Rachel Carson’s Birdsong Notation, Set to Music


A melodic homage to the patron saint of the modern environmental conscience.


Rachel Carson’s Birdsong Notation, Set to Music

One of the loveliest discoveries in my research for Figuring came at Yale’s magical Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where Rachel Carson’s papers are housed: Among her ample letters, manuscripts, and field notebooks I found a piece of railway stationery from the now-defunct Portland Rose train line, onto which Carson had counted bird calls and scribbled the notation of a birdsong melody — that is how this quiet visionary loved our living world, which she set out to protect at immense personal cost as she catalyzed the environmental movement with her landmark 1962 book Silent Spring, titled after the chapter on the devastating pesticide-induced deaths of songbirds.

Bird call counts and birdsong notation in Rachel Carson’s hand. (Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library)

Carson’s scribbles so touched me that I decided they must adorn the cover of the 300 signed and numbered limited editions of Figuring, stamped in gold onto deep sky blue vegan leather — it felt like the most perfect poetic symbology for a book animated by the cherishment of nature, the longing for truth and beauty, and the way in which the personal tendernesses of change agents fomented their epoch-making cultural contributions.

What a sweet surprise, then, when my supremely talented, supremely generous and warmhearted singer-songwriter friend Dawn Landes drew the melody out of Carson’s penciled notation and set it to music — birdsong transfigured into a mesmerizing arrangement of guitar, piano, synth, layers of violin, and two harmonizing voices: Dawn and her sometime-bandmate Lauren Balthrop. Sit back with a pair of good headphones, think of Carson, and savor:

Couple with a very different musical tribute to Carson’s legacy, then revisit Neil Gaiman’s splendid poem celebrating her courage, read by Amanda Palmer.


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Herman Melville’s Passionate, Beautiful, Heartbreaking Love Letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne


“Your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s… It is a strange feeling — no hopefulness is in it, no despair. Content — that is it… The divine magnet is in you, and my magnet responds.”


Herman Melville’s Passionate, Beautiful, Heartbreaking Love Letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne

The summer when nineteen-year-old Emily Dickinson met the love of her life — the orphaned mathematician-in-training Susan Gilbert, who would come to be the poet’s greatest muse, her mentor, her primary reader and editor, her fiercest lifelong attachment, her “Only Woman in the World” — another intense, label-defying love was igniting in the heart of another literary titan-to-be some fifty miles westward. That other love unfolds alongside Dickinson’s in Figuring — a book I wrote to explore, among other existential perplexities, the bittersweet beauty of asymmetrical and half-requited loves. (This essay is adapted from the book.)

On August 5, 1850, Herman Melville met Nathaniel Hawthorne at a literary gathering in the Berkshires. Hawthorne was forty-six. The achingly shy, brooding writer, once celebrated as “handsomer than Lord Byron,” had risen to celebrity a decade earlier, much thanks to a glowing endorsement by Margaret Fuller. Melville — whose debut novel had rendered him a literary star in his twenties — had just turned thirty-one.

Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne

A potent intellectual infatuation ignited between the two men — one that, at least for Melville, seems to have grown from the cerebral to the corporeal. Within days, the young author reviewed Hawthorne’s short story collection Mosses from an Old Manse in Literary World under the impersonal byline “a Virginian Spending July in Vermont.” No claim of this intentional ambiguity was true — Melville was a New Yorker, the month was August, and he was spending it in Massachusetts.

The review, nearing seven thousand words, was nothing less than an editorial serenade. “A man of a deep and noble nature has seized me in this seclusion… His wild, witch voice rings through me,” Melville wrote of reading Hawthorne’s stories in a remote farmhouse nestled in the summer foliage of the New England countryside. “The soft ravishments of the man spun me round in a web of dreams.” Melville couldn’t have known that his allusions to witchcraft, intended as compliment, had disquieting connotations for Hawthorne. Born Nathaniel Hathorne, he had added a w to the family name in order to distance himself from his ancestor John Hathorne — a leading judge involved in the Salem witch trials, who, unlike the other culpable judges, never repented of his role in the murders. Unwitting of the dark family history, Melville found himself under “this Hawthorne’s spell” — a spell cast first by his writing, then by the constellation of personal qualities from which the writing radiated. Who hasn’t fallen in love with an author in the pages of a beautiful book? And if that author, when befriended in the real world, proves to be endowed with the splendor of personhood that the writing intimates, who could resist falling in love with the whole person? Melville presaged as much:

No man can read a fine author, and relish him to his very bones, while he reads, without subsequently fancying to himself some ideal image of the man and his mind… There is no man in whom humor and love are developed in that high form called genius; no such man can exist without also possessing, as the indispensable complement of these, a great, deep intellect, which drops down into the universe like a plummet. Or, love and humor are only the eyes, through which such an intellect views this world. The great beauty in such a mind is but the product of its strength.

After comparing Hawthorne to Shakespeare, he writes:

In this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth, — even though it be covertly, and by snatches.

“I am Posterity speaking by proxy,” Melville bellows from the page, “when I declare — that the American, who up to the present day, has evinced, in Literature, the largest brain with the largest heart, that man is Nathaniel Hawthorne.” In an aside on the process of composing his review, he notes that twenty-four hours into writing, he found himself “charged more and more with love and admiration of Hawthorne.” Quoting an especially beguiling line of Hawthorne’s, he insists that “such touches… can not proceed from any common heart.” No, they bespeak “such a depth of tenderness, such a boundless sympathy with all forms of being, such an omnipresent love” that they render their author singular in his generation — as singular as the place he would come to occupy in Melville’s heart.

Hawthorne’s home, Old Manse. Concord, Massachusetts. (Boston Public Library.)

Fervid correspondence and frequent visits followed over the next few months. Only ten of Melville’s letters to Hawthorne survive, but their houses were just six miles apart and they saw each other quite often — “discussing the Universe with a bottle of brandy & cigars,” as Melville put it in one invitation, and talking deep into the night about “time and eternity, things of this world and of the next, and books, and publishers, and all possible and impossible matters,” as Hawthorne recounted in his diary. Punctuating the invisible log of all that was written but destroyed is all that was spoken but unwritten, all that was felt but unspoken.

Melville’s ardor was most acute during the period of writing Moby-Dick, which he dedicated to Hawthorne. Printed immediately after the title page was “In Token of My Admiration for his Genius, This Book is Inscribed to Nathanial [sic] Hawthorne.”

Art by Matt Kish from Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page

One November evening over dinner, a restlessly excited Herman presented Nathaniel with a lovingly inscribed copy of the novel whose now-legendary protagonist sails from Nantucket into the existential unknown. I can picture the brooding Hawthorne turning the leaf and suppressing a beam of delight upon discovering the printed dedication. In the following century, Virginia Woolf would perform a similar gesture with her groundbreaking, gender-bending novel Orlando, inspired by her lover Vita Sackville-West and later described by Vita’s son as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” On the day of Orlando’s publication, Vita would receive a package containing not only the printed book, but also Virginia’s original manuscript, bound specially for her in Niger leather and stamped with her initials on the spine.

But after the elated private presentation, a very different public fate awaited Moby-Dick. Its 1851 publication was met with a damning review in New York’s Literary World, which set the tone for its American reception and precipitated its decades-long plunge into obscurity. The reviewer’s chief complaint was that the novel “violated and defaced” “the most sacred associations of life”—an indictment aimed at the homoeroticism of Melville’s choice to depict Ishmael and Queequeg as sharing a “marriage bed” in which they awaken with their arms around each other.

Queequeg’s favorite dish, cooked and photographed by artist Dinah Fried for her project Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals.

Ten days later, Hawthorne lamented the obtuseness of the review and praised Moby-Dick as Melville’s best work yet. Touched to the point of delirium by this “exultation-breeding letter,” Melville hastened to reply:

Your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s… It is a strange feeling — no hopefulness is in it, no despair. Content — that is it; and irresponsibility; but without licentious inclination. I speak now of my profoundest sense of being, not of an incidental feeling.

Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips — lo, they are yours and not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces.

Aware of how his intemperate fervor might incinerate his relationship with the cooler-tempered Hawthorne, Melville reasons with himself for a moment, then chooses to abandon reason:

My dear Hawthorne, the atmospheric skepticisms steal into me now, and make me doubtful of my sanity in writing you thus. But, believe me, I am not mad, most noble Festus! But truth is ever incoherent, and when the big hearts strike together, the concussion is a little stunning.

After signing, he adds a feverish postscript:

I can’t stop yet. If the world was entirely made up of [magicians], I’ll tell you what I should do. I should have a paper-mill established at one end of the house, and so have an endless riband of foolscap rolling in upon my desk; and upon that endless riband I should write a thousand — a million — billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter to you. The divine magnet is in you, and my magnet responds. Which is the biggest? A foolish question — they are One.

The intensity proved too concussing for Hawthorne — he pulled away from the divine magnet. Melville seems to have presaged the eclipse of their relationship in the review in which the magnetism had begun:

It is that blackness in Hawthorne… that so fixes and fascinates me. It may be, nevertheless, that it is too largely developed in him. Perhaps he does not give us a ray of his light for every shade of his dark.

As Hawthorne retreated into his cool darkness, Melville suffered with the singular anguish of unreturned ardor—anguish that stayed with him for the remaining four decades of his life, for he eulogized it in one of his last poems, “Monody,” penned in his final year:

To have known him, to have loved him,
After loneness long;
And then to be estranged in life,
And neither in the wrong;
And now for death to set his seal —
Ease me, a little ease, my song!

By wintry hills his hermit-mound
The sheeted snow-drifts drape,
And houseless there the snow-bird flits
Beneath the fir-tree’s crape:
Glazed now with ice the cloistral vine
That hid the shyest grape.

Herman Melville in his final years.

Meanwhile, the gaps of the invisible and the unspoken are filled with posterity’s questions about specifics that vibrate with the universal: What happened between Melville and Hawthorne in the unrecorded hours? Why did Nathaniel ultimately repel the divine magnet of Herman’s love? Most probably, we’ll never know. Possibly, they themselves never fully did. It is almost banal to say, yet it needs to be said: No one ever knows, nor therefore has grounds to judge, what goes on between two people, often not even the people themselves, half-opaque as we are to ourselves. One thing is certain: The quotient of intimacy cannot be contained in a label. The human heart is an ancient beast that roars and purrs with the same passions, whatever labels we may give them. We are so anxious to classify and categorize, both nature and human nature. It is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos, to construct a foothold so we may climb toward higher truth. It is also a limiting one, for in naming things we often come to mistake the names for the things themselves. The labels we give to the loves of which we are capable — varied and vigorously transfigured from one kind into another and back again — cannot begin to contain the complexity of feeling that can flow between two hearts and the bodies that contain them.


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Salvation by Words: Iris Murdoch on Language as a Vehicle of Truth and Art as a Force of Resistance to Tyranny


“Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify. The good artist is a vehicle of truth.”


Salvation by Words: Iris Murdoch on Language as a Vehicle of Truth and Art as a Force of Resistance to Tyranny

“To create today is to create dangerously,” Albert Camus wrote in the late 1950s as he contemplated the role of the artist as a voice of resistance. “In our age,” W.H. Auden observed around the same time across the Atlantic, “the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act.” This unmerciful reality of human culture has shocked and staggered every artist who has endeavored to effect progress and lift her society up with the fulcrum of her art, but it is a fundamental fact of every age and every society. Half a century after Camus and Auden, Chinua Achebe distilled its discomfiting essence in his forgotten conversation with James Baldwin:

Those who tell you “Do not put too much politics in your art” are not being honest. If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.

Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) — a rare philosopher with a poet’s pen, and one of the most incisive minds of the past century — explores the role of art as a force of resistance to tyranny and vehicle of cultural change in an arresting address she delivered to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in the spring of 1972, later included in the altogether revelatory posthumous collection Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (public library).

Dame Iris Murdoch by Ida Kar (National Portrait Gallery)

Two decades after the Soviet communist government forced Boris Pasternak to relinquish his Nobel Prize in Literature, Murdoch writes:

Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify. The good artist is a vehicle of truth, he formulates ideas which would otherwise remain vague and focuses attention upon facts which can then no longer be ignored. The tyrant persecutes the artist by silencing him or by attempting to degrade or buy him. This has always been so.

In consonance with Baldwin’s assertion that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” Murdoch adds:

At regular intervals in history the artist has tended to be a revolutionary or at least an instrument of change in so far as he has tended to be a sensitive and independent thinker with a job that is a little outside established society.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the maelstrom of vicious opprobrium hurled at E.E. Cummings for his visionary defiance of tradition, which revolutionized literature, Murdoch considers how art often catalyzes ideological and cultural revolutions by first revolutionizing the art-form itself:

A motive for change in art has always been the artist’s own sense of truth. Artists constantly react against their tradition, finding it pompous and starchy and out of touch… Traditional art is seen as far too grand, and is then seen as a half-truth.

Art by Salvador Dalí from a rare 1969 edition of Alice in Wonderland

Murdoch counts among the “multifarious enemies of art” not only the deliberate assaults of political agendas and ideologies, but the half-conscious lacerations of our technology — that prosthetic extension of human intention, the unforeseen consequences and byproducts of which invariably eclipse its original intended uses. In a passage of sundering pertinence to our present political pseudo-reality, reinforced by the gorge of incessant newsfeeds, she writes:

A technological society, quite automatically and without any malign intent, upsets the artist by taking over and transforming the idea of craft, and by endlessly reproducing objects which are not art objects but sometimes resemble them. Technology steals the artist’s public by inventing sub-artistic forms of entertainment and by offering a great counterinterest and a rival way of grasping the world.

[…]

Today technology further disturbs the artist and his client not only by actually threatening the world, but by making its wretchedness apparent upon the television screen. The desire to attack art, to neglect it or to harness it or to transform it out of recognition, is a natural and in a way respectable reaction to this display.

Dame Iris Murdoch by Madame Yevonde (National Portrait Gallery)

In a lovely parallel to Kurt Gödel’s landmark incompleteness theorem, demonstrating the existence of certain mathematical truths which mathematical logical simply cannot prove, Murdoch extols incompleteness as the hallmark of art — not its weakness but its supreme strength:

Great art, especially literature, but the other arts too, carries a built-in self-critical recognition of its incompleteness. It accepts and celebrates jumble, and the bafflement of the mind by the world. The incomplete pseudo-object, the work of art, is a lucid commentary upon itself… Art makes a place for precision in the midst of chaos by inventing a language in which contingent details can be lovingly noticed and obvious truths stated with simple authority. The incompleteness of the pseudo-object need not affect the lucidity of the mode of talk which it bodies forth; in fact, the two aspects of the matter ideally support each other. In this sense all good art is its own intimate critic, celebrating in simple and truthful utterance the broken nature of its formal complexity. All good tragedy is anti-tragedy. King Lear. Lear wants to enact the false tragic, the solemn, the complete. Shakespeare forces him to enact the true tragic, the absurd, the incomplete.

Great art, then,… inspires truthfulness and humility.

Much as the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay had ranked an art other than her own as the greatest — “Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is,” she exulted in one of literature’s most splendid passages about the power of music — Murdoch concedes the superior power of art at the expense of her own primary vocation:

Great art is able to display and discuss the central area of our reality, our actual consciousness, in a more exact way than science or even philosophy can.

A decade and a half before Toni Morrison delivered her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the power of language and a quarter century before Susan Sontag’s poignant address on “the conscience of words,” Murdoch writes:

There is no doubt which art is the most practically important for our survival and our salvation, and that is literature. Words constitute the ultimate texture and stuff of our moral being, since they are the most refined and delicate and detailed, as well as the most universally used and understood, of the symbolisms whereby we express ourselves into existence. We became spiritual animals when we became verbal animals. The fundamental distinctions can only be made in words. Words are spirit.

Art by Ofra Amit from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In a sentiment of grave poignancy amid our dispiriting and decivilizing atmosphere of “alternative facts,” Murdoch adds:

The quality of a civilisation depends upon its ability to discern and reveal truth, and this depends upon the scope and purity of its language.

Any dictator attempts to degrade the language because this is a way to mystify. And many of the quasi-automatic operations of capitalist industrial society tend also toward mystification and the blunting of verbal precision.

With an eye to C.P. Snow’s famed 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures” — a watershed case for the necessity of desegregating science and the humanities, of bridging investigation with imaginative experience — Murdoch exhorts:

We must not be tempted to leave lucidity and exactness to the scientist. Whenever we write we ought to write as well as we can… in order to defend our language and render subtle and clear that stuff which is the deepest texture of our spirit.

[…]

There are not two cultures. There is only one culture and words are its basis; words are where we live as human beings and as moral and spiritual agents.

Her closing words are part manifesto and part benediction — a meta-testament to the mobilizing, spiritualizing power of great writing:

Both art and philosophy constantly re-create themselves by returning to the deep and obvious and ordinary things of human existence and making there a place for cool speech and wit and serious unforced reflection. Long may this central area remain to us, the homeland of freedom and of art. The great artist, like the great saint, calms us by a kind of unassuming simple lucidity, he speaks with the voice that we hear in Homer and in Shakespeare and in the Gospels. This is the human language of which, whenever we write, as artists or as word-users of any other kind, we should endeavour to be worthy.

Existentialists and Mystics — which also gave us Murdoch on storytelling and the key to great writing — is a timelessly incisive read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Toni Morrison on the power of language, then revisit Murdoch on causality, chance, and how love gives meaning to our existence and her almost unbearably beautiful love letters.


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Anatomy of Deception and Self-Delusion: Walter Lippmann on Public Opinion, Our Slippery Grasp of Truth, and the Discipline of Apprehending Reality Clearly


“If the connection between reality and human response were direct and immediate, rather than indirect and inferred, indecision and failure would be unknown.”


Anatomy of Deception and Self-Delusion: Walter Lippmann on Public Opinion, Our Slippery Grasp of Truth, and the Discipline of Apprehending Reality Clearly

“Truth always rests with the minority … because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion,” Kierkegaard wrote in his journal in the middle of the nineteenth century as he tussled with the eternal question of why we conform. Around the same time, across the Atlantic, Emerson fumed in his own diary as he contemplated the supreme existential challenge of individual integrity in a mass society: “Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence… I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them.” A century later, Eleanor Roosevelt would sharpen this sentiment in her abiding meditation on happiness and conformity: “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else, you surrender your own integrity [and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.”

Why even the soundest-minded of us are so susceptible to such unconscious surrender and what it takes to uphold a clear view of reality is what the great writer, media theorist, and political critic Walter Lippmann (September 23, 1889–December 14, 1974) — whose moral courage of shedding light on the pitfalls of society and the human psyche Eleanor Roosevelt greatly admired, and whom Theodore Roosevelt considered the “most brilliant young man of his age in all the United States” — explores in his timelessly insightful 1922 book Public Opinion (free ebook | public library).

Walter Lippmann

Lippmann — who coined the word stereotype in its contemporary sense — begins by considering just how porous to ambient information we are in the constitution of our inner landscape opinion, and how absurd it is to regard ourselves as having firm and final grasp of reality when the entire history of our species is the history of misapprehension and pseudoreality tightly held as truth. He writes:

Looking back we can see how indirectly we know the environment in which nevertheless we live. We can see that the news of it comes to us now fast, now slowly; but that whatever we believe to be a true picture, we treat as if it were the environment itself. It is harder to remember that about the beliefs upon which we are now acting, but in respect to other peoples and other ages we flatter ourselves that it is easy to see when they were in deadly earnest about ludicrous pictures of the world. We insist, because of our superior hindsight, that the world as they needed to know it, and the world as they did know it, were often two quite contradictory things. We can see, too, that while they governed and fought, traded and reformed in the world as they imagined it to be, they produced results, or failed to produce any, in the world as it was. They started for the Indies and found America. They diagnosed evil and hanged old women. They thought they could grow rich by always selling and never buying. A caliph, obeying what he conceived to be the Will of Allah, burned the library at Alexandria.

Nearly a century before the Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman came to study how our minds mislead us and observed that “the confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence but of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct,” Lippmann illustrates this elemental human tendency with the example of the sixth-century Alexandrian monk Cosmas, who set out to disprove pre-Christian geographers’ assertion that our planet is spherical.

Cosmas’s map of the Earth

Although the belief that Earth is flat had been steadily falling out of favor over the preceding three centuries, Cosmas held tightly to his religious mythology, positing that Earth was structurally modeled on the house of worship God describes to Moses during the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. Determined to reconcile reality and religion, Cosmas devised a theoretical model of the universe he called “Christian Topography.” Drawn centuries before the development of perspective, his map depicts the world as a flat parallelogram, twice as wide from east to west as it is high from north to south, containing the Earth at the center, surrounded by an ocean, in turn contained by another Earth, where humans lived before the flood of the Genesis myth. Atop this other Earth — Noah’s point of embarkation — is a conical mountain, behind which the Sun and Moon revolve like a celestial chandelier spinning to turn day into night. Specific compartments of this universe-within-a-world are allotted to the mortals, the blessed, and the angels.

Mountain detail from Cosmas’s model of the universe

Cosmas enfolded the map into his treatise Christian Opinion Concerning the World, and yet he seemed unwitting of the fact that the map was indeed an opinion rather than a representation of reality. He did what we have always done as human beings — mistake our labels and models of things for the things themselves. In the ancient monk, Lippmann finds a living allegory for the human pathology to see what we wish to believe:

For Cosmas there was nothing in the least absurd about his map. Only by remembering his absolute conviction that this was the map of the universe can we begin to understand how he would have dreaded Magellan or Peary or the aviator who risked a collision with the angels and the vault of heaven by flying seven miles up in the air. In the same way we can best understand the furies of war and politics by remembering that almost the whole of each party believes absolutely in its picture of the opposition, that it takes as fact, not what is, but what it supposes to be the fact.

Our opinions of the world and of other people, Lippmann argues, form much the way Cosmas constructed his map — governed less by a clear view of the relevant facts and the inner motives of others than by our theoretical models of what happened and why it happened, informed largely by our own beliefs and feelings. Decades before neuroscientists located the central mystery of consciousness in qualia — the subjective interiority of any human experience, so opaque to outside observers — Lippmann writes:

The only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of that event. That is why until we know what others think they know, we cannot truly understand their acts.

(A century later, that impossibility stands as the greatest challenge to artificial intelligence.)

One of Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for the essays of Montaigne

The most interesting question, then, as well as the most pressing in matters both political and personal, is what makes us vulnerable to such self-inflicted blindnesses and delusions, and what can be done about it. Lippmann writes:

It is clear enough that under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities, and that in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond.

[…]

In [such] instances we must note particularly one common factor. It is the insertion between man and his environment of a pseudo-environment. To that pseudo-environment his behavior is a response. But because it is behavior, the consequences, if they are acts, operate not in the pseudo-environment where the behavior is stimulated, but in the real environment where action eventuates. If the behavior is not a practical act, but what we call roughly thought and emotion, it may be a long time before there is any noticeable break in the texture of the fictitious world. But when the stimulus of the pseudo-fact results in action on things or other people, contradiction soon develops. Then comes the sensation of butting one’s head against a stone wall, of learning by experience, and witnessing Herbert Spencer’s tragedy of the murder of a Beautiful Theory by a Gang of Brutal Facts, the discomfort in short of a maladjustment. For certainly, at the level of social life, what is called the adjustment of man to his environment takes place through the medium of fictions.

Fictions, Lippmann is careful to point out, need not be blatant lies — they can be, and most often are, the subtle deformations of reality in which a sapling of truth is grafted onto a robust trunk of Cosmian interpretation to produce a bramble of pseudo-reality. Three centuries after Galileo admonished against the folly of believing our preconceptions, as he defied the geocentric model of the universe nearly at the cost of his life, Lippmann writes:

By fictions I do not mean lies. I mean a representation of the environment which is in lesser or greater degree made by man himself… A work of fiction may have almost any degree of fidelity, and so long as the degree of fidelity can be taken into account, fiction is not misleading. In fact, human culture is very largely the selection, the rearrangement, the tracing of patterns upon, and the stylizing of, what William James called “the random irradiations and resettlements of our ideas.” The alternative to the use of fictions is direct exposure to the ebb and flow of sensation. That is not a real alternative, for however refreshing it is to see at times with a perfectly innocent eye, innocence itself is not wisdom, though a source and corrective of wisdom. For the real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it. To traverse the world men must have maps of the world. Their persistent difficulty is to secure maps on which their own need, or someone else’s need, has not sketched in the coast of Bohemia.

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

And yet the maps two people make of the same reality may be so staggeringly divergent as to lead us to believe that the mappers inhabit different worlds. Once again anticipating the notion of qualia, Lippmann refines the sentiment by pointing out that “they live in the same world, but they think and feel in different ones.” It is through this draughtsmanship of thought and feeling that we draw the highly subjective maps by which we navigate the real world:

What each man does is based not on direct and certain knowledge, but on pictures made by himself or given to him. If his atlas tells him that the world is flat he will not sail near what he believes to be the edge of our planet for fear of falling off. If his maps include a fountain of eternal youth, a Ponce de Leon will go in quest of it. If someone digs up yellow dirt that looks like gold, he will for a time act exactly as if he had found gold. The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do. It does not determine what they will achieve. It determines their effort, their feelings, their hopes, not their accomplishments and results.

[…]

The very fact that men theorize at all is proof that their pseudo-environments, their interior representations of the world, are a determining element in thought, feeling, and action. For if the connection between reality and human response were direct and immediate, rather than indirect and inferred, indecision and failure would be unknown.

Our inferences about and representations of reality, Lippmann observes, are so misshapen because the world we try to apprehend is invariably “out of reach, out of sight, out of mind” — a world that, especially politically, must be “explored, reported, and imagined” in order for us to have any picture of it at all. (Trailblazing astronomer and key Figuring figure Maria Mitchell captured this native limitation of the human mind exquisitely: “We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”) Lippmann writes:

Man is no Aristotelian god contemplating all existence at one glance. He is the creature of an evolution who can just about span a sufficient portion of reality to manage his survival, and snatch what on the scale of time are but a few moments of insight and happiness. Yet this same creature has invented ways of seeing what no naked eye could see, of hearing what no ear could hear, of weighing immense masses and infinitesimal ones, of counting and separating more items than he can individually remember. He is learning to see with his mind vast portions of the world that he could never see, touch, smell, hear, or remember. Gradually he makes for himself a trustworthy picture inside his head of the world beyond his reach.

But the pictures our mind’s eye constructs by inference and common sense — that most pernicious traitor of reality — are inherently untrustworthy. They are always partial and gravely warped by the illusion of completeness — especially when it comes to what we call public opinion. Lippmann anchors his argument to a definition:

Those features of the world outside which have to do with the behavior of other human beings, in so far as that behavior crosses ours, is dependent upon us, or is interesting to us, we call roughly public affairs. The pictures inside the heads of these human beings, the pictures of themselves, of others, of their needs, purposes, and relationship, are their public opinions. Those pictures which are acted upon by groups of people, or by individuals acting in the name of groups, are Public Opinion with capital letters.

Considering why our mental pictures so habitually misrepresent reality, Lippmann identifies our limited access to facts as the key factor — we simply don’t have the time and opportunity to take into account every relevant data point and contextual quotient in forming our opinions about a person or situation. Half a century after the English mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford extolled the discipline of doubt and plainly observed that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence,” and nearly a century before our so-called social media, Lippmann laments “the distortion arising because events have to be compressed into very short messages,” compounded by the flattening of dimension and the erasure of nuance induced by compressing a complex world into a limited vocabulary. More than half a century before James Baldwin admonished that “people who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction,” Lippmann observes that these distortions and deceptions converge to foment a “fear of facing those facts which would seem to threaten the established routine of men’s lives.” In other words, we instinctively partake in willful blindness, attending only to those facts which corroborate our existing model of reality — the model by which our lives operate with the lowest degree of friction.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of Alice in Wonderland

Lippmann returns to the central causality of our misapprehension — our limited access to facts, barred from us by various layers of circumstantial opacity and deliberate privacy — and offers a vital calibration of the confidence we have in our world-picture:

Whether the reasons for privacy are good or bad, the barriers exist. Privacy is insisted upon at all kinds of places in the area of what is called public affairs. It is often very illuminating, therefore, to ask yourself how you got at the facts on which you base your opinion. Who actually saw, heard, felt, counted, named the thing, about which you have an opinion? Was it the man who told you, or the man who told him, or someone still further removed? And how much was he permitted to see?

[…]

You can ask yourself these questions, but you can rarely answer them. They will remind you, however, of the distance which often separates your public opinion from the event with which it deals. And the reminder is itself a protection.

In a single succinct prescription for effective critical thinking, Lippmann distills the antidote to our susceptibility to outside manipulation and our propensity for self-deception:

In truly effective thinking the prime necessity is to liquidate judgments, regain an innocent eye, disentangle feelings, be curious and open-hearted.

In the remainder of Public Opinion — a sobering and immensely insightful read in its entirety — Lippmann goes on to examine “how in the individual person the limited messages from outside, formed into a pattern of stereotypes, are identified with his own interests as he feels and conceives them,” “how opinions are crystallized into what is called Public Opinion,” and “how a National Will, a Group Mind, a Social Purpose, or whatever you choose to call it, is formed.” Complement it with James Baldwin on resisting the mindless majority and Egon Schiele on why visionaries tend to come from the minority, then revisit Bertrand Russell on our most effective self-defense against propaganda and Karl Popper on seeking truth over certainty.


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After Silence: Amanda Palmer Reads Neil Gaiman’s Stunning Poem Celebrating Rachel Carson’s Legacy of Culture-Shifting Courage


“Nothing is ever over / life breathes life in its turn / Sometimes the people listen / Sometimes the people learn”


“To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men,” the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in her piercing and prescient 1914 anthem against silence. Half a century later, these words would come to embolden one of the most revolutionary voices humanity has produced — a scientist who changed culture by writing like a poet. “Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent,” marine biologist and poet laureate of science Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) wrote to her beloved, quoting the line as she was readying to speak inconvenient truth to power — at great personal cost — in catalyzing the modern environmental movement with her 1962 book Silent Spring.

Rachel Carson (Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

This stunning notion that a long-dead poet can inspire a scientist to transform an entire society inspired the inception of The Universe in Verse — the annual celebration of science through poetry, which I host each spring at Brooklyn’s wondrous nonprofit cultural institute Pioneer Works and which in turn inspired my book Figuring, where Carson is a central figure and the interleaving of art, science, love, and cultural change a central theme.

How Rachel Carson signed her letters to her loved ones. (Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

Crowning the 2018 edition of The Universe in Verse, dedicated to Carson and her far-reaching legacy, was an original poem by Neil Gaiman, composed for the occasion to celebrate this visionary of uncommon courage and persistence — the rare gift of one genius honoring another, delivered by a third: Reading the poem was Amanda Palmer, herself an artist of radical courage and an ardent champion of poetry. Please enjoy:

AFTER SILENCE
for Rachel Carson

Seasons on seasons. The spring is signaled by birdsong
coyotes screech and yammer in the moonlight
and the first flowers open. I saw two owls today
in the daylight, on silent wings.
They landed as one and watched me sleepily.
Oh who? they called. Or how, or how who?
Then they leaned into the trunk
into the sun that shone through the tight-curled buds,
and vanished into dappled shadows
never waiting for an answer.

Like the sapling that buckles the sidewalk
and grows until it has reached its height
all of us begin in darkness. Some of us reach maturity. A few
become old: we went over time’s waterfall and lived,
Time barely cares. We are a pool of knowledge and advice
the wisdom of the tribe, but we have stumbled,
fallen face-first into our new uncomfortable roles.
Remembering, as if it happened to someone else,
the race to breed,
or to succeed, the aching need that drove our thoughts
and shaped each deed,
those days are through.
We do not need to grow, we’re done,
we grew.

Who speaks? And why?

She was killed by her breasts, by tumours in them:
A clump of cells that would not listen to orders to disband
no chemical suggestions that they were big enough
that, sometimes, it’s a fine thing just to die, were heeded.
And the trees are leafless and black against the sky
and the bats in fatal whiteface sleep and rot
and the jellyfish drift and pulse through the warming waters
and everything changes. And some things are truly lost.

Wild in the weeds, the breeze scatters the seeds,
and it lifts the wings of the pine processionary moth,
and bears the green glint of the emerald borer,
Now the elms go the way of the chestnut trees.
Becoming memories and dusty furniture.
The ash trees go the way of the elms.
And somebody has to say that we
never need to grow forever. That
we, like the trees, can reach our full growth,
and mature, in wisdom and in time,
that we can be enough of us. That there
can be room for other breeds and kinds and lives.
Who’ll whisper it:
that tumours kill their hosts,
and then themselves?
We’re done. We grew. Enough.

All the gods on the hilltops
and all the gods on the waves
the gods that became seals
the voices on the winds
the quiet places, where if we are silent
we can listen, we can learn.
Who speaks? And why?

Someone could ask the questions, too.
Like who?
Who knew? What’s true?
And how? Or who?
How could it work?
What happens then?
Are consequences consequent?

The answers come from the world itself
The songs are silent,
and the spring is long in coming.

There’s a voice that rumbles beneath us
and after the end the voice still reaches us
Like a bird that cries in hunger
or a song that pleads for a different future.
Because all of us dream of a different future.
And somebody needs to listen.
To pause. To hold.
To inhale, and find the moment
before the exhale, when everything is in balance
and nothing moves. In balance: here’s life, here’s death,
and this is eternity holding its breath.

After the world has ended
After the silent spring
Into the waiting silence
another song begins.

Nothing is ever over
life breathes life in its turn
Sometimes the people listen
Sometimes the people learn

Who speaks? And why?

Complement with “The Mushroom Hunters” — Gaiman’s magnificent feminist science poem composed for the inaugural Universe in Verse, which received the Rhysling Award for poetry — then revisit other highlights from the first two years of the show: astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring tribute to Stephen Hawking, science historian James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop’s profound poem about the nature of knowledge, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and musician Rosanne Cash’s reading Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie.

For another tribute to Carson from the show, put on some good headphones and watch Amanda Palmer’s stunning cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” — that iconic and bittersweet anthem of the environmental movement, inspired by the legacy of Silent Spring. For more about Carson and how her unusual private life fomented her epoch-making cultural contribution, she occupies the final and most significant portion of Figuring.


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Journey to Mount Tamalpais: Lebanese-American Poet, Painter, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on Time, Self, Impermanence, and Transcendence


“When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive.”


Journey to Mount Tamalpais: Lebanese-American Poet, Painter, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on Time, Self, Impermanence, and Transcendence

“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote as she drew on her intimate enchantment with the Highlands in her masterpiece The Living Mountain. Having grown up at the foot of Mount Vitosha and spent swaths of my childhood in the Rila mountains of Bulgaria, I too have known the mind-sculpting power of mountains and felt the embers of that knowingness reignited by Journey to Mount Tamalpais (public library).

Written shortly after I was born, this uncommonly beautiful book-length essay by the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan (b. February 24, 1925), illustrated with 34 of her black-and-white sketches of the mountain, explores the themes that would animate Adnan through her nineties: time, self, impermanence, the nature of the universe, the spiritual dimensions of art, our belonging to and with the rest of the vast interwoven miracle we call nature.

Etel Adnan: Mount Tamalpais, 1985. (Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon)

Born in Beirut and trained in Paris — where she would return to spend much of her later life with her partner of more than forty years, the Syrian-born artist and publisher Simone Fattal — Adnan lived and taught in Northern California for more than a quarter century. There, she fell in love with Mount Tamalpais — the first vertebrae of the mountainous backbone of the Americas that stretches all the way to Tierra del Fuego. In its towering presence, she found herself “left with the sort of wonder that the sense of eternity always carries with it,” with a “feeling of latent prophesy.” The mountain became her abiding muse, which she celebrated and serenaded in a flood of paintings and poetic reverberations. Under Adnan’s gaze — generous, penetrating, benedictory — the mountain becomes both metaphor and not-metaphor, both object of reverent curiosity and sovereign subject unbeholden to human interpretation. Hers is a way of looking that embodies Ursula K. Le Guin’s distinction between objectifying and subjectifying the universe. Adnan writes:

Like a chorus, the warm breeze had come all the way from Athens and Baghdad, to the Bay, by the Pacific Route, its longest journey. It is the energy of these winds that I used, when I came to these shores, obsessed, followed by my home-made furies, errynies, and such potent creatures. And I fell in love with the immense blue eyes of the Pacific: I saw is red algae, its blood-colored cliffs, its pulsating breath. The ocean led me to the mountain.

Once I was asked in front of a television camera: “Who is the most important person you ever met?” and I remember answering: “A mountain.” I thus discovered that Tamalpais was at the very center of my being.

Half a century after philosopher Martin Buber considered the tree as a lesson in the difficult art of seeing essence rather than objectifying, Adnan considers the mountain’s essence:

This living with a mountain and with people moving with all their senses open, like many radars, is a journey… melancholy at times: you perceive noise and dirt, poverty, and the loneliness of those who are blind to so may things… but miraculous most of the way. Somehow what I perceived most is Tamalpais I am “making” the mountain as people make a painting.

[…]

It is an animal risen from the sea. A sea-creature landed, earth-bound, earth-oriented, maddened by its solidity.

The world around has the darkness of battle-ships, leafless trees are spearbearers, armor bearers, swords and pikes, the mountain looks at us with tears coming down its slopes.

O impermanence! What a lovely word and a sad feeling. What a fight with termination, with lives that fall into death like cliffs.

O Sundays which are like vessels in a storm, with nothing before and nothing after!

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

Out of the actuality of the mountain, Adnan draws an inner reality, rising too like a summit of self-transcendence:

I am at the window and Tamalpais looks back at me. I am in pain and it is not. But we are equals tonight.

[…]

I am amazed, but, more so, I am fulfilled. I am transported outside my ordinary self and into the world as it could be when no one watches.

But more than anything, Adnan finds in the mountain a vital counterpoint to the hubrises of the self. A supreme equalizer of being, it stands as an antipode to our habitual anthropocentrism and self-involvement, humbling us — in the proper sense of humility, with its Latin root in humus, “of the earth” — into recognizing that we are each just one creature among many, a tiny constellation of stardust whose ephemeral existence is no more significant than any other. Adnan writes:

The Pacific often sings a soft funeral march. It was most appropriate that they found a man hanging by a tree near the top of Tamalpais. It was not horrible. It was just one of the many events that happen up there following the death of birds or the growth of plants.

Again and again, she returns to this transcendent dance of the ephemeral and the eternal, played out in the life of the mountain as in the life of art:

A bird ran into the glass door of my deck and died. I rushed with paper and a pencil to make a drawing and realized I couldn’t draw death. The record player was playing a Koranic prayer recorded in Tunisia. The lamenting voice of the Prophet became a funeral song for the silenced animal. I came in and saw my Ray Bradbury book opened on these lines:

Robins will wear their feathery fire
whistling their whims on a low fence-wire
and not one will know of the war, not one
will care at last when it is done…

Through the long night of the species we go on, somehow blindly, and we give a name to our need for a breakthrough: we call it the Angel, or call it Art, or call it the Mountain.

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

The singular power of the mountain both beckons us into absolute presence and catapults us into an awareness of time far beyond our ephemerality — a state of being predicated on a wholehearted embrace of our mortality. A century and a half after Kierkegaard asserted that a human being is “a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal,” Adnan writes:

When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive.

[…]

Between the sun and the moon, the restless desire to live and the restless desire to die, the mountain holds the balance.

From the daily rhythms and simple seasonality of the mountain, Adnan wrests insights of great subtlety, poignancy, and prescience:

It had snowed. Tamalpais was white as it rarely is. White is the color of the terror int his century: the great white mushroom, the white and radiating clouds, the White on White painting by Malevich, and that whiteness, most fearful, in the eyes of men.

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

Recounting a hike up a steep trail with a few other members of the Perception Workshop — a collective of artists gathering “in peaceful parties with the seriousness of children at play” — Adnan reflects on what brought them together and took them to Tamalpais, seeking to discover the mountain and themselves:

We had with us no rite of passage. We had gone through no initiation, as we went into childhood and into adolescence with no warning. This is why we come to the mountain. We have no other elevation.

We slept under trees but in fact within the mountain’s vast sadness and we awoke very new.

The night freed us from our obsession with reason. It told us that we were a bundle of electric wires plugged into everything that came along. It was enough to be alive and around. The same was true of everything else.

Artists, she observes, have a deeper and more immediate grasp of this underlying interconnectedness of life. (Half a century earlier, Virginia Woolf had furnished the finest articulation of this awareness in her exquisite account of the epiphany in which she finally understood what it really means to be an artist: “Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”) Adnan writes:

Painters have a knowledge which goes beyond words. They are where musicians are. When someone blows the saxophone the sky is made of copper. When you make a watercolor you know how it feels to be the sea lying early in the day in the proximity of light.

Painters have always experienced the oneness of things. They are aware that there is interference and intervention between the world and ourselves.

[…]

I write what I see, paint what I am.

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

In a testament to the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin’s insistence that painting trains the mind’s eye to see more clearly and live with a deeper sense of presence, Adnan seeks to understand the intense and abiding draw of the mountain as a subject matter for her painting:

I know by experience, by now, that no subject matter, after a while, remains just a subject matter, but becomes a matter of life and death, our sanity resolved by visual means. Sanity is our power of perception kept focused. And it is an open-ended endeavor.

[…]

A visual expression belongs to an order of understanding which bypasses word-language. We have in us autonomous languages for autonomous perceptions. We should not waste time in trying ordinary understanding. We should not worry, either. There is no rest in any kind of perception. The fluidity of the mind is of the same family as the fluidity of being. Sometimes they coincide sharply. We call that a revelation. When it involves a privileged “object,” like a particular mountain, we call it an illumination.

Etel Adnan and Mount Tamalpais. (Photograph courtesy of the artist.)

She ends by considering the mountain’s supreme gift to her and her fellow artists — a gift of awareness, risen from the deepest stratum of being:

In this unending universe Tamalpais is a miraculous thing, the miracle of matter itself: something we can single out, the pyramid of our own identity. We are, because it is stable and it is ever changing. Our identity is the series of the mountain’s becomings, our peace is its stubborn existence.

Complement the slim, sublimely beautiful Journey to Mount Tamalpais with Nan Shepherd on the mountain as a lens on our relationship with nature and Simone Weil on the mountain as a metaphor for the purest and most fertile form of thought, then revisit Adnan — writing three decades after she left the mountain, though it never left her — on memory, the self, and the universe.


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You Can’t Have It All


“…but there is this.”


You Can’t Have It All

“Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” Rilke wrote in contemplating the most difficult and rewarding existential art: befriending our own finitude. I have been sitting with Rilke, awash in the tidal waves of sorrow and love, in the wake of losing my beloved friend Emily Levine (October 23, 1944–February 3, 2019) — philosopher, comedian, universe-builder, beautiful soul — who made me fall in love with poetry long ago and without whom there would be no Universe in Verse and no Figuring. (Emily rightfully occupies the first line of the book’s acknowledgements.)

Emily Levine, January 2019. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

Ever since her terminal diagnosis in 2016, and up until just three weeks before her death, I have been taking Emily for what we came to call our “poetry retreats” — brief periodic respites by the ocean, where we would spend unhurried time in the company of a few other beloved women, reading poetry, cooking, conversing, and just being — with our joys, with our sorrows, with one another. Emily — the most erudite and intellectually voracious person I have ever known — introduced us to classics, many of which she knew by heart: Whitman, Eliot, Yeats, Plath, Rilke. But there was one contemporary poem she especially loved and read for us often: “You Can’t Have It All” by Barbara Ras, from her exquisite and exquisitely titled 1998 poetry collection Bite Every Sorrow (public library).

Now that Emily has returned her stardust to the universe she so cherished, and all the words seem too small to fill the void, poetry stands as the only mode of remembrance that can give shape and space to the amorphous largeness of feeling that is grief. In this sweetly lo-fi recording from one of our gatherings, punctuated by the sound of the ocean and the rustle of page-turning, Emily reads the poem that she, in the deepest sense, lived out and modeled for the rest of us with her largehearted life.

YOU CAN’T HAVE IT ALL

But you can have the fig tree and its fat leaves like clown hands
gloved with green. You can have the touch of a single eleven-year-old finger
on your cheek, waking you at one a.m. to say the hamster is back.
You can have the purr of the cat and the soulful look
of the black dog, the look that says, If I could I would bite
every sorrow until it fled, and when it is August,
you can have it August and abundantly so. You can have love,
though often it will be mysterious, like the white foam
that bubbles up at the top of the bean pot over the red kidneys
until you realize foam’s twin is blood.
You can have the skin at the center between a man’s legs,
so solid, so doll-like. You can have the life of the mind,
glowing occasionally in priestly vestments, never admitting pettiness,
never stooping to bribe the sullen guard who’ll tell you
all roads narrow at the border.
You can speak a foreign language, sometimes,
and it can mean something. You can visit the marker on the grave
where your father wept openly. You can’t bring back the dead,
but you can have the words forgive and forget hold hands
as if they meant to spend a lifetime together. And you can be grateful
for makeup, the way it kisses your face, half spice, half amnesia, grateful
for Mozart, his many notes racing one another towards joy, for towels
sucking up the drops on your clean skin, and for deeper thirsts,
for passion fruit, for saliva. You can have the dream,
the dream of Egypt, the horses of Egypt and you riding in the hot sand.
You can have your grandfather sitting on the side of your bed,
at least for a while, you can have clouds and letters, the leaping
of distances, and Indian food with yellow sauce like sunrise.
You can’t count on grace to pick you out of a crowd
but here is your friend to teach you how to high jump,
how to throw yourself over the bar, backwards,
until you learn about love, about sweet surrender,
and here are periwinkles, buses that kneel, farms in the mind
as real as Africa. And when adulthood fails you,
you can still summon the memory of the black swan on the pond
of your childhood, the rye bread with peanut butter and bananas
your grandmother gave you while the rest of the family slept.
There is the voice you can still summon at will, like your mother’s,
it will always whisper, you can’t have it all,
but there is this.

Complement with Emily’s splendid reading of “On the Fifth Day” by Jane Hirshfield, who often graced our poetry retreats with her Buddhist benediction of a presence, then revisit Mary Oliver — one of Emily’s favorite poets, whom she outlived by seventeen days — on the measure of a life well lived and how to live with maximal aliveness.


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The Great Naturalist John Burroughs on Art, the Courage to Defy Convention, and the Measure of a Visionary


“The new man makes room for himself, and if he be of the first order he largely makes the taste by which he is appreciated, and the rules of art by which he is to be judged.”


The Great Naturalist John Burroughs on Art, the Courage to Defy Convention, and the Measure of a Visionary

Art is both foreground and background to all social change, the fulcrum by which we raise our personal and political standards, the wheel that propels every revolution — in thought, in feeling, in the constellation of customs, beliefs, principles, power structures, and sensibilities we call culture. “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art,” Ursula K. Le Guin asserted in her superb National Book Award acceptance speech. It is hardly surprising, then, that at times of particular cultural tumult and social upheaval, the most visionary artists — the seers who imagine and insist upon alternative ways of viewing and navigating the cultural landscape — are met with tremendous tides of criticism and condemnation from the status quo. Albert Camus knew this when he observed in the thick of the Cold War that “to create today is to create dangerously.” And yet, again and again, artists embrace the danger and go on making art — this is the way the world changes, perhaps the only way it does.

The centrality of art in culture and the unstoppable momentum of true creative visionaries are what the great naturalist and nature writer John Burroughs (April 3, 1837–March 29, 1921) — Walt Whitman’s foremost biographer and spirited champion — explores in one of the myriad lyrical, sublimely insightful passages from his 1896 more-than-biography, Whitman: A Study (public library | free ebook).

John Burroughs

Art, Burroughs argues, is not an isolated region of culture but is culture; not an island, but the water that washes all shores. (Half a century later, the visionary marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson, recipient of the John Burroughs Medal for excellence in nature writing, would assert the same of science — “The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience.” Soon, her lyrical science writing would catalyze the environmental movement.)

Burroughs writes:

I shall deny at the outset that there are any bounds of art, or that art is in any sense an “enclosure,” — a province fenced off and set apart from the rest, — any more than religion is an enclosure, though so many people would like to make it so. Art is commensurate with the human spirit. I should even deny that there are any principles of art in the sense that there are principles of mechanics or of mathematics. Art has but one principle, one aim, — to produce an impression, a powerful impression, no matter by what means, or if it be by reversing all the canons of taste and criticism.

“It is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong,” the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman would assert in the following century. As in science, so in art — Burroughs argues that any celebrated aesthetic or creative convention is bound to be challenged, and it is in its sublimation and transcendence that the next true art is to be found. A great artist does not cater to taste but creates taste, and must therefore be endowed with what Goethe called “the courage to despair,” for this act of creation is invariably met with violent opposition. Wordsworth knew this when he asserted that “to create taste is to call forth and bestow power, of which knowledge is the effect; and there lies the true difficulty.”

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

In an era long before every woman ceased to be a “man,” Burroughs writes of the truly visionary “man”:

Name any principle, so called, and some day a genius shall be born who will produce his effects in defiance of it, or by appearing to reverse it. Such a man as [William] Turner seemed, at first sight, to set at defiance all correct notions of art. The same with Wagner in music, the same with Whitman in poetry. The new man is impossible till he appears, and, when he appears, in proportion to his originality and power does it take the world a longer or shorter time to adjust its critical standards to him. But it is sure to do so at last. There is nothing final in art: its principles follow and do not lead the creator; they are deductions from his work, not its inspiration. We demand of the new man, of the overthrower of our idols, but one thing, — has he authentic inspiration and power? If he has not, his pretensions are soon exploded. If he has, we cannot put him down, any more than we can put down a law of nature, and we very soon find some principle of art that fits his case. Is there no room for the new man? But the new man makes room for himself, and if he be of the first order he largely makes the taste by which he is appreciated, and the rules of art by which he is to be judged.

Whitman: A Study is a splendid read in its entirety. Complement it with Iris Murdoch on why revolutionary art is essential for democracy, James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe’s fantastic forgotten conversation about beauty, morality, and the political power of art, and Egon Schiele on why visionaries tend to come from the minority, then revisit Whitman — whose art was at first decried and derided by his contemporaries, before rendering him America’s greatest poet — on confidence through criticism and the “meaning” of art.


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The More Loving One: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads W.H. Auden’s Sublime Ode to Our Unrequited Love for the Universe


“If equal affection cannot be, / Let the more loving one be me.”


The More Loving One: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads W.H. Auden’s Sublime Ode to Our Unrequited Love for the Universe

I wrote Figuring (public library) to explore the interplay between chance and choice, the human search for meaning in an unfeeling universe governed by equal parts precision and randomness, the bittersweet beauty of asymmetrical and half-requited loves, and our restless impulse to uncover the deepest truths of nature, even at the price of our convenient existential delusions of self-importance. (More about the book here.) These are vast, thickly interwoven themes, difficult to distill in a single sentiment, so I chose two dramatically different yet complementary epigraphs to open the book — one drawn from the trailblazing 18th-century philosopher and woman of letters Germaine de Staël’s treatise on the happiness of individuals and societies, and the other from one of our civilization’s most lucid and luminous poets laureate of the human spirit: W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973).

The Auden stanza comes from his stunning poem “The More Loving One,” originally published in his 1960 book Homage to Clio (public library) — a collection of shorter poems about history, a concept Auden defines in his own epigraph for the book:

Between those happenings that prefigure it
And those that happen in its anamnesis
Occurs the Event, but that no human wit
Can recognize until all happening ceases.

History, in other words, is not the objective chronicle of events but the subjective recognition of happenings sighted in the rearview mirror of being. (This is a question I explore throughout Figuring, in the prelude to which I wrote that history is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance.) Auden saw history — this selective set of remembrances constructed by human intention and choice — as both counterpart and antipode to nature, in which events unfold free of intent, governed by chance and the impartial physical laws of the universe. Curiously, “The More Loving One” appears among Auden’s poems about history, but it deals with nature and the disorienting necessity of learning to love a universe insentient to our hopes and fears, unconcerned with our individual fates — perhaps the least requited love there is, as well as the largest. It is an elegy, in the classic dual sense of lamentation and celebration, for our ambivalent relationship with this elemental truth and an homage to the supreme triumph of the human heart — the willingness to love that which does not and cannot love us back.

In this recording from the Academy of American Poets’ sixteenth annual Poetry & the Creative Mind, astrophysicist and author Janna Levin reads Auden’s sublime poem, with a lovely prefatory reflection on the bittersweet seductions and consolations of our unrequited love for the universe.

THE MORE LOVING ONE
by W.H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

Complement with Levin’s beautiful readings of Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Adrienne Rich’s tribute to the world’s first professional female astronomer, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s ode to time, then revisit Auden on writing, true and false enchantment, and the political power of art. For a different side to the poetics of asymmetrical yet profoundly beautiful love, savor Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert, excerpted from Figuring.


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French Philosopher Maurice Blanchot on Writing, the Dual Power of Language to Reveal and Conceal, and What It Really Means to See


“To see is certainly always to see at a distance, but by allowing distance to give back what it removes from us… To see is to experience the continuous and to celebrate the sun, that is, beyond the sun: the One.”


French Philosopher Maurice Blanchot on Writing, the Dual Power of Language to Reveal and Conceal, and What It Really Means to See

“The job of the writer is to make us see the world as it is,” Susan Sontag asserted in considering the conscience of words. “Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her splendid meditation on the magic of real human communication. But this transformation has a dual power of helping us see the world more clearly and creating the illusion of seeing when we are in fact misperceiving, as Nietzsche well knew in contemplating how we use language to both conceal and reveal reality: “Is language the adequate expression of all realities?” he asked. Still, language is the mightiest tool we have for wresting meaning from reality. “We die. That may be the meaning of life,” Toni Morrison asserted in her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

That implicit duality of our linguistic conscience and the delicate, beautiful, dangerous relationship between storytelling and seeing is what the reclusive French writer, philosopher, and literary theorist Maurice Blanchot (September 22, 1907–February 20, 2003), whose ideas influenced such titanic thinkers as Foucault, Derrida, and Sontag, examined in his 1969 book The Infinite Conversation (public library), translated into English by Susan Hanson.

Maurice Blanchot, identity document, 1927.

Blanchot considers what writing is and is not:

— To write is not to give speech to be seen. The game of common etymology makes of writing a cutting movement, a tear, a crisis.
— This is simply a reminder that the proper tool for writing was also proper for incising: the stylet.
— Yes, but this incisive reminder still evokes a cutting operation, if not a butchery: a kind of violence — the word flesh if found in the family, just as graphy is a scratch. Higher and further back, to write is to curve meet. Writing is the curve that the turn of seeking has already evoked for us and that we find in the bending of reflection.

Three decades after Virginia Woolf proclaimed in the only surviving recording of her voice that “words belong to each other,” Blanchot weighs the duality of language as a medium capable of both connection and separation:

— In each word, all words.
— Yet, speaking, like writing, engages us in a separating movement, an oscillating and vacillating departure.

Illustration from The Little Golden Book of Words

In a sentiment of both complement and counterpoint to Le Guin’s incisive observation that “if you can see a thing whole… it seems that it’s always beautiful,” Blanchot writes:

— Seeing is also a movement.
— Seeing presupposes only a measure and a measurable separation: to see is certainly always to see at a distance, but by allowing distance to give back what it removes from us. Sight is invisibly active in a pause wherein everything holds itself back. We see only what first escapes us by virtue of an initial privation, not seeing things that are too present, and not seeing them if our presence to things is pressing.

In a caveat reminiscent of founding father Benjamin Rush’s insightful metaphor for our blindness to the truly visionary — Rush likened visionary people to “objects placed too near the eye,” whose genius is not properly apprehended by the age in which they live and is only appreciated with the distance of generations — Blanchot adds:

— But we do not see what is too distant, what escapes us through the separation of distance.
— There is a privation, an absence, precisely through which contact is achieved. Here the interval does not impede; on the contrary, it allows a direct relation. Every relation of light is an immediate relation.
— To see is thus to apprehend immediately from a distance.
— …immediately from a distance and through distance.

Two of the self-taught 17th-century artist and astronomer Maria Clara Eimmart’s stunning astronomical drawings.

A century after the great naturalist John Muir insisted that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” Blanchot concludes:

To see is to make use of separation, not as mediating, but as a means of immediation, as immediating. In this sense too, to see is to experience the continuous and to celebrate the sun, that is, beyond the sun: the One.

And yet, Blanchot reminds us, we never see everything — but perhaps that is a freedom rather than a limitation. He writes:

This is sight’s wisdom, though we never see only one thing, even two or several, but a whole: every view is a general view. It is still true that sight holds us within the limits of a horizon. Perception is a wisdom rooted in the ground and standing fixed in the direction of the opening; it is of the land, in the proper sense of the term: planted in the earth and forming a link between the immobile boundary and the apparently boundless horizon — a firm pact from which comes peace. For sight, speech is war and madness. The terrifying word passes over every limit and even the limitlessness of the whole: it seizes the thing from a direction from which it is not taken, not seen, and will never be seen; it transgresses laws, breaks away from orientation, it disorients.

— There is facility in this liberty. Language acts as though we were able to see the thing from all sides.

Couple this finite fragment of The Infinite Conversation with Le Guin on the power of language to transform and redeem, then revisit philosopher Martin Buber on what a tree can teach us about seeing the world clearly, Thoreau on being unblinded by our preconceptions, Georgia O’Keeffe on the art of seeing, and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on apprehending reality as it really is.


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