Legendary Lands: Umberto Eco on the Greatest Maps of Imaginary Places and Why They Appeal to Us

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“Often the object of a desire, when desire is transformed into hope, becomes more real than reality itself.”

Celebrated Italian novelist, philosopher, essayist, literary critic, and list-lover Umberto Eco has had a long fascination with the symbolic and the metaphorical, extending all the way back to his vintage semiotic children’s books. Half a century later, he revisits the mesmerism of the metaphorical and the symbolic in The Book of Legendary Lands (public library) — an illustrated voyage into history’s greatest imaginary places, with all their fanciful inhabitants and odd customs, on scales as large as the mythic continent Atlantis and as small as the fictional location of Sherlock Holmes’s apartment. A dynamic tour guide for the human imagination, Eco sets out to illuminate the central mystery of why such utopias and dystopias appeal to us so powerfully and enduringly, what they reveal about our relationship with reality, and how they bespeak the quintessential human yearning to make sense of the world and find our place in it — after all, maps have always been one of our greatest sensemaking mechanisms for life, which we’ve applied to everything from the cosmos to time to emotional memory.

Eco writes in the introduction:

Legendary lands and places are of various kinds and have only one characteristic in common: whether they depend on ancient legends whose origins are lost in the mists of time or whether they are an effect of a modern invention, they have created flows of belief.

The reality of these illusions is the subject of this book.

Saint-Sever World Map, from the ‘Saint-Sever Beatus’ (1086), Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France

T and O map, Bartholomaeus Angelicus, ‘Le livre des propriétés des choses’ (1392)

Tobias Swinden, ‘En Enquiry into the Nature and Place of Hell’ (1714), London, Taylor

Section of the ‘Tabula Peutingeriana’ (12th-century copy)

Map of Palmanova, from Franz Hogenberg and Georg Braun, ‘Civitates orbis terrarum (1572–1616), Nuremberg

Eco considers the allure of utopias as a tangible manifesto for the possible:

Often the object of a desire, when desire is transformed into hope, becomes more real than reality itself. Out of a hope in a possible future, many people are prepared to make enormous sacrifices, and maybe even die, led on by prophets, visionaries, charismatic preachers, and spellbinders who fire the minds of their followers with the vision of a future heaven on Earth (or elsewhere).

Anonymous, ‘Jain Cosmological Map’ (c. 1890), gouache on canvas, Library of Congress

‘Ulysses’ Journey Was Far from Home’ | M.O. MacCarthy, ‘Carte du monde d’Homère’ (1849), New York Public Library

Map of the world according to Hartmann Schedel, in ‘Liber chronicarum’ (Nuremberg Chronicle), Nuremberg (1493)

Woodcut map of the island of Utopia on frontispiece of the 1st edition of Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ (1516), British Library

There is, however, an inevitable dark side to utopias, whose very presupposition of perfect happiness can itself become a burdensome form of oppression. Eco writes:

We would not always want to live in those societies recommended to us by utopias, because they often resemble dictatorships that impose happiness on their citizens at the cost of their freedom. For example, [Thomas] More’s Utopia preaches freedom of speech and thought as well as religious tolerance, but limits them to believers and excludes atheists, who are barred from public office, while it warns that “if someone takes the license to wander far from his own district and is caught without the pass issued by the supreme magistrate … he is severely punished; if he dares to do so a second time, he is condemned to slavery.” Moreover, utopias have the quality, as literary works, of being somewhat repetitive, because in wishing for a perfect society, we always end up by making a copy of the same model.

Illustration for Jules Verne’s ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869-1870)

Abraham Ortelius, ‘Map of Iceland’ (16th century)

Above all, however, Eco sees in the imaginary a counterintuitive assurance of reality — fictional narratives, in a strange way, is the only place where we can become unmoored from our existential discomfort with uncertainty, for in fiction everything is precisely and unambiguously as it was intended:

The possible world of narrative is the only universe in which we can be absolutely certain about something, and it gives us a very strong sense of truth. The credulous believe that El Dorado and Lemuria exist or existed somewhere or other, and skeptics are convinced that they never existed, but we all know that it is undeniably certain that Superman is Clark Kent and that Dr. Watson was never Nero Wolfe’s right-hand man, while it is equally certain that Anna Karenina died under a train and that she never married Prince Charming.

The Book of Legendary Lands is magnificent in its entirety. Complement it with Codex Seraphinianus, history’s most beautiful encyclopedia of imaginary things, and Where You Are, a wonderful case study in cartography as wayfinding for the soul.

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David Foster Wallace on Leadership, Illustrated and Read by Debbie Millman

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“A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily.”

“Leadership” is one of those buzzwords — like “curation” — whose meaning has been forcibly squeezed out of them by regurgitative overuse and relentless overapplication to things that increasingly dilute the essence of the concept the word once used to capture. In a culture that calls pop culture celebrities “thought-leaders” and looks for “leadership ability” in kindergartners, we’re left wondering what leadership actually means and questioning what makes a great leader.

The best definition of the essence beneath the buzzword comes from David Foster Wallace, who would’ve been 52 this week and who, even amidst heartbreaking and ultimately fatal personal turmoil, was able to distill the meaning of life with crystalline poignancy. In his 2000 essay “Up, Simba: Seven Days on the Trail of an Anticandidate,” found in the altogether fantastic Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (public library), Wallace considers the leader.

In this beautiful addition to the Brain Pickings artist series, Debbie Millman — who has previously illustrated memorable words by Anaïs Nin, Edith Windsor, Herman Melville, and other beloved writers — captures an abridged version of Wallace’s timeless wisdom in a painstakingly handcrafted felt-on-felt typographic art piece, created as a poster for the 2014 How Design Live conference. The artwork is available as a print, with 100% of proceeds benefiting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

It is just about impossible to talk about the really important stuff in politics without using terms that have become such awful clichés they make your eyes glaze over and are hard to even hear. One such term is “leader,” which all the big candidates use all the time — as in e.g. “providing leadership,” “a proven leader,” “a new leader for a new century,” etc. — and have reduced to such a platitude that it’s hard to try to think about what “leader” really means and whether indeed what today’s Young Voters want is a leader. The weird thing is that the word “leader” itself is cliché and boring, but when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn’t cliché or boring at all; in fact he’s sort of the opposite of cliché and boring.

Obviously, a real leader isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy. Think about it. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with “inspire” being used here in a serious and non-cliché way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids. You can probably remember seeing it in certain really great coaches, or teachers, or some extremely cool older kid you “looked up to” (interesting phrase) and wanted to be just like. Some of us remember seeing the quality as kids in a minister or rabbi, or a scoutmaster, or a parent, or a friend’s parent, or a supervisor in a summer job. And yes, all these are “authority figures,” but it’s a special kind of authority. If you’ve ever spent time in the military, you know how incredibly easy it is to tell which of your superiors are real leaders and which aren’t, and how little rank has to do with it. A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.

In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.

As the host of the National-Design-Award-winning podcast Design Matters, it is only fitting that Millman would bring Wallace’s words to life in this gorgeous reading, recorded exclusively for Brain Pickings:

Get the print here. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays is a remarkable read in its entirety. For more of Millman’s own illustrated typographic essays, treat yourself to her Self-Portrait as Your Traitor, one of the best art and design books of 2013.

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A Simple Exercise to Increase Well-Being and Lower Depression from Martin Seligman, Founding Father of Positive Psychology

seligman_flourish

You’ll need pen, paper, and a silencer for cynicism.

“When [a man] has fair health, a fair fortune, a tidy conscience and a complete exemption from embarrassing relatives,” Henry James wrote in his diary, “I suppose he is bound, in delicacy, to write himself happy.” More than a mere philosophical contemplation, however, James’s observation presages the findings of modern psychology in the quest to reverse-engineer the art-science of happiness. No one has addressed the eternal question of what begets happiness with more rigor and empirical dedication than Dr. Martin Seligman, founding father of Positive Psychology — a movement premised on countering the traditional “disease model” of psychology, which focuses on how to relieve suffering rather than how to amplify well-being. Seligman, whom I first had the pleasure of encountering at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, and who was once elected President of the American Psychological Association by the largest vote in the organization’s history, remains one of the most influential psychologists in the study of happiness. In his excellent and highly revisitable book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being (public library), Seligman offers a simple practice that promises to enhance your well-being and lower your depression — the “Gratitude Visit.” Though to the cynical eye the exercise might appear both old-fashioned and overly self-helpy, it is rooted in decades of Seligman’s acclaimed research and brings to practical life some of modern psychology’s most important findings. Seligman takes us through the practice:

Close your eyes. Call up the face of someone still alive who years ago did something or said something that changed your life for the better. Someone who you never properly thanked; someone you could meet face-to-face next week. Got a face?

Gratitude can make your life happier and more satisfying. When we feel gratitude, we benefit from the pleasant memory of a positive event in our life. Also, when we express our gratitude to others, we strengthen our relationship with them. But sometimes our thank you is said so casually or quickly that it is nearly meaningless. In this exercise … you will have the opportunity to experience what it is like to express your gratitude in a thoughtful, purposeful manner.

Your task is to write a letter of gratitude to this individual and deliver it in person. The letter should be concrete and about three hundred words: be specific about what she did for you and how it affected your life. Let her know what you are doing now, and mention how you often remember what she did. Make it sing! Once you have written the testimonial, call the person and tell her you’d like to visit her, but be vague about the purpose of the meeting; this exercise is much more fun when it is a surprise. When you meet her, take your time reading your letter.

This somewhat self-consciousness-inducing exercise, Seligman promises, will make you happier and less depressed a mere month from now.

He then suggests a complementary second practice — the “What-Went-Well Exercise,” also known as “Three Blessings” — based on the interventions he and his team at the Positive Psychology Center and the University of Pennsylvania have validated in the random-assignment, placebo-controlled experiments they have been conducting since 2001 to study changes in life-satisfaction and depression levels. He contextualizes the value of this exercise amidst our worry-culture and age of anxiety:

We think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives. Of course, sometimes it makes sense to analyze bad events so that we can learn from them and avoid them in the future. However, people tend to spend more time thinking about what is bad in life than is helpful. Worse, this focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is to get better at thinking about and savoring what went well.

For sound evolutionary reasons, most of us are not nearly as good at dwelling on good events as we are at analyzing bad events. Those of our ancestors who spent a lot of time basking in the sunshine of good events, when they should have been preparing for disaster, did not survive the Ice Age. So to overcome our brains’ natural catastrophic bent, we need to work on and practice this skill of thinking about what went well.

He then offers his empirically tested antidote:

Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. You may use a journal or your computer to write about the events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (“My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today”), but they can be important (“My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy”).

Next to each positive event, answer the question “Why did this happen?” For example, if you wrote that your husband picked up ice cream, write “because my husband is really thoughtful sometimes” or “because I remembered to call him from work and remind him to stop by the grocery store.” Or if you wrote, “My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy,” you might pick as the cause … “She did everything right during her pregnancy.”

Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier.

For those of us able to quiet our inner culturally-conditioned cynic who judges and dismisses such practices, Seligman promises that we’ll be “less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.”

Flourish offers an invaluable existential boost in its entirety. Complement it with Seligman on happiness, depression, and the meaningful life, then revisit these seven superb reads on the art-science of happiness.

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How Creativity Works: Neil Gaiman on Where Ideas Comes From

neilgaiman

The power of desperation, deadlines, and daydreaming.

Beneath the eternal question of what creativity is lies the mystery of where good ideas come from and how we can coax them into manifesting. It’s a conundrum that has occupied artists, inventors, and philosophers alike since the dawn of human thought, but especially so since the dawn of psychology. We have Graham Wallace’s model of the four stages of the creative process from 1926, a five-step “technique for producing ideas” from 1939, Arthur Koestler’s famous “bisociation” theory of how creativity works from 1964, and a number of derivative modern ideas. The best answer, however, often comes from those who summon and wrangle ideas for a living, rather than merely contemplating the mechanics of the creative process.

In this wonderful excerpt from the Q&A after his December 2011 Wheeler Center interview, the ever-brilliant, ever-witty Neil Gaiman — champion of the creative life, disciplined writer, wiseman of literature, one romantic bachelor — answers every creative person’s most dreaded question: Where do ideas come from? At the heart of his answer is the recognition that creativity is combinatorial and that, like Koestler proposed, it relies on intersecting two seemingly unrelated ideas:

For me, inspiration comes from a bunch of places: desperation, deadlines… A lot of times ideas will turn up when you’re doing something else. And, most of all, ideas come from confluence — they come from two things flowing together. They come, essentially, from daydreaming. . . . And I suspect that’s something every human being does. Writers tend to train themselves to notice when they’ve had an idea — it’s not that they have any more ideas or get inspired more than anything else; we just notice when it happens a little bit more.

Complement with Gaiman on creative doggedness, the secret of genius, and his 8 rules of writing.

Photograph by Kimberly Butler

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Brain Pickings takes 450+ hours a month to curate and edit across the different platforms, and remains banner-free. If it brings you any joy and inspiration, please consider a modest donation – it lets me know I’m doing something right. Holstee


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