Brain Pickings - Arts

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The Great Polish Poet and Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz on Love

“Who serves best doesn’t always understand.”


The Great Polish Poet and Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz on Love

Perhaps the greatest trial of love, and its greatest triumph, is to unmoor yourself from your longings and refuse to constrict the other with the dictate of your unmet needs — to accept that love, to the extent that it is real, must come unbidden. It cannot be obtained by ultimatum or negotiation; it is not subject to demand; it must flow freely or it doesn’t flow at all. And yet, though befriending our neediness may be essential to happiness, how do we keep ourselves from constricting love with the cycle of insatiable need?

In tussling with this elemental question, I have found myself returning again and again to two complementary perspectives — the great Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s assertion that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” built upon his foundational teaching that “understanding is love’s other name”; and poet Nikki Giovanni’s insistence in her forgotten conversation with James Baldwin that “if you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else.” We might feel that such an understanding calls for crouching closer and closer to its subject, be it self or other, in order to examine it with narrow focus and shallow depth of field, but this is a misleading intuition — the understanding of love is an expansive understanding, requiring us to zoom out of our habitual solipsism so as to regard ourselves and the object of our love from a great distance against the backdrop of universal life.

Nothing articulates this notion more beautifully than a spare, profound poem by the Nobel-winning Polish poet, essayist, translator, diplomat, and dissident Czesław Miłosz (June 30, 1911–August 14, 2004), found in his indispensable New and Collected Poems: 1931–2001 (public library).

LOVE
by Czesław Miłosz

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

Complement with Shel Silverstein’s lovely illustrated allegory for the simple secret of love, Rainer Maria Rilke on what it really means to love, and philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how you know whether you love somebody, then revisit Miłosz’s compatriot and fellow Nobel-winning poet Wisława Szymborska on great love.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 16 Aug 2018 | 4:00 am

Walt Whitman on the “Meaning” of Art and How to Best Access the Poetic

“At its best, poetic lore is like what may be heard of conversation in the dusk, from speakers far or hid, of which we get only a few broken murmurs. What is not gather’d is far more — perhaps the main thing.”


Walt Whitman on the “Meaning” of Art and How to Best Access the Poetic

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf observed in her diary. “Looked at, it vanishes.” The same could be said of the soul of art, or perhaps of anything of substance and complexity — to write or speak about the meaning of a painting or a poem or a symphony is to flatten and impoverish its essence in some measure.

That is what Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) addresses with poetic precision of insight in a passage from Specimen Days (public library) — the endlessly rewarding collection of his prose fragments and diaries, which gave us Whitman’s meditations on the wisdom of trees, the singular power of music, the essence of happiness, and optimism as a force of resistance.

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

In a diary entry immediately following his reflection on what makes life worth living on the morning of his sixty-fourth birthday in 1882, Whitman writes:

Common teachers or critics are always asking “What does it mean?” Symphony of fine musician, or sunset, or sea-waves rolling up the beach — what do they mean? Undoubtedly in the most subtle-elusive sense they mean something — as love does, and religion does, and the best poem; — but who shall fathom and define those meanings?

In consonance with what Rachel Carson would later term “experiences that gives an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves,” Whitman considers “the soul’s frequent joy in what cannot be defined to the intellectual part, or to calculation,” and writes of poetry what holds true of all art:

At its best, poetic lore is like what may be heard of conversation in the dusk, from speakers far or hid, of which we get only a few broken murmurs. What is not gather’d is far more — perhaps the main thing.

Grandest poetic passages are only to be taken at free removes, as we sometimes look for stars at night, not by gazing directly toward them, but off one side.

Specimen Days remains an indispensable read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with Jeanette Winterson on the paradox of art and pioneering philosopher Susanne Langer on how art works us over, then revisit Whitman on how art enhances life and his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 15 Aug 2018 | 3:54 am

King of the Sky: A Lyrical Illustrated Fable of Belonging and the Meaning of Home

A soulful sidewise gleam at the loneliness of the immigrant experience.


King of the Sky: A Lyrical Illustrated Fable of Belonging and the Meaning of Home

“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place,” Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers in their magnificent 1973 conversation. But what do freedom and belonging mean in an age when immigration — that is, institutionalized otherness, divisiveness, and exclusion — is remapping humanity’s geopolitical and emotional landscape?

That is what zoologist and author Nicola Davies and illustrator Laura Carlin explore with uncommon tenderness in King of the Sky (public library) — the lyrical story of a young immigrant boy, trapped in unbelonging after his family leave their native Italy for the gloomy and forlorn hills of Wales.

His hollowing loneliness spills from the pages under Davies’s poetic pen and Carlin’s soft, deeply alive illustrations:

It rained and rained and rained.
Little houses huddled on the humpbacked hills.
Chimneys smoked and metal towers clanked.
The streets smelled of mutton soup and coal dust.
And no one spoke my language.

All of it told me This is not where you belong.

Throughout the story, we see the boy’s family — his mother, his infant sister — only as a ghostly and fragmentary presence, further contouring his all-consuming sense of isolation. Dislocated and desolate, magnetized by nostalgia, he finds solace in the improbable friendship of his elderly neighbor — a retired coal miner who spends his days caring for and training racing pigeons.

Just one thing reminded me of home — of sunlight, fountains, and the vanilla smell of ice cream in my nonna’s gelateria.

It was Mr. Evans’s pigeons in their loft behind my house, cooing as if they strutted in St. Peter’s Square in Rome.

Every day, the boy visits Mr. Evans and watches his pigeons soar “above the chimneys and the towers, up to where the sky stretched all the way to Italy.” One day, Mr. Evans puts a grey pigeon with a head “whiter than a splash of milk” into his young friend’s hands — a pigeon he believes is going to be a champion, one whose “eye blazed with fire.” He asks the boy to name the bird. Re del Cielo, he replies in an instant — King of the Sky.

The boy begins accompanying Mr. Evans on train trips, releasing the pigeons at various stations along the line to let them race back home, taking them a little farther each time. Each time, boy and man return to the loft, eating Mrs. Evans’s Welsh cakes as they await the pigeons’ steadfast return.

It never took them long.

From places far away, places that they’d never been, the pigeons flew home straight and fast as arrows. But the pigeon with the milk-white head was always last.

Still Mrs. Evans said he’d be a winner.

Aged and frail, Mr. Evans grows weaker by the day. By racing season, unable to leave his bed, he entrusts his young friend with putting the race rings on the birds, taking them to the train station, and logging their return on his clipboard.

The pigeons’ winnings rake in, but none for King of the Sky. Still, Mr. Evans asserts with unfaltering confidence that the white-headed bird is destined for victory — if only they can find the right race for him. “He’s got the wings for distance,” he tells the boy.

One day, the perfect race for King of the Sky emerges — the bird would go all the way to the boy’s native Rome by train, then race more than a thousand miles back to the humble Welsh loft.

As the race commences and King of the Sky starts making his way back from Italy, rain and lightning envelop the land. For two days and nights, the boy awaits his champion’s return, but the pigeon is nowhere to be seen.

I sat beside y friend’s bed, and told him that perhaps the sunlight and the fountains and the vanilla smell of ice cream from a thousand gelaterie had made our pigeon want to stay.

“No!” said Mr. Evans. “That will only tell him… This is not where you belong.”

At last, the downpour ends and the boy runs outside to squint at the sky, into the clouds of fragile hope. And there it is — “a speck… a blob… a bird.” His King of the Sky — a soaring alter ego for the displaced boy trying to make a home in a new land, trying to fathom the depth and meaning of belonging.

Twelve hundred miles he’d flown, from somewhere far away he’d never been. Steered north and west, finding his direction from the sun and the force that guides a compass needle. Flown until he saw the shape of humpbacked hills, the lines of little houses and the chimneys, heard the clanking towers, smelled the soup and coal dust.

Flown down into the arms of the smiling, crying boy — the boy who knew at last that he was home.

Complement the soulful King of the Sky with The Blue Songbird — a very different but kindred avian-inspired parable of homecoming — and Carson Ellis’s illustrated meditation on the many things home can mean, then revisit physicist Freeman Dyson on how immigration effects a loneliness in time as well as space and Hannah Arendt on the immigrant plight for identity.

Illustrations courtesy of Candlewick Press; photographs by Maria Popova


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Source: Brain Pickings | 13 Aug 2018 | 2:08 pm

Polish Poet and Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska on Great Love

“Great love is never justified. It’s like the little tree that springs up in some inexplicable fashion on the side of a cliff: where are its roots, what does it feed on, what miracle produces those green leaves?”


Polish Poet and Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska on Great Love

“For one human being to love another,” Rilke wrote to a young friend, “that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.”

Two generations later, the Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012) — another visionary poet with uncommon insight into the human psyche — examined the forbearance and hardiness of heart that love requires in a beautiful short piece simply titled “Great Love,” found in her Nonrequired Reading (public library) — a collection of Szymborska’s short, soaring essays inspired by various books she devoured during one voracious reading binge in the 1970s.

Wisława Szymborska

After reading the extraordinary memoir of the love of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s life, Anna — the record of one of history’s truest and most beautiful loves, in the course of which Anna buoyed Fyodor through an inordinate share of hardship that would have sunk most — Szymborska reflects on a particularly trying period in the couple’s life and considers how true love swathes its bearers with a superhuman resilience of spirit:

Anna was pregnant during this period, and it was an exceptionally difficult pregnancy, perhaps because of her perpetually strained nerves. But… she was happy, she wanted to be happy, she managed to be happy and couldn’t even conceive of greater happiness…

We’re dealing here with the phenomenon of great love.

With an eye to the unseeing cynicism with which people often view what they don’t understand — especially the private universe of any great love, incomprehensible to the outside observer and often incomprehensible even to the lovers who inhabit it themselves — Szymborska likens great love to the blind optimism of plants and adds:

Detached observers always ask in such cases: “So what does she (he) see in him (her)?” Such questions are best left in peace: great love is never justified. It’s like the little tree that springs up in some inexplicable fashion on the side of a cliff: where are its roots, what does it feed on, what miracle produces those green leaves? But it does exist and it really is green — clearly, then, it’s getting whatever it needs to survive.

Complement this particular portion of the endlessly rewarding Nonrequired Reading, which also gave us Szymborska’s meditations on why we read, the necessity of fear, and our cosmic destiny, with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s compatriot Leo Tolstoy on love’s paradoxical demands, and Lebanese-American poet, philosopher, and painter Kahlil Gibran on weathering the uncertainties of love, then revisit Szymborska on how our certitudes constrain us, her ode to the number pi, and her stunning poem “Possibilities.”


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Source: Brain Pickings | 9 Aug 2018 | 12:21 pm

Loneliness in Time: Physicist Freeman Dyson on Immigration and How Severing Our Connection to the Past Shallows Our Present and Hollows Our History

An antidote to today’s perilous self-expatriation from history.


Loneliness in Time: Physicist Freeman Dyson on Immigration and How Severing Our Connection to the Past Shallows Our Present and Hollows Our History

What a disorienting feeling to wake up one hot early-August morning and realize that exactly fifteen early-August mornings earlier, I had awakened to face my first day on American soil, having arrived alone as a teenage immigrant from Eastern Europe with $800 my parents had cobbled together to last me a year. I thought about how my life might have turned out if immigration policies and attitudes were then what they are now, and about the generations of immigrants who have devoted their lives to making this country what it is. I thought about the great physicist and inventor Michael Pupin, after whom the physics building at Columbia University is named, reflecting on his own improbable path from immigrant to inventor after arriving in America as a penniless teenage boy from Serbia, born across the border from my native Bulgaria. I thought about James Baldwin and Margaret Mead challenging the problematic nature of the melting pot metaphor and Hannah Arendt contemplating the many layers of the immigrant plight for identity. I thought about Alfred Kazin’s bittersweet meditation on the loneliness of the immigrant experience.

It seems to me that in a country so fundamentally shaped by immigrants, a societal sentiment so suddenly unwelcoming to them can only be the product of an absurd narrowing of perspective — an unthinking self-expatriation from history, a willful blindness to the cultural legacy of the past, and an inability to take the telescopic perspective so vital to inhabiting the present with lucidity, integrity, and a deep sense of connection to the whole of humanity.

Somewhere in this cascade of thought and feeling, I was reminded of a brief and beautiful reflection by physicist Freeman Dyson (b. December 15, 1923) from his magnificent epistolary memoir, Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters (public library).

Freeman Dyson, late 1940s (Photograph by Verena Huber-Dyson courtesy of George Dyson)

Dyson writes in a letter from January 2, 1948, shortly after arriving in America as a twenty-four-year-old Englishman, having survived World War II to work on some of the most exciting scientific questions of the twentieth century:

Several of my friends are second-generation Americans, whose parents came over from Germany or Poland or Lithuania or some such place, and I am always curious to ask them questions about their parents’ histories in Europe and their reasons for emigrating and their emotional backgrounds. Always I have been amazed to find that the young people know practically nothing, and apparently care little, about such matters. It is very strange when one thinks how much we have absorbed about the history and society to which our family belonged.

In a sentiment evocative of Hannah Arendt’s insight into how demagogues and dictators use loneliness as a weapon of oppression, Dyson adds a wonderfully generous and optimistic counterpoint:

Not that I dislike the Americans on the whole; it is probably in the long run a good thing that they live so much in the present and the future and so little in the past. The fact that they are more alone in the world than average English people probably accounts for their great spontaneous friendliness. I had heard this friendliness attributed to the size of the country and to people’s loneliness in space, but I think the loneliness in time is more important.

For more of Dyson’s timeless insight into the human experience, savor his vivid recollection of how the unconscious mind ferments creative breakthrough, then revisit Carla Torres’s lovely children’s book about immigration.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 8 Aug 2018 | 11:18 am

Voltaire on the Art of Being Undefeated by Hardship

“All comes out even at the end of the day, and all comes out still more even when all the days are over.”


Voltaire on the Art of Being Undefeated by Hardship

“Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life,” Bertrand Russell wrote in his advice on how to grow old with contentment.

Nearly two centuries earlier, the French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778), lover of the trailblazing mathematician Émilie du Châtelet, offered a complementary perspective on what it means and what it takes to move through life undefeated by hardship and buoyed by a larger sense of meaning.

Voltaire

Quoted in The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (public library | free ebook) — William James’s 1902 masterwork, which gave us his insight into science and spirituality and the four qualities of transcendent consciousness — Voltaire writes to a friend at the age of seventy-three:

Weak as I am, I carry on the war to the last moment, I get a hundred pike-thrusts, I return two hundred, and I laugh. I see near my door Geneva on fire with quarrels over nothing, and I laugh again; and, thank God, I can look upon the world as a farce even when it becomes as tragic as it sometimes does. All comes out even at the end of the day, and all comes out still more even when all the days are over.

Complement with Henry Miller on the measure of a life well lived, Albert Camus on tenacity through difficult times, and Grace Paley’s offering of what might be the wisest advice on the art of growing older, then revisit Voltaire on writing and how to stay true to your creative vision and this lovely vintage children’s book based on his pioneering sci-fi philosophical homage to Newton.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 7 Aug 2018 | 12:48 pm

Bluets: Maggie Nelson on the Color Blue as a Lens on Memory, Loneliness, and the Paradoxes of Love

“To wish to forget how much you loved someone — and then, to actually forget — can feel, at times, like the slaughter of a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of your heart.”


Bluets: Maggie Nelson on the Color Blue as a Lens on Memory, Loneliness, and the Paradoxes of Love

“We love to contemplate blue,” Goethe observed in his theory of color and emotion, “not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.” This particular color — or, rather, this universe of hues — seems to have drawn after it more minds than any other, inking the body of culture with a written record of adulation bordering on the religious.

After my recent excursion into the color blue across the past two hundred years of literature, a number of readers pointed out that I had missed an invaluable contemporary addition to the cerulean canon. (I might say “somehow missed,” but somehow implies a level of surprise at the fact, and it is hardly surprising that when one spends one’s days with dead poets, philosophers, scientists, and artists, the living cease to be one’s forte.) I had missed Bluets (public library) by Maggie Nelson — a slim, splendid collection of 240 numbered arguments? meditations? incantations? about the color blue, about its tentacled reach into nearly every chamber of Nelson’s life and into universal questions of desire and destiny, compulsion and choice, the disorienting delusions of memory, the delicious delusions of love.

Blues by Maria Popova

Nelson begins with the elemental consideration of what it means to fall in love with a color:

A voluntary delusion, you might say. That each blue object could be a kind of burning bush, a secret code meant for a single agent, an X on a map too diffuse ever to be unfolded in entirety but that contains the knowable universe.

She draws from the fact of blue — a physical phenomenon, rooted in the chemistry, biology, and physics of the material world — poetic truth imbued with what Rachel Carson called “an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves.” It is not uncommon for a passage to begin with a cool report of fact and end with an existential observation:

Fifteen days after we are born, we begin to discriminate between colors. For the rest of our lives, barring blunted or blinded sight, we find ourselves face-to-face with all these phenomena at once, and we call the whole shimmering mess “color.” You might even say that it is the business of the eye to make colored forms out of what is essentially shimmering. This is how we “get around” in the world. Some might also call it the source of our suffering.

Illustration by Anne Herbauts from What Color Is the Wind?, a serenade to the senses inspired by a blind child

Again and again, Nelson interpolates between the poetic and the encyclopedic, the cerebral and the sensual, emerging with something larger, something William James might call noetic:

But what kind of love is it, really? Don’t fool yourself and call it sublimity. Admit that you have stood in front of a little pile of powdered ultramarine pigment in a glass cup at a museum and felt a stinging desire. But to do what? Liberate it? Purchase it? Ingest it? There is so little blue food in nature — mark food to avoid (mold, poisonous berries) — that cautionary advisers generally recommend against blue light, blue paint, and blue plates when and where serving food. But while the color may sap appetite in the most literal sense, it feeds it in others. You might want to reach out and disturb the pile of pigment, for example, first staining your fingers with it, then staining the world. You might want to dilute it and swim in it, you might want to rouge your nipples with it, you might want to paint a virgin’s robe with it. But still you wouldn’t be accessing the blue of it. Not exactly.

Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that all desire is yearning.

Color chart by Patrick Syme for Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours: Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts.

With an eye to “the half-circle of blinding turquoise ocean,” Nelson writes:

That this blue exists makes my life a remarkable one, just to have seen it. To have seen such beautiful things. To find oneself placed in their midst. Choiceless.

This question of agency — in life, in love, in the love of blue — undergirds the book as Nelson’s meditations on the color spill into a half-whispered dialogue with an unnamed, vanished lover, a Thisbe whispering to Pyramus through an impenetrable wall of blue. In the thirteenth fragment, she frames the central question that bridges her obsession with blue and the broader inquiry emanating from it:

At a job interview at a university, three men sitting across from me at a table. On my CV it says that I am currently working on a book about the color blue. I have been saying this for years without writing a word. It is, perhaps, my way of making my life feel “in progress” rather than a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette. One of the men asks, Why blue? People ask me this question often. I never know how to respond. We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose.

Invoking Goethe’s theory of color, in which the German polymath painted blue as apt “to disturb rather than enliven,” Nelson wonders about a color what we often wonder about the human heart:

Is to be in love with blue, then, to be in love with a disturbance? Or is the love itself the disturbance? And what kind of madness is it anyway, to be in love with something constitutionally incapable of loving you back?

Some of Nelson’s numbered passages shine a sidewise gleam on blue, the color itself absent as a subject but present as an aura around a state of being. Seventy years after May Sarton insisted in her stunning ode to solitude that “there is no place more intimate than the spirit alone,” Nelson writes:

I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do.

It is easier, of course, to find dignity in one’s solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or can it at least keep me company within it? — No, not exactly. It cannot love me that way; it has no arms. But sometimes I do feel its presence to be a sort of wink — Here you are again, it says, and so am I.

[…]

Mostly I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness. I am still looking for the beauty in that.

Art by Isol from Daytime Visions

If this dazzling, kaleidoscopic book has a primary focal lens, it is memory — or, rather, memorialization — and its dueling desires: the wish to remember and the wish to forget, the warp thread and waft thread of which writing itself is woven. (Lest we forget, “forgetting” is one of the three essential elements of creativity and memory is more an act of creative retelling than one of recording.) Reflecting on what writing does to the writer’s memory, Nelson offers a meta-meditation on her subject:

At times it can have the effect of an album of childhood photographs, in which each image replaces the memory it aimed to preserve. Perhaps this is why I am avoiding writing about too many specific blue things — I don’t want to displace my memories of them, nor embalm them, nor exalt them. In fact, I think I would like it best if my writing could empty me further of them, so that I might become a better vessel for new blue things.

[…]

But if writing displaces the idea — if it extrudes it, as it were, like grinding a lump of wet clay through a hole — where does the excess go?

I contemplate this where-does-it-go question often, in the context of the memory of feeling. Say someone has colored your entire world for a period of time. Say when you encounter them after another period of time has elapsed, you find yourself not only devoid of the feeling that filled you so intensely for so long, but unable to even retrieve the memory of the hue. Where has it gone? Where does love ever go when it goes? Nelson encapsulates this abiding question in a devastating metaphor:

To wish to forget how much you loved someone — and then, to actually forget — can feel, at times, like the slaughter of a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of your heart.

A dozen arguments later, in the context of another meditation, she seems to return to this heart-hollowing question and offers what might be there only consolation there is:

Look for yourself, and ask not what has been real and what has been false, but what has been bitter, and what has been sweet.

Perhaps, we come to feel as Nelson approaches the close of her two hundred and forty numbered sentiments, uncertainty will always envelop the question of what is real, and reality is only ever saturated in the present moment — all else is projection, interpretation, a tug of war between the creativity and choicelessness of memory and forgetting. Echoing Kafka — “Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life. It’s only there that it can be won or lost.” — Nelson writes:

That the future is unknowable is, for some, God’s means of suturing us in, or to, the present moment. For others, it is the mark of a malevolence, a sure sign that our entire existence here is best understood as a sort of joke or mistake.

For me, it is neither. It is simply the way it is. Whether this accident be happy or unhappy is probably more a matter of mood than anything else; the difficulty is that “our moods do not believe in each other” (Emerson). One can wander about the landscape looking for clues, amassing evidence, but even the highest pile never seems to decide the case.

Complement the uncommonly wonderful Bluets with Rebecca Solnit on how blue colors distance and desire, then revisit poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan on memory, the self, and the universe.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 6 Aug 2018 | 4:44 pm

The Universe in Verse: Astrophysicist Natalie Batalha Reads Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Renascence” and Tells a Lyrical Personal Story About Her Path to Science

A poetic reflection on what we look at and what we see through the veils of our perception.


The Universe in Verse: Astrophysicist Natalie Batalha Reads Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Renascence” and Tells a Lyrical Personal Story About Her Path to Science

Among the thousands of people around the world watching the livestream of the inaugural Universe in Verse was one spectator who would become a centerpiece of the show the following year: Natalie Batalha — an astrophysicist involved in the search for life on planets orbiting stars outside our Solar System and the project scientist on NASA’s Kepler mission, which has outlived its expected lifespan of 3.5 years nearly threefold and has discovered an astonishing 1,000 exoplanets.

In a beautiful essay marking the third anniversary of the mission, Batalha reflected on the life of pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler, after whom it was named, and on the larger questions animating scientists in the search for other worlds. She wrote:

Reality is a poem on the tip of my tongue that I can’t quite remember, familiar yet distant. It’s a form seen through a veil.

When she kindly agreed to participate in the second annual Universe in Verse, I asked her to read a portion of a very old, very long poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892–October 19, 1950), which deals with this question of what we look at and what we see through the veils of our perception — an excerpt from the title poem in Millay’s 1917 collection Renascence and Other Poems (free ebook | public library).

Batalha prefaced her reading with the lyrical personal story of her uncommon path to science and recounted two formative experiences that awakened her to the beauty, fragility, and interconnectedness of life on our own planet — experiences remarkably resonant with Millay’s poem. Enjoy:

from “Renascence”
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I’d started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.

Over these things I could not see;
These were the things that bounded me;
And I could touch them with my hand,
Almost, I thought, from where I stand.
And all at once things seemed so small
My breath came short, and scarce at all.

But, sure, the sky is big, I said;
Miles and miles above my head;
So here upon my back I’ll lie
And look my fill into the sky.
And so I looked, and, after all,
The sky was not so very tall.
The sky, I said, must somewhere stop,
And — sure enough! — I see the top!
The sky, I thought, is not so grand;
I ‘most could touch it with my hand!
And reaching up my hand to try,
I screamed to feel it touch the sky.

I screamed, and — lo! — Infinity
Came down and settled over me;
Forced back my scream into my chest,
Bent back my arm upon my breast,
And, pressing of the Undefined
The definition on my mind,
Held up before my eyes a glass
Through which my shrinking sight did pass
Until it seemed I must behold
Immensity made manifold;
Whispered to me a word whose sound
Deafened the air for worlds around,
And brought unmuffled to my ears
The gossiping of friendly spheres,
The creaking of the tented sky,
The ticking of Eternity.

Among the other highlights from The Universe in Verse are astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Terrance Hayes reading Lucille Clifton’s ode to the kinship of all things, and poet Marie Howe’s remarkable tribute to Stephen Hawking. Edna St. Vincent Millay also figured in the inaugural Universe in Verse with her stunning sonnet about Euclid.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 3 Aug 2018 | 9:00 am

James Baldwin on Resisting the Mindless Majority, Not Running from Uncomfortable Realities, and What It Really Means to Grow Up

“We ought to try, by the example of our own lives, to prove that life is love and wonder and that that nation is doomed which penalizes those of its citizens who recognize and rejoice in this fact.”


James Baldwin on Resisting the Mindless Majority, Not Running from Uncomfortable Realities, and What It Really Means to Grow Up

“I can conceive of no better service,” Walt Whitman wrote, “than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.” Nearly a century later, James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) — another poet laureate of the human spirit — embodied this ethos in one of his shortest, most searing, and timeliest essays.

In 1963, the children’s book author Charlotte Pomerantz edited an anthology of prominent writers’ and artists’ critiques of the House Committee on Un-American Activities — the Orwellian investigative committee largely responsible for the internment of Japanese-Americans and the Hollywood blacklist. Titled A Quarter-Century of Un-Americana, 1938– 1963: A Tragico-Comical Memorabilia of HUAC, it featured writing and art by such titans of creative culture as Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, and Ben Shahn. Baldwin’s contribution was later included in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (public library), which also gave us his abiding insight into the redemptive power of language and the artist’s role in society.

James Baldwin

Reflecting on how such metastases of power imperil the moral climate of a society and corrupt the very foundation of democracy, Baldwin writes:

We are living through the most crucial moment of our history, the moment which will result in a new life for us, or a new death… a new vision of America, a vision which will allow us to face, and begin to change, the facts of American life… This seems a grim view to take of our situation, but it is scarcely grimmer than the facts. Our honesty and our courage in facing these facts is all that can save us from disaster. And one of these facts is that there has always been a segment of American life, and a powerful segment, too, which equated virtue with mindlessness… It always reminds me of a vast and totally untrustworthy bomb shelter in which groups of frightened people endlessly convince one another of its impregnability, while the real world outside — by which, again, I mean the facts of our private and public lives — calmly and inexorably prepares their destruction.

Baldwin notes that this is the reality he himself inhabits as a black man, but it is a reality from which the vast majority of Americans spend their lives taking flight. In a sentiment of excruciating timeliness today, he writes:

People in flight never can grow up, which means they can never, really, become citizens — and we simply must not surrender this great country to those people. We must not allow their fear to control us, and, indeed, we must not allow it to control them. Rather, we should attempt to release them from their panic and their unadmitted sorrow. We ought to try, by the example of our own lives, to prove that life is love and wonder and that that nation is doomed which penalizes those of its citizens who recognize and rejoice in this fact.

Art by Ben Shahn from On Nonconformity

A century after Kierkegaard insisted that “truth always rests with the minority… while the strength of a majority is illusory,” Baldwin adds:

We must dare to take another view of majority rule… taking it upon ourselves to become the majority by changing the moral climate. For it is upon this majority that the life of any nation really depends.

Half a century before Toni Morrison counseled young graduates that “true adulthood… is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory, which commercial forces and cultural vapidity should not be permitted to deprive you of,” Baldwin examines this intensely hard won glory not on the individual level but on the collective, and considers what true adulthood really means for a society:

The time has come for us to grow up. A man grows up when he looks back, realizes what has happened to him, accepts it all, and begins to change himself. He cannot grow up until he reaches this moment and passes it. We are now at the end of our extraordinarily prolonged adolescence. A very great poet, an American, Miss Marianne Moore, wrote, many years ago, the following description of our terrors: “The weak overcomes its menace. The strong overcomes itself.”

Two generations after some of the world’s most prominent thought leaders co-signed the Declaration of the Independence of the Mind with the commitment “never to serve anything but the free Truth that has no frontiers and no limits and is without prejudice against races or castes,” Baldwin concludes:

That self-knowledge which matures a nation as well as a man presupposes free men and free minds.

Complement The Cross of Redemption — a trove of cultural and spiritual insight that has only fermented with time — with Baldwin on our capacity for transformation as individuals and nations, what it means to be an artist, freedom and how we imprison ourselves, the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, and his fantastic forgotten conversations with Chinua Achebe about the political power of art, with Margaret Mead about identity, race, and the experience of otherness, and with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered, then revisit Albert Camus on the artist as a voice of resistance and Iris Murdoch on why art is essential for democracy.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 2 Aug 2018 | 2:00 am

Tiny, Perfect Things: A Lyrical Illustrated Invitation to Presence

A serenade to the small wonders that fill life with aliveness.


Tiny, Perfect Things: A Lyrical Illustrated Invitation to Presence

“My experience is what I agree to attend to,” pioneering psychologist William James declaimed in the final years of the nineteenth century as he considered how attention shapes human life. At the dawn of the following century, Hermann Hesse offered in his increasingly timely manifesto for savoring life’s little joys as the portal to living with presence: “My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys.” His was a world without radio, television, or the Internet, predating the golden age of consumerism — a time we can now barely conceive of, before busyness and distraction became the governing law of every waking hour. And yet, even from his inconceivable vantage point, Hesse could foresee the direction in which humanity was headed — toward habitual flight from presence and accelerating grandomania.

A century on, poet M.H. Clark and artist Madeline Kloepper offer a mighty antidote to our inattentive apathy in Tiny, Perfect Things (public library) — a lyrical invitation to apprehend the small wonders that strew the everyday: the yellow leaf blown to the ground, the smiling face of a neighbor, the spider laboring at her web, the red feather in a passerby’s hat, the snail triumphant atop the fence, the pale, luminous moon against the nocturne.

Radiating from a young girl’s vibrantly illustrated neighborhood walk with her grandfather is a lovely embodiment of Henry Beston’s insistence that “in the emotional world a small thing can touch the heart and the imagination every bit as much as something impressively gigantic.”

Complement Tiny, Perfect Things with Be Still, Life — a songlike illustrated invitation to living with presence — and Sidewalk Flowers, then revisit Annie Dillard on choosing presence over productivity and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on learning to see the wonder in our everyday reality.


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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 | 1 Aug 2018 | 2:00 am

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