N is for iNtuitive

Knowledge surrounded by personifications of science and religion. Tiffany and Co.

Origin: 
1400-50
late Middle English  < Late Latin intuitiōn-  (stem of intuitiō ) contemplation,
equivalent to Latin intuit( us ), past participle of intuērī  to gaze at, contemplate +
-iōn (via Dictionary.com)

In psychology, intuition is “the ability to acquire knowledge without inference and with the use of reason.” Intuition, the opposite of “sensing” in MBTI terms, focuses on possibilities and alternatives over what is obvious and present — the abstract over the concrete — and the whole over the parts, or the parts as they relate to the whole. Jung considered intuition to be an irrational function, as it looks beyond what is evident to what could be, based on previous experience and abstract understanding. Intuitives see the facts as a starting point, not an ending.

In INFPs and INTPs, intuition is an extroverted function, meaning that this type takes in external stimuli and filters them through a psychological sieve composed of memories and generalizations. We all do this to some extent — if we’ve been burned by a stove in the past, we know not to put our bare hands on a red eye now — but it’s particularly pronounced in extroverted intuitives, who filter everything they come across through this sieve of belief and meaning. And things like “belief” and “meaning” are highly valuable to introverts (like me), who gain energy by turning inward and examining and reaffirming their beliefs as they move along in the world.

Loki and the Rhinemaidens. Arthur Rackham

People with extroverted intuition are “adept at seeing the big picture of any given situation [and] sensing patterns” that are not readily visible. We enjoy word games, problem solving, analogies — anything that utilizes patterns and theories. I personally enjoy languages — how they are constructed as well as how they convey meaning.

I also love literature and writing for much the same reason — sentences, paragraphs and stories are systems in which all of the little pieces (from word choice to motifs) compose a greater whole. Intuition is critical to writing. Not only is coming up with living characters, situations, settings and dialogue a completely abstract activity, but the very act of working with words is an exercise in abstract thinking. Words are symbols — they’re useless and flat without meaning (ideas, emotions and mental images) breathed into them. We give them meaning, but that meaning is not concretely related to the words themselves at all. In any kind of writing, we are taking something — an idea, an emotion, an experience — and using what we know about these abstractions and our audience (a friend, a stranger, a group) to craft and transmit meaning. This is true for all types of writing — marketing, blogging, technical writing, creative writing. It’s all based on the writer’s understanding of what words mean, how readers feel about certain words and which words are most meaningful in a given context. Which is to say that if I weren’t intuitive, I’m not sure I could be a writer.

I’m interested in reading people, too — I’m in the habit of noticing the little things people around me say and do, collecting these observations and then putting the pieces together to understand the themes that operate under the surface. And I have a passion for mythology and fairy tales — cultural systems. I love the stories themselves, but I also love how each story reveals something about its culture and how the various myths create a total image of a culture. Most of all, I enjoy putting the pieces together, finding new meanings in them and rediscovering the whole through them.

This doesn’t mean that intuitives are always mystically accurate. Many intuitive people hold biases and incompletely formed preconceptions that lead to incorrect assumptions about others and the way of the world. This is why, for intuitives, it’s important to regularly audit their perceptions, test them for truth rather than rest in the comfort of the familiar belief, in order to prevent their judgments from being clouded and leading them astray — making their lives and that of others more difficult.

My own intuition has often been wrong, and I constantly work to adjust my understanding of the world to push toward the truth, whatever that may be. And truth (distinct from both fact and honesty), perhaps the greatest of the “big pictures,” is incredibly important to me.

For the first post in the series (on introversion), click here.

The Curious Weight of Punctuation

I recently found a book on Project Gutenberg, Witchcraft and Devil Lore in the Channel Islands, while doing some research on the Islands (I have ancestors from St. Peter Port, Guernsey, and from a few places in Jersey). The book, first published in 1886, includes court transcripts of witch trials — including the purported witches’ “confessions” — in the original French followed by English translations by John Linwood Pitts, who put the book together.

In his introduction to the book, Pitts notes the curious use of colons in the transcripts “where they would not be required as ordinary marks of punctuation. These correspond, however, to similar pauses in the original records, and evidently indicate the successive stages by which the story was wrung from the wretched victims. They are thus endowed with a sad and ghastly significance, which must be borne in mind when the confessions are read. It must also be remembered that these confessions were not usually made in the connected form in which they stand recorded, but were rather the result of leading questions put by the inquisitors, such as: How old were you when the Devil first appeared to you? What form did he assume? What parish were you in? What were you doing? &c., &c” (Pitts 7).

To illustrate the kind of torture that was administered to accused witches at the time, Pitts provides an example of a witch trial that took place in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1591 (only 26 years before the trials he writes about). A Dr. Fian was accused, among others, of practicing witchcraft and was tortured. He eventually confessed before the king, but after he was released, he retracted his confession, saying that he only confessed out of fear of enduring more pain. The king (James I) then accused him of having made a new contract with the Devil, and Dr. Fian was “put to the question” again. Pitts includes an excerpt from C.K. Sharpe’s Historical Account of the Belief in Witchcraft in Scotland that precisely describes the torture involved:

His nailes upon all his fingers were riven and pulled off with an instrument called in Scottish a turkas, which in England wee call a payre of pincers, and under everie nayle there was thrust in two needles over, even up to the heads; at all which tormentes notwithstanding the Doctor never shronke anie whit, neither woulde he then confesse it the sooner for all the tortures inflicted upon him. Then was hee, with all convenient speed, by commandement, convaied againe to the torment of the bootes, wherein he continued a long time, and did abide so many blowes in them, that the legges were crusht and beaten together as small as might bee, and the bones and flesh so bruised that the blood and marrow spouted forth in great abundance, whereby they were made unserviceable for ever; and notwithstanding all those grievous paines and cruell torments, hee would not confess anie thing; so deeply had the devill entered into his heart, that hee utterly denied all that which he had before avouched, and would saie nothing thereunto but this, that what he had done and sayde before, was onely done and sayde for fear of paynes which he had endured. After this horrible treatment the wretched man was strangled and burnt. (7)

The “bootes” referred to above are the bootikens — boots attached from the ankle to the knee through which wedges were driven into the legs. Other infamous torture instruments often used against accused witches include the Pear, thumb screws, the Rack and ducking stools. I won’t go into a description of them here; the curious can always look up the details elsewhere.

Having read all this, here is one of the “confessions” provided in the book, dated 4 July 1617, an exact translation with all punctuation intact —

Marie, wife of Pierre Massy, after sentence of death had been pronounced against her, having been put to the question, confessed that she was a Witch; and that at the persuasion of the Devil, who appeared to her in the form of a dog: she gave herself to him: that when she gave herself to him he took her by the hand with his paw: that she used to anoint herself with the same ointment as her mother used: and had been to the Sabbath upon the bank near Rocquaine Castle with her, where there was no one but the Devil and her as it seemed: in the aforesaid form in which she had seen him several times: She was also at the Sabbath on one occasion among others in the road near Collas Tottevin’s; every time that she went to the Sabbath, the Devil came to her, and it seemed as though he transformed her into a female dog; she said that upon the shore, near the said Rocquaine: the Devil, in the form of a dog, having had connection with her, gave her bread and wine, which she ate and drank.

The Devil gave her certain powders: which powders he put into her hand, for her to throw upon those whom he ordered her: she threw some of them by his orders upon persons and cattle: notably upon the child of Pierre Brehaut. Item, upon the wife of Jean Bourgaize, while she was enceinte. Item, upon the child of Leonard le Messurier. (16)

The colons have a gruesome percussive effect. They’re slight little beats of silence that thump with the mystery of the torture happening behind the proverbial curtain. Even their appearances are like the heads of two tiny nails driven into the flesh of the paragraphs.

I’m not pointing this out for macabre pleasure. I’m making this point because it not only reveals the brutality of medieval European witch trials, which are usually only delicately mentioned in passing because an actual examination is often too horrifying a prospect; it also serves a lesser but still significant purpose: it proves the incredible power of punctuation.

People with poor grammar skills tend to use punctuation as if it were merely decoration, throwing in quotations for petty emphasis or commas whenever they want the reader to pause (even if the pause is natural and doesn’t have an effect on the intended meaning anyway). I’m not talking about typos here; this is often an issue of wholesale insistence on littering prose with useless signage. Oppositely, naive, self-described and -righteous grammar snobs place a dictatorial embargo on the creative bending (or breaking) of grammar rules out of an almost pathological respect for said rules.

There is a valid middle ground, of course. Punctuation rules are established to provide stability in written communication as well as to clarify what is being written. However, there are instances in which these very rules can — and should — be bent or broken to signify something important — in the above case, whatever happens “off stage” (although the original transcriber likely only wanted to create a sense of continuity while respecting the breaks in the confession for reasons of accuracy). In cases of fiction, poetry and other forms of creative literature, rule-bending or -breaking might be used in similar ways: to communicate something about the story, the narrator or other characters that otherwise can’t be expressed for whatever reason. Consider Faulkner’s or Joyce’s run-on sentences in their stream-of-consciousness styles that simulate the free, connected-yet-disorganized flow of thoughts and impressions in a person’s mind. Also consider Emily Dickinson’s frequent use of em-dashes instead of other punctuation, which creates a lingering echo, especially in the last lines. Remember e.e. cumming’s playful, liberated use of punctuation symbols to highlight words and phrases, disrupt the flow, or to reinvent the meanings of those very symbols.

There is a place and purpose for rules, of course, but there is also a place and purpose for breaking those rules. And, quite often, it’s the fact of the rules’ existence that gives the breaking its power and meaning.

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Pitts, John Linwood. Witchcraft and Devil Lore in the Channel Islands. Guernsey, 1886. The Project Gutenberg. Web. 2 Dec. 2005.

Not the End of Solitude

I recently read a great blog article about solitude by artist Deborah Barlow, written in response to an article by critic William Deresiewicz (entitled “The End of Solitude”), who claims that the young people of today (i.e. my generation) are both solitude- and intimacy-phobic due to the prevalence of social media. Read Barlow’s article (and get the link to Deresiewicz’s article) here.

I think Deresiewicz would consider me one of those anomalies he briefly mentioned, as I’m in my mid-20s and require a large amount of actual solitude each day to be both happy and productive. Unlike the young people Deresiewicz referred to, I write alone and hardly keep my phone near enough to type 100 texts a day. My husband (a photographer, graphic designer and musician) and I aren’t afraid of turning off the computers, cell phones and TV, and we value the time we spend camping and hiking in the woods. And, like Thoreau, we tend to stand alone. But I don’t think we’re more anomalous in our generation than artists and writers of the past.

A large component of an artist’s or writer’s personality has always been the need to be heard; it’s why we exhibit and sell our work. Most of us don’t create in order to keep it to ourselves; even Thoreau wrote to be published. It’s just that the need to be heard takes a removed form for the creative person — that is, we’re more comfortable expressing ourselves in writing or art than schmoozing at parties. Social media, like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, provide that same opportunity: to connect indirectly, to communicate within solitude. I don’t think the general proliferation of voices via social networking sites makes us more vapidly social or less solitude-loving as artists and writers of this generation than in previous generations. And it’s always been the small-numbered strangers — spiritual ascetics, writers, artists — who have been the solitude-seekers. Even Deresiewicz admitted that solitude “has undoubtedly never been the province of more than a few.” So yes, we are few who seek out solitude, who don’t hide from “Thoreau’s darkness,” but I doubt that’s a new development owing to the general population’s greater access to venues where our voices can be heard.

But what do you think? Has social networking created a phobia of silence and solitude?

Writing Contests and the Weight of Publishing Credits

The new issue of Poets & Writers magazine features an article on writing contests in which four directors of four prominent annual writing contests — the Colorado Review‘s Colorado Prize for Poetry, the Bakeless Literary Publication Prizes from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, and the Cave Canem Foundation’s Cave Canem Poetry Prize — are interviewed about their selection process. While most of the questions received answers I’d expected, there was one that surprised me. When the group was asked what happens after someone submits a piece (either online or through regular mail), Beth Harrison, founding editor of Spinning Jenny and associate director of the Academy of American Poets, replied:

“The Academy has on staff three part-timers who are MFA candidates at Columbia University; they do a first screening of manuscripts. Each one reads every manuscript, so we have more than one set of eyes on a manuscript. If none of the screeners is particularly moved by a manuscript, but the person who’s submitting has a ton of publication credits, it moves along to the judge anyway… [our] readers can see publication credits, and that’s important because maybe that manuscript doesn’t speak to anybody on staff at that moment, but it certainly spoke to a number of editors, so we move that manuscript along.”[1]

This means that, regarding the Walt Whitman Award, the length of one’s publishing credits counts almost as much as the quality of one’ s submitted work. However, when Larimer asked the other directors if publication credits were a part of their selection process as well, Stephanie G’schwind (of the Colorado Review) replied: “We strip them, because I feel like it becomes a kind of shortcut for a screener. Some of the winners of the Colorado Prize…had very few credits. They’re all in [the contest] no matter how many credits they have.”[2] The other two directors, Camille Rankine from Cave Canem and Michael Collier from Bread Loaf, also replied that they strip the publication credits from the submissions that the screeners and/or judges receive.

While I appreciate Harrison’s (and the rest of the interviewees’) honesty — especially considering the controversy in the recent past surrounding writing contests and a lack of transparency — I have to say it unsettles me that the Academy (and, I’m assuming, other institutions that run contests as well) includes publishing credits in the review process. I’m also having a hard time accepting her rationale. Just because someone has a long list of publishing credits does not mean that their work is worthier of careful consideration than other writers’, and it doesn’t mean that they should be given a pass to the final judge while other, comparable work by unpublished writers is automatically cast aside. I think this not only shows a lack of confidence in the screeners’ judgment (which raises questions about the institutions’ selection of screeners), but also a lemming-like value system.

I realize that just because a work moves on to the final judge doesn’t mean that it will win, and that it’s not unheard-of for previously unpublished (or infrequently published) writers to win a prize over more established writers. Still, it seems like one more obstacle keeping talented new writers and poets from emerging onto the literary scene.

But I’m open to hearing other opinions. Do you think contests should show preference for oft-published writers’ work, or should publishing credits be stripped from submissions before they’re given to screeners and judges?

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1. Beth Harrison, interview by Kevin Larimer, “Writing Contests: An Interview with the Dedicated People Who Run Them and a Closer Look at the Talented Writers Who Win Them.” Poets & Writers, May/June 2011, 54.

2. Stephanie G’schwind, ibid.

Unity and Simplicity: Basho’s Poetics

I’ve started reading Nobuyuki Yuasa’s translation of Basho’s travel sketches, including The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I was going to wait to make a post about it until I finished, but I got so excited about the following quotes from and about Basho regarding writing poetry (which can be expanded to writing in general) that I couldn’t help myself:

“Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one — when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well-phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural — if the object and yourself are separate — then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.” (Basho)

In his collection of critical essays entitled Kuzu no Matsubara, Shiko (one of Basho’s disciples) included commentary on Basho’s famous poem:

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water —
A deep resonance.

Of the poem’s creation, Shiko wrote:

“This poem was written by our master on a spring day. He was sitting in his riverside house in Edo, bending his ears to the soft cooing of a pigeon in the quiet rain. There was a mild wind in the air, and one or two petals of cherry blossom were falling gently to the ground. It was the kind of day you often have in late March — so perfect that you want it to last for ever [sic]. Now and then in the garden was heard the sound of frogs jumping into the water. Our master was deeply immersed in meditation, but finally he came out with the second half of the poem… One of the disciples sitting with him immediately suggested for the first half of the poem,

Amidst the flowers
Of the yellow rose.

Our master thought for a while, but finally he decided on

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond.

The disciple’s suggestion is admittedly picturesque and beautiful but our master’s choice, being simpler, contains more truth in it. It is only he who has dug deep into the mystery of the universe that can choose a phrase like this.”