“A small, shy, determined person, with that strength dictated by absolutely impersonal ambition: she was not trying to ‘make it’ — she was trying to keep the faith,” James Baldwin wrote of Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930–January 12, 1965), whom he had met when she fiercely defended him as critics savaged a theatrical production of his novel Giovanni’s Room a year before she herself transformed theater and the cultural vocabulary of civil rights with A Raisin in the Sun — the first play by a black woman to be performed on Broadway, a play so quietly revolutionary that it incited an FBI report and so visionary that it replenished the faith of generations to come. She soon become Baldwin’s dear friend, his “Sweet Lorraine.” Nina Simone, one of her most intimate friends, honored her in the anthem “Young, Gifted and Black” — words drawn directly from a speech Hansberry had given to a group of young writers. W.E.B. Du Bois cherished her as his favorite student. Upon her untimely death at only 34, her model and mentor Langston Hughes — from whose verse Hansberry had borrowed the title of her revolutionary play — wrote in a poem dedicated to her: “In time of silver rain, / The earth puts forward new life again.”
In the decades since, Hansberry’s legacy has showered its life-giving rain upon the civic and spiritual soil in which freedom, redemption, and justice are grown. She has become a black icon, a queer icon, a feminist icon, an icon of artistic integrity, whose body of work emanates Auden’s belief that “the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act” and Achebe’s insistence that “those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’… are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.” Hansberry dared to upset the system — radically, rapturously, in ways that continue to ripple through our culture with the tidal force of rare genius.
That genius, epoch-making yet underappreciated today, comes alive in Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (public library) by cultural historian Imani Perry. A biographer of uncommonly poetic scholarship, Perry writes in the introduction:
Time insists in a multitude of forms. The urgency of her time and its particularities must be understood within the deep sense of possibility that she maintained, a sense that characterizes youth in general and in particular those for whom justice seeking is their life work. We are running out of time, the earth is ravaged, our bodies are indefinite; Lorraine reminds us to make use of each moment.
Ahead of her time, Lorraine’s witness and wisdom help us understand the world, its problems and its possibilities. In her lonely reckonings, her impassioned reaching for justice, and the seriousness of her craft, she teaches us how to more ethically, more lovingly, witness one another today. There is something quieter but no less important too. In these pages I want to catch a likeness of her to give the reader a sense of the sweet and intimate parts of her: what made her smile and raised her ire, what drove her passions and how she loved.
In her early twenties, Hansberry had the great good fortune of studying with W.E.B. Du Bois, who became her most beloved intellectual mentor. In a lovely prose poem of sorts, scribbled in her class notebook, she limned “his back against the sunlight of May afternoons… full and confident in his vast knowledge and his splendid sense of interpretation of history.” Admiring his perfectly measured voice and his intelligent wit, she wrote: “Freedom’s passion, refined and organized, sits there.” Under his generous guidance, she read even more passionately and critically than she was already apt to, maturing both as an artist and an activist, training herself to transcend youth’s solipsistic tendency toward cultural and historical myopia. In another notebook, she wrote down words of Du Bois’s that would become a sort of philosophical mantra and creative pillar for her own work:
Somehow you have got to know more than what you experience individually.
And yet, like every artist, Hansberry made the personal the raw material for the political and the wellspring of the universal. (Audre Lorde, who greatly admired her, captured this artistic inevitability perfectly a few years after Hansberry’s death: “The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word ‘I.’”) On the first day of April in 1960, in the final weeks of her twenties, Hansberry divided a page of her daybook into two columns and filled them out in the like-and-dislike list tradition of Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag:
Mahalia Jackson’s music
My husband — most of the time
being admired for my looks
Dorothy Secules eyes
Having an appetite
Eartha Kitt’s looks
That first drink of Scotch
To feel like working
The little boy in “400 Blows”
The way I look
The way Dorothy Talks
Miranda D’Corona’s accent
And/or intelligent women
Being asked to speak
Too much mail
Most television programs
What has happened to Sidney Poitier
People who defend it
Seeing my picture
Reading my interviews
Jean Genet’s plays
Jean Paul Sartre’s writing
Not being able to work
Being hung over
As silly men
David Suskind’s pretensions
Sneaky love affairs.
It is noteworthy that Hansberry used the word “hate” for the negatives and not its true opposite but the mere “like” for the positives — perhaps because, given her impassioned precision with language, she reserved the word “love” only for what truly warranted it: her work and her relationships. She had no patience for superficiality in either — when she bonded, she bonded deeply, bringing all of herself to the relationship, just as she brought all of herself to her art. Nina Simone — one of her closest bonds — remembered:
We never talked about men or clothes or other such inconsequential things when we got together. It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution — real girls’ talk.
When Simone gave birth to her only daughter, she chose Hansberry as her godmother, who gave the baby a beautiful Tiffany hairbrush. (Although Hansberry loved beautiful objects and beauty itself, in her own life she saw them as a distraction from her primary focus — she had only five dresses and wore no makeup, except for the occasional lipstick accent. “I’m pretty the way I am,” she used to say.) Simone credited Hansberry with awakening her political conscience. “It would take a special kind of friend really to pull me into the ideas of the Black Movement and force me to accept that I had to take politics seriously,” she wrote in her memoir. “That special friend was Lorraine Hansberry.”
Their bond was special in other ways, too — in belonging to that rare, ravishing species of unclassifiable relationship with elements of the platonic, the filial, the romantic, the intellectual, the creative, and the ineffable. Largely unrecorded in their surviving papers and perhaps unrecordable to begin with, it stands as a reminder that 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. The poet Nikki Giovanni captured the only thing that mattered in Hansberry’s relationship with Simone: “What is important is that she loved her and she was loved in return.”
Then there was James Baldwin, whose platonic love letter of an essay, “Sweet Lorraine,” opens the posthumous collection of Hansberry’s writings, To Be Young, Gifted and Black. He writes of his chosen title for the piece:
That’s the way I always felt about her, and so I won’t apologize for calling her that now. She understood it: in that far too brief a time when we walked and talked and laughed and drank together, sometimes in the streets and bars and restaurants of the Village, sometimes at her house, gracelessly fleeing the houses of others; and sometimes seeming, for anyone who didn’t know us, to be having a knock-down-drag-out battle. We spent a lot of time arguing about history and tremendously related subjects in her Bleecker Street, and later Waverly Place, flats. And often, just when I was certain that she was about to throw me out as being altogether too rowdy a type, she would stand up, her hands on her hips (for these down-home sessions she always wore slacks), and pick up my empty glass as though she intended to throw it at me. Then she would walk into the kitchen, saying, with a haughty toss of her head, “Really, Jimmy. You ain’t right, child!” With which stern put-down she would hand me another drink and launch into a brilliant analysis of just why I wasn’t “right.” I would often stagger down her stairs as the sun came up, usually in the middle of a paragraph and always in the middle of a laugh. That marvelous laugh. That marvelous face. I loved her, she was my sister and my comrade.
Perry considers the broader significance of the mutual cherishment binding Hansberry, Baldwin, and Simone into a sacred geometry of art and love:
The three of them formed a sort of trinity. Geniuses, they produced enduring work at the cusp of the great social transformations of the mid-twentieth century. All three were, according to early twenty-first-century terminology, queer, though only Jimmy’s sexuality was publicly known.
Cynics have criticized Hansberry for marrying a white man, or for marrying any man at all, given her orientation and her commitment to the civil rights movement. Cynics are people willfully and self-righteously blind to the context of others’ lives — their era, their culture, their inalienable personal predilections and choices; cynics are people who deny others the richness of heart and the complex, layered, tessellated inner life they afford themselves. While Hansberry’s richest romantic relationships were with women — most enduringly, with the shy, blue-eyed, sweet but politically opinionated Dorothy Secules, fifteen years Hansberry’s senior — her husband, the theater producer and writer Robert Nemiroff, became her most trusted intellectual and creative partner, the fiercest champion of her work during her short lifetime, and the person singlehandedly responsible for its posthumous preservation.
One of Hansberry’s most intense and transformative relationships was with the photographer Molly Malone Cook, who had recently migrated to New York from California.(Shortly after their relationship came to a close, Cook would find her lifelong soul mate in the poet Mary Oliver, who wrote stunningly about their four decades together. The two met at the Steepletop artist colony housed in the former home of Edna St. Vincent Millay — one of Hansberry’s heroes, both as an artistic intellect and as a queer woman living by her own rules. “Renascence,” the title poem of Millay’s debut poetry collection, had inspired and lent its title to one of Hansberry’s most daring short stories.)
When they were together, Molly took photographs of Lorraine. These photos are different from all the others and tell a story in and of themselves. In them, Lorraine does not have her race-woman armor on as she usually does. Nor is she posed. She is casual, tomboyish. Her hair is mussed. Her back curved, adolescent, languorous, and playful at once. The light and wonder that we know must have often been in her eyes, because of her wicked humor and deep curiosity, I have seen only Molly capture on camera. The images are a dance of love.
Perry surmises — accurately, I believe on the basis of my own long immersion in the poet’s world — that Oliver is writing of Hansberry in this passage from Our World, her adoring memoir of and eulogy for the love of her life, describing Cook’s graciously unnamed previous lover:
In 1958 and 1959 she traveled by car across the country to California, leisurely, through the south and back through the northern states — taking pictures. She had, around this time, an affair that struck deeply, I believe she loved totally and was loved totally. I know about it, and I am glad. I have an idea of why the relationship thrived so and yet failed, too private for discussion also too obviously a supposition. Such a happening has and deserves its privacy. I only mean that this love, and the ensuing emptiness of its ending, changed her. Of such events we are always changed — not necessarily badly but changed. Who doesn’t know that, doesn’t know much.
Perry’s Looking for Lorraine is a superb read in its entirety — a rare triumph of doing justice to a life that compresses into its tragically short span tremendous complexity and a vast spectrum of nuances. Complement it with the remarkable story of Harriet Hosmer — another woman of culture-shifting yet underappreciated genius, who blazed the way for generations of artists and queer people a century before Hansberry, then revisit James Baldwin on “the doom and glory of knowing who you are.”
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Source: Brain Pickings | 23 Jul 2019 | 11:09 am(NZT)
“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Jack Kerouac wrote in a beautiful letter to his first wife and lifelong friend. Somehow, despite our sincerest intentions, we repeatedly fall short of this earthly divinity, so readily available yet so easily elusive. And yet in our culture, it has been aptly observed, “we are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us.” In his stirring Syracuse commencement address, George Saunders confessed with unsentimental ruefulness: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.” I doubt any decent person, upon candid reflection, would rank any other species of regret higher. To be human is to leap toward our highest moral potentialities, only to trip over the foibled actualities of our reflexive patterns. To be a good human is to keep leaping anyway.
In the middle of his fifty-fifth year, Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 20, 1910) set out to construct a reliable springboard for these moral leaps by compiling “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people,” whose wisdom “gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness” — thinkers and spiritual leaders who have shed light on what is most important in living a rewarding and meaningful life. Such a book, Tolstoy envisioned, would tell a person “about the Good Way of Life.” He spent the next seventeen years on the project.
In 1902, by then seriously ill and facing his own mortality, Tolstoy finally completed the manuscript under the working title A Wise Thought for Every Day. It was published two years later, in Russian, but it took nearly a century for the first English translation, by Peter Sekirin, to appear: A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts (public library). For each day of the year, Tolstoy had selected several quotes by great thinkers around a particular theme, then contributed his own thoughts on the subject, with kindness as the pillar of the book’s moral sensibility.
Perhaps prompted by the creaturely severity and the clenching of heart induced by winter’s coldest, darkest days, or perhaps by the renewed resolve for moral betterment with which we face each new year, he writes in the entry for January 7:
The kinder and the more thoughtful a person is, the more kindness he can find in other people.
Kindness enriches our life; with kindness mysterious things become clear, difficult things become easy, and dull things become cheerful.
At the end of the month, in a sentiment Carl Sagan would come to echo in his lovely invitation to meet ignorance with kindness, Tolstoy writes:
You should respond with kindness toward evil done to you, and you will destroy in an evil person that pleasure which he derives from evil.
In the entry for February 3, he revisits the subject:
Kindness is for your soul as health is for your body: you do not notice it when you have it.
After copying out two kindness-related quotations from Jeremy Bentham (“A person becomes happy to the same extent to which he or she gives happiness to other people.”) and John Ruskin (“The will of God for us is to live in happiness and to take an interest in the lives of others.”), Tolstoy adds:
Love is real only when a person can sacrifice himself for another person. Only when a person forgets himself for the sake of another, and lives for another creature, only this kind of love can be called true love, and only in this love do we see the blessing and reward of life. This is the foundation of the world.
Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.
Feast on more of Tolstoy’s deeply nourishing Calendar of Wisdom here. Complement this particular fragment with Albert Einstein on the meaning of kindness, Jacqueline Woodson’s lovely letter to children about kindness, and Naomi Shihab Nye on the remarkable true story behind her beloved poem “Kindness,” then revisit Tolstoy on love and its paradoxical demands, his early diaries of moral development, and his deathbed writings on what gives meaning to our lives.
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Source: Brain Pickings | 22 Jul 2019 | 1:15 pm(NZT)
“There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal. This is the thought of identity,” Walt Whitman wrote in contemplating the central paradox of the self. And yet the most paradoxical feature of consciousness might be precisely the elusiveness of the self in an identity composed of porous, ever-shifting multitudes. A century after Whitman, the Austrian poet, playwright, and novelist Thomas Bernhard addressed this in his exquisite meditation on the attendant paradox of self-observation: “If we observe ourselves, we are never observing ourselves but someone else. Thus we can never talk about self-observation, [for then] we are talking as someone we never are when we are not observing ourselves, and thus when we observe ourselves we are never observing the person we intended to observe but someone else.”
Midway in time between Whitman and Bernhard, Virginia Woolf distilled the paradox into its central problem: “One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” Far ahead of modern science, she understood that our experience of selfhood and the “soul” is largely rooted in our experience of time — that self and time are entwined in a shared elasticity.
Nearly a century after Woolf and many turns of the cultural wheel after Whitman, the German psychologist and chronobiologist Marc Wittmann — a pioneer in the research on time perception — takes up these enormous, elemental questions in Altered States of Consciousness: Experiences Out of Time and Self (public library), translated by Philippa Hurd. Weaving together the phenomenology of perception, clinical research in psychiatry and neurobiology, patient case studies, philosophy, literature, and landmark experiments from psychology labs around the world, Wittmann examines the extremes of consciousness — near-death experiences, epilepsy, intensive meditation, psychedelics, mental illness — to shed light on the abiding enigmas of what consciousness actually is, how body, self, space, and time intertwine, where the boundaries of the self are located, why the dissolution of those boundaries might be the supreme wellspring of happiness, and how consciousness of time and consciousness of self co-create each other to construct our experience of who we are.
In a sentiment that calls to mind the closing verse of Ursula K. Le Guin’s splendid “Hymn to Time” — “Time is being and being / time, it is all one thing, / the shining, the seeing, / the dark abounding.” — Wittmann writes:
Altered states of consciousness very often go hand in hand with an altered perception of space and time… Ultimately our perception and our thoughts are organized in terms of space and time. Extraordinary states of consciousness must therefore also affect space and time.
In consonance with Borges’s timeless refutation of time — “Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.” — Wittmann adds:
Subjective time and consciousness, felt time, and experience of self are closely related: I am my time; through my experience of self I reach a feeling of time. If we have a better understanding of the subjective experience of time, then important aspects of self-consciousness will also have been understood better.
In extraordinary states of consciousness — moments of shock, meditation, sudden mystical experiences, near-death experiences, under the influence of drugs — temporal consciousness is fundamentally altered. Hand in hand with this goes an altered consciousness of space and self. In these extreme circumstances, time and concepts of space and self are modulated together — intensified or weakened together. But in more ordinary situations, too, such as boredom, the experience of flow, and idleness, time and self are collectively altered.
Wittmann points to one fundamental difference between our sense of time and our other senses, which highlights the centrality of time perception to our experience of selfhood:
The sense of time is “embodied” in a more all-encompassing way than the other senses. Ultimately, time perception is not mediated by a specific sense organ, as happens in the case of the senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, or touch. There is no sense organ for time. Subjective time as a sense of self is a physically and emotionally felt wholeness of our entire self through time.
And yet in his own research at UC San Diego, Wittmann located if not a separate sense organ, at least a particular brain region chiefly responsible for our sense of time. Using fMRI, he and his team furnished the first systematic empirical evidence that time perception is encoded in body signals governed by the insula — a fragment of the cerebral cortex folded deep within each lobe of the brain, already implicated by earlier research as a crucial locus of consciousness involved in emotion, self-awareness, and social interaction. With an eye to the delicate interleaving between our bodies and our minds, Wittmann writes:
The brain does not simply represent the world in a disembodied way as an intellectual construct, but rather the organism interacts as a whole with the environment… Our mind is body-bound. We think, feel, and act with our body in the world. All experience is embedded in this body-related being-in-the-world. Or, to put it another way, subjective experience means living that is embodied in the environment and social interaction with other people.
The bodily feelings that are linked to the insula — body temperature, pain, muscular contractions, physical contact, and signals from the gut — are also an integral component of emotions and trigger positive or negative feelings. Short-term affects as well as longer-lasting moods are essential for the modulation of the sense of time.
In fact, some of the most compelling evidence for the self as a temporal entity comes from the various experiments and case studies indicating that people with disrupted mental and mood states exhibit impaired time perception. Depression, which William Styron so memorably described as a “smothering confinement” in prolonged despair, dilates the perception of time to a tortuous degree. Citing a study in which patients hospitalized for depression demonstrated strong positive correlation between the severity of their symptoms and their inability to correctly estimate time, Wittmann writes:
People suffering from depression are temporally desynchronized; their internal speed does not match the speed of the social environment. Depressiveness and sadness, expressed in a negative self-image, self-blaming, and a feeling of worthlessness, among other things, go hand in hand with the intensified, unpleasant sensation of time passing more slowly.
In addiction, time becomes arrhythmic. When intoxicated by a stimulant, thoughts and actions speed up from their ordinary rate but the brain fails to encode these sped-up experiences as proper memories. During withdrawal, the opposite happens — time dilates and expands. Hyperfocus on the present craving for the drug makes the tortuous physical symptoms seem interminable and a dependency-free future seem infinitely distant. Wittmann sums up the cruel temporal trap of addiction:
In a state of addiction the individual loses his or her temporal freedom — the freedom to choose between present and future opportunities.
In schizophrenia, the temporal disruption is even more pronounced — the continuous unity as which the “self” is ordinarily experienced shatters into fragmentary moments that seem to freeze in time, preventing the person from integrating past, present, and future into a cohesive picture of being. Reflecting on patients’ consistent reports of time standing still, of all future perspective vanishing, and of feeling like they themselves are dissolving, Wittmann writes:
In schizophrenia, the continuity of temporal experience and with it the continuity of the self are disturbed. It is as if the “self” is stuck in the present. Time no longer moves on, and seems to stand still. Temporal standstill means the standstill of the subject. Normally we experience ourselves as a unity of our self. Our focus on anticipated events kick-starts our preparations for action. Mental presence means that we integrate past, present, and anticipated experience into a whole that is our self. As conscious beings we are constituted through self-experience in the three temporal modes… In schizophrenia… the dynamic of the passing of time, which underlies the subjectivity of all our experience, no longer functions. Because subjective time “gets stuck,” the experience of the self that depends on the underlying dynamic temporal structure is impaired. Without the dynamic of this temporal flow, the “self” collapses into fragments of now.
This interdependence between our sense of time and our sense of self plays out not only in mental states pathological in the clinical sense but also in our existential pathologies, as it were — our experiences of boredom, creative flow, and the fringes of wakefulness. Nearly a century after Bertrand Russell admonished that “a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation… in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase,” Wittmann writes:
Boredom actually means that we find ourselves boring. It’s the intensive self-reference: we are bored with ourselves. We are tired of ourselves.
In boredom we are completely time and completely self — inner emptiness. Now I am I and nothing else — a surfeit of being oneself, in most cases when one is alone, but sometimes also being lonely when being with others.
If time unspools interminably in boredom, it races so rapidly as to vanish during creative flow. In such a state, one experiences the positive counterpart to the dissolution of the self schizophrenic patients report. Wittmann limns the experience:
On the one hand we have achieved something that will be permanent — writing this text, solving a syntax problem in programming — but our life as a whole has almost disappeared for minutes or even hours. We were concentrating fully and completely on the matter at hand, but in doing so we did not notice ourselves: a loss of the experience of both self and time. Expressing it negatively this way also shows how the perception of self and that of time are jointly modulated.
One of the starkest everyday confrontations with the disintegrating self comes in the moments when consciousness slips out if its diurnal robe and into the nocturnal. More than a century and a half after Nathaniel Hawthorne contemplated how the transcendent space between sleep and wakefulness illuminates temporality, Wittmann notes that these experiences reveal something beyond the standard model of memory and narrative as the building blocks of selfhood — emerging from this lacuna between sleep and wakefulness is also a sense of the self as “the mere feeling of being,” independent of autobiographical memory. He writes:
In the seconds of waking up, as the narrative self is not updating, consciousness is focused on something nevertheless: it is the physical self that is at the center of perception and thought, which enables the differentiation between the self and non-self. Under normal circumstances we are aware of our experiences, memories, and expectations, the objects of our consciousness. Below the surface, however, we also have a minimal self, the egocentric anchor of all experiences that in the above-mentioned situation of memoryless awakening is suddenly experienced very clearly, as the usual objects of our consciousness, perceptions, and memories are missing. I am thrown back upon myself.
In such a case the experience of self can be understood as an “ego-pole.” My “ego-subject” is focused on an “ego-object”: I perceive myself. However, there is a fundamental problem here, as the ego-object is categorically different from the ego-subject. If we observe ourselves self-referentially — that is, the ego-subject observes itself — it always observes itself as an ego-object.
In the transition from sleeping to waking we experience the boundaries of our usual state of self. Every time we wake we become conscious of our selves once again; we are inserted into our state of awakeness. But in isolated cases the process of becoming conscious does not happen seamlessly — the ego does not recognize itself. Through such moments we have the opportunity to investigate the enigma of consciousness, revealing how the conscious self depends on factors yet to be determined, which are constitutive of self-consciousness.
But nowhere do the boundaries of the self-in-time seem to dissolve more palpably than during psychedelic experiences. A century after the pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James first codified the typical features of transcendent states, Wittmann draws on the new generation of research into how the science of psychedelics illuminates consciousness and writes:
Scientific research on the effects of LSD and psilocybin has shown clearly that the states of consciousness involve striking changes in perception, emotions, and ideas, and also in the ways they are described: time, space, and the experience of self are dramatically altered. These changes are comparable only with other extreme states of consciousness such as occur in dreams, in mystical and religious ecstasy, or in acute psychotic phases in the early stage of schizophrenia. The dimensions of mystical experience include oneness of the self with the universe, the feeling of timelessness and spacelessness, the most intense feelings of happiness, and the certainty of experiencing a sacred truth which is, however, indescribable. The latter is the feeling of looking behind the veil of reality and seeing the immutable (that is, timeless and spaceless) truth of the world in its entirety.
Research into the mystical experience of the disintegration of time and the self under the influence of hallucinogens is a way toward understanding human consciousness.
In the remainder of the altogether fascinating Altered States of Consciousness, Wittmann goes on to examine how experiences like deep meditation and music shed light on the nature of consciousness through the lens of time and self. Complement it with Kierkegaard on bridging the ephemeral and the eternal and neuroscientist Christof Koch on how the qualia of our experience illuminate the central mystery of consciousness, then revisit Wittmann’s earlier exploration of how the interplay of spontaneity and self-control mediates our capacity for presence.
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.
Source: Brain Pickings | 20 Jul 2019 | 6:38 am(NZT)
“Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” the trailblazing astronomer and leading Figuring figure Maria Mitchell wrote in the second half of the nineteenth century as she contemplated science, spirituality, and the human hunger for truth. Every great scientist in the century and a half since has been faced with this question, be it by personal restlessness or public demand. Einstein addressed it in answering a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray. Quantum theory originator Max Planck believed that “science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature [because] we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” His fellow Nobel laureate and quantum theory founding father Niels Bohr defied the sentiment in his incisive distinction between subjective and objective reality, noting that religions have always addressed the former, while science addresses the latter, which is measurable and therefore knowable. Wolfgang Pauli, whose groundbreaking scientific ideas were greatly influenced by Bohr’s, concluded that the effort to reconcile science and religion “will always be full of pitfalls and one can fall down on both sides.”
It takes a mind of rare courage and insight to address this abiding question without falling into the most pernicious trap of all — that of artificial compatibilism; to take a lucid stance without fright of offense, then to explain the basis of that stance thoughtfully and sensitively, systematically dismantling every reflexive argument against it.
That is what Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) does in his final book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (public library) — a collection of ten enormous questions Hawking was asked regularly throughout his life, by children and elders, by entrepreneurs and political leaders, by men and women young and old attending his prolific lectures and public appearances, with answers drawn from his extensive personal archive of correspondence, notes, drafts, interviews, and essays. The book — which was conceived during Hawking’s lifetime but finished only after his death with help from his family and academic colleagues, and proceeds from which benefit the Stephen Hawking Foundation and the Motor Neurone Disease Association — opens with the question that has bellowed in humanity’s chest since science first confronted superstition: Is there a God?
Hawking — whom many consider the greatest scientist since Einstein and whose residual stardust was interred between Darwin’s and Newton’s in Westminster Abbey — enlists his disarming deadpan humor in placing the query in a personal context, then uses the fulcrum of his magnificent mind to pivot into the serious answer to the universal question:
For centuries, it was believed that disabled people like me were living under a curse that was inflicted by God. Well, I suppose it’s possible that I’ve upset someone up there, but I prefer to think that everything can be explained another way, by the laws of nature. If you believe in science, like I do, you believe that there are certain laws that are always obeyed. If you like, you can say the laws are the work of God, but that is more a definition of God than a proof of his existence.
With an eye to the discovery, which began in antiquity and culminated with Kepler and Galileo, that “the heavens” are in fact a complex universe governed by discoverable and discernible physical laws, he builds upon his earlier reflections on the meaning of the universe and adds:
I believe that the discovery of these laws has been humankind’s greatest achievement, for it’s these laws of nature — as we now call them — that will tell us whether we need a god to explain the universe at all. The laws of nature are a description of how things actually work in the past, present and future. In tennis, the ball always goes exactly where they say it will. And there are many other laws at work here too. They govern everything that is going on, from how the energy of the shot is produced in the players’ muscles to the speed at which the grass grows beneath their feet. But what’s really important is that these physical laws, as well as being unchangeable, are universal. They apply not just to the flight of a ball, but to the motion of a planet, and everything else in the universe. Unlike laws made by humans, the laws of nature cannot be broken — that’s why they are so powerful and, when seen from a religious standpoint, controversial too.
One could define God as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of as God. They mean a human-like being, with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe, and how insignificant and accidental human life is in it, that seems most implausible.
I use the word “God” in an impersonal sense, like Einstein did, for the laws of nature, so knowing the mind of God is knowing the laws of nature. My prediction is that we will know the mind of God by the end of this century.
But even with the laws of nature conceded, Hawking recognizes that their existence still leaves room for religions to lay claim to the grandest question — how the universe and its laws began. He addresses the question both plainly and profoundly:
I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.
Despite the complexity and variety of the universe, it turns out that to make one you need just three ingredients. Let’s imagine that we could list them in some kind of cosmic cookbook. So what are the three ingredients we need to cook up a universe? The first is matter — stuff that has mass. Matter is all around us, in the ground beneath our feet and out in space. Dust, rock, ice, liquids. Vast clouds of gas, massive spirals of stars, each containing billions of suns, stretching away for incredible distances.
The second thing you need is energy. Even if you’ve never thought about it, we all know what energy is. Something we encounter every day. Look up at the Sun and you can feel it on your face: energy produced by a star ninety-three million miles away. Energy permeates the universe, driving the processes that keep it a dynamic, endlessly changing place.
So we have matter and we have energy. The third thing we need to build a universe is space. Lots of space. You can call the universe many things — awesome, beautiful, violent — but one thing you can’t call it is cramped. Wherever we look we see space, more space and even more space. Stretching in all directions.
The instinctual question is where all the matter, energy, and space came from — a question we hadn’t been able to answer with more than mythological cosmogonies until the early twentieth century, when Einstein demonstrated that mass is a form of energy and energy a form of mass in what is now the best known equation in the history of the world: E=mc2. This reduces the ingredients of the “cosmic cookbook” from three to two, distilling the question to where the space and energy originated. Generations of scientists built upon each other’s work to deliver the answer in the Big Bang model, which holds that in a single moment around 13.8 billion years ago, the entire universe, with all its space and energy, ballooned into being out of the nothingness that preceded it.
Half a century after Nabokov’s poetic admonition against common sense, Hawking echoes Carl Sagan’s observation that common sense can blind us to the realities of the universe and addresses this deeply counterintuitive notion of generating something out of nothing:
As I was growing up in England after the Second World War, it was a time of austerity. We were told that you never get something for nothing. But now, after a lifetime of work, I think that actually you can get a whole universe for free.
The great mystery at the heart of the Big Bang is to explain how an entire, fantastically enormous universe of space and energy can materialise out of nothing. The secret lies in one of the strangest facts about our cosmos. The laws of physics demand the existence of something called “negative energy.”
To help you get your head around this weird but crucial concept, let me draw on a simple analogy. Imagine a man wants to build a hill on a flat piece of land. The hill will represent the universe. To make this hill he digs a hole in the ground and uses that soil to dig his hill. But of course he’s not just making a hill — he’s also making a hole, in effect a negative version of the hill. The stuff that was in the hole has now become the hill, so it all perfectly balances out. This is the principle behind what happened at the beginning of the universe.
When the Big Bang produced a massive amount of positive energy, it simultaneously produced the same amount of negative energy. In this way, the positive and the negative add up to zero, always. It’s another law of nature.
So where is all this negative energy today? It’s in the third ingredient in our cosmic cookbook: it’s in space. This may sound odd, but according to the laws of nature concerning gravity and motion — laws that are among the oldest in science — space itself is a vast store of negative energy. Enough to ensure that everything adds up to zero.
I’ll admit that, unless mathematics is your thing, this is hard to grasp, but it’s true. The endless web of billions upon billions of galaxies, each pulling on each other by the force of gravity, acts like a giant storage device. The universe is like an enormous battery storing negative energy. The positive side of things — the mass and energy we see today — is like the hill. The corresponding hole, or negative side of things, is spread throughout space.
So what does this mean in our quest to find out if there is a God? It means that if the universe adds up to nothing, then you don’t need a God to create it. The universe is the ultimate free lunch.
This is where the wheels of our common-sense understanding screech to a frustrated halt — after all, in our daily lives, we can’t just manifest a cone of ice cream or a long-lost lover with the snap of our fingers. But on the subatomic stratum undergirding our physical reality, things work differently — particles pop up at random times in random places only to disappear again, governed by the laws of quantum mechanics, which seem downright mystical in their manifestation but are in fact discovered and calculable laws of the universe. Hawking explains:
Since we know the universe itself was once very small — perhaps smaller than a proton — this means something quite remarkable. It means the universe itself, in all its mind-boggling vastness and complexity, could simply have popped into existence without violating the known laws of nature. From that moment on, vast amounts of energy were released as space itself expanded — a place to store all the negative energy needed to balance the books. But of course the critical question is raised again: did God create the quantum laws that allowed the Big Bang to occur? In a nutshell, do we need a God to set it up so that the Big Bang could bang? I have no desire to offend anyone of faith, but I think science has a more compelling explanation than a divine creator.
Once again he illustrates this assault on our basic common-sense intuitions with that supreme lever of understanding, the analogy:
Imagine a river, flowing down a mountainside. What caused the river? Well, perhaps the rain that fell earlier in the mountains. But then, what caused the rain? A good answer would be the Sun, that shone down on the ocean and lifted water vapour up into the sky and made clouds. Okay, so what caused the Sun to shine? Well, if we look inside we see the process known as fusion, in which hydrogen atoms join to form helium, releasing vast quantities of energy in the process. So far so good. Where does the hydrogen come from? Answer: the Big Bang. But here’s the crucial bit. The laws of nature itself tell us that not only could the universe have popped into existence without any assistance, like a proton, and have required nothing in terms of energy, but also that it is possible that nothing caused the Big Bang. Nothing.
This explanation, Hawking points out, rests on the shoulders of Einstein’s groundbreaking relativity theory — that daring leap of the imaginative intellect, which furnished the staggering revelation that space and time are a single entity comprising the basic fabric of the universe. Hawking writes:
Something very wonderful happened to time at the instant of the Big Bang. Time itself began.
To understand this mind-boggling idea, consider a black hole floating in space. A typical black hole is a star so massive that it has collapsed in on itself. It’s so massive that not even light can escape its gravity, which is why it’s almost perfectly black. It’s gravitational pull is so powerful, it warps and distorts not only light but also time. To see how, imagine a clock is being sucked into it. As the clock gets closer and closer to the black hole, it begins to get slower and slower. Time itself begins to slow down. Now imagine the clock as it enters the black hole — well, assuming of course that it could withstand the extreme gravitational forces– it would actually stop. It stops not because it is broken, but because inside the black hole time itself doesn’t exist. And that’s exactly what happened at the start of the universe.
As we travel back in time towards the moment of the Big Bang, the universe gets smaller and smaller and smaller, until it finally comes to a point where the whole universe is a space so small that it is in effect a single infinitesimally small, infinitesimally dense black hole. And just as with modern-day black holes, floating around in space, the laws of nature dictate something quite extraordinary. They tell us that here too time itself must come to a stop. You can’t get to a time before the Big Bang because there was no time before the Big Bang. We have finally found something that doesn’t have a cause, because there was no time for a cause to exist in. For me this means that there is no possibility of a creator, because there is no time for a creator to have existed in.
Hawking concludes with his most direct, personal answer to the universal question:
It’s my view that the simplest explanation is that there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realisation: there is probably no heaven and afterlife either. I think belief in an afterlife is just wishful thinking. There is no reliable evidence for it, and it flies in the face of everything we know in science. I think that when we die we return to dust. But there’s a sense in which we live on, in our influence, and in our genes that we pass on to our children. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that I am extremely grateful.
Rather than dispiriting, this lucid awareness of our ephemerality can be the wellspring of our noblest, most deeply spiritual and spiritualizing impulses — a catalyst for finding holiness in the richness of life itself, in the splendor of this peculiar and irreplaceable planet, rooted in the awareness that, in the poetic words of naturalist Sy Montgomery, “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.” Hawking channels this orientation of mind and spirit in a stirring passage from the book’s introduction:
One day, I hope we will know the answers to all these questions. But there are other challenges, other big questions on the planet which must be answered, and these will also need a new generation who are interested and engaged, and have an understanding of science. How will we feed an ever-growing population? Provide clean water, generate renewable energy, prevent and cure disease and slow down global climate change? I hope that science and technology will provide the answers to these questions, but it will take people, human beings with knowledge and understanding, to implement these solutions. Let us fight for every woman and every man to have the opportunity to live healthy, secure lives, full of opportunity and love. We are all time travellers, journeying together into the future. But let us work together to make that future a place we want to visit. Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done.
Complement this particular portion of Hawking’s altogether magnificent Brief Answers to the Big Questions with Carl Sagan on science and mystery, Alan Lightman on nonreligious divinity in the known and the unknowable, and Buckminster Fuller’s scientific revision of “The Lord’s Prayer,” then revisit poet Marie Howe’s gorgeous tribute to Hawking.
Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Jul 2019 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
“To see takes time, like to have a friend takes time,” Georgia O’Keeffe reflected in the spring of her visionary career. “The art of seeing has to be learned,” the great French novelist, playwright, essayist, and filmmaker Marguerite Duras — another artist of uncommon vision — wrote half a century later as she considered the essence of life in the winter of hers. And yet we move through the seasons of our lives missing the vast majority of what surrounds us. How, then, do we master the art of seeing — that elementary existential skill that furnishes our primary means of apprehending and befriending the world?
Partway in time between O’Keeffe and Duras, a lovely answer comes from the imaginative and prolific mid-century children’s book author and artist (and, later, Peabody-winning documentary journalist) Helen Borten in her 1959 picture-book Do You See What I See? (public library) — a poetic primer on the building blocks of the perceptual world: line, shape, and color.
Although the foundations of art rest upon these elements, Borten also shines a sidewise gleam at the foundations of science. In depicting a world strewn with “lines making patterns of beauty,” she suggests not only aesthetic beauty but mathematical beauty. There is a Euclidean splendor to her bold illustrations, combining woodcut, painting, and printing techniques, and her lyrical words. “Bend a line far enough,” she tells the reader, “it becomes a circle.”
Up and down lines pull me up, up, up with them, until I feel as tall as a steeple and as taut as a stretched rubber band. I think of lofty things — giant redwood trees a lighthouse rising above the sea, a rocket soaring high into the sky, noble kings in flowing robes.
At the heart of the book is a primer not only on what and how to see, but also on what and how to be. Two centuries after William Blake asserted that “as a man is, so he sees,” Borten invites the young reader to become the sort of person who sees the world with uncynical eyes of wonder and generous curiosity.
I see the world as a great big painting, full of lines and shapes and colors, to look at and enjoy.
Do you see what I see?
Couple Do You See What I See? with Borten’s 1968 gem The Jungle, which she created after becoming one of the first women to explore the wilderness of Guatemala, then revisit Ann Rand’s lovely geometry-driven concept book about how the imagination works from the same era. For a grownup counterpart, savor cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz’s magnificent On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes — a revelatory look at what we fail to see just by being ourselves and how we can lift the habitual blinders of our perception.
Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Jul 2019 | 4:05 am(NZT)
“Man cannot stand a meaningless life,” Carl Jung observed as he contemplated human personality in a BBC interview at the end of his life. But how do we wrest meaning from existence, or rather make meaning through the force of our personhood?
That is what another titanic mind of the twentieth century — the rare philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) — took up in the year of Jung’s death, in an essay titled “Against Dryness,” originally published in the literary magazine Encounter and later included in the sublimely insightful posthumous collection Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (public library), which also gave us Murdoch on art as a force of resistance to tyranny and the key to good writing.
With an eye to how the landmark developments of the twentieth century — chiefly, the way scientific materialism has enfeebled the dogmas and precepts of religion — have left us triangulating uncomfortably between the traditions of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Liberalism, Murdoch writes:
We have been left with far too shallow and flimsy an idea of human personality… [The Anglo-Saxon] conception consists in the joining of a materialistic behaviourism with a dramatic view of the individual as a solitary will. These subtly give support to each other. From Hume through Bertrand Russell, with friendly help from mathematical logic and science, we derive the idea that reality is finally a quantity of material atoms and that significant discourse must relate itself directly or indirectly to reality so conceived. This position was most picturesquely summed up in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.
This is one side of the picture, the Humian and post-Humian side. On the other side, we derive from Kant, and also Hobbes and Bentham through John Stuart Mill, a picture of the individual as a free rational will. With the removal of Kant’s metaphysical background this individual is seen as alone. (He is in a certain sense alone on Kant’s view also, that is: not confronted with real dissimilar others.) With the addition of some utilitarian optimism he is seen as eminently educable. With the addition of some modern psychology he is seen as capable of self-knowledge by methods agreeable to science and common sense. So we have the modern man*, as he appears in many recent works on ethics and I believe also to a large extent in the popular consciousness.
A century after John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor’s trailblazing partnership of equals shaped the scaffolding of Liberalism, Murdoch points out a crucial blind spot of this otherwise noble-minded and far-seeing tradition of thought:
For the Liberal world, philosophy is not in fact at present able to offer us any other complete and powerful picture of the soul.
Our central conception is still a debilitated form of Mill’s equation: happiness equals freedom equals personality. There should have been a revolt against utilitarianism; but for many reasons it has not taken place.
She considers what we have lost by blindly adopting this worldview and what we were never given in the first place:
We have suffered a general loss of concepts, the loss of a moral and political vocabulary. We no longer use a spread-out substantial picture of the manifold virtues of man and society. We no longer see man against a background of values, of realities, which transcend him. We picture man as a brave naked will surrounded by an easily comprehended empirical world. For the hard idea of truth we have substituted a facile idea of sincerity. What we have never had, of course, is a satisfactory Liberal theory of personality, a theory of man as free and separate and related to a rich and complicated world from which, as a moral being, he has much to learn. We have bought the Liberal theory as it stands, because we have wished to encourage people to think of themselves as free, at the cost of surrendering the background.
We have never solved the problems about human personality posed by the Enlightenment. Between the various concepts available to us the real question has escaped: and now, in a curious way, our present situation is analogous to an eighteenth-century one. We retain a rationalistic optimism about the beneficent results of education, or rather, technology. We combine this with a romantic conception of “the human condition,” a picture of the individual as stripped and solitary: a conception which has, since Hitler, gained a peculiar intensity.
Writing at a time when W.H. Auden — one of her great intellectual heroes — insisted that “the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act,” and in concord with her own lifelong insistence that art is essential for a democratic society, Murdoch considers the role of art and of literature in particular in furnishing a fuller, truer model of human personality, necessary for a thriving political conscience:
The temptation of art, a temptation to which every work of art yields except the greatest ones, is to console. The modern writer, frightened of technology and (in England) abandoned by philosophy and (in France) presented with simplified dramatic theories, attempts to console us by myths or by stories.
The connection between art and the moral life has languished because we are losing our sense of form and structure in the moral world itself. Linguistic and existentialist behaviourism, our Romantic philosophy, has reduced our vocabulary and simplified and impoverished our view of the inner life. It is natural that a Liberal democratic society will not be concerned with techniques of improvement, will deny that virtue is knowledge, will emphasise choice at the expense of vision; and a Welfare State will weaken the incentives to investigate the bases of a Liberal democratic society.
In a refreshing counterpoint to the contemporary critic, who tends to merely point out the flaw in a system, with varying degrees of self-satisfaction, without a lucid and largehearted vision for solutions, Murdoch considers what it would take to remedy this impoverished Liberal model of human personality:
We need a post-Kantian unromantic Liberalism with a different image of freedom.
The technique of becoming free is more difficult than John Stuart Mill imagined. We need more concepts than our philosophies have furnished us with. We need to be enabled to think in terms of degrees of freedom, and to picture, in a non-metaphysical, non-totalitarian and non-religious sense, the transcendence of reality. A simple-minded faith in science, together with the assumption that we are all rational and totally free, engenders a dangerous lack of curiosity about the real world, a failure to appreciate the difficulties of knowing it. We need to return from the self-centred concept of sincerity to the other-centred concept of truth. We are not isolated free choosers, monarchs of all we survey, but benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy. Our current picture of freedom encourages a dream-like facility; whereas what we require is a renewed sense of the difficulty and complexity of the moral life and the opacity of persons. We need more concepts in terms of which to picture the substance of our being; it is through an enriching and deepening of concepts that moral progress takes place. Simone Weil said that morality was a matter of attention, not of will. We need a new vocabulary of attention.
In consonance with the poet Mary Oliver’s lovely assertion that “attention without feeling… is only a report” and with Ursula K. Le Guin’s bold conviction that “literature is the operating instructions” for a noble and fulfilling life, Murdoch insists upon the power of literature to furnish a vocabulary of feeling with which to better express who we are and what we value — the supreme language of human personality, of our morality, of our personal and political ideals:
Through literature we can re-discover a sense of the density of our lives. Literature can arm us against consolation and fantasy and can help us to recover from the ailments of Romanticism. If it can be said to have a task, that surely is its task. But if it is to perform it, prose must recover its former glory, eloquence and discourse must return.
Since literature rests upon language, it is language that needs to be reinvigorated. A century after Nietzsche weighed how language can both conceal and reveal truth, Murdoch adds:
I would connect eloquence with the attempt to speak the truth.
Form itself can be a temptation, making the work of art into a small myth which is a self-contained and indeed self-satisfied individual… Real people are destructive of myth, contingency is destructive of fantasy and opens the way for imagination… Too much contingency of course may turn art into journalism. But since reality is incomplete, art must not be too much afraid of incompleteness. Literature must always represent a battle between real people and images; and what it requires now is a much stronger and more complex conception of the former.
In morals and politics we have stripped ourselves of concepts. Literature, in curing its own ills, can give us a new vocabulary of experience, and a truer picture of freedom. With this, renewing our sense of distance, we may remind ourselves that art too lives in a region where all human endeavour is failure. Perhaps only Shakespeare manages to create at the highest level both images and people; and even Hamlet looks second-rate compared with Lear. Only the very greatest art invigorates without consoling, and defeats our attempts, in W. H. Auden’s words, to use it as magic.
Every page of Existentialists and Mystics is saturated with Murdoch’s uncommonly eloquent insight into the richest, deepest strata of human experience. Complement this portion with Toni Morrison on the fullest meaning of freedom, Jeanette Winterson on how art redeems our inner lives, and Susan Sontag on storytelling and what it means to be a human being, then revisit Murdoch on language as a bastion of truth, how love gives meaning to our existence, and her almost unbearably beautiful love letters.
Source: Brain Pickings | 15 Jul 2019 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
When Einstein radicalized science with his general theory of relativity, the fulcrum of which shifted our understanding of reality more profoundly than anything since the Copernican reordering of the universe, he had made several daring leaps of the informed imagination to demonstrate that space and time are interwoven into a single entity — the foundational fabric of the universe — and that both are not static absolutes, as it was believed for millennia, but dynamical quantities responsive to the energy and matter in the universe.
But Einstein’s boldest leap remains obscured by his theory’s name. At a time when other scientists believed that the speed of light was variable, Einstein took it as a fixed limit of nature and made it the absolute non-negotiable around which all other variables and parameters enfolded. Only in doing so — against every common-sense intuition — was he able to arrive at the relative nature of space and time, from which followed other previously unfathomed revelations: that gravity is a force caused by spacetime, that the universe is expanding, that black holes exist, that time ends in a singularity. Relativity was thus built upon this one absolute — a supreme testament to the generative power of limits, of deliberate constraints as a catalyst for creative breakthrough, consonant with Kierkegaard’s insistence that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”
That is what the Canadian astronomer, poet, and tragic genius Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) celebrates in a spare, stunning poem titled “Explaining Relativity,” found in her sole poetry collection, A Responsibility to Awe (public library). Elson — who made major contributions to the understanding of galaxy formation, dark matter, and how stars are born, live, and die — died at only thirty-nine, leaving behind fifty-six scientific papers and this one slender, splendid book of poetry.
At the third annual Universe in Verse, theoretical cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander — who belongs to Elson’s rare species of genius with immense scientific talent paralleled by a commensurate talent in an art — brought the poem to life, with a lovely prefatory reflection on his own improbable path, from the black magic tradition of his Aruban high priestess grandmother to his dual calling as a scientist and an artist.
by Rebecca Elson
Forget the clatter of ballistics,
The monologue of falling stones,
The sharp vectors
And the stiff numbered grids.
It’s so much more a thing of pliancy, persuasion,
Where space might cup itself around a planet
Like your palm around a stone,
Where you, yourself the planet,
Caught up in some geodesic dream,
Might wake to feel it enfold your weight
And know there is, in fact, no falling.
It is this, and the existence of limits.
Complement with Regina Spektor reading Elson’s “Theories of Everything,” then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse: U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring homage to Stephen Hawking, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie.
Source: Brain Pickings | 11 Jul 2019 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter. Walt Whitman found in trees a model of existential authenticity. Hermann Hesse saw them as the wisest of teachers. Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her noble work of planting trees as resistance and empowerment.
But trees are much more than what they are to us, or for us, or in relation to us. They are relational miracles all their own, entangled in complex, symbiotic webs of interbeing, constantly communicating with one another through chemical signals dispatched along the fungal networks that live in their roots — an invisible, astonishing underworld only recently discovered, thanks to the work of Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard.
In this lovely short animation from TED-Ed and animator Avi Ofer, Camille Defrenne — one of Simard’s doctoral students at the University of British Columbia, studying how the interaction and architecture of root systems relate to forest dynamics and climate change — synthesizes the fascinating, almost otherworldly findings of Simard’s lab:
Simard, whose research was foundational to German forester Peter Wohlleben’s wildly popular book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, discusses her work and the improbable path that led her to it in her wonderful full-length TED talk:
Yes, trees are the foundation of forests, but a forest is much more than what you see… Underground there is this other world — a world of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate and allow the forest to behave as though it’s a single organism. It might remind you of a sort of intelligence.
Complement with a wondrous picture-book about the forest, Annie Dillard on how mangrove trees illuminate the human search for meaning, and biologist David Haskell on what a dozen of the world’s most unusual trees taught him about the art of relationship, then revisit three other lovely animations by Avi Ofer: Neil Gaiman’s existentialist dream (also involving trees) narrated by Amanda Palmer; Jane Goodall on her remarkable life-story; and philosopher Skye Clearly on why we love.
Source: Brain Pickings | 10 Jul 2019 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
“The everywhere of thought is indeed a region of nowhere,” Hannah Arendt wrote as she considered time, space, and the thinking ego when she became the first woman to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology. A century and a half earlier, another woman of uncommon genius and drive revolutionized the way we fathom and locate ourselves in the world by bridging space and time in wholly original cartographies of thought: Emma Hart Willard (February 23, 1787–April 15, 1870), America’s first professional female mapmaker.
The sixteenth of seventeen children, Willard grew up in an era when girls were barred from formal education beyond primary school. In her long life, far exceeding her generation’s life expectancy, she went on to become a pioneering educator, founding the first women’s higher education institution in the United States when she was still in her thirties. Willard understood that improving the future requires a robust understanding of the past, so that one may become an informed, engaged, and effective agent of change in the present. In her early forties, she set about composing and publishing a series of history textbooks that raised the standards and sensibilities of scholarship. In 1828, having just turned forty, she authored what would become the country’s most widely read history textbook: History of the United States, or, Republic of America.
What made Willard’s textbooks so successful was her understanding that we are not mere intellects who cooly compress and compute facts and figures, but embodied creatures who yearn to locate themselves in space and time in order to make sense of the flow of existence. She taught herself mapmaking in order “to give the events of history with clearness and accuracy; with such illustrations of time and place addressed to the eye, as shall secure their retention in the memory; and, at the same time, with such an order of arrangement, as will enable the mind to recall, at need, what it thus retains.” Willard considered this approach a supreme means of “laying out the ground-plan of the intellect, so far as the whole range of history is concerned,” which would in turn empower people to become better citizens, “enlightened and judicious supporters” of democracy. In a passage of extraordinary pertinence today, she writes in the preface to her famed textbook:
There are those, who rashly speak, as if in despair of the fortunes of our republic ; because, say they, political virtue has declined. If so, then is there the more need to infuse patriotism into the breasts of the coming generation. And what is so likely to effect this national self-preservation, as to give our children, for their daily reading and study, such a record of the sublime virtues of the worthies of our earliest day, and of Washington and his compatriots, as shall leave its due impress? And what but the study of their dangers and toils, their devotion of life and fortune, can make our posterity know, what our country, and our liberties have cost?
In a diagram originally created in 1845 and later printed as the frontispiece in an abridged edition of the textbook, she draws on the long tradition of tree diagrams to depict America’s history as an organic development rooted in the Earth itself:
Many of Willard’s maps and diagrams were astonishingly ahead of their time. We have, of course, long used the language of space to refer to time (e.g., my ahead to denote the future, my long to denote duration). But a century before Einstein radicalized science by exposing the single entity of spacetime as the elemental fabric of the universe, depicting space and time in a unified image was the work of an inspired and daring imagination. Willard lived not in Einstein’s era but in Kant’s — shortly before her birth, Kant had shaken the world with his Critique of Pure Reason, in which he defined space and time as the purest intuitions of the transcendental self. Willard took these elemental intuitions and enlisted them in making history — the hindsight of civilizational time — comprehensible, a clear somewhere of thought rather than an opaque nowhere.
Half a century before W.E.B. Du Bois (with whom she shared a birthday) created his modernist data visualizations for the 1900 World’s Fair, Willard’s 1846 chart Temple of Time won a medal at the 1851 World’s Fair in London and earned the praise of Prince Albert himself. In the poetic rubric accompanying the diagram, she summarizes her design philosophy a century and a half before the golden age of data visualization:
The attempt to understand chronology by merely committing dates to memory, is not only painful, but it is as useless as to learn latitudes and longitudes, without the study of maps. As in geography, the relation of any place to all other places is what is important to know; so in chronology, the relation which any given event bears to others constitutes the only useful knowledge… By putting the course of time into perspective, the disconnected parts of a vast subject are united into one, and comprehended at a glance; — the poetic idea of “the vista of departed years” is made an object of sight; and when the eye is the medium, the picture will, by frequent inspection, be formed within, and forever remain, wrought into the living texture of the mind.
Willard’s Temple of Time was an expansion upon a diagram she had drawn a decade earlier — a century before John Sparks’s famous Histomap — in which she depicted the ebb and flow of empires along the stream of time:
In the atlas accompanying her history of the United States, she used color to denote the settlement patterns of the pilgrims and the migrations of Native American tribes — an innovative effort to visualize movement in a spatial map.
While Harriet Hosmer was blazing the way for women in art and Maria Mitchell was doing the same in science, Willard was swinging the doors to historical scholarship and information visualization open to women. Undergirding her textbooks and her cartography was the broader conviction that, as Mary Wollstonecraft insisted a generation before her, “the mind has no sex” — young women have a life of the mind as worthy of being nurtured as that of young men. At twenty-seven, Willard opened her first boarding school for girls, in Vermont, but soon grew dissatisfied with the low intellectual aims of those types of institutions. She envisioned something greater, more ambitious, more on par with the education boys were receiving to prepare them for college — an avenue wholly closed to women at the time. (The founding of America’s first college for women was still four decades away.)
For the next four years, Willard surveyed the landscape of education and mapped out what worthy schooling for a young woman would look like. In 1818, she published a pamphlet titled A Plan for Improving Female Education, in which she set out “to convince the public, that a reform, with respect to female education, is necessary; that it cannot be effected by individual exertion, but that it requires the aid of the legislature; and further, by shewing the justice, the policy, and the magnanimity of such an undertaking, to persuade that body to endow a seminary for females, as the commencement of such reformation.” Decades before the pathbreaking feminist and cultural critic Margaret Fuller insisted that “while any one is base, none can be entirely free and noble,” Willard argued that raising the character of half of society raises the whole of society. She entreated politicians and legislators to put their pen and funding behind this obvious yet radical equation. Writing 100 years before American women earned the right to vote and thus to steer the course of their country, she appealed to the patriotic spirit by framing the advancement and empowerment of women as a pathway to progress and a means to attaining “unparalleled glory” for the nation:
Ages have rolled away; — barbarians have trodden the weaker sex beneath their feet; — tyrants have robbed us of the present light of heaven, and fain would take its future. Nations, calling themselves polite, have made us the fancied idols of a ridiculous worship, and we have repaid them with ruin for their folly. But where is that wise and heroic country, which has considered, that our rights are sacred, though we cannot defend them? that… we are an essential part of the body politic, whose corruption or improvement must affect the whole?
When the Governor of Vermont refused to fund such an institution, Willard took her plan to New York. In the spring of 1819, she opened the Academy for Female Education, soon the Troy Female Seminary — an experimental school in upstate New York, which New York’s Governor Clinton proudly lauded as “the only attempt ever made in this country to promote the education of the female sex by the patronage of government.” Willard immersed her pupils not only in geography and history, but in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, higher mathematics, and rigorous physical education. (A lifelong advocate of physical fitness herself — a rarity among women in the era — she saw the vitality of the mind as inseparable from the vitality of the body and exercised vigorously each morning, well into old age.)
This bold experiment spread across the nation and became the model for a new breed of “female academies” (including Mount Holyoke, where the adolescent Emily Dickinson received her education and composed her stunning herbarium at the intersection of poetry and science). Eager to take her educational ideals beyond the classroom walls, Willard commenced her career as a textbook author and mapmaker. In her eighty-three years, she embodied her contemporary and kindred spirit Elizabeth Peabody’s insight into midlife and the art of self-renewal. In her forties, Willard taught herself mapmaking and wrote poetry and ran her school and labored tirelessly on the broader project of education reform in America. In her fifties, she continued publishing authoritative textbooks on history and geography, mentoring young reformers, and traveling the world to survey other educational enterprises. In her sixties, she wrote about astronomy and authored a groundbreaking book on cardiovascular health.
To the charge of choosing “a subject unsuited to her sex,” she answered with the quintessential motive force of every true revolutionary and artist:
This is not so much a subject which I choose, as one which chooses me. It comes unbidden to my mind, and like an intrusive guest, there it will abide, and irresistibly claim my attention.
Source: Brain Pickings | 9 Jul 2019 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” the great nature writer Henry Beston wrote in 1928 as he contemplated belonging and the web of life. “In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.” The geologist Hans Cloos, a contemporary of Beston’s, complemented the sentiment beautifully in reflecting on our conversations with the planet: “We translate the earth’s language into our own, and enrich the already bright and colorful surface of the present with the knowledge of the inexhaustible abundance of the past.”
As we learn to translate the language of nature, there is more than mere astonishment at what we uncover; at the knowledge — nascent to science, ancient to native cultures the world over — of what trees feel and how they communicate, or of how other animal consciousnesses experience the world. There is magic — the realest, rawest form of magic we can access in an unsuperstitious world grounded in science but willing to soar beyond it, into other, non-materialist modes of perception.
That is what ecologist and philosopher David Abram explores with equal parts scientific curiosity and reverence for native wisdom in The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (public library).
Magic… in its perhaps most primordial sense, is the experience of existing in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every form one perceives — from the swallow swooping overhead to the fly on a blade of grass, and indeed the blade of grass itself — is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.
Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth — our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.
And yet a defining feature of what makes us human — our imagination — is predicated on a recognition of this sensorial interrelation. Two centuries after William Blake wrote in his searing defense of the imagination that “the tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way, [for] as a man is, so he sees,” Abram writes:
That which we call imagination is from the first an attribute of the senses themselves; imagination is not a separate mental faculty (as we so often assume) but is rather the way the senses themselves have of throwing themselves beyond what is immediately given, in order to make tentative contact with the other sides of things that we do not sense directly, with the hidden or invisible aspects of the sensible.
Echoing naturalist John Muir’s poetic observation that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” and philosopher Alan Watts’s admonition that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Abram considers the relationship between perception, sensation, and reality beyond our isolated experience:
The “real world” in which we find ourselves, then — the very world our sciences strive to fathom — is not a sheer “object,” not a fixed and finished “datum” from which all subjects and subjective qualities could be pared away, but is rather an intertwined matrix of sensations and perceptions, a collective field of experience lived through from many different angles. The mutual inscription of others in my experience, and (as I must assume) of myself in their experiences, effects the interweaving of our individual phenomenal fields into a single, ever-shifting fabric, a single phenomenal world or “reality.”
And yet, as we know from our everyday experience, the phenomenal world is remarkably stable and solid; we are able to count on it in so many ways, and we take for granted much of its structure and character. This experienced solidity is precisely sustained by the continual encounter with others, with other embodied subjects, other centers of experience. The encounter with other perceivers continually assures me that there is more to any thing, or to the world, than I myself can perceive at any moment. Besides that which I directly see of a particular oak tree or building, I know or intuit that there are also those facets of the oak or building that are visible to the other perceivers that I see. I sense that that tree is much more than what I directly see of it, since it is also what the others whom I see perceive of it; I sense that as a perceivable presence it already existed before I came to look at it, and indeed that it will not dissipate when I turn away from it, since it remains an experience for others — not just for other persons, but… for other sentient organisms, for the birds that nest in its branches and for the insects that move along its bark, and even, finally, for the sensitive cells and tissues of the oak itself, quietly drinking sunlight through its leaves. It is this informing of my perceptions by the evident perceptions and sensations of other bodily entities that establishes, for me, the relative solidity and stability of the world.
This recognition of the reality of other experiences calls to mind the distinction philosopher Martin Buber drew nearly a century earlier between the I-It and I-Thou orientations toward what is other than oneself. And this recognition, Abram argues, is the key to redeeming our connection to the rest of nature and the more-than-human world, so artificially severed in modern Western culture. “We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too,” Denise Levertov captured this modern hijacking of our essence in her exquisite poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World.” Abram considers what it takes for us to heal the artificial severance into parallels and re-intersect our own experience with the manifold realities of that “other” world:
Direct, prereflective perception is inherently synaesthetic, participatory, and animistic, disclosing the things and elements that surround us not as inert objects but as expressive subjects, entities, powers, potencies. And yet most of us seem, today, very far from such experience. Trees rarely, if ever, speak to us; animals no longer approach us as emissaries from alien zones of intelligence; the sun and the moon no longer draw prayers from us but seem to arc blindly across the sky.
We may acknowledge, intellectually, our body’s reliance upon those plants and animals that we consume as nourishment, yet the civilized mind still feels itself somehow separate, autonomous, independent of the body and of bodily nature in general. Only as we begin to notice and to experience, once again, our immersion in the invisible air do we start to recall what it is to be fully a part of this world… This breathing landscape is no longer just a passive backdrop against which human history unfolds, but a potentized field of intelligence in which our actions participate.
In the remainder of the altogether enchanting The Spell of the Sensuous, Abrams visits with various native cultures to learn from their wisdom and mirror it back through the lens of a more-than-scientific understanding of the world. Complement it with a lovely illustrated dictionary of poetic spells reclaiming the language of nature, then revisit the great marine biologist and poetic science writer Rachel Carson, who awakened the modern ecological conscience, on science and our spiritual bond with nature.
Source: Brain Pickings | 8 Jul 2019 | 11:00 am(NZT)
“A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living,” Virginia Woolf wrote in one of her characteristic asides of immense insight as she considered the dying art of letter writing. This may be the most elemental paradox of existence: We yearn for permanence and stability despite a universe of constant change as a way of hedging against the inescapable fact of our mortality, our own individual impermanence. And yet this faulty coping mechanism results not in immortality but in complacency, stagnation, a living death. Emerson captured this paradox with sundering precision as he weighed the key to personal growth: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”
That is what Emerson’s contemporary and collaborator, the great education reformer Elizabeth Peabody (May 16, 1804–January 3, 1894), explores in an 1838 letter to her friend Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sister, included in Figuring. (Peabody’s own sister, Sophia, would eventually marry Hawthorne, living through his conflicted romantic attachment to Herman Melville.)
As a child, Peabody had taught herself Latin and Greek in order to access the world’s wisdom and cut off her curls in revolt against her culture’s preoccupation with young women’s appearance rather than their minds. She learned astronomy and geography in an era when higher education was not available to women and become the first woman allowed into Boston’s only lending library. (The exception only lasted a month, during which she borrowed twenty-one books.) In her ninety years, Peabody founded the first English-language kindergarten in America, translated the first American edition of Buddhist scripture, launched the country’s first foreign-language bookstore and circulating library, coined the term Transcendentalism to define the philosophical current sweeping New England, and introduced the king and queen of Transcendentalism. The epitome of intellectual restlessness and creative self-reinvention, she never married — she lived a life her younger sister described as one of “high thinking and plain living.”
Quoting advice a friend had once given her, Peabody writes:
The perilous time for the most highly gifted is not youth. The holy sensibilities of genius — for all the sensibilities of genius are holy — keep their possessor essentially unhurt as long as animal spirits and the idea of being young last; but the perilous season is middle age, when a false wisdom tempts them to doubt the divine origin of the dreams of their youth; when the world comes to them, not with the song of the siren, against which all books warn us, but as a wise old man counselling acquiescence in what is below them.
Peabody ends with the admonition that the path to complacency is paved with complacent companions:
No being of a social nature can be entirely beyond the tendency to fall to the level of his associates.
The antidote to stagnation, therefore, lies in surrounding oneself with people of creative vitality. The pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell — a contemporary of Peabody’s and a key figure in Figuring — would articulate this beautifully two decades later in contemplating how we co-create one another and recreate ourselves through friendship: “Whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware.”
Complement with the pioneering social scientist John Gardner on the art of self-renewal and legendary cellist Pablo Casals, at age 93, on creative vitality and how working with love prolongs your life.
Source: Brain Pickings | 5 Jul 2019 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
“You must cherish one another. You must work — we all must work — to make this world worthy of its children,” Pablo Casals, the greatest cellist of the first half of the twentieth century, counseled humanity in the final years of a long life filled with music as a conduit of beauty and cross-cultural understanding.
Casals’s words fall heavy on the heart in an era when the world’s children are not cherished but detained at national borders, treated not as radiant beacons of our shared future but as criminals. To any conscionable human, witnessing such inhumanity is at once utterly infuriating and utterly helpless-making — a devastating syncopation of feelings.
Moved by this injustice, my dear friend Morley — immensely gifted musician, peace and reconciliation activist, golden-hearted human being — set out to buoy the heavy, helpless heart with the universal language of sympathy and consolation: music. She summoned a family of friends to produce Borderless Lullabies — a compilation of twenty songs and spoken-word pieces, with 100% of proceeds benefiting KIND: Kids In Need of Defense, a wonderful nonprofit that partners with pro-bono attorney at law firms and law schools to represent unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children in their deportation proceedings, ensuring that no child stands in court alone. Most of the kids KIND serves have fled severe violence in their home countries, and many have been abandoned, abused, or trafficked, only to find new traumas in wait when they arrive in the alleged land of freedom and possibility in search of safety.
When Morley asked me to read from the prelude of Figuring as one of the two spoken-word pieces on the record, I in turn asked Yo-Yo Ma — the greatest cellist since Casals, and one of the most generous, largehearted humans and humanitarians I have the honor of knowing, who has spent more than two decades building cross-cultural bridges of collaboration and understanding with his Silkroad project — to accompany the reading with something beautiful and thematically apt. He found the perfect sonic and symbolic counterpart — the vintage folk lullaby “Nana” by Manuel de Falla, one of the greatest composers of Casals’s era and culture — and beckoned it back to life on his enchanted cello, with Kathryn Scott on piano. Please enjoy the free stream below and join us in making a dent in the monolith of injustice by purchasing Borderless Lullabies.
All of it — the rings of Saturn and my father’s wedding band, the underbelly of the clouds pinked by the rising sun, Einstein’s brain bathing in a jar of formaldehyde, every grain of sand that made the glass that made the jar and each idea Einstein ever had, the shepherdess singing in the Rila mountains of my native Bulgaria and each one of her sheep, every hair on Chance’s velveteen dog ears and Marianne Moore’s red braid and the whiskers of Montaigne’s cat, every translucent fingernail on my friend Amanda’s newborn son, every stone with which Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets before wading into the River Ouse to drown, every copper atom composing the disc that carried arias aboard the first human-made object to enter interstellar space and every oak splinter of the floor-boards onto which Beethoven collapsed in the fit of fury that cost him his hearing, the wetness of every tear that has ever been wept over a grave and the yellow of the beak of every raven that has ever watched the weepers, every cell in Galileo’s fleshy finger and every molecule of gas and dust that made the moons of Jupiter to which it pointed, the Dipper of freckles constellating the olive firmament of a certain forearm I love and every axonal flutter of the tenderness with which I love her, all the facts and figments by which we are perpetually figuring and reconfiguring reality — it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego.
How can we know this and still succumb to the illusion of separateness, of otherness? This veneer must have been what the confluence of accidents and atoms known as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saw through when he spoke of our “inescapable network of mutuality,” what Walt Whitman punctured when he wrote that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins.
There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.
Also featured on the record is a stunning rendition of Stephen Foster’s 1862 parlor song “Beautiful Dreamer” by another titanic contemporary musician: the Grammy-winning jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, who has a penchant for breathing new life into centuries-old classics and who cites Yo-Yo Ma as one of her key influences — a lovely reminder that, as Pete Seeger observed, “all of us, we’re links in a chain, and if we do our job right, there will be many, many links to come.” Here is to unlinking the artificial chains of bordered bigotry so that we may honor the most natural linkage of human to human, generation to generation, dreamer to dreamer.
Other original music and readings on the record include Lizz Wright, Somi, Jacqueline Woodson with Chris Bruce, Cellogram with Arian Saleh, Elio Villafranca, Travis Knapp, Alejandro Urias, Jamia Wilson with Travis Sullivan, Chris Connelly, and Morley herself. Also included are recordings of previously released music by Draco Rosa, Martha Redbone, Rosanne Cash, Tendor Dorjee, Leni Stern, Karavika, Taína Asili, and Meryl Streep (who sings the Victorian lullaby her mother used to sing to her), generously donated to the project by the artists. Special thanks to my pal Shantell Martin for making the lovely cover art.
Borderless Lullabies is available on a pay-what-you-can model — from the at-cost minimum of $18 to anything more you feel this labor of love is worth, to you and the world.
Source: Brain Pickings | 4 Jul 2019 | 5:00 pm(NZT)
“Have compassion for everyone you meet,” Lucinda Williams sings in the gorgeous song based on her father’s poem of the same title, “You do not know / What wars are going on / Down there, where the spirit meets the bone.” A generation earlier, the psychologist turned pioneering sculptor Anne Truitt wrote in her uncommonly insightful diary: “I have always been mystified by the speed with which people condemn one another… This seems to give them intense pleasure. Whenever I am tempted by this pleasure, I remember some impulse in myself that could have led me, granted certain circumstances, into the condemned position. This has caused me to distrust the part of myself that would relish self-righteousness.”
The saccharine pleasure of self-righteousness is, upon even the most cursory reflection, incompatible with compassion — with the ability to consider another’s foibles and mistakes with the same generosity of interpretation, in the same breadth of context and character, one would consider one’s own.
In a letter to his dearest friend, penned in early 1818, just before a series of life-blows plunged the young poet into his most harrowing depression yet, Keats writes:
Men should bear with each other — there lives not the Man who may not be cut up, aye hashed to pieces on his weakest side. The best of Men have but a portion of good in them — a kind of spiritual yeast in their frames which creates the ferment of existence — by which a Man is propell’d to act and strive and buffet with Circumstance.
Only with such a compassionate orientation, Keats suggests, can we begin to care about and durably connect with another. In consonance with Hannah Arendt’s admonition against trying to change those we love, he argues that the healthiest, strongest connection is forged when we willingly face and accept the foibles and peculiarities of the other from the outset:
The sure way… is first to know a Man’s faults, and then be passive, if after that he insensibly draws you towards him then you have no Power to break the link.
Complement this fragment of Keats’s endlessly rewarding Selected Letters — which also gave us his precocious wisdom on the mightiest consolation for a heavy heart, what gives meaning to human existence, how solitude opens up our channels to truth and beauty, and his exquisite love letter to Fanny Brawne — with Carl Sagan on compassion and moving beyond us vs. them and historian Karen Armstrong on compassion and the true meaning of the Golden Rule, then revisit Oliver Sacks on the art of choosing empathy over vengeance.
Source: Brain Pickings | 2 Jul 2019 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
“The quality of a civilisation,” Iris Murdoch insisted in her sublimely insightful “Salvation by Words,” “depends upon the scope and purity of its language.” Two decades later, in becoming the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, Toni Morrison bellowed elemental truth from the Stockholm podium in her remarkable acceptance speech: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
More than a century before Murdoch and Morrison, long before the field now known as psycholinguistics existed, another great mind examined the role of language in what makes us human at the most fundamental level of our evolutionary biology — a concept itself then brand new and ferociously disputed.
Practically self-taught, the 19th-century English biologist and comparative anatomist Thomas Huxley (May 4, 1825–June 29, 1895) helped pioneer scientific education in Great Britain, crusaded against religious extremism, coined the term agnosticism, and became the fiercest public champion of Darwin’s then-controversial theory of evolution, beginning with a praiseful anonymous review when On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 and culminating with a series of six laudatory public lectures he delivered the following year as part of the wonderfully titled “Lectures to Working Men” at the Museum of Practical Geology, now part of London’s iconic Natural History Museum. They were eventually included in Huxley’s essay collection Man’s Place in Nature (free ebook | public library).
In the final lecture, extolling Darwin’s epoch-making contribution to science and our understanding of nature — a contribution the full scope and impact of which Huxley would not live to see — he draws out the elemental question of what makes us human:
What is it that constitutes and makes man what he is? What is it but his power of language — that language giving him the means of recording his experience — making every generation somewhat wiser than its predecessor, — more in accordance with the established order of the universe?
What is it but this power of speech, of recording experience, which enables men to be men — looking before and after and, in some dim sense, understanding the working of this wondrous universe — and which distinguishes man from the whole of the brute world? I say that this functional difference is vast, unfathomable, and truly infinite in its consequences; and I say at the same time, that it may depend upon structural differences which shall be absolutely inappreciable to us with our present means of investigation.
A century and a half before Ursula K. Le Guin observed that “words are events, they do things, change things… feed energy back and forth and amplify it,” and long before the birth of neuroscience, Huxley considers the nature of speech itself — a phenomenon entwining our physiology and our psychology more intricately than any other:
I am speaking to you at this moment, but if you were to alter, in the minutest degree, the proportion of the nervous forces now active in the two nerves which supply the muscles of my glottis, I should become suddenly dumb. The voice is produced only so long as the vocal chords are parallel; and these are parallel only so long as certain muscles contract with exact equality; and that again depends on the equality of action of those two nerves I spoke of. So that a change of the minutest kind in the structure of one of these nerves, or in the structure of the part in which it originates, or of the supply of blood to that part, or of one of the muscles to which it is distributed, might render all of us dumb. But a race of dumb men, deprived of all communication with those who could speak, would be little indeed removed from the brutes. And the moral and intellectual difference between them and ourselves would be practically infinite, though the naturalist should not be able to find a single shadow of even specific structural difference.
In other words — for words, after all, are all we have in making sense and navigating meaning — Virginia Woolf was right in writing that “communication is health; communication is truth; communication is happiness.” Communication is, above all, humanity. But it was Darwin who moored this ancient intuition of artists and poets alike to the facts of science, effecting a larger truth about who and what we are.
Couple with Nietzsche on how we use language to both reveal and conceal reality, then revisit Darwin’s touching letter of gratitude to his best friend, who had supported him and defended him against the towering tides of convention with which his theory of evolution was met.
Source: Brain Pickings | 1 Jul 2019 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
In 1964, the United States passed the epoch-making Wilderness Act — one of the most poetic pieces of legislature ever composed. “A wilderness,” it proclaimed, “in contrast with those areas where man* and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
In the same era, the prolific children’s book author and artist Helen Borten traveled to the jungles of Guatemala — home to some of the most untrammeled wilderness on Earth, which very few humans and virtually no foreigners or women entered even as visitors at the time. Moved by the lush community of life in this otherworldly wonderland, Borten set out to invite children’s imaginations for an enchanting visit. In 1968, she published The Jungle (public library), rediscovered and brought back to life half a century later by Brooklyn-based independent children’s book powerhouse Enchanted Lion.
The story unfolds as a day in the life of the jungle, lyrically narrated and vividly depicted in Borten’s distinctly mid-century yet singular illustration style, combining woodcut, painting, and printing techniques. As the hours unspool from morning to nightfall, wild and wondrous creatures awaken and assume their respective parts in this intricately choreographed dance of coexistence — a living testament to the words of Rachel Carson, who had made ecology a household word just a few years earlier and who so poetically observed that each creaturely existence plays out “not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.”
In the opening vignette, Borten transports the imagination to the almost surreal world of the jungle at daybreak:
In a hot land near the equator, where winter never comes, a new day is beginning. The climbing sun looks close enough to touch as it turns the sky pink. Out of the mist a vast ocean of leaves appears, splashes with yellow, orange, and violet blossoms. It is the roof of the jungle. Butterflies dip in and out of the blossoms. Macaws and parakeets feed and squawk in the treetops. They drop more berries than they eat. A vulture circles around and around overhead.
Under the leafy roof, it is dim and still. Time seems to have stopped in a wild summer world of long, long ago.
The trees are heavy with ferns and orchids and drooping beards of moss. These are “air” plants trying to reach sunlight by making their homes high above the ground. Their roots take hold on bark instead of in the earth. Dust collects around the roots, forming soil in which to grow. There are air plants cupped like pitchers to store rainwater and others with long roods dangling to the ground.
From the ground, you cannot see the sky or feel the sun or hear the wind. It is cool and silent in the twilight gloom. Pale trunks disappear into the shadows above, like ghosts trailing robes of green. There are no low branches anywhere. Some trunks are covered with spikes. Some are smooth and look to be carved out of bone. And some have so many air plants molded around their bark that they will be strangled to death. There are more different kinds of trees in the jungle than anywhere else on earth.
This ode to place is also an elegy for time. Emanating from the bold and loving celebration of our planet’s living splendor is also the bittersweet awareness that some of the animals Borten depicts are now endangered or entirely extinct.
The jungle seems deserted.
But thousands of tricksters hide behind the screen of leaves.
A piece of bark falls…
and becomes a lizard.
A leaf trembles…
and become a sloth.
A vine uncoils…
and becomes a snake.
A spot of sunlight blinks…
and becomes a jaguar’s eye.
Borten’s lyrical prose deepens the naturally enchanting science of the jungle. As the story unfolds across the hours of the day, we learn about the noisiest animal in the world, about the invisible universe of strange and magnificent nocturnal creatures, about the species composition of the insect orchestra scoring the jungle at dusk.
High in the trees, the birds are about to begin their morning chorus, On the branches, monkeys sit motionless, their long tails hanging down behind them, like dark quarter notes dotting the gray dawn. Soon the sun will chase the mist and another day will begin in the mysterious green world. below.
Born in Philadelphia in 1930, Borten spent the first half of her career composing and illustrating such lyrical, visually arresting, scientifically inspired books for children. Just before she turned sixty, she pivoted into the seemingly unrelated field of broadcast journalism. But she brought to her journalistic work the same ethos that animates her children’s books — a reverence for truth, whether scientific or humanistic, and a stewardship of that which is most beautiful and vulnerable. In 1991, she won a Peabody Award for a landmark NPR documentary exposing gender discrimination in the courts, the dangerous deficiencies of legal protections for abused children, and the way family courts often break up families in their deformed attempts at justice. In era when the vocabulary of children’s imagination is being forcibly robbed of reverence for the wilderness and antiscientific, anti-nature, anti-truth propagandists are hard at work, Borten’s children’s books emerge not only as beacons of loveliness but also as quiet, steadfast pillars of resistance.
Couple The Jungle with The Forest — a contemporary counterpart by Italian author Riccardo Bozzi and artist Violeta Lopíz, also from Enchanted Lion Books, celebrating the wilderness and the human role in nature not as conqueror but as humble witness, then revisit Uri Shulevitz’s vintage watercolor serenade to daybreak.
Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books. Photographs by Maria Popova.
Source: Brain Pickings | 28 Jun 2019 | 2:36 pm(NZT)
“What is art, / But life upon the larger scale, the higher / … Art’s life, — and where we live, we suffer and toil,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in her epoch-making 1856 epic novel in blank verse, Aurora Leigh — arguably the first far-reaching literary manifesto for women’s right to autonomy in art and life, and for the indivisibility of the two in any artist’s body of work.
More than a century and a half later, Amanda Palmer — an artist of uncommon courage in making the arena of toil and suffering a wellspring of art, a kind of punk philosopher and poet for our own era (and my dear friend) — articulates that indivisibility with her signature fusion of vulnerability and steampunk-spiked grit in the introduction to There Will Be No Intermission — the gorgeous self-published, audience-funded, vinyl-sized artbook companion to her record of the same title, featuring surreal, fairy-tale photographs by Kahn & Selesnick, song lyrics, and Palmer’s autobiographical essays exploring the rawest life-material of art: love, loss, abortion, mothering as a working artist, the moral and spiritual collapse of one’s homeland, what it means to really show up for a friend in need, how to find a sliver of sanity in the insanest, most insaning times.
With a nod to John Lennon’s famous words, Palmer writes in the introduction:
Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. And for an artist, art is what happens when you let your bizarre, unbidden, unpredictable life steer you into creating things that you weren’t expecting to make.
Art is what happens if you’re able to hold fast — with one angry, trembling hand — to your art-mirror, the one that reflects you, your trials, your thoughts, your audience, your insights, your attempts to try to figure out and express What It All Might Fucking Mean. In that art-mirror, all of the blurry, stinkingly-similar self-portraits you have ever drawn of yourself merge into one constantly-shifting image — you — and, as an artist, you gaze into it and alternate between being horrified and fascinated with this image as you stumble down the un-illuminated road of Planlessness.
In a sentiment evocative of that arresting line from Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Life While-You-Wait” — “…ill-prepared for the privilege of living…” — she adds:
In your other hand, you try to hang onto Real Life. You clutch a wailing baby and an overstuffed suitcase and a copy of The New York Times that you haven’t had time to read (because, dammit, you’re a Good Citizen and Must Be Informed) and a pot of burning rice and a cell phone that is buzzing with unbidden text messages: your friend is dying, your Facebook account has been hacked, your pregnancy must be terminated, your chickens have been slaughtered by coyotes in the night, your marriage is collapsing, your connecting flight has been cancelled, your ex just shot himself in the head, the right wing has read your stupid blog-poem about the Boston bomber and is emailing murder threats, the fetus you’re finally happy about hosting may or may not be deformed, and your mother is pissed you haven’t called in so long.
What, then, does the life-assailed artist do to go on making art, to go on living? She does in the private realm the selfsame thing she must do in public in order to call herself an artist, which Toni Morrison articulated exquisitely in her timeless meditation on the artist’s task in trying times: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear.” Inverting the direction of responsibility to the inner world, where all capacity for outward action invariably begins, Palmer writes:
You read the text messages in one hand while trying to hold your well-polished but increasingly heavy and irritating art-mirror in the other, with a growing sense of resentful detachment — as if the text messages are somebody else’s newsfeed, as if the art-mirror is a heavy curse that you never asked to carry in the first place.
And you keep running down the road. If you’re lucky, you don’t drop the mirror. Sometimes you look at the mirror and you’re like: Why the fuck am I carrying you when I have all this other shit to carry? And sometimes you drop the mirror in exhaustion and fall to your knees. And you drop the suitcase, and the child, and the phone, and the pot of burned rice, and you simply have a cry, knowing that you’re just too goddamn tired to do life, much less make any artful sense out of what’s happening.
Then you get up and start running again.
Complement this portion of There Will Be No Intermission, which contains many more raw-hearted meditations on art and life, with Courtney Martin and Wendy MacNaughton’s magnificent illustrated manifesto for creative resilience in hard times and E.E. Cummings on the courage to be yourself, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s haunting reading of Cummings’s “Humanity i love you” and “The Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich — another artist of unassailable truth-telling bravery, another poet laureate of the tenacity of the human spirit.
Source: Brain Pickings | 26 Jun 2019 | 1:00 pm(NZT)
“I: how firm a letter; how reassuring the three strokes: one vertical, proud and assertive, and then the two short horizontal lines in quick, smug succession,” the adolescent Sylvia Plath wrote in her diary as she contemplated free will and what makes us who we are. “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” proclaimed Leo Tolstoy in the diaries of his own youth a century earlier. These are abiding questions we all ask ourselves and answer with our selves, but also impossible ones. To hold up a mirror to oneself is to become both the looking-glass and the eye doing the looking — a sort of infinite Borgesian mirror of self-reflection reflecting itself. (Borges himself, in his own youth, danced with the paradox of self-awareness.)
No one has paced this labyrinthine paradox more elegantly, nor reached its center with richer insight, than the Austrian novelist, playwright, and poet Thomas Bernhard (February 9, 1931–February 12, 1989) in his novella Walking (public library) — his unusual 1971 masterpiece exploring the nature of thinking and the impossibility of accurate self-reflection.
Half a century after The Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame asserted that to walk is “to set the mind jogging” and a generation before Rebecca Solnit defined walking as “a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned,” Bernhard writes:
If we observe very carefully someone who is walking, we also know how he thinks. If we observe very carefully someone who is thinking, we know how he walks. If we observe most minutely someone walking over a fairly long period of time, we gradually come to know his way of thinking, the structure of his thought, just as we, if we observe someone over a fairly long period of time as to the way he thinks, we will gradually come to know how he walks… There is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking… Walking and thinking are in a perpetual relationship that is based on trust.
In a brilliant conceptual twist, which turns the mirror of self-reflection into a Möbius strip, Bernhard adds:
However, we may not ask ourselves how we walk, for then we walk differently from the way we really walk and our walking simply cannot be judged, just as we may not ask ourselves how we think, for then we cannot judge how we think because it is no longer our thinking. Whereas, of course, we can observe someone else without his knowledge (or his being aware of it) and observe how he walks or thinks, that is, his walking and his thinking, we can never observe ourselves without our knowledge (or our being aware of it). If we observe ourselves, we are never observing ourselves but someone else. Thus we can never talk about self-observation, or when we talk about the fact that we observe ourselves we are talking as someone we never are when we are not observing ourselves, and thus when we observe ourselves we are never observing the person we intended to observe but someone else. The concept of self-observation and so, also, of self-description is thus false.
Bernhard extends this logic to the vastest questions about how the native limitations of our consciousness shape our perception and interpretation of reality:
Looked at in this light, all concepts (ideas)… like self-observation, self-pity, self-accusation and so on, are false. We ourselves do not see ourselves, it is never possible for us to see ourselves. But we also cannot explain to someone else (a different object) what he is like, because we can only tell him how we see him, which probably coincides with what he is but which we cannot explain in such a way as to say this is how he is. Thus everything is something quite different from what it is for us… And always something quite different from what it is for everything else.
Walking, translated into English by Kenneth J. Northcott, is a stunning read in its unparagraphed totality, fusing philosophy’s depth of thought with poetry’s contemplative spaciousness. Complement this fragment with Hannah Arendt on time, space, and the thinking ego, Lauren Elkin’s manifesto for peripatetic empowerment, and Solnit’s indispensable Wanderlust, then revisit former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith on the persistence of the self and the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas on how a jellyfish and a sea slug illuminate the mystery of the self — the most original, science-governed, yet deeply poetic perspective on the subject I’ve ever encountered.
Source: Brain Pickings | 25 Jun 2019 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
On February 8, 1949, a week after his forty-eighth birthday, the poet, novelist, activist, and playwright Langston Hughes (February 1, 1901–May 22, 1967) traveled to Asheville to speak at the Allen School — one of a handful of accredited boarding schools for black girls in the South. There, he met sixteen-year-old Eunice Kathleen Waymon, who had helped organize the event as treasurer of the school’s NAACP chapter. Although Eunice was academically formidable — she had skipped the ninth grade and would graduate as valedictorian of her class — her supreme power lay elsewhere: music. Gifted, hard-working, and determined to become a classical pianist, she had been playing at her mother’s church since age four, performed her first concert at twelve, and had landed at the Allen School thanks to a scholarship fund procured by her beloved piano teacher and first great champion, Miss Mazzy — an Englishwoman by the name of Muriel Mazzanovich.
When Hughes met the young Eunice that winter, he could not have known that she would soon revolutionize the music canon under her stage name, Nina Simone. Less than a decade after his Allen School visit, her debut album Little Girl Blue stopped the nation’s breath. Hughes, by then one of the most influential voices in black creative culture, was so stunned that he lauded it with lyrical ardor in “Week by Week” — the newspaper column he had been writing for the Chicago Defender since before he met the young Eunice and would continue writing until his death. Included in Nadine Cohodas’s biography Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone (public library), the piece is no common journalistic report on a young artist’s debut but rather a prose poem, a kind of paean for the arrival of a new creative prophet.
Originally published on November 12, 1958, it was quickly syndicated by newspapers around the country and was eventually reprinted as a sort of extended blurb on the back of Simone’s 1965 EP Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, just like Walt Whitman had emblazoned a sentence of Emerson’s electric letter of praise to him on a subsequent edition of Leaves of Grass. Hughes writes:
She is strange. So are the plays of Brendan Behan, Jean Genet, LeRoi Jones, and Bertholt Brecht.
She is far-out, and at the same time common. So are raw eggs in Worcestershire and The Connection.
She is different. So was Billie Holiday, St. Francis, and John Donne. So in Mort Sahl. She is a club member, a coloured girl, an Afro-American, a homey from Down Home. She has hit the Big Town, the big towns, the LP discs and the TV shows — and she is still from down home. She did it mostly all by herself. Her name is Nina Simone.
She has a flair, but no air, she has class but does not wear it on her shoulders. Only chips. She is unique. You either like her or you don’t. If you don’t, you won’t. If you do — whee-ouuu-eu! You do!
This short, lovely newspaper serenade marked the beginning of lifelong friendship, mentorship, and artistic collaboration that would last for the remaining years of Hughes’s life. He would send her books he thought would inspire her, invite her to his Manhattan apartment for dinner, and write words for her to set to song. When Hughes died in 1967, a devastated Simone turned her coveted set at the Newport Jazz Festival into a tribute and closed it with an exhortation to the audience: “Keep him with you always. He was beautiful, a beautiful man, and he’s still with us, of course.”
Source: Brain Pickings | 24 Jun 2019 | 3:51 pm(NZT)
“We can count on so few people to go that hard way with us,” the poet Adrienne Rich observed as she contemplated the art of honorable human relationships on the cusp of the Internet revolution that furnished the commodification of the word friend. “Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship,” Seneca counseled two millennia earlier in his meditation on true and false friendship, “but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul.” But how does one refine the ponderation sieve through which one admits into one’s soul the few who count?
Perched in time and sensibility between Seneca and Rich, the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) examined this question in a few short, exquisitely insightful verses from The Prophet (public library) — the 1923 classic that also gave us Gibran on the courage to weather the uncertainties of love and what may be the finest advice ever offered on the balance of intimacy and independence in healthy relationships.
In his narrative poem, when a youth inquires about the essence of friendship, Gibran’s prophet answers:
Your friend is your needs answered.
He is your field which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving.
And he is your board and your fireside. For you come to him with your hunger, and you seek him for peace.
When your friend speaks his mind you fear not the “nay” in your own mind, nor do you withhold the “ay.”
And when he is silent your heart ceases not to listen to his heart;
For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unacclaimed.
More than a decade before the brilliant and underappreciated French philosopher Simone Weil considered the paradox of friendship and separation, Gibran offers assurance that absence is only a clarifying and fortifying force for the bond:
When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.
In a sentiment C.S. Lewis would come to echo in his poetic insistence that friendship “has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival,” Gibran adds:
And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.
For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery is not love but a net cast forth: and only the unprofitable is caught.
Gibran ends the fragment on friendship with a vital reminder that the measure of closeness is not the magnitude of intensity and the heaviness two people entrust in one another but the ability to dance across the entire spectrum of being with equal ease:
In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.
Complement with trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell on how we co-create each other and recreate ourselves in friendship, her contemporary and almost-friend Ralph Waldo Emerson on the two pillars of friendship, and John O’Donohue on the ancient Celtic notion of soul friend, then revisit Gibran on authenticity, why we make art, and his gorgeous love letters to and from Mary Haskell, who was his primary financial and spiritual succor as he found his creative voice and without whom The Prophet would not have come alive.
Source: Brain Pickings | 21 Jun 2019 | 9:51 am(NZT)
Half a century after the 18th-century political philosophers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin pioneered the marriage of equals, and just as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller were contorting themselves around the parameters of true partnership, another historic power couple modeled for the world the pinnacle of an intimate union that is also an intellectual, creative, and moral partnership nourishing not only to the couple themselves but profoundly influential to their culture, their era, and the moral and political development of the world itself.
In 1851, after a twenty-one-year bond traversing friendship, collaboration, romance, and shared idealism, John Stuart Mill (May 20, 1806–May 8, 1873) and Harriet Taylor (October 8, 1807–November 3, 1858) were married. Mill would come to celebrate Taylor, like Emerson did Fuller, as the most intelligent person he ever knew and his greatest influence. In her titanic mind, he found both a mirror and a whetstone for his own. They co-authored the first serious philosophical and political case against domestic violence. Taylor’s ideas came to shape Mill’s advocacy of women’s rights and the ideological tenor of his landmark book-length essay On Liberty, composed with steady input from her, published shortly after her untimely death, and dedicated lovingly to “the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right was my strongest incitement.”
In his autobiography, Mill painted a stunning portrait of Taylor:
In general spiritual characteristics, as well as in temperament and organization, I have often compared her, as she was at this time, to Shelley: but in thought and intellect, Shelley, so far as his powers were developed in his short life, was but a child compared with what she ultimately became. Alike in the highest regions of speculation and in the smaller practical concerns of daily life, her mind was the same perfect instrument, piercing to the very heart and marrow of the matter; always seizing the essential idea or principle. The same exactness and rapidity of operation, pervading as it did her sensitive as her mental faculties, would, with her gifts of feeling and imagination, have fitted her to be a consummate artist, as her fiery and tender soul and her vigorous eloquence would certainly have made her a great orator, and her profound knowledge of human nature and discernment and sagacity in practical life, would, in times when such a career was open to women, have made her eminent among the rulers of mankind. Her intellectual gifts did but minister to a moral character at once the noblest and the best balanced which I have ever met with in life. Her unselfishness was not that of a taught system of duties, but of a heart which thoroughly identified itself with the feelings of others, and often went to excess in consideration for them by imaginatively investing their feelings with the intensity of its own.
In A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism (public library) — an elegant, impassioned, and rigorously reasoned effort to re-humanize the most humanistic moral and political philosophy our civilization has produced — Adam Gopnik argues that Mill and Taylor pioneered something even greater than a true marriage of equals on the intimate plane of personal partnership: a vision for the building blocks of equality on the grandest human scale.
Gopnik — a Canadian by birth, a New Yorker (and longtime New Yorker staff writer) by belonging, and one of the most lyrical, lucid thinkers in language I have ever read — recounts trying, and failing, to comfort his intelligent, politically engaged, disconsolate teenage daughter in the wake of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. For consolation and clarity, as much hers as his own, he turns to Taylor and Mill:
My idea of liberalism, while having much to do with individuals and their liberties, has even more to do with couples and communities. We can’t have an idea of individual liberty without an idea of shared values that include it.
A vision of liberalism that doesn’t concentrate too narrowly on individuals and their contracts but instead on loving relationships and living values can give us a better picture of liberal thought as it’s actually evolved than the orthodox picture can.
Images illuminate ideas, and pictures of people are usually clearer than statements of principle. When I think about the liberal tradition I wanted to show my daughter, my inner vision kept returning to a simple scene, one that had delighted me for a long time. It’s of the nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill and his lover, collaborator, and (as he always insisted) his most important teacher, the writer Harriet Taylor. Desperately in love, they were courting clandestinely, and they would meet secretly at the rhino’s cage at the London Zoo. “Our old friend Rhino,” Taylor called him in a note. It was a place where they could safely meet and talk without fear of being seen by too many people, everyone’s attention being engaged by the enormous exotic animal.
They were pained, uncertain, contemplating adultery, if not yet having committed it — opinions vary; they had been to Paris together — and yet in those conversations began the material of “On Liberty,” one of the greatest books of political theory ever written, and “On the Subjection of Women,” one of the first great feminist manifestos and one of the most explosive books ever written. (One of the most successful, too, inasmuch as almost all of its dreams for female equality have been achieved, at least legally, in our lifetime.)
With an eye to the perilous erasures with which history is often rewritten — history, I continue to insist, is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance — Gopnik points to the curious disconnect between Mill’s own repeated affirmations of Taylor’s supreme influence on his ideas, and subsequent warpings and appropriations of their story:
After [Mill’s] life, generations of commentators — including Friedrich Hayek, who unfortunately edited their letters — aggressively Yoko-ed [Taylor], insisting that poor Mill, wildly intelligent in all but this, was so blinded and besotted by love that he vastly exaggerated the woman’s role, which obviously couldn’t have been as significant as his own. Fortunately, newer generations of scholars, less blinded by prejudice, have begun to “recover” Harriet Taylor for us, and her role in the making of modern liberalism seems just as large and her mind as fine as her husband always asserted that it was.
Gopnik reflects on the intellectual and ideological resonance at the heart of Mill and Taylor’s love, which in turn became the pulse-beat of our modern notions of political progress:
What they were was realists — radicals of the real, determined to live in the world even as they altered it. Not reluctant realists, but romantic realists. They were shocked and delighted at how quickly women and men began to meet and organize on the theme of women’s emancipation, but they accepted that progress would be slow and uncertain and sometimes backward facing. They did more than accept this necessity. They rejoiced in it because they understood that without a process of public argument and debate, of social action moved from below, the ground of women’s emancipation would never be fully owned by women nor accepted, even grudgingly, by men.
They had no illusions about their own perfection — they were imperfect, divided people and went on being so for the rest of their lives, with the rueful knowledge of human contradiction that good people always have.
In that singular Gopnik fashion, he then inverts the telescope, turning from the cultural perspective back to the intimate microscopy of this uncommon bond between two uncommon visionaries. Between their ideals and the their vulnerabilities, he locates one of the largest truths about love:
Theirs is one of the most lyrical love stories ever told, for being so tenderly irresolute. Recognizing that intimate life is an accommodation of contradictions, they understood that political and social life must be an accommodation of contradictions too. The accommodation was their romance. That meant that social accommodation could be romantic, too. Love, like liberty, tugs us in different directions as much as it leads us in one. Love, like liberty, asks us to be only ourselves, and it also asks us to find our self in others’ eyes. Compromise is not a sign of the collapse of one’s moral conscience. It is a sign of its strength, for there is nothing more necessary to a moral conscience than the recognition that other people have one, too. A compromise is a knot tied tight between competing decencies.
The great relationship of [Mill’s] life would be proof of his confidence that true liberty meant love — relationship and connection, not isolation and self-seeking. What we want liberty for is the power to connect with others as we choose. Liberalism is our common practice of connection turned into a principle of pluralism.
When Taylor died of a mysterious malady only seven years into their marriage, and nearly thirty years into their partnership, the devastated Mill erected a monument to her, made of the same Carrara marble as Michelangelo’s David and inscribed with these words:
HER GREAT AND LOVING HEART
HER NOBLE SOUL
HER CLEAR POWERFUL ORIGINAL AND COMPREHENSIVE INTELLECT
MADE HER THE GUIDE AND SUPPORT
THE INSTRUCTOR IN WISDOM
AND THE EXAMPLE IN GOODNESS
AS SHE WAS THE SOLE EARTHLY DELIGHT
OF THOSE WHO HAD THE HAPPINESS TO BELONG TO HER
AS EARNEST FOR THE PUBLIC GOOD
AS SHE WAS GENEROUS AND DEVOTED
TO ALL WHO SURROUNDED HER
HER INFLUENCE HAS BEEN FELT
IN MANY OF THE GREATEST
IMPROVEMENTS OF THE AGE
AND WILL BE IN THOSE STILL TO COME
WERE THERE BUT A FEW HEARTS AND INTELLECTS
THIS EARTH WOULD ALREADY BECOME
THE HOPED-FOR HEAVEN
Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities is a worthy read in its entirety, drawing on the personal to illuminate the political, clearing the clouded lens of the past to magnify the most pressing questions of the present in order to answer them with equal parts reasoned realism and largehearted idealism. Couple this particular fragment with Jill Lepore on how Eleanor Roosevelt revolutionized politics, then revisit Henry David Thoreau, writing in Taylor and Mill’s era, on the long cycles of social change and the importance of not mistaking politics for progress and Thomas Mann, writing in humanity’s darkest hour, on justice, human dignity, and the need to continually renew our ideals.
Source: Brain Pickings | 19 Jun 2019 | 2:00 pm(NZT)