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'Frankenstein' author Mary Shelley on creativity, Seneca on what it means to be a generous human being, an ode to "the bond of live things everywhere"

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Brain Pickings

Welcome Hello, Blue! This is the brainpickings.org weekly digest by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition — Rilke on the lonely patience of creative work, what it's actually like to live in the stranglehold of anxiety and what it takes to break free, and more — you can catch up right here. And if you'd like to try something new/old, I've launched another newsletter that comes out every Wednesday, offering a midweek pick-me-up — something inspiring and uplifting plucked from the twelve-year Brain Pickings archive. You can sign up for that here. If you're enjoying my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.

‘Frankenstein’ Author Mary Shelley on Creativity

“Creativity involves not only years of conscious preparation and training but unconscious preparation as well,” Oliver Sacks wrote in outlining the three essential elements of creativity, adding: “This incubation period is essential to allow the subconscious assimilation and incorporation of one’s influences and sources, to reorganize and synthesize them into something of one’s own.” The richer one’s reservoir of these influences and sources, the more interesting their synthesis into something new would be — something Rilke articulated beautifully a century before Sacks when he contemplated inspiration and the combinatorial nature of creativity. Albert Einstein intuited this when he described the workings of his own mind as “combinatory play.”

Long before Sacks, Einstein, and Rilke, another genius addressed this abiding question of what it means and what it takes to create: Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851), writing in the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (public library) — her trailblazing literary masterpiece that not only furnished a timeless lens on questions of science and social responsibility, but embodied the combinatorial nature of creativity as Shelley transmuted ideas she had absorbed at the science lectures she frequently attended into a visionary work of art.

Mary Shelley. Art from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

Echoing her contemporary Ada Lovelace’s insight that invention is a matter of discovering and combining, Shelley writes:

Every thing must have a beginning… and that beginning must be linked to something that went before… Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In all matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.

Complement with physicist David Bohm on how creativity works and Patti Smith on listening to the creative impulse, then revisit Rilke on the necessary loneliness of incubation.

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Seneca on Gratitude and What It Means to Be a Generous Human Being

“Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes,” Annie Dillard wrote in her beautiful case for why a generosity of spirit is the greatest animating force of creativity.

Two millennia earlier, great Roman philosopher Seneca examined this notion and its broader implications for human life in his correspondence with his friend Lucilius Junior, later published as Letters from a Stoic (public library) — the timeless trove of wisdom that gave us Seneca on true and false friendship, overcoming fear, and the antidote to anxiety.

Seneca

In his eighty-first letter to Lucilius, Seneca writes under the heading “On Benefits”:

You complain that you have met with an ungrateful person. If this is your first experience of that sort, you should offer thanks either to your good luck or to your caution. In this case, however, caution can effect nothing but to make you ungenerous. For if you wish to avoid such a danger, you will not confer benefits; and so, that benefits may not be lost with another man, they will be lost to yourself.

It is better, however, to get no return than to confer no benefits. Even after a poor crop one should sow again; for often losses due to continued barrenness of an unproductive soil have been made good by one year’s fertility. In order to discover one grateful person, it is worth while to make trial of many ungrateful ones.

True generosity, Seneca argues, is measured not by the ends of the act but by the spirit from which it springs. He writes:

Benefits, as well as injuries, depend on the spirit… Our feeling about every obligation depends in each case upon the spirit in which the benefit is conferred; we weigh not the bulk of the gift, but the quality of the good-will which prompted it. So now let us do away with guess-work; the former deed was a benefit, and the latter, which transcended the earlier benefit, is an injury. The good man so arranges the two sides of his ledger that he voluntarily cheats himself by adding to the benefit and subtracting from the injury.

Illustration by Jacqueline Ayer from The Paper-Flower Tree

In a delightful reminder that even the most serious of thinkers can regard themselves with a sense of humor, Seneca adds a remark he cheekily qualifies as “one of the generally surprising statements such as we Stoics are wont to make and such as the Greeks call ‘paradoxes'”:

The wise man… enjoys the giving more than the recipient enjoys the receiving… None but the wise man knows how to return a favour. Even a fool can return it in proportion to his knowledge and his power; his fault would be a lack of knowledge rather than a lack of will or desire.

In a sentiment which Henry Miller would come to echo two thousand years later in his reflection on the intricate balance of giving and receiving, Seneca considers the meaning of generosity and the proper object of gratitude:

Anyone who receives a benefit more gladly than he repays it is mistaken. By as much as he who pays is more light-hearted than he who borrows, by so much ought he to be more joyful who unburdens himself of the greatest debt — a benefit received — than he who incurs the greatest obligations. For ungrateful men make mistakes in this respect also: they have to pay their creditors both capital and interest, but they think that benefits are currency which they can use without interest. So the debts grow through postponement, and the later the action is postponed the more remains to be paid. A man is an ingrate if he repays a favour without interest.

At the heart of his message is the insistence that true generosity is not transactional and that gratitude, in turn, out to be calibrated to the intrinsic rewards of the generous act rather than to the veneer of a transactional favor:

We should try by all means to be as grateful as possible. For gratitude is a good thing for ourselves, in a sense in which justice, that is commonly supposed to concern other persons, is not; gratitude returns in large measure unto itself. There is not a man who, when he has benefited his neighbour, has not benefited himself, — I do not mean for the reason that he whom you have aided will desire to aid you, or that he whom you have defended will desire to protect you, or that an example of good conduct returns in a circle to benefit the doer, just as examples of bad conduct recoil upon their authors, and as men find no pity if they suffer wrongs which they themselves have demonstrated the possibility of committing; but that the reward for all the virtues lies in the virtues themselves. For they are not practised with a view to recompense; the wages of a good deed is to have done it. I am grateful, not in order that my neighbour, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act; I feel grateful, not because it profits me, but because it pleases me.

Letters from a Stoic remains one of the most potent and enduring capsules of wisdom our species has produced. Complement it with Susan Sontag on what it means to be a decent human being, Rebecca Solnit on generosity of spirit in difficult times, and Simone Weil — one of our civilization’s most underappreciated sages — on attention as the highest form of generosity, then revisit Seneca on the key to tranquility of mind and how to fill the shortness of life with wide living.

Cutting Greens: Terrance Hayes Reads Lucille Clifton’s Spare and Stunning Ode to the Kinship of All Creatures

Crowning the many wonderful things that take place at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works is Scientific Controversies — a series of conversations with some of today’s leading scientists exploring the most thrilling unsolved questions at the frontiers of science, from dark matter to consciousness to the multiverse, envisioned and hosted by astrophysicist Janna Levin.

One unusually cold March evening, I packed into Pioneer Works alongside one thousand other humans to hear a SciCon conversation about genetic engineering. It opened with a striking statistic:

We share 99% of our DNA with lettuce.

This elemental biological fact stops you up short with its immense existential implications — if the creaturely difference between us and a species as dissimilar as a salad plant is so negligible, what of the differences among us humans, on which we wage all of our wars and our bigotries and our divisive sense of otherness?

I was instantly reminded of a spare and stunning poem by Lucille Clifton (June 27, 1936–February 13, 2010), addressing this very notion not through science but through poetry — a testament to Ursula K. Le Guin’s insightful observation that where science explicates, poetry implicates by subjectifying the universe.

When I hosted The Universe in Verse at Pioneer Works several weeks later, I placed Clifton’s poem as a centerpiece of the program. I invited the brilliant and largehearted Terrance HayesNational Book Award-winning poet, MacArthur genius, Guggenheim Fellow, and the youngest-ever chancellor in the eighty-four-year history of the Academy of American Poets — to read it.

Hayes prefaced his performance with a touching personal reflection instating Queen Clifton in her rightful place in the history of letters:

CUTTING GREENS
by Lucille Clifton

curling them around
i hold their bodies in obscene embrace
thinking of everything but kinship.
collards and kale
strain against each strange other
away from my kissmaking hand and
the iron bedpot.
the pot is black,
the cutting board is black,
my hand,
and just for a minute
the greens roll black under the knife,
and the kitchen twists dark on its spine
and I taste in my natural appetite
the bond of live things everywhere.

“cutting greens” originally appeared in Clifton’s indispensable 1987 memoir and poetry collection Good Woman (public library). Complement it with Clifton herself reading her existential anthem “won’t you celebrate with me,” then savor other highlights from The Universe in Verse, including poet Marie Howe’s tribute to Stephen Hawking, Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, John Cameron Mitchell reading Walt Whitman’s ode to the sea, and Amanda Palmer’s soul-strumming “Big Yellow Taxi” cover in tribute to marine biologist Rachel Carson.

donating=loving

Each week of the past eleven years, I have poured tremendous time, thought, love, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and is made possible by patronage. If you found any joy and stimulation here this year, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU.

monthly donation

You can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch.
 

one-time donation

Or you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.
Start Now   Give Now
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