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June 3, 1947: The Young Jack Kerouac Coins “Beat” While Grieving His Father

“My conscience of life and eternity is not a mistake, or a loneliness, or a foolishness — but a warm dear love of our pour predicament.”


June 3, 1947: The Young Jack Kerouac Coins “Beat” While Grieving His Father

The youngest of three children in a working-class family, Jack Kerouac (March 12, 1922–October 21, 1969) yearned to be a writer by the time he was ten. He began keeping a journal at fourteen and never stopped. Everywhere he went, he carried a spiral notebook or a railroad brakeman’s ledger. He called the journals his “work-logs,” “mood logs,” “scribbled secret notebooks,” using them to “keep track of lags, and digressions, and moods.” He filled their pages with streams of thought and feeling, reckonings with what it means to be human and what America means, punctuated by drawings and riddles, psalms and haikus.

Just before he turned twenty-four, Kerouac watched his father Leo slip out of life with the mortal agonies of stomach cancer — his father, who had risen to America from a long lineage of potato farmers in rural Quebec; his father, in whose print shop Jack had nursed his childhood dreams of becoming a writer; his father, whom he saw as the only person capable of reconciling spiritual values with Americanism.

Adrift in the ether of grief, Kerouac struggled to make sense of life and loss and his young self. He turned to the only self-salvation he knew: On his mother’s kitchen table in working-class Queens, he set out to write the great American novel. There, he would make of himself a Melville for the twentieth century, but always with a strain of Whitman — of that soulful sensitivity to the bittersweet dimension of life, that secret kinship with the lonesome, the melancholy, the outcast, who are often most awake to beauty.

Jack Kerouac by John Cohen. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.)

Over months and months of “ascetic gloom and labor,” he produced 300,000 words sprawling across 1,200 manuscript pages, populated with characters that embodied his own multitudes — the romantic poet with the existential bend, the stoical grief-stricken mother, the Village hipster, the indomitable wanderer, the perennial lost soul.

Just like Steinbeck used his journal as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt while composing his own masterwork, Kerouac continued using his notebook as an integral part of his creative process. “Doubt is no longer my devil, just sadness now,” he wrote in it more than a year after his father’s death, as the novel began taking its final shape. Later, he would compress the epoch of heartache and creative fury in a single spartan statement: “I stayed home all that time, finished my book and began going to school on the GI Bill of Rights.”

He couldn’t have known it then, the way we can never foretell the way the confusions of the present imprint the hallmarks of the future, but in grieving his own father, the young Jack Kerouac was becoming the Father of the Beat Generation.

Jack Kerouac by Wendy MacNaughton

The previously unpublished journals he kept in that period, collected in Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947–1954 (public library), contain not only the record of his self-creation but the creation of the Beat ethos itself.

In an entry penned in the middle of weeklong Independence Day party at his friend Allen Ginsberg’s house in Harlem, the twenty-five-year-old Kerouac uses the word “beat” as an adjective for the first time, a year before he formally introduced the term “Beat Generation” to describe New York’s underground nonconformist creative youth.

On July 3, 1947 — a sweltering Saturday — he writes:

To get to the hymn of images, the facts of living mystery… I spent another 3 days without eating or sleeping to speak of, just drinking and wineing and squinting and sweating. There was a vivacious girl right out of the Twenties, redhaired, distraught, sexually frigid (I learned.) With her I walked 3½ miles in a Second Avenue heat wave (on Monday this is) till we got to her “streamlined Italian apartment” where I lay on the floor looking up out of a dream. Seems like I had sensed it all before. There was misery, and the beautiful ugliness of people.

Art by Virginia Frances Sterrett, Old French Fairy Tales, 1920
Art by the teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett, 1920. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

In this waking dream, this deja-vu of life, his friend Herbert “Hunkey” Huncke appears — a scrappy sporadic writer and petty thief bedeviled by chronic addiction, whose affable candor had made him a beloved fixture of the New York Beat world. The dreamt-up Hunkey comes bearing news of Kerouac’s first wife turned lifelong friend — the woman to whom he would write his most beautiful letter a decade later. Now, in the sweltering stupor of youth and grief, on the pages of his journal, he goes on to coin the epochal use of “beat”:

There was Hunkey — in this evil dawn — telling me he had seen Edie in Detroit and told her that I still loved her. What a surprise that was! — how strange can Hunkey get? Hunkey scares me because he has been the most miserable of men, jailed & beaten and cheated and starved and sickened and homeless, and still he knows there’s such a thing as love, and my stupidity… and what else is there in Hunkey’s wisdom? What does he know that makes him so human after all he has known? — it seems to me if I were Hunkey I would be dead now, someone would have killed me long ago. But he’s still alive, and strange, and wise, and beat, and human, and all blood-and-flesh and staring as in a benny depression forever. He is truly more remarkable than Celine’s Leon Robinson, really so. He knows more, suffers more… sort of American in his wider range of terrors. And do I love Edie still? — The wife of my youth? Tonight I think so, I think so. And what does she know? And where are we all?

In a passage that presages his later pull to Buddhism and its salutary teachings of nondualism, he adds:

God it’s a strange sea-light over all this… We are in the bottom of some ocean; I never realized it before. In my phantasy of glee there is no sea-light and no beatness, just things like the wind blowing through the pines over the kitchen window on an October morning. I’ll have to start pulling all these new things together now. And this is why men love dualisms… they cannot get away from them… and they feel independent and wise among them… And they choose about and stumble on to death and the end of phantasy. (or beginning.)

One of Aubrey Beardsley’s visionary 19th-century illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome. (Available as a print.)

Two years later, in an entry strikingly evocative of the young Sylvia Plath’s largehearted (and bittersweet in hindsight) life-resolution in her own journal, Kerouac points in words what would always remain the central animating spirit of his art and life:

I shall keep in contact with all things that cross my path, and trust all things that do not cross my path, and exert more greatly for further and further visions of the other world, and preach (if I can) in my work, and love, and attempt to hold down my lonely vanities so as to connect more and more with all things (and kinds of people), and believe that my conscience of life and eternity is not a mistake, or a loneliness, or a foolishness — but a warm dear love of our pour predicament which by the grace of Mysterious God will be solved and made clear to all of us in the end, maybe only.

Complement this fragment of the altogether breathtaking Windblown World with Melville on the mystery of what makes us who we are, then revisit his reflections on kindness and the self illusion, the crucial difference between talent and genius, his “30 beliefs & techniques” for writing and life, and the stirring story of the night Kerouac kept a young woman from taking her own life.


donating = loving

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


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Source: Brain Pickings | 4 Jul 2022 | 6:54 am(NZT)

The Sea and the Soul: Poet, Painter, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on the Elemental Blues of Being

“For seeing the sea it’s sometimes better to close one’s eyes.”


The Sea and the Soul: Poet, Painter, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on the Elemental Blues of Being

“It is a general sense of the poetry of existence that overcomes me. Often it is connected with the sea,” the young Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary a century ago as she reckoned with the “extraordinary emotions” that often overcame her — the source from which some of humanity’s greatest literature was about to spring.

Half a century later, the protagonist of Iris Murdoch’s exquisite existentialist novel The Sea, the Sea gasped: “The sea. I could fill a volume simply with my word-pictures of it.”

Another epoch later, the painter, poet, and philosopher Etel Adnan (February 24, 1925–November 14, 2021) filled with exquisite existentialist word-pictures her slender, splendid volume Sea & Fog (public library) — a suite of quickenings and questions: unanswerable, perhaps unaskable, but beautiful for the momentum by which they impel us to go on asking, the momentum we call life.

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

Having explored the mountain as a lens on the soul and night as a lens on the self, Adnan turns her oracular mind to the sea:

The sea. Nothing else. Walls ruptured. Sea. Water tumbling.

[…]

Dryness peels away the soul caught in gravity’s unconquerable solitude. The body’s magnetized metals turn naturally North. The face, with eyes, mouth and nostrils, strains to remember intricate mental constructions. Bones end dust over dust.

A generation after Rachel Carson watched “earth becoming fluid as the sea itself” in her reflection on the ocean and the meaning of life, Adnan writes:

The sea’s instincts collaborate with ours to create thinking. Our thoughts come and go, in birth and evanescence. We feel we own them but we’re the ones to belong to the radiations that they are, lighter than fog, but endearing in their unreliability.

[…]

Sea, made of instants chained. Where to shelter impermanence within its defenses? A threat, for sure. What about the permanent affinity between light and mind, both a processing machine, of particles, of thoughts?

Painting by Etel Adnan from Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure, Guggenheim Museum, 2021. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

She reflects on how we bask in “the soft happiness that invades the spirit when water meets light” and at the same time find ourselves “exasperated by water’s alarming coherence” — an echo of the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd, who captured this bipolar enchantment a generation earlier as she contemplated the might and mystery of water on the edge of a rushing river near its mountain source: “The most appalling quality of water is its strength. I love its flash and gleam, its music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength.”

For Adnan, this vital tension between violence and serenity, between uncertainty and coherence, is the element’s nature — the very aspect of the sea that speaks to the elemental in us:

Let your back lie on the water and be a raft for birds, then in the middle of the night, dive. Your ears will ring, spit fire; the waters will remember that once they were you.

Elements. Elemental… And we are here, anywhere, so long as space would be. Is given to us sea/ocean, sea permanent revelation; open revelation of itself, to itself. Mind approximates those lit lines in the front, that darkness above, meant not to understand but to penetrate, to silence itself while heightening its power, to reach vision in essential unknowing.

In her orphic voice, she adds:

Look well at the Pacific before you die. The best of the promised paradises have neither its hues nor its splendor.

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

In a passage evocative of that immortal line from The Little Prince“What is essential is invisible to the eye.” — Adnan writes:

For seeing the sea it’s sometimes better to close one’s eyes.

[…]

The sea is to be seen. See the sea. Wait. Do not hurry. Do not run to her. Wait, she says. Or I say. See the sea. Look at her using your eyes. Open them, those eyes that will close one day when you won’t be standing. You will be flat, like her, but she will be alive. Therefore look at her while you can. Let your eyes tire and burn. Let them suffer. Keep them open like one does at midday. Don’t worry. Other eyes within will take over and go on seeing her. They will not search for forms nor seek divine presence. They will rather continue to see water which stirs and shouts, becomes ice in the North, vapor in the tropics.

[…]

Eyes have busied themselves exclusively with seeing although they can hear better than ears whenever they join forces with what’s outside the mind’s perimeter.

A century after Whitman bellowed into the New York flood-tide that the body is the soul, Adnan adds:

Without a body there’s no soul and without the latter there’s no way to speak about the sea.

Complement Sea & Fog — the other half of which brings Adnan’s singular lens to the mystique of the mist — with her deathbed meditation on how to live and how to die, then revisit two centuries of great writers reflecting on the color blue.


donating = loving

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


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

Source: Brain Pickings | 2 Jul 2022 | 4:25 am(NZT)

Nature and Creativity: The Science of “Soft Fascination” and How the Natural World Presses the Reset Button of the Brain’s Default Mode Network

“Our everyday experience does not prepare us to assimilate the gaping hugeness of the Grand Canyon or the crashing grandeur of Niagara Falls. We have no response at the ready; our usual frames of reference don’t fit.”


Nature and Creativity: The Science of “Soft Fascination” and How the Natural World Presses the Reset Button of the Brain’s Default Mode Network

“In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean,” Thoreau wrote in contemplating nature as a form of prayer — a clarifying force for the mind and a purifying force for the spirit, a lever for opening up the psyche’s civilization-contracted pinhole of concerns.

A generation later, in a different corner of Massachusetts, William James pioneered the study of attention with his then-radical (at least to the Western mind) declamation: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.”

James distinguished between two kinds of attention: “voluntary,” in which we willfully aim our focus at a particular object or activity with concerted effort, and “passive,” which approximates the Eastern notion of mindfulness — an effortless noticing of sensations and phenomena as they naturally arise within and around us, our focus drifting by its own accord from one stimulus to another as they emerge. James listed this “passivity” as one of the four qualities of mystical experiences. But it is also the most direct valve between the mystical and the mundane — the type of attention that places us in our most creative states.

Aurora Borealis, observed March 1, 1872, 9:25 P.M.
One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s pioneering astronomical paintings. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In the epochs since James, scientists have termed this effortless attention “soft fascination.” It is at the root of our mightiest antidote to depression and our most generative mindsets, and it comes to us — or we to it — most readily in nature.

Whitman knew this as he was recovering from a paralytic stroke and observing how infallibly nature can “bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.” He intuited what science has since measurably demonstrated — that these affinities hold the key to what is brightest and most creative in us, for they are at bottom affinities with the freest parts of ourselves.

In nature, we go unfettered from the world’s illusory urgencies that so easily hijack the everyday mind and syphon our attention away from its best creative contribution to that very world and its needs. When we surrender to “soft fascination,” we are not running from the world but ambling back to ourselves and our untrammeled multitudes, free to encounter parts of the mind we rarely access, free to acquaint different parts with one another so that entirely novel connections emerge.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare English editionof Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Annie Murphy Paul devotes a portion of The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain (public library) — her wonderful inquiry into the art-science of thinking with the whole world — to the science of this peculiar and singularly fertile state of mind, into which communion with the non-human world deposits us:

Scientists theorize that the “soft fascination” evoked by natural scenes engages what’s known as the brain’s “default mode network.” When this network is activated, we enter a loose associative state in which we’re not focused on any one particular task but are receptive to unexpected connections and insights. In nature, few decisions and choices are demanded of us, granting our minds the freedom to follow our thoughts wherever they lead. At the same time, nature is pleasantly diverting, in a fashion that lifts our mood without occupying all our mental powers; such positive emotion in turn leads us to think more expansively and open-mindedly. In the space that is thus made available, currently active thoughts can mingle with the deep stores of memories, emotions, and ideas already present in the brain, generating inspired collisions.

Zarathustra and His Friends by Rockwell Kent, 1919. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

“Soft fascination” has an active counterpart in another state we experience most readily in nature: awe — that ultimate instrument of unselfing.

Citing the work of the Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner — our epoch’s William James of awe — Paul writes:

[Keltner] calls it an emotion “in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear.”

One of the pleasurably fearsome things about awe is the radically new perspective it introduces. Our everyday experience does not prepare us to assimilate the gaping hugeness of the Grand Canyon or the crashing grandeur of Niagara Falls. We have no response at the ready; our usual frames of reference don’t fit, and we must work to accommodate the new information that is streaming in from the environment.

Awe strikes the human animal indiscriminately of its age or era, its biometrics or identities. Its interleaving of pleasure and fear is at the heart of Virginia Woolf’s arresting account of a total solar eclipse, at the heart of the young Hans Christian Andersen’s climb of Vesuvius during an eruption, at the heart of the middle-aged Rachel Carson’s quiet, rapturous encounter with the moonlit tide, at the heart of what impelled Rockwell Kent toward “the cruel Northern sea with its hard horizons at the edge of the world where infinite space begins,” at the heart of “the overview effect” that staggers astronauts in orbit.

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Total eclipse of the sun by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Paul writes:

The experience of awe, Keltner and other researchers have found, prompts a predictable series of psychological changes. We become less reliant on preconceived notions and stereotypes. We become more curious and open-minded. And we become more willing to revise and update our mental “schemas”: the templates we use to understand ourselves and the world. The experience of awe has been called “a reset button” for the human brain. But we can’t generate a feeling of awe, and its associated processes, all on our own; we have to venture out into the world, and find something bigger than ourselves, in order to experience this kind of internal change.

North Wind by Rockwell Kent, 1919. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

It is hardly surprising that in such states of awe, even the most nonreligious among us find the closest thing to spirituality. Without this reset button, how would we ever look at a dandelion and see the meaning of life?


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: Brain Pickings | 2 Jul 2022 | 2:20 am(NZT)



Myths, Facts, and Poetic Truth: Amy Lowell on Legends as a Lens on Our Elemental Limitations and Powers

“Legends… are bits of fact, or guesses at fact, pressed into the form of a story and flung out into the world as markers of how much ground has been travelled.”


Myths, Facts, and Poetic Truth: Amy Lowell on Legends as a Lens on Our Elemental Limitations and Powers

In 1921, D.H. Lawrence was staggered by a “strange and wonderful” book bursting with “primary, elemental forces, kinetic, dynamic — prismatic, tonic, the great, massive, active inorganic world, elemental, never softened by life, that hard universe of Matter and Force where life is not yet known, come to pass again.”

That book was Legends (public library | free ebook) by his passionate, visionary, cigar-smoking friend Amy Lowell (February 9, 1874–May 12, 1925), who changed the face of literature with her sharp-edged, kaleidoscopic imagist poems and her fierce patronage of other poets, Lawrence among them.

Amy Lowell as a child

Lowell saw how, on the scale of the species, legends give us what fairy tales give us on the scale of the individual: tools for working out what we are and what we want.

She saw how, in dealing with the most elemental human problems, they move us in the same ways they moved our ancestors, helping us see those things of perennial importance that hum beneath the surface urgencies of our time, of any time.

She saw how, in recurring across wildly different cultures and epochs only slightly altered in guise, they hold up a mirror to the childish vanity of our exceptionalism, reminding us that the human being “is a strangely alike animal.”

She writes in the preface:

A legend is something which nobody has written and everybody has written, and which anybody is at liberty to rewrite. It may be altered, it may be viewed from any angle, it may assume what dress the author pleases, yet it remains essentially the same because it is attached to the very fibres of the heart of man*. Civilization is the study of man about himself, his powers, limitations, and endurances; it is the slowly acquired knowledge of how he can best exist in company with his fellows on the planet called Earth. As man learns, he becomes conscious, first of an immense curiosity, and then of a measure of understanding, and, immediately after, of a desire to express both; and the simplest form of expression is by means of the tale or (hateful word!) allegory.

Hence legends; they are bits of fact, or guesses at fact, pressed into the form of a story and flung out into the world as markers of how much ground has been travelled. If science be proven truth (and I believe it is), legends might be described as speculative or apprehended truth.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop from a 1922 book of fairy-poems by Walter de la Mare. (Available as a print.)

In each of the book’s eleven epic poems, she varies the scales of geography and time to take on a different legend of a different culture — from China to Peru to New England — invoking the vivid natural landscape, climate, and wildlife of that region alongside its human stories.

A century before science illuminated just how shaped by place the human animal is — and how much, therefore, our cosmogonies are shaped by our native landscapes — Amy Lowell devoured dozens of anthropology, ethnography, geography, and natural history books to achieve maximum fidelity to the authentic habitats of the myths that became her poetic matter.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a 1920 book of Irish fairy tales. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

She fuses an ancient Chinese myth about a porcelain god with an 18th-century Chinese governor’s treatise on the production of pottery with the first scientific investigation of porcelain; she draws on the pioneering work of anthropologist Franz Boas and enthnomusicologist Frances Densmore to celebrate the authentic myths of Native Americans (then called “North American Indians”), in the authentic idioms of their native tongues, at a time when the American government was doing its best at erasure and assimilation; she reanimates a Roman legend about a garden statue, which she had first encountered on the pages of Robert Burton’s classic The Anatomy of Melancholy, published exactly three hundred years earlier. (Legends may be the supreme evidence of how seeds are planted and come abloom generations, centuries, civilizations later, migrating across coteries and countries and continents.)

What emerges from her poems is something “neither new, nor old” but “perennial,” coursing through which is “that curious substratum of reality, speculative or apprehended.”

With touching recognition of the limitations of even the most rigorous scholarship, she reflects:

That inaccuracies from the point of view of the student of folk-lore have crept into the poems, I have no doubt, nor does it make any difference to me. The truth of poetry is imaginative, not literal, and it is as a poet that I have conceived and written my book.

Art by Virginia Frances Sterrett, Old French Fairy Tales, 1920
Art by the teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett from a 1920 book of old French fairy tales. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)

With an eye to the poetic truth beyond this practical fact, bridging the art of legends with her own art, she adds:

A poet is the most contradictory creature imaginable, he respects nothing and reveres everything, but what he loves he makes his own. And this then is just the touchstone of the true legend, it can be made over in any image, but always remains itself.

Complement with the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska on fairy tales and the importance of being scared, then revisit Michael Pollan on the surprising science behind the flying-witch legend


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: Brain Pickings | 1 Jul 2022 | 8:26 am(NZT)

Anne Pratt’s Flowers, Ferns, Quiet Ferocity: How a Middle-Aged Victorian Woman Became One of the Great Masters of Scientific Illustration

“The beauty of a flower… may serve to awaken an interest in nature, which shall not sleep again.”


Anne Pratt’s Flowers, Ferns, Quiet Ferocity: How a Middle-Aged Victorian Woman Became One of the Great Masters of Scientific Illustration

“We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too,” Denise Levertov wrote in her stunning poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World.”

When exactly the split happened is difficult to discern — this crossing-point at which human nature reached upward to its higher potential and downward to its darkest depths at the same time; this divide into “double consciousness,” to borrow Dr. Du Bois’s enduring term for another kind of damaging otherizing the human animal has perpetrated.

When is it, exactly, the turning point when life could have gone one way or another?

But it might have happened even sooner, had the science of botany and its beguiling art not cast upon our species a new enchantment with the wonder of the living world.

For a little while, only a century or so, beauty seemed to forestall entitlement.

Violets by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

It had all begun with a poem: A century before his grandson forever changed our understanding of how nature evolved, the physician, poet, abolitionist, and scientist-predating-the-coinage-of-scientist Erasmus Darwin published The Botanic Garden — a book-length poem that used scientifically accurate metaphors to scintillate the popular imagination with the new science of sexual reproduction in plants. (“It has always pleased me to exalt plants in the scale of organised beings,” Charles Darwin would write in his autobiography a century before Lucille Clifton named the kinship between organized beings in her stunning poem “cutting greens.”)

Published in 1791, Erasmus Darwin’s wildly popular book was deemed too explicit for unmarried women to read. But they did read it. Many took up botany. Some who were artistically gifted brought their gift to the new science.

Angelica by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

While in America Clarissa Munger Badger was inspiring a nation and its greatest poet with her botanical art, Anne Pratt (December 5, 1806–July 27, 1893) was doing the same in England.

In poor health since her earliest years, and with a knee disability, Anne grew up almost entirely indoors. Drawing became how she survived the loneliness of childhood, how she brought nature closer to her.

When a family friend introduced her to botany, a new world of possibility burst open — she devoted herself to studying the science of the living world and perfecting her art.

At thirty-three, she made her tentative debut — no small feat for a woman in Victorian publishing — with a book titled The Field, the Garden, and the Woodland. It was quietly received, but that didn’t matter — she had found her calling, and it fed her, and she fed it back to the world.

Anemones by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

She kept going: painting and writing, punctuating the natural history with poetry. Every couple of years, she released a new scrumptiously illustrated book.

People started taking notice, moved by her passionate approach to botany, her keen understanding that a touch of the poetic does not dilute the scientific but deepens it (as we now know), her psychologically insightful and empathetic decision to go against the scowl of the academy and use the English rather than Latin names of plants, demolishing the wall of intimidation erected between lay people — especially women, who had no access to formal education in science — and the study of nature.

Fern by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

By the time she was in her fifties, Anne Pratt had become one of the most beloved botanical illustrators of the Victorian era. Queen Victoria herself privately relished and publicly praised her work.

Having secured financial independence by her own talent and devotion, she never had to marry out of need, as most women of her epoch did. And so she married out of love, at sixty.

Anne Pratt

The closest Anne Pratt came to naming the personal credo that emanated from her books appeared in her preface to her natural history of the seashore, but it could be said of any of her works:

Could we trace the mental history of our great naturalists, we should find that many who have devoted their lives to the pursuits of science, had at first their attention directed to it, like Linnaeus, by listening to a conversation, or, like Sir Joseph Banks, by musing, in a leisure moment, on the beauty of a flower; and thus the reading of a little volume like this, on common things, may serve to awaken an interest in nature, which shall not sleep again.

Poppies by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Her books were portable awakenings, extending a ravishing invitation to paying attention — that elementary particle of wonder that shimmers in every excellent scientist and every excellent soul.

Nowhere does this ethos shine more brilliantly than in The Flowering Plants, Grasses, Sedges, and Ferns of Great Britain and Their Allies the Club Mosses, Pepperworts, and Horsetails — her six-volume, two-decade labor of love and knowledge, detailing more than a thousand species with hundreds of exquisite illustrations, which established this late-blooming visionary as one of the greats — the first volume was published in the final year of Anne’s forties, the last a year after she got married.

Peony by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

When the series first appeared, Anna Atkins had already revolutionized scientific illustration with the world’s first science book illustrated with photographs. But photography was yet to alter our way of seeing and our style of looking, yet to change the history of science, the history of art, and the whole of visual culture with. Still a young technology with a shadow already looming over it, it was cumbersome and prohibitively expensive, weighed down by the slow uptake of all novel ideas. Illustration remained the primary art of science, and in botany it was just reaching its peak.

Anne Pratt’s illustrations besotted readers with the beauty of this world and went on to inspire generations of botanists, artists, and ordinary people who hungered for intimacy with nature. By the final year of her century — when she had already returned her atoms to the soil she so cherished, having outlived her era’s life expectancy twofold — her oft-reprinted series was celebrated as “the standard popular work upon British Flora.” Her illustrations continued to be widely beloved — and widely plagiarized — for a century.

Hawthorn by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Columbine by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Lily by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Sundew by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Clover by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Vetchling varieties by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Vetchling varieties by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Wild cherry by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Wild strawberry and raspberry by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Raspberry and blackberry by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Roses and briar by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Wild rose varieties by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Crane’s bill by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Today, with every species she painstakingly painted instantly available in trillions of digital photographs depicting its littlest detail from every imaginable angle, the illustrations might appear to some useless — fossils of a bygone epoch from the evolution of seeing.

But to me, something of the warm human hand that painted them remains in them, something radiating the passionate attention with which this middle-aged Victorian woman brought to millions of people, against all the odds of her time and body, the intimate realities of nature as she saw them with her own bygone eyes.

From across the centuries, these time-yellowed plates whisper their quiet, stubborn insistence that we are Nature, too.

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

Complement with 21st-century artist Rosalind Hobley’s haunting cyanotype portraits of flowers, pioneering plant ecologist Edith Clements’s gorgeous early-20th-century paintings of Rocky Mountain wildflowers, French artist Étienne Denisse’s 19th-century illustrations of the most luscious plants of the Americas, and Elizabeth Blackwell’s 18th-century illustrations for the world’s first pictorial encyclopedia of medicinal plants, then revisit Anna Botsford Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study — the century-old field guide to wonder that laid the foundation of the youth climate action movement.


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: Brain Pickings | 30 Jun 2022 | 3:57 am(NZT)



Into the Heart of Life: Richard Powers on Living with Bewilderment at the Otherworldly Wonder of Our World

“That’s the ruling story on this planet. We live suspended between love and ego.”


Into the Heart of Life: Richard Powers on Living with Bewilderment at the Otherworldly Wonder of Our World

“Today our whole earth has become only another shore from which we look out across the dark ocean of space, uncertain what we shall find when we sail out among the stars,” Rachel Carson, dying of cancer, told an orchard of human saplings in the commencement address she delivered in the late spring of 1962 — still the best recipe we have for how to save a world — as she was weathering a savage storm of attacks for having awakened the modern ecological conscience with her Silent Spring.

But somewhere along the way between her epoch and ours, as the world became more and more unsteady, humanity was sold on the expensive dream of living certain rather than bewildered, the dream of choosing — or being chosen for — the islanded certitudes of power over the open horizons of truth. The “dark ocean of space” lost its stardusted luster as we grew more and more unwilling to remain uncertain about the nature of reality and the open-endedness of the future.

While the Golden Record was voyaging into the cosmic expanse encoded with the best of us, the possibility of other worlds began falling out of favor as this one became too much to govern, to bear. We fixated on the here and now not like the lover who makes the beloved the single focal point of passionate devotion, but like the small, anxious step-child: fearful, clinging, uncertain of what love looks like.

But beneath the wetsuit of fear, we remained what we are: passionate primates longing for truth and beauty, forever digging for that “submerged sunrise of wonder.”

Richard Powers addresses this binary pull on our nature in a wonderful autobiographical piece presented at Portland’s Literary Arts, folded into which is a kind of civilizational memoir — the biography of an idea that is corroding what is best of us, and the future history of its shimmering alternative.

Richard Powers

He reflects:

Back when I was born, the world had only one moon. But by the time I turned five months old, it had twice as many. That was the year when my species… figured out how to escape gravity and send one of its most impressive artworks into permanent orbit.

It was quite a moment — the first time in four and a half billion years the planet had an entirely new type of object in the sky.

I grew up in a country racing into space. Sputnik made a special impression on my father, who had always dreamed of being a scientist but couldn’t hack the math. My dad believed, from my earliest days, that I would succeed where he had failed. That seemed right to me, too.

At the age of seven, at the attic bedroom of my family’s brick house on the north side of Chicago, I read the classic kids’ book he gave me: You Will Go to the Moon. Of all the wild stories I devoured back then — the one about befriending a wild raccoon, or the one about a bracelet falling inside a donut machine and being baked into the product — You Will Go to the Moon seemed by far the most plausible.

I was my father’s son, and I grew up committed to the new frontier: Easy travel to other planets — it all felt so imminent. Of course I would go to the Moon. We all would — the whole parade of human history pointed to it. My part in that outward journey was inevitable. In the meantime, I prepared myself, standing on the various scales at the Adler Planetarium to see how much I would weigh on Mercury, Jupiter, or Mars.

Space was where we would solve all the problems we never quite managed to square away here on this planet’s surface. My child’s pantheism merged with my father’s endless faith in human progress. By the time I turned nine, nothing was more obvious to me: Strange new worlds were within our reach, humankind would explore them forever, and they would be full of the most astonishing kinds of life.

Art by Leo and Diane Dillon from the visionary 1973 picture-book Blast Off by Linda C. Cain and Susan Rosenbaum

Powers looks back on his childhood and how his generation was sold on the dream of the year 2000 as a “transformative threshold,” on the other wide of which lay “fusion-powered rockets” and “space colonies mounted in geosynchronous orbits” and contact with alien civilizations.

The math of it crushed him — he would be forty-three then, “too decrepit to go anywhere.” (A touching reminder that across cultures and generations, across the bruising artifice of adult divides, in the eternal sweetness of childhood we find out most indivisible humanity: A generation after Powers, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the nine-year-old me declared to my parents that I wanted my cord pulled at the senile age of thirty. My beloved only aunt, then thirty-nine, reasoned with me to consider disembarking Spaceship Life at forty. I still have a blink of time to weigh the evidence for and against.)

Powers recounts watching the grainy Moon landing on a black-and-white TV in Bangkok, where his father had taken a job — the enchantment of “the two buoyant people in bulky suits and helmets, bobbing around on a dusty plain, making footprints that would last forever,” before the program returned to the I Love Lucy episode dubbed into Thai, depositing him back to the planet he “still half-expected to leave forever someday.”

Looking back on the science fiction wonderland of his teenage years — the peaking art of “planetary romances,” drawing on Melville’s island romances from the previous century, which in turn built on Daniel Dafoe a century before that — Powers writes:

It never occurred to me, even when I moved back to the States at the age of fifteen, that I would die before human beings ever set foot again on any new or further place.

[…]

By the time I graduated from high school in 1975, humans had taken dominion over the Earth and subdued every inch of it. Going where no one had gone before was now impossible.

Moonlight, Winter by Rockwell Kent. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

And yet something of the wanderlust which artist Rockwell Kent so poetically captured at the dawn of the century seemed part of what Powers calls “the legacy hardware” of the human brain. He couldn’t shake it. So he pressed it down:

Sometime between starting college as a Physics major and ejecting four and a half years later with a Master’s degree in Literature, I gave up space travel. In the interim, I had signed on to the idea — pretty much universal among my professors and fellow students in literature — that we humans were the only game in town, and there was no use pretending otherwise.

And so he came to scorn as crude or colonialist all stories that placed science above psychology, fact above feeling. “Real” literature, to his malleable and culture-sculpted mind, was the story of the social world. “The self-made mazes of the self.” Solipsism on the scale of the species.

With the abashed tenderness that is the best we can hope to muster for our younger selves — because, as Joan Didion reminds us, “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not” — he reflects:

I put away science fiction, along with my other childish things, and I began writing stories of my own — stories that, without my realizing it, had assimilated the prevailing literary idea that human beings would never go anywhere new again; that we were here, in an empty universe, with only ourselves to contemplate.

One of Italian painter, poet, and futurist Giacomo Balla’s paintings from his 1914 series Mercury Passing Before the Sun. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

This was not an entirely unfounded prevailing idea. In that era, even most astronomers had no grounds for believing they would live to see the discovery of another new planet — a time when “anything more than brief, poetic speculation about life beyond Earth was courting professional suicide.”

Everyone seemed to have forgotten that to live wonder-smitten by reality and the enchanted by the possible is not the stuff of science fiction but the core of our humanity. (Everyone except Jill Tarter and Frank Drake.)

When the unimaginable happened and NASA’s Kepler mission, spearheaded by my visionary friend Natalie Batalha, discovered Kepler-10b — the first potentially habitable planet outside our solar system — Powers was thirty-five and so devoted to his narrow band of literary fiction that he just about missed the news.

Artist rendering of Kepler-10b. (NASA)

Abashed by this poverty of imagination — as much that of his young self as that of his young species — he writes:

I barely registered the landmark that life on Earth had just passed: A few self-replicating molecules, after four billion years of random walks shaped by nothing more than trial and error, had learned how to measure the infinitesimal dimming of light from trillions of miles away with enough precision to infer the transits of minuscule invisible planets passing in front of their obliterating stars — it was like detecting a fly walking across a streetlight in a distant city.

We did that — we Earthlings.

And then, just like that, a civilizational bloom of bold speculations followed — not merely about the existence of life, but about the wild and wondrous types of life that could exist in the frozen lakes of faraway moons or in the roiling mantles of drifting planets.

But Powers missed that, too — having “graduated from outer space,” he was living in the Absolute Here, occupied by Only Us. It took him years to catch up to reality.

By the 1990s — perhaps awakened by the Hubble Space Telescope’s epoch-making glimpse into the previously unfathomed frontiers of a universe “so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back” — he was yawning awake.

Art by Daniel Bruson for “My God, It’s Full of Stars”

Our best advice to others is often not what we have already proven with our own lives, but what we ourselves most need to hear. Back then, when a young man asked him for his best advice on living, that is precisely what Powers offered:

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.

But Powers himself was out of purchasing power. By the time he realized he was at the midpoint of his expected lifetime, he found himself gnawed by the same suspicion many of us face on our darkest days: that humanity had permanently maimed life on Earth, that “there was something inherently wrong with Homo sapiens, that we suffered from congenital defect — a built-in, incurable sadistic impulse toward domination that doomed us to failure along with 98% of Earth’s other experiments that had already gone extinct.”

It took decades to calibrate his despair with the elemental fact beneath the flinch:

Insanity wasn’t in our genes — we humans had gone off the rails because our culture had lost its source of external significance. We were so completely colonized by the belief that all meaning came down to economics and private consumption that it no longer even felt like a belief. We’d forgotten the fact that, in Gaylor Nelson’s great phrase, “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, and not the other way around.”

Echoing Carson’s prescient 1953 admonition that our only real wealth lies in honoring “the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” he adds:

Our willingness to dismantle the greatest imaginable place in the universe for life results from the fact that very few of us live here — We had come to see the planet as a collection of exchangeable commodities reduced to their use value.

Somehow, in the mere century since Ernst Haeckel coined the word ecology to name the relationship between organisms in the house of life, one inhabitant of the house decided, as Powers puts it, to “exploit all the planet’s ecosystems to its own ends” while presuming to reside “outside ecology altogether.”

A nine-year-old’s drawing from humanity’s first gallery of children’s art in space, depicting what kids most cherish about life on Earth.

At the time of his most acute exasperation with our species, Powers befriended the nine-year-old son of a colleague — a kid whom we would now call “neurodivergent,” a term far beyond the cultural horizon then. One day, midway through a conversation about the boy’s beloved Star Wars, somehow Mars came up — the planet’s fate, how it may have been home to life once but lost all of its water to become an arid red desert.

At first incredulous that such a thing could befall a world, the child paused a moment, then asked Powers whether such a thing could befall Earth.

Powers lied.

It took twenty years, an existential breakdown that left him in “a constant state of pointlessness and dread,” a deadly pandemic, and a five-year love affair with the astonishing interconnected universe of old-growth forests until Powers could give the child — and himself, and the child he had once been, and the rest of despairing humanity — the real answer in his exquisite novel Bewilderment (public library).

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

Set sometime in the near future, when our search for life beyond the Solar System has come to its inevitable fruition, it tells the story of a thirty-nine-year-old astrobiologist and his neurodivergent, frightened, boundlessly courageous nine-year-old son, searching together for other worlds and instead discovering how to reworld ours with meaning.

Radiating from their quest is a luminous invitation to live up to our nature not as creatures consumed by “the black hole of the self,” as Powers so perfectly puts it in his talk, but as living empathy machines and portable cosmoses of possibility, whose planetary story is yet unwritten.

Fittingly, the novel opens with an epigraph from Carson’s The Sense of Wonder — her most personal piece of public writing, which had begun as an essay titled “Help Your Child to Wonder,” inspired by the beloved grandnephew she adopted and raised after his mother’s death:

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If… by Thierry Lenain — a French illustrated celebration of a more possible world for the children of tomorrow.

As the father searches for other worlds, he is savaged by despair at humanity’s catastrophic mismanagement of this one, haunted by the growing sense that we couldn’t possibly be good interplanetary emissaries until we have become good stewards of our own home planet. But each time he hits rock bottom, he bounces back up — as we all do, as we all must in order to go on living — with rekindled faith in what we are capable of. There are echos of Maya Angelou’s spaceborne poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” in his reflection on what we, despite our sacrificial destructions at the altar of the self, have achieved in our longing for those truths much larger and longer lasting than us:

A lineage of slow, weak, naked, awkward creatures… had lasted through several near-extinctions and held on long enough to discover that gravity bent light, everywhere in the universe. For no good reason and at insane expense, we’d built an instrument able to see the tiniest bend in starlight made by this small body, from scores of light-years away… We were… making it up as we went along, then proving it for all the universe to see.

Although the novel is set in the future, I would not call it science fiction, or fantasy, or even speculative fiction — it is merely an inspired, lucid glide along the clear vector of knowledge stretching between our past and our future. Again and again, we have assumed to have reached some limit of truth, some limit of the possible called life. Again and again, we have been wrong. Powers’s astrobiologist names an existential possibility that, by all mathematical probability, will become reality in our lifetimes:

Data flowed back from instruments flying all over the Solar System. The planets were wilder than anyone suspected. Moons of Jupiter and Saturn turned out to be hiding liquid oceans beneath their suspiciously smooth crusts. All the Earthly chauvinisms began to fall. We’d been reasoning from a sample of one. Life might not need surface water. It might not need water at all. It might not even need a surface.

[…]

I was living through one of the great revolutions in human thought. A few years before, most astronomers thought they’d never live to see the discovery of even a single planet outside the solar system. By the time I was halfway through graduate school, the eight or nine planets known to exist turned into dozens, then hundreds. At first they were mostly gas giants. Then Kepler was launched, and Earth was flooded with worlds, some not much larger than ours… People were looking at infinitesimal changes in the light of immensely distant stars — reductions in brightness of a few parts per million — and calculating the invisible bodies that dimmed them in transiting. Minuscule wobbles in the motion of massive suns — changes of less than one meter per second in the velocity of a star — were betraying the size and mass of invisible planets tugging on them. The precision of these measurements defied belief. It was like trying to use a ruler to measure a distance a hundred times smaller than the amount the ruler would expand from the heat of your hand.

We did that. We Earthlings.

And yet we also did this — this burning house, this sullied pale blue.

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

Echoing the largehearted Lewis Thomas and his forgiving assurance that we are “still new to the earth… a juvenile species, a child of a species… only tentatively set in place, error-prone, at risk of fumbling,” the astrobiologist looks at his son — a child filled with anger at his civilizational inheritance, filled with passion for righting it, uncertain where to begin or how much difference it would make — and reflects:

Nine is the age of great turning. Maybe humanity was a nine-year-old, not yet grown up, not a little kid anymore. Seemingly in control, but always on the verge of rage.

[…]

They share a lot, astronomy and childhood. Both are voyages across huge distances. Both search for facts beyond their grasp. Both theorize wildly and let possibilities multiply without limits. Both are humbled every few weeks. Both operate out of ignorance. Both are mystified by time. Both are forever starting out.

Art by Anne Bannock from Seeking an Aurora by Elizabeth Pulford

Over and over, Powers reckons with the question of why, given how life began in the first place — “One day two billion years ago, instead of one microbe eating the other, one took the other inside its membrane and they went into business together.” — we, supposed pinnacles of life, most privileged beneficiaries of this immense progression of symbiosis, have managed to turn on the rest of life so ungratefully, to grow so childish in mistaking Mother’s body for a resource and our responsibilities for rights. In one of his protagonist’s moments of shamed optimism, Powers produces the great indictment of our species:

That’s the ruling story on this planet. We live suspended between love and ego.

Answering an audience question at his Literary Arts talk, Powers considers what it would take for us to make our tightrope way across the abyss toward the side of love:

For me, the wild is that condition of interbeing, of presence, that understands how beholden it is to place and everything else in that place. To be “bewildered” is to land back on Earth… to understand that there is no way of talking about us or our stories — where we’d been or where we’re going — without being a part of that interdependent wild community, of putting ourselves into the neighborhood — not as something above it, but just as one of the many, many agents that make place.

Telescope of Time by Maria Popova. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Novels, if they are any good, are not things one can write about — only things one can read, or write. Read Bewilderment. It is an excellent novel — one of those rare epochal works, of art and of truth, that both slake the soul of their time and outlive it.


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: Brain Pickings | 26 Jun 2022 | 4:44 pm(NZT)

Rebecca Solnit on Writing, Gardening, and the Life of the Mind

“As a writer, you withdraw and disconnect yourself from the world in order to connect to it in the far-reaching way that is other people elsewhere reading the words that came together in this contemplative state.”


Rebecca Solnit on Writing, Gardening, and the Life of the Mind

This is the great and terrifying truth about the creative life: Anything we make — all this longing for beauty and meaning, all these reckonings and raptures, these most passionate and personal fragments of being — is just a tiny seed compacting everything we are, blown into the wind that is the world.

Seeds are planted and come abloom generations, centuries, civilizations later — and we can never fully know, or know at all, when or where or how they might.

But in that uncertainty is also our redemption — the thing that sets the artist, that civilizational gardener of eternal ideas, apart from the politician or the entrepreneur or any other harvester of seasonal urgencies.

Rebecca Solnit — one of the eternals of our time — explores this in some lovely passages from her unsummarizably magnificent book Orwell’s Roses (public library).

Rebecca Solnit prior to her 2020 Universe in Verse performance.

She writes:

Writing is a murky business: you are never entirely sure what you are doing or when it will be finished and whether you got it right and how it will be received months or years or decades after you finish. What it does, if it does anything, is a largely imperceptible business that takes place in the minds of people you will mostly never see and never hear from (unless they want to argue with you). As a writer, you withdraw and disconnect yourself from the world in order to connect to it in the far-reaching way that is other people elsewhere reading the words that came together in this contemplative state. What is vivid in the writing is not in how it hits the senses but what it does in the imagination; you can describe a battlefield, a birth, a muddy road, or a smell.

And then, making her contribution to the canon of great writers whose gardening anchored their art, she holds up the counterpoint and vital counterpart to this ethereal uncertainty:

A garden offers the opposite of the disembodied uncertainties of writing. It’s vivid to all the senses, it’s a space of bodily labor, of getting dirty in the best and most literal way, an opportunity to see immediate and unarguable effect… To spend time frequently with these direct experiences is clarifying, a way of stepping out of the whirlpools of words and the confusion they can whip up. In an age of lies and illusions, the garden is one way to ground yourself in the realm of the processes of growth and the passage of time, the rules of physics, meteorology, hydrology, and biology, and the realms of the senses.

Elemental Forces by Maria Popova. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

And yet this is the paradox of the creative life: The world of ideas needs the world of atoms and forces — to believe otherwise is to dial back the centuries and go on perpetrating that amply confuted Cartesianism of regarding the life of the body as separate from the life of the mind. We are living embodiments of these selfsame forces of physics and biology. Walking hydrologies. Portable worlds with weather systems of biochemistry and feeling. Bodies moving through a world of other bodies in a particular stretch of spacetime.

All of these physical variables and the interactions between them shape our ideas, for they shape the interdependent chance-configuration of variables we experience as a self. We would not have Leaves of Grass or Beloved if Whitman’s and Morrison’s minds had been rooted in different bodies and different spacetimes.

If anyone knows this, of course, it is Rebecca Solnit — she who writes so beautifully about how the way we move shapes the way we think and about how the landscape colors the mind with feeling; she who thinks so deeply about trees and the shape of time; she who devotes two years of her life to writing a song of a book about how Orwell’s rose garden shaped his ideas.

Flowers by Clarissa Munger Badger — the artist who seeded Emily Dickinson’s botanial inspiration. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Complement with two centuries of beloved writers on the creative and spiritual rewards of gardening, then revisit Rebecca Solnit’s stirring letter to tomorrow’s readers about why we read and write.


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: Brain Pickings | 25 Jun 2022 | 8:35 am(NZT)

Iris Murdoch on the Myth of Closure and the Beautiful, Maddening Blind Spots of Our Self-Knowledge

“Judgements on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning.”


Iris Murdoch on the Myth of Closure and the Beautiful, Maddening Blind Spots of Our Self-Knowledge

In literature, when a storyline involves victim and a persecutor, we call it a drama. In life, most acts of aggression or complaint (which are two sides of the same coin: the emotional currency of existential malcontentment), most tantrums thrown by otherwise reasonable adults, most blamethirsty fingers pointed at some impartial reality, involve the self-victimization of drama. People prone to drama have not only cast themselves as victims of a perpetrator in a plot, but have tacitly conceded that there is a plot, which presupposes a playwright — some external entity scripting the story in which they feel done unto. The person self-cast into a drama is resigned to being a character, insentient to Joan Didion’s fundamental law of having character: “Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.” Wherever there is drama, there is a deficiency of self-respect and too shallow a well of self-knowledge.

The ways in which we are all susceptible to drowning ourselves into drama, and what it takes to float free, is what Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) explores in her subtle, splendid 1978 novel The Sea, the Sea (public library) — the story of a talented but complacent playwright approaching the overlook of life, who is ultimately overcome by his tragic flaw: Despite his obsessive self-reflection (or perhaps precisely because of it), his egotism ultimately eclipses his creative spirit — that brightest and most generous part of us, the part rightly called our gift, the part that extends the outstretched hand of sympathy and wonder we call art and invites, in Iris Murdoch’s lovely phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”

Dame Iris Murdoch by Ida Kar (National Portrait Gallery)

Looking back on his life, the elderly playwright reflects on his own art and its relation to life itself:

Emotions really exist at the bottom of the personality or at the top. In the middle they are acted. This is why all the world is a stage.

Murdoch’s entire body of work, from philosophy to fiction, can be thought of as one cohesive inquiry into the meaning of goodness and the meaning of love, lensed through the meaning-machinery of art. She understood uniquely that we act out the messy middle of emotion because it is often too complex, contradictory, and category-defying for us to know what we are really feeling. Perennially half-opaque to ourselves, we feign surety and confidence in our reasons. Unwilling to fully live into what we are — anxious and uncertain creatures, tender and terrified throughout so much of life — we act ourselves into being, taking the stage costumed in false certitudes.

One of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s 1920 illustrations for old French fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

As Murdoch’s protagonist sets out to write his memoirs — those sad shallows of literature, where art drifts to die as vain self-obsession — his cousin and boyhood playmate, now an old men himself, urges him to allot ample room for the eternal subject of human vanity, which renders us blinder to reality and more opaque to ourselves than any of our other confusions:

We are such inward secret creatures, that inwardness the most amazing thing about us, even more amazing than our reason. But we cannot just walk into the cavern and look around. Most of what we think we know about our minds is pseudo-knowledge. We are all such shocking poseurs, so good at inflating the importance of what we think we value. The heroes at Troy fought for a phantom Helen… Vain wars for phantom goods… People lie so… though in a way, if there is art enough it doesn’t matter, since there is another kind of truth in the art.

More than anything, we lie to ourselves. Peeled back far enough, even the most layered self-delusion springs from the same source — our illusion of free will amid a world in which, at the most basic level of reality, we control none of the fundamental forces and therefore have extremely limited agency in events. As the precocious teenage Sylvia Plath understood, our latitude of free movement in life is paralyzingly limited “from birth by environment, heredity, time and event and local convention”. In such a reality, choice is only a narrative, and a retroactive one at that — it is the story we tell ourselves, in the vanity-light of hindsight, about why our lives went one way and not another.

Echoing James Baldwin’s exquisite lament about the illusion of choice, Murdoch writes:

What a queer gamble our existence is. We decide to do A instead of B and then the two roads diverge utterly and may lead in the end to heaven and to hell. Only later one sees how much and how awfully the fates differ. Yet what were the reasons for the choice? They may have been forgotten. Did one know what one was choosing? Certainly not.

A subset of the illusion of choice is the illusion of closure — the alluring but ultimately vain idea that, as life lives itself through us in ways far beyond our control, in a complex and by definition ever-fraying tapestry of story-lines, we can tease out any one narrative thread neatly enough to tie it into a complete and permanently valid conclusion. Murdoch dispels the vanity:

Loose ends can never be properly tied, one is always producing new ones. Time, like the sea, unties all knots. Judgements on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning, whatever art may otherwise pretend in order to console us.

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

But here is where we do have choice: In accepting a hazy and uncertain reality beyond our control, we can also refuse to resign ourselves to being victims of it — the sort of adaptation Octavia Butler held up as the highest measure of intelligence and integrity. We can recognize that life is much more interesting as a process of continual presence than as an acted drama; that the world is much more interesting as a shoreline than as a stage — for it is at the living shore that we witness, as Richard Feynman did, “ages upon ages” unfolding into the wonder of life; at the shore that we are humbled, as Rachel Carson was, by “our place in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea… in which there is no finality, no ultimate and fixed reality”; at the shore that we finally accept the most elemental fact of our lives: There is no final act — only shoreless seeds and stardust.


donating = loving

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


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

Source: Brain Pickings | 24 Jun 2022 | 2:16 pm(NZT)

Octavia Butler on the Meaning of God

On change, the measure of intelligence, the courage to take responsibility for our own lives.


Octavia Butler on the Meaning of God

“He is the only God. And so am I and so are you,” William Blake said of Jesus in one of his prophetic koan-like pronouncements.

A century after him, Hermann Hesse leaned on his reverence for nature as he considered the value of hardship, urging the dispirited to listen to our inner voice: “If you are now wondering where to look for consolation, where to seek a new and better God… he does not come to us from books, he lives within us… This God is in you too. He is most particularly in you, the dejected and despairing.”

Another century hence, another prophet of the ages saw, and named, the underlying truth beneath these truths: that if this you, this me, is in fact an ever-changing chance-constellation of cells, ideas, beliefs, impressions, mental states, emotional weather systems, constantly making and remaking itself into what we experience as selfhood, then God is the other name of chance and change, of that flickering constellation. God is the name we — “atoms with consciousness,” who know that one day we shall become “one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust” but wish it to be otherwise with every atomic fiber of our being — is the name we give to our touching longing for permanence in a universe of change.

Octavia Butler by Katy Horan from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of women writers who have enchanted and transformed our world.

In the opening pages of her 1993 masterwork Parable of the Sower (public library) — the first part of her oracular Earthseed allegory — Octavia Butler (June 22, 1947–February 24, 2006) writes:

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

This, of course, is the only appropriate conception of “God” — which is also another word for “nature” — if we are lucid about what actually happens when we die: that is, when we return our borrowed stardust to nature. Butler intimates as much, insisting again and again that “God” is the vessel we create to hold the blooming buzzing chaos of the ever-changing self. “To shape God, shape Self,” she would write five years later, in the sequel to Parable of the Sower.

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

Defining intelligence as “ongoing, individual adaptability” and reminding us that “civilization is to groups what intelligence is to individuals,” she considers our orientation to “God” — to change — as a vital adaptation that shapes the outcome of any individual human life. In a mighty antidote to our present culture of abdicating personal responsibility for our own lives (which, as Joan Didion knew, is another term for character) in favor of competitive victimhood, Butler writes:

A victim of God may,
Through learning adaption,
Become a partner of God,
A victim of God may,
Through forethought and planning,
Become a shaper of God.
Or a victim of God may,
Through shortsightedness and fear,
Remain God’s victim,
God’s plaything,
God’s prey.

Complement with Borges on what makes us who we are and John Burroughs’s superb century-old manifesto for the spirituality of nature, then revisit Butler on how we become ourselves and how (not) to choose our leaders.


donating = loving

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


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Source: Brain Pickings | 23 Jun 2022 | 3:21 am(NZT)

Artist and Philosopher Rockwell Kent on Our Existential Wanderlust

“Wander where you will over all the world, from every valley seeing forever new hills calling you to climb them, from every mountain top farther peaks enticing you… until you stand one day on the last peak on the border of the interminable sea, stopped by the finality of that.”


Artist and Philosopher Rockwell Kent on Our Existential Wanderlust

“Man* is by Nature a migratory animal,” the elderly Frederick Douglass reflected in an 1887 speech about his global travels. “It does not appear that he was intended to dwell forever in any one locality. He is a born traveler.”

A generation after him, Maya Angelou observed that “you only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”

Partway in time between Douglass and Angelou, the painter, printmaker, and philosopher Rockwell Kent (June 21, 1882–March 13, 1971) captured this vital interplay between freedom and belonging, between nature and human nature, in the preface to Wilderness (public library) — the exquisite record of the seven months he spent on a remote Alaskan island with his young son in the gloaming hour of the Spanish flu pandemic and the First World War, at the dawn of his artistic life.

Moonlight, Winter by Rockwell Kent. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

We each have a particular style of wanderlust, pulled by particular types of nature that best speak to our own — those places where we most freely lose ourselves and, in consequence, find ourselves. For some, they are the austere open space of blue skies and red canyons. For me, they are the mossy old-growth forests of New Zealand and the American Pacific Northwest. For Kent, it was the severe majesty of the Great North:

It has always been hard for me to understand myself, to know why I work and love and live. Yet it is fortunate that such matters find a way of caring for themselves. I came to Alaska because I love the North. I crave snow-topped mountains, dreary wastes, and the cruel Northern sea with its hard horizons at the edge of the world where infinite space begins. Here skies are clearer and deeper and, for the greater wonders they reveal, a thousand times more eloquent of the eternal mystery than those of softer lands.

In a new preface to his journals, penned in the final year of his life, Kent looks back on the wanderlust of his youth — the roaming restlessness that had shaped his spirit, the spirit from which his art sprang, the art that established him as one of the most celebrated creators of his time — and exhorts the generations of wanderers to come:

Wander where you will over all the world, from every valley seeing forever new hills calling you to climb them, from every mountain top farther peaks enticing you. Always the distant land looks fairest, till you are made at last a restless wanderer never reaching home — never — until you stand one day on the last peak on the border of the interminable sea, stopped by the finality of that.

The Star-Lighter by Rockwell Kent, 1919. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Contemplating the existential pull beneath it all — the rippling, resonant why of our wanderlust — Kent adds:

We are part and parcel of the big plan of things. We are simply instruments recording in different measure our particular portion of the infinite. And what we absorb of it makes for character, and what we give forth, for [our art].

These are salutary words to read a century later, as our own world is only just shaking off its straitjacket of two-year terror and becoming wanderable again.

Complement with Rebecca Solnit’s wanderlusting history of walking, then revisit Kent’s breathtaking reflections on wilderness, solitude, and creativity.


donating = loving

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


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

Source: Brain Pickings | 22 Jun 2022 | 11:03 am(NZT)

Humanity’s First Cosmic Gallery of Children’s Art: What the Youngest Members of Our Young Species Most Cherish About Life on Earth

An illustrated love letter to our Pale Blue Dot by humanity’s most innocent scale models of the universe.


“Out of the cradle onto the dry land… here it is standing… atoms with consciousness… matter with curiosity,” Richard Feynman wrote in his poetic ode to the wonder of life a decade before he won the Nobel Prize in Physics and two decades before these atoms of consciousness sent their most ambitious civilizational artwork toward the unknown reaches of the cosmos as the Golden Record sailed aboard NASA’s Voyager spacecraft, carrying our music, our photographs, and our longing for connection.

An improbable dream dreamt by Carl Sagan, rendered real on the wings of his passionate conviction that we are “a species endowed with hope and perseverance, at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.”

A poetic gesture signaling to some other civilization who we are and what we value.

Humanity’s first art beyond our atmosphere.

Voyager Golden Record and plaque. (Photographs: NASA)

A generation and an epoch of discoveries later, the first cosmic gallery of art by the youngest members of our young species is launching into Earth orbit: a data-gathering NASA satellite carrying 100 drawings by children, depicting what they most love about life on Earth.

Inspired by the Golden Record, the project is a collaboration between illustrator and graphic journalist Wendy MacNaughton and NASA spacecraft systems designer Luke Idziak, winged by Wendy’s DrawTogether experiment-turned-icon — another improbable dream made real and resonant for millions with little more than passion and perseverance.

DrawTogether was born early in the pandemic, in that Blakean way of complaining by creating: Amid the gasping incomprehension of the lockdown, as schools vanished from the cultural horizon and left parents around the world sequestered with their small humans and their large fears in every imaginable type of human habitat, Wendy — a longtime friend and occasional collaborator — began offering a daily series of free, simple, sunny-spirited online art lessons for kids, using drawing as a tool of social emotional learning and feeling-processing. Living proof of Ruskin’s impassioned Victorian case for drawing as a technique for paying attention. A way of seeing the world — both the inner world and the outer world — more clearly so that we may love it more deeply and live more unafraid of what we feel.

What began as a personal labor of love on Wendy’s Instagram became an online show became a global club, in that organic unfurling by which a seed becomes a sunflower. Millions of kids around the world have gathered for the ongoing invitations to draw a particular thing — a wolf, a treehouse, a ferry, a sunflower, the sound of a guitar riff, the weather in the heart. Then came NASA and the invitation to draw the largest thing there is for us earthlings: this one and only home, this drifting house in the drawing room of which our “child of a species” sits together to give shape to our love of life and our curiosity about it in the art we make and in the science that carries poems of metal and mathematics into space.

The satellite is part of NASA’s PACE initiative — a kind of R&D lab aimed at transforming the future of deep-space missions by designing ever-smaller, sturdier, and lither modular satellites. Only one such satellite has ever carried art into space before, and it carried Feynman’s diagrams — those beguiling hieroglyphics of quantum field theory, which created a new visual language for how subatomic particles interact, using drawing to usher in this new way of seeing the most fundamental layer of reality.

DrawTogether kids visiting NASA Ames to see the satellite carrying their work. (Photograph: @wendymac.)

The drawings come from kids across different developmental stages, from early childhood to early adolescence, different cultural and social backgrounds, different places across this landmass — an elementary school in Ohio, the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center in San Francisco, a music school in Manhattan, a STEAM school in Los Angeles, a nature-centered school housed in an upstate New York barn. Accompanying each drawing is the child’s written answer to why they drew what they drew — a carnival of inventive spellings and simply worded elemental truths.

A fourth-grader named Amaya draws a butterfly in loving memory of her recently deceased grandmother, who loved “butterflys.”

Her classmate Rachelle offers a bittersweet reminder of the unselfconscious sincerity we learn to cower from as we grow up: “Dear NASA, I chose this drawing because I like nature, and it’s very pretty to look at and it calms me down.”

A boy named Christopher offers a most endearing and rather psychologically apt spelling of “astronaut”: aschonut.

A miniature philosopher of nine named Jovie draws the infinity symbol over a heart and explains: “This is love. Love brings us together. It will never tear us apart. We’re stronger with love.”

Punctuating the hundred-piece totality are some touching testaments to how impressionable kids are and how formed the human mind is by its cultural brine: cartoon characters, movie references, video game consoles, sports emblems.

But two things emerge as the most common objects of pride in life on Earth, incontestable as daybreak: nature and love. (Which are, in the end, a single thing.)

There are many people holding hands. There are flowers and turtles and a singing bird and a smiling octopus. Two different black-and-white curvatures colored by the mind’s eye into rainbows. The ocean and the sky. A multitude of mountains.

Most of all, there are the trees, abstracted and detailed, crowned and coniferous — a wilderness of ways of seeing, carrying a diverse forest of love into space. (Cue aschonut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to Earth’s trees and Bruno Munari’s existentialist exercise in drawing a tree.) Because, as nine-year-old Dominic explains in his caption, trees are “one of the most inportent thing on earth they give us 02.”

Radiating from it all is G.K. Chesterton’s dandelion-inspired observation that “what was wonderful about childhood is that anything in it was a wonder,” and echoes of Dylan Thomas’s poetic insight that, when we strip away the accrued confusions of adulthood, to be “children in wonder watching the stars, is the aim and the end.”

But what I find most moving is the developmental progression — by the time we get to the kids on the cusp of adolescence, the drawings are animated by the dual awareness that this wonder-full world is in peril and that it falls on them, these emissaries of tomorrow, to save it.

Thirteen-year-old Sylvia draws an exquisite geometric hummingbird to represent “the fragile beauty of our world.”

“Earth isn’t the best place right now,” writes thirteen-year-old Alma beneath a drawing of a smoking house and a denuded tree, “but we can work to fix it.” Their classmate Sebastian’s detailed drawing and pointed caption can spin a future President on her axis: “Taking notice isn’t enough we need to take action first.”

The project shares something profound and everlasting with its inspiration: The Golden Record’s stated scientific aim — to compress, encode, and transmit information about our world to another — was the Trojan horse by which Sagan conquered NASA’s consent and achieved his true aim, which was the poetic: In a world falling apart in the Cold War, shuddering with the aftershocks of two World Wars, haunted by the assassinations of Dr. King and JFK and Gandhi, here was a mirror held up to humanity, inviting us to reflect on who we are and what we stand for, on the staggering beauty of this indivisible, irreplaceable Pale Blue Dot and our staggering capacity for the noticing of beauty, which is the language of love — that ultimate poetic truth of what makes us human.

It is this same truth, made all the truer and more tender by their openhearted innocence, that radiates from the children’s drawings.


donating = loving

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


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

Source: Brain Pickings | 21 Jun 2022 | 9:30 am(NZT)

The Only Valiant Way to Complain Is to Create: William Blake and the Stubborn Courage of the Unexampled

“The Eye altering alters all.”


The Only Valiant Way to Complain Is to Create: William Blake and the Stubborn Courage of the Unexampled

In the first days of a bleak London December in 1827, a small group of mourners gathered on a hill in the fields just north of the city limits at Bunhill Fields, named for “bone hill,” longtime burial ground for the disgraceful dead. There, in what was now a dissenters’ cemetery, the English Poor Laws had ensured a pauper’s funeral for the man who had died five days earlier in his squalid home and was now being lowered into an unmarked grave. The man whose “Songs of Innocence” would light the creative spark in the young Maurice Sendak’s imagination a century-some later. The man Patti Smith would celebrate as “the loom’s loom, spinning the fiber of revelation” — a guiding sun in the human cosmos of creativity.

Those who knew William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) cherished his overwhelming kindness, his capacity for delight even during his frequent and fathomless depressions, his “expression of great sweetness, but bordering on weakness — except when his features are animated by expression, and then he has an air of inspiration about him.” He was remembered for the strange, koan-like things he said about Jesus (He is the only God. And so am I and so are you.), about the prosperous artists who held his poverty as proof of his failure (I possess my visions and peace. They have bartered their birthright for a mess of pottage.), about the nature of creativity (The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.)

Art from Blake’s First Book of Urizen, 1796. (Available as a print.)

Unseen by his own world, he saw deep into the worlds to come, channeling his visions through anything at hand. It was not the medium that mattered, but its pliancy as he bent it to his vision of the mystery that is itself the message — the message we call art: He was a painter, a poet, a philosopher without meaning to, an early prophet of panpsychism, a mystic who lived not to solve the mystery but to revel in it, to encode it in verses and etch it onto copper plates and stain it onto canvases and seed it into souls for centuries to come.

As an artist, he was resolutely his own standard, his own guiding sun. Like Beethoven, with whom he shared a death-year and the stubborn unwillingness to compromise on the artistic vision he experienced as life, Blake was determined to make what he wanted to make and to make it on his own terms — in a world unready for the art and unfriendly to the terms.

There is no greater act of creative courage than this.

Another engraving from Blake’s Paradise Lost.

And so, centuries before the technologies existed to enable the proof, William Blake became the first living conjecture of the 1,000 True Fans theory. He knew what we all eventually realize, if we are awake and courageous enough: that the best way — and the only effective way — to complain about the way things are is to make new and better things, untested and unexampled things, things that spring from the gravity of creative conviction and drag the status quo like a tide toward some new horizon.

Poverty is no friend to the creative spirit, nor to this artist who knew that “Man has no body distinct from his Soul for that called Body is a portion of Soul.” To feed the body, Blake worked long wearying hours as an engraver for hire, squinting at sheets of copper to scratch and cross-hatch shapes onto them in intricate patterns of dots and lines. “Engraving is Eternal work,” he sighed to a client who grumbled that a project was taking too long.

“The Child Mary Shelley (at her Mother’s Death).” Engraving from William Blake’s commission to illustrate feminism founding mother Mary Wollstonecraft’s book of moral education for children.

All the while, Blake’s mind bustled and bloomed with the transcendent chaos of his own ideas. He pressed the plates onto white paper, watching the ink held in the tiny canals of the etchings render stark yet delicate black-and-white shapes, alive with light and shadow.

It was beautiful, but it was intensely toilsome — he could barely make a living illustrating other people’s work, and it left no time for his own art. He yearned for a different technique that could achieve the same result in less time and with less toil.

No such technique existed.

So he invented it.

Rather than cut the shapes onto the plates with his sharp steel burin, he painted directly onto the copper with a quill or brush dipped in acid-resistant varnish, then bathed the plates in acid, which stripped a layer of the surface to revealed the embossed shape of what he had drawn. A complaint made in chemistry and creative restlessness.

It came to him, he said, as a message from his dead brother’s spirit.

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

The new technique gave Blake full creative freedom and full control of production. Suddenly, he could combine text and image on a single page, in a single process, which neither traditional engraving nor etching could do — both required separate space for lettering and a second production pass for type-setting the words.

There was only one challenge with his invention: Because the print was still made by pressing a plate onto a page, any text he painted onto the plate was printed backward.

So he learned mirror-writing.

Art from Blake’s First Book of Urizen, 1796.

Suddenly, William Blake had unfettered himself from the production machine, giving his creative might free rein. His new process, he estimated, enabled him to make what he wanted to make for a quarter of the cost. He was a one-man operation, creating in his own space and with his own hands what ordinarily took entire teams of artisans and craftsmen, each with different training, using different tools, working in different workshops.

Centuries before zines, before blogs, before Instagram, before Substack, William Blake had built himself an autonomous platform on which to share his creative labors, exactly as he wanted them to live.

The magnitude of his innovation was not lost on Blake. In 1793, he composed and printed his Prospectus, addressed “TO THE PUBLIC,” in which he announced that he had “invented a method of Printing both Letter-press and Engraving in a style more ornamental, uniform, and grand, than any before discovered.” It was nothing less than a manifesto for creative self-liberation:

The Labours of the Artist, the Poet, the Musician, have been proverbially attended by poverty and obscurity; this was never the fault of the Public, but was owing to a neglect of means to propagate such works as have wholly absorbed the Man of Genius. Even Milton and Shakespeare could not publish their own works.

[…]

If a method of Printing which combines the Painter and the Poet is a phenomenon worthy of public attention, provided that it exceeds in elegance all former methods, the Author is sure of his reward.

In William Blake vs. the World (public library) — the best book on Blake in the seven decades since Alfred Kazin’s masterpiece — John Higgs captures just how radical this was, both as a technology of creation and as an ethos:

Eighteenth-century printing was a complex job which involved many specialist tradesmen. One person wrote the book, another was responsible for editing it, and a third typeset the text. An artist designed illustrations for an engraver to produce, and a printer put each page through the press, once for text and a second time for the images. On occasions, these would be hand-coloured by another specialist, and finally a bookseller would sell the finished book. Thanks to Blake’s new technique, he had the ability to do all these tasks himself. He was a one-person publishing industry, writing, designing, printing and colouring illustrated works of his own devising. Although he was still in the Georgian era, Blake was practising the “do it yourself” ethos of punk rock.

Art from Blake’s America: A Prophecy, 1793. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Here is where a cynic or a Silicon Valley entrepreneur might scoff, So what? He died a pauper. And here is where Blake would wince back, as he did in a letter, I should be sorry if I had any earthly fame, for whatever natural glory a man has is so much detracted from his spiritual glory.

Precisely because he was his own standard, because he wanted to make exactly what he wanted to make, it was enough for him that a handful of devoted fans became his collectors and commissioned work he was inspired to make. It was just about enough to live on. And it was never what he lived for. (Centuries later, this ethos — which I believe is the natural state of the creative spirit — still raises eyebrows as radicalism.)

In the very act of this choice, he was modeling a kind of moral beauty that reached beyond art, into life itself — an unwillingness to accept the limitations imposed upon any present by the momentum of its past, a winged willingness to do whatever it takes to transcend them, which begins with a new way of seeing: seeing the limitations and seeing the alternate possibilities. For the Eye altering alters all.

Art from Blake’s America: A Prophecy, 1793. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Higgs writes:

Blake’s politics… existed in what he created. He may have had great empathy with the poor, but he did not spend his days working to better their situation. Instead, he believed that the imagination was the tool needed to improve society, and… would do more to liberate people than canvassing or protesting. To do this would take integrity, self-belief, and effort.

It is here that we find the strongest expression of Blake’s politics. True politics are not ideologies to discuss, but an attitude to your relationship with the world which is enacted in your daily life. Your politics are not what you tell yourself you believe. They are not the set of ideas that you identify with, or look to for personal validation of your goodness as a human being. Your politics are expressed in the choices that you make, the way you treat other people, and the actions you perform. It is here that hypocrisy and vanity fall away, as the reality of your politics is revealed in the countless decisions that you make every day. Who you work for, whether you volunteer for charity work, if you become a landlord, whether you eat meat, the extent to which you pursue money and consumer goods — these are the types of decisions in which our true politics are expressed… Blake needed commercial engraving work to keep a roof over his head. But he also needed to be free of compromise when it came to his own work. He produced his art as an individualist antinomian, asking no permission, answering to nobody.

“Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing” by William Blake, circa 1796, from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Available as a print.)

Blake himself put it both beautifully and bluntly:

There cannot be more than two or three great Painters or Poets in any Age or Country; and these, in a corrupt state of Society, are easily excluded, but not so easily obstructed.

For an uncompromising counterpart in music, revisit the story of how Beethoven made his “Ode to Joy,” then savor Esperanza Spalding’s soulful strings-and-voice rendition of Blake’s short existentialist poem “The Fly” and this lovely vintage picture-book celebrating his uncommon legacy.


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: Brain Pickings | 19 Jun 2022 | 11:03 am(NZT)

Barry Lopez on Storytelling and His Advice on the Three Steps to Becoming a Writer

“It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us.”


Barry Lopez on Storytelling and His Advice on the Three Steps to Becoming a Writer

Without story, there is no self. For all human beings, internal narrative is the pillar of memory and identity. For the subset of our species who identify as writers, storytelling is the shape we give to our longing to comprehend and connect with the world. “Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want,” wrote Ursula K. Le Guin, that exquisite specimen of the subset. The storyteller’s role, wrote the exquisite Baldwin, is “to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.”

At its best, storytelling dilates the locus of you to locate the doom and glory in the knowledge that we are each a part of something greater than ourselves; to make of that knowledge something greater than an identity. Something we might call belonging. Something we might call transcendence.

One of the most poignant, precise takes on the power and secret of storytelling I have ever encountered comes from Barry Lopez (January 6, 1945–December 25, 2020), whose vast and varied body of work illuminates with uncommon radiance the interleaving of nature and human nature — the way our relationship with Earth and the universe shapes our relationship with ourselves and each other.

Art by Charlie Mackesy from The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

In his altogether superb essay collection About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory (public library) — which also gave us his insight into the role of pattern, perspective, and trust in storytelling — he considers the essence of the art, into which he arrived through the portal of anthropology:

In all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved, to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one’s life. Wherever I’ve traveled — Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan — I’ve found that the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives. It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us.

Art by Ping Zhu for A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. (Available as a print.)

Lopez recounts how once, on a long trans-Pacific flight, his seat-mate discerned his occupation, professed that his thirteen-year-old daughter aspired to become a writer, and asked his advice.

He instructed the man to tell her three things: the first evocative of W.E.B. Du Bois’s advice to his own teenage daughter; the second of Rachel Carson’s assurance that “if you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in… you will interest other people”; the third of Susan Sontag’s insistence that the writer’s job is “to make us see the world as it is, full of many different claims and parts and experiences.”

This is what Lopez offered the eager father beside him:

  1. Tell her to read… Tell her to read whatever interests her, and protect her if someone declares what she’s reading to be trash. No one can fathom what happens between a human being and written language. She may be paying attention to things in the words beyond anyone else’s comprehension, things that feed her curiosity, her singular heart and mind. Tell her to read classics like The Odyssey. They’ve been around a long time because the patterns in them have proved endlessly useful, and, to borrow Evan Connell’s observation, with a good book you never touch bottom. But warn your daughter that ideas of heroism, of love, of human duty and devotion that women have been writing about for centuries will not be available to her in this form. To find these voices she will have to search. When, on her own, she begins to ask, make her a present of George Eliot, or the travel writing of Alexandra David-Neel, or To the Lighthouse.
  2. Tell your daughter that she can learn a great deal about writing by reading and by studying books about grammar and the organization of ideas, but that if she wishes to write well she will have to become someone. She will have to discover her beliefs, and then speak to us from within those beliefs. If her prose doesn’t come out of her belief, whatever that proves to be, she will only be passing along information, of which we are in no great need. So help her discover what she means.
  3. Tell your daughter to get out of town, and help her do that. I don’t necessarily mean to travel to Kazakhstan, or wherever, but to learn another language, to live with people other than her own, to separate herself from the familiar. Then, when she returns, she will be better able to understand why she loves the familiar, and will give us a fresh sense of how fortunate we are to share these things.
Drawing by David Byrne from A History of the World (in Dingbats)

Looking at the father trying to absorb it all, Lopez distilled his advice:

Read. Find out what you truly believe. Get away from the familiar. Every writer… will offer you thoughts about writing that are different, but these are three I trust.

Looking back on his own aspiration from the fortunate lookout of a long and accomplished life, he reflects:

If I were asked what I want to accomplish as a writer, I would say it’s to contribute to a literature of hope. With my given metaphors, rooted in a childhood spent outdoors in California and which take much of their language from Jesuit classrooms in New York City, I want to help create a body of stories in which men and women can discover trustworthy patterns.

Art by Ofra Amit from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. (Available as a print.)

With an eye to his formative childhood passion for raising tumbler pigeons and releasing them into the open sky — “an experience so exhilarating I would turn slowly under them in circles of glee” — he adds:

Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story, in the end, is social. Whatever a writer sets down can harm or help the community of which he or she is a part. When I write, I can imagine a child in California wishing to give away what he’s just seen — a wild animal fleeing through creosote cover in the desert, casting a bright — eyed backward glance. Or three lines of overheard conversation that seem to contain everything we need understand to repair the gaping rift between body and soul. I look back at that boy turning in glee beneath his pigeons, and know it can take a lifetime to convey what you mean, to find the opening. You watch, you set it down. Then you try again.

Complement with George Saunders on the key to great storytelling, Maurice Sendak on music as the secret to storytelling, Anton Chekhov’s six rules for a great story, and Jeanette Winterson’s ten tips on writing (which apply to just about all creative work), then revisit Beethoven’s touching letter of advice to a little girl who had asked him what it takes to be an artist.


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: Brain Pickings | 18 Jun 2022 | 7:00 pm(NZT)

The Human Kaleidoscope and the Unwritten Story of the World: “Radiolab” Creator Jad Abumrad’s Superb Caltech Commencement Address

A ten-year-old boy on the side of a Lebanese mountain road, three generations of monarch butterflies, and the history of the future.


Beginnings are a beautiful thing — beautiful and terrifying, marked by the wonder of the possible and the weight of the possible.

A beginning is a singular kind of freedom — a vector reaching toward a nebulous infinity of possible endings, yet bound to spear only one; a vector haunted by the knowledge that every littlest step taken along it takes us one way and not another, even the steps we don’t realize we are taking — which, in a reality governed primarily by chance, are most steps. And as James Baldwin — who uniquely understood our delusions about chance and choice — bellows down the hallway of time to remind us, “nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.”

Because the true beginning of our lives is obscured behind the horizon of conscious memory and swaddled in complete lack of agency, different cultures and civilizations have designated various points along the path as the proper beginning of independent life — none more momentous, in this particular culture, than the point at which we leave the safety of the family cocoon and the structure educational system, and leap into the open sky of independence (itself a notion that is, as the pandemic has rudely reminded us, another delusion of our species). To embolden the leap, our culture has devised one particularly beloved packet of instructions: the commencement address.

From Radiolab creator, composer, and all-around golden human Jad Abumrad comes an especially fine addition to the finest of the genre: his address to the graduating Caltech class of 2022 — a gorgeous meditation on the Rube Goldberg machine of accidents that make each and every existence possible: that rosary of randomness leading to any one life, beaded with chance events stretching all the way to the Big Bang (and possibly beyond it), of which we can only ever glimpse a handful of beads on the nano-scale of a few human generations in our ancestry.

Jad’s father (third from left) with siblings.

At the heart of Jad’s singularly personal story — which is also the universal story — is a reminder that these accidents of chance render the choices we make with our lives all the more meaningful, all the more urgent: a sort of cosmic duty to recompense the universe for the unbidden gift of our lives as we ourselves come to bead the rosary of the future.

Jad’s great-grandfather, Brazil, 1890s.

Jad begins the address with a short guided meditation into presence — the single bead of being we ever touch directly. I find in it a poignant meta-testament to why a great commencement address is such a powerful gift for any life-stage — not only the outset of adulthood: A kernel of all meditation traditions is the idea that, whenever you find yourself hijacked by thought and distracted by story during meditation, you can “begin again.” It is what saves a practice. It is also, when applied to the practice of living, what can save a life.

Commence again.

Any day.

Jad’s grandfather, grandmother, and father (first from left) with siblings.

Jad has kindly shared with me the transcript, along with a wondrous private portal of time travel through the family photo album, folded into which — as into any personal history — is a fragment of world-history bridging epochs, cultures, and interwoven fates.

Hello, my friends! It’s a great, great honor for me to be here with you guys today — particularly meaningful because I know this is the first one of these, live, in a couple of years.

OK, let’s take stock: It’s 10:28 AM, June 10, 2022.

Do me a favor: Close your eyes for a second. Call into your consciousness a fast-cutting montage of the 120 million seconds of your educational experience that have led you to this moment. Bring it into your mind:

The pandemic waves. The gut-wrenching reckonings. The friendships. The papers. The Zooms. The masks. The readings. The labs.

All of it — call it to mind.

Now, eyes still closed, feel the air around you — that very particular stultifyingly hot Southern California air — on your cheeks; feel the heat building up between your head and your cap; feel the pressure of the chair on your butt.

That feeling right there, of the air and the pressure? That is the feeling of all it about to be behind you. It’s the feeling of you, on the brink, about to cross over.

OK, open your eyes. Thank for indulging me in that meditative moment (part of which was lovingly borrowed from my pal Robert Krulwich).

When I was first asked to deliver the commencement address, I was a little scared. I didn’t think I was up to it. You all are about to graduate from one of the top colleges the country. You’ve already weathered a singularly difficult moment in human history: What could I possibly say to you, as you stand on the brink, that resembles wisdom?

And then I thought, perhaps that’s the point: There is a void out there. Looming. For all of you. That void is called tomorrow. What will happen tomorrow? What will happen the day after tomorrow?

I imagine some of you are already terrified of this. If you’re not, I bow to you, but perhaps in a few months, when it’s time to go back to college and you realize, Oh damn, there’s no college to go back to. There’s just life — the string of days that is my life, one after another, until I die.

Maybe then, in that moment, you’ll have that feeling of Uh-oh: What. Now. What do I do?

I would like to address this existential question and the angst it presents. (I feel a little bit of that angst looming in the air, commingling with the heat.)

I brought two pictures with me to help: I brought a picture of my grandfather — you can’t see this, but just imagine me but with an Arab Man Mustache, sepia — and I brought a picture of a monarch butterfly. I bring them as offerings to you, as spirit-guides on your journey.

In 1915, my grandfather was about ten. He lived in a village called Waidi Shahrour, which is in the mountains of Lebanon. It’s just him and his two brothers and his mom. His dad — my great-grandpa — had gone off to Brazil to find some work. But then he’d gotten trapped there, because this was WWI and the entire country was blockaded — you had the Allied Forces (let’s call them) on one side, and then the Germans on the other — and nothing or no one was allowed in or out. So the entire country was starving. It’s a pretty small country — 400,000 people. 200,000 had died. This is now referred to as the Great Famine of Mount Lebanon.

So: My grandfather is a little boy, as I said. And his mom — my great-grandma — has to feed the family. So she decides on this plan, where every week, she, my grandpa, and his two brothers would get produce from their village, and they’d pack it into carts, and they’d walk up and over thirty-five miles of snow-covered mountain, and back down to where the Germans were stationed, and then they would sell their produce to the German army, and in exchange get wheat and flour and dried milk and other things, which they’d pack into carts, drag thirty-five miles the other direction, up and over the mountains, back near their village, where the Allied soldiers were stationed, and then they’d trade that stuff with them.

And that’s how they survived: They traded supplies between the enemies that occupied their country. It’s a particularly Lebanese existence.

And they made this trip once a week, every week, on foot: thirty-five miles one way, thirty-five miles back.

Well, one day, on the return leg of one of these journeys, my great-grandma — my grandpa’s mom — stops, clutches her chest, falls over, and dies. So there’s my grandfather — a ten-year-old boy — staring into a void.

What the hell do you do in that moment?

I imagine him looking at his mom, his two brothers, and the carts full of grains and dried milk that still had to be traded or else they’d starve. And he just knew. Somewhere inside of him, there was now a deep understanding. The tectonic plates of him had realigned.

So what did he do? He buried his mom on the side of the road. And kept on walking.

He was ten.

Now, he would eventually have a moment to actually process this — when he was seventy, he’d return to that spot on the side of the road and weep for an hour — but, at the time, he just kept walking.

Now fast-forward, and he has a family of his own, one of whom was my dad. And he works three jobs to ensure that my dad would go to university. My dad did not want to go to university, but my grandfather said, You are damned well going to go to university and you are damned well going to be a doctor. Because nobody in the village of five thousand people had ever done that. So my dad went to university, met my mom, they come to America — again, another first for the village — and, there, they had me: this nerdy kid who would go on to make a show called Radiolab. And here I am.

There are times when I’m walking down the street in New York, just feeling the force of the earth on my feet, and the sheer improbability of this chain of events stops me in my tracks: None of this had to be. I was not inevitable. You are all not inevitable. You did not have to be here. I certainly didn’t have to be there, because I wouldn’t even exist, were it not for a ten-year-old boy who had to bury his mother on the side of the road.

Why am I telling you this?

Because here we are.

This is a happy moment — not a sad moment! But it is one of those moments where everything is about to change for you. Where the future is more unknowable and unconquerable than you can possibly fathom. And I don’t mean this in a generic sense: It seems to me that it’s your generation’s particular inheritance to be faced with things that are too big, too much, too overwhelming. The planet is on fire — my generation has failed you in that regard. Democracies are on fire. There’s a plague of misinformation — again, we’ve let you down. Oh, there’s an actual plague — not sure what we could have done about that, but we probably let you down there, too.

Point is, like that young boy in 1915, circumstances have left you with not a whole lot choice but to put one foot in front of the other and walk into whatever is next. And if I have any wisdom to offer you, it’s this:

You don’t have to fully comprehend anything now. All you have to do is walk. Just set yourself in motion, and let go of everything else.

And as graduates of Caltech, you are in a position, more than most, to know the awesome gravity of the void you are walking into. The gift, and the curse, of the scientific mind is to know that every time we presume to see the whole of something, the plane of reality will tilt to reveal new mysteries — here I’m quoting from a writer friend, Maria Popova — and when reality does that tilt, we’re always “staggered with the sudden sense that we had been looking at only a fragment. The history of our species is the history of learning and forgetting and relearning this elemental truth.”

You all know this. You’re the ones who have the clearest sense that there is so much we do not know. But as graduates of Caltech, you are also the ones with the greatest ability to see possibility in that void. To walk into it and discover and create and build the unimaginable.

And one of the wonderful things about my grandfather’s story, to me — and the reason I offer it to you — is that you do not know how the story will end. My grandfather could not have fathomed a world where people download packages of audio data called podcasts through the air onto things called smartphones, and that someone could possibly make a living doing this. If he were here next to me right now, think of all of the things I would have to explain to him for that last sentence to make sense to him. And yet, he helped create it all.

And here I’ll quote the final words of the science fiction series The Expanse:

“You will never know the effect you will have on someone, not really. It doesn’t matter if you know. The universe will never tell you if you are right or wrong. You just have to try.”

It’s a little humbling, that thought. But I find there’s also a comfort in this way of thinking, in that it’s not just up to you.

Which brings me to my second picture.

Preparing for this commencement, I learned a startling fact: The monarch butterflies that you sometimes see here in Los Angeles, they migrate about 3,000 miles from Vancouver Canada to Michoacán Mexico — that we knew. What I didn’t know was that each leg of that journey takes the monarchs three to four generations. (Apparently, researchers just learned this.) Three to four generations, each way.

Think about that: A new butterfly takes flight from a eucalyptus tree in Vancouver. By the time the butterflies get here, to Los Angeles, that mother butterfly is gone, her child is gone, and her child’s child is now doing the flying. By the time they make it to Mexico, it’s the child’s child’s child.

It is unsettling, to see yourself as just one particle in a stream. One butterfly in a kaleidoscope. (Did you know that groups of butterflies are called a kaleidoscope? Isn’t that cool? I didn’t know this until, uh, yesterday?)

And the thing is, you might not be the first butterfly. You won’t know it, but you might be the third — or, more likely, the three-hundredth. Taking the work and the knowledge and the discoveries of those that came before you. And, in your life time, you are going to move it forward in ways no one could have imagine. And you’re not going to get all the way. And that’s OK. Because without your effort, humanity is never going to get there.

So, to conclude: I wish you all so much luck, so much fierceness, as you take flight tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.

All of us old people up here — myself included — are counting on you. But we’re also with flying you. You know, looking back on my early twenties, I remember feeling that my story was singularly mine to write. I now see I’m part of a larger flow. And stepping up here, to this podium, I said to myself, C’mon, grandpa. It’s time.

He’s up here with me. The whole village is up here with me. And all of us, we fly with you tomorrow — a human kaleidoscope.

So: Let’s do this, butterflies. Let’s change the future.

Jad’s grandfather (top left) and father (boy with flowers, front center) with friends and family in their mountain village.

Complement with Rachel Carson’s deathbed letter about the monarch butterflies and the meaning of life — one of the most beautiful love letters ever written — and her own spectacular commencement address about how to save a world, addressing not only one particular graduating class but the generations of the future she never lived to see and of which we are now a part, then revisit Jad’s tender poetry-fomented tribute to his mother, who spent thirty-five years — more than 150 monarch butterfly generations — unpuzzling a single protein.


donating = loving

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


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

Source: Brain Pickings | 18 Jun 2022 | 8:34 am(NZT)

June 16, 1816: The Inception of Frankenstein and Mary Shelley’s Prescient Warning About Reproductive Rights

A teenage girl from another epoch illuminates the fault lines of ours.


In June 1816, five young people high on romance and rebellion — two still in their teens, one barely out, none beyond their twenties — found themselves in bored captivity at a rented villa on the shore of Lake Geneva as an unremitting storm raged outside for days. If they couldn’t have the dazzling spring days for which they had fled England, they would have long rambling nights of poetry readings and philosophical disquisitions, animated by wine and laudanum. 

The Villa Diodati 200 years later.

So it is that, late one stormy night, one of them — Lord Byron: gifted, grandiose, violently insecure, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” in the words of one of his discarded lovers — pulled a French translation of some German ghost stories from their Airbnb’s bookshelf and read from it to the group. He then suggested that they each write a supernatural story of their own, share the results aloud, and vote a winner.

Of the five, one alone completed the challenge at the Villa Diodati and made of it something to outlast its marble columns. It was not His Lordship.

The idea came to her in a “waking dream” several nights later, Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) would recall, looking back on the crucible of creativity — the dream she would sculpt, over the next year of ferocious writing and revision, into one of humanity’s most visionary works of literature.

Mary Shelley

There is no record of the exact night or the exact hour. But two centuries later, drawing on Mary’s account of the moment her idea finally arrived as she lay in bed restless with “the moonlight struggling to get through,” astronomers would use the phase of the Moon and its position in the sky over the Villa Diodati to determine that the only light bright enough to clear the hillside and shine through Mary’s shutters in the middle of the night was the gibbous of June 16, just shy of 2 A.M. 

“Once a poem is made available to the public,” the teenage Sylvia Plath would tell her mother a century-some later, “the right of interpretation belongs to the the reader.” Like a great poem, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus would lend itself to infinite interpretations as it came to tower over the popular imagination for centuries to come, casting its long shadow over the fault lines of the future — the future that is now our present, in which so many of the ideas Mary Shelley contoured and condemned are realities both mundane and menacing: artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, racism and income inequality, the longing for love and the lust for power.

Rising above the multitude of possible readings is the overarching concern that unites them all: the responsibility of life to itself and the question of what makes a body a person; the clear sense that any life is a responsibility — one not to be taken lightly, not to be sullied with vanity and superstition, not to be used as a plaything of power.

Mary Shelley. Art from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

Victor Frankenstein creates a life out of vainglorious ambition and existential loneliness, and flees from his own creation in horror. Unable to love the life he has made, he fails to rise to the fundamental responsibility that parenting demands.

Deprived of that primary bond of love, which moors us to the seabed of being to weather life’s storms, the Creature — which Mary Shelley herself never calls a “monster,” a word applied to him only in later stagings of her masterwork — is savaged by such profound self-loathing that he ends up destroying numerous innocent passersby who cross his sad path. “I am malicious because I am miserable,” he roars in one the truest and most devastating lines in all of literature, in all the common record of our reckoning with human nature.

Mary Shelley’s warning rises from the story sonorous and clear as larksong: Life is not to be made, unless it can be tended with love — or else it dooms all involved to a living death.

“Oh! Stars and clouds and winds,” cries the Creature in his anguished wish for self-erasure, “if ye really pity me, crush sensation and memory” — anguish outmatched only by that of his creator. Wishing with every fiber of his being that he could unmake the life he made but knowing that he cannot, Victor Frankenstein goes through his own life as “a miserable wretch, haunted by a curse that shut up every avenue to enjoyment.”

The notion of reproductive rights was nowhere near the cultural horizon in Mary Shelley’s lifetime. Still beyond the horizon were most basic human rights for women. No woman could vote. No woman could attend university. In her entire century, only four women successfully obtained divorce, and only after demonstrating savage brutality from their husbands. Husbands were legally allowed to beat and rape their wives, who were their property. Women could not own property, including their own bodies.

This was the world Mary was born into, by a mother — the brilliant founding mother of what posterity christened feminism — who had died in giving birth to her. Mary herself — penniless, malnourished, and wearied by long mountain crossings in exile — would barely survive the births of the four children she bore before she was twenty-four, three of whom would die before reaching adolescence. She was eighteen and had already lost her firstborn when she wrote one of the farthest-seeing works of her time, of all time.

With an eye to his creation — “the living monument of presumption and rash ignorance which I had let loose upon the world” — Victor Frankenstein laments the responsibility to life, to other lives, that he had sidestepped in the sweep of his passion:

In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature and was bound towards him to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being.

This was my duty, but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery.

So begins his quest to track down and vanquish the life he ought never to have created in the first place — a quest that ultimately ends in his own destruction.

A world without the option of abating an ill-conceived life before it has begun is a world that dooms millions to Victor Frankenstein’s fate. What a pause-giving thought: that a girl not yet nineteen, who lived two centuries ago, has a finer moral compass than the Supreme Court of the world’s largest twenty-first-century democracy.

One of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s 1920 illustrations for old French fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

Several years and several deaths later — including that of her young husband — Mary Shelley would write the mirror-image of these ideas into another novel, imagining a twenty-first-century world savaged by a deadly pandemic to consider what ultimately makes life worth living.


donating = loving

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


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

Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Jun 2022 | 3:32 am(NZT)

Twenty Reasons for Being

A pastiche poem of tribute to the past and resolve for the possible.


Twenty years ago today, Krista Tippett birthed the life-force that is On Being. It began as a small local public radio show and ended up as a beloved podcast making lives all over the world infinitely more livable and luminous. President Barack Obama gave her the National Humanities Medal for it. Millions gave her their hearts as she gave us the universe of hers.

It is a landmark moment for On Being as it shape-shifts into its next incarnation, and for Krista as a human being moving through the stages of a human life.

Reasons for Being by Maria Popova

To celebrate it, and to bow to the horizon of the next twenty years, I combed through the On Being archive to compose a twenty-line pastiche poem, made from the titles of episodes that have aired sometime in the past twenty years.

Here it is, with each line linking to the episode it came from:

TWENTY REASONS FOR BEING

notice the rage
notice the silence —

silence and the presence
        of everything:

small truths
        and other surprises

what we nurture
how we live with loss
        saved by the beauty of the world

seeking language
        large enough

a life worthy of our breath

when no question
        seems big enough:

what if we get this        right?

this tiny slice of eternity —
mathematics, mystery,
        and the universe —

this fantastic argument
                        of being alive.


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: Brain Pickings | 16 Jun 2022 | 6:49 am(NZT)

Bronson Alcott on the Meaning of Family and How Our Friendships Humanize Us: His Ecstatic Diary Entry Upon His Daughter Louisa May’s Birth

“The human being isolates itself from the supplies of Providence for the happiness and renovation of life, unless those ties which connect it with others are formed.”


Making a family, having a family — these are different things, and different things to different people. But whatever family means to us, in its haven we are in some primal sense making — and remaking — ourselves. It bears remembering that “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.”

Bronson Alcott (November 29, 1799–March 4, 1888) — abolitionist, education reformer, women’s rights advocate, early proponent of vegetarianism, philosophical gardener — refined his political and humanistic ideas on the whetstone of fatherhood. He filled notebook after notebook with loving, insightful observations of his four daughters, contemplating the complexities of human nature as he watched them play, ask questions, and piece for themselves the puzzle of being. The title of these notebooks — The Dial — became the title of the epoch-making Transcendentalist journal, on the pages of which America took its infant steps toward original cultural contribution as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller worked out their confused mutual magnetism while sharing the editorship.

Bronson Alcott

The birth of his second daughter — who would later turn her formative family experience into one of the most beloved novels of all time — brought a renaissance in Alcott’s entire intellectual, emotional, and spiritual universe. He had just discovered the poetry of Coleridge, in which he found “wisdom not of this earth.” He felt it had done him more good than any writing he had encountered before. He felt it augured a “new era” in his “mental and psychological life” — one in which he was to contemplate ever more deeply the meaning and purpose of our existence.

That era dawned on the 29th of November — his own thirty-third birthday — when Louisa May was born. He wrote in his journal:

This is a most interesting event. From the great experience of domestic life which has been mine, I have derived much enjoyment, finding in the ties thus originated the necessary connexions with sympathetic existence from which my abstract habits incline me too strongly, perhaps, to escape. A family, while it turns the mind toward the tangible and practical, supplies at the same time fresh stimulus for the social and spiritual principle; it brings around the soul those elements from whose presence and influence it is fitted to advance its onward progress, and opens within the sweetest affection and purest purpose.

Art by Loren Long from Love by Matt de la Peña — an illustrated celebration of the many meanings of family.

In a passage that sings to those of us who favor a constellation of chosen closenesses over the nuclear family model, Alcott steps beyond the domestic sphere to consider the vivifying rewards of our friendships — those nurturing havens of love in which we best grow and which form, in his lovely phrase, “the Nursery of the Soul”:

The human being isolates itself from the supplies of Providence for the happiness and renovation of life, unless those ties which connect it with others are formed. The wants of the Soul become morbid, and all its truth and primal affections are dimmed and perverted. Nature becomes encrusted over with earth and surrounded by monotony and ennui. Few can be happy shut out from the Nursery of the Soul.

Complement with Kahlil Gibran’s poignant advice on parenting and Willa Cather on how our formative family dynamics imprint us, then revisit Alcott on gardening and genius.


donating = loving

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


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

Source: Brain Pickings | 15 Jun 2022 | 2:15 pm(NZT)

The Beginning and the End: Robinson Jeffers’s Epic Poem About the Interwoven Mystery of Mind and Universe

“Pleasure and pain, wonder, love, adoration, hatred and terror: how do these thing grow from a chemical reaction?”


The Beginning and the End: Robinson Jeffers’s Epic Poem About the Interwoven Mystery of Mind and Universe

“We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness,” the anthropologist and philosopher of science Loren Eiseley wrote in his poetic meditation on life in 1960. “We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”

The history of our species is the history of forgetting. Our deepest existential longing is the longing for remembering this cosmic belonging, and the work of creativity is the work of reminding us. We may give the tendrils of our creative longing different names — poetry or physics, music or mathematics, astronomy or art — but they all give us one thing: an antidote to forgetting, so that we may live, even for a little while, wonder-smitten by reality.

In the same era, the science-inspired poet Robinson Jeffers (January 10, 1887–January 20, 1962) took up this reckoning in the final years of his life in an immense and ravishing poem that became the title of his collection The Beginning and the End (public library | free ebook), published the year after his death.

Robinson Jeffers by Edward Weston

Jeffers was not only an exquisite literary artist, but a visionary who bent his sight and insight far past the horizon of his time — he wrote about climate change long before it was even a tremor of a worry in the common mind, even though he died months before Rachel Carson published her epoch-making Silent Spring, which awakened the human mind from its ecological somnolence and seeded the environmental movement. But although he is celebrated as one of the great environmental poets, he was as enchanted by the wonders of nature on Earth as beyond it, for he understood better than any artist since Whitman that these are parts of a single and awesome reality, and we are part of it too — not as spectators, not as explorers, but as living stardust.

Born into an era when the atom was still an exotic notion for the average person and molecules a mystifying abstraction, Jeffers drew richly on the fundamental realities of nature — in no small part because his brother, Hamilton Jeffers, was one of the era’s most esteemed astronomers, having gotten his start at the Lick Observatory — the world’s first real mountaintop observatory, where the first new moon of Jupiter since the Galilean four had been discovered months before Hamilton was born.

Jupiter and its then-four moons by the self-taught 17th-century astronomer and artist Maria Clara Eimmart

Jeffers wrote about black holes and the Big Bang, about amino acids and novae, about the indivisibility of it all — nowhere more beautifully than in “The Beginning and the End.”

Sixty springs after he returned his borrowed stardust to the universe, his eternal poem came alive in a redwood-nested amphitheater down the mountain from the Lick Observatory, as the opening poem of the fifth annual Universe in Verse, read by my darling astronomer friend Natalie Batalha, who led the epoch-making discovery of more than 4,000 potential cradles for life by NASA’s Kepler mission and now continues her work on the search for life beyond our solar system with the astrobiology program at UC Santa Cruz.

As usual, Natalie prefaced her reading with a poignant reflection that is itself nothing less than a prose poem about the nature of life and its responsibility to nature — that is, to itself:

We are Earth. We are the planet. We are the biosphere. We are not distinct from nature.

Yet, at the same time, we are, as life — as living things: ourselves, the redwoods, the birds overhead — we are the pinnacle of complexity in the universe, from the Big Bang until now. It took 13.7 billion years for the atoms to come together to form this portal of self-awareness that is you.

[…]

Given this ephemeral existence that we have, of self-awareness, what are you going to do with your moment? What are we, as a species, going to do with our moment?

Excerpts from “THE BEGINNING AND THE END”
by Robinson Jeffers

The unformed volcanic earth, a female thing,
Furiously following with the other planets
Their lord the sun: her body is molten metal pressed rigid
By its own mass; her beautiful skin, basalt and granite and the lighter elements,
Swam to the top. She was like a mare in her heat eyeing the stallion,
Screaming for life in the womb; her atmosphere
Was the breath of her passion: not the blithe air
Men breathe and live, but marsh-gas, ammonia, sulphured hydrogen,
Such poison as our remembering bodies return to
When they die and decay and the end of life
Meets its beginning. The sun heard her and stirred
Her thick air with fierce lightnings and flagellations
Of germinal power, building impossible molecules, amino-acids
And flashy unstable proteins: thence life was born,
Its nitrogen from ammonia, carbon from methane,
Water from the cloud and salts from the young seas,
It dribbled down into the primal ocean like a babe’s urine
Soaking the cloth: heavily built protein molecules
Chemically growing, bursting apart as the tensions
In the inordinate molecule become unbearable —
That is to say, growing and reproducing themselves, a virus
On the warm ocean.

Time and the world changed,
The proteins were no longer created, the ammoniac atmosphere
And the great storms no more. This virus now
Must labor to maintain itself. It clung together
Into bundles of life, which we call cells,
With microscopic walls enclosing themselves
Against the world. But why would life maintain itself,
Being nothing but a dirty scum on the sea
Dropped from foul air? Could it perhaps perceive
Glories to come? Could it foresee that cellular life
Would make the mountain forest and the eagle dawning,
Monstrously beautiful, wings, eyes and claws, dawning
Over the rock-ridge? And the passionate human intelligence
Straining its limits, striving to understand itself and the universe to the last galaxy.

[…]

What is this thing called life? — But I believe
That the earth and stars too, and the whole glittering universe, and rocks on the mountain have life,
Only we do not call it so — I speak of the life
That oxydizes fats and proteins and carbo-
Hydrates to live on, and from that chemical energy
Makes pleasure and pain, wonder, love, adoration, hatred and terror: how do these thing grow
From a chemical reaction?

I think they were here already. I think the rocks
And the earth and the other planets, and the stars and galaxies
Have their various consciousness, all things are conscious;
But the nerves of an animal, the nerves and brain
Bring it to focus

[…]

The human soul.
The mind of man…
Slowly, perhaps, man may grow into it —
Do you think so? This villainous king of beasts, this deformed ape? — He has mind
And imagination, he might go far
And end in honor. The hawks are more heroic but man has a steeper mind,
Huge pits of darkness, high peaks of light,
You may calculate a comet’s orbit or the dive of a hawk, not a man’s mind.

Complement with other highlights from The Universe in Verse — including readings and reflections by Rebecca Solnit, Yo-Yo Ma, Patti Smith, and more — then savor Jeffers’s breathtaking letter to the principal of an all-girls Catholic school about moral beauty and the interconnectedness of the universe.


donating = loving

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


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

Source: Brain Pickings | 14 Jun 2022 | 4:52 pm(NZT)

The Dandelion and the Meaning of Life: G.K. Chesterton on How to Dig for the “Submerged Sunrise of Wonder”

Recovering the “forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence” alive in the back of our modernity-deadened minds.


The Dandelion and the Meaning of Life: G.K. Chesterton on How to Dig for the “Submerged Sunrise of Wonder”

There is a myth we live with, the myth of finding the meaning of life — as if meaning were an undiscovered law of physics. But unlike the laws of physics — which predate us and will postdate us and made us — meaning only exists in this brief interlude of consciousness between chaos and chaos, the interlude we call life. When you die — when these organized atoms that shimmer with fascination and feeling — disband into disorder to become unfeeling stardust once more, everything that filled your particular mind and its rosary of days with meaning will be gone too. From its particular vantage point, there will be no more meaning, for the point itself will have dissolved — there will only be other humans left, making meaning of their own lives, including any meaning they might make of the residue of yours.

These are the thoughts coursing through this temporary constellation of consciousness as I pause at the lush mid-June dandelion at the foot of the hill on my morning run — the dandelion, now a fiesta of green where a season ago the small sun of its bloom had been, then the ethereal orb of its seeds, now long dispersed; the dandelion, existing for no better reason than do I, than do you — and no worse — by the same laws of physics beyond meaning: these clauses of exquisite precision punctuated by chance.

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

And yet, somehow, against the staggering cosmic odds otherwise, we get to experience this sky, these trees, these colors, these loves we live. The recognition of this unbidden miracle of chance is the fundamental matter of meaning — the great awakening from the myth.

How to awaken to this miraculousness and begin to make meaning is, of course, the great creative challenge of life.

All of this — the dandelion, the insistence on wonder as the sieve for meaning — reminded me of a some passages by G.K. Chesterton (May 29, 1874–June 14, 1936) — philosopher, impassioned early eugenics opponent, prolific author of several dozen books, several hundred poems and short stories, and several thousand essays — from The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton (public library).

G.K. Chesterton at seventeen

A century after Baudelaire observed that “genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will,” and a generation before Dylan Thomas insisted that “children in wonder watching the stars, is the aim and the end,” Chesterton looks back on his early life and how it fomented the animating ethos of his later life as a literary artist and thinker:

What was wonderful about childhood is that anything in it was a wonder. It was not merely a world full of miracles; it was a miraculous world.

With an eye to the absurdity of pessimism as a life-orientation, given the astonishing good luck of existing at all in a universe where the probability is overwhelmingly against it, he adds:

No man* knows how much he is an optimist, even when he calls himself a pessimist, because he has not really measured the depths of his debt to whatever created him and enabled him to call himself anything. At the back of our brains… [there is] a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life [is] to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he [is] actually alive, and be happy.

Once Chesterton found the art through which to channel this blaze of astonishment, he found his writing “full of a new and fiery resolution to write against the Decadents and the Pessimists who ruled the culture of the age.” He reflects:

The primary problem for me, certainly in order of time and largely in order of logic… was the problem of how men could be made to realise the wonder and splendour of being alive, in environments which their own daily criticism treated as dead-alive, and which their imagination had left for dead.

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

And so we get to the dandelion:

I had from the first an almost violently vivid sense of those two dangers; the sense that the experience must not be spoilt by presumption or despair… I asked through what incarnations or prenatal purgatories I must have passed, to earn the reward of looking at a dandelion… [or a] sunflower or the sun… But there is a way of despising the dandelion which is not that of the dreary pessimist, but of the more offensive optimist. It can be done in various ways; one of which is saying, “You can get much better dandelions at Selfridge’s,” or “You can get much cheaper dandelions at Woolworth’s.” Another way is to observe with a casual drawl, “Of course nobody but Gamboli in Vienna really understands dandelions,” or saying that nobody would put up with the old-fashioned dandelion since the super-dandelion has been grown in the Frankfurt Palm Garden; or merely sneering at the stinginess of providing dandelions, when all the best hostesses give you an orchid for your buttonhole and a bouquet of rare exotics to take away with you. These are all methods of undervaluing the thing by comparison; for it is not familiarity but comparison that breeds contempt. And all such captious comparisons are ultimately based on the strange and staggering heresy that a human being has a right to dandelions; that in some extraordinary fashion we can demand the very pick of all the dandelions in the garden of Paradise; that we owe no thanks for them at all and need feel no wonder at them at all; and above all no wonder at being thought worthy to receive them.

Dandelion by Jackie Morris from The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane — a spell against the erasure of wonder from this world

Find some kindred thought in this epochs-wide meditation on the flower and the meaning of life, starring Emily Dickinson, Michael Pollan, and the Little Prince, then revisit Roar Like a Dandelion — poet Ruth Krauss’s lost serenade to wonder, found and turned into a modern picture-book by artist Sergio Ruzzier.


donating = loving

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


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

Source: Brain Pickings | 13 Jun 2022 | 4:08 am(NZT)

The Grandmother, the Mermaid, and the Soul: Poet Elizabeth Alexander on How Literature Widens the Portal of the Possible

How a poem made a life and a life a poem.


The Grandmother, the Mermaid, and the Soul: Poet Elizabeth Alexander on How Literature Widens the Portal of the Possible

“Books feed and cure and chortle and collide,” Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in her 1969 love-poem to reading, after the love of books — the reading of them, the making of them — had made her the first black poet to with the Pulitzer Prize. “Books are meat and medicine and flame and flight and flower.”

Meanwhile, seven hundred miles southeast, a seven-year-old girl with a flaming love of reading was asking her grandmother to tell again the story of the most daring dream that had animated her own childhood. That girl would one day become a poet herself — a poet who would one day welcome America’s first black president to the presidency with a stunning poem, only the fourth in the history of a young nation to be read at a presidential inauguration; a poet who would one day herself become president of America’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities, founded the year Brooks penned her poem — the first woman to preside over it and the first woman of color to preside over any large philanthropic organization.

Elizabeth Alexander tells the story of her grandmother’s literature-fomented dreams and their far-reaching tendrils of possibility in her lovely contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — that labor-of-love collection of 121 original illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us, composed by some of the most inspiring humans in our world, whose character has been shaped by their love of reading: poets and physicists, cellists and entrepreneurs, artists and astronauts.

Painting by R. Gregory Christie for Elizabeth Alexander’s letter in A Velocity of Being.

She writes:

My grandmother Wenonah Bond Logan was the most beloved friend of my childhood. She grew up in the racially segregated U.S. South in the early part of the twentieth century, mostly in Alabama. Her family moved to Washington, DC, when she was a teenager; the nation’s capital was also then the segregated South.

Long before she was my grandmother she was a girl with two long, thick braids who used to roller skate to the embassies a few miles from her home and sit on the steps “to imagine the rest of the world was there,” as she’d one day tell me. She’d then continued to stoke her imagining of elsewhere, skating to the public library on Mount Vernon Place to take out stacks of books. She liked to read about other places so she could imagine them, she told me. Most of her friends stayed forever in Washington — nothing wrong with that. But my grandmother’s reading made her dream. Her girlfriends gathered at the train station and wept as they waved her off to storied points north and the hopes of further education, more books.

In the 1920s she wrote to a university in Denmark: I am what is known as an American Negro, and I imagine you have never known one. Will you invite me to come and study at your school? This was one of my favorite of her stories. Why Denmark, I would ask her, entranced by her tales of smorgasbord, the puzzle ring she brought back from a suitor that one day became mine, and the sari she began to wear after being mistaken for Indian. Because when I was a teenager I read about the statue of the little mermaid being built, in Copenhagen harbor, and I wanted to see it for myself.

My grandmother’s much older sister Carrie was given the privilege of choosing her baby sister’s name. She chose Wenonah because she had read it in a book, in Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha.” In that poem — which I most remember with the phrase, “On the banks of the Gitchee Goomee” — was found the name for the treasured baby sister who would grow to read books, imagine worlds far beyond her own, and then go out to find them. The unusual beauty of that most apt name was only to be found in the pages of a book.

For other voices from the choral serenade to the power and pleasure of reading that is A Velocity of Being, savor Rebecca Solnit on books as repair-kits for life, Anne Lamott on reading as the antidote to loss of perspective, Jane Goodall on how a book fomented the childhood dream that became world-changing reality, Alain de Botton on reading as an empathic bridge between othernesses, Debbie Millman on books as testaments to selflessness, Jacqueline Woodson on reading as a gesture of kindness, Ursula K. Le Guin’s playful and poignant poem about reading, David Whyte on reading to taste the thrill of discovery, and the 101-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how a single book saved a dozen young women’s lives.


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: Brain Pickings | 12 Jun 2022 | 10:00 pm(NZT)











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