In his beautiful 1948 manifesto for breaking the tyranny of technology and relearning to be nourished by nature, Henry Beston lamented: “What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity.” And yet his admonition fell on ears increasingly unhearing as the decades rolled on with their so-called progress. The poet Jane Hirshfield captured this in her stirring anthem against the silencing of nature: “The silence spoke loudly of silence, / and the rivers kept speaking, / of rivers, of boulders and air.”
How to undeafen ourselves to the song of reality and redeem our humanity from alienation is what the great anthropologist, philosopher of science, poet, and natural history writer Loren Eiseley (September 3, 1907–July 9, 1977) explores with tremendous insight in a portion of his 1960 book The Firmament of Time (public library), which gave us Eiseley’s perceptive and poetic exploration of the relationship between nature and human nature.
Recounting a revelatory experience he had under a New England boat dock, amid the roar of motor boats and the bustle of rampant tourism, Eiseley writes:
As I sat there one sunny morning when the water was peculiarly translucent, I saw a dark shadow moving swiftly over the bottom. It was the first sign of life I had seen in this lake, whose shores seemed to yield little but washed-in beer cans. By and by the gliding shadow ceased to scurry from stone to stone over the bottom. Unexpectedly, it headed almost directly for me. A furry nose with gray whiskers broke the surface. Below the whiskers green water foliage trailed out in an inverted V as long as his body. A muskrat still lived in the lake. He was bringing in his breakfast.
I sat very still in the strips of sunlight under the pier. To my surprise the muskrat came almost to my feet with his little breakfast of greens. He was young, and it rapidly became obvious to me that he was laboring under an illusion of his own, and that he thought animals and men were still living in the Garden of Eden. He gave me a friendly glance from time to time as he nibbled his greens. Once, even, he went out into the lake again and returned to my feet with more greens. He had not, it seemed, heard very much about men. I shuddered. Only the evening before I had heard a man describe with triumphant enthusiasm how he had killed a rat in the garden because the creature had dared to nibble his petunias. He had even showed me the murder weapon, a sharp-edged brick.
With an eye to the assault on nature we call civilization — that perilous human impulse driven by what Bertrand Russell termed “power-knowledge,” as distinct from “love-knowledge” — Eiseley writes:
On this pleasant shore a war existed and would go on until nothing remained but man. Yet this creature with the gray, appealing face wanted very little: a strip of shore to coast up and down, sunlight and moonlight, some weeds from the deep water. He was an edge-of-the-world dweller, caught between a vanishing forest and a deep lake pre-empted by unpredictable machines full of chopping blades. He eyed me nearsightedly, a green leaf poised in his mouth. Plainly he had come with some poorly instructed memory about the lion and the lamb.
“You had better run away now,” I said softly, making no movement in the shafts of light. “You are in the wrong universe and must not make this mistake again. I am really a very terrible and cunning beast. I can throw stones.” With this I dropped a little pebble at his feet.
He looked at me half blindly, with eyes much better adjusted to the wavering shadows of his lake bottom than to sight in the open air. He made almost as if to take the pebble up into his forepaws. Then a thought seemed to cross his mind — a thought perhaps telepathically received, as Freud once hinted, in the dark world below and before man, a whisper of ancient disaster heard in the depths of a burrow. Perhaps after all this was not Eden. His nose twitched carefully; he edged toward the water.
As he vanished in an oncoming wave, there went with him a natural world, distinct from the world of girls and motorboats, distinct from the world of the professor holding to reality by some great snowshoe effort in his study. My muskrat’s shoreline universe was edged with the dark wall of hills on one side and the waspish drone of motors farther out, but it was a world of sunlight he had taken down into the water weeds. It hovered there, waiting for my disappearance. I walked away, obscurely pleased that darkness had not gained on life by any act of mine. In so many worlds, I thought, how natural is “natural” — and is there anything we can call a natural world at all?
Eiseley considers how this miraculous encounter with the “natural” world illuminates the nature of life itself:
Whatever may be the power behind those dancing motes to which the physicist has penetrated, it makes the light of the muskrat’s world as it makes the world of the great poet. It makes, in fact, all of the innumerable and private worlds which exist in the heads of men. There is a sense in which we can say that the planet, with its strange freight of life, is always just passing from the unnatural to the natural, from that Unseen which man has always reverenced to the small reality of the day. If all life were to be swept from the world, leaving only its chemical constituents, no visitor from another star would be able to establish the reality of such a phantom. The dust would lie without visible protest, as it does now in the moon’s airless craters, or in the road before our door.
Yet this is the same dust which, dead, quiescent and unmoving, when taken up in the process known as life, hears music and responds to it, weeps bitterly over time and loss, or is oppressed by the looming future that is, on any materialist terms, the veriest shadow of nothing.
Winking at his work as a field scientists — a self-described “man who has spent a great deal of his life on his knees, though not in prayer” — Eiseley reflects on what such encounters with the miraculous in nature reveal about the real object of science and the ultimate meaning of human life:
Since, as we have seen, the laws of nature have a way of being altered from one generation of scientists to the next, a little taste for the miraculous in this broad sense will do us no harm. We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.
The Firmament of Time remains a transformative read in its entirety. Complement this excerpt with Eiseley on the inner light that makes us human, then revisit the story of Alexander von Humboldt and the invention of nature.
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Source: Brain Pickings | 23 Jun 2017 | 5:02 am(NZT)
“We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire,” trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell observed in contemplating science, religion, and our conquest of truth at the end of the nineteenth century. “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed,” Carl Sagan wrote a century later in his exquisite meditation on science and spirituality. And yet the longing for stable answers and thorough understanding — or, as Hannah Arendt memorably framed it, the propensity for asking unanswerable questions — might be one of the hallmarks of our species. After all, for as long as modern science has existed, scientists have attempted to answer such unanswerable questions by trying to either reconcile science and religion, like Galileo did in defending his theories against the Inquisition and Ada Lovelace did in considering the interconnectedness of the universe, or at least to relegate them to different realms of inquiry.
Adding to the canon of these meditations is the celebrated English cosmologist and astrophysicist Sir Martin Rees — the last European court astronomer in his position as Astronomer Royal to the House of Windsor and science adviser to the Queen of England.
In We Are All Stardust: Leading Scientists Talk About Their Work, Their Lives, and the Mysteries of Our Existence (public library) — Austrian physicist, essayist, and science journalist Stefan Klein’s fantastic compendium of interviews, which also gave us Nobel-winning physicist Steven Weinberg on simplicity, complexity, and the unity of the universe — Rees reflects on his rather unusual entry point into the question of science and spirituality:
I was brought up as a member of the Church of England and simply follow the customs of my tribe. The church is part of my culture; I like the rituals and the music. If I had grown up in Iraq, I would go to a mosque… It seems to me that people who attack religion don’t really understand it. Science and religion can coexist peacefully — although I don’t think they have much to say to each other. What I would like best would be for scientists not even to use the word “God.” … Fundamental physics shows how hard it is for us to grasp even the simplest things in the world. That makes you quite skeptical whenever someone declares he has the key to some deeper reality… I know that we don’t yet even understand the hydrogen atom — so how could I believe in dogmas? I’m a practicing Christian, but not a believing one.
The central problem of religious dogma, of course, is that the mythology of “God” offers a single cohesive story that contends to explain all of “Creation” — a theory that claims its truthfulness not by empirical evidence but by insistent assertion. In a sentiment that calls to mind Sagan’s abiding wisdom on the vital balance between skepticism and openness, Rees illustrates how the scientist regards a theory:
I find it irrational to become attached to one theory. I prefer to let different ideas compete like horses in a race and watch which one wins.
When asked whether he believes that scientists make more intelligent decisions as citizens, Rees responds:
[Scientists] bring a special perspective to things. For example, as an astrophysicist, I’m used to thinking in terms of extremely long periods of time. For many people, the year 2050 is distant enough to seem unimaginably far away. I, however, am constantly aware that we’re the result of four billion years of evolution — and that the future of the earth will last at least as long. When you always have in mind how many generations might follow us, you take a different attitude toward many questions of the present. You realize how much is at stake.
With an eye to the progress and peril that human civilization has wrought, Rees considers the prospective evolutionary future of a post-human intelligence:
We humans of the present are certainly not the summit of Creation. Species more intelligent than us will inhabit the earth. They might even appear quite soon. These days evolution is no longer driven by slow natural development, as Darwin described it, but by human culture. So a post-human intelligence might be made by us ourselves. And I hope that our successors have a better understanding of the world.
Complement this particular portion of the thoroughly invigorating We Are All Stardust — which includes conversations with such titans of science as primatologist Jane Goodall, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and geographer Jared Diamond — with Freeman Dyson on the unanswerable questions that give meaning to the universe, Simone de Beauvoir on the spiritual rewards of atheism, and Alan Lightman’s poetic ode to science and the unknown.
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 | 19 Jun 2017 | 7:00 pm(NZT)
“I sometimes ask myself whether I would be studying galaxies if they were ugly… I think it may not be irrelevant that galaxies are really very attractive,” Vera Rubin, who confirmed the existence of dark matter, pondered in her most extensive interview. More than a century earlier, trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell — Rubin’s formative role model — contemplated the same question after attending a lecture on beauty by Emerson: Mitchell, too, found the splendor of the cosmos inseparable from its allure as an object of scientific investigation, each enhancing rather than distracting or detracting from the other. The great physicist Richard Feynman extolled this interplay in his memorable Ode to a Flower, in which he insisted that “the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower,” and Marina Abramović touched on it in her manifesto for art and life, which asserts that “an artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the stars in the night sky.”
Indeed, for as long as we humans have gazed up into the night sky, our imagination has been captivated equally by aesthetic awe and scientific curiosity — something reflected in our earliest sky myths, the Medieval wonder-sighting of comets, and our 4,000-year history of visualizing the universe.
That dual enchantment is what artist Vija Celmins and writer Eliot Weinberger bring to life in the limited-edition MoMA book The Stars (public library) — an uncommonly poetic ode to the resplendence of the night sky.
Reminiscent of the poet Mark Strand’s 89 meditations on the clouds, Weinberger’s text is a sort of florilegium composed of lyrical descriptions of the stars drawing on various myths, folk tales, or anthropological sources from different eras and cultures. What emerges is a quintilingual mythopoetic masterpiece, written in English and translated in Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, and Maori, accompanied by three stunning celestial etchings by Celmins, each months in the making.
The whimsical text begins:
The stars: what are they?
They are chunks of ice reflecting the sun;
they are lights afloat on the waters beyond the transparent dome;
they are nails nailed to the sky;
they are holes in the great curtain between us and the sea of light;
they are holes in the hard shell that protects us from the inferno beyond
they are the daughters of the sun;
they are the messengers of the gods;
they are shaped like wheels and are condensations of air with flames
roaring through the spaces between the spokes;
they sit in little chairs;
they are strewn across the sky;
they run errands for lovers…
all stars move and shine in order to be
most fully what they are — light
gives light because it is its nature…
Complement The Stars with Adrienne Rich’s sublime poem “Planetarium,” Henry Beston on how the beauty of the night sky nourishes the human spirit, and the forgotten woman who pioneered the art of astropoetics in the nineteenth century.
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 | 15 Jun 2017 | 7:00 pm(NZT)
“A society must assume that it is stable,” James Baldwin wrote in his timeless treatise on the creative process, “but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.” And yet, paradoxically, in the very act of exposing the abiding instability of existence, art moors us to a sense of the eternal and becalms our momentary tumults against the raging ocean that has always washed, and will always wash, the shoreline of the human spirit. The poet Robert Penn Warren captured this beautifully in his meditation on the vital role of art in a thriving democracy, in which he asserted that art “is the process by which, in imagining itself and the relation of individuals to one another and to it, a society comes to understand itself, and by understanding, discover its possibilities of growth.”
A generation earlier, Wallace Stevens (October 2, 1879–August 2, 1955), another Pulitzer-winning poet, examined a complementary aspect of the relationship between culture and creativity in his astonishingly timely 1951 book The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (public library), titled after a line from one of Stevens’s most beloved poems: “I am the necessary angel of earth, / Since, in my sight, you see the earth again, / Cleared of its set and stubborn, man-locked set…”
Stevens controverts the notion that the imagination is a counterpoint to reality and instead insists that the two are in essential interplay:
The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real… There are degrees of the imagination, as, for example, degrees of vitality and, therefore, of intensity. It is an implication that there are degrees of reality.
He points to nobility as a defining characteristic of the imagination — the means by which the creative spirit protects its interior integrity from what he calls “the pressure of reality,” a pressure of immense and almost unbearable intensity today. In a passage of astounding prescience, Stevens writes a decade after the end of of WWII and more than half a century before the present tyranny of the 24/7 news cycle:
By the pressure of reality, I mean the pressure of an external event or events on the consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation.
For more than ten years now, there has been an extraordinary pressure of news — let us say, news incomparably more pretentious than any description of it, news, at first, of the collapse of our system, or, call it, of life; then of news of a new world, but of a new world so uncertain that one did not know anything whatever of its nature, and does not know now, and could not tell whether it was to be all-English, all-German, all-Russian, all-Japanese, or all-American, and cannot tell now; and finally news of a war, which was a renewal of what, if it was not the greatest war, became such by this continuation. And for more than ten years, the consciousness of the world has concentrated on events which have made the ordinary movement of life seem to be the movement of people in the intervals of a storm. The disclosures of the impermanence of the past suggested, and suggest, an impermanence of the future. Little of what we have believed has been true… It is a question of pressure, and pressure is incalculable and eludes the historian. The Napoleonic era is regarded as having had little or no effect on the poets and the novelists who lived in it. But Coleridge and Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen did not have to put up with Napoleon and Marx and Europe, Asia and Africa all at one time. It seems possible to say that they knew of the events of their day much as we know of the bombings in the interior of China and not at all as we know of the bombings of London, or, rather, as we should know of the bombings of Toronto or Montreal.
With an eye to the disorientation of the transitional era in which he is writing — an era perhaps as transitional and disorienting as our own — Stevens examines the familiar helplessness of witnessing reality crumble:
Rightly or wrongly, we feel that the fate of a society is involved in the orderly disorders of the present time. We are confronting, therefore, a set of events, not only beyond our power to tranquillize them in the mind, beyond our power to reduce them and metamorphose them, but events that stir the emotions to violence, that engage us in what is direct and immediate and real, and events that involve the concepts and sanctions that are the order of our lives and may involve our very lives; and these events are occurring persistently with increasing omen, in what may be called our presence. These are the things that I had in mind when I spoke of the pressure of reality, a pressure great enough and prolonged enough to bring about the end of one era in the history of the imagination and, if so, then great enough to bring about the beginning of another.
The imagination, Stevens argues, is our mightiest survival mechanism in such tumultuous times — those endowed with a great magnitude of it are better able to withstand these crushing pressures of reality:
It is one of the peculiarities of the imagination that it is always at the end of an era. What happens is that it is always attaching itself to a new reality, and adhering to it. It is not that there is a new imagination but that there is a new reality. The pressure of reality may, of course, be less than the general pressure that I have described. It exists for individuals according to the circumstances of their lives or according to the characteristics of their minds. To sum it up, the pressure of reality is, I think, the determining factor in the artistic character of an era and, as well, the determining factor in the artistic character of an individual. The resistance to this pressure or its evasion in the case of individuals of extraordinary imagination cancels the pressure so far as those individuals are concerned.
From this vantage point of the imagination as an antidote to the pressure of reality, he considers the essential existential task of the creative person:
[The artist] must be able to abstract himself and also to abstract reality, which he does by placing it in his imagination… It imperative for him to make a choice, to come to a decision regarding the imagination and reality; and he will find that it is not a choice of one over the other and not a decision that divides them, but something subtler, a recognition that here, too, as between these poles, the universal interdependence exists, and hence his choice and his decision must be that they are equal and inseparable.
A century and a half after John Keats contemplated the three levels of reality, Steven offers his own taxonomy of reality’s three stages across modern history:
First … there is the reality that is taken for granted, that is latent and, on the whole, ignored. It is the comfortable American state of life of the [nineteen] eighties, the nineties and the first ten years of the [twentieth] century. Next, there is the reality that has ceased to be indifferent, the years when the Victorians had been disposed of and intellectual minorities and social minorities began to take their place and to convert our state of life to something that might not be final. This much more vital reality made the life that had preceded it look like a volume of Ackermann’s colored plates or one of Töpfer’s books of sketches in Switzerland… Reality then became violent and so remains. This much ought to be said to make it a little clearer that in speaking of the pressure of reality, I am thinking of life in a state of violence, not physically violent, as yet, for us in America, but physically violent for millions of our friends and for still more millions of our enemies and spiritually violent, it may be said, for everyone alive.
While Stevens focuses on poetry, he uses the word “poet” much like James Baldwin did, to connote all artists. But he counters Baldwin’s notion of the artist as “a sort of emotional or spiritual historian” with his own vision of the artist as a sort of emotional or spiritual futurist. Stevens writes:
A possible poet must be a poet capable of resisting or evading the pressure of the reality of this last degree, with the knowledge that the degree of today may become a deadlier degree tomorrow.
And yet, he argues, the artist must not create out of a mere sense of social duty — any political dimension of art should be a consequence but not a cause:
Reality is life and life is society and the imagination and reality; that is to say, the imagination and society are inseparable… Yes: the all-commanding subject-matter of poetry is life, the never-ceasing source. But it is not a social obligation. One does not love and go back to one’s ancient mother as a social obligation. One goes back out of a suasion not to be denied. Unquestionably if a social movement moved one deeply enough, its moving poems would follow. No politician can command the imagination, directing it to do this or that.
Shortly after William Faulkner proclaimed in his spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech that “the poet’s, the writer’s, duty is… to help man endure by lifting his heart,” Stevens considers the ultimate function of the artist:
Certainly it is not to lead people out of the confusion in which they find themselves. Nor is it, I think, to comfort them while they follow their readers to and fro. I think that [the artist’s] function is to make his imagination theirs and that he fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people to live their lives.
But alongside this necessary fidelity to reality is also the supreme function of the artist’s imagination — the ability to transcend what is and to envision a different, better version of what could be. (Ursula K. Le Guin would speak to this splendidly in her essay on how our imaginative storytelling enlarges our scope of the possible.) Once again speaking to poetry with insight that applies equally to all creative endeavors, Stevens offers:
The poetic process is psychologically an escapist process… Since what makes the poet the potent figure that he is, or was, or ought to be, is that he creates the world to which we turn incessantly and without knowing it and that he gives to life the supreme fictions without which we are unable to conceive of it.
He returns to the notion of nobility as the central animating force of the imagination. In another passage of acute and almost tragic pertinence to our own time, in which the destructively cynical is routinely replacing the ennobling, Stevens writes:
I cannot be sure that the decline, not to say the disappearance of nobility is anything more than a maladjustment between the imagination and reality… It is not only that the imagination adheres to reality, but, also, that reality adheres to the imagination and that the interdependence is essential.
The imagination gives to everything that it touches a peculiarity, and it seems to me that the peculiarity of the imagination is nobility, of which there are many degrees. This inherent nobility is the natural source of another, which our extremely headstrong generation regards as false and decadent. I mean that nobility which is our spiritual height and depth… But there it is. The fact that it is there is what makes it possible to invite to the reading and writing of poetry men of intelligence and desire for life.
Stevens concludes with a luminous lens on the supreme duty of creative work, be it poetry or any other form of art:
For the sensitive poet, conscious of negations, nothing is more difficult than the affirmations of nobility and yet there is nothing that he requires of himself more persistently, since in them and in their kind, alone, are to be found those sanctions that are the reasons for his being and for that occasional ecstasy, or ecstatic freedom of the mind, which is his special privilege.
As a wave is a force and not the water of which it is composed, which is never the same, so nobility is a force and not the manifestations of which it is composed, which are never the same… It is not an artifice that the mind has added to human nature. The mind has added nothing to human nature. It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.
The Necessary Angel is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement it with this mobilizing modern manifesto for making art in difficult times and poet Elizabeth Alexander on what sets great artists apart, then revisit Baldwin’s timeless meditation on the artist’s responsibility to society.
Source: Brain Pickings | 12 Jun 2017 | 10:00 pm(NZT)
“Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote in her incisive treatise on the intelligence of emotions, titled after Proust’s powerful poetic image depicting the emotions as “geologic upheavals of thought.” But much of the messiness of our emotions comes from the inverse: Our thoughts, in a sense, are geologic upheavals of feeling — an immensity of our reasoning is devoted to making sense of, or rationalizing, the emotional patterns that underpin our intuitive responses to the world and therefore shape our very reality. Our interior lives unfold across landscapes that seem to belong to an alien world whose terrain is as difficult to map as it is to navigate — a world against which the young Dostoyevsky roiled in a frustrated letter on reason and emotion, and one which Antoine de Saint-Exupéry embraced so lyrically in one of the most memorable lines from The Little Prince: “It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”
The geologic complexity of that secret place is what photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher explores in The Topography of Tears (public library) — a striking series of duotone photographs of tears shed for a kaleidoscope of reasons, dried on glass slides and captured in a hundredfold magnification through a high-resolution optical microscope. What emerges is an enthralling aerial tour of the landscape of human emotion and its the most stirring eruptions — joy, grief, gladness, remorse, hope — reminding us that the terra incognita of our interiority is better trekked with an explorer’s benevolent curiosity about the varied beauty of the landscape than with a conquistador’s forceful intent to control and sublimate. (Artist Maira Kalman affirmed this notion with great simplicity and poignancy in a page from her marvelous philosophical children’s book: “If you need to cry you should cry.”)
Building on her previous mesmerizing photomicrographs of bees, Fisher uses the technological tools of science to probe the poetic, immaterial dimensions of a universal human behavior radiating infinite emotional hues. Most of the tears she photographed are her own, but she also looked at those of men, women, and children from different backgrounds, crying for a variety of reasons. Accompanying each photograph is a caption ranging from the descriptive to the lyrically abstract — tears of compassion, tears of grief, tears of remorse, “tears for those who yearn for liberation,” “tears of elation at a liminal moment.”
In the introduction, Fisher reflects on the symbolic undertones of this inquiry into “the intangible poetry of life,” a project nearly a decade in the making:
Though the empirical nature of tears is a composition of water, proteins, minerals, hormones, and enzymes, the topography of tears is a momentary landscape, transient as the fingerprint of someone in a dream. The accumulation of these images is like an ephemeral atlas.
Tears are the medium of our most primal language in moments as unrelenting as death, as basic as hunger, and as complex as rites of passage. They are the evidence of our inner life overflowing its boundaries, spilling over into consciousness. Tears spontaneously release us to the possibility of realignment, reunion, catharsis, intractable resistance short-circuited… It’s as though each one of our tears carries a microcosm of the collective human experience, like one drop of an ocean.
Fittingly, the book features a short essay on tears by the poet Ann Lauterbach, who observed in another beautiful meditation on why we make art that “the crucial job of artists is to find a way to release materials into the animated middle ground between subjects, and so to initiate the difficult but joyful process of human connection” — a perfect articulation of the heart of Fisher’s project. In her essay for the book, Lauterbach writes:
“For a tear is an intellectual thing,” the great subversive 19th-century poet William Blake wrote, railing against the Deists, classical and contemporary; he believed they had stripped religion of its signal call for forgiveness, assigning too much authority to a single God and making human life untenable in its guilty abrasions. Tears are intellectual because they come from thoughts that spill over the body’s containing well; they are the secretion of excess we assign to emotion; perhaps emotion itself is simply caused by a surfeit of thought. One tries to unbind these durable dualities, to allow for the morphological shift that might allow the human creature to be complex but integrated, not divided into anatomical parts, all nouns and no transitive verb. We are not yet mechanical, technological things, we are intellectual — thinking — beings, and we cry when stirred beyond the capture of signifying Logos, which relents into flows of passionate silence. Perhaps this flow is the very proof that we cannot put our feelings in one place and our thoughts in another, the bleak result of a certain rationalism that threatens to overtake our civility — our capacity to forgive — and wants to make all ideas into abstractions, rigid and blunt, free of secretions.
Complement the contemplative splendor of The Topography of Tears with the science of why we cry, Mark Rothko on why people weep before his art, and William James’s revolutionary mind-body theory of emotion.
Source: Brain Pickings | 9 Jun 2017 | 7:00 pm(NZT)
“We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more,” Albert Camus wrote in reflecting on strength of character in turbulent times as WWII’s maelstrom of deadly injustice engulfed Europe. But that mending is patient, steadfast, often unglamorous work — it is the work of choosing kindness over fear, again and again, in the smallest of everyday ways, those tiny triumphs of the human spirit which converge in the current of courage that is the only force by which this world has ever changed.
That’s what Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) examined in a beautiful autobiographical piece titled “The World as I See It,” originally published in a 1930 issue of the magazine Forum and Century, and later included in Ideas and Opinions (public library) — the invaluable compendium that gave us Einstein’s reflections on the secret to his thought process, the common language of science, and his increasingly timely message to posterity.
Three centuries after Newton popularized his famous “standing on the shoulders of giants” metaphor, Einstein writes:
How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people — first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving. I am strongly drawn to a frugal life and am often oppressively aware that I am engrossing an undue amount of the labor of my fellow-men. I regard class distinctions as unjustified and, in the last resort, based on force. I also believe that a simple and unassuming life is good for everybody, physically and mentally.
Reflecting on the irreplicable subjectivity of the notion of “the meaning of life,” Einstein considers his own:
To inquire after the meaning or object of one’s own existence or that of all creatures has always seemed to me absurd from an objective point of view. And yet everybody has certain ideals which determine the direction of his endeavors and his judgments. In this sense I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves — this ethical basis I call the ideal of a pigsty. The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth. Without the sense of kinship with men of like mind, without the occupation with the objective world, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific endeavors, life would have seemed to me empty.
This notion of human fellowship and kinship wasn’t a mere ideological abstraction for Einstein, who lived through two World Wars and witnessed humanity at its worst, yet remained animated by a fundamental faith in the nobility of the human spirit — or, rather, its potential for nobility. He devoted much of his life to “widening our circles of compassion” and advocating for the conditions that nurture this nobility, from his correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois about racial justice to his encouragement of women to pursue science to his letters to Gandhi about peace and the antidote to violence.
In a passage of chilling prescience, written just before the Nazis unleashed upon humanity our darkest hour, and one of equally chilling pertinence to our own age of rampant propaganda, fear-mongering, and “alternative facts,” Einstein writes:
In politics not only are leaders lacking, but the independence of spirit and the sense of justice of the citizen have to a great extent declined. The democratic, parliamentarian regime, which is based on such independence, has in many places been shaken; dictatorships have sprung up and are tolerated, because men’s sense of the dignity and the rights of the individual is no longer strong enough. In two weeks the sheeplike masses of any country can be worked up by the newspapers into such a state of excited fury that men are prepared to put on uniforms and kill and be killed, for the sake of the sordid ends of a few interested parties.
A year before his death, Einstein revisits the subject in a magnificent acceptance speech for a human rights award conferred upon him by the Chicago Decalogue Society, also included in Ideas and Opinions. He begins with a reminder that questions of meaning and moral values are entirely human-made, for the universe — his primary object of inquiry and the lifelong object of his “passion for comprehension” — is impartial and unconcerned with notions of human rights. A decade before John Steinbeck asserted that “all the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up,” Einstein writes:
The existence and validity of human rights are not written in the stars. The ideals concerning the conduct of men toward each other and the desirable structure of the community have been conceived and taught by enlightened individuals in the course of history. Those ideals and convictions which resulted from historical experience, from the craving for beauty and harmony, have been readily accepted in theory by man — and at all times, have been trampled upon by the same people under the pressure of their animal instincts. A large part of history is therefore replete with the struggle for those human rights, an eternal struggle in which a final victory can never be won. But to tire in that struggle would mean the ruin of society.
Eight years before Hannah Arendt’s sobering treatise on the banality of evil and our sole antidote to its normalization, and exactly four decades after Ella Wheeler Wilcox proclaimed that “to sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men,” Einstein considers a frequently overlooked yet inexcusable and monumentally reprehensible violation of human rights — complicity with evil by keeping silent against injustice. He writes:
In talking about human rights today, we are referring primarily to the following demands: protection of the individual against arbitrary infringement by other individuals or by the government; the right to work and to adequate earnings from work; freedom of discussion and teaching; adequate participation of the individual in the formation of his government. These human rights are nowadays recognized theoretically, although, by abundant use of formalistic, legal maneuvers, they are being violated to a much greater extent than even a generation ago. There is, however, one other human right which is infrequently mentioned but which seems to be destined to become very important: this is the right, or the duty, of the individual to abstain from cooperating in activities which he considers wrong or pernicious.
Six decades before Rebecca Solnit made her poignant case for breaking silence as our mightiest weapon against oppression, Einstein suggests that the power to speak out against injustice need not be reserved for those professionally devoted to human rights work, nor manifested in grand deeds of activism. He reflects on his own simple, steadfast commitment:
In a long life I have devoted all my faculties to reach a somewhat deeper insight into the structure of physical reality. Never have I made any systematic effort to ameliorate the lot of men, to fight injustice and suppression, and to improve the traditional forms of human relations. The only thing I did was this: in long intervals I have expressed an opinion on public issues whenever they appeared to me so bad and unfortunate that silence would have made me feel guilty of complicity.
Complement this particular portion of Einstein’s wholly indispensable Ideas and Opinions with Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on human rights and our shared duty in ending injustice, Audre Lorde on breaking our silences, and physicist Sean Carroll on how we find meaning in an impartial universe, then revisit Einstein on the secret to learning anything, the nature of the human mind, his letter of advice and solidarity to Marie Curie when she was cruelly attacked, and his remarkable letter of consolation to a grief-stricken father who had lost his young son.
Source: Brain Pickings | 8 Jun 2017 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” 30-year-old Nietzsche wrote in his treatise on how to find yourself. And yet in the century and a half since, a curious dissonance has begun to reverberate across culture: On the one hand, we have grown increasingly fixated on the self as the focal lens for interpreting the world — a fixation which Ian McEwan so brilliantly satirized and which has precipitated today’s tragic epidemic of militant identity politics; on the other hand, the rise of neuroscience has demonstrated again and again that the self we experience as so overwhelmingly real — the psychophysiological raft of experience through which we float along the river of life — is a sensory-perceptual byproduct of consciousness, completely illusory in its solidity.
Nearly half a century ago, the Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Penn Warren (April 24, 1905–September 15, 1989) cast a cautionary eye to the notion of “finding oneself” in Democracy and Poetry (public library) — his magnificent Jefferson Lecture about power, tenderness, and art’s role in a healthy society.
Decades before Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s witty and wise observation that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” Warren challenges the cultural trend of young people taking “time off” from school or work in order to “get away from it all” and find themselves. He writes:
In the phrase [“to find myself”] lurks the idea that the self is a pre-existing entity, a self like a Platonic idea existing in a mystic realm beyond time and change. No, rather an object like a nugget of gold in the placer pan, the Easter egg under the bush at an Easter-egg hunt, a four-leaf clover to promise miraculous luck. Here is the essence of passivity, one’s quintessential luck. And the essence of absurdity, too, for the self is never to be found, but must be created, not the happy accident of passivity, but the product of a thousand actions, large and small, conscious or unconscious, performed not “away from it all,” but in the face of “it all,” for better or for worse, in work and leisure rather than in free time.
In consonance with my own deep belief in the ongoingness and fluidity of our becoming, Warren adds:
The self is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth, a process that is the image, we may say, of the life process of a healthy society itself.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Academy of American Poets executive director Jennifer Benka’s beautiful observation that “poems are physical sites of discovery [and] sense-records of our humanity,” Warren considers the role of poetry as a locus of our evolving being:
How does poetry come into all this? By being an antidote, a sovereign antidote, for passivity. For the basic fact about poetry is that it demands participation, from the secret physical echo in muscle and nerve that identifies us with the medium, to the imaginative enactment that stirs the deepest recesses where life-will and values reside. Beyond that, it nourishes our life-will in the process of testing our values. And this is not to be taken as implying a utilitarian aesthetic. It is, rather, one way of describing our pleasure in poetry as an adventure in the celebration of life.
Complement this particular portion of Warren’s thoroughly transcendent Democracy and Poetry with Walt Whitman on identity and the paradox of the self and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on what makes you and your childhood self the “same” person despite a lifetime of change, then revisit Elizabeth Alexander on what poetry does for the human spirit.
Source: Brain Pickings | 7 Jun 2017 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
“Someone reading a book is a sign of order in the world,” wrote the poet Mary Ruefle. “A book is a heart that beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit asserted in her lyrical meditation on why we read and write. But whatever our poetic images and metaphors for the varied ways in which books transform us — “the axe for the frozen sea within us,” per Franz Kafka, or “proof that humans are capable of working magic,” per Carl Sagan — the one indisputable constant is that they do transform us, in ways which we may not always be able to measure but can always feel in the core of our being.
That’s what Gwendolyn Brooks (June 7, 1917–December 2, 2000) celebrates in a lovely short poem titled “Book Power.” Originally written for National Children’s Book Week in 1969 — nearly two decades after Brooks, at only twenty-three, became the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize — it was eventually included in the 1998 out-of-print gem Book Poems: Poems from National Children’s Book Week, 1959–1998 (public library) and was later printed on a bookmark distributed for National Children’s Book Week.
by Gwendolyn Brooks
BOOKS FEED AND CURE AND
CHORTLE AND COLLIDE
In all this willful world
of thud and thump and thunder
man’s relevance to books
continues to declare.
Books are meat and medicine
and flame and flight and flower,
steel, stitch, and cloud and clout,
and drumbeats in the air.
Complement with Neil Gaiman on why we read, Hermann Hesse on why we always will, James Baldwin on how he read his way to a different destiny, and Maurice Sendak’s lovely posters celebrating reading, then revisit Brooks’s advice to writers and her visionary vintage poems for kids celebrating diversity and the universal spirit of childhood.
Source: Brain Pickings | 7 Jun 2017 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
The question of whether talent and genius differ in degree or in kind is an abiding one, and often discomfiting for any creative person to contemplate — we don’t, after all, like to consider that we might be merely endowed with talent but bereft of genius. And yet examining the relationship between the two can be a source of tremendously vitalizing insight into the creative spirit in its multitude of manifestations. Thoreau drew a vital distinction between an artisan, an artist, and a genius. Schopenhauer likened talent to hitting a target no one else can hit and genius to hitting a target no one else can see. “Genius gives birth, talent delivers,” Jack Kerouac asserted in contemplating whether great artists are born or made. “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins,” James Baldwin cautioned aspiring writers as he considered the real building blocks of genius.
Another illuminating distinction between genius and talent comes from biographer Jan Swafford in Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (public library) — his fascinating account of an artist marked by the tragic and triumphant genius of being an outsider, whom Swafford describes as “utterly sure of himself and his gift, but no less self-critical and without sentimentality concerning his work.”
With an eye to Beethoven’s unmistakable genius, Swafford writes:
Genius is something that lies on the other side of talent… Talent is largely inborn, and in a given field some people have it to a far higher degree than others. Still, in the end talent is not enough to push you to the highest achievements. Genius has to be founded on major talent, but it adds a freshness and wildness of imagination, a raging ambition, an unusual gift for learning and growing, a depth and breadth of thought and spirit, an ability to make use of not only your strengths but also your weaknesses, an ability to astonish not only your audience but yourself.
Reflecting on the cultural history of genius, Swafford adds:
My sense of the idea is closer to that of the eighteenth century: I believe in genius, but not in demigods… For me, the idea of spending one’s life chasing something impossible is simply normal, necessary, even a touch heroic. It is what artists do all the time.
He quotes Beethoven himself, who wrote in a poetic passage from his 1812 letter to Emilie:
The true artist has no pride. He sees unfortunately that art has no limits; he has a vague awareness of how far he is from reaching his goal; and while others may perhaps admire him, he laments the fact that he has not yet reached the point whither his better genius only lights the way for him like a distant sun.
Complement this particular portion of the thoroughly fascinating Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph with neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal on the six “diseases of the will” that keep the talented from achieving greatness, then revisit Beethoven’s stirring letter to his brothers about how music saved his life and the secret to his superhuman vitality.
Source: Brain Pickings | 6 Jun 2017 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both,” Carl Sagan wrote shortly before his death. An entire century earlier, another patron saint of cosmic insight contemplated this enduring question with equal parts wisdom and warm wit — the pioneering astronomer and abolitionist Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889), a mind amply ahead of her time, who paved the way for women in science and who examined the age-old tension between science and religion throughout the eternally rewarding Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library | free ebook).
Mitchell’s landmark 1847 comet discovery earned her admission into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences — she was the first woman ever inducted, and it would be nearly a century until the second. She later became the first woman hired by the United States federal government for a “specialized nondomestic skill” in her capacity as “computer of Venus” — a one-woman GPS guiding sailors around the world.
As one of the world’s first true academic celebrities, Mitchell had a chance to do something only a handful of her contemporaries did — the girl who came of age on the tiny isolated island of Nantucket grew up to travel the world, visiting various institutions and observatories in England, Italy, and Russia, bringing with her an infinitely compassionate curiosity about the innumerable ways in which life is lived on our pale blue dot.
Although she was brought up in a Quaker home, Mitchell never joined any church and was consistently critical of religiosity — another hallmark of intellectual independence that defied her era’s climate. At her funeral, the president of Vassar College, where Mitchell had educated America’s first class of women astronomers and taught for many years, remarked that Professor Mitchell had devoted her life to the conquest of truth and never accepted any statement without studying its claims herself — an embodiment of Galileo’s tenets of critical thinking.
Upon visiting Rome during her European tour in 1858, Mitchell records a striking reflection on the age-old conflict between science and religion, approaching it, as she did everything, from a thoroughly original perspective rooted in the most elemental truths of existence:
This is the land of Galileo, and this is the city in which he was tried. I knew of no sadder picture in the history of science than that of the old man, Galileo, worn by a long life of scientific research, weak and feeble, trembling before that tribunal whose frown was torture, and declaring that to be false which he knew to be true. And I know of no picture in the history of religion more weakly pitiable than that of the Holy Church trembling before Galileo, and denouncing him because he found in the Book of Nature truths not stated in their own Book of God — forgetting that the Book of Nature is also a Book of God.
It seems to be difficult for any one to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict.
In one of her frequent strokes of wry wisdom, Mitchell adds:
It is a very singular fact, but one which seems to show that even in science “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” that the spot where Galileo was tried is very near the site of the present observatory, to which the pope was very liberal.
And yet that very observatory, set in a church built in 1650, was bloodthirsty for martyrdom of a different sort: Mitchell was denied entry on account of her gender and had to seek special permission from the pope himself — a tragic testament to how humanity has long used the oppressive mythologies of religion to assault not only science but justice and basic human dignity as well. (A generation after Mitchell, Mark Twain would condemn how religion is used to justify injustice.)
But Mitchell, ever the observer of nuance, is careful to note that religion, like any technology of thought, can be applied equally in ways that obstruct equality and ways that advance it. During her visit to Russia, she contemplates the local approach to religion as an equalizer of humanity:
I am never in a country where the Catholic or Greek church is dominant, but I see with admiration the zeal of its followers. I may pity their delusions, but I must admire their devotion. If you look around in one of our churches upon the congregation, five-sixths are women, and in some towns nineteen-twentieths; and if you form a judgment from that fact, you would suppose that religion was entirely a “woman’s right.” In a Catholic church or Greek church, the men are not only as numerous as the women, but they are as intense in their worship. Well-dressed men, with good heads, will prostrate themselves before the image of the Holy Virgin as many times, and as devoutly, as the beggar-woman.
Then there is the democracy of the church. There are no pews to be sold to the highest bidder — no “reserved seats;” the oneness and equality before God are always recognized. A Russian gentleman, as he prays, does not look around, and move away from the poor beggar next to him. At St. Peter’s the crowd stands or kneels — at St. Isaac’s they stand; and they stand literally on the same plane.
Most of all, Mitchell condemned the hypocrisies and pretensions of religion. She scoffs in her diary after attending a church service in December of 1866:
[The Reverend] chanted rather than read a hymn. He chanted a sermon. His description of the journey of Moses towards Canaan had some interesting points, but his manner was affected; he cried, or pretended to cry, at the pathetic points. I hope he really cried, for a weakness is better than an affectation of weakness. He said, “The unbeliever is already condemned.” It seems to me that if anything would make me an infidel, it would be the threats lavished against unbelief.
After another service, she finds herself appalled at the abyss between blind faith and fact:
The sermon was wholly without logic, and yet he said, near its close, that those who had followed him must be convinced that this was true.
By the following year, Mitchell’s frustration with religion’s assault on critical thinking reaches a boiling point:
I am more and more disgusted with the preaching that I hear! … Why cannot a man act himself, be himself, and think for himself? It seems to me that naturalness alone is power; that a borrowed word is weaker than our own weakness, however small we may be. If I reach a girl’s heart or head, I know I must reach it through my own, and not from bigger hearts and heads than mine.
Unlike many, who tend to find religion’s escapist promises of immortality more and more alluring as they confront their own mortality, Mitchell grew only more insistent on truth over illusion as her lifetime unfolded. In her final years, she writes of attending a preacher’s sermon at the Universalist church, which of all religious denominations she found most tolerable:
[The Reverend] enumerated some of the dangers that threaten us: one was “The doctrines of scientists,” and he named Tyndale, Huxley, and Spencer. I was most surprised at his fear of these men. Can the study of truth do harm? Does not every true scientist seek only to know the truth? And in our deep ignorance of what is truth, shall we dread the search for it?
I hold the simple student of nature in holy reverence; and while there live sensualists, despots, and men who are wholly self-seeking, I cannot bear to have these sincere workers held up in the least degree to reproach. And let us have truth, even if the truth be the awful denial of the good God. We must face the light and not bury our heads in the earth. I am hopeful that scientific investigation, pushed on and on, will reveal new ways in which God works, and bring to us deeper revelations of the wholly unknown.
The physical and the spiritual seem to be, at present, separated by an impassable gulf; but at any moment that gulf may be overleaped — possibly a new revelation may come.
In another diary entry, she captures the greatest, plainest frontier of hope for such a reconciliation:
Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God.
Nearly a century before Einstein contemplated what he famously termed the inherent human “passion for comprehension,” Mitchell considers our parallel thirst for truth and susceptibility to delusion:
We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the more we see, the more are we capable of seeing.
Besides learning to see, there is another art to be learned, — not to see what is not.
Complement this particular portion of the endlessly insightful Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals with Aldous Huxley on science and spirituality, Primo Levi on the spiritual value of science, and Alan Lightman on secular transcendence, then revisit Mitchell on science and life, the art of knowing what to do with your life, and how to watch a solar eclipse.
Source: Brain Pickings | 5 Jun 2017 | 4:00 pm(NZT)
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