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September 28, 1951: Alan Turing, the World’s First Digital Music, and the Poetry of Possibility

A hoot, a hummingbird, and an electronic hymn for the modern world.


“All truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” Margaret Fuller wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century as she was changing the fabric of the time. Exactly one hundred years after her untimely death, another tragic hero of another century, whose mind would shape the epochs to come, united these twin truths in a single, rapturous force-field of possibility on the pages of a programming manual containing the first instructions for how to compose music on a computer — a foundational marriage of technos and tenderness.

While the world saw early computers as oversized calculators, Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954) was asking whether a computer could make you fall in love with it. Only those rare artists of the possible can look at something on the cusp of becoming and see what it can be, not as an incremental evolution of the extant and the familiar but as a leap toward the unexampled and the unimagined.

Out of Turing’s uncommon orientation to possibility arose one his most profound and undersung contributions to the modern world: the birth of digital music. Envisioning the computer’s potential as a musical instrument, Turing became the first to compose a computer program for playing notes — the greatest contribution to the universal language since Pythagoras first radicalized music with mathematics.

Alan Turing

After the end of the war — the war he helped end by cracking the Nazis’ Enigma machine and saving inestimable lives by terminating what might have been an interminable war — Turing had moved to Manchester to begin programming his colossal computer, affectionately known as Baby. From the start, he conceived of it not as a calculating device but as a universal machine capable, with sufficient imagination encoded in its native language, of approximating the capabilities of the human mind.

In 1951, if you were to walk into Turing’s Manchester Mark I computer — for it was a room-sized poem of metal and mind, stacked on post office racks — you would find a loudspeaker hooked to the colossus, emitting a shrill electronic beep whenever the machine ran aground and needed attention. Turing realized that with some imaginative code, this “hooter” could be programmed to sound notes on the musical scale, then become music.

In Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age (public library), philosopher and Turing Archive for the History of Computing director B. Jack Copeland writes:

The computer’s ‘hoot instruction’ (which he named/V, pronounced ‘slash vee’) worked like this. There was an electronic clock in the computer that synchronized all the operations. This clock beat steadily, like a silent metronome, at a rate of over 4,000 noiseless ticks per second. Executing the hoot instruction a single time made one of these ticks come alive with sound (emitted at the loudspeaker), but the sound lasted only for as long as the tick, a tiny fraction of a second. Turing described the sound as ‘something between a tap, a click, and a thump’. Executing the hoot instruction over and over again resulted in this brief sound being produced repeatedly, on every fourth tick: tick tick tick click, tick tick tick click, and so on.

The Manchester Mark 1. (Manchester University.)

The magic by which these ticks became music was a function not of the capabilities of Turing’s machine but of the incapacities of the human mind — the mind that is both instrument and computer; the mind that, for all of its astonishing complexity, still has processing limits.

The perceptual limitation of the eye-brain processor makes us perceive a hummingbird’s wings as an infinity-shaped blur of motion — a misperception that rendered the hummingbird’s flight a thing of magic for millennia, until the invention of the camera and the stroboscope in the 1830s revealed tiny wings moving at sixty distinct beats per second. So too the perceptual limitation of the ear-brain processor blurs the clicks of the hoot command, when repeated rapidly thousands of times per second, into the illusion of a continuous note.

There is poetry in Turing’s insight, poetry and cultural defiance, evocative of the protestation Ada Lovelace had issued a century earlier as she composed the world’s first computer program: “Invert the order!” she had demanded of the cultural hierarchy that ranked, and still ranks, science below poetry and philosophy in poetic and philosophic potential. But it was another young man of countercultural vision who took Turing’s insight and turned it into actual music.

Christopher Strachey. (Early computer printout, Bodleian Library, Oxford.)

Christopher Strachey (November 16, 1916–May 18, 1975) was thirty-five when he walked into Turing’s Manchester lab. A passionate pianist trained as a mathematician and physicist, he had grown up in Bloomsbury, surrounded by visionaries like Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes, and had gone to King’s College, where he met Turing before the war. Like Turing, Strachey was a young gay man living in a culture of condoned bigotry and criminalized love — a culture still haunted by the ghost of Oscar Wilde, who a mere generation earlier had died for loving whom he loved. In this atmosphere of persecution, Strachey had suffered a severe mental breakdown during his third year at King’s College and had barely graduated. He must have found consolation in code, with its dual gift of programmable predictability and absolute freedom of imagination, for he devoured Turing’s programming manual as soon as it was published, then showed up at his lab, invigorated by the potential of turning binary code into the fluid splendor of music.

Turing, in turn, was intrigued by Strachey’s passionate enthusiasm and by the twenty pages of code he had brought with him — fortyfold the longest program to have run on a computer by that point. Turing sat the code-composer down at the colossal machine one evening and left. When he returned in the morning, Strachey’s program was already running and blasted, out of the bewildered blue, a tinny rendition of “God Save the King” — Britain’s national anthem.

Turing, ecstatic and laconic, pronounced: “Good show.”

When the BBC heard of the pioneering creation, they dispatched a broadcast unit equipped with a portable acetate disc cutter to record the music and stream it into the world’s ear. Turing and Strachey played three pieces for them — “God Save the King,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.”

The original acetate disc containing the BBC recording. (British Library.)

Sixty-five years later, audio archivists performed a feat of digital detective virtuosity to restore this landmark recording of the world’s first computer music, pitch-warped beyond recognition by time and acetate erosion:

It is a travesty of history that while “God Save the King” was unspooling from the national airwaves in 1951, the King was authorizing orders to criminally prosecute Alan Turing for the natural octave of his love — that elemental symphony of aliveness. A year after the recording was made, after being subjected to chemical castration by the government, this hero of state died vilified by church and country.

Sixty years later, on the other side of the digital epoch Turing had sparked, he would receive posthumous pardon from that King’s daughter, coronated in the final year of Turing’s life; the British government would issue a formal apology for the unpardonable murder of one of humanity’s most visionary and sensitive-souled minds, upon whose ashes the modern world is built.

There is no god to save the Queen, to save the kweens, to save any of us and all of us from ourselves — only love and truth, be they manifested in music or in mathematics. Auden, who had escaped the same persecution by little more than luck, knew this when he wrote that “we must love one another or die,” before making making his disillusion postwar revision to “we must love one another and die”; Virginia Woolf knew this when she wrote, while Turing was saving humanity from itself at Bletchley Park, that “there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 29 Sep 2021 | 6:05 am(NZT)

Love, Death, and Whitman: Poet Mark Doty on the Paradox of Desire and the Courage to Love Against the Certitude of Loss

“Isn’t the flesh a way to drink of the fountain of otherhood, a way to taste the not-I, a way to blur the edges and thus feel the fact of them?… You need to both remember where love leads and love anyway; you can both see the end of desire and be consumed by it all at once.”


Love, Death, and Whitman: Poet Mark Doty on the Paradox of Desire and the Courage to Love Against the Certitude of Loss

Love and death come to us on common terms — unbidden and total, impervious to protest, naked of pretension. They also come to us entwined: Every love is a franchise of grief, for to love anything is to accept its loss — by a dissipation of ardor or of atoms, the atoms constellating the beloved or the atoms constellating us and the consciousness that does the loving, certain to one day go the way of every other consciousness and every other love that ever was and ever will be.

In some deep sense, this inevitability of loss is precisely what makes love so ecstatic — a concentrated experience of aliveness consecrated by its own perishability.

Walt Whitman touched on this with his tender, unflinching hand when he asked, “What indeed is beautiful, except Death and Love?”; when he observed that “to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” He meant, I think, the luckiness of having lived at all, for death is only possible where life, improbable against the austere odds of the universe, once existed.

That inescapable interplay is what poet Mark Doty explores throughout his incandescent book What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life (public library) — part biography, part memoir, part lyric meditation on life, love, and their consanguinity with death.

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

Noting how deeply Whitman — the self-anointed poet of the body and poet of the soul — “understood that the particular is always perishing, and therefore all the more to be cherished,” Doty considers the body as an instrument of temporality and cherishment, through which the song of life sings itself and binds us to the chorus of all other bodies:

Begin with the body: water, vapor, air. You’re the shore on which an ocean of air is constantly breaking, in waves of breath. “Inside” and “outside” of lungs, permeable boundary of skin, eyes, ears, nose, holes in the body for substance passing in and out, no stable and fixed entity that is you, but a moving set of points through which pass water, air, light, food, parts of the bodies of others: their breath, tongues, genitals, hands.

[…]

The world enters us and departs, just as language and image and idea are imprinted upon our consciousness, considered, forgotten, passed on, released.

This perishable, permeable body, with its ceaseless entropic flow, lies at the heart of the paradox of desire — that electric impulse felt in the Body and felt in the Soul, furnishing our most palpable evidence that the two are one. “Behold,” Whitman wrote, “the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern and includes and is the soul.” And so desire becomes a sacrament to the interleaving of love and death, temporal by definition and necessity, its temporality the wellspring of its delirium.

Awake to this fundament of feeling, Doty challenges the damaging Romantic ideal of interminable desire within any given love — a concept by nature self-negating, dishonoring the very thing that gives desire its electric charge:

Even in the imagined paradise of limitless eros, there must be room for death; otherwise the endlessness, the lack of limit or of boundary, finally drains things of their tension, removes all edges… The same body that strains toward freedom and escape also has outer edges, also exists in time, and it’s that doubling that makes the body the sexy and troubling thing it is. O taste and see. Isn’t the flesh a way to drink of the fountain of otherhood, a way to taste the not-I, a way to blur the edges and thus feel the fact of them?

Art by Margaret C. Cook from the 1913 English edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

The longing of the ephemeral body is the Borgesian mirror in which the eternal longing of the soul is endlessly reflected and reflected back, flickering with the bittersweet beauty of our mortal destiny, with the transcendent urgency of life and love. Doty writes:

You need to both remember where love leads and love anyway; you can both see the end of desire and be consumed by it all at once. The ecstatic body’s a place to feel timelessness and to hear, ear held close to the chest of another, the wind that blows in there, hurrying us ahead and away, and to understand that this awareness does not put an end to longing but lends to it a shadow that is, in the late hour, beautiful.

With an eye to Whitman’s central credo, staked on the poet’s ethos that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” and that we are therefore not separate selves but contiguous territories of aliveness made all the more alive and more contiguous by love, Doty writes:

When the Self dissolves into a world of separate selves and death becomes real, love becomes a pact with grief; what is gained then is the inescapably poignant fact of individuality. There will never be another you, and I love the stubborn particularity of you because you will disappear.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

Complement these fragments of Doty’s irreducibly splendid What Is the Grass with Hannah Arendt on how to live with the fundamental fear of love’s loss and Elizabeth Gilbert on love, loss, and the consecrating power of grief, then revisit Whitman himself on what makes life worth living.


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


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

Source: Brain Pickings | 27 Sep 2021 | 8:05 am(NZT)

Place, Personhood, and the Hippocampus: The Fascinating Science of Magnetism, Autonoeic Consciousness, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“Often the places we grow up in… influence how we perceive and conceptualize the world, give us metaphors to live by, and shape the purpose that drives us.”


Place, Personhood, and the Hippocampus: The Fascinating Science of Magnetism, Autonoeic Consciousness, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote in her lyrical love letter to her native Highlands, echoing an ancient intuition about how our formative physical landscapes shape our landscapes of thought and feeling. The word “genius” in the modern sense, after all, originates in the Latin phrase genius loci — “the spirit of a place.”

I find myself thinking about Shepherd as I return to the Bulgarian mountains of my own childhood, trekking the same paths with my mother that I once trudged with tiny feet beside her, astonished at the flood of long-ago feelings rushing in with each step, astonished too at how effortlessly I navigate these routes I have not walked in decades.

The psychological, neurocognitive, and geophysical underpinnings of these astonishments are what M.R. O’Connor explores in Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World (public library) — a layered inquiry into the science and cultural poetics of how we orient in space and selfhood, illuminating the stunning interpenetration of the two.

“View of Nature in Ascending Regions” by Levi Walter Yaggy from Geographical Portfolio — Comprising Physical, Political, Geological, and Astronomical Geography, 1893. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

In a passage evocative of Rebecca Solnit’s memorable observation that “never to get lost is not to live,” O’Connor takes the telescopic perspective of evolutionary time to consider the cognitive handicap beneath this existential gift:

Life on earth has created millions of Ulyssean species undertaking epic journeys at scales both large and small. Getting lost is a uniquely human problem. Many animals are incredible navigators, capable of undertaking journeys that far eclipse our individual abilities. The greatest migration on earth belongs to the Arctic tern, a four-ounce argonaut that travels each year from Greenland to Antarctica and back again, a distance of some forty-four thousand miles. Flying with the wind, the tern’s return itinerary is a globe-trotter’s fantasy, circumnavigating Africa and South America.

[…]

One of the devices that an animal needs to navigate is a “clock” — an internal mechanism for measuring or keeping time. The daily mass migration of zooplankton in the world’s oceans requires them to know when dawn and dusk are approaching. It would seem this is a simple response to light stimuli, but deep-sea zooplankton, which live at depths below where light penetrates, also migrate in accordance with the length of day at different latitudes. Even slightly more complex migrations can demand multiple clocks.

Perhaps the most astonishing internal clock belongs to the bioluminescent Bermuda fireworm, which swarms the tropical waters precisely fifty-seven minutes after sunset on each third evening after the full Moon in the summer. Such a feat suggests that this tiny marine organism, with a fraction of a fraction of the cognitive capacity of a human, is internally equipped with three different timekeeping devises: a regular twenty-four-hour diurnal clock, a lunar clock with a 27.3-day cycle, and an interval timer to tick out the exact minutes past sunset.

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

O’Connor marvels at the staggering evolutionary array of timekeeping devices that allows migratory species to keep partaking of the dance of life:

Animals that complete annual migrations or multiyear migrations have to possess a yearly clock, one that is finely attuned to the lengths of days and nights and their changes across each season. In all, evolution seems to have produced annual clocks, lunar clocks, tidal clocks, circadian clocks, and, perhaps for those that migrate under cover of darkness, a sidereal clock — which measures the time it takes a star to appear to travel around the earth.

Besides their intricate internal timekeeping mechanisms, many nonhuman animals are endowed with equally intricate space-mapping mechanisms. Each migration season, humpback whales travel more than ten thousand miles far from land to return to the precise place where they were born. There are bird species — European pied flycatchers, blackcaps, and indigo buntings among them — that appear to orient by the pole star in their nocturnal flight; there are insect species — ants and bees among them — that perform triumphs of trigonometry with their light-sensitive photoreceptors, calculating spatial distances by polarized light to find the most direct route home after a winding pathway of foraging. With their mere milligram-brains of one million neurons — a grain of sand to the Mont Blanc of our eighty-six billion — and 20/2000 vision that renders them blind by human standards, honeybees make hundreds of foraging trips per day, meandering many miles from home, then compute the “beeline” back. African ball-rolling dung beetles, Namibian desert spiders, and southern cricket frogs use the stars of the Milky Way as their compass, just like some of the most courageous members of our own species once used the constellations to find their way to freedom from the moral cowardice of tyranny: To ensure they were moving northward, migrants on the Underground Railroad were instructed to keep the river on one side and “follow The Drinking Gourd” — an African name for Ursa Major, or The Big Dipper.

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

Like all reality-radicalizing discoveries that defy the limiting creaturely intuitions we call common sense, the notion that animals might use magnetism for navigation was long derided as something more akin to spiritualism than to science. Humphry Davy — the greatest chemist of the Golden Age of chemistry, charismatic pioneer of the scientific lecture as popular entertainment — was keenly interested in the mystery of animal magnetism. A century after him, Nikola Tesla — a dazzling mind epochs ahead of his time in myriad ways, whose legacy shapes so much of our daily lives and whose name is now the measuring unit of magnetic fields — stood a chance of cracking the mystery, given with his twin passions for pigeons and magnetism, but the opprobrium of the scientific establishment was too impenetrable and the technology was not yet there. It wasn’t until 1958 that a young German graduate student — Wolfgang Wiltschko — was tasked with disproving animal magnetic navigation once and for all. Instead, he ended up proving it: In the then-dubious experiment he was asked to replicate, the birds he let loose in a space with no light source could, just like in the original experiment performed by a fellow student, still orient effortlessly.

O’Connor writes:

The notion that animals have a bio-compass that can “read” the earth’s geomagnetic field has now emerged as the most promising explanation of animal navigation. In addition to those marathon migratory species, nearly every animal that has been tested thus far demonstrates a capacity to orient to the geomagnetic field. Carp floating in tubs at fish markets in Prague spontaneously align themselves in a north-south axis. So do newts at rest, and dogs when they crouch to relieve themselves. Horses, cattle, and deer orient their bodies north-south while grazing, but not if they are under power lines, which disrupt the magnetic field. Red foxes almost always pounce on mice from the northeast. These organisms must all have some kind of organelle that functions as a magneto-receptor, the same way an ear receives sound and an eye receives space.

Magnetism with Key by Berenice Abbott, 1958, from her series Documenting Science.

We human animals navigate the world not only by orienting in space, but by orienting in time. Mental time travel — the ability to rememeber and reflect, to imagine and plan for the future — is what made us human. It is also the pillar of our personal identity — the narrative string that links our childhood selves to our present selves to make us, across a lifetime of physical and psychological changes, one person.

That string is known as autonoeic consciousness, from the Greek noéō: “I perceive,” “I fathom” — our capacity for mental self-representation as entities in time that can reflect on our own lives as continuous and coherent phenomena of being. In the blink of evolutionary time since the dawn of neuroscience in the 1930s, one area of the brain has emerged as the crucible of both our autoneoic consciousness and our spatial navigation: the hippocampus. O’Connor writes:

The hippocampus has sometimes been described as the human GPS, but this metaphor is reductive compared to what this remarkable, plastic part of our minds accomplishes. While a GPS identifies fixed positions or coordinates in space that never change, neuroscientists think what the hippocampus does is unique to us as individuals — it builds representations of places based on our point of view, experiences, memories, goals, and desires. It provides the infrastructure for our selfhood.

An astrocyte in the human hippocampus. One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s little-known ink drawings.

Because a self is a pattern of experiences, memories, and impressions, constellated according to an organizing principle, and because sleep is when the hippocampus consolidates memories to draw from them those organizing patterns, sleep is essential to our sense of self. O’Connor quotes MIT neuroscientist Matt Wilson:

During sleep you try to make sense of things you already learned… You go into a vast database of experience and try to figure out new connections and then build a model to explain new experiences. Wisdom is the rules, based on experience, that allows us to make good decisions in novel situations in the future.

The hippocampus is a hard-won glory of evolution, but it is not singular to us — rudiments of it and variations on it are found in some of our fellow animals across the rungs of neural complexity:

Even birds, which last shared an ancestor with humans 250 million years ago, as well as amphibians, lungfish, and reptiles, have what is called a medial pallium. Similar to the mammalian hippocampal formation in vertebrates, the medial pallium is also involved in spatial tasks in these species, raising the possibility that certain properties of spatial cognition were conserved as organisms diversified and split, while other properties adapted to particular ecologies or selective forces. But despite the profound evolutionary commonalities between humans and other vertebrates and the way the hippocampus relates to cognitive functions of memory and navigation, the question remains: why did we make such a leap in terms of hippocampi’s size and role in our lives? Or as psychologist Daniel Casasanto puts it, “How did foragers become physicists in the eye blink of evolutionary time?”

Part of the answer might lie in the remarkable plasticity of the hippocampus. After the now-iconic 2000 study of the brains of London taxi drivers — which found that their elaborate qualification exam, requiring the memorization of thousands of city landmarks and 25,000 streets, resulted in significant increase in synapses and gray matter in the hippocampus — scientists have been studying what we can do to protect and even bolster our primary instrument for navigating space and selfhood.

O’Connor points to the work of McGill University neuroscientist Véronique Bohbot, who has devised a hippocampal health regimen of recollection and navigation exercises of incrementally increasing difficulty that deliver marked structural growth of gray matter. VeboLife — the neurocognitive fitness training program she has devised — teaches people to navigate the familiar environment in deliberately novel ways, challenging trainees to reconfigure their default routes by taking new paths that require them to attend to new details and make new mental maps in the process.

Optimal hippocampal health appears to be — like the optimal experience of life itself — a matter of paying active and mindful attention, interrupting the “intentional, unapologetic discriminator” our brain has evolved to be, savoring the specifics of each unrepeatable moment.

With an eye to how our hippocampal acuity determines the quality of our lives, O’Connor wonders:

Maybe wayfinding is an activity that confronts us with the marvelous fact of being in the world, requiring us to look up and take notice, to cognitively and emotionally interact with our surroundings whether we are in the wilderness or a city, even calling us to renew our species’ love affair with freedom, exploration, and place.

And yet as much as we throb with wanderlust, we are animated by an intense connection to the landscapes and topographies of our formative years. An emotion known as topophilia, which I experienced while revisiting those mountain trails of my childhood, furnishes this affective-spatial memory that renders childhood as much a time as a place.

Major rivers and mountains of the world compared by length and height, from Atlas de Choix, ou Recueil des Meilleures Cartes de Geographie Ancienne et Moderne Dressees par Divers Auteurs by J. Goujon and J. Andriveau, 1829. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

O’Connor writes:

Often the places we grow up in have outsized influence on us. They influence how we perceive and conceptualize the world, give us metaphors to live by, and shape the purpose that drives us — they are our source of subjectivity as well as a commonality by which we can relate to and identify with others. Maybe it’s because of the vividness of their sensory impressions, their genius for establishing deep relationships to their early environments, that children have a strong capacity for the human emotion called topophilia.

[…]

Across cultures, navigation is influenced by particular environmental conditions — snow, sand, water, wind — and topographies — mountain, valley, river, ocean, and desert. But in all of them, it is also a means by which individuals develop a sense of attachment and feeling for places. Navigating becomes a way of knowing, familiarity, and fondness. It is how you can fall in love with a mountain or a forest. Wayfinding is how we accumulate treasure maps of exquisite memories.

In the remainder of the thoroughly fascinating Wayfinding, O’Connor maps the most thrilling shorelines of our evolving territories of understanding: astounding findings indicating that people from migratory populations have measurably longer alleles of the dopamine receptor gene associated with exploratory behavior than people from sedentary communities; ancient feats of navigation passed down the generations in native cultures to challenge the Western social theory of culture; music as a metaphor for the relationship between organisms and their environment. For a lyrical counterpart, complement it with Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost.


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


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

Source: Brain Pickings | 25 Sep 2021 | 6:50 am(NZT)



Between Restlessness and Rapture: Autumn and the Sensual Urgency of Aliveness

A wildlife ecologist’s serenade to the season that makes you “want to linger long enough to hear every sound and look far enough to see into forever.”


Between Restlessness and Rapture: Autumn and the Sensual Urgency of Aliveness

When autumn comes with its ecstasy of sweetness in the orchard and its symphony of color in the forest, it staggers us with something difficult to name, some bewildering harmonic of the transcendent and the transient — each ripening apple an aria of delight, each bright falling leaf a sigh, a homily, a dirge without music.

Looking back on her life in its final year, the great French writer, actor, and mime Colette celebrated autumn and the autumn of life as a beginning, not a decline — the season of “those who have nothing more to lose and so excel at giving.” Two generations later, while navigating a season of bereavements, Pico Iyer discovered in autumn existential training ground for finding beauty in impermanence and light in loss. We call it “fall,” but something swells in us as the days grow shorter and the trees more skeletal — the quiet uprising of resilience that readies us for the self-renewal of wintering.

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

In The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (public library) — his love letter to the spirituality of science and the wonder of the wilderness — the poetic ornithologist and wildlife ecologist J. Drew Lanham considers the singular and sensual enchantment of autumn:

Fall is the time when nature speaks most clearly to me. In autumn one is treated to an orgy of sights, sounds, and smells that can be wonderfully overwhelming. The stifling late-summer heat is mercifully cleared by cooler air overnight. Breathing is suddenly easier and the soaking sweat evaporates. You want to inhale deeply enough to take in every molecule wafting on the wind. The tired sameness of September’s deep green fades then flames into October’s vermilion sumacs and scarlet maples, lemon-yellow poplars and golden hickories. In those days of crispness I want to linger long enough to hear every sound and look far enough to see into forever.

Reflecting on the natural restlessness the season seems to stir in us and other animals, he writes:

The Germans have a fine word for it: zugunruhe. A compound derived from the roots zug (migration) and unruhe (anxiety), it describes the seasonal migration of birds and other animals. In this wanderlust I want to go somewhere far away, to fly to some place I think I need to be. Nature is on the move, too, migrating, storing, and dying. Everything is either accelerating or slowing down. Some things are rushing about to put in seed for the next generation. A monarch butterfly in a field full of goldenrod is urgent on tissue-thin wings of black and orange to gather the surging sweetness before the frost locks it away. Apple trees and tangles of muscadines hang heavy. The fruit-dense orchards offer a final call to the wildlings. Foxes, deer, coons, possum, and wild turkeys fatten in the feasting. The air is spiced with the scent of dying leaves. The perfume of decay gathers as berries ripen into wild wine. Even the sun sits differently in an autumnal sky, sending a mellower light in somber slants that foretell the coming change.

The droning katydids, tired from their months-long work of filling the hot wet nights with song, hang on into October. But soon choirs of thousands dwindle to hundreds, and then just one or two. A persistent cricket tries hard to fiddle in time but the first freeze throws a wrench into his rhythm. The rustling riot of turning, falling leaves and the mysterious moonlit chirps of migrant songbirds winging their way to faraway places make my heart race… When the moon glows in a mid-November sky like a pallid sun, I, too, am so soaked in wanting and wood’s lust that I might as well wander like a warbler in the joyous urgency of it all.

The Triumph of Life by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Complement with Henry Beston — a father-figure for generations of such lyrical nature writers — on harvest and the human spirit, then revisit poet Diane Ackerman’s wonderful notion of living as an “Earth ecstatic” and a breathtaking animated poem about our connection to nature and each other, inspired by the seasonal migration of starlings.


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 20 Sep 2021 | 8:20 pm(NZT)

The Good Luck of Your Bad Luck: Marcus Aurelius on the Stoic Strategy for Weathering Life’s Waves and Turning Suffering into Strength

“What happened could have happened to anyone, but not everyone could have carried on.”


The Good Luck of Your Bad Luck: Marcus Aurelius on the Stoic Strategy for Weathering Life’s Waves and Turning Suffering into Strength

Most people live with a great deal more suffering than is visible to even the most proximate and sensitive onlooker. Many have survived things both unimaginable and invisible to the outside world. This has been the case since the dawn of our species, for human nature has hardly changed beneath the continually repainted façade of our social sanctions — human beings have always been capable of inflicting tremendous pain on each other and capable of triumphal healing.

There is, however, a peculiar modern phenomenon that might best be described as a culture of competitive trauma. In recent times, the touching human longing for sympathy, that impulse to have our suffering recognized and validated, has grown distorted by a troubling compulsion for broadcast-suffering and comparative validity. Personhoods are staked on the cards dealt and not the hands played, as if we evolved the opposable thumbs of our agency for nothing. In memoirs and reality shows, across infinite Alexandrian scrolls of social media feeds, the unlucky events of life have become the currency of attention and identification.

Drawing by Art Young from Trees at Night, 1926. (Available as a print.)

There is a way, with moderate moral imagination and considerable countercultural courage, to subvert this tendency without turning away from the reality and magnitude of suffering that we do live with — a way to esteem in attention and admiration not the unluckiness of what has happened to us but the luckiness that, despite it, we have become the people we are and have the lives we have by the sheer unwillingness to stay in that small dark place, which is at heart a willingness to be larger than our hurt selves.

It is not a new way of reframing personal narrative (which, after all, is the neuropsychological pillar of identity). It is a very old way, common to many of the world’s ancient traditions but most clearly and creatively articulated by the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180).

Marcus Aurelius

Because the modern mind calculates validity of vantage point by estimating the comparative value of suffering, it must be observed that, later in life, Marcus Aurelius had it easier than most of his contemporaries, being Emperor; it must also be observed that, earlier in life, he had it harder than most, being a fatherless child and a queer teenager in Roman antiquity, epochs before the notion of LGBTQ rights, or for that matter most human rights. It is hardly surprising that he turned to Stoicism for succor and training in living with the uncertainty of events and the certainty of loss.

His timeless Meditations (public library), newly translated and annotated by the British classics scholar Robin Waterfield, were the original self-help — Marcus wrote these notebooks primarily as notes to himself while learning how to live: how to live with more agency, equanimity, and even joy in a world violently unpredictable at all times and especially so in his time.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Japanese artist Hokusai, 1831. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In one of those self-counsels, Marcus Aurelius considers the key to regarding one’s own life, and living it, with positive realism:

Be like a headland: the waves beat against it continuously, but it stands fast and around it the boiling water dies down. “It’s my rotten luck that this has happened to me.” On the contrary, “It’s my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I still feel no distress, since I’m unbruised by the present and unconcerned about the future.” What happened could have happened to anyone, but not everyone could have carried on without letting it distress him. So why regard the incident as a piece of bad luck rather than seeing your avoidance of distress as a piece of good luck? Do you generally describe a person as unlucky when his nature worked well? Or do you count it as a malfunction of a person’s nature when it succeeds in securing the outcome it wanted?

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

With an eye to “what human nature wants” — what life ultimately demands as it lives itself through us, and what our highest answer is — he concludes:

Can what happened to you stop you from being fair, high-minded, moderate, conscientious, unhasty, honest, moral, self-reliant, and so on — from possessing all the qualities that, when present, enable a man’s* nature to be fulfilled? So then, whenever something happens that might cause you distress, remember to rely on this principle: this is not bad luck, but bearing it valiantly is good luck.

Complement with an equally counterintuitive and perspective-broadening modern case for the luckiness of death and Alan Watts on the ambiguity of good and bad luck, then revisit other highlights from the indispensable Meditations: Marcus Aurelius on how to handle disappointing people, the key to living with presence, the most potent motivation for work, and how to begin each day for maximum serenity of mind.


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


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

Source: Brain Pickings | 19 Sep 2021 | 9:12 pm(NZT)



The Gifted Listener: Composer Aaron Copland on Honing Your Talent for Listening to Music

“There are few pleasures in art greater than the secure sense that one can recognize beauty when one comes upon it… Recognizing the beautiful in an abstract art like music partakes somewhat of a minor miracle.”


The Gifted Listener: Composer Aaron Copland on Honing Your Talent for Listening to Music

“Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is,” the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote to a friend, adding the requisite flamboyance of a 1920s radical: “Without music I should wish to die.”

Months after Millay’s death, Harvard offered its prestigious Charles Edward Norton Professorship of Poetry for the 1951–1952 academic year to the composer Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900–December 2, 1990) — the first non-poet to hold the post since its inception a quarter century earlier. More than a decade before he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for capturing the human experience in music, Copland brought to his six lectures, later published as Music and Imagination (public library), not only the mind of an extraordinary musician but the central concern of his life — the artist’s role in the human family and the vital mutual nourishment between those who make art and those whose lives art touches, with a particular focus on the most commonly underappreciated agent in the musical universe: the gifted listener.

Aaron Copland on his way to a concert in Paris, early 1920s. (Photographer unknown. Library of Congress Archives.)

Copland begins by considering the surface contrasts and deeper resonances between poetry and music:

I used to harbor a secret feeling of commiseration for poets… trying to make music with nothing but words at their command. I suppose there exist at all times some few men* who have that much magic in them, but words at best will always seem to a composer a poor substitute for tones… Later… I came gradually to see that beyond the music of both arts there is an essence that joins them — an area where the meanings behind the notes and the meaning beyond the words spring from some common source… The poetry of music… signifies the largest part of our emotive life — the part that sings.

The poetry of music, Copland intimates, is composed both by the musician, in the creation of music and its interpretation in performance, and by the listener, in the act of listening that is itself the work of reflective interpretation. This makes listening as much a creative act as composition and performance — not a passive receptivity to the object that is music, but an active practice that confers upon the object its meaning: an art to be mastered, a talent to be honed. (In the same era, the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm was making the same countercultural point about the art of loving, as distinct from the damaging cultural notion of love as an object to be found and passively received.)

Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Copland observes that because the process by which music gives voice to our inner lives is so delicate and complex, it becomes “a very hazardous undertaking,” for there are many points at which it can break down:

At no point can you seize the musical experience and hold it. Unlike that moment in a film when a still shot suddenly immobilizes a complete scene, a single musical moment immobilized makes audible only one chord, which in itself is comparatively meaningless. This never-ending flow of music forces us to use our imaginations, for music is in a continual state of becoming.

This sentiment he borrows from Auden, who thought deeply and widely about the life of art and who believed that “a verbal art like poetry is reflective; it stops to think. Music is immediate; it goes on to become.” This becoming, Copland argues, is an imaginative act both for the musician and for the listener:

The more I live the life of music the more I am convinced that it is the freely imaginative mind that is at the core of all vital music making and music listening… An imaginative mind is essential to the creation of art in any medium, but it is even more essential in music precisely because music provides the broadest possible vista for the imagination since it is the freest, the most abstract, the least fettered of all the arts: no story content, no pictorial representation, no regularity of meter, no strict limitation of frame need hamper the intuitive functioning of the imaginative mind.

While elsewhere on the Harvard campus the psychologist Jerome Bruner was incubating his pioneering insight into the key to great storytelling and positing that creative writers both need and make creative readers, Copland writes:

All musicians, creators and performers alike, think of the gifted listener as a key figure in the musical universe.

Composition 8 by Wassily Kandinsky, 1920s, inspired by the artist’s experience of listening to a Wagner symphony. (Available as a print.)

A century after the underappreciated genius Margaret Fuller insisted that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” Copland nuances the mathematical splendor of music with the shadings of its subjective reception in the listener’s mind. In a sentiment evocative of Nabokov’s famous aphorism “There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts,” Copland insists that the fancy — the creative imagination of the gifted listener — is what renders “the facts of music, so called” meaningful. He writes:

Listening is a talent, and like any other talent or gift, we possess it in varying degrees… There are two principal requirements for talented listening: first, the ability to open oneself up to musical experience; and secondly, the ability to evaluate critically that experience. Neither of these is possible without a certain native gift. Listening implies an inborn talent of some degree, which, again, like any other talent, can be trained and developed. This talent has a certain “purity” about it. We exercise it, so to speak, for ourselves alone; there is nothing to be gained form it in a material sense. Listening is its own reward; there are no prizes to be won, no contests of creative listening. But I hold that person fortunate who has the gift, for there are few pleasures in art greater than the secure sense that one can recognize beauty when one comes upon it… Recognizing the beautiful in an abstract art like music partakes somewhat of a minor miracle.

Echoing Goethe’s exuberant case for the perceptive powers of beginner’s mind, he writes:

The sensitive amateur, just because he lacks the prejudices and preconceptions of the professional musician, is sometimes a surer guide to the true quality of a piece of music. The ideal listener… would combine the preparation of the trained professional with the innocence of the intuitive amateur… The ideal listener, above all else, possesses the ability to lend himself to the power of music.

[…]

Without theories and without preconceived notions of what music ought to be, [the gifted listener] lends himself as a sentient human being to the power of music… We all listen on an elementary plane of musical consciousness… On that level, whatever the music may be, we experience basic reactions such as tension and release, density and transparency, a smooth or angry surface, the music’s swellings and subsidings, its pushing forward or hanging back, its length, its speed, its thunders and whisperings — and a thousand other psychologically based reflections of our physical life of movement and gesture, and our inner, subconscious mental life.

One of William Blake’s paintings for The Book of Job, 1806. (Available as a print.)

In essence, music performs an enchanted act of subconscious storytelling. (Which might be why Maurice Sendak considered musicality the key to great storytelling.) In a sentiment at first blush inflammatory, especially for music-lovers and especially coming from a musician, Copland writes:

The power of music to move us is something quite special as an artistic phenomenon [but] I do not hold that music has the power to move us beyond any of the other arts.

The singular power of music, as Copland conceives of it, makes me think of what it feels like to stand beneath the star-salted sky beholding the universe, with all of its immensity and intimacy — that grand cosmic silence singing with everything there is. He writes:

There is something about music that keeps its distance even at the moment that it engulfs us. It is at the same time outside and away from us and inside and part of us. In one sense it dwarfs us, and in another we master it. We are led on and on, and yet in some strange way we never lose control. It is the very nature of music to give us the distillation of sentiments, the essence of experience transfused and heightened and expressed in such fashion that we may contemplate it at the same instant that we are swayed by it.

Aaron Copland conducting in rehearsal at the Shed, Tanglewood. (Date and photographer unknown. Library of Congress Archives.)

Leaning on philosopher Susanne Langer’s influential inquiry into what gives music its power and her conclusion that “music is our myth of the inner life,” Copland returns to the gifted listener as a crucial instrument for the power of music and a crucial agent in its collaborative mythmaking:

A healthy musical curiosity and a broad musical experience sharpens the critical faculty of even the most talented amateur.

[…]

The dream of every musician who loves his art is to involve gifted listeners everywhere as an active force in the musical community. The attitude of each individual listener, especially the gifted listener, is the principal resource we have in bringing to fruition the immense musical potentialities of our own time.

Complement this fragment of the wholly insightful Music and Imagination — which went on to inspire the young John Coltrane and an entire generation of other artists — with composer Elliott Schwartz, writing a generation later, on the seven essential skills of listening, then revisit Bob Dylan on music as an instrument of truth, Aldous Huxley on music as an instrument of transcendence, and a tender meditation on music and the mystery of aliveness.


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


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

Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Sep 2021 | 9:58 pm(NZT)

Blue Floats Away: A Tender Illustrated Fable About Our Capacity for Change, Told Through the Story of Water

In praise of our unfathomed capacity to experience beautiful new things beyond our habitual ideas of the possible.


Blue Floats Away: A Tender Illustrated Fable About Our Capacity for Change, Told Through the Story of Water

“The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her unsurpassable Field Guide to Getting Lost.

This might be the greatest challenge of our consciousness — that when life beckons us to broaden our inner landscapes of possibility, it calls on us to choose experiences the transformative power of which we might not be able to recognize and desire with the yet-untransformed self, and so we might not choose to have them. (Philosophers have explored this paradoxical blind spot to transformative experiences in an elegant thought experiment known as the vampire problem.)

But this might also be the most hopeful aspect of our consciousness — that we know ourselves only incompletely; that the life we have is only a subset of our possible life; that we are capable of having experiences which profoundly transform how we live our lives in this house of sinew and soul, transforming in the process the very texture of who we believe ourselves to be.

This paradox of transformation comes alive with uncommon tenderness, through a singular lens — the science and poetics of Earth’s water cycle — in Blue Floats Away (public library) by Travis Jonker, an elementary school librarian by day and an author by night, and Grant Snider, an orthodontist by day and an artist (yes, that artist) by night.

Little Blue is an iceberg youngster suddenly separated from his parents and sent adrift on his own from the North Pole into the wide oceanic unknown.

Along the way, Little Blue gets to know the open waters of the world, discovers “new things, beautiful things,” makes new friends with boats and sharks and the Moon.

But just as he begins understanding the currents and devising a way to ride them back home, the unimaginable happens — Little Blue melts into the tropical waters and becomes part of the ocean.

Then, just as unimaginably, as the equatorial heat turns water to vapor, Little Blue is transformed once again — into a joyous little cloud.

Soon, Blue began to see things.

New things.

Beautiful things.

Floating far above the ocean, he learns about the compass directions and he marvels at the aurora borealis as he drifts poleward across the night sky.

And then, as the air grows colder and the latitude higher, Little Blue suddenly starts growing bigger and bigger, until snowflakes begin to shed from him as the winds return him to his original Northern homeland.

Although the story ends on the classic happy-ending note of a fairy tale — Little Blue, in his cloud embodiment, is reunited with his parents — Jonker takes care to cast no false enchantment. On the final page, an author’s note details the science of Earth’s increasingly precarious water cycle and urges the young reader to counter climate change with daily actions that even a child could take — those seemingly simple but profound transformations of habit on the individual level that, across the sweep of time and generations, shape the transformation of consciousness on the civilizational level.

Complement Blue Floats Away with Ellen Meloy on water as a portal to transcendence and What Color Is Night — Snider’s solo serenade to the nocturnal blues — then revisit the world’s most poetic marine biologist on the ocean and the meaning of life.


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 15 Sep 2021 | 6:03 am(NZT)

The Unfinished Story of the World: Richard Powers’s Advice on Life and the Antidote to Cynicism

“This fluke, single, huge, cross-indexed, thermodynamic experiment of a story that the world has been inventing to tell itself at bedtime is still in embryo. It’s not even the outline of a synopsis of notes toward a rough draft yet.”


The Unfinished Story of the World: Richard Powers’s Advice on Life and the Antidote to Cynicism

Perhaps the gravest violence we can do to ourselves is to live out our lives believing the world to be a fixity handed down to us by the authorities of history and life to be a matter of taking immutable givens. Daring to believe otherwise — to believe that even our smallest purposeful action alters the monolith of reality in some subtle, meaningful way — is an act of courage and resistance, an act of immense vulnerability to the possibility of disappointment, vulnerability the commonest cowering from which is cynicism.

James Baldwin knew this when he issued his lyrical and impassioned insistence that “nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed,” that “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”

Hannah Arendt knew this when she considered how we invent ourselves and reinvent the world, observing that “the smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.”

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

Richard Powers knew this when he made his contribution to Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two (public library) — artist and writer James L. Harmon’s wonderful 2002 anthology of wisdom from stellar minds, a decade in the constellating, envisioned as an eclectic contemporary counterpart to Rilke’s timeless Letters to a Young Poet, which had moved Harmon deeply when he first encountered it as a young man.

Two decades before Powers won the Pulitzer Prize for his sylvan symphony The Overstory, he echoes Seamus Heaney’s exhortation to always remain “true to your own secret knowledge” and writes:

Never forget what you were born knowing. That this fluke, single, huge, cross-indexed, thermodynamic experiment of a story that the world has been inventing to tell itself at bedtime is still in embryo. It’s not even the outline of a synopsis of notes toward a rough draft yet. Buy the plot some time.

19th-century Solar System quilt by Ellen Harding Baker, embroidered over the course of seven years as a teaching tool in an era when women were barred from higher education in science and a fraction of the presently known Solar System objects were known. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

We buy the plot time with the currency of our conscious choices, the grand and the mundane alike — the daily actions that make us what we are, the people who make the world what it is. Powers writes:

Take in more, consume less, recycle everything; book-keep all hidden costs; find out where you have been set down; lobby for a smaller market; get rid of your car and travel as widely as you can (yeah, walk: what the hell); try to say a little more than you mean; carry a pocket encyclopedia (ask for one without packaging) and when the entry on “Diffusion Constant” says, “for more information, see ‘Pastry War,'” see “Pastry War.”

This latter sentiment might at first appear dated in the hindsight of two decades, in the epoch of Wikipedia. But it is actually all the more insightful and urgent today, for the quiet act of resistance at its heart has grown all the harder. What I most rue about the internet is that, for all its riches of readily accessible information, it has altered the texture of human curiosity, vanquishing that wondrous encyclopedic feeling of learning about the thing you hadn’t known you didn’t know but now greatly enjoy knowing. Somewhere along the way of choices being made for us by an insular tribe of technologists, discovery was sacrificed at the altar of search as algorithms perfected the mechanics of giving us more and more of what we already knew we wanted and believed, rendering the mind itself more and more a fixity. Would you be Googling “Pastry War” now had I not made this point about a point Richard Powers made long ago on the pages of a yellowing book I pulled from my bookshelf by some incomputable human impulse this morning?

Those choices matter, Powers reminds us, even at the smallest scale. There is no fulcrum too small for the lever of change to lift from, but the lift must begin with lucidity. He writes:

Take a full look at the worst. Acknowledge the figures: the runaway birthdates, the irreversible extinctions and ruined habitats, the meaningless economies fueled by waste, the exported shooting wars and their cover causes… Then work at whatever comes to hand. Useful or not, it makes no difference. Jumping in is the only calculus that emergency ever allows.

Complement with Rebecca Solnit on rewriting the world’s broken stories with our actions, then revisit What If — a wondrous French picture-book about daring to imagine and build a different world for the children of tomorrow.


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


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

Source: Brain Pickings | 13 Sep 2021 | 7:51 am(NZT)

Bridging the Island Universes of Our Experience: Aldous Huxley on Making Sense of Ourselves and Each Other

“To see ourselves as others see us is a most salutary gift. Hardly less important is the capacity to see others as they see themselves.”


Bridging the Island Universes of Our Experience: Aldous Huxley on Making Sense of Ourselves and Each Other

Conversing with a symphonic-minded physicist and a science-spirited musician on a small boat off the coast of a small island, I express my skepticism that the swell of digital records would improve posterity’s ability to know us better than we know our antecedents. A life, my companions argue as a thousand tiny waves scatter the late-summer sun into a shimmering constellation around us, is immensely easier to reconstruct from the mass of emails and text messages we will each leave behind than it is from a handful of faded letters in a Victorian desk-drawer.

There is a surface logic to this reasoning. Despite my years-long immersion in the totality of Emily Dickinson’s surviving archives, I — and you, and she — will never have a final theory of who this person, this flickering constellation of poetic conceits and personal contradictions, really was. But even as an archive-dwelling scholar frequently forestalled by the dearth of surviving records of bygone lives, I doubt that more information equals more illumination. We can hardly fathom our own depths, much less another’s — no matter the count of waves.

Painting by Oliver Jeffers from his series Measuring Land and Sea
Painting by Oliver Jeffers from his series Measuring Land and Sea

It is less a problem of records than a problem of reckonings. We habitually see ourselves not as we are but as we aspire to be or fear we might be. Too readily, too unconsciously, we absorb who the world tells us we are, then live into — up to, or down to — that image, tender porous creatures that we are. (That, of course, is the most toxic effect of bigotry — we come to internalize our own devaluation by society, even if we consciously believe otherwise.) All the while, half-opaque as we are to ourselves, we keep trying to communicate to others what we want, what we mean, what it is like to be us. Even at their most honest and self-aware, these transmissions are irresolute and incomplete. Often, they are warped by our yearning to appear a certain way to the receiver, to achieve a certain effect with the signal — ripples on the surface of the self, catching the light depending on the position of the observer and the fleeting weather system of the observed. The Victorian love letter and the text message, the memoir and the Instagram selfie — they are all fragments of self-expression frozen in time, expressing a self fragmentary and discontinuous across the sweep of a life, fragments that can never reconstitute for posterity a complete and cohesive portrait of a person, because to be a person is to be perpetually contradictory and incomplete.

There is strange consolation in this, in knowing ourselves and each other only incompletely — a mercy that saves us from the tyranny of a final verdict on who and what we are.

The conversation on the boat reminded me of a passage by Aldous Huxley (July 26, 1894–November 22, 1963), exquisitely illustrative of these ambiguities and ambivalences of personhood.

Aldous Huxley

In his 1954 classic The Doors of Perception (public library), which explores a particular biochemical method for plumbing those unfathomed depths of personhood far beneath the surface waves of the self, he makes this astute general observation:

Human beings are immensely complicated creatures, living simultaneously in a half dozen different worlds. Each individual is unique and, in a number of respects, unlike all the other members of the species. None of our motives is unmixed, none of our actions can be traced back to a single source and, in any group we care to study, behavior patterns that are observably similar may be the result of many constellations of dissimilar causes.

The confusion only deepens when two complexities try to make sense of each other, as we do whenever we connect with one another:

To see ourselves as others see us is a most salutary gift. Hardly less important is the capacity to see others as they see themselves.

Such clarity of vision across the abyss of subjective experience is inherently challenging — we inhabit, in Huxley’s lovely poetic image, “island universes.” He writes:

We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies — all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.

Most island universes are sufficiently like one another to permit of inferential understanding or even of mutual empathy or “feeling into.” Thus, remembering our own bereavements and humiliations, we can condole with others in analogous circumstances, can put ourselves (always, of course, in a slightly Pickwickian sense) in their places. But in certain cases communication between universes is incomplete or even nonexistent.

Art from the 1750 book An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe by Thomas Wright, who originated the “island universes” concept. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

In certain cases, Huxley observes, those other minds appear to “belong to a different species and inhabit a radically alien universe” — none among us can be anything more than a bewildered visitor to the wonderlands which Bach and Blake called home. Even in less extreme cases, even in the everyday wonderlands we ourselves inhabit, the limitations of language — our primary instrument for outrospection — keep us from inviting others into the place where we live. Drawing on that timeless line from Milton’s Paradise Lost — a line that might just be the most succinct summation of all philosophy and all psychology — Huxley writes:

The mind is its own place… Words are uttered, but fail to enlighten. The things and events to which the symbols refer belong to mutually exclusive realms of experience.

Complement with James Baldwin, writing in the same era, on “the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are” and a sweeping Borges-infused reflection on chance, the universe, and the fragility of knowing who we are, then revisit Huxley on the power of music and the antidote to our existential helplessness.


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


newsletter

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

Source: Brain Pickings | 10 Sep 2021 | 9:40 am(NZT)

The Blue Horses of Our Destiny: Artist Franz Marc, the Wisdom of Animals, and the Fight of Beauty Against Brutality

Tragedy and transcendence in the search for the spiritual in nature.


“Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going?” wrote Mary Oliver in one of the masterpiece from her suite of poems celebrating the urgency of aliveness, Blue Horses (public library).

In the bleak winter of 1916, in the thickest darkness of World War I, several enormous canvases dappled in pointillist patterns of color appeared across the French countryside, as if Kandinsky or Klee had descended upon the war-torn hills to bandage the brutality with beauty. But no. The painted tarps were military camouflage, designed to conceal artillery from aerial observation — the work of the young German painter, printmaker, and Expressionist pioneer Franz Marc (February 8, 1880–March 4, 1916), who had devoted himself to parting the veil of appearances with art in order to “look for and paint this inner, spiritual side of nature.”

Deer in a Monastery Garden, 1912. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Conscripted into the German Imperial Army at the outbreak of the war, midway through his thirties and just after a period of extraordinary creative fecundity, Marc found this improbable outlet for his artistic vitality during his military service. Unlikely to have had any practical advantage over ordinary camouflage, his colossal canvases are almost certain to have served as a psychological lifeline for the young artist drafted into the machinery of death.

Within a month of painting them, Marc was dead — a shell explosion in the first days of the war’s longest battle sent a metal splinter into his skull, killing him instantly while a German government official was compiling a list of prominent artists to be recalled from military service as national treasures, with Marc’s name on it.

The Fate of the Animals, 1913.

Among the paintings he produced in those two ecstatically prolific years just before he was drafted was The Fate of the Animals — an arresting depiction of the interplay of beauty and brutality, terror and tenderness, in the chaos of life. An inscription appeared under the canvas in Marc’s hand: “And all being is flaming agony.”

Destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1916, The Fate of the Animals was restored by Marc’s close friend Paul Klee, who painstakingly recreated the oil canvas from surviving photographs.

The Tiger, 1912. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)
The Foxes, 1913. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Animals, Marc felt, were in many ways superior to humans — more honest in their expression of their inner truths, in more direct contact with the inner truths of nature:

Animals with their virginal sense of life awakened all that was good in me.

The Little Monkey, 1912. (Available as a print.)
The Large Blue Horses, 1911. (Available as a print.)

In 1910, just before he turned thirty, Marc became a founding member of The Blue Rider — a journal that became an epicenter of the German Expressionist community that included artists like Kandinsky, who had just formalized his thinking on the role of the spiritual in art, and Klee. At the end of that year, Marc began corresponding with the twenty-two-year-old writer and pianist Lisbeth Macke, who was married to one of the Blue Rider artists, about the relationship between color and emotion through the lens of music. Exactly a century after Goethe devised his psychology of color and emotion, Macke and Marc created a kind of synesthetic color wheel of tones, assigning sombre sounds to blue, joyful sounds to yellow, and a brutality of discord to red. Marc went on to ascribe not only emotional but spiritual attributes to the primary colors, writing to Macke:

Blue is the male principle, stern and spiritual. Yellow the female principle, gentle, cheerful and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour which must be fought and vanquished by the other two!

Further exploring the analogy between music and color, Marc envisioned the equivalent of music without tonality in painting — a sensibility where “a so-called dissonance is simply a consonance apart,” producing a harmonic effect in the overall composition, in color as in sound.

The Tower of Blue Horses, 1913. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Twenty years after Marc’s death on the battlefields of the First World War, when the forces of terror that had fomented it festered into the Second, the Nazis declared his art “degenerate.” Many of his paintings went missing after WWII, last seen in a 1937 Nazi exhibition of “degenerate” art, alongside several of Klee’s paintings. Marc’s art is believed to have been seized by Nazi leaders for their personal theft-collections. An international search for his painting The Tower of Blue Horses has been underway for decades. In 2012, another of his missing paintings of horses was discovered in the Munich home of the son of one of Hitler’s art dealers, along with more than a thousand other artworks the Nazis denounced as “degenerate” in their deadly ideology but welcomed into their private living rooms as works of transcendent beauty and poetic power.

The Dreaming Horses, 1913. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

The title poem of Mary Oliver’s Blue Horses embodies the original meaning of empathy, which became popular in the early twentieth century as a term for projecting oneself into a work of art. The poet projects herself into Marc’s painting The Large Blue Horses, running her hand gently one animal’s blue mane, letting another’s nose touch her gently, as she reflects on Marc’s tragic, tremendous life that managed to make such timeless portals into beauty and tenderness in the midst of unspeakable brutality:

I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.
Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.
Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
is the piece of God that is inside each of us.


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


newsletter

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

Source: Brain Pickings | 9 Sep 2021 | 12:41 pm(NZT)

The Music of Trees: Improvisation, Iteration, and the Science of Immortality

“Potentially, every tree is immortal.”


The Music of Trees: Improvisation, Iteration, and the Science of Immortality

Hermann Hesse believed that if we could learn to listen to the trees, we would achieve profound perspective on our human lives by grasping the deepest meaning of aliveness. He used listening in the metaphorical sense. But the great existential gift of trees — to us in the metaphors they furnish, and to themselves in the materiality of survival — might indeed be a kind of musicality, accounting for their virtuosity at resilience: beyond “the blind optimism” of a tree’s poetic enchantment lies a supersense for listening to the world and responding with inspired ingenuity, encoded with singular wisdom on how to live and how to die.

So suggests arborist William Bryant Logan in his contribution to Old Growth — a wondrous anthology of essays and poems about trees, culled from the decades-deep archive of Orion Magazine, with contributions as varied as Ursula K. Le Guin and Michael Pollan, and a foreword by the poetic bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Perspective by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In an essay titled “The Things Trees Know,” Bryant writes:

To study how trees grow is to admire not only their persistence but also their imagination. Live wood just won’t quit. Every time you knock it down, it comes back again, but when a plant sprouts back, it is not a random shot, like some finger simply raised to make a point. Rather, the growing tip of any stem — what botanists call the meristem — answers with an inborn, complex pattern, like a musical tune.

He draws out the musical analogy, reflecting on Charlie Parker’s famous advice to young musicians on the steps to becoming a true jazz artist: learn the instrument, learn the tunes, and only then soar with the skilled freedom of improvisation that makes jazz. Pointing to Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” as a perfect embodiment of that three-step triumph, Bryant writes:

It begins with a perfectly clean statement of the tune, beautiful in itself for the richness of its tone, notes that are almost solid, so you could build a house out of them. Within three minutes, the tune has modulated into completely unexpected shapes, sizes, rising and falling glissades, stops and starts, pianissimos to fortes, but it never loses the thread of that original tune. Every tree is a jazz player, in just this way, although where a long Coltrane piece might last a quarter hour, a tree’s performance may go on for half a millennium or more.

Understanding a particular tree, Bryant argues, is a matter of discerning “its notes, its scales, its sharps, its flats, and its time signatures.” In the 1970s, the botanists Francis Hallé, Roelof Oldeman, and P. B. Tomlinson identified six sets of choices, which serve as the chords that every tree combines to compose its particular tune: to branch (most trees) or not to branch (palms); if branching, to branch only at the base of the stem or all along it; to grow new branches only upward (staghorn sumac), only outward (pagoda dogwood), or in some combination of the two; to grow each branch in a continuous upward or downward direction determined at its outset, or to change direction as it grows; to flower at the tips of branches (staghorn sumac) or along their sides (maple); to grow the trunk and branches continuously without rest or to have a dormant season.

Winter Moon at Toyamagahara by Hasui Kawase, 1931. (Available as a print.)

Bryant writes:

Out of these six choices, each plant plays its tune, the phrase that has characterized its kind for millions of years. No matter where its seed sprouts, each will try to play its melody.

The tree does this by a process of deft improvisation attuned to the myriad chance-conditions and events of its environment, changing the scale of its melody as needed. (This reminds me of Coltrane’s own observation that jazz musicians are born with a certain feeling “that just comes out no matter what conditions exist.”) Botanists call the tree’s responsive improvisation reiteration. Bryant writes:

It is jazz: take the tune, stretch it, cut it into pieces, put them back together, transpose it up or down, flatten it out, or shoot it at the sky. Each tree gets its chops, gets its charts, and then throws them away. It knows the chart by heart, and so can repeat it with a thousand variations for hundreds of years, as it grows to its full stature, lives among its peers, and grows back down to the ground. Positive and negative morphogenesis, they dubbed the cycle: growing up and growing down.

As soon as the tune is played, the initial reiteration is the first major branch. As a leafy tree grows, it will generate what arborists call scaffold branches. These are the few — maybe five to eight — very large stems upon which the tree will hang most of its crown — that is, most of its smaller branches and their millions of leaves… The skill of the tree as an organism is like Coltrane in his vamping: it brings the variations back to the persisting theme.

In his classic love letter to trees, penned long before the science of reiteration was understood, Hesse observed that trees “struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws” — that is, to play their tune. But as much as they might be, in Hesse’s words, “the most penetrating preachers” in the art of living, they have at least as much to teach us about the art of dying. Beyond the already disorienting science of why a tree, like a human being, is partly dead throughout life, trees are living testaments to Richard Dawkins’s wonderful perspective on the luckiness of dying, virtuosos at the art of letting life go with the same purposeful poise with which it is lived.

Possible Certainties by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Citing a common saying about oaks — “Three hundred years growing, three hundred years living, three hundred years dying.” — Bryant considers the third stage of a tree’s life, known as negative morphogenesis, or “growing down”:

Growing down is not just decay. It is as active and improvisational as was the building up. Roots are damaged or die. Branches are lost to storms. Hollows open up on the trunk and are colonized by fungi like the wonderful and aptly named dryad’s saddle. The tree’s solid circulation system resolves itself back into discrete pathways, some living and some dead. It becomes obvious that scaffold branches were once separate trees, as they become so again, some maintaining their root systems and others losing them. Now the tips of the higher branches begin to die back. Instead of growing new reiteration branchlets on their undersides, as they did in their youth, they now sprout perfect little trees of their species on the tops of the branches, between the trunk and the dead tips. It is a complete restatement of the thematic tune, happening dozens of times among the still-living branches.

What unfolds in this dying stage is a process known as Phoenix regeneration:

Little by little, a tree loses its crown, first small branches, then larger ones. Roots decay. The circulation system that carries water aloft to the leaves starts to break down. When no leaves emerge on a branch, it can no longer feed itself. It dies and falls to the ground, but the tree does not give up. When a giant that was once ninety feet tall has shrunk to a height of twenty feet, little images of itself may sprout from the lower trunk or even from the root flare, wherever a living connection between root and branch survives… It is not impossible that one or the other of those last sprouts — if only they can generate their own stable root systems — may grow once again to ninety feet tall… Potentially, every tree is immortal.

The Leaf Tree of indigenous Gond mythology, from The Night Life of Trees.

Recounting his encounter with a colossal long-fallen Osage orange tree, from the dead trunk of which two miraculous former branches had risen vertically as new trunks lush with life, Bryant returns to his musical improvisation analogy:

It is as though a person rested her arm on the dirt, spread out her palm, and two perfect new arms emerged from her lifeline, complete with all the muscles and tendons and circulation, the hands, palms, fingers, and fingernails. Or perhaps more accurate, as though a person lay down at night and had two new people overnight sprout from his torso, complete from toenails to cowlicks. I think John Coltrane would have loved phoenix regeneration. It is like those moments in “My Favorite Things” where the whole piece seems about to jump off the top end of the soprano sax register, but suddenly the tune takes up again.

Old Growth is a trove of wonder and wisdom in its entirety. Complement this fragment with Dylan Thomas’s short, splendid poem about trees and the wonder of being human, Thoreau on the true value of a tree, and forester and biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus on how the astonishing science of “tree islands” illuminates the key to resilience.


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 4 Sep 2021 | 1:59 pm(NZT)

How to Feel More Alive Each Day and Night: A Cosmic Nightwalk with Derek Jarman

“Here man has invented the heavens but the moon, not to be usurped, shines sickle bright, gathering our souls.”


How to Feel More Alive Each Day and Night: A Cosmic Nightwalk with Derek Jarman

There is an elemental cosmic loneliness in the pit of every human soul. We spend our lives trying to make it bearable and call our efforts love, or art. (Which might, in the end, be one and the same.) Every once in a while, we are lifted out of the pit into a salutary sense of connection and congress with something larger — a sense of being but one wave among the incalculable lapping lonelinesses in the great sea of being, but one string in the grand symphony orchestra of aliveness.

For many of us, this sense awakens most readily in the natural world, where we feel ourselves part of larger rhythms and larger scales beckoning us to take the telescopic perspective of time, space, and being with the broadened lens of the mind. Whitman felt it most intimately “on the beach alone at night.” Hesse felt it among the trees. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry felt it in the desert. I feel it with my hand against the mosses carpeting the old-growth coastal forest.

Many of humanity’s vastest, most sensitive-souled minds have turned to the natural world not only for creative fuel but for a mighty antidote to melancholy. Few have captured that ecstatic sense of cosmic belonging more exquisitely than the English artist and activist Derek Jarman (January 31, 1942–February 19, 1994) in Modern Nature (public library) — his almost unbearably beautiful record of leaving London to live in a former Victorian fisherman’s hut nestled between an old lighthouse and a nuclear power plant in a newly designated conservation area on the shingled shores of Kent. There, on this solitary headland, salving grief through gardening, Jarman discovered the consolations of a different kind of time — not the time of atoms and anxieties, but the time of seeds and stars.

Part of the Milky Way, from a study made between 1874 and 1876
One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s 19th-century astronomical drawings. (Available as a print, as stationery cards, and as a face mask.)

One spring Saturday, after hanging five new paintings on his walls — “all collages of found objects on gold backgrounds” — Jarman writes in the journal:

A hallucinatory dusk, washed with colours to drive Monet to suicide. At sunset the brightest sickle moon appeared in a gentle blue sky; minute by minute gathering in intensity it stayed until just before midnight.

Night clear as a bell — the blue passed through violet with strands of rose and old gold to become a deep indigo. So etched were the moon and stars they seemed to have been cut out by a child to decorate a crib.

The night sky here is a riot that outshines the brightest lights of Piccadilly; the stars have the intensity of jewels. So flat is the Ness that those stars that lie at the horizon touch your very feet and the moon tips the waves with silver.

The passage reminds me of a breathtaking piece by my composer-friend Jherek Bischoff — a piece inspired by one particular night from his boyhood, living on a sailboat with his parents hundreds of miles from land, when the surface of the open ocean was so still that he could no longer discern the horizon line: the stars in the sky and their reflections in the water appeared as a single sphere of spacetime, inside which he felt to be floating.

From his starlit garden perch between the lighthouse and the power plant, Jarman suddenly sees the familiar landscape with new cosmic eyes, all radiance and rapture:

The nuclear power station is a great ocean liner moored in the firmament, ablaze with light: white, yellow, ruby. Whilst round the bay the lights stretch from Folkenstone to Dover. High above, jet liners from the south float silent in the stars. On these awesome nights, reduced to silence, I walk across the Ness.

Never in my many sleepless nights have I witnessed a spectacle like this. Not the antique bells of the flocks moving up a Sardinian hillside, the barking of the dogs and the sharp cries of the shepherd boys, nor moonlit nights sailing the Aegean, nor the scented nights and fireflies of Fire Island, smashed glass star-strewn through the piers along the Hudson — nothing can quite equal this.

In consonance with his artistic and spiritual progenitor Walt Whitman’s faith in the indelible connection between music and nature and with Joseph Cornell’s artistically formative experience at the planetarium, Jarman adds:

The orchestra has struck up the music of the spheres, the spectral dancers on the fated liner whirl you off your feet till you feel the great globe move. Light-hearted laughter. Here man* has invented the heavens’ but the moon, not to be usurped, shines sickle bright, gathering our souls.

Derek Jarman

In this passage from Modern Nature, Jarman does for the night sky what Rachel Carson did a generation earlier for the ocean as a lens on the meaning of life. Complement it with the great nature writer Henry Beston — Carson’s great hero — on night and the human spirit, then revisit poet Marie Howe’s Whitman-inspired, Hawking-inspired ode to our cosmic belonging.


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


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

Source: Brain Pickings | 1 Sep 2021 | 4:46 am(NZT)

How (Not) to Be a Writer: Chekhov on Why the Task of Art Is Not to Solve Problems But to Formulate Questions

“Anyone who says that the artist’s sphere leaves no room for questions, but deals exclusively with answers, has never done any writing or done anything with imagery.”


How (Not) to Be a Writer: Chekhov on Why the Task of Art Is Not to Solve Problems But to Formulate Questions

It is a truism that the questions we ask shape the answers we find. It is, also, a truth. Another is that our questions — those wonderments, uncertainties, and quickenings of doubt that roil under the surface of life — are the atomic units of our creativity. Everything we make — our songs and our stories, our poems and our equations — we make to find out how the world works and what we are, to find out how to live with our restless longing for absolutes in a relative universe. Such questions — the questions that “can make or unmake a life,” in the words of the perceptive poet David Whyte — are both the raw material and the end result of all great art; art is tasked not with solving the puzzles of being but with dissolving the false certainties of our near-life experience.

Anton Chekhov (January 29, 1860–July 15, 1904) was twenty-eight when he addressed this in letter to a friend, included in How to Write Like Chekhov: Advice and Inspiration, Straight from His Own Letters and Work (public library).

Anton Chekhov

Corresponding with his friend Alexei Suvorin — a short story writer, playwright, and journalist, who went on to become the most influential newspaper publisher in the sunset hour of the Russian Empire — Chekhov, translated by Lena Lenček, writes on October 27, 1888:

I do sometimes preach heresies, but I have never, not once, gone so far as to deny that hard questions have no place in art. In conversations with my fellow writers, I always insist that it is not the job of the artist to solve narrowly specialized questions. It is bad for the artist to tackle what he* does not understand. We have specialists for dealing with specialized questions; it is their job to make decisions about the peasant commune, the fate of capitalism, the evils of alcoholism, about boots, and female complaints.

A century before James Baldwin observed that the task of the artist is to “drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides” and Susan Sontag insisted that the writer must guard against becoming an “opinion-machine,” Chekhov argues that the work of the artist is not problem-solving — this is best left to those with aptitude suited to the problem at hand — but question-framing:

Anyone who says that the artist’s sphere leaves no room for questions, but deals exclusively with answers, has never done any writing or done anything with imagery. The artist observes, selects, guesses, and arranges; every one of these operations presupposes a question at its outset. If he has not asked himself a question at the start, he has nothing to guess and nothing to select.

Cautioning against the common conflation of two distinct concepts — “solving the problem” and “correctly formulating the problem” — he observes:

Only the latter is required of the artist. Not a single problem is resolved in Anna Karenina or Eugene Onegin, and yet the novels satisfy you completely because all the problems they raise are formulated correctly. It is the duty of the law courts to correctly formulate problems, but it is up to the members of the jury to solve them, each to his own taste.

Complement with Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s superb Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the creative power of uncertainty and David Whyte’s questioning poem “Sometimes,” then revisit Chekhov on the 8 qualities of cultured people and his 6 rules for a great story.


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


newsletter

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

Source: Brain Pickings | 1 Sep 2021 | 12:00 am(NZT)

Einstein’s Dreams: Physicist Alan Lightman’s Poetic Exploration of Time and the Antidote to the Anxiety of Aliveness

“A life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.”


Einstein’s Dreams: Physicist Alan Lightman’s Poetic Exploration of Time and the Antidote to the Anxiety of Aliveness

“When you realize you are mortal,” the poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan wrote while regarding a mountain, “you also realize the tremendousness of the future.” A decade earlier, shortly before a heart attack severed her life-time, Hannah Arendt observed in her superb Gifford Lectures lectures on the life of the mind that our finitude, “set in an infinity of time stretching into both past and future, constitutes the infrastructure, as it were, of all mental activities.” While Arendt was composing these thoughts and silent cells were barricading one of her arteries, Ursula K. Le Guin was composing her novelistic inquiry into what it means to live responsibly, observing: “If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it.” A generation before her, Borges had formulated the ultimate declaration of our temporal creatureliness, declaring: “Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

Half a century of neuroscience and psychology have confirmed the physical fact beneath the poetic sentiment — we now know that our experience of time is the crucible of empathy and the defining dimension of personal identity.

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

The young clerk at the Bern patent office was thinking about none of this in the spring of 1905, the spring of a new century still verdant with possibility, when he dreamt up his general relativity — the refutation of Newton that would rattle the flow of existence, forever changing our understanding of time; rather, Einstein was thinking of time as a plaything of mathematics, the cold clay of an impartial universe in which we ourselves are playthings of chance.

Or was he?

After all, a revolution in understanding time is a revolution in understanding ourselves as creatures of time, and no human being — not even the most abstract-minded physicist — can think about time without thinking about what it means to be human, to be concretely oneself, tender with transience.

That is the predicate of the slender, poetic 1993 novel Einstein’s Dreams (public library) by physicist Alan Lightman — a book about time and the tricks we play on ourselves to bear our transience, a book that does for time what Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love does for love: punctuating a fictional world with philosophical quickenings, thought experiments, lyrical reflections on a fundamental human dimension of the real world.

The young Einstein, overworked and burning with ideas, falls asleep at his patent office desk on a series of nights in that fertile spring of 1905, to dream of worlds in each of which times works differently. Each betokens a particular manifestation of our time-anxiety, that defining anxiety of our lives — each a particular tapestry of our hopes, fears, and other flights from the only reality we have and only place we really inhabit: the present.

In one of these worlds, two times exist in parallel — mechanical time, “as rigid and metallic as a massive pendulum of iron that swings back and forth, back and forth, back and forth,” and body time, pulsating with aliveness that “squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay.” This world is a testament to astronomer Maria Mitchell’s long-ago lament that “it seems to be difficult for any one to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict” — in it, people live out their lives subscribing to one time, distrusting and deriding the very existence of the other:

Where the two times meet, desperation. Where the two times go their separate ways, contentment. For, miraculously, a barrister, a nurse, a baker can make a world in either time, but not in both times. Each time is true, but the truths are not the same.

Another dream draws on the real history of how Galileo invented timekeeping to paint a world in which people journey to the Temple of Time to worship the Great Clock enshrined in it — a world part-prophecy and part-admonition, caricaturing our modern cult of the clock as humanity’s great concession in letting time reign, in Nina Simone’s soulful words, as “the great dictator.” Lightman writes:

Long ago, before the Great Clock, time was measured by changes in heavenly bodies: the slow sweep of stars across the night sky, the arc of the sun and variation in light, the waxing and waning of the moon, tides, seasons. Time was measured also by heartbeats, the rhythms of drowsiness and sleep, the recurrence of hunger, the menstrual cycles of women, the duration of loneliness. Then, in a small town in Italy, the first mechanical clock was built. People were spellbound. Later they were horrified. Here was a human invention that quantified the passage of time, that laid ruler and compass to the span of desire, that measured out exactly the moments of a life. It was magical, it was unbearable, it was outside natural law. Yet the clock could not be ignored. It would have to be worshipped. The inventor was persuaded to build the Great Clock. Afterwards, he was killed and all other clocks were destroyed. Then the pilgrimages began.

Guide to the Temple of Time by the visionary 19th-century cartographer and information designer Emma Willard. (Available as a print.)

There is a world in which “time is a circle, bending back on itself” so that every instance, every event, every person “repeats itself, precisely, endlessly.”

There is a world in which time comes with a pre-determined terminus, the precise date of which is known to all inhabitants, none of whom seem to mind that the world is ending, for “a world with one month is a world of equality.”

There is a world in which entropy moves in reverse, everything tending from chaos to order, from dissolution to coherence — the shoreline rebuilt with each lapping wave, the house paint growing more vibrant with each passing season.

There is a world located at the center of time, where time stands still, traveling outward in concentric circles to the outside worlds. Lovers and the parents of small children make pilgrimages to this place, hoping to preserve their fleeting bliss:

Some say it is best not to go near the center of time. Life is a vessel of sadness, but it is noble to live life, and without time there is no life. Others disagree. They would rather have an eternity of contentment, even if that eternity were fixed and frozen, like a butterfly mounted in a case.

There is a world in which imagining the future — that capacity for mental time-travel essential for our humanity — “is no more possible than seeing colors beyond violet,” and so every experience is absolute and eternal to those undergoing it:

In a world without future, each parting of friends is a death. In a world without future, each loneliness is final. In a world without future, each laugh is the last laugh. In a world without future, beyond the present lies nothingness, and people cling to the present as if hanging from a cliff.

Then there is the opposite world, in which the future is an omnipresent fixity:

This is a world in which time is not fluid, parting to make way for events. Instead, time is a rigid, bonelike structure, extending infinitely ahead and behind, fossilizing the future as well as the past. Every action, every thought, every breath of wind, every flight of birds is completely determined, forever… In a world of fixed future, life is an infinite corridor of rooms, one room lit at each moment, the next room dark but prepared. We walk from room to room, look into the room that is lit, the present moment, then walk on. We do not know the rooms ahead, but we know we cannot change them. We are spectators of our lives.

Then there is the opposite of the opposite, in which the past — that sole solidity of the real world — is unfixed, unvoided of possibility. In that world, a middle-aged man has spent his life trapped in a painful memory of childhood humiliation that has come to define his identity and behavior, until one day he wakes up to a different past, devoid of the event that produced the memory, and is suddenly a different person altogether. (Isn’t this the great dream of therapy, the great gift of healing — the dream of self-revision?) From this imaginary world, as from all the rest, Lightman wrests a reflection on the real world, lucid and lyrical:

What is the past? Could it be, the firmness of the past is just illusion? Could the past be a kaleidoscope, a pattern of images that shift with each disturbance of a sudden breeze, a laugh, a thought? And if the shift is everywhere, how would we know?

[…]

In a world of shifting past, these memories are wheat in wind, fleeting dreams, shapes in clouds. Events, once happened, lose reality, alter with a glance, a storm, a night. In time, the past never happened. But who could know? Who could know that the past is not as solid as this instant, when the sun streams over the Bernese Alps and the shopkeepers sing as they raise their awnings and the quarryman begins to load his truck.

Vanish by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Having spent half of my own life trapped in a self-created world of rigid routines and clockwork habits — a half-conscious effort to manufacture the illusion of constancy and continuity, to cope with the uncertainty and unpredictability of life, to deny the fact that to be human is to be inconstant and discontinuous ourselves — there is one world that particularly thrills me and particularly terrifies me:

In this world time is not continuous. In this world time is discontinuous. Time is a stretch of nerve fibers: seemingly continuous from a distance but disjointed close up, with microscopic gaps between fibers. Nervous action flows through one segment of time, abruptly stops, pauses, leaps through a vacuum, and resumes in the neighboring segment. So tiny are the disconnections in time that a single second would have to be magnified and dissected into one thousand parts and each of those parts into one thousand parts before a single missing part of time could be spotted.

So tiny are the disconnections in time that the gaps between segments are practically imperceptible. After each restart of time, the new world looks just like the old. The positions and motions of clouds appear exactly the same, the trajectories of birds, the flow of conversations, thoughts.

The segments of time fit together almost perfectly, but not quite perfectly. On occasion, very slight displacements occur. For example, on this Tuesday in Berne, a young man and a young woman, in their late twenties, stand beneath a street lamp on Gerberngasse. They met one month ago. He loves her desperately, but he has already been crushed by a woman who left him without warning, and he is frightened of love. He must be sure with this woman. He studies her face, pleads silently for her true feelings, searches for the smallest sign, the slightest movement of her brow, the vaguest reddening of her cheeks, the moistness of her eyes.

In truth, she loves him back, but she cannot put her love in words. Instead, she smiles at him, unaware of his fear. As they stand beneath the street lamp, time stops and restarts. Afterwards, the tilt of their heads is precisely the same, the cycle of their heartbeats shows no alteration. But somewhere in the deep pools of the woman’s mind, a dim thought has appeared that was not there before. The young woman reaches for this new thought, into her unconscious, and as she does so a gossamer vacancy crosses her smile. This slight hesitation would be invisible to any but the closest scrutiny, yet the urgent young man has noticed it and taken it for his sign. He tells the young woman that he cannot see her again, returns to his small apartment on Zeughausgasse, decides to move to Zürich and work in his uncle’s bank. The young woman walks slowly home from the lamppost on Gerberngasse and wonders why the young man did not love her.

Art from the 19th-century French physics textbook Les monde physique. (Available as a print, as stationery cards, and as a face mask.)

This world might also be the incubus of Lightman’s uncommon insight into our longing for absolutes in a relative world and what actually gives meaning to our temporal lives — ideas contoured in Einstein’s Dreams, which he would shade in over the course of decades with his uncommon palette of physics and existential poetics.

Take, for instance, the dream-world in which time does not flow but sticks, adhering each town to a particular point in history and each person to a particular point in life. There is no shared stream of present in this world — only islands of neighboring solitudes, each suspended in a different moment of a different past:

The tragedy of this world is that no one is happy, whether stuck in a time of pain or of joy. The tragedy of this world is that everyone is alone. For a life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.

This, indeed, is the silent refrain of the novel: the haunting reminder that however the past and the future might unfold and refold in the origami of even the most elaborate time-model, unless we live in the present, we are not living at all. I am reminded of Kafka: “Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life. It’s only there that it can be won or lost.” I am reminded of Kierkegaard a century before him: “The moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity. It is the first reflection of eternity in time, its first attempt, as it were, at stopping time.” Above all, I am reminded of Gaston Bachelard, who reconciled Einstein and Bergson’s historic debate about time with a larger truth merging the scientific reality and the subjective human truth of time: “If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer.”

The November meteors, observed between midnight and 5 A.M. on  November 13-14, 1868
Meteors by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. (Available as a print, as stationery cards, and as a face mask.)

This intimation is what Einstein’s Dream leaves lingering in the deliciously discomposed mind. In the last world, which the dreamt-up Einstein dreams up in the first week of summer, time is a flock of nightingales. People race to capture under bell jars, and mostly fail. Only children have the energy and speed to catch the birds, but children have no desire to catch them, for time is already moving too sluggishly for them, each summer month already an eternity. (Which of us can forget the vast spacetime of loneliness that slackens the hammock of childhood?) On those rare occasions when an adult captures a nightingale under their bell jar, they rejoice in the frozen moment, but only for a moment — eventually, they discover that life itself is a warm-blooded creature, pulsating with the flow of time:

They savor the precise placement of family and friends, the facial expressions, the trapped happiness over a prize or a birth or romance, the captured smell of cinnamon or white double violets. The catchers delight in the moment so frozen but soon discover that the nightingale expires, its clear, flutelike song diminishes to silence, the trapped moment grows withered and without life.

Like The Little Prince, Einstein’s Dreams remains one of those endlessly rereadable classics, unfurling new splendors of insight and subtleties of feeling which each reading. Complement it with Kahlil Gibran on befriending time, then revisit the little loophole in the Big Bang exploring when time really began.


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 29 Aug 2021 | 5:41 am(NZT)

Bob Dylan on Vulnerability, the Meaning of Integrity, and Music as an Instrument of Truth

“You must be vulnerable to be sensitive to reality. And to me being vulnerable is just another way of saying that one has nothing more to lose.”


Bob Dylan on Vulnerability, the Meaning of Integrity, and Music as an Instrument of Truth

Self-knowledge might be the most difficult of life’s rewards — the hardest to earn and the hardest to bear. To know yourself is to know that you are not an unassailable fixity amid the entropic storm of the universe but a set of fragilities in constant flux. To know yourself is to know that you are not invulnerable.

The honest encounter with that vulnerability is the wellspring of art: Every artist’s art is their coping mechanism for the extreme sensitivity to aliveness that we call beauty — the transcendent and terrifying capacity to be moved by the world, to let something outside us stir deeply something within us. All great art — and only honest art can be great — is therefore the work of vulnerability and all integrity the function of fidelity to one’s fragilities.

That is what Bob Dylan (b. May 24, 1941) addresses with his penetrating poetics of insight in a 1977 conversation with Jonathan Cott — that uncommonly sensitive and erudite investigator of uncommon minds.

Bob Dylan (Library of Congress)

Cott prefaces the conversation, included in his collection Listening: Interviews, 1970–1989 (public library), with a soulful and percipient encapsulation of Dylan’s gift:

His songs are miracles, his ways mysterious and unfathomable. In words and music, he has reawakened, and thereby altered, our experience of the world. In statement (“He not busy being born is busy dying”) and in image (“My dreams are made of iron and steel / With a big bouquet / Of roses hanging down / From the heavens to the ground”) he has kept alive the idea of the poet and artist as vates — the visionary eye of the body politic — while keeping himself open to a conception of art that embraces and respects equally Charles Baudelaire and Charley Patton, Arthur Rimbaud and Smokey Robinson.

Dylan’s virtuosity with the mysterious and the miraculous has always sprung from his ethos of placing the unconscious mind at the center of creativity. In discussing his film Renaldo and Clara — which Dylan describes as being about integrity, about “naked alienation of the inner self against the outer self” — he tells Cott:

Human emotions are the great dictator.

[…]

You can’t be a slave to your emotions. If you’re a slave to your emotions you’re dependent on your emotions, and you’re only dealing with your conscious mind… You have to be faithful to your subconscious, unconscious, super-conscious — as well as to your conscious. Integrity is a facet of honesty. It has to do with knowing yourself.

True integrity necessitates the honesty of vulnerability — that great valve between us and the world, through which reality rushes into the chamber of our being and art pours out. Dylan observes:

You must be vulnerable to be sensitive to reality. And to me being vulnerable is just another way of saying that one has nothing more to lose. I don’t have anything but darkness to lose. I’m way beyond that.

Bob Dylan by Milton Glaser, 1967.

When the conversation turns to humanity’s greatest spiritual sages — the teachers from various traditions best able to access and teach the eternal truths — Dylan counters Cott’s observation that “they speak and teach with more emotion,” redoubling his defiance of feeling as an organizing principle for truth:

I don’t believe in emotion. They use their hearts, their hearts don’t use them.

A generation after Aldous Huxley reverenced music as the great illuminator of the “blessedness lying at the heart of things,” Dylan exalts music as a supreme instrument of revelation: its inherent honesty, its elemental fidelity to truth — the temporal and the eternal, the personal and the universal:

Music is truthful… Music attracts the angels in the universe.

It may be that Bob Dylan is the Bach of our time — the rare vessel for universal truth, whose music contains “the ultimate expression of anything and everything.”

Complement with three centuries of uncommon minds on the singular power of music and Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence, then revisit psychologist Erich Fromm on vulnerability as the key to our sanity, philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility, and philosopher-poet Kahlil Gibran on the courage to know yourself.


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 28 Aug 2021 | 3:05 am(NZT)

An Illustrated Love Letter to Rivers

A painted landscape of fact and feeling along the flow of existence.


An Illustrated Love Letter to Rivers

“There is a mystery about rivers that draws us to them, for they rise from hidden places and travel by routes that are not always tomorrow where they might be today,” Olivia Laing wrote in her stunning meditation on life, loss, and the wisdom of rivers after she walked the River Ouse from source to sea — the River Ouse, in which Virginia Woolf slipped out of the mystery of life, having once observed that “the past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river.”

Rivers are the crucible of human civilization, pulsating with the might and mystery of water, their serpentine paths encoded with the precision of pi, their ceaseless flow encoded in our greatest poems.

“Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river,” Borges wrote in his timeless refutation of time.

But what is a river?

That is what Lithuanian illustrator and storyteller Monika Vaicenavičienė contemplates in What Is a River? (public library) — part prose poem and part encyclopedia, exploring the many things a river is and can be, ecologically and existentially.

The story begins on the banks of a river, with a little girl picking flowers — “every flower has a meaning” — and watching her grandmother sew. What unfolds is framed as the grandmother’s answer to the girl’s question of what a river is:

A river is a thread.
It embroiders our wold with beautiful patterns.
It connects people and places, past and present.
It stitches stories together.

The narrative weaves in the encyclopedic — geology and history, curious statistics about famous rivers — but fact and feeling remain entwined in the poetic.

A river is a journey.

A bubbling spring, a gap in a glacier, a boggy marsh, a silent lake — a river can begin anywhere.

A river travels to many places: prairies and cities, dense forests and lush meadows, steppes and tundra, mountains and valleys. It travels through heat and cold. It leaps from dizzying heights, cascading down as a waterfall. It slinks lazily through marshes. Suddenly, it twists, then meanders. It creeps underground. It carves canyons out of mountains, reducing rock to sediment.

We see the river as home, called to imagine how many human lives the Nile touches in a single day along its 4,100-mile meander across Africa, or the Danube across the ten countries it traverses in Europe (my own native Bulgaria among them).

We see the river as a habitat, to creatures as various as the hippo and the heron, the dragonfly and the platypus.

We see the river as a meeting-place, a muse, a name-source of countries and people, a sensory landscape, an emissary of deep time.

Myth and fact converge into a larger reflection on the ceaseless flow of existence, linking the Ancient Greek myth of Oceanus — the great river encircling the Earth, from which the word ocean derives — with the ecological reality of Earth’s immense, interconnected, ancient system of water circulating through the atmosphere and pulsating through the biosphere.

Complement What Is a River? with Italian artist Alessandro Sanna’s watercolor serenade The River, then revisit poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan on the mountain as a lens on the meaning of life.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 26 Aug 2021 | 5:26 am(NZT)

Mary’s Room: An Animated Inquiry into the Limits of Knowledge and the Mystery of Consciousness

The gasp beyond fact, contouring the central question of what it is like to be you.


Mary’s Room: An Animated Inquiry into the Limits of Knowledge and the Mystery of Consciousness

“It is not half so important to know as to feel,” Rachel Carson wrote after catalyzing the environmental movement with the rigorous science and passionate poetics of reality, harmonizing fact with feeling as the score to a larger understanding. The sentiment speaks to something essential about our human experience: that understanding is always governed by feeling and that any factual knowledge, rather than shaping subjective experience, is shaped by it.

Consciousness — that synaptic cataclysm of cerebration symphonic with feeling — is our only lens on reality, half-opaque to itself, its nature ever quickening our hardest questions, their answers ever beyond our grasp.

A decade after the electricity of life and subjective experience ceased firing in Carson’s consciousness, Hannah Arendt delivered her staggering Gifford Lectures on the life of the mind, observing that if we ever relinquish our hunger for unanswerable questions — the pinnacle of “the appetite for meaning we call thinking” — we would not only lose all art, but lose science and “the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

At the center of this delicious realm of the unanswerable are our qualia — those subjective states springing from the essence of individual consciousness, intimate and inchoate, pulsating with the mystery of what it is like to be oneself: what it is like for you to look at the blue I am looking at and see it in a way I never will, nor will ever grasp through knowledge.

Color chart by Patrick Syme for Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours: Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

In the early 1980s, the Australian philosopher Frank Jackson (b. August 31, 1943) set out to explore how knowable that mystery is with his knowledge argument — a thought experiment, also known as Mary’s Room or Mary the Super-scientist, probing the unfathomed regions of consciousness and the limits of what is knowable with the proboscis of our rational inquiry.

Living in a black-and-white room, reading black-and-white books, and watching black-and-white screens, Jackson’s conceptual Mary studies what the world is and how it works — its physical structures, processes, and causal relationships. But then she leaves her monochrome confines and encounters color — itself the product of physical processes and phenomena, yet producing in Mary a perceptual-psychological experience beyond the knowledge of those processes and phenomena, beyond everything she had understood about color through the knowledge-acquisition paradigm of learning.

A gasp beyond fact, intimating that knowledge of the physical might fail to capture some essential aspects of our consciousness, the experience of color being but one. An almost-answer to the ancient question Plato posed with his thought experiment about consciousness and the nature of reality, the question quantum theory originator Max Planck picked up two and half millennia later with his insistence that “science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature… because… we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.”

Art from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Originally devised as an argument against physicalism — the notion that everything known and knowable to us, through thought or feeling, has a physical fundament — the knowledge argument is widely considered “one of the most discussed, important, and controversial” arguments in the ongoing quest to fathom consciousness. That it was later challenged by Jackson himself suggests that we might, after all, be stardust suspended in the hammock of spacetime.

This animated primer from my friends at TED-Ed and chemist Eleanor Nelsen delves into the complexities, the revelations, and the unanswered, possibly unanswerable questions the knowledge argument contours — the central questions of what it is like to be human:

Complement with Richard Feynman’s Ode to a Flower — a Nobel-winning physicist’s sidewise gleam on the same abiding question — then consider a supreme counterpoint to physicalism in the mysterious experience of music.


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


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

Source: Brain Pickings | 25 Aug 2021 | 4:00 am(NZT)

Music and the Mystery of Aliveness

“We are a music-making species — always have been, always will be — and music’s capacity to explore, express and address what it is to be human remains one of our greatest communal gifts.”


Music and the Mystery of Aliveness

“Sound is sea: pattern lapping pattern… Matter delights in music, and became Bach,” the poet Ronald Johnson wrote as he contemplated matter, music, and the mind.

A generation after him, a young woman discovered that when the mind is suddenly unmattered, Bach remains.

One midwinter day shortly before the pandemic paralyzed the world, Clemency Burton-Hill — an underground London garage DJ turned BBC host turned creative director of America’s oldest public radio station for classical music, and a lifelong lover of Bach — suffered a catastrophic hemorrhage in her left frontal lobe. She was thirty-nine, her children one and five. She survived, but was left unable to see, move, or speak.

Clemency Burton Hill (Portrait: Matthew Septimus / WNYC)

Multiple surgeries and weeks of rehabilitation began restoring Clemency’s comprehension and sight, but the right side of her body remained paralyzed and her speech voided. Slowly, slowly, the words started forming again out of the primeval matter of the mind. Eventually, we spoke — Clemency still in her hospital bed, skull bandaged and face radiant with life, each word a triumph, as deliberate and precise as a Bach note. I found myself wondering what the world might look like if we spoke to each other that way, our words tender with our mortal fragility, resolute with reverence for the aliveness in us and in each other, this grand shared mystery.

Not long before her hemorrhage, Clemency had made a passionate case for a daily dose of music as “a form of sonic soul maintenance” in her book Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day (public library) — the music counterpart to Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom and poet Ross Gay’s yearlong journal of delights. She wrote:

We are a music-making species — always have been, always will be — and music’s capacity to explore, express and address what it is to be human remains one of our greatest communal gifts… We evolved by coming together around the fire every night, singing songs and telling stories — invariably, telling stories through singing songs. That’s what our ancestors did; that’s how they made sense of the world and each other; that’s how they learned how to be.

It is an impulse that is still fundamental to who we are.

Fittingly, the musical calendar of wonder begins with a Bach liturgy for January 1. Bach punctuates Clemency’s sonic year as a maker of music that “contains all of everything” and maker of “the blueprint for everything that was to come,” his influence reverberating through the hallway of time to shape genres as diverse as techno and funk. As the year unfolds, there are his Goldberg Variations with their exquisite mathematical precision, rumored to have been composed as an insomnia cure, their original manuscript bearing an inscription in Bach’s hand: “Prepared for the soul’s delight of lovers of music.”

There is his violin solo in E major that always comes as “a shot of musical caffeine” for Clemency: “In just a hundred seconds or so,” she writes, “this piece has the effect of apparently rearranging the molecules around me, making me see and think more clearly.”

There is his Ave Maria in early June, and his Partita no. 2 in D Minor on my late-summer birthday, and on my father’s autumnal equinox birthday a chorale cantata translating to “As a father has mercy.” (This, too, is Bach’s singular enchantment — how we project ourselves onto him and focus our own existence through his lens.)

Bach’s diurnal presence took on a new form after Clemency’s hemorrhage and became an embodied testament to philosopher Josef Pieper’s soulful case for how Bach can save your soul. At first, with her life so brutally transformed, she found it difficult to even listen to his music, hearing in it the echoes of her former life and former self. But she eventually came to see Bach for what he always had been and always would be — the existential soundtrack to aliveness itself.

Along the protracted trajectory of her recovery, both physical and psychological, Clemency began not only listening to but playing Bach every single day. “To recover the Bach in me,” she says in her stunning BBC piece about the experience — her first word-work since that savage January day, and the most moving audio artwork I have heard in epochs.

With her hard-won words, she invites the voices of people from various walks of life, people who all play Bach daily to move through their own very different and differently challenging lives — from an elderly organist in Germany to a young cellist and community organizer in Kenya’s largest slum: Bach as meditation, Bach as motivation, Bach as calibration of being. (When we spoke that day from the hospital, I shared with Clemency something hardly anyone in my life knew: that I was a secret cellist, still learning the instrument, playing a single Bach cello suite day after day as I waded through a very different personal loss.)

Nina, my cello.

In exploring Bach as a daily ritual, Clemency draws on the legacy of the legendary Spanish Catalan cellist and conductor Pablo Casals (December 29, 1876–October 22, 1973) — Yo-Yo Ma’s hero and formative influence, widely considered the greatest cellist of all time, who at the age of ninety-three reflected so tenderly on how working with love prolongs your life. Casals began his autobiography by sharing the daily practice that had anchored him to his own life since the day he first fell under Bach’s enchantment:

For the past eighty years I have started each day in the same manner. It is not a mechanical routine but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house… It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being. The music is never the same for me, never. Each day it is something new, fantastic and unbelievable.

Pablo Casals

In Bach, Casals found an analogue for the miracle of nature. Echoing the poet and philosopher of science Loren Eiseley’s poignant observation that “we forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness… that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle,” Casals reflected on his profound personal connection to nature, of which his love of music was an expression — a way to feel more alive, more awake to the wonder of aliveness:

I do not think a day passes in my life in which I fail to look with fresh amazement at the miracle of nature. It is there on every side. It can be simply a shadow on a mountainside, or a spider’s web gleaming with dew, or sunlight on the leaves of a tree. I have always especially loved the sea. Whenever possible, I have lived by the sea.

The sea and Bach were always intimately connected for Casals, who fell under Bach’s spell at thirteen. One saltwater-scented afternoon, his father bought him his first full-sized cello — an instrument looked down upon in Bach’s day, too unworthy to compose solos for. Father and son then walked to a musty old music shop in the nearby harbor — Casals never forgot “its faint smell of the sea” — where he acquired his other great portal into the “magic and mystery” of music: a yellowed sheaf of scores, faded with age, bearing the title Six Suites for Violoncello Solo, imprinted with “J.S. Bach.” They became his most cherished music.

A lifetime later, looking back on how these cello suites had grown to be regarded as “academic works, mechanical, without warmth” in the century and a half since Bach’s death in 1750, and how no cellist or violinist had performed any of them in its entirety, Casals exclaimed:

How could anyone think of them as being cold, when a whole radiance of space and poetry pours forth from them! They are the very essence of Bach, and Bach is the essence of music.

Casals and his generation had awakened to the radiance of Bach thanks to his contemporary and hero Albert Schweitzer (January 14, 1875–September 4, 1965). Although Schweitzer received the Nobel Peace Prize for his ethical-ecological philosophy of “Reverence for Life” — the philosophy that inspired sea-serenader Rachel Carson to dedicate her epoch-making Silent Spring to Schweitzer — music always remained his greatest animating passion.

Albert Schweitzer, early 1900s.

Schweitzer — born almost exactly 200 years after Bach, to a minister and a pastor’s daughter — was five when his father began giving him music lessons on the piano inherited from his organist grandfather. Before his legs were long enough to reach the pedals, the boy began playing the organ himself. By nine, he was substituting for the church organist at service.

And then he discovered Bach.

During the Classical and early Romantic eras that followed Bach’s, his music fell out of favor and slipped into academic obscurity, relegated to a thing of theory, syphoned of transcendence. The young Schweitzer, serving as an organist to the Paris Bach Society that he had co-founded while completing his doctoral dissertation on the spirituality of Kant’s philosophy at the Sorbonne, grew increasingly restless at this erasure of wonder and took it upon himself to remedy it. In those first years of the twentieth century, the only Bach material available to French readers — even those who cherished and played music — were only dry biographies that presented him as a cold mathematician of sound. A musician himself, Schweitzer longed to talk to other musicians and lovers of music about “the real nature of Bach’s music and its interpretation” — to resurrect Bach the artist, the enchanter, the virtuoso of feeling, the prophet of transcendence.

In 1902, Schweitzer spent his autumn vacation writing an essay to get the students at the Paris Conservatory excited about Bach. He quickly found himself with much more to say — so much more that, after using his meager funds to purchase a copy of Bach’s hard to find and extravagantly priced complete works, he spent the next two years turning the essay into a 455-page book that introduced the world to Bach the artist; the book that magnetized a largehearted embrace when Casals met Schweitzer in the 1930s.

In it, Schweitzer rescued Bach from the theorists who had coopted him for their ideologies of “pure music” — composition devoid of poetry, created solely as a mathematical exercise in harmonic perfection — and instead helped people see him as “a poet and painter in sound” who uses the language of music to paint entire landscapes of thought and feeling. He wrote:

The impulse to express poetic and pictorial concepts is the essence of music. It addresses itself to the listener’s creative imagination and seeks to kindle in him the feelings and visions with which the music was composed. But this it can do only if the person who uses the language of sound possesses the mysterious faculty of rendering thoughts with a superior clarity and precision. In this respect Bach is the greatest of the great… A soul that longs for peace out of the world’s unrest and has itself already tasted peace allows others to share its experience in this music.

Schweitzer observed that there are two types of artists: the subjective, who use their personality as the wellspring of their art and live as “a law unto themselves,” and the objective, whose “artistic personality exists independently of the human” and whose art is “not impersonal, but superpersonal,” channeling the universal and the eternal through the vessel of their being. Bach was such an artist:

It is as if he felt only one impulse, to express again what he already finds in existence, but to express it definitively, in unique perfection. It is not he who lives, it is the spirit of the time that lives in him. All the artistic endeavours, desires, creations, aspirations and errors of his own and of previous generations are concentrated and worked out to their conclusion in him.

[…]

Bach is thus a terminal point. Nothing comes from him; everything merely leads up to him…. This genius was not an individual, but a collective soul. Centuries and generations have laboured at this work, before the grandeur of which we halt in veneration. To anyone who has gone through the history of this epoch and knows what the end of it was, it is the history of that culminating spirit, as it was before it objectivated itself in a single personality.

He adds a poetic corollary to this eternal and aggregate nature of art:

We feel it to be a matter of course that some day a Bach shall come in whom all those, other Bachs shall find a posthumous existence.

The book project interrupted the young Schweitzer’s theological writings and accompanied him on the path to medical school, with Bach as his bridge between spirituality and science. Struggling financially, he paid for his medical education with proceeds from the Bach book and income from his Bach concerts.

Albert Schweitzer at his organ. LP cover art by Ben Shahn.

His passionate appreciation of Bach never left him. A decade later, as he headed for Africa to do the work out of which his philosophy of “Reverence for Life” arose — the work that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize and Rachel Carson’s devotion — Schweitzer brought with him a pedal piano the Paris Bach Society had given him as the closest thing to an organ one could bring to the tropics so he could continue his daily Bach. In his autobiography, he reflected:

During the many peaceful hours I was able to spend with Bach during my four and a half years in the jungle I had penetrated deeper into the spirit of his works.

Hatcheting her way through the synaptic jungle, Clemency too found herself in more intimate contact with the spirit of Bach’s music, unfolding “the ultimate expression of anything and everything” — aliveness and mortality cleaved into the edge of being, the edge on which we are all perched every instant of every living day, each moment more precarious than we dare think, each more precious than we dare feel. How poignant to reread now this passage from Year of Wonder — a book Clemency wrote out of her belief, then only mental but not yet matter-tested, that “music holds the mystery of being alive”; that something singular happens “when we open up our lives to let such music in”:

Bach’s brain was clearly some kind of supercomputer: he wrote at least three thousand pieces whilst holding down a number of jobs, a couple of wives and twenty children.

[…]

The essence of what makes Bach the greatest eludes words, but it lies, I think, in the way he combines technical precision with socking great emotion. People often describe Bach as ‘mathematical’ because of the complex, intricate patterns in his music. But he is not clinical or scientific: as a human being he knew intense joy but also wild grief, and there’s never been a composer or songwriter more attuned to the vagaries of the human heart.


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 22 Aug 2021 | 1:59 pm(NZT)

Recovering the Wonder of Flight: “Little Prince” Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on Finding the Miraculous in the Mechanical

“In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.”


Recovering the Wonder of Flight: “Little Prince” Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on Finding the Miraculous in the Mechanical

I am sitting on an airplane, uneasy and grateful amid the sea of masks.

I am sitting on an airplane — this silver triumph of physics and imagination centuries in the dreaming — watching the cotton-candy cloudscape below with wonder bordering on ecstasy that will never, for me, grow old.

I am thinking about my grandmother, who was already a grandmother by the time she flew for the first time, having seen an airplane only once before, in the forest by the remote Bulgarian mountain village of her wartime childhood — a fighter plane shot down to fall from sky into the life and imagination of a little girl wide-eyed with wonder and terror.

I am thinking, too, of Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (June 29, 1900–July 31, 1944), whose experience as a pilot during that same war sculpted his understanding of mortality and meaning, inspiring his timeless masterwork of philosophy disguised as a children’s book — my favorite of all time.

In a passage from Wind, Sand, and Stars (public library) — that slender, poetic collection of his life-drawn meditations on life — he reverences the elegant and daring miracle of flight, a miracle we have come to take for granted in a mere two generations as the technology behind it has exponentially improved to make it even more miraculous. (I am writing this on a book-sized machine that can access through the air nearly all the knowledge humanity has produced, and I am doing that while suspended in the middle of the sky — what would Kepler have made of this, or his mother, who paid for the kernel of this miracle with her life?)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Saint-Exupéry writes:

In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.

[…]

There is an ancient myth about the image asleep in the block of marble until it is carefully disengaged by the sculptor. The sculptor must himself feel that he is not so much inventing or shaping the curve of breast or shoulder as delivering the image from its prison.

In this spirit do engineers, physicists concerned with thermodynamics, and the swarm of preoccupied draughtsmen tackle their work. In appearance, but only in appearance, they seem to be polishing surfaces and refining away angles, easing this joint or stabilizing that wing, rendering these parts invisible, so that in the end there is no longer a wing hooked to a framework but a form flawless in its perfection, completely disengaged from its matrix, a sort of spontaneous whole, its parts mysteriously fused together and resembling in their unity a poem.

It was a countercultural notion then, and it is even more so today, this idea that the mechanical can become not the enemy of but a portal to the poetic, the miraculous — a lovely reminder that in how we orient ourselves to anything lies the whole of its valence.

Art by Peter Sís from The Pilot and the Little Prince — his tender illustrated biography of and tribute to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his masterpiece.

Saint-Exupéry extends the invitation to reorient to this particular skyborne machine — and, by a proximate leap of imagination, to technology in general — as something that, rather than alienating us from the rest of nature, could bring us into more intimate and conscientious contact with the world of clouds and creatures:

Startling as it is that all visible evidence of invention should have been refined out of this instrument and that there should be delivered to us an object as natural as a pebble polished by the waves, it is equally wonderful that he who uses this instrument should be able to forget that it is a machine… We forget that motors are whirring: the motor, finally, has come to fulfill its function, which is to whirr as a heart beats — and we give no thought to the beating of our heart. Thus, precisely because it is perfect the machine dissembles its own existence instead of forcing itself upon our notice.

And thus, also, the realities of nature resume their pride of place… The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.

One of Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince.

Complement with the uncommonly poetic scientist and philosopher Loren Eiseley on reclaiming our sense of the miraculous in a mechanical age, then revisit Saint-Exupéry on losing a friend and how a simple smile saved his life during the war.


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


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

Source: Brain Pickings | 20 Aug 2021 | 10:49 am(NZT)

Consciousness and the Nature of the Universe: How Panpsychism and Its Fault Lines Shade in the Ongoing Mystery of What We Are

“We’ve barely begun to understand our place in the cosmos. As we continue to look out from our planet and contemplate the nature of reality, we should remember that there is a mystery right here where we stand.”


Consciousness and the Nature of the Universe: How Panpsychism and Its Fault Lines Shade in the Ongoing Mystery of What We Are

“Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe,” the aging Marcus Aurelius instructed.

“Any live mind today is of the very same stuff as Plato’s & Euripides,” the young Virginia Woolf meditated in her diary two millennia later. “It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind.”

Two years earlier, in the first year of the twentieth century and the final year of his life, the uncommonly minded Canadian psychiatrist Maurice Bucke had formalized this notion in his visionary, controversial book Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind, which influenced generations of thinkers ranging from Albert Einstein to Abraham Maslow to Steve Jobs.

Bucke himself had been greatly influenced by, then befriended and in turn influenced, Walt Whitman — a poet enraptured by how science illuminates the interconnectedness of life, who contemplated the strangest and most paradoxical byproduct of consciousness “lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal”: our sense of self.

Science was young then — it still is — and the world was old, and the mind was old, its dwelling-place practically unchanged since the cranium of early Homo sapiens began accommodating a brain comparable to our own some three hundred thousand years ago. With neuroscience yet to be born, it fell on the poets and the philosophers to meditate on the complexities of consciousness — the sole valve between reality and our experience, made of the same matter as the stars. Today, neuroscience remains a young and insecure science, as crude as Galilean astronomy — and as revolutionary in the revelations it has already contoured, yet to be shaded in with the nuances of understanding that might, just might, one day illuminate the fundaments of consciousness.

Plate from The Principles of Light and Color: Including Among Other Things the Harmonic Laws of the Universe, the Etherio-atomic Philosophy of Force, Chromo Chemistry, Chromo Therapeutics, and the General Philosophy of the Fine Forces, Together with Numerous Discoveries and Practical Applications by Edwin D. Babbitt, 1878. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Until that day comes, we have a panoply of theories about what it is that flickers on the cave walls of the cranium to irradiate our entire experience of life and reality. The most compelling — and the most controversial — of them are what Annaka Harris examines with equal parts openhearted curiosity and intelligent consideration in Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind (public library).

At the center of her inquiry is an idea ancient Eastern spiritual traditions, a century of Western neurocognitive science, and epochs of philosophy share: the illusory nature of the self — the self that is always in flux yet rooted in our experience of time, the self we build and rebuild upon a narrative foundation, the self separated from the other by a marvelously permeable boundary, the self of which nature can so easily and profoundly strip us during a solar eclipse, the self into which we fortress our whole sense of identity and from which we peer out to receive our whole view of the world, only to discover again and again that the fortress is an appearance in consciousness filled with what Borges called “the nothingness of personality.”

One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s little-known drawings of the brain.

Drawing on the intricate neurological processes and disorders that shape and misshape our conscious experience, on the behavior-altering effects various parasites have on their hosts, and on her own experience of staggering changes in preference, habit, and temperament on the hormonal cocktail of pregnancy, Harris writes:

The idea that “I” am the ultimate source of my desires and actions begins to crumble [and] it’s hard to see how our behavior, preferences, and even choices could be under the control of our conscious will in any real sense. It seems much more accurate to say that consciousness is along for the ride — watching the show, rather than creating or controlling it. In theory, we can go as far as to say that few (if any) of our behaviors need consciousness in order to be carried out. But at an intuitive level, we assume that because human beings act in certain ways and are conscious — and because experiences such as fear, love, and pain feel like such powerful motivators within consciousness — our behaviors are driven by our awareness of them and otherwise would not occur.

And yet, she observes, many of the actions we attribute to consciousness and hold up as proof of it could, in theory, take place without consciousness, in a machine programmed to operate by logical sequences resulting in those selfsame actions. (That, after all, is the most thrilling and terrifying question of artificial intelligence.) She posits a curious meta-exception:

Consciousness seems to play a role in behavior when we think and talk about the mystery of consciousness. When I contemplate “what it’s like” to be something, that experience of consciousness presumably affects the subsequent processing taking place in my brain. And almost nothing I think or say when contemplating consciousness would make any sense coming from a system without it.

[…]

When I talk about the mystery of consciousness — referring to something I can distinguish and wonder about and attribute (or not) to other entities — it seems highly unlikely that I would ever do this, let alone devote so much time to it, without feeling the experience I am referring to (for the qualitative experience is the entire subject, and without it, I can have no knowledge of it whatsoever). And when I turn these ideas over in my mind, the fact that my thoughts are about the experience of consciousness suggests that there is a feedback loop of sorts and that consciousness is affecting my brain processing.

What emerges is the intimation that we are not merely machines that think — after all, many of our machines now “think” in the sense of processing information and adapting it to govern behavior — but machines that think about thinking, lending our biochemical machinery an edge of the miraculous not (yet) explicable by our science, which remains our mightiest technology of thought. She observes:

Most of our intuitions about what qualifies as evidence of consciousness affecting a system don’t survive scrutiny. Therefore, we must reevaluate the assumptions we tend to make about the role consciousness plays in driving behavior, as these assumptions naturally lead to the conclusions we draw about what consciousness is and what causes it to arise in nature. Everything we hope to uncover through consciousness studies — from determining whether or not a given person is in a conscious state, to pinpointing where in the evolution of life consciousness first emerged, to understanding the exact physical process that gives birth to conscious experience — is informed by our intuitions about the function of consciousness.

Where our intuitions break down most dramatically and where the breakdown most disorients us is in what may be the most poorly branded and therefore poorly understood theory of consciousness: panpsychism.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

Coined in the sixteenth century by the Italian philosopher and proto-scientist Francesco Patrizi, whose work inspired Galileo, from the Greek pan (“all”) and psyche (“mind” or “spirit”), panpsychism is the idea that all matter is endowed with the capacity for subjective experience of immaterial quality — the sort of experience we call, in its expression familiar to us, consciousness.

In the epochs since, as the world slowly began shedding the cloth of the supernatural and began seeking in mystical notions a kernel of secular and scientifically verifiable truth, panpsychism came closer and closer to information theory and the modern scientific understanding of the physicality of the universe. (There are echoes of panpsychism in the great theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler’s famous “It-for-Bit” theory, asserting that “observer-participancy gives rise to information” because “all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe.”)

Plate from Le monde physique by Amédée Guillemin, 1882. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

With an eye to the muddling, misconstrual, and ample misapplications of panpsychism as a framework that could broaden the conversation on consciousness but instead often shuts it down, Harris does the essential and courageous public service of lens-clearing:

Those of us who want to push this conversation forward have an important obligation to clearly distinguish panpsychic views from the false conclusions people tend to draw from them — namely, that panpsychism somehow justifies or explains a variety of psychic phenomena — following from the incorrect assumption that consciousness must entail a mind with a single point of view and complex thoughts. Ascribing some level of consciousness to plants or inanimate matter is not the same as ascribing to them human minds with wishes and intentions like our own. Anyone who believes the universe has a plan for us or that he can consult with his “higher self” for medical advice should not feel propped up by the modern view of panpsychism.

[…]

Unfortunately, it seems quite hard for us to drop the intuition that consciousness equals complex thought. But if consciousness is in fact a more basic aspect of the universe than previously believed, that doesn’t suddenly give credence to your neighbor’s belief that she can communicate telepathically with her ficus tree. In actuality, if a version of panpsychism is correct, everything will still appear to us and behave exactly as it already does.

Plate from The Principles of Light and Color by Edwin D. Babbitt, 1878. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Such appropriations of panpsychism are to the study of consciousness what the pseudoscience of phrenology is to neuroscience — contours of promising regions of exploration on our ever-evolving map of reality, shaded in with human bias. Rather than having the egalitarian view of consciousness-across-matter they seek to espouse, these misinterpretations impose on the concept of consciousness self-referential standards rife with human exceptionalism, making of nature an uncanny valley that betrays both nature and our humanity.

Paradoxically, this misunderstanding of panpsychism is often used as an argument against panpsychism itself, not against its misunderstanding. But to actually consider a lichen or a quark endowed with a measure of consciousness is to recognize that its experience cannot, by structural definition, be anything close to our subjective human experience of consciousness — our qualia and their byproduct: the sense of self.

Considering what might be the greatest intuitive challenge to psychism, known as the “combination problem” — how the small constituents of matter, each the carrier of primitive consciousness, can combine into larger entities that have new and different consciousnesses, including ours — Harris observes that much of the challenge stems from a reflexive confusion:

For many scientists and philosophers, the combination problem presents the biggest obstacle to accepting any description of reality that includes consciousness as a widespread feature. However, the obstacle we face here once again seems to be a case of confusing consciousness with the concept of a self, as philosophers and scientists tend to speak in terms of a “subject” of consciousness. The term “self” is usually used to describe a more complex set of psychological characteristics — including qualities such as self-confidence or a capacity for empathy — but a “subject” still describes an experience of self in its most basic form… Perhaps it’s wrong to talk about a subject of consciousness, and it’s more accurate to instead talk about the content available to conscious experience at any given location in space-time, determined by the matter present there — umwelts applied not just to organisms, but to all matter, in every configuration and at every point in space-time.

Iris Murdoch — one of the most brilliant and underappreciated philosophical minds our species has produced — provided a potent antidote to the combination problem in her lovely notion of unselfing, rooted in the recognition that “the self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion.” In this light, the combination problem becomes decidedly less problematic — without the notion of a subject, a concrete entity to be combined with another concrete entity, there is no combining to be done. Consciousness becomes both the vessel of experience and the content of experience, and transcends both — more field than form.

Plate from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe by Thomas Wright, 1750. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

After citing research on split-brain patients, in whom mental function and the contents of consciousness can be divided in astonishing ways, Harris writes:

[Without a self], consciousness could persist as is, while the character and content change, depending on the arrangement of the specific matter in question. Maybe content is sometimes shared across large, intricately connected regions and sometimes confined to very small ones, perhaps even overlapping. If two human brains were connected, both people might feel as if the content of their consciousness had simply expanded, with each person feeling a continuous transformation from the content of one person to the whole of the two, until the connection was more or less complete. It’s only when you insert the concepts of “him,” “her,” “you,” and “me” as discrete entities that the expanding of content for any area of consciousness (or even multiple areas merging) becomes a combination problem.

Harris ends her rigorous reconnaissance mission of the terra semicognita of consciousness studies with the telescopic perspective that is the poetry of possibility:

Humanity is young, and we’ve barely begun to understand our place in the cosmos. As we continue to look out from our planet and contemplate the nature of reality, we should remember that there is a mystery right here where we stand.

A century ago — a century during which humanity split the atom, unraveled the mysteries of our genetic code, and heard the sound of spacetime for the first time — quantum theory originator Max Planck insisted that “science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature… because… we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” In the first year of that century, Lord Kelvin took the podium at the British Association of Science to declare that “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics,” while at the same moment, a young patent clerk in Zurich was incubating the ideas that would converge into his theory of relativity, forever transfiguring our elemental understanding of reality. It is our human nature to consider the inconceivable impossible, again and again mistaking the parameters of the conceivable for the perimeter of the possible. But it is also the nature of the human mind — that material miracle of electrical and poetic impulses — to transcend its own limits of imagination again and again, inventing new parameters of thought that broaden the perimeter of the possible until it becomes real.

Complement Conscious with Probable Impossibilities — physicist Alan Lightman’s poetic meditation on what makes life worth living — then revisit William James’s foundational work on consciousness and the four features of transcendent experiences.


donating = loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.


newsletter

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

Source: Brain Pickings | 18 Aug 2021 | 7:39 am(NZT)











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