On Art and the Pursuit of Happiness

This Is Your Brain on Art


In the November 27 New York Times Book Review Jim Holt gives a fascinating review of Thinking, Fast and Slow, a new book about how we make decisions by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in economic science.

The gist of the book is that we are not the rational decision makers we believe ourselves to be, information that has obvious and serious repercussions for economic science.

In his review Holt notes that Kahneman does not care to deal philosophically with the nature of rationality; what he wants to discuss is what he sees as its goal: happiness.

When talking about happiness, Kahneman differentiates between “experienced” well-being and “remembered” well-being, and discovers, through experimentation—one cringe-inducing experiment dealing with painful colonoscopies—what he calls “duration neglect” and the “peak-end rule.”

This just means that when we remember pain, we forget how long it lasted and only remember the peak of the discomfort. Also, if it ends pleasantly, we remember it more favorably, even if we experienced more actual pain.

This is where it gets fascinating for me. Holt quotes Kahneman—“I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.”

Holt then writes that Kahneman might not have gone far enough in saying the experiencing self is a stranger, that “There may be no experiencing self at all.”

He offers as evidence a study done by Rafael Malach and his colleagues at the Weizmann Institute in Israel. When subjects absorbed in an experience—watching a movie in this instance—“the parts of the brain associated with self-consciousness are not merely quiet, they’re actually shut down (inhibited) by the rest of the brain.” Holt concludes, “The self seems simply to disappear.”

So science is bearing out what we already know. When having an aesthetic experience, the self-conscious parts of the brain are literally shut down, turned off. When they open back up, the aesthetic experience disappears, becomes an object for your remembering self to look at, discuss, inspect.

You cannot be both aware of yourself and absorbed in a work of art—whether or not the work of art is good is not important for this discussion; the test subjects in Malach’s study were watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Self-consciousness then is an an-aesthetic. It deadens the experience.

Our brains are like air locks, those pressurized chambers which makes it possible to move safely from inside a cramped space ship out into space. The door of self-consciousness has to be sealed shut before the door to the experience can be opened. They simply cannot both be open at the same time.

Maybe this explains why I can no longer sit through a television show unless I’ve rented it and can see it commercial free. The commercials aren’t just annoying; they repeatedly drive away the experience by knocking open the self-conscious part of the brain, reminding me of myself and all the crap I should want to buy.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I find it maddening. I can’t last a whole show.

There’s more to the self-consciousness problem than the enjoyment of art. Annie Dillard says that it is “our very self-consciousness” which all religions recognize as “the one thing separating us from our creator.”

There are simply places you cannot go and bring yourself along. People who have had epiphanies, who have lost themselves and experienced mystery, have had it happen to them in many different places and many different ways. It isn’t something you can manufacture.

Art appears to be the most reliable way to shut down self-consciousness, the one most necessary condition. Art seals the little door closed, and holds you there in the air lock, sustains you in a state of readiness–and every now and then, the big door opens and we get a glimpse.

As for whether or not we are happy: when we are lost in a work of art, when our souls are open to it and fully alive, the question is irrelevant.


originally posted at “Good Letters,” Tuesday January 24, 2012



Belief and Belonging: Against Groupthink

Belief and Belonging

Last week I went and watched my son graduate from Virginia Boys State. After the ceremony, I waited through waves of boys in identical white shirts and blue shorts for him to emerge, and when he did, his shoulders were slouched and his eyes tired.

In the car I asked him, “How’d it go?”

He shrugged.

“Did you have a good time?”


“Did you learn anything?”


“Nothing at all?”

He said no, he hadn’t learned anything.

I kept pressing him, and eventually said, “If you had to give someone your takeaway from this past week in one sentence, what would it be?”

Without pause, he said, “Republicans are assholes.”

All rising seniors, the boys were there for practical learning on how government works. They broke up into cities and formed governments, with adult counselors to steer them clear of a Lord of the Flies week. The boys ran for various offices, they competed and negotiated with other cities.

They made promises for votes. They traded votes for political favors. In Evan’s final analysis it came down to “a big popularity contest.”

I can understand why he would find a week like this unpleasant. He’s reserved and bookish. He has strong opinions, but in large groups he watches from the fringe, keeps his opinions to himself. Politics is a game he can’t play.

But something deeper was troubling him about the week. “You had to think their way or you were shunned,” he told me. He went on to describe how boys with dissenting opinions were marginalized and shamed by boys and counselors alike.

In the final service, the boys sang a song, and as they repeated it in rounds, it began to sound more like a chant than singing, several hundred strong young male voices calling out, “What does the Lord require of thee?” and the response, “To seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before your God.”

“Three boys were sent home because they said they were atheist and didn’t want to go to the religious services,” Evan told me as we drove home. He shook his head. He rubbed his tired eyes.

In order to drive out and watch Evan graduate I had missed the Bar Mitzvah of my friends’ son, Spencer. My family came into the house shortly after Evan and I got home, talking about how impressed they were by Spencer’s Shabbat morning service. The d’var Torah, his commentary on the week’s reading, was on the old familiar story in Numbers about Balaam and the talking ass and the companion passage, Micah 5:6-6:8.

My daughter thought it was the best thing she’d ever heard in a religious service when Spencer introduced his homily by saying he was glad he got this passage because it gave him the opportunity to see how many times he could crack his brother and sister up by saying “talking ass.”

After that, Spencer gave his exposition on the very passage the boys were singing two hours away: It has been told of you O mortal, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you—Only this: to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

When he got to walk humbly, Spencer proclaimed, “I don’t know if I believe in God or not and religion isn’t how I make my decisions every day.” He said, “I’m still working on what I believe about God,” and called it a “developing relationship.”

My sister, who was raised Fundamentalist Baptist as I was, wept as she watched Spencer stand before his congregation and speak honestly—and even more, as she looked around and saw that no one was scandalized, no one outraged, no one red-faced and angry.

How different this is from anything we ever experienced in a religious congregation. How different it is from Evan’s experience at Boys State.

I do not want to talk about politics—it only comes up because it is impossible to describe Evan’s week without doing so. I do not want to contrast one religious tradition with another either.

This is about the contrast between two ways of being in community: on the one hand is a closed and fearful view of the world, a constant worrying that if the boy doesn’t toe the line, vocalize assent to the letter of the law, then he cannot be trusted, cannot be a part of the community.

On the other hand is an open view, a willingness to let the boy express what he actually thinks. This comes from a place not of fear, but of confidence. Everyone in education knows that the strictest disciplinarians in the classroom are the ones most afraid of losing control.

This technique might keep order in a classroom, but it serves no good purpose in the realm of belief. As William James points out in Varieties of Religious Experience, you cannot believe what you do not believe—there are living options and non-living options, and you cannot breathe life into a non-living option; fake it till you make it is a call to nothing more than shoddy self-deception.

Robert Penn Warren writes that it is possible to be a “heretic in the truth.” Even if what the boy proclaims is true, if he embraces it because he is coerced, cajoled, shamed, then he doesn’t have the truth at all. A faith foisted on him is no faith at all.

I am not idealizing; I know this synagogue has had its share of drama. It is inevitable when so many personalities come together in community. But here is what my family observed: The Agudath Sholom congregation embraced this boy even as he stood and proclaimed his doubts.

It was a beautiful service.

Originally posted at “Good Letters,” July 25, 2013

A Single Father and a Sick Baby Girl

The Tower Journal has graciously republished my story “Hush Little Baby.”


The story first appeared in the summer, 2010 issue of Southern Humanities Review (http://www.cla.auburn.edu/shr), and subsequently won the New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction

The Unbearable Badness of Ayn Rand

The Unbearable Badness of Ayn Rand

Originally posted on “Good Letters” October 19, 2012

My good friend Marcelo has decided to read Ayn Rand’s fiction, to “see what all the hype is about.”

He has started with Fountainhead, the story of Howard Roark, the architect who heroically refuses to sacrifice his individual principles to the collective, no matter how they treat him. Marcelo is an artist, and he likes Roark’s pluck, his faith in his own artistic vision. Plus, Rand speaks with such conviction, it’s hard to resist him.

As many young people do—in my experience, mostly young men—I once went on a Rand bender: Atlas Shrugged, We the Living, The Romantic Manifesto. I devoured the book by her disciple Leonard Peikoff,Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

She starts with existence exists, which is her axiomatic principle, the starting point from which she builds her belief system. From there she is quick to deny even the possibility of spiritual reality. Eventually she ends in a place where selfishness is a high virtue, altruism a despicable vice, and capitalism the only sane economic system.

Her philosophy is harshly categorical, and corresponds to the developmental stage of black/white either/or thinking of youth. No wonder the people I run across who take her philosophy seriously are always young, at least in their thinking.

As unsavory as these aspects of her philosophy might be, that isn’t what makes her writing bad. She herself says, “The fact that one agrees or disagrees with an artist’s philosophy is irrelevant to an esthetic appraisal of his work qua art.” With this I agree.

In the intro to Mark Musa’s The Portable Dante we are told that the great poet intended for his writing to work on four levels: the literal, which is the observation of what actually happens; the allegorical, which gets at underlying theological or philosophical meaning (for example Virgil as the embodiment of human reason); the moral or didactic, for teaching the reader; and finally the anagogical, which opens spiritual or mystical truths.

The fact that Dante consciously designed his poetry to work on all these levels is not what brings readers back to him. The literal level is where the thrill of recognition grabs you.

For example, Dante describes souls writhing in the seventh circle of hell, plagued by fire from above and burning sand from beneath: “They were in fact, like a dog in summertime / busy, now with his paw, now with his snout, / tormented by the fleas and flies that bite him.”

I am transported to my childhood in West Virginia, to the dirt road that ran between the church parsonage where I lived and the garbage truck garage. In the road is a mangy black dog with fur clumped into flat cakes, dropping to scratch, spinning to bite at fleas.

There’s the grotesque description of one who sowed schism in life, ripped bodily in half, “from his chin to where we fart…. Between his legs his guts spilled out, with the heart / and other vital parts, and the dirty sack / that turns to shit whatever the mouth gulps down. I remember shot deer split open by the hunter’s knife, its glistening innards in a twisted pile next to it.

Dante is excellent on multiple levels, yet he begins where all good writing—all good art—must: true to the literal, so carefully observed, that you cannot help but trust it.

Rand’s fiction sucks for the same reason so much Christian fiction sucks. It is endlessly didactic, so busy preaching it forgets to pay close attention to life. Her characters deliver lectures. You don’t have to look closely to see they are puppets with Rand’s own lips moving eerily under the mask, her angry eyes staring out through holes in the rubber face. The bad guys in her books are straw men called collectivism, and altruism and they speak only in bromides and Rand gleefully bats them down.

Is it unfair to hold her to such a high standard as Dante? How about her contemporary Flannery O’Connor, who also saw her own writing as working on all four levels? Again Rand comes up short, and not simply because she’s not as good a writer—which she surely is not—but because her own aesthetic draws up short. She is writing bad fiction by design.

In her Romantic Manifesto Rand says, “The greater the work of art, the more profoundly universal its theme.” So far so good. She writes, “Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” What exactly does that mean?

Rand believes the work should set forth the author’s vision of an ideal world, not deal with the world as it is. Art, according to Rand should deal only with what is “important,” which sounds fine, but the problem is that when, as Rand consciously does, the artist lops away parts of human existence she believes to be unimportant, we get substandard art.

The artist knows what she is out to prove and sets out to do it. No discovery for the writer, then none for the reader. Rand never lets the story itself say anything meaningful. You want to tell her to shut up already and tell the story. Or find a form more suited for argumentation, like an essay.

We come to art to find something important, no doubt. But it is in careful attention to the literal, physical details—quotidian, often smelly and unpleasant, sometimes even disgusting and scary—that we find the important thing for which the work is aiming. The artist is as surprised as everyone else to find the discovery hidden in the muck of life.

It is also in this close attention to the literal that paradoxically we glimpse the transcendent.

The lotus flower floats on the surface of the water, blooms in the sunlight and air; but its roots are down deep underwater, in the muck and slime of rotting leaves. It cannot be otherwise.

In Praise of Dirty Stories

Dirty Stories

Originally posted on the “Good Letters” blog, Friday December 9, 2011


By Vic Sizemore

For the second term in a row, one of my students died in the middle of the semester. He disappeared and left a gaping hole in the spot where he had so faithfully sat every class.

Last semester the student was neither young nor healthy, so the news led us to sad but un-shocked nodding.

This time it was a kid just out of high school. He looked as healthy as any other eighteen year-old boy. He was a smart kid and a diligent student. The one thing that characterized him more than anything, at least in our class, was that he was quiet. One girl in his workshop group affectionately called him Quiet Boy.

The email from my dean said only that he had died unexpectedly. No cause of death was given. Immediately I thought a car crash, as that is how most young people meet their demise (statistically anyway). Then I thought maybe it was suicide, and that’s why no one was telling. I have since discovered that it was a diabetic coma—he went to bed Friday night and never woke up again.

As I called the next class to order, the girl from his workshop group said, “We have to wait for Quiet Boy.” She was serious. Quiet Boy didn’t talk, but he didn’t miss class either.

I almost responded, “We don’t have that much time,” which would have appeared inappropriate and insensitive. Instead I sat down at the computer and checked the email against my roster to make sure I hadn’t misread the name—though I knew I hadn’t—before I told her that Quiet Boy was dead.

She had been in my last class to lose a student. She said, “My God, that’s the second time.” After she stared at me in shock for a few seconds, she said, “Your classes are dangerous. I’m not taking you anymore.”

We laughed.

That wasn’t the last laugh we had in class either. Further along, I realized that we were all laughing hard, having naughty fun with the reading assignment, even throwing in some of our own off-color quips. I felt a little guilty, like we were being irreverent.

I had handed back the reading quizzes and there on the lectern in front of me was Quiet Boy’s. As in class, he said very little in his short answers, but he managed to make his point. Here are his first six answers:

1. Carpenter
2. Astrology
3. Slut
4. Play guitar/stalk her
5. Sticks her butt out the window
6. Fart

I would like to have had a little more discussion of the characters, but he had obviously read the story.

It happens to all literature teachers I imagine. Every so often a student asks me, “Why do I have to read this stuff?” or “How am I ever going to use this in the real world?” That day in class I began to wonder about Quiet Boy. The last thing I had given him before he died was a discussion of a literary form called fabliau. The last bit of literature he read for me is a raunchy story that burlesques the weaknesses and stupidity of the human animal.

Maybe I would have felt better if we’d just finished something heavy and serious—The Death of Ivan Ilyich maybe—something that wasn’t just for laughs? I don’t know, but the more I think about it, the more I feel the funny stories are just as important in their way as the serious ones.

When we laugh at a ribald story, it is not the same as when we laugh along with the angry sneer of satire (though the line between categories isn’t always so clear). It is not the bitter laugh of despair either.

What I’m talking about is a hoot, a guffaw, a big old belly laugh. The fabliau is comic relief, the Falstaff of the literary canon, a narrative reminder to relax and take life a little less seriously. “It’s only life after all,” as The Indigo Girls sing—two ladies who, judging by their song lyrics, appear to have trouble taking their own advice on this point.

The dirty stories aren’t just comic relief, though, a way to blow off steam, release some of the pressure that builds up as we go about the hard work of survival.

We recognize two things in these stories. One is that we are physical—a fact we aren’t entirely comfortable with. Our pretenses to niceness and culture are stripped away and there is the animal we are, doing all the disgusting physical things animals do.

The second is troubling and comforting at the same time: we are mean and cruel and nasty to one another in ways that animals simply cannot be.

We laugh through tears of recognition. We admit that, yes, we are nasty and cruel. We cheat. We lie. We steal. We hurt the ones we love. In the admission is a glimmer of hope. Maybe since we can be so much worse than animals, we also have the potential to be so much better; maybe we aren’t mere brutes.

Underneath the laughter at ourselves burns the eternal longing to rise above the ugliness. We go about the trying in clumsy and bungling ways, but the urge behind all our goofs and screw ups—the longing for love, for meaning, for eternal life even—is deep and abiding.

That’s why we can laugh in the end. We believe there is more to the story. We believe this is comedy and not tragedy. As bad as things can be, we hold out for a happy ending.

What did I give Quiet Boy before he left? I can’t say for sure. But I can say I must keep teaching the dirty stories right along with everything else.

Every belly laugh is a big burst of hope.



On the Perils of Writing Nonfiction

Telling Secrets

First posted on “Good Letters,” February 16, 2012

By Vic Sizemore

In the February issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, Alice Mattison states flatly: “Telling the truth is wrong, if somebody wants to keep it secret.” Not long ago I read a note posted by a friend of mine that made my heart sink. Allison wrote that an excerpt from her memoir, posted here, had infuriated her family.

My first thought: Allison is reaping the bitter and inevitable fruit of memoir writing.

My second thought: that’s why I write fiction.

Angering family and friends, or hurting someone’s feelings, is a perennial fear of most of the writers I know. Another friend of mine recently published a piece of creative non-fiction with all the names changed and a gender-nonspecific author’s pseudonym for herself—or himself, whichever the case may be; I’m not telling.

I grew up in a small West Virginia town—not even a town really, a cluster of houses between a mountainside and a muddy river. My dad was the preacher in a Baptist church beside that river. What I learned from those people was that in your everyday life you practiced stone-jawed stoicism. You did not tell your trouble, you did not air your family’s dirty laundry. There was an unspoken code of silence and it seemed to grow stronger in direct relation to a family’s level of dysfunction.

However, sometimes on a Sunday these very same people would come through the church doors and chuck their code of silence in the can with their umbrellas. They would stand to testify and shamelessly wave their deep personal lives in front of a bunch of watchers. Even though people listened with interest, there was always the awkward sense that the real sin—telling the family secrets—was being committed right there in the sanctuary.

The spectacle made me squirm in the pew, made me want to run for the door. It also made me decide to keep mum about my own business. Even now, trying to write about my personal life gives me the heebie-jeebies.

There’s more at stake than mere discomfort though. Allison’s complaint makes me think of a scene in the movie Henry Fool. A young man named Simon Grimm is inspired to write. He sits down and writes a long poem, and it rockets him to riches and fame. (Suspend your disbelief all you poets, I’m making a different point here.)

You never get a glimpse of what Simon wrote. What you do get to watch is his mom finding a copy of the poem on a shelf, sitting down to read it, and then standing up and going straightaway to commit suicide. As silly as the movie is in other respects, for writers this scene is like something out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Sure, fiction writers run the risk of angering someone. Some say every bit as much as memoirists.

I’m sorry but that isn’t true. I can do anything I want in my fiction. Even when writing in the first person about more or less autobiographical things, I can change anything I want to suit my purposes. If I want, I can take Anne Lamott’s advice and give my character a tiny penis, ensuring my brother will never consider the possibility that the guy is based on him.

When I was doing my MFA at Seattle Pacific, I used to eye the creative non-fiction people and wonder, why do they do this to themselves? Like watching the hapless kid wandering toward the dark barn, I wanted to call out, “Don’t go in there. Just run away.”

I thought there was nothing they could get at through non-fiction that they couldn’t just as easily find from a safer distance in fiction. I lived by Picasso’s dictum: tell the truth by telling a lie. And Frank Lloyd Wright’s: the truth is more important than the facts.

This is simply not always the case. After Mattingly writes that it’s wrong to tell the truth when someone else wants it secret, she continues, “but altering the truth is lying, and we know that’s wrong.”

Would a novel about the Soviet gulags have been the same as the facts—the actual names of real people—Solzhenitsyn smuggled out? Would it have been just as good to say a floating, “Crimes were committed,” or, in Nixon’s famous dodge, “Mistakes were made,” and let it go at that?

Miroslav Volf, in his book Exclusion and Embrace, writes that the only route to true healing is first through exclusion, or calling out the guilty and naming the sin. Only then can you embrace them in total forgiveness and love. I know the implications of what I’m saying. My son has shown an interest in writing, so I’m bracing myself.

Plus, this exclusion is not limited to others. The memoirist singles herself out along with everyone else; this makes her doubly excluded, because for her there is no promise of embrace at the other end.

Why do they put themselves through it?

Because the facts must be told. Not to air dirty laundry. Not to get revenge. The aim is understanding, healing, hope.

It takes monumental courage to write the way Allison does. I know that sometimes, when the angry phone calls come, she has to question the endeavor. I can only encourage her by saying what she already knows.

Sometimes you can tell the truth by telling a lie. Sometimes the only way to tell the truth is by telling the truth.


Since posting this, I have changed my opinion: I now believe fiction can be just as fraught with potential anger and misunderstanding.