“Time is the substance I am made of,” Borges wrote in his sublime meditation on the most elemental and paradoxical dimension of existence. But what was there before there was time, before there was substance? Before, in the lovely words of the poet Marie Howe, “the singularity we once were” — “when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was liquid and stars were space and space was not at all”?
Since the dawn of human consciousness, this question has gnawed at the insouciance of our species and animated the most restless recesses of our imagination. It is the foundation of our most ancient origin myths and the springboard for our most ambitious science. It is also — curiously, thrillingly — where these two seemingly irreconcilable strains of our hunger for truth and meaning entwine.
Millennia before James Gleick wrested chaos theory from the obscure annals of meteorology to make it a locus of magnetic allure for modern science and a fixture of the popular imagination, the ancient Greeks placed chaos at the center of their cosmogony. (So enduring and far-reaching is their civilizational sway that we owe even the word cosmogony to them, from kosmos, Greek for “world” or “order,” and their suffix -gonia, “-begetting.”) Fry writes:
Was Chaos a god — a divine being — or simply a state of nothingness? Or was Chaos, just as we would use the word today, a kind of terrible mess, like a teenager’s bedroom only worse?
Think of Chaos perhaps as a kind of grand cosmic yawn.
As in a yawning chasm or a yawning void.
Whether Chaos brought life and substance out of nothing or whether Chaos yawned life up or dreamed it up, or conjured it up in some other way, I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Nor were you. And yet in a way we were, because all the bits that make us were there. It is enough to say that the Greeks thought it was Chaos who, with a massive heave, or a great shrug, or hiccup, vomit, or cough, began the long chain of creation that has ended with pelicans and penicillin and toadstools and toads, sea lions, seals, lions, human beings, and daffodils and murder and art and love and confusion and death and madness and biscuits.
Whatever the truth, science today agrees that everything is destined to return to Chaos. It calls this inevitable fate entropy: part of the great cycle from Chaos to order and back again to Chaos. Your trousers began as chaotic atoms that somehow coalesced into matter that ordered itself over eons into a living substance that slowly evolved into a cotton plant that was woven into the handsome stuff that sheathes your lovely legs. In time you will abandon your trousers — not now, I hope — and they will rot down in a landfill or be burned. In either case their matter will at length be set free to become part of the atmosphere of the planet. And when the sun explodes and takes every particle of this world with it, including the ingredients of your trousers, all the constituent atoms will return to cold Chaos. And what is true for your trousers is of course true for you.
So the Chaos that began everything is also the Chaos that will end everything.
There is, of course, the favorite question, that eternal fulcrum of human restlessness: What was there before the beginning? Before the Big Bang, before Chaos, before the everythingness of being? In consonance with Stephen Hawking’s wryly phrased and elegantly argued observation that “the universe is the ultimate free lunch,” Fry reminds us that before there was everything, there was, simply, nothing — not even the Borgesian substance we are made of:
We have to accept that there was no “before,” because there was no Time yet. No one had pressed the start button on Time. No one had shouted Now! And since Time had yet to be created, time words like “before,” “during,” “when,” “then,” “after lunch,” and “last Wednesday” had no possible meaning. It screws with the head, but there it is.
The Greek word for “everything that is the case,” what we could call “the universe,” is COSMOS. And at the moment — although “moment” is a time word and makes no sense just now (neither does the phrase “just now”) — at the moment, Cosmos is Chaos and only Chaos because Chaos is the only thing that is the case. A stretching, a tuning up of the orchestra…
Tracing how Chaos “spewed up the first forms of life, the primordial beings and the principles,” Fry once again draws a parallel between mythology and science, wresting a kind of evolutionary biology of the Greek mythological universe. In an inspired passage that calls to mind evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis — known for advancing the Gaia hypothesis, named of course for the ancient Greek god-mother and mother-goddess — and her splendid reflection on the interconnectedness of life across time, space, and species, he writes:
As each generation developed and new entities were born and in turn reproduced, so complexity increased. Those old primordial and elemental principles were spun into lifeforms of ever greater diversity, variety, and richness. The beings that were born became endowed with nuanced and unique personalities and individuality. In computer language, it was as if life went from 2 bit to 4 bit to 8 bit to 16 bit to 32 bit to 64 bit and beyond. Each iteration represented millions and then billions of new permutations of size, form, and what you might call resolution. High definition character, such as we pride ourselves in having as modern humans, came into existence and there was an explosion of what biologists call speciation as new forms burst into being.
I like to picture the first stage of creation as an old-fashioned TV screen on which a monochrome game of Pong played. You remember Pong? It had two white rectangles for rackets and a square dot for a ball. Existence was a primitive, pixellated form of bouncing tennis. Some thirty-five to forty years later there had evolved ultra hi-res 3-D graphics with virtual and augmented reality. So it was for the Greek cosmos, a creation that began with clunky and elemental lo-res outlines now exploded into rich, varied life.
In the remainder of the thoroughly enchanting and elucidating Mythos, Fry goes on to trace the origins of so many of our present givens — the names of planets and constellations and chemical elements and diseases, the words “fraud” and “doom” and “enthusiasm,” our precepts of beauty, our taxonomies of love — to a complex, imaginative, and imperfect civilization that lived long ago, which imprinted cultures and civilizations to come with its layered legacy. Complement it with Jill Lepore on how the shift from mythology to science shaped the early dream of democracy, then revisit Italian artist Alessandro Sanna’s wordless existential cosmogony inspired by Pinocchio and this gorgeous 1974 Hungarian animated short film exploring the tragic heroism of hopefulness in the Greek myth of Sisyphus.
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.
Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Sep 2019 | 5:38 am(NZT)
“It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote as she led the first-ever professional female eclipse expedition in 1878. The sentiment presages the importance of what we today call “citizen science,” radical and countercultural in an era when science was enshrined in the pompous pantheon of the academy, whose gates were shut and padlocked to “the man of the people,” to women, and to all but privileged white men.
Two decades earlier, Mitchell had traveled to Europe as America’s first true scientific celebrity to meet, among other dignitaries of the Old World, one such man — but one of far-reaching vision and kindness, who used his privilege to broaden the spectrum of possibility for the less privileged: the polymathic astronomer John Herschel (March 7, 1792–May 11, 1871), co-founder of the venerable Royal Astronomical Society, son of Uranus discoverer William Herschel, and nephew of Caroline Herschel, the world’s first professional woman astronomer, who had introduced him to astronomy as a boy.
Several years before he coined the word photography, Herschel became the first prominent scientist to argue in a public forum that the lifeblood of science — data collection and the systematic observation of natural phenomena — should be the welcome task of ordinary people from all walks of life, united by a passionate curiosity about how the universe works.
In 1831, the newly knighted Herschel published A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy as part of the fourteenth volume of the bestselling Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopædia (large chunks of which were composed by Frankenstein author Mary Shelley). Later cited in Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck’s altogether excellent book Histories of Scientific Observation (public library), it was a visionary work, outlining the methods of scientific investigation by clarifying the relationship between theory and observation. But perhaps its most visionary aspect was Herschel’s insistence that observation should be a network triumph belonging to all of humanity — a pioneering case for the value of citizen science. He writes:
To avail ourselves as far as possible of the advantages which a division of labour may afford for the collection of facts, by the industry and activity which the general diffusion of information, in the present age, brings into exercise, is an object of great importance. There is scarcely any well-informed person, who, if he has but the will, has not also the power to add something essential to the general stock of knowledge, if he will only observe regularly and methodically some particular class of facts which may most excite his attention, or which his situation may best enable him to study with effect.
Pointing to meteorology and geology as the sciences best poised to benefit from distributed data collection by citizen scientists, Herschel adds:
There is no branch of science whatever in which, at least, if useful and sensible queries were distinctly proposed, an immense mass of valuable information might not be collected from those who, in their various lines of life, at home or abroad, stationary or in travel, would gladly avail themselves of opportunities of being useful.
Herschel goes on to outline the process by which such citizen science would be conducted: “skeleton forms” of survey questions circulated far and wide, asking “distinct and pertinent questions, admitting of short and definite answers,” then transmitted to “a common centre” for processing — a sort of human internet feeding into a paper-stack server. (Lest we forget, Maria Mitchell herself was employed as a “computer” — the term we used to use for the humans who performed the work now performed by machines we have named after them.)
Couple with a wonderful 1957 treatise on the art of observation and why genius lies in the selection of what is worth observing, then revisit Maria Mitchell on how to find your calling.
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.
Source: Brain Pickings | 16 Sep 2019 | 11:00 am(NZT)
This essay is excerpted and adapted from Figuring.
In 1847, the Harvard College Observatory acquired a colossal telescope dubbed the Great Refractor. It would remain the most powerful in America for twenty years. Enraptured by the imaging potential of the mighty instrument, observatory director William Bond befriended the daguerreotypist John Adams Whipple (September 10, 1822–April 10, 1891). Whipple thought of photography as a figurative art rather than a technical craft, but he applied it to the advancement of science. The two men began a series of collaborations that lit the dawn of astrophotography.
Four years into it, the thirty-year-old Whipple would awe the world with his stunning photographs of celestial objects — particularly his photographs of the Moon. Louis Daguerre himself had taken the first lunar photograph on January 2, 1839 — five days before announcing his invention, which marked the birth of photography — but his studio and his entire archive were destroyed by a fire two months later. Whipple’s remains the earliest known surviving photograph of the Moon — an image that continues to stun with its simple visual poetics even as technology has far eclipsed the primitive equipment of its photographer.
Whipple’s collaboration with Bond was the beginning of what would become the world’s largest collection of astrophotography plates at the Harvard College Observatory. From this vast visual library, a team of women known as the Harvard Computers would wrest pioneering insight into the nature of the universe, patiently analyzing and annotating the glass plates that today number half a million.
A year before his Moon photograph, Whipple had used the Great Refractor to make the first daguerreotype of a star: Vega, the second-brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere, object of one of Galileo’s most ingenious experiments supporting his proof of heliocentricity. An emissary of spacetime, Vega’s light reached the telescope’s lens from twenty-five light-years away to deliver an image of the star as it had been a quarter century earlier.
When the pioneering astrophotographers of Whipple’s generation began pointing one end of the telescope at the cosmos and affixing the other to the camera, we could behold for the first time images of stars that lived billions of light-years away, billions of years ago, long dead by the time their light — the universe’s merchant of time and conquistador of space — reached the lens. Against the backdrop of the newly and barely comprehensible sense of deep time, the blink of any human lifetime suddenly stung with its brevity of being, islanded in the cosmic river of chaos and entropy, drifting, always drifting, toward nonbeing.
We say that photographs “immortalize,” and yet they do the very opposite. Every photograph razes us on our ephemeral temporality by forcing us to contemplate a moment — an unrepeatable fragment of existence — that once was and never again will be. To look at a daguerreotype is to confront the fact of your own mortality in the countenance of a person long dead, a person who once inhabited a fleeting moment — alive with dreams and desperations — just as you now inhabit this one. Rather than bringing us closer to immortality, photography humbled us before our mortal finitude. Florence Nightingale resisted it. “I wish to be forgotten,” she wrote, and consented to being photographed only when Queen Victoria insisted.
I wonder about this as I stand amid the stacks of the Harvard College Observatory surrounded by half a million glass plates meticulously annotated by the hands of women long returned to stardust. I imagine the flesh of steady fingers, atoms spun into molecules throbbing with life, carefully slipping a glass plate from its paper sleeve to examine it. In a museum jar across the Atlantic, Galileo’s finger, which once pointed to the Moon with flesh just as alive, shrivels like all of our certitudes.
Pinned above the main desk area at the observatory is an archival photograph of Annie Jump Cannon — the deaf computer who catalogued more than 20,000 variable stars in a short period after joining the observatory — examining one of the photographic plates with a magnifying glass. I take out my smartphone — a disembodied computer of Venus, mundane proof of Einstein’s relativity, instant access to more knowledge than Newton ever knew — and take a photograph of a photograph of a photograph.
The half million glass plates surrounding me are about to be scraped of the computers’ handwriting — the last physical trace of the women’s corporeality — in order to reveal the clear images that, a century and a half later, provide invaluable astronomical information about the evolution of the universe. There are no overtones of sentimentality in entropy’s unceasing serenade to the cosmos.
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.
Source: Brain Pickings | 11 Sep 2019 | 3:31 am(NZT)
In the final years of his long life, which encompassed world wars and assassinations and numerous terrors, the great cellist and human rights advocate Pablo Casals urged humanity to “make this world worthy of its children.” Today, as we face a world that treats its children as worthless, we are challenged like we have never been challenged to consider the deepest existential calculus of bringing new life into a troubled world — what is the worth of children, what are our responsibilities to them (when we do choose to have them, for it is also an act of courage and responsibility to choose not to), and what does it mean to raise a child with the dignity of being an unrepeatable miracle of atoms that have never before constellated and will never again constellate in that exact way?
A century ago, perched between two worlds and two World Wars, the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) addressed these elemental questions with sensitive sagacity in a short passage from The Prophet (public library) — the 1923 classic that also gave us Gibran on the building blocks of true friendship, the courage to weather the uncertainties of love, and what may be the finest advice ever offered on the balance of intimacy and independence in a healthy relationship.
When a young mother with a newborn baby at her breast asks for advice on children and parenting, Gibran’s poetic prophet responds:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Complement with Susan Sontag’s 10 rules for raising a child and Crescendo — an Italian watercolor serenade to the splendid prenatal biology of becoming a being — then revisit Gibran on authenticity, why we make art, and his gorgeous love letters to and from the woman without whom The Prophet might never have been born.
Source: Brain Pickings | 10 Sep 2019 | 4:28 am(NZT)
That humans love their dogs is a fundamental fact of our animal heart, as indisputable and irrepealable as gravity — just look at Lord Byron’s leaden eulogy for his beloved dog. But whether our dogs “love” us and what that really means is a question that hurls the human heart into perennial restlessness, oscillating between absolute, arrogant certainty and endless, insecure doubt. Its answer hints at the elemental nature of all emotion, at the central puzzlement of consciousness, at the very meaning of love, and at the unnerving fact that we can never fully know the inner life of another, be they human or other animal.
That question is what cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz, director of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, explores in a chapter of her altogether fascinating book Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond (public library).
Horowitz notes that, both in her lab and while observing dogs in the urban wild, she constantly sees behaviors from which we instinctively infer human-like emotions — curiosity when a dog faces a dancing robot, surprise when a hidden researcher emerges from behind a door — and yet she is frequently asked whether dogs are really capable of the most sweeping human emotions: love, anger, ennui. Are we right to imagine “If I could I would bite every sorrow until it fled” into a beloved dog’s mental monologue? Framing these questions as “a testament to both the ardor of our interest in our dogs, and our uncertainty about the dog’s experience,” Horowitz writes:
As our own days may be colored with anxiety, anticipation, or foreboding — are dogs’ days so colored? As we respond to events and people with empathy, sarcasm, or incredulity — do dogs tend toward such sentiments?
Many of these questions boil down to whether dogs have feelings or emotions at all. But of course they do. Look at it adaptively: emotions are messaging to the muscles and response system to circumvent the closed-door discussions between the sensory organs and brain. I see a tiger; I know that tigers are predators and this one is coming toward me . . . and Hey!, chimes the brain emotively, Be afraid! Run!
Look at it neurologically: the areas of human brains that are active when we feel, sigh, yearn, and despair are also found in dogs’ brains.
Look at it behaviorally: though we are not always great at naming which behavior indicates what emotion (as we will shortly see), the wide array of different behaviors and postures of dogs tells us about their internal states.
Look at it sensibly. The alternative to having emotions — having undifferentiated experience — defies reason, defies Darwin, defies continuity. Human emotions did not emerge mysteriously and fully formed out of unfeeling automata. Keep in mind that the last popular advocate of the latter belief, Descartes, lived in a time when bloodletting was still considered salubrious.
But while the question of whether dogs feel is a fossil of hubristic medievalism, the question of what and how dogs feel remains just on the cusp of our ability to answer — for our answers are mired in our own projections. After all, the qualia of any conscious experience is singular to the consciousness having it and impenetrable to other consciousnesses — Nina Simone serenaded the impossibility of precisely knowing the qualia of another human animal when she sang “I wish you could know what it means to be me,” let alone the qualia of a non-human animal.
And yet we presume to easily read a dog’s feeling states. A century and a half after Darwin wrote that “man himself cannot express love and humility by external signs, so plainly as does a dog, when with drooping ears, hanging lips, flexuous body, and wagging tail, he meets his beloved master,” Horowitz pulls into question the plainness of emotional inferences drawn from behavioral cues. Having previously written beautifully about how a walk with her own dog ignited an awareness of the myriad different ways of experiencing the same reality, she considers the difference between description and emotional diagnosis:
As shorthand, it makes good sense to me to use emotional terms to describe what I’m seeing. In the lab, I would more likely say, The dog’s head extends forward, leading the body by an extra half-step; the ears are perked into their full height (read: curiosity). A dog jumps back, preparing the body for escape; a “rurf” sound slips out (surprise). Retreating, the dog’s body shrinks down and back (anxiety); on approach, a dog pulls away her head, lifts her paw, curls her lip (disgust); with a high, loosely wagging tail, the dog leaps with two or four legs and attempts to lick every nearby face, dog or human (delight).
I don’t use those shorthand words as my first descriptions of what they are doing — because I hesitate to assume that a dog’s experience of what looks like curiosity or delight is precisely like mine. While the similarities across mammalian brains make it highly likely that all mammals have diverse emotional experiences, we all also have very different lived experiences, based on, for humans, our cultures, where we live, and the people we meet. So, too, for dogs. My own guess is that, planted into a dog’s body, we wouldn’t recognize the feelings we’re flooded with as being just like our own. But that there are feelings, I’ve no doubt.
In this way, I inhabit the territory between the presumptive granting of subjective experience just like humans — and complete denial of any experience. Not presuming to know the dog’s subjective experience is not at all the same as denying them any experience at all.
Paradoxically, she points out, denial has been the crucible of the scientific study of animal consciousness — with strikingly cruel consequences that gnaw at the foundations of morality:
Without definitive evidence of an animal’s fear of pain, researchers say, how can we be sure that the animal feels fear — or pain — at all?
Weirdly, most of the history of medical and psychiatric research has also seemed not to doubt the reality of animals’ feelings. In fact, it presumes feelings in its very premise. To prove the efficacy of an anti-anxiety drug for humans, the drug first has to be roundly vetted on an “animal model”: essentially, lab animals have to be made anxious, then given the test, and have their anxiety dissipate (while no other ill effects arise). A history of this kind of thinking is written between the lines of every medical study using animals: they are so similar to us, thus they are a good model for humans.
Should someone make the claim to me that a dog definitely can’t be “depressed,” or benefit from anti-depression medication, I’ll take their hand and walk them back in time. Several decades ago, depression research took a step forward with the development of the “learned helplessness” model, made famous by Martin Seligman. He and his colleague came up with a scheme to see if helplessness could be induced by circumstance. Brace yourself: it involved dogs.
In a passage difficult to read without growing heavy-hearted and fiery with anger, Horowitz goes on to summarize the classic behavioral psychology study — an experiment that involved thirty-two “adult mongrel dogs” who never smelled the outdoor air and lived enslaved in the lab, where they were strapped down and assaulted by electric shocks and 70-decibel noise until they “learned” that they were utterly helpless. Horowitz confesses in a footnote that she had to read the study in three harrowing sittings, punctuated by slamming her computer shut and leaving the room. (Her own lab keeps no live animals, though there are two stuffed toy-dogs, both affectionately named by the researchers. Volunteer subjects come from the “real” world, including one human-canine duo who traveled 210 miles to participate in a 30-minute study.) She reflects on the grim morale of Seligman’s study:
Dogs were shocked, driven to depression and passivity and impotence, to prove that we could feel passivity and impotent in depression. Dogs are still widely used in medical research, make no mistake: this is happening now. Also now. And again.
To watch struggling animals without working to relieve their struggle demonstrates the great dissociation we condone with animals. Our society’s attitude toward animals is thus mismatched. We grant them feelings when it suits our testing needs, but grant them no feelings when it would not suit our testing needs. The human behavior in these test settings — electrocuting; near-drowning — is considered animal cruelty anywhere outside of the test setting.
So why is the question of animal emotions still posed? We are trapped on the far reaches of the pendulum’s swing: either assuming dogs are entirely unlike us or assuming dogs are just like us. As wrongheaded as it is to presume dogs to be unfeeling, it is no more correct to presumptively grant them a humanlike emotional life. (Nor must it be somewhere in-between: for all we know, dogs’ emotional experience is far more elaborate than ours.) We glance at dogs and conclude we know what they’re feeling, but our haste to make such conjecture on little evidence — and inability to read a dog’s emotions when they are displayed — is profound.
Curiously, while we are poor readers of a dog’s emotions, dogs seem to be excellent readers of ours. One of the fascinating findings of Horowitz’s lab is that the familiar “guilty look” we so often perceive in dogs — tail tucked, head lowered, eyebrows slightly knit — is not an indication of a dog’s guilt over a misbehavior but of having registered that the owner is angry or about to get angry, independent of whether or not the dog has done something guilt-worthy. Similarly, Horowitz’s lab found that what classic behavioral studies of fairness perception — one dog is given more treats, another fewer — have interpreted as “jealousy” is simply a dog’s “reasonable refusal to work for nothing.” Her experiment also illuminates the lovely eternal optimism of the dog’s nature:
Against expectation, they preferred to hang out with the unfair person. Again, it seems like they are motivated less by the kinds of feelings of unfairness or jealousy that humans have than by pure optimism that maybe this time, some of those treats will be tossed their way…
Lurking beneath all the ambiguity, affect-blindness, and projection is a testament to the great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s assertion that “understanding is love’s other name.” Horowitz considers the intimate crux of our difficulty in discerning dogs’ emotions:
Our inability to read dogs’ emotions well probably begins with our inability to understand our own emotions well. Though perfectly accessible to us — and only to us, truly — our society is constantly putting us to work to “get in touch with” our emotions. And that’s when they are right there for the touching. Given our difficulty, it’s no wonder we are ill-equipped to figure out the emotions of the four-legged creature beside us. So we default to granting dogs emotions, but of the most human sort. We assume dogs are not only in the room with us, but sharing a kind of hive mind with humans.
Does your dog love you? Watch them, and you tell me.
Caroline Paul, writing about another beloved four-legged species of companion, summed up the central paradox of human-pet emotional understanding — and of any emotional understanding — perfectly: “You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better.”
Complement the thoroughly wonderful and revelatory Our Dogs, Ourselves with artist Maria Kalman’s illustrated love letter to dogs and John Homans’s beautiful and bittersweet canine-inspired meditation on love, loss, and the art of presence, then revisit Horowitz on how dogs actually “see” the world through smell and what they can teach us about accessing the hidden layers of reality.
Source: Brain Pickings | 7 Sep 2019 | 9:35 am(NZT)
One of the strangest paradoxes of life is that our most intimate knowledge of things often comes from their opposites; that presence is most sharply contoured by the negative space of absence; that busyness reveals the value of stillness, loss the magnitude of love. Contrasts are how we orient ourselves and calibrate our feelings, the height of our fears fathoming the depth of our hopes. Thoreau knew this when one cold winter day he filled a diary page with his recipe for kindling inner warmth: “Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.”
Half a century after Thoreau, half a world away, the explorer, physician, and ethnographer Frederick Cook (June 10, 1865–August 5, 1940) composed a stunning study of contrasts through a winter of a different order in Through the First Antarctic Night (public library | public domain), subtitled A Narrative of the Voyage of the “Belgica” Among Newly Discovered Lands and Over an Unknown Sea about the South Pole — a forgotten masterpiece kindred and in many ways superior to Thoreau’s famed journals, for it chronicles, in lyrical prose and with immense psychological insight, the triumph of the human spirit over circumstances infinitely more trying than the tranquil contemplative life on the shores of Walden Pond.
American by birth, Cook joined the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897 as official surgeon and anthropologist. When the ship was trapped in pack ice just before the descent of the endless polar night, he toiled with the other men to free it — a Sisyphean ambition for these tiny human ants against the frozen colossus. They failed. Seeing that they would have to winter in polar captivity, Cook took it upon himself to save the crew’s lives from scurvy, venturing onto the otherworldly icescape to hunt for fresh meat. He was only thirty-three. (A decade later, in April of 1908, he would become the first explorer to believe he has reached the North Pole — a year before Robert Peary. Both explorers’ claims of discovery would be disputed for years.)
The Belgian expedition became the first to winter in the Antarctic — a feat previously thought unsurvivable. All the while, Cook recorded the experience — soul-straining, superhuman — in his journal. With a naturalist’s curiosity and a poet’s sensitivity to the changing appearances of light and darkness, external and internal, he chronicles the eternal tug of war between our capacity for despair and our capacity for transcendence, between absolute desolation and almost unbearable beauty, as the crew surrender their survival and their sanity to the unfeeling icy grip of nature.
In an entry from January 1898, when the ship first became locked in ice, Cook laments the lack of time for writing, then describes — still with the jocular tone that is the privilege of the hopeful — the Herculean efforts the men are exerting on freeing themselves:
Eight hours daily with a heavy saw, and the spine twisted semi-circularly, is not conducive to literary ambitions. It is, however, a capital exercise. Everybody is being hardened to the work and developing ponderous muscles. Our skin is burnt until it has the appearance of the inner surface of boot leather… We eat like bears the meat of seals and penguins twice daily, disposing of three, four, and five steaks each. We find time and gastric capacity for no less than seven meals daily… In one spot we sawed eight hours and cut less than five feet.
All they manage to do is drift a little between the icebergs before becoming trapped again. As they toil, they watch helplessly the approach of the long polar winter-night:
Now the sun is low on the horizon. The darkness, which is soon to throw the icy splendours into a hopeless, sooty gloom, is gathering its hellish fabric to cover the laughing glory of day. The sunless winter of storm, of unimaginable cold, of heart-destroying depression, is rapidly advancing. We are hoping to continue our voyage of exploration as long as possible, and when the darkness and cold become too great we expect to steal away and winter in more congenial latitudes.
By March, it becomes crushingly clear that they might not escape their “icy imprisonment” for months. Upon coming to terms with their fate — “how utterly we failed to gain freedom from the icy fetters of this heartless Frost King” — the crew enter a sort of forced meditation state. All they can do is observe the changing flow of sensation, the undulating currents of hope and despair. In a journal entry that would later become part of a chapter he titles “Helpless in a Hopeless Sea of Ice,” Cook writes:
We are now doomed to remain, and become the football of an unpromising fate. Henceforth we are to be kicked, pushed, squeezed, and ushered helplessly at the mercy of the pack. Our first duty is to prepare for the coming of the night, with its unknowable cold and its soul-depressing effects… Outside there has been a rapid transformation. The summer days of midnight suns are past, and the premonitory darkness of the long night is falling upon us with marvellous rapidity, for in this latitude the sun dips below the southern skies at midnight late in January. This dip increases, and sweeps more and more of the horizon every day until early in May, when the sun sets and remains below the horizon for seventy-one days.
We are at this moment as tired of each other’s company as we are of the cold monotony of the black night and of the unpalatable sameness of our food. Now and then we experience affectionate moody spells and then we try to inspire each other with a sort of superficial effervescence of good cheer, but such moods are short-lived. Physically, mentally, and perhaps morally, then, we are depressed, and from my past experience in the arctic I know that this depression will increase with the advance of the night, and far into the increasing dawn of next summer.
Days melt into weeks melt into months as the ship remains frozen and their spirits plummet deeper and deeper into despair. One man — the ship’s magnetician, Lieutenant Emile Danco — dies of heart failure. One of the sailors goes “to the verge of insanity.” But somehow, amid the icy blackness, they begin to do what the human spirit is made to do — find glimmers of hope, footholds of transcendence. In June, on the Southern winter solstice, Cook writes:
It is midnight and midwinter. Thirty-five long, dayless nights have passed. An equal number of dreary, cheerless days must elapse before we again see the glowing orb, the star of day, the sun has reached its greatest northern declination. We have thus passed the antarctic midnight. The winter solstice is to us the meridian day, the zenith of the night as much so as twelve o’clock is the meridian hour to those who dwell in the more favoured lands, in the temperate and tropical zones, where there is a regular day and night three hundred and sixty-five times in the yearly cycle. Yesterday was the darkest day of the night ; a more dismal sky and a more depressing scene could not be imagined, but to-day the outlook is a little brighter. The sky is lined with a few touches of orange, the frozen sea of black snow is made more cheerful by the high lights, with a sort of dull phosphorescent glimmer of the projecting peaks of ice. The temperature has suddenly fallen to -27.5 C. at noon, and the wind is coming out of the south with an easy force which has sent all the floating humidity of the past few days down, leaving an air clear and sharp.
And all the while, adrift in this cosmos of ice, they have no sense of where they are. So a wave of cheer sweeps over the men when the industrious captain sets out to observe a predicted eclipse Jupiter’s moons, by which he would set the ship’s chronometers and thus determine its position in this disorienting unexplored world.
By July, as the sun’s return approaches, the fringes of elation begin to tickle the mariners’ despairing souls. A subtle undertone of humor returns to Cook’s journal as he chronicles the renaissance of light and color to the world — those immeasurable glories we daily take for granted, but which shape our entire perceptual experience and much of our emotional reality:
After so much physical, mental, and moral depression, and after having our anticipations raised to a fever heat by the tempting increase of dawn at noon, it is needless to say that we are elated at the expectation of actual daylight once more. In these dreadful wastes of perennial ice and snow, man feels the force of the superstitions of past ages, and becomes willingly a worshipper of the eternal luminary. I am certain that if our preparations for greeting the returning sun were seen by other people, either civilised or savage, we would be thought disciples of heliolatry.
At eleven o’clock, every single man aboard the ship stakes out a position from which he is to greet the long-awaited light — some climb to the top of the masts, others perch on the ropes and spars, and the most adventurous set up hammocks on the surrounding icebergs. Cook describes the otherworldly spectacle of returning color, saturated by their months-long anticipation:
The northern sky at this time was nearly clear and clothed with the usual haze. A bright lemon glow was just changing into an eve glimmer of rose. At about half-past eleven a few stratus clouds spread over the rose, and under these there was a play in colours, too complex for my powers of description. The clouds were at first violet, but they quickly caught the train of colours which was spread over the sky beyond. There were spaces of gold, orange, blue, green, and a hundred harmonious blends, with an occasional strip like a band of polished silver to set the colours in bold relief. Precisely at twelve o’clock a fiery cloud separated, disclosing a bit of the upper rim of the sun.
All this time I had been absorbed by the pyrotechnic-like display, but now I turned about to see my companions and the glory of the new sea of ice, under the first light of the new day. Looking towards the sun the fields of snow had a velvety aspect in pink. In the opposite direction the pack was noticeably flushed with a soft lavender light. The whole scene changed in colour with every direction taken by the eye, and everywhere the ice seemed veiled by a gauzy atmosphere in which the colour appeared to rest. For several minutes my companions did not speak. Indeed, we could not at that time have found words with which to express the buoyant feeling of relief, and the emotion of the new life which was sent coursing through our arteries by the hammer-like beats of our enfeebled hearts.
On July 25, as the kaleidoscopic halo of the approaching sun finally crests into full sunrise, a kind of euphoric gladness washes over everything:
For three days we have had a glimpse of the sun, but it has appeared a thing of unreality. To-day we have seen the normal face. The sun at noon sailed along the northern sky above the horizon, a distance nearly equal to its own diameter. We thus have the actual sunrise, since heretofore we have only been able to see it when aided by the high polar refraction by which the sun is apparently lifted above its actual position, a distance equal to about three quarters its diameter.
What a peculiar effusion of sentiments the welcome face of the sun draws from our frozen fountains of life! How that great golden ball of cold fire incites the spirit to expressions of joy and gratitude! How it sets the tongue to pleasurable utterances, and the vocal chords to music! The sun is, indeed, the father of everything terrestrial. We have suddenly found a tonic in the air, an inspiration in the scenic splendours of the sea of ice, and a cheerfulness in each other’s companionship which make the death-dealing depression of the night a thing of the past.
In October, looking back on the harrowing experience, Cook composes a stunning passage that marries the poetic and the philosophical, using his icy entrapment as a lens on the universal human capacity for transcendence. He begins with a summation of the physical and psychological struggle:
The human system accommodates itself sluggishly and poorly to the strange conditions of the polar seasons, and we, too, are slow in adapting ourselves to the awful despondency of the long winter night. It is possible to close your eyes and befog your brain after a time, when all the world is enveloped in prolonged darkness, but this is not physiological adaptation; it is abnormal education. We have all felt the effects of the night severely. The death of Danco, and also the insanity of a sailor, are due to this withdrawal of light.
Echoing Keats’s views on depression and the mightiest consolation for a sunken heart, Cook adds:
Now that the light is brightening every day, we are as backward in recuperating as we were in establishing a balance of living comfort during the vanishing dawn of the early night. The present cheering influence of the rising sun invites labour and frivolity. The soothing light of the long evening twilights invites repose. The change from day to night and from night to day, so long absent from our outlook, is now beginning to lighten the burdens of the weary mind and the aching muscles; elevating the depressed spirits of hope, augmenting the dwarfed courage, and raising the moral perceptions to the great life battle of work before us.
A generation after Tchaikovsky wrote so beautifully about finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, Cook takes care to celebrate the elemental core of resilience that carried the crew to survival, bodily and spiritual — the refusal to let even this extreme bleakness of their surroundings and circumstances blind them to the beauty of the natural world, that ancient and limitless wellspring of the beauty of life itself:
We have talked only of the discomforts of the night, and of the misery. The long unbroken darkness has not totally blinded us to its few real charms which are strikingly brought out by the awful contrasts of heat and cold, of light and darkness. As lovers of Nature, we found many pleasures for the eye and the intellect in the flashing aurora australis, in the play of intense silvery moonlight over the mountainous seas of ice, and in the fascinating clearness of the starlight over the endless expanse of driven snows. There was a naked fierceness in the scenes, a boisterous wildness in the storms, a sublimity and silence in the still, cold dayless nights, which were too impressive to be entirely overshadowed by the soul-despairing depression. The attractions of the polar night are not to be written in the language of a people who live in a land of sunshine and of flowers. They are found in a roughness, ruggedness, and severity, appreciated only by men who are fated to live in similar regions, on the verge of another world, where animal sentiments take the place of the finer, but less realistic human passions.
Complement Through the First Antarctic Night — some of the most stunning nature writing ever composed, and a buoyant testament and tribute to the human spirit — with Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd’s masterpiece on mountains and Olivia Laing, one of the most poetic and insightful writers of our own time, on the wisdom of rivers, then revisit The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning — part scientific serenade, part feminist manifesto, part ecological clarion call to humanity, drawing on the world’s first collaborative environmental initiative to clean up the garbage that besmirched the polar wonderland so soon after Cook’s pioneering generation of explorers first set foot on it.
Source: Brain Pickings | 5 Sep 2019 | 12:27 pm(NZT)
“Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’ are not being honest,” Chinua Achebe observed in his superb forgotten conversation with James Baldwin. “If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.” A generation earlier, W.H. Auden distilled this abiding truth by asserting that “the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act.” This has been the eternal gauntlet of the artist in every country, culture, and civilization since the human hunger for truth and beauty first collided with the craving for power.
In 1947, some twenty latitude degrees south of Auden and 108 longitude degrees west of Achebe, the artist Diego Rivera (December 8, 1886–November 24, 1957) began painting what would become one of his most beautiful and elaborate murals, Dreams of a Sunday in the Alameda, in the dining hall of the Hotel del Prado — a new government establishment in Mexico City, set to open the following spring. The building was to be dedicated with a traditional sprinkling of holy water, complete with the great honor of a blessing by the archbishop of Mexico.
But just before the June ceremony, pious panic erupted over Rivera’s depiction of one of the historical figures populating the mural — the 19th-century Mexican poet, journalist, atheist, and progressive politician Ignacio Ramírez, portrayed holding a sign inscribed with his credo, Dios no existe — “God does not exist.” Catholic crowds mobbed the hotel and demanded that the text be removed. The archbishop refused to perform the ceremony unless this be done — a lamentable testament to Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that “faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly [while] the believer derives a sense of great superiority from this very cowardice itself.”
Rivera, an uncloseted atheist himself, resisted the bullying and refused to disfigure his art with dogma-driven censorship. “I will not remove one letter from it,” he declared, perhaps hinting at the absurdity of such panic staked on a two-letter word and the basic civil liberty it denotes.
Newspapers saw an opportunity to cater to the blamethirsty masses and launched a vicious attack against Rivera. A mob of thirty broke into the hotel and vandalized the mural, scraping the words no existe off with a knife, leaving Dios conspicuously unscathed, and indulging in the extra malignity of defacing another character in the mural — Rivera’s self-portrait as a young boy.
In that vicious cycle of the media feeding the masses feeding the media, newspapers applauded the assault.
The very evening of the attack, two blocks away, some of Mexico’s most eminent artists, writers, and intellectuals — including Rivera himself — were attending a dinner honoring the director of the capital’s Museum of Fine Arts, Fernando Gamboa. Just as Gamboa was delivering an address on the importance of protecting the freedom of expression from onslaughts of intolerance, word of the mural assault reached the gathering. About a hundred of these intellectual and creative visionaries rose and marched to the Hotel del Prado, then into the posh dining room, where some climbed on the tables with battlecries for the freedom of expression. Rivera himself stood up on a chair to ask for a pencil and, as soon as one was in his hand, simply began rewriting the inscription with absolute composure.
Still, the masses and their media handmaiden continued the attacks. Eventually, hotel management caved and boarded over the mural.
Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954), who had been united with Rivera in love, art, and politics for two decades, and who held such strong political ideals of her own that she changed her birthday to coincide with the start of the Mexican Revolution, was furious and determined to raise her country’s conscience.
First, she wrote to the director of the National Institute of Fine Art. When he failed to intercede, she sent a searing letter to the President of Mexico himself, Miguel Alemán Valdés, who had once been her high school classmate. The letter, composed on October 20, 1948, and included in Martha Zamora’s altogether wonderful little collection The Letters of Frida Kahlo: Cartas Apasionadas (public library), is a sublime model of an artist unafraid to use her personal voice for political change and a supreme testament to Kahlo’s character.
With her characteristic impassioned directness, Kahlo forgoes any formal salutation and addresses the president bluntly by name, before launching straight into the heart of her protest:
This letter is a protest of just indignation that I want to communicate to you, against a cowardly and humiliating crime that is being perpetrated in this country.
I want to communicate to you the tremendous historical responsibility that your government is assuming by letting a Mexican painter’s work, renowned worldwide as one of the highest examples of the Mexican Culture, be covered up, hidden from the eyes of this country’s people and from the international public because of SECTARIAN, DEMAGOGIC, AND MERCENARY reasons.
That type of crime against the culture of a country, against the right that every man has to express his ideas — those criminal attacks against freedom have only been committed in regimes like Hitler’s and are still being committed under Francisco Franco, and in the past, during the dark and negative age of the “Holy” Inquisition.
Lewis Thomas, champion of conscious punctuation, would have appreciated Kahlo’s exquisite placement of quotation marks to make her own views on religious dogma unambiguous.
She goes on to appeal to Alemán’s patriotic duty, exhorting him not to succumb to the pressures of corporate interests more interested in profit than in democracy:
It is not possible that you — who represent at this moment the will of the Mexican people, with democratic liberties gained… through the bloodshed of the people themselves — can allow a few investors, in complicity with a few ill-willed Mexicans, to cover up the words that tell the History of Mexico and the work of art of a Mexican citizen whom the civilized world recognizes as one of the most illustrious painters of our times.
Alemán had had a lustrous legal career before becoming the first civilian president follwoing a revolving door of revolutionary generals. Kahlo appeals to his background as a lawyer in recognizing that under no legal code can the vandalism of an artist’s work be allowed, reminding him that only recently he himself had issued a decree protecting artworks in public spaces. She then heightens the stakes of justice:
There is one thing that is not written in any code, and that is the cultural conscience of the people, which will not allow Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel to be converted into an apartment building.
For that reason I am addressing you, speaking simply and clearly, not as the wife of the painter Diego Rivera, but as an artist and citizen of Mexico.
In a passage of grave historical irony, for women were still not allowed to vote in Mexico and wouldn’t be until the first election after Kahlo’s death, she continues:
With the right that such citizenship grants me, I will ask you: Will you allow THE PRESIDENTIAL DECREE THAT YOU YOURSELF ISSUED to be stepped on by a few sectarian, clerical merchants? … As a Mexican citizen and, above all, as President of your people, will you permit History to be silenced — the word, the cultural action and the message of the genius of a Mexican artist to be silenced?
Will you permit public freedom of expression and opinion, the means of progress of every free people, to be destroyed?
All this in the name of stupidity, narrow-mindedness, chicanery, and the BETRAYAL OF DEMOCRACY?
I beg you to give yourself an honest answer about the historical role you have as the leader of Mexico in an issue of such significance.
I am laying forth this problem before your conscience as a citizen of a democratic country.
By standing up against this injustice, she tells him, he would be sending a strong democratic message not only to his people but to the rest of the world — proof that Mexico is a free country and “not the ignorant and savage nation of the Pancho Villas.” In a sentiment the poet Wendell Berry would echo with chilling poetic precision in his poem “Questionnaire” many decades later, Kahlo follows the inescapable causal thread from the smallest failures of tolerance and justice to the grandest and grimmest crimes against humanity:
If you do not act as an authentic Mexican at this critical moment, by defending your own decrees and rights, then let the science- and history-book burning start; let the works of art be destroyed with rocks of fire; let free men get kicked out of the country; let torture in, as well as prisons and concentration camps. I can assure you that very soon with very little effort, we will have a flaming “made-in-Mexico” fascist regime.
Alemán, having built his campaign on the importance of education and the arts but having made his fortune from corporate interests, chose not to intervene. Newspaper attacks continued with mob-inspired ferocity. Holding fast to his integrity and leaning on Kahlo’s unfaltering support, Rivera refused to back down, telling a reporter:
To affirm “God does not exist,” I do not have to hide behind Don Ignacio Ramírez; I am an atheist and I consider religions to be a form of collective neurosis. I am not an enemy of the Catholics, as I am not an enemy of the tuberculars, the myopic or the paralytics; you cannot be an enemy of the sick, only their friend in order to help them cure themselves.
A year later, Kahlo would write in her stunning word-portrait of Rivera:
His words make one tremendously uncomfortable because they are live and true. His raw concepts weaken or disorient those who listen to him because they don’t agree with the already established morals; thus, they always break the bark to let new blossoms come out; they wound to let new cells grow.
The hotel was destroyed by the massive 1985 Mexico City earthquake, but Rivera’s mural was salvaged. It now lives in a dedicated museum across the street, next to Alameda Park.
Complement with Iris Murdoch — another woman of rare vision and courage — on art as a force of resistance to tyranny and Albert Camus on the courage to create authentically despite policing forces, then revisit this lovely illustrated biography of Kahlo and her touching letter of solidarity and support to the discomposed Georgia O’Keeffe.
Source: Brain Pickings | 4 Sep 2019 | 9:42 am(NZT)
“Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship,” Seneca counseled two millennia ago in his timeless meditation on true and false friendship, “but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul.”
I often ponder friendship — that crowning glory of life — and the strain of protecting its sanctity from the commodification of the word “friend” in this age of social media. Adrienne Rich exposed the naked heart of it in her bittersweet assertion that “we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.” I side with astronomer Maria Mitchell in that the few who do accompany us intimately along the walk of life shape who we become, and with poet and philosopher David Whyte in that “all friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness.”
But what, really, is the meaning and measure of friendship? Like most things of beauty, it is slippery to define yet deeply felt. Paradoxically, devastatingly, it is often recognized most acutely through its sudden loss. It lives most intimately not in the grand gestures but in the littlest things that add up, in the final calculus of life, to the bigness of any true bond.
That is what children’s book author Sandol Stoddard and illustrator Jacqueline Chwast explore with immense sweetness and sensitivity in the 1965 gem I Like You (public library) — one of the tenderest and most touching presents I’ve ever gotten, from one of my dearest friends, and the platonic-love counterpart to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s classic romantic-love sonnet “How Do I Love Thee?”
Stoddard — who wrote more than twenty children’s books and the first major book advocating for human-centric end-of-life care, lived to be 90, and died the mother of five children, ten grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren — was once asked to identify the underlying theme across all of her books.
She answered simply, “Love.”
And love — that sweetest, most knotless and untroubled kind — is what radiates from these simple, surprisingly profound verse-like meditations on friendship, illustrated with the kindred sensibility of Chwast’s simple yet richly expressive black-and-white line drawings.
Published the same year as Love Is Walking Hand in Hand — that charming catalogue of little moments that define love, channeled by Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the rest of the Peanuts — the book confers upon friendship the delight and dignity we tend to reserve, foolishly so, for romantic love only.
More than half a century later, I Like You remains a timeless treasure, as delicious to give and as it is to receive. Complement it with Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on losing a friend and Kahlil Gibran on the building blocks of meaningful connection, then revisit two other charming picture-books about friendship from the same era: Ruth Krauss’s infinitely delightful I’ll Be You and You Be Me, illustrated by the young Maurice Sendak, and Janice May Urdy’s clever reverse-psychology gem Let’s Be Enemies, also illustrated by Sendak, just as he was beginning to dream up Where the Wild Things Are.
Source: Brain Pickings | 3 Sep 2019 | 6:06 am(NZT)
Six years after Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) composed her epoch-making 1792 treatise Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which became the foundation of what we today call feminism, she fell in love with the radical political philosopher William Godwin. The two forged the original marriage of equals and conceived a daughter — future Frankenstein author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
Ten days after giving birth to baby Mary, Wollstonecraft died at only thirty eight, leaving behind the foundation for the next two centuries of humanity’s model of gender equality, and a half-orphaned baby daughter who would come to know her mother through her writing.
In the final years of her life, Wollstonecraft had begun working on Maria; or The Wrongs of Woman (free ebook | public library) — a philosophical novel intended as a sequel to Vindication and laced with strong autobiographical strands, exploring subjects like slavery, class, marriage, motherhood, female desire, dignity, and the wellspring of agency. Unlike the astonishing rapidity with which Wollstonecraft the political philosopher had composed her humanist treatises, Wollstonecraft the literary artist struggled to complete the novel, doing more research for it than for any of her nonfiction. Godwin would later recall that “she was sensible how arduous a task it is to produce a truly excellent novel; and she roused her faculties to grapple with it.”
Before she could finish the manuscript, Wollstonecraft died of complications from childbirth — a devastatingly common killer of women for the vast majority of human history. Godwin published the novel a year later, as part of a collection of Wollstonecraft’s posthumous works. Their daughter, who learned to read partly by tracing the letters on Wollstonecraft’s gravestone, would spend the rest of her life trying to get to know her mother through her work, of which Maria was in many ways the most personal.
One particular passage from the seventh chapter, chillingly prescient given Wollstonecraft’s fate, would endure for Mary as the sage and empowering life-advice her mother never lived to give her:
Death may snatch me from you, before you can weigh my advice, or enter into my reasoning: I would then, with fond anxiety, lead you very early in life to form your grand principle of action, to save you from the vain regret of having, through irresolution, let the spring-tide of existence pass away, unimproved, unenjoyed. — Gain experience — ah! gain it — while experience is worth having, and acquire sufficient fortitude to pursue your own happiness; it includes your utility, by a direct path. What is wisdom too often, but the owl of the goddess, who sits moping in a desolated heart.
In consonance with E.E. Cummings’s invigorating wisdom on the courage to be yourself, Wollstonecraft adds:
Always appear what you are, and you will not pass through existence without enjoying its genuine blessings, love and respect.
Complement with Maya Angelou’s letter to the daughter she never had and W.E.B. Du Bois’s magnificent life-advice to the daughter he did have, then revisit Wollstonecraft on loneliness and the courage of unwavering affection, her stirring love letters to and from Godwin, and her moral primer for children, illustrated by William Blake.
Source: Brain Pickings | 29 Aug 2019 | 12:00 pm(NZT)
“Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?” the poet Marie Howe asked in her sublime ode to our belonging with the universe.
My dear friend Emily Levine, who awakened my love of poetry long ago, entered the final stretch of her life with an uncommonly beautiful orientation toward death. Beneath the inescapable sorrow of impending non-being was a buoyancy of being springing from her Augustinian excitement to return her stardust to the universe that made it — to belong once again with all the matter that ever was, with every other creature who ever lived and died, with raven and river and rock. She wanted to go into the earth not in a casket and all its attendant human pomp but in a mushroom burial suit that would slowly reweave “her” atoms into the great web of life.
It may be one of the great bittersweetnesses of human life that nothing brings that vitalizing sense of belonging into the centerstage of consciousness more clearly than death. This has been the case across epochs and cultures and civilizations, and this is what ecologist and philosopher David Abram explores in The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (public library) — his wonderful inquiry into the ancient wisdom of nature, witnessed and reverenced in the traditions of various human cultures across the span of millennia and meridians.
In a testament to Robert Macfarlane’s poetically phrased observation that “into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save,” Abram writes:
Our strictly human heavens and hells have only recently been abstracted from the sensuous world that surrounds us, from this more-than-human realm that abounds in its own winged intelligences and cloven-hoofed powers. For almost all oral cultures, the enveloping and sensuous earth remains the dwelling place of both the living and the dead. The “body” — whether human or otherwise — is not yet a mechanical object in such cultures, but is a magical entity, the mind’s own sensuous aspect, and at death the body’s decomposition into soil, worms, and dust can only signify the gradual reintegration of one’s ancestors and elders into the living landscape, from which all, too, are born.
Each indigenous culture elaborates this recognition of metamorphosis in its own fashion, taking its clues from the particular terrain in which it is situated. Often the invisible atmosphere that animates the visible world — the subtle presence that circulates both within us and between all things — retains within itself the spirit or breath of the dead person until the time when that breath will enter and animate another visible body — a bird, or a deer, or a field of wild grain. Some cultures may burn, or “cremate,” the body in order to more completely return the person, as smoke, to the swirling air, while that which departs as flame is offered to the sun and stars, and that which lingers as ash is fed to the dense earth. Still other cultures may dismember the body, leaving certain parts in precise locations where they will likely be found by condors, or where they will be consumed by mountain lions or by wolves, thus hastening the re-incarnation of that person into a particular animal realm within the landscape. Such examples illustrate simply that death, in tribal cultures, initiates a metamorphosis wherein the person’s presence does not “vanish” from the sensible world (where would it go?) but rather remains as an animating force within the vastness of the landscape, whether subtly, in the wind, or more visibly, in animal form, or even as the eruptive, ever to be appeased, wrath of the volcano.
Nearly a century after Henry Beston contemplated difference, belonging, and the ample superiorities of non-human creatures, insisting that “in a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear,” Abram adds:
“Ancestor worship,” in its myriad forms, then, is ultimately another mode of attentiveness to nonhuman nature; it signifies not so much an awe or reverence of human powers, but rather a reverence for those forms that awareness takes when it is not in human form, when the familiar human embodiment dies and decays to become part of the encompassing cosmos.
This cycling of the human back into the larger world ensures that the other forms of experience that we encounter — whether ants, or willow trees, or clouds — are never absolutely alien to ourselves. Despite the obvious differences in shape, and ability, and style of being, they remain at least distantly familiar, even familial. It is, paradoxically, this perceived kinship or consanguinity that renders the difference, or otherness, so eerily potent.
Complement The Spell of the Sensuous with evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis on the interleaving of life across time, space, and species and pioneering naturalist John Muir on the transcendent interconnectedness of the universe, then revisit Mary Oliver on mortality and the key to living with presence.
Source: Brain Pickings | 27 Aug 2019 | 10:00 pm(NZT)
“The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not,” the astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diary at the apogee of her improbable and pathbreaking career as she was reflecting on the art of finding one’s purpose. A century later, in his wonderful advice to young artists, E.E. Cummings offered: “To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.” This, of course, is the perennial battle of every creative person in any field — what James Baldwin called “the artist’s struggle for integrity” — and it has played out again and again on the scale of generations and civilizations, fought by every visionary creator, from Sappho and Shakespeare to Cummings and Baldwin. It is a battle won only with the courage to create rather than cater, to unflaggingly buoy one’s singular vision and sensibility against the billowing tide of convention and conformity. And so, in any body of work marked by true originality, creativity and courage are inextricably linked — for creativity without courage dissolves into fruitless daydreaming, and courage without creativity festers into the most insufferable hubris.
All of that, and so much more, is what musician Ben Folds — an artist of convention-breaking vision and unrelenting creative courage — explores in his lovely memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons (public library), which radiates his goofy, brilliant, genuine, deeply empathetic spirit, marked by the kind of amiable self-consciousness with which unboastful genius often shades itself from the harsh stage-glare of attention.
Even the title bespeaks Folds’s disarming self-deprecation, which makes the book so pleasurable and uncontrived: The lessons, of course, are not cheap — they are costly learnings from innumerable tribulations, relayed with unselfconscious sincerity and ample humor; they are the un-autotuned record of hard-earned, messy triumphs of maturity and artistic integrity; they are the life-tested, vitalizing assurance that such triumphs await anyone talented enough and willing enough to risk humiliation, heartbreak, poverty, endless toil, and repeated rejection by the establishment for the sake of turning an improbable vision into something that changes the artistic landscape of reality.
In the tradition of visionaries relaying a symbolic childhood experience that illuminated their creative path — Pablo Neruda and the hand through the fence, Albert Einstein and the compass, Patti Smith and the swan with the blue sail — Folds opens with the first dream he remembers, dreamt when he was three:
It was set in one of those humid Southern dusks I knew as a kid. The kind of night where I’d look forward to the underside of the pillow cooling off, so I could turn it over and get something fresher to rest my head on for a good minute or so. The old folks described this sort of weather as “close.” In my dream, a group of kids and I were playing in the backyard of my family’s home in Greensboro, North Carolina. Fireflies — “lightnin’ bugs,” as the same old folks called them — lit up in a dazzling succession and sparkled around the backyard. Somehow, I was the only one who could see these lightnin’ bugs, but if I pointed them out, or caught them in a jar, then the others got to see them too. And it made them happy. This was one of those movie-like dreams and I recall one broad, out-of-body shot panning past a silhouetted herd of children, with me out in front. There was joyous laughter and a burnt sienna sky dotted with flickering insects that no one else could see until I showed them. And I remember another, tighter shot of children’s faces lighting up as I handed them glowing jars with fireflies I’d captured for them. I felt needed and talented at something.
At its most basic, making art is about following what’s luminous to you and putting it in a jar, to share with others.
Artists, Folds reflects, are as obsessed with the pursuit of luminosity as they are animated by the irrepressible impulse to share the light with others — a testament to Annie Dillard’s insistence that a generosity of spirit is the mightiest animating force of art. He writes:
As we speed past moments in a day, we want to give form to what we feel, what was obvious but got lost in the shuffle. We want to know that someone else noticed that shape we suspected was hovering just beyond our periphery. And we want that shape, that flicker of shared life experience, captured in a bottle, playing up on a big screen, gracing our living room wall, or singing to us from a speaker. It reminds us where we have been, what we have felt, who we are, and why we are here.
We all see something blinking in the sky at some point, but it’s a damn lot of work to put it in the bottle. Maybe that’s why only some of us become artists. Because we’re obsessive enough, idealistic enough, disciplined enough, or childish enough to wade through whatever is necessary, dedicating life to the search for these elusive flickers, above all else.
Artists, he argues, are not inventors but uncoverers of truth and beauty — people who “point out things that were always there, always dotting the sky,” making them visible for all to delight in. He adds:
My job is to see what’s blinking out of the darkness and to sharpen the skill required to put it in a jar for others to see. Those long hours of practice, the boring scales, the wading through melodies that are dead behind the eyes in search of the ones with heartbeats. And all that demoralizing failure along the way. The criticism from within, and from others, and all the unglamorous stuff that goes along with the mastering of a craft. It’s all for that one moment of seeing a jar light up a face.
But for Folds, born into a working-class family in the South, where it was far more common and condoned to become a contractor than a composer, the creative spark might have been extinguished early on, were it not for his mother. Having grown up in an orphanage and marked by a rebellious creative streak of her own, she became “a defense attorney of sorts” for her son’s intense creative leanings. An unusual child, obsessed with music and astronomy, hyper-focused and unable to cope with interruption, young Ben was spending eight hours a day blissfully splayed before the record player, absorbing every note. His grandmother found this supremely worrisome and sent for a child psychologist, who deemed Ben developmentally challenged and recommended that he be held back a year or two in school. His mother flatly dismissed the diagnosis, sensing an uncommon gift in her child. Instead, she let him spend his days at the record player, began reading to him every night for years, and started him in first grade a year early. Folds reflects:
She saw my flunking of the doctor’s test as proof of my imagination. I reminded her of herself.
His childhood brought other lessons from everyday life that would later ferment into the essence of his artistic ethos. Peppering the politeness-culture of the South were some bigots of especially deplorable caliber, whom Folds could barely stomach encountering. But those encounters became testing ground for the greatest mark of the artist — empathy. (Lest we forget, the word “empathy” only entered the modern lexicon a century ago, to describe the imaginative act of projecting oneself into a work of art.) A generation after Carl Sagan considered what it takes to move beyond us vs. them and bridge conviction with compassion, Folds writes:
By dignifying even the most despicable character as a human being, by offering them what empathy we can manage, we also hold them accountable for their choices. You can’t really convincingly condemn a monster for being a monster. He’s just being the best monster he can be. Sure, it’s easier to make a caricature of someone you don’t want to relate to, but the more lines you can step over, the closer you can get to a subject, the better off you’ll be — and the more complex and effective your songwriting will be. From the filthy rich to the filthy minded, I learned to meet people one at a time.
Folds reflects on this lesson, which later shaped his songwriting:
Stand in as many pairs of shoes as you can manage, even ones you consider reprehensible or repulsive — even if it’s just for a moment. If you’re going to be a tourist, be a respectful one. Observe, report, imagine, invent, have fun with, but never write “down” to a character or their point of view, because everyone is the most important person in the world — at least to that one person… Position yourself upon a bedrock of honesty and self-knowledge, so that your writing comes from your own unique perspective. Know where you stand and what your flaws are. Know thyself. Then you can spin all kinds of shit and all the tall tales you like. It’s art.
Finally, empathy and perspective are everything, and neither should be taken for granted. After all, there’s always someone out there who thinks you’re the monster. Remember that the ground beneath your feet can always shift and that it should always be questioned.
This question of how to anchor oneself firmly to the “bedrock of honesty and self-knowledge” is fundamental to the quest for finding one’s creative purpose and direction, or what Folds calls “artistic voice.” He writes:
By artistic voice, I’m referring to one’s artistic thumbprint — the idiosyncratic stuff that makes an artist unique. It’s not a precise science, and finding it is always a painful process. I think it has to be about subtraction. It’s not a matter of cooking up a persona or style so much as it is stripping away what’s covering up the essence, what was already there.
In consonance with the great neurologist Oliver Sacks’s insight into the crucial role of imitation in the development of originality, Folds writes:
Sometimes it’s just growing out of the imitation phase. Most artists have a period where they sound like their favorite musician, and once they’ve learned from that they can shed that effort. Sometimes the subtraction is about casting off a misconception about how music is actually performed, or how art is made. No matter what your particular subtraction is, the artistic voice you will discover will ideally be something you haven’t seen or heard before.
Echoing Nietzsche’s insistence that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Folds adds:
That impossible search for the voice is, in the end, about being yourself. It’s self-honesty. And in those moments that the artistic voice shows its face, it’s hard to imagine what was so difficult about finding it. But it is difficult getting there. Added to the challenge of looking for something for which you have no prior example, once you find it, you’re the only one who will never truly see what’s special about it. What an artist has to offer is obvious to just about anyone else but the artist him- or herself. It’s not terribly profound or abstract to say that the way we hear our speaking voice, reverberating in our own skull, is not the way we sound to others. We never get a chance to meet ourselves the way others have. It’s the same with the artistic voice. It’s something you feel in the dark.
A Dream About Lightning Bugs is a delightful read in its entirety, drawing on elements of Folds’s life — the unbidden generosity of a piano elder who spotted rare talent in a teenage rascal, the innumerable stupidies of young love, the perspective-calibrating birth of his children, near-death experiences involving an airplane, a mugging, and a dental catastrophe — to glean rich, unpontifically offered lessons on the life of art and the art of life. (The audiobook is especially delightful, narrated by Folds himself, adorned with some perfectly placed sound effects and music samples, and featuring a charming surprise cameo by Amanda Palmer.)
For a necessary counterpoint, see poet Robert Penn Warren’s admonition against the problematic notion of “finding yourself,” then revisit Hermann Hesse on how to find your destiny, Beethoven’s advice on being an artist, penned in a letter to a little girl who had sent him fan mail, and Amanda Palmer on how to keep on making art when life unmakes you.
Source: Brain Pickings | 23 Aug 2019 | 8:08 am(NZT)
A century before the trailblazing photographer Berenice Abbott created her arresting visualizations of scientific processes and phenomena, the French mathematician, science writer, and liberal journalist Amédée Guillemin (July 5, 1826–January 2, 1893) enlisted gifted artists in illustrating his wildly popular science books. In consonance with the pioneering 19th-century information designer Emma Willard’s conviction that knowledge is most readily received when “addressed to the eye,” Guillemin understood that the fundamental laws of nature appear too remote and slippery to the human mind. To make them comprehensible, he had to make their elegant abstract mathematics tangible and captivating for the eye.
He had to make physics beautiful.
Although Guillemin published prolifically on many distinct scientific subjects — the Sun and the Moon, volcanoes and earthquakes, railways and the telephone, the nature of sound and light — his magnum opus was the comprehensive 1868 physics textbook Les phénomènes de la physique, which became the backbone of his five-volume 1882 popular encyclopedia Le monde physique, or The Physical World.
Featuring 31 colored lithographs, 80 black-and-white plates, and 2,012 illustrated diagrams, the encyclopedia owes much of its success to this beguiling visual presentation of the processes and phenomena Guillemin elucidates: gravity, sound, light, heat, magnetism, electricity, meteors.
The most arresting illustrations, many of them preserved by the Wellcome Collection, were done by the Parisian intaglio printer and engraver René Henri Digeon, based on sketches by the physicist Jean Thiébault Silbermann, who made the first measurements in thermochemistry.
Reminiscent of Goethe’s graphically daring diagrams of color perception, the psychedelic images depict the spectral distribution of color and the behavior of light as it passes through various materials, ranging from a bird’s feather to a tourmaline-coated crystal.
Said to have inspired Jules Verne, Les phénomènes de la physique enchanted masses of lay readers and modeled for generations of scientists an engaging new way of presenting their work. On the borderline between these two worlds stood the scientifically voracious but formally untrained Winifred Lockyear, wife of Norman Lockyear — the world’s first professor of astrophysics, discoverer of helium, and founder of the journal Nature. In the final years of her life, Lockyear set about translating Guillemin’s masterwork. It was published in 1877 under the title The Forces of Nature: a Popular Introduction to the Study of Physical Phenomena (public domain) — her legacy to the English-speaking world.
Lockyear took especial care to preserve Guillemin’s spellbinding prose. True to the expository sensibility of his century and to the great literary tradition of his country, he approached his science books with a philosopher-poet’s sensitivity to the underlying human hungers driving our search for knowledge. He writes in the preface:
From time immemorial the mind of man has felt a strong desire to fathom the laws which govern the various phenomena of Nature, and to understand her in her most secret work in short, to make itself master of her forces, in order to render them as useful to material as to intellectual and moral life; such is the noble undertaking to which the greatest minds have devoted themselves. For too long did man wander in this eager and often dangerous pursuit of truth: beginning with fanciful interpretations in his infancy, he by degrees substituted hypothesis for fable; and then, at length, understanding the true method, that of experimental observation, he has been able, after innumerable efforts, to give in imperishable formulae, the most general idea of the principal phenomena of the physical world.
Half a century after Schopenhauer contemplated the essential difference between how art and science illuminate the world, Guillemin subverts the common stereotype of art belonging to the passions and science to the cold intellect, and adds:
In order thus to place itself in communion with Nature, our intelligence draws from two springs, both bright and pure, and equally fruitful — Art and Science: but it is by different, we may say even by opposite, methods that these springs at which man may satisfy his thirst for the ideals, which constitute his nobleness and greatness, the love of the beautiful, truth and justice, have been reached. The artist abstains from dulling the brilliancy of his impressions by a cold analysis; the man of science, on the contrary, in presence of Nature, endeavours only to strip off the magnificent and poetical surroundings, to dissect it, so to speak, in order to dive into all the hidden secrets ; but his enjoyment is not less than that of the artist, when he has succeeded in reconstructing, in its intelligible whole, this world of phenomena of which his power of abstraction has enabled him to investigate the laws.
We must not seek then in the study of physical phenomena, from a purely scientific point of view, the fascination of poetical or picturesque description; on the other hand, such a study is eminently fit to satisfy that invincible tendency of our minds, which urges us on to understand the reason of things — that fatality which dominates us, but which it is possible for us to make use of to the free and legitimate satisfaction of our faculties.
Complement with French artist and astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s stunning astronomical drawings from the same era and Goethe’s theory of color and emotion, conceived half a century earlier, then revisit artist Vivian Torrence’s enchanting depictions of scientific phenomena, created a century later.
Source: Brain Pickings | 21 Aug 2019 | 1:55 pm(NZT)
“When one is considering the universe,” Ella Frances Sanders observed in her lovely illustrated celebration of wonder, “it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.” Somehow, on our tiny beautiful planet adrift in a vast unfeeling universe, we have managed to create myriad causes for weeping. “Our life has become so mechanized and electronified,” the Hungarian journalist and László Feleki wrote with astounding prescience half a century ago, “that one needs some kind of an elixir to make it bearable at all. And what is this elixir if not humor?” Mechanization is but one way to dehumanize life, but there are others, grimmer, far worthier of weeping and more savaging of sanity.
Even in the face of those — or perhaps especially in the face of those — the ability to laugh stands as a vital protection of sanity and a mighty form of resistance to inhumanity. That is what the great Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl (March 26, 1905–September 2, 1997) attests to in his extraordinary 1946 psychological memoir Man’s Search for Meaning (public library) — one of the profoundest and most vitalizing books ever written, abounding with wisdom on how to persevere through the darkest times and what it means to live with presence.
Reflecting on the inner acts of rebellion by which prisoners maintained their dignity, sanity, and zest for life in the concentration camp — making art in secret, reading smuggled books — Frankl writes:
Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.
He recounts how he awakened a friend to the life-saving value of humor — an acquired skill, like any art — through what is essentially a disciplined implementation of creative prompts:
I practically trained a friend of mine who worked next to me on the building site to develop a sense of humor. I suggested to him that we would promise each other to invent at least one amusing story daily, about some incident that could happen one day after our liberation. He was a surgeon and had been an assistant on the staff of a large hospital. So I once tried to get him to smile by describing to him how he would be unable to lose the habits of camp life when he returned to his former work. On the building site (especially when the supervisor made his tour of inspection) the foreman encouraged us to work faster by shouting: “Action! Action!” I told my friend, “One day you will be back in the operating room, performing a big abdominal operation. Suddenly an orderly will rush in announcing the arrival of the senior surgeon by shouting, ‘Action! Action!’”
Telescoping from the particular to the universal, Frankl considers how his experience in the concentration camp illuminates a broader consolation for the human struggle:
The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.
To find humor in the grimmest of circumstances is not only a survival tool but a supreme act of creativity and an assertion of the most unassailable personal liberty. Frankl writes:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful. An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature. But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces.
Complement the indispensable Man’s Search for Meaning with Frankl on seeing the best in each other — another triumph of creativity and spiritual strength — and the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on the art of living, then revisit the Polish painter Józef Czapski on how Proust saved his soul in a Soviet labor camp, Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how one book saved young women’s lives, and the stirring letter on suffering and transcendence Oscar Wilde penned in prison.
Source: Brain Pickings | 20 Aug 2019 | 1:00 pm(NZT)
“I am because my little dog knows me,” Gertrude Stein wrote. Who hasn’t found in the eyes of a beloved dog the most generous mirror, an infinity of love, and that soulful look that says, “If I could I would bite every sorrow until it fled”? And who hasn’t known the sorrow — the biting, savaging sorrow — of seeing that look fade to vacant black?
Nearly two centuries before John Updike composed his heartbreaking poem about the death of a beloved dog, another poet — George Gordon Byron, better known as Lord Byron (January 22, 1788–April 19, 1824) — bewailed another dog in verses that endure as the most heartfelt this Romantic bad boy ever composed.
At age fifteen, Byron acquired a Newfoundland puppy named Boatswain. Later a man of towering talent, reckless passions, and limited sympathies — unlike his equally gifted Romantic peer John Keats, a devoted lover of boundless compassion for humanity — Byron formed a bond of uncharacteristic loyalty and pure-hearted affection with his dog. (Qualities, to be sure, characteristic of the human-canine bond in general, but uncharacteristic of Byron’s human attachments.) So touching was his love for Boatswain that Elizabeth Bridget Pigot — a neighbor who took the teenage Byron under her wing like an elder sister and encouraged his literary ambitions — immortalized it in a lyrical hand-sewn watercolor book she titled The Wonderful History of Lord Byron and His Dog.
Just as the twenty-year-old aspiring poet was completing his studies at Trinity College after years as a middling and distracted student, Boatswain contracted rabies. Desperate to nurse him back to life and unaware of the deadly course of the disease — the rabies vaccine was still a century away — Byron fed his beloved dog with bare hands and tenderly wiped the frothing drool from his muzzle during seizures.
That November, during one such seizure, Boatswain died in his arms. Byron was devastated. “He expired in a state of madness, after suffering much,” the poet wrote to a friend, “yet retained all the gentleness of his nature to the last, never attempting to do the least injury to any one near him.” And then, inconsolable, he added: “I have lost every thing except Old Murray” — his publisher.
Byron coped the best way an artist copes. He composed a stirring elegy to be carved onto the headstone above Boatswain’s grave, which today stands at Newstead Abbey larger than the poet’s own. Overlooked in his lifetime and included two centuries later in Rod Preece’s excellent anthology Awe for the Tiger, Love for the Lamb: A Chronicle of Sensibility to Animals (public library), it foreshadows the superior regard Byron would always reserve for dogs over humans, later writing in his celebrated narrative poem Don Juan:
dogs! or Men! (for I flatter you in saying
That ye are dogs — your betters far)
More than that, the epitaph for Boatswain radiates the universals of the human-canine bond: the way we tend to see the best of ourselves in our dogs, the sweetness of adoration and loyalty so deep, the all-coloring sorrow of losing so guileless and unconditionally loving a companion.
EPITAPH TO A DOG
Near this spot
Are deposited the Remains
Who possessed Beauty
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
And all the Virtues of Man
Without his Vices.
The Price, which would be unmeaning flattery
If inscribed over Human Ashes,
Is but a just tribute to the Memory of
“Boatswain,” a Dog
Who was born at Newfoundland,
And died in Newstead Abbey,
Nov. 18th, 1808.
When some proud son of man returns to earth,
Unknown by glory, but upheld by birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And stories urns record that rests below.
When all is done, upon the tomb is seen,
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his master’s own,
Who labors, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonored falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the soul he held on earth —
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.
Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power —
Who knows thee well must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy smiles hypocrisy, thy words deceit!
By nature vile, ennoble but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye, who perchance behold this simple urn,
Pass on — it honors none you wish to mourn.
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one — and here he lies.
Couple with E.B. White’s playful and poignant obituary for his beloved dog Daisy, then revisit artist Maria Kalman’s illustrated love letter to our canine companions and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on what dogs teach us about accessing the hidden layers of reality.
Source: Brain Pickings | 19 Aug 2019 | 1:00 pm(NZT)
“To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water,” the great marine biologist and environmental hero Rachel Carson wrote in her 1937 masterpiece Undersea — a lyrical journey to what Walt Whitman had called “the world below the brine,” a world then more mysterious than the Moon — as she pioneered a new aesthetic of poetic prose illuminating science and the natural world.
Nearly a century later, Robert Macfarlane — a rare writer of Carson’s sensibility, who rises to the level of enchanter — extends a lyrical invitation to a vicarious journey into another mysterious earthly universe of all-pervading darkness with Underland: A Deep Time Journey (public library).
We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet. Look up on a cloudless night and you might see the light from a star thousands of trillions of miles away, or pick out the craters left by asteroid strikes on the moon’s face. Look down and your sight stops at topsoil, tarmac, toe. I have rarely felt as far from the human realm as when only ten yards below it, caught in the shining jaws of a limestone bedding plane first formed on the floor of an ancient sea.
Enshrined in the layers of the underland, in the layered dust of cultures and epochs, are traces of our abiding need for shelter and sacrament, our age-old hunger for knowledge encoded in the stone tablets of dead languages and the rusted instruments of annealed curiosity, radiating a reminder that we are creatures not only of place but of time. Plunging into the time-warping wonderland beneath the surface through the riven trunk of an old ash tree, Macfarlane writes:
Beneath the ash tree, a labyrinth unfurls.
Down between roots to a passage of stone that deepens steeply into the earth. Colour depletes to greys, browns, black. Cold air pushes past. Above is solid rock, utter matter. The surface is scarcely thinkable… Direction is difficult to keep. Space is behaving strangely — and so too is time. Time moves differently here in the underland. It thickens, pools, flows, rushes, slows.
The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful.
Shelter (memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives).
Yield (information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions).
Dispose (waste, trauma, poison, secrets).
Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.
Echoing Oliver Sacks’s lovely case for nature’s beauty as a lens on deep time and the interleaving of the universe, Macfarlane writes:
“Deep time” is the chronology of the underland. Deep time is the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years. Deep time is kept by stone, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates. Deep time opens into the future as well as the past. The Earth will fall dark when the sun exhausts its fuel in around 5 billion years. We stand with our toes, as well as our heels, on a brink.
But for all its consolations, such a dilation of the telescopic perspective can be deeply disquieting in alerting us to our own helpless insignificance — motes of matter in a blink of time, adrift amid the unfeeling emptiness of pure spacetime. It takes especial existential courage to inhabit this physical fact with unflinching psychic agency, with the insistence that however brief our earthly time may be, however small our impact relative to the vast scales of time and civilization, we can still leave a worthy mark on an ancient world. Macfarlane cautions against the defeatist cowardice of taking the scale of deep time for permission to squander our precious allotment:
We should resist such inertial thinking; indeed, we should urge its opposite – deep time as a radical perspective, provoking us to action not apathy. For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking. At its best, a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us.
Long ago, as Johannes Kepler — the first true astrophysicist — was revolutionizing our understanding of the universe, he envisioned the Earth as an ensouled body that has digestion, that suffers illness, that inhales and exhales like a living organism. He was ridiculed for it. Three centuries later, Rachel Carson made ecology a household word. Picking up where Kepler and Carson left off, Macfarlane adds:
When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.
To probe the mysteries of this largely unfathomed underland, Macfarlane explores mines and railway tunnels, catacombs and particle colliders, seeks answers from a spectrum of scientists and indigenous cultures, contemplates the relationship between landscape and language, and draws on the work of pioneers like forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, who uncovered the astonishing science of how trees communicate, and evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, who championed the interconnectedness of life across time, space, and species.
Perhaps the underland’s richest and most dimensional lens on deep time — and space, and self — comes from some of Earth’s most poorly understood yet most essential organisms: fungi. Besides serving as a kind of central nervous system for the forest, fungi account for a quarter of Earth’s biomass and furnish the world’s largest organism — the colossal honeycomb fungus of Oregon’s Blue Mountains, dwarfing the blue whale with its mycelial span of nearly four square miles and its girth of two and a half miles. Four decades after Lewis Thomas wrote about how a jellyfish and a sea slug illuminate the mystery of the self — the most exquisite thing I’ve ever read on the subject, from one of the most poetic science writers who ever lived — Macfarlane draws kindred revelations from the underdog kingdom:
All taxonomies crumble, but fungi leave many of our fundamental categories in ruin. Fungi thwart our usual senses of what is whole and singular, of what defines an organism, and of what descent or inheritance means. They do strange things to time, because it is not easy to say where a fungus ends or begins, when it is born or when it dies. To fungi, our world of light and air is their underland, into which they tentatively ascend here and there, now and then.
Masters at the long view of survival, fungi offer a model of unparalleled grit — they were among the first organisms to return to the site of atomic devastation in Hiroshima and their soil presence is an indicator of a forest’s resilience. With an eye to the wisdom of the more-than-human world, to which native cultures have been attuned for millennia and modern science is only just beginning to awaken, Macfarlane considers how fungi challenge us to reconceive some of our basic human constructs:
Orthodox “Western” understandings of nature feel inadequate to the kinds of world-making that fungi perform. As our historical narratives of progress have come to be questioned, so the notion of history itself has become remodelled. History no longer feels figurable as a forwards-flighting arrow or a self-intersecting spiral; better, perhaps, seen as a network branching and conjoining in many directions. Nature, too, seems increasingly better understood in fungal terms: not as a single gleaming snow-peak or tumbling river in which we might find redemption, nor as a diorama that we deplore or adore from a distance — but rather as an assemblage of entanglements of which we are messily part. We are coming to understand our bodies as habitats for hundreds of species of which Homo sapiens is only one, our guts as jungles of bacterial flora, our skins as blooming fantastically with fungi.
A century and a half after Whitman’s famed observation that we contain multitudes, Macfarlane roots the metaphysical insight in the physical reality of our creaturely nature, entwined with other natures:
We are beginning to encounter ourselves — not always comfortably or pleasantly — as multi-species beings already partaking in timescales that are fabulously more complex than the onwards-driving version of history many of us still imagine ourselves to inhabit.
Given that we have hard enough a time living with full awareness of our belonging to the web of life, of our intricate connection to other living beings, it takes a special wakefulness to fathom our connection to nonliving matter. Even if we know that we are made of dead stars, it is only an abstract knowledge. We so easily forget “the singularity we once were,” as the poet Marie Howe so splendidly captured our cosmic belonging. In the underland, moving through the time-stamped bedrock of being, Macfarlane finds a powerful reminder:
We tend to imagine stone as inert matter, obdurate in its fixity. But here in the rift it feels instead like a liquid briefly paused in its flow. Seen in deep time, stone folds as strata, gouts as lava, floats as plates, shifts as shingle. Over aeons, rock absorbs, transforms, levitates from seabed to summit.
We are part mineral beings too — our teeth are reefs, our bones are stones — and there is a geology of the body as well as of the land. It is mineralization — the ability to convert calcium into bone — that allows us to walk upright, to be vertebrate, to fashion the skulls that shield our brains.
The mineralization of living matter, with its mediation of life and death, furnishes a profound lens on our humanity, on the interchange between being and has-being:
Geologists and palaeobiologists speak of “trace fossils.” A trace fossil is the sign left in the rock record by the impress of life rather than life itself. A dinosaur footprint is a trace fossil. The enigmatic doughnut-shaped flints called “paramoudra” are thought to be the trace fossils of a burrowing worm-like creature that lived vertically in the seabed during the Cretaceous, its breathing organs just above the level of the silt. Boreholes, funnels, pipes, slithers and tracks are all trace fossils — stone memories where the mark-maker has disappeared but the mark remains. A trace fossil is a bracing of space by a vanished body, in which absence serves as sign.
We all carry trace fossils within us — the marks that the dead and the missed leave behind. Handwriting on an envelope; the wear on a wooden step left by footfall; the memory of a familiar gesture by someone gone, repeated so often it has worn its own groove in both air and mind: these are trace fossils too. Sometimes, in fact, all that is left behind by loss is trace — and sometimes empty volume can be easier to hold in the heart than presence itself.
Couple Underland, a wondrous read in its entirety, with Macfarlane’s poetic rebellion against the impoverishment of our nature-related lexicon, then revisit the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd — whose work Macfarlane resurfaced after decades of obscurity — on how mountains deepen our relationship with nature.
Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Aug 2019 | 2:43 am(NZT)
“Under conditions of terror,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her classic treatise on the normalization of evil, “most people will comply but some people will not… No more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.” Under such conditions, counting ourselves among the few who refuse to comply has less to do with whether we believe ourselves to be good than it does with the deliberate protections we must place between unrelenting evil and our own sanity and goodness, for among the most insaning aspects of tyrannical regimes is the Stockholm syndrome of the psyche they inflict upon us — upon ordinary people, not-evil people, people who consider themselves decent and good, but who slowly, through a cascade of countless small concessions, lose sight of the North Star of their native moral compass.
Therein lies the true seat of terror, the kind of terror James Baldwin meant when he made his chilling observation that “it has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within.” The Nobel-winning dissident poet Joseph Brodsky, who was expatriated for speaking inconvenient truth to power and sentenced to five years at a Soviet labor camp, captured this chilling dynamic perfectly as he contemplated the most powerful antidote to evil: “What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good.”
How to strip that guise is what Wendell Berry, another poet of uncommon insight and courage of conviction, examines in his stunningly prescient poem “Questionnaire,” first published in 2009, later included his altogether magnificent poetry collection Leavings (public library), and generously read here by poetry-lover and my dear friend Amanda Palmer, with the lovely score of crickets in the summer night:
by Wendell Berry
- How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.
- For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.
- What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.
- In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.
- State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.
Complement with Berry on how to be a poet and a complete human being, then revisit Amanda Palmer reading “The Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich, “Having It Out With Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, “Possibilities” by Wisława Szymborska, and “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman.
Amanda’s work, like my own, is made possible by patronage — join me in supporting her work so that she may go on bringing beauty and bravery into this world.
Source: Brain Pickings | 15 Aug 2019 | 6:48 am(NZT)
“I’m stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” poet Diane Ackerman wrote in her Cosmic Pastoral, which so enchanted Carl Sagan — her doctoral advisor — that he sent a copy of the book to Timothy Leary in prison. “Wonder,” Ackerman observed nearly half a century later in her succulent performance at The Universe in Verse, “is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart. Even a tiny piece of it can stop time.”
That ricochet wonder, in its myriad kaleidoscopic manifestations diffracted by various scientific phenomena, reflected by various facets of this splendidly interconnected universe, and hungrily absorbed by the human heart, is at the center of Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe (public library) by Ella Frances Sanders — the boundlessly curious writer and artist who gave us Lost in Translation, that lovely illustrated dictionary of untranslatable words from around the world.
Sanders writes in the preface to this lyrical and luminous celebration of science and our consanguinity with the universe:
A sense of wonder can find you in many forms, sometimes loudly, sometimes as a whispering, sometimes even hiding inside other feelings — being in love, or unbalanced, or blue.
For me, it is looking at the night for so long that my eyes ache and I’m stuck seeing stars for hours afterwards, watching the way the ocean sways itself to sleep, or as the sky washes itself in colors for which I know I will never have the words — a world made from layers of rock and fossil and glittered imaginings that keeps tripping me up, demanding I pay attention to one leaf at a time, ensuring I can never pick up quite where I left off.
When one is considering the universe, unseen matter, our small backyard of the stuff, I think it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.
Cry because we cannot even begin to understand how beautiful it is, cry because we are terribly flawed as a species, cry because it all seems so shockingly improbable that maybe our existence could be nothing but a dreamscape — celestial elephants in rooms without walls. But then? Surely, we can laugh.
Laugh because being riddled head-to-toe with human emotions while trying to come to terms with just how indisputably tiny we are in the grand scheme of things, makes absolutely everything and everyone seem quite ridiculous, entirely farcical. We have heads? Ridiculous! There are arguments about who is in charge here? Ridiculous! The universe is expanding? Ridiculous! We feel it necessary to keep secrets? Ridiculous.
In fifty-one miniature essays, each accompanied by one of her playful and poignant ink-and-watercolor drawings, Sanders goes on to explore a pleasingly wide array of scientific mysteries and facts — evolution, chaos theory, clouds, the color blue, the nature of light, the wondrousness of octopuses, the measurement of time, Richard Feynman’s famous cataclysm sentence, the clockwork mesmerism of planetary motion, our microbiome, the puzzlement of why we dream. What emerges is something sweetly consonant with Nabokov’s exultation at our “capacity to wonder at trifles” — except, of course, even the smallest and most invisible of these processes, phenomena, and laws are not trifles but condensed miracles that make the everythingness of everything we know.
It is tempting, then — and Sanders succumbs to the temptation in a most delicious way — to seek the existential in the scientific, even if the thread between the two is slender and human-made, rather than woven by this vast unfeeling universe in which we warm ourselves with wonder. In a chapter on our organic composition, so memorably captured in Carl Sagan’s assertion that “we too are made of starstuff,” Sanders shines a sidewise gleam on the illusion of the solid and separate self:
Depending on where you look, what you touch, you are changing all the time. The carbon inside you, accounting for about 18 percent of your being, could have existed in any number of creatures or natural disasters before finding you. That particular atom residing somewhere above your left eyebrow? It could well have been a smooth, riverbed pebble before deciding to call you home.
You see, you are not so soft after all; you are rock and wave and the peeling bark of trees, you are ladybirds and the smell of a garden after the rain. When you put your best foot forward, you are taking the north side of a mountain with you.
Sanders revisits the subject through the lens of the physics beneath the chemistry in a chapter on the structure and discovery of the atom. In a passage evocative of physicist Alan Lightman’s wonderful explanation of why we are mostly restlessness and empty space, she writes:
Such a beautiful (and until recently invisible) idea, the importance and unavoidable nature of atoms, one that seems to put everyone and everything on a satisfyingly level playing field. Your good and bad decisions, your wingspan, your wholeness as a person — these are all possible because of your own 7 billion billion billion atoms, each one made up of (roughly speaking) a positive nucleus in the middle, and the negative electron cloud surrounding it — a cloud that sort of dances from side to side, alternately enchanting other atoms and pushing them away (the really complicated magic can be left to quantum mechanics). Without atoms, nothing would be here; not the book in your hands, not the pen that leaked into your pocket this morning, not those buildings that are enough to make you scared of heights, nothing. If it weren’t for atoms, there wouldn’t be mass, or molecules, or matter, or me, or you.
The irrepressible human inquiry that magnetizes our imagination and draws us to the inner workings of the universe is the same inquiry Tolstoy scrawled into the diaries of his youth: “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” Sanders weaves these elemental questions — what are we made of and what does that make us? — into nearly every scientific curiosity she picks up, but she addresses them directly in a chapter devoted to our strangely continuous sense of self, devoid of a physical basis of continuity. She writes:
The idea of an unchanging “you” or “self” is inherently fraught with confusion and conflict, and if you consider the topic for too long it can begin to feel clammy, almost suspect. An apparent string running through all the previous versions of you — the one five minutes ago, a few hours ago, several years — the idea of “self” inevitably gets tangled up in things like the physical body and appearance, like memory. It’s clear that you cannot pin yourself down as any one particular “thing” but rather that you resemble a story line, an endless progression, variations on a theme, something that enables you to relate your present “self” to the past and future ones.
Echoing the great neurologist Oliver Sacks’s recognition of narrative as the cognitive pillar of personhood, she adds:
We do seem to make sense of ourselves and the world as a part of a narrative — we think in terms of main characters, those we speak and interact with, and where the beginnings, the middles, and the endings are.
Radiating from the book is lucid, lyrical consolation for the elemental disquietude of existence — the fact that haunting the fundamental laws of the universe and the sturdy certitude of their mathematics is the daily chaos of uncertainty with which we must somehow live, keeping one eye on our greatest loves and greatest losses, on the trifling urgencies of the mundane, and the other, wincing, on the only certainty there is: that one day we shall cease to exist. Sanders writes:
A lot of our time is spent trying to tie up loose ends, trying to shape disorder into something recognizably smooth, trying to escape the very limits that hold us close, happily ignoring rough edges and the inevitable. We separate ourselves out into past, present, and future, if only to show that we have changed, that we know better, that we have understood something inherent; if only to draw neat lines from start to finish without looking back.
The problem is that chaos is always only ever sitting just across the table, frequently glancing up from its newspaper, from its coffee cup filled with discolored and imploding stars. Because chaos too waits. Waits for you to notice it, for you to realize it’s the most dazzling thing you’ve ever seen, for all of your atoms to collectively shriek in belated recognition and stare, mouth open, at how exquisitely embedded it is in everything. Because we are not designed to be more orderly than anything else; seams have a tendency to come apart with time — you and the universe are the same in this way, which makes for a delicately overwhelming struggle.
So, then, if you can’t ever end things neatly, can’t ever put them back quite the way you found them, surely the alternative is to remain stubbornly carbonated with possibility, to never rest from your rotation. To keep assembling stories between us, stories about how everything was everything, about how much we loved.
Complement Eating the Sun with The Edge of the Sky — a poetic, unusual primer on the universe, written with the 1,000 most common words in the English language — and Carl Sagan on how to live with mystery, then revisit the great nineteenth-century naturalist John Muir on the universe as an infinite storm of beauty.
Source: Brain Pickings | 13 Aug 2019 | 2:00 pm(NZT)
Theodor Adorno celebrated punctuation as the “friendly spirits whose bodiless presence nourishes the body of language.” Mary Oliver jested that each writer has a lifetime quota of them, to be used judiciously. Indeed, the wielding of these tiny meaning-making symbols is a supreme test of a writer’s sensitivity to language as an instrument of sentiment and a laboratory for feeling. No one has conferred upon them more dignity and delight than the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas (November 25, 1913–December 3, 1993) in his essay “Notes on Punctuation,” included in The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (public library) — the altogether scrumptious 1979 collection that gave us Thomas’s beautiful meditation on altruism and affection and one of the finest things ever written about the mystery of the self.
Thomas opens the essay, the whole of which is strewn with clever meta-demonstrations of his points about the marks, with a Russian nesting doll of punctuational observations:
There are no precise rules about punctuation (Fowler lays out some general advice (as best he can under the complex circumstances of English prose (he points out, for example, that we possess only four stops (the comma, the semicolon, the colon and the period (the question mark and exclamation point are not, strictly speaking, stops; they are indicators of tone (oddly enough, the Greeks employed the semicolon for their question mark (it produces a strange sensation to read a Greek sentence which is a straightforward question: Why weepest thou; (instead of Why weepest thou? (and, of course, there are parentheses (which are surely a kind of punctuation making this whole matter much more complicated by having to count up the left-handed parentheses in order to be sure of closing with the right number (but if the parentheses were left out, with nothing to work with but the stops, we would have considerably more flexibility in the deploying of layers of meaning than if we tried to separate all the clauses by physical barriers (and in the latter case, while we might have more precision and exactitude for our meaning, we would lose the essential flavor of language, which is its wonderful ambiguity)))))))))))).
He makes his case for commas in a nearly comma-free paragraph, adorned by precisely four exquisitely pinned specimens:
The commas are the most useful and usable of all the stops. It is highly important to put them in place as you go along. If you try to come back after doing a paragraph and stick them in the various spots that tempt you you will discover that they tend to swarm like minnows into all sorts of crevices whose existence you hadn’t realized and before you know it the whole long sentence becomes immobilized and lashed up squirming in commas. Better to use them sparingly, and with affection, precisely when the need for each one arises, nicely, by itself.
In defiance of Kurt Vonnegut’s scornful (and, by present standards, possibly politically incorrect) condemnation of semicolons as “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing” and only proving “that you’ve been to college,” Thomas writes:
I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years. The semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added; it reminds you sometimes of the Greek usage. It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.
Thomas’s own scorn is reserved for the unworthy whole of which the semi-colon is supposed to be a mere half:
Colons are a lot less attractive, for several reasons: firstly, they give you the feeling of being rather ordered around, or at least having your nose pointed in a direction you might not be inclined to take if left to yourself, and, secondly, you suspect you’re in for one of those sentences that will be labeling the points to be made: firstly, secondly and so forth, with the implication that you haven’t sense enough to keep track of a sequence of notions without having them numbered. Also, many writers use this system loosely and incompletely, starting out with number one and number two as though counting off on their fingers but then going on and on without the succession of labels you’ve been led to expect, leaving you floundering about searching for the ninethly or seventeenthly that ought to be there but isn’t.
In a passage of especial urgency in our era of rampant misquotations littering the Internet and rampant bunny-eared hands rising in the midst of conversation to insert an air quote when the intention is irony or emphasis rather than citation, Thomas writes:
Quotation marks should be used honestly and sparingly, when there is a genuine quotation at hand, and it is necessary to be very rigorous about the words enclosed by the marks… Above all, quotation marks should not be used for ideas that you’d like to disown, things in the air so to speak. Nor should they be put in place around clichés; if you want to use a cliché you must take full responsibility for it yourself and not try to fob it off on anon., or on society.
In a sentiment I have long shared — and one with which I also regard the use of Italics for emphasis, that pitiable attempt to compensate for a failure of style with styling — Thomas turns to the neediest, vainest, most off-putting of punctuation marks:
Exclamation points are the most irritating of all. Look! they say, look at what I just said! How amazing is my thought! It is like being forced to watch someone else’s small child jumping up and down crazily in the center of the living room shouting to attract attention. If a sentence really has something of importance to say, something quite remarkable, it doesn’t need a mark to point it out. And if it is really, after all, a banal sentence needing more zing, the exclamation point simply emphasizes its banality!
A single exclamation point in a poem, no matter what else the poem has to say, is enough to destroy the whole work.
Poetry, of course, owes a great share of its splendor to the miracle of surprise; to the twists of expectation and convention that plunge you suddenly and thrillingly into a whole new world; a world adjacent to but ordinarily inaccessible from the ordinary. Thomas Wentworth Higginson — Emily Dickinson’s editor — admonished that dashes should be used only in “short allowance” or else they “will lose all their proper power” — advice Dickinson went on to boldly ignore, dealing her ample dashes like breaths, like blades, in verses that revolutionized poetry. Thomas, who must have read Dickinson given his erudition and his intense love of poetry, is far friendlier to dashes than her editor had been a century earlier:
The dash is a handy device, informal and essentially playful, telling you that you’re about to take off on a different tack but still in some way connected with the present course — only you have to remember that the dash is there, and either put a second dash at the end of the notion to let the reader know that he’s back on course, or else end the sentence, as here, with a period.
Thomas ends by returning to his love of semi-colons, kindled by T.S. Eliot’s exquisite use of them in Four Quartets (“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; / Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, / But neither arrest nor movement.”), and writes:
You cannot hear them, but they are there, laying out the connections between the images and the ideas. Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.
Commas can’t do this sort of thing; they can only tell you how the different parts of a complicated thought are to be fitted together, but you can’t sit, not even take a breath, just because of a comma,
And so it ends, in a triumph of deliberately rule-defiant delight.
Complement this fragment of Thomas’s wholly enjoyable and freshly insightful The Medusa and the Snail with the zany and politically prescient 1905 poem “In the Land of Punctuation,” then revisit Thomas on the poetics of smell as a mode of knowledge and our cosmic potential.
Source: Brain Pickings | 12 Aug 2019 | 1:00 pm(NZT)
In 1885, at the age of only twenty, Nellie Bly (May 5, 1864–January 27, 1922) composed and published a searing letter of response to a man who, as the father of five girls, cynically questioned what girls are good for. At twenty-two, she risked her life in a groundbreaking exposé of abuses at insane asylums, which led to some of the first legal protections for the mentally ill. At twenty-five, she circumnavigated the globe faster than any human, outpacing Jules Verne’s fictional hero by eight days.
Picking up where the brilliant and tragically short-lived Margaret Fuller had left off nearly half a century earlier as the first female editor for a major New York newspaper, the only woman in the newsroom, and America’s first foreign war correspondent, Bly pioneered the progenitor of investigative journalism and became the first woman to report from the Eastern Front in WWI. In the factories she founded and operated in an era when factory workers — mostly uneducated young women — toiled in gruesome conditions for meager pay, she modeled social welfare by providing honorable wages and a humane environment for her workforce of 1,500. She invented, patented, produced, and taught Americans how to use the nation’s first successful steel barrel. She was, long before most of these terms took root in the modern lexicon, an entrepreneur, feminist, investigative journalist, activist, and philanthropist of unparalleled drive, discipline, and devotion.
Bly is the subject of a lovely animated documentary by the journalism and justice nonprofit Reveal, directed by Penny Lane — creator of The Voyagers, that poetic short film about how Carl Sagan fell in love — and featuring Bly’s first and foremost biographer, Brooke Kroeger, author of Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist (public library).
Kroeger — who was moved by a biographical sketch of Bly she read when she was ten, then decided to write the first thorough, accurate biography of this inspiring but underappreciated role model when her own daughter turned ten — captures the animating force of Bly’s uncommon character:
Bly’s life… spanned Reconstruction, the Victorian and Progressive eras, the Great War and its aftermath. She grew up without privilege or higher education, knowing that her greatest asset was the force of her own will. Bly executed the extraordinary as a matter of routine… As the most famous woman journalist of her day, as an early woman industrialist, as a humanitarian, even as a beleaguered litigant, Bly kept the same formula for success: Determine Right. Decide Fast. Apply Energy. Act with Conviction. Fight to the Finish. Accept the Consequences. Move on.
Complement Kroeger’s altogether invigorating Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist with a lovely picture-book biography of Bly for younger readers and a delightful 1945 radio dramatization of her life, then revisit Bly’s classic Ten Days at the Mad-House, which has inspired generations of investigative reporters and mental health advocates.
Source: Brain Pickings | 10 Aug 2019 | 8:28 am(NZT)
Walt Whitman considered trees the wisest of teachers. Hermann Hesse found in them sweet consolation for our mortality. Wangari Maathai turned to them as a form of resistance and empowerment that earned her the Nobel Peace Prize. “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter. “As a man is, so he sees.”
A century after Blake, the artist, writer, and activist Arthur Henry “Art” Young (January 14, 1866–December 29, 1943) originated a sumptuous new way of seeing life, looking at trees.
In his forties, Young had risen to prominence with his political cartoons, criticizing capitalism and war, railing against racism, and advocating for women’s suffrage and the abolition of child labor. During World War I, they had rendered him prosecuted on a charge of conspiracy to obstruct recruiting. With some of Thoreau coursing through his veins, Young made his art both an instrument of civil disobedience and a lens for contemplating nature’s transcendent beauty.
In his fifties, Young’s imagination fell upon a subject both wholly natural and wholly original — the expressive humanlike shapes, states, and emotions emanating from the silhouettes of trees at night. He began rendering what he half-saw and half-imagined in pen and ink — haunting black-and-white drawings full of feeling, straddling the playful and the poignant. These visual poems, replete with the strangeness and splendor of nature and human nature, become the kind of Rorschach test one intuitively performs while looking at the sky, but drawn from the canopy rather than the clouds. While the sensibility is faintly reminiscent of Arthur Rackham’s unforgettable trees, the concept is entirely Young’s own — no artist had done anything like this before.
First published as a series in the Saturday Evening Post, Young’s tree silhouettes were soon picked up by mainstream magazines like Collier’s and LIFE. They drew impassioned letters from readers — some sharing poems inspired by his art, some enclosing tree photographs they hoped Young would draw, some simply thanking him for these uncommon portals into an unseen world of beauty and emotion.
In 1927, Young assembled the best of his arborescent silhouettes in the slim, lovely out-of-print treasure Trees at Night (public library). Upon the book’s publication, Brooklyn’s Daily Eagle exulted that it “places Art Young in a class by himself” and Baltimore’s Evening Sun lauded him as “one of the few real native talents that this country has produced in art.”
Printed on the opening page is an excerpt from an early-autumn entry in Young’s diary:
In common with most people of artistic perception, I like trees. While looking out of my window toward the wooded hills one summer night, a caravan of camels seemed to be humping along the sky. They were trees of course but enough like camels to key my imagination up to discover other pictures in the formation of foliage. The rest of the summer nights I enjoyed hunting for tree pictures against the light of the sky or thrown into relief by the glare of automobiles, and drawing them next day. It seemed to me that this silhouette handling of trees at night had never before been done by any artist. I felt that I had discovered something.
After the caravan, I saw “a woman and a fan” and other subjects followed. Any night I could walk or ride along the road and see interesting silhouettes made by tree forms, many of them so clearly defined as to need no improvement on my part. But aside from the appearance of a tree by day or night, is it not kin of the human family with its roots in the earth and its arms stretching toward the sky as if to seek and to know the great mystery?
Complement Young’s Trees at Night with something he never lived to know but would have cherished knowing — the fascinating science of what trees feel and how they communicate — then revisit The Night Life of Trees, drawn from Indian folklore, and philosopher Martin Buber on what trees teach us about being human.
A portion of the proceeds from these art prints supports the beautiful and necessary work of the Arbor Day Foundation.
Source: Brain Pickings | 7 Aug 2019 | 2:00 pm(NZT)