谷歌自动翻译 》

Walt Whitman on Beethoven and Music as the Profoundest Expression of Nature

In praise of the “dainty abandon” that awakens us to wonder and carries us outside ourselves.


Walt Whitman on Beethoven and Music as the Profoundest Expression of Nature

“Feeling, life, motion and emotion constitute its import,” philosopher Susanne Langer wrote of music, which she defined as “a highly articulated sensuous object.”

Although many great writers have contemplated the power of music, few have articulated it more perfectly or more sensuously than Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) does in Specimen Days (public library) — the sublime collection of prose fragments and journal entries, which gave us Whitman on the wisdom of trees and which the poet himself described as “a melange of loafing, looking, hobbling, sitting, traveling — a little thinking thrown in for salt, but very little — …mostly the scenes everybody sees, but some of my own caprices, meditations, egotism.” And what a beautiful, generous egotism it is.

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

One cold February evening in the last weeks of his sixtieth year, having finally recovered from the stroke that had rendered him paralyzed for two years, Whitman treated himself to a concert at Philadelphia’s opera house. Two decades after he wrote of music as “a god, yet completely human… supplying in certain wants and quarters what nothing else could supply,” Whitman found himself surrendering to its transcendent transport in a way that eclipsed every other musical experience he’d ever had, revealing to him the very essence of music’s power. Enraptured, he writes:

Never did music more sink into and soothe and fill me — never so prove its soul-rousing power, its impossibility of statement.

Particularly enchanted by the orchestral splendor of a Beethoven septet, Whitman meditates on whether music might be the purest and profoundest expression of nature:

I [was] carried away, seeing, absorbing many wonders. Dainty abandon, sometimes as if Nature laughing on a hillside in the sunshine; serious and firm monotonies, as of winds; a horn sounding through the tangle of the forest, and the dying echoes; soothing floating of waves, but presently rising in surges, angrily lashing, muttering, heavy; piercing peals of laughter, for interstices; now and then weird, as Nature herself is in certain moods — but mainly spontaneous, easy, careless — often the sentiment of the postures of naked children playing or sleeping.

The Gnomes: "He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes."
One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

Long before scientists illuminated why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, Whitman intuited the singular mind-body attunement of performance. More than a purely aural bewitchment, he revels in the full-body, creaturely delight of music — both of playing and of listening:

It did me good even to watch the violinists drawing their bows so masterly — every motion a study. I allow’d myself, as I sometimes do, to wander out of myself. The conceit came to me of a copious grove of singing birds, and in their midst a simple harmonic duo, two human souls, steadily asserting their own pensiveness, joyousness.

Specimen Days is a beautiful read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with German philosopher Josef Pieper on the source of music’s supreme power, Aldous Huxley on why it sings to our souls, and Wendy Lesser on how it helps us grieve, then revisit Whitman on the connection between the body and the spirit, why literature is central to democracy, and his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Nov 2017 | 2:13 pm

How Pioneering Firefighter Brenda Berkman Won Women’s Right to Heroism

“My uniform is emblematic of my philosophy that people should try to leave the world better than they found it.”


How Pioneering Firefighter Brenda Berkman Won Women’s Right to Heroism

“No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” pioneering 19th-century astronomer Maria Mitchell told her students as she paved the way for women in science. And yet a century later, Brenda Berkman found embers of that but-a-woman cavil smoldering in the innermost chamber of culture, and she set out to extinguish them with unexampled fortitude of spirit.

Berkman, now an artist in her sixties, was once a lawyer before becoming one of the first women firefighters on the New York force, where she initiated and won — at great personal cost — a landmark lawsuit that forever changed the face of the fire department and became a precedent for equality far beyond its locale. Berkman recounts the hard-earned triumph through the lens of her uniform in one of the sixty-eight stories in Emily Spivack’s altogether wonderful Worn in New York (public library) — the continuation of Spivack’s Worn Stories, one of the most rewarding books of 2014, unraveling the tapestry of cultural and personal histories that make us who we are through the storytelling thread of sartorial micro-memoirs.

Brenda Berkman’s uniform. (Photograph by Bon Jane for Worn in New York by Emily Spivack, published by Abrams Books.)

Berkman tells Spivack:

I have this photograph of myself and a group of girls who were all editors of my high school’s newspaper in Richfield, Minnesota, dressed in the boys’ baseball team uniforms. To most people, that photo was a spoof or joke, but to me, it was serious. It was an example of what I wanted to be, but couldn’t be, because I was a girl. Throughout my childhood I had been a tomboy. My mother had signed me up for Little League because I wanted to play baseball. When the coach found out I was a girl, he turned me down. So the idea of wearing a uniform, especially a uniform to play a sport, got stuck in my mind as something honorable and desirable.

Berkman came of age in an era of woefully gendered career opportunities, with girls groomed to be teachers, nurses, or secretaries — if they weren’t full-time wives, that is — and boys prepared for positions of power in law, commerce, and government. She did get married, but refused to accept the limiting career paths before her. After college, she took a job in her father-in-law’s law firm and saw him represent the women of the NYPD in a sex discrimination lawsuit, which inspired her to apply to law school so that she could fight for equality herself.

When Berkman entered the NYU law school at the height of the feminist movement, she found herself seated next to a young man who was a “fire buff” — a person she defines as “someone who may or may not be a firefighter but knows everything about the fire department.” Around that time, she began running marathons and discovering the strength of her physical being. These two new strands of thought twined into the idea of becoming a firefighter.

“Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves,” Adrienne Rich asserted in her fantastic 1977 convocation speech, “we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.” That year — Berkman’s first year of law school — the firefighter test opened for women for the first time. But there was a cruel twist — this was also the year New York City instituted the harshest physical abilities test ever required of firefighters, which included a number of physical tasks having little to do with what it actually takes to fight fires. Berkman took and aced the written portion of the test but failed the physical, even though she had trained for it by carrying her husband up and down flights of stairs — the kind of activity firefighters would actually need to perform on duty.

She recounts:

Not a single one of the ninety women who passed the written exam passed the physical one.

I needed to do something about that. None of us were asking that standards be lowered merely because we were women. We were asking that the standards be job-related and that women be given a fair opportunity to meet those standards. I sued, maintaining that the exam was not job-related and that it disccriminated against women. About four years later, I won the lawsuit.

Even at the beginning of my career, my fire department uniform symbolized my right, and all women’s right, to be a firefighter.

But that right was assaulted less than a year later, when Berkman was fired for alleged lack of physical ability — even though her performance was consistently in the top tier of every task the fire department had given women. When she returned to her firehouse on the Lower East Side to collect her belongings, the male firefighters wouldn’t speak to her. As she exited in silence, they began clapping. Far more heartbreaking for Berkman than the demonstrative humiliation, however, was the fact that she was no longer allowed to wear the uniform for which she had fought so hard.

Later that year, together with another woman who had been fired under the same pretext, Berkman sued the city to get their jobs back. She won the lawsuit, was assigned to a new firehouse in Harlem, and went on to serve her city for a quarter century before retiring with three citations of honor pinned to her captain’s uniform — one for a difficult fire in a tenement (a citation the still-embittered men in the department wanted to decline because Berkamn’s name was on it), one for a construction collapse during her tenure as lieutenant, and the third for her work at World Trade Center on 9/11, where she arrived as an off-duty firefighter just as the second tower was collapsing and toiled around the clock for days.

Looking back on her hard-earned chance at heroism, Berkman tells Spivack:

I am part of a tradition that’s self-sacrificing and service-oriented — in the middle of the night, in all weather, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. And it’s a way of serving your country without having to shoot people, which appealed to me. My parents raised me to believe that you are not put on Earth just to take up space. My uniform is emblematic of my philosophy that people should try to leave the world better than they found it.

Complement this fragment of the throughly fantastic Worn in New York — which features stories by Eileen Myles, Gay Talese, Jenji Kohan, Jenna Lyons, Lena Dunham, and Thelma Golden — with a modern manifesto for bravery and perseverance by one of San Francisco’s first women firefighters, then revisit astronaut Sally Ride in conversation with Gloria Steinem about what it was like to be the first American woman in space, the story of how astrophysicist Cecilia Payne became the first woman to chair a Harvard department, and this illustrated celebration of trailblazing women in science.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 16 Nov 2017 | 8:11 pm

Technology, Wisdom, and the Difficult Art of Civilizational Self-Awareness: Thomas Merton’s Beautiful Letter of Appreciation to Rachel Carson for Catalyzing the Environmental Movement

“Technics and wisdom are not by any means opposed. On the contrary, the duty of our age… is to unite them in a supreme humility which will result in a totally self-forgetful creativity and service.”


Technology, Wisdom, and the Difficult Art of Civilizational Self-Awareness: Thomas Merton’s Beautiful Letter of Appreciation to Rachel Carson for Catalyzing the Environmental Movement

“Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent,” marine biologist and poet laureate of science Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) wrote to her soul mate, Dorothy, before the release of Silent Spring — Carson’s epoch-making 1962 book that catalyzed the modern environmental movement.

Her courageous and sobering exposé of the assault on nature by the heedless use of chemicals — a dark subject to which she brought her exquisitely luminous prose — disquieted the nation into a major controversy. Despite the propagandist backlash and merciless attacks that government and industry hurled at the author, the popular press sided overwhelmingly with Carson. Her book, soon a record-breaking bestseller, went on to inspire the first-ever Earth Day and led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The avalanche of editorial enthusiasm for the rare miracle of Silent Spring was dwarfed by the thousands of letters Carson received from private citizens commending her on the moral courage of speaking inconvenient truth to power. In the winter of 1963, shortly before her untimely death, this apostle of science received a letter from an improbable admirer — the theologian and Trappist monk Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915–December 10, 1968), who had long admired Carson’s devotion to science as an expression of our spiritual bond with nature. His missive, found in the altogether magnificent Witness to Freedom: The Letters of Thomas Merton in Times of Crisis (public library), is a beautiful testament to how interconnected the deepest truths of existence are, how they transcend all boundaries of discipline and credo to bring us into naked contact with reality itself — and with our responsibility to the web of life.

Reaching out with “every expression of personal esteem” and commending Carson on the “fine, exact, and persuasive book,” Merton writes:

[Silent Spring] is perhaps much more timely even than you or I realize. Though you are treating of just one aspect, and a rather detailed aspect, of our technological civilization, you are, perhaps without altogether realizing, contributing a most valuable and essential piece of evidence for the diagnosis of the ills of our civilization…. Your book makes it clear to me that there is a consistent pattern running through everything that we do, through every aspect of our culture, our thought, our economy, our whole way of life.

Such civilizational self-awareness is indeed Carson’s invaluable gift to posterity — that is, to us — though a gift of which we are yet to make conscientious use. With great foresight, both tragic and hopeful, Merton adds:

It is now the most vitally important thing for all of us, however we may be concerned with our society, to try to arrive at a clear, cogent statement of our ills, so that we may begin to correct them. Otherwise, our efforts will be directed to purely superficial symptoms only, and perhaps not even at things related directly to the illness. On the contrary, it seems that our remedies are instinctively those which aggravate the sickness: the remedies are expressions of the sickness itself.

I would almost dare to say that the sickness is perhaps a very real and very dreadful hatred of life as such, of course subconscious, buried under our pitiful and superficial optimism about ourselves and our affluent society. But I think that the very thought processes of materialistic affluence (and here the same things are found in all the different economic systems that seek affluence for its own sake) are ultimately self-defeating. They contain so many built-in frustrations that they inevitably lead us to despair in the midst of “plenty” and “happiness” and the awful fruit of this despair is indiscriminate, irresponsible destructiveness, hatred of life, carried on in the name of life itself. In order to “survive” we instinctively destroy that on which our survival depends.

Reflecting on his collaboration with the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki and humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm on the poetic possibilities behind the notion of original sin, Merton adds:

Technics and wisdom are not by any means opposed. On the contrary, the duty of our age, the “vocation” of modern man is to unite them in a supreme humility which will result in a totally self-forgetful creativity and service.

Complement this portion of Witness to Freedom with Rachel Carson on writing and the loneliness of creative work, her brave, prescient letter against the government’s assault on science and nature, and the 1914 protest poem that emboldened her to write Silent Spring, then revisit other radiant beams of appreciation between great minds: Isaac Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan, Charles Dickens’s letter of admiration to George Eliot, teenage James Joyce’s expression of gratitude to Ibsen, Baudelaire’s “cry of gratitude” to Wagner, and Darwin’s touching letter of appreciation to his best friend and greatest supporter.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 14 Nov 2017 | 8:19 pm

Between Sinew and Spirit: Are You a Body with a Mind or a Mind with a Body?

An animated journey to the center of the self.


Between Sinew and Spirit: Are You a Body with a Mind or a Mind with a Body?

“The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use,” computing pioneer Alan Turing wrote as he anguished at the intersection of love and loss. And yet we are creatures of atoms, with spirit and sinew inextricably entwined. A century before neuroscientists came to explore the central mystery of consciousness, Rilke knew how beholden the mind is to the body when he wrote: “I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.”

So what is the direction of servitude between the body and the mind, and where does the constellation of certitudes we experience as a self reside in all of it?

In this lovely animated inquiry from TED-Ed, inspired by Isaac Asimov’s I Robot (public library), Maryam Alimardani traces the mind-body problem from Descartes’s foundational ideas to the disorienting findings of neuroscience to explore the ever-elusive locus of self.

Complement with Walt Whitman on the paradox of the self, pioneering immunologist Esther Sternberg on how our minds affect our bodies, and PTSD researcher Bessel van der Kolk on how body and mind converge in the healing of trauma, then revisit other illuminating TED-Ed animations exploring why we fall in love, what makes you you, how melancholy enhances creativity, why some people are left-handed, what depression actually feels like, and why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 13 Nov 2017 | 7:07 am

Oliver Sacks on the Three Essential Elements of Creativity

“It takes a special energy, over and above one’s creative potential, a special audacity or subversiveness, to strike out in a new direction.”


Oliver Sacks on the Three Essential Elements of Creativity

“And don’t ever imitate anybody,” Hemingway cautioned in his advice to aspiring writers. But in this particular sentiment, the otherwise insightful Nobel laureate seems to have been blind to his own admonition against the dangers of ego, for only the ego can blind an artist to the recognition that all creative work begins with imitation before fermenting into originality under the dual forces of time and consecrating effort.

Imitation, besides being the seedbed of empathy and our experience of time, is also, paradoxically enough, the seedbed of creativity — not only a poetic truth but a cognitive fact, as the late, great neurologist and poet of science Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) argues in a spectacular essay titled “The Creative Self,” published in the posthumous treasure The River of Consciousness (public library).

Oliver Sacks captures a thought in his journal at Amsterdam’s busy train station (Photograph by Lowell Handler from On the Move)

In his impressive handwritten notes on creativity and the brain, which became the basis of the essay, Sacks had enthused about — in two colors, underlined — the “buzzing, blooming chaos” of the mind engaged in creative work. But, contrary to the archetypal myth of the lone genius struck with a sudden Eureka! moment, this chaos doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Rather, it coalesces from a particulate cloud of influences and inspirations without which creativity — that is, birthing of something meaningful that hadn’t exist before — cannot come about.

With the illustrative example of Susan Sontag — herself a writer of abiding wisdom on the art of storytelling — Sacks traces the inevitable trajectory of creative development from imitation to originality:

Susan Sontag, at a conference in 2002, spoke about how reading opened up the entire world to her when she was quite young, enlarging her imagination and memory far beyond the bounds of her actual, immediate personal experience. She recalled,

When I was five or six, I read Eve Curie’s biography of her mother. I read comic books, dictionaries, and encyclopedias indiscriminately, and with great pleasure…. It felt like the more I took in, the stronger I was, the bigger the world got…. I think I was, from the very beginning, an incredibly gifted student, an incredibly gifted learner, a champion child autodidact…. Is that creative? No, it wasn’t creative…[but] it didn’t preclude becoming creative later on…. I was engorging rather than making. I was a mental traveler, a mental glutton…. My childhood, apart from my wretched actual life, was just a career in ecstasy.

[…]

I started writing when I was about seven. I started a newspaper when I was eight, which I filled with stories and poems and plays and articles, and which I used to sell to the neighbors for five cents. I’m sure it was quite banal and conventional, and simply made up of things, influenced by things, I was reading…. Of course there were models, there was a pantheon of these people…. If I was reading the stories of Poe, then I would write a Poe-like story…. When I was ten, a long-forgotten play by Karel Čapek, R.U.R., about robots, fell into my hands, so I wrote a play about robots. But it was absolutely derivative. Whatever I saw I loved, and whatever I loved I wanted to imitate — that’s not necessarily the royal road to real innovation or creativity; neither, as I saw it, does it preclude it…. I started to be a real writer at thirteen.

Sontag’s experience, Sacks argues, reflects the common pattern in the natural cycle of creative evolution — we learn our own minds by finding out what we love; these models integrate into a sensibility; out of that sensibility arises the initial impulse for imitation, which, aided by the gradual acquisition of technical mastery, eventually ripens into original creation. He writes:

If imitation plays a central role in the performing arts, where incessant practice, repetition, and rehearsal are essential, it is equally important in painting or composing or writing, for example. All young artists seek models in their apprentice years, models whose style, technical mastery, and innovations can teach them. Young painters may haunt the galleries of the Met or the Louvre; young composers may go to concerts or study scores. All art, in this sense, starts out as “derivative,” highly influenced by, if not a direct imitation or paraphrase of, the admired and emulated models.

When Alexander Pope was thirteen years old, he asked William Walsh, an older poet whom he admired, for advice. Walsh’s advice was that Pope should be “correct.” Pope took this to mean that he should first gain a mastery of poetic forms and techniques. To this end, in his “Imitations of English Poets,” Pope began by imitating Walsh, then Cowley, the Earl of Rochester, and more major figures like Chaucer and Spenser, as well as writing “Paraphrases,” as he called them, of Latin poets. By seventeen, he had mastered the heroic couplet and began to write his “Pastorals” and other poems, where he developed and honed his own style but contented himself with the most insipid or clichéd themes. It was only once he had established full mastery of his style and form that he started to charge it with the exquisite and sometimes terrifying products of his own imagination. For most artists, perhaps, these stages or processes overlap a good deal, but imitation and mastery of form or skills must come before major creativity.

Curiously, Sacks points out, many creators don’t make the leap from mastery to such “major creativity” — something Schopenhauer considered in his incisive distinction between talent and genius. Often, creators — be they artists or scientists — content themselves with reaching a level of mastery, then remaining at that plateau for the rest of their careers, comfortably creating more of what they already know well how to create. Sacks examines what set those who soar apart from those who plateau:

Why is it that of every hundred gifted young musicians who study at Juilliard or every hundred brilliant young scientists who go to work in major labs under illustrious mentors, only a handful will write memorable musical compositions or make scientific discoveries of major importance? Are the majority, despite their gifts, lacking in some further creative spark? Are they missing characteristics other than creativity that may be essential for creative achievement — such as boldness, confidence, independence of mind?

It takes a special energy, over and above one’s creative potential, a special audacity or subversiveness, to strike out in a new direction once one is settled. It is a gamble as all creative projects must be, for the new direction may not turn out to be productive at all.

Much of the gamble, Sacks argues, is a kind of patient gestation at the unconscious level — something Einstein touched upon in explaining how his mind worked. Echoing T.S. Eliot’s insistence on the necessity of “a long incubation” in creative work, Sacks adds:

Creativity involves not only years of conscious preparation and training but unconscious preparation as well. This incubation period is essential to allow the subconscious assimilation and incorporation of one’s influences and sources, to reorganize and synthesize them into something of one’s own…. The essential element in these realms of retaining and appropriating versus assimilating and incorporating is one of depth, of meaning, of active and personal involvement.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

He illustrates the detrimental absence of such a gestational period with an example from his own experience:

Early in 1982, I received an unexpected packet from London containing a letter from Harold Pinter and the manuscript of a new play, A Kind of Alaska, which, he said, had been inspired by a case history of mine in Awakenings. In his letter, Pinter said that he had read my book when it originally came out in 1973 and had immediately wondered about the problems presented by a dramatic adaptation of this. But, seeing no ready solution to these problems, he had then forgotten about it. One morning eight years later, Pinter wrote, he had awoken with the first image and first words (“Something is happening”) clear and pressing in his mind. The play had then “written itself” in the days and weeks that followed.

I could not help contrasting this with a play (inspired by the same case history) which I had been sent four years earlier, where the author, in an accompanying letter, said that he had read Awakenings two months before and been so “influenced,” so possessed, by it that he felt impelled to write a play straightaway. Whereas I loved Pinter’s play — not least because it effected so profound a transformation, a “Pinterization” of my own themes — I felt the 1978 play to be grossly derivative, for it lifted, sometimes, whole sentences from my own book without transforming them in the least. It seemed to me less an original play than a plagiarism or a parody (yet there was no doubting the author’s “obsession” or good faith).

In a testament to his uncommon empathic might and his endearing generosity of interpretation in regarding others, Sacks reflects on the deeper phenomena at play:

I was not sure what to make of this. Was the author too lazy, or too lacking in talent or originality, to make the needed transformation of my work? Or was the problem essentially one of incubation, that he had not allowed himself enough time for the experience of reading Awakenings to sink in? Nor had he allowed himself, as Pinter did, time to forget it, to let it fall into his unconscious, where it might link with other experiences and thoughts.

The unfortunate playwright seems to have embodied the lamentation which poet Mary Oliver so beautifully articulated in her meditation on the creative life: “The most regretful people on earth 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.”

Sacks points to three essential elements in a creative breakthrough, be it a great play or a deep mathematical insights: time, “forgetting,” and incubation. More than a century after Mark Twain declared that “substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources,” Sacks — who had previously written at length about our unconscious borrowings — adds:

All of us, to some extent, borrow from others, from the culture around us. Ideas are in the air, and we may appropriate, often without realizing, the phrases and language of the times. We borrow language itself; we did not invent it. We found it, we grew up into it, though we may use it, interpret it, in very individual ways. What is at issue is not the fact of “borrowing” or “imitating,” of being “derivative,” being “influenced,” but what one does with what is borrowed or imitated or derived; how deeply one assimilates it, takes it into oneself, compounds it with one’s own experiences and thoughts and feelings, places it in relation to oneself, and expresses it in a new way, one’s own.

Complement this fathom of The River of Consciousness, thoroughly resplendent in its totality, with physicist and poet Alan Lightman on the psychology of creative breakthrough in art and science, then revisit Bill Hayes’s loving remembrance of Oliver Sacks and Sacks himself on what the poet Thom Gunn taught him about creativity.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 9 Nov 2017 | 9:00 pm

Carl Sagan on the Power of Books and Reading as the Path to Democracy

“Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.”


“Someone reading a book is a sign of order in the world,” wrote the poet Mary Ruefle. Four centuries earlier, while ushering in a new world order, Galileo contemplated how books give us superhuman powers — a sentiment his twentieth-century counterpart, Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996), echoed in his shimmering assertion that “a book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

Shortly before his death, Sagan expounded on this passionate conviction in an essay titled “The Path to Freedom,” co-written with Ann Druyan — creative director of the Golden Record project and the love of Sagan’s life. It was published in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (public library) — the indispensable volume that gave us Sagan on moving beyond us vs. them, science as a tool of democracy, and his increasingly needed Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking.

With his wide cosmic lens, Sagan places the nascent miracle of the written word in evolutionary perspective:

For 99 percent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could read or write. The great invention had not yet been made. Except for firsthand experience, almost everything we knew was passed on by word of mouth. As in the children’s game “Telephone,” over tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be distorted and lost.

Books changed all that. Books, purchasable at low cost, permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate — with the best teachers — the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses.

More than a century after Walt Whitman insisted that literature is central to a healthy democracy, Sagan adds:

Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.

Echoing Hannah Arendt’s piercing insight into how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression — and what more crushing isolation than to be severed from the life of the mind? — Sagan writes:

Tyrants and autocrats have always understood that literacy, learning, books and newspapers are potentially dangerous. They can put independent and even rebellious ideas in the heads of their subjects. The British Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia wrote in 1671:

“I thank God there are no free schools nor printing; and I hope we shall not have [them] these [next] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!”

Considering the complex socioeconomic forces that conspire in constricting opportunity and the powerful way in which books counteract those forces — power to which James Baldwin so beautifully attested — Sagan reflects on his own experience:

Ann Druyan and I come from families that knew grinding poverty. But our parents were passionate readers. One of our grandmothers learned to read because her father, a subsistence farmer, traded a sack of onions to an itinerant teacher. She read for the next hundred years. Our parents had personal hygiene and the germ theory of disease drummed into them by the New York public schools. They followed prescriptions on childhood nutrition recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as if they had been handed down from Mount Sinai. Our government book on children’s health had been repeatedly taped together as its pages fell out. The corners were tattered. Key advice was underlined. It was consulted in every medical crisis. For a while, my parents gave up smoking — one of the few pleasures available to them in the Depression years — so their infant could have vitamin and mineral supplements. Ann and I were very lucky.

Art by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston from A Child of Books, an illustrated love letter to reading
Art by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston from A Child of Books, an illustrated love letter to reading

With an admiring eye to the example and legacy of the freed slaved turned pioneering social reformer Frederick Douglass, Sagan concludes:

The gears of poverty, ignorance, hopelessness, and low self-esteem mesh to create a kind of perpetual failure machine that grinds down dreams from generation to generation. We all bear the cost of keeping it running. Illiteracy is its linchpin…. Frederick Douglass taught that literacy is the path from slavery to freedom. There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom. But reading is still the path.

The Demon-Haunted World remains one of the most important books written in the cosmic blink since we first began writing and its central message is, rather sadly, increasingly relevant in our time of unreason. Complement this particular portion with Gwendolyn Brooks on the power of books, Rebecca Solnit on why we read and write, Anaïs Nin on how books awaken us from the slumber of almost-living, and Mary Oliver on how reading saved her life, then revisit Sagan on science and spirituality and this lovely animated adaptation of his famous Pale Blue Dot monologue about our place in the universe.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 8 Nov 2017 | 9:00 pm

The Wisdom of Trees: Walt Whitman on What Our Silent Friends Teach Us About Being Rather Than Seeming

A supreme lesson in authenticity from a being “so innocent and harmless, yet so savage.”


The Wisdom of Trees: Walt Whitman on What Our Silent Friends Teach Us About Being Rather Than Seeming

“When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse wrote 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.” Two generations earlier, a different titan of poetic sentiment extolled trees not only as a source of joy but as a source of unheralded moral wisdom and an improbable yet formidable model of what is noblest in the human character.

At fifty-four, a decade after his volunteer service as a nurse in the Civil War awakened him to the connection between the body and the spirit, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) suffered a severe stroke that left him paralyzed. It took him two years to recover — convalescence aided greatly, he believed, by his immersion in nature and its healing power. “How it all nourishes, lulls me,” he exulted, “in the way most needed; the open air, the rye-fields, the apple orchards.” The transcendent record of Whitman’s communion with the natural world survives in Specimen Days (public library) — a sublime collection of prose fragments and diary entries, restoring the word “specimen” to its Latin origin in specere: “to look at.” What emerges is a jubilant celebration of the art of seeing, so native to us yet so easily unlearned, eulogized with the singular electricity that vibrates in Whitman alone.

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

In the years following his stroke, Whitman ventured frequently into the woods — “the best places for composition.” One late-summer day in 1876, he finds himself before one of his favorite arboreal wonders — “a fine yellow poplar,” rising ninety feet into the sky. Standing at its mighty four-foot trunk, he contemplates the unassailable authenticity of trees as a counterpoint to what Hannah Arendt would lament a century later as the human propensity for appearing rather than being. In a meditation from the late summer of 1876, Whitman writes:

How strong, vital, enduring! how dumbly eloquent! What suggestions of imperturbability and being, as against the human trait of mere seeming. Then the qualities, almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic, of a tree; so innocent and harmless, yet so savage. It is, yet says nothing.

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

Nearly a century and a half before researchers uncovered the astonishing science of what trees feel and how they communicate, Whitman adds:

Science (or rather half-way science) scoffs at reminiscence of dryad and hamadryad, and of trees speaking. But, if they don’t, they do as well as most speaking, writing, poetry, sermons — or rather they do a great deal better. I should say indeed that those old dryad-reminiscences are quite as true as any, and profounder than most reminiscences we get.

Art by Jacques Goldstyn from Bertolt, an uncommonly tender illustrated story about of the friendship of a tree.

Two centuries after an English gardener exulted that trees “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons,” Whitman considers their quiet wisdom as a model for human character:

Go and sit in a grove or woods, with one or more of those voiceless companions, and read the foregoing, and think.

One lesson from affiliating a tree — perhaps the greatest moral lesson anyhow from earth, rocks, animals, is that same lesson of inherency, of what is, without the least regard to what the looker on (the critic) supposes or says, or whether he likes or dislikes. What worse — what more general malady pervades each and all of us, our literature, education, attitude toward each other, (even toward ourselves,) than a morbid trouble about seems, (generally temporarily seems too,) and no trouble at all, or hardly any, about the sane, slow-growing, perennial, real parts of character, books, friendship, marriage — humanity’s invisible foundations and hold-together? (As the all-basis, the nerve, the great-sympathetic, the plenum within humanity, giving stamp to everything, is necessarily invisible.)

Art by Cécile Gambini from Strange Trees by Bernadette Pourquié, an illustrated atlas of the world’s arboreal wonders.

Specimen Days is a beautiful, healing read in its totality. Complement this particular fragment with a tender illustrated ode to our bond with trees, the story of how Marianne Moore saved a rare tree’s life with a poem, and a lyrical short film about our silent companions, then revisit Whitman on democracy, identity and the paradox of the self, and his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 6 Nov 2017 | 9:44 pm

Great Writers on the Letters of the Alphabet, Illustrated by David Hockney

A choral serenade to the building blocks of language starring Susan Sontag, Iris Murdoch, Ian McEwan, Joyce Carol Oates, Martin Amis, Doris Lessing, John Updike, and more titans of literature.


Great Writers on the Letters of the Alphabet, Illustrated by David Hockney

In the final years of his life, the English poet, novelist, essayist, and social justice advocate Sir Stephen Spender undertook a playful and poignant labor of love — he asked artist David Hockney to draw each letter of the alphabet, then invited twenty-nine of the greatest writers in the English language to each contribute a short original text for one of the letters. The result was the 1991 out-of-print treasure Hockney’s Alphabet (public library) — a sublime addition to the canon of imaginative alphabet books, with all proceeds going toward AIDS research and care for people living and dying with AIDS.

The twenty-nine pieces — essays, poems, micro-memoirs — come from such titans of literature as Susan Sontag, Seamus Heaney, Martin Amis, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Ted Hughes, Ian McEwan, Erica Jong, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Iris Murdoch.

X by David Hockney

“I have never liked the look of E,” Gore Vidal declares, “so very like a comb, unsnarling hyacinthine locks, taming Medusan curls — E — a cry!” Anthony Burgess writes a long elegy for X, the “unnecessary” letter that is also our mightiest cypher, “the great unknown.” Dorris Lessing takes P on a culinary adventure in pumpkin. “‘Why’ is the only question which bothers people enough to have an entire letter of the alphabet named after it,” quips Douglas Adams as he launches into an eulogy for the unanswerable. Norman Mailer alone declined to participate in the project, but his feisty rejection so befits the letter F he had been assigned that, with his permission, it appears in the book in place of an actual contribution.

B by David Hockney

One of the most beautiful, arresting, and nuanced entires comes from Joyce Carol Oates, for B — a roaming part-Aristotelian, part-Darwinian, wholly Oatsian meditation on existence, time, and the universe itself:

Of all Bs surely BIRTH is the most profound. The most mysterious. BIRTH. BEGET. BEING. BEGINNING. BEFORE. Nothing is so intimidating, so elusive. No riddle so haunting. If death is decomposition, and (mere) decomposition is death, the disintegration of BEING, still we can grasp its principle: the shattering of a pane of glass, the melting of a snowflake, the shredding of a flower’s perfect petals by a fool’s nervous fingernails, so idle, so purposeless, so common. But BIRTH? BEGETTING? BEGIN? Who can grasp such principles, such phantasmagoria? Out of what void can BEING spring? — not NON-BEING, surely. Is there a time BEFORE time? Are we BEGOTTEN out of nothing? at a point equidistant from various nowheres? How I wish, before I die, I could know how, still less why, a seemingly undirected flow of energy washes life, consciousness, particularity, BEING into the universe!

Our BIRTHS are double. The human, historical BIRTHDAY. A time, a place; a mother, a father. The BIRTHDAY to be linked, eventually, with a deathday. But there is also the BIRTH of the idea of us; the BIRTH of the species, excruciatingly slow, apparently blind, groping, relentless; the BIRTH of all animate matter, out of the inanimate materials of stars; the mysterious composition of disparate elements out of the singularity of time zero. Our collective BIRTH out of a single BEGETTING, how many billions of years ago.

Thus BIRTH, of all Bs the most profound. The most mysterious.

C by David Hockney

Iris Murdoch, who herself had once considered the interplay of causality and chance in human existence, takes a much lighter lens to the letter C:

I find the letter C a warm comforting friendly sort of letter, perhaps because I first came across it in action in the word cat. However, there is much to be said against it. It lacks authority. It is not interesting or imposing, certainly not self-assertive. When scrawled by hand it can be easily overwhelmed by its more prominent neighbors. It may even be described as a mean shadowy unattractive little sign, scarcely more than an enlarged comma. It is not elegant and comely to contemplate; by comparison, for instance, with A or M it lacks form, it cannot claim to be in itself a little work of art. (Esthetically, surely the handsomest of letters is the Russian Ж.) Moreover, a different charge, C may be said to be actually otiose. Some of our local languages do without it, leaving its tasks to unambiguous S and K signs, others persecute it almost to extinction or disfigure it with unseemly hats or tails. It suffers all sorts of bizarre pronunciations. Nevertheless, for the sake of that old friendship, I feel affection for the poor little letter. After all, who wants a kat?

D by David Hockney

Paul Theroux picks up where Oates left off — or, rather, where Emily Dickinson left off a century earlier — and takes on D for Death, that great consecrator of life:

Death is oblivion, the end of life. Sudden or slow, it is an impartial terror, respecting no one, visiting every being on earth, the old and the young, the sick and the healthy, the wise and the foolish, the innocent and the wicked.

We are dying every second and that unstoppable tick of our mortal clock can fill us with such anxiety that our fear may make us brilliant and ingenious. Throughout history people have invented ways to defy death, by creating works of art, imagining strange gods, taking risks, making sacrifices, attempting to appease its terror, even constructing a whole kingdom beyond death in order to bestow immortality on ourselves.

Death for some is a virus, for others a bullet, a dagger, an oncoming car. It can be a fatal dose of gas or water or fire. For most it is within, the age and decay of the body — struggle, then collapse.

Still death grins at us, omnipotent, godlike — often death is depicted as a fearless skeleton with no sex, a bony comedian wearing a lipless grin. Some see death as evil, a murderer, a revenger, because it is all-powerful. But why see death as a hangman when it is truer to see it as a harvester leveling the earth with its scythe?

Oddly, we take hope from the seasons — the rebirth of spring after the death of winter — or from the rising and setting of the sun. But no spring, no dawn beyond death, has ever been proven. Death is an endless night so awful to contemplate that it can make us love life and value it with such passion that it may be the ultimate cause of all joy and all art.

G by David Hockney

Seamus Heaney contributes a poem for G — an ode to language itself, the riverine fluidity and richness of it:

Guh. Guh.
Like breath being shunted.
The sound of the Gaelic
word for voice —
written as guth
and in the plural
having the sense
of vowels and rhymes.
Another, different
voice is glór,
voice of the river, say,
voice of the wind
that shakes the barley in
gort, a cornfield.
And gort is the Irish
name for the letter:
field full of guh-grain,
granary of G-ness.

H by David Hockney

“H is for Homosexual” for Martin Amis, who relays a heartbreaking childhood memory of awakening to his difference, then writes:

I wish I understood homosexuality. I wish I could intuit more about it — the attraction to like, not to other. Is it nature or nurture, a predisposition, is it written in the DNA? When I think about it in relation to myself … its isolation and disquiet become something lifelong. In my mind I call homosexuality not a “condition” (and certainly not a “preference”), I call it a destiny. Because all I know for certain about homosexuality is that it asks for courage. It demands courage.

J by David Hockney

In a recollection that parallels Virginia Woolf’s epiphany about the interconnectedness of everything and echoes Willa Cather’s memorable passage about the essence of happiness, Ian McEwan chooses Joy for J:

When I was nine and living in Tripoli, Libya, I had an experience of joy, thirty seconds or so that count as the real beginning of my conscious life.

One early morning during the summer holidays my mother dropped me off at the local beach on her way in to work. I was to spend a few hours there alone. I had packed lunch and some piasters to spend on a fizzy drink.

It was probably seven-thirty when I stood at the top of a low cliff by a set of wooden stairs. The tranquility of the Mediterranean — a cleaner, brighter sea then — seemed inseparable from a sweetness in the air and the sound of small waves breaking. The beach of white sand was deserted. It was all mine. The space which separated me from what I saw sparkled with significance. Everything I looked at — yesterday’s footprints in the sand, an outcrop of rock, the wooden rail beneath my hand — seemed overpoweringly unique, etched in light, and somehow to be aware of itself, to “know.” At the same time, everything belonged together, and that unity was knowing, too, and seemed to say, Now you’ve seen us. I felt myself dissolving into what I saw. I was no longer a son or a schoolboy or a Wolf Cub. And yet I felt my individuality intensely, as though for the first time. I was coming into being. I murmured something like, “I am me,” or “This is me.” Even now, I sometimes find this kind of formulation useful.

The rest of that day is lost. As soon as I moved from where I stood, the memory fades. I suppose I must have run down the steps and across the sand to the water to begin…

W by David Hockney

Susan Sontag fills the twin trenches of W with her singular gift for wresting from the mundane the miraculous, the existential, the sublime:

W might be for the weather, an accordion topic of proven use in avoiding the not supposed to be mentioned or dwelt on… I usually don’t want to talk about weather… But why not have a white topic, one that carries as much or as little weight as we wish?

Weather is always happening, always changing. What’s going to happen? we ask fearfully. Whatever happens, it will be something else.

When we’re talking about the weather, well, we’re giving ourselves a break.

The wonder is that one thing does succeed another. Distracting us from the wound, from awareness of what coexists. I am walking in the woods or gulping fresh water or encircling a child with watchful tenderness. And at that very moment, at this very moment, in the final agonies of a torture session in the wicked war a nearby government is waging against its citizens, inside a cardboard box in the doorway of the windward corner of my street, someone is, someone has just…

I don’t know, it’s been explained, it’s called having a whole world.

I was sleepy. Id’ stayed up all night working on my book. But I went to the museum. It was the last day. It was worth it, the paintings were wonderful. Then came the news we were waiting for. She wept. He wept. I wept. What amazing weather we’ve been having. Then we wandered over to a bar (this is Berlin) very near where the wall was (how we had rejoiced) and drank some wine (and went on weeping). We move from one mood to another, giving due attention to each. (“Our moods do not believe in one another,” Emerson said.) There is no final mood. It is winter now.

Hockney’s Alphabet is magnificent in its totality, and perhaps its oblivion will not be total — perhaps someday, the publisher who mistook the temporal for the dated will bring its timeless splendor back into print. Complement it with David Hockney’s rare illustrations for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, then revisit other uncommonly wonderful alphabet books by Gertrude Stein, Oliver Jeffers, Maurice Sendak, Edward Gorey, Quentin Blake, and Maira Kalman.

Thanks, Maria Konnikova


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Source: Brain Pickings | 26 Oct 2017 | 9:42 pm

Love Found: A Diverse Illustrated Collection of Classic Poems Celebrating Desire, Longing, and Devotion

“Sit. Feast on your life.”


Love Found: A Diverse Illustrated Collection of Classic Poems Celebrating Desire, Longing, and Devotion

“The alternations between love and its denial, suffering and denial of suffering … constitute the most essential and ubiquitous structural feature of the human heart,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote in contemplating how we know we love somebody. How unsurprising then, and how inescapably human, that we should try to steady ourselves through these oscillations — violent, beautiful, disorienting — on the armature of language, on poetry’s precision of sentiment.

To curate a corpus of poems that stretch across love’s vast spectrum of joy and suffering with resonance that edges on the universal is a Herculean task, but that is what editors Jessica Strand and Leslie Jonath have accomplished in Love Found: 50 Classic Poems of Desire, Longing, and Devotion (public library) — a collection plumbing the depths of the commonest human experience in the most uncommon and arresting of verses, alongside vibrant illustrations by artist Jennifer Orkin Lewis. Among the fifty poets, who span an impressive range of epochs, sensibilities, and cultural backgrounds, are Pablo Neruda, Adrienne Rich, Langston Hughes, Mark Strand, Wisława Szymborska, E.E. Cummings, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson. (I was especially delighted to find Derek Walcott’s “Love After Love,” one of the greatest works of art I’ve ever encountered, among the selections.)

Here are a few favorites from this tiny treasure trove:

LOVE SONG FOR LUCINDA
by Langston Hughes

Love
Is a ripe plum
Growing on a purple tree.
Taste it once
And the spell of its enchantment
Will never let you be.

Love
Is a bright star
Glowing in far Southern skies.
Look too hard
And its burning flame
Will always hurt your eyes.

Love
Is a high mountain
Stark in a windy sky.
If you
Would never lose your breath
Do not climb too high.

(I CARRY YOUR HEART WITH ME)
by E.E. Cummings

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

THE DREAM
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love, if I weep it will not matter,
    And if you laugh I shall not care;
Foolish am I to think about it,
    But it is good to feel you there.

Love, in my sleep I dreamed of waking, —
    White and awful the moonlight reached
Over the floor, and somewhere, somewhere,
    There was a shutter loose, —it screeched!

Swung in the wind, — and no wind blowing! —
    I was afraid, and turned to you,
Put out my hand to you for comfort, —
    And you were gone! Cold, cold as dew,

Under my hand the moonlight lay!
    Love, if you laugh I shall not care,
But if I weep it will not matter, —
    Ah, it is good to feel you there!

THE HEART’S MEMORY OF THE SUN GROWS FAINT
by Anna Akhmatova

The heart’s memory of the sun grows faint.
The grass is yellower.
A few early snowflakes blow in the wind,
Barely, barely.

The narrow canals have stopped flowing —
The water is chilling.
Nothing will ever happen here —
Oh, never!

The willow spreads its transparent fan
Against the empty sky.
Perhaps I should not have become
Your wife.

The heart’s memory of the sun grows faint.
What’s this? Darkness?
It could be!… One night brings winter’s first
Hard freeze.

ONE ART
by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

LOVE SONG
by Joseph Brodsky

If you were drowning, I’d come to the rescue,
    wrap you in my blanket and pour hot tea.
If I were a sheriff, I’d arrest you
    and keep you in the cell under lock and key.

If you were a bird, I ‘d cut a record
    and listen all night long to your high-pitched trill.
If I were a sergeant, you’d be my recruit,
    and boy i can assure you you’d love the drill.

If you were Chinese, I’d learn the languages,
    burn a lot of incense, wear funny clothes.
If you were a mirror, I’d storm the Ladies,
    give you my red lipstick and puff your nose.

If you loved volcanoes, I’d be lava
    relentlessly erupting from my hidden source.
And if you were my wife, I’d be your lover
    because the church is firmly against divorce.

A GLIMPSE
by Walt Whitman

A glimpse through an interstice caught,
Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room around
    the stove late of a winter night,
        and I unremark’d seated in a corner,
Of a youth who loves me and whom I love, silently
    approaching and seating himself near,
    that he may hold me by the hand,
A long while amid the noises of coming and going, of
    drinking and oath and smutty jest,
There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking
    little, perhaps not a word.

SONNET XVI
by Pablo Neruda

I love the handful of the earth you are.
Because of its meadows, vast as a planet,
I have no other star. You are my replica
of the multiplying universe.

Your wide eyes are the only light I know
from extinguished constellations;
your skin throbs like the streak
of a meteor through rain.

Your hips were that much of the moon for me;
your deep mouth and its delights, that much sun;
your heart, fiery with its long red rays,

was that much ardent light, like honey in the shade.
So I pass across your burning form, kissing
you — compact and planetary, my dove, my globe.

Complement the thoroughly resplendent Love Found with Anne Sexton’s stunning love poem “Song for a Lady,” then revisit the story of how young Vladimir Nabokov met the love of his life and won her over with a poem.

Excerpts and illustrations courtesy of Chronicle Books


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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 | 25 Oct 2017 | 5:00 am

An Ode to the Number Pi by Nobel-Winning Polish Poet Wisława Szymborska

“…nudging, always nudging a sluggish eternity to continue.”


I am thinking about time this morning — about how it expands and contracts in the open fist of memory, about how the same duration can feel like a blink or incline toward the infinite, or even do both at once. Eleven years ago today, Brain Pickings began — birthed by what feels like another self, one that was once myself but no longer is and never again will be, and yet tethered to who I am today by some invisible thread of personal sensibility woven by and of time. As I look back on my most important learnings from the first decade, I am thinking of Simone de Beauvoir and her meditation on how chance and choice make us who we are. I am thinking of Borges and his sublime refutation of time. But, above all, I am thinking of a poem by one of my favorite poets, the Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012), about my favorite number, pi — an ode to the most precise language of the universe, mathematics, in the most precise language on Earth, poetry.

When I read the poem at The Universe in Verse, I prefaced it with a few words about my lifelong love of pi as both an anchor of reality and a counterpoint to certainty. In pi resides a reminder that despite the rigor and devotion with which we may map reality, our maps are still maps — incomplete representational models that always leave more to map, more to fathom, because the selfsame forces that made the universe also made the figuring instrument with which we try to comprehend it.

PI
by Wisława Szymborska

The admirable number pi:
three point one four one.
All the following digits are also initial,
five nine two because it never ends.
It can’t be comprehended six five three five at a glance,
eight nine by calculation,
seven nine or imagination,
not even three two three eight by wit, that is, by comparison
four six to anything else
two six four three in the world.
The longest snake on earth calls it quits at about forty feet.
Likewise, snakes of myth and legend, though they may hold out a bit longer.
The pageant of digits comprising the number pi
doesn’t stop at the page’s edge.
It goes on across the table, through the air,
over a wall, a leaf, a bird’s nest, clouds, straight into the sky,
through all the bottomless, bloated heavens.
Oh how brief — a mouse tail, a pigtail — is the tail of a comet!
How feeble the star’s ray, bent by bumping up against space!
While here we have two three fifteen three hundred nineteen
my phone number your shirt size the year
nineteen hundred and seventy-three the sixth floor
the number of inhabitants sixty-five cents
hip measurement two fingers
a charade, a code,
in which we find hail to thee, blithe spirit, bird thou never wert
alongside ladies and gentlemen, no cause for alarm,
as well as heaven and earth shall pass away,
but not the number pi, oh no, nothing doing,
it keeps right on with its rather remarkable five,
its uncommonly fine eight,
its far from final seven,
nudging, always nudging a sluggish eternity
to continue.

“Pi” appears in Szymborska’s indispensable Map: Collected and Last Poems (public library), which also gave us her masterpieces “Life-While-You-Wait” and “Possibilities.” Complement it with Szymborska on how our certitudes keep us small, why we read, and the importance of being scared.

For more highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy, Amanda Palmer’s reading of Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about science, poet Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, Rosanne Cash’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie, Diane Ackerman’s poem about our search for extraterrestrial life, playwright Sarah Jones’s chorus-of-humanity tribute to Jane Goodall, and poet Elizabeth Alexander’s stunning cautionary poem about the misuses of science — or watch the complete show for a two-hour serenade to science and the transformative power of poetry.


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