I love these flowers. Like a little bit of the tropics. (Photo taken by me)
Happy Sunday! Let’s get to the links. First up, I have to strongly recommend Crash Course Film History if, like me, you’re a novice on the subject but fascinated, nevertheless. Here’s the preview so you can get a feel for the series:
Next, a recent episode from the Freakonomics podcast called “The Fracking Boom, a Baby Boom, and the Retreat From Marriage”.
Over 40 percent of U.S. births are to unmarried mothers, and the numbers are especially high among the less-educated. Why? One argument is that the decline in good manufacturing jobs led to a decline in “marriageable” men. Surely the fracking boom reversed that trend, right?
Speaking to an economist, Melissa Kearney, host Stephen Dubner delves into how/why children who grow up in stable households with parents married to each other do better than kids who don’t. Not necessarily what some people want to hear or accept, but the numbers don’t lie. Listen to it below, and if you have time, the follow-up episode which, quite frankly, shocked me, called “When Helping Hurts“.
Next, from Brain Pickings, this story on “Neuroscience Founding Father Santiago Ramón y Cajal on the Six Psychological Flaws That Keep the Talented from Achieving Greatness”:
“Principles are good and worth the effort only when they develop into deeds,” Van Gogh wrote to his brother in a beautiful letter about talking vs. doing and the human pursuit of greatness. “The great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.” But what stands between the impulse for greatness and the doing of the “little things” out of which success is woven?
That’s what neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal (May 1, 1852–October 17, 1934) addresses in his 1897 book Advice for a Young Investigator (public library) — the science counterpart to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Anna Deavere Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist, predating one by nearly a decade and the other by more than a century.
Although Cajal’s counsel is aimed at young scientists, it is replete with wisdom that applies as much to science as it does to any other intellectually and creatively ambitious endeavor — nowhere more so than in one of the pieces in the volume, titled “Diseases of the Will,” presenting a taxonomy of the “ethical weaknesses and intellectual poverty” that keep even the most gifted young people from ascending to greatness.
Self-portrait by Cajal at his library in his thirties, from Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal
Considering the all too pervasive paradox of creative people “who are wonderfully talented and full of energy and initiative [but] who never produce any original work and almost never write anything,” Cajal divides them into six classes according to the “diseases of the will” afflicting them — contemplators, bibliophiles and polyglots, megalomaniacs, instrument addicts, misfits, and theorists.
He examines the superficiality driving the “particularly morbid variety” of the first type:
[Contemplators] love the study of nature but only for its aesthetic qualities — the sublime spectacles, the beautiful forms, the splendid colors, and the graceful structures.
With an eye to his own chosen field of histology, which he revolutionized by using beauty to illuminate the workings of the brain, Cajal notes that a contemplator will master the finest artistic techniques “without ever feeling the slightest temptation to apply them to a new problem, or to the solution of a hotly contested issue.” He adds:
[Contemplators] are as likable for their juvenile enthusiasm and piquant and winning speech as they are ineffective in making any real scientific progress.
More than a century before Tom Wolfe’s admonition against the rise of the pseudo-intellectual, Cajal treats with special disdain the bibliophiles and polyglots — those who use erudition not as a tool of furthering humanity’s enlightenment but as a personal intellectual ornament of pretension and vanity. He diagnoses this particular “disease of the will”:
The symptoms of this disease include encyclopedic tendencies; the mastery of numerous languages, some totally useless; exclusive subscription to highly specialized journals; the acquisition of all the latest books to appear in the bookseller’s showcases; assiduous reading of everything that is important to know, especially when it interests very few; unconquerable laziness where writing is concerned; and an aversion to the seminar and laboratory.
Truman Capote in 1965 in the New York City offices of Random House Publishing.—© Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos (Image/caption source)
In a life that spanned nearly six decades, Truman Capote wrote stories that remain reliably in print. The short story “A Christmas Memory” is a yuletide classic, and his popular novel, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, is a touchstone for young, restless souls trying to make it on their own in the big city. Capote’s true-crime narrative, In Cold Blood, became a blockbuster movie and a standard-bearer of a new literary genre, the “nonfiction novel.” But after he died in 1984, a month before his sixtieth birthday, Capote’s writings weren’t the first thing that conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr. thought about.
Buckley instead recalled a 1976 visit to the set of Neil Simon’s campy mystery movie, Murder by Death, which featured Capote as homicide victim Lionel Twain. The plot, in which many wanted the worst for Twain, seemed a wry case of art imitating life.
Shortly before Murder by Death entered production, Capote had published a portion of Answered Prayers, his unfinished novel, in Esquire. “That work finished Truman Capote’s social life as decisively as a hangman’s trapdoor,” Buckley told readers. “It collected brilliantly and with relish related every ugly fact and rumor about New York’s glitterati that Truman Capote, in years of knowing and mixing with them, had assembled. He seemed astonished, at first, that old friends hung up the telephone when he called, and that others took trouble to avoid him. And so he took refuge in booze and pills, pills and booze.”
Buckley was oddly prescient in focusing on Capote as a creature of film, since more than three decades after his death, the controversial author has become known to younger Americans primarily through two biopics, Capote in 2005 and Infamous in 2006.
Those productions, which featured Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones in spot-on portrayals of Capote, evoked the man those of an earlier generation immediately recognized as a bon vivant of the Gotham social scene and network TV talk-show circuit. Capote’s constant presence on the national stage in the 1960s and 1970s was vivid and unforgettable.
At about five feet three inches tall, he came off as a flamboyantly effeminate elf, his tiny body and sharp tongue best summarized in his own assessment: “I’m about as tall as a shotgun, and just as noisy.” The high-pitched voice, too, seemed ready-made for parody, a frequent inspiration for stand-up impressionists. “Gore Vidal used to say it could only be understood by dogs,” writer George Plimpton said. “Gore did not like Truman very much.”
Talk-show hosts courted Capote because he was a gifted storyteller who could be counted on to say something provocative. When he wasn’t chatting about his favorite subject, himself, Capote took guilty pleasure in cutting everyone else down to size.
“Did I read somewhere that you said all actors are stupid?” TV personality Dinah Shore once asked him.
“You’re overstating it,” he answered. “I said most actors are stupid.”
Perhaps Capote’s most famous fusillade concerns his critique of Beat Generation writers. It “isn’t writing at all,” he deadpanned. “It’s typing.”
Like a latter-day Oscar Wilde, Capote relished the pithy bon mot. “Do you think that remarks can be literature?” interviewer Lawrence Grobel asked Capote. “No,” he replied, “but they can be art.”
But beyond his position as a pop-culture oddity, what about the writing that Capote left behind? His most obvious claim on posterity is In Cold Blood, his 1966 book about the 1959 murder of a Kansas farm family, the Clutters, and the arrest, conviction, and execution of the culprits, Richard Hickock and Perry Edward Smith.
Although Capote promoted the book as “immaculately factual,” revelations in recent years have called that claim into question. In 2013, Wall Street Journal writer Kevin Helliker published evidence that Capote distorted a chronology of the police investigation to burnish the reputation of Kansas lawman Alvin Dewey Jr., who had given Capote unprecedented access as the case unfolded. In a follow-up story published earlier this year, Helliker reported that Capote had failed to mention Hickock’s idea to write his own book about the murders—a plan that Capote apparently schemed to thwart in order to prevent any competition for In Cold Blood. Other writers have uncovered other discrepancies.
And with theme music in mind, this week’s song is “Spiderman” by The Ramones. Even though the current iteration of Spidey tumbled to number 2 this weekend at the box office, being bested by yet another “Planet of the Apes” redux/sequel, I still have Peter Parker on the brain. Have a good weekend.