gooollysandra

Thoughts on thoughts and images of beautiful things

Category Archives: Philosophy

Art and beauty in the making

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Once again, Hanya Yanagihara, editor in chief of The New York Times Style Magazine, has dazzled me with her intellect and prose.

As long as there are humans, there will be art – and nothing will ever stop us from trying to make our lives more beautiful. Beauty and artistic innovation may not be rights, like water or food or clean air or free will, but they are impulses, and our desire for them is an important part of what makes us human.

There is something about exercising one’s creative powers that feels enlightening, inspiring, fulfilling, etc. There is an excitement that surrounds creating a unique entity and putting it out there in the world for people to see, therefore sharing a part of us and knowing that others will it. I don’t know if every single person has a creative drive, and certainly some have a much stronger creative drive than others, but I’m sure it can be argued that anything someone does has some kind of power behind it; if not fueled by creativity then certainly fueled by a desire to achieve an ambition, act on an impulse, or create something.

Striving for beauty takes the desire to create something to another level because it’s not enough to simply create, but to create something beautiful becomes a task that taunts us and frustrates us. Despite this obstacle that we have to overcome, or perhaps because of it, we can’t help but feel propelled to continue striving for beauty. Beauty not only makes us happy in the present moment, but it is what pushes us forward and compels us to connect with others and the world around us.

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Memory – past, present, and future

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Memory, in essence, is who we are. Memory shapes everything. Not only our understanding of ourselves, but our understanding of anything in the universe.

-David Gallo

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I sometimes worry that my memories influence my present, and therefore my future, too much because I am quite a sentimental and nostalgic person. But in fact, our memories make up who we are. Our memories are simply the collective of our life experiences, which we cannot escape. So there’s no need to worry that our memories weigh on us too heavily because they’re just what we live out daily currently, in our past, and in our future. Dwelling on memories and trying to relive them is another matter though, which we should probably be cautious of.

David Gallo at the University of Chicago is in charge of the Memory Research Laboratory and he conducts tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation) sessions intended to elicit memories. This type of therapy is meant to steer our recollection of memories in a more accurate direction, as the way that we remember things is not always exact: “You remember selectively and you reconstruct. Sometimes your brain gets it right; sometimes your brain gets it wrong”, Gallo explained in a recent Chicago Mag article.

I was not surprised to learn that “Emotion has been shown to make any event more memorable”, which explains why trauma or grief or truly happy experiences have such a long-lasting effect on us. I think we can all relate to the burden of grief from our past and how it can affect us so deeply everyday as we attempt to walk the path of life. On the other hand, many of us are also blessed to have experiences that fill us with so much joy they bring us to tears. And periods of time that brought us so much happiness to look back on and hope to have again in the future; but even if we don’t experience that kind of happiness again, we are lucky to have had it once and perhaps that amount of happiness was enough to last a lifetime, or just what we are allowed in a lifetime.

I’m most interested in the way that our memory of the past can inform our present and  future, as this article brings to light:

Our recollective mind is traditionally thought of as a mechanism for one-way time travel, a tool for retrieving information from the past to help guide us in the present. Szpunar and his colleagues have helped make it clearer that we also reach back to our past in order to mentally jump forward, simulating events that haven’t yet happened in order to envision what may lie ahead.

Not only do our memories from the past make up who we are, we also need them to teach us how to move forward; from basic routine things we do everyday, to big picture life decisions that can lead us down one path or another. This weight that memory holds over our future can be daunting, but it’s also exciting because we can take our memories, good or bad, and use them to direct our future course like an informed autonomy over ourselves.

Gucci Director, Alessandro Michele, on creating ourselves

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“It’s like a laboratory, you know?” he says. “Your life can be like a laboratory. In the past, the idea of being human was what the earth and nature gave to you.” That’s not so anymore. He calls this era “post-human”, explaining that “you can really manipulate everything. It’s pretty scary, but it’s also pretty interesting. You can lead different lives. You can decide to be different things.” 

I’ve always been drawn to the existential idea that our lives are what we make of them and that it’s up to us to define ourselves. I think this point brought up by Gucci Director Alessandro Michele in The New York Times Style Magazine is a poignant testament of how true this is particularly in our day and age. It has never been easier to create and recreate ourselves with ever-changing fashion trends, the re-emergence of old fashion trends, the urge to be individuals, the ability to present a curated version of ourselves on social media and present a different side of ourselves over and over again through these social media outlets. I think there is something interesting and exciting about this prospect, but it’s definitely also unnerving because not only does it make it hard for others to know who we really are, we can become completely unaware of who we are as well. It can even allow one to not truly be anything because it’s so easy to be a multitude of things.

“But Beautiful” – Hanya Yanagihara

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As an art lover, the question of what beauty is often crosses my mind in the context of admiring art. I took a philosophy of art class in college, which allowed me to explore this question further. The primal question of whether or not beauty can even be defined in  is perplexing enough, let alone attempting to assess the level or quality of beauty. I found this Editor’s Letter by Hanya Yanagihara, the Editor-in-Chief for the The New York Times Style Magazine, very insightful. I thought her whole letter was thought-provoking, but especially the bit below.

But of all the ways in which art and design test our understanding of the world, one of the most important is how they make us question what exactly beauty is. Great art and design remind us of two things: first, that what is beautiful is not necessarily what is pleasant or pretty; and second, that the search for beauty, in all its forms, is elemental to the human condition. Every person in every culture, no matter how impoverished or restrictive, tries to ornament her life. This desire — to stimulate the senses, to remind ourselves of the wildness of the imagination — is not an indulgence or a luxury, but an instinct, one that defines us as human. What, after all, is the entire arc of history but a compendium of things — the pottery, cloaks, jewelry, houses, furniture, vessels and tapestries that humankind has always made (and will always make) to assert its presence in the world?

…to find and reveal and present beauty in all its forms, even if sometimes those forms don’t resemble what we understand as beauty at all. Beauty might be something ephemeral, made more potent for the brevity of its life…

I think Yanagihara perfectly captures that beauty is not simply an aesthetic characteristic we assign to things, but that it’s actually present in virtually all that the human race brings forth in the world. We have this drive to create something for ourselves or for others in an effort to exercise our creativity and imagination not only for a useful purpose, but also to simply satisfy our instinct to surround ourselves with what feels good.

 

The connections between

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Every motion in the world taken separately was calculated and purposeful, but, taken together, they were spontaneously intoxicated with the general stream of life which united them all.

Doctor Zhivago

I’ve had a special place in my heart for Russian literature ever since I took a Russian literature class my freshman year of college, which I kind of fell into by accident and it turned out to be one of the best things that’s happened to me. I needed to fulfill a writing credit, as well as a philosophy credit, and there happened to be two classes taught in tandem, an introduction to philosophy and Russian literature (which fulfilled the writing credit), so I took advantage of killing two birds with one stone. They were both taught by incredibly smart, kind, and genuine women who I admire dearly. I also happen to have known them since I was a child because they were friends with my parents, which made having them as professors extra special. It was because of this class and how inspired I was by the philosophy professor that I went on to major in philosophy and took most of my classes with her. She really became like a mentor to me.

In the Russian literature portion of the class we read Fathers & Sons by Ivan Turgenev, short stories by Nikolai Gogol, A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov, Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and of course Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. We didn’t read Doctor Zhivago, but it’s something I’ve been reading on my own after watching the 2002 TV Mini-series and loving it. It’s definitely become one of my favorite things to watch around Christmas time; not that it’s particular festive, but there’s something about the wintry atmosphere that it makes it feel appropriate to watch around the holidays. I don’t read nearly enough anymore, but thinking back on these classes inspires me to cuddle up on a cold day and get lost in a book for the afternoon.

I love this quote because for me it summarizes how I feel about the string of events that make up our lives. I don’t think of these events as isolated from one another, but rather very connected in a way that we might not be able to grasp. I often wonder why related things seem to pop up around the same time and I find it hard to believe that it’s just a coincidence. So I have to believe that the way things line up in life is tremendously important and somewhat out of our hands.

 

“Life pushes us forward”

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Nothing is an end in itself and therefore nothing is a source of complete rest. Everything is a stimulus to new wishes, a source of new uneasiness which longs for new satisfaction in the next and again the next thing. Life pushes us forward. 

Hugo Munsterberg

Hugo Munsterberg was a German-American psychologist active in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s who also contributed to film theory, which is how I know him. I studied film in graduate school and we read his book, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, in a history of cinema class. In looking at this quote, it can obviously apply to life more broadly and not specifically only to film. In fact, not knowing that it’s part of film theory, one probably wouldn’t even relate it to film at all. Either way, I loooooveeee this quote and identify with it so deeply because of my attachment to existentialism. If this isn’t the most fundamental truth of our existence, I don’t know what is. It’s so true though, right? We never seem to be happy or satisfied with our current situation. And even when we are, we worry about what we’re missing – like if we’re too happy or when it might end because it can’t possibly last forever…we can’t possibly be that happy. On the other hand, when we are dissatisfied, we have no choice but to move forward, even if we’re not necessarily moving in a direction that brings us more satisfaction. We’re always looking forward with both skepticism and hope.

 

 

An experiment with Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy

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As a Philosophy major as an undergrad, I read a little bit of Simone de Beauvoir, so when I saw this article about someone recounting their journey in her footsteps, I was definitely inspired. I’m not sure I could hike in the Alps for seven days in espadrilles…but this just proves how much of a badass she was. The author explains Beauvoir’s philosophy of not letting “her ideas succumb to reality” and that we can create what we want for ourselves and actually make it happen. She doesn’t agree with Beauvoir entirely in this respect, but she does acknowledge that it’s an interesting way of life to try for a short time:

It is a delusion to think that life has no wills but your own, or that you can thrive without the care and concern of others. But sometimes you can engineer a temporary condition, and produce a sense of accomplishment and self-reliance that uplifts you.

The ever elusive search for authenticity

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As a graduate of the University of Chicago, I receive the University of Chicago magazine, and there was an interesting read about authenticity in the latest Fall 2016 issue. The quest for authenticity, or even just trying to decipher what authenticity is and means, has been a recurring struggle for me, as I think it is for most people. It’s really at the helm of why we are on this planet and I think it’s something that we are continually striving for. Perhaps we will never achieve this authentic status that we picture for ourselves, and maybe that’s ok. Maybe we just need to realize that the constant pursuit of authenticity is an authentic state in and of itself.

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According to David Grazian, “authenticity is a figment of our collective imagination.” So maybe this notion of authenticity that we so eagerly chase after isn’t even a real thing at all. The article spanned from his love for penguins and the manufacturing of authenticity in zoos, to his research on blues clubs in Chicago. In regards to blues clubs, he thinks: “The authentic blues club of his dreams was full of tourists who were chasing the authentic blues club of their dreams.” If we look at it this way the quest for authenticity is essentially a never-ending game of cat-and-mouse. So chase away!

Phases

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One has to wonder if life is nothing but phases of interests that come and go, or if there is a constant driving force that propels us forward. Lately, as I’ve noticed my interests changing pretty drastically over time, I’m worried that the former might be the case, at least for me. And if that is so, how are we to ever know when we can commit to something without being concerned that we’ll soon move past that phase? I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, as I do believe an ever-evolving, ever-growing nature is healthy and should be cultivated, but it does make it awfully hard to know when we are ready to commit to something…

Film meets philosophy

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Jean-Luc Godard

What a wonderful combination of one of my favorite directors and a female philosopher I greatly admire. Jean-Luc Godard reads Hannah Arendt’s “On the Nature of Totalitarianism.”

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Enjoy it here!