the entire anthology even, to fully devour the fruits of her exceptional mind, I return nonetheless to Solnit's masterful articulation of the universal:
The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. The child I once was read constantly and hardly spoke, because she was ambivalent about the merits of communication, about the risks of being mocked or punished or exposed. The idea of being understood and encouraged, of recognizing herself in another, of affirmation, had hardly occurred to her and neither had the idea that she had something to give others. So she read, taking in words in huge quantities, a children’s and then an adult’s novel a day for many years, seven books a week or so, gorging on books, fasting on speech, carrying piles of books home from the library.
In a poetic counterpoint to Susan Sontag, who famously read for eight to ten hours a day for the majority of her life and who once observed that "one can never be alone enough to write," Solnit considers a different aspect of the relationship between writing and the silence of solitude:
Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?
I had started out in silence, written as quietly as I had read, and then eventually people read some of what I had written, and some of the readers entered my world or drew me into theirs. I started out in silence and traveled until I arrived at a voice that was heard far away – first the silent voice that can only be read, and then I was asked to speak aloud and to read aloud. When I began to read aloud another voice, once I hardly recognized, emerged from my mouth. Maybe it was more relaxed, because writing is speaking to no one, and even when you’re reading to a crowd, you’re still in that conversation with the absent, the faraway, the not-yet-born, the unknown and the long-gone for whom writers write, the crowd of the absent who hover all around the desk.
The Faraway Nearby is an infinitely rewarding – unsummarizably so. Complement it with this wonderful animated essay on what books do for the soul, then revisit Solnit on how we find ourselves and the color of distance and desire.
:: MORE / SHARE ::
Once again this year, I was delighted to serve on the "Brain Trust" for an annual project by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, New Yorker writer, and Scientific American neuroscience blog editor Gareth Cook, who culls the best, most thoughtful and illuminating infographics published each year, online and off, and invites the bearer of a sharp mind to contextualize both the individual selections and the premise of the project. Alongside the inaugural crop of infographic exemplars was David Byrne's excellent essay on cultivating the ability to experience the “geeky rapture” of metaphorical thinking and pattern recognition. Now comes the second installment, The Best American Infographics 2014 (public library), with an introduction by master-statistician Nate Silver and fifty-eight examples of stellar information design shedding light on such diverse topics as the history of space exploration, the sleep habits of famous writers, the geography of where gay people stay in the closet, the comparative shapes and sizes of major baseball parks, and the social network of jazz musicians in the 1920s. ("American" is somewhat a misnomer, as many of the contributions come from artists, designers, and writers – myself included – who are not U.S. citizens and/or reside outside the country.)
Silver, the author of The Signal and the Noise, considers the two factors that make an infographic compelling – providing a window into its creator's mind and telling a story that "couldn't be told in any other way." He writes:
Design has traditionally been seen as a field for "right-brained" types: those who think visually and spatially rather than with symbols like words and numbers. But modern information design is equal parts art and science, form and function, architecture and engineering. It combines the best of at least three fields of achievement: aesthetics, technology, and journalism.
By aesthetics, I mean all the usual things, but especially proportionality. For information designers, this quality is not so abstract as it might be in other mediums. Their goal is tangible: to convey as much information as possible given some set of constraints.
Silver points out that at the dawn of information design – as, for instance, in the heyday of the discipline's little-known godfather, Fritz Kahn – these constraints were largely practical, imposed by factors like the cost of materials and the availability of physical space for printing the infographic. But with the rise of the internet, the chief constraint became the audience's attention. Pointing to the legacy of anti-"chartjunk" crusader Edward Tufte, Silver writes:
Tufte and others have long spoken to the importance of minimalism in information design. But it proved to be more important as design was translated onto the web, where attention spans are measured in seconds and the next graphic is but a mouse-click or hand-swipe away. More isn't always better: no more in information design than in poetry, or painting, or product design. A superfluous axis on a chart, an extra dimension of information, can distract from the focal point just as much as an extraneous word in a sonnet or an unnecessary button on a tablet. It can reduce the signal-to-noise ratio and leave the viewer less well informed.
Successful examples of information design can sometimes be highly intricate, but these cases usually involve a layered approach. The most essential elements of the graphic – the most essential parts of the story – jump out immediately.
The opening visualization, reminiscent of designer Toby Ng's World of 100 project from several years ago, makes Silver's point perfectly:
Who We Are (Jack Hagley, graphic designer, London):
When I was a boy in the '90s, my mother had a printout of a chain email pinned to the wall in our kitchen. It was called 'The World as 100 People,' and it was just a simple list. I never forgot it because it was a simple but clever idea—a child could understand it without knowing the concept of percentages. One day, I didn't have any other work to do and I was sitting in my studio. The idea and the method came to me very quickly. I knew that I wanted to make it round, like the world. I wanted to use colors that might remind people of flags. I made the first draft in the morning and it was on the Internet by the afternoon.
The storytelling aspect of the genre, meanwhile, shines brilliantly in this example from Wendy MacNaughton and Caroline Paul's immeasurably soul-stretching Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology, one of the best books of 2013:
Lost Cat (Caroline Paul, writer, and Wendy MacNaughton, illustrator):
Our cat Tibby disappeared suddenly, and we were devastated. Then, five weeks later he returned, fat and happy. We were overjoyed he was back, but where had he gone? We decided to strap a GPS unit to his collar and find out where he spent his days.
Silver also speaks to the importance of editorial point of view in infographics and outlines the three essential advantages of visual storytelling over the strictly verbal:
Great works of information design are also great works of journalism... At the core of journalism is the mission of making sense of our complex world to a broad audience. Newsrooms ... place emphasis on gathering information. But they're also in the business of organizing that information into forms like stories. Visual approaches to organizing information also tell stories, but have a number of potential advantages against purely verbal ones:
- Approachability. Human beings have strong visual acuity. Furthermore, our visual language is often more universal than our words. Data presented in the form of an infographic can transcend barriers of class and culture. This is just as important for experts as for laypersons: a 2012 study of academic economists found that they made much more accurate statistical inferences from a graphic presentation of data than when the same information was in tabular form.
- Transparency. The community of information designers has an ethos toward sharing their data and their code – both with one another and with readers. Well-executed examples of information design show the viewer something rather than telling her something. They can peel away the onion, build trust, and let the reader see how the conclusions are drawn.
- Efficiency. I will not attempt to tell you how many words a picture is worth. But surely visualization is the superior medium in some cases. In trying to figure out how to get from King's Cross to Heathrow Airport on the London Tube, would you rather listen to a fifteen-minute soliloquy from the bloke at the pub – or take a fifteen-second glance at Beck's map?
But alongside the tremendous power of information design in making sense of the world is also a dark side of potentially equal magnitude, which Silver captures elegantly:
That information design is part and parcel of journalism also means that it inherits journalism's burdens. If it's sometimes easier to reveal information by means of data visualization, that can make it easier to deceive... What one journalist thinks of as organizing information, the next one might call censorship.
But it's long past time to give information designers their place at the journalistic table. The ones you'll see in this book are pointing the way forward and helping the rest of us see the world a little more clearly.
To my great delight, included in the volume as a large fold-out spread is also my homegrown collaboration with Italian information design team Accurat and San Francisco-based artist extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton, visualizing the relationship between famous writers' sleep habits and their literary productivity – a labor of love project years in the brewing and months in the making:
Writers, Sleep, and Productivity: An exploration of whether authors' sleep habits might affect their creative output, based on my highlights from a decade's worth of reading the diaries, letters, and autobiographies of celebrated writers. (Concept and direction by Maria Popova. Design by Accurat: Giorgia Lupi, Simone Quadri, and Gabriele Rossi with Davide Ciufi, Federica Fragapane, and Francesco Majno. Illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton.)
In fact, Accurat is the only team with multiple entries in the volume – deservingly so. Also included is their visualization of the 100 "geniuses" of language and literature, based on Harold Bloom's book Genius and originally published in English right here on Brain Pickings:
The Varieties of Genius: Great minds from Harold Bloom's 'Genius,' visualized according to Jewish esoteric thought. (Davide Ciufi, Federica Fragapane, and Francesco Majno, Giorgia Lupi, Simone Quadri, Gabriele Rossi)
As both a lover of unusual twists on Harry Beck's classic London Tube map and someone infinitely fascinated by synesthesia, I was particularly taken with this synesthetic taste map of London:
Underground Taste Map (James Wannerton, president of the UK Synesthesia Association):
This map is a graphic representation of each of the tastes and textures I experience as I travel around deep beneath the streets of London. I have synesthesia, a neurological trait that blends or mixes my sense of sound and sight with my sense of taste. Every time I stop at or pass through a Tube station on the London Underground subway system, I experience an involuntary taste and texture, a real mouthfeel, specific to that particular station name. Over five decades I visited every station on the network and made a note of the tastes and textures specific to each station name. The journey began in January 1964 at Dollis Hill, and reached the end of the line at Woolwich Arsenal in August 2013.
One piece calls to mind, rather viscerally, C.S. Lewis's prescient assertion that "it is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail."
Email: Not Dead, Evolving: Accompanying a Harvard Business Review article, this infographic visualizes survey data indicating that three-quarters of all email is junk, and that we're wasting a great deal of time answering minutia. (Bonnie Scranton, artist, James de Vries, creative director, Scott Berinato, senior editor, and Christina Bortz, articles editor, at the Harvard Business Review)
Another favorite comes from Taschen's altogether excellent book Jazz: New York in the Roaring Twenties:
Social Network of Jazz in 1920s New York City: For each of these 24 leading jazz musicians working in New York during the Roaring Twenties, the size of the silhouette depicts the number of recording sessions by that musician during his or her lifetime. The connecting lines show joint recording sessions — a sort of sociogram of Gotham's jazz scene. (Idea, research, illustration and design by Robert Nippoldt; additional design by Christine Goppel and Tobias Glasmacher; research by the Bavarian Jazz Institute's Sylke Mehrbold.)
One of the most quietly piercing visualizations in the volume juxtaposes its soft, elegant imagery with its hard, ghastly subject. London-based multidisciplinary artist and author Valentina D'Efilippo explores the casualties of twentieth-century via poppies – a flower used to commemorate soldiers who perished at war – in a breath-stopping piece titled Fields of Commemoration, part of her book The Infographic History of the World:
Fields of Commemoration: Each poppy depicts a war in the 20th century, growing from the year the war started and blooming above the year it ended. The size of the blossom reflects the number of deaths—95 million in total over the course of the century. (Valentina D'Efilippo)
Among the most fiercely original contributions is designer Kelli Anderson's ingenious Existential Calculator:
Existential Calculator (Kelli Anderson):
A hand-held interactive infographic decision-making tool that helps the reader decide whether or not to take a job. It organizes the spectrum of possible work outcomes – from pleasurable to spiritually degrading, from well-paying to debt-enhancing, from exciting to 'meh' – and shows where the reader is likely to land, based on what they tell it about the potential job.
Many more masterworks of information design, as well as a broader lens of what makes them so, can be found in The Best American Infographics 2014. Complement it with David Byrne on how to be an educated consumer of infographics, then take a trip back to 1930s Germany, where it all began.
:: MORE / SHARE ::
German philosopher, poet, composer, and writer Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) is among humanity's most enduring, influential, and oft-cited minds – and he seemed remarkably confident that he would end up that way. Nietzsche famously called the populace of philosophers "cabbage-heads," lamenting: "It is my fate to have to be the first decent human being. I have a terrible fear that I shall one day be pronounced holy." In one letter, he considered the prospect of posterity enjoying his work: "It seems to me that to take a book of mine into his hands is one of the rarest distinctions that anyone can confer upon himself. I even assume that he removes his shoes when he does so – not to speak of boots."
A century and a half later, Nietzsche's healthy ego has proven largely right – for a surprising and surprisingly modern reason: the assurance he offers that life's greatest rewards spring from our brush with adversity. More than a century before our present celebration of "the gift of failure" and our fetishism of failure as a conduit to fearlessness, Nietzsche extolled these values with equal parts pomp and perspicuity.
In one particularly emblematic specimen from his many aphorisms, penned in 1887 and published in the posthumous selection from his notebooks, The Will to Power (public library), Nietzsche writes under the heading "Types of my disciples":
To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities – I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not – that one endures.
(Half a century later, Willa Cather echoed this sentiment poignantly in a troubled letter to her brother: “The test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring.”)
With his signature blend of wit and wisdom, Alain de Botton – who contemplates such subjects as the psychological functions of art and what literature does for the soul – writes in the altogether wonderful The Consolations of Philosophy (public library):
Alone among the cabbage-heads, Nietzsche had realized that difficulties of every sort were to be welcomed by those seeking fulfillment.
Not only that, but Nietzsche also believed that hardship and joy operated in a kind of osmotic relationship – diminishing one would diminish the other – or, as Anaïs Nin memorably put it, "great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them." In The Gay Science (public library), his treatise on poetry where his famous "God is dead" proclamation was coined, he wrote:
What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other – that whoever wanted to learn to "jubilate up to the heavens" would also have to be prepared for "depression unto death"?
You have the choice: either as little displeasure as possible, painlessness in brief ... or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of an abundance of subtle pleasures and joys that have rarely been relished yet? If you decide for the former and desire to diminish and lower the level of human pain, you also have to diminish and lower the level of their capacity for joy.
He was convinced that the most notable human lives reflected this osmosis:
Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favorable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.
De Botton distills Nietzsche's convictions and their enduring legacy:
The most fulfilling human projects appeared inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awkwardly close to those of our greatest pains...
Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfillment.
Nietzsche was striving to correct the belief that fulfillment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects, for it leads us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared for the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable.
(Or, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it in his atrociously, delightfully ungrammatical proclamation, “Nothing any good isn’t hard.”)
Nietzsche arrived at this ideas the roundabout way. As a young man, he was heavily influenced by Schopenhauer. At the age of twenty-one, he chanced upon Schopenhauer's masterwork The World as Will and Representation and later recounted this seminal life turn:
I took it in my hand as something totally unfamiliar and turned the pages. I do not know which demon was whispering to me: ‘Take this book home.’ In any case, it happened, which was contrary to my custom of otherwise never rushing into buying a book. Back at the house I threw myself into the corner of a sofa with my new treasure, and began to let that dynamic, dismal genius work on me. Each line cried out with renunciation, negation, resignation. I was looking into a mirror that reflected the world, life and my own mind with hideous magnificence.
And isn't that what the greatest books do for us, why we read and write at all? But Nietzsche eventually came to disagree with Schopenhauer's defeatism and slowly blossomed into his own ideas on the value of difficulty. In an 1876 letter to Cosima Wagner – the second wife of the famed composer Richard Wagner, whom Nietzsche had befriended – he professed, more than a decade after encountering Schopenhauer:
Would you be amazed if I confess something that has gradually come about, but which has more or less suddenly entered my consciousness: a disagreement with Schopenhauer’s teaching? On virtually all general propositions I am not on his side.
This turning point is how Nietzsche arrived at the conviction that hardship is the springboard for happiness and fulfillment. De Botton captures this beautifully:
Because fulfillment is an illusion, the wise must devote themselves to avoiding pain rather than seeking pleasure, living quietly, as Schopenhauer counseled, ‘in a small fireproof room’ – advice that now struck Nietzsche as both timid and untrue, a perverse attempt to dwell, as he was to put it pejoratively several years later, ‘hidden in forests like shy deer.’ Fulfillment was to be reached not by avoiding pain, but by recognizing its role as a natural, inevitable step on the way to reaching anything good.
And this, perhaps, is the reason why nihilism in general, and Nietzsche in particular, has had a recent resurgence in pop culture – the subject of a fantastic recent Radiolab episode. The wise and wonderful Jad Abumrad elegantly captures the allure of such teachings:
All this pop-nihilism around us is not about tearing down power structures or embracing nothingness – it's just, "Look at me! Look how brave I am!"
Quoting Nietzsche, in other words, is a way for us to signal others that we're unafraid, that difficulty won't break us, that adversity will only assure us.
And perhaps there is nothing wrong with that. After all, Viktor Frankl was the opposite of a nihilist, and yet we flock to him for the same reason – to be assured, to be consoled, to feel like we can endure.
The Will to Power remains indispensable and The Consolations of Philosophy is excellent in its totality. Complement them with a lighter serving of Nietzsche – his ten rules for writers, penned in a love letter.
Who are we when we, to borrow Hannah Arendt's enduring words, "are together with no one but ourselves"? However much we might exert ourselves on learning to stop letting others define us, the definitions continue to be hurled at us – definitions predicated on who we should be in relation to some concrete or abstract other, some ideal, some benchmark beyond the boundaries of who we already are.
One of the most important authors of our time, Ursula K. Le Guin has influenced such celebrated literary icons as Neil Gaiman and Salman Rushdie. At her best – and to seek the "best" in an altogether spectacular body of work seems almost antithetical – she blends anthropology, social psychology, and sheer literary artistry to explore complex, often difficult subjects with remarkable grace. Subjects, for instance, like who we are and what gender really means as we – men, women, ungendered souls – try to inhabit our constant tussle between inner and outer, individual and social, private and performative. This is what Le Guin examines in an extraordinary essay titled "Introducing Myself," which Le Guin first wrote as a performance piece in the 1980s and later updated for the beautifully titled, beautifully written, beautifully wide-ranging 2004 collection The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library). To speak of a subject so common by birth and so minced by public discourse in a way that is completely original and completely compelling is no small feat – in fact, it is the kind of feat of writing Jack Kerouac must have had in mind when he contemplated the crucial difference between genius and talent.
Le Guin writes:
I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter... I predate the invention of women by decades. Well, if you insist on pedantic accuracy, women have been invented several times in widely varying localities, but the inventors just didn’t know how to sell the product. Their distribution techniques were rudimentary and their market research was nil, and so of course the concept just didn’t get off the ground. Even with a genius behind it an invention has to find its market, and it seemed like for a long time the idea of women just didn’t make it to the bottom line. Models like the Austen and the Brontë were too complicated, and people just laughed at the Suffragette, and the Woolf was way too far ahead of its time.
Illustration from The Human Body, 1959
Noting that when she was born (1929), "there actually were only men" – lest we forget, even the twentieth century's greatest public intellectuals of the female gender used the pronouns "he" to refer to the whole lot of human beings – Le Guin plays with this notion of the universal pronoun:
That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon.
Le Guin turns to the problem of the body, which is indeed problematic in the context of this Generic He:
I admit it, I am actually a very poor imitation or substitute man, and you could see it when I tried to wear those army surplus clothes with ammunition pockets that were trendy and I looked like a hen in a pillowcase. I am shaped wrong. People are supposed to be lean. You can’t be too thin, everybody says so, especially anorexics. People are supposed to be lean and taut, because that’s how men generally are, lean and taut, or anyhow that’s how a lot of men start out and some of them even stay that way. And men are people, people are men, that has been well established, and so people, real people, the right kind of people, are lean. But I’m really lousy at being people, because I’m not lean at all but sort of podgy, with actual fat places. I am untaut.
Illustration by Yang Liu from Man Meets Woman, a minimalist pictogram critique of gender stereotypes
For an example of someone who did Man right, Le Guin points to Hemingway, He with "the beard and the guns and the wives and the little short sentences," and returns to her own insufficient Manness with a special wink at semicolons and a serious gleam at the significance of how we die:
I don’t have a gun and I don’t have even one wife and my sentences tend to go on and on and on, with all this syntax in them. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than have syntax. Or semicolons. I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after “semicolons,” and another one after “now.”
And another thing. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than get old. And he did. He shot himself. A short sentence. Anything rather than a long sentence, a life sentence. Death sentences are short and very, very manly. Life sentences aren’t. They go on and on, all full of syntax and qualifying clauses and confusing references and getting old. And that brings up the real proof of what a mess I have made of being a man: I am not even young. Just about the time they finally started inventing women, I started getting old. And I went right on doing it. Shamelessly. I have allowed myself to get old and haven’t done one single thing about it, with a gun or anything.
But between the half-assed semicolons and the guns lies the crux of the gender-imitation problem – the tyranny of how we think and talk about sex:
Sex is even more boring as a spectator sport than all the other spectator sports, even baseball. If I am required to watch a sport instead of doing it, I’ll take show jumping. The horses are really good-looking. The people who ride them are mostly these sort of nazis, but like all nazis they are only as powerful and successful as the horse they are riding, and it is after all the horse who decides whether to jump that five-barred gate or stop short and let the nazi fall off over its neck. Only usually the horse doesn’t remember it has the option. Horses aren’t awfully bright. But in any case, show jumping and sex have a good deal in common, though you usually can only get show jumping on American TV if you can pick up a Canadian channel, which is not true of sex. Given the option, though I often forget that I have an option, I certainly would watch show jumping and do sex. Never the other way round. But I’m too old now for show jumping, and as for sex, who knows? I do; you don’t.
Le Guin parlays this subtle humor into her most serious and piercing point, partway between the tragic and the hopeful – the issue of aging:
Here I am, old, when I wrote this I was sixty years old, “a sixty-year-old smiling public man,” as Yeats said, but then, he was a man. And now I am over seventy. And it’s all my own fault. I get born before they invent women, and I live all these decades trying so hard to be a good man that I forget all about staying young, and so I didn’t. And my tenses get all mixed up. I just am young and then all of a sudden I was sixty and maybe eighty, and what next?
Not a whole lot.
I keep thinking there must have been something that a real man could have done about it. Something short of guns, but more effective than Oil of Olay. But I failed. I did nothing. I absolutely failed to stay young. And then I look back on all my strenuous efforts, because I really did try, I tried hard to be a man, to be a good man, and I see how I failed at that. I am at best a bad man. An imitation phony second-rate him with a ten-hair beard and semicolons. And I wonder what was the use. Sometimes I think I might just as well give the whole thing up. Sometimes I think I might just as well exercise my option, stop short in front of the five-barred gate, and let the nazi fall off onto his head. If I’m no good at pretending to be a man and no good at being young, I might just as well start pretending that I am an old woman. I am not sure that anybody has invented old women yet; but it might be worth trying.
The Wave in the Mind, like Le Guin's mind, is joltingly original in its totality, Chinook salmon in the wild. Complement this particular bit with Anna Deavere Smith on how to stop letting others define us.
:: MORE / SHARE ::
If you enjoyed this week's newsletter, please consider helping with a small donation.