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The Creative Tension Between Vitality and Fatality: Illuminating the Mystery of Sylvia Plath Through Her Striking Never-Before-Revealed Visual Art

“How frail the human heart must be — a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing — a fragile, shining instrument of crystal, which can either weep, or sing.”


The Creative Tension Between Vitality and Fatality: Illuminating the Mystery of Sylvia Plath Through Her Striking Never-Before-Revealed Visual Art

“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,” young Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother upon the publication of her first tragic poem. Perhaps Plath would have felt differently had she been able to anticipate how inseparable her poetry would become from its indelible wellspring, her personhood, as posterity enveloped both in an immensity of interpretation — and misinterpretation — the right to which “the public” all too haughtily presumes over any artist’s life. In the decades since her death — a death the circumstances of which have only intensified the impulse for interpretation — her poetry has permeated the fabric of culture, quoted in everything from popular science books to Hollywood blockbusters, often unmoored from context and warped by a superficial understanding of fact. Half-opaque though we are to ourselves, we so readily presume to see the reality of another’s life on the basis of little more than fragmentary glimpses and biographical half-fictions.

Sylvia Plath

In addition to her poems, Plath left behind a rich body of journals and letters — an abundance of autobiographical material that seems to have only deepened the mystery and myth of her person. She found an outlet for what words could not contain in her visual art. “It gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything,” Plath wrote in a letter to Ted Hughes when she took up drawing seriously at the age of twenty-four. “I can lose myself completely in the line, lose myself in it.”

In One Life: Sylvia Plath, Smithsonian curator Dorothy Moss hopes that we may find Plath — the unseen, unfathomed, misinterpreted Plath — in the lines of her visual art.

Self-Portrait in Semi-Abstract Style by Sylvia Plath, ink and gouache on paper, c. 1946-1952
(Estate of Robert Hittel, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)

The exhibition features a selection of images and objects from the Plath archives at Smith College and Indiana University’s Lilly Library, most of them never previously exhibited — sketches, drawings, collages, photographs, letters from her psychiatrist, handwritten pages from her journal, her childhood ponytail, her typewriter.

Triple-Face Portrait by Sylvia Plath, tempera on paper, c. 1950-1951
(Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)
Sylvia Plath’s childhood ponytail with her mother’s inscription, August 1945
(Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana)
“A War to End Wars,” self-portrait by Sylvia Plath, February 26, 1946
(Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)

Moss, curator of painting at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, had been incubating the idea for the show for five years. Having studied English and art history at Smith, where she first encountered the poet’s remarkable archives, she grew convinced that Plath made a worthy candidate for the Smithsonian’s One Life exhibitions, each offering a deep look at a single person’s impact on American life and culture. Previous installments in the series have celebrated founding father Thomas Paine, poet-philosopher Walt Whitman, baseball legend Babe Ruth, rivaling Civil War generals Grant and Lee, and civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr.

Plath is only the third woman portrayed, after pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart and farm work activist Dolores Huerta. (Incidentally, Plath’s first job was as a farm worker — an experience she believed shaped her as a writer.)

“Twas the Night Before Monday” by young Sylvia Plath, (Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. © Estate of Sylvia Plath)
Collage (Includes images of Eisenhower, Nixon, bomber, etc.) by Sylvia Plath, 1960
(Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)

Moss, who teamed up with Plath scholar and Smith Rare Book Room curator Karen Kukil, was particularly interested in Plath’s curious power over the popular imagination — how she has remained so relevant even to people who know little about her, why so much of the mythology that surrounds her stems from a place of misunderstanding, what it is about the combination of her poetry and her personhood that so enchants. Moss tells me of her fascination with Plath’s visual art:

Her impulse to draw and sketch was as strong as her instinct to write.

In the context of a museum of art history and biography, Moss set out to explore the poet’s visual imagination and the way Plath performed her identity — how she made sense of herself in her art, how she deliberately revealed herself only in fragments. Half a century before Instagram and Facebook’s hyperconscious art direction of the self, Plath carefully curated her own image, sculpting before the camera a persona she felt represented her ideal self and destroying many of the photographs she didn’t like.

Studio photograph of Sylvia Plath (with brown hair) by Warren Kay Vantine, 1954
(Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. © Estate of Sylvia Plath)
Sylvia “Marilyn” Shot by Gordon Ames Lameyer, June 1954
(Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana)
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Yorkshire, England. Photograph by Harry Ogden, 1956.
(Courtesy Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts)
Sylvia Plath with her children, Frieda and Nicholas, Court Green. Photograph by Siv Arb, April 1962.
(Courtesy Writer Pictures Ltd., © Writer Pictures Ltd.)

In her selections for the show, Moss sought to honor the full dimension of Plath’s person beyond the archetypal persona of the tragic genius into which popular culture has flattened her — to celebrate not only the undeniable darkness of her poetry, but also her sense of humor, her witty and whimsical sides. “To have the intensity that she achieved in her writing, she needed to experience a range of emotions,” Moss tells me — a sentiment Plath herself articulated in a poignant and precocious letter to her mother penned at the age of seventeen:

Always I want to be an observer. I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light and mock myself as I mock others.

Sylvia Plath by Rollie McKenna, gelatin silver print, 1959
(National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Rollie McKenna © Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation, courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Foundation)

In consonance with this effort to illuminate Plath’s multitudes, the show highlights two of the poems she penned in the final days before taking her own life, both animated by an exuberant vitality and a benevolence toward life, and posthumously published in her Collected Poems (public library):

KINDNESS

Kindness glides about my house.
Dame Kindness, she is so nice!
The blue and red jewels of her rings smoke
In the windows, the mirrors
Are filling with smiles.

What is so real as the cry of a child?
A rabbit’s cry may be wilder
But it has no soul.
Sugar can cure everything, so Kindness says.
Sugar is a necessary fluid,

Its crystals a little poultice.
O kindness, kindness
Sweetly picking up pieces!
My Japanese silks, desperate butterflies,
May be pinned any minute, anesthetized.

And here you come, with a cup of tea
Wreathed in steam.
The blood jet is poetry,
There is no stopping it.
You hand me two children, two roses.

BALLOONS

Since Christmas they have lived with us,
Guileless and clear,
Oval soul-animals,
Taking up half the space,
Moving and rubbing on the silk

Invisible air drifts,
Giving a shriek and pop
When attacked, then scooting to rest, barely trembling.
Yellow cathead, blue fish —
Such queer moons we live with

Instead of dead furniture!
Straw mats, white walls
And these traveling
Globes of thin air, red, green,
Delighting

The heart like wishes or free
Peacocks blessing
Old ground with a feather
Beaten in starry metals.
Your small

Brother is making
His balloon squeak like a cat.
Seeming to see
A funny pink world he might eat on the other side of it,
He bites,
Then sits
Back, fat jug
Contemplating a world clear as water.
A red
Shred in his little fist.

When I asked Moss what most surprised her in bringing the show to life, it was this creative tension between fatality and vitality that she pointed to — “how much wonder and light is in [Plath’s] work throughout her life, even in her last days.”

Accompanying the exhibition is an arresting sound and light sculpture by Wellesley composer Jenny Olivia Johnson, titled Glass Heart (Bells for Sylvia Plath) — a haunting homage to Plath, both physical and ethereal, in which visitors tap on glass jars to activate the sound of Wellesley college students singing Plath’s verses. The title of the piece is inspired by the parenthetical last verse of Plath’s first tragic poem:

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

One Life: Sylvia Plath is on view until May 20, 2018. Complement it with Plath on what makes us who we are, her little-known children’s book written for her own kids and illustrated by Sir Quentin Blake, and a rare BBC recording of her haunting reading of the poem “Spinster,” then revisit her ink sketches collected by her daughter.

All images courtesy of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery


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Source: Brain Pickings | 18 Aug 2017 | 8:12 am(NZT)

John Quincy Adams on Efficiency vs. Effectiveness, the Proper Aim of Ambition, and His Daily Routine

“The spark from Heaven is given to few — It is not to be obtained by intreaty or by toil.”


John Quincy Adams on Efficiency vs. Effectiveness, the Proper Aim of Ambition, and His Daily Routine

“Those who work much do not work hard,” Henry David Thoreau observed in his prescient meditation on the myth of productivity and the measure of meaningful labor a century before the dawn of the cult of workaholism, which continues to bedevil us with ever-accelerating virulence to this day.

A generation earlier, John Quincy Adams (July 11, 1767–February 23, 1848) — another man of introspective genius and uncommon wisdom — dug at the heart of modernity’s foundational disconnect between efficiency and effectiveness: our tendency to pour tremendous energy into doing things, with little reflection on whether those are the right things to do in the first place.

His journals, now published as John Quincy Adams: Diaries 1779–1821 (public library), offer an exceedingly insightful record of one extraordinary man’s reflections on his own nature, haloed with luminous wisdom on the universals of human nature. Throughout them, the sixth President of the United States examines the paradox of how even the most industrious self-exertion can fail to attain a worthwhile result and why unfocused ambition is a guarantee of frustration rather than fulfillment.

John Quincy Adams. Portrait by John Singleton Copley, 1796.

In the spring of 1819, six years before he won the Presidency, 52-year-old Adams anticipates Kierkegaard’s proclamation that “of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous [is] to be busy,” and laments the absurdity of ineffectual busyness that animates his days in office as Secretary of State:

Every day starts new game to me, upon the field of my duties; but the hurry of the hour leaves me no time for the pursuit of it, and at the close of my Career I shall merely have gone helter skelter through the current business of the Office, and leave no permanent trace of my ever having been in it behind.

Years earlier, in observing his own habits of mind in the course of his voracious self-education, Adams had become aware of the meager correlation between effort exerted and results obtained when a clarity of purpose is lacking — even the mightiest discipline, after all, is wasted without a clear direction. In a diary entry penned on the final day of 1804 — a year he considered distinguished by “its barrenness of Events” — the thirty-seven-year-old Adams laments his tendency to lose himself in rabbit holes of what may be interesting but is not relevant to his larger aims:

My studies were assiduous and seldom interrupted. I meant to give them such a direction, as should be useful in its tendency; yet on looking back, and comparing the time consumed with the knowledge acquired, I have no occasion to take pride in the result of my application — I have been a severe Student, all the days of my life — But an immense proportion of the time I have dedicated to the search of knowledge, has been wasted upon subjects which can never be profitable to myself or useful to others — Another source of useless toil, is the want of a method properly comprehensive and minute, in the pursuit of my enquiries — This method has been to me a desideratum for many years; I have found none in books; nor have I been able to contrive one for myself. From these two causes, I have derived so little use from my labours, that it has often brought me to the borders of discouragement, and I have been attempted to abandon my books altogether — This however is impossible — for the habit has so long been fixed in me, as to have become a passion, and when once severed from my books, I find little or nothing in life, to fill the vacancy of time — I must therefore continue to plod, and to lose my labour; contenting myself with the consolation, that even this drudgery of Science, contributes to Virtue, though it lead not to wealth or honour.

“Down the Rabbit Hole.” Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Several years later, finding himself so absorbed in learning logarithmic calculation that a whole day had fled, he chastises himself for an unfocused curiosity that flits from subject to subject, unbridled by poor time-management, lacking focused commitment to deeper study of any one discipline:

I find it easy to engage my attention in scientific pursuits of almost any kind, but difficult to guard against two abuses — the one of being insensibly drawn from one to another, as I now have from Chronology to Astronomy and from Astronomy to Logarithms — the other of misapplying time, which is essential to the business of life; public and private.

And yet life affords Adams a counterpoint to this harsh self-criticism — it is by such kaleidoscopic curiosity that we arrive at what we don’t know we didn’t know and gradually broaden the shorelines of our knowledge amid the ocean of our ignorance. The following November, finding himself confined indoors by inclement weather and short days, his eyes wearied by long hours of reading by candlelight, Adams writes in his diary:

I this day discovered a new particular of my own ignorance of things which I ought to have known these thirty years — One clear morning about a fortnight since I remarked from my bed-chamber windows a certain group of stars forming a Constellation which I had not before observed and of which I knew not the name — I marked down their positions on a slip of paper with a view to remember them hereafter and to ascertain what they were — This day on looking into the Abridgment of La Lande’s Astronomy, one of the first figures that struck my eye in the plates was that identical Constellation — It was Orion — That I should have lived nearly fifty years without knowing him, shews too clearly what sort of an observer I have been… I am ashamed at my age to be thus to seek for the very first Elements of practical Astronomy.

Illustration from Bright Sky, Starry City, a children’s book celebrating citizen astronomy

Two weeks later, Adams records his daily routine and its higher purpose:

I rise on the average about 6 O’Clock, in the morning, and retire to bed between ten and eleven at Night — The interval is filled as it has been nearly two years, more particularly, as since I placed Charles at school — The four or five hours that I previously devoted to him I now employ in reading books of Science — These studies I now pursue, not only as the most delightful of occupations to myself, but with a special reference to the improvement and education of my children.

Alluding to the dying words of the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe — “Let me not seem to have lived in vain,” memorably immortalized by Adrienne Rich a century and a half later in her sublime ode to women in astronomy — Adams add the closest thing to a personal mission statement he would ever commit to words:

I feel the sentiment with which Tycho Brahe died, perhaps as strongly as he did — His “ne frustra vixisse videar” was a noble feeling, and in him had produced its fruits — He had not lived in vain — He was a benefactor to his species — But the desire is not sufficient — The spark from Heaven is given to few — It is not to be obtained by intreaty or by toil — To be profitable to my Children, seems to me within the compass of my powers — To that let me bound my wishes, and my prayers — And may that be granted to them!

John Quincy Adams: Diaries 1779–1821 is a magnificent read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with Walt Whitman’s advice on living a rewarding life and Bruce Lee’s previously unpublished letters to himself about the measure of success, then revisit education reformer Abraham Flexner on the usefulness of useless knowledge and Nobel laureate John Steinbeck on using the diary as a tool of discipline.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Aug 2017 | 7:47 am(NZT)

Sun and Moon: Stunning Illustrations of Celestial Myths by Ten of India’s Greatest Indigenous Artists

Ancient allegorical reflections on the universal themes of life, love, time, harmony, and our eternal search for a completeness of being.


“The dark body of the Moon gradually steals its silent way across the brilliant Sun,” Mabel Loomis Todd wrote in her poetic nineteenth-century masterpiece on the surreal splendor of a total solar eclipse. Nearly a century earlier, in his taxonomy of the three layers of reality, John Keats listed among “things real” the “existences of Sun Moon & Stars and passages of Shakespeare.” Indeed, the motions of the heavenly bodies precipitated the Scientific Revolution that strengthened humanity’s grasp of reality by dethroning us from the center of the universe. But, paradoxically, the Sun and the Moon belong equally with the world of Shakespeare, with humanity’s most enduring storytelling — they are central to our earliest sky myths in nearly every folkloric tradition, radiating timeless stories and parables that give shape to the human experience through imaginative allegory.

In Sun and Moon (public library), ten Indian folk and tribal artists bring to life the solar and lunar myths of their indigenous traditions in stunningly illustrated stories reflecting on the universal themes of life, love, time, harmony, and our eternal search for a completeness of being.

This uncommon hand-bound treasure of a book, silkscreened on handmade paper with traditional Indian dyes, comes from South Indian independent publisher Tara Books, who for the past decades have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on books handcrafted by local artisans in a fair-trade workshop in Chennai, producing such treasures as The Night Life of Trees, Drawing from the City, Creation, and Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit.

Among the indigenous traditions represented in the book are Gondi tribal art by Bhajju Shyam (of London Jungle Book fame), Durga Bai (featured in The Night Life of Trees), and Ramsingh Urveti (of I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail); Madhubani folk art by Rhambros Jha (of Waterlife); and Meena tribal art by Sunita (of Gobble You Up).

Complement the gorgeous Sun and Moon with Michael Benson’s stunning and scholarly compendium of 4,000 years of celestial illustrations and these striking Medieval illustrations of comets, then revisit artist Vija Celmins and writer Eliot Weinberger’s mythopoetic masterpiece serenading the night sky through myths and stories from around the world.

Illustrations courtesy of Tara Books; photographs by Maria Popova


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Source: Brain Pickings | 15 Aug 2017 | 6:00 pm(NZT)



The Terror Within and the Evil Without: James Baldwin on Our Capacity for Transformation as Individuals and Nations

“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 self,” the poet Robert Penn Warren observed in his immensely insightful meditation on the trouble with “finding yourself,” “is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth, a process that is the image, we may say, of the life process of a healthy society itself.” Indeed, if the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm was correct, as I believe he was, in asserting that self-love is the foundation of a sane society, our responsibility to ourselves — and to our selves — is really a responsibility to one another: to know our interiority intimately and hold our darkest sides up to the light of awareness. But part of our human folly is that we do this far less readily than we shine the scorching beam of blameful attention on the darknesses of others.

That is what James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) explores in a magnificent 1964 piece titled “Nothing Personal,” found in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (public library) — the indispensable volume that gave us Baldwin on the creative process and his definition of love.

James Baldwin (Photograph: Sedat Pakay)

A year after he contemplated “the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are,” Baldwin writes:

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. And yet, the terror within is far truer and far more powerful than any of our labels: the labels change, the terror is constant. And this terror has something to do with that irreducible gap between the self one invents — the self one takes oneself as being, which is, however, and by definition, a provisional self — and the undiscoverable self which always has the power to blow the provisional self to bits.

Echoing Bruce Lee’s assertion that “to become different from what we are, we must have some awareness of what we are,” Baldwin turns his critical yet uncynical intellect toward our capacity for self-transformation — the most difficult and rewarding of our inner resources comprising our collective potentiality:

It is perfectly possible — indeed, it is far from uncommon — to go to bed one night, or wake up one morning, or simply walk through a door one has known all one’s life, and discover, between inhaling and exhaling, that the self one has sewn together with such effort is all dirty rags, is unusable, is gone: and out of what raw material will one build a self again? The lives of men — and, therefore, of nations — to an extent literally unimaginable, depend on how vividly this question lives in the mind. It is a question which can paralyze the mind, of course; but if the question does not live in the mind, then one is simply condemned to eternal youth, which is a synonym for corruption.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly invigorating The Price of the Ticket with pioneering social scientist John Gardner on the art of self-renewal and Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön on self-transformation through difficult times, then revisit Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, the artist’s struggle, the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, and his increasingly timely forgotten conversations with Chinua Achebe about the political power of art, with Margaret Mead about identity, race, and the experience of otherness, and with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 14 Aug 2017 | 6:00 pm(NZT)

91-Year-Old Lebanese-American Poet, Philosopher, and Painter Etel Adnan on Memory, the Self, and the Universe

“The universe is itself the glue that keeps it going, therefore it is memory in action and in essence, in becoming and in being. Because it remembers itself, it exists. Because it exists, it remembers.”


91-Year-Old Lebanese-American Poet, Philosopher, and Painter Etel Adnan on Memory, the Self, and the Universe

Oftentimes during meditation, I am visited by flash-memories dislodged from some dusty recess of my unconscious — vignettes and glimpses of people, places, and events from long ago and far away, belonging to what feels like another lifetime. They are entirely banal — the curb of a childhood sidewalk, mid-afternoon light falling on a familiar building in a familiar way, the smell of a leather armchair on a hot summer day — but in their banality they intimate the existence of the former self who inhabited those moments, a self that seems so foreign and so remote, yet one to which I am forever fettered by this half-conscious memory.

Memory, indeed, is the centerpiece of our selfhood and moors our bodies to our minds, as those flashes of the embodied mind unclenched by meditation reveal. Memory endows us with creativity and animates some of our most paradoxical impulses.

A century after Virginia Woolf painted memory as the capricious seamstress that stitches our lives together, Paris-based Lebanese-American poet, essayist, philosopher, and visual artist Etel Adnan (b. February 24, 1925) picks up Woolf’s thread throughout Night (public library) — her slender, powerful collection of prose meditations and poems that, from the fortunate vantage point of Adnan’s ninety-first year on Earth, concretize in luminous language and incisive thought life’s most elusive perplexities: time, memory, love, selfhood, mortality.

Etel Adnan: “The Weight of the World” (Serpentine Galleries)

Adnan, whom the polymathic curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has celebrated as one of the most influential artists of the past century, was born in Beirut to a Greek mother and a Syrian father. She began writing poetry in French at twenty and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne a generation after Simone de Beauvoir, then crossed the Atlantic for graduate studies at Harvard and Berkeley. In the 1960s, Adnan took a teaching position at a small Catholic school in California, where she began painting and transcribing the work of Arab poets. She moved back to Beirut and in the midst of the Lebanese civil war composed politically wakeful poetry and prose that arrested the popular imagination with an uncommon precision of insight. Adnan now lives in Paris with her partner, the Syrian-born artist and publisher Simone Fattal, where she continues to paint and write.

Drawing on the rich span of her life across time and space, Adnan reflects on the role of memory in the continuity of our personal identity:

Memory, and time, both immaterial, are rivers with no banks, and constantly merging. Both escape our will, though we depend on them. Measured, but measured by whom or by what? The one is inside, the other, outside, or so it seems, but is that true? Time seems also buried deep in us, but where? Memory is right here, in the head, but it can exit, abandon the head, leave it behind, disappear. Memory, a sanctuary of infinite patience.

Is memory produced by us, or is it us? Our identity is very likely whatever our memory decides to retain. But let’s not presume that memory is a storage room. It’s not a tool for being able to think, it’s thinking, before thinking. It also makes an (apparently) simple thing like crossing the room, possible. It’s impossible to separate it from what it remembers.

Etel Adnan (Photograph by Simone Fattal)

In stretching between the poles of existence and nonexistence, memory, Adnan suggests, might be the native consciousness of the universe:

We can admit that memory resurrects the dead, but these remain within their world, not ours. The universe covers the whole, a warm blanket.

But this memory is the glue that keeps the universe as one: although immaterial, it makes being possible, it is being. If an idea didn’t remember to think, it wouldn’t be. If a chair wasn’t there, it wouldn’t be tomorrow. If I didn’t remember that I am, I won’t be. We can also say that the universe is itself the glue that keeps it going, therefore it is memory in action and in essence, in becoming and in being. Because it remembers itself, it exists. Because it exists, it remembers.

Art by Etel Adnan (Sfeir-Semler Gallery)

In a sentiment that calls to mind Joan Didion’s unforgettable assertion that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” Adnan considers how memory binds us to each other and to our own former selves:

Memory is intelligent. It’s a knowledge seated neither in the senses, nor in the spirit, but in collective memory. It is communal, though deeply personal. Involved with the self, though autonomous. At war with death.

It helps us rampage through the old self, hang on the certitude that it has to be.

[…]

Reason and memory move together.

And night and memory mediate each other. We move in them disoriented, for they often refuse to secure our vision. Avaricious, whimsical, they release things bit by bit.

Building upon Woolf’s metaphor, Adnan adds:

Memory sews together events that hadn’t previously met. It reshuffles the past and makes us aware that it is doing so.

[…]

Memory is within us and reaches out, sometimes missing the connection with reality, its neighbor, its substance.

Complement this particular fragment of Adnan’s wholly enchanting Night with Sally Mann on the treacheries of memory and Cecilia Ruiz’s poetic illustrated meditation on memory’s imperfections inspired by Borges, then revisit Kahlil Gibran, another Lebanese-American poet and philosopher of uncommon insight, on why artists make art.

Thanks, Jen


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Source: Brain Pickings | 11 Aug 2017 | 8:05 am(NZT)



What to Look for During a Total Solar Eclipse: Mabel Loomis Todd’s Poetic 19th-Century Guide to Totality, with Help from Emily Dickinson

“A vast, palpable presence seems overwhelming the world. The blue sky changes to gray or dull purple, speedily becoming more dusky, and a death-like trance seizes upon everything earthly.”


What to Look for During a Total Solar Eclipse: Mabel Loomis Todd’s Poetic 19th-Century Guide to Totality, with Help from Emily Dickinson

“What you see in a total eclipse is entirely different from what you know,” Annie Dillard wrote in her classic essay on the otherworldliness of totality. Nearly a century earlier, and a quarter century after pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell’s poetic and rhetorically brilliant report on the Great Eclipse of the nineteenth century, an improbable author wrote the world’s first popular book on the science and splendor of eclipses, containing one of the first uses of the word “astro-physicist” and detailing in poetic prose what phenomena to look for during the dramatic sweep of totality.

Best known as Emily Dickinson’s first editor, Mabel Loomis Todd (November 10, 1856–October 14, 1932) — the longtime lover of the poet’s brother — ended up in charge of Dickinson’s surviving papers through a strange swirl of family loyalties and disloyalties. She edited the first volumes of Dickinson’s posthumously published poems and letters, thus becoming the influential — and controversial — primary sculptor of the poet’s public image. But Todd was also highly knowledgeable about astronomy. Married to the prominent astronomer and observatory director David Peck Todd, Mabel, like other scientists’ wives in the epochs before the scientific pantheon opened its doors to women, had become a de facto assistant in many of her husband’s observations, edited his scientific papers, and traveled with him on numerous research trips around the world, including several major eclipse expeditions.

Mabel Loomis Todd and David Peck Todd, 1878

In 1894, the year she released the first volume of Dickinson’s letters, 38-year-old Todd wrote Total Eclipses of the Sun (public library | public domain) — an unprecedented guide to the history, science, and spellbinding surreality of eclipses, in which Todd reasons like a scientist and rhapsodizes like a poet, embodying the “enchanter” level that crowns the hierarchy of great science writing.

Embossed on the cover of the small red fabric-bound book are lines from great poems, which Todd must have chosen as emblematic of the emotional reality of experiencing a total solar eclipse — “Meek, yielding to the occasion’s call / And all things suffering from all / Thy function apostolical / In peace fulfilling” (from Wordsworth’s poem “To the Daisy”), “The constellated flower that never sets” (from Shelley’s “The Question”), “The daisie, or els the eye of the day” (from Milton’s “Sonnet to the Nightingale”).

Todd opens the final chapter of the book with a verse from Emily Dickinson — “Eclipses are predicted, / And science bows them in” — then adds:

Poets usually care little for the modus operandi of scientific phenomena; the lines above embrace the fact, the result, the gist of the whole matter, and that ought to be sufficient.

But many will desire to know more of the detail.

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Total eclipse of 1878, one of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s groundbreaking astronomical drawings

In her book, penned not for professional astronomers but for those “without technical knowledge, who are yet curious as to these strangely impressive phenomena, — and with the hope, too, of creating farther intelligent interest,” Todd provides that detail with a scientist’s rigor and a poet’s sensibility. She writes:

It matters little whether we regard the point of view of the savage, who is awe-struck because he does not know what terrific happenings such a spectacle may forebode, or that of the astronomer, who by dint of much travelling by sea and by land may many times have observed the Sun entirely obscured, and knows there is nothing to fear, a total solar eclipse is a most imposing natural phenomenon.

She contrasts its profound effect with that of its scientifically interesting but emotionally lackluster counterpart, the partial eclipse:

Partial eclipses, though of little scientific value, have interesting features of their own, sometimes showing all the attendant phenomena of entire obscuration, except the total phase. If the Sun’s disk is more than half covered, there is the same weird light, always wan and unnatural, of a quality quite different from mere twilight, and growing constantly duskier, — crescents underneath dense foliage, — half indifferent spectators gazing sunward through glass smoked to varying degrees of sootiness, — the crescentic Sun growing momentarily narrower, — a curious yet apathetic crowd surrounding the telescope-man in the public park…

Diagram of a solar eclipse from a 13th-century illuminated manuscript. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

After explaining the science behind various curiosities of eclipses — why an eclipse can never last longer than eight minutes and why its path, while thousands of miles long, can rarely exceed 140 miles in width and 167 miles in breadth — Todd offers an arrestingly lyrical account of what it actually feels like to witness a total solar eclipse:

As the dark body of the Moon gradually steals its silent way across the brilliant Sun, little effect is at first noticed. The light hardly diminishes, apparently, and birds and animals detect no change. During the partial phase a curious appearance may be noticed under any shady tree. Ordinarily, without an eclipse, the sunlight filters through the leaves in a series of tiny, overlapping disks on the ground, each of which is an image of the Sun.

[…]

As the entire duration of an eclipse, partial phases and all, embraces two or three hours, often for an hour after “first contact” insects still chirp in the grass, birds sing, and animals quietly continue their grazing. But a sense of uneasiness seems gradually to steal over all life. Cows and horses feed intermittently, bird songs diminish, grasshoppers fall quiet, and a suggestion of chill crosses the air. Darker and darker grows the landscape.

[…]

Then, with frightful velocity, the actual shadow of the Moon is often seen approaching, a tangible darkness advancing almost like a wall, swift as imagination, silent as doom. The immensity of nature never comes quite so near as then, and strong must be the nerves not to quiver as this blue-black shadow rushes upon the spectator with incredible speed. A vast, palpable presence seems overwhelming the world. The blue sky changes to gray or dull purple, speedily becoming more dusky, and a death-like trance seizes upon everything earthly. Birds, with terrified cries, fly bewildered for a moment, and then silently seek their night quarters. Bats emerge stealthily. Sensitive flowers, the scarlet pimpernel, the African mimosa, close their delicate petals, and a sense of hushed expectancy deepens with the darkness. An assembled crowd is awed into absolute silence almost invariably… Often the very air seems to hold its breath for sympathy; at other times a lull suddenly awakens into a strange wind, blowing with unnatural effect.

Then out upon the darkness, grewsome but sublime, flashes the glory of the incomparable corona, a silvery, soft, unearthly light, with radiant streamers, stretching at times millions of uncomprehended miles into space, while the rosy, flaming protuberances skirt the black rim of the Moon in ethereal splendor. It becomes curiously cold, dew frequently forms, and the chill is perhaps mental as well as physical.

Suddenly, instantaneous as a lightning flash, an arrow of actual sunlight strikes the landscape, and Earth comes to life again, while corona and protuberances melt into the returning brilliance, and occasionally the receding lunar shadow is glimpsed as it flies away with the tremendous speed of its approach.

Total solar eclipse by Adolf “Papa” Fassbender, as seen from New York City on January 24, 1925

Reading Todd’s dramatic description, I was reminded of an Emily Dickinson poem that captures the scintillating surreality of an eclipse in eight perfect lines — but I was surprised to find that Todd didn’t cite the poem, given she drew on other Dickinson verses and so intently reaped the fertile intersection of astronomy and poetry; nor was it included in her 1896 edition of Dickinson’s poems. Most likely, Todd simply wasn’t aware of its existence — because Dickinson included many of her poems in letters to friends and family, previously unseen verses were gradually discovered in the decades following her death as her correspondents brought them to light. She sent the eclipse poem in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in August of 1877. With the help of a NASA database, I’ve ascertained that only one total solar eclipse swept past Amherst in Dickinson’s lifetime — on September 29, 1875 — which must have provided the raw material for her vivid verses:

It sounded as if the streets were running —
And then — the streets stood still —
Eclipse was all we could see at the Window
And Awe — was all we could feel.

By and by — the boldest stole out of his Covert
To see if Time was there —
Nature was in her Opal Apron —
Mixing fresher Air.

And yet Todd’s own sublime prose portrait of the phenomenon breathes kindred air, as does her evocative description of what an eclipse feels like under cloudy skies, which draws on her own travels to Japan to witness the total solar eclipse of 1887 during a real-life version of one of Dickinson’s most powerful metaphors — a volcanic eruption. Todd writes:

The effect of an eclipse shrouded in cloud is quite different. When the sky is overcast, total eclipses very often cause less darkness than in clear skies, because the clouds outside of the totality path — brilliantly illuminated by the Sun — reflect and diffuse their light throughout the shadow… But in the Japan eclipse of 1887 the sepulchral darkness was increased by the dense body of cloud which silently massed as totality approached. Clear and burning skies characterized the noon of “the great, the important day.” Twenty or thirty native guards in snowy uniforms watched the castle where we lived, carefully reserving the entrances for specially invited guests. The instruments were adjusted for instant use, rehearsals of twenty observers, each with his telescope or other apparatus, having been daily conducted until the programme was safely familiar, and, in spite of the torrid heat, all were astir with eager anticipation.

But Nasu-take, a volcano to the west, whose most inopportune eruption had suddenly begun the night before, was still sending up volumes of white steam, inviting clouds, apparently, from every quarter. Quiedy and simultaneously our “massive enemies” collected, east and south and west. Finding that my drawing of the outer corona would be impossible, from the rapidly thickening sky, I left my appointed station behind the disk, and hastened to the upper castle wall to watch the changed landscape under its gray shroud. Even inanimate things are at times endowed with a terrible life of their own, and this deliberate, slow-moving pall of cloud seemed a malignant power not to be eluded.

Now and then a flood of sunlight fell upon the smoking and disastrous crater of Nasu-take, — a spectacle both aggravating and sublime.

Totality was announced, and, as if by two or three jerks, the darkness fell. Silence like death filled castle and town and all the country round. Except the feeble glimmer of a few lanterns in the town, eighty feet below, a streak of strange, sulphurous yellow in the southeast seemed to give out the only light in the world.

Not a word was spoken. Even the air was motionless, as if all nature sympathized with our pain and suspense. The useless instruments outlined their fantastic shapes dimly against the massing clouds, and a weird chill fell upon the earth. Mountains and rice fields became indistinguishable, the clouds above us turned nearly black, and a low roll of thunder muttered ominously on the horizon toward Kuroiso.

All trace of color fled from the world. Cold, dull, ashen gray covered the face of nature.

She captures the resigned disappointment of a failed totality:

We had trusted Nature; she had failed us, and the prevailing mood was a sense of overwhelming helplessness. The crowd of friends, Japanese, English, and American, breathed one mighty sigh, as from a universal heart just relieved of tension near to breaking. Then some one spoke, and so we faced common life again.

“Four Views of the Solar Eclipse, August 1869″ by John Adams Whipple

For those hungry to know what to look for while watching a solar eclipse, Todd goes on to describe some of the most interesting phenomena that accompany totality:

A few seconds before totality, when the narrowing crescent of the Sun is about to disappear, the slender curve of light is often seen to break into a number of rounded spots of brightness, now known as Baily’s Beads… According to descriptions by different writers, the beads are like drops of water drying up under a hot sun… or a string of brilliants disappearing like snow under a white heat.

[…]

Phenomena perhaps not so obvious are the swiftly flying shadow bands. Seen by Goldschmidt in 1820, later observers have frequently identified them as rapidly moving (sometimes wavy) lines of light and shade, resembling sunlight reflected upon some adjacent wall from the rippling surface of water.

Thin, parallel lines of shadowy waves, they flit silently over the landscape, sometimes faster after totality than before, and indescribably light, airy, and evanescent. Apparently all the elements pertaining to the shadow bands vary from one eclipse to another, thus adding greatly to the intricacy of the puzzle. Perhaps at one time eight inches broad and two or three feet apart, at another only one or two inches broad and ten or twelve inches apart, they travel at one time about as fast as a man can run, and again with the velocity of an express-train. While visible at eclipses generally, just after totality as well as before, occasionally an
eclipse occurs without any exhibition of shadow bands.

Diagram from Mabel Loomis Todd’s Total Eclipses of the Sun, 1894

She describes the most dramatic element of an eclipse:

The coming of the lunar shadow in all its startling velocity … is universally described as perhaps the most impressive feature of an eclipse… To several observers the shadow seen in the distance resembled a dark storm upon the horizon. Some saw the shadow “visible in the air”; one speaks of its “gliding swiftly up over the heavens”; while another likens its passage to “the lifting of a dark curtain.”

Those who have taken pains to note its color do not generally call it black, but deep violet or dark brown. One describes it as a “wall of fog,” another as a “vaporous shadow,” a third says it was “like neither shadow nor vapor,” while no less careful observers than [German astronomer Friedrich] Winnecke and Lady Airy [wife of Greenwich Observatory director George Airy] speak of the shadow as “appearing like smoke.” … President Hill of Harvard, in Illinois in 1869, found the transit of the shadow much slower and more majestic and beautiful than he had been led to expect. “A sweeping upward and eastward of a dense violet shadow” are his words.

Both before and after total obscurity the whole contour of the lunar disk is sometimes seen, and there are faint brushes of light raying out from the solar crescent. Occasionally there is a double observation of both beginning and end of totality, and the Moon has even appeared to jump forward at these critical instants “as if it had made a jerk (stumbled against something).” The changing tints of the dark Moon while obscuration lasts, colors on the frequent clouds, the arcs of prismatic color and iridescent clouds, the pulsation of light as totality comes on, and the tremulous motion of the thin crescent, — these are not the half of the interesting phenomena accompanying a total eclipse of the Sun.

Solar protuberances, observed on May 5, 1873, 9:40 A.M.
Solar protuberances by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot

Another spectacular phenomenon Todd highlights are the red solar prominences roiling above the white of the corona:

When totality is imminent, and expectation is becoming breathless, — when, though not yet visible, the noble corona seems all but hovering in the air, — suddenly at the edge of the dark Moon, flashing out into the gathering darkness, appear vivid, blood-red flames. Visible on one occasion so long as five minutes before the total obscuration, and again for six minutes after, they glow against the pure white of the corona with singular lustre.

[…]

Some protuberances are quiet and cloud-like; others resemble sudden eruptions from some vast and inconceivable solar volcano, a whirlwind of fire.

Corona of the July 29, 1879 total solar eclipse, observed by Professor Langley from the Summit of Pike’s Peak, 14,000 feet elevation

She then turns to the crowning curio of the eclipse: the Sun’s corona — the aura of plasma that encircles stars, only visible with the naked eye during an eclipse, the composition and structure of which wouldn’t be discerned until the advent of technologies and theories devised long after Todd’s death. She writes:

No one has yet entirely explained or analyzed this marvellous silvery halo surrounding the totally darkened Sun. Nature’s most imposing phenomenon is perhaps the most mysterious. A suggestion of its general appearance may be gained by looking at the full Moon through a new wire window-screen, although the rays of light which then appear to point outward from the bright Moon are much more regular than the true corona, which varies greatly from one eclipse to another.

Todd draws from the corona a point of existential humility in the face of the impermanence and decay that govern our lives even on the vastest cosmic scale:

Whatever its cause and meaning, the corona must always continue to absorb the deepest attention during eclipses. At some remote epoch, however, — perhaps millions of years hence, though really but a step astronomically, — our great Sun, already on his decline, will have so shrunken that there will be no corona.

More than a century after its publication, Mabel Loomis Todd’s Total Eclipses of the Sun stands as a stunning and illuminating guide to one of the most moving creaturely experiences to be had on Earth. For more transcendence at the intersection of astronomy and poetry, see The Universe in Verse, then revisit Maria Mitchell’s timeless tips on how to view a total solar eclipse, drawn from the trailblazing 1878 all-women eclipse expedition she led.

Thanks, Annie Nero


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An Illustrated Fictional Day in the Real Lives of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein

Parisian misadventures in multitasking drawn from one of history’s great loves.


An Illustrated Fictional Day in the Real Lives of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein

One September afternoon in her thirtieth year, during her first day as an American expat in Paris, Alice B. Toklas (April 30, 1877–March 7, 1967) found herself seated across from “a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair” — a woman dressed in a brown corduroy suit, who talked little and laughed a lot, and whose voice seemed to Alice to emanate from the large coral brooch pinned to her chest. That enchanting woman was the thirty-three-year-old Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874–July 27, 1946), who was as enthralled with Alice as Alice was with her. From that day on, and until death did them part four decades later, they would share their lives. Gertrude would paint a loving “word portrait” of Alice, address her as “baby precious,” and leave nightly notes by her pillow to be discovered in the morning, signed “Y.D.” — “Your Darling.” Alice, whom Gertrude called “wifey,” would record their lives in an unusual cookbook and a memoir.

In Happy Birthday, Alice Babette (public library), author Monica Kulling and illustrator Qin Leng invite the imagination into Gertrude and Alice’s world through a tender fictionalized day in the couple’s real life.

The book opens with an epigraph by Stein:

It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.

The story begins on a day when Gertrude has been so busy doing nothing that she has forgotten Alice’s birthday — or so Alice thinks when she wakes awaiting a surprise and none arrives. We see the couple breakfasting on croissant and tea in silence, their beloved French poodle named Basket sleeping nearby, as though it were any ordinary day.

Perplexed and disheartened that Gertrude hasn’t so much as wished her happy birthday, Alice decides to spend the day walking through Paris. She has no idea that Gertrude is writing her a birthday poem and cooking her a special birthday dinner.

But there is one major problem: Gertrude doesn’t know how to cook, not even how to turn the stove on — she spends all her days writing, while Alice is in charge of domestic duties.

Still, determined, Gertrude proceeds with her plan — she goes to the market with Basket, asks a neighbor to show her how to operate the stove, and all the while is composing the poem in her head.

Meanwhile, Alice is enjoying her date with herself — she goes to the park, rides the carousel, and sees a puppet theater show.

Back at home, Gertrude is in the flow of her plan, almost self-congratulatory at the ease with which he has taken to cooking.

As she puts the main course on the stovetop and pops the cake into the oven, the perfect poem line intrudes on her imagination and she rushes to her study to write it down.

But in a testament to William James’s timeless wisdom on dividing attention, multitasking takes its toll — her mind, aswirl with words and lines of poetry, loses track of time.

Suddenly, the smell of smoke alerts her to the reality of the burnt cake, “the saddest dessert that Gertrude had ever seen.”

Just then, Alice saunters in, having had her fill of joys in the city.

Upon finding the scene of the kitchen disaster, she doesn’t get angry but swiftly and expertly cleans everything up and bakes a batch of brownies (not to be confused with her famous hashish fudge) as Gertrude transforms her cooking misadventure into a story.

As the couple sits down to enjoy the treats, the doorbell rings — a group of friends Gertrude had invited for the ill-fated surprise dinner pours in to wish Alice a happy birthday. They eat, drink, and laugh, and Gertrude reads her birthday poem, which Alice loves — a happy, if unpredictable, birthday indeed.

Although Happy Birthday, Alice Babette is absolutely charming, I do wish Gertrude weren’t referred to as Alice’s “friend” throughout, as no heterosexual husband would be referred to as his wife’s “friend” — what a missed opportunity to teach kids that love takes many shapes and forms families of many kinds. Still, the sweetness and sincerity of their love rises above the language and radiates from the story itself. Complement it with a very different nonfiction picture-book about a fragment of Gertrude and Alice’s life, then revisit these wonderful LGBT children’s books celebrating diversity and difference.

Illustrations courtesy of Groundwood Books


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Source: Brain Pickings | 9 Aug 2017 | 9:22 am(NZT)

How to Live to the Full While Dying: The Extraordinary Diary of Alice James, William and Henry James’s Brilliant Sister

“It is the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life.”


How to Live to the Full While Dying: The Extraordinary Diary of Alice James, William and Henry James’s Brilliant Sister

“Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,” wrote the poet Mark Strand in his stunning ode to what Emily Dickinson termed “the drift called ‘the infinite.'”

Hardly any writer has chronicled their own drift toward death with more dignified composure and attentive aliveness than Alice James (August 7, 1848–March 6, 1892) — sister of pioneering psychologist William James and novelist Henry James — in The Diary of Alice James (public library).

Alice was a woman who considered herself “simply born a few years too soon.” She was also an exquisite writer from whose pen seemed to flow the best of her brothers’ aptitudes — William’s insight into human psychology and Henry’s novelistic splendor of style — along with a sublimity of sentiment entirely her own. In a letter to William penned two years after their sister’s death, Henry extolled Alice’s diary as an embodiment of her “extraordinary force of mind and character, her whole way of taking life — and death — in very much the manner in which the book does… It is heroic in its individuality, its independence — its face-to-face with the universe for-and-by herself — and the beauty and eloquence with which she often expresses this, let alone the rich irony and humour.”

Alice James, age 11, in 1857 (Harvard Houghton Library)

An awareness of mortality had haunted Alice since her youth — her body was assailed by a mysterious ailment that kept her bedridden, with only intermittent relief from disability. For years, physicians failed to find an organic cause and diagnose her illness. (This, lest we forget, was the heyday of such “therapies” as blistering, leeches, cold water treatments, and medication with mercury — rudimentary medicine’s blind shots in the dark of the body.)

In Alice’s thirtieth year, her physical pain exploded into a severe mental breakdown. Her father wrote that she was “half the time, indeed much more than half, on the verge of insanity and suicide” — a wish for self-annihilation she had confided in him directly, asking whether he thought it was a sin. Subverting the dogma of his era, he responded that there is nothing sinful in wishing to end one’s extreme suffering, and gave her his fatherly permission to take her own life if the physical and psychological pain became too unbearable, asking her only to do it in a gentle way.

Alice James circa 1873 (Harvard Houghton Library)

But to Alice, there was something liberating about this surprising permission to take charge of her own death, which had the paradoxical effect of giving her a sense of agency in her own life. Half a century before Albert Camus posed the most important question of existence, Alice answered it in the affirmative — she chose to live. Still, the specter of death remained always near and animated her days for decades.

Alice James in 1891 (Harvard Houghton Library)

Just before her forty-third birthday, Alice received a diagnosis that was likely unrelated to the neurological nightmare of the preceding decades but was as devastatingly unambiguous as can be: late-stage breast cancer. Writing on the last day of May in 1891, in an era before the combined influence of Darwin and Freud shaped our relationship to mortality, Alice records the strange relief of her terminal diagnosis — the comforting concretization of death’s amorphous presence, which had haunted her many hears of undiagnosed suffering. A century before modern doctors treated Rosanne Cash in much the same way, Alice writes:

Ever since I have been ill, I have longed and longed for some palpable disease, no matter how conventionally dreadful a label it might have, but I was always driven back to stagger alone under the monstrous mass of subjective sensations, which that sympathetic being “the medical man” had no higher inspiration than to assure me I was personally responsible for, washing his hands of me with a graceful complacency under my very nose. Dr. Torry [James’s final physician] was the only man who ever treated me like a rational being, who did not assume, because I was victim to many pains, that I was, of necessity, an arrested mental development too.

The following day, she writes:

To any one who has not been there, it will be hard to understand the enormous relief of [the doctor’s] uncompromising verdict, lifting us out of the formless vague and setting us within the very heart of the sustaining concrete. One would naturally not choose such an ugly and gruesome method of progression down the dark Valley of the Shadow of Death, and of course many of the moral sinews will snap by the way, but we shall gird up our loins and the blessed peace of the end will have no shadow cast upon it.

What allowed Alice to meet her mortality with such serenity was not a physical fact but the single most important psychological and emotional event of her life, which had taken place a decade earlier. When she was thirty-two, Alice had met Katharine Peabody Loring — an energetic young education reformer and activist, whom she described as having “all the mere brute superiority which distinguishes man from woman, combined with all the distinctive feminine virtues.” Alice marveled that “there is nothing [Katharine] cannot do from hewing wood and drawing water to driving runaway horses and educating all the women in North America.” In short, she was in love, and so was Katharine, who proved to be the most loyal and loving partner one could wish for.

Katharine Peabody Loring

The two women shared the remainder of the Alice’s life, and her family came to accept Katharine as one of them. Henry James admired her “strength of wind and limbs, to say nothing of her nobler qualities,” recognized that she and his sister were bonded by “a permanency,” and came to love the devotion with which Katharine simply loved Alice. (His novel The Bostonians, published four years after Alice’s death, would popularize the term “Boston marriage” — a domestic partnership between two women, financially independent of any man, likely modeled on his sister’s relationship with his sister-outside-law.) Katharine, for her part, assured Henry of her own desire “quite as strongly as Alice’s, to be with her to the end.”

Alice James and Katharine Peabody Loring in Alice’s sickroom (Harvard Houghton Library)

In an entry from New Year’s Day of 1892, three months before the end, Alice writes:

As the ugliest things go to the making of the fairest, is it not wonderful that this unholy granite substance in my breast should be the soil propitious for the perfect flowering of Katharine’s unexampled genius for friendship and devotion. The story of her watchfulness, patience and untiring resource cannot be told by my feeble pen, but all the pain and discomfort seem a slender price to pay for all the happiness and peace with which she fills my days.

Despite the interminable rapidity with which death approached, Alice didn’t slip into the ideology of eternal life — her era’s greatest coping mechanism against the prevalence of untimely deaths. Like Emily Dickinson, who renounced the escapist rhetoric of immortality, Alice made her own spiritual path. (She was, in fact, a fan of Dickinson. In the final weeks of her life, she found enough good humor to record this wry observation: “It is reassuring to hear the English pronouncement that Emily Dickinson is fifth-rate, they have such a capacity for missing quality; the robust evades them equally with the subtle.”) In a journal entry from August of 1890, she writes:

There has come such a change in me. A congenital faith flows thro’ me like a limpid stream, making the arid places green, a spontaneous irrigator of which the snags of doubt have never interrupted [n]or made turbid the easily flowing current. A faith which is my mental and moral respiration which needs no revelation but experience and whose only ritual is daily conduct. Thro’ my childhood and youth and until within the last few years, the thought of the end as an entrance into spiritual existence, where aspirations are a fulfillment, was a perpetual and necessary inspiration, but now, altho’ intellectually nonexistence is more ungraspable and inconceivable than ever, all longing for fulfillment, all passion to achieve has died down within me and whether the great Mystery resolves itself into eternal Death or glorious Life, I contemplate either with equal serenity.

In December of 1891, several months after her terminal diagnosis, she revisits the absurdity of immortality and considers the far greater redemption to be found in life and death:

How little all assurances of one’s own immortality seem to concern one, now, and how little to have gained from the experience of life, if one’s thoughts are lingering still upon personal fulfillments and not rooted in the knowledge that the great Immortalities, Love, Goodness and Truth include all others… References to those whom we shall meet again make me shiver, as such an invasion of their sanctity, gone so far beyond, for ever since the night that Mother died, and the depth of filial tenderness was revealed to me, all personal claim upon her vanished, and she was dwelt in my mind a beautiful illuminated memory, the essence of divine maternity from which I was to learn great things, give all, but ask nothing.

Sketch of Alice James by Henry James, 1872

Writing four weeks before her death, Alice arrives at the perennial question of the nature of the self — or what Walt Whitman considered the paradox of identity — and where it resides. With unsentimental and almost buoyant poignancy, she observes that even as the body fails part by part, we adapt by folding the losses into our consent to reality, the integrity of our deepest sense of self remaining all the while intact:

This long slow dying is no doubt instructive, it it is disappointingly free from excitements: “naturalness” being carried to its supreme expression. One sloughs off the activities one by one, and never knows that they’re gone, until one suddenly finds that the months have slipped away and the sofa will never more be laid upon, the morning paper read, or the loss of the new book regretted; one revolves with equal content within the narrowing circle until the vanishing point is reached, I suppose.

Vanity, however, maintains its undisputed sway, and I take satisfaction in feeling as much myself as ever, perhaps simply a more concentrated essence in this curtailment.

A week before her death, sensing the proximity of the end, she considers the futility of regret:

How wearing to the substance and exasperating to the nerves is the perpetual bewailing, wondering at and wishing to alter things happened, as if all personal concern didn’t vanish as the “happened” crystallizes into history. Of what matter can it be whether pain or pleasure has shaped and stamped the pulp within, as one is absorbed in the supreme interest of watching the outline and the tracery as the lines broaden for eternity.

Art from Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch, an uncommonly tender illustrated meditation on life and death

In her final journal entry, dictated to Katharine the day before her death, Alice writes with gratitude for her partner’s loving care and caress:

I am being ground slowly on the grim grindstone of physical pain, and on two nights I had almost asked K.’s lethal dose, but one steps hesitantly along such unaccustomed ways and endures from second to second; and I feel sure that it can’t be possible but what the bewildered little hammer that keep some going will very shortly see the decency of ending his distracted career; however this may be, physical pain however great ends in itself and falls away like dry husks from the mind, whilst moral discords and nervous sorrows sear the soul. These last, Katharine has completely under the control of her rhythmic hand, so I go no longer in dread. Oh the wonderful moment when I felt myself floated for the first time into the deep sea of divine cessation, and saw all the dear old mysteries and miracles vanish into vapour!

But Alice’s most profound meditation on life and death was penned in a letter to her brother William a year earlier, after her terminal diagnosis had relieved the decades of uncertainty. Echoing Rilke’s assertion that “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,” she writes:

It is the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life, and I count in the greatest good fortune to have these few months so full of interest and instruction in the knowledge of my approaching death. It is as simple in one’s own person as any fact of nature, the fall of a leaf or the blooming of a rose, and I have a delicious consciousness, ever present, of wide spaces close at hand, and whisperings of release in the air.

Compare this with Oliver Sacks’s stirring farewell to life, written more than a century later after his own terminal diagnosis:

I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life… .

Alice James in 1870 (Harvard Houghton Library)

In a spectacular counterpoint to the disadvantages life had conferred upon her with her particular lifelong infirmity and the general case of her gender in the nineteenth century, Alice adds a proud note of assurance to William:

Don’t think of me simply as a creature who might have been something else… Notwithstanding the poverty of my outside experience, I have always had a significance for myself, and every chance to stumble along my straight and narrow little path, and to worship at the feet of my Deity, and what more can a human soul ask for?

Compare again with Sacks:

I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

The Diary of Alice James is a magnificent read in its entirety. Complement it with an uncommonly tender German illustrated meditation on mortality and a subtle Japanese pop-up masterpiece about the cycle of life, then revisit its contemporary counterpart in a young neurosurgeon’s beautiful meditation on the meaning of life as he faces his death.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 7 Aug 2017 | 6:00 pm(NZT)

Sam Shepard in Love, on Love

“There can be a real meeting between two people at the point where they always felt marooned. Right at the edge.”


Sam Shepard in Love, on Love

Of the varied threads of connection that can stretch between two people — threads of innumerable thicknesses, textures, and hues, so difficult to classify and in such constant evolution — which do we get to call “love”? Perhaps love can never be defined in the singular, for it is utterly singular to each person in each relationship at each moment in time — we each love different loves, constantly navigating and negotiating the infinite continuum of meaning with which this one small, enormous word is imbued.

In the history of literature, valiant attempts at definition abound, but perhaps those of them that seem to cut to the heart of the mystery — Rilke’s, Tom Stoppard’s, Shel Silverstein’s, Susan Sontag’s, Anaïs Nin’s, Alain Badiou’s — simply resonate with where we ourselves are at a particular moment in time, in a particular phase of a particular relationship.

One of the richest, most powerful definitions I’ve encountered, exploring love as a union of two sovereign alonenesses and a mutual awakening to dormant parts of each self, comes from the polymathic playwright Sam Shepard (November 5, 1943–July 27, 2017) in Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark (public library) — the great dramatist’s correspondence with his dearest friend, former father-in-law, and spiritual brother.

Both men belonged to “The Work” — a movement of gatherings based on the spiritual teachings of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, whose philosophy was rooted in the idea that although our default state is a sort of waking sleep, we are capable of waking up. In 1982, Shepard met the actor Jessica Lange on the set of the film Frances, in which he had a supporting role. Lange earned an Academy Award nomination and won Shepard’s heart — the two entered into an immediate and intense romance that effected, as Shepard wrote to Dark, mutual awakening. On St. Patrick’s Day the following year, shortly after the premiere of his play Fool for Love, Shepard moved into Lange’s cabin in Northern Minnesota near Bob Dylan’s birthplace, which he described to Dark as “a town right out of Kerouac.”

Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange, 1983 (Photograph courtesy of University of Texas Press)

In a letter penned twelve days later, Shepard writes from the thralls of something far deeper and more powerful than infatuation:

I love this woman in a way I can’t describe & a feeling of belonging to each other that reaches across all the pain. It’s as though we’ve answered something in each other that was almost forgotten. I look back on that whole ten years in California & I see myself hunting desperately for something I wasn’t finding. I know the Work point of view is the only true one. That life is inside. That nothing outside can ever finally answer our yearning. I know that’s true but, in some way, finding Jessie has reached something inside me. A part of me feels brand new — re-awakened.

Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange, 1983 (Photograph courtesy of University of Texas Press)

With a keen awareness of our human curse to metabolize everything, to habituate to even the most transcendent experiences, Shepard adds:

I know even this will change. There’ll be moments of deep regret maybe. But life is a gamble. I felt the weight of that the first time I left home for good. I walked out of that house into the unknown & it scared the shit out of me but the adventure of hitting life straight on was a thrill I’ll never forget. I feel that now — along with the fear. But I see the fear stems from being alone in the world & it has a new meaning for me now. You can be alone in the midst of people or you can be alone & join with the other one’s aloneness. There can be a real meeting between two people at the point where they always felt marooned. Right at the edge. And that’s how it is with me & her.

Shepard and Lange’s daughter, Hannah, was born three years later, followed by a son, Walker. The couple remained together for the nearly three decades.

Complement this particular fragment of Two Prospectors, on the pages of which Shepard’s views on art and life unfold with unprecedented candor, with Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving, Kahlil Gibran’s timeless advice on the difficult balance of intimacy and independence, and Virginia Woolf on the secret to lasting love.


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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.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 3 Aug 2017 | 11:19 pm(NZT)

The Blue Songbird: A Tenderhearted and Lyrical Parable About Finding Your Voice and Coming Home to Yourself

A lovely Japanese-inspired meditation on what makes us who we are.


The Blue Songbird: A Tenderhearted and Lyrical Parable About Finding Your Voice and Coming Home to Yourself

“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” young Tolstoy wrote in his diary. A generation later on the other side of the Atlantic, pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in hers as she contemplated the art of knowing what to do with one’s life: “To know what one ought to do is certainly the hardest thing in life. ‘Doing’ is comparatively easy.”

How we arrive at that secret and sacred knowledge is what Brooklyn-based artist Vern Kousky explores in The Blue Songbird (public library) — a lyrical and tenderhearted parable about finding one’s voice and coming home to oneself. With its soft watercolors and mellifluous prose composed of simple words, Kousky’s story emanates a Japanese aesthetic of thought and vision, where great truths are surfaced with great gentleness and simplicity.

We meet a a young blue songbird on a golden island, who listens to her sisters’ beautiful songs each morning. Unable to sing like they sing, she anguishes that there seem to be no songs for her in the world.

Her wise and loving mother counsels the blue songbird to “go and find a special song” that she alone can sing.

As though animated by Nietzsche’s proclamation that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” the blue songbird sets out to cross land and sea in search of her singular song.

After tireless and courageous flight, she reaches a faraway land where she meets a long-necked crane and asks him whether he might know what song she should sing.

The crane, bereft of an answer, points her to the distant mountains perched at the horizon, home to “the wisest bird,” who might know.

She soars over the peaks and finds the wise old bird in the depths of a dark forest. But the owl hoots unknowing, and the blue songbird flies forth on her quest.

Across varied landscapes and foreign lands, the young seeker inquires all she meets whether they might know where her song resides, but no one has the answer.

Kousky writes:

One wintry day, she met a bird who looked a little bit mean and more than a little bit hungry. Even so the songbird bravely chirped:

“Please don’t eat me, Mr. Scary Bird. I just wondered if you’ve ever heard of a very special thing — a song that only I can sing.”

The scary-looking stranger, who turns out to be a kindly crow, finally offers the glimmer of an answer — he doesn’t have her song, but knows where she will find it: She must fly West as far as she can.

And so she does, across the sea, past lighthouses and storm clouds, against mighty winds, until she sees the warm glow of an island “like a jewel on the horizon,” beautiful music flowing from it.

Elated to have made it to her destination, the blue songbird feels a surge of new strength that carries her faster and faster toward the yellow land. But as she swoops down, she realizes that she has returned home.

Just as disappointment is swelling in her chest, she sees her mother and is overcome with the urge to tell her of the crane, and the owl, and the crow, and all the stories of her journey.

But as she opens her beak, what pours out is a song — a song of her very own, about what she had seen and experienced — a testament to Werner Herzog’s conviction that all original art “must have experience of life at its foundation.”

Complement The Blue Songbird with a Pulitzer-winning poet on the trouble with “finding yourself” and an astrophysicist’s enchanting real-life story about the Möbius strips that lead us back to ourselves, then revisit The Fox and the Star — a very different yet kindred-spirited illustrated fable of self-discovery and belonging.

Illustrations © Vern Kousky courtesy of Running Press Kids


donating = loving

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.


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