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The Dark Wood of the Golden Birds: “Goodnight Moon” Author Margaret Wise Brown’s Little-Known Philosophical Children’s Book About Love and Loss

“There had never been such a quiet day before. It was the quietest day in the world.”


The Dark Wood of the Golden Birds: “Goodnight Moon” Author Margaret Wise Brown’s Little-Known Philosophical Children’s Book About Love and Loss

Margaret Wise Brown (May 23, 1910–November 13, 1952) never did anything half-heartedly. When the love of her life fell mortally ill, she did the hardest thing in life — facing the death of a beloved while remaining a pillar for their passage — the best way she knew how: she wrote her a love letter in the form of a children’s book.

On the last day of spring in 1950, three years after Goodnight Moon had enraptured the world with its bright playfulness, The Dark Wood of the Golden Birds (public library) appeared, somber and numinous with its elegiac prose, and its haunting duotone of otherworldly greens and yellows, and its the simple dedication: “For Michael Strange.”

Michael Strange and Margaret Wise Brown

In the decades since, the book has fallen out of print in a culture that has no room and no language for grief, and no tolerance for the darkest dimensions of life, which crack open our vastest capacity for light. It would take an act of countercultural courage and resistance for a modern publisher to bring this work of uncommon beauty and tenderness back into the fold of life.

Illustrated by Brown’s longtime collaborator and friend Leonard Weisgard, and written with her singular poetics, the story begins:

It happened in the woods
a long time ago.
In the dark woods
where the golden birds
sang all through the night
and the day.

This magic forest grows behind the house of “an old man with white hair and green eyes,” who is “never a year older or a day younger,” and who keeps honeybees and grows asparagus for a living.

The people who flock to his house for honey and asparagus never dare venture past the edge of “the wood of the golden birds,” believing it to be a magic wood — “the unknown from which there is no return”; of the few brave souls who have wandered in, none ever returned. The old man himself never goes into the dark wood, but sometimes — at night, or early in the morning — he can hear the golden birds sing.

And in their song he heard all that was beautiful to hear,
the ringing of bells
and the soughing of the wind;
he heard the echo that is hidden in a sea shell,
the deep sea music;
he heard laughter and singing
and the songs his mother sang to him long ago.

But even he is too afraid of the song to go into the woods looking for its source.

While she was writing the book, Margaret Wise Brown was watching her beloved flicker in and out of consciousness. She must have wondered about the mystery of it all, about the harrowing unreality into which Michael vanished when she slipped into a coma her doctors at first took for permanent death.

One day a lady had gone into the woods
just a little way. But when she came out
she spoke in words that none of the other people
could understand.
And she was never herself again.
But the people who had gone only to the edge of the woods
had heard the golden birds
and had been happier for hearing their song.

One day, a brother and a sister whose parents have died wander to the old man’s house.

The old man was sorry for them;
and when he heard their happy laughter
and saw how they ran with the bees from flower to flower
he loved them.
And he took them to live with him
and gave them a home.

The children find happiness working in the old man’s garden, but as time unspools, they grow more and more curious about the dark wood of the golden birds. The bees, they reason, go into the magic forest every day and not only return, but return with wildflower nectar for honey that “makes the sick people well and the sad people happy,” “the slow people fast and the noisy people quiet.” There seems to be a secret magical vitality in the dark wood, but none of its enchantments beckon the children more powerfully than the song of its golden birds.

In a passage revealing Margaret Wise Brown as one of the great unsung poets of the twentieth century, sonorous with her secret devotion to poetry, the boy tells his sister:

At night when I hear them singing far off,
I remember strange and quiet things,
the way the wind bends the grasses
as it blows across the field.
I hear the sound of the rain,
I remember the warm sunlight and the long evening shadows.
I think of the grey night and of the vast sea
and I remember all I have forgotten
that ever made me happy or sad.

When the children plead with the old man to condone their venture into the woods, he only reminds him that it is not to be done, for no one has ever returned. When they ask what lies beyond the dark wood, for there is surely an other side, he simply tells them that “on the other side of the dark wood is the land that no one knows.” When they press on with their restive curiosity, he grows angry, then falls silent, falls ill.

Day by day, the children grow more and more worried about the old man, until they decide that only one thing could revive him.

If only he could hear once more
the song of the golden birds…
Then he would remember all he has forgotten…
He would remember the sky and the sunlight on the grass.
He would remember the kindness in people’s hearts
and the sweet drowsy humming of the season of the bees.

And so, the boy decides that he must bring the song of the golden birds to the old man. One morning, “without telling anyone goodby,” he leaves the house and heads for the woods.

Days go by and he does not return.

His sister busies herself in the garden to keep the tears of loneliness and anticipatory loss from coming.

In a gentle nod to The Quiet Noisy Book, which she had published earlier that year, also illustrated by Leonard Weisgard, Brown writes:

Then came the time of the great silence.
No winds blew
and even the bees seemed to stop their buzzing.
The sun was warm on the earth.
The old man slept
and all the little girl could hear
was the sound of her broom
as she swept the house.
There had never been such a quiet day before.
It was the quietest day in the world.

The night came on
more softly than ever
with shooting stars
and no winds blowing.
There were no colors now,
everything was dark in the night,
and the night was black
and heavy and silent.

Then, just before dawn, a voice comes from the wood, “clear and more golden than the song of the golden birds.” The little girl hears it in her sleep, and smiles; listening at his window, the old man “remembers all he had forgotten and knew more than he had ever known before.” So it is that Margaret Wise Brown contours the outlines of the transformation, but she lets the reader fill it in with their own meaning, for it is a transcendent experience she writes of, and half a century before her William James had qualified ineffability as one of the four features of transcendent experiences.

The next day when the sun shone
on the house in the field of grass
it woke up the bees and the old man
and the little girl.
And it woke up the boy
who was once more asleep in his own bed.

He had returned with a golden feather piercing his heart and the secret knowledge of the dark wood — the knowledge of life in its totality, ravishing and savage — a magic forest in which darkness and light are forever aflicker in a single enchantment.

As the boy weeded the asparagus
there were times when he sang as he worked.
Sometimes his song was happy
as the birds in the air.
Sometimes his song was sad
like a spring mist in the night;
or like the depths of a lake at noon, very quiet.
But always the songs he sang were such
that the people who came to buy in the afternoon
stayed to listen
and then had to hurry home to their suppers before dark.
And as they walked along the paths to their homes
the winds seemed softer
and the evening star seemed brighter
for their having listened to the boy’s song.

Michael Strange lived through that summer before entering the dark wood in the last weeks of autumn never to return, remaining, as every great love does, imprinted on the song of Margaret Wise Brown’s life.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 1 Oct 2022 | 6:16 am(NZT)

How to Make the Best of Life: A Visionary Victorian Recipe for Enduring Actualization

“Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.”


How to Make the Best of Life: A Visionary Victorian Recipe for Enduring Actualization

Even if we recognize the statistical-existential fact that death is an emblem of our luckiness, most living beings are emphatically averse to the idea of dying. Since the dawn of our species, in our poems and our psalms and our dreams of eternal life, we humans have been petitioning entropy for mercy, for exception, for a felicitous violation of the laws of physics. In prior ages, this was the task of religion, and it was a necessary task — all major religions arose at a time when most children never survived childhood, most people had lost a panoply of parents, children, siblings, and spouses by the end of their twenties, and most never lived past their forties. People needed a pleasing consolation just to live with such staggering levels of loss, and they found it in the soothing notion of an immortal soul that survives the body. In our own epoch, secular notions like cryogenics, transhumanism, and technological singularity have taken on that role, trying to get to immortality through the wormhole of some very slippery semi-science.

But what if the key to immortality was already ours, hidden in the very heart of our humanity, not in our science but in our art? So argues the Victorian visionary Samuel Butler (December 4, 1835–June 18, 1902) — a writer of uncommon foresight into our common future, epochs ahead of his time in his thinking, and still ahead of ours — in a lecture he delivered under the brief “How to Make the Best of Life.”

Samuel Butler

Butler begins by facing the magnitude of the question:

Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on. One cannot make the best of such impossibilities, and the question is doubly fatuous until we are told which of our two lives — the conscious or the unconscious — is held by the asker to be the truer life.

In a sentiment Richard Dawkins would come to echo two human lifetimes later, Butler adds:

I do not deny that we had rather not die, nor do I pretend that much even in the case of the most favoured few can survive them beyond the grave. It is only because this is so that our own life is possible; others have made room for us, and we should make room for others in our turn without undue repining.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

But then he offers a wondrous perspective on our longing for immortality, both counterintuitive and grounded in the most fundamental truth of life, which is our creative conscience:

Death gives a life to some men and women compared with which their so-called existence here is as nothing. Which is the truer life of Shakespeare, Handel, that divine woman who wrote the Odyssey, and of Jane Austen — the life which palpitated with sensible warm motion within their own bodies, or that in virtue of which they are still palpitating in ours? In whose consciousness does their truest life consist — their own, or ours? Can Shakespeare be said to have begun his true life till a hundred years or so after he was dead and buried? His physical life was but as an embryonic stage, a coming up out of darkness, a twilight and dawn before the sunrise of that life of the world to come which he was to enjoy hereafter.

[…]

Homer and Shakespeare speak to us probably far more effectually than they did to the men of their own time, and most likely we have them at their best.

Considering what determines whether a person is making “the best of life” in this way — whether they are living up to their highest human potential, which ensures they go on living in other lives — Butler locates some of the key in “in the wideness of his or her sympathy with, and therefore life in and communion with other people.” We are able to recognize such everlasting lives “in the wreckage that comes ashore from the sea of time” — but they are not always those who reached greatness in their own lifetime, or those worshipped by the greatest number of posterity:

I do not speak of the Virgils and Alexander Popes, and who can say how many more whose names I dare not mention for fear of offending. They are as stuffed birds or beasts in a museum; serviceable no doubt from a scientific standpoint, but with no vivid or vivifying hold upon us. They seem to be alive, but are not. I am speaking of those who do actually live in us, and move us to higher achievements though they be long dead, whose life thrusts out our own and overrides it. I speak of those who draw us ever more towards them from youth to age, and to think of whom is to feel at once that we are in the hands of those we love, and whom we would most wish to resemble.

Jacob’s Dream by William Blake, 1805. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

If we are attentive enough to our inner lives, we can each recognize the influential dead living within us, whose life’s work has shaped and is shaping our own. (Figuring most dominantly in my own private retinue are Rachel Carson, Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, Hannah Arendt, Virginia Woolf, Lewis Thomas, Carl Sagan, and Rilke.) Those who attain such immortality, Butler intimates, are passionate lovers of life, enamored with all the dazzlements of nature and human nature:

We never love the memory of anyone unless we feel that he or she was himself or herself a lover.

[…]

People stamp themselves on their work; if they have not done so they are naught, if they have we have them; and for the most part they stamp themselves deeper on their work than on their talk. No doubt Shakespeare and Handel will be one day clean forgotten, as though they had never been born. The world will in the end die; mortality therefore itself is not immortal, and when death dies the life of these men will die with it — but not sooner. It is enough that they should live within us and move us for many ages as they have and will. Such immortality, therefore, as some men and women are born to achieve, or have thrust upon them, is a practical if not a technical immortality, and he who would have more let him have nothing… He or she who has made the best of the life after death has made the best of the life before it.

With an eye to the imperceptible means by which we come to live in others, as others have come to live in us, he writes:

Unconsciousness is no bar to livingness. Our conscious actions are a drop in the sea as compared with our unconscious ones. Could we know all the life that is in us by way of circulation, nutrition, breathing, waste and repair, we should learn what an infinitesimally small part consciousness plays in our present existence; yet our unconscious life is as truly life as our conscious life, and though it is unconscious to itself it emerges into an indirect and vicarious consciousness in our other and conscious self, which exists but in virtue of our unconscious self. So we have also a vicarious consciousness in others. The unconscious life of those that have gone before us has in great part moulded us into such men and women as we are, and our own unconscious lives will in like manner have a vicarious consciousness in others, though we be dead enough to it in ourselves.

The Dove No. 1 by Hilma af Klint, 1915. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

It is by the force of our creative vitality, and by the generosity of spirit with which we share it with others, that we attain such immortality in the consciousness of others. Recognizing this as he looks over the landscape of his own creative field — the art of literature — Butler arrives at a common truth for all art:

Will [any artist] hesitate to admit that it is a lively pleasure to her to feel that on the other side of the world someone may be smiling happily over her work, and that she is thus living in that person though she knows nothing about it? Here it seems to me that true faith comes in. Faith does not consist, as the Sunday School pupil said, “in the power of believing that which we know to be untrue.” It consists in holding fast that which the healthiest and most kindly instincts of the best and most sensible men and women are intuitively possessed of, without caring to require much evidence further than the fact that such people are so convinced; and for my own part I find the best men and women I know unanimous in feeling that life in others, even though we know nothing about it, is nevertheless a thing to be desired and gratefully accepted if we can get it either before death or after… Our life then in this world is, to natural religion as much as to revealed, a period of probation. The use we make of it is to settle how far we are to enter into another.

In a lovely sentiment that would have sent Vonnegut into a vigorous nod, he considers the type of person who most readily reaches such immortality in others:

As the life of the race is larger, longer, and in all respects more to be considered than that of the individual, so is the life we live in others larger and more important than the one we live in ourselves. This appears nowhere perhaps more plainly than in the case of great teachers, who often in the lives of their pupils produce an effect that reaches far beyond anything produced while their single lives were yet unsupplemented by those other lives into which they infused their own.

Complement with the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on slaking our yearning for eternal life and Lisel Mueller’s splendid poem “Immortality,” then revisit Butler’s prophetic admonition for how to save ourselves in the age of artificial intelligence.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 29 Sep 2022 | 6:14 am(NZT)

Full Tilt: Dervla Murphy’s Fierce and Poetic Account of Traversing the World on Two Wheels in the 1960s

A wonder-smitten reminder “that for all the horrible chaos of the contemporary political scene this world is full of kindness.”


Full Tilt: Dervla Murphy’s Fierce and Poetic Account of Traversing the World on Two Wheels in the 1960s

In the early nineteenth century, the teenage Mary Godwin and her not-yet-husband Percy Bysshe Shelley left England for the Continent, traveling by foot and by mule, on the wings of love and youth. Through their constant poverty and hunger, through the frequent accidents and illnesses, they slaked their souls on beauty — on the shimmering grandeur of mountains and rivers, fiery sunsets and moonlit nights. It was on those dirt roads, under those open skies, that they became Romantics.

A century and a half later, another indomitable spirit of uncommon sensitivity to beauty, in nature and in human nature, took those dirt roads and wound them halfway around the world, discovering the romance of reality along the way.

In January 1963, as Central Europe was entering its harshest winter in eighty years, Dervla Murphy (November 28, 1931–May 22, 2022) mounted her bicycle named Roz and left Ireland for India, by way of France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Along the way, narrowly escaping death by landslide and wolf pack, by Taliban and six-foot icicle, she encountered people from wildly different cultures, whose boundless hospitality affirmed what she had to have already known in her bones to endeavor on so dangerous a journey at all: “that for all the horrible chaos of the contemporary political scene this world is full of kindness.”

Dervla Murphy as a young woman, Barcelona.

Her unassumingly titled account of the experience, drawn from her itinerant diaries — Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle (public library) — is one of the most dazzlingly, unsummarizably wonderful books I have read in a lifetime of passionate reading: the kind that rekindles your faith in the human spirit and reenchants you with the staggering beauty of this world.

A typical entry reads:

I slept very well last night in my roadside tea-house, curled up in a corner of the one-roomed building, with moonlight streaming through the doorway that had no door.

To her, a ferocious storm is but a mirror for the poetry of reality:

By now the thunder had ceased and when the wind dropped the overwhelming silence of the mountains reminded me of the hush felt in a great empty Gothic cathedral at dusk — a silence which is beautiful in itself.

She departs with only a saddlebag of luggage, containing her passport and camera, a map, one spare pair of nylon pants and nylon shirt, toothbrush, comb, writing paper, two pens, and a copy of Blake’s poems.

The very outset of her journey is emblematic of the spirit of the whole: When her planned departure date arrives with temperatures far below any she has lived through, Murphy decides to wait a week, hoping the cold would remit. When it does not and each grocery outing becomes “a scaled-down Expedition to the Antarctic,” she presses forth and departs anyway — the first bout of the touchingly stubborn persistence that would mark her entire endeavor.

Dervla Murphy

With an icicle firmly attached to her nose, she makes her way to a Yugoslavian youth hostel, gets blown off her saddle by the most ferocious wind she has ever experienced, tumbles down a fifteen-foot sloping ditch and into a stream frozen so solid that her impact produces not even a crack on the ice, crawls back onto the bicycle, eventually accepts a nightmarish ride in a rickety truck across “250 miles of frozen plain which stretched with relentless white anonymity,” and resumes on two wheels after the truck crashes into a tree. All along, she slakes her soul on the austere beauty of the landscape:

At the valley’s end my road started to climb the mountains, sweeping up and up and again up, in a series of hairpin bends that each revealed a view more wild and splendid than the last.

[…]

On the morning of my third day in Belgrade, there came a rise in temperature that not merely eased the body but relaxed the nerves. Never shall I forget the joy of standing bareheaded in my host’s front garden, watching tenuous, milky clouds drifting across the blue sky.

Art by Leonard Wisegard from The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown, published in Dervla Murphy’s childhood

Immediately after fighting off a pack of wolves, one of which had attached itself by its teeth to the shoulder of her windbreaker, she again orients to beauty:

All around me the mountains, valleys and forests lay white and lifeless under a low, grey sky, in the profound stillness of a landscape where no breeze stirred, there was neither house nor bird to be seen and the streams were silent under their covering of ice. I stopped often to look around me, and savour the uncanny sensation of being the only living, moving thing in the midst of this hushed desolation, where my own breathing sounded loud.

Sometimes the enchantment of nature almost blinds her to the menacing brutalities of its forces. In one of myriad passages that radiate both her felicitous spirit and her tender relationship with her bicycle as an anthropomorphized companion — relatable relations for those of us who live on two wheels — she writes:

From the near distance came a dull, booming sound, as soldiers blew up the gigantic accumulations of rock-hard snow which, unless artificially loosened, would have dammed the river and sent its overflow rushing through the nearby town of Cuprija. It was awe-inspiring to see the wide, angry Morava swiftly sweeping its tremendous burden of ice and snow-chunks through the vast wilderness of sullen, brown flood-waters, and my awe was soon justified when a massive wave came crashing across the road, swept me off Roz and rolled me over and over, choking as I swallowed the muddy water and gasping as its iciness penetrated my clothes. Next a branch of a little roadside tree appeared above me and pulling myself up by it I found that the water, though still flowing strongly, was now no more than three feet deep. I looked for Roz and, during one appalling moment, thought that she had disappeared. Then I saw a yellow handlebar grip in a ditch, and hurried to rescue her.

By February, she has made her way to the barely discernible border of communist Bulgaria, on the other side of which lay my mother in her crib, about to turn one. Murphy enters the “the insignificant little house which is Bulgaria’s Northern Frontier Fortress” and knocks on one of the doors. When no one answers, she knocks again. A delightful scene ensues:

Again my knock remained unanswered, but this time, when I opened a door leading out of the hall, I found a policeman happily dozing by the stove, with a cat and two kittens on his lap. I immediately diagnosed that he was a nice policeman, and when I had gently roused him, and he had recovered from the shock of being required to function officially, I had my diagnosis confirmed.

In December, the Bulgarian Embassy in London had issued me with a visa valid for only four days. Now this genial policeman, who spoke fluent English, took one look at the card, said that it was ridiculous, and issued me with a new visa entitling me to stay in Bulgaria as long as I wished! After which we sat by the stove and amiably discussed our two countries over glasses of brandy.

She proceeds to cycle almost all the way to Istanbul, save a few short lifts from busses and trucks between blizzards in the Turkish highlands. On one of them, she barely escapes “being entombed in snow” when the bus tumbles into a ditch on the side of the mountain road and the snowplough dispatched to rescue it careens off the cliff, killing both men onboard. Even in such proximity to death, her buoyant spirit and largehearted humanity shine through:

As we waited the snow piled higher and higher around us, its silent softness contrasting eerily with the whine of the gale through the pass. It is on occasions such as these that I thank God for my sanguine temperament, which refuses to allow me to believe in disaster until it is finally manifest, and I noticed that my comrades in distress were equally well fortified against panic by their fatalistic acceptance of Allah’s Will. Yet perhaps we were all more apprehensive than we had allowed ourselves to recognise, for we cheered very loudly when the second snowplough eventually appeared.

(You can tell by now that I have fallen wholeheartedly in love with this bygone stranger.)

When she crosses over to Persia, presently the Islamic Republic of Iran, she shares a squalid bed with “a host of energetic fleas” in a box of a room at a roadside dosshouse, where she is awakened in the middle of the night by “a six-foot, scantily-clad Kurd” who has peeled her bedding from her and is leaning over in the moonlight. Without hesitation she pulls the pistol from under her pillow, fires it at the ceiling, and closes the scene. The next thing she writes is another exultation in beauty:

On the following morning came one of the most glorious experiences of the entire journey — a fifteen-mile cycle-run in perfect weather around the base of Mount Ararat. This extraordinary mountain, which inspires the most complex emotions in the least imaginative traveller, affected me so deeply that I have thought of it ever since as a personality encountered, rather than a landscape observed… Cycling day after day beneath a sky of intense blue, through wild mountains whose solitude and beauty surpassed anything I had been able to imagine during my day-dreams about this journey.

“View of Nature in Ascending Regions” from Yaggi’s Geographical Portfolio, 1893. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

In a sentiment that embodies the entwined history of light and consciousness, she adds:

Particularly I remember the unique purity of the light, which gave to every variation of every colour an individual vitality and which lucidly emphasised every line, curve and angle. Here, for the first time, I became fully aware of light as something positive, rather than as a taken-for-granted aid to perceiving objects.

Punctuating all this natural beauty are the most unhandsome manifestations of human nature: amateur bandits seize Roz, but a pistol shot Murphy fires into the air makes the scatter “like rabbits”; a “gorgeously uniformed and braided” young police officer summons her to his quarters in the police barracks on the pretext of some bureaucratic business and attempts to force himself on her, which she escapes by grabbing at his trousers and deploying “unprintable tactics to reduce him to a state of temporary agony.” Elsewhere, turbaned youths stone her within moments of her arrival in their village, further maiming her already ailing right arm, blistered with sunburn from all the long hours cycling steadily eastward.

“Today a deep depression has moved over Dervla,” she writes with third-person remove in one of the handful of entries in which she allows herself anything other than absolute buoyancy of spirit. Upon arrival in Teheran, she is told at the embassy that “under no circumstances whatever would they grant a visa to a woman who intended cycling alone through Afghanistan” — six years earlier, a Swedish woman motorist had been found chopped up to pieces, prompting the government to ban all lone woman travelers. With her usual wry rationalism, she points out that “women get murdered in Europe with monotonous regularity and that the hazards of travelling alone through [Afghanistan] were probably no greater than the hazards of doing likewise in Britain or France.” Her unassuming persistence grants her an audience with “a sufficiently senior man,” to whom she declares herself solely responsible for her fate, waiving all governmental responsibility. Her account of the exchange is one of the most multiply charming in the book:

Fortunately, the victim of my machinations was an upholder of Free Enterprise and the Liberty of the Individual. He looked at me in silence for a moment, then said, “Well, I suppose if visas had been required in 1492, the New World would not have been discovered. All right — I’ll play ball. But remember that all this is very unofficial and unbecoming to my position and I’m depending on you to come out alive at the other end, for my sake – which I somehow think you will do.”

And off she goes, into the hinterland, her heart heavy with the news that two women have just been killed in the Mullah-provoked riots against women’s emancipation. Once again she turns to the nonhuman consolations of nature in this uncommonly beautiful corner of the globe:

Every mile from Teheran was pure joy — as much the joy of space and silence as of visual loveliness… These extravagantly sweeping lines of plain and mountain are intoxicating to an islander and the blending of shades on the barren hillsides is a symphony of colour.

Over and over, it seems like Murphy’s bright spirit is her natural amulet against misfortune. Stopping by to rest at a local village, she reaches across the barrier of language, culture, and age to reduce the local children to giggles by pretending to be a sheepdog, before metamorphosing into a donkey to crawl around the sand on all fours with three toddlers or her back.

Dervla Murphy and Roz in one of the villages she stopped to rest in.

She takes a detour to Omar Khayyám’s hometown, “to pay homage,” where she is mobbed by eager local youths begging her help — which she gives eagerly — with their English, waving their dictionaries and their copies of Jane Eyre, and bombarding her with complex pronunciation problems as she relishes the town’s stunning gardens full of “smooth lawns, pale green cascades of weeping willow and brilliant beds of carnations, roses, pansies and geraniums.”

Everywhere she goes, she is a spectacle — some have never seen a bicycle, some have never seen a lone woman traveller, and none have never seen, nor could even conceive of, a woman traveling the world alone on a bicycle. In her baggy hand-me-down shirt and boots donated by the U.S. Army in the Middle East, she is often taken for a man — because, she speculates, “the idea of a woman travelling alone is so completely outside the experience and beyond the imagination of everyone.”

Art from Bicycling for Ladies, 1896. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Murphy observes these cultural peculiarities without the slightest bit of personal offense or judgment, only with largehearted curiosity, reserving her only instance of unconcealed contempt for an encounter with a member of a wholly different culture:

American: “What the hell are you doing on this goddam road?”

Me: (having taken an instant dislike to him) “Cycling.”

American: “I can see that — but what the hell for?”

Me: “For fun.”

American: “Are you a nut-case or what? Gimme that bike and I’ll stick it on behind and you get in here and we’ll get out of this goddam frying-pan as fast as we can. This track isn’t fit for a camel!”

Me: “When you’re on a cycle instead of in a jeep it doesn’t feel like a frying-pan. Moreover, if you look around you you’ll notice that the landscape compensates for the admittedly deplorable state of the road. In fact I enjoy cycling through this sort of country – but thank you for the kind offer. Goodbye.”

As I rode on he passed me and yelled: “You are a goddam nut-case!”

I regard this sort of life, with just Roz and me and the sky and the earth, as sheer bliss.

For all the levity Murphy brings to her challenges, she is also moving through the world — a world so very different from the one she knows — with the deep-thinking, deep-feeling person’s unassailable sensitivity to the underlying complexities of culture. Often, her natural generosity of spirit leads her to layers of nuance that evade even the most forward-thinking of persons, even today; always, she meets the unknown not with judgment but with curiosity — that hallmark of true grandeur of spirit. Finding herself “quite sorry to be leaving Persia,” she reflects:

Beneath all the physical dirt and moral corruption there is an elegance and dignity about life here which you can’t appreciate at first, while suffering under the impact of the more obvious and disagreeable national characteristics. The graciousness with which peasants greet each other and the effortless art with which a few beautiful rags and pieces of silver are made to furnish and decorate a whole house — in these and many other details Persia can still teach the West. I suppose it’s all a question of seeing one of the oldest and richest civilisations in the world long past its zenith.

Even through the slow and difficult climb to Herat — a city “as old as history and as moving as a great epic poem” — she drinks in the beauty that remains her most steadfast fuel along the grueling journey:

It took me four and a half hours to cover the thirty miles… but I enjoyed the wide silence of the desert in the cool of the morning. This is a city of absolute enchantment in the literal sense of the word. It loosens all the bonds binding the traveller to his own age and sets him free to live in a past that is vital and crude but never ugly.

So begins her love affair with Afghanistan, which casts a lifelong enchantment on her with its aura of unremitting beauty: the beauty of its nature, the beauty of its art, the beauty of its people — “by our standards, the best-looking people in the world,” endowed with a soft kindliness she has never encountered before:

I already love the country and the people and somehow language barriers don’t matter when one feels such a degree of sympathy with a race which responds so graciously and kindly to a smile or a gesture of friendship.

The country would soon emerge as her favorite leg of the journey by many orders of magnitude, beckoning her to return:

This is the part of Afghanistan I was most eager to see, but in my wildest imaginings I never thought any landscape could be so magnificent. If I am murdered en route it will have been well worth while!

In a splendid contribution to literature’s most exquisite meditations on the color blue, she writes from Herat:

This morning I went to the outskirts of the town just to wander among the green woods and sit on green grass beside a little stream in a beautifully kept public park. Many of the streets are lined with enormous pine trees and a glorious garden of lawns and lavishly blooming rose bushes stretches in front of the mosque… I sat on the shady side of the enormous courtyard for almost an hour, enjoying the mosaics and the gold of the brickwork glowing against the blue sky. It was very peaceful there with no sound or movement except for a myriad twittering martins swooping in and out of the cool, dim passages between the hundreds of pillared archways.

[…]

The predominant colour here is blue of all shades, with yellow, black, pink, brown, green and orange tiles blended so skilfully that from a certain distance a façade or minaret looks as though made of some magic precious metal for the colour of which there is no name.

Cycling through the most beautiful part of the Hindu Kush, she gasps once more at the otherworldly mesmerism of this world:

The glory of those mountains makes one feel that it must all be a dream. Every peak and slope and outcrop is different in shape, texture and colour, the rock and shale and clay shaded purple, rose, green, ochre, black, pale grey, dark grey, brown, navy and off-white. Then, below those arid, soaring cliffs… graceful with willows and poplars, and soft with new grass and filled with bird-song and the rush of the river.

But hers is no rosy enchantment with nature — she is equally attuned to its impartial brutality that comes even-handed with the beauty, ready to reduce human lives to trifling minutia in a matter of moments:

For about the first twenty of this afternoon’s forty miles we were going through a narrow gorge overhung by mountains eroded to many grotesquely beautiful shapes — some were like the ruins of colossal Gothic cathedrals, others had crags worn by wind and water into parodies of sculptured human faces and always there was that incredible display of colours. Then the valley widened slightly and we came to a region of devastation, a shattered wilderness where giant rocks, the size of cottages, lay strewn everywhere, and wide fissures in the mountains warned that at the next earth tremor — and they are frequent here — the whole appearance of the area would change.

Illustration from Bicycling for Ladies based on Alice Austen’s photographs. (Available as a print.)

And yet, through the flat tires, the broken rib, the “extreme hunger than extreme thirst, which almost drives one mad,” the food poisoning, the pain of “mental loneliness,” the storms of ice and dust, the fingers burned on the metal handlebars while cycling through unbearable heat at 7,000 feet elevation, “the terrifying dehydration of mouth and nostrils and eyes until… a sort of staring blindness came on,” she never loses sight of why she has endeavored to do this in the first place — why she has obeyed the clarion call of wakefulness to life. In an entry emblematic of the spirit in which she has undertaken her journey, she writes:

Another fabulous dust-storm is performing now and all electricity has gone off again, so I’m writing by oil-lamp in a bath of sweat.

Again and again she orients to beauty, writing from Pakistan:

Behind us, almost overhanging the mess buildings, rose a 9,000-foot mountain wall of stark, grey rock which was repeated on the other side of the narrow valley; it’s this confinement which keeps the temperature so high despite an altitude of nearly 5,000 feet. Down the valley snow-capped peaks of over 20,000 feet were sharply beautiful against the gentle evening sky and as the setting sun caught the valley walls they changed colour so that their pink and violet glow seemed to illuminate the whole scene.

While we were having dinner on the verandah a full moon rose and by the time the meal was over the valley looked so very lovely that I took myself off for a walk — to the unspoken disapproval of all those present! Having descended steeply for about half a mile my path turned west along the valley floor, leaving the shuttered stalls of the bazaar behind. Tall mulberry and apricot trees laid intricate shadows on the sandy path and the silence was broken only by the snow-enraged Gilgit River. The sky was a strange royal-blue with all but the brightest stars quenched, while on either side the mountains were transformed into silver barricades, as their quartz surfaces reflected the moonlight.

Two days later:

Today’s landscape was a series of dramatic contrasts. The valley floor around Gilgit Town showed the fragrant abundance of early summer – fields of trembling, silver-green wheat and richly golden barley, bushes of unfamiliar, lovely blossoms and, most beautiful of all, a rock-plant with tiny, golden-pink flowers, growing so lavishly in the crevices of the walls that it was like a sunset cloud draped over the grey stones. Then the valley narrowed to exclude the early sun until there was room only for the river between the opposing precipices and we were alone in a barren, rough, shadowy world, where nothing moved but the brown flood-waters.

Two weeks laters, from amid the glaciers of Pakistan’s challenging Babusar mountain pass:

I saw two magnificent eagles and the air was filled all day with lark-song… Scintillating snow-peaks and regal fir trees, brilliant green meadows right up to the snowline and glistening glaciers in the gullies, waterfalls tumbling and sparkling everywhere and jewel-like wild flowers, rippling bird-songs and the faint, clean aroma of some unfamiliar herb.

The overtone of the book, of the journey, of this uncommon consciousness moving through the common world, finds its distillation in a single line from the same entry:

What a wonderful place this world is!

I could go on — Full Tilt is one of those rare books, a handful in a lifetime if one is lucky, brimming with so many touching human moments and such astonishments of natural beauty that one cannot help but have more passages underlined than not. Read it — your life will thank you for it — then revisit composer Paola Prestini’s choral masterwork celebrating the history of the bicycle as an instrument of emancipation and Maria Ward’s nineteenth-century manifesto for bicycling, featuring photographs by her visionary friend and lover Alice Austen, who paved the way for women like Dervla Murphy.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 26 Sep 2022 | 6:23 am(NZT)



Mesmerizing Microphotography of the Hairs of Different Animals Under Polarized Light

A technicolor serenade to the variousness of this world.


Hair is one of the glories of our mammalian inheritance — thermoregulator, camouflage, sensor, and mating call rolled into one. We Homo sapiens can lose more than 100 hairs daily without going bald, because our bodies produce 100 feet of hair substance every day. Structurally, hair is a marvel, as varied as the vegetation of the tropical rainforest and as mesmerizing as the cellular structure of trees.

The Museum of Microscopy at Florida State University has assembled a dazzling gallery of animal hair, from cat and dog to llama and bat, photographed through a microscope under polarized light — a geometric, fluorescent celebration of the variousness of this world, and a lovely homage to the history of the microscope, for the hair on the legs of the flea and the fly had so enchanted Robert Hooke in his pioneering Micrographia.

Leopard
Opossum
Bat
Dog
Cat
Mouse
Horse
Human
Monkey
Llama
Goat
Angora goat
Rabbit
Angora rabbit
Antelope
Baby Caracul
Badger
Alaskan seal
Beaver
Camel
Chinchilla
Yak
Chipmunk
Silver fox
Skunk
Cow
Squirrel
Deer
Raccoon

Complement with the otherworldly micrography of tears, then revisit the story of how the birth of astrophotography — micrography’s mirror-image twin, plumbing the realities of the very large through the telescope as the microscope mined the realities of the very small — changed our relationship to life and death


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 25 Sep 2022 | 5:03 am(NZT)

Kierkegaard on How to Save Yourself

“I am, in the deepest sense, an unhappy individual who since my earliest days have been nailed fast to some suffering close to insanity.”


All of our creative work is our coping mechanism for life. Art is just what we call our instruments of self-salvation. It may touch other lives, salve and save them even, but it is always at bottom a private lifeline.

Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) had barely set foot into his twenties when he began arriving at this recognition in his own life and work. Since childhood, he had seen his melancholy as an “awful secret” he had to conceal “under the cloak of an outward existence of exuberance and gaiety.” By the end of his adolescence, the cloak had grown all the thicker as his melancholy grew all the deeper.

Søren Kierkegaard

Writing in his early twenties in what became The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (public library), he observes with cool remove the overtone of his life:

I am, in the deepest sense, an unhappy individual who since my earliest days have been nailed fast to some suffering close to insanity.

But within a year, he was already finding his calling in his incubus:

I have succeeded in turning a somersault into the realm of pure spirit where I now live. But that, in turn, made me absolutely heterogenous with ordinary humanity.

Creative work was the spring of his somersault — his writing became the lifeline of his self-salvation. At only twenty-three, he saw clearly his purpose — to be of service by making ordinary life more livable for others, in turn making his own life worth living:

I have conceived of myself as intent upon standing up for the Ordinary — in a bungled and demoralized age — and making it lovable and accessible to all those of my fellow-creatures who are capable of realizing it, but who are led astray by the times and who chase after the Un-Common, the Extra-Ordinary. I have understood my task to be like that of a person who himself has become unhappy and therefore — if he loves human beings — particularly desires to help others who are capable of realizing happiness.

Art by Cindy Derby from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. (Available as a print, benefitting the New York public library system.)

In a passage of extraordinary self-awareness, cognizant that acts of egotism and self-flattery can often masquerade as altruism, he adds:

But… in all humility to do something good to make up for my shortcomings, I have been especially vigilant that my efforts should not be tainted with self-seeking vanity and, above all, that I served Thought and Truth in such a way as not to derive any secular and temporal advantages therefrom. Therefore I know, in all good conscience, that I have worked with true resignation.

A year later, he recognizes that in helping others, he is also helping himself — not as an end but as a salutary byproduct, the way all acts of generosity bring their own gift to the giver:

Like Scheherazade who saved her life by telling fairy tales, so I save my life or keep myself alive by writing.

Complement with the young poet Anne Reeve Aldrich’s extraordinary letter to Emily Dickinson about how to bear your suffering and Marcus Aurelius on the Stoic strategy for turning suffering into strength, then revisit Kierkegaard on the power of the minority, the power of music, why haters hate, our greatest source of unhappiness (and what to do about it), and the only true cure for our existential emptiness.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 24 Sep 2022 | 6:23 am(NZT)



Kahlil Gibran on How Storms Catalyze Creativity

“A storm always awakens whatever passion there is in me. I become eager, and seek relief in work.”


Kahlil Gibran on How Storms Catalyze Creativity

I am standing on my Brooklyn rooftop watching enormous raindrops make a xylophone out of the wood planks as lightning splits the Manhattan skyline across the river of lead. It thunders — a low, drawn-out bellow. Swirling across the sky, as if to wash clean the slate of daily worries, the storm comes down with its existential ablution, booming and total. I think of Georgia O’Keeffe, who wrote to her best friend a century ago from the dramatic clime of the Southwest: “Last night we had a tremendous thunderstorm — and I’ve never seen such lightning in my life — it was wonderful… Stood out on the porch for a long time watching the whole sky alive.”

Georgia O’Keeffe: Storm Cloud, Lake George, 1923. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Around the same time, across the country, the Lebanese poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) was recording his own enchantment with mother nature’s most dramatic moods in Beloved Prophet (public library) — the collection of his almost unbearably beautiful love letters to and from Mary Haskell, which gave us his meditations on America and why artists make art.

In a letter from mid-August of 1912, an elated and awestruck Gibran writes to his beloved Haskell from the coast of Massachusetts:

The great storm, for which I have been waiting, has just come. The sky is black. The sea is white with foam, and the spirits of some unknown gods are flying between the sky and the sea. I am watching it as I write… What is there in a storm that moves me so? Why am I so much better and stronger and more certain of life while a storm is passing? I do not know, and yet I love a storm more, far more, than anything in nature.

Two years later, he finds his imagination fomented by a late-winter storm in New York, where with Haskell’s patronage he has rented a small art studio to paint:

A mighty snow storm is raging outside. The studio is nice and warm, and a keen desire for work is in my soul. A storm frees my heart from little cares and pains. A storm always awakens whatever passion there is in me. I become eager, and seek relief in work. I often picture myself living on a mountain top, in the most stormy country (not the coldest) in the world. Is there such a place? If there is I shall go to it someday and turn my heart into pictures and poems.

Art by Ryōji Arai from Every Color of Light by Hiroshi Osada

That July, Haskell, who spent her summers in solitude in the mountains of California, mirrors back to Gibran his love of storms. In a letter from mid-July, she writes:

My beloved Kahlil,

I too was in the storm last Sunday — morning and afternoon driving five miles each in a tiny open sleigh with a good horse — in howling wind and rain — wishing for you and knowing how you would love it. I am never in a storm now without you.

[…]

Always at least I am not without you — even when all else is vague or ghastly.

Art by Ryōji Arai from Every Color of Light by Hiroshi Osada

Complement this particular portion of the wholly stunning Beloved Prophet with Coleridge on the storm, the rainbow, and the soul, Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler’s poetic illustrated love letter to the weather, and Annie Dillard’s arresting account of another display of nature’s grandeur, then savor this uncommonly beautiful Japanese illustrated ode to the changing sky.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 23 Sep 2022 | 4:19 am(NZT)

A Love Letter to the Apple

“I think if I could subsist on you… I should never have an intemperate or ignoble thought, never he feverish or despondent… I should be cheerful, continent, equitable, sweet-blooded, long-lived, and should shed warmths and contentment around.”


A Love Letter to the Apple

Anything, when faced with unalloyed attention, becomes a mirror. But few things have served as a mightier magnifying mirror for humanity, and for the individual human being, than the apple. Its blossoms have been selected by countless generations of pollinators in painting Earth with color. Its fruit focused the Bible story of original sin, seeding thousands of years of metaphor and myth. In the folklore of my native Bulgaria, a woman has reached the apogee of beauty when she can be likened to an apple. When British America was being settled, a land grant required settlers in the Northwestern Territory to each plant at least fifty apple or pear trees on their homestead as a kind of commitment to the land. The apple gave the greatest metropolis of Western civilization its nickname, even though most native New Yorkers don’t know the origin story of “The Big Apple.”

The Cowarne Red Apple, 1811. (Available as a print, as a backpack, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

For Darwin, the apple was a lens on natural selection: Traveling on the Beagle, he marveled at how this commonest fruit of his homeland seemed to “thrive to perfection” in the southernmost reaches of South America. For Emerson, it was the great chip on his philosophy: The patron saint of self-reliance berated himself for his sweet tooth, which in the era prior to the golden age of processed sugar manifested itself as an irrepressible craving for apples. For Whitman, it was a microcosm of the medicine of nature that healed him after his paralytic stroke: He would sit for two hours each morning amid the apple-trees, “envelop’d in sound of bumble-bees and bird-music,” watching in the ripening fruit “the summer fully awakening.” For Emily Dickinson, the “hopeless hang” of the apples — the way they both symbolized and embodied the sweet unreachable — was her version of heaven.

No one has written about the sensorial and spiritual splendors of the apple more beautifully, or more passionately, than the great naturalist John Burroughs (April 3, 1837–March 29, 1921) in one of the essays from his 1915 collection Sharp Eyes (public library | free ebook), which also gave us his lovely meditation on the art of noticing.

John Burroughs

Burroughs writes:

Not a little of the sunshine of our northern winters is surely wrapped up in the apple. How could we winter over without it! How is life sweetened by its mild acids!

[…]

The apple is the commonest and yet the most varied and beautiful of fruits… A rose when it blooms, the apple is a rose when it ripens. It pleases every sense to which it can be addressed, the touch, the smell, the sight, the taste; and when it falls in the still October days it pleases the ear [when] down comes the painted sphere with a mellow thump to the earth, towards which it has been nodding so long.

In a passage evocative of poet Diane Ackerman’s sensuous ode to the apricot, Burroughs composes a part prose poem and part love letter to the irresistible sensorium of the apple:

How pleasing to the touch! I love to stroke its polished rondure with my hand, to carry it in my pocket on my tramp over the winter hills, or through the early spring woods. You are company, you red-cheeked spitz, or you salmon-fleshed greening! I toy with you; press your face to mine, toss you in the air, roll you on the ground, see you shine out where you lie amid the moss and dry leaves and sticks. You are so alive! You glow like a ruddy flower. You look so animated I almost expect to see you move. I postpone the eating of you, you are so beautiful! How compact; how exquisitely tinted! Stained by the sun and varnished against the rains. An independent vegetable existence, alive and vascular as my own flesh; capable of being wounded, bleeding, wasting away, and almost of repairing damages!

The Red Must Apple, 1811. (Available as a print and as a backpack, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Burroughs’s own grandfather was “one of those heroes of the stump” — the early settlers who traveled many miles on horseback for seeds and went to great lengths to protect their prized apple trees, fastening with iron bolts any storm-split trunk, even though these uncultivated pioneer trees gave only small and sour fruit. In his spirited sincerity with a wink, he serenades the apple as a cultivar of moral virtue:

Noble common fruit, best friend of man and most loved by him, following him like his dog or his cow, wherever he goes. His homestead is not planted till you are planted, your roots intertwine with his; thriving best where he thrives best, loving the limestone and the frost, the plough and the pruning-knife, you are indeed suggestive of hardy, cheerful industry, and a healthy life in the open air. Temperate, chaste fruit! You mean neither luxury nor sloth, neither satiety nor indolence, neither enervating heats nor the Frigid Zones. Uncloying fruit, fruit whose best sauce is the open air, whose finest flavors only he whose taste is sharpened by brisk work or walking knows; winter fruit, when the fire of life burns brightest; fruit always a little hyperborean, leaning towards the cold; bracing, sub-acid, active fruit.

With the same passionate playfulness, Burroughs paints the apple-eater as a kind of beneficent addict:

The genuine apple-eater comforts himself with an apple in their season as others with a pipe or a cigar. When he has nothing else to do, or is bored, he eats an apple. While he is waiting for the train he eats an apple, sometimes several of them. When he takes a walk he arms himself with apples… He dispenses with a knife. He prefers that his teeth shall have the first taste. Then he knows the best flavor is immediately beneath the skin, and that in a pared apple this is lost.

The Yellow Elliot, 1811. (Available as a print, as a cutting board, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

But the apple is a benediction not only to human lives. Long before the term existed, Burroughs celebrates it as a microcosm of biodiversity — a haven for “the never-failing crop of birds — robins, goldfinches, king-birds, cedar-birds, hair-birds, orioles, starlings — all nesting and breeding in its branches.” Leaning on his ardor for ornithology, he writes:

There are few better places to study ornithology than in the orchard. Besides its regular occupants, many of the birds of the deeper forest find occasion to visit it during the season. The cuckoo comes for the tent-caterpillar, the jay for frozen apples, the ruffed grouse for buds, the crow foraging for birds’ eggs, the woodpecker and chickadees for their food, and the high-hole for ants. The red-bird comes too, if only to see what a friendly covert its branches form; and the wood-thrush now and then comes out of the grove near by, and nests alongside of its cousin, the robin. The smaller hawks know that this is a most likely spot for their prey; and in spring the shy northern warblers may be studied as they pause to feed on the fine insects amid its branches.

Apple, pear, and service berry by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Burroughs has the naturalist’s talent for meeting nature on its own terms and finding beauty in its living realities, rather than appropriating them for poetic metaphor alone; when he does come to metaphor, it is a lovely and living one:

I think if I could subsist on you or the like of you, I should never have an intemperate or ignoble thought, never he feverish or despondent. So far as I could absorb or transmute your quality I should be cheerful, continent, equitable, sweet-blooded, long-lived, and should shed warmths and contentment around.

Complement with Burroughs on the faith of the “naturist” — his wondrous century-old manifesto for spirituality in the age of science — and his timeless wisdom on the mightiest consolation for human hardship, then revisit the little-known story of how New York City came to be known as The Big Apple.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 22 Sep 2022 | 1:16 pm(NZT)

Creativity at the End: Leonard Cohen on Preparing for Death

On that singular moment at the end of life when all creative energy is concentrated and consecrated.


“It is the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life,” wrote Alice James — William and Henry James’s equally brilliant sister — as she faced the end of life with uncommon grace and vitality.

A century-some after her, Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934–November 7, 2016) echoed these sentiments and added to them his own depth as he reckoned with nearing the end, finding his creative energy clarified, concentrated, consecrated by the proximity of death.

Listen to the hummingbird
whose wings you cannot see,
listen to the hummingbird —
don’t listen to me.

Listen to the mind of God,
which doesn’t need to be,
listen to the mind of God —
don’t listen to me.

Complement with Emily Levine on how to live fully while dying and her reading of a stunning poem about how to live and how to die, then revisit Leonard Cohen on language and the poetry of presence, democracy’s breakages and redemptions, and when (not) to quit a creative project.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 22 Sep 2022 | 5:14 am(NZT)

A Different Solitude: Pioneering Aviator Beryl Markham on What She Learned About Life in the Bottomless Night

“I learned what every dreaming child needs to know — that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it.”


A Different Solitude: Pioneering Aviator Beryl Markham on What She Learned About Life in the Bottomless Night

“For a moment of night,” Henry Beston wrote in his exquisite century-old love letter to darkness, “we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars — pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time.”

No one has written more lusciously about that pilgrimage, nor undertaken it with more elemental daring, than Beryl Markham (October 16, 1902–August 3, 1986). Known to the world as the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from East to West with the sweep of night, against headwinds and storms particularly ferocious in that direction, she is Amelia Earhart without the pomp, Thoreau with muscle and humor, a luckier Shackleton of the sky.

Beryl Markham two ways

Born to English parents and raised by her single father, Beryl grew up in the untrammeled bush of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley, running barefoot and spear-hunting with the local boys and men. As a little girl, she survived an attack by lion. With her childhood best friend — a Kenyan boy named Kibii — she learned to jump as high as her head, because Kibii’s elders from the Nandi tribe believed that no man who couldn’t was any good. By the time she was a tall and lanky teenager, she could wrestle the Nandi way, readily lifting her opponent over her head to throw him to the ground.

At eighteen, after her father left for Peru, having sold off all of his possessions and sold his only daughter into a marriage to their neighbor, Beryl persevered by becoming a professional racehorse-trainer — the only female in a fiercely competitive world, in which most were older than her by decades.

She soon divorced her unchosen husband and took to the skies.

By her twenties, she was the only woman working as a licensed pilot in all of Africa, soaring through the clouds in her light two-seater plane affectionately known as the Kan for the registration letter VP-KAN painted in silver on its turquoise body, which blazed across the daylight as “a small gay complement to the airy blue of the sky, like a bright fish under the surface of a clear sea,” and flitted through the night as “no more than a passing murmur, a soft, incongruous murmur above the earth.”

Beryl Markham in her twenties

As the only freelance pilot of any gender in all of Kenya throughout the 1920s and 1930s, she delivered oxygen to dying miners, tracked herds of wildlife, and swooped in to save fellow pilots who had crashed in the middle of the desert, striding out of the Kan in her white flying suit and her natural Hollywood glamor like some sort of rugged angel of salvation.

In her extraordinary 1942 memoir West with the Night (public library) — which Hemingway found “bloody wonderful,” gasping that “the girl can write rings around all of us,” but which slipped into obscurity for forty years until its rediscovery in the 1980s — Beryl Markham recounts how she first fell under the enchantment of the sky as a young student of flight:

I saw how a man can be master of a craft, and how a craft can be master of an element. I saw the alchemy of perspective reduce my world, and all my other life, to grains in a cup. I learned to watch… I learned to wander. I learned what every dreaming child needs to know — that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it. These I learned at once. But most things came harder.

One of the hardest things to come, and the most rewarding, was a taste for the transcendent solitude of night — a different species of solitude not attainable on land, amid the companionship of even its most silent creatures:

Night flying over the charted country by the aid of instruments and radio guidance can still be a lonely business, but to fly in unbroken darkness without even the cold companionship of a pair of ear-phones or the knowledge that somewhere ahead are lights and life and a well-marked airport is something more than just lonely. It is at times unreal to the point where the existence of other people seems not even a reasonable probability. The hills, the forests, the rocks, and the plains are one with the darkness, and the darkness is infinite. The earth is no more your planet than is a distant star — if a star is shining; the plane is your planet and you are its sole inhabitant.

Art by Ping Zhu for The Snail with the Right Heart

Around the time that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was incubating the ideas that became The Little Prince and drawing on his own experience as a pilot to reflect on what the Sahara desert taught him about the meaning of life, she writes:

To me, desert has the quality of darkness; none of the shapes you see in it are real or permanent. Like night, the desert is boundless, comfortless, and infinite. Like night, it intrigues the mind and leads it to futility. When you have flown halfway across a desert, you experience the desperation of a sleepless man waiting for dawn which only comes when the importance of its coming is lost. You fly forever, weary with an invariable scene, and when you are at last released from its monotony, you remember nothing of it because there was nothing there.

Looking back on her countless solitary nights over Africa, and her many years of living on this land she called home, she serenades the horizonless nocturne as a singular instrument for deepening self-knowledge and communion with the living world:

Night… was a world as old as Time, but as new as Creation’s hour had left it.

In a sense it was formless. When the low stars shone over it and the moon clothed it in silver fog, it was the way the firmament must have been when the waters had gone and the night of the Fifth Day had fallen on creatures still bewildered by the wonder of their being. It was an empty world because no man had yet joined sticks to make a house or scratched the earth to make a road or embedded the transient symbols of his artifice in the clean horizon. But it was not a sterile world. It held the genesis of life and lay deep and anticipant under the sky.

At night, sharing a campsite with her fellow travelers, she could then attain the same feeling without leaving Earth — for transcendent experiences have a way of infusing themselves into our ordinary lives, so that after we have had them, the commonest activity can shimmer with some of that remembered radiance. She writes:

You were alone when you sat and talked with the others — and they were alone. This is so wherever you are if it is night and a fire burns in free flames rising to a free wind. What you say has no ready ear but your own, and what you think is nothing except to yourself. The world is there, and you are here — and these are the only poles, the only realities.

[…]

[Others] are here… but sharing with us a single loneliness.

Art by the English artist Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In a passage of extraordinary prescience, given today’s computational and cultural mundanities of air travel — another technology “killed by kindness” — she considers the bygone romance of an earthbound mammal steering a bird of metal and glass through the throbbing cloudscape of the elemental:

After this era of great pilots is gone, as the era of great sea captains has gone — each nudged aside by the march of inventive genius, by steel cogs and copper discs and hair-thin wires on white faces that are dumb, but speak — it will be found, I think, that all the science of flying has been captured in the breadth of an instrument board, but not the religion of it. One day the stars will be as familiar to each man as the landmarks, the curves, and the hills on the road that leads to his door, and one day this will be an airborne life. But by then men will have forgotten how to fly; they will be passengers on machines whose conductors are carefully promoted to familiarity with labelled buttons, and in whose minds the knowledge of the sky and the wind and the way of weather will be extraneous as passing fiction.

And yet there is something that remains of the romance of night to the airborne traveler, pilot or passenger, even today: The day I cease to be staggered by the star-salted blackness outside the window of a transatlantic flight — this portable mountaintop of body and mind — I shall have ceased to be human or alive.

Complement West with the Night — a ravishing read in its entirety — with the pioneering polar explorer Frederick Cook’s lyrical account of the first Antarctic night and James Baldwin on the raw clarity of the small hours, then revisit Walter Lippmann’s eulogy for Amelia Earhart, which remains the finest thing I have ever read about what makes a hero and which applies tenfold to Beryl Markham, lack though she did Earhart’s publicist-husband and the alluring mystique of disappearance in the prime of life, dying instead as an old woman in Africa, having lived a long and largehearted life.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 20 Sep 2022 | 12:46 pm(NZT)

Barry Lopez on the Cure for Our Existential Loneliness and the Three Tenets of a Full Life

“Existential loneliness and a sense that one’s life is inconsequential, both of which are hallmarks of modern civilizations, seem to me to derive in part from our abandoning a belief in the therapeutic dimensions of a relationship with place.”


Barry Lopez on the Cure for Our Existential Loneliness and the Three Tenets of a Full Life

“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote as she reflected on the relationship between nature and human nature. But what we call place — that unalloyed presence with a here and now, with the unfolding of time in a locus of space — penetrates more than the mind: it permeates body and spirit and the entire constellation of being. There is a reason why the original Latin use of the word genius was in the phrase genius loci — the spirit of a place. We become who we are in the crucible of where we are.

Our minds, however, are born wanderers — perpetual refugees from presence, perpetually paying for their flight with loneliness. We go on forgetting that we are not only embodied creatures, but embodied in the body of the world; we go on forgetting that the here and now — that locus of intimacy with everything and everyone else inhabiting this island of spacetime, intimacy with the pulsating totality of our own being — is our only refuge from the existential loneliness that is the price of being alive.

“Planetary System, Eclipse of the Sun, the Moon, the Zodiacal Light, Meteoric Shower” by Levi Walter Yaggy from Geographical Portfolio — Comprising Physical, Political, Geological, and Astronomical Geography, 1887. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

That is what Barry Lopez (January 6, 1945–December 25, 2020) explores in “Invitation” — one of the twenty-six exquisite essays in his posthumous collection Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World (public library).

Drawing on his longtime immersion in indigenous cultures and his lifelong travel with native companions, Lopez counters the hollow stereotype that indigenous people’s connection to place is a sort of “primitive” sensitivity to be contrasted with “advanced” civilization:

Such a dismissive view, as I have come to understand it, ignores the great intangible value that achieving physical intimacy with a place might provide. I’m inclined to point out to someone who condescends to such a desire for intimacy, although it might seem rude, that it is not possible for human beings to outgrow loneliness. Nor can someone from a culture that condescends to nature easily escape the haunting thought that one’s life is meaningless.

Existential loneliness and a sense that one’s life is inconsequential, both of which are hallmarks of modern civilizations, seem to me to derive in part from our abandoning a belief in the therapeutic dimensions of a relationship with place. A continually refreshed sense of the unplumbable complexity of patterns in the natural world, patterns that are ever present and discernible, and which incorporate the observer, undermine the feeling that one is alone in the world, or meaningless in it. The effort to know a place deeply is, ultimately, an expression of the human desire to belong, to fit somewhere.

“View of Nature in Ascending Regions” from Yaggi’s Geographical Portfolio, 1893. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

This longing to belong with the world is the fulcrum of our yearning for meaning. Whitman knew it when, after his paralytic stroke, he arrived at what makes life worth living; Mary Shelley knew it when, in the wake of her staggering bereavement, she reckoned with what gives meaning to a broken life; Lopez knows it, locating the cure for our existential loneliness in our intimate relationship to place:

The determination to know a particular place, in my experience, is consistently rewarded. And every natural place, to my mind, is open to being known. And somewhere in this process a person begins to sense that they themselves are becoming known, so that when they are absent from that place they know that place misses them. And this reciprocity, to know and be known, reinforces a sense that one is necessary in the world.

This question of how our relationship to place deepens our relationship to life permeates the entire book. In another essay from it, titled “An Intimate Geography,” he writes:

Intimacy with the physical Earth apparently awakens in us, at some wordless level, a primal knowledge of the nature of our emotional as well as our biological attachments to physical landscapes. Based on my own inquiries, my impression is that we experience this primal connection regularly as a diffuse, ineffable pleasure, experience it as the easing of a particular kind of longing.

Art by Giuliano Cucco from Before I Grew Up by John Miller

Lopez is the ultimate modern anti-Cartesian, reminding us again and again of our creaturely nature, interconnected and indivisible — the life of the mind indivisible from the life of the body, our portable totalities interleaved with the whole of the world. He offers a succinct prescription for remedying the elemental longing pulsating beneath our restlessness and our loneliness:

Perhaps the first rule of everything we endeavor to do is to pay attention. Perhaps the second is to be patient. And perhaps a third is to be attentive to what the body knows.

Complement these fragments from the wholly magnificent Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World with C.S. Lewis on what we long for in our existential longing and this lovely illustrated antidote to our elemental loneliness, then revisit Lopez on the key to great storytelling and the three steps to becoming a writer.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 19 Sep 2022 | 3:28 am(NZT)

Virginia Woolf on the Courage to Create Rather Than Cater and the Remedy for Self-Doubt

“One must face the despicable vanity which is at the root of all this niggling and haggling.”


Virginia Woolf on the Courage to Create Rather Than Cater and the Remedy for Self-Doubt

“The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver wrote as she distilled a lifetime of wisdom on creativity, “are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

Nearly a century before her, the young Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) was yet to wander through her garden and arrive at her flower-fomented epiphany about what it means to be an artist. She was already making a living by her pen, but she was catering rather than creating, writing book reviews and essays for various literary journals — miniatures of her mind, which pulsated with something larger, with its “own creative power restive and uprising,” leaving her raw with self-doubt, the way we always are in those threshold moments before some great leap into our own depths.

virginiawoolf
Virginia Woolf

In the springtime of her twenty-ninth year, long before To the Lighthouse and Orlando were but ink drops of thought at the tip of her pen, Virginia writes in her diary:

Well, you see, I’m a failure as a writer. I’m out of fashion: old: shan’t do any better: have no headpiece: the spring is everywhere: my book out (prematurely) and nipped, a damp firework.

With an eye to the commercial work syphoning her energy and talent — the era’s equivalent of “content” — she resolves:

I shan’t become a machine, unless a machine for grinding articles. As I write, there rises somewhere in my head that queer and very pleasant sense of something which I want to write; my own point of view. I wonder, though, whether this feeling that I write for half a dozen instead of 1500 will pervert this? — make me eccentric — no, I think not.

Long before Bertrand Russell reflected on how to grow older contentedly, counseling that you must “make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life,” Virginia adds:

One must face the despicable vanity which is at the root of all this niggling and haggling. I think the only prescription for me is to have a thousand interests — if one is damaged, to be able instantly to let my energy flow into Russian, or Greek, or the press, or the garden, or people, or some activity disconnected with my own writing.

These fragments appear in A Writer’s Diary (public library) — the magnificent posthumous volume that gave us Virginia’s reflections on the relationship between loneliness and creativity, what makes love last, the consolations of growing older, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and her arresting account of a total solar eclipse.

Couple with Keith Haring on self-doubt, then revisit the story of how John Steinbeck used the diary as a tool of creative self-actualization, paving his own way to the Nobel Prize, and Whitman on the discipline of creative self-esteem.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Sep 2022 | 1:41 pm(NZT)

Darwin Among the Machines: A Victorian Visionary’s Prophetic Admonition for Saving Ourselves from Enslavement by Artificial Intelligence

“We are ourselves creating our own successors… We are daily giving them… that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race.”


Darwin Among the Machines: A Victorian Visionary’s Prophetic Admonition for Saving Ourselves from Enslavement by Artificial Intelligence

In its original Latin use, the word genius was more readily applied to places — genius loci: “the spirit of a place” — than to persons, encoded with the reminder that we are profoundly shaped by the patch of spacetime into which the chance-accident of our birth has deposited us, our minds porous to the ideological atmosphere of our epoch. It is a humbling notion — an antidote to the vanity of seeing our ideas as the autonomous and unalloyed products of our own minds.

This has been the case in every culture across all the epochs since the dawn of minds. In ours, its most menacing manifestation — both unflattering and alarming — is something unprecedented: We are now porous not only to the collective ambience of human thought, but also to something half-human, something sub-human: It is neither you nor I deciding which of the photographs and poems I post on my Instagram you get to see; the algorithm that decides for you is not sentient in the sense that you and I are. It was once composed in code by human hands moved by human minds, and now it steers the bottom line of a human-governed company, but at that moment, that inflection point where it metes out your allotment of cultural material, it is pure machine — an automaton of variables, not one of them visible to you, not one controllable, together shaping what truth and beauty may appear before you, feeding what you may think about today and dream about tonight and dream up tomorrow or next year, furnishing the building blocks of your own genius.

On June 13, 1863, a letter was printed in a New Zealand newspaper under the heading “Darwin Among the Machines,” by someone who signed himself Cellarius and who later turned out to be the English writer Samuel Butler (December 4, 1835–June 18, 1902). At only twenty-seven, a century and a half ahead of his time, Butler prophesied the future of what we now call artificial intelligence and what he, epochs before the first modern computer and the golden age of algorithms, called “mechanical life” or “the mechanical kingdom.” Radiating from his visionary thought experiment is a calm, lucid admonition about what it would take to preserve our humanity — our singular human genius — amid this sea change changing the very fabric of consciousness.

Samuel Butler

Butler begins:

There are few things of which the present generation is more justly proud than of the wonderful improvements which are daily taking place in all sorts of mechanical appliances. And indeed it is matter for great congratulation on many grounds. It is unnecessary to mention these here, for they are sufficiently obvious; our present business lies with considerations which may somewhat tend to humble our pride and to make us think seriously of the future prospects of the human race. If we revert to the earliest primordial types of mechanical life, to the lever, the wedge, the inclined plane, the screw and the pulley, or (for analogy would lead us one step further) to that one primordial type from which all the mechanical kingdom has been developed, we mean to the lever itself… we find ourselves almost awestruck at the vast development of the mechanical world, at the gigantic strides with which it has advanced in comparison with the slow progress of the animal and vegetable kingdom. We shall find it impossible to refrain from asking ourselves what the end of this mighty movement is to be. In what direction is it tending? What will be its upshot?

Proceeding “to give a few imperfect hints towards a solution of these questions,” he adds:

In these last few ages, an entirely new kingdom has sprung up of which we as yet have only seen what will one day be considered the antediluvian prototypes of the race.

A century before Gordon Moore drew on his work with semiconductors to formulate his eponymous law for the exponential shrinking and acceleration of technology over time, Butler observes the unprecedented pace at which this “kingdom” of near-life has emerged:

As some of the lowest of the vertebrata attained a far greater size than has descended to their more highly organised living representatives, so a diminution in the size of machines has often attended their development and progress. Take the watch for instance. Examine the beautiful structure of the little animal, watch the intelligent play of the minute members which compose it; yet this little creature is but a development of the cumbrous clocks of the thirteenth century — it is no deterioration from them. The day may come when clocks, which certainly at the present day are not diminishing in bulk, may be entirely superseded by the universal use of watches, in which case clocks will become extinct like the earlier saurians, while the watch (whose tendency has for some years been rather to decrease in size than the contrary) will remain the only existing type of an extinct race.

One need only follow this progression to its logical conclusion to face the inevitable question of “what sort of creature man’s next successor in the supremacy of the earth is likely to be”:

We are ourselves creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying, by all sorts of ingenious contrivances, that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race.

Discus chronologicus — a German depiction of time from the early 1720s. (Available as a print and as a wall clock.)

And yet Butler defies our lazy modern binaries of techno-utopians versus techno-dystopians. Inside his cautionary vision pulsates a childlike optimism — this was, after all, the infancy of the machine age — that our machines might become not only superior in power but superior in moral might: capable of supreme self-control with cognition “in a state of perpetual calm,” afflicted with “no evil passions, no jealousy, no avarice, no impure desires,” free from the notions of sin and shame that so savage human behavior. The cost of this higher consciousness, however, would be our ceaseless servitude — we would have to maintain the machines, fix their every malfunction, and “feed” their unremitting appetites. (It is curious, haunting even, that Butler uses the word “feed” a century and a half before it became the standard term for the machine-selected cultural matter served to our consciousness by our social media, to become the very content of our thoughts, beliefs, and values.)

Butler considers the cost of this codependence:

When the state of things shall have arrived which we have been above attempting to describe, man will have become to the machine what the horse and the dog are to man. He will continue to exist, nay even to improve, and will be probably better off in his state of domestication under the beneficent rule of the machines than he is in his present wild state… Our interests are inseparable from theirs, and theirs from ours. Each race is dependent upon the other for innumerable benefits, and, until the reproductive organs of the machines have been developed in a manner which we are hardly yet able to conceive, they are entirely dependent upon man for even the continuance of their species.

Art by Matthew Houston from a graphic interpretation of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine

Butler closes with an uncompromising prescription for the only route to self-salvation — also childish, as all absolutism in the face of complexity is, but at the same time more mature than what our present self-infantilized civilization is capable of conceding:

Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question… war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown… If it be urged that this is impossible under the present condition of human affairs, this at once proves that the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage.

Fearing indeed that, in 1863, human civilization was too far gone for such total reeling back, Butler spent the next nine years elaborating on this prophesy and envisioning alternate futures in what became his novel Erewhon, or, Over the Range (public library | public domain) — the story of a contemporary traveler who, by some unnamed accident of spacetime, finds himself a visitor to a strange kingdom in a remote corner of Earth, inhabited by a self-contained culture that had long ago reached more advanced stages of civilization than ours, but sensed this impending enslavement by technology in the recognition that “the machines were ultimately destined to supplant the race of man, and to become instinct with a vitality as different from, and superior to, that of animals, as animal to vegetable life”; Erewhonians had managed to save themselves — to save their moral spirit, their happiness, and the life of the mind — by enacting the radical proposition with which Butler ended “Darwin Among the Machines,” banning all mechanical devices whatsoever.

The Manchester Mark 1 computer, on which Alan Turing recorded the world’s first digital music in 1951.

In the novel, Butler builds on the ideas laid out in his essay and, contrasting the slow evolution of life and consciousness on Earth with the rapid evolution of machines, composes what is essentially a stunning warning label for what we now call artificial intelligence — the next stage of consciousness:

There was a time, when the earth was to all appearance utterly destitute both of animal and vegetable life, and when according to the opinion of our best philosophers it was simply a hot round ball with a crust gradually cooling. Now if a human being had existed while the earth was in this state and had been allowed to see it as though it were some other world with which he had no concern, and if at the same time he were entirely ignorant of all physical science, would he not have pronounced it impossible that creatures possessed of anything like consciousness should be evolved from the seeming cinder which he was beholding? Would he not have denied that it contained any potentiality of consciousness? Yet in the course of time consciousness came. Is it not possible then that there may be even yet new channels dug out for consciousness, though we can detect no signs of them at present?

Again. Consciousness, in anything like the present acceptation of the term, having been once a new thing — a thing, as far as we can see, subsequent even to an individual centre of action and to a reproductive system (which we see existing in plants without apparent consciousness) — why may not there arise some new phase of mind which shall be as different from all present known phases, as the mind of animals is from that of vegetables?

It would be absurd to attempt to define such a mental state (or whatever it may be called), inasmuch as it must be something so foreign to man that his experience can give him no help towards conceiving its nature; but surely when we reflect upon the manifold phases of life and consciousness which have been evolved already, it would be rash to say that no others can be developed, and that animal life is the end of all things. There was a time when fire was the end of all things.

Primordial Chaos by Hilma af Klint, 1906-1907. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

At the heart of Butler’s thought experiment is an invitation, repeated almost the way in meditation one is continually invited to return to the breath, to consider the alarming rapidity with which mechanical proto-consciousness has emerged and already begun dominating tasks that organic consciousness has spent eons evolving for. In that regard, and in the way our own tasks have become so entwined with theirs, our machines are already conscious. “Where does consciousness begin, and where end?” he asks. “Who can draw the line?… Is not everything interwoven with everything?” With an eye to these disquieting questions, and to the grimly shortened arrow of evolutionary time, he writes:

The more highly organised machines are creatures not so much of yesterday, as of the last five minutes, so to speak, in comparison with past time. Assume for the sake of argument that conscious beings have existed for some twenty million years: see what strides machines have made in the last thousand!  May not the world last twenty million years longer?  If so, what will they not in the end become?  Is it not safer to nip the mischief in the bud and to forbid them further progress?

[…]

It must always be remembered that man’s body is what it is through having been moulded into its present shape by the chances and changes of many millions of years, but that his organisation never advanced with anything like the rapidity with which that of the machines is advancing.

Embroidery by Debbie Millman

Once again epochs of thought ahead of his time — a time when “God” was considered the creator of all life and life was thought to be of metaphysical rather than physical fundament — Butler alludes to Hermann von Helmholtz’s discovery, a decade earlier, of the speed of electricity across human nerve fibers, intimating that if the basic infrastructure of consciousness as we know it and feel it is but a matter of electricity across wires, then our mechanical companions are not so far removed from the concept of consciousness: If every sensation is “chemical and mechanical in its operation,” why do we think that “those things which we deem most purely spiritual are anything but disturbances of equilibrium in an infinite series of levers, beginning with those that are too small for microscopic detection, and going up to the human arm and the appliances which it makes use of?”

One of the novel’s characters captures the corollary of these questions in a sentiment that may well be — and perhaps must be — aimed at the fundamental assumptions of our own time:

I fear none of the existing machines; what I fear is the extraordinary rapidity with which they are becoming something very different to what they are at present. No class of beings have in any time past made so rapid a movement forward. Should not that movement be jealously watched, and checked while we can still check it? And is it not necessary for this end to destroy the more advanced of the machines which are in use at present, though it is admitted that they are in themselves harmless?

[…]

We cannot calculate on any corresponding advance in man’s intellectual or physical powers which shall be a set-off against the far greater development which seems in store for the machines. Some people may say that man’s moral influence will suffice to rule them; but I cannot think it will ever be safe to repose much trust in the moral sense of any machine.

In what may be the single most hauntingly prescient sentence written in his century, Butler adds:

Our bondage will steal upon us noiselessly and by imperceptible approaches.

A century and a half hence, Butler appears to have been right on every count. It is a chilling thought to consider that the reins of our own humanity might already be too far out of our hands. Felicitously, this remains an open question, to be answered with our very lives. Every act of resistance counts.

Complement with Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of AI, then revisit H.G. Wells’s prophetic vision for the “World Brain.”


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 16 Sep 2022 | 5:07 am(NZT)

Emerson on How to Trust Yourself and What Solitude Really Means

“It is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”


“I felt down in my soul the clear and unmistakable conviction to disobey all, and pursue my own way,” the young Whitman wrote of his momentous critique-walk with his greatest literary hero, Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803–April 27, 1882) — the walk from which the young poet wrested his wisdom on how to keep criticism from sinking your soul, for Emerson, who had inspired Leaves of Grass, had just lashed upon one of its primary poem sequences “argumentstatement, reconnoitring, review, attack, and pressing home, (like an army corps in order, artillery, cavalry, infantry,) of all that could be said against [it].”

But rather than offended, Emerson must have been pleased with Whitman’s decision to stay his course — for Whitman was in many ways the embodiment of the spirit Emerson so fiercely celebrated against the tide of his time: a spirit animated by the central doctrine “trust thyself,” anchored in resolute resistance to the tyranny of opinion, and rooted in the belief that had gotten Emerson banned from Harvard’s campus for thirty years when he was Whitman’s age — the belief that divinity is to be found not in some outside deity, but in the human soul itself, in its fidelity to itself as a fractal of nature, a particle of the perfect totality of the universe, which Margaret Fuller — Emerson’s greatest influence — called “the All.”

Art by Tanya P. Johnson from her series Wisdom Engines

Throughout Emerson’s immense body of work, no question vibrates more resonantly than that of how to trust yourself. He takes it up in his essay “Character,” found in his indispensable Essays and Lectures (public library | free ebook):

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man* is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

In “Nature” — perhaps his finest essay, for being the most all-encompassing and spiritually lucid — he considers what solitude actually means, refuting the common conception of it as a kind of self-isolation from other selves behind the walls of seclusion, for even the thinking mind, the writing mind, the creating mind is a symposium of outside voices when trapped within itself.

Art by David Byrne from his History of the World (in Dingbats)

A century and a half before Wendell Berry observed that “true solitude is found in the wild places, where… one’s inner voices become audible,” Emerson writes:

To go into solitude, a man* needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.

[…]

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage Japanese woodblocks. (Available as a print.)

Complement with Emerson’s young protégé Thoreau on solitude and the salve for melancholy, artist Rockwell Kent on wilderness, solitude, and creativity, and Kahlil Gibran on silence, solitude, and the courage to know yourself, then revisit Hermann Hesse on the wisdom of the inner voice and Octavia Butler on the meaning of “God.”


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 13 Sep 2022 | 3:39 am(NZT)

Fluid Becoming Solid Becoming Wonder: Artist Meghann Riepenhoff’s Otherworldly Cyanotype Prints of Ice Formation

A fluid serenade to this blue world, with a side of Rebecca Solnit.


Long ago, while visiting the photographic glass plates of nebulae and constellations at the Harvard College Observatory archives, I was overcome by the palpitations of paradox — how we think that photography immortalizes, while its very roots are in doing the opposite: making of the ephemeral an illusion of the eternal, razing us on the edge of our own transience as we gasp at the beauty of long-dead flowers and peer at the light of long-dead stars.

Artist Meghann Riepenhoff both celebrates and subverts this paradox of temporality in her stunning cyanotype prints of ice formation, for which she spent four years wading into freezing waters all over this pale blue dot — from Walden Pond to the Seine to the mountain creeks of Western Washington’s old-growth forests — to capture one of the most surreal facets of reality: the haunting alchemy of phase transition.

In this singular collaboration between human and landscape, she dragged blanket-sized sheets of photographic paper coated with potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate — compounds sensitive to the blue portion of the spectrum spilling into ultraviolet, developed and fixed by only water and sunlight — to emerge with otherworldly images of crisp crystal lattices and feathery fractals: fluid becoming solid becoming wonder.

Radiating from her prints is a kind of magical realism — you peer at these freezing waters, this hallmark of our blue world, and see the atmospheres of other planets, the plumage of a bird from some undiscovered paradise, the hieroglyphics of some ancient civilization encoding elemental wisdom we have long forgotten.

At the heart of it all is a layered meditation on time and transformation, on the subtle dance between fluidity and solidity that may be the highest art of life, on how something, in becoming other, can become more fully itself.

The book companion to the project, titled Ice, is itself a work of wonder and uncommon beauty, housed in an all-white slipcase embossed with the silent silhouette of ice formation, dedicated “to the water, which makes up all the beings and places that made this book possible,” and crowned with prose by the inimitable Rebecca Solnit, whose “Seven Sentences on the Fluid and the Frozen” punctuate the otherworldly blues.

In the first and most dazzling of these kaleidoscopic sentences, she builds upon her previous shimmering reflections on the color blue and writes in one centuries-long exhale:

Stray dogs whose fur had turned vivid blue were recently photographed wandering in the snow near a Russian town, the cause of their color thought to be a chemical from an abandoned factory, one apparently similar to the coal gas byproduct dumped around Britain for several decades that was a sticky bright blue substance known as Blue Billy of which a report noted “acute toxic effects of Blue Billy include loss of consciousness and breathing difficulties, as it can limit the absorption of oxygen at the cellular level,” and with this naming the substance seemed to take on the characteristics of an individual, an unpredictable one who changed roles as he changed associates, as he often did, since the same underlying substance, cyanide, compounded with sodium, was used to leach microscopic gold out of vast quantities of pulverized earth in eastern Nevada and once the poisonous liquid had pulled out the gold, there were lakes of it that the mining corporations were supposed to keep the birds from landing on, but since they self-monitored, how many birds died from landing in manmade lakes of poison is unknown, and hydrogen cyanide which in its pure form is a liquid that boils at 78 degrees Fahrenheit was the poison in poison pills that various Nazis used to kill themselves, and in Zyklon B, the pesticide used to kill more than a million human beings in Auschwitz (Zyklon being German for cyclone, B short for Blausäure, or blue acid, what we call Prussic acid in English), and so go a few of the many deadly things this cyanide does, but the substance is not only a poison, not only a destroyer, because it is part of the first synthetic color known as Prussian blue that the Encyclopedia Brittanica notes “was first synthesized about 1704 by the reaction of salts of iron in the +2 oxidation state (ferrous salts) with potassium ferrocyanide,” and the same Prussian blue can be given to human beings as a “pill that can help remove radioactive cesium and thallium from people’s bodies,” says a government site that also warns that breaking open the pills before swallowing will turn teeth and mouths blue: cyanide’s name comes from cyan, that Greek word for blue that I somehow connect to both cynicism and cygnets (the term for baby swans), the blue of stray dogs, of lakes, of poisons and cures for worse poisons, the blue of distance, the blue and blue laws, of blue mouths and dangerous blue mud, of the cyanotype photograms of seaweed specimens by Anna Atkins that she compiled into what is often described as the first photographic book, and the blue of the photographs in this book.

Complement with the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd on water as a portal to transcendence and this stunning Japanese illustrated poem celebrating water, then revisit two centuries of great writers — from Goethe and Thoreau to Toni Morrison and Rebecca Solnit — reverencing the color blue.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 13 Sep 2022 | 1:00 am(NZT)

The Banquet of Life: Some of the Finest Advice on Growing Old, Growing Young, and Becoming Your Fullest Self

“People ask: ‘Would you or would you not like to be young again?’ Of course, it is really one of those foolish questions that never should be asked, because they are impossible… You cannot unroll that snowball which is you: there is no ‘you’ except your life — lived.”


The Banquet of Life: Some of the Finest Advice on Growing Old, Growing Young, and Becoming Your Fullest Self

“In old age we should wish still to have passions strong enough to prevent us turning in on ourselves,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote as she considered how to keep life from becoming a parody of itself, while across the English Channel the ever-sagacious Bertrand Russell was offering his prescription for how to grow old and across the Atlantic the vivacious elderly Henry Miller was distilling the secret to remaining young at heart as a matter of being able to “fall in love again and again… forgive as well as forget… keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical.”

But no one has approached the universal problem of advancing from youth to old age, or the dialogue between the two within a lifetime and across generations, more insightfully, delightfully, and with richer nuance than the great classics scholar and linguist Jane Ellen Harrison (September 9, 1850–April 15, 1928), whose extraordinary life I came upon in Francesca Wade’s altogether scrumptious book Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars (public library) and whose work revolutionized the modern understanding of Ancient Greek culture by upending millennia of patriarchal revisionism with Harrison’s discovery of an entire class of “matriarchal, husbandless goddesses” central to community life and ritual.

In her sixty-fifth year, as World War I was breaking out, Harrison reflected in a letter that “work & friendship come to be the whole of life.” As the ledger of her life grew thick with decades, she never lost her intellectual vivacity, her lively intergenerational friendships, her active engagement with the ever-pulsating world of scholars and artists — in no small part because of the life and love she shared with her significantly younger partner: the poet, novelist, and translator Hope Mirrlees.

Hope Mirrlees and Jane Ellen Harrison

That same year, Harrison was startled to hear one of her young, talented colleagues at Trinity College proclaim that “no one over thirty is worth speaking to.” With her winking intelligence, she observed:

This is really very interesting and extraordinarily valuable. Here we have, not a reasoned conclusion, but a real live emotion, a good solid prejudice, a genuine attitude of gifted Youth to Crabbed Age. It is my business to understand and, if I can, learn from it. Give me an honest prejudice, and I am always ready to attend to it.

In a sentiment that ought to be the ultimate manifesto for intellectual and emotional humility, direly needed in our own time, she adds:

I am long past blame and praise, or, rather, I am not yet ready for them; there is so much still waiting to be understood.

And so she set out to do just that in an entertaining, existentially profound essay titled “Crabbed Age and Youth,” published in her 1915 essay collection Alpha and Omega (public library).

Harrison considers the rudiments of maturity and what makes us who we are by examining the “relations between fairly mature youth and quite early middle age,” defining the latter as “anything completely or hopelessly grown up — anything, say, well over thirty,” winking at the relativity of age with the memory of a time when a person of fourteen appeared to her child-self “utterly grown up.” Reflecting on the young scholar’s remark, and noting in herself with even greater alarm a similar “counter-prejudice” against youth, she observes:

The reasons by which people back up their prejudices are mostly negligible — not reason at all at bottom, but just instinctive self-justifications; but prejudice, rising as it does in emotion, has its roots in life and reality.

She notes that while there is often great friction between the young and the old, this friction can, “if rightly understood and considerately handled on both sides, take the form of mutual stimulus and attraction” — for it most often springs from a lack of understanding of each other’s state of being and frame of reference. The source of this friction is also the source of the exquisite complementarity of the two life-stages:

Youth and Crabbed Age stand broadly for the two opposite poles of human living, poles equally essential to any real vitality, but always contrasted. Youth stands for rationalism*, for the intellect and its concomitants, egotism and individualism. Crabbed Age stands for tradition, for the instincts and emotions, with their concomitant altruism. (*Note: Due allowance of course being made for the anti-intellectual reaction in the present generation.)

[…]

The whole art of living is a delicate balance between the two tendencies. Virtues and vice are but convenient analytic labels attached to particular forms of the two tendencies. Of the two, egotism, self-assertion, are to the youth as necessary — sometimes, I sadly think, more necessary — to good living than altruism. Moreover, the egotism of youth is compulsory, inevitable, and equally the altruism of age is ineluctable.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for poet Robert Graves’s little-known children’s book.

A century before the selfing pandemic of social media, Harrison considers the chief handicap of the young — their tendency to “masquerade,” which calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s insight into being vs. appearing and our impulse for self-display, and Walt Whitman’s reflection on what trees teach us about being rather than seeming. She writes:

Acting is sinking your own personality in order that you may mimic another’s. Masquerading is borrowing another’s personality, putting on the mask of another’s features, dress, experiences, emotions, and thereby enhancing your own… Youth, and especially shy Youth, is strongly possessed by the instinctive desire to masquerade.

[…]

Masquerading bores Crabbed Age. Why?

Simply because the impulse to imaginative self-enhancement dies down as soon as liberty to live is granted… Crabbed Age is busy living, not rehearsing, and living, if sometimes less amusing, is infinitely more absorbing. It takes so much out of you.

And yet the old have their own way of oppressing the young, equally alienating to both and equally damaging to the collective mosaic of culture:

It is a waste of time putting up signposts for others who necessarily travel by another, and usually a better, road. Old people are apt to make disastrous confusion between information that can be accumulated and conveyed, that is identical for all time, that is knowledge, and experience, that which must be lived and cannot be repeated.

But Old Age does worse than that. In trying to impose its experience as a law to youth it sins not only through ignorance, but from sheer selfishness. Parents try to impose their view of life on their children not merely or mostly to save those children from disaster — that to a certain extent and up to a certain age we must all do — but from possessiveness, from a desire, often unconscious, to fill the whole stage themselves.

[…]

The truth that it has failed to grasp is a hard one for human nature. This truth is that, in all matters that can be analyzed and known, Youth starts life on the shoulders of Age, and therefore… sees farther and is actually more likely to be right.

Across this divide youth and old age frustrate and bore each other — one excited about everything, especially the masquerade of the self, the other increasingly specialized and outward-focused in its excitations, and at times oppressively so. But eventually, Harrison observes, life intercedes and the young are forced — by falling in love, by creative self-actualization, by some great calamity or illness, by the demands of a career, by the demands of a family — to shed their masks and narrow their locus of concerns, growing more entwined with other selves:

Through any bit of actual work or responsibility, Youth takes a part in life, becomes a real part, instead of claiming a theatrical whole, straight-way Youth mellows, becomes interesting and easier to live with.

In a passage of extraordinary insight into the meat of life, she writes:

Real life — and here comes the important point — real life, as contrasted with life imagined and rehearsed, on the whole compels at least a certain measure of altruism. There are many methods of compulsion, some gentle, some violent. We will consider for a moment only two, and these the most normal.

Normally, in the first place, life itself will lure you, catch you, and marry you, make a father or a mother of you, and your children will soon stop your masquerading, and teach you that you are not the centre of their universe — nay, compel you to revolve round the circumference of theirs. Marriage, through the lure of passion for the individual, compels your service to the race. This great education in altruism is necessarily more drastic and complete for woman than for man.

But suppose you elude the natural lure of life. There is society waiting with its artificial lure — waiting to catch you and make an official of you, a functionary, a thing that is only half or a quarter perhaps yourself, and a large three-quarters that tool and mouthpiece of the collective conscience. How often one has seen a year’s officialdom turn a man’s spiritual hair grey! The gist of all officialdom is not its labels, its honours, but the sacrifice of the individual will; and for this society is always ready, and rightly, to pay a big price. Of course, though there is loss, there is great gain in officialdom as in marriage. Each is a godly discipline by which the young man learns not to be the centre of his own universe.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for a rare edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Recognizing that children are often the most distilled and unalloyed version of all of our adult puzzlements and confusions, she adds:

This being the centre of your own — of course, quite fictitious — universe is best seen in the extreme case of the megalomania of young children, as yet untaught by life. Their own experience is always illuminating.

[…]

At seven years old one cannot analyze, so one must agonize. That is why it is so terrible to be a child, or even a young thing at all. One sees things, feels them, whole. There is no such devastating, desolating experience as to have been at the centre, warm and sheltered, and suddenly to be at the outmost circumference, and be asked to revolve as spectator and sympathizer round a newly-formed centre.

We carry much of that primal self-centeredness, and the grief of its loss, well into young adulthood — a term, and concept, that didn’t exist in Harrison’s era. Eric Berne’s revolutionary framework of the Child, Parent, and Adult ego-states that live in each of us was still half a century away. With her own singular lens on how we become ourselves — and our selves — Harrison writes:

As long as you want to be, and feel yourself to be, the whole of life, as long as you do not specialize and become a functionary, you do not co-operate, you cannot apprehend or be interested in the personalities of others. You are only one of a great chorus, all masquerading, all shouting, “Me, Me—look at ME!” Once you specialize, once you become an actor with a part in life, then you need all the other actors; the play cannot go on without them. Even your part in it depends on them. The me becomes us.

[…]

Far from it being true that specialization narrows the individuality, specialization is almost the condition of any true individualism. Through co-operation the sense of personality is born and nourished… The narrow, tedious people are those who are “living their own lives” and consciously “developing their own individualities” — trying to out-shout the other members of the chorus instead of singing in tune, playing their part as actors in a troupe.

With the kind of lucidity that only conscientious hindsight confers, she paints an image that captures the whole paradox of becoming:

It is one of the tragic antinomies of life that you cannot at once live and have vision… Looking back on life I seem to see Youth as standing, a small, intensely-focused spot, outside a great globe or circle. So intense is the focus that the tiny spot believes itself the centre of the great circle. Then slowly that little burning, throbbing spot that is oneself is sucked in with thousands of others into the great globe. Humbled by life it learns that it is no centre of life at all; at most it is one of the myriads of spokes in the great wheel. In Old Age the speck, the individual life, passes out on the other side, no longer burning and yet not quite consumed. In Old Age we look back on the great wheel; we can see it a little because, at least partially, we are outside of it. But this looking back is strangely different from the looking forward of Youth. It is disillusioned, but so much the richer. Occasionally nowadays I get glimpses of what that vision might be. I get my head for a moment out of the blazing, blinding, torturing wheel; the vision of the thing behind me and without me obscurely breaks. It looks strange, almost portentous, yet comforting; but that vision is incommunicable.

Art by Carson Ellis from What Is Love? by Mac Barnett

Crowning the essay is a wonderfully nuanced definition of age, emanating a kind of wisdom difficult for the ego to nod at but beautiful and necessary:

Anyone who cares passionately for abstract discussion, be his hair never so grey, his hand never so palsied, is in spirit young. I do not say this is an advantage. It is possible to stay young too long. There is a “time to grow old.”

[…]

People ask: “Would you or would you not like to be young again?” Of course, it is really one of those foolish questions that never should be asked, because they are impossible. You cannot be — you that are — young again. You cannot unroll that snowball which is you: there is no “you” except your life — lived. But apart from that, when you rise from what somebody calls “the banquet of life,” flushed with the wine of life, can you want to sit down again? When you have climbed the hill, and the view is just breaking, do you want to reclimb it? A thousand times no! Anyone who honestly wants to be young again has never lived, only imagined, only masqueraded. Of course, if you never eat, you keep your appetite for dinner.

The day after Jane Harrison died — an unseasonable spring day of “bitter windy rain” — Virginia Woolf recorded in her diary that she had gone for a walk in the cemetery and run into Hope, Jane’s partner, distraught and “half sleep” with grief. Virginia, who was months from publishing Orlando — her four-century love letter to Vita, the great love of her own life — recounted her encounter with the brokenhearted Hope:

We kissed by Cromwell’s daughter’s grave, where Shelley used to walk, for Jane’s death. She lay dead outside the graveyard in that back room where we saw her lately raised on her pillows, like a very old person, whom life has tossed up, & left; exalted, satisfied, exhausted.

Hope later received a note of condolence from Virginia, containing a single line. “It was more comforting than all my other letters put together,” she told a friend half a lifetime later. It read:

But remember what you have had.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 11 Sep 2022 | 2:49 am(NZT)

Unselfing Social

An invitation.


Somewhere along the way, in the century of the self, we forgot each other. We forgot this vast and wonder-filled universe, of which we are each but a tiny and transient wonder.

We forgot that all creative work — be it music or mathematics, poetry or physics, anything we might call art — is a hand outstretched in the dark, reaching not for visibility but for the light that lives between us. Reaching for connection.

We forgot what Whitman knew even as he proclaimed “I celebrate myself!” — that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” No word appears in Leaves of Grass more times than you.

We are living through a pandemic of selfing — rampant self-celebration that mistakes applause for connection, likes for love. Social media companies are capitalizing on our native need for affirmation, exploiting our compromised immunity to manipulation at every turn: algorithms prioritizing selfies over sunflowers, algorithms amplifying the word I, algorithms doping us on the dopamine of being noticed, seducing us into forgetting the art and joy of noticing — that crowning glory of consciousness. And somewhere, in the quiet core of our being, this frantic hunt for likes is making us like ourselves less.

There must be another way — a way to unself just enough to remember each other, to grow a little more awake to this world that shimmers with wonder, of which any one self is only a fleck.

Whatever that way is, it is not some new technology. Maybe it is a new ethic. Maybe it is the oldest ethic.

Here is what I propose:

As an experiment, for one continuous month, make the focus of one in every three things you share on social media — wherever you normally share, however regularly or irregularly you do, however many people you reach — something other than yourself or your own work: a friend’s art project, a stranger’s poem, a record by a musician you love, the tree shimmering with majesty and mystery in the low morning light, someone in your community you admire, a bygone pioneer of something you value, a book that spun you on your axis, the lost cat sign crayoned by a neighbor’s child, the new community garden a few blocks over, news of the dazzling galaxy discovered by the dazzling new space telescope a few million lightyears over.

Try it for a month — try it on like a shirt, see how it feels. And if you don’t feel that warm glow of generosity, that good glad feeling of making another’s day, or simply the relief of a small sabbatical from the tedium of the self, then you can always go back to the old way.

Wherever you land, it will not have been a wasted month.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 10 Sep 2022 | 11:00 pm(NZT)

The Enigma of the Eel: The Elusive Science of Earth’s Most Mysterious Creature

“Science has come up against many mysteries, but few have proven as intractable and difficult to solve as the eel.”


The Enigma of the Eel: The Elusive Science of Earth’s Most Mysterious Creature

No one knows why they go the way they go, which is always one way, or how they get there, which is not really a there, for the Sargasso Sea is not really a sea but a patch of open ocean bounded by four mighty currents, with no clear borders, named for the brown Sargassum algae that rise from its basin like a magic forest at the bottom of the world and cover its surface with miles-wide drifts of magic carpet. It is a fitting place for the spawning ground of the eels, Anguilla anguilla, for they are creatures whose mystery borders on magic.

The eel can suspend its own aging and live nearly a century. It can migrate thousands of miles, swimming as much as thirty miles per day, then settling to live in a single place for decades. It can survive years without any food and can crawl through dry land for hours in search of the next riverine leg of its indomitable migration. No one knows why it chooses what it chooses as the home in which to live out the prime of its life before returning to its birthplace to spawn and die, or how it makes its way back. Human eyes have never seen a single eel, living or dead, in the Sargasso Sea where it begins and ends its otherworldly life.

Art from the world’s first color encyclopedia of marine life (1719), partway between natural history and myth. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

“As they passed through the surf and out to sea,” Rachel Carson wrote of the eels completing their return journey, “so also they passed from human sight and almost from human knowledge.” Her lyrical 1941 book Under the Sea-Wind, which always remained her favorite piece of writing, brought that otherworldly life of the eel to the human imagination for the first time in a systematic chronicle of its science and its enduring mystery. In the near-century since, humanity has made little progress in solving the enigma of the eel, so that Carson’s poetic prose reads today as resonant with wonder as ever:

No one knows how the eels traveled to their common destination… But somehow they came to the continent’s edge, where the muddy slopes of the sea’s wall fell away steeply, and so they passed to the deepest abyss of the Atlantic. There the young were to be born of the darkness of the deep sea and the old eels were to die and become sea again.

In early February billions of specks of protoplasm floated in darkness, suspended far below the surface of the sea. They were the newly hatched larvae — the only testament that remained of the parent eels. The young eels first knew life in the transition zone between the surface sea and the abyss. A thousand feet of water lay above them, straining out the rays of the sun. Only the longest and strongest of the rays filtered down to the level where the eels drifted in the sea — a cold and sterile residue of blue and ultraviolet, shorn of all its warmth of reds and yellows and greens. For a twentieth part of the day the blackness was displaced by a strange light of a vivid and unearthly blue that came stealing down from above. But only the straight, long rays of the sun when it passed the zenith had power to dispel the blackness, and the deep sea’s hour of dawn light was merged in its hour of twilight. Quickly the blue light faded away, and the eels lived again in the long night that was only less black than the abyss, where the night had no end.

Once hatched, the tiny larvae, half-blind and translucent and known as willow leaves, immediately begin their journey toward land, traversing thousands of miles of open ocean on the wings of the Gulf Stream, until they land ashore. There, they undergo their first metamorphosis and become glass eels — slippery transparencies the length of a pinky — adapting instantly to this freshwater chapter of their lives.

As they make their way up the riverine lungs of the land, another metamorphosis takes place and they become yellow eels — small but mighty serpentine swimmers who now have jaws, tiny scales and tiny gills, and a tender mohawk of soft fins along the back and belly. This is the eel as an adolescent — but it is an epochal adolescence that can last for decades. The eel spends most of its life in this guise, hunting at night in its enigmatically chosen home, feasting on fish and frogs, snails and dragonflies, mice and small birds, hibernating for long periods.

And then, suddenly, the solitary yellow eel is overcome by the urge to reproduce and enters its final metamorphosis to begin the journey back to the Sargasso Sea. The onetime tender willow leaf now becomes a mighty silver eel, its yellowish-brown body saturating into black, its sides gleaming with silver and adorned with dark stripes. Its reproductive organs bloom into being. Its eyes grow large and blue in preparation for navigating the short-wavelength nocturne of the deep ocean. Its stomach dissolves, its digestive system shuts down, and the eel becomes a metabolic monastic — from this point on, throughout the thousands of miles down rivers and across open ocean, the female will only use her fat reserves for fuel as her body fills with roe. Somehow, as if by magic, she makes her way back to the Sargasso Sea.

Eel from An Essay Toward a Natural History of Serpents, 1742. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In his fascinating Book of Eels (public library) — a homily on science and on mystery, synthesizing everything we know so far about the eel, how we came to know it, and the vast everythingness of the remaining enigma — Patrik Svensson reflects on the eel as “a fish that transcends the piscine condition” and writes:

Science has come up against many mysteries, but few have proven as intractable and difficult to solve as the eel. Eels have turned out to be not only uncommonly difficult to observe — due to their strange life cycle, their shyness, their metamorphoses, and their roundabout approach to reproduction — but also secretive in a way that comes across as deliberate and preordained. Even when successful observation is possible, even when you get really close, the eel seems to pull away.

[…]

This uncertainty about the fundamental nature of the eel has often led to some distance between us and them. People have found eels frightening or disgusting. They’re slimy and slithery, look like snakes and are said to eat human bodies; they move surreptitiously, in the dark and the mud. The eel is alien, unlike other animals, and regardless of how ubiquitous it has been, in our lakes and rivers and on our tables, it has always remained a stranger in some respects.

For millennia, humans had never encountered a male eel. (Because, we now know, the females are the ones who traverse the land up rivers and streams, while the males remain stationed at river mouths awaiting their return so they can swim the final leg of their life-cycle together back to the Sargasso Sea.) This so puzzled Aristotle that, despite his landmark contributions to zoology and his general scientific bend, he concluded the eel sprang from mud. The Egyptians believed it emerged from nothingness once the sun warmed the waters of the Nile. In the ancient cultures of the British Isles, eels were thought to come alive when horse hairs fell into the water. By the Middle Ages, with a male yet to be found, the eel was pronounced a hermaphrodite, capable of performing both genders in a single body to fertilize itself. In the eighteenth century, it was classed with serpents and illustrated alongside mermaids in the world’s first color encyclopedia of marine life.

Engraving from the 1862 book The Origin of the Silver Eel, which posited that the eel emerged from a beetle.

In nineteenth-century Germany, finding a gendered eel became a national sport when newspapers announced a reward of fifty marks to anyone who could send in an eel carrying roe, which a renowned professor was to examine. The government fishing agency was to pay for all postage. After hundreds of eels turning up from every corner of the country — half-rotten eels, half-eaten eels, eels full not of roe but of parasites — not a single sexually mature eel was found and the government agency nearly went bankrupt. Eventually, the first roe-laden eel was discovered in 1850, but this still left the mystery of the ghostly male unsolved.

And then, in 1876, a nineteen-year-old medical student with a passion for zoology and evolutionary biology took it upon himself to solve the ancient riddle. His name was Sigmund Freud and he was determined to discover the testicles of the eel, after hearing that a Polish zoologist claimed to have found a mature male eel, inside which he had found a lobe-shaped organ that vied to the the long-theorized gonad. But since dissection of a dead animal could never illuminate the workings of the living organism, it was unclear whether that organ could produce semen and was indeed reproductive. More observation was needed, patient and possibly doomed.

The teenage Freud with his mom.

So it is that the teenage Freud ended up in a ramshackle laboratory on the Mediterranean shore. He took up quarters in a tiny room in Trieste and set up his worktable under its sole window. He stationed his microscope in one corner of the desk, his dissection dish in the other, his notepad and four sharpened pencils at the center, and his arsenal of specimens in the front — various glass vessels, pans, and bowls containing whole “beasts” or eel bits in seawater.

“In between stand or lie test tubes, instruments, needles, cover slips, microscope slides,” he wrote to his best friend, “so that when I am busy working there is not a spot left on which I can rest my hand.” Each morning at daybreak, he made his way to the docks to buy fresh eels from the local fishermen, then returned to his desk to work for four hours, taking a lunch break of precisely one hour before resuming for another five hours until dusk, then heading out for his thinking-walk, noting the uncommon beauty of the local women.

For all this diligence and devotion, Freud failed to find the male gonads. Other scientists kept trying, and failing. Svensson writes:

What neither Freud nor [other scientists of his time] knew was, of course, that eels have no visible sex organs until they need them. Its metamorphoses are not just superficial adaptations to new life conditions. They’re existential. An eel becomes what it needs to be when the time is right.

Twenty years after Freud’s failed efforts, a sexually mature male silver eel was finally found off the coast of Messina in Sicily. And thus, the eel had finally become a fish. A creature not so dissimilar from others.

And yet this creature remains Earth’s greatest living mystery — a mystery the natural and cultural history of which Svensson traces in the wholly wondrous Book of Eels, folded into which is a tender memoir of his father, who shaped his own relationship with the eel. Complement it with this excellent Gastropod episode about reinventing the edible eel, then pair it with the equally and differently wondrous evolutionary-cultural history of the oyster.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 10 Sep 2022 | 1:02 am(NZT)

Leo Tolstoy on the Obsolescence of the State as a Form of Government and the Antidote to Violence

“Violence no longer rests on the belief in its utility, but only on the fact of its having existed so long, and being organized by the ruling classes who profit by it.”


Leo Tolstoy on the Obsolescence of the State as a Form of Government and the Antidote to Violence

“To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears,” Octavia Butler wrote in her searing admonition about choosing our leaders. “To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.” But in some deep animal sense, to be led at all is to risk handing one’s own moral conscience over to another. The paradox of our invasive species is that, because there are simply too many of us, it is our self-made fate to be governed — but we are yet to invent a form of government wholly free from evil.

Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 20, 1910) tussles with this paradox throughout Last Steps: The Late Writings of Leo Tolstoy (public library) — the collection of his final journals, which also gave us his reflections on science, spirituality, and our search for meaning.

Leo Tolstoy

Writing in the last days of the first year of the twentieth century, the elderly Tolstoy considers one of the chief hypocrisies of modern life:

The whole complexity of our urban life lies in the fact that people think up and accustom themselves to harmful requirements, and then use all their mental energies to satisfy them or reduce the harm caused by satisfying them… Before speaking about the goodness of satisfying one’s requirements, one ought to decide what requirements constitute goodness. That’s very important.

Much of this confusion stems from the sheer complexity of managing human beings at scale. Considering the obsolescence of the state as a form of government — an entity that concentrates and magnifies humanity’s most dangerous hypocrisies, making murder on a large scale, in the form of war, morally permissible even for good people who condemn it on the small scale — he writes:

It’s amusing, the opinion people have that non-resistance to evil by force or paying back good for evil are very good rules for individuals, but can’t be applied to the state. As though the state isn’t a combination of people, but something separate from people. Oxygen has such and such properties. But they are only the properties of the atoms and molecules of oxygen. But oxygen in big compounds acquires quite different, opposite properties. This opinion alone that states have properties which are the opposite of human ones is the most obvious proof of the obsolete nature of the state as a form of government.

Pessimism and Optimism by Giacomo Balla, 1923. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Seven years earlier, in reckoning with the fundaments of resistance to evil, Tolstoy had put it even more pointedly:

Violence no longer rests on the belief in its utility, but only on the fact of its having existed so long, and being organized by the ruling classes who profit by it, so that those who are under their authority cannot extricate themselves from it. The governments of our day — all of them, the most despotic and the liberal alike — have become… organizations of violence based on no principle but the grossest tyranny, and at the same time taking advantage of all the means invented by science for the peaceful collective social activity of free and equal men, used by them to enslave and oppress their fellows.

Complement with Hannah Arendt on our only effective antidote to evil, in society and in the self, and Bertrand Russell on how to heal an ailing and divided world, then revisit Tolstoy on kindness and the measure of love.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 8 Sep 2022 | 1:33 pm(NZT)

Relationship Rupture and the Limbic System: The Physiology of Abandonment and Separation

“A relationship is a physiologic process, as real and as potent as any pill or surgical procedure.”


Relationship Rupture and the Limbic System: The Physiology of Abandonment and Separation

“We can count on so few people to go that hard way with us,” Adrienne Rich wrote in framing her superb definition of honorable human relationships. It is a cruelty of life that, along the way, people who once appeared fitted to the task crumble in character when the going gets hard in that natural way hardship has of visiting all human lives.

When relationships collapse under the weight of life, the crash is not merely psychological but physiological — something less and less surprising as we learn more and more about consciousness as a full-body phenomenon beyond the brain. A quarter century ago, the pioneering immunologist Esther Sternberg began demonstrating how relationships affect our immune system. But there is no system they impact more profoundly than the limbic: our neurophysiological command center of emotion — something psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon explore throughout their revelatory book A General Theory of Love (public library), which also gave us their insight into music, the neural harmonics of emotion, and how love recomposes the brain.

Art by Maurice Sendak from a vintage children’s book by Janice May Urdy.

The profound disruption of relationship rupture, they observe, is related to our earliest attachments and the way our system processes separation from our primary caregivers — a primal response not singular to the human animal:

Take a puppy away from his mother, place him alone in a wicker pen, and you will witness the universal mammalian reaction to the rupture of an attachment bond — a reflection of the limbic architecture mammals share. Short separations provoke an acute response known as protest, while prolonged separations yield the physiologic state of despair.

A lone puppy first enters the protest phase. He paces tirelessly, scanning his surroundings from all vantage points, barking, scratching vainly at the floor. He makes energetic and abortive attempts at scaling the walls of his prison, tumbling into a heap with each failure. He lets out a piteous whine, high-pitched and grating. Every aspect of his behavior broadcasts his distress, the same discomfort that all social mammals show when deprived of those to whom they are attached. Even young rats evidence protest: when their mother is absent they emit nonstop ultrasonic cries, a plaintive chorus inaudible to our dull ape ears.

Behaviorally and psychologically, the despair phase begins when fretfulness, which can manifest as anxiety in humans, collapses into lethargy — a condition that often accompanies depression. But abrupt and prolonged separation produces something much more than psychological havoc — it unleashes a full-system somatic shock. Various studies have demonstrated that cardiovascular function, hormone levels, and immune response are all disrupted. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon capture the result unambiguously:

Relationship rupture is a severe bodily strain… Prolonged separation affects more than feelings. A number of somatic parameters go haywire in despair. Because separation deranges the body, losing relationships can cause physical illness.

But harrowing as this reality of intimacy and its ruptures may be, it also intimates something wonderfully assuring in its mirror-image — just like painful relationships can so dysregulate us, healthy relationships can regulate us and recalibrate our limbic system, forged in our earliest attachments.

The solution to the eternal riddle of trust emerges as both banal and profound — simply the practice of continually refining our discernment about character and cultivating intimate relationships of the kind life’s hard edges cannot rupture, with people who are the human equivalent not of poison but of medicine, and endeavoring to become such people ourselves for the emotional ecosystems of those we love.

Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon write:

A relationship is a physiologic process, as real and as potent as any pill or surgical procedure.

[…]

Total self-sufficiency turns out to be a daydream whose bubble is burst by the sharp edge of the limbic brain. Stability means finding people who regulate you well and staying near them.

This might sound simple, almost simplistic, but it is one of the most difficult and redemptive arts of living — for, lest we forget, “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.”

Complement with Alain de Botton on the psychological Möbius strip that keeps us in unhealthy relationships (and how to break it) and David Whyte on the deeper meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak, then revisit Hannah Arendt on what forgiveness really means.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 7 Sep 2022 | 12:25 pm(NZT)

Astronomy as Existential Calibration: A Poetic Manifesto for Science from Two Centuries Before the Golden Age of Space Telescopes

“Astronomy has enlarged the sphere of our conceptions, and opened to us a universe without bounds, where the human Imagination is lost.”


On March 13, 1781, the Solar System bloomed a new planet: The eminent astronomer William Herschel, whose son would later coin the word photography, discovered Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun — an icy blue gas giant spinning on its side twofold farther than Saturn.

The Voyager‘s farewell photograph of Uranus. (Photograph courtesy of NASA.)

With the help of his unstoppable sister Caroline, who had ground the lenses, Herschel had built an unexampled telescope with a magnifying power of 6,000, dwarfing all the reigning royal instruments. With it, and with his superhuman patience for observing the heavens long into the English winter nights, he didn’t so much discover the fact of Uranus as deduce its nature — it had been visible to astronomers for a long time and was even included in the preeminent star catalogue of the time, but it had always been classified as a faint fixed star.

Just like Edwin Hubble had gasped at his telescopic realization that what was previously considered a nebula in the Milky Way was in fact a whole other galaxy beyond it, instantly changing the scale of the known universe, Herschel looked through his mighty instrument and realized that what was previously considered the fixed star of a faraway solar system was in fact another planet revolving around our very own star, instantly reconfiguring our corner of the cosmos.

19th-century Solar System quilt designed and embroidered by Ellen Harding Baker over the course of seven years to teach women astronomy when they were barred from higher education in science. (Available as a print.)

In an age when the filter bubble was as thick for lack of access to information as it is today for excessive access to information, it took considerable time for Herschel’s discovery to travel from the ecstatic circle of the scientific community into the popular imagination. Chief among its driving forces was the unconventional 1786 book An Introduction to Astronomy in a Series of Letters from a Preceptor to His Pupil (public domain) by John Bonnycastle (1750/1–1821), who dedicated an entire chapter to Uranus. Nested into it is a lovely manifesto for the broader value of astronomy — and, by extension, of all science — as a tool of existential reckoning and a fulcrum for living up to our highest nature.

Epochs before the great Holocaust survivor and chemist Primo Levi considered the humanistic value of space exploration in a divided world, Bonnycastle takes the discovery of Uranus as a canvas for the bigger picture:

This discovery, which at first appears more curious than useful, may yet be of great service to astronomy; the circumstance of a primary planet having been unobserved for so many ages naturally led astronomers to examine, with greater accuracy, those small stars which had hitherto been genially neglected, or only considered as of use in determining the position of the planets. And these observations have produced many other new discoveries in the celestial regions by which our knowledge of the heavenly bodies, and of the immutable laws that govern the universe, will become much more extended; which is the great object of the science, and the source from which we may expect to derive such consequences as are of practical application, and the most useful to mankind.

The Tarantula Nebula. (Photograph: NASA / James Webb Space Telescope.)

The purpose of such discoveries, Bonnycastle observes two centuries before the golden age of space telescopes and their epoch-making discoveries of other worlds around other suns, is to liberate us from the parochial perspective of self-significance that is the downfall of the human animal. Reverencing the self-transcendence of the telescopic perspective, he writes:

Astronomy has enlarged the sphere of our conceptions, and opened to us a universe without bounds, where the human Imagination is lost. Surrounded by infinite space, and swallowed up in an immensity of being, man seems but as a drop of water in the ocean, mixed and confounded with the general mass. But from this situation, perplexing as it is, he endeavours to extricate himself; and by looking abroad into Nature, employs the powers she has bestowed upon him in investigating her works.

Bonnycastle also made a daring creative decision against the grain of convention — he punctuated the science with astronomically themed verses by beloved poets, explaining the rationale behind his choice in a passage that reads like a manifesto for the spirit of The Universe in Verse:

The frequent allusions to the Poets, and the various quotations interspersed throughout the work, are intended as an agreeable relief to minds unaccustomed to the regular deduction of facts by mathematical reasoning, and to enliven those parts where a simple detail of particular must, from its necessary length, become languid. Poetical descriptions, though they may not be strictly conformable to the rigid principles of the science they are meant to elucidate, generally leave a stronger impression on the mind, and are far more captivating than simple unadorned language.

Complement with an animated poem celebrating the cosmic perspective and a poetic tribute to our search for dark matter, then revisit composer Caroline Shaw’s stunning music for the poetry of the cosmos and poet Diane Ackerman’s stunning poems for the Solar System.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 6 Sep 2022 | 3:31 am(NZT)











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