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Sappho’s Timeless Elegy for Heartbreak at the End of Love, Reimagined in a Haunting Choral Invocation

“Rejoice, go and remember me.”


Sappho’s Timeless Elegy for Heartbreak at the End of Love, Reimagined in a Haunting Choral Invocation

A sole voice rises from antiquity, cuts through the long silencing and erasure of women, cuts through the Ancient Greek tradition of heroic poetry about war and worldly valor, to sing to us in her soulful authoritative voice a new kind of poetry — the personal, consummately intimate poetry of the inner world, the poetry of passionate love and heartbreak, of longing and loss, of the rapture of the natural world — a sensibility that would come to color everything from the cosmogony of the Romantics to pop music.

Celebrated as the Tenth Muse, Sappho (c. 630–c. 570 BC) endures as the first great beacon of women’s right to creative expression and of the basic human right to love whomever one loves — the original champion of what we, two and a half millennia later, have the hard-earned luxury of calling LGBT rights, for unlike Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson twenty-some centuries after her, Sappho did not alter the gender pronouns of her poems to conceal the same-sex nature of her loves — so much so that her native island of Lesbos has woven itself into the etymology of same-sex love in the modern world’s dominant languages.

Sappho tile, Victoria & Albert Museum. (Photograph: Mark Morgan CCBY)

And yet she comes to us only as a faint echo across the whispering gallery of time, erasure, and collective memory — the nine-volume set of her complete works burned with the Library of Alexandria; it is rumored that the early Christian dogmatists of the Byzantine empire burned most of her remaining works as too scandalous for so openly celebrating same-sex love. But the tiny subset of splendor that does survive — nowhere more splendidly than in poet Anne Carson’s enchanting translation, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (public library) — has radiated an aura of genius so immense that it has moved more than one hundred generations and influenced such disparate titans of thought and artistic vision as Mary Wollstonecraft, Oscar Wilde, Allen Ginsburg, and Judy Chicago.

Sappho plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Sappho plate from artist Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1979.

In one of her most staggering poems, Sappho invokes with intimate particularity one of the most universal human experiences: heartbreak at the end of love — that singularly discomposing maelstrom which, in the words of the contemporary poet and philosopher David Whyte, “begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot [and] colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day,” and which modern science has shown to share a neuropsychology with drug withdrawal. Epochs and civilizations later, Sappho’s lyric portal into this elemental dimension of the human heart comes newly alive in a haunting choral invocation by Constellation Chor — New York City’s vocally and culturally kaleidoscopic vocal ensemble, founded by the visionary aural architect Marisa Michelson, who composed the piece and performed it with ensemble members Jen Anaya, Kalli Siamidou, and Tamrin Goldberg.

I simply want to be dead.
Weeping she left me

with many tears and said this:
Oh how badly things have turned out for us.
Sappho, I swear, against my will I leave you.

And I answered her:
Rejoice, go and
remember me. For you know how we cherished you.

Bit if not, I want
to remind you
] and beautiful times we had.

For many crowns of violets
and roses
] at my side you put on

and many woven garlands
made of flowers
around your soft throat.

And with sweet oil
costly
you anointed yourself

and on a soft bed
delicate
you would let lose your longing

and neither any [ ] nor any
holy place nor
was there from which we were absent

no grove [ ] no dance
] no sound
[

Complement with Epictetus, writing seven centuries later, on the Stoic strategy for surviving heartbreak, Rebecca West’s extraordinary love letter to H.G. Wells in the wake of their romantic collapse, and the story of how Hans Christian Andersen turned his heartbreak into one of the most beloved fairy tales of all time, then revisit James Baldwin’s abiding wisdom on love, reimagined in music.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 30 Sep 2020 | 5:54 am(NZT)

The Love of Truth and the Truth of Love: Bertrand Russell on the Two Pillars of Human Flourishing

“Love is wise, hatred is foolish.”


The Love of Truth and the Truth of Love: Bertrand Russell on the Two Pillars of Human Flourishing

In the mid-1950s, as the icy terror of the Cold War was cloaking the embering rubble of two World Wars, the BBC producer and cartoonist Hugh Burnett envisioned an unexampled program to serve both as a cross-cultural bridge and a mirror beaming back to a dimmed and discomposed humanity the noblest and most beautiful ideas of its noblest and most beautiful minds. Face to Face — a series of intimate conversations with people of genius, influence, and exceptional largeness of spirit, interviewed by the British broadcaster and politician John Freeman — began as short-wave radio broadcasts to listeners in the Far East and soon became a BBC television program. Television was then a young medium, aglow as any young medium with the promise of its potential and blind to its peril — something reflected with chilling clarity in Burnett’s own idealistic vision for it, so starkly contrasted by the echo chamber and manipulation laboratory television has become in the half-century since:

One of the most important functions of television is the honest display of human beings to one another. When this happens, it becomes possible to judge whether the standards and beliefs being held up for approval are really as valid and generally supported as we are led to believe. Social progress is slowed by isolation, and one of the great advantages of good television is that people are exposed to wide varieties of views and attitudes quite different form their own.

This is the vision that shaped Face to Face, which set the template for what became, half a century later, the most popular manifestation of a new medium: the podcast. The best of these BBC conversations, accompanied by the great Polish expressionist painter Feliks Topolski’s live portraits of each subject, were later condensed and edited into what might best be described as first-person narratives fusing autobiography and existential reflection, and published as the out-of-print 1964 treasure Face to Face (public library).

Bertrand Russell by Feliks Topolski from Face to Face, 1964.

Among the thirty-five subjects included in the book, alongside Martin Luther King, Edith Sitwell, and Carl Jung, was the Nobel-winning English mathematician, logician, philosopher, and sanity steward Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970), whom I continue to consider one of the most lucid and luminous minds our civilization has produced, and by far the philosopher whose ideas — ideas at the rare and necessary nexus of science and humanitarianism — I most admire in totality.

Having lost his mother when he was two and his father when he was three, Russell fell in love with Euclid amid the loneliness of his childhood. In the loveliness of mathematics and logic, he discovered an instrument of thought that could have, were it more widely adopted, prevented the inhumanity of the world wars. Shortly before his remarkable response to a fascist’s provocation, he reflects on the greatest peril of and to our humanity:

Fanaticism is the danger of the world. It always has been and has done untold harm. I think fanaticism is the greatest danger there is. I might almost say that I was fanatical against fanaticism.

Bertrand Russell by Feliks Topolski from Face to Face, 1964.

When asked what, in nearly ninety years of living, he has learned about life that he considers most important to pass on to posterity, Russell offers two things — “one intellectual and one moral.” The first is a sentiment evocative of Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit” for critical thinking:

When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed, but look only and surely at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.

Two world wars after Tolstoy asserted in his little-known correspondence with Gandhi that “love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills” and a decade after W.H. Auden made what remains the single most poignant one-word revision in the history of the English language — the idealistic “we must love one another or die” before the Second World War to the disillusioned “we must love one another and die” after it — Russell adds his second vital learning:

The moral thing I should wish to say… is very simple. I should say: love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn the kind of charity and the kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.

Complement with Russell’s kindred-spirited contemporary Albert Camus on the three antidotes to the absurdity of life — the third of which is an exquisite affirmation of Russell’s moral bequeathal — and a poetic counterpart in Maya Angelou’s “A Brave and Startling Truth,” and then revisit Russell on how to heal an ailing and divided world, our mightiest defense against political manipulation, what makes a fulfilling life, and his immensely insightful Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the four desires driving all human behavior.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 28 Sep 2020 | 3:32 pm(NZT)

How an Artist is Like a Tree: Paul Klee on Creativity

“Nobody would affirm that the tree grows its crown in the image of its root. Between above and below can be no mirrored reflection.”


How an Artist is Like a Tree: Paul Klee on Creativity

Since we first came down from the trees, we have been looking at them and seeing ourselves, seeing lush metaphors for our own deepest existential concerns — metaphors for the secret to lasting love, metaphors for what it means to live with authenticity, metaphors for finding infinity in our solitude.

Trees have been of especial enchantment and self-clarification to artists. “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter. “As a man is, so he sees.” Two centuries later, the visionary Agnes Martin first dreamt up the spare visual poetics of her grids while “thinking of the innocence of trees.”

But no one has intersected the canon of sylvan metaphors with the canon of theories of creativity more insightfully than the Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee (December 18, 1879–June 29, 1940) did in a 1924 lecture about the creative process, later adapted into the now-iconic essay “On Modern Art,” posthumously published in 1948 as a slim, lovely book with a foreword by the great English philosopher, anarchist, poet, and art historian Herbert Read — a man who so ardently believed that “art must lead beyond the arts, to an awareness and a share of mutuality” — and included in the 1964 anthology Modern Artists on Art (public library).

Little Painting of Fir-Trees by Paul Klee, 1922. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

Considering “those elements in the creative process which, during the growth of a work of art, take place in the subconscious,” Klee likens the artist to a tree and writes:

The artist has studied this world of variety and has, we may suppose, unobtrusively found his way in it. His sense of direction has brought order into the passing stream of image and experience. This sense of direction in nature and life, this branching and spreading array, I shall compare with the root of the tree.

From the root the sap flows to the artist, flows through him, flows to his eye.

Thus he stands as the trunk of the tree.

Battered and stirred by the strength of the flow, he guides the vision on into his work.

As, in full view of the world, the crown of the tree unfolds and spreads in time and space, so with his work.

Tree Nursery by Paul Klee, 1929. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

But the work of art, Klee cautions, is not a direct translation of the subconscious — it is rather the work of a transmutation for which the artist is both the agent and the vessel:

Nobody would affirm that the tree grows its crown in the image of its root. Between above and below can be no mirrored reflection. It is obvious that different functions expanding in different elements must produce divergences.

But it is just the artist who at times is denied those departures from nature which his art demands. He has even been charged with incompetence and deliberate distortion.

And yet, standing at his appointed place, the trunk of the tree, he does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths. He neither serves nor rules — he transmits. His position is humble. And the beauty at the crown is not his own. He is merely a channel.

Complement with Pablo Neruda’s love letter to forests and Walt Whitman on the wisdom of trees, then revisit other immensely insightful reflections on the creative process and what it means to be an artist by Virginia Woolf, Beethoven, Rainer Maria Rilke, Mark Rothko, Robert Browning, Wassily Kandinsky, W.S. Merwin, Chinua Achebe, E.E. Cummings, and James Baldwin.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 25 Sep 2020 | 8:10 am(NZT)



Frederick Douglass on the Wisdom of the Minority and the Real Meaning of Solidarity

“There are times in the experience of almost every community… when… the appointed leaders… exert their powers of mind to complicate, mystify, entangle and obscure the simple truth… to mislead the popular mind, and to corrupt the public heart, — then the humblest may stand forth… opposing… the torrent of evil.”


Frederick Douglass on the Wisdom of the Minority and the Real Meaning of Solidarity

“Truth always rests with the minority,” the lonely and ostracized Kierkegaard fumed in his journal in 1850, “because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion.”

Across the Atlantic, another visionary of uncommon lucidity and countercultural courage was arriving at the same conclusion by a very different path, making it his life’s work to awaken a young and conflicted nation to this difficult, necessary truth of maturation. That same year, the thirty-two-year-old Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) declaimed in a powerful anti-slavery speech, included in his indispensable Selected Speeches and Writings (public library):

There are times in the experience of almost every community, when even the humblest member thereof may properly presume to teach — when the wise and great ones, the appointed leaders of the people, exert their powers of mind to complicate, mystify, entangle and obscure the simple truth — when they exert the noblest gifts which heaven has vouchsafed to man to mislead the popular mind, and to corrupt the public heart, — then the humblest may stand forth and be excused for opposing even his weakness to the torrent of evil.

Early in his career as a novice itinerant speaker for William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery activism movement, Douglass had been especially impressed, in both senses of the word, by the example of the white women who so concertedly opposed the torrent of evil — women who taught him the true meaning of solidarity by paying the price of severe ostracism to play a central role in the movement’s recruiting, fundraising, and organizing; women who set aside their own suffrage to take up the cause of abolition and in consequence were not enfranchised as full citizens of their own country until almost half a century after black men got the right to vote; women one of whom Douglass would eventually fall in love with and marry.

Frederick Douglass

In a letter to a friend, penned in the same era as his contemporary Margaret Fuller was laying the foundation of American feminism while advocating for prison reform and black voting rights under her animating ethos that “while any one is base, none can be entirely free and noble,” Douglass reported on a series of antislavery rallies across Pennsylvania, where he and his fellow Garrisonians were met with hostility. With a swell of gratitude to the handful of local supporters who had stood up to the majority of their own community to attend and support the meetings — a living testament to Albert Camus’s insistence that “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present” and to James Baldwin’s exhortation that “we must dare to [take it] upon ourselves to become the majority by changing the moral climate [for] it is upon this majority that the life of any nation really depends” — Douglass wrote:

Our few friends in that place, who are not the sort to be discouraged… filled me with admiration, as I viewed them occupying their noble position; a few women, almost alone in a community of thousands, asserting truths and living out principles at once hated and feared by almost the entire community; and doing all this with a composure and serenity of soul which would well compare with the most experienced champion and standard bearer of our cause, Friend Garrison himself. Heaven bless them, and continue them strength to withstand all trials through which their principles may call them to pass.

Decades later, from the hard-earned platform of a long and far-reaching life, he would revisit the subject in his final autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (public library):

When the true history of the antislavery cause shall be written, woman will occupy a large space in its pages, for the cause of the slave has been peculiarly woman’s cause.

[…]

Observing woman’s agency, devotion and efficiency in pleading the cause of the slave, gratitude for this high service early moved me to give favorable attention to the subject of what is called “Woman’s Rights” and caused me to be denominated a woman’s-rights-man. I am glad to say I have never been ashamed to be thus designated.

Complement with James Baldwin on resisting the mindless majority and Octavia Butler on how (not) to choose our leaders, then revisit this lovely illustrated celebration of Douglass’s friendship with Susan B. Anthony and the little-known, colossal role astronomy played in his activism.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 23 Sep 2020 | 4:56 am(NZT)

13-Year-Old Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Prejudice, Its Antidote, and the Five Documents That Shaped Humanity

“No one can feel free from danger and destruction until the many torn threads of civilization are bound together again… There can be a happy world… when men create a strong bond towards one another, a bond unbreakable by a studied prejudice or a passing circumstance.”


13-Year-Old Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Prejudice, Its Antidote, and the Five Documents That Shaped Humanity

“Society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed,” Hannah Arendt wrote in the 1940s as she grappled with Jewishness, the immigrant identity, and the refugee plight for belonging. In the same era, a young girl who would grow into another woman of titanic consequence to political thought and the advancement of justice took up the subject of prejudice, its antidote, and the pillars of human dignity in her middle school newspaper, of which she was the editor.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (March 15, 1933–September 18, 2020) had barely cusped from childhood to adolescence when she watched in awe as her greatest role model — Eleanor Roosevelt, with her floral dresses and her “spine as stiff as the steel girder of a skyscraper” — was appointed chairperson of the newly established United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

Ruth Bader as a child.

There is no overestimating the quickening of mind, the stir of soul, the immense swell of inspired idealism, which great role models can spark in the young. At a time when the world was reckoning with the savaging fusion of grief and shame in the wake of its most inhumane war, at an age when the human animal gets its first taste of that most dangerous and self-destructive substance of the spirit — cynicism — the thirteen-year-old future Supreme Court Justice chose the courage of idealism over the cowardice of cynicism as she considered humanity’s path forward toward a safer, saner, more equitable world in a June 1946 op-ed for her school paper, published under the byline “Ruth Bader, Grade 8B1” and included in My Own Words (public library) — the collection culled from a lifetime of writings, selected by Justice Ginsburg herself and her official biographers, Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams.

Reflecting on the “four great documents” that have shaped the world since its beginning — “great because of all the benefits to humanity which came about as a result of their fine ideals and principles”: the Ten Commandments, the Magna Carta, the 1689 Bill of Rights, and the American Declaration of Independence — the young Ruth writes:

Now we have a fifth great document, the Charter of the United Nations. Its purpose and principles are to maintain international peace and security, to practice tolerance, and to suppress any acts of aggression or other breaches of peace.

It is vital that peace be assured, for now we have a weapon that can destroy the world. We children of public school age can do much to aid in the promotion of peace. We must try to train ourselves and those about us to live together with one another as good neighbors for this idea is embodied in the great new Charter of the United Nations. It is the only way to secure the world against future wars and maintain an everlasting peace.

Later that month, as Hannah Arendt was examining the aftermath of the Holocaust and incubating the ideas that would become her epoch-making treatise on the only viable antidote to evil, Ruth picked up the subject in another op-ed, titled “One People” and published in the bulletin of her synagogue:

The war has left a bloody trail and many deep wounds not too easily healed. Many people have been left with scars that take a long time to pass away. We must never forget the horrors which our brethren were subjected to in Bergen-Belsen and other Nazi concentration camps. Then, too, we must try hard to understand that for righteous people hate and prejudice are neither good occupations nor fit companions. Rabbi Alfred Bettleheim once said: “Prejudice saves us a painful trouble, the trouble of thinking.”

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

Echoing Bertrand Russell’s memorable admonition that “even the most orthodox of us may find himself in a minority some day, so that we all have an interest in restraining the tyranny of majorities,” she added:

No one can feel free from danger and destruction until the many torn threads of civilization are bound together again. We cannot feel safer until every nation, regardless of weapons or power, will meet together in good faith, the people worthy of mutual association. There can be a happy world and there will be once again, when men create a strong bond towards one another, a bond unbreakable by a studied prejudice or a passing circumstance.

Complement with Walter Lippmann — another rare visionary whose writings shaped the ideals of Ginsburg’s generation — on the antidote to prejudice, then revisit Eleanor Roosevelt reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — the next great document paving humanity’s path toward true humanness, built on the foundation of the Charter of the United Nations.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 21 Sep 2020 | 4:38 am(NZT)



“I Go Down to the Shore”: Natascha McElhone Reads Mary Oliver’s Spare, Splendid Antidote to Melancholy and Personal Misery

Consolation for the waves of sorry from the waves of the sea.


“I Go Down to the Shore”: Natascha McElhone Reads Mary Oliver’s Spare, Splendid Antidote to Melancholy and Personal Misery

“Let us… seek peace… near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies,” Mary Shelley wrote two hundred years ago as she envisioned a world ravaged by a deadly pandemic and weighed what makes life worth living. “The setting sun will always set me to rights,” the melancholy John Keats wrote in the same era, a century and a half before Lorraine Hansberry considered the mightiest remedy for depression and observed that “hills, the trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars / summer clouds — the poets have been right in these centuries.”

To divert the beam of your attention to nature, to take in the staggering scale of spacetime under the starlit sky or the miniature cosmos of aliveness on the scale of moss or the blooming of a single potted flower, is to step beyond the smallness of your own experience, beyond its all-consuming sorrows and its all-important fixations, and into a calibrated perspective that arrives like a colossal exhale from the lung of life.

“Skybreath” by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

That is what Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) offers in her spare, splendid poem “I Go Down to the Shore,” found in her 2012 collection A Thousand Mornings (public library) and brought to life by actor extraordinaire, my dear friend, and voice of Figuring Natascha McElhone at the 2020 Universe in Verse, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day — a hallmark awakening of our ecological conscience, inspired by Rachel Carson’s work — as Earth was being stilled and disdayed by a deadly pandemic that suddenly made the interconnectedness of life and lives viscerally real. Against this backdrop, Oliver’s poem sings quiet, powerful consolation for the fear- and sorrow-contracted pinhole of our perspective.

I GO DOWN TO THE SHORE
by Mary Oliver

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Complement with Mary Oliver’s equally, differently perspectival poem “When I Am Among the Trees” and Natascha’s enchanting narration of Hermann Hesse’s 100-year-old love letter to trees, then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse: Patti Smith reading Emily Dickinson’s ode to how the world holds together, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, a breathtaking animation of Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity,” and astronomer-poet Rebecca Elson’s staggering “Antidotes to Fear of Death.”


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Source: Brain Pickings | 19 Sep 2020 | 11:32 am(NZT)

Proust on the Essence of Creativity and the Hallmark of Artistic Genius

“Genius [consists] in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.”


Proust on the Essence of Creativity and the Hallmark of Artistic Genius

The word empathy entered the popular lexicon in the early twentieth century as a term to describe the imaginative act of projecting yourself into a work of art, into the subjective world of the artist, where you encounter yourself afresh and emerge with your own world enlarged, your own experience enlivened. Every transcendent song or painting or poem that enchant us has sprung from some element of its creator’s life — some profound event or some mundane moment, which one subjective consciousness has endowed with a supranatural halo of meaning and encoded the meaning into music or color or image that staggers another with its beauty, its private resonance, its elemental truth. That, after all, is why art moves us, what art is — the transfiguration of the personal into the universal, of the mundane into the miraculous.

Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871–November 18, 1922) explores this transcendent transfiguration with characteristic sweep and splendor of sentiment as he contemplates the essence of creativity and the hallmark of artistic genius in a passage from Within a Budding Grove (public library) — the second volume of his colossal seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time, which has helped artists survive prison camps and prompted philosophers to consider the ultimate test of true love.

A century after Schopenhauer made his classic distinction between genius and talent, Proust writes:

Genius, and even great talent, springs less from seeds of intellect and social refinement superior to those of other people than from the faculty of transforming and transposing them. To heat a liquid with an electric lamp requires not the strongest lamp possible, but one of which the current can cease to illuminate, can be diverted so as to give heat instead of light. To mount the skies it is not necessary to have the most powerful of motors, one must have a motor which, instead of continuing to run along the earth’s surface, intersecting with a vertical line the horizontal line which it began by following, is capable of converting its speed into lifting power.

In a sentiment Charles Bukowski would echo decades later in his magnificent poem “so you want to be a writer,” Proust argues that genius is similarly not a matter of ideal conditions or optimal power, but of transformation by way of unselfing:

The men* who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror, in such a way that their life, however mediocre it may be socially and even, in a sense, intellectually, is reflected by it, genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.

Complement with Beethoven and the crucial difference between genius and talent, then revisit Proust on why we read, how the mind can obscure the heart’s wisdom, and what art does for the soul.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 18 Sep 2020 | 8:55 am(NZT)

The Sun, the Shadow, and the Unselved Self: Helen Macdonald on Eclipses as an Antidote to Ideologies of Otherness and a Portal to Human Connection

“A total eclipse wreaks havoc on your sense of self, on rational individuality.”


The Sun, the Shadow, and the Unselved Self: Helen Macdonald on Eclipses as an Antidote to Ideologies of Otherness and a Portal to Human Connection

Just when you begin rueing that nothing original could possibly remain to be written about the cosmic spectacle of a total solar eclipse — after astronomer Maria Mitchell’s pioneering essay detailing the science and enchantment of the 1869 eclipse, after Virginia Woolf’s arresting 1927 account of total darkness in the celestial lighthouse, after Annie Dillard’s 1979 classic of totalityHelen Macdonald comes along to remind you that the intersection of nature’s sublimity and the singular splendor of each human consciousness is vast and inexhaustibly vibrant.

In the thirteenth of the forty-one altogether tremendous essays in her collection Vesper Flights (public library), simply titled “Eclipse,” Macdonald recounts with abashed amusement her youthful notion that the ideal mode for beholding totality must be romantic solitude — a notion absurd to anyone who has actually savored the amplified sublimity amid a choir of gasping human consciousnesses. (Nor is it even a properly romantic notion — even Byron, the (mostly self-appointed) monarch of the Romantics, envisioned in his staggering poem “Darkness” how when “the bright sun was extinguish’d,” humanity sought not isolation but community as “men were gather’d round their blazing homes / to look once more into each other’s face.”) Macdonald’s own first experience of a total solar eclipse in 1999 — the same eclipse, though partial, in which I too dissolved as a child in Bulgaria — was instead a revelation of just how much “a total eclipse wreaks havoc on your sense of self, on rational individuality”; how it effects, to borrow Iris Murdoch’s lovely phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Total eclipse of 1878, one of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s groundbreaking astronomical drawings. (Available as a print and as a face mask, with proceeds benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

With her uncommon gift for dilating the pinhole of a specific and subjective experience into a wide lens on a universal human tendency, Macdonald writes:

It’s reassuring to view the world on your own. You can gaze at a landscape and see it peopled by things — trees, clouds, hills and valleys — which have no voice except the ones you give them in your imagination; none can challenge who you are. So often we see solitary contemplation as simply the correct way to engage with nature.

But it is always a political act, bringing freedom from the pressures of other minds, other interpretations, other consciousnesses competing with your own. There’s another way of escaping social conflict, of course, and that is to make yourself part of a crowd that sees the world the same way that you do, values the same things as you.

With an eye to the “Great American Eclipse” of 2017 — a collective experience qualitatively different from the nationalism-tinted mass pilgrimages to see monuments of territorial pride like the Grand Canyon or spectacles of national triumph like the Apollo launches — Macdonald adds:

The millions of tourists who flocked to the total eclipse of 2017 didn’t see something time had fashioned from American rock and earth, nor something wrought of American ingenuity, but a passing shadow cast across the nation from celestial bodies above. Even so, it’s fitting that this total eclipse was dubbed The Great American Eclipse, for the event chimed with the country’s contemporary struggles between matters of reason and unreason, individuality and crowd consciousness, belonging and difference. Of all crowds the most troubling are those whose cohesion is built from fear of and outrage against otherness and difference; they’re entities defining themselves by virtue only of what they are against. The simple fact about an eclipse crowd is that it cannot work in this way, for confronting something like the absolute, all our differences are moot. When you stand and watch the death of the sun and see it reborn there can be no them, only us.

“Tendering Totality” (2017) by Maria Popova. (Available as a print and as a face mask, with proceeds benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

That selfsame recognition radiates from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot monologue — that iconic, almost unbearably tender meditation on how the cosmic perspective vanquishes our artificial lines of otherness, which inspired Maya Angelou’s stunning poem “A Brave and Startling Truth.” This is the recognition at which Macdonald arrived in an embodied way, far beyond the cerebral awareness, during her own first encounter with totality:

I was nervous of the people around me and still clinging to that sophomoric intuition that a revelation would only come if none of them were there. Depressingly, the sky was thick with clouds, and as the hours passed it became obvious that none of us would see anything other than darkness when totality came. But when the light dimmed, the atmosphere grew electric, and the crowd became a thing of overwhelming importance, a palpable presence in my mind. I felt a fleeting, urgent concern for the safety of everyone around me as the world rolled, and the moon too, and night slammed down on us. Though I could hardly see a hand held in front of my face, far out across the sea hung clouds tinted the eerie sunset shade of faded photographs of 1950s atomic tests, and beyond them clear blue day.

And then the revelation came. It wasn’t what I’d expected. It wasn’t focused up there in the sky, but down here with us all, as the crowds that lined the Atlantic shore raised cameras to commemorate totality, and as they flashed, a wave of particulate light crashed along the dark beach and flooded across to the other side of the bay, making the whole coast a glittering field of stars. Each fugitive point of light was a different person. I laughed out loud. I’d wanted a solitary revelation but had been given something else instead: an overwhelming sense of community, and of what it is made — a host of individual lights shining briefly against oncoming darkness.

A generation earlier, as Apollo 8 was launching into space to take the epoch-making Earthrise photograph that would soon awaken our species to its ecological responsibility, the Italian chemist and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi captured this singular gravitational pull of community around a shared cosmic enchantment as he contemplated how science and space exploration bind a fractured humanity back together by breaking our trance of separateness. This trance plays out in myriad ways and on myriad scales across our individual and collective existence. The habitual narrowing of perspective from which it arises is not a defect but a defining feature of our consciousness — the human animal’s central coping mechanism for parsing the incomprehensibly vast world beyond the boundaries of our individual experience. (We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins.). This narrowing extends most perhaps most perniciously to our perspective on and perception of time, which is our perception of change. Drawing on another eclipse she witnessed with friends on the Turkish coast, Macdonald writes:

It takes a long while between first and second contact — that is, when the sun is completely covered by the moon; it’s a long, steady diminution in the amount of light reaching the world. For a long while my brain tricks me. It has a vested interest in reassurance: Nothing is wrong, it says. It tells me I must be wearing reactive sunglasses, which is why I’m seeing the world changing through tinted glass. Why everything, the luggage-strap leaves of dune grass under my toes, the broken walls, bay trees, the sea in front, the mountains behind, everything’s still darkly fine. Then I remember I’m not wearing sunglasses, which hits me with the bad-dream force of an arm brought down hard across a piano keyboard, the psychological equivalent of that discordant crash as I have a fraught little struggle with my brain. Then I shiver. Surely it was absurdly hot here an hour ago? There’s a horrible old chestnut about boiling a frog to death. Put a frog in a pan of cold water and put it on the stove, and apparently the blithe amphibian will fail to notice the incremental rise in temperature until it’s dead. There’s something of that story’s creeping dread in what is now going on. I feel a strong need to warn people, to somehow jump out of the pan. Everything is changing, but our brains aren’t equipped to notice things on this scale.

As I read Macdonald’s essay, I am struck by something else — something both entirely unrelated and entirely relevant. (That, of course, is what an excellent essay is supposed to do — explode your comprehension with a fractal burst of quickenings fanning out to myriad elsewheres.) We have been regarding the environmental collapse around us — a drama not cosmic but human-made, not sublime but catastrophic — with the same insentience to incremental change, lulled by the brain’s same incapacity for noticing large-scale events, by the same nothing is wrong self-protective delusion. We are the amphibian in the seething cauldron. But we are also larger and more luminous, better capable of transcending the limitations of our minds by the force of our spirit — that, at least, is my hope.

“Casting Crescents” (2017) by Maria Popova. (Available as a print and as a face mask, with proceeds benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

Awakened from the trance, Macdonald begins noticing the otherworldly strangeness that totality brings:

On the ground, right by our feet, even stranger things are happening. Where I expect to see sun-dappled shadow cast on the sand through branches — as confidently as I expect any other unacknowledged constant of the world — I am confounded: amid the shade are a perfect host of tiny crescents, hundreds of them, all moving against the sand as a wind that has come out of nowhere pushes at branches.

Out of that noticing — that sudden wakefulness to the absolute strangeness of it all, the soul’s sudden cry of Everything is wrong over the brain’s lulling deception — arises a profound, humbling awareness of one’s own existence as both inseparable from and inconsequential to a larger cosmic inter-belonging with all other existences:

The backs of the swallows tracing their sinuous hunting flights over the ruins are no longer iridescent blue in the sun, but a deep indigo. They’re calling in alarm. A sparrowhawk is flying over, slipping down the sky, losing height, stymied in its search for thermals to soar upon. They’re all disappearing in the rapidly cooling air. The hawk shrugs its way north-west, falling all the while. I check the sun, again, through my eclipse glasses. All that is left of it now is a bare, fingernail curve of light. The landscape is insistently alien: short, midday shadows in a saturated world. The land is orange. The sea is purple. Venus has appeared in the sky, quite high, up to the right. And then, with a chorus of cheers and whistles and applause, I stare at the sky as the sun slides away, and the day does too, and impossibly, impossibly, above us is a stretch of black, soft black sky and a hole in the middle of it. A round hole, darker than anything you’ve ever seen, fringed with an intensely soft ring of white fire. Applause crackles and ripples across the dunes. My throat is stopped. My eyes fill with tears. Goodbye, intellectual apprehension. Hello, something else entirely. Totality is so incomprehensible for your mental machinery that your physical response becomes hugely apparent. Your intellect cannot grasp any of this. Not the dark, nor the sunset clouds on every horizon, nor the stars, just that extraordinary wrongness, up there, that pulls the eyes towards it. The exhilaration is barely contained terror. I’m tiny and huge all at once, as lonely and singular as I’ve ever felt, and as merged and part of a crowd as it is possible to be. It is a shared, intensely private experience. But there are no human words fit to express all this. Opposites? Yes! Let’s conjure big binary oppositions and grand narratives, break everything and mend it at the same moment. Sun and moon. Darkness and light. Sea and land, breath and no breath, life, death. A total eclipse makes history laughable, makes you feel both precious and disposable, makes the inclinations of the world incomprehensible.

[…]

And then something else happens, a thing that still makes my heart rise in my chest and eyes blur, even in recollection. For it turns out there’s something even more affecting than watching the sun disappear into a hole. Watching the sun climb out of it. Here I am, sitting on the beach in the underworld, with all of the standing dead. It is cold, and a loose wind blows through the darkness. But then, from the lower edge of the blank, black disc of the dead sun, bursts a perfect point of brilliance. It leaps and burns. It’s unthinkably fierce, unbearably bright, something (I blush to say it, but here it comes) like a word. And thus begins the world again. Instantly. Joy, relief, gratitude; an avalanche of emotion. Is all made to rights, now? Is all remade? From a bay tree, struck into existence a moment ago, a spectacled bulbul calls a greeting to the new dawn.

Complement this slender fragment of the transcendent totality that is Vesper Flights with Coleridge on the dissolution of the self in a terrifying storm and Mabel Loomis Todd’s poetic 19th-century primer on the science of eclipses, with help from Emily Dickinson, then revisit Macdonald’s extraordinary memoir of what a hawk taught her about love, loss, control, and surrender.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 16 Sep 2020 | 1:06 pm(NZT)

The Love of Life in the Face of Death: Keith Haring on Self-Doubt, the Fragility of Being, and Creativity as the Antidote to Our Mortal Anxiety

“It is very important to be in love with life… Life is very fragile and always elusive. As soon as we think we ‘understand,’ there is another mystery. I don’t understand anything. That is, I think, the key to understand everything.”


The Love of Life in the Face of Death: Keith Haring on Self-Doubt, the Fragility of Being, and Creativity as the Antidote to Our Mortal Anxiety

“Life loves the liver of it,” Maya Angelou observed as she contemplated the meaning of life in 1977, exhorting: “You must live and life will be good to you.”

That spring, the teenage Keith Haring (May 4, 1958–February 16, 1990) — who would grow up to revolutionize not only art and activism, but the spirit of a generation and the soul of a city — grappled with the meaning of his own life and what it really means to live it on the pages of his diary, posthumously published as the quiet, symphonic wonder Keith Haring Journals (public library).

Art by Josh Cochran from Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring by Matthew Burgess

Five days before his nineteenth birthday and shortly before he left Pittsburgh, where he was attending art school, for a netless leap of faith toward New York City, he confronts the difficulty of knowing what we really want and writes:

This is a blue moment… it’s blue because I’m confused, again; or should I say “still”? I don’t know what I want or how to get it. I act like I know what I want, and I appear to be going after it — fast, but I don’t, when it comes down to it, even know.

In a passage of extraordinary precocity, he echoes the young Van Gogh’s reflection on fear, taking risks, and how inspired mistakes propel us forward, and considers how the trap of self-comparison is keeping him from developing his own artistic and human potential:

I guess it’s because I’m afraid. Afraid I’m wrong. And I guess I’m afraid I’m wrong, because I constantly relate myself to other people, other experiences, other ideas. I should be looking at both in perspective, not comparing. I relate my life to an idea or an example that is some entirely different life. I should be relating it to my life only in the sense that each has good and bad facets. Each is separate. The only way the other attained enough merit, making it worthy of my admiration, or long to copy it is by taking chances, taking it in its own way. It has grown with different situations and has discovered different heights of happiness and equal sorrows. If I always seek to pattern my life after another, mine is being wasted re-doing things for my own empty acceptance. But, if I live my life my way and only let the other [artists] influence me as a reference, a starting point, I can build an even higher awareness instead of staying dormant… I only wish that I could have more confidence and try to forget all my silly preconceptions, misconceptions, and just live. Just live. Just. Live. Just live till I die.

And then — in a testament to my resolute conviction, along with Blake, that all great natures are lovers of trees — he adds:

I found a tree in this park that I’m gonna come back to, someday. It stretches sideways out over the St. Croix river and I can sit on it and balance lying on it perfectly.

“Perspective” by Maria Popova

Within a decade, Haring’s resolve to “just live” until he dies collided with the sudden proximity of a highly probable death — the spacious until contracted into a span uncertain but almost certainly short as the AIDS epidemic began slaying his generation. A century after the uncommonly perceptive and poetic diarist Alice James — William and Henry James’s brilliant and sidelined sister — wrote upon receiving a terminal diagnosis that the remaining stretch of life before her is “the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life,” Haring, having taken a long break from his own diary, returns to the mirror of the blank page and faces the powerful, paradoxical way in which the proximity of death charges living with life:

I keep thinking that the main reason I am writing is fear of death. I think I finally realize the importance of being alive. When I was watching the 4th of July fireworks the other night and saw my friend Martin [Burgoyne], I saw death. He says he has been tested and cleared of having AIDS, but when I looked at him I saw death. Life is so fragile.

In a sentiment evocative of neurologist Oliver Sacks’s memorable observation in his poetic and courageous exit from life that when people die, “they leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death,” Haring adds:

It is a very fine line between life and death. I realize I am walking this line. Living in New York City and also flying on airplanes so much, I face the possibility of death every day. And when I die there is nobody to take my place… That is true of a lot of people (or everyone) because everyone is an individual and everyone is important in that they cannot be replaced.

But even as he shudders with the fragility of life, Haring continues to shimmer with the largehearted love of life that gives his art its timeless exuberance:

Touching people’s lives in a positive way is as close as I can get to an idea of religion.

Belief in one’s self is only a mirror of belief in other people and every person.

Art by Josh Cochran from Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring by Matthew Burgess

He returns to the love of life that charged his days with meaning and his art with magnetism — a love both huge and humble, at the center of which is our eternal dance with mystery:

I think it is very important to be in love with life. I have met people who are in their 70s and 80s who love life so much that, behind their aged bodies, the numbers disappear. Life is very fragile and always elusive. As soon as we think we “understand,” there is another mystery. I don’t understand anything. That is, I think, the key to understand everything.

Again and again, Haring declares on the pages of his journal that he lives for work, for art — the purpose of which, of course, if there is any purpose to art, is to make other lives more livable. As the specter of AIDS hovers closer and closer to him, this creative vitality pulses more and more vigorously through him, reverberating with Albert Camus’s insistence that “there is no love of life without despair of life.”

In early 1988, weeks before his thirtieth birthday and shortly before he finally received the diagnosis perching on the event horizon of his daily life, Haring composes a seething cauldron of a journal entry, about to boil with the overwhelming totality of his love of life:

I love paintings too much, love color too much, love seeing too much, love feeling too much, love art too much, love too much.

By the following month, he has metabolized the terrifying too-muchness into a calm acceptance radiating even more love:

I accept my fate, I accept my life. I accept my shortcomings, I accept the struggle. I accept my inability to understand. I accept what I will never become and what I will never have. I accept death and I accept life.

After the sudden death of one of his closest friends in a crash — a friend so close that Haring was the godfather of his son — he copies one of his friend’s newly poignant poems about life and death into his journal, then writes beneath it:

Creativity, biological or otherwise, is my only link with a relative mortality.

But perhaps his most poignant and prophetic entry came a decade earlier — a short verse-like reflection nested in a sprawling meditation on art, life, kinship, and individuality, penned on Election Day:

I am not a beginning.
I am not an end.
I am a link in a chain.

Keith Haring died on February 16, 1990, barely into his thirties, leaving us his exuberant love of life encoded in mirthful lines and vibrant colors that have made millions of other lives — mine included — immensely more livable.

Couple with Drawing on Walls — a wonderful picture-book biography of Haring inspired by his journals — then revisit a young neurosurgeon’s poignant meditation on the meaning of life as he faces his own death, an elderly comedian-philosopher on how to live fully while dying, and an astronomer-poet’s sublime “Antidotes to Fear of Death.”


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Source: Brain Pickings | 12 Sep 2020 | 8:18 am(NZT)

Of Owls and Roses: Mary Oliver on Happiness, Terror, and the Sublime Interconnectedness of Life

“The world where the owl is endlessly hungry and endlessly on the hunt is the world in which I live too. There is only one world.”


Of Owls and Roses: Mary Oliver on Happiness, Terror, and the Sublime Interconnectedness of Life

“Go to the limits of your longing… Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror,” Rilke urged in his Book of Hours, his poetic cadence assuring us to “just keep going,” for “nearby is the country they call life.” Rilke sensed that, as the great naturalist John Muir observed a generation earlier, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” In such a universe, beauty is not so easily unhitched from terror — they coexist in one of those essential batteries whose two poles, like fear and hope, charge life with meaning, with aliveness.

We see this everywhere in nature: Virginia Woolf captured it in her arresting account of a total solar eclipse, and Coleridge captured it in contemplating the interplay of terror and transcendence in a storm. And like all that is true of nature, this duality of beauty and terror is also true of the subset of nature comprising our experience — the subset we call human nature: When happiness comes at us unbidden and elemental, there is almost a terror to its coming — to the totality of it, to the way it submerges and saturates and supinates us with something vast and uncontrollable and sublime, thrusting us past the limits of our longing.

This essential battery is what Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) — a Rilke for our own time: a rare philosopher-poet of immense and tender attentiveness to the living world and to our human interiority — explores in one of the pieces collected in the 2003 treasure Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays (public library).

Owls from Richard Lydekker’s 1893 natural history of owls. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.)

In an essay about owls — which, like all excellent essays, fans out fractally from its subject to become about something else, something elemental and existential — Oliver reflects on these mysterious and astonishing creatures as she wanders the woodlands of Provincetown near her home, searching for the nest of the great horned owl, “this bird with the glassy gaze, restless on the bough, nothing but blood on its mind.” She writes:

In the night, when the owl is less than exquisitely swift and perfect, the scream of the rabbit is terrible. But the scream of the owl, which is not of pain and hopelessness and the fear of being plucked out of the world, but of the sheer rollicking glory of the death-bringer, is more terrible still. When I hear it resounding through the woods, and then the five black pellets of its song dropping like stones into the air, I know I am standing at the edge of the mystery, in which terror is naturally and abundantly part of life, part of even the most becalmed, intelligent, sunny life — as, for example, my own. The world where the owl is endlessly hungry and endlessly on the hunt is the world in which I live too. There is only one world.

In this one world — a miraculous and irreplaceable world; a world in which, as the poetic scientist and nature writer Loren Eiseley so memorably observed, “we forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness… that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle” — the bloodthirst in the owl’s bosom is inseparable from the lifethirst in our own, as beauty and terror are inseparable from one another and from the fulness of being that is life being lived.

Red poppy by the self-taught 18th-century artist and botanist Elizabeth Blackwell from the world’s first encyclopedia of medicinal plants. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.)

In a passage evocative of Willa Cather’s splendid definition of happiness, Oliver writes:

Sometimes, while I have stood listening to the owl’s song drifting through the trees, when it is ten degrees above nothing and life for any small creature is hard enough without that, I have found myself thinking of summer fields. Fields full of flowers — poppies or lupines. Or, here, fields where the roses hook into the dunes, and their increase is manyfold. All summer they are red and pink and white tents of softness and nectar, which wafts and hangs everywhere — a sweetness so palpable and excessive that, before it, I’m struck, I’m taken, I’m conquered; I’m washed into it, as though it was a river, full of dreaming and idleness — I drop to the sand, I can’t move; I am restless no more; I am replete, supine, finished, filled to the last edges with an immobilizing happiness. And is this not also terrible? Is this not also frightening?

Are the roses not also — even as the owl is — excessive? Each flower is small and lovely, but in their sheer and silent abundance the roses become an immutable force, as though the work of the wild roses was to make sure that all of us, who come wandering over the sand, may be, for a while, struck to the heart and saturated with a simple joy. Let the mind be teased by such stretches of the imagination, by such balance. Now I am cringing at the very sound of the owl’s dark wings opening over my head — not long ago I could do nothing but lounge on the sand and stare into the cities of the roses.

Owl from Lydekker’s 1893 natural history of owls. (Available as a print and a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.)

Complement the altogether wondrous Owls and Other Fantasies with Oliver on how to live with maximal aliveness, the two building blocks of creativity, her advice on writing, her moving elegy for her soul mate, and her radiant ode to trees.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 9 Sep 2020 | 7:19 am(NZT)

Coming Out in the Time of COVID: A 90-Year-Old Man’s Moving Conversation with His Daughter During the Quarantine

A touching elegy for what lives on the other side of lifelong heartbreak.


“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight,” E.E. Cummings wrote in his magnificent forgotten manifesto for being unafraid to feel. It takes especial courage to “go the way your blood beats,” to borrow James Baldwin’s lovely phrase from his liberating advice on coming out, in which he observed that “loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility.”

But what we call courage — the courage to face the danger and rise to the responsibility — is so much less a function of character than a function of conditioning, a topographic feature of the landscape of permission and possibility in which a personhood forms.

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

Ken Felts was born in Kansas at the outset of the Great Depression. The son of a railway worker, he was raised in an unrelentingly religious community. In the late 1950s, Ken moved to California, where he met the man who became the love of his life. It was an enormous love — and an impossible love within the landscape of permission and possibility Ken inhabited, closer in psychosocial space, even if further in time, to the landscape of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s love than to ours.

More than half a century later, at the age of ninety, Ken used the StoryCorps Connect platform during the COVID quarantine to speak with his daughter for the first time about his experience and what lives on the other side of his lifelong heartbreak.

Complement with Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert, the love of her life, and the pioneering LGBT rights advocate Edward Carpenter’s extraordinary letter of gratitude to Walt Whitman for dignifying same-sex love, then revisit this animated love letter to how libraries change lives from StoryCorps’ living archive of human experience.


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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 7 Sep 2020 | 10:07 am(NZT)

The Mountain and the Meaning of Life: René Daumal’s Alpine Allegory of Courage and the Measure of Wisdom

“There is an art to finding your way in the lower regions by the memory of what you have seen when you were higher up. When you can no longer see, you can at least still know.”


The Mountain and the Meaning of Life: René Daumal’s Alpine Allegory of Courage and the Measure of Wisdom

Since long before Dr. King proclaimed “I have seen the mountaintop!” mountains — like rivers — have been among our richest nature-drawn metaphors for making sense of our human lives and values. When the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan was asked in a television interview who the most important person she ever met was, she answered without hesitation: “A mountain.” She meant a non-metaphorical mountain — Mount Tamalpais — out of which she carved her exquisite philosophical-poetic meditation on time, self, impermanence, and transcendence.

But no one has explored the existential through the metaphor of the alpine more elegantly than the French surrealist poet, philosopher, and novelist René Daumal (March 16, 1908–May 21, 1944) in his allegorical novel Mount Analogue: A Tale of Non-Euclidian and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures (public library), posthumously published and translated into English by Carol Cosman — a novel quite possibly inspired by and almost certainly subtitled as a wink to Edwin Abbott Abbott’s iconic 1884 allegorical novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, yet a novel entirely and uncommonly original.

René Daumal

Daumal — who taught himself Sanskrit, translated some of the great Buddhist texts into French, and saturated his writing with philosophical reflections drawn from the liminal space between the scientific and the spiritual, between physical fact and poetic truth — begins by defining his “analogical alpinism”:

Alpinism is the art of climbing mountains by confronting the greatest dangers with the greatest prudence.

Art is used here to mean the accomplishment of knowledge in action.

Upon this conceptual foundation Daumal builds his alpine allegory of life. In a passage evocative of that splendid Seamus Heaney verse — “On your way up, show consideration / To the ones you meet on their way down. / The Latin root of ‘condescension’ / Means we all sink.” — he writes:

You cannot always stay on the summits. You have to come down again…

So what’s the point? Only this: what is above knows what is below, what is below does not know what is above. While climbing, take note of all the difficulties along your path. During the descent, you will no longer see them, but you will know that they are there if you have observed carefully.

There is something profound that the alpine shares with the telescopic: the gift of perspective — a gift that, once granted, cannot easily be revoked; once we have seen, once we have known, we cannot easily unsee and unknow, and so we cannot easily lose our position in space and sense. Daumal writes:

There is an art to finding your way in the lower regions by the memory of what you have seen when you were higher up. When you can no longer see, you can at least still know.

Etel Adnan: Mount Tamalpais, 2000. (Callicoon Fine Arts, New York)

Echoing his equally brilliant, equally underappreciated compatriot and contemporary Simone Weil’s notion of the highest mountain-view of the mind, Daumal adds:

Keep your eyes fixed on the way to the top, but don’t forget to look at your feet. The last step depends on the first. Don’t think you have arrived just because you see the peak. Watch your feet, be certain of your next step, but don’t let this distract you from the highest goal. The first step depends on the last.

In what may be the most elegant articulation of the essence of responsibility, applicable to everything from our smallest personal acts to our grandest generational choices that shape posterity’s social and ecological inheritance, Daumal writes:

When you take off on your own, leave some trace of your passage that will guide your return: one rock set on top of another, some grass pierced by a stick. But if you come to a place you cannot cross or that is dangerous, remember that the trace you have left might lead the people following you into trouble. So go back the way you came and destroy any traces you have left. This is addressed to anyone who wants to leave traces of his passage in this world. And even without wanting to, we always leave traces. Answer to your fellow men for the traces you leave behind.

“Tectonic Time” by Maria Popova

In an admonition against the twin hazards of hubris and self-pity, he adds:

Never stop on a crumbling slope. Even if you believe your feet are firmly planted, while you take a breath and looking at the sky the earth is gradually piling up under your feet, the gravel is slipping imperceptibly, and suddenly you are launched like a ship.

[…]

If you slip or have a minor spill, don’t interrupt your momentum but even as you right yourself recover the rhythm of your walk. Take note of the circumstances of your fall, but don’t allow your body to brood on the memory.

Couple Daumal’s strange and wondrous Mount Analogue with Rebecca Solnit’s indispensable Field Guide to Getting Lost, then revisit the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd, writing at the same time as Daumal, on the life of the living mountain and Vita Sackville-West’s early love letters to Virginia Woolf about mountain-climbing and the meaning of life.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 3 Sep 2020 | 8:09 am(NZT)

Artist Maira Kalman Illustrates the Extraordinary Love Story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

“This is a love story. You know. How two people, joined together, become themselves.”


Artist Maira Kalman Illustrates the Extraordinary Love Story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

It is not often that one encounters a great love letter to a great love, composed by someone outside the private world of that love, serenading it across the spacetime of epochs and experiences. In my many years of dwelling in the lives and loves and letters of beloved artists, scientists, and writers, I have encountered none more splendid than The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Illustrated (public library) by Maira Kalman — an artist who uses her paintbrush the way Stein used her pen, as the instrument of an imagination tilted pleasantly askance from the plane of common thought.

Gertrude Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933, when she was fifty-nine and Alice fifty-six. She had written it at an astonishing pace the previous autumn. Like Alice disguised her memoir of their love as a cookbook, Gertrude disguised hers as an “autobiography” of the beloved under the lover’s byline. It wasn’t, of course, Alice’s autobiography, or even her biography — rather, it was the biography of their love, of early-twentieth-century Paris, of the community of visionary artists and writers who orbited the couple and who came to be known as the Lost Generation — a term Gertrude Stein coined — as they found themselves, in every sense of the term, at Alice and Gertrude’s salons.

The book begins, naturally, not at Alice’s birth but at her fateful first encounter with Gertrude and her coral brooch the day Alice, thirty-three, arrived in Paris as an American expatriate — a moment she eventually recounted in such deeply felt detail on the pages of her slender actual autobiography, animated by a bereavement that never left her in the twenty “empty” years by which she outlived the love of her life.

Kalman introduces the book with her spare and singular poetics:

Alice met Gertrude.
Gertrude met Alice.
Gertrude with her big body.
Big presence.
Alice, a little bird
with a mustache.
And that was that.
A coup de foudre
as we say.
Gertrude wrote this book of
their lives
through Alice’s eyes.
And here it is (happily)
with paintings
to illustrate how it was.

There is so much to delight in and marvel at in Kalman’s uncommon reanimation of this uncommon mausoleum of a love and an epoch. “Who did they know?” she asks, then exclaims: “EVERYBODY.” And then she draws everybody: James Joyce sitting at a table in Sylvia Beach’s Alexandrian bookstore, Hemingway with his fedora and his forthright gaze, Matisse slouched on a park bench, Cézanne, Picasso, Man Ray, all the artists who might not have been the stars they are to us, might not have found their own light, were it not for the hospitable universe of the Toklas-Stein household, for their devoted private patronage and public championship of these bold ideas and aesthetics that shook the plate tectonics of the status quo and formed the colossal landmass of modern art, of modern thought itself.

Captioning each of the paintings is a sentence or fragment from Stein’s narrative that captured Kalman’s curious imagination — sometimes a note of Stein’s subtle, fullhearted humor resonant with Kalman’s own, sometimes the shimmering surface of an amusing aside that whirlpools into the depths of loneliness and melancholy in which all pioneers swim, always an odd detail that compresses cosmoses of meaning into a miniature observation.

But of all the delights in Kalman’s tribute to the Stein classic, none is more delightful than the meta-masterpiece of her tender handwritten afterword — a love letter to Alice and Gertrude’s love. “I am loathe to leave them,” Kalman sighs on a near-blank page at the end, as blank as one feels inside upon leaving a book and the world of its making, then she writes:

This is a love story.
You know.
How two people, joined together,
become themselves.
They cannot breathe right
without each other.

With great subtlety, Kalman makes spare allusion to the ideas and ideologies animating Gertrude and Alice’s era, those ever-twining human impulses for beauty and for terror — the rise of Modernism and of Nazism; the birth of a new science with its delirious portal into the most fundamental building blocks of matter and the deepest, most beautiful realities of nature; the assembling of the building blocks of humanity’s deadliest weapon and ugliest war; and all the while, the lives being lived, the loves being loved, the meals being savored.

This most singular time —
literature, art, music, dance, architecture
EXPLODING into a new era.

The world reinvented. Modernism.
Problems. Furies. Betrayals. Alliances.

Preposterous notions. Malicious opinions.
Relentless drive. Enveloping beauty.
Many many many meals.

Nothing would have happened
without Alice. NOTHING.
It could be that Alice did write
this book. It could be.
Who holds the pen?
Who has the ideas?
What is the atmosphere of the
living room, kitchen, bedroom, salon?
What sharpness of vision. What relishing
of things big and small.
Great fame. A cozy home.
This is a singular story embedded
in a singular time.
That is enough. And more.

Complement Kalman’s impossibly wonderful The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Illustrated with Alice’s quietly stirring account of how their love began and a charming modern picture-book about their uncommon life together, then revisit Kalman’s illustrated catalog of unusual delights and her soulful love letter to dogs.

Illustrations courtesy of Maira Kalman


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Source: Brain Pickings | 29 Aug 2020 | 2:48 pm(NZT)

Octavia Butler on How (Not) to Choose Our Leaders

“To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.”


Octavia Butler on How (Not) to Choose Our Leaders

In 1845, as the forgotten visionary Margaret Fuller was laying the foundation of modern feminism, advocating for black voting rights, and insisting that “while any one is base, none can be entirely free and noble,” she contemplated what makes a great leader and called for “no thin Idealist, no coarse Realist,” for a person “of universal sympathies, but self-possessed,” one for whom “this world is no mere spectacle or fleeting shadow, but a great, solemn game, to be played with good heed, for its stakes are of eternal value.”

But how does a nation, a society, a world concerned with more than the shadowy spectacles of the present identify and elect such leaders to shape the long future?

A century and a half after Fuller, Octavia Butler (June 22, 1947–February 24, 2006) — another rare visionary — offered a glimmer of guidance in her sibylline two-part series set in the 2020s: Parable of the Sower (public library) and Parable of the Talents (public library) — a set of cautionary allegories, cautionary and future-protective in their keen prescription for course-correctives, about the struggle of a twenty-first-century society, Earthseed, to survive the ecological collapse, political corruption, corporate greed, and socioeconomic inequality it has inherited from the previous generations and their heedless choices.

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

Like Ursula K. Le Guin, Butler straddled the timeless and the prophetic, saturating her fiction with astute philosophical and psychological insight into human nature and the superorganism of society. Also like Le Guin, Butler soared into poetry to frame and punctuate her prose. Each chapter begins with an original verse abstracting its thematic direction. She opens the eleventh chapter of the second Earthseed book with this verse:

Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.

And yet our discernment in choosing wisely, Butler intimates in a chilling short verse from the first book, can so often be muddled by our panic, by our paralyzing fright and pugilist flight:

Drowning people
Sometimes die
Fighting their rescuers.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

With staggering prescience and perhaps with a subtle wink at James Baldwin’s assertion that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” Butler lets us know that drowning people do not choose their leaders wisely:

When apparent stability disintegrates,
As it must —
God is Change —
People tend to give in
To fear and depression,
To need and greed.
When no influence is strong enough
To unify people
They divide.
They struggle,
One against one,
Group against group,
For survival, position, power.
They remember old hates and generate new ones,
They create chaos and nurture it.
They kill and kill and kill,
Until they are exhausted and destroyed,
Until they are conquered by outside forces,
Or until one of them becomes
A leader
Most will follow,
Or a tyrant
Most fear.

Again and again, Butler cautions against the blindness of choosing from a state of heightened emotion — the very blindness which political propaganda is aimed at blinkering over the eyes of the electorate with the constant stirring of our most reptilian fears:

When vision fails
Direction is lost.

When direction is lost
Purpose may be forgotten.

When purpose is forgotten
Emotion rules alone.

When emotion rules alone,
Destruction… destruction.

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

In a short verse evocative of the closing lines of Jane Hirshfield’s stunning poem “The Weighing,” Butler beckons us to become Earthseed — to become “the life that perceives itself changing” — and to effect change with our conscientious choices:

There is no end
To what a living world
Will demand of you.

A century and a half after Margaret Fuller’s admirer Walt Whitman peered at the democratic vistas of a thriving society and exhorted humanity to “always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote,” Butler leaves us with this central question of personal responsibility:

Are you Earthseed?
Do you believe?
Belief will not save you.
Only actions
Guided and shaped
By belief and knowledge
Will save you.
Belief
Initiates and guides action —
Or it does nothing.

The shortest verse in the book distills Butler’s largest message:

Kindness eases Change.

Complement with David Foster Wallace on what a “real leader” means and Hannah Arendt on loneliness as the common ground for terror and how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, then revisit poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s magnificent ode to choosing kindness over fear and Audre Lorde’s magnificent ode to choosing creation over destruction.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 24 Aug 2020 | 7:50 am(NZT)

Neuroscientist David Eagleman on How the Physiology of Drug Withdrawal Explains the Psychology of Heartbreak and Loss

“The difference between predictions and outcomes is the key to understanding a strange property of learning: if you’re predicting perfectly, your brain doesn’t need to change further.”


Neuroscientist David Eagleman on How the Physiology of Drug Withdrawal Explains the Psychology of Heartbreak and Loss

“Who is good if he knows not who he is? and who knows what he is, if he forgets that things which have been made are perishable, and that it is not possible for one human being to be with another always?” So wrote Epictetus two millennia ago, offering the Stoic strategy for surviving heartbreak as he contemplated love and loss long before the birth of neuroscience, before notions of hormones and neurotransmitters, before the heretical idea that out of this perishable flesh and its enskulled synaptic command center arises all of who and what we are. In the epochs since, countless poems and songs and private journal pages have likened the effects of love to those of a drug and the effects of loss, of heartbreak, of the dissolution of the illusion of always, to the maddening, debilitating effects of withdrawal.

Such metaphors, it turns out, are not mere poetic fancy but an apt reflection of an underlying neurobiological reality. So argues neuroscientist David Eagleman in a portion of Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain (public library) — an altogether fascinating tour of the astonishing plasticity and interconnectedness inside the cranial cradle of all of our experience of reality, animated by Eagleman’s erudite enthusiasm for his subject, aglow with the ecstasy of sensemaking that comes when the seemingly unconnected snaps into a consummate totality of understanding.

Glial cells of the cerebral cortex of a child — one of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s stunning drawings.

Eagleman writes:

The difference between predictions and outcomes is the key to understanding a strange property of learning: if you’re predicting perfectly, your brain doesn’t need to change further… Changes in the brain happen only when there’s a difference between what was expected and what actually happens.

The brain’s constant labor at predictive modeling of the world, this ceaseless calibration of expectation to actuality, is how addiction sinks its fangs into the tissue of being:

Consumption of a drug changes the number of receptors for the drug in the brain — to such an extent that you can look at a brain after a person has died and determine his addictions by gauging his molecular changes. This is why people become desensitized (or tolerant) to a drug: the brain comes to predict the presence of the drug, and adapts its receptor expression so it can maintain a stable equilibrium when it receives the next hit. In a physical, literal way, the brain comes to expect the drug to be there: the biological details have calibrated themselves accordingly. Because the system now predicts a certain amount to be present, more is needed to achieve the original high.

Another of Cajal’s forgotten drawings — synapses carrying auditory information and contacting neurons in the brainstem.

Neurobiology and psychology converge in the common ground between drug withdrawal and heartbreak. Echoing poet Meghan O’Rourke’s observation from her stunning memoir of learning to live with loss that “the people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created,” Eagleman writes:

People you love become part of you — not just metaphorically, but physically. You absorb people into your internal model of the world. Your brain refashions itself around the expectation of their presence. After the breakup with a lover, the death of a friend, or the loss of a parent, the sudden absence represents a major departure from homeostasis. As Kahlil Gibran put it in The Prophet, “And ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”

In this way, your brain is like the negative image of everyone you’ve come in contact with. Your lovers, friends, and parents fill in their expected shapes. Just like feeling the waves after you’ve departed the boat, or craving the drug when it’s absent, so your brain calls for the people in your life to be there. When someone moves away, rejects you, or dies, your brain struggles with its thwarted expectations. Slowly, through time, it has to readjust to a world without that person.

That, of course, is the miraculous thing about the brain — that it has to, and it does; that is the thing which Abraham Lincoln captured in his soulful letter of consolation to a bereaved friend, and that is the thing which Nick Cave serenaded with such splendor of sentiment in his meditation on loss.


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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 24 Aug 2020 | 7:10 am(NZT)

Sometimes: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Stunning Meditation on Walking into the Questions of Our Becoming

An invitation into the transcendent disquietude of those stirrings “that can make or unmake a life,” “that have no right to go away.”


Sometimes: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Stunning Meditation on Walking into the Questions of Our Becoming

The role of the artist, James Baldwin believed, is “to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.” This, too, is the role of the forest, it occurs to me as I walk the ferned, mossed woods daily to lose my self and find myself between the trees; to “live the questions,” in Rilke’s lovely phrase — to let the rustling of the leaves beckon forth the stirrings and murmurings on the edge of the psyche, which we so often brush away in order to go on being the smaller version of ourselves we have grown accustomed to being out of the unfaced fear that the grandeur of life, the grandeur of our own untrammeled nature, might require of us more than we are ready to give.

Those disquieting, transformative stirrings are what the poet and philosopher David Whyte explores with surefooted subtlety in his poem “Sometimes,” found in his altogether life-enlarging collection Everything Is Waiting for You (public library) and read here by the poet himself as part of a wonderful short course of poem-driven practices for neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris’s Waking Up meditation toolkit (which I can’t recommend enough and which operates under an inspired, honorable model of granting free subscriptions to those who need this invaluable mental health aid but don’t have the means).

SOMETIMES
by David Whyte

Sometimes
if you move carefully
through the forest,
breathing
like the ones
in the old stories,
who could cross
a shimmering bed of leaves
without a sound,
you come to a place
whose only task
is to trouble you
with tiny
but frightening requests,
conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.
Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,
and
to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,
questions
that can make
or unmake
a life,
questions
that have patiently
waited for you,
questions
that have no right
to go away.

Complement with Whyte on anger, forgiveness, and what maturity really means, hardship as the ground for self-expansion, and his lovely letter to children about reading as a portal to self-discovery, then revisit other great poets bringing their own versed wisdom to life: Marie Howe reading “Singularity,” Marissa Davis reading her own “Singularity” in response to Howe’s, Jane Hirshfield reading “Today, Another Universe,” Ross Gay reading “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt,” Marilyn Nelson reading “The Children’s Moon,” and former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading from “My God, It’s Full of Stars.”


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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 19 Aug 2020 | 4:15 pm(NZT)

Psychedelic Fishes from the World’s First Natural History Encyclopedia of Marine Creatures Illustrated in Color

An explosion of wonder at the borderline of science and the ecstatic imagination.


“Who has known the ocean? Neither you nor I, with our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide-pool home; or the lilt of the long, slow swells of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are preyed upon, and the dolphin breaks the waves to breathe the upper atmosphere,” Rachel Carson wrote in her lyrical 1937 masterpiece Undersea, which invited the human imagination to fathom the world of marine creatures for the first time — a world then more mysterious than the Moon — and paved the way for the awakening of the modern ecological conscience.

Available as a print and as a face mask.

More than two centuries earlier, a strange and wondrous book titled Poissons, écrevisses et crabes… que l’on trouve autour des Isles Moluques, et sur les côtes des Terres AustralesFishes, crayfish and crabs, of various colors and extraordinary figures, which one finds around the Moluccas islands and on the coasts of the Austral lands — flashed into being, dizzying and dazzling everyone who chanced upon the 100 precious copies of the first edition with its extraordinary depictions of extraordinary creatures.

Available as a print and as a face mask.

The world’s first encyclopedia of fishes illustrated in color, promising a “natural history of the rarest curiosities of the fish of the Indies,” it advertised these curiosities as “drawn from nature.” The author identified himself as a secret British spy. He was, in fact, the Dutch publisher, bookseller, atlas-maker, and engraver Louis Renard (c. 1678–1746), employed at one time by the British Crown in the rather non-secret work of searching vessels as they departed Amsterdam’s ports to ensure they weren’t smuggling arms for a potential usurper of the British throne. Clickbait existed even in 1719.

Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.

The consummate images — 100 plates of them, populated by 460 individual hand-colored copper engravings, based on drawings by an artistically gifted soldier in the Dutch East India Company named Samuel Fallour, who worked with native artists — are even more vibrant than William Saville-Kent’s pioneering depictions of the Great Barrier Reef’s life-forms, even more otherworldly than Ernst Haeckel’s mesmerizing jellyfish, even more detailed than Harriet and Helena Scott’s Australian butterflies. They are seaborne butterflies, gilled and finned peacocks, psychedelic dragons of the ocean; they are candy-colored aliens, Earth’s proudest freak-flags, floating cosmoses of wonder; they are undulating living poems.

Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.

Reminiscent of Hindu deities and the marine creatures of Indian folklore, Renard’s creatures are so fanciful one might be tempted to take them for fictitious — a temptation significantly magnified by the depiction of a mermaid on page 220, its human portion appearing like a child’s drawing awkwardly appended to the elegant, elaborate paintings of the marine forms.

Available as a print and as a face mask.

But while their beauty is embellished — by the artistic imagination filling in the gaps of science, as mythology has always done — it is not invented. When a modern ichthyologist examined the book a quarter millennium after its publication, he determined that only about one in ten of the species depicted was drawn from the imagination; the rest were identifiable down to the genus, many even to the species.

Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.

Their strange and wondrous countenances seem both alien and strikingly human, projection screens for our own emotions — their round unblinking eyes frozen in an expression of perpetual astonishment, their toothy underbites agape with aggressive incomprehension.

Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.

The wonderful Biodiversity Library has scanned a rare surviving copy of the posthumous edition published in 1754. I have spent some delicious hours — days, really — savoring it, restoring and color-correcting these time-washed treasures to their original splendor, to make them available as prints and, for the artworks that lend themselves to the pre-set cutting pattern, as face masks, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting The Nature Conservancy’s tireless stewardship of this irreplaceable world.

Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.

donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 15 Aug 2020 | 4:55 pm(NZT)

Creativity in the Time of COVID: Zadie Smith on Writing, Love, and What Echoes Through the Hallway of Time Suddenly Emptied of Habit

“There is no great difference between novels and banana bread. They are both just something to do. They are no substitute for love… Love is not something to do, but… something to go through — that must be why it frightens so many of us and why we so often approach it indirectly.”


Creativity in the Time of COVID: Zadie Smith on Writing, Love, and What Echoes Through the Hallway of Time Suddenly Emptied of Habit

“Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous I don’t know,” the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska observed in her magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance speech. But a central paradox of making art and making life is that while uncertainty may be the wellspring of our creative vitality — what is best in life and art often comes into being by “making-not-knowing,” in artist Ann Hamilton’s lovely phrase — we are capable of creating only by hedging against the uncertainty with an arsenal of habits and routines that make it feel containable, controllable, workable. We simply cannot cope with the fundamental precariousness of it all. Every artist’s art is their coping mechanism — their makeshift raft for the slipstream of time and uncertainty that is life.

And so: When some cataclysm in the slipstream capsizes the raft, shatters it, leaves us gasping amid the flotsam, ejected from the familiar flow of time — do we sink or sing?

That is what Zadie Smith explores in one of the six symphonic essays from her Intimations (public library) — a slender, splendid book, all of her royalties from which Smith is donating to the Equal Justice Initiative and New York’s COVID-19 emergency relief fund; a book inspired by her first encounter with Marcus Aurelius’s classic Meditations, on which she leaned to steady herself in these staggering times but which failed to make of her a Stoic, driving her, as the world’s gaps and failings drive us restive makers, to make what meets the unmet need, a contemporary counterpart to these ancient private meditations of timeless public resonance. (We cannot, we must not, after all, expect a white male monarch — however penetrating his insight into human nature, whatever the similitudes of that elemental nature across cultures and civilizations — to speak for and to all of humanity across all of time.)

Zadie Smith (Photograph by Dominique Nabokov)

In the third essay, titled “Something to Do,” Smith contemplates the strange and inevitable species of essays in which writers examine their own motives for what they do, that is, examine the pylons of who they are — a genre perhaps not pioneered but popularized by Orwell’s iconic Why I Write and since swelled with specimens by such titans of literature as Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, and Smith herself. At the bottom of all such self-examination — which spares no maker, whatever the mode and material of their art, be it essays or gardens or equations — is the question of time, the raw material of making, something Marcus Aurelius’s fellow Stoic Seneca took up in his excellent meditation on the existential calculus of time spent, saved, and wasted, concluding that “nothing is ours, except time.”

With an eye to the capitalist commodification of time in a culture of utilitarian busyness, Smith considers how society ordinarily weighs the cultural and temporal responsibility of the artist:

Why did you bake that banana bread? It was something to do… Out of an expanse of time, you carve a little area — that nobody asked you to carve — and you do “something.” But perhaps the difference between the kind of something that I’m used to, and this new culture of doing something, is the moral anxiety that surrounds it. The something that artists have always done is more usually cordoned off from the rest of society, and by mutual agreement this space is considered a sort of charming but basically useless playpen, in which adults get to behave like children — making up stories and drawing pictures and so on — though at least they provide some form of pleasure to serious people, doing actual jobs… As a consequence, art stands in a dubious relation to necessity — and to time itself. It is something to do, yes, but when it is done, and whether it is done at all, is generally considered a question for artists alone. An attempt to connect the artist’s labor with the work of truly laboring people is frequently made but always strikes me as tenuous, with the fundamental dividing line being this question of the clock. Labor is work done by the clock (and paid by it, too). Art takes time and divides it up as art sees fit. It is something to do.

Art by Christoph Niemann from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Under such a premise, she observes, artists would seem to be most impervious to the cataclysmic disruption of labor that a global pandemic inflicts upon our species. But that is not what her experience — or my experience, or the experience of any creative person I know — has been. One is reminded of James Baldwin, insisting half a century earlier in his superb essay on the creative process that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.” Not even time, the artist’s own fulcrum of stability. Smith writes:

It seems it would follow that writers — so familiar with empty time and with being alone — should manage this situation better than most. Instead, in the first week I found out how much of my old life was about hiding from life. Confronted with the problem of life served neat, without distraction or adornment or superstructure, I had almost no idea of what to do with it. Back in the playpen, I carved out meaning by creating artificial deprivations time, the kind usually provided for people by the real limitations of their real jobs. Things like “a firm place to be at nine a.m. every morning” or a “boss who tells you what to do.” In the absence of these fixed elements, I’d make up hard things to do, or things to abstain from. Artificial limits and so on. Running is what I know. Writing is what I know. Conceiving self-implemented schedules: teaching day, reading day, writing day, repeat. What a dry, sad, small idea of a life. And how exposed it looks, now that the people I love are in the same room to witness the way I do time. The way I’ve done it all my life.

“Artificial limits,” of course, are how we contour and fill our sense of meaning amid the vast, empty boundlessness of being. That is why the artificial limits of those we deem to have meaningful lives — the daily routines of great makers and thinkers — are of such enduring and intoxicating interest to us, why we hunger for the cognitive science of the ideal daily routine.

Art by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

But much of our temporal anguish stems precisely from this artificial contouring of selfhood in the sand of time. We are essentially self-referential timekeeping devices. I noticed, for instance — how could one not? — that this book was published on my birthday. We mark up the year with the same artificial timestamps with which we mark up the hour. What we do with our days, how we itemize them into scheduled rhythms, is another twitch of the same ludicrous, helplessly human impulse — to own time, to turn into private property what may be the only truly public good. Eventually — perhaps in the time-warp of a pandemic, perhaps in that of private grief — something stops us up short and we face the absurdity of such artificiality. Smith recounts her own stumbling stop and the disquieting yet strangely life-affirming realization it made her step into:

At the end of April, in a powerful essay by another writer, Ottessa Moshfegh, I read this line about love: “Without it, life is just ‘doing time.’” I don’t think she intended by this only romantic love, or parental love, or familial love or really any kind of love in particular. At least, I read it in the Platonic sense: Love with a capital L, an ideal form and essential part of the universe — like “Beauty” or the color red — from which all particular examples on earth take their nature. Without this element present, in some form, somewhere in our lives, there really is only time, and there will always be too much of it. Busyness will not disguise its lack.

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

Ending where she began, Smith quiets the moral anxiety to make herself at home in that peculiar and inescapable place that makers inhabit by their very nature, the place between compulsion and consecration:

I write because… well, the best I can say for it is it’s a psychological quirk of mine developed in response to whatever personal failings I have. But it can’t ever meaningfully fill the time. There is no great difference between novels and banana bread. They are both just something to do. They are no substitute for love. The difficulties and complications of love — as they exist on the other side of this wall, away from my laptop — is the task that is before me, although task is a poor word for it, for unlike writing, its terms cannot be scheduled, preplanned or determined by me. Love is not something to do, but something to be experienced, and something to go through — that must be why it frightens so many of us and why we so often approach it indirectly. Here is this novel, made with love. Here is this banana bread, made with love. If it weren’t for this habit of indirection, of course, there would be no culture in this world, and very little meaningful pleasure for any of us. Although the most powerful art, it sometimes seems to me, is an experience and a going-through; it is love comprehended by, expressed and enacted through the artwork itself, and for this reason has perhaps been more frequently created by people who feel themselves to be completely alone in this world — and therefore wholly focused on the task at hand — than by those surrounded by “loved ones.” Such art is rare: we can’t all sit cross-legged like Buddhists day and night meditating on ultimate matters. Or I can’t. But I also don’t want to just do time anymore, the way I used to. And yet, in my case, I can’t let it go: old habits die hard. I can’t rid myself of the need to do “something,” to make “something,” to feel that this new expanse of time hasn’t been “wasted.” Still, it’s nice to have company. Watching this manic desire to make or grow or do “something,” that now seems to be consuming everybody, I do feel comforted to discover I’m not the only person on this earth who has no idea what life is for, nor what is to be done with all this time aside from filling it.

Complement this fragment of Smith’s solacing and vitalizing Intimations with Frankenstein author Mary Shelley on the necessary chaos of creativity, Borges’s timeless refutation of time, and Rilke on the lonely patience of creative work, then revisit Smith, writing years ago as if of and to today, on optimism and despair.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 14 Aug 2020 | 7:52 am(NZT)

How to Master the Ancient Art of Walking Meditation in Modern Life: A Field Guide from the Pioneering Buddhist Teacher Sylvia Boorstein

“Slow is not better than fast. It’s just different. Everything changes, regardless of pace, and direct firsthand experience of temporality can happen while you are strolling just as much as while you are stepping deliberately and slowly.”


How to Master the Ancient Art of Walking Meditation in Modern Life: A Field Guide from the Pioneering Buddhist Teacher Sylvia Boorstein

“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his classic manifesto for the spirit of sauntering, before proclaiming that “every walk is a sort of crusade.” A century and a half later, Rebecca Solnit picked up the subject in her ambulatory classic: “I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.” Perched partway in time between Thoreau and Solnit, Thomas Bernhard twined these sentiments in his exquisite meditation on walking, thinking, and the paradox of self-reflection: “There is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking.”

Art from What Color Is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts

But what if the peripatetic body could be an instrument not of moving the mind but of stilling the mind in order to apprehend reality, internal and external, more clearly? What if walking could be not a crusade but a consecration?

That, of course, is what Eastern traditions have been doing for millennia. How to do it — how to master the ancient art of walking meditation and incorporate it into a modern life, into your regular rhythm of being — is what the great Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Sylvia Boorstein details in a portion of her funny, poignant, wholly revelatory 1996 field guide to mindfulness practice, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There (public library).

Sylvia Boorstein

Boorstein — who arrived at Buddhism through the portal of political activism in the 1960s and went on to help pioneer the ancient Eastern tradition as a spiritual and psychotherapeutic practice in the West, and whose teachings have transformed my own life — outlines the basic mental and material framework of walking meditation:

Pick a place to walk back and forth that is private and uncomplicated — one where the walking path can be ten to twenty feet long. If you walk outdoors, find a secluded spot so that you won’t feel self-conscious. If you walk indoors, find a furniture-free section of your room or an empty hallway. Then you can devote all your attention to the feelings in your feet as you walk.

Keep in mind that this is attentiveness practice and tranquillity practice, not specialty walking practice. You don’t need to walk in any unusual way. No special balance is needed, no special gracefulness. This is just plain walking. Perhaps at a slower pace than normal, but otherwise, quite ordinary.

Begin your period of practice by standing still for a few moments at one end of your walking path. Close your eyes. Feel your whole body standing. Some people start by focusing their attention on the top of the head, then move their attention along the body through the head, shoulders, arms, torso, and legs, and end by feeling the sensations of the feet connecting with the earth. Allow your attention to rest on the sensations in the soles of the feet. This is likely to be the feeling of pressure on the feet and perhaps a sense of “soft” or “hard,” depending on where you are standing.

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

From this mental launchpad commences the actual movement, the intention of which Boorstein takes care to protect from the momentum of our everyday biped habits:

Begin to walk forward. Keep your eyes open so that you stay balanced. I often begin with a normal strolling pace and expect that the limited scope of the walk, and its repetitious regularity, will naturally ease my body into a slower pace. Slowing down happens all by itself. I think it happens because the mind, with less stimuli to process, shifts into a lower gear. Probably the greed impulse, ever on the lookout for something novel to play with, surrenders when it realizes you’re serious about not going anywhere.

When you walk at a strolling pace, the view is panoramic and descriptive. When your walking slows, the view is more localized and subjective. If we could see running readouts, like subtitles, of the mental notes that accompany walking, they might look like this:

Strolling pace: “Step . . . step . . . step . . . step . . .

arms moving . . . head moving . . . smiling . . . looking . . .

stopping . . . turning . . . bird chirping . . .

stepping . . . stepping . . . wondering what time it is . . .

thinking this is boring . . . stepping . . . stepping . . .

swinging arms . . . feeling warm . . .

feeling cool . . . I’m glad I’m in the shade . . .

deciding to stay in the shade . . . smiling . . . stepping . . .”

Slower pace: “Pressure on feet . . . pressure . . . pressure disappearing . . .

pressure reappearing . . . pressure shifting . . .

lightness . . . heaviness . . . lightness . . . heaviness . . . lightness . . .

Hey! Now I’ve got it! Now I’m finally present!. . .

Whoops, I’ve been distracted . . . Start again . . .

Pressure on feet . . . pressure shifting . . . lightness . . .

heaviness . . . lightness . . . heaviness . . .

hearing . . . warm . . . cool . . .”

“Go out and walk. It is the glory of life.” Art by Maira Kalman from My Favorite Things.

Boorstein adds an essential disclaimer — a disclaimer and an assurance, necessary for us human animals so conditioned by modern life to overdo, so anxious to overachieve:

Slow is not better than fast. It’s just different. Everything changes, regardless of pace, and direct firsthand experience of temporality can happen while you are strolling just as much as while you are stepping deliberately and slowly. The speed-limit guide for mindful walking is to select the speed at which you are most likely to maintain attention. Shift up or down as necessary.

Aware, with Borges, that time is the substance we are made of, Boorstein ends with a similar antidote to our temporal anxiety:

Start with thirty minutes… Set the timer and begin… As you walk note how many times the impulse to check the time arises. Don’t do it. Just walk. This way, in addition to composure and attentiveness, you get to practice renunciation, a fundamental factor in awakening.

Complement with The Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame’s century-old meditation on walking as creative fuel and Lauren Elkin’s marvelous modern-day manifesto for peripatetic empowerment, then revisit the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to do hugging meditation and savor Sylvia Boorstein’s reading of Pablo Neruda’s splendid ode to silence.


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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 12 Aug 2020 | 5:13 am(NZT)

Patti Smith Reads Emily Dickinson’s Pre-Particle Physics Ode to the Science and Splendor of How the World Holds Together

A rhapsody of wonder between the scale of atoms and the scale of minds.


Patti Smith Reads Emily Dickinson’s Pre-Particle Physics Ode to the Science and Splendor of How the World Holds Together

When the sixteen-year-old Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) enrolled in the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary — America’s first institution of higher education for women, the “castle of science” where she composed her exquisite forgotten herbarium at the intersection of science and poetry around the time the sole surviving photograph of her was taken — her immersion in language, mathematics, and astronomy began giving shape to the amorphous doubt about the claims of religion that had been gnawing at her since childhood. How she must have marveled at equations that could describe the splendor of galaxies. She would die before the discovery of the electron, but how staggered her pliant young mind must have been to learn that scientists had just proven the existence of atoms — those then-smallest conceivable constituents of matter first imagined by the ancient Greeks two and a half millennia earlier.

Emily Dickinson, daguerreotype, ca. 1847. (Amherst College Archives & Special Collections, gift of Millicent Todd Bingham, 1956)

Under the shimmering starscape of this new universe of knowledge, she found herself having “no interest in the all-important subject” of “becom[ing] a Christian.” Soon, she would write in her ravishing love letters to Susan Gilbert: “Sermons on unbelief ever did attract me.” The school’s founder and first principal, who divided her pupils into three categories along the spectrum of salvation — the saved; those for whom there was hope; and the “no-hopers” — placed Emily in the third. At the end of her first term, on the day of the Sabbath, she was among seventeen students — “the impenitent,” as the principal called them — who couldn’t readily proclaim that “they would serve the Lord” but instead “felt an uncommon anxiety to decide.” The following day, Emily reported the docility she’d observed, writing to a friend at home with removed reproof: “There is a great deal of religious interest here and many are flocking to the ark of safety.” She was far more interested in the arc of knowledge as science was just beginning to bend its gaze past the horizon of old certitudes. What lay there would come to animate a great many of her spare, stunning poems — poems that illuminate the eternal, the elemental, the inevitable through the pinhole of the surprising.

Pages from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium.

A century before the advent of particle physics and its deliciously disorienting revelation that we are mostly restlessness and empty space, Dickinson pondered the strangeness of a world so seemingly solid and stable yet governed by such imperceptible precariousness in one of her greatest masterworks at that rare precipice of the surprising and the inevitable. Appearing in Figuring as a bridge figure between the visionary poet and the visionary physicist Lise Meitner — whose groundbreaking unraveling of one of nature’s deepest mysteries was hijacked in the making of the atomic bomb despite Meitner’s refusal to work on the project — Dickinson’s poem was animated into new life at the 2020 Universe in Verse by one of the great poetic voices and deepest seers of our own time: Patti Smith.

Like all of Dickinson’s work, this poem was composed untitled and is numbered 600 in her astounding body of work comprising nearly 2,000 known poems — scholars assign these numbers based on where they are best able to place each poem in the chronology of her life — but it was given a title by the poet’s early posthumous editors, who, in an effort to standardize her poetry into more marketable literature, also took the liberty of razing it of her singular punctuation and capitalization, so deliberate and inseparable from her subtleties of meaning; it took a century to reinstate Dickinson’s artistic intent and embrace her courage of breaking with convention in an unexampled way that atomized the matter of language into entirely new structures of meaning.

It troubled me as once I was —
For I was once a Child —
Concluding how an Atom — fell —
And yet the Heavens — held —

The Heavens weighed the most — by far —
Yet Blue — and solid — stood —
Without a Bolt — that I could prove —
Would Giants — understand?

Life set me larger — problems —
Some I shall keep — to solve
Till Algebra is easier —
Or simpler proved — above —

Then — too — be comprehended —
What sorer — puzzled me —
Why Heaven did not break away —
And tumble — Blue — on me —

Patti Smith as a child. (Photographs courtesy of Patti Smith.)

For other highlights of The Universe in Verse — the annual charitable celebration of science through poetry, benefiting Pioneer Works’ endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory and trouble generations of children into contemplating the cosmic perspective — savor Pioneer Works Director of Sciences and poetic astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of the stunning “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, a breathtaking animation of Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity,” and astronaut Leland Melvin’s reading of Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, then revisit Patti Smith’s uncommonly poetic meditation on dreams, love, loss, and mending the broken realities of life.


donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 7 Aug 2020 | 12:31 pm(NZT)











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