by Amanda Beth Peery
"Spend five minutes looking at some beautiful scene. Realize you do not have to buy beauty to possess it." So wrote author and actress Margery Wilson in her popular 1942 self-help book for women. This is startling advice, coming up as #5 on her list of suggestions, after "Keep your voice soft, lilting, and uncomplaining." It's startling because it says something simple and real. And, I think, it teaches us something important about the mind.
I like to think of my mind as a room I live in. I can walk around all day, moving from corner to corner. I can peer out the windows or place an object on the table for examination. Life in the room is illuminated by light coming in through the windows—direct impressions of the outside world—but it is also tinted by the tone of the wallpaper. This wallpaper is made up of the images and sounds in the background of my thoughts, the things that are stuck in my head. We all have mental wallpaper, and this half-conscious backdrop drastically colors our experience of the world. Especially now, when we're bombarded with lies and prejudice, ugliness can linger there. But we can change the paper. We can shape what happens in the background of our minds.
When I was in college, I took a poetry seminar with a kindly professor who thumped his foot rhythmically on the floor all through class. One day, the professor thumped his foot and told us about mental wallpaper. It was my first introduction to the idea: as you pass through life, visions and sounds are plastered up against your mind's walls. Sometimes a song gets stuck in your head, sometimes an image from the news plays back all day, and sometimes it can be a sentence or a headline. But these sounds and images are quiet, humming behind your noisy thoughts, and you can go through your day or your whole life barely noticing them.
I knew what he meant. I hadn't started thinking of my mind as a room yet, but I knew how the things I watched, read, and saw could become the background of my mind, looming behind my passing thoughts.
Ads, headlines, and slogans are designed to become this wallpaper, and they often succeed. Today, I've seen Donald Trump's face so many times—used to advertise news channels and plastered across websites and magazines—that it leers at me from my mind's inner wall. But it's possible to make mental wallpaper beautiful and interesting, or at least to find beautiful, interesting things to occasionally replace the other images. Choosing beautiful wallpaper is not about taking shelter from an ugly world but about stashing away resources to face (and sometimes fight) the ugliness. By changing the background pattern, we can find new ways to understand what the world is and can be.
Most people do not actively curate their mental wallpaper. They read a particular book or watch a particular movie because they like the author or the actors, because they are interested in the topic, or because it relaxes them after a long day. People rarely choose a book or movie based on how it might linger in their thoughts, affecting how they perceive the world. Maybe we should be more deliberate. The sounds and images in the backs of our minds might even change the tone and structure of our thoughts.
A friend told me that after reading a novel for a while, he finds himself thinking in the author's voice, narrating his own life with the author's cadences. Certain books have the same effect on me. More subtly, the language and themes of some of the books I love most have lingered for years, shaping what I think and write. I'm not alone—artists and writers tirelessly echo each other's work. The language of a beloved book or the composition of a brilliant painting creeps into the artist's thoughts, and groundbreaking past works define the territory through which she roams.
For most of the Western literary tradition, educated people, including the majority of artists and writers, have been well versed in the Christian Bible. Even today, the Bible is at the roots of Western literature. A few years ago, a New York Times article about the King James Bible said, "You can hear its distinctive cadences in the speeches of Lincoln, the poetry of Whitman, the novels of Cormac McCarthy." The Bible was, and still is, a common pattern in the wallpaper of many minds. Its presence goes beyond tone and language. Many writers have modeled their work on the Bible's structures and stories, or have spent their lives responding to its themes.
Fyodor Dostoevsky is an extreme case. He was exiled to Siberia and lived for four years in prison camp, where, most of the time, the only book he was allowed to read was the New Testament. He was a political prisoner, but he lived among dangerous and violent offenders. The bible and the prison camp are in the background of everything he wrote afterwards. The world that Dostoevsky recreated in literature was a world of extremes, of unimpeachable virtue and horrible vice, the heights of hope and miserable despair. In great novels like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, he endlessly struggled with the contradiction between the just God of the New Testament and the evils of mankind, evils that were all around him at the camp. Dostoevsky's post-exile novels are attempts to figure out what the Bible can mean in a prison camp.
If experiences and memories like Dostoevsky's can be a part of our mental wallpaper, along with songs, cadences, words, and visions, does that mean that everything we've ever seen or known is part of the pattern on the walls? I don't think so. What I call mental wallpaper is defined by its place halfway between the surface and the depths of the mind. These are the visions and sounds that we've memorized or internalized and that have become a part of our selves.
If the mind is divided into the conscious and the subconscious, the impressions that make up the wallpaper hover somewhere over the abyss between the two. They are not subconscious objects, held in dark depths and milled back up in dreams, but they are not quite in the open. Often, when I suddenly realize that I have a song stuck in my head, or that an ad or a painting has been floating in my mind for a while, the sound or vision seems to come from within myself, familiar and uncanny like looking down at my feet in a new pair of shoes.
We cannot choose all of the aspects of our mental wallpaper, but we do have some choice. A religious person might say the same prayers every night, carving the holy words into his mind's walls. I get nervous when I fly, so I start flights by reciting a poem I memorized once, "The Cold Heaven," by W.B. Yeats. It's a strange choice—a poem with an uncertain and cruel view of death—but it is beautiful and unflinching, and, if the plane starts to dive, I want to have those words in my head and heart.
To have something by heart is a radical form of possession. As Margery Wilson wrote, you do not have to buy beauty to possess it. Memorizing something is a way of bringing it inside the mind's room and making it your own. When a billionaire buys a Van Gogh, he is buying beauty born out of the way the artist learned to see. Van Gogh's way of seeing through his eyelashes (as he described it in a letter to his brother) let him perceive the shapes and colors of the world changed and made new. You do not have to buy the painting in order to learn this way of seeing and to participate in its unsettling beauty. If you spend five minutes really looking at it, it might unlock new possibilities for perception.
The things we have by heart, like poems or paintings that we've memorized or looked at for a long time, are longstanding fixtures of our mental wallpaper. We can determine what these things are by choosing what we look at long enough or repeat often enough to possess. We might not be able to avoid a jingle or a slogan, but if the plane starts to dive, we can replace the slogan with a poem or a prayer and have something beautiful in mind on the way down.
We can also curate our mental wallpaper by deciding what content we take in in the first place. I'm not talking about filtering the facts and ideas we choose to engage with. I'm talking about what we allow to fill up the background. Deliberately curating the wallpaper of our minds is a way of resisting propaganda and other imagistic, half-conscious forms of manipulation. This is an exercise in mental freedom.
Our mind's wallpaper is important because it is the context of our thoughts, and it is what we are left with when we are most alone with ourselves. If at the end of the day we're only left with Breitbart headlines and Trump tweets, images from the news and jokes from unimaginative, norm-reinforcing sitcoms, these things become what we know best about the world. They become the pieces of reality that we truly possess. But if we deliberately take in beauty, it might help us keep our souls intact in a world that is often determined to destroy things that are lovely and complicated.
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Amanda Peery is an Assistant Editor of History at Princeton University Press. She has also worked in philosophy, literary criticism, and economics at Harvard University Press.