“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” the great nature writer Henry Beston wrote in 1928 as he contemplated belonging and the web of life, adding: “In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”
Since the dawn of our species and its consciousness, we have reverenced other animals and incorporated them into our myths and our metaphors, into the basic fabric of our stories. But we have also eaten them — we may be the storytelling animal, but we are fundamentally animal.
One aspect of being primates endowed with higher consciousness and creators of culture is the will and willingness to transcend our primal impulses and regard that which is other with the dignity and respect we grant ourselves. And one existential expression of that willingness, not suited to all human animals but chosen by more and more in the past century, is the choice not to eat other animals.
Two decades before the word vegetarian was coined and two centuries before some of the world’s most prominent scientists signed the landmark Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, acknowledging definitively that many non-human animals are conscious and capable of experiencing emotions, and a world order before science demonstrated unambiguously that animal agriculture is the third leading cause of climate change, vegetarianism found an improbable and impassioned champion in one of humanity’s most beloved and influential storytellers in verse: the great Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (August 4, 1792–July 8, 1822), who was among the first to present a reasoned philosophical argument — as opposed to a purely emotional appeal or political stance — around the ethics of meat consumption.
Together with his wife, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley — herself a creative visionary and intellect ahead of her time by centuries — Shelley advocated for ideas and practices utterly countercultural in his day: sexual liberation, atheism, individual freedom. Signing a hotel guestbook among the sheepishly pious inscriptions left by other guests, he declared himself a “Democrat, Philanthropist, and Atheist.”
Central to his credo was the insistence that eating other animals was antithetical to the moral and spiritual enlightenment of human consciousness. In his first literary masterpiece, the 1813 philosophical poem Queen Mab, Shelley envisioned a world in which “man has lost his terrible prerogative, and stands an equal amidst equals.” He expounded on the then-radical ideas presented in the poem in a set of notes later published in the 1893 book The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-Eating by the English humanitarian Howard Williams, republished in the twenty-first century under the more palatable title The Ethics of Diet: An Anthology of Vegetarian Thought (public library) and presenting a case for vegetarianism drawn from the lives and writings of such famous proponents as Plato, Tolstoy, Thoreau, Schopenhauer, and Gandhi.
More than two millennia after Pythagoras pioneered the notion of a vegetarian diet as a pillar of his model of wisdom, Shelley begins by posing a fundamental question about the costs at which the benefits of so-called civilization come:
Man, and the other animals whom he has afflicted with his malady or depraved by his dominion, are alone diseased. The Bison, the wild Hog, the Wolf, are perfectly exempt from malady, and invariably die either from external violence or from mature old age. But the domestic Hog, the Sheep, the Cow, the Dog, are subject to an incredible variety of distempers, and, like the corruptors of their nature, have physicians who thrive upon their miseries. The super-eminence of man is, like Satan’s, the super-eminence of pain; and the majority of his species doomed to poverty, disease and crime, have reason to curse the untoward event that, by enabling him to communicate his sensations, raised him above the level of his fellow animals. But the steps that have been taken are irrevocable. The whole of human science is comprised in one question: How can the advantages of intellect and civilisation be reconciled with the liberty and pure pleasures of natural life? How can we take the benefits and reject the evils of the system which is now interwoven with the fibre of our being? I believe that abstinence from animal food and spiritous liquors would, in a great measure, capacitate us for the solution of this important question.
Nearly half a century before Darwin revolutionized our understanding of the biosphere with his theory of evolution, Shelley observes that we humans have developed in such a way as to lose our survival advantages as carnivorous predators — we can’t really kill large prey with our clawless appendages or devour carcasses with our small, blunt teeth — and have instead come to resemble herbivores far more closely. Pointing out that our cellulated colons are present in no carnivores and that the animal most akin to us is the orangutan, which is an herbivore, he writes:
Comparative anatomy teaches us that man resembles frugivorous animals in every thing, and carnivorous in nothing; he has neither claws wherewith to seize his prey, nor distinct and pointed teeth to tear the living fibre. A Mandarin of the first class, with nails two inches long, would probably find them alone inefficient to hold even a hare. After every subterfuge of gluttony, the bull must be degraded into the “ox”, and the ram into the wether, by an unnatural and inhuman operation, that the flaccid fibre may offer a fainter resistance to rebellious nature. It is only by softening and disguising, dead flesh by culinary preparation, that it is rendered susceptible of mastication or digestion; and that the sight of its bloody juices and raw horror, does not excite intolerable loathing and disgust… The structure of the human frame then is that of one fitted to a pure vegetable diet, in every essential particular.
Shelley brings into sharp relief the central psychological dissonance of considering oneself a good human while eating animals:
Let the advocate of animal food, force himself to a decisive experiment on its fitness, and as Plutarch recommends, tear a living lamb with his teeth, and plunging his head into its vitals, slake his thirst with the steaming blood; when fresh from the deed of horror let him revert to the irresistible instincts of nature that would rise in judgment against it, and say, Nature formed me for such work as this. Then, and then only, would he be consistent.
A vegetarian diet, Shelley notes, is no silver bullet for the superficial symptoms of societal ills. Rather, it is a curative refinement of the very character of human beings, which would in turn effect a healing of the underlying maladies rotting the marrow of civilization. Building his ardent case upon a rhetorical foundation of logical reasoning, he exhorts:
Crime is madness. Madness is disease. Whenever the cause of disease shall be discovered, the root from which all vice and misery have so long overshadowed the globe, will lay bare to the axe. All the exertions of man, from that moment, may be considered as tending to the clear profit of his species. No sane mind in a sane body resolves upon a real crime… The system of a simple diet promises no Utopian advantages. It is no mere reform of legislation, whilst the furious passions and evil propensities of the human heart, in which it had its origin, are still unassuaged. It strikes at the root of all evil, and is an experiment which may be tried with success, not alone by nations, but by small societies, families, and even individuals. In no cases has a return to vegetable diet produced the slightest injury; in most it has been attended with changes undeniably beneficial. Should ever a physician be born with the genius of Locke, I am persuaded that he might trace all bodily and mental derangements to our unnatural habits, as clearly as that philosopher has traced all knowledge to sensation.
By all that is sacred in our hopes for the human race, I conjure those who love happiness and truth, to give a fair trial to the vegetable system. Reasoning is surely superfluous on a subject, whose merits an experience of six months would set for ever at rest. But it is only among the enlightened and benevolent, that so great a sacrifice of appetite and prejudice can be expected, even though its ultimate excellence should not admit of dispute. It is found easier, by the short-sighted victims of disease, to palliate their torments by medicine, than to prevent them by regimen.
Shelley concludes with a crowning argument of even greater relevance today. Writing during the final chapters of the First Industrial Revolution, he notes that meat-eating is part of the power structure — only the wealthy of his era could afford feasts of flesh. But while the Second Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism have seemingly equalized and even inverted this symptom of the system, the foundational malady remains just as true, perhaps even more grimly so: In most industrialized countries today, commercial agriculture subsidies have made cheap meat more accessible to the poor than healthy produce — animal flesh is now baked into the most elemental political and governmental structure of our society. Shelley’s impassioned plea to citizens as agents of change sounds suddenly not out of time and place but all the more urgently relevant to our world:
The advantage of a reform in diet, is obviously greater than that of any other. It strikes at the root of the evil. To remedy the abuses of legislation, before we annihilate the propensities by which they are produced, is to suppose, that by taking away the effect, the cause will cease to operate.
I address myself not only to the young enthusiast: the ardent devotee of truth and virtue; the pure and passionate moralist, yet unvitiated by the contagion of the world. He will embrace a pure system, from its abstract truth, its beauty, its simplicity, and its promise of wide-extended benefit; unless custom has turned poison into food, he will hate the brutal pleasures of the chance by instinct; it will be a contemplation full of horror and disappointment to his mind, that beings capable of the gentlest and most admirable sympathies, should take delight in the death-pangs and last convulsions of dying animals… How much longer will man continue to pimp for the gluttony of death, his most insidious, implacable, and eternal foe?
Complement with Christopher Hitchens on George Orwell’s subversive message of animal rights and a little boy’s touching case against eating octopus — a case any adult can’t help but make for themselves after reading Sy Montgomery’s masterpiece The Soul of an Octopus.
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Source: Brain Pickings | 22 May 2019 | 5:26 am(NZT)
“When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive,” the great Lebanese poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan wrote in her beautiful meditation on time, self, impermanence, and transcendence. It is a sentiment of tremendous truth and simplicity, yet tremendously difficult for the mind to metabolize — we remain material creatures, spiritually sundered by the fact of our borrowed atoms, which we will each return to the universe, to the stardust that made us, despite our best earthly efforts. Physicist Alan Lightman contemplated this paradox in his lyrical essay on our longing for permanence in a universe of constant change: “It is one of the profound contradictions of human existence that we long for immortality, indeed fervently believe that something must be unchanging and permanent, when all of the evidence in nature argues against us.”
Two millennia earlier, before the very notion of a universe even existed, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180) provided uncommonly lucid consolation for this most disquieting paradox of existence in his Meditations (public library | free ebook) — the timeless trove of ancient wisdom that gave us his advice on how to motivate yourself to get out of bed each morning, the mental trick for maintaining sanity, and the key to living fully.
Eons before the modern invention of self-help, the Stoics equipped the human animal with a foundational toolkit for self-refinement, articulating their recipes for mental discipline with uncottoned candor that often borders on brutality — an instructional style they share with the Zen masters, whose teachings are often given in a stern tone that seems berating and downright angry but is animated by absolute well-wishing for the spiritual growth of the pupil.
It is with this mindset that Marcus Aurelius takes up the question of how to embrace our mortality and live with life-expanding presence in Book II of his Meditations, translated here by Gregory Hays:
The speed with which all of them vanish — the objects in the world, and the memory of them in time. And the real nature of the things our senses experience, especially those that entice us with pleasure or frighten us with pain or are loudly trumpeted by pride. To understand those things — how stupid, contemptible, grimy, decaying, and dead they are — that’s what our intellectual powers are for. And to understand what those people really amount to, whose opinions and voices constitute fame. And what dying is — and that if you look at it in the abstract and break down your imaginary ideas of it by logical analysis, you realize that it’s nothing but a process of nature, which only children can be afraid of. (And not only a process of nature but a necessary one.)
In a sentiment Montaigne would echo sixteen centuries later in his assertion that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” Marcus Aurelius rebukes our pathological dread of death by demonstrating how it ejects us from the only arena on which life plays out — the present. Long before Rilke made the countercultural, almost counterbiological observation that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” he adds:
Even if you’re going to live three thousand more years, or ten times that, remember: you cannot lose another life than the one you’re living now, or live another one than the one you’re losing. The longest amounts to the same as the shortest. The present is the same for everyone; its loss is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?
Remember two things:
1) that everything has always been the same, and keeps recurring, and it makes no difference whether you see the same things recur in a hundred years or two hundred, or in an infinite period;
2) that the longest-lived and those who will die soonest lose the same thing. The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.
He concludes by summarizing the basic facts of human life — a catalogue of uncertainties, crowned by the sole certainty of death — and points to philosophy, or the love of wisdom and mindful living, as the only real anchor for our existential precariousness:
Duration: momentary. Nature: changeable. Perception: dim. Condition of Body: decaying. Soul: spinning around. Fortune: unpredictable. Lasting Fame: uncertain. Sum Up: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion.
Then what can guide us?
Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain, doing nothing randomly or dishonestly and with imposture, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it. And making sure that it accepts what happens and what it is dealt as coming from the same place it came from. And above all, that it accepts death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed. If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another, why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.
Complement this portion of the altogether indispensable Meditations with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on what Freud and Darwin taught us about how to live with death, neurologist Oliver Sacks on gratitude, the measure of living, and the dignity of dying, and philosopher, comedian, and my beloved friend Emily Levine on how to live with exultant presence while dying, then revisit two other great Stoics philosophers’ strategies for peace of mind: Seneca on the antidote to anxiety and Epictetus on love, loss, and surviving heartbreak.
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 May 2019 | 4:45 am(NZT)
“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” Bertrand Russell wrote in his 1925 treatise on the nature of happiness shortly after Freud asserted that love and work are the bedrock of our mental health and our very humanity. In the century since, this notion has been taken to a warped extreme — love has been industrialized into the one-note Hollywood model of romance and work has metastasized into aching workaholism. Russell, one of the deepest and most nuanced thinkers our civilization has produced, was closer to the subtler truth, which we as a culture are still struggling to enact: that, while love and work are central to the good life, romantic love is not the only or even necessarily the most rewarding pinnacle of love; that a sense of curiosity and purpose, rather than the mechanistic drive for reward in exchange of effort, is the richest animating force of work; and that these two faces of life-satisfaction must face each other. Just as work alone is not enough for a fulfilling life, love alone is not enough for a fulfilling relationship, romantic or otherwise. No partnership of equals — that is, no truly satisfying partnership — can be complete without each partner recognizing and respecting in the other a sense of purpose beyond the relationship, a contribution to the world that reflects and advances that person’s deepest values and most impassioned dreams, in turn adding creative, intellectual, and spiritual fuel to the shared fire of the relationship.
We may know this intuitively, and we may have even demonstrated it empirically — that is just what Harvard’s landmark 75-year study of what makes a good life indicated — yet we remain trapped in the millennia-old cultural mythologies that have permeated even our most enlightened and progressive belief systems so deeply and so invisibly that their precepts remain largely unquestioned.
Rebecca Solnit offers a mighty antidote to those limiting precepts in Cinderella Liberator (public library) — an empowered and empowering retelling of the ancient story, which dates back at least two millennia and has recurred in various guises across nearly every culture since, reflecting and perpetuating our most abiding cultural myths about love, work, gender, success, waste and want, the measure of prosperity, and the meaning of purpose.
Governed by her conviction that “key to the work of changing the world is changing the story” and by her lifelong love of books as “toolkits you take up to fix things, from the most practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart,” Solnit retells the classic story, illustrated with century-old silhouettes by the great Arthur Rackham from a 1919 edition of the tale, in a way that liberates each character from the constrictions imposed upon him or her by someone else’s story and confers upon each the dignity of a complete human being with agency and autonomous dreams. Emerging from these simply worded, profound, richly rewarding pages is Solnit the literary artist, Solnit the revolutionary, Solnit the enchanter, Solnit the subtle and endlessly delightful satirist, Solnit the sage.
In one of the loveliest passages in the book, she wrests from the sad small lives of the two stepsisters, Pearlita and Paloma — who are later redeemed as mere victims of a cultural hegemony, and liberated — insight into and liberation from some of our most limiting beliefs. In consonance with Frida Kahlo’s touching testament to how love amplifies beauty and with my own conviction that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives, Solnit writes of the stepsisters’ preparations for the great ball:
Pearlita was doing her best to pile her hair as high as hair could go. She said that, surely, having the tallest hair in the world would make you the most beautiful woman, and being the most beautiful would make you the happiest.
Paloma was sewing extra bows onto her dress, because she thought that, surely, having the fanciest dress in the world would make you the most beautiful woman in the world, and being the most beautiful would make you the happiest. They weren’t very happy, because they were worried that someone might have higher hair or more bows than they did. Which, probably, someone did. Usually someone does.
But there isn’t actually a most beautiful person in the world, because there are so many kinds of beauty. Some people love roundness and softness, and other people love sharp edges and strong muscles. Some people like thick hair like a lion’s mane, and other people like thin hair that pours down like an inky waterfall, and some people love someone so much they forget what they look like. Some people think the night sky full of stars at midnight is the most beautiful thing imaginable, some people think it’s a forest in snow, and some people… Well, there are a lot of people with a lot of ideas about beauty. And love. When you love someone a lot, they just look like love.
There is love, then there is work: Along the way, we meet persons of various animations and occupations, unhinged from gender — the town blacksmith and the painter are each a “she,” the bird-doctor is a “he,” the dancing teacher is a “they,” and all are content making their particular contribution to the world. We learn that Cinderella is living with her evil stepmother because her own mother is a sea captain lost at sea. We see Cinderella and Prince Nevermind become friends rather than romantic partners, magnetized by a sincere curiosity about each other’s dreams rather than a possessive demand for romantic bondage. We find out that the prince would rather labor in an orchard than idle in a castle and Cinderella would rather open a farm-to-table cake shop that feeds refugee children from warring kingdoms than be court lady whose sole value is as a prince’s spouse and who has ceased to work because there are servants to do everything.
On the other side of the enchantment, the lizards-turned-footwomen and the mice-turned-horses and the rat-turned-coachwoman are each asked whether they actually want to remain footwomen and horses and a coachwoman for perpetuity — some do and some don’t, being individuals who dream different dreams and have different notions of self-actualization.
In the end, each creature is liberated to become his or her “truest self” — even the pitiful stepsisters: One finds her sense of purpose by opening a salon “where she piles up people’s hair as high as it will go, and she’s happy because she’s doing what she loves,” and the other discovers that she likes “making beautiful dresses even more than wearing them,” and becomes a seamstress. Only the wicked stepmother remains unredeemed, for she has learned neither love nor the generosity of spirit necessary for contributing to the world in a meaningful way, and instead is operating from a small, dark place of seeing happiness as a limited zero-sum resource, wherein anything she gives to increase another’s wellbeing detracts from her own, and therefore she gives none. Turning the wicked stepmother into “the roaring in the trees on stormy nights,” Solnit writes:
Sometimes you can hear her outside, a strong wind rattling the windows and shaking the leaves off the trees, saying More and more and more, or Mine, mine, mine, and then the hungry wind dies down and she is gone until next time.
Sometimes that roaring is inside your own heart and head, and then it dies down there, too, the wind in all our heads that says we need more, we need to grab what someone else has and steal it away like the hungry wind. Everyone can be a fairy godmother if they help someone who needs help, and anyone can be a wicked stepmother. Most of us have some of that hunger in our hearts, but we can still try to be someone who says, I have plenty, or even Here, have this and How are you?
Solnit wrote the book for her beloved great-niece Ella, to whom her classic Men Explain Things to Me is also dedicated and whose name, Solnit realized with a shock only in the course of writing the story, is Cinderella liberated of the cinders. In the afterword to the book, on the cover of which Rackham’s cake-holding Cinderella resembles The Statue of Liberty and her torch, Solnit considers how these century-old silhouettes resonated with her broader motivations for the retelling:
I was also touched by Rackham’s image of the ragged child at work and thought of unaccompanied minors from Central America and immigrant domestic workers, who are a strong presence where I live, of foster children, and of all the children who live without kindness and security in their everyday lives, all the people who are outsiders even at home, or for whom home is the most dangerous place, or who have no home.
I liked the spirit of the silhouette-girl that Rackham portrayed. Even in rags she is lively, and she labors with alacrity, and runs and frolics wholeheartedly. She is stranded but not defeated. When it came time to write her story for our time, it seemed to me that the solution to overwork and degrading work is not the leisure of the princess, passing off the work to others, but good, meaningful work with dignity and self-determination — and one of the things the cake shop gives Cinderella, aside from independence, is the power to benefit others, because it’s also a meeting place.
Solnit reflects on the more personal roots of her story, inspired also by her two grandmothers, “both of whom were motherless girls, neglected, undereducated; neither of whom quite escaped that formative immersion in being unloved and unvalued.” She writes of one of them, a real-life Cinderella of the most tragic kind:
My paternal grandmother, Ida, was an unaccompanied refugee child who, after years without parents, made it from the Russian-Polish borderlands to Los Angeles with her younger brothers when she was fifteen. There, her long-lost father and stepmother also treated her as a servant.
Their tragedies were a century ago and more, but this book is also with love and hope for liberation for every child who’s overworked and undervalued, every kid who feels alone — with hope that they get to write their own story, and make it come out with love and liberation.
Complement the electrically wonderful Cinderella Liberator — at once an empowering gift to any young person beginning to behold the landscape of possibility we call life and powerful existential reboot for any grownup ready to break free of the world’s limiting stories — with Solnit on breaking silence, living with intelligent hope in dispiriting times, catastrophe as a catalyst for human goodness, and her lovely letter to children about how books solace, empower, and transform us, then revisit the story of how Arthur Rackham revolutionized book art with his 1907 illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, one of the first classic children’s books to cast a girl as a protagonist endowed with agency, curiosity, and self-determination.
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 | 18 May 2019 | 6:20 am(NZT)
“Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted,” Rebecca West — one of humanity’s most insightful and underappreciated writers — observed as she contemplated storytelling and survival in her 1941 masterwork Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
Two generations later, on the other side of WWII and the Cold War and the atomic bomb and myriad other failures of humanity, another seer of uncommon lucidity took up these questions in her formidable body of work, which made her the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Toni Morrison (b. February 18, 1931) examines the function of art and literature as humanizing forces of survival throughout The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (public library) — the nonfiction collection that gave us her wisdom on wisdom in the age of information.
Half a century after James Baldwin asserted that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” Morrison writes in her PEN/Borders Literary Service Award acceptance speech, which opens the volume:
Writers — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace, and they stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to.
Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination. A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.
In another piece, drawn from her 1990 Massey Lectures at Harvard, Morrison echoes Ursula K. Le Guin’s astute observation that “storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want,” and probes deeper into the singular gift and responsibility of the writer:
Writers are among the most sensitive, most intellectually anarchic, most representative, most probing of artists. The writer’s ability to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange, and to mystify the familiar — all this is the test of her or his power. The languages she or he uses (imagistic, structural, narrative) and the social and historical context in which these languages signify are indirect and direct revelations of that power and its limitations.
A quarter century later, in an award acceptance speech delivered at Vanderbilt University in the spring of 2013, also included in the book, Morrison considers her core credo as a writer and the central function of art in human life:
I am a writer and my faith in the world of art is intense but not irrational or naïve. Art invites us to take the journey beyond price, beyond costs into bearing witness to the world as it is and as it should be. Art invites us to know beauty and to solicit it from even the most tragic of circumstances. Art reminds us that we belong here. And if we serve, we last. My faith in art rivals my admiration for any other discourse. Its conversation with the public and among its various genres is critical to the understanding of what it means to care deeply and to be human completely. I believe.
Complement with Iris Murdoch on art as a vehicle of truth and Albert Camus on the artist’s role as a force of resistance, then revisit Morrison on the artist’s task in troubled times and her magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the power and responsibility of language.
Source: Brain Pickings | 16 May 2019 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
“For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars — pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time,” the great nature writer Henry Beston exulted in his stunning 1928 meditation on how night nourishes the human spirit. Indeed, there is a strange splendor to night, to how it envelops us in its consolatory darkness and lets us metabolize the day’s sorrows, how it clarifies our confusions in dreams we never fully comprehend, how it reminds us that each time the Earth turns away from the Sun, our days are diminished by one.
No one has articulated this clarifying power of night, nor its attunement to the urgency of mortality, more beautifully than Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (June 29, 1900–July 31, 1944) in his philosophical memoir Flight to Arras (public library), composed just as he was about to publish The Little Prince.
The afternoon before a terrifying reconnaissance mission to fly over the German tank parks scattered across Arras, Saint-Exupéry finds himself preoccupied with questions of war, death, sacrifice, and heroism, but vows to think about them that night, if he returns live. He contemplates this time of numinous clarity, beyond the cold metallic thought-containers of the daytime analytical mind:
Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again. When man reassembles his fragmentary self and grows with the calm of the trees.
Thrust into a moment of existential reverie by this twilight confrontation with mortality, he adds:
Day belongs to family quarrels, but with the night he who has quarreled finds love again. For love is greater than any wind of words… Love is not thinking, but being… I longed for night and for the rebirth in me of the being that merits love. For night, when my thoughts would be of civilization, of the destiny of man, of the savour of friendship in my native land. For night, so that I may yearn to serve some overwhelming purpose which at this moment I cannot define. For night, so that I may advance a step towards fixing it in my unmanageable language. I longed for night as the poet might do, the true poet who feels himself inhabited by a things obscure but powerful, and who strives to erect images like ramparts round the thing in order to capture it. To capture it in the snare of images.
I should wait for night, I said to myself; and if I am still alive I would walk alone… Alone and safely isolated in my beloved solitude. So that I might discover why it is I ought to die.
Four years later, as The Little Prince was meeting the open arms of the world with its timeless message of love beyond life and death, Saint-Exupéry disappeared into the Mediterranean night on a reconnaissance mission, never to be seen again.
Couple with Aldous Huxley on the transcendent power of music at night, then revisit Saint-Exupéry on what the desert taught him about the meaning of life and how a simple human smile saved his life during the war.
Source: Brain Pickings | 15 May 2019 | 2:15 pm(NZT)
“There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive,” 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin wrote as she recounted in her lovely letter to children how books saved lives in the Warsaw Ghetto of her Nazi-occupied homeland.
Around the same time, a prominent compatriot of hers attested with his own life to this elemental, salvatory power of literature.
In 1939, to escape the Nazi invasion of Warsaw, the Polish poet, memoirist, and futurism pioneer Aleksander Wat (May 1, 1900–July 19, 1967) fled to the city of Lviv, then under Soviet occupation. Because poets and artists are always the first to be targeted by totalitarian regimes — “Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Iris Murdoch observed in her superb meditation on literature as resistance to tyranny — Wat was soon arrested and thrown into a series of increasingly menacing detention facilities, eventually ending up at the infamous Lubyanka prison near Moscow. What kept him alive there, amid the unbearable privations, the bleak prospects of release, and the harsh physical and psychic abuse of the Soviet “investigators,” was literature — an experience he recounted in his posthumously published memoir, My Century (public library).
With a poet’s precision of sentiment and vividness of image, Wat writes:
The pendulum of prison time swings between agony and nothingness, but in Lubyanka time has other laws and moves in a different way. But books brought us back to life, immersed us in the life of free people in the great and free world. We took fictional reality naïvely, like children listening to fairy tales. Could that have been the reason they gave us books in that laboratory of prison existence, where every detail had been thought out, quite possibly even by Stalin himself? Perhaps the experience of two such antithetical realities is supposed to induce a schizophrenic dissociation in a prisoner, rendering him defenseless against the investigation.
He recounts the paradoxical nature of reading in the alternate reality of prison — an experience of literature that stood as a mirror image of that experience in the real world, the world of freedom and possibility:
I had a great desire to live because I found Nietzsche’s amor fati in every trifle in every book, even the pessimistic ones. The more pessimistic the book, the more pulsating energy, life energy, I felt beneath its surface — as if all of literature were only the praise of life’s beauty, of all of life, as if nature’s many charms were insufficient to dissuade us from suicide, from Ecclesiastes, and from Seneca’s “better not to have been born at all but, if born, better to die at once.” I came across books that I had read before prison and that had sapped me of my will. For example, Notes from the Underground. But there in my cell even those books sang hosannas.
And yet something even more paradoxical was taking place in the mindscape of the imprisoned — reading, for them, had a strange double-edged quality. Wat reflects on this strangeness, which he observed not only in himself but also in his cellmates:
Books stimulated a keen desire for life, life of any sort, at any cost, to live and move with the Rastignacs, Rostovs, and even the heroes of Notes from the Underground, an insatiable desire to live in freedom, even if that were the miserable freedom of the camps. I encountered many prisoners who had been pulled out of the camps for a review of their trials; despite their having no faith in being released and despite the great wretchedness of camp life, they would still grow nostalgic about being able to move freely about the camp, about the chance to work and be in contact with large numbers of people. A second and opposite effect of reading was that it disordered a prisoner’s mental structure by causing him to experience two entirely different realities simultaneously: the world of books — free, full of movement, light, change, colorful, Heraclitean — and the world where time stood still, lost all sensation in captivity, and faded into a dirty gray. The sum total of both opposed effects worked to the investigator’s advantage because it disturbed the victim’s entire soul.
But reading had the opposite effect on me. It marshaled my intellectual and spiritual resources and made me stronger. It truly was like touching the earth for Antaeus. No doubt that was because what I primarily filtered out from books, any sort of book, was the poetry they contained, and it was only in prison that I became aware of a certain banal truth, one that I had often doubted, namely, that I am a poet.
My Century is a stirring read in its totality — part invaluable document of a dark hour in human history that must not be forgotten and erased, part lyrical map to the inner world of an artist of uncommon intellectual and creative vitality. Complement this particular fragment with poet Mary Oliver on how books saved her life from a very different form of violence, Neil Gaiman on what books do for the human spirit, and a lovely animated oral history of how libraries save lives.
Source: Brain Pickings | 14 May 2019 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
Night after night at my telescope, I marvel with undiminished awe at what Margaret Fuller reverenced as “that best fact, the Moon.” How is it that our abiding nocturnal companion, which has stood sentinel and silent witness to the rise and fall of civilizations, to innumerable heartbreaks and triumphs, never loses its luminous mesmerism? It has inspired sonnets and love songs and religious reveries — an enchanted loom onto which humanity has woven entire mythologies and cosmogonies. Nothing else quite beckons us to transcend the smallness of our lives, zoom out of our fleeting sorrows, and take solace in the telescopic perspective more powerfully than the Moon. “There is a soft moonlight that can give us the peace that passes understanding,” Aldous Huxley wrote in his meditation on the Moon, considering its myriad enchantments. “There is a moonlight that inspires a kind of awe. There is a cold and austere moonlight that tells the soul of its loneliness and desperate isolation, its insignificance or its uncleanness. There is an amorous moonlight prompting to love — to love not only for an individual but sometimes even for the whole universe.”
That timeless bond between our home planet and its satellite, between moonlight and the human heart, comes alive with uncommon loveliness in Moon: A Peek-Through Picture Book (public library) by German artist and author Britta Teckentrup.
A singsong narrative carries the reader across gentle rhymes and gorgeously illustrated vignettes, depicting the Moon’s role in the lives of various creatures. As its phases swell from crescent to full, we see it illuminate the nocturnal foraging of the field mouse, congregate the puffins under the northern lights, govern the tides of the mighty ocean, steer the sea turtles to lay their eggs, and stand vigil over our homes as we dream our human dreams.
As birds fly south to warmer climes,
They seem to sense the perfect time.
Shining strongly through the night,
The moon will always guide their flight.
What emerges is a tender serenade to this most beloved fixture of the night sky, both springboard for the human imagination and anchor to the deepest cosmic realities, uniting lives of tremendous difference under its soft, generous glow.
The ocean sparkles, bluey-green,
Lit up by a magical scene.
Waves roll gently to and fro.
The moon commands their ebb and flow.
Couple Teckentrup’s lovely Moon with her 17th-century compatriot Maria Clara Eimmart’s stunning astronomical drawings of the moon phases, then revisit Sun and Moon — a picture-book about celestial myths from Indian folklore, illustrated by ten of India’s greatest indigenous artists.
Source: Brain Pickings | 13 May 2019 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
In his stirring poem “The More Loving One,” W.H. Auden asked: “How should we like it were stars to burn / With a passion for us we could not return?” It is a perennial question — how to live with our human fragility of feeling in a dispassionate universe. But our passions, along with everything we feel and everything we are, do belong to the stars, in the most elemental sense. “We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” Carl Sagan proclaimed in his iconic series Cosmos — a scientific statement so poetic and profound that it has enchanted more imaginations and infected more lay people with cosmic curiosity than any other sentiment in the history of science. It is also a statement Sagan could not have made without the foundational work of the English-American astronomer and astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (May 10, 1900–December 7, 1979).
In 1925, in her 215-page Harvard doctoral thesis that made her the first person to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy at Radcliffe-Harvard, Payne discovered the chemical composition of stars — the “stuff” the cosmos is made of, which was, much to scientists’ surprise, the selfsame “stuff” of which we too are made. It was a shock and a revelation — a landmark leap in our understanding of the universe and of ourselves.
In early November 1925, the Harvard College Observatory broadcast the first episode of a series of radio talks about astronomy. Every Tuesday and Thursday for the next eleven weeks, Harvard astronomers would take to the airwaves of Boston’s Edison Electric Illuminating Company, WEEI, and deliver short, surprisingly poetic lectures on everything from comets, shooting stars, and eclipses to the evolution of stars and the search for life beyond Earth. Nothing like this had ever been done before — it was the world’s first public broadcast series of popular science and its printed record, published the following year as The Universe of Stars: Radio Talks from the Harvard College Observatory (public library), became the world’s first book of radio transcripts.
In mid-December 1925, having just completed her revolutionary doctoral thesis, the 25-year-old Payne delivered the fourteenth lecture in the series, titled “The Stuff Stars are Made of.”
Five years before the discovery of Pluto and mere months after Edwin Hubble had refuted Harvard College Observatory director Harlow Shapley’s longtime insistence that our home galaxy was the full extent of the cosmos by identifying stars that must belong to another galaxy, Andromeda — a radical revision of previous ideas about the nature and size of the universe — Payne takes her listeners on a journey into our cosmic neighborhood and beyond, into the unfathomed cosmic unknown:
We are going tonight far out beyond the bounds of the solar system, for this talk relates especially to the universe of stars… This solar system of ours is large enough, measured by earthly standards, since the distance across the orbit of Neptune, the farthest known planet, is some six thousand million miles. Even light, which travels at the furious speed of eleven million miles a minute, takes about eight hours to cross that space. But let us go out into the moonless night. Overhead we shall see thousands of twinkling points of light that we call the stars. Although light takes a third of a day to cross the solar system, the light that reaches us from the Milky Way may have been travelling five thousand years.
Echoing pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell’s lovely incantation — “Mingle the starlight with your lives and you won’t be fretted by trifles,” Mitchell had told her Vassar students, who paved the way for women at the Harvard College Observatory — Payne reflects:
When we direct our thoughts to the stellar universe, the solar system is dwarfed out of recognition. We only notice it because we happen to be living in it. Until we begin to think in terms of the system of stars, we are liable to overrate the size and comprehensiveness of the system of the planets.
Writing in an era when there was only rudimentary awareness of the existence of stellar nuclei and nuclear reactions, she considers the mystery of our ancient nocturnal companions:
When we look at the twinkling light of the stars, we need all our powers of imagination to visualize what they really are. Every one of those points of light is actually a huge mass, often far larger than the Sun. Every one shines because it is hot — so hot that it glows by its own light. And every one of them is pouring out light and heat into space in enormous quantities. Many bright stars pour out hundreds of millions of tons of light every second.
When you look at the night sky, you are looking at an almost inconceivably great quantity of matter; and therefore when I talk about the stuff the stars are made of I am telling you what we know of the Chemistry of the Universe.
Payne examines the essence of the question itself: When we ask what things are “made of” in the world around us, we answer by pointing to their material — clay and rocks and water and wood — and then further analyze each material into different kinds of atoms. But because it is impossible to physically fetch atoms directly from a star the way one might fetch a fistful of clay from the ground, scientists can only analyze another aspect of the stellar “stuff”: light. Three centuries after Newton first used the word spectrum — Latin for “appearance” — to describe the beautiful band of rainbow produced when sunlight disperses onto a glass prism, giving rise to the science of spectrography, Payne explains the study of stellar light:
[Stars] are all pouring out light into space and we can catch that light as it strikes the Earth, and analyze it. In a fundamental sense, that light was once as much a part of the stars as clay is a part of the Earth. Light is a form of energy, and it is the energy of a star that makes it shine, and keeps it going, and enables it to survive. A star literally lives on its light.
Analyzing that light makes it possible to discern what stars are made of, because matter in the gaseous state emanates light of specific wavelengths, with each atom occupying a different set of wavelengths and thus appearing at a different spot along the color spectrum when its light passes through a prism. This method, Payne notes, revealed that stars are made of the selfsame elements found all around us, even though conditions on those stars are dramatically different from those on Earth, with temperatures reaching tens of thousands of degrees centigrade. After a necessary detour to physics, explaining how the structure of the atom factors into this commonality of matter, Payne concludes with the kernel of the poetic and profound sentiment Sagan would popularize more than half a century later:
In the spectrum of the Sun, we can pick out all the two thousand colors that are given out by an atom of iron; they are exactly the same as the colors that would be given out by a piece of iron, heated in the electric arc in the laboratory. A common chemistry and a common physics run through the universe.
The story that I have told you is one that has wide implications. Not only does it confirm us in our belief that a common physics and chemistry underlie the universe, but it suggests a basis for the study of the fundamental problem of the stability of matter. [This] implies that all stars have the same composition… that the relative amount of the different elements are in some way fixed, and have some fundamental significance in the universe.
This was a revolutionary idea that would lead to entirely new theories about the evolution of the universe. Payne herself would devote the remainder of her life to illuminating these mysteries, becoming the first woman to chair a Harvard department. But such honors meant little to her — she stood with Maria Mitchell, who famously asserted that honors “are small things in the light of stars.” Six decades after her doctoral thesis, Payne ended her autobiography with a short poem of her own, celebrating the scientific muse that governed her trailblazing career — a beautiful articulation of the universal motive force that impels all great scientists to do what they do.
At the third annual Universe in Verse, astrophysicist Natalie Batalha — project scientist on NASA’s Kepler mission, responsible for discovering more than 4,000 exoplanets: whole new worlds unimaginable in Payne’s time, when the very notion of another galaxy was a shock — returned to read Payne’s poem, with a lovely prefatory mediation reaching across space and time to connect Payne to Sagan to her own work and the largest questions human beings bring to and ask of the universe:
by Cecilia Payne
O Universe, O Lover,
I gave myself to thee
Not for gold
Not for glory
But for love.
Our children are immortal,
I am the Mother.
The offspring of our love
Will bear the image of a humble mother
And also a proud imperious Father.
I saw him in a stream of glowing stars;
Long, long I lay in his terrible embrace.
Their sons go striding round the firmament;
My children gambol at their heels.
Couple with Cecilia Payne’s advice to the young, then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse: Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by the Canadian astronomer, poet, and tragic genius Rebecca Elson, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to the world’s first professional female astronomer, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her homage to Stephen Hawking, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie.
Source: Brain Pickings | 9 May 2019 | 12:39 pm(NZT)
“Intelligence supposes goodwill,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote in the middle of the twentieth century. In the decades since, as we have entered a new era of technology risen from our minds yet not always consonant with our values, this question of goodwill has faded dangerously from the set of considerations around artificial intelligence and the alarming cult of increasingly advanced algorithms, shiny with technical triumph but dull with moral insensibility.
In De Beauvoir’s day, long before the birth of the Internet and the golden age of algorithms, the visionary mathematician, philosopher, and cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener (November 26, 1894–March 18, 1964) addressed these questions with astounding prescience in his 1954 book The Human Use of Human Beings, the ideas in which influenced the digital pioneers who shaped our present technological reality and have recently been rediscovered by a new generation of thinkers eager to reinstate the neglected moral dimension into the conversation about artificial intelligence and the future of technology.
A decade after The Human Use of Human Beings, Wiener expanded upon these ideas in a series of lectures at Yale and a philosophy seminar at Royaumont Abbey near Paris, which he reworked into the short, prophetic book God & Golem, Inc. (public library). Published by MIT Press in the final year of his life, it won him the posthumous National Book Award in the newly established category of Science, Philosophy, and Religion the following year.
With an eye to a future in which artificial intelligences begin making human intellectual and moral decisions — a notion lightyears ahead of its time in 1964 — Wiener writes:
It is relatively easy to promote good and to fight evil and good and evil are arranged against each other in two clear lines, and when those on the other side are our unquestioned enemies and those on our side our trusted allies. What, however, if we must ask, each time and in every situation, where is the friend and where is the enemy? What, moreover, when we have to put the decision in the hands of an inexorable magic or an inexorable machine of which we must ask the right questions in advance, without fully understanding the operations of the process by which they will be answered?
To ask the right questions, Wiener implies, requires not only a literacy in the language of the asking, both technological and ethical, but also an understanding of the myriad nuances that shade such considerations — subtleties challenging enough for human judgment in many situations and just about impossible to encode in a set of operative rules to be applied indiscriminately across a variety of contexts by pre-programmed machines. Half a century later, as variations on the Trolley problem cast these questions into sharp relief in considering the technology behind everything from self-driving cars to elder care AIs, Wiener’s words reverberate with wisdom both disquieting and consolatory. In a passage of sobering lucidity, which today’s overconfident makers of technologically potent yet morally impoverished algorithms would be well advised to heed, Wiener echoes Rachel Carson’s advice to the next generations and writes:
The future offers very little hope for those who expect that our new mechanical slaves will offer us a world in which we may rest from thinking. Help us they may, but at the cost of supreme demands upon our honesty and our intelligence. The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.
Complement with Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of artificial intelligence — the most insightful and sensitive contemporary perspective on the paradoxes of AI I’ve encountered — then revisit the prescient, foundational questions of science and ethics Mary Shelley raised in Frankenstein more than a century before Wiener.
Source: Brain Pickings | 9 May 2019 | 1:54 am(NZT)
“Does what goes on inside show on the outside?” the 26-year-old Van Gogh wrote to his brother in his stirring letter about the struggle for artistic purpose and recognition. “Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” It is a hollowing feeling every artist experiences at one point or another, this dispiriting mismatch between the ferocity of one’s inner fire and the cold, blind eye of the outside world.
In the same era, another artist of towering genius and paltry recognition articulated this sentiment, as well as its heartening antidote, in a letter to the love of his life.
Robert Browning (May 7, 1812–December 12, 1889) met and fell in love with Elizabeth Barrett in the land of verse. “I love these books with all my heart — and I love you too,” he wrote to the stranger who had enchanted him with her 1844 poetry collection. He was an obscure poet six years her junior and this was the beginning of a most improbable courtship, recounted in Figuring, that would soon become one of the grandest, most beautiful true love stories in the common record.
“You and I seem to meet in a mild contrarious harmony,” Elizabeth wrote to Robert in their early epistolary romance, collected in the almost unbearably beautiful Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (public library | free ebook). What harmonized their differences and contradictions was literature — the shared passion for it, the intellectual and creative bond around it, the mutual admiration of each other’s artistic gift, particularly transformative for Robert: Elizabeth’s confidence in his talent buoyed him when criticism and indifference sank his spirit as he struggled for recognition.
In a letter penned at the dawn of their courtship, Elizabeth probes his orientation to criticism and creative purpose:
I do not know, I cannot guess, whether you are liable to be pained deeply by hard criticism and cold neglect, such as original writers like yourself are too often exposed to — or whether the love of Art is enough for you, and the exercise of Art the filling joy of your life.
Aware of her own creative courage and defiance of convention, the 33-year-old Robert responds:
You inquire about my “sensitiveness to criticism”… I write from a thorough conviction that it is the duty of me, and with the belief that, after every drawback and shortcoming, I do my best, all things considered — that is for me, and, so being, the not being listened to by one human creature would, I hope, in nowise affect me.
A decade before Walt Whitman proclaimed in Leaves of Grass, “I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood,” Browning reflects on his own poems, dismissed and misunderstood by critics, and the fiery animating force behind them:
These scenes and song-scraps are such mere and very escapes of my inner power, which lives in me like the light in those crazy Mediterranean phares I have watched at sea, wherein the light is ever revolving in a dark gallery, bright and alive, and only after a weary interval leaps out, for a moment, from the one narrow chink, and then goes on with the blind wall between it and you; and, no doubt, then, precisely, does the poor drudge that carries the cresset set himself most busily to trim the wick — for don’t think I want to say I have not worked hard — (this head of mine knows better) — but the work has been inside, and not when at stated times I held up my light to you — and, that there is no self-delusion here, I would prove to you (and nobody else), even by opening this desk I write on, and showing what stuff, in the way of wood, I could make a great bonfire with, if I might only knock the whole clumsy top off my tower! Of course, every writing body says the same, so I gain nothing by the avowal; but when I remember how I have done what was published, and half done what may never be, I say with some right, you can know but little of me.
In a sentiment even more countercultural today, as many artists sacrifice creative authenticity at the alter of catering — to existing tastes, to lucrative “markets,” to the guarantees of convention and their own past proven successes — Elizabeth condemns Tennyson, perhaps the most “successful” poet in the English language at the time and a writer she did admire, for his readiness in catering to the likes and dislikes of critics and tastemakers rather than composing from a place of authentic creative vision. A century before James Baldwin considered the artist’s struggle for integrity and Mark Rothko lamented that “while the authority of the doctor or plumber is never questioned, everyone deems himself a good judge and an adequate arbiter of what a work of art should be and how it should be done,” she writes:
That such a poet [as Tennyson] should submit blindly to the suggestions of his critics… is much as if Babbage were to take my opinion and undo his calculating machine by it.
Emboldened by her insistence on authenticity over approval, Robert concurs:
Tennyson reads the Quarterly and does as they bid him, with the most solemn face in the world — out goes this, in goes that, all is changed and ranged. Oh me!
Robert Browning would go on to become one of the most beloved and influential poets our civilization has produced, much thanks to Elizabeth’s encouragement. Although today he is the better known of the two Brownings — a common selective erasure reflective of history’s worship of the Y chromosome — he spent most of his career in her shadow, always ungrudgingly, always in admiration. As Elizabeth rose to celebrity, Robert’s pride in her work was so great that he sublimated his own ego, readily recounting a period during which he could get publishers interested in his own work only if he also sent them something of his wife’s. A decade into their love, he published Men and Women — a two-volume collection of his poems, for which both Brownings had high hopes. It fell on unenchanted ears, dismissed by critics and ignored by the public. Several months later, Aurora Leigh — her epic novel in blank verse, a sensation best described today as viral — stationed Elizabeth atop a new stratum of celebrity. Robert was jubilant. “I am surprised, I own, at the amount of success,” a disbelieving Elizabeth wrote to her sister-in-law. “Golden-hearted Robert is in ecstasies about it — far more than if it all related to a book of his own.” Perhaps she was thinking of Robert’s obscurity and the public’s painful indifference to his books when she had her protagonist proclaim:
We get no good
By being ungenerous, even to a book
And calculating profits — so much help
By so much rending. It is rather when
We gloriously forget ourselves, and plunge
Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound,
Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth —
’Tis then we get the right good from a book.
Complement this fragment of the altogether magnificent Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning with the couple’s contemporaries Felix Mendelssohn on artistic integrity and Walt Whitman on keeping criticism from sinking your creative confidence, then revisit Elizabeth Barrett Browning — an artist who persevered through an inordinate share of suffering — on what makes life worth living and happiness as a moral obligation.
Source: Brain Pickings | 8 May 2019 | 5:36 am(NZT)
“The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use,” computing pioneer Alan Turing wrote as he contemplated the binary code of body and spirit in the spring of his twenty-first year, having just lost the love of his life to tuberculosis. Nothing garbles that code more violently than illness — from the temporary terrors of food poisoning to the existential tumult of a terminal diagnosis — our entire mental and emotional being is hijacked by the demands of a malcontented body as dis-ease, in the most literal sense, fills sinew and spirit alike. These rude reminders of our atomic fragility are perhaps the most discomfiting yet most common human experience — it is difficult, if at all possible, to find a person unaffected by illness, for we have all been or will be ill, and have all loved or will love someone afflicted by illness.
No one has articulated the peculiar vexations of illness, nor addressed the psychic transcendence accessible amid the terrors of the body, more thoughtfully than Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) in her 1926 essay “On Being Ill,” later included in the indispensable posthumous collection of her Selected Essays (public library).
Half a century before Susan Sontag’s landmark book Illness as Metaphor, Woolf writes:
Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth — rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us — when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia; lyrics to toothache. But no; with a few exceptions — De Quincey attempted something of the sort in The Opium Eater; there must be a volume or two about disease scattered through the pages of Proust — literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent.
Five years earlier, the ailing Rilke had written in a letter to a young woman: “I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.” Woolf, writing in the year of Rilke’s death and well ahead of the modern scientific inquiry into how the life of the body shapes the life of the mind, rebels against the residual Cartesianism of the mind-body divide with her characteristic fusion of wisdom and wry humor, channeled in exquisite prose:
All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane — smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or the pod of a pea for a single instant; it must go through the whole unending procession of changes, heat and cold, comfort and discomfort, hunger and satisfaction, health and illness, until there comes the inevitable catastrophe; the body smashes itself to smithereens, and the soul (it is said) escapes. But of all this daily drama of the body there is no record. People write always of the doings of the mind; the thoughts that come to it; its noble plans; how the mind has civilised the universe. They show it ignoring the body in the philosopher’s turret; or kicking the body, like an old leather football, across leagues of snow and desert in the pursuit of conquest or discovery. Those great wars which the body wages with the mind a slave to it, in the solitude of the bedroom against the assault of fever or the oncome of melancholia, are neglected. Nor is the reason far to seek. To look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer; a robust philosophy; a reason rooted in the bowels of the earth. Short of these, this monster, the body, this miracle, its pain, will soon make us taper into mysticism, or rise, with rapid beats of the wings, into the raptures of transcendentalism.
“Is language the adequate expression of all realities?” Nietzsche had asked when Woolf was just genetic potential in her parents’ DNA. Language, the fully formed human argues as she considers the unreality of illness, has been utterly inadequate in conferring upon this commonest experience the dignity of representation it confers upon just about every other universal human experience:
To hinder the description of illness in literature, there is the poverty of the language. English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache. It has all grown one way.
In a passage Oliver Sacks could have written, Woolf pivots to the humorous, somehow without losing the profundity of the larger point:
Yet it is not only a new language that we need, more primitive, more sensual, more obscene, but a new hierarchy of the passions; love must be deposed in favour of a temperature of 104; jealousy give place to the pangs of sciatica; sleeplessness play the part of villain, and the hero become a white liquid with a sweet taste — that mighty Prince with the moths’ eyes and the feathered feet, one of whose names is Chloral.
And then, just like that, in classic Woolfian fashion, she fangs into the meat of the matter — the way we plunge into the universality of illness, so universal as to border on the banal, until we reach the rock bottom of utter existential aloneness:
That illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another, where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you — is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable.
In health, Woolf argues, we maintain the illusion, both psychological and outwardly performative, of being cradled in the arms of civilization and society. Illness jolts us out of it, orphans us from belonging. But it also does something else, something beautiful and transcendent: In piercing the trance of busyness and obligation, it awakens us to the world about us, whose smallest details, neglected by our regular societal conscience, suddenly throb with aliveness and magnetic curiosity. It renders us “able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up — to look, for example, at the sky”:
The first impression of that extraordinary spectacle is strangely overcoming. Ordinarily to look at the sky for any length of time is impossible. Pedestrians would be impeded and disconcerted by a public sky-gazer. What snatches we get of it are mutilated by chimneys and churches, serve as a background for man, signify wet weather or fine, daub windows gold, and, filling in the branches, complete the pathos of dishevelled autumnal plane trees in autumnal squares. Now, lying recumbent, staring straight up, the sky is discovered to be something so different from this that really it is a little shocking. This then has been going on all the time without our knowing it! — this incessant making up of shapes and casting them down, this buffeting of clouds together, and drawing vast trains of ships and waggons from North to South, this incessant ringing up and down of curtains of light and shade, this interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows, with veiling the sun and unveiling it, with making rock ramparts and wafting them away…
But in the consolations of this transcendent communion with nature resides the most disquieting fact of existence — the awareness of an unfeeling universe, operating by impartial laws unconcerned with our individual fates:
Divinely beautiful it is also divinely heartless. Immeasurable resources are used for some purpose which has nothing to do with human pleasure or human profit.
It would take Woolf more than a decade to fully formulate, in a most stunning reflection, the paradoxical way in which these heartless laws are the very reason we are called to make beauty and meaning within their unfeeling parameters: “There is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself,” she would write in 1939. Now, in her meditation on illness, she hones the anchor of these ideas:
Poets have found religion in nature; people live in the country to learn virtue from plants. It is in their indifference that they are comforting. That snowfield of the mind, where man has not trodden, is visited by the cloud, kissed by the falling petal, as, in another sphere, it is the great artists, the Miltons and the Popes, who console not by their thought of us but by their forgetfulness.
It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, Nature is at no pains to conceal — that she in the end will conquer; heat will leave the world; stiff with frost we shall cease to drag ourselves about the fields; ice will lie thick upon factory and engine; the sun will go out.
This sudden awareness of elemental truth renders the ill person a sort of seer, imbued with an almost mystical understanding of existence, beyond any intellectual interpretation. Nearly a century before Patti Smith came to contemplate how illness expands the field of poetic awareness, Woolf writes:
In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond their surface meaning, gather instinctively this, that, and the other — a sound, a colour, here a stress, there a pause — which the poet, knowing words to be meagre in comparison with ideas, has strewn about his page to evoke, when collected, a state of mind which neither words can express nor the reason explain. Incomprehensibility has an enormous power over us in illness, more legitimately perhaps than the upright will allow. In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the police off duty, we creep beneath some obscure poem by Mallarmé or Donne, some phrase in Latin or Greek, and the words give out their scent and distil their flavour, and then, if at last we grasp the meaning, it is all the richer for having come to us sensually first, by way of the palate and the nostrils, like some queer odour.
Complement this portion of Woolf’s thoroughly fantastic Selected Essays with Roald Dahl on how illness emboldens creativity and Alice James — Henry and William James’s brilliant sister, whom Woolf greatly admired — on how to live fully while dying, then revisit Woolf on the art of letters, the relationship between loneliness and creativity, the creative potency of the androgynous mind, and her transcendent account of a total solar eclipse.
Source: Brain Pickings | 6 May 2019 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos,” Frankenstein author Mary Shelley observed in contemplating how creativity works. All creative people recognize this chaos — the chaos of influences, inspirations, memories, and stimulations, cross-pollinating in the mind to germinate the seed of something we dare call original: our very own contribution to the world, tessellated of these myriad existing worlds we carry within us. Rilke knew this when we composed his exquisite meditation on inspiration and the combinatorial nature of creativity: “For the sake of a few lines one must see many cities, men and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the small flowers open in the morning… One must have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others… One must also have been beside the dying, one must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window…” Whitman, too, knew it when he composed his tenets of creation: “All must have reference to the ensemble of the world, and the compact truth of the world.”
The influential photographer Edward Weston (March 24, 1886–January 1, 1958) articulates this elemental yet often unregarded, even deliberately evaded, truth of the creative life with uncommon splendor of sentiment in the out-of-print 1966 treasure The Daybooks of Edward Weston: Volume II, California (public library).
In a diary entry from October 29, 1930 — the year he discovered his singular creative voice and began taking his now-iconic closeups of fruits and vegetables — Weston writes:
In this age of communication, through books, reproductions, exhibits brought from all over the world, who can be free from influence, — preconception? But — it all depends upon what one does with this cross-fertilization: — is it digested, or does it bring indigestion?
Reflecting on his own creative process at Point Lobos — the breathtaking natural reserve on the Big Sur coast of California, near where he lived for many years and where he took some of his most famous photographs — Weston echoes Montaigne’s disdain for the illusion of originality and Auden’s insistence on the crucial difference between authenticity and originality, and adds:
When I start out in the field, for instance at “The Point,” it seems to me no one could be more free from intention, preconception than I am: allowing whatever crosses my path to incite me to work — and working I do not think: of course there is one’s subconscious memory to draw upon, — all the events, all the eyes have seen in this life and how many more lives? to influence one. But no one starts alone, apart, — we only add to that which has gone before, we are only parts of the whole.
Even so, Weston observes, this morass of influences and existing ideas is sieved through one’s individual artistic sensibility to deliver the golden grains of genius by which a great artist leaves a mark upon the monolith of culture:
The “individual” adds more or combines more than the mass does, he stands out more clearly, a prophet, with a background, a future, and the strength, clarity to speak, — in his chosen way, — music — paint — words; a Bach or a Blake.
More than a year later, Weston revisits the subject of inspiration in another diary entry, insisting that such combinatorial creativity is all the stronger if the influences come from fields other than one’s own — which, of course, is the founding ethos of Brain Pickings. He writes:
I feel that I have been more deeply-moved by music, literature, sculpture, panting than I have by photography, — that is by the other workers in my own medium. This needs explanation. I am not moved to emulate, — neither to compete with or imitate, these other creative expressions, but seeing, hearing, reading something fine excites me to greater effort, — (“inspires” is just the word, but how it has been abused!). Reading about Stieglitz, for instance, means more to me than seeing his work. Kandinsky, Brancusi, Van Gogh, El Greco, have given me fresh impetus: and of late Keyserling, Spengler, Melville, (catholic taste!) in literature. I never hear Bach without deep enrichment, — I almost feel he has been my greatest “influence.” It is as though, in taking to me these great conceptions of other workers, the fallow soil in my depths, emotionally stirred, receptive, has been fertilized.
Every page of The Daybooks of Edward Weston unspools a different flavor of insight into life and art, offered with tremendous self-awareness, humility, and generosity of spirit. Complement this particular fragment with Beethoven on idea-incubation and Oliver Sacks on the three essential elements of creativity, then revisit Virginia Woolf’s transcendent epiphany about what it means to be an artist.
Source: Brain Pickings | 3 May 2019 | 3:56 am(NZT)
“Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote as she celebrated the sacredness of public libraries. “A library is a rainbow in the clouds,” Maya Angelou exulted in reflecting on how a library saved her life. It was thanks to the library that James Baldwin read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon. “You never know what troubled little girl needs a book,” Nikki Giovanni wrote in one of her lovely poems celebrating libraries and librarians.
Among the titans of mind and spirit shaped and saved by libraries was the great neurologist, author, and voracious reader Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015).
In a short essay titled “Libraries,” found in the bittersweet posthumous collection Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (public library), Sacks recalls his childhood in England with the unsentimental sweetness that makes his autobiographical writings so delicious:
The oak-paneled library was the quietest and most beautiful room in the house, to my eyes, and it vied with my little chemistry lab as my favorite place to be. I would curl up in a chair and become so absorbed in what I was reading that all sense of time would be lost. Whenever I was late for lunch or dinner I could be found, completely enthralled by a book, in the library. I learned to read early, at three or four, and books, and our library, are among my first memories.
But the ur-library, for me, was our local public library, the Willesden library. There I spent many of the happiest hours of my growing-up years — our house was a five-minute walk from the library — and it was there I received my real education.
Like many of us, Sacks found his natural curiosity unstimulated, blunted even, by the industrial model of education into which he was thrust. At the library, where he was master of his own time and mind, he found the antidote — the living substance of learning without the ill-fitting structure of schooling:
On the whole, I disliked school, sitting in class, receiving instruction; information seemed to go in one ear and out the other. I could not be passive — I had to be active, learn for myself, learn what I wanted, and in the way that suited me best. I was not a good pupil, but I was a good learner, and in the Willesden library — and all the libraries that came later — I roamed the shelves and stacks, had the freedom to select whatever I wanted, to follow paths that fascinated me, to become myself. At the library I felt free — free to look at the thousands, tens of thousands, of books; free to roam and to enjoy the special atmosphere and the quiet companionship of other readers, all, like myself, on quests of their own.
But it was at the majestic Oxford libraries that his belonging in place and time came fully abloom in the landscape of literature:
It was in the vaults of the Queen’s College that I really gained a sense of history, and of my own language.
While Sacks found at the library a locus of liberation via self-directed learning, he also found the seeming opposite — a surprising sense of community, which became a lovely complement to his newfound intellectual autonomy:
Though the library was quiet, whispered conversations might start in the stacks — two of you, perhaps, were searching for the same old book, the same bound volumes of Brain from 1890 — and conversations could lead to friendships. All of us in the library were reading our own books, absorbed in our own worlds, and yet there was a sense of community, even intimacy. The physicality of books — along with their places and their neighbors on the bookshelves — was part of this camaraderie: handling books, sharing them, passing them to one another, even seeing the names of previous readers and the dates they took books out.
When Sacks moved to New York City in 1965 and began working on his first book — the epoch-making Migraine, which not only revolutionized our understanding of one of the mind’s most mystifying frontiers but ushered in a whole new aesthetic of lyrical writing about medicine — the library became his escape from the notorious oppressions and privations of a young person’s first New York shoebox:
At that time I had a horrid, poky little apartment in which there were almost no surfaces to read or write on. I was just able, holding an elbow awkwardly aloft, to write some of Migraine on the top of the refrigerator. I longed for spaciousness. Fortunately, the library at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where I worked, had this in abundance. I would sit at a large table to read or write for a while, and then wander around the shelves and stacks. I never knew what my eyes might alight upon, but I would sometimes discover unexpected treasures, lucky finds, and bring these back to my seat.
I have often wondered and worried about what rapturous rewards of such serendipitous discovery we relinquish when we surrender to search, that double-edged glory of the Internet. We may have a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, but they are still appendages of our consciously informed intent — we reach for what we know to reach for. It is an odd question I live with daily, suspended and often sundered between these two strands of knowledge: Brain Pickings exists in the world of the Internet, but draws on the world of “unexpected treasures” found on bookshelves, unlooked for. My experience of it — of how I read what I read and how I write about it — is largely one of serendipitous discovery. It mirrors my childhood experience of pulling an encyclopedia off the shelf of my grandmother’s formidable library in Bulgaria, opening to a random page, learning about something I did not know to wonder about until I discovered it, then telling my parents about it with ecstatic enthusiasm. Sacks experienced this intimately — it was amid the stacks the library that he discovered Edward Liveing’s obscure 1873 book Megrim, which inspired him to write Migraine. Perhaps he never used a computer, not even as he continued to write prolifically into the twenty-first century, not out of some time-stilted Luddism but because he resisted, passionately and to the hilt, the relinquishing of this ecstasy of discovery.
Everything in Its Place is a wondrous read in its entirety, irradiating Sacks’s kaleidoscopic curiosity across subjects as varied as the joy of swimming, the pains of first love, the glories of the gingko tree, the surreal turns the mind takes under various rare neurological conditions, and the relationship between gardens and creativity. Complement this particular portion with an illustrated love letter to books by some of the greatest minds of our time, benefiting the public library system, then revisit Sacks on the building blocks of identity, the three essential elements of creativity, his formative reading list of 121 favorite books, the remarkable story of how he saved his own life by reciting poetry, and his stunning memoir of a life fully lived.
Source: Brain Pickings | 1 May 2019 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
In her haunting ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, Adrienne Rich serenaded “the ex-stasis of galaxies / so out from us there’s no vocabulary / but mathematics and optics / equations letting sight pierce through time / into liberations, lacerations of light and dust.” It is a peculiar meta-miracle, to fuse these complementary modes of sensemaking — mathematics, the language of truth, and poetry, the language of meaning — into something that enlarges both, expanding the horizons of beauty and understanding in the mind beholding the fusion.
This miracle is what The Universe in Verse celebrates, and no person embodies it more exquisitely than the Canadian astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999), who belonged to that rare species of genius with extraordinary talent in not just one but two, and thoroughly different, domains of creative endeavor.
The daughter of a geologist, Elson grew up as a keen observer of the natural world, spending large swaths of her childhood exploring the shores of a prehistoric lake. By the age of six, she could distinguish sandstone pebbles from limestone pebbles. By nine, she had grown besotted with the dazzling nocturnal skies of northern Canada, with the way they emanated the infinite question of what it means for the universe to be infinite, beguiled by the cosmic wonders filling that infinity. By sixteen, she was in university, falling further in love with astronomy. Her first glimpse of Andromeda, our sister galaxy, dazed her with its “delicate wisp of milky spiral light floating in what seemed a bottomless well of empty space.”
At twenty-six, having completed her Ph.D. at Cambridge — Newton’s hallowed ground — Elson received a postdoctoral research fellowship at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study — Einstein’s hallowed ground — to work with the first data from the Hubble, which was about to launch later that year. But when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded before the grief-stricken eyes of the world, the horizons of space exploration darkened, the launch of the Hubble was delayed, and Elson’s research assignment vanished. Trapped in Princeton’s unwelcoming atmosphere of systemic sexism, without support and without a riveting project at hand, she found herself withdrawing as a researcher.
One thing solaced and perhaps even saved Elson as her astronomical career took this dispiriting dip — the lively Tuesday evening gatherings of poets, whose company and camaraderie she found to be “far more expansive and congenial” than the stranglehold of the scientific patriarchy. Verse opened up new frontiers of inquiry and observation — not of the universe without, but of the universe within. She came to cherish it and practice it with the same passion she had brought to astronomy.
In her twenty-ninth year, just as she began teaching creative writing at Radcliffe-Harvard during a fellowship there and became the youngest astronomer to serve on a decennial review committee in the history of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Elson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma — a blood cancer that most commonly afflicts people in their sixties and seventies. She transmuted the brutality of the treatment into raw material for poetry — “Not outer space, just space / The light of all the not yet stars,” she writes in “Antidotes to Fear of Death” — and continued pursuing her first and greatest scientific love: galaxy formation and the study of how stars are born, live, and die.
Upon returning to Cambridge in her early thirties, with her illness in remission, Elson and her team used the deepest image of space the Hubble had ever taken to determine the limits of how much regular stars contribute to the mysterious halo of dark matter enveloping the Milky Way — a major contribution to our understanding of the universe and a bittersweet metaphor for Elson’s life and body of work, hovering in that liminal space between limit and possibility, darkness and light.
Elson returned her stardust to the universe at only thirty-nine, leaving behind 56 scientific papers, a slender, sublimely beautiful book of poetry titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library), and the devastating question of what else a person of such uncommon genius would have given the world had chance granted her a longer life.
At the third annual Universe in Verse, I invited Regina Spektor, one of the most intensely poetic songwriters of our time, to honor Elson’s singular, tragic, transcendent genius with a lovely reading of her poem “Theories of Everything” — a meditation on our eternal struggle to discern the unfeeling laws of the universe, over which we have no control and by which we must abide, and to project ourselves onto them, creating cosmoses of beauty and meaning within their indifferent parameters, all the while ourselves remaining mere projections of these very laws.
THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
(When the lecturer’s shirt matches the painting on the wall)
He stands there speaking without love
Of theories where, in the democracy
Of this universe, or that,
There could be legislators
Who ordain trajectories for falling bodies,
Where all things must be dreamed with indifference,
And purpose is a momentary silhouette
Backlit by a blue anthropic flash,
A storm on the horizon.
But even the painting on the wall behind,
Itself an accident of shattered symmetries,
Is only half eclipsed by his transparencies
Of hierarchy and order,
And the history of thought.
And what he cannot see is this:
Himself projected next to his projections
Where the colours from the painting
Have spilled onto his shirt,
Their motion stilled into a rigorous
Design of lines and light.
A Responsibility to Awe is a breathtaking read in its slim totality.
For other highlights from The Universe in Verse, 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 homage to Stephen Hawking, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie, then revisit Regina Spektor reading “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand — one of the most beautiful things ever written about the power of music.
Source: Brain Pickings | 30 Apr 2019 | 12:10 pm(NZT)
“Mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself. Therein lies our hope and our destiny,” the great marine biologist and author Rachel Carson addressed the next generations as she catalyzed the environmental movement with her courageous exposé of the industry-driven, government-concealed chemical assault on nature.
Six months after Carson delivered her poignant and prescient commencement address, another writer of rare courage and humanistic idealism took another stage to deliver a kindred message that reverberates across the decades with astounding relevance today.
On December 10, 1962, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) took the podium at the Swedish Academy to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” Two decades after he contemplated the contradictions of human nature and our grounds for lucid hope, the sixty-year-old Steinbeck proceeded to deliver a stunning, sobering, yet resolutely optimistic acceptance speech, later included in Nobel Writers on Writing (public library) — the collection that gave us Bertrand Russell on the four desires driving all human behavior, Pearl S. Buck on the nature of creativity, and Gabriel García Márquez’s vision of a world in which “no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible.”
After some endearing and strangely comforting opening remarks, indicating that even he — one of the world’s most celebrated minds, standing at the podium to receive the Nobel Prize — is bedeviled by impostor syndrome, Steinbeck considers the abiding role of storytelling in human life:
Literature was not promulgated by a pale and emasculated critical priesthood singing their litanies in empty churches — nor is it a game for the cloistered elect, the tin-horn mendicants of low-calorie despair.
Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed. The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive. From the beginning, their functions, their duties, their responsibilities have been decreed by our species.
In a sentiment Iris Murdoch would echo a decade later in her insistence that throughout history “the artist has tended to be a revolutionary or at least an instrument of change in so far as he has tended to be a sensitive and independent thinker with a job that is a little outside established society,” Steinbeck bows to the lineage of great truth-tellers but raises the artist’s duty to a higher plane of humanism, tasked with more than merely exposing fault:
Humanity has been passing through a gray and desolate time of confusion. My great predecessor, William Faulkner, speaking here, referred to it as a tragedy of universal physical fear, so long sustained that there were no longer problems of the spirit, so that only the human heart in conflict with itself seemed worth writing about. Faulkner, more than most men, was aware of human strength as well as of human weakness. He knew that the understanding and the resolution of fear are a large part of the writer’s reason for being.
This is not new. The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.
Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit — for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.
Having witnessed the devastation of the atomic bomb — a gruesome turning point in our civilization’s balancing act of technological ascent and moral grounding — and speaking at the peak of the Cold War, Steinbeck offers a sentiment that has only swelled with poignancy in the half-century since, as we have continually let our technological capacities run unconsidered, outpacing our ethics:
The present universal fear has been the result of a forward surge in our knowledge and manipulation of certain dangerous factors in the physical world. It is true that other phases of understanding have not yet caught up with this great step, but there is no reason to presume that they cannot or will not draw abreast. Indeed, it is part of the writer’s responsibility to make sure that they do. With humanity’s long, proud history of standing firm against all of its natural enemies, sometimes in the face of almost certain defeat and extinction, we would be cowardly and stupid to leave the field on the eve of our greatest potential victory.
With an eye to the dark backstory of how the Nobel Prize was founded, Steinbeck reflects:
Understandably, I have been reading the life of Alfred Nobel; a solitary man, the books say, a thoughtful man. He perfected the release of explosive forces capable of creative good or of destructive evil, but lacking choice, ungoverned by conscience or judgement.
Nobel saw some of the cruel and bloody misuses of his inventions. He may have even foreseen the end result of all his probing — access to ultimate violence, to final destruction. Some say that he became cynical, but I do not believe this. I think he strove to invent a control — a safety valve. I think he found it finally only in the human mind and the human spirit.
To me, his thinking is clearly indicated in the categories of these awards. They are offered for increased and continuing knowledge of man and of his world — for understanding and communication, which are the functions of literature. And they are offered for demonstrations of the capacity for peace — the culmination of all the others.
Echoing Carson, Steinbeck considers the choice before humanity half a century after Alfred Nobel’s death — a choice that remains the same, though posed with exponentially greater urgency, yet another half a century hence:
The door of nature was unlocked and we were offered the dreadful burden of choice. We have usurped many of the powers we once ascribed to God. Fearful and unprepared, we have assumed lordship over the life and death of the whole world of all living things. The danger and the glory and the choice rest finally in man. The test of his perfectibility is at hand.
Having taken God-like power, we must seek in ourselves for the responsibility and the wisdom we once prayed some deity might have. Man himself has become our greatest hazard and our only hope. So that today, saint John the Apostle may well be paraphrased: In the end is the Word, and the Word is Man, and the Word is with Man.
Couple with the visionary scientist and poet Lewis Thomas, writing another two decades later, on the wonders of possibility of this very choice — a choice that is still before us, and it is not too late for us to make wisely — then revisit Steinbeck on kindness, the discipline of writing, the crucible of creativity, and his timeless advice on falling in love.
Source: Brain Pickings | 29 Apr 2019 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
“Mingle the starlight with your lives and you won’t be fretted by trifles,” the pioneering 19th-century astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, used to tell her Vassar students — America’s first class of women astronomers and the first generation of people trained in what we now call astrophysics: the combination of mathematical physics and observational astronomy.
At the Vassar observatory, both Mitchell’s home and her classroom, she held regular “dome parties” — evenings of telescopic star-study and conversation, during which her students composed poems about whatever they were pondering astronomically.
A century after Mitchell’s death, humanity launched into the cosmos its most ambitious and versatile instrument yet: the Hubble Space Telescope. “We saw to the edge of all there is — so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back,” the poet Tracy K. Smith wrote in her stunning ode to this triumph of human ingenuity and perseverance, on which her father was one of NASA’s first black engineers and which she read at the inaugural Universe in Verse, held on the telescope’s twenty-seventh birthday and dedicated to Maria Mitchell’s legacy.
Smith — who has since been elected Poet Laureate of the United States — was the age of Maria Mitchell’s students when the Hubble returned its first, enthusiastically awaited images of the cosmos: grainy, fuzzy photographs that were in one sense deeply disappointing to the engineers who had labored on the instrument for years, but in another absolutely thrilling: an unprecedented glimpse of the vast unknown beckoning from the unfathomed depths of the universe.
In the decades since its launch on April 24, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has helped make landmark discoveries advancing our understanding of the universe and has enchanted humanity with the most beguiling images of the cosmos we have yet seen. It has shown us otherworldly glimpses of galaxies and nebulae. It has studied the light of orphaned stars to illuminate the mysteries of dark matter. It has resolved a longstanding perplexity about the growth rate of the universe and detected the first known interstellar object to visit our solar system. It has challenged us as never before to imagine what may lie beyond the horizons of our own imagination.
Fifteen years into the Hubble’s lifetime, another great poet, Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012), contemplated the existential undertones of its scientific triumphs in another stunning poem: “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho,” which musician, poetry lover, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer read in a haunting performance at the third annual Universe in Verse, held on the eve of the Hubble’s twenty-ninth birthday and benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.
In this lovely animation created for the occasion, artist Kelli Anderson brings Rich’s words and Amanda’s voice to life with an inventive animation technique, using a vintage NASA manual to print words and galactic-textured images directly onto the archival paper.
HUBBLE PHOTOGRAPHS: AFTER SAPPHO
by Adrienne Rich (2005)
It should be the most desired sight of all
the person with whom you hope to live and die
walking into a room, turning to look at you, sight for sight
Should be yet I say there is something
more desirable: the ex-stasis of galaxies
so out from us there’s no vocabulary
but mathematics and optics
equations letting sight pierce through time
into liberations, lacerations of light and dust
exposed like a body’s cavity, violet green livid and venous, gorgeous
—beyond good and evil as ever stained into dream
beyond remorse, disillusion, fear of death
or life, rage
for order, rage for destruction
beyond this love which stirs
the air every time she walks into the room
These impersonae, however we call them
won’t invade us as on movie screens
they are so old, so new, we are not to them
we look at them or don’t from within the milky gauze
of our tilted gazing
but they don’t look back and we cannot hurt them
Below is Amanda’s full performance, including her poetic prefatory meditation on art, science, and life:
“Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” comes from Adrienne Rich’s indispensable Collected Poems: 1950–2012 (public library). Complement it with Rich’s poem “Planetarium”, read by astrophysicist Janna Levin at the inaugural Universe in Verse, and her tribute to Marie Curie, read by Grammy-winning musician Rosanne Cash, then revisit Kelli Anderson’s stop-motion animation of Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism,” celebrating nature’s astonishing, humble resilience.
More highlights from the show can be savored here, including Amanda Palmer’s readings of Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson and his feminist history of science, both composed for The Universe in Verse.
Source: Brain Pickings | 27 Apr 2019 | 2:05 am(NZT)
“A friend is not to be found in the world such as one can conceive of, such as one needs, for no human being unites so many of the attributes of God as we feel our nature requires,” the pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote as she devised her lovely theory of complementarity in intimate relationships, insisting that rather than burdening one person with the expectation of meeting our every expectation, we ought to scatter our needs and desires across a range of intimates, each chosen for their natural and unstrained ability to meet a particular need.
Curiously, while most of us are able to see the clear and radiant truth of this theory when it comes to our friendships, our cultural mythologies, sculpted by millennia of religious dogma, still hold romantic love to the impossible expectation of having one person meet our every need. We speak easily and gladly of a circle of friends, but in romance we contract the circle to the unitary locus of the idealized lover.
Long before the notion of polyamory entered our lexicon and became an acceptable frontier of the heart’s imagination, the philosopher, poet, and early LGBT rights activist Edward Carpenter (August 29, 1844–June 28, 1929) offered an antidote to this limiting cultural mythology in his uncommonly insightful 1912 book The Drama of Love and Death: A Study of Human Evolution and Transfiguration (public library), which also gave us Carpenter on how to survive the agony of falling in love.
Two decades after meeting the love of his own life, with whom he would spend the remainder of his days, Carpenter — a contemporary of Mitchell’s who, like her, was ahead of his time in myriad ways — writes:
Sympathy with and understanding of the person one lives with must be cultivated to the last degree possible, because it is a condition of any real and permanent alliance. And it may even go so far (and should go so far) as a frank understanding and tolerance of such person’s other loves. After all, it seldom happens, with any one who has more than one or two great interests in life, that he finds a mate who can sympathize with or understand them all. In that case a certain portion of his personality is left out in the cold, as it were; and if this is an important portion it seems perfectly natural for him to seek for a mate or a lover on that side too. Two such loves are often perfectly compatible and reconcilable — though naturally one will be the dominant love, and the other subsidiary, and if such secondary loves are good-humoredly tolerated and admitted, the effect will generally be to confirm the first and original alliance all the more.
More than a decade before Virginia Woolf offered her succinct, incisive recipe for what makes love last across the long sweep of time and habituation, Carpenter offers his:
Two people, after years, cease to exchange their views and opinions with the same vitality as at first; they lose their snap and crackle with regard to each other — and naturally, because they now know each other’s minds perfectly, and have perhaps modified them mutually to the point of likeness. But this only means, or should mean in a healthy case, that their interest in each other has passed into another plane, that the venue of Love has been removed to another court. If something has been lost in respect of the physical rush and torrent, and something in respect of the mental breeze and sparkle, great things have been gained in the ever-widening assurance and confidence of spiritual unity, and a kind of lake-like calm which indeed reflects the heavens. And under all, still in the depths, one may be conscious of a subtle flow and interchange, yet going on between the two personalities and relating itself to some deep and unseen movements far down in the heart of Nature.
Beyond this shared attunement to the pulse of nature, Carpenter argues that the coremost element in an enduring love relationship is not merely tolerance for but a largehearted welcoming of the partner’s other loves and interests, buoyed by the understanding that they enrich rather than impoverish the primary relationship:
Of course for this continuance and permanence of love there must be a certain amount of continence, not only physical, but on the emotional plane as well… New subjects of interest, and points of contact, must be sought; temporary absences rather encouraged than deprecated; and lesser loves, as we have already hinted, not turned into gages of battle. Few things, in fact, endear one to a partner so much as the sense that one can freely confide to him or her one’s affaires de cœur; and when a man and wife have reached this point of confidence in their relation to each other, it may fairly then be said (however shocking this may sound to the orthodox) that their union is permanent and assured.
Complement this excerpt of Carpenter’s altogether visionary The Drama of Love and Death with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage, Rilke on the balance between freedom and togetherness in a long-term love, and Esther Perel on surrender and autonomy as the two pillars of romance, then revisit Hannah Arendt on how to live with love’s fundamental fear of loss.
Source: Brain Pickings | 27 Apr 2019 | 12:00 am(NZT)
Something strange blankets the city and the soul in the first days of spring. The weary, the rushed, even the dispossessed surrender to a certain nonspecific gladness. They smile at you, you smile at them — under the blessing rays of the vernal sun, we are somehow reminded of what we humans were always meant to be to each other and to this stunning, irreplaceable planet we share with innumerable other creatures. In attending to nature at its best and most buoyant, we suddenly attune to the best of our own nature. This, perhaps, is why the modern environmental conscience was jolted awake by the terrifying notion of a silent spring, bereft of birdsong and bloom.
That vernal exhilaration is what Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886), poet laureate of nature, celebrates in a letter to her brother Austin, composed in the spring of her twenty-third year, just as she was falling in love with the love of her life, whom Austin would soon marry. (This beautiful, harrowing tangle of heartstrings occupies a large portion of Figuring.)
On a May Saturday in 1853, Emily writes to Austin:
Today is very beautiful — just as bright, just as blue, just as green and as white, and as crimson, as the cherry trees full in bloom, and the half opening peach blossoms, and the grass just waving, and sky and hill and cloud, can make it, if they try… You thought last Saturday beautiful — yet to this golden day, ’twas but one single gem, to whole handfuls of jewels.
Enraptured by nature, Dickinson spent her days in a sunny bedroom wallpapered with botanical patterns, in a house surrounded by flowerbeds and blooming trees. I wonder if she saw the magnolias the way I do, taken with their bittersweet beauty — for a week or so a year, their blossoms stun with a splendor that vanishes always too soon, as if to remind us that everything we love eventually perishes and yet this perishability is not reason for sorrow but reason to love all the harder.
This eternal dance of love and loss animated Dickinson since the earliest age. Most of the flower specimens in the astonishing herbarium of her girlhood — an elegy for time and the mortality of beauty at the intersection of poetry and science — were collected in the spring, then meticulously pressed and arranged onto the pages of this curious catalogue of imagined immortality and bulwark against impermanence. This inescapable interplay between beauty and perishability, which lends life so much of its sweetness, is at the heart of Dickinson’s vast body of work — nowhere more intensely than in this poem devoted to spring, composed in the autumn of her life:
A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period —
When March is scarcely here
A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.
It waits upon the Lawn,
It shows the furthest Tree
Upon the furthest Slope you know
It almost speaks to you.
Then as Horizons step
Or Noons report away
Without the Formula of sound
It passes and we stay —
A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.
Source: Brain Pickings | 19 Apr 2019 | 5:27 am(NZT)
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her abiding insistence on choosing presence over productivity. But how do we really spend our days? In our era, the average human lifetime will contain two years of boredom, six months of watching commercials, 67 days of heartbreak, and 14 minutes of pure joy.
This devastating arithmetic of time wasted versus time meaningfully spent may seem like a modern problem, but while the nature of our cultural technologies has undeniably exacerbated the ratio, the equation itself stretches all the way to antiquity, with only the variables altered. (Lest we forget, books were derided as a dangerous distraction in 12th-century Japan.)
That equation, and how to balance it more favorably toward a life of substance and presence rather than one of waste and want, is what the great first-century Roman philosopher Seneca examined at the end of his life in Letters from a Stoic (public library) — a collection of 124 letters he composed to his friend Lucilius, which also gave us Seneca on true and false friendship, overcoming fear, and the antidote to anxiety.
Fittingly, the first letter addresses the most urgent subject haunting human life: time, and more particularly, the existential calculus of how we spend or waste the sliver of time allotted us along the continuum of being. Fifteen years after he composed his timeless treatise on filling the shortness of life with wide living, Seneca, now in his final years, counsels his friend:
Set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands… Certain moments are torn from us… some are gently removed… others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness.
The most perilous carelessness, Seneca argues eighteen centuries before Kierkegaard bemoaned the absurdity of busyness and Walt Whitman contemplated what makes life worth living, is that of sliding through life in a trance of expectancy, always vacating the present moment in order to lurch toward the next — a kind of living death. He writes:
What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death’s hands.
Therefore… hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing… is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity, — time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.
Reflecting on how he himself practices what he is preaching, Seneca writes with Stoic self-awareness:
I confess frankly: my expense account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man… I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and you cannot begin too early. For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile.
Complement this particular fragment of the timelessly rewarding Letters from a Stoic with Ursula K. Le Guin’s gorgeous ode to time, Bertrand Russell on the relationship between leisure and social justice, Margaret Mead on leisure and creativity, and Emerson on how to live with presence in a culture of busyness, then revisit Seneca on what it means to be a generous human being and his Stoic key to peace of mind.
Source: Brain Pickings | 18 Apr 2019 | 5:23 am(NZT)
“Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?” poet Marie Howe asked in her stunning ode to time in memoriam of Stephen Hawking. It is an elemental question that cuts to the heart of being human: Despite being creatures of time, or precisely because of it, we live suspended between two temporal antagonisms — the acute awareness, so pointedly articulated by Virginia Woolf, that “a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living” and the nostalgic longing for how we used to be and who we used to be when we used to be. Perhaps Meghan Daum captured the paradox most piercingly: “Life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally — and sometimes maddeningly — who we are.”
Nothing intensifies this sundering bidirectional pull of the arrow of time and the spear of nostalgia more than the hindsights of love — what was once a delirious present projecting into an imagined future of infinite bliss is now ambered into the bittersweet remembrance of a perished past.
That universal bittersweetness is what Frank O’Hara (March 27, 1926–July 25, 1966) explores in twelve perfect lines in his 1950 poem “Animals,” found in his Selected Poems (public library) and read here by Zadie Smith via an old-fashioned telephone line, part of Coudal’s lovely Poetry After the Beep series.
by Frank O’Hara
Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth
it’s no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners
the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn’t need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water
I wouldn’t want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days
Couple with O’Hara himself reading his “Metaphysical Poem” in a rare 1964 recording, then revisit other great contemporary artists and writers reading great poets of yore: Meryl Streep reading Sylvia Plath, Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou, Neil Gaiman reading Ursula K. Le Guin, Amanda Palmer reading E.E. Cummings, James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop, Cynthia Nixon reading Emily Dickinson, Terrance Hayes reading Lucille Clifton, and Patti Smith singing William Blake.
Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Apr 2019 | 4:22 am(NZT)