“All truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” Margaret Fuller wrote as she was spearheading the Transcendentalist movement and laying the groundwork for what would later be called feminism.
A century and a half after Fuller, theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander examines this dual seedbed of truth in The Jazz of Physics (public library) — part memoir of his improbable path to science and music, part captivating primer on modern physics, part manifesto for the power of cross-disciplinary thinking and improvisation in unlocking new chambers of possibility for the human mind’s intercourse with the universe and the nature of reality.
Drawing on the legacy of Kepler, who composed the world’s first work of science fiction — a clever allegory advancing the then-controversial Copernican model of the universe through a conceptually ingenious analogy — Alexander writes:
Contrary to the logical structure innate in physical law, in our attempts to reveal new vistas in our understanding, we often must embrace an irrational, illogical process, sometimes fraught with mistakes and improvisational thinking. Although it is important for both jazz musicians and physicists to strive for technical and theoretical mastery in their respective disciplines, innovation demands that they go beyond the skill sets they have mastered. Key to innovation in theoretical physics is the power of analogical reasoning.
But while Alexander does draw heavily on analogies throughout the book, the parallels and equivalences between music and physics are often far more literal. “It is less about music being scientific and more about the universe being musical,” he writes, reminding us that stars, galaxies, and planets arose from sound waves in the plasma of the infant universe as spacetime vibrated like an instrument to produce the waves that leavened these essential cosmic structures.
Born in Trinidad, Alexander fell in love with science shortly after his family moved to the United States. Visiting the American Museum of Natural History with his third-grade class, he was mesmerized by a set of papers behind a thick pane of glass, inscribed with symbols that seemed otherworldly to his eight-year-old consciousness. Next to them was a portrait of their author — a wild-haired, mischievous-eyed oddball. This was his first encounter with Einstein, who would go on to be a lifelong hero as Alexander devoted himself to decoding the secrets of the universe.
A few years later, as a teenager in the Bronx, he had a parallel experience of encountering a new, almost mystical language and recognizing it as an encoding of elemental truth. Through the gateway of hip hop and its wide-ranging influences spanning Caribbean and Latin music, Alexander discovered the saxophone and became besotted with the free jazz of Ornette Coleman. His parents eventually bought him a vintage alto saxophone at a garage sale, and so began his second great love affair with the universe. At the intersection of these two loves, Alexander found his calling. Within a decade, he was working on some of the most complex problems in modern physics by day, performing with some of the most legendary jazz musicians by night, and cross-pollinating the legacies of his great heroes: Einstein, Pythagoras, John Coltrane. He recounts a definig moment:
About a decade ago, I sat alone in a dim café on the main drag of Amherst, Massachusetts, preparing for a physics faculty job presentation when an urge hit me. I found a pay phone with a local phone book and mustered up the courage to call Yusef Lateef, a legendary jazz musician, who had recently retired from the music department of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I had something I had to tell him.
Like an addict after a fix, my fingers raced through the pages anxiously seeking the number. I found it. The brisk wind of a New England autumn hit my face as I called him. At the risk of rudely imposing, I let the phone ring for quite a while.
“Hello?” a male voice finally answered.
“Hi, is Professor Lateef available?” I asked.
“Professor Lateef is not here,” said the voice, flatly.
“Could I leave him a message about the diagram that John Coltrane gave him as a birthday gift in ’61? I think I figured out what it means.”
There was a long pause. “Professor Lateef is here.”
We spoke for nearly two hours about the diagram that appeared in his acclaimed book Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns, which is a compilation of a myriad of scales from Europe, Asia, Africa, and all over the world. I expressed how I thought the diagram was related to another and seemingly unrelated field of study — quantum gravity — a grand theory intended to unify quantum mechanics with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. What I had realized, I told Lateef, was that the same geometric principle that motivated Einstein’s theory was reflected in Coltrane’s diagram.
Part of Einstein’s genius, Alexander points out, was his willingness to leap beyond the limits of his particular mathematical problem and into a field of possibilities, which he explored through improvisational experimentation — gedankenexperiments, or thought experiments. Einstein himself, who believed his best ideas came to him during his violin breaks, called his ideation process “combinatory play” — a wilderness of associations reaching across boundaries of various theories and fields of thought, not as deliberate problem-solving but as unforced mental meanderings.
Alexander, too, had a pivotal breakthrough in his scientific work during one such unexpected cross-pollination of ideas across disciplines, which steered the direction of his research in a way he could not have necessarily thought his way to directly and deliberately. During his time at as a postdoctoral student at London’s Imperial College, he met — at a “quantum gravity cocktail hour,” as one does — a serious-looking man with a gold tooth, dressed in black, who engaged in intense conversations about spacetime and relativity and the mathematics of waves. Alexander took him for a Russian physicist. He turned out to be the pioneering musician Brian Eno. The two soon became friends and Alexander came to see Eno as a singular species of “sound cosmologist.” He recounts the moment that catalyzed his breakthrough:
One of the most memorable and influential moments in my physics research occurred one morning when I walked into Brian’s studio. Normally, Brian was working on the details of a new tune — getting his bass sorted out just right for a track, getting a line just slightly behind the beat. He was a pioneer of ambient music and a prolific installation artist.
Eno described his work in the liner notes for his record, Ambient 1: Music for Airports: “Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” What he sought was a music of tone and atmosphere, rather than music that demanded active listening. But creating an easy listening track is anything but easy, so he often had his head immersed in meticulous sound analysis.
That particular morning, Brian was manipulating waveforms on his computer with an intimacy that made it feel as if he were speaking Wavalian, some native tongue of sound waves. What struck me was that Brian was playing with, arguably, the most fundamental concept in the universe — the physics of vibration. To quantum physicists, particles are described by the physics of vibration. And to quantum cosmologists, vibrations of fundamental entities such as strings could possibly be the key to the physics of the entire universe. The quantum scales those strings play are, unfortunately, terribly intangible, both mentally and physically, but there it was in front of me — sound — a tangible manifestation of vibration.
This unexpected contact with sound made tangible shone a sidewise gleam on a question Alexander had been puzzling over ever since graduate school, when he had asked his mentor — the famed cosmologist Robert Brandenberger — what the most important question in cosmology was. Rather than an expected answer, like what may have caused the Big Bang, Brandenberger surprised the young man with his response: “How did the large-scale structure in the universe emerge and evolve?” Suddenly, in watching Eno manipulate waveforms, Alexander had a revelation. He explains:
Sound is a vibration that pushes a medium, such as air or something solid, to create traveling waves of pressure. Different sounds create different vibrations, which in turn create different pressure waves. We can draw pictures of these waves, called waveforms. A key point in the physics of vibrations is that every wave has a measurable wavelength and height. With respect to sound, the wavelength dictates the pitch, high or low, and the height, or amplitude, describes the volume.
If something is measurable, such as the length and height of waves, then you can give it a number. If you can put a number to something, then you can add more than one of them together, just by adding numbers together. And that’s what Brian was doing — adding up waveforms to get new ones. He was mixing simpler waveforms to make intricate sounds.
To physicists, this notion of adding up waves is known as the Fourier transform. It’s an intuitive idea, clearly demonstrated by dropping stones in a pond. If you drop a stone in a pond, a circular wave of a definite frequency radiates from the point of contact. If you drop another stone nearby, a second circular wave radiates outward, and the waves from the two stones start to interfere with each other, creating a more complicated wave pattern. What is incredible about the Fourier idea is that any waveform can be constructed by adding waves of the simplest form together. These simple “pure waves” are ones that regularly repeat themselves.
I was enthralled by the idea of decoding what I saw as the Rosetta stone of vibration — there was the known language of how waves create sound and music, which Eno was clearly skilled with, and then there was the unclear vibrational message of the quantum behavior in the early universe and how it has created large-scale structures. Waves and vibration make up the common thread, but the challenge was to link them in order to draw a clearer picture of how structure is formed and, ultimately, us.
In the remainder of The Jazz of Physics, Alexander explores how these questions reverberate through the consciousness of our species, from Pythagoras to string theory and beyond, into the future of probing the unfathomed depths of reality. Couple it with Nick Cave on music, transcendence, and artificial intelligence, then revisit the fascinating story of the century-long quest to hear the sound of spacetime.
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.
Source: Brain Pickings | 26 Mar 2019 | 6:28 am(NZT)
“You can never be sure / you die without knowing / whether anything you wrote was any good / if you have to be sure don’t write,” W.S. Merwin wrote in his gorgeous poem encapsulating his greatest mentor’s advice. No one has embodied this ethos more fully than Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886), who lived and died a century earlier never knowing whether anything she wrote was any good, never knowing whether and how and that her body of work would revolutionize literature and rewrite the common record of human thought and feeling.
In her thirty-first year, on the pages of a national magazine, Dickinson — a central figure in Figuring, from which this essay is adapted — encountered the person who would become the closest thing she ever had to a literary mentor.
In the spring of 1862, exactly four decades ahead of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, The Atlantic Monthly published a twenty-page piece titled “A Letter to a Young Contributor” by the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Thomas Wentworth Higginson (December 22, 1823–May 9, 1911).
Addressing young writers — primarily the many women who sent the Atlantic manuscripts for consideration under male pseudonyms — the thirty-nine-year-old Higginson writes:
No editor can ever afford the rejection of a good thing, and no author the publication of a bad one. The only difficulty lies in drawing the line.
A good editor, Higginson asserts, has learned to draw that line by having “educated his eye till it has become microscopic, like a naturalist’s, and can classify nine out of ten specimens by one glance at a scale or a feather.” He chooses a strangely morbid metaphor to illustrate the editorial challenge and thrill of finding that rare undiscovered genius among “the vast range of mediocrity”:
To take the lead in bringing forward a new genius is as fascinating a privilege as that of the physician who boasted to Sir Henry Halford of having been the first man to discover the Asiatic cholera and to communicate it to the public.
He goes on to offer a bundle of advice on how an aspiring writer is to court her prospective editor: Revise amply before sending in your manuscript; write legibly with “good pens, black ink, nice white paper and plenty of it”; develop a style of expression not “polite and prosaic” but “so saturated with warm life and delicious association that every sentence shall palpitate and thrill with the mere fascination of the syllables”; counterbalance profundity of sentiment with levity of style; know that “there is no severer test of literary training than in the power to prune out your most cherished sentence, when you find that the sacrifice will help the symmetry or vigor of the whole”; don’t show off your erudition but showcase its fruits; and remember that “a phrase may outweigh a library.” He writes:
There may be phrases which shall be palaces to dwell in, treasure-houses to explore; a single word may be a window from which one may perceive all the kingdoms of the earth and the glory of them. Oftentimes a word shall speak what accumulated volumes have labored in vain to utter: there may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence… Labor, therefore, not in thought alone, but in utterance; clothe and reclothe your grand conception twenty times, if need be, until you find some phrase that with its grandeur shall be lucid also.
In a sun-filled bedroom fifty miles to the west, a woman who had crowded lifetimes of passion into her thirty-one years and corked it up in the volcanic bosom of her being devoured the piece—a woman who would boldly defy Higginson’s indictment that a writer should use dashes only in “short allowance” or else they “will lose all their proper power,” a woman whose reclusive genius would become his choleric discovery.
For more than a decade, Dickinson had been welding her words to her experience with white heat in the private furnace of her being, sharing her poems only with her intimates. Now she felt beckoned to step across the threshold of the door Higginson had set ajar with his open letter inviting unknown writers into the public life of literature.
On April 16, 1862, Emily Dickinson sent Thomas Wentworth Higginson four of her poems, along with a short, arresting note in the slanted swoop of her barely decipherable hand, stripped of the era’s epistolary etiquette. “Mr. Higginson,” she addressed him bluntly, with no formal salutation, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” She was likely making an allusion, whether conscious or not, to her revered Aurora Leigh, in which Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s heroine exults in her calling while struggling to become a published poet:
My heart’s life throbbing in my verse to show
And then Dickinson added:
The Mind is so near itself — it cannot see, distinctly — and I have none to ask. Should you think it breathed — and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude.
She didn’t sign the letter, either, but instead enclosed a smaller sealed envelope with her name inscribed in pencil on a cream-colored notecard — a choice that would still puzzle Higginson thirty years later.
Two more letters followed shortly. Dickinson ended the third with the come-hither of a bespoke verse, then asked seductively: “Will you be my Preceptor, Mr. Higginson?” He would, and he did, commencing a correspondence that would last the poet’s lifetime.
But although Dickinson had so insistently enlisted Higginson as her “Preceptor,” again and again she would reject his efforts to tame and commercialize her poetry, to make it “more orderly,” buoyed by a quiet confidence in the integrity of her unorthodox verse. “Could you tell me how to grow,” she implored in her third letter to Higginson, “or is it unconveyed — like Melody — or Witchcraft?” When he offered criticism, then worried that he might have been too harsh, she assured him with humility and aplomb that it was all welcome: “Men do not call the surgeon, to commend—the Bone, but to set it, Sir, and fracture within, is more critical.” And then she promptly sent him four more poems, unheeding of his editorial suggestions.
Over the years, Dickinson would fracture Higginson’s stiff understanding of art, and through the cracks a new kind of light would flood his world. “There is always one thing to be grateful for — that one is one’s self & not somebody else,” she would tell him. Here stood a writer who was unassailably her own self. Between her unruly punctuation, Higginson would eventually find “flashes of wholly original and profound insight into nature and life,” language ablaze with “an extraordinary vividness of descriptive and imaginative power.” When her poems finally entered the world on November 12, 1890 — four years after her death — Higginson exulted in the preface:
In many cases these verses will seem to the reader like poetry torn up by the roots, with rain and dew and earth still clinging to them, giving a freshness and a fragrance not otherwise to be conveyed. In other cases, as in the few poems of shipwreck or of mental conflict, we can only wonder at the gift of vivid imagination by which this recluse woman can delineate, by a few touches, the very crises of physical or mental conflict… But the main quality of these poems is that of extraordinary grasp and insight, uttered with an uneven vigor sometimes exasperating, seemingly wayward, but really unsought and inevitable.
The volume was an astonishing success, much to the chagrin of Houghton Mifflin, who had originally rejected it. Five hundred copies vanished from the shelves on the first day of publication. Within the first year, the book had gone through eleven printings, and nearly eleven thousand copies had been absorbed into the body of culture.
That year, as the rapids of Dickinson’s verse sprang into the world, William James’s groundbreaking Principles of Psychology coined the notion of stream of consciousness. Soon, as English reviewers launched upon Dickinson attacks unequaled since those on Shelley and Keats a century earlier, Alice James — William James’s brilliant bedridden sister — would write wryly in her diary, itself an unheralded triumph of literature:
It is reassuring to hear the English pronouncement that Emily Dickinson is fifth-rate, they have such a capacity for missing quality; the robust evades them equally with the subtle… What tome of philosophy resumes the cheap farce or expresses the highest point of view of the aspiring soul more completely than the following —
How dreary to be somebody
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog.
For a different but intimately related side of Dickinson, savor her electric love letters to Susan Gilbert — her closest lifelong bond, who inspired the vast majority of her poetry — then take in some timeless advice on the craft from some of the greatest writers in the century and a half since: James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, Jeanette Winterson, Mary Oliver, Zadie Smith, Susan Sontag, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, John Steinbeck, and Rachel Carson, another heroine of Figuring.
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.
Source: Brain Pickings | 22 Mar 2019 | 7:00 pm(NZT)
“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Zadie Smith wrote in her stirring essay on optimism and despair. But what does the reinvention, reassertion, and survival of progress look like when the basic fabric of democracy is under claw?
That is what Thomas Mann (June 6, 1875–August 12, 1955) examined on the cusp of World War II with a prescience that bellows across the decades to speak to our own epoch and to every epoch that will succeed us.
When Hitler seized power in 1933, the 58-year-old Mann, who had won the Nobel Prize in Literature five years earlier, went into exile in Switzerland. The following year, he visited America for the first time. He returned each year thereafter, until he finally emigrated permanently in 1938 and became one of a handful of German expatriates in the United States to vocally oppose Nazism and fascism. Between February and May 1938, just before the outbreak of the war, Mann gave a series of poignant and rousing lectures across America, published later that year as The Coming Victory of Democracy (public library) — a spirited insistence that “we must not be afraid to attempt a reform of freedom,” and a clarion call for the urgent work of continually renewing and reasserting democracy as menacing ideologies rise and fall against it.
In a testament to the great Serbian-American physicist, chemist, and inventor Michael Pupin’s assertion that “an immigrant can see things which escape the attention of the native,” Mann opens with an incisive reflection on democracy, its original ideals, and the necessity of its continual recalibration to the pressures pushing against it:
America needs no instruction in the things that concern democracy. But instruction is one thing — and another is memory, reflection, re-examination, the recall to consciousness of a spiritual and moral possession of which it would be dangerous to feel too secure and too confident. No worth-while possession can be neglected. Even physical things die off, disappear, are lost, if they are not cared for, if they do not feel the eye and hand of the owner and are lost to sight because their possession is taken for granted. Throughout the world it has become precarious to take democracy for granted — even in America… Even America feels today that democracy is not an assured possession, that it has enemies, that it is threatened from within and from without, that it has once more become a problem. America is aware that the time has come for democracy to take stock of itself, for recollection and restatement and conscious consideration, in a word, for its renewal in thought and feeling.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Martha Graham’s notion of “divine dissatisfaction” as the motive force of all creative work, Mann notes that a certain restlessness about the state of the world and our place in it is inherent to the human animal:
It is the fate of man in no condition and under no circumstances ever to be entirely at ease upon this earth; no form of life is wholly suitable nor wholly satisfactory to him. Why this should be so, why there should always remain upon earth for this creature a modicum of insufficiency, of dissatisfaction and suffering, is a mystery — a mystery that may be a very honourable one for man, but also a very painful one; in any case it has this consequence: that humanity, in small things as in great, strives for variety, change, for the new, because it promises him an amelioration and an alleviation of his eternally semi-painful condition.
The greatest threat to democracy, Mann argues, comes from demagogues who prey on this restlessness with dangerous ideologies whose chief appeal is “the charm of novelty” — the exploitive promise of a new world order that allays some degree of dissatisfaction for some number of people, at a gruesome cost to the rest of humanity. To counter this perilous tendency, democracy must continually regenerate itself. Mann writes:
Daring and clever as fascism is in exploiting human weakness, it succeeds in meeting to some extent humanity’s painful eagerness for novelty… And what seems to me necessary is that democracy should answer this fascist strategy with a rediscovery of itself, which can give it the same charm of novelty — yes, a much higher one than that which fascism seeks to exert. It should put aside the habit of taking itself for granted, of self-forgetfulness. It should use this wholly unexpected situation — the fact, namely, that it has again become problematical — to renew and rejuvenate itself by again becoming aware of itself. For democracy’s resources of vitality and youthfulness cannot be overestimated… Fascism is a child of the times — a very offensive child — and draws whatever youth it possesses out of the times. But democracy is timelessly human, and timelessness always implies a certain amount of potential youthfulness, which need only be realized in thought and feeling in order to excel, by far, all merely transitory youthfulness in charms of every sort, in the charm of life and in the charm of beauty.
That particular strain of fascism was endemic to Mann’s time, but it has manifested in myriad guises countless times before and since. In a letter penned at the peak of the war Mann was hoping to prevent with this humanistic shift in consciousness, John Steinbeck would capture these cycles chillingly: “All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”
Mann considers the idea of justice as elemental to our humanity, locating in it the wellspring of our dignity:
It is a singular thing, this human nature, and distinguished from the rest of nature by the very fact that it has been endowed with the idea, is dominated by the idea, and cannot exist without it, since human nature is what it is because of the idea. The idea is a specific and essential attribute of man, that which makes him human. It is within him a real and natural fact, so impossible of neglect that those who do not respect human nature’s participation in the ideal — as force certainly does not — commit the clumsiest and, in the long run, the most disastrous mistakes. But the word “ justice ” is only one name for the idea — only one; there are other names which can be substituted that are equally strong, by no means lacking in vitality; on the contrary, even rather terrifying — for example, freedom and truth. It is impossible to decide which one should take precedence, which is the greatest. For each one expresses the idea in its totality, and one stands for the others. If we say truth, we also say freedom and justice-, if we speak of freedom and justice, we mean truth. It is a complex of an indivisible kind, freighted with spirituality and elementary dynamic force. We call it the absolute. To man has been given the absolute — be it a curse or a blessing, it is a fact. He is pledged to it, his inner being is conditioned by it, and in the human sphere a force which is opposed to truth, hostile to freedom, and lacking in justice, acts in so low and contemptible a manner because it is devoid of feeling and understanding for the relationship between man and the absolute and without comprehension of the inviolable human dignity which grows out of this relationship.
A quarter century before the pioneering social scientist John Gardner penned his influential treatise on self-renewal, Mann calls for a reinvention of democracy that places human dignity at the heart of its political and civic ideals:
We must reach higher and envisage the whole. We must define democracy as that form of government and of society which is inspired above every other with the feeling and consciousness of the dignity of man.
Echoing Theodore Roosevelt’s admonition against the cowardice of cynicism as one of the greatest obstacles to a flourishing society, Mann calls for relinquishing our reflexive cynicism about human nature:
The dignity of man — do we not feel alarmed and somewhat ridiculous at the mention of these words? Do they not savour of optimism grown feeble and stuffy — of after-dinner oratory, which scarcely harmonizes with the bitter, harsh, everyday truth about human beings? We know it — this truth. We are well aware of the nature of man, or, to be more accurate, the nature of men — and we are far from entertaining any illusions on the subject… Yes, yes, humanity — its injustice, malice, cruelty, its average stupidity and blindness are amply demonstrated, its egoism is crass, its deceitfulness, cowardice, its antisocial instincts, constitute our everyday experience; the iron pressure of disciplinary constraint is necessary to keep it under any reasonable control. Who cannot embroider upon the depravity of this strange creature called man, who does not often despair over his future… And yet it is a fact — more true today than ever — that we cannot allow ourselves, because of so much all too well-founded skepticism, to despise humanity. Despite so much ridiculous depravity, we cannot forget the great and the honourable in man, which manifest themselves as art and science, as passion for truth, creation of beauty and the idea of justice; and it is also true that insensitiveness to the great mystery which we touch upon when we say “man” or “humanity” signifies spiritual death. That is not a truth of yesterday or the day before yesterday, antiquated, unattractive, and feeble. It is the new and necessary truth of today and tomorrow, the truth which has life and youth on its side in opposition to the false and withering youthfulness of certain theories and truths of the moment.
It is only a difference of degree, not of kind, between this ordinary cynical contempt for human goodness and the most extreme acts of evil. Mann writes:
Terror destroys people, that is clear. It corrupts character, releases every evil impulse, turns them into cowardly hypocrites and shameless informers. It makes them contemptible — that is the reason why these contemners of humanity love terrorism.
Twenty years before Aldous Huxley asserted that “generalized intelligence and mental alertness are the most powerful enemies of dictatorship and at the same time the basic conditions of effective democracy,” Mann places education and critical thinking at the center of a robust democracy:
Democracy wishes to elevate mankind, to teach it to think, to set it free. It seeks to remove from culture the stamp of privilege and disseminate it among the people — in a word, it aims at education. Education is an optimistic and humane concept; and respect for humanity is inseparable from it. Hostile to mankind and contemptuous of it is the opposing concept called propaganda, which tries to stultify, stupefy, level, or regiment men for the purpose of military efficiency and, above all, to keep the dictatorial system in power.
Democracy being a fertile ground for intellect and literature, for the perception of psychological truth and the search for it, contradicts itself inasmuch as it has an acute appreciation and makes a critical analysis of the absurd wickedness of man, but nevertheless insists resolutely upon the dignity of man and the possibility of educating him.
In consonance with Iris Murdoch’s assertion that “tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Mann considers art as a pillar of democracy:
To come close to art means to come close to life, and if an appreciation of the dignity of man is the moral definition of democracy, then its psychological definition arises out of its determination to reconcile and combine knowledge and art, mind and life, thought and deed.
Complement The Coming Victory of Democracy with Leonard Cohen on democracy’s breakages and redemptions, Jill Lepore on the improbable birth of American democracy, Robert Penn Warren on democracy and poetry, and Walt Whitman’s indispensable Democratic Vistas, then revisit Mann on time and our search for meaning.
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.
Source: Brain Pickings | 21 Mar 2019 | 7:00 pm(NZT)
“Every man or woman who is sane, every man or woman who has the feeling of being a person in the world, and for whom the world means something, every happy person, is in infinite debt to a woman,” the trailblazing psychologist Donald Winnicott observed in his landmark manifesto for the mother’s contribution to society. Inseparable from the psychological role of mothering is the biological reality of motherhood — a biology almost alien in its otherworldly strangeness as a cell becomes a being, with a heart and a mind and a whole life ahead.
That glorious strangeness is what Paola Quintavalle celebrates in Crescendo (public library) — an uncommon picture-poem about the science of pregnancy, evocative of Ursula K. Le Guin’s lovely insistence that “science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside [and] both celebrate what they describe.”
Unfolding across lyrical watercolors by Italian artist Alessandro Sanna — who painted the wordless masterpieces Pinocchio: The Origin Story and The River — the story follows the growth of an almost-being inside a mother’s womb over the nine months of gestation. As small as a sesame seed, it soon sprouts the buds that will blossom into arms and legs, grows its first organ — the heart — and develops its first senses, smell and sound.
By the third month, the fetus gets its fur coat, known as lanugo, and the first fragments of its miniature skeleton begin to form. By month four, fingerprints are being carved onto its tiny digits.
Visual metaphors drawing on the lives of other beings — a bird, a horse, a flower, a school of fish — populate Sanna’s watercolor score of Quintavalle’s spare, poetic chronicle of becoming, their geometry cleverly mirroring the curvature of the mother’s belly that frames the story.
What strikes me is that each of us has undergone this absolutely astonishing process, with no conscious memory of it at all, and yet somehow we don’t walk around in perpetual astonishment that this is how we came to be. Perhaps we should. I am reminded of the great poet and philosopher of science Loren Eiseley’s words: “We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”
Couple Crescendo with Argentine artist, author, and singer Isol’s lovely picture-book about the mysterious and mystifying creature that emerges from birth, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s bold open letter to the BBC about the choice to become a mother as a working artist, and pioneering investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens’s playful, profound 1925 meditation on fatherhood.
Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books
Source: Brain Pickings | 20 Mar 2019 | 7:00 pm(NZT)
To be an artist is to live suspended above the abyss between recognition and artistic value, never quite knowing whether your art will land on either bank, or straddle both, or be swallowed by the fathomless pit of obscurity. We never know how our work stirs another mind or touches another heart, how it tenons into the mortise of the world. We never know who will discover it in a year or a generation or a century and be salved by it, saved by it. “The worthiest poets have remained uncrowned till death has bleached their foreheads to the bone,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, not fully knowing — or perhaps not knowing at all — that she was revolutionizing the art of her time.
This is the perennial problem of the artist, for the crown bestowed or denied by the fickle tastes of a contemporary public has little bearing on how the work itself will stand the test of time as a vessel for truth and beauty, whether it will move generations or petrify into oblivion. Walt Whitman nearly perished in obscurity when his visionary Leaves of Grass was first met with scorn and indifference. Emily Dickinson, virtually unpublished in her lifetime, never lived to see her work transform a century of thought and feeling. Germaine de Staël captured this elemental pitfall of creative work in her astute observation that “true glory cannot be obtained by a relative celebrity.”
In our own culture, obsessed with celebrity and panicked for instant approval, what begins as creative work too often ends up as flotsam on the stream of ego-gratification — the countless counterfeit crowns that come in the form of retweets and likes and best-seller lists, unmoored from any real measure of artistic value and longevity. How, then, is an artist to live with that sacred, terrifying uncertainty with which all creative work enters the world, and go on making art?
That is what W.S. Merwin (September 30, 1927–March 15, 2019) explores in a stunning poem celebrating his mentor, the poet John Berryman, published in Merwin’s 2005 book Migration: New & Selected Poems (public library). At its heart is the single greatest, most difficult, most beautiful truth about creative work, enfolding a soul-salving piece of advice on how to stay sane as an artist.
Berryman had co-founded Princeton’s creative writing program and was teaching there when Merwin enrolled as a freshman in 1944. The thirty-year-old professor immediately recognized an uncommon genius in the seventeen-year-old aspiring poet, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award — “the real thing,” Berryman’s then-wife would later recall his sentiment. Merwin himself would remember his mentor as “absolutely ruthless” — a quality he cherished. That constructive, edifying ruthlessness, for which Merwin was forever indebted, comes alive with unsentimental tenderness in this poem commemorating his formative teacher, read here by astrophysicist, literary artist, and poetry steward Janna Levin:
by W.S. Merwin
I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war
don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity
just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice
he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally
it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop
he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England
as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry
he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
Nearly three decades after he mentored Merwin, Berryman would encapsulate his advice to young writers:
I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.
Complement with artist Ann Hamilton’s lovely notion of “making not knowing” and this collection of timeless advice from some of humanity’s greatest writers, then revisit Levin’s gorgeous readings of Ursula K. Le Guin’s hymn to time, Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Adrienne Rich’s tribute to the world’s first woman astronomer, and W.H. Auden’s elegy for unrequited love.
Source: Brain Pickings | 19 Mar 2019 | 8:43 am(NZT)
Nietzsche saw dreams as an evolutionary time machine for the human mind. Dostoyevsky discovered the meaning of life in one. Mendeleev invented his periodic table in another. Neil Gaiman dreamt his way to a philosophical parable of identity. We are born dreaming. As we go through life, dream-sleep plays plays a major role in regulating our negative emotions.
When we dream, we are our most essential and sovereign selves — our shadows the starkest, our creativity the wildest, and all of it, crucially, ours alone. We build and unravel entire worlds, answering to no one but ourselves — and even that, only hazily. Graham Greene celebrated this sovereignty when he observed in his dream diary that “it can be a comfort sometimes to know that there is a world which is purely one’s own — the experience in that world, of travel, danger, happiness, is shared with no one else.”
We still don’t know exactly why the human animal needs to sleep, much less to dream. But we do know that the mechanism churning our nocturnal fancies is closely related to the faculty we call creativity. Dreams may be the most populist art there is and the wellspring of our most visionary masterpieces.
That is what the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan (b. February 24, 1925) explores in a few meditative passages from Journey to Mount Tamalpais (public library) — the 1986 treasure that gave us Adnan on time, self, impermanence, and transcendence.
I always thought that dreaming was the honor of the human species. The logic of dreams is superior to the one we exercise while awake. In dreams the mind at last finds its courage: it dares what we do not dare. It also creates: from nightmares to fantastic calculations… and it perceives reality beyond our fuzzy interpretations. In dreams we swim and fly and we are not surprised.
Dreams spill over on our days. For some people they never stop spilling: the visionaries, the hobos, and all those who speak to themselves, aloud, in the big cities.
Adnan considers the parallels between dreaming and creative work:
Sometimes, while painting, something wild gets unleashed. Something of the process of dreams recurs… but with a special kind of violence: a painting is like a territory. All kinds of things happen within its boundary, equal to the discoveries of the murders or the creations we have in the world outside.
We translate our dreams on paper and cloth, subduing them, most of the time, fearing that moment of truth which has energy enough to blow up the world.
Source: Brain Pickings | 18 Mar 2019 | 7:00 pm(NZT)
“The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer,” physicist and quantum mechanics pioneer Niels Bohr observed while contemplating the nature of reality five years after he received the Nobel Prize, adding: “But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.”
Bohr, who introduced the notion of complementarity, went on to influence generations of thinkers, including a number of Nobel laureates. Among them was the Swiss-Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli (April 25, 1900–December 15, 1958) — another pioneering figure of particle physics and quantum mechanics. Invested in the conquest of truth at the deepest strata of nature, Pauli took up this question of reality as a physical and metaphysical object of inquiry in a rather improbable arena: his friendship with the influential Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, whose entire body of work was centered on the conviction that “man cannot stand a meaningless life.”
Pauli’s longtime correspondence and collaboration with Jung occupies a small but significant portion of Figuring (public library) — an exploration of the tessellated facets of our search for meaning, from which this essay is adapted. Their unlikely friendship, which precipitated the invention of synchronicity, bridged the world of science and the world of spirit, entwining the irrepressible human impulses for finding truth and making meaning — a kind of non-Euclidean intersection of our parallel searches for understanding the reality within and the reality without.
Long before he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his exclusion principle — the tenet of quantum physics stating that multiple identical particles within a single quantum system cannot occupy the same quantum state at the same time — and around the time he theorized the neutrino, Pauli was thrust into existential tumult. His mother, to whom he was very close, died by suicide. His tempestuous marriage ended in divorce within a year — a year during which he drowned his unhappiness in alcohol. Caught in the web of drinking and despair, Pauli reached out to Jung for help.
Jung, already deeply influenced by Einstein’s ideas about space and time, was intrigued by his brilliant and troubled correspondent. What began as an intense series of dream analyses unfolded, over the course of the remaining twenty-two years of Pauli’s life, into an exploration of fundamental questions regarding the nature of reality through the dual lens of physics and psychology — a testament to Einstein’s assertion that “every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist.” Each used the tools of his expertise to shift the shoreline between the known and the unknown, and together they found common ground in the analogy between the atom, with its nucleus and orbiting electrons, and the self, with its central conscious ego and its ambient unconscious.
While there is a long and lamentable history of science — physics in particular — being hijacked for mystical and New Age ideologies, two things make Jung and Pauli’s collaboration notable. First, the analogies between physics and alchemical symbolism were drawn not only by a serious scientist, but by one who would soon receive the Nobel Prize in Physics. Second, the warping of science into pseudoscience and mysticism tends to happen when scientific principles are transposed onto nonscientific domains with a false direct equivalence. Pauli, by contrast, was deliberate in staying at the level of analogy — that is, of conceptual parallels furnishing metaphors for abstract thought that can advance ideas in each of the two disciplines, but with very different concrete application.
Jung had borrowed the word “archetype” from Kepler, drawing on the astronomer’s alchemical symbolism. More than three centuries after Kepler’s alchemy, Pauli’s exclusion principle became the basic organizing principle for the periodic table. The alchemists had been right all along, in a way — they had just been working on the wrong scale: Only at the atomic level can one element become another, in radioactivity and nuclear fission. Even the atom itself had to transcend the problem of scale: The Greek philosopher Democritus theorized atoms in 400 BC, but he couldn’t prove or disprove their existence empirically — a hundred thousand times smaller than anything the naked eye could see, the atom remained invisible. It wasn’t for another twenty-three centuries that we were able to override the problem of scale by the prosthetic extension of our vision, the microscope.
What had originally attracted Pauli to the famous psychiatrist was Jung’s work on symbols and archetypes — a Keplerian obsession that in turn obsessed Pauli, who devoted various essays and lectures to how Kepler’s alchemy and archetypal ideas influenced the visionary astronomer’s science. In physics, he saw numerous analogies to alchemy: In symmetry, he found the archetypal structure of matter and in elementary particles, the substratum of reality that the alchemists had sought; in the spectrograph, which allowed scientists for the first time to study the chemical composition of stars, an analogue of the alchemist’s oven; in probability, which he defined as “the actual correspondence between the expected result… and the empirically measured frequencies,” the mathematical analogue of archetypal numerology.
But Pauli recognized that the dawn of quantum physics, in which he himself was a leading sun, introduced a new necessity to reconcile different facets of reality. Nearly a century after the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell — a leading figure in Figuring — asserted that “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” Pauli reflected in one of his Kepler lectures:
It would be most satisfactory of all if physics and psyche could be seen as complementary aspects of the same reality. To us [modern scientists], unlike Kepler and Fludd, the only acceptable point of view appears to be one that recognizes both sides of reality — the quantitative and the qualitative, the physical and the psychical — as compatible with each other, and can embrace them simultaneously.
In my own view it is only a narrow passage of truth (no matter whether scientific or other truth) that passes between the Scylla of a blue fog of mysticism and the Charybdis of a sterile rationalism. This will always be full of pitfalls and one can fall down on both sides.
Four decades before the revered physicist John Archibald Wheeler, who popularized the term black hole, made his influential assertion that “this is a participatory universe [and] observer-participancy gives rise to information,” Pauli wrote to Jung:
Modern [particle physics] turns the observer once again into a little lord of creation in his microcosm, with the ability (at least partially) of freedom of choice and fundamentally uncontrollable effects on that which is being observed. But if these phenomena are dependent on how (with what experimental system) they are observed, then is it not possible that they are also phenomena (extra corpus) that depend on who observes them (i.e., on the nature of the psyche of the observer)? And if natural science, in pursuit of the ideal of determinism since Newton, has finally arrived at the stage of the fundamental “perhaps” of the statistical character of natural laws… then should there not be enough room for all those oddities that ultimately rob the distinction between “physics” and “psyche” of all its meaning?
And yet Pauli was careful to recognize that “although [particle physics] allows for an acausal form of observation, it actually has no use for the concept of ‘meaning’” — that is, meaning is not a fundamental function of reality but an interpretation superimposed by the human observer.
Complement with Carl Sagan on science and spirituality and Einstein’s historic conversation with the Nobel-winning Indian poet and philosopher Tagore, then revisit other excerpts from Figuring: Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert, Margaret Fuller on what makes a great leader, the story of how the forgotten pioneer Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art, Herman Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and astrophysicist Janna Levin’s stunning reading of the Auden poem that became the book’s epigraph.
Source: Brain Pickings | 14 Mar 2019 | 9:51 am(NZT)
A century before Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter revolutionized mycology with her groundbreaking studies and illustrations of mushrooms, which she was banned from presenting at London’s Linnaean Society on account of her gender, another Englishwoman of uncommon acumen overrode the limitations of her time and place to become one of the most esteemed natural history illustrators in human history with her drawings of Pacific, African, American, and Australian fauna.
Sarah Stone (1760–1844) began painting professionally at the age of seventeen. Although she learned her outstanding coloring skills from her father — a fan painter — she was largely self-taught in her draughtsmanship technique. At only twenty-one, she was invited to exhibit four of her paintings — a peacock, two other birds, and a set of seashells — at the Royal Academy, closed to women at the time. Like trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, who became the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences with a certificate on which the word “Fellow” was crossed out and “an Honorary Member” was inscribed above it in pencil, Stone was admitted as an “Honorary Exhibitor.” (There is something crushing about the “honor” of being temporarily exempted from millennia of baseline dishonor bestowed upon all the rest of one’s kind, all the rest of the time.)
Stone was still in her late teens when commissions from prominent collectors flooded in — most notably, from Sir Ashton Lever, who hired her to illustrate the objects in his famed natural history and ethnography museum, the Holophusikon, including curiosities Captain Cook had brought back from his historic voyages. In her late twenties, Stone illustrated the 1790 book Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales and did for the animals of Australia what Maria Merian had done for the butterflies of South America in the previous century.
With extraordinary draughtsmanship, she painted animals she had never seen alive, native to places she had never been herself — the invention of photography was still more than half a century away, and exotic travel was available only to the wealthy and to the men of science voyaging on expeditions. (It would be several decades until the word scientist was coined for mathematician Mary Somerville, replacing man of science.) Stone’s stunning depictions of parrots, serpents, fishes, marsupials, and other living wonders of the natural world were drawn from her science-informed imagination — sometimes from specimens brought back to England, sometimes entirely from the field notes of scientists on the exploring expeditions.
In this golden age of scientific discovery, vast audiences poured into the Leverian Museum to savor the splendors of faraway fauna, transported by Stone’s drawings. A number of them are the first studies of the respective species, granting them a singular place in the social history of natural history. Some of them depict species now entirely extinct or gravely endangered, like the potoroo — a marsupial the size of a rabbit, with the posture of a kangaroo. Others portray strange, wondrous, and wondrously named creatures like the bird of paradise, the variegated lizard, and the doubtful sparus.
As a child, Stone had learned a kind of folk chemistry, sourcing her pigments from local plants and household materials — brickdust, flower petals, the juices of leaves. When she became a professional painter, this awareness of pigment properties enabled her to choose colors she trusted to stand the assault of time more durably — striking colors like Chinese white, Prussian blue, and chrome yellow — which in turn lent her art an uncommon vibrancy.
After her marriage in 1789, Stone began signing her art “Mrs. Smith.” In the first half of the 1790s, drawings of Lever’s collection — hers, as well as other artists’ — were published in the monograph Museum Leverianum, edited by the physician and Royal Society Fellow George Shaw, who labeled and described the specimens. (Stone’s art from the volume is sometimes misattributed to Shaw, who was not an artist.)
Little is known about Stone’s life. From her prolific body of work, only about 900 drawings survive, collected and contextualized in Christine Jackson’s noteworthy monograph Sarah Stone: Natural Curiosities from the New Worlds (public library).
Complement with the 17th-century astronomical art of Maria Clara Eimmart and the pioneering sea algae cyanotypes of Anna Atkins — the world’s first known woman to take a photograph and the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images — then revisit these masterpieces of natural history illustration, drawn from the rare book collection of the American Museum of Natural History.
Source: Brain Pickings | 13 Mar 2019 | 7:17 am(NZT)
“Between those happenings that prefigure it / And those that happen in its anamnesis / Occurs the Event, but that no human wit / Can recognize until all happening ceases,” W.H. Auden wrote in considering the selective set of remembrances and interpretations we call history. The trouble with the universe, of course, is that happening never ceases — at least not until the final whimper. In the meantime, we are left to fathom and figure the ongoingness of events, situating ourselves between a nebulous past and an uncertain future. “We understand something by locating it in a multi-determined temporal continuum,” Susan Sontag observed in the same bygone slice of ongoingness that Auden inhabited. “Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future.”
We try to render our existence a little less precarious and a little more relevant by mooring ourselves to the truth of what happened, what matters, and why, only ever attaining a makeshift understanding of that truth. And though it may be that history is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance — or perhaps precisely because it is so — a robust understanding of history, with its truths and its biases, is central to our understanding of ourselves, our world, and our place in it. It is also imperative for a future that mends the mistakes of the past — for, as James Baldwin so memorably observed, “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”
Such a transformative understanding is what historian Jill Lepore furnishes in These Truths: A History of the United States (public library) — a masterwork of poetic scholarship that stands as one of the most compelling and captivating books I have ever read.
With uncommon intellectual elegance, Lepore explores the intertwined sinews of democracy’s making and unmaking: technology as a tool that encodes both the ideals and the biases of its society; the heroisms of thought and action that chipped away at the monolith of injustice upon which the nation was founded; the market manipulations and professionalized preying on the human animal’s weaknesses that gave rise to consumerism and public relations and “fake news” and the NRA. Emanating from these pages is a reminder that the history of the United States is a history of bias and brutality and hubris, but it is also a history of idealism and hard work and soaring optimism. What emerges is an invitation to regard these tessellated truths and conflicting motive forces with an equanimous understanding that can inform a juster, more beautiful, and less conflicted future.
Lepore writes in the preface:
The course of history is unpredictable, as irregular the weather, as errant as affection, nations rising and falling by whim and chance, battered by violence, corrupted by greed, seized by tyrants, raided by rogues, addled by demagogues. This was all true until one day, Tuesday, October 30, 1787, when readers of a newspaper called the New-York Packet found on the front page an advertisement for an almanac that came bound with tables predicting the “Rising and Setting of the Sun,” the “Judgment of the Weather,” the “Length of Days and Nights,” and, as a bonus, something entirely new: the Constitution of the United States, forty-four hundred words that attempted to chart the motions of the branches of government and the separation of their powers as if these were matters of physics, like the transit of the sun and moon and the comings and goings of the tides. It was meant to mark the start of a new era, in which the course of history might be made predictable and a government established that would be ruled not by accident and force but by reason and choice. The origins of that idea, and its fate, are the story of American history.
The Constitution entailed both toil and argument. Knee-breeched, sweat-drenched delegates to the constitutional convention had met all summer in Philadelphia in a swelter of secrecy, the windows of their debating hall nailed shut against eavesdroppers. By the middle of September, they’d drafted a proposal written on four pages of parchment. They sent that draft to printers who set the type of its soaring preamble with a giant W, as sharp as a bird’s claw.
Radiating from the four pages that begin with “We the people” are eternal, elemental questions about how our noblest aspirations measure up against the limitations of human nature and its social scaffolding:
Can a political society really be governed by reflection and election, by reason and truth, rather than by accident and violence, by prejudice and deceit? Is there any arrangement of government — any constitution — by which it’s possible for a people to rule themselves, justly and fairly, and as equals, through the exercise of judgment and care? Or are their efforts, no matter their constitutions, fated to be corrupted, their judgment muddled by demagoguery, their reason abandoned for fury?
These questions could only be answered empirically, in the grand experiment of American democracy, in a laboratory operated by “the people.” A century into the experiment, with the beaker of conscientious citizenship in hand, Walt Whitman would contemplate his country’s “democratic vistas” and issue a prescient admonition: “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without.” Lepore considers the foundational hedge against downfall and ruin, encoded in the country’s birth and its ancient heritage stretching back to bygone civilizations whose failed experiments fertilized the soil of the New World:
The American experiment rests on three political ideas — “these truths,” Thomas Jefferson called them — political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable,” Jefferson wrote in 1776, in a draft of the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Half a century after the brilliant mathematician Lillian Lieber bridged Euclidean geometry and the American Constitution to extract a set of postulates of democracy, Lepore adds:
The roots of these ideas are as ancient as Aristotle and as old as Genesis and their branches spread as wide as the limbs of an oak. But they are this nation’s founding principles: it was by declaring them that the nation came to be. In the centuries since, these principles have been cherished, decried, and contested, fought for, fought over, and fought against. After Benjamin Franklin read Jefferson’s draft, he picked up his quill, scratched out the words “sacred & undeniable,” and suggested that “these truths” were, instead, “self-evident.” This was more than a quibble. Truths that are sacred and undeniable are God-given and divine, the stuff of religion. Truths that are self-evident are laws of nature, empirical and observable, the stuff of science. This divide has nearly rent the Republic apart.
Central to this new way of apprehending truth was a shift in the understanding of the past — a shift away from unexamined mythology and toward the reasoned probing of collective memory we call history; a shift from mysticism to critical thinking. Lepore writes:
Understanding history as a form of inquiry — not as something easy or comforting but as something demanding and exhausting — was central to the nation’s founding… Only by fits and starts did history become not merely a form of memory but also a form of investigation, to be disputed, like philosophy, its premises questioned, its evidence examined, its arguments countered.
This new understanding of the past attempted to divide history from faith. The books of world religions — the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran — are pregnant with mysteries, truths known only by God, taken on faith. In the new history books, historians aimed to solve mysteries and to discover their own truths. The turn from reverence to inquiry, from mystery to history, was crucial to the founding of the United States. It didn’t require abdicating faith in the truths of revealed religion and it relieved no one of the obligation to judge right from wrong. But it did require subjecting the past to skepticism, to look to beginnings not to justify ends, but to question them — with evidence.
Arising from this notion is a reminder that all cultural history is inevitably a history of science, which is the history of human thought and the mind’s insatiable hunger to know reality. “We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us,” Maria Mitchell — America’s first professional female astronomer — wrote a century after her country’s founding as she contemplated our abiding search for truth, “and the more we gain, the more is our desire.” In consonance with Carl Sagan’s insistence that science is a tool of democracy that “provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes,” Lepore considers the crucial role of the scientific mindset in the origins of American democracy:
Declaring independence was itself an argument about the relationship between the present and the past, an argument that required evidence of a very particular kind: historical evidence. That’s why most of the Declaration of Independence is a list of historical claims. “To prove this,” Jefferson wrote, “let facts be submitted to a candid world.”
Facts, knowledge, experience, proof. These words come from the law. Around the seventeenth century, they moved into what was then called “natural history”: astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology. By the eighteenth century they were applied to history and to politics, too. These truths: this was the language of reason, of enlightenment, of inquiry, and of history. In 1787, then, when Alexander Hamilton asked “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force,” that was the kind of question a scientist asks before beginning an experiment. Time alone would tell. But time has passed. The beginning has come to an end. What, then, is the verdict of history?
The verdict hinges on complex calculus, with variables yet to be weighed and factors yet to be computed. One thing is certain — the future may be unknown, but the past is at last partly knowable, and there is a moral imperative to its knowledge that must be embraced with full responsibility if we are to meet the future with more than mere hope. Lepore writes:
The truths on which the nation was founded are not mysteries, articles of faith, never to be questioned, as if the founding were an act of God, but neither are they lies, all facts fictions, as if nothing can be known, in a world without truth. Between reverence and worship, on the one side, and irreverence and contempt, on the other, lies an uneasy path, away from false pieties and petty triumphs over people who lived and died and committed both their acts of courage and their sins and errors long before we committed ours. “We cannot hallow this ground,” Lincoln said at Gettysburg. We are obliged, instead, to walk this ground, dedicating ourselves to both the living and the dead.
The past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden. It can’t be shirked. You carry it everywhere. There’s nothing for it but to get to know it.
Lepore examines the myriad elements of this ongoing experiment in the remainder of These Truths — one of those rare books that crown the explainer-elucidator-enchanter hierarchy of nonfiction, a book revelatory and replete with insight even for those of us who are not American. Complement it with Walt Whitman — the poet laureate of democracy — on optimism as a force of resistance and Hannah Arendt on action and the pursuit of happiness.
Source: Brain Pickings | 12 Mar 2019 | 5:47 am(NZT)
“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people,” Olivia Laing wrote in her lyrical exploration of loneliness and the search for belonging. Our need for belonging is indeed the warp thread of our humanity, and our locus of belonging — determined in part by our choices and in part by the cards chance has dealt us in what we were born as and where — is a pillar of our identity. For those who have migrated far from their homeland, and especially for those of us who have migrated alone, without the built-in social support structure of a community or a family unit, this rupture of belonging can be particularly disorienting and lonesome-making. “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place,” Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers in their fantastic 1973 conversation about freedom — a freedom the conquest of which can be a whole life’s work.
Poet JonArno Lawson, author of the wondrous Sidewalk Flowers, and artist Nahid Kazemi take up these complex questions with great simplicity and thoughtful sensitivity in Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon (public library) — a spare, uncommonly poetic meditation on belonging and what it means to be oneself as both counterpoint and counterpart to otherness, as a thinking, feeling, wakeful atom of life amid the constellation of other atoms.
We meet a melancholy young bird, lonesome even among the other birds, lonesome while soaring above the cityscape, above houses filled with innumerable lives that feel so impossibly distant and alien.
You can be far away inside,
and far away outside.
One day, something subtle but profound shifts in the bird — the gaze of a young girl sparks a quickening of heart, a certain opening to the possibility of belonging, a new curiosity about the nature of life — about what it means to be.
We see the bird’s plumage suddenly explode with color — the radiance of awakening, evocative of poet Jane Kenyon’s piercing line: “What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?”
you least expect it.
The story unfolds with a poet’s precision and economy of words, punctuated by Kazemi’s sprawling, stunning watercolors. What emerges is a gentle invitation to what Bertrand Russell so beautifully termed “a largeness of contemplation.”
The bird moves through seasons of change, floats wordlessly across landscapes of possibility, alighting at last to a vastly different world — more colorful, more alive. In this foreign-looking land, which Kazemi’s palm trees and Middle Eastern architecture contrast with the deciduous crowns and Western cityscapes of the melancholy world, the bird finds a homecoming among other birds — a newfound joy in being “alone and together, over the rooftops and under the moon.”
It is impossible, perhaps even absurd, to attempt conveying the largehearted loveliness of Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon — a nearly wordless book of supreme analog splendor — in sentences and images on a digital screen. Hold it in hand and in heart, then couple it with other poetic and profound treasures from Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse (and my collaborator in A Velocity of Being) Enchanted Lion Books: Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, The Lion and the Bird, Bertolt, and This Is a Poem That Heals Fish.
Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books
Source: Brain Pickings | 8 Mar 2019 | 7:04 am(NZT)
“Information will never replace illumination,” Susan Sontag prophesied shortly before her death, before the birth of the social media newsfeed, as she considered the conscience of words and writer’s responsibility to society. A generation earlier, long before we came to confront the untenably urgent predicament of wisdom in the age of information, Walter Benjamin — one of Sontag’s great intellectual heroes — lamented that “the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out” — a death he attributed to the rise of information, plentiful and unconsidered.
This increasingly dangerous obfuscation of information and wisdom is what Toni Morrison (b. February 18, 1931) — one of the deepest seers of our time — examines in an almost-aside, the way only towering intellects can, in a 1992 lecture that lent its title to her altogether fantastic nonfiction collection The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (public library).
In all of our education, whether it’s in institutions or not, in homes or streets or wherever, whether it’s scholarly or whether it’s experiential, there is a kind of a progression. We move from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. And separating one from the other, being able to distinguish among and between them, that is, knowing the limitations and the danger of exercising one without the others, while respecting each category of intelligence, is generally what serious education is about. And if we agree that purposeful progression exists, then you will see… that it’s easy, and it’s seductive, to assume that data is really knowledge. Or that information is, indeed, wisdom. Or that knowledge can exist without data. And how easy, and how effortlessly, one can parade and disguise itself as another. And how quickly we can forget that wisdom without knowledge, wisdom without any data, is just a hunch.
That Morrison is making this astute observation more than a quarter century ago — before the web as we know it existed, before “fake news” and “alternative facts” and other such misinformation-driven erosions of wisdom, before the golden age of Big Data and its reduction of human lives to marketable data points — only adds to Morrison’s prescience. But while these are serious concerns for the citizen, they are also serious concerns for the creative artist, the storyteller. It is with an eye to her own craft that Morrison examines them — the subject of the talk is her stunning 1987 novel Beloved, which would earn her the Nobel Prize only a year after she delivered this lecture, making Morrison the first black woman to receive the esteemed accolade.
Reflecting on how she too had mistaken information for illumination in her initial approach to her subject — a sort of arrogance she condemns as poison to both wisdom and imagination — she writes:
[I had read] the historical books… I had read the autobiographies of the slaves themselves and therefore had firsthand information from people who were there. You add that to my own intuition, and you can see the shape of my confidence and the trap that it would lead me into, which would be confusing data with information and knowledge with hunches and so on. I thought I knew a great deal about it. And that arrogance was the first obstacle.
What I needed was imagination to shore up the facts, the data, and not be overwhelmed by them. Imagination that personalized information, made it intimate, but didn’t offer itself as a substitute. If imagination could be depended on for that, then there was the possibility of knowledge. Wisdom, of course, I would leave alone, and rely on the readers to produce that.
What a lovely testament to Proust’s insistence that “the end of a book’s wisdom appears to us as merely the start of our own.”
Morrison unspools more wisdom in the reader’s mind throughout the remaining meditations collected in The Source of Self-Regard. Complement this particular portion with Pythagoras on the meaning of wisdom and Thomas Merton’s beautiful letter to Rachel Carson about technology, wisdom, and civilizational self-awareness, then revisit Morrison on the artist’s task in troubled times, how to own your story, and her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the power of language.
Source: Brain Pickings | 6 Mar 2019 | 8:00 pm(NZT)
In 1856, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (March 6, 1806–June 29, 1861) staggered the world with a sensation best described today as viral: Aurora Leigh — her epic novel in blank verse about a young woman caught in the tension between the life of love and the life of genius, who finds her powerful voice as an artist in a society that seeks to silence it by sublimation to convention. These were dangerous ideas in an era when women could not vote, attend university, or even enter many cultural establishments. Barrett Browning — a key figure in Figuring, from which this piece is adapted — proudly reported that mothers wouldn’t let their daughters read Aurora Leigh, but young women devoured it in secret. It stunned, it shocked, it unsettled the status quo with more than its central claim of women’s intellectual and artistic autonomy, of the right to choose the public sphere and the life of creative work over the domestic sphere and the life of deadening dependence.
Ba — as Elizabeth Barrett was known in childhood — had begun writing poetry before the age of eight, her first known poem protesting compulsory military service. It was in childhood, too, that Ba — the eldest of twelve children — started suffering from the intense spinal headaches and muscle pain that would bedevil her for the remaining four decades of her life, now believed to have been hypokalemic periodic paralysis — a rare disorder that depletes muscles of potassium, effecting extreme weakness and bouts of acute pain. By seventeen, she had published — anonymously — Essay on Mind, and Other Poems, in the preface to which she defined poetry as “the enthusiasm of the understanding,” argued that “thought catches the light reflected from the object of her contemplation,” and divided “the productions of the mind” into two classes: the philosophical and the poetical. Her body of work would rise to the pinnacle of both, rendering her one of the most influential writers of the century. But she was to surmount an uncommon share of adversity before becoming a titan of her time, all the while renouncing the dangerous myth of the suffering artist and insisting that “the worthiest poets have remained uncrowned till death has bleached their foreheads to the bone.”
A close succession of tragedies compounded a particularly painful episode of her disease. Just before her thirty-fourth birthday, one of Elizabeth’s brothers died of fever and another — her most beloved sibling — in a sailing accident for which she blamed herself. “That was a very near escape from madness, absolute hopeless madness,” she would later recount. The following year, as her physical symptoms inflicted new heights of anguish, her father took her to London in an invalid carriage. She spent seven years almost continuously bedridden in a darkened upstairs room on Wimpole Street alongside her beloved spaniel Flush, communicating with the outside world only via letters, “as people shut up in dungeons take up with scrawling mottoes on the walls.” Secluded in her sickroom, Barrett counterbalanced her stillness with a ferocious pace of composition that led to her first major literary success and invited the courtship of Robert Browning. “I love your verses with all my heart, Dear Miss Barrett,” Browning — an obscure poet six years her junior — wrote to the stranger whose 1844 poetry collection had enchanted him beyond words. “I love these books with all my heart — and I love you too.”
So began an epistolary courtship — carried out in secret, as Barrett knew her father would condemn the union — that produced some of the most exquisite love letters ever written. Within two years, Barrett and Browning eloped to marry in a small ceremony at a London church around the corner from her sickroom. Her punitively possessive father disinherited her. Poetry became the locus of her self-possession. She began envisioning “a sort of novel-poem… running into the midst of our conventions, and rushing into drawing-rooms… ‘where angels fear to tread’; and so, meeting face to face and without mask the Humanity of the age, and speaking the truth.” She spent the next eleven years conceiving and composing what became Aurora Leigh — the unexampled masterpiece that catapulted her into celebrity, revolutionizing literature and radicalizing society.
The novel-poem’s narrator and protagonist begins life as the daughter of an English father and a Florentine mother, who dies when Aurora is still a small child. When her father also dies, the young Aurora is shipped off to England and raised by a cold, unloving aunt who sees her as a living record of her father’s transgression with a foreigner. As Aurora buries herself in books and gives herself an education, her only companion is her cousin Romney Leigh — a young, idealistic social reformer, who scoffs at Aurora’s aspiration to become a poet, seeing art as too feeble a tool in the campaign of transfiguring the world. Art, he tells her, is inferior to activism, to the hard work of improving life by social reform. At the heart of Aurora’s retort is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s meta-manifesto for how art both reflects life and raises it, for its power to transform and redeem:
What is art,
But life upon the larger scale, the higher,
When, graduating up in a spiral line
Of still expanding and ascending gyres,
It pushes toward the intense significance
Of all things, hungry for the Infinite?
Art’s life, — and where we live, we suffer and toil.
A quarter century earlier, when Barrett was only twenty-seven, she had translated the Ancient Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound, based on the myth of Prometheus and his defiance of the gods, which brought fire to humanity at the cost of perpetual punishment for the hero — a myth in which she must have seen deep resonance to the work of any revolutionary who defies the status quo to bring about a new world order; an allegory in which she must have intuited both the promise and the peril of breaking convention. She would go on to be a modern Prometheus herself, revolutionizing poetry and making a landmark case for women’s right to autonomy in art and life.
But for all her revolutionary ideas and impact, Barrett Browning understood the intricate relationship between history and revolution — the latter must not be a renunciation of the former, but must instead improve upon it with an informed intelligence. Innovation unmoored from tradition is an infantile innovation — not originality but hubris.
In her preface to Prometheus Bound, she considers the blind spots of the cult of innovation and what we stand to lose when we so readily and reflexively dismiss the past upon which the future must be built. A century before Susan Sontag considered our ambivalent historical conscience and asserted that “existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future,” Barrett Browning writes:
The present age says… it is, or it would be, and original age… shall dream undreamt of dreams, and glow with an unearthly frenzy. If its dreams be noble dreams, may they be dreamt on; if its frenzy be the evidence of inspiration, “may I,” as Prometheus says, “be mad.” But let the age take heed. — There is one step from dreaming nobly to sleeping inertly; and one, from frenzy to imbecility.
I do not ask, I would not obtain, that our age be severely imitative of any former age. Surely it may think its own thoughts and speak its own words, yet not turn away from those who have thought and spoken well. The contemplation of excellence produces excellence, if not similar, yet parallel.
This obsession with originality, she argues, is misplaced — at the core of all great art, whatever form it may take, are the most elemental truths of existence, which are inherently timeless, for they arise from nature herself:
We do not turn from green hills and waving forests, because we build and inhabit palaces; nor do we turn towards them, that we may model them in painted wax. We make them subjects of contemplation, in order to abstract form them those ideas of beauty, afterwards embodied in our own productions. —
All beauties, whether in nature or art, in physics or morals, in composition or abstract reasoning, are multiplied reflections, visible in different distances under different positions, of one archetypal beauty.
Only by contacting these old elemental manifestations of truth and beauty, she would later assert with Aurora Leigh, can art begin to build the world anew. Across the nine books of the novel-poem, across a multitude of trials, her heroine proves this credo with her life. Art, she concludes in the final scene of redemption, is an instrument of truth and transformation — for the human heart and, through it, for the body of the world:
The world’s old;
But the old world waits the hour to be renewed:
Toward which, new hearts in individual growth
Must quicken, and increase to multitude
In new dynasties of the race of men, —
Developed whence, shall grow spontaneously
New churches, new economies, new laws
Admitting freedom, new societies
Source: Brain Pickings | 6 Mar 2019 | 7:00 pm(NZT)
“No man can read a fine author, and relish him to his very bones, while he reads, without subsequently fancying to himself some ideal image of the man and his mind,” Hermann Melville wrote as he began falling under Nathaniel Hawthorne’s spell. “I love your verses with all my heart, Dear Miss Barrett,” Robert Browning exulted in the first of his love letters to Elizabeth Barrett, “and I love you too.” To be a passionate reader is indeed to live with the risk of becoming besotted with the author of a beloved book. No author has cast a wider or deeper enchantment on more varied human hearts than Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892).
Just before Leaves of Grass stirred the young Bram Stoker to compose his extraordinary stream-of-consciousness love letter to the American poet, Whitman’s verse ignited an even more fervent outpouring of adoration from a compatriot of Stoker’s of the opposite sex: Anne Gilchrist (February 25, 1828–November 29, 1885), whose correspondence with the beloved poet survives in the stunning forsaken volume The Letters of Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman (free ebook | public library).
At the age of twenty-three, after a two-year engagement, Anne had married a talented art and literary critic of humble means, whose writing would soon earn the friendship of some of Great Britain’s most celebrated authors: Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot, John Ruskin, Herbert Spencer, Christina Rossetti. The couple would eventually settle next door to Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh Carlyle. Ten years into the marriage, scarlet fever suddenly widowed Anne and left her to raise her four children as a single mother at thirty-three. Lettered, brilliant, intensely interested in science and philosophy, and enchanted by the channeling of beauty, be it in poetry or in painting, she endeavored to finish the biography of William Blake that her husband had begun, which she published in 1863 to great acclaim with the help of William and Gabriel Rossetti — Christina Rossetti’s brothers.
That is how Walt Whitman came to animate Anne Gilchrist’s life. At the time, William Rossetti was readying to publish the long-belated English edition of Leaves of Grass. Intuiting a kindred sensibility, he gave Gilchrist some of Whitman’s poems. She was instantly besotted. In June of 1869, she exulted in a letter to Rossetti:
Your edition of Walt Whitman’s poems… holds me entirely spellbound, and I go through it again and again with deepening delight and wonder.
On those pages began what would become a rich and unclassifiable bond. “Among the perfect women I have met,” Whitman would later reflect, “I have known none more perfect in every relation, than my dear, dear friend, Anne Gilchrist.” In a conversation with his biographer, he would liken her to Lincoln, whom he considered “the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality” in America:
Have you noticed that the time to look for the best things in best people is the moment of their greatest need? Look at Lincoln: he is our proudest example: he proved to be big as, bigger than, any emergency — his grasp was a giant’s grasp — made dark things light, made hard things easy…. [Anne] belonged to the same noble breed: seized the reins, was competent; her head was clear, her hand was firm.
Gilchrist’s first love letter to Whitman was not private but public — an essay titled “An Englishwoman’s Estimate of Walt Whitman,” published anonymously in Boston’s Radical a year after she first became enamored of his verses. Whitman was 51 and Gilchrist 42. Lauding the poems’ “penetrating sweetness, set in the midst of rugged grandeur,” she enthused:
For me the reading of his poems is truly a new birth of the soul.
I had not dreamed that words could cease to be words, and become electric streams like these… I am as one hurried through stormy seas, over high mountains, dazed with sunlight, stunned with a crowd and tumult of faces and voices, till I am breathless, bewildered, half dead. Then come parts and whole poems in which there is such calm wisdom and strength of thought, such a cheerful breadth of sunshine, that the soul bathes in them renewed and strengthened. Living impulses flow out of these that make me exult in life, yet look longingly towards “the superb vistas of Death.” … Not, of course, that all the pieces are equal in power and beauty, but that all are vital; they grew — they were not made. We criticise a palace or a cathedral; but what is the good of criticising a forest? … Seeds brought by the winds from north, south, east, and west, lying long in the earth, not resting on it like the stately building, but hid in and assimilating it, shooting upwards to be nourished by the air and the sunshine and the rain which beat idly against that, — each bough and twig and leaf growing in strength and beauty its own way, a law to itself, yet, with all this freedom of spontaneous growth, the result inevitable, unalterable (therefore setting criticism at naught), above all things, vital, — that is, a source of ever-generating vitality: such are these poems.
Whitman, who cherished trees with a love approaching the divine, was in turn vitalized by this uncommon generosity of sentiment. Decades later, he would affectionately remember Gilchrist as “strangely different from the average; entirely herself; as simple as nature; true, honest; beautiful as a tree is tall, leafy, rich, full, free — is a tree.”
After reading her review, not yet knowing the author’s identity, he wrote to Rossetti: “I had hitherto received no eulogium so magnificent.” Having spent a decade learning how not to let criticism sink his confidence — something no artist ever fully learns but we spend a lifetime practicing — Whitman would later reflect on how much Gilchrist’s plaudit meant to him:
Almost everybody was against me — the papers, the preachers, the literary gentlemen — nearly everybody with only here and there a dissenting voice — when it looked on the surface as if my enterprise was bound to fail… then this wonderful woman. Such things stagger a man… I had got so used to being ignored or denounced that the appearance of a friend was always accompanied with a sort of shock… There are shocks that knock you up, shocks that knock you down.
It would be more than two years before Gilchrist summoned the courage to reach out to Whitman directly and reveal her identity as the reviewer whose praise had so salved him. In early September 1871, months before Bram Stoker composed his own exhilarated love letter to the poet, she wrote to him:
The time will come when man will understand that a woman’s soul is as dear and needful to his and as different from his as her body to his body. This was what happened to me when I had read for a few days, nay, hours, in your books. It was the divine soul embracing mine. I never before dreamed what love meant: not what life meant. Never was alive before — no words but those of “new birth” can hint the meaning of what then happened to me.
After recounting to Whitman the shock of bereavement she had experienced with her husband’s sudden death a decade earlier, she writes as a woman already in love with a stranger whose words have reached to her across time, space, and reason to cast the thickest spell:
In May, 1869, came the voice over the Atlantic to me — O, the voice of my Mate: it must be so — my love rises up out of the very depths of the grief & tramples upon despair. I can wait — any time, a lifetime, many lifetimes — I can suffer, I can dare, I can learn, grow, toil, but nothing in life or death can tear out of my heart the passionate belief that one day I shall hear that voice say to me, “My Mate. The one I so much want. Bride, Wife, indissoluble eternal!” It is not happiness I plead with God for — it is the very life of my Soul, my love is its life. Dear Walt. It is a sweet & precious thing, this love; it clings so close, so close to the Soul and Body, all so tenderly dear, so beautiful, so sacred; it yearns with such passion to soothe and comfort & fill thee with sweet tender joy; it aspires as grandly as gloriously as thy own soul. Strong to soar—soft & tender to nestle and caress. If God were to say to me, “See — he that you love you shall not be given to in this life — he is going to set sail on the unknown sea — will you go with him?” never yet has bride sprung into her husband’s arms with the joy with which I would take thy hand & spring from the shore.
Addressing as “dear love” and “my darling” this enchanting stranger whose poems felt as intimate and personal as love letters, Gilchrist writes with an unguarded heart:
O dear Walt, did you not feel in every word the breath of a woman’s love? did you not see as through a transparent veil a soul all radiant and trembling with love stretching out its arms towards you? I was so sure you would speak, would send me some sign: that I was to wait — wait. So I fed my heart with sweet hopes: strengthened it with looking into the eyes of thy picture. O surely in the ineffable tenderness of thy look speaks the yearning of thy man-soul towards my woman-soul? But now I will wait no longer. A higher instinct dominates that other, the instinct for perfect truth. I would if I could lay every thought and action and feeling of my whole life open to thee as it lies to the eye of God. But that cannot be all at once. O come. Come, my darling: look into these eyes and see the loving ardent aspiring soul in them. Easily, easily will you learn to love all the rest of me for the sake of that and take me to your breasts for ever and ever. Out of its great anguish my love has risen stronger, more triumphant than ever: it cannot doubt, cannot fear, is strong, divine, immortal, sure of its fruition this side the grave or the other.
Six weeks later, not having received a response — a stretch of silence unfathomable to the modern reader, in an age when a two-hour text response lag can induce nothing less than heartbreak — Gilchrist writes again with explosive candor, beseeching for an acknowledgement of her letter and her love:
Spare me the needless suffering of uncertainty on this point & let me have one line, one word, of assurance that I am no longer hidden from you by a thick cloud — I from thee — not thou from me: for I that have never set eyes upon thee, all the Atlantic flowing between us, yet cleave closer than those that stand nearest & dearest around thee — love thee day & night: — last thoughts, first thoughts, my soul’s passionate yearning toward thy divine Soul, every hour, every deed and thought — my love for my children, my hopes, aspirations for them, all taking new shape, new height through this great love. My Soul has staked all upon it. In dull dark moods when I cannot, as it were, see thee, still, still always a dumb, blind yearning towards thee — still it comforts me to touch, to press to me the beloved books — like a child holding some hand in the dark — it knows not whose — but knows it is enough — knows it is a dear, strong, comforting hand. Do not say I am forward, or that I lack pride because I tell this love to thee who have never sought or made sign of desiring to seek me. Oh, for all that, this love is my pride my glory. Source of sufferings and joys that cannot put themselves into words. Besides, it is not true thou hast not sought or loved me. For when I read the divine poems I feel all folded round in thy love… I know not how to bear the yearning answering tenderness that fills my breast.
At this point, one is tempted to regard Gilchrist with the peculiar fusion of admiration and pity that such unbridled self-prostration inspires in an impartial observer; or, less charitably, to dismiss her as an infatuated fan who has constructed the elaborate scaffolding of a fantasy love around a distant public figure. But just as her despair — and that of any reader of these rending letters — approaches the unbearable, Whitman writes back. Two weeks later — practically instantaneously, given the pace of transatlantic mail — he sends her a short, largehearted letter, emotionally generous yet deliberately reserved by comparison to her effusive outpourings of love:
I have been waiting quite a while for time and the right mood, to answer your letter in a spirit as serious as its own, and in the same unmitigated trust and affection. But more daily work than ever has fallen to me to do the present season, and though I am well and contented, my best moods seem to shun me. I wish to give to it a day, a sort of Sabbath, or holy day, apart to itself, under serene and propitious influences, confident that I could then write you a letter which would do you good, and me too. But I must at least show without further delay that I am not insensible to your love. I too send you my love. And do you feel no disappointment because I now write so briefly. My book is my best letter, my response, my truest explanation of all. In it I have put my body and spirit. You understand this better and fuller and clearer than any one else. And I too fully and clearly understand the loving letter it has evoked. Enough that there surely exists so beautiful and a delicate relation, accepted by both of us with joy.
Willfully unwitting of Whitman’s gentle message that his art is his love, which is not the personal love she craves, Gilchrist responds with the insistence that she only knew what the word “love” meant after she read his poems. Envisioning “the sweetest, noblest, closest, tenderest companionship ever yet tasted by man & woman” as available to them, weaving Whitman’s own words into her plea for requital, she writes:
Your book does indeed say all — book that is not a book, for the first time a man complete, godlike, august, standing revealed the only way possible, through the garment of speech… quickened into life through such love, such sympathy, such resistless attraction.
I know how hard to attain to this greatness, the grandest lot ever aspired to by woman. I know too my own shortcomings, faults, flaws. You might not be able to give me your great love yet — to take me to your breast with joy. But I can wait. I can grow great & beautiful through sorrow & suffering, working, struggling, yearning, loving so, all alone, as I have done now nearly three years… Love & Hope are so strong in me, my soul’s high aspirations are of such tenacious, passionate intensity, are so conscious of their own deathless reality, that what would starve them out of any other woman only makes them strike out deeper roots, grow more resolute & sturdy, in me. I know that “greatness will not ripen for me like a pear.” But I could face, I could joyfully accept, the fiercest anguish, the hardest toil, the longest, sternest probation, to make me fit to be your mate — so that at the last you should say, “This is the woman I have waited for, the woman prepared for me: this is my dear eternal comrade, wife — the one I so much want.” Life has no other meaning for me than that — all things have led up to help prepare me for that. Death is more welcome to me than life if it means that — if thou, dear sailor, thou sailing upon thy endless cruise, takest me on board — me, daring, all with thee, steering for the deep waters, bound where mariner has not yet dared to go: hand in hand with thee, nestled close — one with thee.
Whitman, too, seems willfully unwitting of the discomfiting truth at the heart of her letters — that she loves him with a self-generated ardor he could never return, so vast and all-demanding and uncalibrated to his nature as a queer man. When he responds by saying that he dreams of going to “Old England” one day, and thus seeing her and her children — “but it is a dream only” — he seems not to realize that “only” is so infinite a landscape for fantasy in the mind of the hopelessly infatuated. And yet he does warn her, in his gentle poetic way, that the love she experiences may be a misplaced projection at his private person on the basis of his public art. Gilchrist responds with an impassioned, almost unbearably beautiful and heartbreaking counter-insistence, reasoning against reason:
If it seems to you there must needs be something unreal, illusive, in a love that has grown up entirely without the basis of personal intercourse, dear Friend, then you do not yourself realize your own power nor understand the full meaning of your own words, “whoso touches this, touches a man” — “I have put my Soul & Body into these Poems.” Real effects imply real causes. Do you suppose that an ideal figure conjured up by her own fancy could, in a perfectly sound, healthy woman of my age, so happy in her children, so busy & content, practical, earnest, produce such real & tremendous effect — saturating her whole life, colouring every waking moment — filling her with such joys, such pains that the strain of them has been well nigh too much even for a strong frame, coming as it does, after twenty years of hard work?
Therefore please, dear Friend, do not “warn” me any more — it hurts so, as seeming to distrust my love. Time only can show how needlessly. My love, flowing ever fresh & fresh out of my heart, will go with you in all your wanderings, dear Friend, enfolding you day and night, soul & body, with tenderness that tries so vainly to utter itself in these poor, helpless words, that clings closer than any man’s love can cling.
And yet despite the all-consuming cloud of her infatuation, Gilchrist manages — as we all manage, even in our most enchanted states — to maintain some lucid part of herself, some clear awareness of the asymmetrical intensity of feeling. Eight months into the correspondence, in between effusions, she gives that part a share of voice:
Perhaps the letters that I have sent you since that first, have given you a feeling of constraint towards me because you cannot respond to them. I will not write any more such letters; or, if I write them because my heart is so full it cannot bear it, they shall not find their way to the Post. But do not, because I give you more than friendship, think that it would not be a very dear & happy thing to me to have friendship only from you.
Anyone who has vowed not to text a crush, then watched the resolve melt into permissive rationalizations of why texting is a good idea, knows the polarized place of resignation and electric desire from which Gilchrist is composing these futile words — for, in the very next breath, she uncorks the longing she has just resolved to keep bottled up, imploring him to write and insisting that her love, though it had begun in his poems, is irrepressibly aimed at his person:
I am sure dear friend, if you realize the joy it is to me to receive a few words from you — about anything that is passing in your thoughts & around — how beaming bright & happy the day a letter comes & many days after — how light hearted & alert I set about my daily tasks, it would not seem irksome to you to write. And if you say, “Read my books, & be content — you have me in them,” I say, it is because I read them so that I am not content. It is an effort to me to turn to any other reading… I want nothing else — am fully fed & satisfied there. I sit alone many hours… brooding over the poems, sunning myself in them, pondering the vistas — all the experience of my past life & all its aspirations corroborating them — all my future & so far as in me lies the future of my children to be shaped modified vitalized by & through these — outwardly & inwardly. How can I be content to live wholly isolated from you? I am sure it is not possible for any one, — man or woman, it does not matter which, to receive these books, not merely with the intellect critically admiring their power & beauty, but with an understanding responsive heart, without feeling it drawn out of their breasts so that they must leave all & come to be with you sometimes without a resistless yearning for personal intercourse that will take no denial.
Although the correspondence continued to be staggeringly asymmetrical, with a ten-month silence from Whitman, Gilchrist’s “resistless yearning for personal intercourse” remained undeterred indeed. Whitman was never cool to her. But he met her boundless passion with contained warmth — a tragic asymmetry of affection evocative of Emily Dickinson’s lifelong ardor for Susan Gilbert and Herman Melville’s for Nathaniel Hawthorne. Governed by her devotion and willfully blind to the asymmetry, Gilchrist began dreaming of moving to America to be near her “darling Walt” — dreams that fermented into plans after Whitman’s paralytic stroke in 1873, followed closely by the death of his beloved sister and mother. He wrote to her from the thick fog of these losses:
Since I last wrote, clouds have darkened over me, and still remain.
Do not think hard of me for not writing in reply. If you could look into my spirit & emotion you would be entirely satisfied & at peace… I am at present temporarily here at Camden, on the Delaware river, opposite Philadelphia, at the house of my brother, and I am occupying, as I write, the rooms wherein my mother died… You must not be unhappy about me, as I am as comfortably situated as can be — & many things — indeed every thing — in my case might be so much worse. Though my plans are not definite, my intention as far as anything is on getting stronger.
He then did something astounding — something the effect of which on a lovestruck heart he must not have realized:
The enclosed ring I have just taken from my finger, & send to you, with my love.
How the besotted Gilchrist interpreted the gesture is hardly surprising. Addressing him as “my Beloved,” she gushes:
O the precious letter, bearing to me the living touch of your hand, vibrating through & through me as I feel the pressure of the ring that pressed your flesh — & now will press mine so long as I draw breath. My Darling! take comfort & strength & joy from me that you have made so rich & strong.
When my eyes first open in the morning, often such tender thoughts, yearning ineffably, pitying, sorrowful, sweet thoughts flow into my breast that longs & longs to pillow on itself the suffering head (with white hair more beautiful to me than the silvery clouds which always make me think of it.)
The ring only amplified her longing to be near him, to care for him as part-wife, part-mother, part-comrade — she decided to move to America. Whitman immediately discouraged the plan, perhaps sensing that he could never meet her love in kind. Even if he were not the poet laureate of same-sex love, he must have intuited that she loved a version of him so idealized, so exalted to the point of worship, that his mortal reality could only ever disappoint her to the point of devastation — the pedestal would topple, crushing a tender heart he cared to protect. Nowhere is the collision between the ideal and the real more violent, nor more mutually wounding, than in an asymmetrical love warped by one-sided idealization.
Gilchrist did not heed his deterrence. She had seen her migration to America as her “settled, steady purpose (resting on a deep, strong faith) ever since 1869,” when she first devoured Leaves of Grass. Now she began actively imagining their life together in a mutually enriching partnership:
I turn my face to the westward sky before I lie down to sleep, deep & steadfast within me the silent aspiration that every year, every month & week, may help something to prepare and make fitter me and mine to be your comfort and joy. We are full of imperfections, short-comings but half developed, but half “possessing our own souls.” But we grow, we learn, we strive — that is the best of us. I think in the sunshine of your presence we shall grow fast — I too, my years notwithstanding.
Under this blinding vision, she once again returns to the seedbed of her love for him — his art:
No one hundreds of years hence will find deeper joy in these poems than I — breathe the fresh, sweet, exhilarating air of them, bathe in it, drink in what nourishes & delights the whole being, body, intellect & soul, more than I. Nor could you, when writing them, have desired to come nearer to a human being & be more to them forever & forever than you are & will be to me. O I take the hand you stretch out each day — I put mine into it with a sense of utter fulfilment: I ask nothing more of time and of eternity but to live and grow up to that companionship that includes all.
Her physical presence in his life, she insists, would be nothing less than medicinal. It would be a love that meets every need — the most treacherous promise of our romantic mythology, for no one person could ever meet the tessellated needs of another fully. She writes:
I believe if I could only make you conscious of the love, the enfolding love, my heart breathes out toward you it would do you physical good; many-sided love — Mother’s love that cherishes, that delights so in personal service, that sees in sickness & suffering such dear appeals to an answering, limitless tenderness — wife’s love — ah, you draw that from me too, resistlessly — I have no choice — comrade’s love, so happy in sharing all, pain, sorrow, toil, effort, enjoyments, thoughts, hopes, aims, struggles, disappointment, beliefs, aspirations. Child’s love, too, that trusts utterly, confides unquestioningly.
On August 30, 1876, after a seven-year longing, Gilchrist set sail for America with three of her children. To the reluctant Whitman, who had tried to dissuade her by stressing the perilousness of transatlantic travel and cautioning her that the “crudeness” of Americans might offend her sensibility, she cited her eldest daughter’s future as a primary motivation — Beatrice was determined to become a doctor, but proper medical education was not yet available to women in England, for they were not permitted to enter any hospital for the clinical portion of their studies. A quarter century earlier, Gilchrist’s compatriot Elizabeth Blackwell had traversed the Atlantic to set precedent as the first woman to receive a medical degree in America.
The family settled in Concord, where Gilchrist soon made the acquaintance of Emerson — by that point, America’s most esteemed literary tastemaker, whose extraordinary letter to the young Whitman had pivoted the fate of Leaves of Grass from a derided and dismissed creative experiment to a literary masterpiece on the lips, minds, and shelves of every book-lover in America. In Concord, in “the companionship of very lovable men and women,” Gilchrist began enjoying outdoor pleasures, so dear to Whitman himself and so central to his makeshift physical therapy while recovering from the stroke. She reported to him:
They lead an easy-going life here — seem to spend half their time floating about on the river — or meeting in the evening to talk & read aloud.
We shall never know what was exchanged, thought, felt when Gilchrist and Whitman first met. (The loss of letters, Margaret Fuller had lamented, “makes irreparable gaps in the history of feeling,” and an even vaster abyss gapes across the unrecorded moments that take place in the intimacy of physical proximity and presence — letters, after all, presuppose distance and absence.) What we do know is that, under the hard light of reality, Gilchrist’s idealized romantic love soon melted into a warm and largehearted affection that would bind the two for the remainder of their lives. Whitman dined at her house frequently and her children came to call him “Uncle Walt.” Her artist son painted a portrait of him. The poet would later write of his uncommon and label-defying regard for her:
I have that sort of feeling about her which cannot easily be spoken of — …: love (strong personal love, too), reverence, respect — you see, it won’t go into words: all the words are weak and formal.
Despite being nearly a decade her elder, Whitman would go on to outlive Gilchrist. Upon received word of her death from her son, he could only summon these spare, sundering words:
I have received your letter. Nothing now remains but a sweet and rich memory — none more beautiful all time, all life all the earth — I cannot write anything of a letter to-day. I must sit alone and think.
He would remember her as “a sort of human miracle,” “a supreme character of whom the world knows too little for its own good,” one whose “vision went on and on” and who “belonged to the times yet to come.” He would commemorate her in one of his most beautiful poems:
My science-friend, my noblest woman-friend
(Now buried in an English grave — and this a memory — leaf for her dear sake),
Ended our talk — “The sum, concluding all we know of old or modern learning, intuitions deep,
Of all Geologies — Histories — of all Astronomy — of Evolution, Metaphysics all,
Is, that we all are onward, onward, speeding slowly, surely bettering,
Life, life an endless march, an endless army (no halt, but, it is duly over),
The world, the race, the soul — in space and time the universes,
All bound as is befitting each — all surely going somewhere.”
The whole of The Letters of Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman is the kind of soulful, heartbreakingly beautiful read that reminds us what we stand to lose with the loss of letter writing — “the humane art,” Virginia Woolf called it. Though bittersweetly dated in their form, these letters speak to and salve the most timeless palpitations of the human heart. Complement them with other uncommonly splendid exemplars of the love letter form: Emily Dickinson to Susan Gilbert, Kahlil Gibran to Mary Haskell, Vladimir Nabokov to Véra Nabokova, Iris Murdoch to Brigit Brophy, Margaret Mead to Ruth Benedict, and Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera.
Source: Brain Pickings | 5 Mar 2019 | 8:00 pm(NZT)
“There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal,” Walt Whitman wrote as he contemplated identity and the paradox of the self. “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” the young Leo Tolstoy distilled the eternal quest in his diary as he wrestled with moral development and the search for selfhood — a search that begins as soon as we become conscious, reaches a crescendo in the formative years of adolescence and young adulthood, and continues until our last neuron ceases to fire. We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins.
A century after Whitman and Tolstoy, Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) — another towering intellect of uncommon insight into the human spirit — examined the perennial preoccupation of consciousness in a cometic passage from the diary of her youth, posthumously published as Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library) — that spectacular collection of meditations, which also gave us the young Sontag on personal growth, art, marriage, the four people a great writer must be, and her duties for being a twenty-something.
In a journal entry from late February 1948, shortly after her fifteenth birthday, Sontag writes:
I must not think of the solar system — of innumerable galaxies spanned by countless light years — of infinities of space — I must not look up at the sky for longer than a moment — I must not think of death, of forever — I must not do all those things so that I will not know these horrible moments when my mind seems a tangible thing — more than my mind — my whole spirit — all that animates me and is the original and responsive desire that constitutes my “self” — all this takes on a definite shape and size — far too large to be contained by the structure I call my body — All this pulls and pushes — years and strains (I feel it now) until I must clench my fists — I rise — who can keep still — every muscle is on a rack — striving to build itself into an immensity — I want to scream — my stomach feels compressed — my legs, feet, toes stretching until they hurt.
Complement this particular passage of the intensely insightful and rewarding Reborn with philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of change, then revisit Sontag on what it means to be a decent human being, the power of music, the conscience of words, art as a form of spirituality, and her spectacular Letter to Borges.
Source: Brain Pickings | 4 Mar 2019 | 8:00 pm(NZT)
A steamboat is puffing up the Mississippi River, approaching a bluff towering above the shore, not far from where a steamboat pilot named Samuel Clemens would pick up his pen name Mark Twain a decade later. Bored and brazen, the young men aboard boast that they can reach the top of the bluff. One scoffs that if women weren’t such poor climbers, the ladies in the party could join them.
Harriet Hosmer thrusts her hands into her pockets and a mischievous smile lifts her chin as she proposes a foot race, wagering that she can reach the summit before any of the boys. A spectator to the scene would later remember her as “a gay, romping, athletic schoolgirl.” The captain, amused, banks the boat, and off they all go. Harriet — Hatty to those who love her — slices through changing altitudinal zones of vegetation up the five hundred feet of elevation above the river, dashing through the virgin pine forest, charging through the bramble, and scrambling up the jagged rock to triumph first atop the summit, waving a victorious handkerchief.
The captain, with amusement transmuted into astonishment, christens the bluff Mount Hosmer — a name it bears to this day.
This is not Harriet Hosmer’s first triumph against expectation and convention, and it is far from her last.
At twenty-one, she has given herself the Mississippi River adventure as a small summer reward for having completed her anatomical studies — a centerpiece of her plan, as confident and single of purpose as her climbing wager, to become a sculptor. Packed in her trunk is a diploma from the medical school of St. Louis University. The year is 1851. An American university attended by men is not to officially begin admitting women for decades to come.
Harriet Hosmer (October 9, 1830–February 21, 1908) — one of the key figures in Figuring (public library), from which this essay is adapted — would go on to become the world’s first successful female sculptor and one of the most celebrated sculptors since ancient Greece, a neoalchemist who invents a process for transmuting cheap limestone into precious marble, a Pygmalion of her own destiny. She would break new ground for women, claim a place for American art in the Old World pantheon, model for artists a life of self-made prosperity and uncompromising creative vision, and furnish queer culture with a bold new vocabulary of being.
The autumn after her Mississippi River adventure, as she was growing disillusioned with America’s rampant commercialism so dispiriting to artists and troubled by her culture’s limited opportunities for women, Hosmer met the expatriate Charlotte Cushman — the most prominent American actress of her time — who was visiting Boston as part of her farewell tour of the United States before settling permanently in Italy. Enchanted by Cushman’s tales of Rome, with its thriving creative world and its lively community of expats and queer artists, Hosmer made another radical decision that would shape her life: She would move to Rome to apprentice with one of the great masters.
Four weeks before her departure, she wrote in a letter to her early patron, father of her beloved — Cornelia Carr — and a father figure to Hatty herself:
You do not know how thoroughly dissatisfied I am with my present mode of life. I ought to be accomplishing thrice as much as now, and feel that I am soul-bound and thought-bound in this land of dollars and cents. I take it there is inspiration in the very atmosphere of Italy, and that there, one intuitively becomes artistic in thought. Could the government of this country and its glorious privileges be united with the splendors of art in Italy, that union would produce terrestrial perfection… My motto is going to be, “Live well, do well, and all will be well.”
Just before her twenty-second birthday, Harriet packed the diploma of her anatomical studies and two daguerreotypes of her first acclaimed statue, inspired by a Tennyson poem and modeled on Cornelia — a bust of Hesper, the evening star from Greek mythology — and sailed for Europe with her father, who was to help her settle in. Upon her arrival, Hosmer pursued what she considered “the dearest wish” of her heart: studying with the great English sculptor John Gibson — the unofficial king of Rome’s expatriate artist community, himself trained by the pioneering neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova.
Gibson had many applicants, but had accepted none when another sculptor approached him on Hosmer’s behalf and showed him the daguerreotype of Hesper. Gibson’s oft-cited response might be the ornament of early florid biographies, or it might be the simple fact of the occasion: “Send the young lady to me, — whatever I can teach her, she shall learn.” Whatever Gibson said, what he did remains indisputable: He took on Harriet as his sole student, gave her the room in his studio where Canova had previously worked, and immersed her in attentive mentorship, extolling to anyone who would listen her “vast degree of native genius.” He gave her books, casts, and engravings to study and assigned her sculptures to copy in perfecting her craft. Hosmer took to it all with indefatigable enthusiasm and work ethic. She wrote to Cornelia’s father:
One must have great patience in matters of art, it is so very difficult, and excellence in it is only the result of long time… Oh, if one knew but one-half the difficulties an artist has to surmount, the amount of different kinds of study necessary, before he can see the path even beginning to open before him, the public would be less ready to censure him for his shortcomings or slow advancement. The only remedy I know is patience with perseverance, and these are always sure, with a real honest love for art, to produce something.
Rome became Hosmer’s sandbox of self-invention. It offered the strange alchemy by which we transmute our former selves — barely recognizable in their different bodies and different minds holding different ideas, values, and beliefs — into the fleeting constellation of what we so confidently claim as a solid self at this particular moment. The chain of umbilical cords by which one self gives birth to another again and again at once fetters us to our past and liberates us into a novel future. That chain is invisible, except for the rare moments when we feel it tug on the confident present self with its formidable weight. With an eye to her teenage days near Boston, Hosmer wrote to Cornelia:
My life is so unlike what it was then. I think and feel so differently it seems to me I must have left my former body and found another… These changes make me feel twenty years older.
Meanwhile, her perseverance and devotion paid off. After a year of study with Gibson, she was ready to create her first original sculpture since Hesper — another bust of a woman drawn from ancient Greek mythology, loaded with meaning and layered with questions about women’s status, rights, and fate in a male-dominated society: Medusa.
According to the version of the Greek legend Hosmer chose, the beautiful Medusa was raped by the sea god Poseidon — a crime committed in the temple of Athena, for which the goddess of wisdom decided to dispense punishment. But in a subtle reminder that the writers of these myths were men, the jealous Athena, rather than punishing the rapist, punished Medusa for having attracted Poseidon’s attention — she transformed the lovely maiden into a gorgon so hideous that men turned to stone at the sight of her. In an era when statutory rape was almost impossible to prosecute in Hosmer’s homeland, where wives had no legal right to refuse sex to their husbands and legions of white men were raping black women with complete legal and societal impunity, her depiction of Medusa was a bold and prescient choice commenting on the gruesome deficiencies of a justice system that had failed to protect women since antiquity and a society in which victim-blaming has endured to the present day.
Medusa was a popular subject with the great masters, but she was customarily rendered in her monstrous form following Athena’s punishment. Hosmer chose to capture the moment of transfiguration — her bust, completed in 1854, depicts a proud and beautiful woman just as her hair is beginning to turn into serpents. She cast Medusa’s hair from a real snake captured in the wilderness outside Rome. But she didn’t have the heart to kill the serpent, so she anesthetized it with chloroform, made a cast by keeping it in plaster for three and a half hours, then released it back into the wild. Hosmer’s Medusa — her choice of subject matter, her atypical depiction, her treatment of the live serpent — embodies the complex relationship between agency, victimhood, and mercy made tangible.
The same year, Hosmer created another original sculpture animated by a similar subject: a bust of Daphne, the beautiful nymph who ran from Apollo’s lust and, in the final moment before being overtaken, was transformed into a laurel tree by her merciful father, the river god Ladon. Here was another woman who had to relinquish her womanhood and her very humanity in order to avoid the assailing ardor of unwanted male attention. In Hosmer’s marmoreal rendering, a Hesper-like Daphne glances downward with a subtle smile as a laurel branch curves beneath her bare breasts.
Her sculptures garnered acclaim unprecedented not only for someone so young and so female, but for any artist breaking new ground. Newspapers hailed her busts of Daphne and Medusa as “convincing proof of her genius and success.” The famed English actress Fanny Kemble wrote of Hosmer, whom she had befriended back in Massachusetts:
I think she will distinguish herself greatly, for she not only is gifted with an unusual artistic capacity, but she has energy, perseverance, and industry; attributes often wanting where genius exists…
Meanwhile, Gibson took care to vaccinate her against the inevitable dark side of success — the petty jealousies that always follow genius like a swarm of flies trailing behind an elephant. He gave the young artist advice she encoded into the marrow of her being:
There are many obstacles in the path to fame, but to surmount them, to produce fine works, we must have tranquillity of mind. Those who are envious cannot be happy, nor can the vicious. We must have internal peace, to give birth to beautiful ideas. I am glad that you feel impatient to begin your statue; that impatience is love, the love of the art. The more you feel it, the more is the soul inflamed with ambition, the ambition of excellence.
The statue she could hardly wait to begin would become her great masterpiece: Zenobia in Chains — an homage to another woman who has taken charge of her own destiny, and another poignant meditation on the relationship between victimhood and agency.
Zenobia was the third-century queen of the land that is now Syria — one of antiquity’s two famous female heads of state, far more politically ferocious than Cleopatra and ultimately far more tragic. Many centuries later, Margaret Fuller — who spent her own final and most fertile years in Rome — would write in her epoch-making book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, perhaps with Zenobia in mind:
The presence of a woman on the throne always makes its mark. Life is lived before the eyes of men, by which their imaginations are stimulated as to the possibilities of Woman.
An erudite and intellectually ambitious woman who valued conquests of the mind as much as those of land, Zenobia cultivated a welcome atmosphere for scholars in her court and espoused equality within her dominion, where people of various ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds mingled. In the year 270, Zenobia led an invasion of the Roman Empire. She conquered the majority of the Roman East and annexed Egypt. Over the next two years, she continued extending her empire, which nonetheless remained under the nominal jurisdiction of the Roman Emperor, until she eventually declared complete secession. In the ensuing revolution, the Roman army prevailed after a bloody fight, capturing Zenobia and exiling her to Rome. Playing with the line between homage and refutation, Hosmer’s Zenobia presented an aesthetic parallel and a conceptual mirror image to the celebrated sculptor Hiram Powers’s The Greek Slave, which depicted a feeble young nude about to be sold at auction. Powers’s choice to eroticize and glamorize subjugation is particularly perplexing, given that the sculptor himself was part Native American. His blockbuster statue was not without critics. Chief among them were Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose poem “The Greek Slave” offered a counterpoint to Powers’s depiction of resigned passivity in the face of oppression, and John Tenniel, the original illustrator of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, who published a cartoon in the famed satirical magazine Puck, depicting a black woman on an auction block in the posture of the Powers statue under the caption “The Virginian Slave, Intended as a Companion to Powers’ Greek Slave.”
Unlike Powers’s helpless nude, Hosmer’s larger-than-life Zenobia — “of a size with which I might be compared as a mouse to a camel,” she wrote to Cornelia — depicts the captive queen, still in her regal robe and crown, as she is being paraded in the streets of Rome. One strong hand is holding up the chain hanging between her shackled wrists, as though willfully refraining from snapping the link and breaking free. Gazing down from her seven-foot stature, Zenobia’s intelligent face radiates complete composure — an unassailable dignity despite defeat, bolstered by the knowledge that she has fought for her values to the hilt.
Hosmer deliberately subverted other popular depictions of the ancient queen. Five years earlier, just after his intense romance with Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne had woven into his novel The Blithedale Romance a character named Zenobia — an opinionated woman of brilliance and beauty, bedeviled by excessive pride, modeled on Margaret Fuller — a thankless portrayal of the woman who had launched his literary career with her own generous pen. His Zenobia eventually elects her own ruin and drowns herself. A more historically literal interpretation had appeared in another novel published when Hosmer was a child, the year her mother died. In it, the queen is eventually stripped of dignity and reduced to “Zenobia in ruins.”
Hosmer’s Zenobia, while in chains, was a woman of inextinguishable strength and moral triumph. A widely circulated praiseful review of the statue quoted Hosmer: “I have tried to make her too proud to exhibit passion or emotion of any kind; not subdued though a prisoner; but calm, grand, and strong within herself.” She had worked on her masterpiece for nearly three years. (“Nobody asks you how long you have been on a thing but fools,” Gibson had told her at the outset of her career, “and you don’t care what they think.”) But the success of the statue became a focal point of the professional jealousies that had been orbiting Hosmer’s rising star. An anonymous article in a London paper alleged that Zenobia was created by Harriet’s workmen and not by the sculptor herself. Another article insinuated that Gibson had sculpted it and let his pupil claim the credit. Hosmer didn’t hesitate to sue for libel. Corrections were printed. In the course of the lawsuit, it was revealed that the author of the malicious rumor was Joseph Mozier — another expatriate American sculptor, who had long harbored jealousy for the far more successful Hosmer and who had been particularly riled by her recent winning of the commission for a major monument to Thomas Hart Benton, the nation’s longest-serving senator.
Later, Hosmer — a prolific lifelong writer of satirical verses — would make light of the incident in a lengthy poem titled “The Doleful Ditty of the Roman Caffe Greco,” which includes these lines spoken by one of the pompous male patrons of the famed artists’ café:
’Tis time, my friends, we cogitate,
And make some desperate stand.
Or else our sister artists here
Will drive us from the land.
It does seem hard that we at last
Have rivals in the clay,
When for so many happy years
We had it all our way.
This dignity of self-possession against the status quo would always animate Hosmer’s work and the personal values from which she mined her marble. During one of her visits to America, campaigning for a memorial of Abraham Lincoln, she went to hear a sermon by Phebe Ann Hanaford — one of the nation’s first women ministers. Moved, Hosmer wrote to Hanaford, whom she saw as a spiritual artist:
I honor every woman who has strength enough to step out of the beaten path when she feels her walk lies in another; strength enough to stand up to be laughed at, if necessary. That is the bitter pill we must all swallow in the beginning, but I regard these pills as tonics quite essential to one’s mental salvation.
More of Hosmer’s unusual and trailblazing life — her visionary art, her beautiful and countercultural loves, her courage to be her own self in a culture that continually tyrannized with a single correct way of being and loving — unfolds in Figuring. Every woman artist born in the epochs since, every creative person who has carved out a purposeful life amid a culture where they are in any way “other,” every queer person who is comfortably out or benefits from living in a culture where there is hardly anything left to be “in,” is indebted to Harriet Hosmer — the bedrock of our being is marbled with the ancestral genes of hers.
Source: Brain Pickings | 28 Feb 2019 | 7:34 am(NZT)
“We must be less than death to be lessened by it — for nothing is irrevocable but ourselves,” Emily Dickinson wrote of what she so stunningly termed “the drift called the infinite.” And yet we are, of course, less than death — we are inherently revocable, for death is the sole inevitability of life. For Dickinson, the irrevocability of human life was to be found in the living — in the truth and beauty we cast ourselves upon, in the loves we love. Amid a culture of extreme piousness, she rejected traditional religion and was only a child when she came to doubt the immortality so resolutely promised by the Calvinist dogma of her elders. Soon, she would write in her love letters to Susan Gilbert: “Sermons on unbelief ever did attract me.” In a poem, she would proclaim that “Faith is Doubt.” A century before Simone de Beauvoir asserted that “faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly,” Dickinson intuited that religion’s claims of immortality don’t comport with the nature of existence, which inclines always and without exception toward nonexistence — a fact as true on the scale of the individual as it is on the scale of the species and the Solar System and even the universe itself: In another four billion years — just about as long as our planet has so far existed — our sun will live out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a white dwarf, its exhale bending spacetime itself into a well of nothingness that can swallow every atom that ever touched us and every poem we ever made — an entropic spectacle devoid of why.
A century after Dickinson drifted into the infinite, another poet — perhaps more improbable, yet all the more insightful for his particular strain of improbability — suspended this eternal subject between poetic truth and scientific fact. In a poem titled “The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics,” the Nobel-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann — one of those rare working scientists who are also literary artists — addresses the human longing for permanence, and religion’s illusory assurances thereof, in a universe we know to be governed by impermanence and entropy.
Published in Hoffmann’s book Chemistry Imagined: Reflections on Science (public library) — that unusual cross-genre, cross-disciplinary beauty featuring art by Vivian Torrence and a preface by Carl Sagan — the poem came alive at the second annual Universe in Verse in this charming and touching reading by musician and friend-of-science Sean Ono Lennon:
THE DEVIL TEACHES THERMODYNAMICS
by Roald Hoffmann
My second law, your second law, ordains
that local order, structures in space
and time, be crafted in ever-so-losing
contention with proximal disorder in
this neat but getting messier universe.
And we, in the intricate machinery of our
healthy bodies and life-support systems,
in the written and televised word do declare
the majesty of the zoning ordinances
of this Law. But oh so smart, we think
that we are not things, like weeds,
or rust, or plain boulders, and so
invent a reason for an eternal subsidy
of our perfection, or at least perfectibility,
give it the names of God or the immortal
soul. And while we allow the dissipations
that cannot be hid, like death, and — in literary
stances — even the end of love, we make
the others just plain evil: anger, lust,
pride — the whole lot of pimples of the spirit.
Diseases need vectors, so the old call
goes out for me. But the kicker is that the struts
of God’s stave church, those nice seven,
they’re such a tense and compressed support
group that when they get through you’re really
ready to let off some magma. Faith serves up
passing certitude to weak minds, recruits for
the cults, and too much of her is going to play
hell with that other grand invention
of yours, the social contract. Boring
Prudence hangs around with conservatives,
and Love, love you say! Love one, leave
out the others. Love them all, none will love
you. I tell you, friends, love is the greatest
entropy-increasing device invented by God.
Love is my law’s sweet man. And for God
himself, well, his oneness seems too
much for natural man to love, so he comes
up with Northern Irelands and Lebanons…
The argument to be made is not
for your run-of-the-mill degeneracy, my
stereotype. No, I want us to awake,
join the imperfect universe at peace with
the disorder that orders. For the cold
death sets in slowly, and there is time,
so much time, for the stars’ light to scatter
off the eddies of chance, into our minds,
there to build ever more perfect loves,
invisible cities, our own constellations.
For other highlights from The Universe in Verse — the show I host each spring at Pioneer Works, celebrating science and reason through poetry and beauty — savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring tribute to Stephen Hawking, science historian James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop’s profound poem about the nature of knowledge, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie.
Source: Brain Pickings | 27 Feb 2019 | 5:28 am(NZT)
“Love, but be careful what you love,” the Roman African philosopher Saint Augustine wrote in the final years of the fourth century. We are, in some deep sense, what we love — we become it as much as it becomes us, beckoned from our myriad conscious and unconscious longings, despairs, and patterned desires. And yet there is something profoundly paradoxical about such an appeal to reason in the notion that we can exercise prudence in matters of love — to have loved is to have known the straitjacket of irrationality that slips over even the most willful mind when the heart takes over with its delicious carelessness.
How to heed Augustine’s caution, not by subjugating but by better understanding our experience of love, is what Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) explores in her least known but in many ways most beautiful work, Love and Saint Augustine (public library) — Arendt’s first book-length manuscript and the last to be published in English, posthumously salvaged from her papers by political scientist Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and philosopher Judith Chelius Stark.
For half a century after she wrote it as her doctoral thesis in 1929 — a time when this apostle of reason, who would become one of the twentieth century’s keenest and most coolly analytical minds, was composing her fiery love letters to Martin Heidegger — Arendt obsessively revised and annotated the manuscript. Against Augustine’s whetstone, she came to hone her core philosophical ideas — chiefly the troublesome disconnect she saw between philosophy and politics as evidenced by the rise of ideologies like totalitarianism, the origins of which she so memorably and incisively examined. It was from Augustine that she borrowed the phrase amor mundi — “love of the world” — which would become a defining feature of her philosophy. Occupied by questions of why we succumb to and normalize evil, Arendt identified as the root of tyranny the act of making other human beings irrelevant. Again and again, she returned to Augustine for the antidote: love.
But while this ancient notion of neighborly love, which would come to inspire Martin Luther King, was central to Arendt’s philosophical concern and her interest in Augustine, its political significance is inseparable from the deepest wellspring of love: the personal. For all of the political and philosophical wisdom she draws from it, Augustine’s Confessions is animated by his experience of personal love — that eternal force that governs the Sun and the Moon and the stars of our interior lives, reflected and codified in our cultural and social structures.
With an eye to Augustine’s conception of love as “a kind of craving” — the Latin appetitus, from which the word appetite is derived — and his assertion that “to love is indeed nothing else than to crave something for its own sake,” Arendt considers this directional desire propelling love:
Every craving is tied to a definite object, and it takes this object to spark the craving itself, thus providing an aim for it. Craving is determined by the definitely given thing it seeks, just as a movement is set by the goal toward which it moves. For, as Augustine writes, love is “a kind of motion, and all motion is toward something.” What determines the motion of desire is always previously given. Our craving aims at a world we know; it does not discover anything new. The thing we know and desire is a “good,” otherwise we would not seek it for its own sake. All the goods we desire in our questing love are independent objects, unrelated to other objects. Each of them represents nothing but its isolated goodness. The distinctive trait of this good that we desire is that we do not have it. Once we have the object our desire ends, unless we are threatened with its loss. In that case the desire to have turns into a fear of losing. As a quest for the particular good rather than for things at random, desire is a combination of “aiming at” and “referring back to.” It refers back to the individual who knows the world’s good and evil and seeks to live happily. It is because we know happiness that we want to be happy, and since nothing is more certain than our wanting to be happy, our notion of happiness guides us in determining the respective goods that then became objects of our desires. Craving, or love, is a human being’s possibility of gaining possession of the good that will make him happy, that is, of gaining possession of what is most his own.
That is why a generous and unpossessive love — a love undiminished by the failure to attain the good for which it craves — can seem like a feat nothing short of superhuman. (“If equal affection cannot be, / Let the more loving one be me,” Arendt’s good friend and great admirer W.H. Auden wrote in his sublime ode to that superhuman triumph of the heart.) But a love predicated on possession, Arendt cautions, inevitably turns into fear — the fear of losing what was gained. Two millennia after Epictetus offered his cure for heartbreak in the acceptance that all things are perishable and therefore even love ought to be held with the loose fingers of nonattachment, Arendt — who notes Augustine’s debt to the Stoics — writes:
So long as we desire temporal things, we are constantly under this threat, and our fear of losing always corresponds to our desire to have. Temporal goods originate and perish independently of man, who is tied to them by his desire. Constantly bound by craving and fear to a future full of uncertainties, we strip each present moment of its calm, its intrinsic import, which we are unable to enjoy. And so, the future destroys the present.
Half a century after Tolstoy admonished that “future love does not exist [for] love is a present activity only,” Arendt adds:
The present is not determined by the future as such… but by certain events which we hope for or fear from the future, and which we accordingly crave and pursue, or shun and avoid. Happiness consists in possession, in having and holding our good, and even more in being sure of not losing it. Sorrow consists in having lost our good and in enduring this loss. However, for Augustine the happiness of having is not contrasted by sorrow but by fear of losing. The trouble with human happiness is that it is constantly beset by fear. It is not the lack of possessing but the safety of possession that is at stake.
Death, of course, is the ultimate loss — of love as well as life — and therefore the ultimate object of our future-oriented dread. And yet this escape from presence via the portal of anxiety — perhaps the commonest malady to which human beings are susceptible — is itself a living death. Arendt writes:
In their fear of death, those living fear life itself, a life that is doomed to die… The mode in which life knows and perceives itself is worry. Thus the object of fear comes to be fear itself. Even if we should assume that there is nothing to fear, that death is no evil, the fact of fear (that all living things shun death) remains.
Against this background of negative space, Arendt casts the shape of love’s ultimate object according to Augustine:
Fearlessness is what love seeks. Love as craving is determined by its goal, and this goal is freedom from fear.
In a sentiment that illuminates the central mechanism by which frustration fuels (temporary) satisfaction in romantic love, she adds:
A love that seeks anything safe and disposable on earth is constantly frustrated, because everything is doomed to die. In this frustration love turns about and its object becomes a negation, so that nothing is to be desired except freedom from fear. Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future.
If presence — the removal of expectancy — is a prerequisite for a true experience of love, then time is the elemental infrastructure of love. Nearly half a century later, in becoming the first woman to speak at the prestigious Gifford Lectures in the 85-year history of the series, Arendt would make this notion of time as the locus of our thinking ego a centerpiece of her landmark lecture, The Life of the Mind. Now, quoting from Augustine’s writings, she considers the paradox of love beyond time for creatures as temporal as we are:
Even if things should last, human life does not. We lose it daily. As we live the years pass through us and they wear us out into nothingness. It seems that only the present is real, for “things past and things to come are not”; but how can the present (which I cannot measure) be real since it has no “space”? Life is always either no more or not yet. Like time, life “comes from what is not yet, passes through what is without space, and disappears into what is no longer.” Can life be said to exist at all? Still the fact is that man does measure time. Perhaps man possesses a “space” where time can be conserved long enough to be measured, and would not this “space,” which man carries with himself, transcend both life and time?
Time exists only insofar as it can be measured, and the yardstick by which we measure it is space.
For Augustine, she notes, memory is the space in which time is measured and cached:
Memory, the storehouse of time, is the presence of the “no more” (iam non) as expectation is the presence of the “not yet” (nondum). Therefore, I do not measure what is no more, but something in my memory that remains fixed in it. It is only by calling past and future into the present of remembrance and expectation that time exists at all. Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.
One of the major themes I explore in Figuring is this question of the temporality of even our lushest experiences. “The union of two natures for a time is so great,” Margaret Fuller — one of my key figures — wrote. Are we to despair or rejoice over the fact that even the greatest loves exist only “for a time”? The time scales are elastic, contract- ing and expanding with the depth and magnitude of each love, but they are always finite — like books, like lives, like the universe itself. The triumph of love is in the courage and integrity with which we inhabit the transcendent transience that binds two people for the time it binds them, before letting go with equal courage and integrity. Fuller’s exclamation upon seeing the paintings of Correggio for the first time, overcome with beauty she had not known before, radiates a larger truth about the human heart: “Sweet soul of love! I should weary of you, too; but it was glorious that day.”
Arendt locates this fundamental fact of the heart in Augustine’s writings. A century after Kierkegaard asserted that “the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity,” she observes:
The Now is what measures time backwards and forwards, because the Now, strictly speaking, is not time but outside time. In the Now, past and future meet. For a fleeting moment they are simultaneous so that they can be stored up by memory, which remembers things past and holds the expectation of things to come. For a fleeting moment (the temporal Now) it is as though time stands still, and it is this Now that becomes Augustine’s model of eternity.
Augustine himself captures this transcendent temporality:
Who will hold [the heart], and fix it so that it may stand still for a little while and catch for a moment the splendor of eternity which stands still forever, and compare this with temporal moments that never stand still, and see that it is incomparable… but that all this while in the eternal, nothing passes but the whole is present.
Arendt hones in on the heart of the paradox:
What prevents man from “living” in the timeless present is life itself, which never “stands still.” The good for which love craves lies beyond all mere desires. If it were merely a question of desiring, all desires would end in fear. And since whatever confronts life from the outside as the object of its craving is sought for life’s sake (a life we are going to lose), the ultimate object of all desires is life itself. Life is the good we ought to seek, namely true life.
She returns to desire, which simultaneously takes us out of life and plunges us into it:
Desire mediates between subject and object, and it annihilates the distance between them by transforming the subject into a lover and the object into the beloved. For the lover is never isolated from what he loves; he belongs to it… Since man is not self-sufficient and therefore always desires something outside himself, the question of who he is can only be resolved by the object of his desire and not, as the Stoics thought, by the suppression of the impulse of desire itself: “Such is each as is his love” [Augustine wrote]. Strictly speaking, he who does not love and desire at all is a nobody.
Man as such, his essence, cannot be defined because he always desires to belong to something outside himself and changes accordingly… If he could be said to have an essential nature at all, it would be lack of self-sufficiency. Hence, he is driven to break out of his isolation by means of love… for happiness, which is the reversal of isolation, more is required than mere belonging. Happiness is achieved only when the beloved becomes a permanently inherent element of one’s own being.
It is stunning to trace the line of these ideas across Arendt’s life of the mind. Decades after her doctoral days, she would compose her influential treatise on how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression — totalitarianism, in other words, is not only the denial of love but an assault on the essence of human beings.
In the remainder of Love and Saint Augustine, Arendt goes on to examine Augustine’s hierarchy of love, the psychological structure of craving, the perils of anticipation, and the building blocks of that “love of the world” so vital to a harmonious life and a harmonious society. Couple it with Elizabeth Barrett Browning on happiness as a moral obligation, then revisit Arendt on action and the pursuit of happiness, lying in politics, the power of being an outsider, and the difference between how art and science illuminate the human condition.
Source: Brain Pickings | 26 Feb 2019 | 4:26 am(NZT)
“The great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open,” Herman Melville wrote in Moby-Dick as he was falling in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom he would dedicate the novel, “and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.”
A century later, marine biologist and author Victor B. Scheffer (November 27, 1906–September 20, 2011) would make that white colossus of wonder the subject of his short, lyrical book The Year of the Whale (public library) — a forgotten gem I discovered through one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, in which author, historian, and anthropologist of science Laurel Braitman recounts the formative influence of Scheffer’s quiet masterwork, bequeathed to her by her father.
With an eye to the ancient enchantment of this unusual and inadequately understood creature, Scheffer writes in the prologue:
The sperm whale has held for mankind a special, mystical meaning from the time of Moby-Dick down to today. Moving through a dim, dark, cool, watery world of its own, the whale is timeless and ancient; part of our common heritage and yet remote, awful, prowling the ocean floor a half-mile down, under the guidance of powers and senses we are only beginning to grasp.
Published in 1969, the book emanates Rachel Carson’s influence. Three decades earlier, Carson had pioneered a new way of writing about the natural world with her masterpiece Undersea — a lyrical journey to what Walt Whitman had long ago called “the world below the brine,” a world more mysterious then than the Moon. Carson invited the human reader to fathom the most enigmatic recesses of Earth from the perspective of nonhuman creatures. Nothing like this had ever been before. She eventually expanded the essay into the stunning book Under the Sea-Wind, exploring each of the three main areas of marine life through the eyes and senses of a particular, personified creature in order to avoid the human bias of popular books about the ocean, always written from the perspective of a human observer — a fisherman, a deep-sea diver, a shore wanderer.
Carson modeled not only this novel perspectival lens on the natural world, but also a new aesthetic of science as a literary subject. She would soon become the most esteemed and influential science writer in the country. “The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth,” she would assert in her 1951 National Book Award acceptance speech. “And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction; it seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.”
It is with this dual Carsonian influence of a nonhuman perspective lyrically conveyed that Scheffer approaches his inquiry into the world of this enormous and enigmatic mammal. Alongside beguiling illustrations by artist Leonard Everett Fisher, winner of the Pulitzer Art Prize, he tells the story of a mother whale and her baby, Little Calf. Fittingly, he chooses as the book’s epigraph Henry Beston’s poetic insistence that “we need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.”
Scheffer limns the moment of birth, itself a miracle of nature as this fourteen-foot baby that weighs one ton takes its first breath of weightless air:
It is early September when for the first time the Little Calf sees light — a blue-green, dancing light. He slips easily from his mother’s body beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean two hundred miles west of Mexico, on the Tropic of Cancer. He trembles, for the water is cold and he has lain for sixteen months in a warm chamber at ninety-six degrees. He gasps for air as his mother nudges him anxiously to the surface with her broad snout. He breathes rapidly and desperately for a while, puffing with each breath a small cloud of vapor down the autumn breeze.
Already at birth, Little Calf has overcome immense peril. Together with sea cows and hippopotamuses, whales are the only mammals born underwater. Unlike a human baby, a whale is born tail first, backing into the outer world. Its enormous, awkward head — a head that would grow to hold Earth’s largest brain, fivefold the size of a human’s — follows the comma of its tadpole-shaped body, narrowly escaping the noose of the five-foot umbilical cord.
As mother and calf roll in the wash the cord snaps. The baby opens a pink mouth with knobby, toothless gums and seems suddenly to smile, for the upturned corners of his mouth break into a satisfied smirk. This is illusion, of course; the smile of a whale is a built-in feature with which it is endowed at birth and retains throughout life.
Little Calf… is far more advanced in body development than any newborn human child. He is wide-eyed, alert, and fully able to swim. Every whale of every kind is in fact precocious at brith; it has to be, for within brief moments it finds itself awash in the grown-up world — no nest, no den, no shelter except the dark shadow of the mother floating beside it.
By the following summer, this precocious baby has begun mastering life in the open ocean. Scheffer describes the beautiful dance between Little Calf’s fledgling independence and the deep bond with his mother:
In the year of the whale there are days when nothing is new. One such a day in July the air is filled with a monotonous hissing of sound as one rain squall pursues another across the dappled sea. The Little Calf swims beneath his mother’s body in a dark shadow illuminated at the edges by a blue-gray light from above. Subconsciously he tries to match the rhythmic undulating sameness of her body, for the beating impulses of her flesh and the suffocating water have been one great throbbing part of his life from its beginning. In trying to keep pace, he sometimes falls behind and must sprint for a dozen strokes to re-enter the comforting zone of the shadow.
As the year ends, the form of the Little Calf leaves a thin track on the flat immensity, a swirling punctuation, a blend of liquid and life. A cool wind moves. The red light gleams on the wave at his brow. Then the sun sinks below the sea, and the tiny whale is gone.
Following Little Calf month by month, as different constellations come to populate the season’s skies, Scheffer goes on to explore the courtship of whales, the fascinating science of their underwater communication, their ferocious protectiveness of one another, the courageous battles they wage against the unforgiving ocean, the dynamics of a whale “family” — a loose social group of thirty or so individuals — and various other aspects of lives so wildly and wondrously different from our own, yet so strangely kindred, evocative of naturalist Sy Montgomery’s lovely observation that “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom… far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.”
Underlying Little Calf’s story are the subtle but palpable pulses of an environmental conscience, wistfully aware — even in 1969 — that unless we radically reform our civilizational regard for the natural world, this remarkable creature may vanish forever. Scheffer opens the first chapter with the cautionary words of former United States Secretary of the Interior Steward Udall — one of Carson’s most spirited champions and a fierce conservation advocate himself:
This decade may go down in history as marking the end of life for the largest animal ever to inhabit this earth. If so, it will be another morbid monument to man’s short-sighted exploitation of the world’s wildlife bounty.
Complement The Year of the Whale with this poetic stop-motion animation about the afterlife of the whale, the illustrated story of Mocha-Dick — the real-life sperm whale who inspired Melville’s Moby-Dick — and this lovely picture-book about the blue whale, then revisit naturalist Sy Montgomery — one of the most lyrical science writers of our own time — on how to be a good creature.
Source: Brain Pickings | 22 Feb 2019 | 11:07 am(NZT)
“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin insisted in examining the building blocks of a juster future. “The present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote across the Atlantic as she was advancing the era’s other great human rights cause.
A century before Baldwin and De Beauvoir, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) explored this question of how the choices we make in the present liberate the future from the past and make the world over in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (public library) — his first book, published when he was only thirty-two, a disaffected public school teacher who had become one of the country’s most promising young writers with the stern yet generous guidance of his first and best editor, Margaret Fuller.
This was an era of immense cultural upheaval, in which the air of revolution was saturated with the urgencies of abolition and women’s emancipation. Ensconced in the woods of Concord, attuned to the elements that far predated and would far outlive the turmoils of the present — the trees, the rivers, the cycles of the seasons — Thoreau spent his days contemplating the most elemental questions of human existence and our civilizational conscience. It was with this widest possible perspective that he focused his precocious wisdom on the pressing issues of social change, using this long lever of insight to make the present a fulcrum for elevating the future.
Bedeviled by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican-American War, having just modeled for his country how to use civil disobedience to advance justice — a model that would come to influence Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. — he considers the tectonics of change on the scale of society and civilization:
As in geology, so in social institutions, we may discover the causes of all past change in the present invariable order of society. The greatest appreciable physical revolutions are the work of the light-footed air, the stealthy-paced water, and the subterranean fire… We are independent of the change we detect. The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion. It is the slowest pulsation which is the most vital. The hero then will know how to wait, as well as to make haste. All good abides with him who waiteth wisely.
If history teaches us one thing about the origins and originators of the greatest social change — an animating question in Figuring — it is that those who ignite the profoundest revolutions are themselves often blind to their own spark. Thoreau’s contemporary and kindred revolutionary spirit Elizabeth Barrett Browning would articulate this with stunning succinctness in her groundbreaking 1856 book-length poem Aurora Leigh:
The best men, doing their best,
Know peradventure least of what they do…
The young Thoreau channels this sentiment in his own lyrical prose, suspended as always between the buoyant and the melancholy:
A man is not his hope, nor his despair, nor yet his past deed. We know not yet what we have done, still less what we are doing. Wait till evening, and other parts of our day’s work will shine than we had thought at noon, and we shall discover the real purport of our toil. As when the farmer has reached the end of the furrow and looks back, he can tell best where the pressed earth shines most.
One of Thoreau’s most countercultural yet incisive points is that true social reform has little to do with politics, for genuine cultural change operates on cycles far longer and more invisible than the perpetual churning of immediacies with which the political state and the political conscience are occupied. Rather than dueling with petty surface facts, as politics is apt to, the true revolutionary and reformer dwells in humanity’s largest truths, aiming to transfigure the deepest strata of reality. In consonance with the need for a telescopic perspective, Thoreau writes:
To one who habitually endeavors to contemplate the true state of things, the political state can hardly be said to have any existence whatever. It is unreal, incredible, and insignificant to him, and for him to endeavor to extract the truth from such lean material is like making sugar from linen rags, when sugar-cane may be had. Generally speaking, the political news, whether domestic or foreign, might be written to-day for the next ten years, with sufficient accuracy. Most revolutions in society have not power to interest, still less alarm us; but tell me that our rivers are drying up, or the genus pine dying out in the country, and I might attend. Most events recorded in history are more remarkable than important, like eclipses of the sun and moon, by which all are attracted, but whose effects no one takes the trouble to calculate.
Change, Thoreau reminds us, begins when we finally choose to critically examine and then recalibrate the ill-serving codes and conventions handed down to us, often unquestioned, by the past and its power structures. It is essentially an act of the imagination first. Long before Ursula K. Le Guin asserted that “we will not be free if we do not imagine freedom,” Thoreau calls for imagining nobler alternatives to the dicta and mindsets we have inherited:
In my short experience of human life, the outward obstacles, if there were any such, have not been living men, but the institutions of the dead. It is grateful to make one’s way through this latest generation as through dewy grass. Men are as innocent as the morning to the unsuspicious… I love man-kind, but I hate the institutions of the dead un-kind. Men execute nothing so faithfully as the wills of the dead, to the last codicil and letter. They rule this world, and the living are but their executors.
A century before Hannah Arendt considered the most extreme and gruesome manifestation of this tendency in her classic treatise on the normalization of evil, informed by the Holocaust and its incomprehensible phenomenon of ordinary people “just following orders” to murder, Thoreau writes:
Herein is the tragedy; that men doing outrage to their proper natures, even those called wise and good, lend themselves to perform the office of inferior and brutal ones. Hence come war and slavery in; and what else may not come in by this opening? But certainly there are modes by which a man may put bread into his mouth which will not prejudice him as a companion and neighbor.
Most of our errors, Thoreau observes, stem not from being unwitting of the right choice but from being unwise in the willingness or unwillingness to choose it:
Men do not fail commonly for want of knowledge, but for want of prudence to give wisdom the preference. What we need to know in any case is very simple.
To unmoor ourselves from the burdens of the past, he reminds us, we must be engaged in an act of continual and conscious self-renewal:
All men are partially buried in the grave of custom, and of some we see only the crown of the head above ground. Better are the physically dead, for they more lively rot. Even virtue is no longer such if it be stagnant. A man’s life should be constantly as fresh as this river. It should be the same channel, but a new water every instant.
A century later, Bertrand Russell — himself a humanist of the highest order and a rare seer of elemental truth — would liken the optimal human existence to a river.
Couple this particular fragment of Thoreau’s abidingly insightful A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers — which also gave us his wisdom on the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius — with his contemporary Frederick Douglass on art as a tool of social change, then revisit Thoreau on nature as prayer, the myth of productivity, knowing vs. seeing, and defining your own success.
Source: Brain Pickings | 21 Feb 2019 | 8:47 am(NZT)
On the last page of A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, I offered a short note on our endpaper choice — a special treat for lovers of literature, hidden in plain sight. This is what I wrote:
“I’m not sure that anybody thinks about endpaper except publishers, and probably not more than 1800 people in the United States have ever heard the word ‘endpaper,’” E.B. White wrote to his editor, the visionary Ursula Nordstrom, before insisting that the endpapers of his Charlotte’s Web be beautiful. The loveliest of books are touched by the author’s thoughtfulness and care in every detail.
A Velocity of Being borrows its endpapers from one of the most imaginative details an author ever slipped into a book.
In 1759, Laurence Sterne began composing The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman — a seven-volume novel that would take him a decade to complete and would revolutionize the art of storytelling. Midway through the third volume, he placed a single marbled page — a shock of swirling color, strange and beautiful against the black-and-white of the book. Sterne himself considered it the “motley emblem” of his work, imbued with meaning open to interpretation but never fully penetrable. It was a small revolution — aesthetically, because the craft of marbling, developed in the Middle East, was a curious novelty in mid-18th-century Britain; conceptually, because the fluid dynamics of the dyes make each marbling unique and irreplicable, like each reading of a book, colored by the dynamics we bring to it, the swirl of its meaning co-created by author and reader.
Years ago, when A Velocity of Being was still an untitled baby of a project, my then-partner and I had the fortune of acquiring one of the handful of surviving first editions of Tristram Shandy at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair. As I marveled at this centuries-old marbled page, I knew instantly that it would make the perfect endpaper — aesthetically and symbolically, a “motley emblem” of the joy and ever-swirling meaning of literature itself.
This famed marbled page has inspired a great many homages in the quarter millennium since its creation, but none lovelier than Emblem of My Work — a celebration of the 250th anniversary of Sterne’s visionary masterpiece, presenting 170 artists with the opportunity to reimagine and reinterpret the iconic page 169. Each was sent a blank template of the page and invited to create within its bounds the emblem of his or her own work. The resulting artwork — spanning pen and ink, oil, watercolor, collage, photography, data art, and more, imaginative and unpredictable like the art of marbling itself — stands as a testament to the power of creative constraint, embodying Kierkegaard’s assertion that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”
The project was exhibited in 2011 and the pieces were sold in an auction benefiting the Laurence Stern Trust. A list of the participating artists — among them John Baldessari, Quentin Blake, Ralph Steadman, and Tom Gauld — was provided, but the creator of each piece was not identified, instead inviting visitors to speculate on authorship. Some, though not all, artists offered a few words about the concept and materials of their interpretation.
These are some of the pieces:
Source: Brain Pickings | 20 Feb 2019 | 1:57 pm(NZT)