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Havelock Ellis on the Function of Taboos, Their Vital Role in Community, and How They Bolster the Discipline of Compassion

“Life is livable because we know that wherever we go most of the people we meet … will allow us the same or nearly the same degree of freedom and privilege that they claim for themselves.”

Havelock Ellis on the Function of Taboos, Their Vital Role in Community, and How They Bolster the Discipline of Compassion

The English physician, writer, and social reformer Havelock Ellis (February 2, 1859–July 8, 1939) possessed a mind remarkably ahead of its time. A pioneering scholar of creativity and a lifelong influence for Oliver Sacks, he was a maverick psychologist before psychology as such existed. Ellis introduced the notion of narcissism, which was later expanded upon by Freud, and spent a considerable portion of his career studying human sexuality. In 1897, he wrote the first medically objective textbook on homosexuality, treating same-sex love as worthy of sympathetic scientific inquiry rather than as immoral and illegal, as the era’s cultural and legal institutions considered it.

In the 1930s, Ellis wrote a series of trailblazing essays exploring the social implications of sex and the deeper philosophical dimensions surrounding the physical aspect of human intimacy. They were eventually collected, two years before Ellis’s death, in On Life and Sex: Essays of Love and Virtue (public library).

One of the most incisive pieces in the volume, titled “The Function of Taboos,” argues that in an era of cultural upheaval, when the old externally enforced social mores are being demolished, we are called on to develop new, intrinsic, resolutely upheld rules of social conduct — a proposition at least as timely if not timelier today, as we find ourselves amidst a maelstrom of changing norms and expanding possibilities redefining love, sex, community, and civic life.

Havelock Ellis
Havelock Ellis

Ellis begins with a working definition:

A taboo, speaking roughly, simply indicates something that is “not done.” The reason why it is not done may be, and often is, unknown to those who observe the taboo. So that all sorts of reasons — often very unreasonable reasons — are invented to explain the taboo. But below the surface there always are reasons for taboos.

Some of those reasons, Ellis argues, stem from a kind of adaptive evolutionary instinct:

Among wild birds in a special phase of bird-existence it is taboo to remain close to humans. That taboo is strictly analogous to human taboos; it is an adopted custom. It is not found everywhere among birds. When men first visit virgin islands of the southern seas there are birds who do not regard human beings as taboo. The taboo is introduced later when human beings have become destructive to the bird society. It is, of course, completely unnecessary to be aware of the reason for the taboo, and if birds ever acquired speculative minds they would invent reasons. That is, as we know, exactly what human societies do. The distinction of human taboos lies largely in their high imaginativeness, alike as regards their nature and the supposed reasons assigned for them, and in the comparative swiftness with which they may change.

[…]

Taboos are constantly liable to shift backwards and forwards over the threshold between prohibition and permission.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky from Advice to Little Girls, young Mark Twain’s irreverent children’s book encouraging girls to question social mores

But taboos, Ellis cautions, are essential to human life for reasons that transcend evolutionary instinct and come to inhabit the space between manners and morality, thus preserving our mutual dignity:

Unthinking people sometimes talk as though taboos were effete relics of the past which it is in our power to cast away altogether. A little reflection might serve to show not only that they are far too numerous and too deeply rooted to be torn up at will, but that we should be in a sad case without them; indeed, that human society could not survive without their loss.

[…]

Life is livable because we know that wherever we go most of the people we meet will be restrained in their actions towards us by an almost instinctive network of taboos. We know that they will allow us the same or nearly the same degree of freedom and privilege that they claim for themselves.

This humanizing power of such internalized taboos, Ellis argues, is evidenced in everything from our intuitive understanding of property rights, which stops us from barging into a stranger’s house and sprawling on their sofa, to the basic customs of etiquette, which keep us from cutting the TSA line however vexed by the process we may feel. Those devoid of such internal taboos, he points out, are civically undesirable members of a community:

The individual in whom the taboos necessary for such organization are not either automatic or self-imposed is an anti-social individual, and his elimination would be for our benefit.

But the most vital and vitalizing aspect of taboos is their evolving nature — they are in constant dynamic interaction with the changing norms and needs of society, a sort of self-renewal mechanism for the culture they serve. Ellis writes:

The recognition of the permanence of the taboo-observing impulse, and the constant tendency to develop new taboos, may enable us to face with calmness the counterbalancing fact of the falling away of taboos which have served their purpose and are no longer needed under changed social conditions. That is a process always going on.

Some taboos, he notes, are deliberately broken by the evolving standards of newer generations; others fall away imperceptibly, almost automatically, as they gradually cease serving our needs. But in order to be fruitful as humanizing rather than dehumanizing forces, their defining feature must be that they are intrinsically motivated by our moral sense rather than extrinsically enforced by law or authority:

Old taboos can only be replaced by new taboos [and] mere legal enactments enforced, or left unenforced, by paid officials or the police, to be effective must themselves become taboos, printed on the fleshy tablets of the individual citizen’s heart. If they are thus to become of the nature of taboos they must be few in number, indisputable in value, and so urgent that they are felt to be on the way to become instinctive. No society can live wholesomely by any other sort of regulation, and State legislatures stultify themselves when they fail to realize that their part is merely to formalize, and record, and support, the growth and decay of taboos.

Alan Turing and his first love, Christopher Morcom. Art by Keith Hegley from The Who, the What, and the When, an illustrated celebration of the little-known inspirations behind geniuses.

Writing in an era when homosexuality was so stigmatized and criminalized in England that its callous legal persecution drove computing pioneer Alan Turing to suicide, Ellis adds:

Sex taboos are at the centre of this process, not only because it so happens that sex is a sphere in which change [takes] place with unusual rapidity, but because sex is at once an extremely important region — so that it becomes a training ground for the social activities generally — and yet a region in which most of the essentials do not lend themselves to direct external control, and so its taboos must be both made and maintained, at all events in the first place, privately.

It is the private internalization of taboos, he argues, that makes them essential to the moral scaffolding of society — they become a form of intrinsic discipline by which we uphold our values of right and wrong, rather than relying on external regulations to guide us. In a sentiment that calls to mind Adam Smith’s notion of the “impartial spectator,” Ellis writes:

Life … is always a discipline… It is so dangerous that only by submitting to some sort of discipline can we become equipped to live in any true sense at all. The disappearance of the discipline of the old external taboos thus imposes upon us, inescapably, the creation of a new self-discipline of internal and personal taboos. If we are not responsible to an outside order which we no longer regard as valid, then we are responsible before the inner tribunal of the self, which cannot but be valid for us so long as we are alive.

Echoing Simone Weil’s abiding wisdom on the difference between our rights and our responsibilities, Ellis considers how this discipline shapes the task of each generation and becomes the seedbed of compassion within a community — a sentiment triply timely today, amid our accelerated rate of change that is continually shedding old external taboos and thus calling for the cultivation of new internal moral codes:

That really is the task for all who are young today. And so far from it being an easy and pleasant task, as some may at first have thought when they saw the old taboos melting away, it involves difficulties which their grandparents never knew. If it means the making of new and personal taboos, it involves a slow self-development and self-responsibility, which is not only in itself a continual discipline, but runs the risk of conflict with others engaged in the same task and with the same sincerity. For what we may still term morals, since it has now become an individual outcome, will not be entirely the same for all individuals. All our moralities, indeed, cannot fail to be modifications of a common pattern because we all belong to the same community; but the differences involve a greater degree of mutual understanding and forbearance than when uniform taboos were imposed from outside.

On Life and Sex has stood the test of time admirably and remains a fascinating read both as an anthropological artifact of a bygone era and as a surprisingly prescient perspective on many of the issues we tussle with today. Complement it with André Gide on how to master the vital balance between freedom and restraint and Susan Sontag on what it means to be a moral human being.

BP

What Makes an Original: Psychologist Adam Grant on the Paradox of Achievement and How Motivated Dissatisfaction Fuels Creativity

“The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.”

What Makes an Original: Psychologist Adam Grant on the Paradox of Achievement and How Motivated Dissatisfaction Fuels Creativity

“To be perfectly original,” Lord Byron famously quipped, “one should think much and read little, and this is impossible, for one must have read before one has learnt to think.”

In Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (public library), organizational psychologist Adam Grant — who has spent years studying the counterintuitive psychology of success — brings contemporary social science to the timeless validity of Byron’s words, examining the contextual nature of creative genius and demonstrating that the most groundbreaking innovations aren’t spurred by arbitrary sparks of mystical epiphany but by intelligent and informed dissatisfaction with cultural defaults, translated into a radical and purposeful desire to upend those defaults.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep
Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep

Grant — an immensely pleasurable writer who interpolates elegantly between T.S. Eliot allusions and Silicon Valley startup lore — echoes Mark Twain’s assertion that all ideas are essentially second-hand, but he offers a useful working definition of originality:

Originality involves introducing and advancing an idea that’s relatively unusual within a particular domain, and that has the potential to improve it. Originality itself starts with creativity: generating a concept that is both novel and useful. But it doesn’t stop there. Originals are people who take the initiative to make their visions a reality.

[…]

The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.

This conception of originality calls to mind legendary choreographer Martha Graham’s notion of “divine dissatisfaction” — and it affirms the idea a creative breakthrough isn’t something generated entirely outside its cultural context but a motivated response to a discontented immersion in context. Grant calls this vuja de:

The starting point [of originality] is curiosity: pondering why the default exists in the first place. We’re driven to question defaults when we experience vuja de, the opposite of déjà vu. Déjà vu occurs when we encounter something new, but it feels as if we’ve seen it before. Vuja de is the reverse — we face something familiar, but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.

[…]

When we become curious about the dissatisfying defaults in our world, we begin to recognize that most of them have social origins: Rules and systems were created by people. And that awareness gives us the courage to contemplate how we can change them.

Therein lies the paradox of achievement — Grant points out that the people we celebrate as prodigies are actually not innovators, for they outperform along an existing axis of excellence rather than weaving an entirely new thread into the fabric of society. In a sense, a prodigy is an outlier, whereas an original is an aberration.

Grant writes:

Although child prodigies are often rich in both talent and ambition, what holds them back from moving the world forward is that they don’t learn to be original. As they perform in Carnegie Hall, win the science Olympics, and become chess champions, something tragic happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new. The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies and beautiful Beethoven symphonies, but never compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to the codified rules of established games, rather than inventing their own rules or their own games.

This observation calls to mind psychologist Carol Dweck’s trailblazing work on the difference between the “fixed” and “growth” mindsets — one of the most important and far-reaching findings in psychology in the past century. Prodigies, as Grant describes them, represent the fixed mindset and are animated by a hunger for approval according to accepted standards; originals, on the other hand, embody the growth mindset and are driven by curiosity and a desire for improvement. Lest we forget: Even the supremest success, if it is success by someone else’s standards, is still an act of conformity — just ask Thoreau.

Art from How to Be a Nonconformist, a vintage satirical take on conformity written and illustrated by a high school girl named Elissa Jane Karg

Half a century after the great social scientist John Gardner contemplated what children can teach us about taking risks and being unperturbed by failure, Grant reminds us that the word entrepreneur, which was coined by the economist Richard Cantillon, is literally translated as “bearer of risk.” The radical risks that define originals, however, aren’t foolish risks but considered ones — successful people distribute their risks in a kind of portfolio, ensuring stability in some areas of their lives in order to have the flexibility to fail in others.

How to master the art-science of taking radical risks — including how to procrastinate strategically, why it’s easier to translate fear and anxiety into excitement than to calm yourself down, and how to harness the positive power of negative thinking — is what Grant goes on to explore in the remainder of Originals, a fine counterpart to his earlier work on the behavioral styles that predict success. Complement it with pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner on the six essential conditions for creative breakthrough and André Gide on what it really means to be original.

For more of Grant’s insight into human behavior, devour his fascinating On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:

BP

The Confidence Game: What Con Artists Reveal About the Psychology of Trust and Why Even the Most Rational of Us Are Susceptible to Deception

“It’s the oldest story ever told. The story of belief — of the basic, irresistible, universal human need to believe in something that gives life meaning, something that reaffirms our view of ourselves, the world, and our place in it.”

The Confidence Game: What Con Artists Reveal About the Psychology of Trust and Why Even the Most Rational of Us Are Susceptible to Deception

“Reality is what we take to be true,” physicist David Bohm observed in a 1977 lecture. “What we take to be true is what we believe… What we believe determines what we take to be true.” That’s why nothing is more reality-warping than the shock of having come to believe something untrue — an experience so disorienting yet so universal that it doesn’t spare even the most intelligent and self-aware of us, for it springs from the most elemental tendencies of human psychology. “The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence,” Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman asserted in examining how our minds mislead us, “but of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct.”

The machinery of that construction is what New Yorker columnist and science writer extraordinaire Maria Konnikova explores in The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time (public library) — a thrilling psychological detective story investigating how con artists, the supreme masterminds of malevolent reality-manipulation, prey on our propensity for believing what we wish were true and how this illuminates the inner workings of trust and deception in our everyday lives.

Art by Edward Gorey for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

“Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours,” Carl Sagan urged in his excellent Baloney Detection Kit — and yet our tendency is to do just that, becoming increasingly attached to what we’ve come to believe because the belief has sprung from our own glorious, brilliant, fool-proof minds. Through a tapestry of riveting real-life con artist profiles interwoven with decades of psychology experiments, Konnikova demonstrates that a con artist simply takes advantage of this hubris by finding the beliefs in which we are most confident — those we’re least likely to question — and enlisting them in advancing his or her agenda.

To be sure, we all perform micro-cons on a daily basis. White lies are the ink of the social contract — the insincere compliment to a friend who needs a confidence boost, the unaddressed email that “somehow went to spam,” the affinity fib that gives you common ground with a stranger at a party even though you aren’t really a “huge Leonard Cohen fan too.”

We even con ourselves. Every act of falling in love requires a necessary self-con — as Adam Phillips has written in his terrific piece on the paradox of romance, “the person you fall in love with really is the man or woman of your dreams”; we dream the lover up, we construct a fantasy of who she is based on the paltry morsels of information seeded by early impressions, we fall for that fantasy and then, as we immerse ourselves in a real relationship with a real person, we must convince ourselves that the reality corresponds to enough of the fantasy to feel satisfying.

But what sets the con artist apart from the mundane white-liar is the nefarious intent and the deliberate deftness with which he or she goes about executing that reality-manipulation.

Konnikova begins with the story of a lifelong impostor named Ferdinand Waldo Demara, who successfully passed himself off as a psychologist, a professor, a monk, a surgeon, a prison warden, the founder of a religious college, and even his own biographer.

begins with
Ferdinand Waldo Demara (Photograph: Corbis)

Considering the perplexity of his astonishing ability to deceive, Konnikova — whose previous book examined the positive counterpart to the con, the psychology of thinking like Sherlock Holmes — writes:

How was he so effective? Was it that he preyed on particularly soft, credulous targets? I’m not sure the Texas prison system, one of the toughest in the United States, could be described as such. Was it that he presented an especially compelling, trustworthy figure? Not likely, at six foot one and over 250 pounds, square linebacker’s jaw framed by small eyes that seemed to sit on the border between amusement and chicanery, an expression that made [his] four-year-old daughter Sarah cry and shrink in fear the first time she ever saw it. Or was it something else, something deeper and more fundamental — something that says more about ourselves and how we see the world?

It’s the oldest story ever told. The story of belief — of the basic, irresistible, universal human need to believe in something that gives life meaning, something that reaffirms our view of ourselves, the world, and our place in it… For our minds are built for stories. We crave them, and, when there aren’t ready ones available, we create them. Stories about our origins. Our purpose. The reasons the world is the way it is. Human beings don’t like to exist in a state of uncertainty or ambiguity. When something doesn’t make sense, we want to supply the missing link. When we don’t understand what or why or how something happened, we want to find the explanation. A confidence artist is only too happy to comply — and the well-crafted narrative is his absolute forte.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Konnikova describes the basic elements of the con and the psychological susceptibility into which each of them plays:

The confidence game starts with basic human psychology. From the artist’s perspective, it’s a question of identifying the victim (the put-up): who is he, what does he want, and how can I play on that desire to achieve what I want? It requires the creation of empathy and rapport (the play): an emotional foundation must be laid before any scheme is proposed, any game set in motion. Only then does it move to logic and persuasion (the rope): the scheme (the tale), the evidence and the way it will work to your benefit (the convincer), the show of actual profits. And like a fly caught in a spider’s web, the more we struggle, the less able to extricate ourselves we become (the breakdown). By the time things begin to look dicey, we tend to be so invested, emotionally and often physically, that we do most of the persuasion ourselves. We may even choose to up our involvement ourselves, even as things turn south (the send), so that by the time we’re completely fleeced (the touch), we don’t quite know what hit us. The con artist may not even need to convince us to stay quiet (the blow-off and fix); we are more likely than not to do so ourselves. We are, after all, the best deceivers of our own minds. At each step of the game, con artists draw from a seemingly endless toolbox of ways to manipulate our belief. And as we become more committed, with every step we give them more psychological material to work with.

What makes the book especially pleasurable is that Konnikova’s intellectual rigor comes with a side of warm wit. She writes:

“Religion,” Voltaire is said to have remarked, “began when the first scoundrel met the first fool.” It certainly sounds like something he would have said. Voltaire was no fan of the religious establishment. But versions of the exact same words have been attributed to Mark Twain, to Carl Sagan, to Geoffrey Chaucer. It seems so accurate that someone, somewhere, sometime, must certainly have said it.

The invocation of Mark Twain is especially apt — one of America’s first great national celebrities, he was the recipient of some outrageous con attempts. That, in fact, is one of Konnikova’s most disquieting yet strangely assuring points — that although our technologies of deception have changed, the technologies of thought undergirding the art of the con are perennially bound to our basic humanity. She writes:

The con is the oldest game there is. But it’s also one that is remarkably well suited to the modern age. If anything, the whirlwind advance of technology heralds a new golden age of the grift. Cons thrive in times of transition and fast change, when new things are happening and old ways of looking at the world no longer suffice. That’s why they flourished during the gold rush and spread with manic fury in the days of westward expansion. That’s why they thrive during revolutions, wars, and political upheavals. Transition is the confidence game’s great ally, because transition breeds uncertainty. There’s nothing a con artist likes better than exploiting the sense of unease we feel when it appears that the world as we know it is about to change. We may cling cautiously to the past, but we also find ourselves open to things that are new and not quite expected.

[…]

No amount of technological sophistication or growing scientific knowledge or other markers we like to point to as signs of societal progress will — or can — make cons any less likely. The same schemes that were playing out in the big stores of the Wild West are now being run via your in-box; the same demands that were being made over the wire are hitting your cell phone. A text from a family member. A frantic call from the hospital. A Facebook message from a cousin who seems to have been stranded in a foreign country.

[…]

Technology doesn’t make us more worldly or knowledgeable. It doesn’t protect us. It’s just a change of venue for the same old principles of confidence. What are you confident in? The con artist will find those things where your belief is unshakeable and will build on that foundation to subtly change the world around you. But you will be so confident in the starting point that you won’t even notice what’s happened.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

In a sense, the con is a more extreme and elaborate version of the principles of persuasion that Blaise Pascal outlined half a millennium ago — it is ultimately an art not of coercion but of complicity. Konnikova writes:

The confidence game — the con — is an exercise in soft skills. Trust, sympathy, persuasion. The true con artist doesn’t force us to do anything; he makes us complicit in our own undoing. He doesn’t steal. We give. He doesn’t have to threaten us. We supply the story ourselves. We believe because we want to, not because anyone made us. And so we offer up whatever they want — money, reputation, trust, fame, legitimacy, support — and we don’t realize what is happening until it is too late. Our need to believe, to embrace things that explain our world, is as pervasive as it is strong. Given the right cues, we’re willing to go along with just about anything and put our confidence in just about anyone.

So what makes you more susceptible to the confidence game? Not necessarily what you might expect:

When it comes to predicting who will fall, personality generalities tend to go out the window. Instead, one of the factors that emerges is circumstance: it’s not who you are, but where you happen to be at this particular moment in your life.

People whose willpower and emotional resilience resources are strained — the lonely, the financially downtrodden, those dealing with the trauma of divorce, injury, or job loss, those undergoing major life changes — are particularly vulnerable. But these, Konnikova reminds us, are states rather than character qualities, circumstances that might and likely will befall each one of us at different points in life for reasons largely outside our control. (One is reminded of philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s excellent work on agency and victimhood: “The victim shows us something about our own lives: we see that we too are vulnerable to misfortune, that we are not any different from the people whose fate we are watching…”) Konnikova writes:

The more you look, the more you realize that, even with certain markers, like life changes, and certain tendencies in tow, a reliably stable overarching victim profile is simply not there. Marks vary as much as, and perhaps even more than, the grifters who fool them.

Therein lies the book’s most sobering point — Konnikova demonstrates over and over again, through historical anecdotes and decades of studies, that no one is immune to the art of the con. And yet there is something wonderfully optimistic in this. Konnikova writes:

The simple truth is that most people aren’t out to get you. We are so bad at spotting deception because it’s better for us to be more trusting. Trust, and not adeptness at spotting deception, is the more evolutionarily beneficial path. People are trusting by nature. We have to be. As infants, we need to trust that the big person holding us will take care of our needs and desires until we’re old enough to do it ourselves. And we never quite let go of that expectation.

Trust, it turns out, is advantageous in the grand scheme of things. Konnikova cites a number of studies indicating that people who score higher on generalized trust tend to be healthier physically, more psychoemotionally content, likelier to be entrepreneurs, and likelier to volunteer. (The most generous woman I know, who is also a tremendously successful self-made entrepreneur, once reflected: “I’ve never once regretted being generous, I’ve only ever regretted holding back generosity.”) But the greater risk-tolerance necessary for reaping greater rewards also comes with the inevitable downside of greater potential for exploitation — the most trusting among us are also the perfect marks for the player of the confidence game.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Green Book by Robert Graves

But the paradox of trust, Konnikova argues, is only part of our susceptibility to being conned. Another major factor is our sheer human solipsism. She explains:

We are our own prototype of being, of motivation, of behavior. People, however, are far from being a homogeneous mass. And so, when we depart from our own perspective, as we inevitably must, we often make errors, sometimes significant ones. [Psychologists call this] “egocentric anchoring”: we are our own point of departure. We assume that others know what we know, believe what we believe, and like what we like.

She cites an extensive study, the results of which were published in a paper cleverly titled “How to Seem Telepathic.” (One ought to appreciate the scientists’ wry sarcasm in poking fun at our clickbait culture.) Konnikova writes:

Many of our errors, the researchers found, stem from a basic mismatch between how we analyze ourselves and how we analyze others. When it comes to ourselves, we employ a fine-grained, highly contextualized level of detail. When we think about others, however, we operate at a much higher, more generalized and abstract level. For instance, when answering the same question about ourselves or others — how attractive are you? — we use very different cues. For our own appearance, we think about how our hair is looking that morning, whether we got enough sleep, how well that shirt matches our complexion. For that of others, we form a surface judgment based on overall gist. So, there are two mismatches: we aren’t quite sure how others are seeing us, and we are incorrectly judging how they see themselves.

Art by Maurice Sendak for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

The skilled con artist, Konnikova points out, mediates for this mismatch by making an active effort to discern which cues the other person is using to form judgments and which don’t register at all. The result is a practical, non-paranormal exercise in mind-reading, which creates an illusion of greater affinity, which in turn becomes the foundation of greater trust — we tend to trust those similar to us more than the dissimilar, for we intuit that the habits and preferences we have in common stem from shared values.

And yet, once again, we are reminded that the tricks of the con artist’s exploitive game are different only by degree rather than kind from the everyday micro-deceptions of which our social fabric is woven. Konnikova writes:

Both similarity and familiarity can be faked, as the con artist can easily tell you — and the more you can fake it, the more real information will be forthcoming. Similarity is easy enough. When we like someone or feel an affinity for them, we tend to mimic their behavior, facial expressions, and gestures, a phenomenon known as the chameleon effect. But the effect works the other way, too. If we mimic someone else, they will feel closer and more similar to us; we can fake the natural liking process quite well. We perpetuate minor cons every day, often without realizing it, and sometimes knowing what we do all too well, when we mirror back someone’s words or interests, feign a shared affinity for a sports team or a mutual hatred of a brand. The signs that usually serve us reliably can easily be massaged, especially in the short term — all a good con artist needs.

In the remainder of the thoroughly fascinating The Confidence Game, Konnikova goes on to explore the role of storytelling in reality-manipulation, what various psychological models reveal about the art of persuasion, and how the two dramatically different systems that govern our perception of reality — emotion and the intellect — conspire in the machinery of trust. Complement it with Adrienne Rich on lying and what “truth” really means, David deSteno on the psychology of trust in work and love, and Alice Walker on what her father taught her about the love-expanding capacity of truth-telling.

BP

Gwendolyn Brooks’s Trailblazing Vintage Poems for Kids, Celebrating Diversity and the Universal Spirit of Childhood

A playful and poignant bow before the singular validity of childhood.

Gwendolyn Brooks’s Trailblazing Vintage Poems for Kids, Celebrating Diversity and the Universal Spirit of Childhood

In 1950, poet Gwendolyn Brooks (June 7, 1917–December 3, 2000) became the first black writer to receive the Pulitzer Prize. She was only thirty-three. Five years earlier, she had made her debut to great acclaim with the collection A Street in Bronzeville — a series of poetic portraits of people and life in her Chicago neighborhood, which earned her a Guggenheim Fellowship.

In 1956, Brooks released Bronzeville Boys and Girls (public library) — a wonderful collection of poems for and about children, illustrated by painter, sculptor, and prolific children’s book artist Ronni Solbert, a Fulbright fellow who had studied folk and tribal art in India.

Gwendolyn Brooks, 1957 (Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS)
Gwendolyn Brooks, 1957 (Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS)

Considering that even today only 3% of children’s books feature characters of color, the collection was a revolutionary act of creative courage in its era, a decade before the peak of the civil rights movement. It granted a generation of children the tremendous gift of being seen, of having the validity of their experience mirrored back by the page, of being assured that they belong in literature and art.

It’s hardly surprising that the book was carried on the wings of encouragement by legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom — a patron saint of childhood who fought censorship fiercely, cultivated young Maurice Sendak’s genius, and stood up for the creative integrity of her authors in the face of commercial cowardice on behalf of publishers and booksellers. In 1955, Brooks submitted twenty-five children’s poems to Nordstrom, who replied with one of her characteristically warm and wise notes of encouragement, requesting more. Vitalized by the opportunity, Brooks put herself on a rigorous writing regimen, writing a poem a day for fifteen days. Of the forty final poems, Nordstrom selected the thirty-four that became Bronzeville Boys and Girls, published the following year.

Although the poems are inspired by Brooks’s neighborhood, they emanate the universal spirit of childhood with its enormous kaleidoscope of capacities for joy and sorrow, courage and vulnerability, loneliness and connection, darkness and light, and most of all immense imaginative freedom.

Each of the poems is titled after a child, and the children’s names bear a certain nobility, a delightful datedness, a literary quality evocative of Victorian royalty and Greek mythology — a choice reflecting the singular dignity that Brooks confers upon childhood.

VAL

When grown-ups at parties are laughing,
I do not like the sound.
It doesn’t have any frosting.
It doesn’t go up from the ground.

So when my Daddy chased me
Away from the bend in the stair,
With a “Get about your business!”
I didn’t really care.

I’d rather be in the basement.
I’d rather be outside.
I’d rather get my bicycle
And ride.

GERTRUDE

When I hear Marian Anderson sing,
I am a STUFFless kind of thing.

Heart is like the flying air.
I cannot find it anywhere.

Fingers tingle. I am cold
And warm and young and very old.

But, most, I am a STUFFless thing
When I hear Marian Anderson sing.

CYNTHIA IN THE SNOW

It SUSHES.
It hushes
The loudness in the road.
It flitter-twitters,
And laughs away from me.
It laughs a lovely whiteness,
And whitely whirs away,
To be
Some otherwhere,
Still white as milk or shirts.
So beautiful it hurts.

NARCISSA

Some of the girls are playing jacks.
Some are playing ball.
But small Narcissa is not playing
Anything at all.

Small Narcissa sits upon
A brick in her back yard
And looks at tiger-lilies,
And shakes her pigtails hard.

First she is an ancient queen
In pomp and purple veil.
Soon she is a singing wind.
And, next, a nightingale.

How fine to be Narcissa,
A-changing like all that!
While sitting still, as still, as still
As anyone ever sat!

One poem speaks to the complexities of race and privilege, which Margo Jefferson addressed in her memoir, Negroland — one of the best books of 2015 — more than half a century later:

ELDORA, WHO IS RICH

“A RICH girl moved in there,” they said.
And thought to find a golden head,
Almost, with diamond ears and eyes!
But soon there came a nice surprise.
They saw a child run out to see
Themselves. She yelled, “Please play with me!”
And brought her doll, and skipped, and smiled,
Like any other little child.

Many of the poems touch on the perplexities of the self that reach beyond childhood and into the lifelong tempest of being human, from the puzzling continuity of personal identity to the ceaseless dance of time and transformation:

ROBERT, WHO IS OFTEN A STRANGER TO HIMSELF

Do you ever look in the looking-glass
And see a stranger there?
A child you know and do not know,
Wearing what you wear?

CHARLES

Sick-times, you go inside yourself,
And scarce can come away.
You sit and look outside yourself
At people passing by.

MARIE LUCILLE

That clock is ticking
Me away!
The me that only
Yesterday
Ate peanuts, jam and
Licorice
Is gone already.
And this is
‘Cause nothing’s putting
Back, each day,
The me that clock is
Ticking away.

Bronzeville Boys and Girls, dedicated to Brooks’s own daughter and son, is a fine addition to other little-known and often forgotten children’s books by celebrated authors of literature for “grownups,” including Sylvia Plath’s The Bed Book, Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, Anne Sexton’s Joey and the Birthday Present, Carson McCullers’s Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as Pig, Maya Angelou’s Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, James Joyce’s The Cats of Copenhagen, Aldous Huxley’s The Crows of Pearblossom, Gertrude Stein’s To Do, Virginia Woolf’s Nurse Lugton’s Curtain, Ted Hughes’s The Iron Giant, and Donald Barthelme’s The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine.

BP

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