How Love Rewires The Brain

“In a relationship, one mind revises the other; one heart changes its partner. This astounding legacy of our combined status as mammals and neural beings is limbic revision: the power to remodel the emotional parts of the people we love, as our Attractors [coteries of ingrained information patterns] activate certain limbic pathways, and the brain’s inexorable memory mechanism reinforces them.

Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love…”

A General Theory of Love is one of my favourite books and the kind of work you return to again and again, finding new layers of insight each time.

On Lies, Secrets and Silence – Adrienne Rich

An honourable human relationship – that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” – is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.

It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.

It is important to do this because in so doing we do justice to our own complexity.

It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.

Why do we feel slightly crazy when we realise we have been lied to in a relationship?

We take so much of the universe on trust. You tell me: “In 1950 I lived on the north side of Beacon Street in Somerville”. You tell me: “She and I were lovers, but for months now we have only been good friends”. You tell me: “It is seventy degrees outside and the sun is shining”. Because I love you, because there is not even a question of lying between us, I take these accounts of the universe on trust: your address twenty-five years ago, your relationship with someone I know only on sight, this morning’s weather. I fling unconscious tendrils of belief, like slender green threads, across statements such as these, statements made so unequivocally, which have no tone or shadow of tentativeness. I build them into the mosaic of my world. I allow my universe to change in minute, significant ways, on the basis of things you have said to me, of my trust in you.

I also have faith that you are telling me things it is important I should know; that you do not conceal facts from me in an effort to spare me, or yourself, pain.

Or, at the very least, that you will say, “There are things I am not telling you”.

When we discover that someone we trusted can be trusted no longer, it forces us to reexamine the universe, to question the whole instinct and concept of trust. For awhile, we are thrust back onto some bleak, jutting edge, in a dark pierced by sheets of fire, swept by sheets of rain, in a world before kinship, or naming, or tenderness exist; we are brought close to formlessness.

The liar may resist confrontation, denying that she lied. Or she may use other language: forgetfulness, privacy, the protection of someone else. Or, she may bravely declare herself a coward. This allows her to go on lying, since that is what cowards do. She does not say, I was afraid, since this would open the question of other ways of handling her fear. It would open the question of what is actually feared.

She may say, I didn’t want to cause pain. What she really did not want is to have to deal with the other’s pain. The lie is a short-cut through another’s personality.

Truthfulness, honour, is not something which springs ablaze of itself. It has to be created between people.

The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities. When relationships are determined by manipulation, by the need for control, they may possess a dreary, bickering kind of drama, but they cease to be interesting. They are repetitious; the shock of human possibilities has ceased to reverberate through them.

When someone tells me a piece of truth which has been withheld from me, and which I needed in order to see my life more clearly, it may bring acute pain, but it can also flood me with a cold, seasharp wash of relief. Often such truths come by accident, or from strangers.

It isn’t that to have an honourable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you.

It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.

The possibility of life between us…

New Year’s Resolutions

 “Stay glad. Keep hoping machine running. Love everybody. Make up your mind.”

New Year’s resolutions. I don’t tend to make them if I’m honest. But this year is different. I’ve been reflecting over the past year of my life a lot over the last few weeks and have definitely come to resolutions in several key areas of my life. But these may be a subject for a future post – not now. What might be of more interest to those of you reading this is a look at some of the more unusual resolution lists from the diaries, letters, and personal effects of cultural icons. Some are wise, some are witty and some are very moving. But they all have something that will likely echo in each of us :

JONATHAN SWIFT
Writing in A Tale of a Tub in 1699, at the age of 32, Jonathan Swift — best-known as the author of Gulliver’s Travels — compiled a list of 17 aspirations for his far future, titled “When I come to be old.” Focusing on wisdom, humility, patience, and justice, the list brings to mind Benjamin Franklin’s famous thirteen virtues, penned around the same time.

swiftlist

When I come to be old. 1699.
Not to marry a young Woman.
Not to keep young Company unless they reely desire it.
Not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious.
Not to scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions, or Men, or War, &c.
Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly.
Not to tell the same story over and over to the same People.
Not to be covetous.
Not to neglect decency, or cleenlyness, for fear of falling into Nastyness.
Not to be over severe with young People, but give Allowances for their youthfull follyes and weaknesses.
Not to be influenced by, or give ear to knavish tatling servants, or others.
Not to be too free of advise, nor trouble any but those that desire it.
To desire some good Friends to inform me wch of these Resolutions I break, or neglect, and wherein; and reform accordingly.
Not to talk much, nor of my self.
Not to boast of my former beauty, or strength, or favor with Ladyes, &c.
Not to hearken to Flatteryes, nor conceive I can be beloved by a young woman, et eos qui hereditatem captant, odisse ac vitare.
Not to be positive or opiniative.
Not to sett up for observing all these Rules; for fear I should observe none.

SUSAN SONTAG
In 1972, 39-year-old Susan Sontag noted in her diary:

Kindness, kindness, kindness.
I want to make a New Year’s prayer, not a resolution. I’m praying for courage.

Then, in early 1977, she resolved:

Starting tomorrow — if not today:
I will get up every morning no later than eight. (Can break this rule once a week.)
I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus]. (‘No, I don’t go out for lunch.’ Can break this rule once every two weeks.)
I will write in the Notebook every day. (Model: Lichtenberg’s Waste Books.)
I will tell people not to call in the morning, or not answer the phone.
I will try to confine my reading to the evening. (I read too much — as an escape from writing.)
I will answer letters once a week. (Friday? — I have to go to the hospital anyway.)

MARILYN MONROE
In the winter of 1955, a 29-year-old Marilyn Monroe resolved in her leather-bound address book to do things better. The list comes from Fragments, the fantastic tome that gave us Monroe’s moving unpublished poetry.

marilyn1marilyn2

Must make effort to do

Must have the discipline to do the following –

z — go to class — my own always — without fail
x — go as often as possible to observe Strassberg’s other private classes
g — never miss actor’s studio sessions
v — work whenever possible — on class assignments — and always keep working on the acting exercises
u — start attending Clurman lectures — also Lee Strassberg’s directors lectures at theater wing — enquire about both
l — keep looking around me — only much more so —observing — but not only myself but others and everything — take things (it) for what they (it’s) are worth
y — must make strong effort to work on current problems and phobias that out of my past has arisen — making much much much more more more more more effort in my analisis. And be there always on time — no excuses for being ever late.
w — if possible — take at least one class at university — in literature –
o — follow RCA thing through.
p — try to find someone to take dancing from — body work (creative)
t — take care of my instrument — personally & bodily (exercise)
try to enjoy myself when I can — I’ll be miserable enough as it is.

WOODY GUTHRIE
In 1942, 30-year-old Woody Guthrie penned a 33-point compendium of “New Years Rulin’s.” The list, originally featured here in 2011, is equal parts brave and vulnerable, brimming with a kind of heart-warming earnestness we’ve come to be tragically cynical about. 

woodyguthrie

  1. Work more and better
  2. Work by a schedule
  3. Wash teeth if any
  4. Shave
  5. Take bath
  6. Eat good — fruit — vegetables — milk
  7. Drink very scant if any
  8. Write a song a day
  9. Wear clean clothes — look good
  10. Shine shoes
  11. Change socks
  12. Change bed cloths often
  13. Read lots good books
  14. Listen to radio a lot
  15. Learn people better
  16. Keep rancho clean
  17. Dont get lonesome
  18. Stay glad
  19. Keep hoping machine running
  20. Dream good
  21. Bank all extra money
  22. Save dough
  23. Have company but dont waste time
  24. Send Mary and kids money
  25. Play and sing good
  26. Dance better
  27. Help win war — beat fascism
  28. Love mama
  29. Love papa
  30. Love Pete
  31. Love everybody
  32. Make up your mind
  33. Wake up and fight

Last Lines – The Unnameable

I’ll go on. You must say words, as long as there are any – until they find me, until they say me. (Strange pain, strange sin!) You must go on. Perhaps it’s done already. Perhaps they have said me already. Perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story. (That would surprise me, if it opens.)

It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don’t know, I’ll never know: in the silence you don’t know.

You must go on.

I can’t go on.

I’ll go on.

– The last lines of Beckett’s, The Unnameable

Meditations in an Emergency

Am I to become profligate as if I were a blonde? Or religious as if I were French?

Each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous (and how the same names keep recurring on that interminable list!), but one of these days there’ll be nothing left with which to venture forth.

Why should I share you? Why don’t you get rid of someone else for a change?

I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.

Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them, too, don’t I? I’m just like a pile of leaves.

However, I have never clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures. No. One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life. It is more important to affirm the least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and even they continue to pass. Do they know what they’re missing? Uh huh.

My eyes are vague blue, like the sky, and change all the time; they are indiscriminate but fleeting, entirely specific and disloyal, so that no one trusts me. I am always looking away. Or again at something after it has given me up. It makes me restless and that makes me unhappy, but I cannot keep them still. If only I had grey, green, black, brown, yellow eyes; I would stay at home and do something. It’s not that I am curious. On the contrary, I am bored but it’s my duty to be attentive, I am needed by things as the sky must be above the earth. And lately, so great has theiranxiety become, I can spare myself little sleep.

Now there is only one man I love to kiss when he is unshaven. Heterosexuality! you are inexorably approaching. (How discourage her?)

St. Serapion, I wrap myself in the robes of your whiteness which is like midnight in Dostoevsky. How am I to become a legend, my dear? I’ve tried love, but that hides you in the bosom of another and I am always springing forth from it like the lotus—the ecstasy of always bursting forth! (but one must not be distracted by it!) or like a hyacinth, “to keep the filth of life away,” yes, there, even in the heart, where the filth is pumped in and courses and slanders and pollutes and determines. I will my will, though I may become famous for a mysterious vacancy in that department, that greenhouse.

Destroy yourself, if you don’t know!

It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so. I admire you, beloved, for the trap you’ve set. It’s like a final chapter no one reads because the plot is over.

“Fanny Brown is run away—scampered off with a Cornet of Horse; I do love that little Minx, & hope She may be happy, tho’ She has vexed me by this Exploit a little too. —Poor silly Cecchina! or F:B: as we used to call her. —I wish She had a good Whipping and 10,000 pounds.” —Mrs. Thrale.

I’ve got to get out of here. I choose a piece of shawl and my dirtiest suntans. I’ll be back, I’ll re-emerge, defeated, from the valley; you don’t want me to go where you go, so I go where you don’t want me to. It’s only afternoon, there’s a lot ahead. There won’t be any mail downstairs. Turning, I spit in the lock and the knob turns.

– Frank O’Hara

It is Easy to Forget How Mysterious and Mighty Stories Are…

I’m aware that just posting quotes can seem rather trite but I stumbled across one today that seemed pertinent (seeing as my past few posts have been about books) because it concerns the power of stories. Not just the ones we read but the ones we tell ourselves and each other; the fabric of the tales we tell about our lives and our personal histories and how what we weave shapes not just our pasts but our future too. I thought it was thought-provoking and so here it is. It’s from Ben Okri’s book, Birds of Heaven:

“It is easy to forget how mysterious and mighty stories are. They do their work in silence, invisibly. They work with all the internal materials of the mind and self. They become part of you while changing you. Beware the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world…”

What to Look For in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness

This past weekend has definitely been all about books. So rock ‘n’ roll I know. Following on from my post about The Road I was going to blog about the poet whose work I dashed up to Foyles to buy but then I thought no, there’s actually another book I want to wax lyrical about first. Because it’s the one I’m currently engrossed in. And I think it might be one of the best I’ve read in the realm of story-telling for a long time. And it’s a true one.

The book is called, What to Look For in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness and is by Candia McWilliam. It’s an autobiography and usually I steer clear of autobiographies/biographies because I’ve always assumed that they must simply be a recall of one event after another with not much in the way of narrative to necessarily connect them. Plus I’ve never really been enough of a fan of anyone “real” as to  be fascinated enough to read about the minutiae of their life. But this may be a silly preconception because if there are biographical books out there anywhere near as good as this then I’ve been closing myself to an astonishingly rich vein of literature.

But to return to the book. Candia McWilliam is a Scottish author whose entire life had been subsumed by reading, as the book blurb says, her life “depended on reading and writing”. And so it was a particularly cruel twist of fate that, having only just joined the judging panel for the Booker Prize five years ago, she began to lose her sight. She suffered from  blepharospasm, a condition which means that the sufferer cannot open their eyes of their own volition. Her eyes were normal – she simply could not open them. It was her experience of this crippling and awful disorder that prompted her to create her memoir. Parts of it she wrote as her eyesight was failing her and some she dictated to a friend. Whether recorded by pen or dictation it is a remarkable memoir to read for even before her eyes closed she had had a raw and emotional life. This memoir is not just the story of how she coped with her darkening world but also her past struggles with alcoholism, her mother’s suicide and a past filled with sorrow, pain and love.

Her writing is wonderful. I know that some critics found it indigestible and apparently accused her of name-dropping throughout the book in such a manner as to be distracting and vain. Yes, there are a lot of names in the book, some well-known of course but it never feels like they are being dropped in your lap in an effort to impress. Rather that this was the circle she inhabited and so they make an appearance but they are often fleeting ones. And they don’t stick out or make you question why they are there. Well, at least I didn’t question why. This is very much her and her family’s story. And she tells it with such wit and passion and with such a brilliant way with words that I have found myself almost enthralled by the language alone. I love the words she uses – at the beginning of the book she speaks of how certain words burrow their way into her mind and that the newest to do so whilst she was dictating the book was: epilimnion. Epilimnion. What a beautiful word I thought. It means the upper, warmer layer of water in a lake. The part then that we swim in, that buoys us.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough – even though I’m only halfway through it myself. It is an incredibly raw story but also an enormously illuminating one in so many enriching ways. This is no ‘misery memoir’. It is someone’s search for a sense of self. And it is brilliant.

It begins:

“I am six foot tall and afraid of small people.

I am a Scot.

I am an alcoholic.

There is nothing wrong with my eyes.

I am blind.

I cannot lose my temper though I am being helped to…

I exude marriedness and I am alone.

This book is, among very many other things, an attempt to find that temper in order that I may lose it, and in losing it, perhaps, find my lost eyes…”

The Road – Cormac McCarthy

It’s been a “bookish” day today. I sped up to town when I found out that Foyles in London had some work in stock by a poet I’ve been wanting to read for some time. I want to blog about her later this weekend, once I’ve had a chance to actually read some of her work in depth. But browsing amongst the books today got me thinking about those that have really had an impact and whose words have stayed with me, echoing inside. There are, as you can imagine, quite a few. And yet I’ve been a little reticent to mention books on my blog. And I’m not sure why. So perhaps that’s something I should remedy.

One of the books that really slammed into me (metaphorically speaking) was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It wasn’t simply the harrowing story of a post-apocalyptic world that stirred the emotions but the central relationship at the heart of the story – that between a father and son. I’m a sucker (as they say) for anything remotely connected to fathers and sons. And The Road is a particularly moving account of a deep and abiding love; one which is surprisingly tender despite the savagery of the bleak and desolate landscape in which the father and son journey across.

If you’ve only heard of or seen the film I urge you to try the book. As is often the case, watching the film isn’t a patch on reading the book. McCarthy’s prose is nearly radically minimalist – even the dialogue is almost desperately sparse:

“Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that.
You forget some things, don’t you?
Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.”

Yet because of their brevity every sentence seems to count. It’s this minimalism and the intensity of the images that the author paints in your mind that are almost impossible to translate to a screen and much of the quiet, contained power of those swift sentences is lost in the translation.

Where that power, intensity and tenderness have translated well though has been into the incredible sore for the film. Composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis the music is really quite beautiful and is almost a perfect evocation of the soul-stirring words contained within the book. Below are two of the standout tracks. And as for the book? It may sound utterly depressing and it’s true that it’s no easy read in terms of tone but it’s very far from maudlin or morbid and for something to tug at the heart-strings it’s very hard to beat…

Play track: The Road

Play track: The Beach

Is the Internet Killing Culture?

A new book has been published recently called, Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back. It’s by Robert Levine who used to work for Billboard magazine, so he should know a bit about cultural content. And I am certain he does – but his book is flawed.

Bashing the internet
Internet bashing has become the latest fashion – it’s killing culture, changing the way our brains work by feeding us content in little bite-size chunks rather than in enormous and suitably weighty tomes, or it’s  constricting our horizons (rather than expanding them) thanks to our experiences on the net becoming more and more tailored to our individual likes and dislikes.

Books like Levine’s have provocative titles and make compelling, emotive arguments but they’re actually pretty conservative, as this brilliant review of the book by the Observer highlights. Now I’m not advocating piracy by any means (I am totally against it) but one of the things I love about the internet is the amazing discoveries you can make – especially when it comes to content. Levine is wrong – the internet isn’t stifling creativity at all. It’s providing a platform to millions of people to unleash their creativity in ways that only a few years ago would have been unimaginable.

The delivery of art and culture 
Forms of art and culture have grown and morphed and adapted over thousands of years – from paintings in caves to sunflowers to concertos to beds and tents and neon signs. But the way they have been delivered to audiences has completely ossified. Stagnated. Typically housed or played behind closed doors in galleries, opera houses, concert halls with all of the barriers to entry and potential inconveniences one could think of – expense, parking, transport, opening and closing hours, not to mention that what you are seeing is usually curated, directed and programmed by someone else. Essentially meaning that they have selected, organised and decided what is of value for you to see and how you do so. This can be a valuable thing of course – expertise in any field is to be admired and respected and can teach us a great deal. And there is nothing quite like the thrill of seeing a Van Gogh in the flesh (so to speak) or hearing a live concert surrounded by the buzz of a live audience or seeing the glint of an actor’s eye as they command a stage. But it is not the only way, it is not even the best way. It is simply – a way.

The deomcratisation of the arts
There are so many inherent barriers to entry in how the arts have traditionally been delivered to audiences that it is little wonder that art and culture can be seen as being for the privileged few. But the internet has completely changed all that. It has decimated and destroyed many of those barriers. It has completely democratised not only the tools of artistic creation (think of all the things you can do now with apps with even the most rudimentary skills) but more importantly it has also democratised the tools of distribution. That’s where the real power lies. And a LOT of people don’t like that. Personally – I love it.

Of course there are those who abuse and take and steal – it is a sad fact of human nature. We covet and prefer to take what we cannot afford to buy. Is this a malaise of the internet or a reflection of the shifting values of our society and culture. I think the latter. The internet is, simply, a platform. One for all sorts of people – both with good and questionable motives. But not everyone steals culture and content. Despite what the doom-mongers would have us believe. The fact is that, as Evgeny Morozov points out in his review of Levine’s book, a 2010 report found that:

“films that could be purchased and legally viewed online are pirated far less often [than those that are not]”

Get off the soapbox
So, where am I going with this argument? Well, originally I wanted to share a video and an album that I’d found today via a site called Bandcamp. And then I got on my soapbox.

So let me get down from that box for a moment…

Bandcamp
I like Bandcamp a lot. It’s a brilliant site on which bands and musicians share their music – you can listen to it for free (not just 90 seconds of each track but all of it).  However, if you want to take what you hear with you then some bands ask you to pay a set price for it, others allow you to set your own, some even let you have it for free – they only ask that you show your support by going to see their live gigs. It is a completely democratic and quite brilliant system. It allows people to find and stumble across music they otherwise might never have found. It creates new fans, new communities, new musicians and artists who, inspired by what they see and hear and discover, decide to make their own music. And it provides a platform for artists. I love it.

I don’t think sites like Bandcamp should replace record labels – that would be horrendous. Or that the internet should replace concert halls or theatres or galleries.You need curated content, you need exhibitions, and labels and editors and so on. But sometimes discovering things for yourself or coming together with others who share a similar passion (even in a virtual environment like this one) and sharing what you’ve found can be hugely satisfying and deeply rewarding. Why stifle that? Why fear it? Why posit that there is only one way:the traditional way where what we see and hear and experience is controlled by the few?

What art and culture is meant to do
Art and culture – however it is delivered – is meant to enhance our lives. To enrich our experience of the world and to make us look at our fellow human beings with generosity and curiosity.

The internet is a platform that surely only enhances our curiosity and understanding. The internet is a place of discovery, a place where I have found so much (music in particular) that I love that has enriched my life in many ways. And it has led me to buy a lot of that music – to put my money where my mouth is. I am sure it leads a lot of others to do the same…

Ah hell. Let’s watch a video. The aforementioned one that I originally wanted to share. It was made by a company called Onesize to accompany a song that they too had stumbled upon by a band called, The American Dollar. They weren’t asked to create the video or commissioned by the band. They just heard something they loved and were inspired by it. And then they put up what they created for free and said, “we loved this so much, we made this. And we want to share it with you – so here it is. Enjoy it”.

What could be better than that? And the result is really quite lovely. See for yourself…