The Duchess’s bookshelf of becoming super excellent


I love books, and there is a small cluster of core books that accompany me on my journey to painterly enlightenment which I would heartily recommend to other painters. These are the books I turn to again and again: reference books, philosophical books, history books and diaries which have profoundly shaped my learning and my views on art. If you need to be your own teacher for the moment, there are some wise dudes you can depend on for guidance.


Gottfried Bammes: Complete guide to life drawing

This book has consumed me since I first met it, and travels the world with me. Herr Bammes, who taught in Dresden, has a clear way of describing the human body in simplified volumes and muscle groups that help one think structurally about the body. Rather than overwhelming yourself by starting out with hard-core anatomy, working through Bammes’s guide will help you ease into more complex anatomical study by giving you a broader understanding upon which to hang such knowledge. He begins with exercises on proportion and movement, setting a firm foundation of both accuracy and expressive liveliness. From here, he explains the parts of the body in greater detail, with many of his own examples reducing the forms to blocks in perspective. His diagrams on knees and feet in particular are works of teacherly genius. Bammes diagrammatically explains the mechanics of the bones and muscle groups, as well as reducing their construction to simple linear frames. Right from the beginning he gives the student a firm way of indicating a solid foot, which when rehearsed and developed only serves to cement the structural understanding.

Says Bammes (2010: 222), ‘If skull drawing is not practised as if it were architecture, with a perpetual ordering of primary and secondary aspects—if it is not done with awareness—it will degenerate into nothing more than clever copying and will not provide any gain in knowledge or vision.’ Yet he (2010: 10) never loses sight of why we demand so much of ourselves: ‘When we draw people, we are growing towards others and ourselves and we reveal things that were lost before to our fleeting glances and inaccessible to our experience.’

The margins of the book are peppered with a fine selection of master drawings, including those of many lesser-known German draughtsmen, while all examples are drawn by the elegant and controlled hand of Bammes himself. I cannot recommend this book enough. I’m still working slowly through it, using it as a companion to all further anatomy study, and revisiting earlier chapters again and again.

Bammes, Gottfried. 2010. Complete guide to life drawing [Menschen zeichnen Grundlagen zum Aktzeichnen]. Trans. Cicero Translations. Search: Kent.


Eliot Goldfinger: Human anatomy for the artist

This book is an investment, but a good anatomy book is a necessary tool in your belt if you’ve any real interest in the figure. The delightfully named Goldfinger turns his Midas touch to one bone, one muscle at a time, displaying many angles and overlaps and cross-sections. The text explains function, origin and insertion and many other enlightening aspects of each part, but clear drawings illustrate most of the information. These drawings are accompanied by some photographs of an extremely ripped model, to help locate things under the often-obfuscatory surface of flesh. And several straight-lined diagrams explain difficult-to-conceptualise mechanics or simplifications to help remember the main features of a part.

Goldfinger (1991:. 64) encourages a deep understanding of the figure, not just a grasping after surface variations:

‘During complex actions, note the sequence of the contraction and relaxation of the numerous muscles that are functioning. Observe the action, visualise the skeleton deep in the body and what changes are taking place at its joints, then determine which muscles are working.’

This book is an artist’s dictionary. It will also make you sound clever at parties because you will learn a lot of scientific words.

Goldfinger, Eliot. 1991. Human anatomy for artists: The elements of form. Oxford University: Oxford.


Robert Nelson: The Visual Language of Painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique

This book has affected me deeply. It made me appreciate how genuinely scholarly painting and drawing could be, while never losing sight of how physical and sensual it is. Nelson’s (2010: 27-28) project is an admirable one of finding a way to unite the studio and academic practice:

‘I would like to see a philosophy of technique which positions technique as the necessary correlate of poetic vision and the basis of visual language, a philosophy which is non-instrumental and anti-mechanistic. I would like to cultivate a discourse which deals with the motivation, the aesthetic benefits, the almost physiological processes of perception, but also the wilful staging, the theatricality of expressing what happens in the mind, the eye and the hand. … The project, if it could be pursued as I hope to demonstrate, would bring studio technique into the heartland of scholarship in the humanities.’

Nelson writes knowledgeably and generously on delightfully mundane topics, validating painterly excitement at painterly preoccupations: on drawing, on composition, on edges, on shadow. Yet he is able to articulate better than most artists what it is that is so thrilling and relevant about these topics: that painting, not merely writing, may be ‘a vehicle for discourse’ (2010: 10); that ‘drawing, in short, is a deliberateness in seeing which declares itself and argues what it wants to define’ (2010: 55), that it ‘manifests your will to possess intellectually’ (2010: 54).

Every time I pick this book up I am filled afresh with new thoughts directly related to the practice of painting, and intellectually energised as well. We can speak clearly, intelligently and unashamedly about the physical and visual aspects of our work, not just about concepts and symbols and statements. For our work does make investigations by means other than words and symbols, and we would do well to argue for the standing of our visual language.


Salvador Dali: Diary of a genius, an autobiography

The diaries of artists are pure gold. Sometimes they divulge their painting secrets, or elaborate on what, specifically, drives them wild about Rubens, or, as in the case of Dali, bestow an entire philosophy upon you. ‘The uniform is essential in order to conquer,’ Dali (1966: 53) proclaims (Dali only makes proclamations. This is in itself a lesson). ‘Throughout my life, the occasions are very rare when I have abased myself to civilian clothes. I am always dressed in the uniform of Dali.’ And to a young man who is willing to accept the sort of despicable, filthy, poverty-stricken life an artist is expected to lead he admonishes with devilish wisdom (1966: 53-4):

‘If you want to eat beans and bread every day, it will be very expensive. You must earn it by working very hard. On the other hand, if you can get used to living on caviar and champagne, it doesn’t cost a thing.’

He smiles stupidly and thinks I am joking. …

‘Caviar and champagne are things that are offered you free by certain very distinguished ladies, wonderfully perfumed and surrounded by the most beautiful furniture in the world. But to get them, you must be quite different from the you who comes to see Dali with dirty fingernails, while I have received you in uniform.’

Dali, Salvador. 1966 [1964]. Diary of a genius, an autobiography. Trans. Michel Déon. Picador: London.


Ernst H. Gombrich: The story of art

When you find this ubiquitous book for a couple of quid in a charity shop, buy it immediately. The Viennese-born, Oxford-dwelling, self-professed non-art-historian wrote this book as honestly and clearly as he could, intending it to avoid the hormonal scorn of the teenage audience for whom it was written, and to whom the book intends to introduce art. The premise of this book is that ‘there really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists’ (1972: 4) and that a history of artists thus reveals a saga of cosmically different aims and forces. Gombrich trips lightly and eagerly over his words, ever able to see merit in the visual works of humankind. It’s impossible not to get caught up in his enthusiasm for and appreciation of our varied collective efforts. Everything has its place–and time, rather than linearly measuring our progress, merely greets us with different demands. Learn to truly appreciate art, to discover the joy of paintings and sculpture and architecture, and instantly become ten times smarter.

Gombrich, E. H. 1972 [1950]. The story of art. Twelfth ed. Phaidon: Oxford.


John Dewey: Art as experience

This surprising book throws heavy punches. It clearly expresses the things about art that make you angry and explains why they should go away. It could only hurt your foes more if you socked them in the face with it.

First of all, Dewey discusses the mysteriousness of art—its detachment from life, its artificial isolation in museums, its role of showcasing imperial conquests. Rather than being removed from our experience, he argues, art should be in the thick of it: it should be the very substance of our lives. ‘The times when select and distinguished objects are closely connected with the products of usual vocations,’ he argues (1934: 6), ‘are the times when appreciation of the former is most rife and most keen. When, because of their remoteness, the objects acknowledged by the cultivated to be works of fine art seem anemic to the mass of people, esthetic hunger is likely to seek the cheap and the vulgar.’ If we live in a world of cheap thrills and throwaway entertainment, it is because we have been told we can’t have nice things, locking them away as mysterious artefacts of Art.

Dewey also addresses the strange introspective tendencies of contemporary artists. Not only has art been excluded from ordinary experience, but ‘because of changes in industrial conditions the artist has been pushed to one side from the main streams of active interest’ (1934: 9). The non-integrated modern artist is forced to turn to ‘a peculiar esthetic “individualism”’—relying on ever more obscure ‘self-expression’ (1934: 9). Art becomes even more foreign to ordinary experience. Seriously, is anyone reading this book?

And in case you were willing to defend art’s reincarnation as ‘self-expression,’ Dewey has a few sucker-punches lined up for thoughtless paint-spilling, which he considers little more than ‘discharge’ (1934: 62):

‘To discharge is to get rid of, to dismiss; to express is to stay by, to carry forward in development, to work out to completion. A gush of tears may bring relief, a spasm of destruction may give outlet to inward rage. But where there is no administration of objective conditions, no shaping of materials in the interest of embodying the excitement, there is no expression. What is sometimes called an act of self-expression might better be termed one of self-exposure; it discloses character—or lack of character—to others. In itself, it is only a spewing forth.’

Dewey demands serious and honest thought from artists, and sees their intellectual processes as differing only in emphasis from that of the scientist (1934: 15). The main difference between the intelligent artist and the scientist is her medium: rather than working in abstracted symbols, ‘the artist does his thinking in the very qualitative media he works in, and the terms lie so close to the object that he is producing that they merge directly into it’ (1934: 16).

The only question left to ask is, how did art fester into the hideous mess presently molesting our eyes while this book has been kicking around for eighty years?

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.


David Galensen: Old masters and young geniuses: The two life cycles of artistic creativity

If you are discouraged at not yet being famous, this soberly-written book ought to give you a good dose of optimism and dispel a lot of silly ideas about creativity and inspiration. Instead of resorting to wild speculation, Galenson has spent years doing research into the way artists work and describes two broad approaches. He calls them the ‘conceptual’ (or deductive) and the ‘experimental’ (inductive). In identifying whether you are good at quickly synthesising ideas and conceiving entirely new ones out of them, or whether you are consumed by a single idea which drives all your investigations, or rather somewhere along this spectrum, you will free yourself from expectations and judgements that don’t actually apply to you. And that means you can just get down to work instead of taping brazen Picasso quotes to your wall.

‘Aptitude and ambition are more important factors in allowing people to make contributions to a chosen discipline than the ability to think and work in any particular way, either deductively or inductively.’ (2006: 166).

Galensen, David W. 2006. Old masters and young geniuses: The two life cycles of artistic creativity. Princeton University Press: Princeton.


Kenneth Clark: The nude: A study of ideal art

I am steadily drawing my way through this book. Not all nudes were created alike, and as you progress through this book you will gain an appreciation for the subtleties of purpose that the bared human form has risen to meet. ‘The English language, with its elaborate generosity,’ Clark (1985: 1) gushes at the outset, ‘distinguishes between the naked and the nude.’ From the outset, he is at pains to emphasise that the nude, rather than being the very essence of art, is ‘an art form invented by the Greeks in the 5th century B.C., just as opera is an art form invented in 17th-century Italy’ (1985: 3).

Our artistic tradition is heavily shaped by the elegant foundation laid by the Greeks, and not just through their mythology. I have been amazed, however, at how the gods and goddesses effortlessly step from one role into another—with lion-skin-wearing Hercules transforming into the honey-eating-from-inside-the-lion Samson, with Apollo and David interchangeable youthful heroes in the mind of Michelangelo. But beneath the stories themselves lies the earthy Greek philosophy which embodies every idea and passion in human form (1985: 20; 21):

‘The Greeks attached great importance to their nakedness. … It implies the conquest of an inhibition which oppresses all but the most backward people; it is like a denial of original sin.’

Of course, the other half of our heritage is the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the nude suffers painfully under the Christian worldview, disrupted though never entirely abandoned (1985: 203): ‘While the Greek nude began with the heroic body proudly displaying itself on the palestra, the Christian nude began with the huddled body cowering in consciousness of sin.’ The awkwardness of our artistic tradition seems to rest on this unhappy marriage of earthy and heavenly philosophies.

Don’t expect a dry historical account of statues, though. Clark winds back and forth, attending in turn to Apollo and Venus, energy and pathos, ecstasy and the grotesque. The book is full of pictures to copy in the absence of life models, and will open your eyes when you return to the gallery to dutifully copy from the antique.

Clark, Kenneth. 1985 [1956]. The nude: A study of ideal art. Penguin: London.



Words, words, words. Time to draw.



Brisvegas © Samantha Groenestyn

This week I spent a day basking in the creative talents of some of Australia’s finest graphic designers, illustrators and photographers at Semi-Permanent Brisbane. The Australian creative conference is a curious beast: it starts out as an auditorium pounding with music that feels like the blood pounding through your excited veins, and quickly slopes off into a mumbled, embarrassed thrown-together job right from the opening video’s slip-up—Semi-Permanent Sydney, ‘Oh, sorry folks, my man didn’t have time to change that, but it doesn’t matter really.’

I had many specifics to ponder—the benefits of having an agent, the evolution of style, the pleasing dissonance of red and blue. The speakers were from a variety of disciplines, and for the most part had forged their own careers, whether out of disillusionment with their previous careers or employers, or by vaguely chipping away at things they loved. Andrew Quilty, having spent some time working for the Financial Review as a photographer took his year without pay to simply shoot rolls and rolls of film exactly as he pleased, refining his style and his skills in the most authentic manner. An interesting critique of the relevance of the law when it impedes public duty was raised and discussed with feeling and with genuine soul-searching. Beci Orpin intimated that there is no secret to her success, only hard work.

Despite the wealth of knowledge, insight, experience and talent, the day felt deflated. A stammering MC talked down to a crowd mostly consisting of students, imploring us to ‘twitter’ and ‘like us on facebook.’ Speakers who ought to have been proud of what they’ve done presented themselves in a self-deprecating manner. It seems that Australians require a crushing humility in their presenters. Brutally honest admissions to squandered time and lack of confidence and fear of public speaking were welcomed by the crowd as admirable, whose nervous laughter punctuated nervous drug-taking anecdotes. Beci Orpin’s assertion that knowledge should be shared, no matter how scary it is to give a talk, was undeniably admirable.

The audience responded to these admissions, because they were authentic and resonated with our own uncertainties, shortcomings and aspirations. But is a little self-esteem so bad? Can one not stand up and say, ‘I’m nervous, but I’ve done a good job’? In Australia, if someone does not exhibit humility, we are suspicious. A good speaker is dubious. We demand honesty over polish. Truth over showmanship. Crudeness over eloquence. I include myself—I was instantly suspicious of the advertising man from Sydney with his wavy hair and deep, self-assured voice and his video networking to New York through which eloquent speakers smoothly presented fully-formed ideas with confidence and gusto, laced in aspirational language. What does it mean when a successful person must publicly lash themselves to be taken seriously?

What it meant for Semi-Permanent Brisbane 2012 was that the predominantly student crowd was reassured not to worry, that you’ll make it, even if you don’t try, or if you screw up—you’ll probably just fall into it. I felt comforted rather than inspired.

Most speakers came from Sydney, leaving the attendee with the feeling that either a) nothing much comes out of Brisbane, or b) the organisers weren’t interested in whatever it is that comes out of Brisbane and just rehashed the southern shows for our inconsequential side-show. In one way it was nice to learn of exciting developments in other parts of the country, to escape the Brisbane bubble momentarily. In another way, I felt overlooked and left behind. I felt perhaps I do need to head south to become anything. Of course, as The Monkeys put it, they thought they were headed for Hollywood but they only ended up in advertising in Sydney. One does not dream big in Australia.

Brisbane is ironically referred to as ‘Brisvegas’—Sydneysiders and Melbournites like to mock our somewhat lacking nightlife, and country Queenslanders like myself who packed up our beat-up old Fords and made off to the Big Smoke really feel like we’ve hit the big time, because there’s higher education and bands here, and the supermarkets are open a little after dark. Its shortcomings notwithstanding, I ardently love Brisbane and have made my true home here over the past six years, because it was the place I was finally afforded full freedom and where I explored my real self and grew into the woman I am today. I love the laid-back, no-bullshit people and the sunshine and the fact that people just do what they do. I love the streets and the houses, and I never tire of our rippling patchwork peppered with little patches of jungle and tropical trees and rusting tin roofs. A sense of place is important to me, and my identity is firmly grounded in this city, though I will move on and find other homes and grow through them.

Similarly proud Briswegians might be interested to know I’ve had some gaudy Brisvegas posters printed, now available in my shop!



A collective

Coniston Lane © Samantha Groenestyn

Lost Movements is a ramshackle collective of artists, musicians, photographers, zine-makers and all-around warehouse-partiers. We’re gathering again soon to make magic, breathe paint and rock and roll fumes and to improvise new creative pieces. Lost Movements is thoroughly independent, built from the ground up, unconstrained; a hotpot of complete creative freedom.

It’s not just the warehouse parties that bring us together, but the connections forged on the night between people of different talents but with a united vision. Brisbane creatives are breaking down the compartmentalisation of their crafts and dreaming up collaborative projects during daylight hours, trading skills, cross-pollinating and building each other up. And one can’t go to an art show or gig or market without running into a (now) friendly face.

A couple of new projects have emerged out of this heady mix for me—more on this later!




Home and away

Un regal pour les yeux © Samantha Groenestyn

I frequently itch to travel. Leaving behind all those weights we tie around ourselves, stretching our legs, exercising our brains and our tongues, memorising new maps and trying out new words. Seeing the limitless unseen things, tasting the untasted, pouring all the raw sensations into hurried drawings and writings. Meeting new faces and learning new philosophies, talking it out by rivers or over campfires or over beers in smoky bars.

It’s hard to feel content at home when so much is waiting, like a word on the tip of a tongue. But then I remember that opposite pull that I feel when I travel—that desire, not to be at (my) home, but to be stationed, based, established. When one is established, one can work. No longer limited to dog-eared sketchbooks and simple pens, one can drag out an easel, spread out paints and turps, plug in the sewing machine and invest in detailed projects, and best of all, read fifteen books at once. Books on philosophy, books on French intellectuals, books on language and books on graphic design. Books on artists, books on colour theory and the science of light, books on history. One can study, and, better, one can apply that new knowledge and create endlessly, on any scale. One can load up one’s car with materials, go to classes on a regular basis. Travel often provides that spark, suggests new avenues to explore, prompts the acquisition of new languages or provides new material for paintings. But home is the place where you can get down and work day after day and really produce something.

As Maira Kalman, renowned illustrator and writer, concludes of life: there is love and there is work. ‘How do you spend this time without perpetually being so brokenhearted about saying the eventual goodbye? I usually say in the end, okay, it’s love and it’s work. What else could there possibly be? What do I want to do?  What is the most wonderful thing I could be doing, and who are the most wonderful people I could be with?’ It’s hard for me to shake the idea that there is also place, and I think place is fundamental to my being—to my work and to my love. Travel lets us explore new places in which to be—perhaps for the long term—and we need to find our physical place as well as what to do and who to do it with.

What overwhelms me most of all is that I consider there to be so many things crucial to living that I cannot find the time for them all. I can’t get by only speaking English! That limits me to particular places. I can’t rely on my untrained artistic ability—I need to learn to use new materials, and to understand the particulars of light and tone. I need to understand people, and ideas. Then I start to feel like Henri Perron in Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins, who feels that he can’t continue to edit his newspaper L’Espoir (‘Hope’) unless he has a complete grasp on the world(p. 153-4):

‘Well, I’ll just have to start working at it,’ he said to himself. But if he really wanted to extend his knowledge, it would require years of study. Economics, history, philosophy—he would never be done with it! What a job! And all just to come to terms with Marxism! Writing would be completely out of the question, and he wanted to write. Well? … ‘What I need is time!’

When travelling, we have all the time in the world. Time to wander along the Seine, in and out of bookshops and ice creameries, time to contemplate passers by from benches. But we lack resources. When we have resources, we are battling schedules and weekly events.

I think that all there is to do is to keep on working. Keep pushing ourselves to learn, keep pushing ourselves to produce. Jack White muses that ‘inspiration and work ethic ride right next to each other. … Sometimes, you just get in there and just force yourself to work, and maybe something good will come out.’ And if you go beyond just showing up and really make things a little hard on yourself, the tension that you build can produce that spark and make something happen.

Brain Pickings pointed me in the direction of these interviews with Maira Kalman and Jack White.
‘Un regal pour les yeux’–a feast for the eyes. A Parisian sent me off to explore the labyrinthine flea markets of St Ouen in the north of Paris, and they did not disappoint. I wanted to convey the alluring decayed splendour of the markets. Europe could almost survive solely on selling its old junk to the rest of us!


News: I’ve cobbled together a sweet collection of drawings I did in Europe, many of which you may have seen on my website, into the Tour of Europe non-sketcher’s sketchbook. The covers are hand-stitched in three different fabrics and there’s room for your own musings. Grab one from my Etsy shop.



Owls © Samantha Groenestyn

It is true that I have a lot of interests. Yesterday I indulged my impulse to bike around and explore foreign parts of Brisbane. I painted a little, and knitted a little, and read a lot. I picked up some sewing supplies for pending projects.

Sketching in Toohey Forest

In 1939, an advertising man by the name of James Webb Young* put out a little pamphlet on generating ideas, and the crucial beginning of his five-step method is to gather raw materials—as broad a collection as possible, to supply yourself with a very deep reservoir of old things to combine in new ways.

For this is what an idea is, according to Young (p. 19): ‘an idea is a new combination.’ This is what is at the heart of Maria Popova’s brain-titillating site Brain Pickings, on which she argues (and demonstrates daily) that ‘creativity, after all, is a combinatorial force. It’s our ability to tap into the mental pool of resources—ideas, insights, knowledge, inspiration—that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways. In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these ideas and build new ideas—like LEGOs.’

While Young (p. 26) recommends an index-card filing method of collecting one’s ideas, a recent Design Matters interview with Ken Carbone reveals another method. Carbone’s journals have become somewhat legendary—he has been keeping them for fifteen years after having had the privilege to see Paul Gauguin’s journals in a museum’s archives. In his journals, Carbone documents his life, takes sketch-breaks at museums on his lunch breaks, records noteworthy events and writes mini book reviews, obsessively recording details chronologically that he refers to years later to mine for ideas.

‘Every really good creative person in advertising whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics,’ Young (p. 24) insists. ‘First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested… Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information.’

Young’s ideation method is as follows (p. 40):

First, the gathering of raw materials—both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials which come from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge.

Second, the working over of these materials in your mind.

Third, the incubating stage, where you let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis.

Fourth, the actual birth of the Idea—the ‘Eureka! I have it!’ stage.

And fifth, the final shaping and development of the idea to practical usefulness.

I have three types of books in which I record various stages of my ideation process. Most ideas get their start in something completely foreign: usually they strike me when I am knitting. Knitting lulls me into a concentrated meditative state, and my thoughts usually concentrate on a creative problem. When they arrive, I note them down in my Ideas Book, whatever my first impressions of them. They can be sifted and developed later—what matters initially is that they are captured. Rarely can I move directly to producing the idea, however.

My ideas graduate to a funny little sketchbook full of thumbnails, layouts, hand-lettering tests and border developments. I need a secret place to try my idea out, see what it might really look like when it takes form, work through the details of it. Sometimes I rush this stage, but I am beginning to enjoy it. I can take this book out for coffee or tea, and draw and draw until I can’t represent the idea any more, or make lists that extend a previous idea.

My most polished books, my ‘real’ sketchbooks, are full of life drawings and field sketches. Curiously enough, these books represent the beginning of the path to an idea: they accompany me on adventures through Europe and around Brisbane. They are a way for me to consciously explore what I see, because I carefully note down structures and colours. These sketches, more broadly, are representative of my interests—of taking time out from the solid work of painting to refresh myself and immerse myself in new experiences, to learn new things and incorporate this new knowledge into my reservoirs. Ready to be connected in new ways with other knowledge, later.

‘Part of it, you will see, is a current job, and part of it is a life-long job,’ (Young, p. 26).

Sketching in Toohey Forest


Do you know Kate Davies? She’s a formidable academic knitter living in my erstwhile home of Edinburgh, and the talent behind the above O w l s jumper. Her blog was the first I started following, and it set the bar decidedly high. You can find my Owls on Ravelry.


* Young, James Webb. 2003 [1939]. A technique for producing ideas. McGraw-Hill: New York. (↬ Maria Popova’s article led me to spending a fiver on this little book.)



Memory, childhood and autonomy

Isle of Skye © Samantha Groenestyn

I had the privilege to attend a fascinating seminar yesterday given by one Joanne Faulkner, who presented her paper ‘Memory and “the Virtual” in Henri Bergson: Thinking Through Children’s Agency.’ I am aware that many people look back fondly on their childhood, remembering a freer, happier period of their lives; I am not one of them. To me, adulthood brings infinite possibilities, extensive liberties and greater joys than childhood ever could, simply because childhood was a period of being controlled and restrained. Faulkner presents an interesting take on why adults simultaneously idealise and infantilise children in the context of their own memory. In this respect, adults use children to try to attain something they themselves have lost.

Henri Bergson’s explanation of memory is an original one, and, having thought extensively about it for an honours thesis, one I am partial to, though it is not without its flaws. For Bergson, memory is not stored—our brains are not hard drives. Our memories are not stores of photographs that we can flick through. Rather than granting memory a physicality somewhere in our brains, Bergson* calls memory in its purest form ‘virtual’—‘we simply prepare ourselves to receive it by adopting the appropriate attitude. Little by little it comes into view like a condensing cloud; from the virtual state it passes into the actual; and as its outlines become more distinct and its surface takes on colour, it tends to imitate perception’ (p. 171).

A famous literary example of memory merging with present perceptions is given by Proust** in The Remembrance of things Past. Proust recounts ‘involuntary memories’ that arise from the depths at a physical trigger, so absorbing one that one’s present is entirely consumed by the past. The narrator in Remembrance savours a madeleine with his tea and is transported to his childhood discovery of this flavoursome sensation. His buried past overwhelms the present and is lived again in all vividness through present perceptions.

Adults don’t ordinarily attempt to tap into their childhood solely to relive biscuit-tasting experiences, but Faulkner argues that childhood remains a ‘resource’ to adults, both when observed and when remembered. Childhood play in particular is something beyond the grasp of many adults, and yet something Schiller*** argues to be crucial to aesthetics, and something many creatives consider to be essential to their productivity. Most strikingly, Faulkner argues that adults use children to return to the time when they weren’t afraid of the future.

It is here she draws on Bergson: children are better at spontaneous memory because ‘they have not yet persuaded their memory to remain bound up with their conduct. They usually follow the impression of the moment’ (Bergson, p. 199). This is a powerful thing to be able to do—to be able to accept the present, and look to the uncertainties of the future with excitement, and to leap upon whatever it is that engages one’s attention without suppressing it. Such spontaneity opens the way for new creative connections—Steve Jobs famously claimed, ‘creativity is just connecting things.’ Working within strict boundaries does not allow one the necessary fodder for thought, and children have little notion of boundaries. As adults, ‘almost the whole of our past is hidden from us because it is inhibited by the necessities of present action, [but] it will find strength to cross the threshold of consciousness in all cases where we renounce the interests of effective action to replace ourselves, so to speak, in the life of dreams’ (p. 199).

Faulkner’s paper goes on to explore our repression of children, the way we desire to keep them innocent, the way we worry that girls are sexualised, that boys are violent, that every stranger is a predator. Our method of keeping children down, of taking resources from them, and of denying them their genuine curiosity simply wastes the potentiality that children possess. Children are predisposed to act in ways beyond the reach of most adults, and we envy them this. I have no consistent theory on how children ought to be raised, but as an adult determined to achieve great things, I suggest that the world of adults should shake its fear of children’s potential, and lose its embarrassment at responding to life with childlike reasoning. We ought to use our autonomy as we would have as children.


My citations of Faulkner relate to my own notes taken at her seminar. For further reading, you might like to look into her book, The Importance of Being Innocent: Why we worry about children. 2011. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

* Bergson, Henri. 1950 [1911]. Matter and Memory. London: Allen & Unwin.
** Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. Translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. Vol. 1. London: Chatto & Windus, 1981.
*** Schiller, Friedrich. 2004. On the aesthetic education of man. Translated by Reginald Snell. Mineola, NY: Dover.

When Anna, Con and I took a road trip around England and Scotland one spring, we were met with unusually felicitous weather on the Isle of Skye, perfecting for sunset strolling and cider-drinking.


Old shit / new shit

It seems to me that one’s occupation may fall into one of two broad categories:  The former, that of creating things—of constructing, inventing, and thereby adding something to the world, perhaps something of value and beauty that increases happiness; and the latter, and perplexingly more highly esteemed (in some pseudo-moral sense), that of ‘helping people,’ or, as I understand it, of fixing things that have gone to shit.

I understand that the undoing or removal of shit is likely to make the world a more pleasant place.  Wiping the arses of people who cannot wipe their own must surely make their days sunnier.  Fretting about those born into disadvantage and plotting to match them with homes and jobs and to repair their crumbling relationships gives people a lift up where they previously had none.

However, I had an epiphany, and my epiphany was this:  Fixing peoples’ shit is boring.  I don’t want to trail around after people, sweeping up what they scatter wantonly, or what they spew up uncontrollably.  I can make peoples’ lives sunnier—because I can create.  I can mix my labour with ordinary objects and make them into pleasing, desirable things.

But my philosophical indignation rises, a boiling pot, when I am confronted with the attitude that repairing hovels is more morally admirable than building castles.  Yes, you are a good person if you spoon food into old peoples’ mouths.  But you are merely artificially replicating what has heretofore occurred naturally.  You are a good person if you pull people out of hopeless situations.  But I want to know:  Pour quoi?  For what have you raised them?  To tarry on, self-sacrificing and having a miserable time wiping the arses of others?  Surely you have saved them for yet higher things, for lavishing grande opuses on the world, for shaking themselves completely of the filth of waste and decay, in which they will consent to wallow no more.