The vast majority of our mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering comes from the violent collision between our expectations and reality. As we dust ourselves off amid the rubble, bruised and indignant, we further pain ourselves with the exertion of staggering emotional energy on outrage at how reality dared defy what we demanded of it.
The remedy, of course, is not to bend the reality of an impartial universe to our will. The remedy is to calibrate our expectations — a remedy that might feel far too pragmatic to be within reach in the heat of the collision-moment, but also one with profound poetic undertones once put into practice.
Walt Whitman understood this when, felled by a paralytic stroke, he considered what makes life worth living and instructed himself: “Tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies.” He spared himself the additional self-inflicted suffering of outrage at how his body failed him — perhaps because, having proclaimed himself the poet of the Body and the poet of the Soul, he understood the two to be one. He squandered no emotional energy on the expectation that his suddenly disabled body perform a counterpossible feat against reality to let him enjoy his beloved tree workouts and daily excursions to the river. He simply edited his expectations to accord with his new reality and sought to find his joy there, within these new parameters of being.
What is true of the poetics of our own body-soul is as true of the poetics of relationship, that beautiful and terrifying interchange between separate body-souls. Little syphons the joy of life more surely than the wasted energy of indignation at how others have failed to behave in accordance with what we expected of them.
Two millennia before the outrage culture of the Internet, the lovesick queer teenager turned Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180) addressed this curious self-mauling tendency of the human mind with his characteristic precision of insight and unsentimental problem-solving in the notebooks that became his Meditations (public library) — a timeless book, newly translated and annotated by the British classics scholar Robin Waterfield, which Marcus Aurelius wrote largely for and to himself, like Tolstoy wrote his Calendar of Wisdom and Bruce Lee calibrated his core values, yet a book that went on to stake the pillars of the philosophical system of Stoicism, equipping countless generations with tools for navigating the elemental existential challenges of being human and inspiring others to fill the gaps of its unaddressed questions with exquisite answers of their own.
Epochs before the birth of probability theory, Marcus Aurelius begins with a probabilistic-statistical consolation:
Whenever a person’s lack of shame offends you, you should immediately ask yourself, “So is it possible for there to be no shameless people in the world?” It isn’t, and you should therefore stop demanding the impossible. He’s just one of those shameless people who must necessarily exist in the world. You should keep the same thought readily available for when you’re faced with devious and untrustworthy people, and people who are flawed in any way. As soon as you remind yourself that it’s impossible for such people not to exist, you’ll be kinder to each and every one of them. It’s also helpful immediately to consider what virtue nature has granted us human beings to deal with any given offense — gentleness, for instance, to counter discourteous people…
Millennia before William James lit the dawn of modern psychology with the radical assertion that our experience is what we “agree to attend to,” millennia before neuroscience came to locate the seat of consciousness in the qualia of subjective experience, Marcus Aurelius serves that classic Stoic cocktail of simply worded obvious truths that are difficult truths to live up to, earned by a thousand complexities of conduct to be practiced daily:
The things of the world cannot affect the soul; they lie inert outside it, and only internal beliefs disturb it.
From this follows a curious, infuriating fundament of our humanity: that no matter what another person does — to us or at us or near the self-membraned bubble of our being — our inner response to it lives in the realm of feeling, that sovereign source of light over which we alone have agency and dominion. Even more infuriatingly, Marcus Aurelius reminds us, our outrage at some entirely predictable misbehavior by a person known to misbehave is a failure not of the other but of our own powers of reason:
You’ll find that none of the people who make you lose your temper has done anything that might affect your mind for the worse; and outside of the mind there’s nothing that is truly detrimental or harmful for you… After all, you even had the resources, in the form of your ability to think rationally, to appreciate that he was likely to commit that fault, yet you forgot it and are now surprised that he did exactly that.
Observing that to explode with rage at the offender would make no positive difference to their conduct and would only further perturb your own soul, he instead offers a two-step process for dealing with the situation, telescoping into the broad existential perspective and then microscoping into your own innermost values:
First, don’t be upset. Nothing happens that isn’t in accord with universal nature, and before long you won’t exist at all, just like [your heroes]… Second, fix your gaze on the matter at hand and see it for what it is, and then, keeping in your mind your obligation to be a good man and the demands of your humanity, go right ahead and do it, in the way that seems to you to be most just. But do it with kindness and modesty, and without dissembling.
This is but one manifestation of the central preoccupation of the Meditations — the lifelong project of learning to see clearly as the greatest self-defense against mental anguish. So much of our disappointment and rage, after all, stem from the clash between our misperceptions of things and the reality of things — they are the pain of disillusionment, inflamed in those moments when the veil of illusion is lifted or violently pierced to let us, finally, see reality.
Reaching across space and time, across cultures and civilizations, Marcus Aurelius prescribes the antidote:
Always define or describe to yourself every impression that occurs to your mind, so that you can clearly see what the thing is like in its entirety, stripped to its essence, and tell yourself its proper name and the names of the elements of which it consists and into which it will be resolved. Nothing is more conducive to objectivity than the ability methodically and honestly to test everything that you come across in life, and always to look at things in such a way that you consider what kind of part each of them plays in what kind of universe, and what value it has for the universe as a whole.
Clarity of vision, he reminds us, is the basis of rightful action, and while our own rightful action may not be a guarantee of our contentment — or what the Romans shorthanded as “the good life” — it is our only assurance toward it:
If you carry out every present task by following right reason assiduously, resolutely, and with kindness; if rather than getting distracted by irrelevancies, you keep your guardian spirit unspoiled and steady, as though you had to surrender it at any moment; if you engage with the task not with expectations or evasions, but satisfied if your current performance is in accord with nature and if what you say and express is spoken with true Roman honesty, you’ll be living the good life. And there’s no one who can stop you doing so!
Complement with Seneca, another apostle of Stoicism, on the antidote to anxiety and Marcus Aurelius himself, in a different translation of his Meditations, on the key to living with presence, the most potent motivation for work, and how to begin each day, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin’s magnificent more-than-translation of another ancient classic from the wisdom tradition of a different civilization, the Tao Te Ching. (One thing that has always troubled me about modern translations of ancient classics is that they present an opportunity to calibrate the inclusiveness of these teachings to our present hard-earned sphere of dignity without changing their message — an opportunity very few translators take, for it requires a formidably delicate balance between the rigors of scholarship and the responsibilities of a social conscience. Count on Le Guin, whose meditation on being “a man” remains the finest thing I have ever read on the history of gender in language, to leap at that opportunity and make something soaring.)
For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.
Source: Brain Pickings | 14 Apr 2021 | 7:08 am(NZT)
A century after the self-taught German naturalist and artist Maria Merian laid the foundation of entomology with her art, and a century before the Australian teenage sisters Harriet and Helena Scott fomented one of the greatest triumphs of conservation with their stunning butterfly drawings, John Abbot (1751–1841) became the first artist and naturalist to document pictorially the wing-borne beauty of the New World.
John was still a teenager when the Old World’s most venerated scientific institution, The Royal Society of his native London, took notice of his consummate entomological illustrations. While his trailblazing compatriot Sarah Stone was drawing the exotic animals of Australia and New Zealand, he was encouraged to leave for North America to help shed light on the insect corner of the continent’s largely unexplored living landscape.
And so, in the summer of his twenty-third year, John Abbot made the arduous Atlantic crossing, heading for the capital settlement of the first British colony in North America: Jamestown, Virginia.
From the moment he set foot on American soil, throughout those difficult early years as a young immigrant, throughout the scientific disenchantment with a habitat far less biodiverse than he had expected, he persisted in collecting and rearing insects, studying and drawing them to send his painstaking artwork back to London.
His first two shipments were lost at sea. Still, he persisted.
As the air grew flammable with the spirit of revolution, he considered returning to London, considered following in Merian’s footsteps and voyaging to the butterfly paradise of Surinam, but ultimately decided not to give up on America just yet.
In the harsh winter of 1775, he traveled to Georgia to stay with a family he had befriended during the transatlantic crossing — the Goodalls (possible kin of Jane Goodall). Living in a log cabin 100 miles outside Augusta, Abbot immersed himself in the world of insects and birds, studying and painting the dazzling diversity of winged life.
As the months unspooled into years, he went on drawing. He served in the British army during the Revolutionary War and went on drawing, got married, had a son, and went on drawing, lost his wife and went on drawing, with a particular passion for the rarest and most neglected of species.
By the end of his long life, more than double the era’s life expectancy, he had produced thousands upon thousands of illustrations of insects, including the native plants they live on and pollinate into life, and several sets of birds. Today, his work is celebrated as some of the finest pictorial scholarship in the history of science and some of the finest scientific illustration in the history of art, held and exhibited in natural history and art museums all over the world. The best of it is collected in Abbot’s magnum opus. The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia (public library), originally published in 1797.
My favorite of his drawings, both aesthetically and scientifically, are the several species of hawk-moth, Sphingidae — the unsung heroes of the pollinator world.
They are the hummingbirds of the insect universe, with majestic bodies up to eightfold the weight of the average half-gram butterfly and a mighty flight-motor reaching up to 60 wingbeats per second. With tongues up to three times the length of their bodies, they pollinate some of Earth’s most fragrant blooming plants — jasmine, gardenia, honeysuckle, wild rose, evening primrose.
Complement with Stephen Jay Gould on what Nabokov’s butterfly studies reveal about the nature of human creativity and the fascinating natural history of how early pollinators gave Earth its colors, then revisit other stunning art from the golden age of natural history illustration: stunning snails from the world’s first pictorial encyclopedia of mollusks, psychedelic fishes from the world’s first marine life encyclopedia in color, the vibrant life-forms of the Great Barrier Reef from the first study of one of Earth’s most delicate ecosystems, and the otherworldly beauty of jellyfish rendered by the artist-scientist who coined the word ecology.
For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.
Source: Brain Pickings | 11 Apr 2021 | 1:47 am(NZT)
My poet friend Marie Howe gives the students in her ecopoetry class a lovely assignment: At the outset of the semester, each young poet is asked to name the animal they find most repulsive, then to learn everything they can about it — scientifically, historically, culturally. By the conclusion of the course, they have to write a poem about it.
Inevitably, the creatures previously regarded as remote and abstract othernesses, caricatured by a few loathsome features, are gradually rendered interesting by the thousand small details of their being, complex and concrete. Because interest is the crucible of intimacy and intimacy the crucible of connection, because the light of attention cast upon the creatures renders them luminous golden threads indivisible from the tapestry of aliveness that makes our rocky planet an enchanted loom of a world, the poems inevitably become love poems.
So it is that any totality of love is born of the specifics — those footholds of understanding by which we ascend the ladder of appreciation and admiration to arrive at a particular and attentive love that subjectifies what it loves rather than objectifying it, the way Ursula K. Le Guin believed poetry subjectifies the universe.
Attention, after all, is the native poetry of consciousness and the most elemental form of love.
A quarter millennium after William Blake saw “a World in a Grain of Sand and a Heaven in a Wild Flower” and a century after William James laid the foundation of modern psychology with the then-radical assertion that your experience is what you agree to attend to, the great Vietnamese peace activist and Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh developed a simple, powerful instrument for refining attention, kindred to Marie’s poetic assignment, further miniaturized into a portable everyday aid for living with greater aliveness.
In a section of his 1992 classic Peace Is Every Step (public library) titled “Tangerine Meditation,” he observes that if you are offered a freshly picked tangerine, the magnitude of your enjoyment will depend on the level of your mindfulness:
If you are free of worries and anxiety, you will enjoy [the tangerine] more. If you are possessed by anger or fear, the tangerine may not be very real to you.
He goes on to share a reality-regrounding mindfulness practice from his work with children that is, like a great children’s book, a miniature masterpiece of philosophy and a psychological salve for any stage of life:
One day, I offered a number of children a basket filled with tangerines. The basket was passed around, and each child took one tangerine and put it in his or her palm. We each looked at our tangerine, and the children were invited to meditate on its origins. They saw not only their tangerine, but also its mother, the tangerine tree. With some guidance, they began to visualize the blossoms in the sunshine and in the rain. They saw petals falling down and the tiny fruit appear. The sunshine and the rain continued, and the tiny tangerine grew. Now someone has picked it, and the tangerine is here. After seeing this, each child was invited to peel the tangerine slowly, noticing the mist and the fragrance of the tangerine, and then bring it up to his or her mouth and have a mindful bite, in full awareness of the texture and taste of the fruit and the juice coming out. We ate slowly like that.
Echoing John Muir’s poetic observation that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” Thich Nhat Hanh adds:
Each time you look at a tangerine, you can see deeply into it. You can see everything in the universe in one tangerine. When you peel it and smell it, it’s wonderful. You can take your time eating a tangerine and be very happy.
For a different and equally potent take on how attention magnifies joy, drawing on a different orange fruit, savor Diane Ackerman’s sensual poem “The Consolation of Apricots,” then revisit Thich Nhat Hanh’s gentle and powerful wisdom on mastering the art of “interbeing” we call love, the four Buddhist mantras for turning fear into love, and his wonderful hugging meditation — which might just be the loveliest way for this world to stretch itself alive after the long contact-famished stupor of a global pandemic.
For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.
Source: Brain Pickings | 8 Apr 2021 | 7:10 am(NZT)
“In forty years of medical practice,” the great neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote, “I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients…: music and gardens.”
Virginia Woolf, savaged by depression throughout and out of her life, arrived at her buoyant epiphany about what it means to be an artist while walking in her garden.
“I work like a gardener,” the visionary artist Joan Miró observed in reflecting on his creative process.
“It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness,” the bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her scientific-poetic serenade to gardening.
But if modern gardening has a patron saint, it must be the English artist, filmmaker, and LGBT rights activist Derek Jarman (January 31, 1942–February 19, 1994).
In 1989, shortly after his HIV diagnosis and his father’s death, Jarman left the bustling pretensions of London for a simple life on the shingled shores of Kent. He took up residence in a former Victorian fisherman’s hut between an old lighthouse and a nuclear power plant on the headland of Dungeness, a newly designated a conservation area. He named it Prospect Cottage, painted the front room a translucent Naples yellow, replaced the ramshackle door with blue velvet curtains, and set about making a garden around the gnarled century-old pear tree rising from the carpet of violets as the larks living in the shingles sang high above him in the grey-blue English sky.
At low tide, he collected some handsome sea-rounded flints washed up after a storm, staked them upright in the garden “like dragon teeth,” and encircled each with twelve small beach pebbles. These rudimentary sundials became his flower beds, into which he planted a wondrous miniature wilderness of species not even half of which I, a growing gardener, have encountered — saxifrage, calendula, rue, camomile, shirley poppy, santolina, nasturtium, dianthus, purple iris, hare-bell, and his favorite: sea kale. (A gorgeous plant new to me, which I immediately researched, procured, and planted in my Brooklyn garden.)
As the seasons turned and his flowers rose and the AIDS plague felled his friends one by one, Jarman mourned loss after loss, then grounded himself again and again in the irrepressible life of soil and sprout and bud and bloom. The garden, which his Victorian ancestors saw as a source of moral lessons, became his sanctuary of “extraordinary peacefulness” amid the deepest existential perturbations of death, his canvas for creation amid all the destruction.
The record of this healing creative adventure became Jarman’s Modern Nature (public library) — part memoir and part memorial, a reckoning and a redemption, a homecoming to his first great love: gardening. What emerges from the short near-daily entries is a kind of hybrid between Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, Rilke’s Book of Hours, and Thoreau’s philosophical nature journals.
On the last day of February, after planting lavender in a circle of stones he collected from the beach under the clear blue sky, he writes:
Apart from the nagging past — film, sex and London — I have never been happier than last week. I look up and see the deep azure sea outside my window in the February sun, and today I saw my first bumble bee. Plated lavender and clumps of red hot poker.
It is a different garden of Eden he is building on these windblown shores, living with a deadly disease while his friends — his kind, our kind — are dying of it in a world too indifferent to human suffering, too bedeviled by millennia of religion-fomented homophobia. Gardening becomes not only his salvation, but his act of resistance:
Before I finish I intend to celebrate our corner of Paradise, the part of the garden the Lord forgot to mention.
Acutely aware that he could finish any moment, that he could be the next to go, Jarman turns his garden into processing ground for grief — a personal grief, a cultural grief, a civilizational grief:
The wind calls my name, Prophesy!
Time is scattered, the past and the future, the future past and present. Whole lives are erased from the book by the great dictator, the screech of the pen across the page, your name, Prophesy, your name!
But the ultimate gift of gardening is the way it concentrates and consecrates time, grounding the gardener in a present both conscious of and undistracted by the ongoing cycles of seasonality stretching across all past and all future.
In the first week of March, Jarman arrives at what may be the greatest reward of gardening, evocative of poet Ross Gay’s lovely sentiment that time spent gardening is “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.” He writes:
The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end. A time that does not cleave the day with rush hours, lunch breaks, the last bus home. As you walk in the garden you pass into this time — the moment of entering can never be remembered. Around you the landscape lies transfigured. Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.
I am reminded of the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s insight about film, Jarman’s primary creative medium — that its raw material and its gift to the viewer is time: “time lost or spent or not yet had.” I am reminded, too, of Seneca, writing two millennia earlier about mastering the existential math of time spent, saved, and wasted — I have found few that better clarify the difference between the three than the quiet lessons of gardening.
In the garden, Jarman discovers — or rather befriends — the most disquieting byproduct of time: boredom. Half a century after his Nobel-winning compatriot Bertrand Russell placed a capacity for boredom and “fruitful monotony” at the heart of human flourishing, Jarman contemplates his new cottage life away from London’s familiar “traps of notoriety and expectation, of collaboration and commerce, of fame and fortune,” and writes:
I have re-discovered my boredom here… where I can fight “what next” with nothing.
His boredom, like all of our boredom, becomes a laboratory for presence — a nursery in which to grow the capacity for paying attention, a studio in which to master the vital art of noticing, out of which our contact with beauty and gladness arises — the wellspring of all that makes life livable. In an entry from the last day of March, Jarman shines the beam of his garden-honed attention directly at the poetics of reality:
Sun a pure white globe in a chalky sky, mist blowing across the Ness in milky veils, silent pussy willow woods the palest pastel yellow luminous in the silvery light.
He finds again and again that the attention of presence and the attention of remembrance are one:
My garden is a memorial, each circular bed a dial and a true lover’s knot — planted with lavender, helichryssum and santolina.
And so this living temple of the present becomes a memorial of the future past and a monument to conservation. In one of the short poems punctuating his journal, penned as he records news of a government summit on global warming, Jarman addresses a visitor from the barely recognizable future:
to whom it may concern
in the dead stones of a planet
no longer remembered as earth
may he decipher this opaque hieroglyph
perform an archeology of soul
on these precious fragments
all that remains of our vanished days
here — at the sea’s edge
I have planted a stony garden
dragon tooth dolmen spring up
to defend the porch
Complement Modern Nature — which I discovered through Olivia Laing’s magnificent essays on art, artists, and the human spirit — with Debbie Millman’s illustrated love letter to gardening and poet-gardener Ross Gay’s yearlong experiment in willful gladness.
Source: Brain Pickings | 5 Apr 2021 | 1:55 pm(NZT)
To be human is to live suspended between the scale of snails and the scale of stars, confined by our creaturely limitations but not doomed by them — we have, after all, transcended them to compose the Benedictus and eradicate smallpox and land a mechanical prosthesis of our curiosity on Mars.
Our most pernicious creaturely challenge is not one of the imagination, which soars so readily when given half a chance, but one of perspective, so easily contracted by the fleeting urgencies of the present. On the scale of our individual lives and on the collective scale of the human future, there are few more gladsome correctives for our limitations than learning to take the telescopic perspective of time — which is why, for the past few years, I have poured my heart and every resource into the endeavor to build New York City’s first-ever public observatory as a democratic dome of perspective and possibility for generations to come, and why I inscribed into its mission statement an aspiration irradiated by Whitman’s words: to make this cosmic calibration of perspective available to “all souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different… all nations, colors… all identities that have existed or may exist on this globe.”
But it was Whitman’s contemporary Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) — America’s first professional female astronomer and a key figure in Figuring (from which this story is adapted) — who furnished the foundational inspiration for the endeavor: her quiet intellect, her indomitable spirit, her discomposing experience while visiting the most venerable observatories of the Old World — an experience that no human being should have along the vector of their talent and their dreams — and the way she emerged from that experience with the absolute determination to eradicate it from the world’s repertoire of exclusion.
Already an international scientific celebrity after the world-renowned comet discovery she had made while still in her twenties, Mitchell had spent a working as the first woman employed by the American federal government for a “specialized non-domestic skill” as a “computer of Venus” — a one-person GPS performing complex celestial calculations to help sailors navigate the globe — all the while saving up for trip to visit the astronomical bastions of Europe and meet the scientists and poets who were her living heroes. In the summer of 1857, after the hardest winter of her life, she rounded up her savings for a transatlantic ticket, made the arduous journey from her native Nantucket Island to Manhattan, and boarded a steamer to Liverpool. Having narrowly avoided a collision with another ship during the ten-day crossing, it arrived in England on her thirty-ninth birthday.
With a prized letter of introduction from Sir John Herschel — the era’s most esteemed astronomer, who had played a key role in the birth of photography a quarter century earlier and had applauded Mitchell’s comet discovery — she hastened to meet her greatest scientific hero: the polymathic Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville, for whom the word scientist had been coined two decades earlier and whose amiable genius left Mitchell feeling that “no one can make the acquaintance of this remarkable woman without increased admiration for her.”
From England, with the help of Nathaniel Hawthorne — who had taken the post as American consul after his ill-fated almost-romance with Herman Melville — Mitchell set out to visit some of Europe’s intellectual luminaries, including her favorite poet, and to look through humanity’s finest telescopes. In Italy, she headed for the Observatory of Rome, mecca of the latest research on spectroscopy, but was jarred to learn that the observatory was closed to women. Somerville, by then revered as Europe’s most learned woman, had been denied entrance. Even Herschel had failed to arrange entry for his scientifically inclined daughter.
Mitchell recorded wryly in her diary:
I was ignorant enough of the ways of papal institutions, and, indeed, of all Italy, to ask if I might visit the Roman Observatory. I remembered that the days of Galileo were days of two centuries since. I did not know that my heretic feet must not enter the sanctuary, — that my woman’s robe must not brush the seats of learning.
Mitchell was eventually allowed to enter with special permission from the Pope, obtained after American diplomats pressed on her behalf. An hour and a half before sunset, she was led through the church into the observatory, where she marveled at the expensive instruments the papal government employed in studying the very motions for which they had tried Galileo two centuries earlier. She had hoped to see nebulae through the observatory’s powerful telescope, but she was informed that her permission did not extend past nightfall and was hastily sent away. A woman of uncommon clarity about the art of knowing what to do with one’s life, she must have resolved, as soon as the back door spat her out into the narrow alley behind Collegio Romano, that when she built her own observatory, it would welcome any and all who hungered to commune with the cosmos.
Upon returning from Europe, Mitchell was greeted by an extraordinary gift — a five-inch refractor telescope, on a par with the instruments of the world’s greatest observatories, purchased through what may have been the world’s first crowdfunding campaign for science.
Elizabeth Peabody — who had coined the word Transcendentalism, revolutionized education, and introduced America to Eastern philosophy with her translations of Buddhist texts — had envisioned the project and spent years raising the $3,000 for the telescope through a subscription paper, rallying the women of New England to contribute: Kickstarter and Patreon rolled into one, a century and a half before either existed. Just as Mitchell was departing for her European journey, Emerson — the emperor of American intellectual life, whose unexpected praise had just lifted the struggling young Whitman out of despairing obscurity — had lent his voice to the crowdfunding effort on the pages of his popular magazine:
In Europe, Maria Mitchell would command the interest and receive the homage of the learned and polite, while in America so little prestige is attached to genius or learning that she is relatively unknown. This is a great fault in our social aspect, one which excites the animadversion of foreigners at once. “Where are your distinguished women — where your learned men?” they ask, as they are invited into our ostentatiously furnished houses to find a group of giggling girls and boys, or commonplace men and women, who do nothing but dance, or yawn about till supper is announced. We need a reform here, most especially if we would not see American society utterly contemptible.
While touring Europe’s iconic astronomical institutions, Mitchell had been dreaming up an observatory of her own. The crowdfunded telescope came as a wondrous surprise after a particularly difficult stretch for her, marked by the death of her great love, Ida, and her once-brilliant mother’s terrifying descent into dementia. The instrument became the first physical building block of her dream. Behind the school resembling a Greek temple where her father had once served as founding schoolmaster, she erected a simple eleven-foot dome that rotated on a mechanism made of cannonballs. A month before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, her observatory opened its doors and Mitchell began welcoming boys and girls. The crowdfunded telescope is still housed at the more recently built observatory across the street from Mitchell’s humble childhood home in Nantucket.
But beyond its material impact, crowdfunding bequeaths upon its beneficiary something even more powerful — a tangible token of solidarity and faith by a vast number of fellow humans, solidarity and faith that made all the difference to Mitchell as she endeavored to blaze a brand new path. Within a decade of the gift, she became the only woman on the faculty of the newly established Vassar College. She immersed her all-female students in an unexampled curriculum marrying mathematical physics with observational astronomy — something the all-male Harvard, which had dropped its mathematics requirement altogether in 1851, would later replicate. Mitchell’s students became not only the world’s first class of professional women astronomers but the first generation of Americans trained in what we now call astrophysics. Some of them went on to join the ranks of the famed “Harvard computers,” who revolutionized our understanding of the universe long before they could vote.
Occasionally, Mitchell punctuated her astrophysically ambitious lectures with glimpses of her life-tested credo, which must have sculpted her students’ spirits as much as her mathematical-astrophysical rigor sculpted their minds:
I am far from thinking that every woman should be an astronomer or a mathematician or an artist, but I do think that every woman should strive for perfection in everything she undertakes.
If it be art, literature or science, let her work be incessant, continuous, life-long. If she be gifted above the average, by just so much is the demand upon her for higher labor, by just that amount is the pressure of duty increased… Think of the steady effort, the continuous labor of those whom the world calls “geniuses.” Believe me, the poet who is “born and not made” works hard for what you consider his birthright. Newton said his whole power lay in “patient thought,” and patient thought, patient labor, and firmness of purpose are almost omnipotent.
Complement with more excerpts from Figuring, exploring the little-known humanity beneath celebrated legacies that have shaped our lives, then revisit Mitchell on how friendship transforms us and consider lending a friendly hand in the endeavor to honor her legacy by building New York’s first public observatory.
Source: Brain Pickings | 4 Apr 2021 | 5:52 am(NZT)
“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness,” Leo Tolstoy — a man of colossal compassion and colossal blind spots — wrote while reckoning with his life as it neared its end.
“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Jack Kerouac half-resolved, half-instructed an epoch later in a beautiful letter to his first wife and lifelong friend.
Of course, even the best-intentioned of us are not capable of perpetual kindness, not capable of being our most elevated selves all day with everybody. If you have not watched yourself, helpless and horrified, transform into an ill-tempered child with a loved one or the unsuspecting man blocking the produce aisle with his basket of bok choy, you have not lived. Discontinuous and self-contradictory even under the safest and sanest of circumstances, human beings are not wired for constancy of feeling, of conduct, of selfhood. When the world grows unsafe, when life charges at us with its stresses and its sorrows, our devotion to kindness can short-circuit with alarming ease. And yet, paradoxically, it is often in the laboratory of loss and uncertainty that we calibrate and supercharge our capacity for kindness. And it is always, as Kerouac intuited, a practice.
In 1978, drawing on a jarring real-life experience, Naomi Shihab Nye captured this difficult, beautiful, redemptive transmutation of fear into kindness in a poem of uncommon soulfulness and empathic wingspan that has since become a classic — a classic now part of Edward Hirsch’s finely curated anthology 100 Poems to Break Your Heart (public library); a classic reimagined in a lovely short film by illustrator Ana Pérez López and my friends at the On Being Project:
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
Complement with a fascinating cultural history of how kindness became our forbidden pleasure, Jacqueline Woodson’s letter to children about how we learn kindness, and George Sand’s only children’s book — a poignant parable about choosing kindness and generosity over cynicism and fear — then revisit other soul-broadening animated poems: “Singularity” by Marie Howe, “Murmuration” by Linda France, and “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry.
Source: Brain Pickings | 2 Apr 2021 | 2:10 pm(NZT)
“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all,” Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers in their fantastic forgotten conversation about freedom. Beneath the surface of this paradoxical sentiment is a kind of koan, simple yet profound, replete with layered truth for those of us living expatriated lives — expatriated from a place or a culture, in space or in time.
Two generations before Angelou, Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874–July 27, 1946), living out her great love story as an American expatriate in Paris, addressed this paradox with uncommon insight and her own characteristic koan-like style in a passage from her 1940 novel Paris France (public library).
Stein — Jewish and gay, writing while the world was coming undone by warring nationalisms and gas chambers disbelonging human beings from life itself — observes:
Everybody, that is, everybody who writes is interested in living inside themselves to tell what is inside themselves. That is why writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic, it is separate from themselves, it is not real but it is really there.
Stein notes that the Victorians found their romantic home in Italy, Americans found theirs in Spain in the first half of the nineteenth century and in England in the second, and her own generation found it in Paris. Prefiguring Angelou’s sentiment, she adds:
Of course sometimes people discover their own country as if it were the other… but in general that other country that you need to be free is in the other country not the country where you really belong.
I read this and think of Leonard Cohen’s lovely notion of poetry as “the Constitution of the inner country.” For me, living an unbelonging life in a country other than the one in which I was born and raised, poetry has been an increasingly vital portal to that inner landscape of freedom that Stein contours — a way of tending to and befriending the interior wilderness from which all creative work springs and which remains a sovereign territory of psychogeography, wherever one’s body may be located and whatever artificial borders may be drawn around it by outside observers.
Complement with poet and philosopher David Whyte on how to be at home in yourself and Toni Morrison on borders and belonging, then revisit Maria Kalman’s magnificent illustrated love letter to Gertrude and Alice’s love.
Source: Brain Pickings | 31 Mar 2021 | 2:27 pm(NZT)
In 1621, already questioning his life in the priesthood — the era’s safest and most reputable career for the educated — the 29-year-old Pierre Gassendi, a mathematical prodigy since childhood, traveled to the Arctic circle as he began diverting his passionate erudition toward Aristotelian philosophy and astronomy. There, under the polar skies, he witnessed an otherworldly spectacle on Earth — our planet’s most intimate and dramatic contact with its home star, a chromatic swirl of the ephemeral and the eternal unloosed as solar winds blow millions of charged particles from the Sun across the orrery of the Solar System and into Earth’s atmosphere, where our magnetic fields carry them toward the poles. As they collide with the particles of different atmospheric gasses, they ionize and discharge energy as photons of different colors — red, blue, green, and violent — painting the nocturne with the waking dream of a pastel-technicolor dawn.
Awestruck with the natural poetry and the mythic feeling-tone of the luminous spectacle, Gassendi named what he saw Aurora borealis — after Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and borealis, the Latin word for “northern.” Eventually, as explorers braved the icy oceanic expanses to visit the polar regions of the Southern hemisphere over the following centuries, they adapted Gassendi’s etymology to name the Antarctic version of the luminous display Aurora australis, after the Latin word for “southern.”
From the land of Aurora australis comes Seeking an Aurora (public library) — a work of transcendence and tenderness by New Zealand author-artist duo Elizabeth Pulford and Anne Bannock, whose spare poetic prose and soulful paintings interleave to enlush an inner landscape of wonder, suspended between the creaturely and the cosmic.
Late one night, a father awakens his child — a child of ambiguous gender and ethnicity, a touching effort to approximate the universal in the human — to slip out of the house together, past the soundly sleeping mother and the baby in the crib, and out into the winter nocturne on a quest of wonder.
They walk with brisk excitation across the open field and through the skeletal trees as the warm humanity of their breath puffs into the cold night air, into the silence they share with the other breathing creatures that make this planet a world.
Outside everything was still.
Even the dogs were quiet, and the cows looked like prehistoric creatures, their noses streaming smoke.
The adventure unfolds from the narrative vantage point of the child, who turns around to look back at the house with its “warm, buttery light spilling from the kitchen window,” back at the two sets of “footprints in the silvery frost,” then up at the sky, “a ship of shivering stars.”
As the pair ascend the steep hill toward their lookout, the cows and the dogs recede into the distance, leaving only the stars, the Moon, and the swell of anticipation.
And then, suddenly, the aurora appears, its “wide wings of light” sweeping across the sky to widen the child’s eyes with wonder.
Dancing light, glowing and glimmering,
shimmering and shining.
Colored ribbons swirling and twirling,
lighting up the sky on the still, dark night.
Father and child are silent under the soft technicolor sky — an awed silence that evokes the works of the poet Diane Ackerman, who wrote long ago in her stunning Cosmic Pastoral of feeling “stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.”
On the walk home, back to the house with the warm buttery light, the father shares everything he knows about the aurora — a secret everythingness revealed on the last page of the book, in a brief science primer of an afterword, sweetly titled “Everything Dad Knew about the Aurora.”
Couple Seeking an Aurora with the inspiring picture-book biography of trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, then revisit a literary titan’s account of the other great cosmic spectacle visible from Earth — Virginia Woolf’s arresting meditation on the total solar eclipse.
Illustrations courtesy of Blue Dot Kids Press; photographs by Maria Popova
Source: Brain Pickings | 29 Mar 2021 | 6:05 am(NZT)
“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote into the void of self-elected obscurity decades before her work was posthumously rediscovered as a rare masterpiece of landscape poetics irradiated by the human search for meaning. A generation later, another trailblazing woman of uncommon poetic sensibility and intimate relationship to the land echoed the sentiment in her own art, into her native canyons of the American Southwest: “It’s true that landscape forms the mind. If I stand here long enough I’ll learn how to sing.”
In 1989, long before she became Poet Laureate of the United States, Joy Harjo entwined visions with the astronomer and photographer Stephen Strom in Secrets from the Center of the World (public library) — a slender, splendid installment in the University of Arizona’s wonderful Sun Tracks series, celebrating Native American literary art long before Native representation rose to the fore of the American mainstream, long before the English language awakened to how deeply its etymological reliance on the Earth permeates words as mundane as mainstream.
Emerging from the lovely call-and-response between Strom’s photographs and Harjo’s short lyrical reflection is a subtle meditation on the interpenetration of place and mind, of landscape and the human spirit. Contemplating the ochre canyons and the golden valleys, the pleated sierras and the billowing mudhills, the frosty branches of the winter trees and the summer-blazed strata of sandstone, she unfolds the origami of deep time into a note some ghost-mother left for her ghost-child long ago on the edge of the kitchen table, on the edge of the world, inscribed with the meaning of being human.
This land is a poem of ochre and burnt sand I could never write, unless paper were the sacrament of sky, and ink the broken line of wild horses staggering the horizon several miles away. Even then, does anything written ever matter to the earth, wind, and sky?
If all events are related, then what story does a volcano erupting in Hawaii, the birth of a woman’s second son near Gallup, and this shoulderbone of earth made of a mythic monster’s anger construct? Nearby a meteor crashes. Someone invents aerodynamics, makes wings. The answer is like rushing wind: simple faith.
Strom — who received his doctoral degree from Harvard, studied the formation of star and planetary systems at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, taught astronomy in Emily Dickinson’s hometown for a decade and a half, and spent three decades photographing the Southwest — renders Earth otherworldly in his photographs, spare and solitary, edged in by invisible implied horizons, the way the desert implies life, the way poetry makes life visible. Revealing the fractal patterning of nature, his subtle geometries of shape and color reach beyond the three spatial dimensions to intimate the dimension of time.
These smoky bluffs are old traveling companions, making their way through millennia. Ask them if you want to know about the true meaning of history. You’ll have to offer them something more than one good story, and need to understand the patience of stones.
Harjo — a member of the Creek Nation — meets the cosmological sensibility of the photographs with a private cosmogony drawn from that ancient human impulse to locate ourselves in relation to the universe, to make meaning in the sliver of spacetime on which chance has perched us to live out our lives between the scale of protozoa and the scale of galaxies. She envelops each photograph in a short prose-poem that takes the image as its origin point of contemplation, then radiates centrifugally into a miniature universe of metaphor and meaning-making — the mark of all great poetry.
Near Round Rock is a point of balance between two red stars. Here you may enter galactic memory, disguised as a whirlpool of sand, and discover you are pure event mixed with water, occurring in time and space, as sheep, a few goats, graze, keep watch nearby.
My house is the red earth; it could be the center of the world. I’ve heard New York, Paris, or Tokyo called the center of the world, but I say it is magnificently humble. You could drive by and miss it. Radio waves can obscure it. Words cannot construct it, for there are some sounds left to sacred wordless form. For instance, that fool crow, picking through trash near the corral, understands the center of the world as greasy strips of fat. Just ask him. He doesn’t have to say that the earth has turned scarlet through fierce belief, after centuries of heartbreak and laughter — he perches on the blue bowl of the sky, and laughs.
This earth has dreamed me to stand on the rise of this highway, to admire who she has become.
My cheek is flat against memory described by stone and lichen. The center of the world is within reach. It is as familiar as your name, as strange as monsters in your sleep.
Harjo looks at the Moon and sees “an ancient mountain lion who shifts his bones on a starry branch,” looks at the branches of the tamaracks and sees crows “leaning over the edge of the world, tasting the wind blown up from a pool of newly born planets,” looks at the land and sees its elemental poetry, sees how it humbles her own art, her own existence, every human existence and all of our art.
In winter it is easier to see what my death might look like, over there, disappearing into the misty, spotted rocks.
I can hear the sizzle of newborn stars, and know anything of meaning, of the fierce magic emerging here. I am witness to flexible eternity, the evolving past, and I know we will live forever, as dust or breath in the face of stars, in the shifting pattern of winds.
Complement Secrets from the Center of the World with poet Mark Strand’s kindred collaboration with painter Wendy Mark around the landscape of the sky, 89 Clouds, then revisit painter, poet, and philosopher Etel Adnan’s Journey to Mount Tamalpais — her stunning landscape-lensed meditation on time, self, impermanence, and transcendence.
Source: Brain Pickings | 26 Mar 2021 | 5:39 am(NZT)
In his revelatory 1956 classic The Art of Loving, the humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) dared defy millennia of cultural distortion, setting out to heal our most damaging inheritance from the Romantics and to correct Freud’s limited, limiting theories with a new lens on love, radical and realistic: For centuries, our culture conditioned us to “see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving,” which in turn conditioned us to believe that the hardest thing about love is finding the right person to love us, but once we do, love is easy.
Fromm inverted this equation.
Drawing on his work with patients and on emerging ideas in humanistic philosophy that had only just begun revising the old narratives of religion and Romanticism, he observed that the key to love is to treat it not as a noun — a state to be found and possessed — but as a verb — a practice to be mastered. The difficult work is the mastering, which then confers ease upon love between those who have done this work — the work which Rilke well knew “is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.”
An inheritor to Fromm’s work born a century after the publication his masterpiece, the Belgian-American philosopher-psychotherapist Esther Perel — author of the modern classic Mating in Captivity, creator of the insightful and pleasantly disquieting Where Should We Begin? “podcast for anyone who has ever loved” — picks up where Fromm left off in this lovely animated adaptation of her On Being interview, exploring the essential elements of love as a practice, the delicate relationship between play and risk, the cyclical nature of passion, the osmosis of desire and self-worth, and how the concept of ambiguous loss illuminates the modern experience of loneliness:
Complement with Fromm on what self-love really means, his six rules of intimate listening, and Alain de Botton on remedying our central error of logic in love, then broaden the lens with an ancient Eastern perspective in the great Zen Buddhism teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s field guide to the skill of loving.
Source: Brain Pickings | 24 Mar 2021 | 4:32 am(NZT)
“After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains?” the aging Walt Whitman asked in his diary as he contemplated what makes life worth living while recovering from a paralytic stroke, then answered: “Nature remains… the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.”
A century after Whitman’s birth, on the other side of a globe newly disillusioned with its own humanity after the First World War, a young Japanese man was embarking on a life of celebrating the inexhaustible consolations of nature in uncommonly poetic visual art.
Born into a Tokyo family of rope and thread merchants, Hasui Kawase (May 18, 1883–November 7, 1957) grew up dreaming of becoming an artist. His parents pressed him to continue in their path, but he persisted in following his own, drawing quiet inspiration from the example of his maternal uncle — the creator of the first manga magazine.
He did take over the family business, but he was moonlighting in art while running it — sketching from nature, copying one master’s woodblock prints, learning brush painting from another.
When the business went bankrupt in the early twentieth century, the twenty-six-year-old Kawase devoted himself wholly to art, applying to apprentice with one of the great masters of transitional Japanese woodblock printing. The master rejected him, encouraging him to broaden his sensibility and to develop his style by studying Western painting first. The young man obliged.
Two years later, he applied again.
The master accepted him, conferring upon him the lyrical name Hasui — an ideogram of his family name fused with the name of his boyhood school, most closely translated translated as “water springing from the source.”
Hasui was thirty-five — the age Whitman was when he staggered the world with his Leaves of Grass — when he made his artistic debut with a series of experimental woodblock prints, depicting the mostly empty streets of Tokyo and the unpeopled landscapes of the countryside.
As he began his next series, nature and night beckoned to him more and more .
And then, on an otherwise ordinary Saturday the autumn after his fortieth birthday, the convergence boundary between two tectonic plates deep in the body of the Earth ruptured, unleashing the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923. It leveled his workshop, destroying the finished woodblocks and fomenting in him an even more intimate sense of the sublimity of nature.
Over the next thirty-five years, Hasui became a master of shin hanga — the “new prints” movement fusing traditional Japanese art, the art of shadows, with the Western aesthetics of light and the European novelty of perspective. He went on to create several hundred consummate woodblock prints, watercolors, oil paintings, and hanging scrolls, animated by a tender reverence for the beauty and majesty of nature. One hundred of them are collected in the lavish annotated volume Visions of Japan: Kawase Hasui’s Masterpieces (public library).
Hasui captured the enchantment of snowfall with especial loveliness, his intricate lines challenging the artisans he employed in carving his woodblock designs to rise to new levels of craftsmanship.
But among all of nature’s beauties, nothing inspired him more than trees — those eternal muses of scientists, artists, philosophers, and poets alike — and what Margaret Fuller so unforgettably called “that best fact, the Moon.”
In landscape after landscape, the majestic silhouettes of the matsu (Japan’s iconic pine trees, symbols of fortitude and courage) and the sugi (the enormous old-growth cedars, symbols of power and longevity) reach into the noctrune toward the crescent and lean into the gloaming hour, backlit by the full Moon.
In the final year of his life, the Japanese government classified Hasui as a Living National Treasure. Comparable to the American National Medal of Arts and Humanities, Japan’s highest civilian honor is bestowed upon those whose life’s work renders them, in what may be the most poetic government certification in any language, “Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties.”
Complement with Japanese-American artist Chiura Obata’s stunning paintings of Yosemite from the same era, then revisit a very different take on tree silhouettes from Hasui’s American contemporary Art Young.
Source: Brain Pickings | 23 Mar 2021 | 11:27 am(NZT)
Months after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring awakened humanity to the delicate interdependence of nature, Dr. King awakened humanity to our delicate dependence on each other. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality [and] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” he wrote from his cell at the Birmingham City Jail.
When Robert Hooke looked at a piece of cork through an early handcrafted leather-and-gold microscope in 1665, he named the strange irregular “pores” of its honeycomb-like tissue structure cells, after the small adjacent spaces in which monks spend their voluntary solitary confinement. It would take another two centuries for scientists to discover that cells are the basic biological units of life, that they are in constant osmotic communication with one another, and that they replicate themselves to become new cells, each a whispered word from the language in which life talks to the future.
Biological and social, our interdependence is a defining feature not only of our civilization, not only of our species and all living species, but of life itself — life the physiological process and life the psychosocial phenomenon. “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” Walt Whitman exulted in the golden age of chemistry — the new science he saw as “the elevating, beautiful, study… which involves the essences of creation.” Meanwhile, the development of cell theory was revolutionizing biology, making of this philosophical field as old as Aristotle an even newer science that illuminated the essence of life. Cells became to biology what atoms were to chemistry. Biology ushered in the revelation that every cell belonging to me as good — as healthy, as vital, as fit for replication — belongs to you.
That delicate interdependence of life and lives, with its tangled roots in biology and cultural history, is what Eula Biss explores in On Immunity: An Inoculation (public library) — a book of penetrating and poetic insight, drawn with that rare scholarship capable of correcting the warped cultural hindsight we call history; a book of staggering foresight, conceived in the wake of the H1N1 flu pandemic, yet speaking with astonishing prescience to the complex epidemiological realities and social dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic unfolding more than five years after its publication.
For Biss — the daughter of a medical scientist and a poet — even her own biological inheritance as a universal donor with type O negative blood becomes a potent metaphor for the mechanism of vaccination, a lens through which to view the permeable membrane between the biological and social realities of immunity. With an eye to the blood banks that collect her donations to save other lives, she writes:
If we imagine the action of a vaccine not just in terms of how it affects a single body, but also in terms of how it affects the collective body of a community, it is fair to think of vaccination as a kind of banking of immunity. Contributions to this bank are donations to those who cannot or will not be protected by their own immunity. This is the principle of herd immunity, and it is through herd immunity that mass vaccination becomes far more effective than individual vaccination.
It is a rather unfortunate term for an unassailable scientific principle — we humans, especially in this culture of rugged individualism nursed on the Emersonian ideal of self-reliance, bristle at thinking of ourselves as members of a herd. In our long history of thinking with animals, herd animals have been the butt of our derogatory metaphors for mindless conformity.
And yet inside the unfortunate linguistic container, an unfaltering biological reality resides: On large enough a scale, even a fairy ineffective vaccine that fails to produce immunity in some individuals will slow down the spread of infection in the community; as the virus fails to replicate itself in more and more new hosts, the vaccine will eventually halt it altogether. In consequence, even such a mediocre vaccine will protect all members of the community, even those for whom inoculation has not worked as intended on the individual level. This is why it is more dangerous to be the vaccinated animal amid a largely unvaccinated herd than the other way around. Biss writes:
The unvaccinated person is protected by the bodies around her, bodies through which disease is not circulating. But a vaccinated person surrounded by bodies that host disease is left vulnerable to vaccine failure or fading immunity. We are protected not so much by our own skin, but by what is beyond it. The boundaries between our bodies begin to dissolve here. Donations of blood and organs move between us, exiting one body and entering another, and so too with immunity, which is a common trust as much as it is a private account. Those of us who draw on collective immunity owe our health to our neighbors.
With an eye to the origin of herd immunity theory — a theory developed in the 1840s by a doctor treating smallpox, which has taken manyfold more human lives than any other infectious disease in the history of our species and which has since been eradicated — Biss proposes an alternative, both more poetic and more precise, to the imperfect term that so perfectly describes the biosocial reality:
Herd immunity, an observable phenomenon, now seems implausible only if we think of our bodies as inherently disconnected from other bodies. Which, of course, we do.
The very expression herd immunity suggests that we are cattle, waiting, perhaps, to be sent to slaughter. And it invites an unfortunate association with the term herd mentality, a stampede toward stupidity. The herd, we assume, is foolish. Those of us who eschew the herd mentality tend to prefer a frontier mentality in which we imagine our bodies as isolated homesteads that we tend either well or badly. The health of the homestead next to ours does not affect us, this thinking suggests, so long as ours is well tended.
If we were to exchange the metaphor of the herd for a hive, perhaps the concept of shared immunity might be more appealing. Honeybees are matriarchal, environmental do-gooders who also happen to be entirely interdependent. The health of any individual bee, as we know from the recent epidemic of colony collapse, depends on the health of the hive.
Biss quotes a succinct summation by her father, a doctor:
Vaccination works by enlisting a majority in the protection of a minority.
No one person has done more to undermine this vital mutuality of protection than Andrew Wakefield — the British gastroenterologist who, in the 1990s, infected the hive mind with his causal claims linking vaccines and autism. Preying on the understandable human impulse toward concretizing blame for amorphous and ambiguous problems, the theory went viral before multiple subsequent studies debunked his results, before it was exposed that Wakefield was paid for his research by a lawyer readying a lawsuit against a vaccine maker, before the General Medical Council of the United Kingdom concluded its investigation with the verdict that Wakefield had been “irresponsible and dishonest” in conducting and publishing his work.
Despite the scientific and ethical denunciation of Wakefield’s study, its ideological meme had already spread beyond retrieval. (Richard Dawkins coined the word meme in 1976 by borrowing from biology — a word that came alive anew a quarter century later in the context of “viral” content on the internet, which has its own roots in epidemiology.) A quarter century later, echoes of Wakefield’s disproven falsehoods bellow with formidable vocality. That group of voices is often referred to as the anti-vaccination movement, but I find the term movement extremely ill-suited — such groupthink is not in movement but static, frozen in time and frozen with fear, petrified in the cultural amber of a time before the Age of Reason and lashed about by the same errors of magical thinking, willful blindness, and confusion of causation and correlation that made our medieval ancestors take comets for indisputable omens of future events and left-handedness for indisputable evidence of possession by the Devil.
Biss is more generous in her own assessment of anti-vaccination:
Those who went on to use Wakefield’s inconclusive work to support the notion that vaccines cause autism are not guilty of ignorance or science denial so much as they are guilty of using weak science as it has always been used — to lend false credibility to an idea that we want to believe for other reasons.
Writing shortly after the birth of the Occupy movement — the self-described “99%” launching “an ongoing global protest of capitalism” — she considers a friend’s half-joke, half-koan about vaccination as a matter of “occupy immune system,” and reflects on the basic moral syllogism of anti-vaccination as a political stance claiming to protest the capitalist forces behind modern medicine:
Immunity is a public space. And it can be occupied by those who choose not to carry immunity. For some… a refusal to vaccinate falls under a broader resistance to capitalism. But refusing immunity as a form of civil disobedience bears an unsettling resemblance to the very structure the Occupy movement seeks to disrupt — a privileged 1 percent are sheltered from risk while they draw resources from the other 99 percent.
We are justified in feeling threatened by the unlimited expansion of industry, and we are justified in fearing that our interests are secondary to corporate interests. But refusal of vaccination undermines a system that is not actually typical of capitalism. It is a system in which both the burdens and the benefits are shared across the entire population. Vaccination allows us to use the products of capitalism for purposes that are counter to the pressures of capital.
In a lovely antidote to the tragic human tendency toward cynicism — that touchingly misguided and ineffective effort at self-protection, that particularly virulent strain of cowardice to which our culture has grown increasingly hospitable as it has grown increasingly impatient with the slow and vulnerable work of nuance — Biss adds:
That so many of us find it entirely plausible that a vast network of researchers and health officials and doctors worldwide would willfully harm children for money is evidence of what capitalism is really taking from us. Capitalism has already impoverished the working people who generate wealth for others. And capitalism has already impoverished us culturally, robbing unmarketable art of its value. But when we begin to see the pressures of capitalism as innate laws of human motivation, when we begin to believe that everyone is owned, then we are truly impoverished.
Complement On Immunity — a redemptive and salutary read in its entirety — with Virginia Woolf on illness as a portal to self-understanding and Bessel van der Kolk on the science of how our minds and our bodies converge in healing, then revisit Adrienne Rich on resisting capitalism through the arts of the possible.
Source: Brain Pickings | 20 Mar 2021 | 4:14 pm(NZT)
Nineteen years after the publication of Isaac Newton’s epoch-making Principia — in England, in Latin — the prodigy mathematician Émilie du Châtelet set out to translate his ideas into her native French, making them more comprehensible in the process. Her more-than-translation — which includes several of her mathematical corrections and clarifications of Newton’s imprecisions, and which remains the only comprehensive edition in French to this day — popularized his ideas in France and, from this epicenter of the Enlightenment, spread them centripetally throughout the rest of the Continent, rendering Newton himself an emblem of the Enlightenment the sweep of which he never lived to see.
Not long after Du Châtelet’s untimely death, her legacy reached one of her most gifted compatriots — the visionary architect Étienne-Louis Boullée (February 12, 1728–February 4, 1799), who fell under Newton’s spell. Determined to honor Newton with a worthy cenotaph — a memorial tomb for a person buried elsewhere — he designed a sphere 500 feet in diameter, taller than the Pyramids of Giza, nested into a colossal pedestal and encircled by hundreds of cypress trees, giving it the transfixing illusion of being both half-buried into the Earth and hovering unmoored from gravity. It was also, in essence, the world’s first domed planetarium design.
The cenotaph was a touching gesture in the first place — a Frenchman honoring a genius born of and interred in England, a nation with which Boullée’s own had been in near-ceaseless war for centuries, with those tensions at an all-time high at the time of his design, thanks to the American Revolutionary War. Doubly touching was his choice of a sphere: One of Newton’s most revolutionary contributions — the mathematical inference that because gravity is weaker at the equator, the shape of the Earth must be spherical — had defied France’s greatest son, René Descartes, who maintained that the Earth was egg-shaped. When Boullée was still a boy, a young Frenchman — Émilie du Châtelet’s mathematics tutor — had joined a perilous Arctic expedition to prove Newton correct. Two centuries later, in the wake of the world’s grimmest war yet, a queer Quaker Englishman would do the same, risking his life to defend the epoch-making theory of a German Jew — the theory of relativity that ultimately subverted Newton. Another world war later, Einstein himself would appeal to what he called “the common language of science” — that truth-seeking contact with nature and reality that transcends all borders and all nationalisms, the impulse that animated Boullée’s bold homage to Newton.
While governed by the credo that “our buildings — and our public buildings in particular — should be to some extent poems,” Boullée also believed that science could magnify the poetry of public spaces, which must at bottom reflect the principles of the grand designer: Nature. A century before the teenage Virginia Woolf wrote that “all the Arts… imitate as far as they can the one great truth that all can see,” Boullée insisted:
No idea exists that does not derive from nature… It is impossible to create architectural imagery without a profound knowledge of nature: the Poetry of architecture lies in natural effects. That is what makes architecture an art and that art sublime.
Architecture in the modern sense was then a young art, because the art-science of perspective was so novel. Newton’s optics, derived directly from the laws of nature, had revolutionized it all. Boullée came to define architecture as “the art of creating perspectives by the arrangement of volumes,” but a highly poetic art:
The real talent of an architect lies in incorporating in his work the sublime attraction of Poetry.
The poetry of architecture, he argued, resides in using perspective and light in such a way that “our senses are reminded of nature.” He interpreted the laws of nature, as clarified by Newton’s optics and mathematics, to intimate that no shape embodies this serenade to the senses with greater power and precision than the sphere:
A sphere is, in all respects, the image of perfection. It combines strict symmetry with the most perfect regularity and the greatest possible variety; its form is developed to the fullest extent and is the simplest that exists; its shape is outlined by the most agreeable contour and, finally, the light effects that it produces are so beautifully graduated that they could not possibly be softer, more agreeable or more varied. These unique advantages, which the sphere derives from nature, have an immeasurable hold over our senses.
And so Boullée predicated his cenotaph for Newton on an enormous sphere that would convey his ultimate intent for the temple — to arouse in the visitor’s soul “feelings in keeping with religious ceremonies,” a sense of grandeur leaving them “moved by such an excess of sensibility… that all the faculties of our soul are disturbed to such an extent that we feel it is departing from our body” — an effect always best achieved not by an enormity of sheer size and space but by a considered contrast of scales. No building, he observed, “calls for the Poetry of architecture” more than a memorial to the dead. Believing that architecture, like all art, should ultimately serve to enlarge our sense of aliveness, and that we are never more alive than when we are rooted in our creaturely senses, Boullée insisted that the key to this sense of grandeur lies in applying the principles of nature’s mathematics with poetic subtlety — the principles laid bare in the Principia, the principles that “derive from order, the symbol of wisdom.” He wrote:
Symmetry… is what results from the order that extends in every direction and multiplies them at our glance until we can no longer count them. By extending the sweep of an avenue so that its end is out of sight, the laws of optics and the effects of perspective given an impression of immensity; at each step, the objects appear in a new guise and our pleasure is renewed by a succession of different vistas. Finally, by some miracle which in fact is the result of our own movement but which we attribute to the objects around us, the latter seem to move with us, as if we had imparted Life to them.
But my favorite part of the story is that Boullée found his formative inspiration, not only for the Newton cenotaph and but for his entire creative philosophy, in an unusual encounter with trees — those profoundest of teachers.
One evening, heavy with grief, Boullée went for a walk along the edge of a forest. Under the moonlight, he noticed his shadow. He had seen his shadow a thousand times before, but the peculiar lens of his psychic state rendered it entirely new — a living artwork of “extreme melancholy.” Looking around, he saw the shadows of the trees in this new light, too, etching onto the ground the profound drama of life. The entire scene was suddenly awash in “all that is sombre in nature.” He had seen the state of his soul mirrored back by the natural world, as we so often do in those rawest moments when we are stripped to the base of our being, grounded into our creaturely senses.
This was the moment of Boullée’s artistic awakening — that moment of revelation when, as Virginia Woolf wrote in her exquisite account of her own artistic awakening, something lifts “the cotton wool of daily life” and we see the familiar world afresh. Boullée recounted:
The mass of objects stood out in black against the extreme wanness of the light. Nature offered itself to my gaze in mourning. I was struck by the sensations I was experiencing and immediately began to wonder how to apply this, especially to architecture. I tried to find a composition made up of the effect of shadows. To achieve this, I imagined the light (as I had observed it in nature) giving back to me all that my imagination could think of. That was how I proceeded when I was seeking to discover this new type of architecture.
He called this new architecture “the architecture of shadow.” His vision for Newton’s cenotaph was its grand testament:
I attempted to create the greatest of all effects, that of immensity; for that is what gives us lofty thoughts as we contemplate the Creator and give us celestial sensations.
He attempted, more than that, to honor Newton on his own terms, by the essence of his genius:
O Newton! With the range of your intelligence and the sublime nature of your Genius, you have defined the shape of the earth; I have conceived the idea of enveloping you with your discovery… your own self. How can I find outside you anything worthy of you?
In a further homage to Newton’s legacy, with Boullée regarded as a “divine system” of laws, he chose to suspend a sole spherical lamp over the tomb as the only decoration in the entire monument — anything else, he felt, would be “committing sacrilege.” The contrast of scales — the smaller sphere of the lamp inside the enormous sphere of the building — would dramatize the contrast of light and shadow, just as the moonlight had done that fateful night of artistic revelation by the trees. This would give the visitor the sense that they are “as if by magic floating in the air, borne in the wake of images in the immensity of space.” Boullée considered the play of light the vital element in this enchantment:
It is light that produces impressions which arouse in us various contradictory sensations depending on whether they are brilliant or sombre. If I could manage to diffuse in my temple magnificent light effects I would fill the onlooker with joy; but if, on the contrary, my temple had only sombre effects, I would fill him with sadness. If I could avoid direct light and arrange for its presence without the onlooker being aware of its source, the ensuing effect of mysterious daylight would produce inconceivable impression and, in a sense, a truly enchanting magic quality.
At a time long before readily available electric light and light-projection, he leaned on Newton’s optics to envision something that was part Stonehenge and part Hayden Planetarium. A century and a half before the first modern planetarium dome, Boullée dotted the black interior of his dome with an intricate arrangement of tiny holes reflecting the positions of the constellations and the planets, streaming in daylight to create an enchanting nightscape inside. But unlike the modern counterpart, Boullée’s was a reversible planetarium — at night, the sole spherical light would irradiate the tiny holes from the other direction, making the dome appear as a self-contained universe if viewed from above. This, lest we forget, was the golden age of aeronautics, when hot-air balloons first defied gravity to lift the human animal into the sky.
Too visionary for its era, the cenotaph was never built, but Boullée’s ink-and-wash drawings circulated widely in the final decade of his life, eliciting both gasping admiration and merciless derision — the fate of the true visionary. With the publication of his impassioned and insightful writings nearly two centuries after his death, translated by Helen Rosenau, his vision went on to inspire generations of modern artists and architects with a new way of thinking about the poetry of public spaces and the relationship between nature and human creativity.
In a sentiment evocative of another pioneer’s lamentation — Harriet Hosmer’s astute remark that “if one knew but one-half the difficulties an artist has to surmount… the public would be less ready to censure him for his shortcomings or slow advancement” — Boullée wrote of his critics:
No one is more exacting than a man who is not conversant with a given art for he is unable to imagine all the difficulties the artist has to overcome.
His ultimate satisfaction was not the reception or execution of his designs, but the inexhaustible source of their inspiration — the elemental wellspring of the creative impulse behind all art and all science, that richest and readiest reward of our aliveness:
The artist… is always making discoveries and spends his life observing nature.
Source: Brain Pickings | 19 Mar 2021 | 10:58 am(NZT)
“Fearlessness is what love seeks,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her superb 1929 meditation on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss. “Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future… Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.”
Half a century before her, Leo Tolstoy — who befriended a Buddhist monk late in life and became deeply influenced by Buddhist philosophy — echoed these ancient truths as he contemplated the paradoxical nature of love: “Future love does not exist. Love is a present activity only.”
That in love and in life, freedom from fear — like all species of freedom — is only possible within the present moment has long been a core teaching of the most ancient Eastern spiritual and philosophical traditions. It is one of the most elemental truths of existence, and one of those most difficult to put into practice as we move through our daily human lives, so habitually inclined toward the next moment and the mentally constructed universe of expected events — the parallel universe where anxiety dwells, where hope and fear for what might be eclipse what is, and where we cease to be free because we are no longer in the direct light of reality.
The relationship between freedom, fear, and love is what Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973) explores in one of the most insightful chapters of The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (public library) — his altogether revelatory 1951 classic, which introduced Eastern philosophy to the West with its lucid and luminous case for how to live with presence.
Drawing on his admonition against the dangers of the divided mind — the mindset that divides us into interior self-awareness and external reality, into ego and universe, which is the mindset the whole of Western culture has instilled in us — he writes:
The meaning of freedom can never be grasped by the divided mind. If I feel separate from my experience, and from the world, freedom will seem to be the extent to which I can push the world around, and fate the extent to which the world pushes me around. But to the whole mind there is no contrast of “I” and the world. There is just one process acting, and it does everything that happens. It raises my little finger and it creates earthquakes. Or, if you want to put it that way, I raise my little finger and also make earthquakes. No one fates and no one is being fated.
This model of freedom is orthogonal to our conditioned view that freedom is a matter of bending external reality to our will by the power of our choices — controlling what remains of nature once the “I” is separated out. Watts draws a subtle, crucial distinction between freedom and choice:
What we ordinarily mean by choice is not freedom. Choices are usually decisions motivated by pleasure and pain, and the divided mind acts with the sole purpose of getting “I” into pleasure and out of pain. But the best pleasures are those for which we do not plan, and the worst part of pain is expecting it and trying to get away from it when it has come. You cannot plan to be happy. You can plan to exist, but in themselves existence and non-existence are neither pleasurable nor painful.
Stripped of the paraphernalia of circumstance and interpretation, our internal experience of being unfree stems from attempting impossible things — things that resist reality and refuse to accept the present moment on its own terms. Watts writes:
The sense of not being free comes from trying to do things which are impossible and even meaningless. You are not “free” to draw a square circle, to live without a head, or to stop certain reflex actions. These are not obstacles to freedom; they are the conditions of freedom. I am not free to draw a circle if perchance it should turn out to be a square circle. I am not, thank heaven, free to walk out of doors and leave my head at home. Likewise I am not free to live in any moment but this one, or to separate myself from my feelings.
Without the motive forces of pleasure and pain, it might at first appear paradoxical to make any decisions at all — a contradiction that makes it impossible to choose between options as we navigate even the most basic realities of life: Why choose to take the umbrella into the downpour, why choose to eat this piece of mango and not this piece of cardboard? But Watts observes that the only real contradiction is of our own making as we cede the present to an imagined future. More than half a century before psychologists came to study how your present self is sabotaging your future happiness, Watts offers the personal counterpart to Albert Camus’s astute political observation that “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present,” and writes:
I fall straight into contradiction when I try to act and decide in order to be happy, when I make “being pleased” my future goal. For the more my actions are directed towards future pleasures, the more I am incapable of enjoying any pleasures at all. For all pleasures are present, and nothing save complete awareness of the present can even begin to guarantee future happiness.
You can only live in one moment at a time, and you cannot think simultaneously about listening to the waves and whether you are enjoying listening to the waves. Contradictions of this kind are the only real types of action without freedom.
Only with such a recalibration of our reflexive view of freedom does James Baldwin’s insistence that “people are as free as they want to be” begin to unfold its layered meaning like a Zen koan, to be turned over in the mind until the deceptively simple shape unfolds its origami-folded scroll of deep truth.
In what may be the most elegant refutation of the particular strain of hubris that embraces determinism in order to wring from it the self-permission for living with delirious freedom from responsibility, Watts writes:
There is another theory of determinism which states that all our actions are motivated by “unconscious mental mechanisms,” and that for this reason even the most spontaneous decisions are not free. This is but another example of split-mindedness, for what is the difference between “me” and “mental mechanisms” whether conscious or unconscious? Who is being moved by these processes? The notion that anyone is being motivated comes from the persisting illusion of “I.” The real man*, the organism-in-relation-to-the-universe, is this unconscious motivation. And because he is it, he is not being moved by it.
Events look inevitable in retrospect because when they have happened, nothing can change them. Yet the fact that I can make safe bets could prove equally well that events are not determined but consistent. In other words, the universal process acts freely and spontaneously at every moment, but tends to throw out events in regular, and so predictable, sequences.
Only by such a misapprehension of freedom, Watts observes, do we ever feel unfree: When we enter a state that causes us psychological pain, our immediate impulse is to get the “I” out of the pain, which is invariably a resistance to the present moment as it is; because we cannot will a different psychological state, we reach for an easy escape: a drink, a drug, a compulsive scroll through an Instagram feed. All the ways in which we try to abate our feelings of abject loneliness and boredom and inadequacy by escaping from the present moment where they unfold are motivated by the fear that those intolerable feelings will subsume us. And yet the instant we become motivated by fear, we become unfree — we are prisoners of fear. We are only free within the bounds of the present moment, with all of its disquieting feelings, because only in that moment can they dissipate into the totality of integrated reality, leaving no divide between us as feelers and the feelings being felt, and therefore no painful contrast between preferred state and actual state. Watts writes:
So long as the mind believes in the possibility of escape from what it is at this moment, there can be no freedom.
It sounds as if it were the most abject fatalism to have to admit that I am what I am, and that no escape or division is possible. It seems that if I am afraid, then I am “stuck” with fear. But in fact I am chained to the fear only so long as I am trying to get away from it. On the other hand, when I do not try to get away I discover that there is nothing “stuck” or fixed about the reality of the moment. When I am aware of this feeling without naming it, without calling it “fear,” “bad,” “negative,” etc., it changes instantly into something else, and life moves freely ahead. The feeling no longer perpetuates itself by creating the feeler behind it.
To dissolve into this total reality of the moment is the crucible of freedom, which is in turn the crucible of love. In consonance with Toni Morrison’s insistence that the deepest measure of freedom is loving anything and anyone you choose to love and with that classic, exquisite Adrienne Rich sonnet line — “no one’s fated or doomed to love anyone” — Watts considers the ultimate reward of this undivided mind:
The further truth that the undivided mind is aware of experience as a unity, of the world as itself, and that the whole nature of mind and awareness is to be one with what it knows, suggests a state that would usually be called love… Love is the organizing and unifying principle which makes the world a universe and the disintegrated mass a community. It is the very essence and character of mind, and becomes manifest in action when the mind is whole… This, rather than any mere emotion, is the power and principle of free action.
Complement this fragment of the timelessly rewarding The Wisdom of Insecurity with Watts on learning not to think in terms of gain and loss and finding meaning by accepting the meaninglessness of life, then revisit Seneca on the antidote to anxiety and astronomer Rebecca Elson’s almost unbearably beautiful poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death.”
Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Mar 2021 | 5:14 am(NZT)
Two hundred years ago, in a prophetic book envisioning a twenty-first-century world savaged by a deadly pandemic, Mary Shelley considered what makes life worth living, insisting that in the midst of widespread death and despair, we must seek peace in the “murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies.” A century later, Willa Cather — another immensely talented, immensely underappreciated novelist and poet laureate of the human spirit — contemplated the deepest wellspring of happiness and located it in those moments when, immersed in nature, we find ourselves “dissolved into something complete and great” — a line now emblazoned on Cather’s tombstone by her partner.
In another half-century, Wendell Berry (b. August 5, 1934) — one of the great poets and wisest elders of our time — arrived at this elemental truth, a truth we so easily lose sight of in those times of despair when we most need it, articulating it with his uncommon tenderness and clarity of vision in the title poem of his 1968 collection The Peace of Wild Things (public library), composed under a thick cultural cloudscape of despair — at the peak of the Cold War and the Vietnam War, after the successive assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Dr. King, in the wake of Silent Spring and its disquieting wakeup call for our broken relationship with nature.
Berry — a rare seer into those subterranean landscapes of being where nature meets human nature and a rare voice of our collective ecological conscience — reads the poem in this breathtaking short film, produced by On Being and illustrated by English artist Charlotte Ager.
THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS
by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
At the last Universe in Verse — my charitable celebration of science and the natural world through poetry — On Being creator and host Krista Tippett read Berry’s poem with a lovely prefatory meditation on how poetry gives us the language to remember our creaturely nature, which in turn reroots us in the larger web of belonging as “creatures among creatures”:
Complement with Wendell Berry on delight as a force of resistance, how to be a poet and a complete human being, his conscience-clarifying poem “Questionnaire,” and Krista’s soul-salving OnBeing conversation with him, then revisit two kindred-spirited animated poems: Marie Howe’s “Singularity” and Linda France’s “Murmuration.”
Source: Brain Pickings | 13 Mar 2021 | 2:55 pm(NZT)
When I am sad, I like to imagine myself becoming a tree. Branches that bend without breaking, fractal with possibility, reaching resolutely toward the light. Roots touching the web of belonging beneath the surface of the world, that majestic mycelial network succoring and nurturing and connecting tree to tree — connection so effortless, so imperturbable, so free from the fragility of human relationships.
After writing about wintering trees as supreme teachers in resilience, I received a lovely note from a reader in England — theater artist, movement director, and Hatha Yoga teacher Andrew Dawson, a former student of Merce Cunningham’s. He shared a kindred-spirited film he had made, in his words, “for those who are reaching for something more but can’t quite grasp it, for those on their journey, not yet at their destination.”
It salved me profoundly, this meditative visual poem — part David Byrne, part Bill T. Jones, and part Buddha — radiating Hermann Hesse’s century-old wisdom that “whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree [but] wants to be nothing except what he is.”
Commissioned by the London International Mime Festival, filmed by Dawson’s son, Roman Sheppard Dawson, and featuring music by composer Jonny Pilcher, the film was inspired by a line from a short lyrical essay titled “Close” from poet and philosopher David Whyte’s superb collection Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — a book of lyrical reanimations of language that touched me deeply when I first read it several years ago (and for the recent English edition of which I had the honor and joy of composing the introduction).
We live by unconsciously measuring the inverse distances of our proximity.
Here is Whyte’s original mycelium of inspiration for Dawson’s Proximity:
is what we almost always are: close to happiness, close to another, close to leaving, close to tears, close to God, close to losing faith, close to being done, close to saying something, or close to success, and even, with the greatest sense of satisfaction, close to giving the whole thing up.
Our human essence lies not in arrival, but in being almost there, we are creatures who are on the way, our journey a series of impending anticipated arrivals. We live by unconsciously measuring the inverse distances of our proximity: an intimacy calibrated by the vulnerability we feel in giving up our sense of separation.
To go beyond our normal identities and become closer than close is to lose our sense of self in temporary joy, a form of arrival that only opens us to deeper forms of intimacy that blur our fixed, controlling, surface identity.
To consciously become close is a courageous form of unilateral disarmament, a chancing of our arm and our love, a willingness to hazard our affections and an unconscious declaration that we might be equal to the inevitable loss that the vulnerability of being close will bring.
Human beings do not find their essence through fulfillment or eventual arrival but by staying close to the way they like to travel, to the way they hold the conversation between the ground on which they stand and the horizon to which they go. What makes the rainbow beautiful, is not the pot of gold at its end, but the arc of its journey between here and there, between now and then, between where we are now and where we want to go, illustrated above our unconscious heads in primary colour.
We are in effect, always, close; always close to the ultimate secret: that we are more real in our simple wish to find a way than any destination we could reach: the step between not understanding that and understanding that, is as close as we get to happiness.
Complement Dawson’s poetic short film with Dylan Thomas’s cinematic poem about how trees illuminate the wonder of our humanity and Robert Macfarlane’s reflection on how trees embody the secret to healthy relationships, then revisit Whyte’s lyrical rerooting of the meanings of courage, vulnerability, forgiveness, and love.
Source: Brain Pickings | 11 Mar 2021 | 5:59 am(NZT)
In the final stretch of World War I, having earned a degree from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in an era when under 4% of women graduated college, Dorothy Pulis Lathrop (April 16, 1891–December 30, 1980) was commissioned to illustrate a book of experimental imagist poems by a young American poet who would win the Pulitzer Prize two decades later. She never received her commission — the publisher went bankrupt. But her art captured the attentive imagination of the prolific English poet and novelist Walter de la Mare, who asked her to illustrate a fairy tale he had written a decade earlier. So began a lifelong friendship and Lathrop’s own prolific career. In her nine decades of life, she illustrated nearly forty books for children and wrote several, most of them celebrating her love of animals and the subtle beauties of the natural world. She become the first person to win the Caldecott Medal — the Nobel Prize of illustration.
In 1922, Lathrop illustrated De la Mare’s Down-Adown-Derry (public library | public domain) — a collection of fairy poems for children, to which she brought her uncommon imagination and her delicate, scrumptiously detailed pen.
While the artwork radiates the aesthetic of the Golden Age of Illustration that Arthur Rackham had ushered in fifteen years earlier with his revolutionary edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it also radiates Lathrop’s singular sensibility — lines as consummate as Rackham’s, but with a greater and more dreamlike elegance of movement; stunning dramas in black and white, evocative of Aubrey Beardsley but unfolding with greater subtlety and tenderness.
Complement with Arthur Rackham’s stunning illustrations for The Tempest and a starker dreamscape in Harry Clarke’s illustrations for Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination from the same era, then revisit another take on enchantment in the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s superb short meditation on fairy tales and the importance of being scared.
Source: Brain Pickings | 10 Mar 2021 | 2:14 pm(NZT)
Rilke reverenced winter as the season for tending to the inner garden of the soul: “Suddenly to be healed again and aware that the very ground of my being — my mind and spirit — was given time and space in which to go on growing,” he wrote to a grief-stricken young woman who had reached out to him for consolation. “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer,” Albert Camus wrote a generation later in his stunning essays about travel, which are really meditations on homecoming to our strength. Camus was soon to become the second-youngest Nobel laureate of all time and soon to die in a car crash with an unused train ticket to the same destination in his pocket. We are not invincible. But in how we garden the winters of the soul, we find the summer of our strength and the bloom of our fragile aliveness.
That is what Katherine May explores in Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (public library) — a gorgeous book, a generous book, a layered book of uncommon sensitivity and substance, drawn from May’s own experience of living through a deep and disquieting winter of life. She writes:
[Since childhood] we are taught to ignore sadness, to stuff it down into our satchels and pretend it isn’t there. As adults, we often have to learn to hear the clarity of its call. That is wintering. It is the active acceptance of sadness. It is the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need. It is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and to commit to healing them the best we can. Wintering is a moment of intuition, our true needs felt keenly as a knife.
Like happiness — which, as George Eliot well knew, is a skill we incrementally master as we grow older — sadness, May reminds us, is also a skill: There are self-punishing ways to be sad, and self-salving ways to be sad. In skillful wintering, we learn the difference between the two. Rilke, who wintered amply and wisely, knew that great sadnesses clarify us to ourselves — winters of the spirit come in various sizes and cycles, each meaningful, all cumulative in their soul-sculpting beneficence. May writes:
When you start tuning in to winter, you realise that we live through a thousand winters in our lives — some big, some small… Some winters creep up on us so slowly that they have infiltrated every part of our lives before we truly feel them.
To get better at wintering, we need to address our very notion of time. We tend to imagine that our lives are linear, but they are in fact cyclical.
This cyclical nature of the seasons of the spirit is counter to our dominant cultural narrative of self-improvement, with its ethos of linear progression toward states of ever-increasing flourishing. It is counter, too, to the world’s major spiritual traditions, with their ideas of salvation and enlightenment. (Any longtime practitioner of Zen or metta meditation, for instance, knows that while we do reach moments of so-called enlightenment — a gladsome dissolution of the self into an all-pervading lovingkindness — these moments are inevitably punctuated by visitations of our habitual tendencies toward egoic shortness of temper, the self-absorption we call melancholy, and other conditioned modes of unenlightened conduct.) And yet befriending this cyclical rhythm of our inner lives, May observes with life-tested clarity, is the key to wintering — to emerging from the coldest seasons of the soul not only undiminished but revitalized.
Drawing on the analogy of tress — these most fertile metaphors for our humanity, in which we see ourselves and see quiet wisdom on how to live with ourselves, on how to live with each other, on the root of authenticity, on what it means to be an artist and what it means to be human — she writes:
We are in the habit of imagining our lives to be linear, a long march from birth to death in which we mass our powers, only to surrender them again, all the while slowly losing our youthful beauty. This is a brutal untruth. Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.
In one of the book’s wonderful portals into the world of science as a means of comprehending our elemental humanity, May considers the astonishing actuality of trees beyond the merely metaphorical:
The dropping of leaves by deciduous trees is called abscission. It occurs on the cusp between autumn and winter, as part of an arc of growth, maturity, and renewal. In spring and summer, leaf cells are full of chlorophyll, a bright green substance that absorbs sunlight, fueling the process that converts carbon dioxide and water into the starch and sugar that allow the tree to grow. But at the end of the summer, as the days grow shorter and the temperature falls, deciduous trees stop making food. In the absence of sunlight, it becomes too costly to maintain the machinery of growth. The chlorophyll begins to break down, revealing other colours that were always present in the leaf, but which were masked by the abundance of green pigment: oranges and yellows, derived from carotene and xanthophyll. Other chemical changes take place to create red anthocyanin pigments. The exact mix is different for each tree, sometimes producing bright yellows, oranges, and browns, and sometimes displaying as reds or purples.
But while this is happening, a layer of cells is weakening between the stem and the branch: this is called the abscission zone. Gradually it severs the leaf from access to water, and the leaf dries and browns and in most cases falls off, either under its own weight or encouraged by wintery rains and winds. Within a few hours, the tree will have released substances to heal the scar the leaf has left, protecting itself from the evaporation of water, infection, or the invasion of parasites.
I have always cherished the bare beauty of winter trees, so fractal and pulmonary against the somber sky — so skeletal, yet so alive. Anyone willing to look closely — and why be alive at all if not to relish the ecstasy of noticing, that crowning glory of our consciousness? — is rewarded with the gasping recognition that the branches are already covered in tiny dormant buds encoding the Braille promise of spring.
Most trees produce their buds in high summer, and the autumn leaf fall reveals them, neat and expectant, protected from the cold by thick scales… from the sharp talons of the beech to the hooflike black buds of the ash. Many trees also display catkins in the winter, like the acid-green lambs’ tails of the hazel and the furry grey nubs of the willow. These employ the wind or insects to spread pollen, ready for the new year.
The tree is waiting. It has everything ready. Its fallen leaves are mulching the forest floor, and its roots are drawing up the extra winter moisture, providing a firm anchor against seasonal storms. Its ripe cones and nuts are providing essential food in this scarce time for mice and squirrels, and its bark is hosting hibernating insects and providing a source of nourishment for hungry deer. It is far from dead. It is in fact the life and soul of the wood. It’s just getting on with it quietly. It will not burst into life in the spring. It will just put on a new coat and face the world again.
Looking back on her own barren-branched seasons of the soul, she reflects:
Here is another truth about wintering: you’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on. And in return, it’s our responsibility to listen to those who have wintered before us. It’s an exchange of gifts in which nobody loses out. This may involve the breaking of a lifelong habit, one passed down carefully through generations: that of looking at other people’s misfortunes and feeling certain that they brought them upon themselves in a way that you never would. This isn’t just an unkind attitude. It does us harm, because it keeps us from learning that disasters do indeed happen and how we can adapt when they do. It stops us from reaching out to those who are suffering. And when our own disaster comes, it forces us into a humiliated retreat, as we try to hunt down mistakes that we never made in the first place or wrongheaded attitudes that we never held. Either that, or we become certain that there must be someone out there we can blame. Watching winter and really listening to its messages, we learn that effect is often disproportionate to cause; that tiny mistakes can lead to huge disasters; that life is often bloody unfair, but it carries on happening with or without our consent. We learn to look more kindly on other people’s crises, because they are so often portents of our own future.
The whole of Wintering — which explores the biological, psychological, neurochemical, and philosophical subtleties of our state of being in winter the season and winter the metaphor — is a splendid and soul-salving read. Complement it with Thoreau’s transcendentalist strategy for finding inner warmth in the cold of life, Annie Dillard on how winter awakens us to life, Adam Gopnik’s lyrical love letter to the white season, and D.H. Lawrence on trees, solitude, and how we root ourselves when our worlds collapse, then savor more of May’s writing and the personal story from which it springs in her wonderful On Being conversation with Krista Tippett.
Source: Brain Pickings | 7 Mar 2021 | 3:30 am(NZT)
“To create today is to create dangerously,” Albert Camus told a gathering of young people at the peak of the Cold War, shortly after becoming the second-youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize. “The question, for all those who cannot live without art and what it signifies, is merely to find out how, among the police forces of so many ideologies… the strange liberty of creation is possible.” A generation before him, while policed by the forces about to unworld humanity in its first global war, the revolutionary artist Egon Schiele observed that true visionaries tend to come from the minority.
Millennia and civilizations earlier, two such visionaries who lived a generation apart, one born the day the other threw herself into the sea — Sappho (c. 630–c. 570 BC) and Pythagoras (c. 570–c. 495 BC) — revolutionized the deepest undertone of modern thought with their repugnant ideas about the most delicate, most beloved, and most elemental of the arts: music.
In an era when the most widespread musical instrument was the tetrachord — the Hellenic four-string lyre — and musicians had no standardized system of tuning their instruments, no understanding of the underlying tonal patterns, and nothing more than a vague intuitive sense about how to strum melodies rather than discord, Pythagoras discovered the relationship between musical harmony and the mathematical harmony of numbers. According to his foremost biographer, the fourth-century Syrian scholar Iamblichus, Pythagoras took it upon himself to devise a mechanical aid for musical tuning.
One day, Iamblichus’s account goes, Pythagoras was strolling past a blacksmith’s forge and was captivated by the sound of the many hammers pounding in a pattern that suddenly sounded harmonious. He rushed into the forge and immediately began investigating the cause of the harmony, testing the various hammers in various stroke combinations — some producing harmony, others discord. After analyzing the patterns and weighing the hammers, he discovered a simple mathematical relationship between those that produced harmony — their masses were exact ratios of one another’s.
Although the anecdote may belong to that murky shoreline between the apocryphal and the factual that marks many biographies of genius, Pythagoras did eventually test these ratios on the lyre. They proved to be perfectly predictive of harmony — the first discovery of a mathematical rule undergirding a physical phenomenon, and the basis of what became known as the Music of the Spheres.
In our time, Pythagoras, known to every schoolchild for his famous triangle theorem, is celebrated as the pioneer who set the golden age of mathematics into motion with the development of numeric logic. Having coined the word philosophy and defined the very meaning of wisdom, he seeded scientific ideas that fomented the later revolutions ushered in by visionaries as far-ranging and far-reaching as Plato, Copernicus, Descartes, Kepler, Newton, and Einstein.
But in his time, Pythagoras was very much a radical, a dissident, an intellectual deviant. His progressive views on social reform led him to flee the tyrannical rule of his native Samos. After arriving in the Greek colony of Croton as a refugee, he founded a philosophical school whose disciples, known as the Pythagoreans, devised an unexampled model of the universe, placing at its center a ball of fire more than a thousand years before Copernicus upended the geocentric Ptolemaic system with his heliocentricity.
In another stroke of radicalism, the Pythagoreans admitted into their school a class of sub-citizens denied education and excluded from the newborn civic system of democracy: women. One of them became the world’s first known female astronomer — Hypatia, who lived her trailblazing life and died her savage death in the city where nearly every trace of Sappho vanished.
When the Library of Alexandria was burned, the flames consumed the nine-volume set of Sappho’s collected works, leaving only fragments copied by fans and scholars throughout the ancient world. From this handful of surviving ashes, Sappho rose with her lyre and her verse to be remembered as the Tenth Muse, the inventor of the love song and the personal lyric, the first great beacon of women’s right to creative expression, and the first great champion of the right to love whom we love. Unlike Emily Dickinson, who deliberately changed the gender pronouns in her poems to conceal the same-sex passion that fomented her poetry, Sappho kept the female pronouns in the beautiful and heartbreaking odes she wrote to the women she loved. In doing so, she pioneered a radical shift in musical culture — the permission to sing not about the gods, the seasons, and the wars, but about oneself: about the stunning interior universe of subjective human experience. Without Sappho, there would be no Nina Simone to pose in song the central question of consciousness: “I wish you could know what it means to be me.”
The epoch-making contributions of Pythagoras and Sappho come alive in Ted Gioia’s altogether wonderful book Music: A Subversive History (public library) — the story of our species told through its most consummate and intimate art-form, traced through the lives of the visionaries and radicals who shaped it, from Pythagoras and Sappho to Bob Dylan and N.W.A.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Iris Murdoch’s astute observation that “tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Gioia frames his approach:
At every stage in human history, music has been a catalyst for change, challenging conventions and conveying coded messages — or, not infrequently, delivering blunt, unambiguous ones. It has given voice to individuals and groups denied access to other platforms for expression, so much so that, in many times and places, freedom of song has been as important as freedom of speech, and far more controversial.
Holding up Pythagoras as the most significant figure in the history of music, whose controversial contribution was both a liberation and a limitation, Gioia writes:
Greek culture before his arrival revered what we call nowadays Orphic thought (named after Orpheus, the mythical musician, but almost certainly considered a historical personage in those distant days), and believed songs possessed powerful magic. The rise of Pythagorean music theory, circa 500 BC, changed all that by conceptualizing music as a rational science of sounds that could be described in mathematical terms.
Looking back to antiquity from our own era, in which algorithms are mediating the relationship between music, feeling, and transcendence, Gioia adds:
The very first algorithm entered Western music with this philosophical rupture that happened more than 2,500 years ago.
And yet while the Pythagorean model of mathematically distinguishing melody from noise liberated music by giving it a new language of codified expression, it also limited music by excluding from the musical canon styles that didn’t conform to these proportionate structures of scales and rhythms — styles like those that emerged from the African diaspora or from my own native Balkans. Gioia writes:
The ratios and proportions that initially helped us grasp songs turned into the rules and constraints that defined them. The strategies and schemas were often seen as the ‘authentic’ music, and the actual sounds only got validation through their allegiance to what was written on the printed page… The eventual result was a conceptualization of music that excluded far more than it allowed.
The very practice of legitimization is an act of distortion.
Still, the Pythagorean conceptualization of music had profound and beneficent consequences, stretching far beyond the realm of music and into the entire landscape of culture: By bringing mathematics to an art-form previously regarded as mystical, it catalyzed the slow shift from a world of superstition and magic to a world of science and reason — a cultural evolution that would unfold on the scale of epochs. Two millennia after Pythagoras, Kepler would spend years defending his mother in a witchcraft trial while revolutionizing our understanding of the universe with his epoch-making laws of planetary motion, drawing on the Music of the Spheres to discover the proportional relationships of planetary orbits.
From this foundation laid in the Pythagorean past, Gioia leaps across the millennia to the present:
Today, these three spheres — science, music, and magic — appear as self-contained and unrelated disciplines, but in the context of 500 BC, the connections between them were obvious to the leading minds. Anyone who hoped to dislodge magical thinking in a traditional society and replace it with a scientific worldview was forced to address music theory, because it, too, could be conceptualized as either magic or science. Any choice between these two models would have profound implications. And not just for theory: society would be altered by how this matter was decided. Before Pythagoras, songs possessed magical potency. If Pythagoras and his followers hoped to eradicate superstition and elevate a more rational and logical worldview, they were almost forced to redefine all the parameters of musical practice.
But while this reconfiguration of musical practice as a mathematical language advanced the world toward science, it also repressed a central animating force of music — its elemental humanity, ablaze with feeling, sensuality, and a sense of the sacred. Even Schopenhauer, so very German and so unfaltering in his central tenet of the will as the supreme instrument of the human spirit, considered music capable of reaching beyond the reach of will, into “the inner being, the in-itself, of the world”; even Kierkegaard, for all his ceaseless cerebration, his Nordic reserve, and his lifelong virginity, exulted in the unparalleled sensuality of music.
It was Sappho who feathered the other great wing by which music took flight toward modernity, carrying the whole of human culture on its back. Gioia writes:
Sappho has two obvious concerns, and they dominate her worldview even as they expose a hidden rift in Western thought: the emotional bonds of love, and communal obligations to the gods. In the later evolution of Western music, these two approaches will veer off into their separate traditions and have little to do with each other. You could hardly imagine two music genres with less in common than love songs and religious hymns, but for Sappho these are intimately connected.
While Pythagoras took the mysticism of music and turned it into a mathematical language, Sappho took the ancient tradition of sacred singing and turned it into a new literary genre of personal poetics. By pioneering the love song and the self-permission for telling our own stories, drawn from our most intimate experiences, she gave the world an immense and abiding gift — the ability to preserve our stories in song as a fundament of identity and survival, from the African spirituals that sustained the souls of the enslaved to the folk ballads by which refugees hold on to culture and community. In fact, Sappho’s home island has always been a nexus of cultures and remains a major portal into Europe for refugees from the Middle East. Gioia writes:
At the height of the Syrian crisis in 2016, new arrivals would show up on Lesbos almost every day, making their treacherous journey on small boats, rafts, and inflatable crafts… Songs are the possessions most likely to survive long journeys, remaining the property of the newcomer even when everything else has been taken away.
Complement this fragment of the altogether fascinating Music: A Subversive History with a haunting choral invocation of Sappho’s timeless elegy for heartbreak, then revisit Maurice Sendak on the shape of music as the key to storytelling and some of humanity’s most beloved storytellers on the singular power of music.
Source: Brain Pickings | 3 Mar 2021 | 11:49 am(NZT)
“I function only by falling in love: with French and France; with the 15th Century; with microbiology, cosmology, sleep research,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her daybook, capturing the necessary passion that makes writing akin to falling in love. But reading is where the parallel begins. Some of us read in order to write — one must first read about the fifteenth century and microbiology and sleep research before writing about it — and some read purely for the private joy of a world enlarged. Reading is the real fulcrum that lifts us up into new realms of thought and feeling, new atmospheres of reality, from which we free-fall into a deeper love of life itself. And whenever we read, we read the way we love — with our whole being, bringing to the book every experience we’ve ever had, every vestige of half-remembered impressions and half-survived heartbreaks, the imprint every other book we’ve ever read has left on our conscience.
From Italo Calvino (October 15, 1923–September 19, 1985) comes an uncommonly insightful, tender, and sensual celebration of this parallel between reading and love — the making of it, the falling into it — in a wonderful passage from 1979 novel If on a winter’s night a traveler (public library). From the frame narrative about a reader trying to read a book to the novel’s very title, deliberately styled like a sentence and not like a caption of capitalized words, this book is the ultimate meta-homage to reading — a book by and for the unabashed, obsessive lover of books; a book that exemplifies all of Calvino’s fourteen criteria for a classic, but especially the fourth: “a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.”
Drawing a central parallel between a story in literature and a love story in life, Calvino writes:
How to establish the exact moment in which a story begins? Everything has already begun before, the first line of the first page of every novel refers to something that has already happened outside the book. Or else the real story is the one that begins ten or a hundred pages further on, and everything that precedes it is only a prologue. The lives of individuals of the human race form a constant plot, in which every attempt to isolate one piece of living that has a meaning separate from the rest — for example, the meeting of two people, which will become decisive for both — must bear in mind that each of the two brings with himself a texture of events, environments, other people, and that from the meeting, in turn, other stories will be derived which will break off from their common story.)
He considers how reading, like physical intimacy, is an act of total immersion that at its best requires a delicate osmotic balance of total surrender and unassailable sovereignty — one of the mind, the other of the body:
Now, since your bodies are trying to find, skin to skin, the adhesion most generous in sensations, to transmit and receive vibrations and waves, to compenetrate the fullnesses and the voids, since in mental activity you have also agreed on the maximum agreement, you can be addressed with an articulated speech that includes you both in a sole, two-headed person. First of all the field of action, or of existence, must be established for this double entity you form. Where is the reciprocal identification leading? What is the central theme that recurs in your variations and modulations? A tension concentrated on not losing anything of its own potential, on prolonging a state of reactivity, on exploiting the accumulation of the other’s desire in order to multiply one’s own charge? Or is it the most submissive abandonment, the exploration of the immensity of strokable and reciprocally stroking spaces, the dissolving of one’s being in a lake whose surface is infinitely tactile?
In a sentiment evocative of Rilke’s poignant observation that “even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist” and that a healthy love is one of spacious union between two neighboring solitudes, Calvino concludes of this necessary negotiation between separateness and unity:
In both situations you certainly do not exist except in relation to each other, but, to make those situations possible, your respective egos have not so much to erase themselves as to occupy, without reserve, all the void of the mental space, invest in itself at the maximum interest or spend itself to the last penny. In short, what you are doing is very beautiful but grammatically it doesn’t change a thing. At the moment when you most appear to be a united voi, a second person plural, you are two tu’s, more separate and circumscribed than before.
In what may be the most sensuous passage ever composed on the subject, he likens the act of reading to the act of making love, addressing the reader-lover:
Now you are being read. Your body is being subjected to a systematic reading, through channels of tactile information, visual, olfactory, and not without some intervention of the taste buds. Hearing also has its role, alert to your gasps and your trills. It is not only the body that is, in you, the object of reading: the body matters insofar as it is part of a complex of elaborate elements, not all visible and not all present, but manifested in visible and present events: the clouding of your eyes, your laughing, the words you speak, your way of gathering and spreading your hair, your initiatives and your reticences, and all the signs that are on the frontier between you and usage and habits and memory and prehistory and fashion, all codes, all the poor alphabets by which one human being believes at certain moments that he is reading another human being… The Other Reader now is reviewing your body as if skimming the index, and at some moments she consults it as if gripped by sudden and specific curiosities, then she lingers, questioning it and waiting till a silent answer reaches her, as if every partial inspection interested her only in the light of a wider spatial reconnaissance. Now she dwells on negligible details, perhaps tiny stylistic faults… and she exploits them to establish a margin of detachment, critical reserve, or joking intimacy; now instead the accidentally discovered detail is excessively cherished — for example, the shape of your chin or a special nip you take at her shoulder — and from this start she gains impetus, covers (you cover together) pages and pages from top to bottom without skipping a comma.
But then Calvino anchors the analogy in a crucial difference within the similarity of the two experiences:
Lovers’ reading of each other’s bodies (of that concentrate of mind and body which lovers use to go to bed together) differs from the reading of written pages in that it is not linear. It starts at any point, skips, repeats itself, goes backward, insists, ramifies in simultaneous and divergent messages, converges again, has moments of irritation, turns the page, finds its place, gets lost. A direction can be recognized in it, a route to an end, since it tends toward a climax, and with this end in view it arranges rhythmic phases, metrical scansions, recurrence of motives. But is the climax really the end? Or is the race toward that end opposed by another drive which works in the opposite direction, swimming against the moments, recovering time?
If one wanted to depict the whole thing graphically, every episode, with its climax, would require a three-dimensional model, perhaps four-dimensional, or, rather, no model: every experience is unrepeatable. What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space.
Complement this fragment of the thoroughly delicious If on a winter’s night a traveler with Jeanette Winterson on reading as self-liberation, Anne Lamott on reading as healing, Alain de Botton on reading as a portal to empathy, and Rebecca Solnit on reading as an existential toolkit for transformation, then revisit Calvino on the unbearable lightness of language, literature, and life and philosopher Martha Nussbaum on what reading Proust reveals about the litmus test for true love.
Source: Brain Pickings | 28 Feb 2021 | 10:34 am(NZT)