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We Grow Accustomed to the Dark: Emily Dickinson’s Stunning Ode to Resilience, Animated

A timeless serenade to finding light amid the “Evenings of the Brain.”


How do we survive the unsurvivable? What is that inextinguishable flame that goes on flickering in the bleak, dark chamber of our being when something of vital importance has been lost? “All your sorrows have been wasted on you if you have not yet learned how to be wretched,” Seneca’s timeless insight into the key to resilience bellows from antiquity, echoed by the contemporary social science finding that psychological “grit” is the single most significant predictor of triumph over hardship and success in life. “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us,” the Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön offered in exploring how to thrive when things fall apart.

Loss visits every human life. The degree of our acceptance and the grace with which we adapt to the sudden descent of darkness — that is, to borrow the splendid term William James borrowed from Margaret Fuller, “the manner of our acceptance of the universe” — may be the greatest measure of skillful living.

That is what Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) addresses in a stunning poem titled — like all of her poems, which the poet herself always left untitled — after the first line: “We grow accustomed to the Dark,” composed during a time of personal loss and immense transformation for Dickinson, while the Civil War rages about her. Included in the indispensable Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (public library), it comes to life in this lovely short film animated by Hannah Jacobs and produced by Massive Science founder Nadja Oertelt for Harvard’s eight-part series Poetry of Perception, exploring representations of sensation and perception through the literary and visual arts.

We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —

A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.

Complement with Dickinson, the poet laureate of finding light amid the darkness of being, on making sense of loss and her stunning forgotten herbarium — an elegy for light at the intersection of poetry and science — then revisit other enchanting animated adaptations of great poems: “Optimism” by Jane Hirshfield, “The Man with the Beautiful Eyes” by Charles Bukowski, and “A Noiseless Patient Spider” by Walt Whitman.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 18 Sep 2018 | 6:00 pm(NZT)

The Only Story in the World: John Steinbeck on Kindness, Good and Evil, the Wellspring of Good Writing

“Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.”


“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up,” John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) wrote as he contemplated good, evil, and the necessary contradiction of human nature at the peak of WWII. “It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”

A decade later, and a decade before he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Steinbeck turned this abiding tug of war between good and evil into a literary inquiry in East of Eden (public library) — the 1952 novel that gave us his beautiful wisdom on creativity and the meaning of life, eventually adapted into the 1955 film of the same title starring James Dean.

John Steinbeck

Steinbeck opens the thirty-fourth chapter with a meditation on the most elemental question through which we experience and measure our lives:

A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?” And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?

At the most fundamental level, the triumph of good over evil presupposes an openhearted curiosity about what is other than ourselves and a certain willingness for understanding — the moral choice of fathoming and honoring the reality, experience, and needs of persons and entities existing beyond our own consciousness. Steinbeck, too, saw the centrality of empathic understanding in the choice of goodness. Perhaps unsurprisingly — since he used his private journal as a creative sandbox for his novels — this sentiment originated in a diary entry.

Decades before Annie Dillard contemplated why a generosity of spirit is the animating force of good writing, Steinbeck echoes Hemingway — “As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.” — and reflects in a journal entry from 1938, quoted in Steinbeck Center director Susan Shillinglaw’s introduction to a 1993 Penguin Classics edition of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men:

In every bit of honest writing in the world… there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.

Complement with Hannah Arendt on our mightiest antidote to evil, James Baldwin on the terror within and the evil without, Mary McCarthy on human nature and how we determine if evil is forgivable, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky on why there are no bad people, then revisit Steinbeck on being vs. becoming, the difficult art of the fried breakup, and his remarkable advice on falling in love in a letter to his teenage son.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Sep 2018 | 6:00 pm(NZT)

Walt Whitman on Creativity

Wisdom “for strong artists and leaders—for fresh broods of teachers… and coming musicians.”


“The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver wrote in her beautiful reflection on the central commitment of the creative life, “are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” A large part of that power, and of its temporal dimension, is an openhearted curiosity about the world — a willingness to take in its varied and often contradictory aspects, in order to distill from them the concentration of truth we call art. Rainer Maria Rilke knew this when he contemplated the combinatorial nature of creativity: “One must see many cities, men and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the small flowers open in the morning… One must have memories of many nights of love… But one must also have been beside the dying, one must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window…”

A century and a half before Oliver and many decades before Rilke, another great poet and patron saint of truth turned his singular eye to the question of creativity. Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) explores this abiding mystery in a few verses some three hundred pages into Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain) — the 1855 masterpiece that nearly broke his career before making it, then gave us his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)

Under the heading “Laws of Creation,” addressed to “strong artists and leaders… fresh broods of teachers… and coming musicians,” Whitman takes up the necessary risks and core elements of creative work:

All must have reference to the ensemble of the
world, and the compact truth of the world;
There shall be no subject too pronounced — All works
shall illustrate the divine law of indirections.

Art by Margaret Cook for a rare edition of Leaves of Grass

Echoing Emerson’s influential ideal of self-reliance — Emerson, after all, was Whitman’s great hero and the person largely responsible for his success as an artist — he adds:

What do you suppose creation is?
What do you suppose will satisfy the Soul, except to
walk free, and own no superior?
What do you suppose I have intimated to you in a
hundred ways, but that man or woman is as
good as God?
And that there is no God any more divine than Your-
self?
And that that is what the oldest and newest myths
finally mean?
And that you or any one must approach Creations
through such laws?

Complement this particular fragment of the ever-giving Leaves of Grass with Frankenstein author Mary Shelley on creativity, E.E. Cummings on the courage to be yourself, and Rilke on the lonely patience of creative work, then revisit Whitman on the building blocks of character, optimism as a force of resistance, and his most direct definition of happiness.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 15 Sep 2018 | 12:43 am(NZT)



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Japanese Artist Ryota Kajita’s Otherworldly Photographs of Ice Formation in Alaska

A visual serenade to one of the most beautiful and seemingly miraculous phenomena of the physical universe.


The pioneering naturalist John Muir held the poetic conviction that when we look closely at any aspect of our world, “the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.” Phase transitions are among the most beautiful and seemingly miraculous phenomena of the physical universe — emissaries of nature’s magnificence and might that bear, in their stormy and almost alchemical transformation of substance, a certain metaphorical allure that borders on the existential. If matter can transform so radically from one state of being to another, perhaps so can we — under the fertile pressure of the right conditions, even the most radical change is possible.

Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita

That material miraculousness is what Japanese-born, Alaska-based artist Ryota Kajita captures in his exquisite series Ice Formation — a series of photographs of various natural ice formations in the waters of Fairbanks, Alaska: otherworldly geometric patterns created by the bubbles that form as lake and river water freezes gradually from the surface down, trapping major greenhouse gasses like methane and carbon dioxide in the crystal lattice of ice.

Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita
Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita
Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita
Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita

Beneath the artful depiction of the phenomenon may lie a scientific key to climate change — scientists in Alaska are studying the frozen bubbles to better understand global warming.

Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita
Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita
Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita

There is seasonal variation to the patterns, as snow and frost interfere with the ice formation in unique ways.

Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita
Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita
Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita
Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita

Kajita reflects on the project:

Wandering around looking for ice reminds me of boyhood treasure hunting. I used to run out into the woods after school, exploring places that made up my neighborhood. It was an adventure, and I enjoyed leaving my footprints on unknown areas. It was fun and uplifting, satisfying my young, innocent curiosity.

As an adult, photographing ice is rooted in those childhood adventures. It’s in that spirit that I strive to know the environment on a deeper level. Genuine curiosity propels me to actively involve myself in the place I live.

Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita

Echoing Muir’s assertion that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” he adds:

That vital dialogue between yourself and your surroundings develops your thoughts on how you live in the place, and face bigger issues like global climate change. Everything — even if it appears to be insignificant — connects to larger aspects of our Earth.

Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita
Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita

Complement Kajita’s Ice Formation with artist Rose-Lynn Fischer’s stunning electromicroscopy photographs of tears cried with various emotions, then revisit Adam Gopnik’s love letter to the icy season.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 13 Sep 2018 | 1:16 pm(NZT)

Consider the Tree: Philosopher Martin Buber on the Discipline of Not Objectifying and the Difficult Art of Seeing Others as They Are, Not as They Are to Us

“Let no attempt be made to sap the strength from the meaning of the relation: relation is mutual.”


Consider the Tree: Philosopher Martin Buber on the Discipline of Not Objectifying and the Difficult Art of Seeing Others as They Are, Not as They Are to Us

When Walt Whitman contemplated the wisdom of trees, he saw in them qualities “almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic,” and found in their resolute being a counterpoint to the human charade of seeming. “When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse rhapsodized in his lyrical love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.” A century and a half earlier, William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.”

But to truly see and listen to a tree — or to any being beyond ourselves — as more than a teaching, more than an object of envy or worship or desire, more than a metaphor for our own lives, requires a special kind of regard — the kind to which Ursula K. Le Guin alluded in contemplating the difference between objectifying and subjectifying the universe.

This unsolipsistic orientation to another’s reality does not come easily to us, being such colonizers of the experience and essence of others as we are. What it takes to cultivate it is what philosopher Martin Buber (February 8, 1878–June 13, 1965) explores in poignant passage from I and Thou (public library) — his 1923 existentialist masterpiece, laying out Buber’s visionary lens on what makes us real to one another and extracting from it abiding insight into the meaning of love and presence.

Martin Buber

Buber illustrates the distinction between I-It and I-Thou relationships — the redignifying shift of perspective at the heart of his philosophy — with the example of how one regards a tree:

I consider a tree.

I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background.

I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, suck of the roots, breathing of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air—and the obscure growth itself.

I can classify it in a species and study it as a type in its structure and mode of life.

I can subdue its actual presence and form so sternly that I recognise it only as an expression of law — of the laws in accordance with which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or of those in accordance with which the component substances mingle and separate.

I can dissipate it and perpetuate it in number, in pure numerical relation.

In all this the tree remains my object, occupies space and time, and has its nature and constitution.

It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is now no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness.

To effect this it is not necessary for me to give up any of the ways in which I consider the tree. There is nothing from which I would have to turn my eyes away in order to see, and no knowledge that I would have to forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and type, law and number, indivisibly united in this event.

Everything belonging to the tree is in this: its form and structure, its colours and chemical composition, its intercourse with the elements and with the stars, are all present in a single whole.

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no value depending on my mood; but it is bodied over against me and has to do with me, as I with it — only in a different way.

Let no attempt be made to sap the strength from the meaning of the relation: relation is mutual.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Decades before scientists came to uncover what trees feel and how they communicate, Buber adds:

The tree will have a consciousness, then, similar to our own? Of that I have no experience. But do you wish, through seeming to succeed in it with yourself, once again to disintegrate that which cannot be disintegrated? I encounter no soul or dryad of the tree, but the tree itself.

Complement this particular fragment of I and Thou with Henry David Thoreau on the language of trees and biologist David George Haskell on what a dozen of the world’s most unusual trees taught him about the art of relationship, then revisit bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer on how to regard non-human life with dignity.


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


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Source: Brain Pickings | 12 Sep 2018 | 4:42 am(NZT)



Toni Morrison on the Deepest Meaning of Freedom

In praise of loving anything and anyone you choose to love.


“Everything can be taken from a man,” Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his timeless treatise on the human search for meaning, “but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Fourteen years later, at the apogee of the civil rights movement, James Baldwin observed: “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given, freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be.” It is a sentiment of piercing insight in Baldwin’s original context and one which Kanye West would echo in a completely different, completely inappropriate context half a century later — a difference both subtle and unsubtle, assaulting the meaning of freedom.

Four decades after Frankl, and midway in time between Baldwin and West, Toni Morrison examined the question of what freedom means for a human being in her 1987 novel Beloved (public library) — the book that became the cornerstone of Morrison’s Nobel Prize, making her the first African American woman to win the accolade — inspired by the true story of a woman’s escape from slavery and the unfathomable cost she had to pay for her freedom.

Toni Morrison illustrated by Katy Horan from Literary Witches — a celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

Painting the state of being unlatched in her protagonist after escaping from enslavement, Morrison considers the deepest meaning of freedom:

Listening to the doves in Alfred, Georgia, and having neither the right nor the permission to enjoy it because in that place mist, doves, sunlight, copper dirt, moon — everything belonged to the men who had the guns. Little men, some of them, big men too, each one of whom he could snap like a twig if he wanted to. Men who knew their manhood lay in their guns and were not even embarrassed by the knowledge that without gunshot fox would laugh at them. And these “men” who made even vixen laugh could, if you let them, stop you from hearing doves or loving moonlight. So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to see the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept. Stole shy glances at her between the trees at chain-up. Grass blades, salamanders, spiders, woodpeckers, beetles, a kingdom of ants. Anything bigger wouldn’t do. A woman, a child, a brother — a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia. He knew exactly what she meant: to get to a place where you could love anything you chose — not to need permission for desire — well now, that was freedom.

Complement this passage from Beloved, which remains one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking books I have ever read, with Simone de Beauvoir on what freedom really means, then revisit Morrison on the artist’s task in troubled times, how to be your own story, and her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the power of language.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 10 Sep 2018 | 6:00 pm(NZT)

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: The Untold Story of Cryptography Pioneer Elizebeth Friedman

How an unsung heroine established a new field of science and helped defeat the Nazis with pencil, paper, and perseverance.


The Woman Who Smashed Codes: The Untold Story of Cryptography Pioneer Elizebeth Friedman

While computing pioneer Alan Turing was breaking Nazi communication in England, eleven thousand women, unbeknownst to their contemporaries and to most of us who constitute their posterity, were breaking enemy code in America — unsung heroines who helped defeat the Nazis and win WWII.

Among them was American cryptography pioneer Elizebeth Friedman (August 26, 1892–October 31, 1980). The subject of Jason Fagone’s excellent biography The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies (public library), Friedman triumphed over at least three Enigma machines and cracked dozens of different radio circuits to decipher more than four thousand Nazi messages that saved innumerable lives, only to have J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI take credit for her invisible, instrumental work.

Elizebeth Friedman in her twenties.

Fagone writes:

The modern-day universe of codes and ciphers began in a cottage on the prairie, with a pair of young lovers smiling at each other across a table and a rich man urging them to be spectacular.

The two young lovers were Elizebeth Smith and William Friedman, and the rich man, the eccentric textile tycoon George Fabyan.

The youngest of nine children raised in a modest Quaker home, Elizebeth was born in an era when fewer than four percent of American women graduated from college. Four years after earning her degree in Greek and English literature, she still felt like “a quivering, keenly alive, restless, mental question mark.” The following year, 1916, she began her improbable career at Riverbank Laboratories — Fabyan’s Wonderland-like estate, where the billionaire had hired Elizebeth to work on the cipher at the heart of a literary conspiracy theory claiming that Francis Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s works. At Riverbank, she met William, a young geneticist living in a windmill — one of the many fanciful fixtures of Riverbank — and studying seeds in order to infuse crops with optimal properties as a kind of proto genetic engineering. Over long walks, animated by parallel intellectual voraciousness and shared skepticism of the Bacon cipher conspiracy, the two fell in love.

William and Elizebeth Friedman, circa 1920s (The George C. Marshall Foundation)

William and Elizebeth were married at Riverbank, where they had begun collaborating on cryptographic work. The papers on the subject they wrote together — though always published under William’s name alone — soon spread their reputation beyond Riverbank. Cryptography was new then, new and thrilling and full of unmined possibility for government intelligence, and so the U.S. Navy eventually recruited the Friedmans. Fagone writes:

The savaging of Nazis, the birth of a science: It begins on the day when a twenty-three-year-old American woman decides to trust her doubt and dig with her own mind.

The room is dark but her pencil is sharp. An envelope of puzzles arrives from Washington, sent by men who have the largest of responsibilities and the tiniest of clues. With William she examines the puzzles. He is game, he looks at her with eyes like little bonfires, he is in love with her. She is not in love yet but she would not be ashamed to fall in love with such a bright and kind person. She stares at the odd blocks of text and starts to flip and stack and rearrange them on a scratch pad, a kindling of letters, a friction of alphabets hot to the touch, and then a flame catches and then catches again, until she understands that she can ignite whenever she wants, that a power is there for the taking, for her and for anyone, and nothing will ever be the same. The ribs of a pattern shine through. Something rises at the nib of her pencil and her heart whomps away. The skeletons of words leap out and make her jump.

Elizebeth began working for the U.S. Coast Guard Intelligence Division, intercepting and deciphering the encrypted radio messages by which international and domestic smuggling operated. She fused her literary passion with formidable logic to do work hardly anyone else in the country knew how to do — work that didn’t yet have a proper name. Fagone writes:

All her life she had celebrated the improbable bigness of language, the long-lunged galaxy that exploded out from the small dense point of the alphabet, the twenty-six humble letters. In college she trained herself to hear the rhythms of playwrights and poets, the syllables that slip from the tongue in patterns. Tennyson:

There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
There LIVES more FAITH in HON-est DOUBT,
Be-LIEVE me, than in HALF the CREEDS.

But before, she had gone no further than chopping lines into meters. She left the words in their boxes, intact. Codebreaking required more drastic measures. Now Elizebeth had to shake the words until they spilled their letters. To rip, rupture, puncture, chisel, scissor, smash, and scoop up the rubble in her arms. To chip off flakes from the smooth rock of the message and place them in piles and ask questions about them. It involved a kind of hard-hearted analytic violence that she had never contemplated before. It was reaching into the red body of the text until the hands dripped with blood… “The thrill of your life,” Elizebeth said later, describing how it felt to solve a message. “The skeletons of words leap out, and make you jump.”

Elizebeth and William Friedman, circa 1920s (The George C. Marshall Foundation)

Although William and Elizebeth worked side by side, often on different classified problems they didn’t share with each other, he always considered her his intellectual superior. More than that, Elizebeth was William’s unfaltering succor when he slipped into depression as World War II began darkening humanity’s horizons. He wrote to her in a letter:

I’ve known for a long time that you are the one in back of me and responsible for what little I’ve done. Had it not been for you I’d have been sunk long ago by unsolved infernal conflicts, by windy storms of emotion, by failure to keep up the fight when things seemed not worthwhile. . . . I know how much I owe to you — for love, for wisdom, for courage, and common sense.

By the time the war engulfed the world, Elizebeth Friedman was America’s foremost mind decrypting Nazi communication, using the weapons she had always wielded with uncommon skill: pencil, paper, and perseverance. Fagone writes:

A telegram arrived in Elizebeth’s office from a magazine writer in New York. “PLEASE COOPERATE BY ANSWERING QUESTIONS BELOW BY RETURN SPECIAL DELIVERY TO ME,” the man wrote. “FOR WHAT DEPARTMENTS DO YOU DECIPHER MESSAGES? HOW MANY HAVE YOU DONE? WHAT TYPES? SENT BY WHOM? HOW DO THEY FALL INTO YOUR HANDS? . . . LIKES, DISLIKES, SUPERSTITIONS HAVE YOU, ANY FURTHER ANECDOTES OF HUMAN INTEREST, HUMOR, OR UNUSUAL EXPERIENCES WOULD BE APPRECIATED.” Across the bottom of the telegram, in large letters, Elizebeth scrawled in disgust, “Ad Absurdum!”

She was now the most famous codebreaker in the world, more famous even than Herbert Yardley, the impresario of the American Black Chamber. And she was more famous than her husband, too — a reversal from the longstanding pattern.

Elizebeth Friedman, circa 1940s, with her handwritten cryptanalysis.

And yet despite her formative contribution to cryptography as an instrument of military intelligence and the genius with which she operated the instrument to save incalculable lives, Elizebeth Friedman received no public recognition for her work in her lifetime. Part of it, no doubt, was due to the classified nature of the work — even Alan Turing, after all, died a tragic hero murdered by the very government he had served, his compatriots unaware of the millions of lives he had saved. But a big part of it, too, has to do with the long history of women in science being denied recognition for their landmark work — from Lise Meitner and the discovery of fission to Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the detection of pulsars to Vera Rubin and the confirmation of dark matter. Instead, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, unconstrained by the secrecy oaths Elizebeth had taken and unscrupulous about manipulating the press and the public, undertook an effort to erase her from history and take credit for her work. But the evidence Fagone and other scholars have uncovered in the decades since speaks for itself:

Three of the index cards in William’s collection contain brief, verifiably true comments about how J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI took credit for feats of spycatching actually performed by Elizebeth and the coast guard. These comments were obviously written by Elizebeth — William wasn’t in a position to know. Each card is a knife slipped between the ribs of Hoover, Elizebeth’s patient revenge.

She intended to use all of these archives to write her own story. She never got around to it. Maybe she lost hope. But the files are exactly where she left them, the fragments of an extraordinary life. The files have a weight to them, a texture. They can’t be erased any more than Elizebeth’s legacy can be erased, because her legacy is embedded in our lives today, in our smartphones and Web browsers, in the science that powers secure-messaging apps used by billions, in the clandestine procedures of corporations and intelligence agencies and in the mundane software loaded onto the iPhones in our pockets.

With an eye to this bittersweet redemption, Fagone considers Elizebeth Friedman’s unassailable legacy:

Secret communication is still a dance of codemakers and codebreakers, locks and lockpickers. The locks are different now, of course. With computation as an aid, everything has been massively sped up and mathematized beyond anything Elizebeth would have comfortably understood. But the game is still based in patterns. Someone designs a pattern that looks like mere clutter, and someone else tries to rearrange the clutter into a picture. Over and over again, gazing at what seemed random in the world, Elizebeth found a tiny spot of sense, and then she stood on that spot and invented a system to transform the rest of the landscape all the way out to the horizon, and this is still the process today. Codebreaking is work and patience and method and mind. And Elizebeth had more of these qualities than perhaps anyone else in her time.

Part fascinating cultural history, part homage to an unsung heroine, and part uncommon love story, The Woman Who Smashed Codes is a fascinating read in its entirety. Complement it with the story of the unheralded women astronomers who shaped our understanding of the universe long before they could vote, then revisit Alan Turing’s beautiful and heartbreaking letters on love and loss.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 7 Sep 2018 | 2:00 pm(NZT)

You Belong Here: An Illustrated Antidote to Our Existential Homelessness

Sweet consolation for the lifelong alienation that afflicts each of us at different times and in different measures.


You Belong Here: An Illustrated Antidote to Our Existential Homelessness

There is hardly a more elemental human need than our need for belonging — in a place, in a heart, in ourselves. Perhaps this is why we are so susceptible to that particular kind of loneliness that begins in childhood, as we try to master the “fertile solitude” necessary for self-esteem, and can so often morph into a kind of existential homelessness as we grow older and slip into continually narrowing landscapes of possibility. “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place,” Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers in their fantastic 1973 conversation about freedom.

That elusive, coveted locus of belonging is what poet and writer M.H. Clark explores in the spare and lovely You Belong Here (public library).

Illustrated by Isabel Arsenault — the artist behind such treasures as a picture-book about Louise Bourgeois, a graphic novel inspired by Jane Eyre, and the story of Virginia Woolf and her sister — the lyrical and almost songlike story meets different creatures in their habitats and homes: the whales in the sea, the deer in the forest, the frogs and the lilies in the lake, the lizard on the sunlit rock. Each creature belongs exactly where it is.

An invisible narrator addresses an invisible listener — perhaps a child, or the inner child that lives in each of us — with the assurance that the two belong together, no matter how far and across how many landscapes they may travel from one another.

The stars belong in the deep night sky
and the moon belongs there too,
and the winds belong in each place they blow by
and I belong here
with you.

Complement You Belong Here — sweet consolation for the lifelong alienation that afflicts each of us at different times and in different measures — with Derek Walcott’s timeless ode to being at home in ourselves, Carson Ellis’s lovely illustrated celebration of the many meanings of home, and Kurt Vonnegut on belonging in community, then revisit the beautiful and bittersweet Arsenault-illustrated story of how Paul Gauguin became an artist and Clark’s wonderful Tiny Perfect Things.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 6 Sep 2018 | 6:00 pm(NZT)

Jeanette Winterson’s 10 Tips on Writing

“Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.”


In 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s classic 10 Rules of Writing published nearly a decade earlier, The Guardian invited some of the world’s most celebrated living authors to share their own dicta of the craft. “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied,” Zadie Smith counseled in the last of her ten. Midway through her list, Margaret Atwood grounded the psychological dimensions of the craft in the pragmatic and the physical: “Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.” Neil Gaiman thought eight rather than ten tenets would be sufficient — a meta-testament to his sixth: “Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”

Among the contributors was Jeanette Winterson — a writer of exquisite prose and keen insight into the deepest strata of the human experience: time and language, our elemental need for belonging, the power of art, how storytelling transforms us.

Jeanette Winterson (Photograph: Polly Borland)

Winterson offers:

  1. Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.
  2. Never stop when you are stuck. You may not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. Do not stop altogether.
  3. Love what you do.
  4. Be honest with yourself. If you are no good, accept it. If the work you are ­doing is no good, accept it.
  5. Don’t hold on to poor work. If it was bad when it went in the drawer it will be just as bad when it comes out.
  6. Take no notice of anyone you don’t respect.
  7. Take no notice of anyone with a ­gender agenda. A lot of men still think that women lack imagination of the fiery kind.
  8. Be ambitious for the work and not for the reward.
  9. Trust your creativity.
  10. Enjoy this work!

For more hard-earned guidance on the writing process from other titans of literature, see Henry Miller’s eleven commandments of writing, Eudora Welty on the art of narrative, Susan Sontag’s advice to writers, and T.S. Eliot’s warm, wry letter of advice to a sixteen-year-old girl aspiring to be a writer.


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


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Source: Brain Pickings | 5 Sep 2018 | 6:00 pm(NZT)

The Difficult Art of Giving Space in Love: Rilke on Freedom, Togetherness, and the Secret to a Good Marriage

“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”


The Difficult Art of Giving Space in Love: Rilke on Freedom, Togetherness, and the Secret to a Good Marriage

“Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls,” the great Lebanese-American poet, philosopher, and painter Kahlil Gibran counseled in what remains the finest advice on the secret to a loving and lasting relationship.

Our paradoxical longing for intimacy and independence is a diamagnetic force — it pulls us toward togetherness and simultaneously repels us from it with a mighty magnet that, if unskillfully handled, can rupture a relationship and break a heart. Under this unforgiving magnetism, it becomes an act of superhuman strength and self-transcendence to give space to the other when all one wants is closeness. And yet this difficult act may be the very thing — perhaps the only thing — that saves the relationship over and over.

Two decades before Gibran, at the dawn of the twentieth century, another great poet of abiding insight into the turbulences of the human heart contemplated this predicament. In a letter to the 19-year-old cadet and budding poet Franz Xaver Kappus, Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) offered some spectacular advice on managing the bipolar pull of autonomy and togetherness in a way that assures the longevity of any close bond and protects love from self-destruction. The passages, originally published in Rilke’s classic Letters to a Young Poet — the record of his six-year correspondence with Kappus, which also gave us Rilke’s timeless wisdom on the lonely patience of creative work, what it takes to be an artist, why we read, and how hardship enlarges us — appear in the wonderful poetry and prose anthology Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties: Translations and Considerations (public library), selected and translated by the scholar and philosopher John Mood.

1902 portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke by Helmuth Westhoff, Rilke’s brother-in-law

Rilke writes to his young correspondent:

I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other. For, if it lies in the nature of indifference and of the crowd to recognize no solitude, then love and friendship are there for the purpose of continually providing the opportunity for solitude. And only those are the true sharings which rhythmically interrupt periods of deep isolation.

A century before psychologist Esther Perel asserted in her landmark book on the central paradox of relationships that “love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy” because “our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness,” Rilke considers how our cultural constructs around what it means to be coupled obstruct happiness in union:

It is a question in marriage, to my feeling, not of creating a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, but rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude, and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his power to bestow. A togetherness between two people is an impossibility, and where it seems, nevertheless, to exist, it is a narrowing, a reciprocal agreement which robs either one party or both of his fullest freedom and development. But, once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!

Therefore this too must be the standard for rejection or choice: whether one is willing to stand guard over the solitude of a person and whether one is inclined to set this same person at the gate of one’s own solitude, of which he learns only through that which steps, festively clothed, out of the great darkness.

Illustration from An ABZ of Love, Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality

This principle, Rilke points out, holds true not only in marriage but in any close relationship and any bond desired to last a lifetime:

All companionship can consist only in the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes, whereas everything that one is wont to call giving oneself is by nature harmful to companionship: for when a person abandons himself, he is no longer anything, and when two people both give themselves up in order to come close to each other, there is no longer any ground beneath them and their being together is a continual falling… Once there is disunity between them, the confusion grows with every day; neither of the two has anything unbroken, pure, and unspoiled about him any longer… They who wanted to do each other good are now handling one another in an imperious and intolerant manner, and in the struggle somehow to get out of their untenable and unbearable state of confusion, they commit the greatest fault that can happen to human relationships: they become impatient. They hurry to a conclusion; to come, as they believe, to a final decision, they try once and for all to establish their relationship, whose surprising changes have frightened them, in order to remain the same now and forever (as they say).

Two millennia after Epictetus offered the Stoic cure for heartbreak in the recognition of the temporality and flux of all things, Rilke adds:

Self-transformation is precisely what life is, and human relationships, which are an extract of life, are the most changeable of all, rising and falling from minute to minute, and lovers are those in whose relationship and contact no one moment resembles another.

The outliers impervious to this supreme challenge of love are rare, Rilke notes; for the rest of us, there is only the hard, necessary work of love:

There are such relationships which must be a very great, almost unbearable happiness, but they can occur only between very rich natures and between those who, each for himself, are richly ordered and composed; they can unite only two wide, deep, individual worlds.

[…]

For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.

Complement this particular portion of the altogether beautiful and healing Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage, Virginia Woolf on what makes love last, and Kahlil Gibran on the courage to weather the uncertainties of love, then revisit Rilke on inspiration and the combinatorial nature of creativity.


donating = loving

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


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Source: Brain Pickings | 4 Sep 2018 | 1:00 pm(NZT)

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