Exercising My Brain

I'm off down another rabbit hole of reading and research, this time, ironically enough, to do with NOT knowing. Or more precisely, being comfortable with the feeling of not knowing, of uncertainty.

Cy Twombly, Panorama, 1957
I'm a big fan of the very smart Alain de Botton. His latest book, Art as Therapy, is exactly up my alley, and I'm sorry to have to return it to the library tomorrow. He begins with his Seven Functions of Art, which are: Remembering, Hope, Sorrow, Rebalancing, Self-Understanding, Growth and Appreciation. He writes wonderfully about each aspect, but I was particularly struck by a passage about a painting of Cy Twombly's.
Contemplating Cy Twombly's dark, scratchy, suggestive surface is rather like looking in a mirror in which you notice an aspect of your appearance that you had not paid much attention to before, except that what's at stake here is not a row of molars, but your inner experience. There are moods or states of mind (or soul) that are perplexingly elusive. One often has them, but can't isolate or examine them. ... 
de Botton goes on to describe the painting in more detail. Then he says:
We are held in the moment of being on the cusp of something. We are about to understand, but have not yet understood. This moment is important because it generally does not live up to its promise. We abandon the process of reflection. Not much of a decision about the personal meaning of love, justice or success is achieved, and we move on to something else. Looking at Twombly's painting assists us in a crucial thought: 'The part of me that wonders about important questions has not had enough recognition. I have not taken proper care of it. But now I see this part of myself reflected in the mirror of art, now I can make more of it.'
Oh, I love this! He put his finger on something central to my own art-making process, one that I often feel I have to apologize for.  Just hearing someone else describe that feeling of being in the place between understanding and not understanding is liberating for me.

Being comfortable with uncertainty is a theme of another book on my bedside table (I hear James laughing as he reads this - the book is actually in a stack on the floor beside the bed, there being no room on the bedside table.) The Antidote, by Oliver Burkeman, is subtitled Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, which sounds rather grumpy, but it is delightfully witty and sensible. He considers Stoicism, Buddhism, and acceptance of failure and insecurity as approaches to a more complex, satisfying and possibly happier life than the ones typically offered by self-help gurus. I particularly like his discussion of negative capability, wherein he quotes Aldous Huxley:
Proficiency and the results of proficiency come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, of combining relaxation with activity, of letting go as a person in order that the immanent and transcendent Unknown Quantity may take hold.
Yes, being in that place of uncertainty, of knowing and not knowing, being open - that is where art happens.

And finally, as part of my occasional research into matters psychological - I'm still trying to figure out what made Louis Nicolas tick - I came across a  brilliant talk by psychologist Joe Griffin, whose Irish accent I could listen to all day long, about his concept of caetextia, or concept blindness, as a more accurate description of autism. His talk is an hour long, and covers all kinds of amazing things like how our brains developed to allow dreaming, how to educate children to be better people and save the planet, and even why knitting permits greater concentration (you will have to watch right to the end to find that out!)
Click here to go to his site and watch the video: The REM State, Caetextia, and the Development of Self-Concept.


  1. Heather-- the quotes from de Botton remind me of one of my favourite books, Philip Fisher's Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences-- he talks about how the most worthwhile works of art are the ones that aren't like everything else, that make us stop and look again, that surprise us, excite wonder, make us want to know more. And he uses two paintings by Cy Twombly as examples! The optics part of the examination of the rainbow (or people's wonderment at the rainbow, which for so long was a mystery) kind of left me behind, but you can skim that part. The book is about the aesthetics of wonder, and is beautifully written (as not all books of capital P philosophy are, for me). Recommended!

  2. Anonymous1:46 PM

    --The Antidote sounds like it was written for me. I can definitely relate to the pile(s) of books beside the bed.

  3. Anonymous4:28 AM

    Fascinating post--so much to ponder. And, yes, The Antidote sounds like a book for me, too!

  4. I love posts like this one, Heather. Finding a mind like yours on the internet and communicating, even if it is through typing rather than over a cup of tea, is why I keep a blog. It encourages me to read others. (This on top of seeing what stitch project you have going)

    I made note of the title of de Botton's new book.

    I have read the Philip Fisher book about Wonder. His ideas about gestural art made on a large scale being like something awesome in nature that sets us off into our inner self are key to my own arguments and I quoted him in my thesis for my degree. I agree with Sue. I love Cy Twombly too.

    Not to know, but to go on.


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