Against the Slippery Slope of Evil: Amanda Palmer Reads Wendell Berry’s Stunningly Prescient Poem “Questionnaire”


The road to moral hell is paved with gradual self-permission.


Against the Slippery Slope of Evil: Amanda Palmer Reads Wendell Berry’s Stunningly Prescient Poem “Questionnaire”

“Under conditions of terror,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her classic treatise on the normalization of evil, “most people will comply but some people will not… No more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.” Under such conditions, counting ourselves among the few who refuse to comply has less to do with whether we believe ourselves to be good than it does with the deliberate protections we must place between unrelenting evil and our own sanity and goodness, for among the most insaning aspects of tyrannical regimes is the Stockholm syndrome of the psyche they inflict upon us — upon ordinary people, not-evil people, people who consider themselves decent and good, but who slowly, through a cascade of countless small concessions, lose sight of the North Star of their native moral compass.

Therein lies the true seat of terror, the kind of terror James Baldwin meant when he made his chilling observation that “it has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within.” The Nobel-winning dissident poet Joseph Brodsky, who was expatriated for speaking inconvenient truth to power and sentenced to five years at a Soviet labor camp, captured this chilling dynamic perfectly as he contemplated the most powerful antidote to evil: “What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good.”

How to strip that guise is what Wendell Berry, another poet of uncommon insight and courage of conviction, examines in his stunningly prescient poem “Questionnaire,” first published in 2009, later included his altogether magnificent poetry collection Leavings (public library), and generously read here by poetry-lover and my dear friend Amanda Palmer, with the lovely score of crickets in the summer night:

QUESTIONNAIRE
by Wendell Berry

  1. How much poison are you willing
    to eat for the success of the free
    market and global trade? Please
    name your preferred poisons.
  2. For the sake of goodness, how much
    evil are you willing to do?
    Fill in the following blanks
    with the names of your favorite
    evils and acts of hatred.
  3. What sacrifices are you prepared
    to make for culture and civilization?
    Please list the monuments, shrines,
    and works of art you would
    most willingly destroy.
  4. In the name of patriotism and
    the flag, how much of our beloved
    land are you willing to desecrate?
    List in the following spaces
    the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
    you could most readily do without.
  5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
    the energy sources, the kinds of security,
    for which you would kill a child.
    Name, please, the children whom
    you would be willing to kill.

Complement with Berry on how to be a poet and a complete human being, then revisit Amanda Palmer reading “The Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich, “Having It Out With Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, “Possibilities” by Wisława Szymborska, and “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman.

Amanda’s work, like my own, is made possible by patronage — join me in supporting her work so that she may go on bringing beauty and bravery into this world.

HT Kottke


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Underland: An Enchanting Journey into the Hidden Universe Beneath Our Feet


“Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.”


Underland: An Enchanting Journey into the Hidden Universe Beneath Our Feet

“To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water,” the great marine biologist and environmental hero Rachel Carson wrote in her 1937 masterpiece Undersea — a lyrical journey to what Walt Whitman had called “the world below the brine,” a world then more mysterious than the Moon — as she pioneered a new aesthetic of poetic prose illuminating science and the natural world.

Nearly a century later, Robert Macfarlane — a rare writer of Carson’s sensibility, who rises to the level of enchanter — extends a lyrical invitation to a vicarious journey into another mysterious earthly universe of all-pervading darkness with Underland: A Deep Time Journey (public library).

Art by Andrea D’Aquino from a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Macfarlane writes:

We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet. Look up on a cloudless night and you might see the light from a star thousands of trillions of miles away, or pick out the craters left by asteroid strikes on the moon’s face. Look down and your sight stops at topsoil, tarmac, toe. I have rarely felt as far from the human realm as when only ten yards below it, caught in the shining jaws of a limestone bedding plane first formed on the floor of an ancient sea.

Enshrined in the layers of the underland, in the layered dust of cultures and epochs, are traces of our abiding need for shelter and sacrament, our age-old hunger for knowledge encoded in the stone tablets of dead languages and the rusted instruments of annealed curiosity, radiating a reminder that we are creatures not only of place but of time. Plunging into the time-warping wonderland beneath the surface through the riven trunk of an old ash tree, Macfarlane writes:

Beneath the ash tree, a labyrinth unfurls.

Down between roots to a passage of stone that deepens steeply into the earth. Colour depletes to greys, browns, black. Cold air pushes past. Above is solid rock, utter matter. The surface is scarcely thinkable… Direction is difficult to keep. Space is behaving strangely — and so too is time. Time moves differently here in the underland. It thickens, pools, flows, rushes, slows.

[…]

The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful.

Shelter (memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives).

Yield (information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions).

Dispose (waste, trauma, poison, secrets).

Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.

Echoing Oliver Sacks’s lovely case for nature’s beauty as a lens on deep time and the interleaving of the universe, Macfarlane writes:

“Deep time” is the chronology of the underland. Deep time is the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years. Deep time is kept by stone, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates. Deep time opens into the future as well as the past. The Earth will fall dark when the sun exhausts its fuel in around 5 billion years. We stand with our toes, as well as our heels, on a brink.

But for all its consolations, such a dilation of the telescopic perspective can be deeply disquieting in alerting us to our own helpless insignificance — motes of matter in a blink of time, adrift amid the unfeeling emptiness of pure spacetime. It takes especial existential courage to inhabit this physical fact with unflinching psychic agency, with the insistence that however brief our earthly time may be, however small our impact relative to the vast scales of time and civilization, we can still leave a worthy mark on an ancient world. Macfarlane cautions against the defeatist cowardice of taking the scale of deep time for permission to squander our precious allotment:

We should resist such inertial thinking; indeed, we should urge its opposite – deep time as a radical perspective, provoking us to action not apathy. For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking. At its best, a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If… by Thierry Lenain

Long ago, as Johannes Kepler — the first true astrophysicist — was revolutionizing our understanding of the universe, he envisioned the Earth as an ensouled body that has digestion, that suffers illness, that inhales and exhales like a living organism. He was ridiculed for it. Three centuries later, Rachel Carson made ecology a household word. Picking up where Kepler and Carson left off, Macfarlane adds:

When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.

To probe the mysteries of this largely unfathomed underland, Macfarlane explores mines and railway tunnels, catacombs and particle colliders, seeks answers from a spectrum of scientists and indigenous cultures, contemplates the relationship between landscape and language, and draws on the work of pioneers like forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, who uncovered the astonishing science of how trees communicate, and evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, who championed the interconnectedness of life across time, space, and species.

One of Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter’s little-known, pioneering mushroom illustrations, which scientists use to this day to identify fungi species.

Perhaps the underland’s richest and most dimensional lens on deep time — and space, and self — comes from some of Earth’s most poorly understood yet most essential organisms: fungi. Besides serving as a kind of central nervous system for the forest, fungi account for a quarter of Earth’s biomass and furnish the world’s largest organism — the colossal honeycomb fungus of Oregon’s Blue Mountains, dwarfing the blue whale with its mycelial span of nearly four square miles and its girth of two and a half miles. Four decades after Lewis Thomas wrote about how a jellyfish and a sea slug illuminate the mystery of the self — the most exquisite thing I’ve ever read on the subject, from one of the most poetic science writers who ever lived — Macfarlane draws kindred revelations from the underdog kingdom:

All taxonomies crumble, but fungi leave many of our fundamental categories in ruin. Fungi thwart our usual senses of what is whole and singular, of what defines an organism, and of what descent or inheritance means. They do strange things to time, because it is not easy to say where a fungus ends or begins, when it is born or when it dies. To fungi, our world of light and air is their underland, into which they tentatively ascend here and there, now and then.

Art by Andrea D’Aquino from a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Masters at the long view of survival, fungi offer a model of unparalleled grit — they were among the first organisms to return to the site of atomic devastation in Hiroshima and their soil presence is an indicator of a forest’s resilience. With an eye to the wisdom of the more-than-human world, to which native cultures have been attuned for millennia and modern science is only just beginning to awaken, Macfarlane considers how fungi challenge us to reconceive some of our basic human constructs:

Orthodox “Western” understandings of nature feel inadequate to the kinds of world-making that fungi perform. As our historical narratives of progress have come to be questioned, so the notion of history itself has become remodelled. History no longer feels figurable as a forwards-flighting arrow or a self-intersecting spiral; better, perhaps, seen as a network branching and conjoining in many directions. Nature, too, seems increasingly better understood in fungal terms: not as a single gleaming snow-peak or tumbling river in which we might find redemption, nor as a diorama that we deplore or adore from a distance — but rather as an assemblage of entanglements of which we are messily part. We are coming to understand our bodies as habitats for hundreds of species of which Homo sapiens is only one, our guts as jungles of bacterial flora, our skins as blooming fantastically with fungi.

A century and a half after Whitman’s famed observation that we contain multitudes, Macfarlane roots the metaphysical insight in the physical reality of our creaturely nature, entwined with other natures:

We are beginning to encounter ourselves — not always comfortably or pleasantly — as multi-species beings already partaking in timescales that are fabulously more complex than the onwards-driving version of history many of us still imagine ourselves to inhabit.

Given that we have hard enough a time living with full awareness of our belonging to the web of life, of our intricate connection to other living beings, it takes a special wakefulness to fathom our connection to nonliving matter. Even if we know that we are made of dead stars, it is only an abstract knowledge. We so easily forget “the singularity we once were,” as the poet Marie Howe so splendidly captured our cosmic belonging. In the underland, moving through the time-stamped bedrock of being, Macfarlane finds a powerful reminder:

We tend to imagine stone as inert matter, obdurate in its fixity. But here in the rift it feels instead like a liquid briefly paused in its flow. Seen in deep time, stone folds as strata, gouts as lava, floats as plates, shifts as shingle. Over aeons, rock absorbs, transforms, levitates from seabed to summit.

[…]

We are part mineral beings too — our teeth are reefs, our bones are stones — and there is a geology of the body as well as of the land. It is mineralization — the ability to convert calcium into bone — that allows us to walk upright, to be vertebrate, to fashion the skulls that shield our brains.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón.

The mineralization of living matter, with its mediation of life and death, furnishes a profound lens on our humanity, on the interchange between being and has-being:

Geologists and palaeobiologists speak of “trace fossils.” A trace fossil is the sign left in the rock record by the impress of life rather than life itself. A dinosaur footprint is a trace fossil. The enigmatic doughnut-shaped flints called “paramoudra” are thought to be the trace fossils of a burrowing worm-like creature that lived vertically in the seabed during the Cretaceous, its breathing organs just above the level of the silt. Boreholes, funnels, pipes, slithers and tracks are all trace fossils — stone memories where the mark-maker has disappeared but the mark remains. A trace fossil is a bracing of space by a vanished body, in which absence serves as sign.

We all carry trace fossils within us — the marks that the dead and the missed leave behind. Handwriting on an envelope; the wear on a wooden step left by footfall; the memory of a familiar gesture by someone gone, repeated so often it has worn its own groove in both air and mind: these are trace fossils too. Sometimes, in fact, all that is left behind by loss is trace — and sometimes empty volume can be easier to hold in the heart than presence itself.

Couple Underland, a wondrous read in its entirety, with Macfarlane’s poetic rebellion against the impoverishment of our nature-related lexicon, then revisit the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd — whose work Macfarlane resurfaced after decades of obscurity — on how mountains deepen our relationship with nature.


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Eating the Sun: A Lovely Illustrated Celebration of Wonder, the Science of How the Universe Works, and the Existential Mystery of Being Human


“When one is considering the universe, unseen matter, our small backyard of the stuff, I think it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.”


Eating the Sun: A Lovely Illustrated Celebration of Wonder, the Science of How the Universe Works, and the Existential Mystery of Being Human

“I’m stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” poet Diane Ackerman wrote in her Cosmic Pastoral, which so enchanted Carl Sagan — her doctoral advisor — that he sent a copy of the book to Timothy Leary in prison. “Wonder,” Ackerman observed nearly half a century later in her succulent performance at The Universe in Verse, “is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart. Even a tiny piece of it can stop time.”

That ricochet wonder, in its myriad kaleidoscopic manifestations diffracted by various scientific phenomena, reflected by various facets of this splendidly interconnected universe, and hungrily absorbed by the human heart, is at the center of Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe (public library) by Ella Frances Sanders — the boundlessly curious writer and artist who gave us Lost in Translation, that lovely illustrated dictionary of untranslatable words from around the world.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Sanders writes in the preface to this lyrical and luminous celebration of science and our consanguinity with the universe:

A sense of wonder can find you in many forms, sometimes loudly, sometimes as a whispering, sometimes even hiding inside other feelings — being in love, or unbalanced, or blue.

For me, it is looking at the night for so long that my eyes ache and I’m stuck seeing stars for hours afterwards, watching the way the ocean sways itself to sleep, or as the sky washes itself in colors for which I know I will never have the words — a world made from layers of rock and fossil and glittered imaginings that keeps tripping me up, demanding I pay attention to one leaf at a time, ensuring I can never pick up quite where I left off.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

With an eye to the miraculous absurdity of our existence — we only exist by chance, after all, in a universe governed by chaos and predicated on impermanence — Sanders writes:

When one is considering the universe, unseen matter, our small backyard of the stuff, I think it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.

Cry because we cannot even begin to understand how beautiful it is, cry because we are terribly flawed as a species, cry because it all seems so shockingly improbable that maybe our existence could be nothing but a dreamscape — celestial elephants in rooms without walls. But then? Surely, we can laugh.

Laugh because being riddled head-to-toe with human emotions while trying to come to terms with just how indisputably tiny we are in the grand scheme of things, makes absolutely everything and everyone seem quite ridiculous, entirely farcical. We have heads? Ridiculous! There are arguments about who is in charge here? Ridiculous! The universe is expanding? Ridiculous! We feel it necessary to keep secrets? Ridiculous.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

In fifty-one miniature essays, each accompanied by one of her playful and poignant ink-and-watercolor drawings, Sanders goes on to explore a pleasingly wide array of scientific mysteries and facts — evolution, chaos theory, clouds, the color blue, the nature of light, the wondrousness of octopuses, the measurement of time, Richard Feynman’s famous cataclysm sentence, the clockwork mesmerism of planetary motion, our microbiome, the puzzlement of why we dream. What emerges is something sweetly consonant with Nabokov’s exultation at our “capacity to wonder at trifles” — except, of course, even the smallest and most invisible of these processes, phenomena, and laws are not trifles but condensed miracles that make the everythingness of everything we know.

It is tempting, then — and Sanders succumbs to the temptation in a most delicious way — to seek the existential in the scientific, even if the thread between the two is slender and human-made, rather than woven by this vast unfeeling universe in which we warm ourselves with wonder. In a chapter on our organic composition, so memorably captured in Carl Sagan’s assertion that “we too are made of starstuff,” Sanders shines a sidewise gleam on the illusion of the solid and separate self:

Depending on where you look, what you touch, you are changing all the time. The carbon inside you, accounting for about 18 percent of your being, could have existed in any number of creatures or natural disasters before finding you. That particular atom residing somewhere above your left eyebrow? It could well have been a smooth, riverbed pebble before deciding to call you home.

You see, you are not so soft after all; you are rock and wave and the peeling bark of trees, you are ladybirds and the smell of a garden after the rain. When you put your best foot forward, you are taking the north side of a mountain with you.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Sanders revisits the subject through the lens of the physics beneath the chemistry in a chapter on the structure and discovery of the atom. In a passage evocative of physicist Alan Lightman’s wonderful explanation of why we are mostly restlessness and empty space, she writes:

Such a beautiful (and until recently invisible) idea, the importance and unavoidable nature of atoms, one that seems to put everyone and everything on a satisfyingly level playing field. Your good and bad decisions, your wingspan, your wholeness as a person — these are all possible because of your own 7 billion billion billion atoms, each one made up of (roughly speaking) a positive nucleus in the middle, and the negative electron cloud surrounding it — a cloud that sort of dances from side to side, alternately enchanting other atoms and pushing them away (the really complicated magic can be left to quantum mechanics). Without atoms, nothing would be here; not the book in your hands, not the pen that leaked into your pocket this morning, not those buildings that are enough to make you scared of heights, nothing. If it weren’t for atoms, there wouldn’t be mass, or molecules, or matter, or me, or you.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

The irrepressible human inquiry that magnetizes our imagination and draws us to the inner workings of the universe is the same inquiry Tolstoy scrawled into the diaries of his youth: “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” Sanders weaves these elemental questions — what are we made of and what does that make us? — into nearly every scientific curiosity she picks up, but she addresses them directly in a chapter devoted to our strangely continuous sense of self, devoid of a physical basis of continuity. She writes:

The idea of an unchanging “you” or “self” is inherently fraught with confusion and conflict, and if you consider the topic for too long it can begin to feel clammy, almost suspect. An apparent string running through all the previous versions of you — the one five minutes ago, a few hours ago, several years — the idea of “self” inevitably gets tangled up in things like the physical body and appearance, like memory. It’s clear that you cannot pin yourself down as any one particular “thing” but rather that you resemble a story line, an endless progression, variations on a theme, something that enables you to relate your present “self” to the past and future ones.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Echoing the great neurologist Oliver Sacks’s recognition of narrative as the cognitive pillar of personhood, she adds:

We do seem to make sense of ourselves and the world as a part of a narrative — we think in terms of main characters, those we speak and interact with, and where the beginnings, the middles, and the endings are.

Radiating from the book is lucid, lyrical consolation for the elemental disquietude of existence — the fact that haunting the fundamental laws of the universe and the sturdy certitude of their mathematics is the daily chaos of uncertainty with which we must somehow live, keeping one eye on our greatest loves and greatest losses, on the trifling urgencies of the mundane, and the other, wincing, on the only certainty there is: that one day we shall cease to exist. Sanders writes:

A lot of our time is spent trying to tie up loose ends, trying to shape disorder into something recognizably smooth, trying to escape the very limits that hold us close, happily ignoring rough edges and the inevitable. We separate ourselves out into past, present, and future, if only to show that we have changed, that we know better, that we have understood something inherent; if only to draw neat lines from start to finish without looking back.

The problem is that chaos is always only ever sitting just across the table, frequently glancing up from its newspaper, from its coffee cup filled with discolored and imploding stars. Because chaos too waits. Waits for you to notice it, for you to realize it’s the most dazzling thing you’ve ever seen, for all of your atoms to collectively shriek in belated recognition and stare, mouth open, at how exquisitely embedded it is in everything. Because we are not designed to be more orderly than anything else; seams have a tendency to come apart with time — you and the universe are the same in this way, which makes for a delicately overwhelming struggle.

So, then, if you can’t ever end things neatly, can’t ever put them back quite the way you found them, surely the alternative is to remain stubbornly carbonated with possibility, to never rest from your rotation. To keep assembling stories between us, stories about how everything was everything, about how much we loved.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Complement Eating the Sun with The Edge of the Sky — a poetic, unusual primer on the universe, written with the 1,000 most common words in the English language — and Carl Sagan on how to live with mystery, then revisit the great nineteenth-century naturalist John Muir on the universe as an infinite storm of beauty.


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How to Punctuate with Style: Lewis Thomas’s Charming Meditation on the Subtleties of Language


“If you want to use a cliché you must take full responsibility for it yourself and not try to fob it off on anon., or on society.”


How to Punctuate with Style: Lewis Thomas’s Charming Meditation on the Subtleties of Language

Theodor Adorno celebrated punctuation as the “friendly spirits whose bodiless presence nourishes the body of language.” Mary Oliver jested that each writer has a lifetime quota of them, to be used judiciously. Indeed, the wielding of these tiny meaning-making symbols is a supreme test of a writer’s sensitivity to language as an instrument of sentiment and a laboratory for feeling. No one has conferred upon them more dignity and delight than the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas (November 25, 1913–December 3, 1993) in his essay “Notes on Punctuation,” included in The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (public library) — the altogether scrumptious 1979 collection that gave us Thomas’s beautiful meditation on altruism and affection and one of the finest things ever written about the mystery of the self.

Art by Rathna Ramanathan for a modern graphic design edition of Christian Morgenstern’s 1905 poem “In the Land of Punctuation”

Thomas opens the essay, the whole of which is strewn with clever meta-demonstrations of his points about the marks, with a Russian nesting doll of punctuational observations:

There are no precise rules about punctuation (Fowler lays out some general advice (as best he can under the complex circumstances of English prose (he points out, for example, that we possess only four stops (the comma, the semicolon, the colon and the period (the question mark and exclamation point are not, strictly speaking, stops; they are indicators of tone (oddly enough, the Greeks employed the semicolon for their question mark (it produces a strange sensation to read a Greek sentence which is a straightforward question: Why weepest thou; (instead of Why weepest thou? (and, of course, there are parentheses (which are surely a kind of punctuation making this whole matter much more complicated by having to count up the left-handed parentheses in order to be sure of closing with the right number (but if the parentheses were left out, with nothing to work with but the stops, we would have considerably more flexibility in the deploying of layers of meaning than if we tried to separate all the clauses by physical barriers (and in the latter case, while we might have more precision and exactitude for our meaning, we would lose the essential flavor of language, which is its wonderful ambiguity)))))))))))).

Lewis Thomas (Photograph: NYU archives)

He makes his case for commas in a nearly comma-free paragraph, adorned by precisely four exquisitely pinned specimens:

The commas are the most useful and usable of all the stops. It is highly important to put them in place as you go along. If you try to come back after doing a paragraph and stick them in the various spots that tempt you you will discover that they tend to swarm like minnows into all sorts of crevices whose existence you hadn’t realized and before you know it the whole long sentence becomes immobilized and lashed up squirming in commas. Better to use them sparingly, and with affection, precisely when the need for each one arises, nicely, by itself.

In defiance of Kurt Vonnegut’s scornful (and, by present standards, possibly politically incorrect) condemnation of semicolons as “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing” and only proving “that you’ve been to college,” Thomas writes:

I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years. The semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added; it reminds you sometimes of the Greek usage. It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.

Art by Rathna Ramanathan for a modern graphic design edition of Christian Morgenstern’s 1905 poem “In the Land of Punctuation”

Thomas’s own scorn is reserved for the unworthy whole of which the semi-colon is supposed to be a mere half:

Colons are a lot less attractive, for several reasons: firstly, they give you the feeling of being rather ordered around, or at least having your nose pointed in a direction you might not be inclined to take if left to yourself, and, secondly, you suspect you’re in for one of those sentences that will be labeling the points to be made: firstly, secondly and so forth, with the implication that you haven’t sense enough to keep track of a sequence of notions without having them numbered. Also, many writers use this system loosely and incompletely, starting out with number one and number two as though counting off on their fingers but then going on and on without the succession of labels you’ve been led to expect, leaving you floundering about searching for the ninethly or seventeenthly that ought to be there but isn’t.

In a passage of especial urgency in our era of rampant misquotations littering the Internet and rampant bunny-eared hands rising in the midst of conversation to insert an air quote when the intention is irony or emphasis rather than citation, Thomas writes:

Quotation marks should be used honestly and sparingly, when there is a genuine quotation at hand, and it is necessary to be very rigorous about the words enclosed by the marks… Above all, quotation marks should not be used for ideas that you’d like to disown, things in the air so to speak. Nor should they be put in place around clichés; if you want to use a cliché you must take full responsibility for it yourself and not try to fob it off on anon., or on society.

In a sentiment I have long shared — and one with which I also regard the use of Italics for emphasis, that pitiable attempt to compensate for a failure of style with styling — Thomas turns to the neediest, vainest, most off-putting of punctuation marks:

Exclamation points are the most irritating of all. Look! they say, look at what I just said! How amazing is my thought! It is like being forced to watch someone else’s small child jumping up and down crazily in the center of the living room shouting to attract attention. If a sentence really has something of importance to say, something quite remarkable, it doesn’t need a mark to point it out. And if it is really, after all, a banal sentence needing more zing, the exclamation point simply emphasizes its banality!

[…]

A single exclamation point in a poem, no matter what else the poem has to say, is enough to destroy the whole work.

Art by Rathna Ramanathan for a modern graphic design edition of Christian Morgenstern’s 1905 poem “In the Land of Punctuation”

Poetry, of course, owes a great share of its splendor to the miracle of surprise; to the twists of expectation and convention that plunge you suddenly and thrillingly into a whole new world; a world adjacent to but ordinarily inaccessible from the ordinary. Thomas Wentworth Higginson — Emily Dickinson’s editor — admonished that dashes should be used only in “short allowance” or else they “will lose all their proper power” — advice Dickinson went on to boldly ignore, dealing her ample dashes like breaths, like blades, in verses that revolutionized poetry. Thomas, who must have read Dickinson given his erudition and his intense love of poetry, is far friendlier to dashes than her editor had been a century earlier:

The dash is a handy device, informal and essentially playful, telling you that you’re about to take off on a different tack but still in some way connected with the present course — only you have to remember that the dash is there, and either put a second dash at the end of the notion to let the reader know that he’s back on course, or else end the sentence, as here, with a period.

Art by Rathna Ramanathan for a modern graphic design edition of Christian Morgenstern’s 1905 poem “In the Land of Punctuation”

Thomas ends by returning to his love of semi-colons, kindled by T.S. Eliot’s exquisite use of them in Four Quartets (“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; / Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, / But neither arrest nor movement.”), and writes:

You cannot hear them, but they are there, laying out the connections between the images and the ideas. Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.

Commas can’t do this sort of thing; they can only tell you how the different parts of a complicated thought are to be fitted together, but you can’t sit, not even take a breath, just because of a comma,

And so it ends, in a triumph of deliberately rule-defiant delight.

Complement this fragment of Thomas’s wholly enjoyable and freshly insightful The Medusa and the Snail with the zany and politically prescient 1905 poem “In the Land of Punctuation,” then revisit Thomas on the poetics of smell as a mode of knowledge and our cosmic potential.


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What If: An Illustrated Celebration of the Utopian Imagination and the Will to Change the World


To be or not to be, bravely answered through the lens of could be.


What If: An Illustrated Celebration of the Utopian Imagination and the Will to Change the World

“The present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote. At bottom, choice and action always begin with “what if” — the mightiest spring for the utopian imagination, the fulcrum by which every revolution rolls into being. What if this world were freer, more beautiful, more just? “We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in weighing the transformative power of the speculative imagination. “We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”

That chance to imagine a better world is what French author Thierry Lenain and artist Olivier Tallec invite in What If… (public library), translated by Enchanted Lion founder Claudia Bedrick — a lovely celebration of our civilizational responsibility, in the beautiful words of the cellist Pablo Casals, “to make this world worthy of its children” and a testament to James Baldwin’s sobering insistence that “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”

Although we don’t yet know it, the story begins with an unborn child imagining himself into being as he imagines a better version of the world to be born into. Where he sees war, he imagines turning the soldiers’ guns into bird perches and shepherd’s flutes. Where he sees drought and famine, he imagines pulling rainclouds over the desert like enormous kites.

He places his child-body between the “gorging, ordering, shouting, and decreeing” orange-haired politician on the TV screen and the people mesmerized before it. He sits on the ocean shore and imagines it clean of human-inflicted pollution, buoying colorful fish.

He falls asleep on a mossy patch in the forest, listening to the wisdom of the trees. He sees heartache and tears, and imagines them salved by love.

“We have to hug,” he decided, “and not be afraid of kisses. What if we start saying ‘I love you,’ even if we’ve never heard it before?”

And looking out into this world, so imperfect yet so improvable, the child decides, in the final spread of the book, to be born.

The simple yet profound narrative and Tallec’s soulful, tender illustrations make What If… the young imagination’s counterpart to Albert Camus’s famous assertion that “judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Complement it with James Baldwin on the building blocks of a juster future, then revisit other poetic and profound treasures from artist and writers around the world, brought to English-speaking children ages 1 to 100 by the imaginative Enchanted Lion Books: Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, The Lion and the Bird, Bertolt, and This Is a Poem That Heals Fish, also illustrated by Tallec.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova


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Meditations on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp: Polish Painter Józef Czapski on Literature, Survival, and the Human Soul


“The slow and painful transformation of a passionate and narrowly egotistical being into a man who gives himself over wholly to some great work or other that devours him, destroys him, lives in his blood, is a trial every creative being must endure.”


Meditations on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp: Polish Painter Józef Czapski on Literature, Survival, and the Human Soul

“The end of a book’s wisdom appears to us as merely the start of our own,” Marcel Proust wrote as he considered why we read. “There is some Proust in me, and through Proust, bit by bit, I become aware of my own possibilities,” the great Polish painter Józef Czapski (April 3, 1896–January 12, 1993) reflected in his journal a generation later while interned as a prisoner of war in a Soviet labor camp alongside four thousand of his fellow Polish officers. Only seventy-nine of them would survive. The rest, alongside eleven thousand more Polish prisoners from other camps, would vanish without a trace somewhere in Siberia.

Survival was, of course, largely a matter of luck. But those who lived also owed their survival to the courageous, desperate, ennobling choice to nurture the resilience of their inner lives with intellectual and creative work that offered an escape, however temporary, from the anguishing depression and a restoration of their human dignity. While their compatriot Helen Fagin, who would survive the Holocaust and live past 100, was using literature to help young women endure in a Nazi ghetto in Warsaw, Czapski and his comrades, crammed into a dilapidated former convent previously occupied by Finnish prisoners with bunks infested by bedbugs, organized a series of literary and historical lectures to keep their minds and spirits alive.

Józef Czapski, Self-Portrait with Books, 1973 (Józef Czapski estate)

When the authorities discovered the gatherings and deemed them antirevolutionary, some of the speakers were immediately deported, or worse. But the lectures continued in secret — a testament to the memorable words of Rebecca West, who asserted while traveling through the same region at the same time that “if during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe.”

Czapski himself delivered several unscripted, soaring, intricately interwoven meditations on literature and creativity through the lens of Proust — whose novel In Search of Lost Time he had first devoured thirteen years earlier while recovering from typhoid fever and heartbreak — later published as Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (public library). Addressing the forty or so fellow prisoners who came to listen to him at twilight in their soaked shoes after a hard day’s labor in the camp, where temperatures often dropped to negative forty-five, Czapski worked entirely from memory and illustrated his lectures with colorful diagrams densely populated by linkages between concepts as varied as love, solitude, the motives of composition, the forms of joy and suffering, and Bergson’s philosophy of time — a vibrant embodiment of what Oliver Sacks called the “buzzing, blooming chaos” of creative genius at work.

Diagram by Józef Czapski from Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp. Top: original in Polish; bottom: redrawn translation in English.

Czapski, who lived to nearly a hundred, reflects on the salvational value of these intellectual excursions away from the brutality of camp life and the suffocating weight of survivor’s guilt:

The joy of participating in an intellectual undertaking that gave us proof that we were still capable of thinking and reacting to matters of the mind — things then bearing no connection to our present reality — cast a rose-colored light on those hours spent in the former convent’s dining hall, that strangest of schoolrooms, where a world we had feared lost to us forever was revived. It was incomprehensible to us why we alone, four hundred officers and soldiers, were saved out of fifteen thousand comrades who disappeared without a trace somewhere beyond the Arctic Circle, within the confines of Siberia. From those gloomy depths, the hours spent with memories of Proust, Delacroix, Degas seemed to me among the happiest of hours.

He wrests from Proust’s example a model of literature’s most humanistic offering:

Proust shone a penetrating light into the most secret recesses of the human soul that the majority of humanity would prefer to ignore.

[…]

Revising Anna Karenina, Tolstoy rewrote a long passage in order to hide his own opinion from the reader. But in Resurrection, the grand novel of his old age, we meet didacticism all too clearly, the author voicing certain key ideas so often that it produced the opposite effect, putting readers off, and so even Tolstoy, by lowering the artistic standard of his work, weakens rather than strengthens the radiance of his ideas.

Proust is the complete opposite. In his work we come across an absolute absence of bias, a willingness to know and to understand as many opposing states of the human soul as possible, a capacity for discovering in the lowest sort of man such nobility as to appear sublime, and in the seemingly purest of beings, the basest instincts. His work acts on us like life, filtered and illuminated by a consciousness whose soundness is infinitely greater than our own.

Diagram by Józef Czapski from Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp. Top: original in Polish; bottom: redrawn translation in English.

Reflecting on his entry into Proust’s work through the gateway of his own heartbreak and the resonance he found in the novel’s central theme of the heart’s incompleteness, Czapski writes:

Every great book is profoundly tied in one way or another to the very matter of the life of its author. But this link is even more pronounced and perhaps more integral to the work of Proust. The very theme of [In Search of Lost Time] is Proust’s life, transposed; the principal character writes in the first person, and page after page reads like a barely concealed confession.

[…]

The ensuing heartbreak produces the same result — a feeling of unreality, and the awareness that the pleasures of life and a final understanding of it exist in the act of creation, the sole true life and true reality.

From the particularity of Proust’s novel, Czapski draws out the universal human journey — the savage, fraught, transcendent process of self-refinement:

The slow and painful transformation of a passionate and narrowly egotistical being into a man who gives himself over wholly to some great work or other that devours him, destroys him, lives in his blood, is a trial every creative being must endure.

Diagram by Józef Czapski from Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp. Top: original in Polish; bottom: redrawn translation in English.

With an eye to “the extreme sense of responsibility Proust brought to each of his sentences” — immense, interminable sentences stretching past and beyond the page, saturated with a richness of language that revolutionized the era’s conventions of concision, fractalized into myriad references, allusions, and parenthetical revelations — Czapski considers the importance of this diffuse structure, both of form and of thought, to creativity itself:

Only by pushing a form to its furthest limits can one possibly manage to begin to convey the essence of a writer.

[…]

A scientist, on the verge of a discovery, can succeed only by giving his search the full attention of all his faculties, he is in no condition to think of anything else. In the same way, for the writer, it is not this or that idea he expounds by which we ought to measure the contribution that he has given to his country, but rather by the limits he pushes against in the realization of his form. Even among the greatest writers, single-mindedness weakens the effect of a work and can be a disservice, not only from an artistic point of view, but also in consideration of the very ideas that the writer had wanted to serve.

Complement Czapski’s short and splendid Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp with his compatriot Aleksander Wat on how books helped him survive in a Soviet prison, then revisit Iris Murdoch on literature as a force of resistance to tyranny and Toni Morrison on the writer’s singular service to humanity.


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Relationship Happiness and Your DNA: How One Gene Encodes Emotional Sensitivity


Inside the nuanced science of serotonin and the underappreciated upside of being a sensitive creature.


“An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her stunning meditation on relationships. A happy human relationship, it turns out, is contingent not upon the nature and delivery process of these truths, particularly the difficult truths, but upon the nature of the hearer — upon our emotional orientation and sensitivity, which appears to be encoded in our DNA via a particular gene that regulates serotonin in the brain. So indicates the fascinating research of U.C. Berkeley psychophysiologist and behavioral neuroscientist Robert Levenson.

Known as 5-HTTLPR (serotonin-transporter-linked polymorphic region) and located on chromosome 17 of your DNA, this gene comes in two varieties — one with a short allele and the other with a long allele. Decades of research have revealed a strong positive correlation between the short-allele type and a high precedence of depression, anxiety, and attention disorders, suggesting that people with the short allele respond more negatively to emotional friction within a relationship and seeding the assumption that having this gene is plainly problematic for one’s psychoemotional health. But Levenson’s lab uncovered a much more nuanced and surprisingly optimistic reality — rather than predisposing to more negative emotional responses, the short allele appears to predispose simply to more emotional responses, serving as a kind of psychoemotional magnifying glass that renders all emotions, the lows as well as the highs, more deeply and intensely felt. Levenson explains:

Complement with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage, Virginia Woolf on what makes love last, and Rainer Maria Rilke on freedom, togetherness, and the key to a good relationship, then revisit these revelatory findings about relationships and happiness from Harvard’s landmark 75-year study of human flourishing.

HT Aeon


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Trailblazing 19th-Century Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Social Change and the Life of the Mind


“Reformers are apt to forget… that the world is not made up entirely of the wicked and the hungry, there are persons hungry for the food of the mind, the wants of which are as imperious as those of the body.”


Trailblazing 19th-Century Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Social Change and the Life of the Mind

“Everybody should have something to point to,” a mill laborer told Studs Terkel in a beautiful conversation about the dignity of labor. For the vast majority of human history, the vast majority of human labor has been exerted in the direction of alleviating hunger as the basis for the survival of our species — only an unhungry species, after all, can flourish into a civilization. And yet there is a different kind of hunger elemental to the flourishing of a civilization — a hunger of the mind and of the spirit for justice, for peace, for freedom, for the continual reform of society toward expanding the collective landscape of possibility for happiness. At bottom, it is a hunger for knowledge and truth, for without knowing the world as it truly is, we cannot build toward what it could be or should be. The ideal always rests upon and rises from the real, as should rests upon and rises from is.

“We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire,” the trailblazing astronomer and abolitionist Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) wrote as she considered our human search for truth while she was building whole new worlds of possibility for women. Living through the dawning days of liberalism, when social reformers and moralists were fixated on alleviating hunger and eradicating sin while denying more than half the population basic social agency — women and people of color could neither vote, nor own property, nor receive higher education — Mitchell was acutely aware of how intellectual and creative hunger thwarted the growth of the individual and thus the growth of society as a whole.

Portrait of Maria Mitchell (Maria Mitchell Museum, photograph by Maria Popova)

She addressed this in an exquisite diary entry included in Figuring (which long ago began as a biography of Mitchell and from which this essay is excerpted). Writing in her late thirties, several years after her historic comet discovery made her the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Mitchell reflects on the neglected bedrock of social change:

Reformers are apt to forget, in their reasoning, that the world is not made up entirely of the wicked and the hungry, there are persons hungry for the food of the mind, the wants of which are as imperious as those of the body… Reformers are apt to forget too, that the social chain is indomitable; that link by link it acts together, you cannot lift one man above his fellows, but you lift the race of men. Newton, Shakespeare and Milton did not directly benefit the poor and ignorant but the elevation of the whole race has been through them. They probably found it hard to get publishers, but after several centuries, the publishers have come to them and the readers have come, and the race has been lifted.

A decade earlier, Mitchell had devoured Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which struck her with resonance not only political but personal. In the epoch-making book that ignited women’s bid for equality, Margaret Fuller had envisioned a day when a “female Newton” would be possible. And yet Mitchell doesn’t seem to have fully envisioned how her own life was making that possibility real for generations to come. In the revolutionary Aurora Leigh, which was published months after Mitchell penned this diary entry and would soon become one of her favorite books, Elizabeth Barrett Browning captured how those who ignite the profoundest revolutions are themselves blind to their own spark:

The best men, doing their best,
Know peradventure least of what they do:
Men usefullest i’ the world, are simply used…

Maria Mitchell
Maria Mitchell

One of America’s first scientific celebrities, Mitchell traveled to Europe in her fortieth year, visiting with some of the most prominent artists and scientists of the Old World. Upon returning from the land of Milton and Shakespeare and Browning, she was greeted by an extraordinary gift — a five-inch refractor telescope, on a par with the instruments of the world’s greatest observatories, purchased through what may have been the world’s first crowdfunding campaign for science.

The great education reformer Elizabeth Peabody had envisioned the project and spent years raising the $3,000 for the telescope through a subscription paper, rallying Boston’s women to contribute. Just as Mitchell was departing for her European journey, Emerson — the era’s most esteemed cultural sage — had lent his voice to the fundraising effort in the pages of his popular magazine:

In Europe, Maria Mitchell would command the interest and receive the homage of the learned and polite, while in America so little prestige is attached to genius or learning that she is relatively unknown. This is a great fault in our social aspect, one which excites the animadversion of foreigners at once. “Where are your distinguished women — where your learned men?” they ask, as they are invited into our ostentatiously furnished houses to find a group of giggling girls and boys, or commonplace men and women, who do nothing but dance, or yawn about till supper is announced. We need a reform here, most especially if we would not see American society utterly contemptible.

Maria Mitchell’s first telescope, with which she had made her famous comet discovery, still on display at her humble Quaker childhood home on Nantucket. (Maria Mitchell Museum, photograph by Maria Popova)

While touring Europe’s iconic astronomical institutions, Mitchell had been dreaming up an observatory of her own. The crowdfunded telescope came as a wondrous surprise after a particularly difficult stretch for her, marked by the death of her beloved, Ida, and her once-brilliant mother’s terrifying descent into dementia. The instrument became the first physical building block of her dream. Behind the school resembling a Greek temple where her father had once served as founding schoolmaster, she erected a simple eleven-foot dome that rotated on a mechanism made of cannonballs. A month before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the observatory opened its doors and Mitchell, now the Newton of Nantucket, began welcoming boys and girls.

Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866
Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866

During her time in Italy the previous year, she had hungered to visit the Observatory of Rome, mecca of the latest research on spectroscopy, but was jarred to learn that the observatory was closed to women. The polymathic mathematician Mary Somerville, for whom the word scientist had been coined a quarter century earlier and who was celebrated as Europe’s most learned woman, had been denied entrance, as had Sir John Herschel’s daughter. Mitchell recorded wryly in her diary:

I was ignorant enough of the ways of papal institutions, and, indeed, of all Italy, to ask if I might visit the Roman Observatory. I remembered that the days of Galileo were days of two centuries since. I did not know that my heretic feet must not enter the sanctuary, — that my woman’s robe must not brush the seats of learning.

She was eventually allowed to enter with special permission from the Pope, obtained after American diplomats pressed on her behalf. An hour and a half before sunset, she was led through the church into the observatory, where she marveled at the expensive instruments the papal government employed in studying the very motions for which they had tried Galileo two centuries earlier. Mitchell had hoped to see nebulae through the observatory’s powerful telescope, but she was informed that her permission did not extend past nightfall and was hastily sent away. She must have resolved, as soon as the back door spat her out into the narrow alley behind Collegio Romano, that when she built her own observatory, it would welcome any and all who hungered to commune with the cosmos.

For more excerpts from Figuring, see Elizabeth Peabody on middle age and the art of self-renewal, environmental pioneer Rachel Carson’s timeless advice to the next generations, Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters, and the story of how the forgotten sculptor Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women artists, then revisit Maria Mitchell on knowing what to do with your life and how friendship transforms us.


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The Antidote to Prejudice: Walter Lippmann on Overriding the Mind’s Propensity for Preconceptions


“There is a taint on any contact between two people which does not affirm as an axiom the personal inviolability of both.”


The Antidote to Prejudice: Walter Lippmann on Overriding the Mind’s Propensity for Preconceptions

“We hear and apprehend only what we already half know,” Thoreau wrote as he contemplated with uncommon lucidity what it takes to apprehend reality unblinded by our preconceptions. Every once in a rare and rapturous while, the curtain of our preconceptions lifts and we are able to see, as Virginia Woolf did, “behind the cotton wool of daily life” and experience “a revelation of some order” as we apprehend reality as it really is. But such is the paradox of consciousness: Without preconceptions — without having already half-templated and half-mapped the world we are trying to perceive and navigate — we would have to evaluate afresh every smallest object our attention falls upon. We would not see a table but several pieces of wood, a geometry of shapes and surfaces, an arrangement of atoms we would have to process anew each time in order to perceive the object we understand to be a table. Without our preconceptions, we would be so overwhelmed by raw reality as to become paralyzed by our insufficient processing powers.

And so we develop schemata — perceptual shorthands that pre-process what we encounter in order to spare us this impossible cognitive toil. The upside is survivalist; the downside, inescapably, moral: Each thing we preconceive blinds us to what actually is — a tendency that, when it rises to the level of social perception in the form of stereotypes, metastasizes into a status quo that makes the powerful all the more powerful and the power-poor all the poorer. “We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin observed in contemplating freedom and how we imprison ourselves — an observation rooted in the knowledge that both the making and the unmaking of this world, both our traps and our freedom, lie in reconceiving these preconceptions that keep power structures in place.

That is what the great writer, media theorist, and political critic Walter Lippmann (September 23, 1889–December 14, 1974) examined a generation before Baldwin in Public Opinion (free ebook | public library) — the immensely insightful 1922 book that gave us Lippmann on the psychology of deception and self-delusion.

Walter Lippmann

Drawing on the pioneering psychologist William James’s lovely landmark formulation of a baby’s first perception of the world as “one great blooming, buzzing confusion,” Lippmann writes:

Few facts in consciousness seem to be merely given. Most facts in consciousness seem to be partly made. A report is the joint product of the knower and known, in which the role of the observer is always selective and usually creative. The facts we see depend on where we are placed, and the habits of our eyes.

[…]

For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.

Lippmann considers how we automate the classification of what we encounter into pre-conceived categories of perception:

In untrained observation we pick recognizable signs out of the environment. The signs stand for ideas, and these ideas we fill out with our stock of images. We do not so much see this man and that sunset; rather we notice that the thing is man or sunset, and then see chiefly what our mind is already full of on those subjects.

Art by Helen Borten from Do You See What I See?

Writing at the same time as the existentialist philosopher Martin Buber was considering a tree as a lesson in seeing the sovereign dignity of the generalized other, Lippmann weighs the cost of this economy of perception:

Those whom we love and admire most are the men and women whose consciousness is peopled thickly with persons rather than with types, who know us rather than the classification into which we might fit. For even without phrasing it to ourselves, we feel intuitively that all classification is in relation to some purpose not necessarily our own; that between two human beings no association has final dignity in which each does not take the other as an end in himself. There is a taint on any contact between two people which does not affirm as an axiom the personal inviolability of both.

The most tainting of our interpersonal relations, Lippmann notes, is that in which we take a single trait of the other and extrapolate from it an entire type, filling in the rest of the picture with the stereotype we already hold of that “person.” We are handed this coloring book of caricatures by our culture, so early in our moral development and so surreptitiously that we grow unwitting of its influence upon our way of being and our regard for others.

Art by Isol from Daytime Visions

Two decades before Hannah Arendt asserted that “society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed” and a century before social scientists came to study how unconscious biases afflict even the most conscientious people, Lippmann offers an elegant analysis of how stereotypes work — how they help us, how they hurt us, and how to live with them in a way that maximizes their cognitive aid and minimizes their social damage:

The subtlest and most pervasive of all influences are those which create and maintain the repertory of stereotypes. We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception. They mark out certain objects as familiar or strange, emphasizing the difference, so that the slightly familiar is seen as very familiar, and the somewhat strange as sharply alien… Were there no practical uniformities in the environment, there would be no economy and only error in the human habit of accepting foresight for sight. But there are uniformities sufficiently accurate, and the need of economizing attention is so inevitable, that the abandonment of all stereotypes for a wholly innocent approach to experience would impoverish human life.

What matters is the character of the stereotypes, and the gullibility with which we employ them. And these in the end depend upon those inclusive patterns which constitute our philosophy of life. If in that philosophy we assume that the world is codified according to a code which we possess, we are likely to make our reports of what is going on describe a world run by our code. But if our philosophy tells us that each man is only a small part of the world, that his intelligence catches at best only phases and aspects in a coarse net of ideas, then, when we use our stereotypes, we tend to know that they are only stereotypes, to hold them lightly, to modify them gladly. We tend, also, to realize more and more clearly when our ideas started, where they started, how they came to us, why we accepted them. All useful history is antiseptic in this fashion. It enables us to know what fairy tale, what school book, what tradition, what novel, play, picture, phrase, planted one preconception in this mind, another in that mind.

One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for a rare 1926 edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

And yet the great tragedy of human society — a tragedy that has played out in devastating ways in the century since Lippmann, from the Holocaust to the twenty-first century’s various corruptions of democracy — is that those in power are reluctant to hold stereotypes lightly and modify them gladly, because stereotypes are how they stake out their place in the world and maintain the world-order that is the source of their power. Lippmann writes:

The systems of stereotypes may be the core of our personal tradition, the defenses of our position in society.

They are an ordered, more or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves. They may not be a complete picture of the world, but they are a picture of a possible world to which we are adapted. In that world people and things have their well-known places, and do certain expected things. We feel at home there. We fit in. We are members. We know the way around. There we find the charm of the familiar, the normal, the dependable; its grooves and shapes are where we are accustomed to find them. And though we have abandoned much that might have tempted us before we creased ourselves into that mould, once we are firmly in, it fits as snugly as an old shoe.

No wonder, then, that any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of the universe. It is an attack upon the foundations of our universe, and, where big things are at stake, we do not readily admit that there is any distinction between our universe and the universe.

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

These warped maps of the universe — like all maps — limit the landscape of possibility by substituting a dominant worldview for a representative and equitable depiction of reality. They hold power in place and keep the disenfranchised in their place. Lippmann examines their blinding and fracturing effect:

A pattern of stereotypes is not neutral. It is not merely a way of substituting order for the great blooming, buzzing confusion of reality. It is not merely a short cut. It is all these things and something more. It is the guarantee of our self-respect; it is the projection upon the world of our own sense of our own value, our own position and our own rights. The stereotypes are, therefore, highly charged with the feelings that are attached to them. They are the fortress of our tradition, and behind its defenses we can continue to feel ourselves safe in the position we occupy.

[…]

The stereotype not only saves time in a busy life and is a defense of our position in society, but tends to preserve us from all the bewildering effect of trying to see the world steadily and see it whole.

Even Aristotle, whose ideas endure as the scaffolding of modern democracy, was afflicted with this gruesome blind spot of social consciousness — he too was unwilling to relinquish his map of the universe, arguing that slaves were enslaved because it was their nature to be slaves and women were subordinate because it was their nature to be subordinated. Lippmann admonishes against this notorious stubbornness of stereotypes:

There is nothing so obdurate to education or to criticism as the stereotype. It stamps itself upon the evidence in the very act of securing the evidence.

This system of preconceptions informs our code of being and our entire interface with the world:

Morality, good taste and good form first standardize and then emphasize certain of these underlying prejudices. As we adjust ourselves to our code, we adjust the facts we see to that code. Rationally, the facts are neutral to all our views of right and wrong. Actually, our canons determine greatly what we shall perceive and how.

[…]

At the core of every moral code there is a picture of human nature, a map of the universe, and a version of history. To human nature (of the sort conceived), in a universe (of the kind imagined), after a history (so understood), the rules of the code apply.

‘Fool’s Cap Map of the World’ (1580–1590), from Cosmigraphics by Michael Benson

And yet there comes a point when the code and the facts diverge, and the facts cannot be ignored. No manufacturing of “alternative facts” is strong enough to blunt the stereotype-severing edge of reality. Pointing to these moments as the crucible of change, Lippmann writes:

There is always such a point, because our images of how things behave are simpler and more fixed than the ebb and flow of affairs. There comes a time, therefore, when the blind spots come from the edge of vision into the center. Then unless there are critics who have the courage to sound an alarm, and leaders capable of understanding the change, and a people tolerant by habit, the stereotype, instead of economizing effort, and focussing energy… may frustrate effort and waste men’s energy by blinding them.

[…]

The pattern of stereotypes at the center of our codes largely determines what group of facts we shall see, and in what light we shall see them.

Lippmann considers our responsibility as citizens and social beings who are prone to and, in some deep sense, dependent on these patterns of stereotypes — how we can hold them in a way that aids us and others without encumbering us with the moral downside of this cognitive technology:

Yet a people without prejudices, a people with altogether neutral vision, is so unthinkable in any civilization of which it is useful to think, that no scheme of education could be based upon that ideal. Prejudice can be detected, discounted, and refined, but so long as finite men must compress into a short schooling preparation for dealing with a vast civilization, they must carry pictures of it around with them, and have prejudices. The quality of their thinking and doing will depend on whether those prejudices are friendly, friendly to other people, to other ideas, whether they evoke love of what is felt to be positively good, rather than hatred of what is not contained in their version of the good.

Art by Jennifer Orkin Lewis from Love Found

Because these prejudices are part of our cultural mythology, Lippmann reminds us that we ought to treat them the way we treat all myths:

What a myth never contains is the critical power to separate its truths from its errors. For that power comes only by realizing that no human opinion, whatever its supposed origin, is too exalted for the test of evidence, that every opinion is only somebody’s opinion. And if you ask why the test of evidence is preferable to any other, there is no answer unless you are willing to use the test in order to test it.

Complement this particular aspect of Lippmann’s timeless and richly insightful Public Opinion with Galileo on critical thinking and the folly of believing our preconceptions and Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, then savor Lucille Clifton’s lovely short poem about seeing past our patterned perception of other living things.


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Faster Than Light: Marilyn Nelson Reads Her Exquisite Poem About the Purpose of Life and How Our Impermanence Both Frustrates and Fuels Our Creative Drive


“My poems: a handful of dust trying to get back to supernova. Like every longing, everything alive.”


Faster Than Light: Marilyn Nelson Reads Her Exquisite Poem About the Purpose of Life and How Our Impermanence Both Frustrates and Fuels Our Creative Drive

“It’s so much more a thing of pliancy, persuasion,” the astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson wrote in her spare, lovely poem celebrating the genius of Einstein’s theory of relativity — genius at the heart of which was his bold and, at the time, countercultural decision to fix the speed of light as an immutable constant around which all the other variables converged to construct his groundbreaking model of spacetime, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe.

The speed of light and the vibrating mesh of our understanding and misunderstanding of the nature of reality come alive with uncommon originality of thought and feeling in the title poem from Marilyn Nelson’s 2012 poetry collection Faster Than Light (public library), which she read at the third annual Universe in Verse. It is a long poem, a beautiful and poignant poem, a soaring, meandering meditation on the nature of reality, the purpose of our existence, the way in which our impermanence both frustrates and fuels our creative drive. Enjoy:

My poems: a handful of dust
trying to get back to supernova.
Like every longing, everything alive.

How lovely, too, that Nelson’s altogether magnificent Faster Than Light opens with the perfect tryptic of epigraphs, straddling two and a half millennia of culture at the boundaries of science, philosophy, art, and activism:

For other highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring homage to Stephen Hawking, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie.


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


newsletter

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