Few things limit us more profoundly than our own beliefs about what we deserve, and few things liberate us more powerfully than daring to broaden our locus of possibility and self-permission for happiness. The stories we tell ourselves about what we are worthy or unworthy of — from the small luxuries of naps and watermelon to the grandest luxury of a passionate creative calling or a large and possible love — are the stories that shape our lives. Bruce Lee knew this when he admonished that “you will never get any more out of life than you expect,” James Baldwin knew it when he admonished that “you’ve got to tell the world how to treat you [because] if the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble,” and Viktor Frankl embodied this in his impassioned insistence on saying “yes” to life.
The more vulnerable-making the endeavor, the more reflexive the limitation and the more redemptive the liberation.
That difficult, delicate, triumphal pivot from self-limitation to self-liberation in the most vulnerable-making of human undertakings — love — is what poet and philosopher David Whyte, who thinks deeply about these questions of courage and love, maps out in his stunning poem “The Truelove,” found in his book The Sea in You: Twenty Poems of Requited and Unrequited Love (public library) and read here, by David’s kind assent to my invitation, in his sonorous Irish-tinted English voice, in his singular style of echoing lines to let them reverberate more richly:
by David Whyte
There is a faith in loving fiercely
the one who is rightfully yours,
especially if you have
waited years and especially
if part of you never believed
you could deserve this
loved and beckoning hand
held out to you this way.
I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are
worthy of in this world.
Years ago in the Hebrides,
I remember an old man
who walked every morning
on the grey stones
to the shore of baying seals,
who would press his hat
to his chest in the blustering
salt wind and say his prayer
to the turbulent Jesus
hidden in the water,
and I think of the story
of the storm and everyone
waking and seeing
yet familiar figure
far across the water
calling to them
and how we are all
preparing for that
and that calling,
and that moment
we have to say yes,
except it will
not come so grandly
but more subtly
and intimately in the face
of the one you know
you have to love
so that when
we finally step out of the boat
toward them, we find
us, and everything confirms
our courage, and if you wanted
to drown you could,
but you don’t
after all this struggle
and all these years
you simply don’t want to
you’ve simply had enough
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness
however fluid and however
dangerous to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.
“The Truelove” appears in the short, splendid course of poem-anchored contemplative practices David guides for neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris’s Waking Up meditation toolkit, in which he reads each poem, offers an intimate tour of the landscape of experience from which it arose, and reflects on the broader existential quickenings it invites.
Couple this generous gift of a poem with “Sometimes” — David’s perspectival poem about living into the questions of our becoming, also part of Waking Up — then revisit the Noble-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska on great love and James Baldwin, who believed that poet are “the only people who know the truth about us” — on love and the illusion of choice.
For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.
Source: Brain Pickings | 27 Jul 2021 | 4:48 am(NZT)
We are born into the certitude of our eventual death. Every once in a while, something — perhaps an encounter with a robin’s egg, perhaps a poem — staggers us with the awful, awe-filled wonder of aliveness, the sheer luck of it against the overwhelming cosmic odds of nonexistence. But alloyed with the awe is always the half-conscious grief that one day the light of consciousness will be extinguished. It is a heavy gift to hold, this doomed delirium of aliveness. It is also a buoyant gladness, if we are limber enough to stretch into the cosmic perspective that does not come naturally to us small, Earth-bound bipeds corticed with tender self-importance.
For each of us, one thing is true: Had any one variable been ever so subtly different — had your parents mated on a different day or at a different altitude, had the early universe cooled a fraction of a second faster after the Big Bang, you would not exist as the particular constellation of atoms configuring the particular consciousness that makes you you. Because chance plays such dice with the universe, and because the die dictates that the vast majority of energy and matter never had the luck of cohering into this doomed delirium of aliveness, it is, in some profound and practical sense, a staggering privilege to die — one that betokens the privilege of having lived. To lament death, then, is to lament our luck, for any negation of the possibility of death is a negation of the improbable miracle of life, a wish for there to be nothing to do the dying — nothing to have partaken of the beautiful, bittersweet temporality of aliveness.
It is easier to bend the intuitive mind into this correct but counterintuitive perspective while walking in a cemetery at the height of summer. Doing this very thing while thinking these very thoughts, I was reminded of a passage from one of the most lucid and lens-clearing books written this side of Darwin — Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (public library) by the visionary and often controversial (which is the social fate of every visionary) British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
A civilization after Marcus Aurelius celebrated mortality as the key to living fully, half a millennium after Montaigne observed that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” and a scientific epoch after Darwin contemplated the meaning of mortality in the wake of his beloved daughter’s death, Dawkins writes:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?
Complement with astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s exquisite “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” Nick Cave on grief as a portal to aliveness, and Christopher Hitchens on how to live with our mortality, then revisit the science of how alive you really are, examined through the curious lens of trees and Alan Turing.
For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.
Source: Brain Pickings | 26 Jul 2021 | 7:40 am(NZT)
Between the time Hypatia of Alexandria first pointed her pre-telescopic eye to the cosmos millennia before the notion of galaxies and the time Vera Rubin stood at the foot of the world’s most powerful telescope to confirm the existence of dark matter by observing how distant galaxies rotate, and in all the time before, and in all the time since, we have hungered to understand the forces that move the stars and the Moon and the mind. Ever since Galileo leaned on his artistic training in perspective to draw his astronomical observations intimating that the universe might not be what the theologians have claimed it to be, humanity has been on a passionate and disorienting quest to understand the nature of the mystery that made us.
In the centuries since, we have made staggering discoveries of fundamental forces swirling exotic particles into “the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.” Along the way, in our longing for a final theory of everything, we have been staggered by revelation after revelation that things are not what we previously thought them to be and beneath each layer of reality we have unpeeled lies another. The heavens are not a clockwork orrery of perfect orbs revolving around us in perfect circles. The cosmic wilderness is overgrown with a species of mystery we call dark matter and the fabric of spacetime is pocked with black holes the rims of which gape our Munchian scream at the sense that the universe remains a sweeping enigma whose native language we are only just beginning to decipher, naming our particles and composing our equations in the alphabet of a long-gone civilization that believed the Earth was flat and the stars were at its service.
Our yearning for a Theory of Everything has culminated in what we call the Standard Model — a conceptual map of all the known particles and the fundamental forces that govern them to make the universe cohere into everything we know and are. It is the most successful scientific theory in the history of our species. But it is rather a Theory of Everything We Know So Far, at once triumphal and tessellated with incompleteness.
The essence of that theory, its central contradictions, and how it contours the next layer of reality awaiting discovery is what theoretical physicist David Tong details in this animated primer for Quanta Magazine, drawing out discoveries and questions that punctuate the excellent anthology Alice and Bob Meet the Wall of Fire: The Biggest Ideas in Science from Quanta (public library).
Complement with an animated look at the little loophole in the Big Bang model, then revisit the remarkable story of how Johannes Kepler revolutionized our understanding of the universe while defending his mother in a witchcraft trial.
For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.
Source: Brain Pickings | 24 Jul 2021 | 3:33 pm(NZT)
In 1977, a young forestry student tasked with marking an ironwood tree for “release cutting” — the logging or poisoning of particular trees on the dogmatic premise that their demise would release more commercially valuable nearby trees from competition for light and nutrients — suddenly felt uneasy holding the can of orange spray paint, disquieted by the awareness that old-growth forests have thrived for millennia without such amputations, intuiting that something far more complex and mutualistic might be at work beneath the surface story of resource rivalry.
She was told not to question the dogma, not to be “so Clementsian” — an allusion to the visionary work of ecologists Edith and Frederic Clements, a century ahead of their time in the empirically grounded insistence that plants are not rugged individuals in combat for biological capital but a collaborative community of life.
That young forester grew into the biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus. Now swimming in the ever-growing sea of studies that defy the dogma of competition by illuminating how plants succor and sustain each other’s survival, she reflects:
Here is what I love about the scientific method. Though culture seeps into science and sometimes holds its finger on the scale, it cannot stop the restless search for measurable truth. Un-American or not, the math has to work. When fifty years of wall-to-wall research into competition proved inconclusive, researchers went back to the field to find out what else was at play.
Alongside activists, poets, policymakers, and other scientists, Benyus is one of the frontier-women decolonizing climate leadership — visionaries united by a fierce willingness to contend with the big, unanswered, often unasked questions that leaven our possible future and to begin answering them in novel ways worthy of a world that prizes creativity over consumption and pluralism over profiteering. Their voices and visions rise from the pages of All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis (public library) — Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson’s altogether inspiriting anthology, composed as “a balm and a guide for the immense emotional complexity of knowing and holding what has been done to the world, while bolstering our resolve never to give up on one another or our collective future,” and titled after the final verse of Adrienne Rich’s immense poem “Natural Resources,” written the year the young Benyus faced the ironwood tree with her uneasy spray can:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
In the second essay from the anthology, titled “Reciprocity,” Benyus recounts her early reckoning with the misguided model of ecological relationships and reflects on the half-century of research into the strategies plants actually use to thrive — research revealing cooperation rather than competition as the animating force of life:
To read these strategies is to discover a manual for how life evolved on a challenging planet and how natural communities heal and overcome adversity — essential reading for a climate-changed world.
The more stressful the environment, the more likely you are to see plants working together to ensure mutual survival.
Drawing on the spirit of biomimicry — the borrowing of processes and principles from nature to make our endeavors in the human world more effective and elegant — Benyus intimates the obvious analogy to the zero-sum fallacy upon which the modern world is built: The scarcity model underpinning capitalism might be just as unrealistic, unsustainable, and damaging as the forestry dogma that until recently brutalized wildernesses with the premise that trees are separate individuals hogging resources for themselves.
Dismantling these fallacies might be especially challenging in America, in whose young mind Emerson’s cry of rugged individualism still reverberates: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” But half a century of quiet, empirically unassailable research into the nature of nature — of which, lest we forget, we are a (frequently reluctant) part — indicates that the symphony orchestra of life is only sonorous when we trust one another.
A generation after one of humanity’s deepest-seeing poets insisted that “anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet,” Benyus illustrates the delicate mutualisms that make our rocky planet a living world with studies of Chilean mountain plants, which huddle together for protection from ultraviolet rays and harsh weather, forming complex relationships of support. A single six-foot cushion plant, or yareta, can house a multitude of wildflowers in its thousand-year-old mound. Farther down the mountain, resilient trees take root on rockfalls to create tear-shaped “tree islands” that shelter seedlings from the wind, carpeted with leaves and needles from nearby trees that decompose into moisture reservoirs for the dry summer days. These tree islands grow as mammals come for shelter and birds come to roost, depositing other seeds with their metabolic output. As the islands drift over the centuries, they carry fertile new soil across the mountainside, leaving new communities of life in their wake. Benyus distills the lesson of this living lee:
Whether it comes in the form of shading, shielding, nourishing, or defending, facilitation allows plants to expand their niches, to thrive where they would normally wither. Landscapers, farmers, and foresters may want to mimic these moves by planting for partnership, including wind blockers, soil holders, water lifters, and nutrient boosters in their mixtures. As plants deal with shifting growing zones, a facilitation partner could make all the difference.
With an eye to Suzanne Simard’s epoch-making research into the “wood-wide web” through which trees communicate, she adds:
Now we know that it’s not just one plant helping another; mutualisms — complex exchanges of goodness — are playing out above- and belowground in extraordinary ways.
But while the vast majority of terrestrial plants are entwined in such underground mycelial networks of mutualism, these relationships are severed in agricultural fields, where plowing savages the delicate underground network of resource-sharing, while the regular infusions of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers decimate the vital bacterial and fungal members of that microcommunity. Benyus considers the heedless tradeoff between the immediate rewards of seasonal crops and the deep, rich sustainability of ecosystems across the sweep of time:
When communities of vegetation breathe in carbon dioxide, turn it into sugars, and feed it to microbial networks, they can sequester carbon deep in soils for centuries. But to do that, the communities need to be healthy, diverse, and amply partnered. If we’re to encourage wild and working landscapes to recoup the 50 to 70 percent of soil carbon that has been lost to the atmosphere, we’ll want to pause before plowing a field, opening a bag of fertilizer, or marking a sapling for removal. We wouldn’t want to interrupt a vital conversation.
If humans are to help reverse global warming, we will need to step into the flow of the carbon cycle in new ways, stopping our excessive exhale of carbon dioxide and encouraging the winded ecosystems of the planet to take a good long inhale as they heal. It will mean learning to help the helpers, those microbes, plants, and animals that do the daily alchemy of turning carbon into life. This mutualistic role, this practice of reciprocity, will require a more nuanced understanding of how ecosystems actually work. The good news is that we’re finally developing a feeling for the organismic, after years of wandering in the every-plant-for-itself paradigm.
In a passage that strikes me as the ecological counterpart to Chinua Achebe’s lovely notion of art as “collective communal enterprise,” she envisions an alternate possible future and considers what it asks of us:
One of the fallouts of our fifty-year focus on competition is that we came to view all organisms as consumers and competitors first, including ourselves. Now we’re decades into a different understanding. By recognizing, at last, the ubiquity of sharing and chaperoning, by acknowledging the fact that communal traits are quite natural, we get to see ourselves anew. We can return to our role as nurturers, each a helper among helpers in this planetary story of collaborative healing.
Complement this fragment of the wholly galvanizing All We Can Save with the visionary ecologist and conservationist William Vogt’s unheeded long-ago manifesto for course-correcting our ecological trajectory, then revisit “The Big Picture” — Ellen Bass’s immense and intimate poem of perspective and persistence, which also appears in the anthology.
Source: Brain Pickings | 23 Jul 2021 | 9:46 am(NZT)
“There is one book that I would rather have produced than all my novels,” Willa Cather rued in her most candid interview about creativity. That book was Rocky Mountain Flowers: An Illustrated Guide For Plant-Lovers and Plant-Users (public library | public domain) by the pioneering plant ecologist and botanical artist Edith Clements (1874–1971).
Together with her husband, the influential botanist Frederic Clements, she pioneered the science of plant ecology, lending empirical substantiation to her contemporary John Muir’s poetic observation that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” In her 1960 memoir Adventures in Ecology: Half a Million Miles: From Mud to Macadam (public library), penned shortly before Rachel Carson awakened the modern ecological conscience with Silent Spring and half a century before the climate calamity we are now living, Edith Clements prophesied:
There seems little doubt that the application of the principles of ecology to human affairs, whether personal, national or world-wide, would go far in solving the problems that beset us.
Having begun as Frederic’s doctoral student — the first woman awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska, then an epicenter of botany and earth science — Edith went on to be his partner in science and life.
Young, passionate, and poor, they headed for the Rocky Mountains to build a research station for controlled study of how various environmental conditions impact plants, their acclimatization, and their relationships.
Nothing like this had been attempted before.
They called it The Dream.
In a stroke of necessity-dictated entrepreneurship, they set out to fund it into reality by coupling their scientific knowledge with Edith’s artistic talent to create an unexampled guide to the wildflowers of the Rockies, which they would then sell to scientific institutions.
Two centuries after the young self-taught botanist and artist Elizabeth Blackwell painted her astonishing encyclopedia of medicinal plants and as a century after the young Emily Dickinson composed her delicate herbarium of native New England wildflowers, the young Edith Clements began collecting, classifying, photographing, and painting 533 plant specimens from the mountains of Colorado for a meticulously annotated herbarium, completed in 1903 and followed by a second volume in 1904. It became the foundation of the book that would so enchanted Willa Cather a decade later.
With the income from the first herbarium, Edith and Frederic purchased a tiny cabin beneath a colossal pine on the side of a Colorado hill and set up the scientific instruments the university had lent.
The Dream became rugged reality and the shack became the first building of their Alpine Laboratory.
Over the years to follow, the single shack grew to a five-room cottage with a glass-enclosed veranda. Graduate students came to study with Edith and Frederic. Scholars visited from Japan, China, India, Australia, England, and continental Europe.
Eventually, the government recognized how invaluable this work would be to the National Parks. Frederic was offered a paid position. Edith was not. They took the assignment anyway, together, and set out to study the reproduction of conifers in forests.
They climbed hills, crossed prairies, trekked into meadows and marshes, Frederic making notes and charts of the vegetation, Edith painting the wildflowers “until swarms of mosquitos made it impossible.”
As they worked, he whistled and she sang.
In quiet, bold contrast to the era’s appetite for impressionistic and abstract flower blossoms — this was the golden age of Georgia O’Keeffe — Edith painted the whole plant in its natural colors, with the correct number of petals and stamens. She called her paintings “portraits,” reflecting her determination to show people what plants are really like, with all the dazzling scientific complexity undergirding the aesthetic splendor.
In 1926, the editor of National Geographic encountered Edith’s plates of flower family trees, depicting the relationships and evolution of different plant families, and found them to be just the sort of thing to make readers “sit up and take notice.” He was right. When thirty-two of Edith’s paintings backboned a 7,000-word magazine feature about plant ecology in May 1927, the issue sold out in record time. Recognizing the allure of the framable flower illustrations, enterprising young people bought extra copies to resell at manyfold the price.
Plant ecology entered the popular imagination for the first time, via the portal of Edith’s botanical art.
Edith and Frederic went on to consult the newly founded Bureau of Soil Erosion, helped the Navajo Indian Reservation of New Mexico rewild a dismally overgrazed pasture, opposed the building of dams along the Missouri River, and were called on by numerous panicked government agencies when poor understanding of ecology in agriculture unleashed the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which devastated the ecosystem of an entire continent, made refugees of thousands of farmers, and inspired Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
The Clementses devised soil conservation methods for leveling Dust Bowl dunes and replanting them with native grasses and corn crops, mechanisms for diverting and conserving flood water, techniques for rewilding fire-denuded slopes.
As Edith and Frederic Clements pioneered the study of plant ecology together, they were celebrated as “the most illustrious husband-wife team since the Curies.” But their work was also seen as quixotic for its countercultural ethos, decades ahead of its time. In an era of world wars, when science was reduced to military technology and coopted as a handmaiden of dueling nationalisms, Edith and Frederic endeavored to advance the conservation of this one indivisible planet by better understanding the role of climate and the relationships between life-forms. Along the way, they raised and began answering such complex and previously unasked questions as what makes a forest a forest — questions that would unravel some of the most astonishing science of our time.
Source: Brain Pickings | 22 Jul 2021 | 4:02 pm(NZT)
“Her voice is deep, rich, and full of color; she speaks with her whole body, like a singer… Whatever she does is done with every fibre,” a Nebraskan journalist observed on the pages of the Lincoln Star after meeting the brilliant and reclusive Willa Cather (December 7, 1873–April 24, 1947) while she was working on the novel that would soon win her the Pulitzer Prize, having already written the one that prompted F. Scott Fitzgerald to despair that The Great Gatsby is a failure by comparison.
Perhaps because they conversed while walking in the autumn sunshine — something Cather, who found her greatest happiness in nature, had requested — and perhaps because the interviewer was also a woman in an era when so few women’s words and thoughts and experiences appeared on the printed page, the conversation that unfurled, later published in Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters (public library), remains the most candid and revealing glimpse of Cather’s creative credo, process, and philosophy of art — which is at bottom, always, a philosophy of life.
The two meandered beneath the fiery autumnal canopy near the home Cather shared with the love of her life, the conversation meandering accordingly in that natural synchrony between the foot and the mind, leaving the interlocutor to marvel:
The longer Miss Cather talks, the more one is filled with the conviction that life is a fascinating business and one’s own experience more fascinating than one had ever suspected it of being. Some persons have this gift of infusing their own abundant vitality into the speaker.
Cather had honed her own love of life — that essential wellspring of creative vitality — in childhood, roaming the wilderness on foot, on horseback, and in her parents’ farm wagon. As a young writer — not privileged, not straight, not resigned to the era’s conventional domestic destiny for a woman — she often worked until the small hours, ate no breakfast to save time and money, and learned to inhabit the world with the full-body presence that would soon give her novels their uncommonly transportive sensorial enchantment.
Contemplating the subject of creativity, Cather laments that nothing is more “fatal to the spirit of art” than the rise of what she aptly terms “superficial culture” — the commodification of art not as an instrument of aliveness but as a status symbol, pursued by rich ladies who “run about from one culture club to another studying Italian art out of a textbook and an encyclopedia and believing that they are learning something about it by memorizing a string of facts.” To her, the young black boy on the porch improvising a Verdi opera on his fiddle by ear — with no formal knowledge of what he is playing and no theoretical rationale for why it is so stirring his soul — “has more real understanding of Italian art than these esthetic creatures with a head and a larynx, and no organs that they get any use of, who reel you off the life of Leonardo da Vinci.”
The creative experience, Cather insists, is a matter of tuning into the inner feeling-tone strummed not by our cerebrations but by our creaturely relishment of the world.
Decades before poet and science historian Diane Ackerman rooted our creaturely and creative vitality in the delights of the senses, Cather echoes her contemporary Egon Schiele’s exhortation to “envy those who see beauty in everything in the world” and observes:
Art is a matter of enjoyment through the five senses. Unless you can see the beauty all around you everywhere, and enjoy it, you can never comprehend art.
A generation before the star teacher of Black Mountain College made her exquisite case for creativity as a way of being, arguing that art is made “with food, with children, with building blocks, with speech, with thoughts, with pigment, with an umbrella, or a wineglass, or a torch,” Cather adds:
Esthetic appreciation begins with the enjoyment of the morning bath. It should include all the activities of life… The farmer’s wife who raises a large family and cooks for them and makes their clothes and keeps house and on the side runs a truck garden and a chicken farm and a canning establishment, and thoroughly enjoys doing it all, and doing it well, contributes more to art than all the culture clubs. Often you find such a woman with all the appreciation of the beautiful bodies of her children, of the order and harmony of her kitchen, of the real creative joy of all her activities, which marks the great artist.
Lest we forget, there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.
In consonance with Rilke’s beautiful reflections on the reservoir of experiences required for creativity, Cather adds:
Many people seem to think that art is a luxury to be imported and tacked on to life. Art springs out of the very stuff that life is made of. Most of our young authors start to write a story and make a few observations from nature to add local color. The results are invariably false and hollow. Art must spring out of the fullness and the richness of life.
Complement with James Baldwin on what it means to be an artist, then revisit Cather on the life-changing advice that made her a writer and her moving letter to her brother about making art through times of inner turmoil.
Source: Brain Pickings | 20 Jul 2021 | 5:19 am(NZT)
“Across the morning sky, all the birds are leaving,” Nina Simone sang in 1969. “How can they know that it’s time to go?”
A decade earlier, a young Swiss psychologist traversed the Atlantc to begin a new life in America. Watching the migratory geese from the salt-stained railings of her own migratory vessel, she wrote in her journal: “How do these geese know when to fly to the sun? Who tells them the seasons? How do we, humans, know when it is time to move on?” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross would go on to revolutionize our understanding of what it means and what it takes to move on through her epoch-making 1969 model of the five stages of grief.
While the death of a loved one can make the notion of moving on unfathomable at first, it also makes it, by definition, inevitable — there is no other recourse, for such loss is unambiguous and irreversible. But there is a species of grief, spawned of a type of loss that is more ambiguous and elastic, that muddles the notion of moving on into an impassable and disorienting swamp: the cyclical grief of loving someone on the grounds of their highest nature and watching them fall short of it over and over, in damaging and hurtful ways, which you excuse over and over, because of their impassioned apologies and vows of reform, or because of the partly noble, partly naïve notion that a truly magnanimous person is one who always has the breadth of spirit to forgive — a notion rooted in a basic misapprehension of what forgiveness really means.
To move on from such relationships is one of life’s most difficult, triumphant feats of maturity — largely because we enter them and stay in them for reasons that far predate the particular person or situation, reasons rooted in our earliest attachments, those formative relationships in which perpetual optimism is both part of a child’s natural innocence and a necessary survival strategy for the helplessness of being in the care of a damaged and damaging adult.
Those dynamics — and how to break them with dignity, mindfulness, and emotional maturity — is what the soulful philosophical writer and School of Life founder Alain de Botton examines in one of his animated essays exploring the beautiful complexity of human relationships:
Because the unwillingness to walk away from a hurtful person is rooted in the belief that people change, the predicament gnaws at the fundaments of human nature and our ongoing effort to better understand what we are made of. Because relationships are the most fertile crucible of growth and transformation, because decades of research into psychology and the science of limbic revision have demonstrated that “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love,” this wager we place on the prospect of change is a transcendently optimistic belief. It is also a dangerous belief, for optimism can often metastasize into willful blindness. (To say nothing of the counterpoint possibility that, across a span of time and unfaced trauma, people can change for the worse, their good qualities eroded, for instance, by the twin metastasis of addiction and unhappiness feeding each other as they destroy their host.)
Mary McCarthy captured the optimism in asking her friend Hannah Arendt: “What’s the use of falling in love if you both remain inertly as-you-were?” Arendt captured the danger in cautioning her against the “crooked corkscrews of the heart” that keep us in painful relationships — a phrase she borrowed from her poet-friend W.H. Auden, who struggled with the paradox himself, oscillating between the aspiration to be “the more loving one” and the lucid awareness that false enchantment can poison a life with its toxic staying power.
De Botton explores the bipolar pull of the can-people-change question in another animated essay that illuminates the logical fallacies into which emotion drags us:
Perhaps Arendt captured this best — this great paradox and great heartbreak of relationships with unhealed people, this false and dangerous optimism that we can ever love someone out of their trauma — in her observation that “you can’t expect somebody who loves you to treat you less cruelly than he would treat himself.”
Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Jul 2021 | 12:36 pm(NZT)
“To forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt,” poet and philosopher David Whyte observed as he dove for the deeper meanings of our commonest concepts. But, as James Baldwin and Margaret Mead demonstrated in their historic conversation about forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, Western culture has a confused understanding of what forgiveness really requires of us and what it really gives us — a confusion tangled in the conflicting legacies of Ancient Greek culture, that primordial womb of drama and democracy, with its politically immature notions of justice, and Christian dogma, with its incomplete and psychologically puerile conceptions of love.
To disentangle this cultural confusion into a lucid and luminous understanding of forgiveness demands an uncommon largeness of spirit and depth of intellect, an uncommon breadth of erudition and historical knowledge, and an uncommon sensitivity to what it means to be human. That is what the uncommon Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) accomplishes throughout The Human Condition (public library) — the superb 1958 book that gave us her insight into how we invent ourselves and reinvent the world.
The very need for forgiveness, Arendt observes in a chapter titled “Irreversibility and the Power to Forgive,” springs from “the irreversibility and unpredictability of the process started by acting” — a process fundamental to what it means to be alive. We act because we are, but we don’t always act along the axis of who we aspire to be. Aspiration is a sort of promise — a promise we make to ourselves and, sometimes, to the world. Forgiveness is only ever needed, and possible, because of the inherent tension between action and aspiration. Arendt writes:
The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility — of being unable to undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing — is the faculty of forgiving. The remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty to make and keep promises. The two faculties belong together in so far as one of them, forgiving, serves to undo the deeds of the past… and the other, binding oneself through promises, serves to set up in the ocean of uncertainty, which the future is by definition, islands of security without which not even continuity, let alone durability of any kind, would be possible in the relationships between [us].
To live in a world without forgiveness, she intimates, is to make of life an instant fossil record, each imperfect action instantly ossifying us into a failed promise of personhood:
Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell. Without being bound to the fulfillment of promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each man’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities — a darkness which only the light shed over the public realm through the presence of others, who confirm the identity between the one who promises and the one who fulfills, can dispel. Both faculties, therefore, depend on plurality, on the presence and acting of others, for no one can forgive himself and no one can feel bound by a promise made only to himself; forgiving and promising enacted in solitude or isolation remain without reality and can signify no more than a role played before one’s self.
As a secular philosopher and one of the greatest champions of reason amid one of the most unreasonable epochs in the history of our civilization, Arendt observes:
The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that he made this discovery in a religious context and articulated it in religious language is no reason to take it any less seriously in a strictly secular sense… Certain aspects of the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth which are not primarily related to the Christian religious message but sprang from experiences in the small and closely knit community of his followers, bent on challenging the public authorities in Israel, certainly belong among them, even though they have been neglected because of their allegedly exclusively religious nature.
The capacity for forgiveness and the enactment of that capacity in the willingness to forgive is what holds the sphere of human experience together — the private sphere as much as the public sphere, for forgiveness is as vital in our deepest personal bonds as it is in the collective experience of public life. In a sentiment the great civil rights leader John Lewis would echo in his life-earned conviction that “forgiveness and compassion must become more important principles in public life,” Arendt writes:
Trespassing is an everyday occurrence which is in the very nature of action’s constant establishment of new relationships within a web of relations, and it needs forgiving, dismissing, in order to make it possible for life to go on by constantly releasing men* from what they have done unknowingly. Only through this constant mutual release from what they do can men remain free agents, only by constant willingness to change their minds and start again can they be trusted with so great a power as that to begin something new.
In a passage evocative of Oliver Sacks’s stirring first-hand lesson in choosing empathy over vengeance, she adds:
In this respect, forgiveness is the exact opposite of vengeance, which acts in the form of re-acting against an original trespassing, whereby far from putting an end to the consequences of the first misdeed, everybody remains bound to the process, permitting the chain reaction contained in every action to take its unhindered course. In contrast to revenge, which is the natural, automatic reaction to transgression and which because of the irreversibility of the action process can be expected and even calculated, the act of forgiving can never be predicted; it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action. Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. The freedom contained in Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness is the freedom from vengeance, which incloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end.
Arendt observes that punishment is not the opposite of forgiveness but an alternative to it — one enfeebled by the paradox that human beings are “unable to forgive what they cannot punish and that they are unable to punish what has turned out to be unforgivable.” (Yes, do read that again; turn it over in your mind like a Zen koan — I did — until it unfolds its subtle riches of profound wisdom.) She considers the complicated and often superficially understood relationship between forgiveness and love — the least public emotion upon which, somehow, the foundation of all public and political life rests:
Forgiving and the relationship it establishes is always an eminently personal (though not necessarily individual or private) affair in which what was done is forgiven for the sake of who did it… It is the reason for the [Christian] conviction that only love has the power to forgive. For love, although it is one of the rarest occurrences in human lives, indeed possesses an unequaled power of self-revelation and an unequaled clarity of vision for the disclosure of who, precisely because it is unconcerned to the point of total unworldliness with what the loved person may be, with his qualities and shortcomings no less than with his achievements, failings, and transgressions. Love, by reason of its passion, destroys the in-between which relates us to and separates us from others… Love, by its very nature, is unworldly, and it is for this reason rather than its rarity that it is not only apolitical but antipolitical, perhaps the most powerful of all antipolitical human forces.
With one of her exquisite pirouettes of logic, Arendt thus delivers us at — and delivers us from — the most dangerous fault line in the Christian model, a fault line that must be sealed and healed before we can have a less confused, more complete and generative understanding of forgiveness: one based not on the emotionally intoxicating but unstable experience we call love but on the ethically and intellectually grounded orientation of respect. She writes:
If it were true, therefore, as Christianity assumed, that only love can forgive because only love is fully receptive to who somebody is, to the point of being always willing to forgive him whatever he may have done, forgiving would have to remain altogether outside our considerations. Yet what love is in its own, narrowly circumscribed sphere, respect is in the larger domain of human affairs. Respect, not unlike the Aristotelian philia politikē, is a kind of “friendship” without intimacy and without closeness; it is a regard for the person from the distance which the space of the world puts between us, and this regard is independent of qualities which we may admire or of achievements which we may highly esteem. Thus, the modern loss of respect, or rather the conviction that respect is due only where we admire or esteem, constitutes a clear symptom of the increasing depersonalization of public and social life.
Against this backdrop, forgiveness can only ever be a communal experience. More than half a century after Arendt, in a cultural moment so inflamed with reflexive indictment and so clouded with the saccharine delirium of self-righteousness, it is nothing less than an act of countercultural courage and resistance to regard this wisdom with unwincing receptivity. Such courage asks of us what Arendt terms “the good will to counter the enormous risks of action by readiness to forgive and to be forgiven, to make promises and to keep them.” There is, after all, nothing riskier than willingness, and nothing more rewarding.
Complement this fragment of Arendt’s enduringly illuminating The Human Condition with philosopher Martha Nussbaum — in many ways an intellectual heir of Arendt’s — on anger and forgiveness, then revisit Arendt herself on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss.
Source: Brain Pickings | 15 Jul 2021 | 5:24 am(NZT)
“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” Tchaikovsky wrote to his patron as he contemplated the interplay of discipline and creativity. A century later, James Baldwin echoed the sentiment in his advice on writing, observing: “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”
But for those of us who show up to do what we do day after day, inner rain or shine, as the days unspool into years — Brain Pickings turns 15 this year — there is something more than white-knuckle discipline making the steadfast labor not only bearable, not only sustainable, but vitalizing, inspiriting, joyful. What fuels the engine of endurance is a passionate enchantment — something of which Baldwin’s “love” reflects a glimmer but does not fully capture.
The most marvelous part of it is this: It is an enchantment we cast upon ourselves.
How to cast that enchantment and how to couple it with the requisite endurance is what Your People’s Poet Laureate Naomi Shihab Nye, composer of the existentially symphonic “Kindness,” explores in a short, splendid prose reflection tucked into the final pages of her altogether soul-broadening collection Everything Comes Next: Collected and New Poems (public library).
In a sentiment evocative of Bertrand Russell’s lovely notion of “largeness of contemplation” in calibrating the relationship between intuition and the intellect, Nye writes:
Two helpful words to keep in mind at the beginning of any writing adventure are pleasure and spaciousness. If we connect a sense of joy with our writing, we may be inclined to explore further. What’s there to find out? Perhaps too much stock has been placed in big ideas or even small ones — a myth! — but regularity seems like a key. Don’t start with a big idea. Start with a phrase, a line, a quote. Questions are very helpful. Begin with a few you’re carrying right now.
In consonance with John Steinbeck’s life-tested, Nobel-earning conviction that “in writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration,” she adds:
Small increments of writing time may matter more than we could guess. One thing leads to many — swerving off, linking up, opening of voices and images and memories. Nearby notebooks — or iPads or tablets or laptops — are surely helpful.
With this, Nye turns to the ongoing dialogue between the magic of creation and the mechanics of discipline:
Make a plan, and return to it. It’s a party to which we keep inviting ourselves.
And we have so many realms of material that are very close by:
Spoken language woven into poems — something someone said to you a long time ago and you still remember it — why, out of all the talk, do you remember that thing?
Being Sick, Being Well
What we see out our windows
History — what used to be in this very place where we are sitting now?
Although such constructed starting points might seem mechanistic, they are the lever that unlatches the expanse where the unexpected can begin to unfurl. That incubus where ideas collide with one another into the unconscious combinatorial process we call creativity is also the place where the joy of all creative labor lives.
Returning to the twin consecrating forces of discipline, pleasure and spaciousness, Nye writes:
Spaciousness — any page is wider than it looks. You have no idea where this thing might be going. Write in nuggets — here are my questions, here are some details I saw within the last 24 hours, here are some quotes I heard people say today. Gather material first — then select and connect from it… Each thing gives us something else.
The more any of us writes, the more our words will “come to us.” If we trust in the words and their own mysterious relationship with one another, they will help us find things out… Consider the pleasure we feel when we go to a beach. The broad beach, the bigger air, the endless swish of movement and backdrop of sound. We feel uplifted, exhilarated. Writing regularly can help us feel that way too.
In a short poem from the same book, calling to mind poet Ross Gay’s reflection on writing by hand as an instrument of thought, Nye considers the practical tools that carve out this observant spaciousness in which impressions can collide and coalesce into ideas:
ALWAYS BRING A PENCIL
by Naomi Shihab Nye
There will not be a test.
It does not have to be
a Number 2 pencil.
But there will be certain things —
the quiet flush of waves,
ripe scent of fish,
smooth ripple of the wind’s second name —
that prefer to be written about
It gives them more room
to move around.
For more practical and philosophical reflections on the craft from great poets, savor Mary Oliver’s advice on writing, Elizabeth Alexander on language as a vehicle for the poetry of personhood, and Rilke on the relationship between solitude, love, and creativity, then revisit Rachel Carson on the sacred loneliness of writing and Walt Whitman on the discipline of creative self-esteem.
Source: Brain Pickings | 12 Jul 2021 | 10:20 am(NZT)
To put our familiar lives in perspective and jolt us awake to the wonder of so much we have come to take for granted, let us picture this:
It is the 1840s and you, like most of humanity, have never traveled more than a few miles beyond where you were born, have never met a person native to a different country, have never seen a bird native to a different continent or a flower native to a different climate. Like most of humanity, you never will. Photography has just been born, too costly and cumbersome a technology to carry into the world, much less to carry the world to you. If you have had the privilege of setting foot in a library — that is, if you were born with a Y chromosome and very little melanin — you might have leafed through a heavy leather-bound encyclopedia or an herbarium and marveled at life-forms from faraway lands. If you are among the slender portion of our species lucky enough to live near one of the world’s handful of natural history museums and botanical gardens, you might have glimpsed some specimens of exotic plants.
But you are you — whatever degree of privilege chance has conferred upon you at birth, you are curious and you hunger for beauty, enraptured by the artwork that is your only portal to the living wonders of this world.
Before science made the technologies of image-capture and global travel possible, botanical and natural history illustrators were singular civil servants — artists in the service of their subjects, tasked with capturing and conveying what it is like to be a particular plant or animal living in a particular habitat. Here, each exquisitely rendered specimen seems to say to its remote viewer, aren’t I strange and beautiful and worthy of inclusion in the family of life?
Few artists have accomplished this more effectively and enchantingly than Étienne Denisse (1785–1861).
As a young artist at the botanical garden of the natural history museum in Paris, Denisse had attracted the attention of the crown with his uncommonly detailed and scrumptious paintings of plants. He was eventually hired as lithographer for the French royal court, then dispatched to the French Caribbean territories, where he spent many years collecting and studying plants completely novel to European eyes, periodically sending his illustrations back to France. Between 1843 and 1846, two hundred and one astonishing hand-colored lithographic plates based on Denisse’s drawings from life were published as Flore d’Amérique. One of the very few surviving copies has been painstakingly restored and digitized by the wonderland that is the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden in collaboration with the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
Denisse did for the plants of the Americas what the Dutch engraver Louis Renard had done for the psychedelic fishes of the South Seas a century earlier and what the English marine biologist William Saville Kent would do for the corals of the Great Barrier Reef a generation later. Epochs before our digital voyeurism, before photo albums and air travel, his vibrant illustrations of unseen and unimaginable living wonders became the era’s National Geographic footage and Instagram feeds rolled into one.
Denisse seems to have had a special fondness for Earth’s very few true blues. Blue-flowering plants, so rare in nature, occupy a sizable portion of his folios — among them the unexpected blossoms of the mahogany tree and the startling butterfly pea with its intensely colored cobalt flowers and their perfect bright-yellow folds that earned the plant the Latin name Clitoria.
There are plants that are now fixtures of the global palate — the banana, mango, pineapple, cacao, coffee, coconut, various citrus fruit, and the avocado, that gladsome ghost of evolution.
Some plants, familiar to the tongue, are a startlement to the eye in their native form — the furry paw of the yam, the carnival carousel crown of the papaya tree, the surprising pink morning-glory blossoms of the sweet potato, the upside-down fleshy heart of the cashew’s fruiting body.
There are plants still exotic to non-native eyes: wondrous cacti; strange plums; the blue flame of the Mexican verbena; the enticing evergreen flowering Tillandsia, which Denisse dubbed “the immortal Creole,” now teetering on the brink of ecological mortality; the scaly chirimuya fruit beloved by the Incas; the colossal thorned heart of its cousin the soursop, which I still remember first encountering in Kauai with gaping disbelief at the otherworldly life-forms of which this planet is capable; the mammoth gramophone blossom of the pelican flower, Aristolochia grandiflora — one of Earth’s largest flowers, with a scent of rotting flesh to attract flies as pollinators; the Averrhoa with its luscious striped fruit reminiscent of a mosque top, named after the 12th-century Islamic astronomer and philosopher Averroes.
There is the tender-tongued hibiscus with its exultant petals, believed to cure snakebite; the passionflower with its spectacle of geometry and flower, whose fruit Denisse found “quite good to eat”; the otherworldly epidendrum orchid, which Denisse calls “the butterfly of plants”; the buxom wild squash of the Carolinas.
Complement with Denisse’s compatriot and contemporary Charles Antoine Lemaire’s astonishing illustrations of cacti and the trailblazing 18th-century artist Sarah Stone’s natural history paintings of exotic, endangered, and extinct species, then revisit the heartening story of how two 19th-century teenage sisters fomented one of the greatest triumphs of modern conservation with their forgotten paintings of Australian butterflies.
Source: Brain Pickings | 9 Jul 2021 | 3:14 pm(NZT)
It is a marvel, though hardly a surprise, that children’s minds are machines for metaphor. We are meaning-making creatures — from the moment we begin trying to make sense of the world, and even as we face the terrifying prospect of its meaninglessness, the familiar becomes our foothold for the unfamiliar; the images that already carry meaning, already invoke felt feeling-tones, become mirrors and magnifying glasses for those that don’t yet. Our entire experience of reality, bent through the lens of our meaning-hungry consciousness, becomes, as Nietzsche memorably put it, “a movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms.” Out of that moving host, the entire ecosystem of meaning we call art is born.
That is what Jane Hirshfield — a poet capable of compressing a universe of meaning into a mouthful of words, a thinker of uncommon insight into how language concentrates and consecrates reality, and an ordained Buddhist whose contemplative practice animates her creative practice — explores in this lovely animated meditation on the magic of metaphor from my friends at TED-Ed:
A good metaphor… is a way to let you feel and know something differently.
Metaphors give words a way to go beyond their own meaning. They are handles on the door of what we can know and of what we can imagine. Each door leads to some new house and some new world that only that one handle can open.
What’s amazing is this: By making a handle, you can make a world.
Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, alludes to the kinship between metaphor and riddle, calling each a source for the other. Not only does solving a riddle depend on the ability to think metaphorically, all metaphor preserves some flavor of a puzzle. A metaphor is language that simultaneously creates and solves its own riddle; within that minute explosion of mind is both expansion and release. Perhaps this is why riddles abound among the earliest poems in many traditions and why spiritual teaching so often partakes of the riddling: it is how the mind instructs itself in a more complex seeing.
Source: Brain Pickings | 8 Jul 2021 | 11:29 am(NZT)
To create anything of beauty, daring, and substance that makes the world see itself afresh — be it a revolutionary law of planetary motion or the Starry Night — is the work of lonely persistence against the tides of convention and conformity, often at the cost of the visionary’s aching ostracism from the status quo they are challenging with their vision. Rilke recognized this when he observed that “works of art are of an infinite loneliness” and Baldwin recognized it in his classic investigation of the creative process, in which he argued that the primary distinction of the artist is the willingness to maintain the state everyone else most zealously avoids: aloneness — not the romantic solitude of the hermit by the silver stream, but the raw existential and creative loneliness Baldwin likened to “the aloneness of birth or death” or “the aloneness of love, the force and mystery that so many have extolled and so many have cursed, but which no one has ever understood or ever really been able to control.”
This love-like force — the creative force — is what fuels the perseverance necessary to usher in a new way of seeing or a new way of being. It is the life-force by which visionaries survive the aloneness of their countercultural lives.
That is what jazz legend John Coltrane (September 23, 1926–July 17, 1967) addressed in an extraordinary letter penned in the late spring of 1962, posthumously included in Cuthbert Ormond Simpkins’s excellent 1975 biography Coltrane (public library).
One June morning two years after the release of his epoch-making Giant Steps and five years before his untimely death of cancer, Coltrane opened his mailbox to discover a package from the editor of Downbeat magazine, the premier journal of jazz, containing a gift: a copy of Music and Imagination — a book of the six lectures the great composer and creativity-contemplator Aaron Copland had delivered at Harvard a decade earlier.
Coltrane’s letter of thanks for the gift unspools into one of those rare miracles when something small and seemingly peripheral prompts a sweeping yet succinct formulation of a visionary’s personal philosophy and creative credo — Coltrane’s most direct meditation on what it means to be an artist.
Millennia after Pythagoras’s revolutionary yet limited mathematics of music forked the sonic path of the modern world by laying the structural foundation of the Western canon but failing to account for the intricate unstructured musical styles of the African diaspora and my own native Balkans — a cultural irony, given Pythagoras developed his theory on the island of Samos, a thriving cross-pollinator of the Ancient Greek world perched midway between Africa and the Balkans — Coltrane observes that Copland’s lectures, while erudite and philosophically insightful, speak more to musicians in the Western tradition than they do to jazz musicians. Against Copland’s concern about how difficult it can be for artists to find “a positive philosophy or justification” for their art, Coltrane holds up jazz as living counterpoint — a musical tradition that began as an affirmation of life amid unimaginable hardship, provided a lifeline for those who conceived it and partook of it, and has thrived on the wings of this inherent buoyancy.
It is really easy for us [jazz musicians] to create. We are born with this feeling that just comes out no matter what conditions exist. Otherwise, how could our founding fathers have produced this music in the first place when they surely found themselves (as many of us do today) existing in hostile communities when there was everything to fear and damn few to trust. Any music which could grow and propagate itself as our music has, must have a hell of an affirmative belief inherent in it.
Since we read (and write) about other lives to make sense of our own, he reflects on a biography he has been reading of Van Gogh — an artist who spent his short, revolutionary, tragic life negotiating between his private suffering and the irrepressible affirmative belief that forever changed art. With an eye to Van Gogh, Coltrane writes:
Truth is indestructible… History shows (and it’s the same way today) that the innovator is more often than not met with some degree of condemnation; usually according to the degree of his departure from the prevailing modes of expression or what have you. Change is always so hard to accept.
In a sentiment evocative of artist Egon Schiele’s observation that visionaries tend to come from the minority and echoing the seventh of Bertrand Russell’s ten commandments of critical thinking — “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” — Coltrane adds:
Innovators always seek to revitalize, extend and reconstruct the status quo in their given fields, wherever it is needed. Quite often they are the rejects, outcasts, sub-citizens, etc. of the very societies to which they bring so much sustenance. Often they are people who endure great personal tragedy in their lives. Whatever the case, whether accepted or rejected, rich or poor, they are forever guided by that great and eternal constant — the creative urge.
This might be the most succinct summation of my creative choice of historical figures to celebrate in Figuring. It is also what Virginia Woolf meant when she wrote of the “shock-receiving capacity” necessary for being an artist, and what Patti Smith meant when, with an eye to Coltrane, she considered the shamanistic channeling at the heart of the creative impulse.
Complement with Coltrane’s contemporary and fellow jazz legend Bill Evans on the creative process, then revisit Walt Whitman on how to keep criticism from sinking your creative confidence.
Source: Brain Pickings | 7 Jul 2021 | 4:43 am(NZT)
“In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female,” Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929, epochs before we had our ever-expanding twenty-first-century vocabulary of identities, as she celebrated the “androgynous mind” as the mind most “resonant and porous… naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.” Given Woolf arrived at her exquisite epiphany about what it means to be an artist while walking amid her blooming garden, she might have been pleased to know that the botanical term for the blossoms of androgenous plants, also known as bisexual plants — plants that contain both the male pollen-producing stamen and the female ovule-producing pistils, and can therefore self-pollinate — is perfect flowers.
Among the most common perfect flowers are lilies, roses, irises, snapdragons, flax flowers, morning glories, petunias, and the flowers of the coffee plant, the apple tree, and the tomato (which was once known as love apple).
Plants that contain only one set of gametes — among them begonias, squash, asparagus, and cottonwood — are termed imperfect. Curiously, there are sets of seemingly similar species that fall into opposite categories: the almond tree blooms a perfect flower (which inspired literature’s lushest metaphor for strength of character), while the walnut and the hazelnut do not; soy is perfect, while corn is not.
In one sense, perfect flowers are less evolutionarily helpless, not having to rely solely on pollinators to deliver the essential fertilizing material from another plant’s gene pool. But they are also more vulnerable — a single disease can vanquish a species with a self-contained gene pool, while a cross-pollinated plant is more likely to contain genes susceptible to the disease as well as genes resistant to it. Lest we forget, diversity is the wellspring of resilience — in the evolution of nature, as in the ever-evolving conservatory of human nature we call society.
“It has always pleased me to exalt plants in the scale of organised beings,” Charles Darwin wrote in his autobiography. Long before he developed his theory of evolution, his grandfather — the physician, poet, slave-trade abolitionist, and scientist-predating-the-coining-of-scientist Erasmus Darwin — composed a book-length poem titled The Botanic Garden, using scientifically accurate poetry to enchant the popular imagination with the scandalous new science of sexual reproduction in plants. Published in 1791, the wildly popular book was deemed too explicit for unmarried women to read.
Half a century after The Botanic Garden, the young Emily Dickinson, who was a gardener before she was a poet, approached this dual reverence of the botanical and the poetic from a different angle in her herbarium — a meticulously composed collection of 424 New England wildflowers, including hundreds of perfect flowers, arranged with a stunning sensitivity to scale and visual cadence across the pages of the large album, with slim paper labels punctuating the specimens like enormous dashes inscribed with the names of the plants, sometimes the common and sometimes the Linnaean.
The herbarium was Emily Dickinson’s first formal work of composition, each flower a stanza in the poetry of landscape and life, deliberately placed to radiate a particular feeling-tone. Her poems were never published in book form in her lifetime, but this book of flowers remained with her and now survives her.
On the cover of the first edition of her posthumously published poetry is a painting of one of her favorite wildflowers — the perfect flower Monotropa uniflora, commonly known as Indian Pipe for its shape when in bloom, or Ghost Flower for its lack of chlorophyll, which she considered “the preferred flower of life.” Once pollinated, the translucent white plant turns dark and dries up before releasing its resilient seeds into the living world.
When Emily Dickinson died at fifty-five, without a single white in her dark auburn hair, Susan — the great love of her life — wrapped her in a white robe and rested alongside her in the small white casket a single pink lady’s slipper — a rare orchid associated with Venus, beautiful and savage, a living Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Into the neck of the white shroud she tucked a small posy of violets — the flower Emily cherished above all others for its “unsuspected” splendor, to which she had dedicated the most dramatic page of her herbarium. “Still in her Eye / The Violets lie,” she had written in one of her earliest and most intense poems dedicated to Sue, which ends with the declamation “Sue — forevermore!”
Living when she lived and loving whom she loved, in an imperfect world too small for her genius or her love, Emily Dickinson dreamt of lusher landscapes of possibility, leaping beyond her biology and the limiting binaries of her culture with her bold, subversive verses:
Amputate my freckled Bosom!
Make me bearded like a Man!
She never lived to see the human world live up to nature’s nonbinary botany of desire.
But she had her love and all the perfect flowers.
Source: Brain Pickings | 3 Jul 2021 | 12:44 pm(NZT)
“You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love,” artist Louise Bourgeois wrote in her diary in her seventy-seventh year as she looked back on a long and lush life to consider the central role of solitude in creativity.
A generation before her, recognizing that “works of art arise from an infinite aloneness,” Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) explored the relationship between solitude, love, and creativity in his stunning correspondence with the nineteen-year-old Franz Xaver Kappus — an aspiring poet and cadet at the same military academy that had nearly broken Rilke’s own adolescent soul.
Posthumously published in German, these letters of uncommonly penetrating insight into the essence of art and love — that is, the essence of life — now come alive afresh as Letters to a Young Poet: A New Translation and Commentary (public library) by ecological philosopher, Buddhist scholar, and environmental activist Joanna Macy, and poet and clinical psychologist Anita Barrows: two women who have lived into the far reaches of life — Macy was ninety-one at the time of the translation and Barrows seventy-three — and who have spent a quarter century thinking deeply about what makes life worth living in translating together the works of a long-ago man who barely survived to fifty and who was still in his twenties when he composed these letters of tender and timeless lucidity.
Anticipating the illuminations of twentieth-century psychology about why a childhood capacity for “fertile solitude” is essential for creativity, self-esteem, and healthy relationships later in life, Rilke writes to his young correspondent in the short, dark, lonesome days just before the winter holidays:
What (you might ask yourself) would a solitude be that didn’t have some greatness to it? For there is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear. It comes almost all the time when you’d gladly exchange it for any togetherness, however banal and cheap; exchange it for the appearance of however strong a conformity with the ordinary, with the least worthy. But perhaps that is precisely the time when solitude ripens; its ripening can be painful as the growth of a boy and sad like the beginning of spring… What is needed is only this: solitude, great inner solitude. Going within and meeting no one else for hours — that is what one must learn to attain. To be solitary as one was as a child. As the grown-ups were moving about, preoccupied with things that seemed big and important because the grown-ups appeared so busy and because you couldn’t understand what they were doing.
Echoing Kierkegaard’s ever-timely insistence that “of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems… to be busy” and Emerson’s observation that “our hurry & embarrassment look ridiculous” the moment we pause the headlong rush of sociality through which we try to escape from ourselves, Rilke adds:
If one day one grasps that their busyness is pathetic, their occupations frozen and disconnected from life, why then not continue to see like a child, see it as strange, see it out of the depth of one’s own world, the vastness of one’s own solitude, which is, in itself, work and status and vocation?
And yet the crucial, exquisite creative tension that Rilke so singularly harmonizes is the essential interplay between solitude and love — each enriching the other, each magnifying the totality of the spirit from which all art springs. In another letter penned the following spring, he writes:
Don’t let your solitude obscure the presence of something within it that wants to emerge. Precisely this presence will help your solitude expand. People are drawn to the easy and to the easiest side of the easy. But it is clear that we must hold ourselves to the difficult, as is true for everything alive. Everything in nature grows and defends itself in its own way and against all opposition, straining from within and at any price to become distinctively itself. It is good to be solitary, because solitude is difficult, and that a thing is difficult must be even more of a reason for us to undertake it.
To love is good too, for love is difficult. For one person to care for another, that is perhaps the most difficult thing required of us, the utmost and final test, the work for which all other work is but a preparation. With our whole being, with all the strength we have gathered, we must learn to love. This learning is ever a committed and enduring process.
Two decades before Kahlil Gibran offered his abiding poetic wisdom on the difficult balance of intimacy and independence in true love, Rilke calls for shedding the ideological shackles of our culture’s conception of love as a melding of entities. “No human experience is so rife with conventions as this,” he observes with an eye to those who have not yet befriended their sovereign solitude and instead “act from mutual helplessness” to “simply surrender to love as an escape from loneliness.” He offers the liberating alternative that still requires as much countercultural courage in our day as it did in his:
To love is not about merging. It is a noble calling for the individual to ripen, to differentiate, to become a world in oneself in response to another. It is a great, immodest call that singles out a person and summons them beyond all boundaries. Only in this sense may we use the love that has been given us. This is humanity’s task, for which we are still barely ready.
This more human love (endlessly considerate and light and good and clear, consummated by holding close and letting go) will resemble that love that we so arduously prepare — the love that consists of two solitudes that protect, border, and greet each other.
In another letter, Rilke adds the complexity of physical intimacy to this realm of transcendent difficulty, formulating his advice on how to best harness eros as a creative force:
Yes, sex is hard. But anything expected of us is hard. Almost everything that matters is hard, and everything matters… Come to your own relationship to sex, free of custom and convention. Then you need not fear to lose yourself and become unworthy of your better nature.
Sexual pleasure is a sensory experience, no different from pure seeing or pure touch, like the taste of a fruit. It is a great, endless experience given to us, a natural part of knowing our world, of the fullness and brilliance of every knowing. And nothing we receive is wrong. What’s wrong is to misuse and spoil this experience and to use it to excite the exhausted aspects of our lives, to dissipate rather than connect.
Long before scientists shed light on how the sexuality of early flora and fauna gave our planet its beauty, Rilke adds:
Seeing the beauty in animals and plants is a form of love and longing; and we can see the animal, as we see the plant, patient and willing to come together and increase — not out of physical lust, not out of suffering, but bowing to necessities that are greater than lust and suffering and more powerful than will and resistance.
Oh that humans might humbly receive and earnestly bear this mystery that fills the earth down to the smallest thing, and feel it as part of life’s travail, instead of taking it lightly. If they could only be respectful of this fertility, which is undivided, whether in spiritual or physical form. For this spiritual creativity stems from the physical, derives from that erotic essence, and is but an airier, more delightful, more eternal iteration of its lush sensuality.
So too with the role of the erotic in creative work:
The art of creating is nothing without the vast ongoing participation and collaboration of the real world, nothing without the thousandfold harmonizing of things and beings; and the creator’s pleasure is thereby inexpressibly rich because it contains memories of the begetting and bearing of millions. In a single creative thought dwell a thousand forgotten nights of love, which infuse it with immensity. And those who come together in the night, locked in thrusting desire, are gathering nectar, generating power and sweetness for some future poetic utterance that will sing the rapture.
For more of and about this ravishing new translation of Letters to a Young Poet — one which embodies the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s notion of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original,” and the finest such miracle performed on a classic since Ursula K. Le Guin’s feminist translation of the Tao Te Ching — savor this On Being conversation with Macy and Barrows about the wider resonances of Rilke’s work in our world, then revisit Rilke’s contemporary Hermann Hesse on solitude and the courage to find yourself, physicist Brian Greene’s Rilkean reflection on how to live with our human vulnerabilities, and Rilke himself on what it takes to be an artist.
Source: Brain Pickings | 30 Jun 2021 | 5:13 am(NZT)
It is already disorienting enough to accept that our attention only absorbs a fraction of the events and phenomena unfolding within and around us at any given moment. Now consider that our memory only retains a fraction of what we have attended to in moments past. In the act of recollection, we take these fragments of fragments and try to reconstruct from them a totality of a remembered reality, playing out in the theater of the mind — a stage on which, as neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has observed in his landmark work on consciousness, we often “use our minds not to discover facts, but to hide them.”
We do this on the personal level — out of such selective memory and by such exquisite exclusion, we compose the narrative that is the psychological pillar of our identity. We do it on the cultural level — what we call history is a collective selective memory that excludes far more of the past’s realities than it includes. Borges captured this with his characteristic poetic-philosophical precision when he observed that “we are our memory… that chimerical museum of shifting shapes, that pile of broken mirrors.” To be aware of memory’s chimera is to recognize the slippery, shape-shifting nature of even those truths we think we are grasping most firmly.
Nearly a century after Nietzsche admonished that what we call truth is “a movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms… a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished,” the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (March 23, 1910–September 6, 1998) created an exquisite cinematic metaphor for the slippery memory-mediated nature of truth in his 1950 film Rashomon, based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove” — a psychological-philosophical thriller about the murder of a samurai and its four witnesses, who each recount a radically different reality, each equally believable, thus undermining our most elemental trust in truth.
As researchers in the second half of the twentieth century came to shed light on the foibles of memory, Kurosawa’s masterpiece lent its name to the amply documented unreliability of eyewitness accounts. The Rashomon effect, detailed in this wonderful animated primer from TED-Ed, casts a haunting broader nimbus of doubt over our basic grasp of reality — we only exist, after all, as eyewitnesses of our own lives.
All of these psychological perplexities arise from the basic neurophysiological infrastructure of how memories form and falter in the brain — something the great neurologist Oliver Sacks explored in his classic medical poetics of memory disorders, and something South African biomedical scientist Catharine Young explores in another TED-Ed episode, animated by the prolific Patrick Smith:
Complement with Neurocomic — a graphic novel about how the mind works — and the animated science of how playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, then revisit Virginia Woolf on how memory seams our lives, Sally Mann on how photographs can unseam memory, and neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin on how medicine’s most famous amnesiac illuminates the wonders of consciousness.
Source: Brain Pickings | 30 Jun 2021 | 3:26 am(NZT)
She has mounted fifty pounds of photography equipment on her bicycle and is pedaling along the shore to the Staten Island ferry, headed for Manhattan. Photography is only a generation old and Alice Austen (March 17, 1866–June 9, 1952) is twenty-nine. She is about to take photographs of the proper technique for mounting, dismounting, riding, and carrying a bicycle for her friend Maria’s trailblazing manifesto-manual for cycling, inciting Victorian women to embrace the spoked engine of emancipation: “You are at all times independent. This absolute freedom of the cyclist can be known only to the initiated.”
Alice — artist, athlete, banjo player, sailor, founder of the Staten Island Garden Club, the first woman to own a car in the borough — has come as close to absolute freedom as a woman of her era could come, transcending the narrow roadways of her time with her wheels, her lens, and her love.
As the ferry traverses the East River, Alice is watching the Statue of Liberty rise imperturbable over Ellis Island, where she has just photographed people at New York Harbor’s immigrant quarantine stations — something she did every year for a decade, returning to that crucible of humility and hope to document those tender and terrifying moments when lives are begun afresh with little more than wordless daring and a fragile dream.
As a girl, abandoned by her father before her birth and raised by her mother in a cottage by an enormous sycamore rising strong despite the blackened interior hollowed out by lightning, Alice had watched Lady Liberty being built, part emblem and part promise. The statue was dedicated the year Emily Dickinson died and Alice turned ten — the year her uncle, a sea-captain, gave her a dry-plate camera from England as a birthday present.
Turning a closet into a darkroom, Alice proceeded to teach herself the art of photography, taking meticulous process notes to refine her technique. Not yet out of her teens and already one of the most accomplished photographers in America, she ventured out into world to document its vibrant life, dedicating hers to her art. In an era when almost no women practiced photography — an activity both intensely physical and intensely delicate, given the size, weight, and fragility of early cameras and glass plates — she became the first American woman known to work outside the studio, creating what we now know as street photography.
Riding the Manhattan-bound ferry that day in her youth, Alice didn’t yet know — for we never know these things — that she was soon to meet the love of her life.
In the final months of the nineteenth century, Alice Austen took a summer vacation in the Catskill Mountains, where she met Gertrude Tate, six years her junior — a vivacious dance instructor and kindergarten teacher from Brooklyn, who wore a wig over her buzz-cut hair and with whom Alice would spend the remaining fifty-three years of her life.
So began the other great Gertrude-and-Alice love story — far less fabled than the one of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas a generation later, but also one in which two people, joined together, become themselves.”
Over her long life, Alice Austen took more than 8,000 photographs, turning her sensitive and daring lens toward the lives of immigrants, child laborers, New York “street types,” and people for whom Victorian culture had neither terms nor tenderness and whom we might call LGBT today.
Emerging from her photographs is a lovely testament to Frederick Douglass’s faith in early photography as an instrument of social justice, bridging the ideal and the real.
A generation before Berenice Abbott, another trailblazing lesbian photographer, created her iconic series Changing New York, Alice Austen captured the changing face of the city — this ever-changing emblem of a city — during its most rapid period of transformation as modernity was finding its sea legs and America was becoming America.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, Alice was flung into financial struggle. By the end of WWII, she and Gertrude were evicted from the home they had shared for three decades and thrust into the hands of their respective extended families, none of whom approved of their lifelong relationship. Without means and without options, they were separated. Gertrude was taken to Queens. At eighty, Alice ended up at the Staten Island Farm Colony — the euphemistic name for the local poorhouse. Gertrude, who continued teaching dance well into her seventies, visited weekly.
Like Vivian Maier — another visionary photographer who also captured the street life of the city and who also, by the scant surviving evidence, was very probably queer — Alice Austen lived out her life without artistic recognition. Like Maier’s work, Austen’s was brought to light by a man who chanced upon it and knew he had chanced upon greatness. Unlike Maier, Austen was still alive.
In 1950, while working on his book The Revolt of American Women, Oliver Jensen — a thirty-six-year-old former Life magazine editor and writer — discovered 3,500 of Alice’s glass-plate negatives in the basement of the Staten Island Historical Society and was instantly taken with their uncommon genius. Leafing through phone books, he was staggered to realize that Alice was still alive, then doubly staggered to learn that she was living at a poorhouse.
Drawing on his magazine connections, he secured publication of Alice’s work in Life, which raised enough funds to migrate her to a nursing home. He then built on the initial visibility to organize an exhibition of her work at a local museum in 1951 — the first and only in her lifetime. When the show opened on October 7, now celebrated as Alice Austen Day, Alice was there with Gertrude by her side.
Shortly after the opening, Alice suffered a stroke. By spring, she was dead. Gertrude survived her by a decade, living to ninety. The couple had expressly wished to be buried together — a wish Gertrude’s family bluntly refused in one final act of assault on their lifelong devotion.
Today, the Staten Island home the couple shared for most of their life, the cottage in which Alice grew up and mastered her art, survives as Alice Austen House — part museum and part memorial, celebrating Alice’s trailblazing art and the totality of being from which it sprang, including her lush love for Gertrude. The sycamore tree — one of the sylvan marvels in Benjamin Swett’s wonderful book New York City of Trees (public library), from which I first learned of Alice Austen’s story — still rises by the house, still charred and hollowed, still growing and lush with life.
Source: Brain Pickings | 27 Jun 2021 | 1:04 pm(NZT)
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” the great French philosopher Simone Weil wrote shortly before her untimely death. An epoch after her, Mary Oliver eulogized the love of her life with the observation that “attention without feeling… is only a report.” Looking back on centuries of love poems by people of genius who dared to love beyond the cultural narrows of their time, the poet J.D. McClatchy observed that “love is the quality of attention we pay to things.”
Because our attention shapes our entire experience of the world — this, after all, is the foundation of all Eastern traditions of mindfulness, which train the attention in order to anneal our quality of presence — the objects of our attention end up, in a subtle but profound way, shaping who we are.
Because there is hardly a condition of consciousness that focuses the attention more sharply and totally upon its object than love, what and whom we love is the ultimate revelation of what and who we are.
That is what the great Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (May 9, 1883–October 18, 1955) explores in a series of essays originally written for the Madrid newspaper El Sol and posthumously published in English as On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme (public library) — a singular culmination of Ortega’s philosophic investigation of Western culture’s blind spots, biases, and touching self-delusions about love, that is, about who and what we are.
Defining love as “that sense of spiritual perception with which one seems to touch someone else’s soul, to feel its contours, the harshness or gentleness of its character,” Ortega notes that love reveals “the most intimate and mysterious preferences which form our individual character.” He writes:
There are situations, moments in life, in which, unawares, the human being confesses great portions of his ultimate personality, of his true nature. One of these situations is love. In their choice* of lovers [human beings] reveal their essential nature. The type of human being which we prefer reveals the contours of our heart. Love is an impulse which springs from the most profound depths of our beings, and upon reaching the visible surface of life carries with it an alluvium of shells and seaweed from the inner abyss. A skilled naturalist, by filing these materials, can reconstruct the oceanic depths from which they have been uprooted.
Defining attention as “the function charged with giving the mind its structure and cohesion,” Ortega places it at the center of the experience of love:
“Falling in love” is a phenomenon of attention.
Our spiritual and mental life is merely that which takes place in the zone of maximum illumination. The rest — the zone of conscious inattention and, beyond that, the subconscious — is only potential life, a preparation, an arsenal or reserve. The attentive consciousness can be regarded as the very space of our personalities. We can just as well say that that thing dislodges a certain space in our personalities.
Half a century after William James — one of Ortega’s greatest influences and philosophical progenitors — laid the groundwork of modern psychology with his statement “My experience is what I agree to attend to,” Ortega adds:
Nothing characterizes us as much as our field of attention… This formula might be accepted: tell me where your attention lies and I will tell you who you are.
“Falling in love,” initially, is no more than this: attention abnormally fastened upon another person. If the latter knows how to utilize his privileged situation and ingeniously nourishes that attention, the rest follows with irremissible mechanism.
Paradoxically, the cultural narrative handed down to us by the Romantics postulates that love broadens and consecrates our awareness of life: Suddenly, everything is illuminated; suddenly, everything sings. Anyone who has ridden the intoxicating elation of early love has felt this, and yet Ortega intimates that this is an illusion of consciousness, masking the actual phenomenon at work, which is rather the opposite — everything is tinted with aspects of the beloved, blurring and tuning out the details that give the world its actuality. Ortega writes:
The person in love has the impression that the life of his consciousness is very rich. His reduced world is more concentrated. All of his psychic forces converge to act upon one single point, and this gives a false aspect of superlative intensity to his existence.
At the same time, that exclusiveness of attention endows the favored object with portentous qualities… By overwhelming an object with attention and concentrating on it, the consciousness endows it with an incomparable force of reality. It exists for us at every moment; it is ever present, there alongside us, more real than anything else. The remainder of the world must be sought out, by laboriously deflecting our attention from the beloved… The world does not exist for the lover. His beloved has dislodged and replaced it… Without a paralysis of consciousness and a reduction of our habitual world, we could never fall in love.
Long before cognitive scientists came to study what “an intentional, unapologetic discriminator” attention is as it frames our experience of reality by deliberate exclusion, Ortega writes:
Attention is the supreme instrument of personality; it is the apparatus which regulates our mental lives. When paralyzed, it does not leave us any freedom of movement. In order to save ourselves, we would have to reopen the field of our consciousness, and to achieve that it would be necessary to introduce other objects into its focus to rupture the beloved’s exclusiveness. If in the paroxysm of falling in love we could suddenly see the beloved in the normal perspective of our attention, her magic power would be destroyed. In order, however, to gain this perspective we would have to focus our attention upon other things, that is, we would have to emerge from our own consciousness, which is totally absorbed by the object that we love.
Nothing illustrates this contracting of the lens more clearly than the discomposing experience of emerging from the somnambulant state of in-loveness — an experience familiar to anyone who has ever surfaced from an infatuation or has deepened an infatuation into a calm and steady love. Ortega writes:
When we emerge from a period of falling in love we feel an impression similar to awakening and emerging from a narrow passage crammed with dreams. Then we realize that normal perspective is broader and airier, and we become aware of all the hermeticism and rarefaction from which our impassioned minds suffered. For a time we experience the moments of vacillation, weakness, and melancholy of convalescence.
But despite its potential pitfalls, love remains at once the most interior and the most influential experience of our personhood. In a sentiment evocative of that exquisite line from The Little Prince — “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” — Ortega considers how love, so invisible yet so essential a feature of our humanity, polishes the lens of our entire worldview:
The things which are important lie behind the things that are apparent.
Probably, there is only one other theme more inward than love: that which may be called “metaphysical sentiment,” or the essential, ultimate, and basic impression which we have of the universe. This acts as a foundation and support for our other activities, whatever they may be. No one lives without it, although its degree of clarity varies from person to person. It encompasses our primary, decisive attitude toward all of reality, the pleasure which the world and life hold for us. Our other feelings, thoughts, and desires are activated by this primary attitude and are sustained and colored by it. Of necessity, the complexion of our love affairs is one of the most telling symptoms of this primogenital sensation. By observing our neighbor in love we are able to deduce his vision or goal in life. And this is the most interesting thing to ascertain: not anecdotes about his existence, but the card upon which he stakes his life.
And yet our culture has a peculiar willful blindness to how love shapes life and the particular expression of aliveness that is our creative work — a peculiar denial of the elemental fact that because we love with everything we are, our loves imprint everything we make. (I wrote Figuring in large part as an antidote to this dangerous delusion, exploring how the loves at the center of great lives shaped the way in which those persons of genius in turn shaped our understanding of the world with their scientific and artistic work.) Ortega shares in this distaste for the cultural diminishment of love as a driving force of creative work. Observing that many persons of extraordinary creative power have tended to take their loves “more seriously than their work” — the very work for which they are celebrated as geniuses, and a choice for which they have suffered derision by their contemporaries and by posterity — he admonishes against this common cultural judgment:
It is curious that only those incapable of producing great work believe that the contrary is the proper conduct: to take science, art, or politics seriously and disdain love affairs as mere frivolities.
A century and a half after astronomer Maria Mitchell — a key figure in Figuring — observed that “whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware,” Ortega laments:
We do not take into sufficient consideration the enormous influence which our loves exercise upon our lives.
But while love reveals who we are, it also shapes who we are, sculpting our character and tinting our personality. The century of psychology developed since Ortega’s epoch has illuminated just how much “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.” Ortega intuits this transformative power of love and, in consonance with Kurt Vonnegut’s theory that you can be in love up to three times in life, he writes:
A personality experiences in the course of its life two or three great transformations, which are like different stages of the same moral trajectory… Our innermost being seems, in each of these two or three phases, to rotate a few degrees upon its axis, to shift toward another quadrant of the universe and to orient itself toward new constellations.
Complement these fragments from Ortega’s intensely insightful On Love with Adrienne Rich on how relationships refine our truths, James Baldwin on love and the illusion of choice, and Esther Perel on our greatest misconception about love, then revisit what remains my favorite meditation on the subject from centuries of literature and philosophy: Hannah Arendt on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss.
Source: Brain Pickings | 26 Jun 2021 | 3:36 am(NZT)
“The secret of success,” Jackson Pollock’s father wrote to the teenage artist-to-be in his wonderful letter of life-advice, “is to be fully awake to everything about you.” Few things beckon our attention and awaken us to life more compellingly than color. “Our lives, when we pay attention to light, compel us to empathy with color,” Ellen Meloy wrote in her exquisite meditation on the chemistry, culture, and the conscience of color. And why else live if not to pay attention to the changing light?
In Darling Baby (public library), artist Maira Kalman, a poet of chromatic tenderness, composes an uncommon ode to aliveness, to the vibrant beauty of life, life that is very new and life that is very old.
As she teaches the baby to look at this color, this shape, this quality of light, we see the grownup relearn to see with those baby-eyes that are awake to the luminous everythingness of everything, undulled by the accumulation of filters we call growing up. What emerges is a celebration of attention as affirmation of aliveness, a vibrant testament to Simone Weil’s exquisite observation that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Page after painted page, a generous presence unfolds — presence with the new life of this small helpless observer of the world, presence with the ancient life of sky and sea.
There are people dancing and geese swimming in formation and “a thousand tiny silver fish” jumping over the water in an arc and a lightning-sliced night and a full Moon reflected in the gentle blue ripples and “a tree filled with yellow sparkly stars.”
Perfectly, it all takes place on the edge of the ocean — that singular place of existential reckoning, the perfect stage for Kalman’s classic dual serenade to life and death, to the mortal as the precious crucible of wonder.
One day, a summer party celebrates the baby’s birth “and everyone’s birthday with cheery cherry pie,” which a man takes home in his hat. “Everyone is born. That is true.” Another day, the grownup protagonist stumbles upon the still cool body of a “a big mossy-green turtle,” washed up from the ocean of life — a subtle, poignant intimation that everybody dies, too.
She tells the baby:
The water carried the turtle out to sea to be buried in the vast ocean. I think that is a good thing. At any rate, it is a thing.
I am telling you this because I know you will understand.
And all throughout, that wondrous overtone of Kalman’s irrepressible love of life.
Complement Darling Baby with an Italian illustrated ode to the science and strange splendors of pregnancy, then revisit Kalman’s tender painted love letter to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s love.
Illustrations courtesy of Maira Kalman; book photographs by Maria Popova
Source: Brain Pickings | 23 Jun 2021 | 3:22 am(NZT)
Western psychologists have rightly observed that “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.” Zen Buddhists have rightly observed that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.” That lacuna between whom and how, between the objects of our love and its observance, is powerful space for transformation. For those of us who have not come into the world under the most optimal of circumstances and have not been formed by the most nurturing of forces, relationships are especially fertile ground for growing the twin roots of the stable soul: love and trust.
Yet always, always, there is an undertone of loneliness in even the most symphonic love — not the gladsome “neighboring solitudes” Rilke placed at the center of healthy companionship, but the hollowing loneliness of unbelonging, of never feeling fully and completely seen, which another great poet placed at the center of her poetry and her private anguish before she perished by that loneliness.
Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) was still a teenager when she began facing the deepest existential questions, untangling them with uncommon lucidity on the pages of her diary, which now survive as The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library) — the dazzling and at times discomposing posthumous echo of personhood that gave us the young Plath on finding nonreligious divinity in nature, the ecsatsy of curiosity, and her thoughts on life, death, hope and happiness.
In an entry from the winter of her freshman year at Smith College, upon returning to her dorm room after a four-day blur with her family for Thanksgiving, she writes:
Now I know what loneliness is, I think. Momentary loneliness, anyway. It comes from a vague core of the self — like a disease of the blood, dispersed throughout the body so that one cannot locate the matrix, the spot of contagion.
This loneliness will blur and diminish, no doubt, when tomorrow I plunge again into classes, into the necessity of studying for exams. But now, that false purpose is lifted and I am spinning in a temporary vacuum… The routine is momentarily suspended and I am lost. There is no living being on earth at this moment except myself. I could walk down the halls, and empty rooms would yawn mockingly at me from every side.
Peering beyond the immediate situation, beyond this particular moment in life, she casts a darkly prognostic eye toward the rosary of moments stringing her uncertain future — a future that would soon include a passionate but damaging love, a future cut short by her lonely pain — and adds:
God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of “parties” with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter — they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship — but the loneliness of the soul in it’s appalling self-consciousness, is horrible and overpowering.
It was Plath’s tragedy that after chance had dealt her neurochemistry and nurture far from optimal, and that the delicious illusion of choice had led her to a complicated love that deepened her art and deepened the pain from which it sprang. But her concrete tragedy — which is a common tragedy: so often our unhealed wounds lead us to people whose claws fit those wounds and deepen them — is contoured by the luminous negative space of the opposite possibility: Some loves can unseal, irradiate, and heal those small dark old places in us where joy has been compacted into a hard dense loneliness. This possibility is folded into a glorious, maddening Möbius strip of trust: The very relationships in which we can begin to grow those twin roots of the soul require a level of trust to begin the terrifying process of being known — a process Adrienne Rich placed at the heart of every relationship in which two people have together earned the right to use the word “love,” a truly honorable relationship shaped by “a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.”
Source: Brain Pickings | 19 Jun 2021 | 4:28 am(NZT)
In his thrice-revised and expanded autobiographies, Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Bailey, recounts changing his surname multiple times to cover his fugitive trail. When the time came to settle on a permanent name, he invited the man in whose home was taking refuge — a free black man devoted to helping fugitive slaves — to choose for him, as a token of gratitude. His host suggested Douglas — the self-possessed Highlander hero of one of the era’s greatest literary blockbusters, Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake. In his retelling, Frederick Douglass brushes past the additional s, with the vague intimation that he added it for distinction.
But there is another probable possibility for the peculiar spelling. Here was an orphan with no sense of roots, an aching ambivalence about his parentage, and a longing for communal belonging. And here was the grown man of genius retelling his own story of becoming, aware — like all persons of genius — that a larger mythos of colossal cultural significance hangs upon their private myth.
Since the dawn of the abolition movement, women had played an active and ardent role in fundraising, organizing, and public advocacy — women who risked ostracism, or worse, for exercising the agency of stepping outside the narrow confines of the domestic sphere allotted them and into the cosmos of political activism. One of the movement’s leading women was the young Philadelphian Sarah Mapps Douglass (September 9, 1806–September 8, 1882), who at only twenty-five had organized a major fundraising campaign for the primary journalistic instrument of abolition — William Lloyd Garrison’s paper The Liberator, on the pages of which Frederick Douglass found and trained his own literary voice.
The daughter of two active abolitionists, Sarah was born into one of America’s most prominent black families and raised in the Quaker tradition — her grandfather, Cyrus, had been a slave to a local Quaker baker who liberated him and taught him the baking trade; Cyrus soon opened his own successful bakery, which allowed him to fund and operate a school for black children from his home, later becoming a founding member of the pioneering Free African Society seventy-five years before Abraham Lincoln staked his credo and his life on the Emancipation Proclamation.
Sarah was nursed on a love of literature and a love of nature, immersed in art and music, and lavished with painting lessons in a bubble of her privilege — provisional and relative, as all privilege is. Growing up amid the intellectual ferment of abolition, she grasped the terrors of slavery only abstractly, as an idea and not a felt reality, not fully imagining how other children who looked like her lived very different lives, how people who looked like her parents died gruesome deaths. Then, as a young woman, she performed one of those rare, triumphal acts that signify true maturity and grandeur of spirit: changing one’s mind as it expands to take in a broader perspective and publicly acknowledging one’s previously limited views.
In 1832, Sarah Mapps Douglass recounted her awakening to the urgency of abolition in a rousing speech at a gathering of the Female Literary Society of Philadelphia, of which she was a leader — the first specialty library for African-American women, literate and illiterate, free and enslaved, devoted to “the cultivation of intellectual powers” as the highest tribute to the sanctity of human nature. She told the women gathered before her:
An English writer has said, ‘We must feel deeply before we can act rightly; from that absorbing, heart-rendering compassion for ourselves springs a deeper sympathy for others, and from a sense of our weakness and our own upbraidings arises a disposition to be indulgent, to forbear, to forgive.’ This is my experience. One short year ago, how different were my feelings on the subject of slavery! It is true, the wail of the captive sometimes came to my ear in the midst of my happiness, and caused my heart to bleed for his wrongs; but, alas! the impression was as evanescent as the early cloud and morning dew. I had formed a little world of my own, and cared not to move beyond its precincts. But how was the scene changed when I beheld the oppressor lurking on the border of my own peaceful home! I saw his iron hand stretched forth to seize me as his prey, and the cause of the slave became my own.
The following year, in a friendship album compiled by her Philadelphian friend and fellow activist Amy Matilda Cassey, Sarah Mapps Douglass fused her twin loves of literature and nature with her artistic acumen in a series of consummate flowers she painted alongside selections from poems she transcribed in her lovely longhand.
No marvel woman should love flowers, they bear
So much of the fanciful similitude
To her own history; like herself repaying
With such sweet interest all the cherishing
That calls their beauty or their sweetness forth;
And like her too — dying beneath neglect.
Cassey would maintain and expand the album, now found in the collection of The Library Company of Philadelphia, for two decades, drawing contributions — poetry, prose, paintings, sketches — by some of the era’s most prominent abolitionists, including Garrison, Lucy Stone, and Frederick Douglass himself. The flowers Sarah Mapps Douglass painted in it are considered the first surviving artworks signed by an African-American woman.
To a similar album complied by one of her pupils, Mary Anne Dickerson, Sarah Mapps Douglass contributed a single, splendid painting of fuchsia — Fuchsia triphylla, so named in the last years of the 17th century by a French monk and botanist, after a German botanist and herbalist born in the first year of the 16th century — an uncommonly beautiful and fragrant flowering plant uprooted from its native habitat in Central and South America, so that an uncommonly gifted young woman of uprooted roots could tend to it and paint it in her native antebellum Philadelphia — a tender reminder that by whatever ugly and unchosen forces we might come into this world, into the dispensation of chance contouring our lives, there is always the choice to consecrate those lives and this world with the willful brush of beauty.
Complement with Frederick Douglass on how photography, improbably invented seven years after Sarah painted her flowers, helped the cause of social justice by bridging the real and the ideal, then revisit these stunning 18th-century natural history paintings of exotic, endangered, and extinct animals by another trailblazing Sarah of an earlier era and this pictorial encyclopedia of medicinal plants a young Scottish mother illustrated another generation earlier to bail her husband out of debtor’s prison.
Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Jun 2021 | 6:15 am(NZT)