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Hello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition â€“ love as a spiritual technology of wisdom, Aldous Huxley on the peerless power of music, an illustrated celebration of beloved artist Louise Bourgeois's illustrious life â€“ you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation â€“ I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
â€œIf you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work,â€ Muriel Spark counseled, â€œyou should acquire a cat.â€ Long before the cat became a modern literary muse, a monk whose identity remains a mystery immortalized his beloved white cat named Pangur. Sometime in the ninth century, somewhere in present-day southern Germany, this solitary scholar penned a beautiful short poem in Old Irish, titled â€œPangur BÃ¡nâ€ â€” an ode to the parallel pleasures of man and feline as one pursues knowledge and the other prey, and to how their quiet companionship amplifies their respective joys.
The poem has been translated and adapted many times over the centuries (perhaps most famously by W.H. Auden), but nowhere more delightfully than in The White Cat and the Monk (public library) by writer Jo Ellen Bogart and illustrator Sydney Smith â€” one of four wonderful childrenâ€™s books about the creative life, which I recently reviewed for The New York Times.
Smith, who has previously illustrated the immeasurably wonderful Sidewalk Flowers, imbues the ancient text with contemporary visual language through his singular, elegantly minimalist graphic novel aesthetic.
We see the old monk poring over his manuscripts in search of wisdom as Pangur prances around their spartan shared abode, chasing after a mouse and a butterfly. Each is totally absorbed in his task.
In a subtle story-with-a-story, one of the monkâ€™s manuscripts contains an even more ancient depiction of another monk and another cat â€” a reminder that this creaturely communion is a primal joy of the human experience.
At the end of each day, the two rest into their respective gladnesses in quiet camaraderie.
Written as a playful ode in the ninth century, today the poem lives partway between lamentation and celebration â€” it stands as counterpoint to our culture of competitive striving and ceaseless self-comparisons, but it also reminds us that the accomplishments of others arenâ€™t to the detriment of our own; that we can remain purposeful about our pursuits while rejoicing in those of others; that we can choose to amplify each otherâ€™s felicity because there is, after all, enough to go around even in the austerest of circumstances.
â€œThe Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,â€ e.e. cummings wrote in his wonderful forgotten meditation on what he called â€œthe agony of the Artist (with capital A). No artist â€” whatever the case â€” has captured both the agony and the rewards of that unlearning more beautifully than James Baldwin (August 2, 1924â€“December 1, 1987).
In the fall of 1962, shortly after he penned his timelessly terrific essay on the creative process, Baldwin gave a talk at New York Cityâ€™s Community Church, which was broadcast on WBAI on November 29 under the title â€œThe Artistâ€™s Struggle for Integrityâ€ â€” one of the most insightful and rousing reflections on the creative life Iâ€™ve ever encountered, later included in the altogether magnificent Baldwin anthology The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (public library).
Baldwin begins by reclaiming words which are absolutely essential to our spiritual and creative survival but which have been emptied of meaning by overuse, misuse, and abuse:
I really donâ€™t like words like â€œartistâ€ or â€œintegrityâ€ or â€œcourageâ€ or â€œnobility.â€ I have a kind of distrust of all those words because I donâ€™t really know what they mean, any more than I really know what such words as â€œdemocracyâ€ or â€œpeaceâ€ or â€œpeace-lovingâ€ or â€œwarlikeâ€ or â€œintegrationâ€ mean. And yet one is compelled to recognize that all these imprecise words are attempts made by us all to get to something which is real and which lives behind the words. Whether I like it or not, for example, and no matter what I call myself, I suppose the only word for me, when the chips are down, is that I am an artist. There is such a thing. There is such a thing as integrity. Some people are noble. There is such a thing as courage. The terrible thing is that the reality behind these words depends ultimately on what the human being (meaning every single one of us) believes to be real. The terrible thing is that the reality behind all these words depends on choices one has got to make, for ever and ever and ever, every day.
Baldwinâ€™s most electrifying point is that the integrity of the artist is an analogue for the integrity of being human â€” the choice of the artist is a choice we each must make, in one form or another, by virtue of being alive:
I am not interested really in talking to you as an artist. It seems to me that the artistâ€™s struggle for his integrity must be considered as a kind of metaphor for the struggle, which is universal and daily, of all human beings on the face of this globe to get to become human beings. It is not your fault, it is not my fault, that I write. And I never would come before you in the position of a complainant for doing something that I must doâ€¦ The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers donâ€™t. Statesmen donâ€™t. Priests donâ€™t. Union leaders donâ€™t. Only poets.
[This is] a time â€¦ when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make. Conrad told us a long time agoâ€¦: â€œWoe to that man who does not put his trust in life.â€ Henry James said, â€œLive, live all you can. Itâ€™s a mistake not to.â€ And Shakespeare said â€” and this is what I take to be the truth about everybodyâ€™s life all of the time â€” â€œOut of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.â€ Art is here to prove, and to help one bear, the fact that all safety is an illusion. In this sense, all artists are divorced from and even necessarily opposed to any system whatever.
The crime of which you discover slowly you are guilty is not so much that you are aware, which is bad enough, but that other people see that you are and cannot bear to watch it, because it testifies to the fact that they are not. Youâ€™re bearing witness helplessly to something which everybody knows and nobody wants to face.
Just as his contemporary and intellectual peer Hannah Arendt was exploring the privilege of being a pariah, Baldwin considers the essential survival mechanism by which the artist bears his or her burden of bearing witness to the unnameable:
Well, one survives that, no matter howâ€¦ You survive this and in some terrible way, which I suppose no one can ever describe, you are compelled, you are corralled, you are bullwhipped into dealing with whatever it is that hurt you. And what is crucial here is that if it hurt you, that is not whatâ€™s important. Everybodyâ€™s hurt. What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what drives you, torments you, is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive. This is all you have to do it with. You must understand that your pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect with other peopleâ€™s pain; and insofar as you can do that with your pain, you can be released from it, and then hopefully it works the other way around too; insofar as I can tell you what it is to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less. Then, you make â€” oh, fifteen years later, several thousand drinks later, two or three divorces, God knows how many broken friendships and an exile of one kind or another â€” some kind of breakthrough, which is your first articulation of who you are: that is to say, your first articulation of who you suspect we all are.
With this, Baldwin turns to what art does for the human spirit â€” although, to borrow that wonderful phrase from Saul Bellowâ€™s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, â€œthere is no simple choice between the children of light and the children of darkness,â€ Baldwin argues that artâ€™s ultimate purpose is to be an equalizer for our suffering:
When I was very young (and I am sure this is true of everybody here), I assumed that no one had ever been born who was only five feet six inches tall, or been born poor, or been born ugly, or masturbated, or done all those things which were my private property when I was fifteen. No one had ever suffered the way I suffered. Then you discover, and I discovered this through Dostoevsky, that it is common. Everybody did it. Not only did everybody do it, everybodyâ€™s doing it. And all the time. Itâ€™s a fantastic and terrifying liberation. The reason it is terrifying is because it makes you once and for all responsible to no one but yourself. Not to God the Father, not to Satan, not to anybody. Just you. If you think itâ€™s right, then youâ€™ve got to do it. If you think itâ€™s wrong, then you mustnâ€™t do it. And not only do we all know how difficult it is, given what we are, to tell the difference between right and wrong, but the whole nature of life is so terrible that somebodyâ€™s right is always somebody elseâ€™s wrong. And these are the terrible choices one has always got to make.
And yet alongside the terrible is also the terrific, if sometimes terrifying, beauty of being an artist. Echoing William Faulknerâ€™s assertion that the artistâ€™s duty is â€œto help man endure by lifting his heart,â€ Baldwin writes:
Most people live in almost total darknessâ€¦ people, millions of people whom you will never see, who donâ€™t know you, never will know you, people who may try to kill you in the morning, live in a darkness which â€” if you have that funny terrible thing which every artist can recognize and no artist can define â€” you are responsible to those people to lighten, and it does not matter what happens to you. You are being used in the way a crab is useful, the way sand certainly has some function. It is impersonal. This force which you didnâ€™t ask for, and this destiny which you must accept, is also your responsibility. And if you survive it, if you donâ€™t cheat, if you donâ€™t lie, it is not only, you know, your glory, your achievement, it is almost our only hope â€” because only an artist can tell, and only artists have told since we have heard of man, what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it. What it is like to die, or to have somebody die; what it is like to be glad. Hymns donâ€™t do this, churches really cannot do it. The trouble is that although the artist can do it, the price that he has to pay himself and that you, the audience, must also pay, is a willingness to give up everything, to realize that although you spent twenty-seven years acquiring this house, this furniture, this position, although you spent forty years raising this child, these children, nothing, none of it belongs to you. You can only have it by letting it go. You can only take if you are prepared to give, and giving is not an investment. It is not a day at the bargain counter. It is a total risk of everything, of you and who you think you are, who you think youâ€™d like to be, where you think youâ€™d like to go â€” everything, and this forever, forever.
The computers, 1953. First row, left to right: Ann Dye, Gail Arnett, Shirley Clow, Mary Lawrence, Sally Platt, Janez Lawson, Patsy Nyeholt, Macie Roberts, Patty Bandy, Glee Wright, Janet Chandler, Marie Crowley, Rachel Sarason, and Elaine Chappell. Second row: Isabel deWaard, Pat Beveridge, Jean Oâ€™Neill, Olga Sampias, Leontine Wilson, Thais Szabados, Coleen Veeck, Barbara Lewis, Patsy Riddell, Phyllis Buwalda, Shelley Sonleitner, Ginny Swanson, Jean Hinton, and Nancy Schirmer
In the 1940s, NASAâ€™s Jet Propulsion Lab, managed by Caltech, began recruiting these â€œhuman computersâ€ â€” mathematically skilled women with fingers callused from gripping a pencil eight hours a day as they performed calculations that launched the first American satellite and directed the earliest missions exploring the Solar System. When Neil Armstrong made his â€œgiant leap for mankind,â€ there was womankind in the control room. When the Voyager carried humanityâ€™s message into the cosmos, the â€œcomputersâ€ had calculated and scrutinized its trajectory. When the science boyband of Carl Sagan, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke sat down to discuss Mars and the future of space exploration on national television as the Mariner 9 mission was about to become the first spacecraft to orbit another planet, the women whose meticulous computations had powered the mission were nowhere to be seen.
Every moonshot, every so-called â€œmannedâ€ or â€œunmannedâ€ mission hailed as a feat of human ingenuity, was womanned behind the scenes. (That we continue to call space missions â€œmannedâ€ and â€œunmannedâ€ even today, decades after Sally Ride became Americaâ€™s first female astronaut in orbit against a backdrop of questions about what makeup she took aboard, is a matter on which Ursula K. Le Guin has the only adequate commentary.)
Illustration from Blast Off, a vintage childrenâ€™s book that envisioned a black female astronaut decades before one became a reality.
Holt came to the story of these remarkable women by a delightful happenstance â€” while pregnant with her first child, she and her husband found themselves swirled by the indecision of baby-name choice. Each of them had a favorite name â€” Eleanor and Frances â€” so they decided to combine the two. On a whim, Holt googled â€œEleanor Frances.â€ She recounts:
I was surprised to find, buried in history, an Eleanor Francis Helin, born November 12, 1932. She was a scientist at NASAâ€™s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in charge of the program that tracked asteroids nearing Earth. Like the scientists we so often see personified in movies such as Armageddon, she hunted the asteroids that get a little too close to home. During her time at NASA, she discovered an impressive number of asteroids and cometsâ€” more than eight hundred. This was the kind of woman I wanted my daughter to share her name with. My search came up with an old black-and-white photo of her, blond bouffant hair curling at her shoulders, a timid smile as she held up an astronomy award for her asteroid discoveries.
Holt was riveted by the mystery of how many such unsung women of space-science might be hidden in history, what their lives were like in an era very different from our own, and how those lives shaped so much of what we take for granted today. So began the marvelous obsession that seeded this marvelous book.
Test engineer Sue Finley, NASAâ€™s longest-serving woman, who has worked at JPL for forty-six years
From the first â€œhuman computersâ€ hired in the 1940s to the women who guide Mars rovers today, Holt chronicles the extraordinary lives of these women, partway between Galileo and Ada Lovelace, as well as the complexities and contradictions with which they had to contend in reconciling the eraâ€™s gender norms with their scientific ambitions. She writes:
While we tend to think of the role women played during the early years at NASA as secretarial, these women were the antithesis of that assumption. These young female engineers shaped much of our history and the technology we have today.
Saturnâ€™s rings as photographed by Voyager 2, 1981 (Photograph courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Bringing to life the daily reality of these women, Holt paints one particularly emblematic vignette:
The young womanâ€™s heart was pounding. Her palms were sweaty as she gripped the pencil. She quickly scribbled down the numbers coming across the Teletype. She had been awake for more than sixteen hours but felt no fatigue. Instead, the experience seemed to be heightening her senses. Behind her she could sense Richard Feynman, the famous physicist, peeking at her graph paper. He stood looking over her shoulder, occasionally sighing. She knew that her every move was being carefully watched, her calculations closely studied. Her work would inform mission control if the first American satellite would be a success or a crushing failure.
Hours earlier, before the satellite had been launched, her boyfriend had wished her luck. He hadnâ€™t quite gotten used to the fact that his girlfriend worked late nights as an integral part of the American space program. Before leaving, he gave her a quick kiss. â€œI love you even if the dang thing falls in the ocean,â€ he said with a smile.
The boyfriend mention midway through this scientific scintillation might at first seem jarring, but thatâ€™s precisely the point â€” Holt illustrates the ambivalences and confusions of a culture that was only just beginning to imagine what it might be like for women to take on new ambitions and responsibilities in addition to, but not instead of, their traditional feminine duties. This was an era when these female â€œhuman computersâ€ competed for the Miss Guided Missile pageant crown and were still called â€œsweetheartâ€ by their male colleagues, who were titled â€œengineers,â€ and when the women themselves were more likely to compliment one another on their Bette Davis haircuts than on their masterful logarithms.
That young woman plotting the path of Americaâ€™s first satellite was Barbara â€œBarbyâ€ Canright and she was well aware that if her calculations fell short of perfection, it would spell Americaâ€™s loss in the Space Race with the Soviets. Holt recreates the drama of the moment:
Her pride was similarly tied to the fate of the satellite. Sheâ€™d been here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory from its earliest days, helping to design the rockets powering the tube-shaped spacecraft that was no heavier than a toddler. Now the projectâ€™s ultimate fate was hers to reveal.
As she plotted a curved line across the orange graph paper, she realized the trajectory was coming close to the point of no return. If the satellite passed this point, it would leave the atmosphere, begin circling the globe, and become the first American space-success story. The future of space exploration rested on this moment.
But neither failure nor triumph distracted Barby from the task at hand:
When she calculated that the satellite had left Earthâ€™s atmosphere, the critical juncture, she kept quiet. She made no comment but couldnâ€™t help letting a smile come to her lips.
â€œWhy are you smiling?â€ Feynman said, his voice irritated as the moments crept by. Until the signal came through in California, after the satellite had completed a spin around Earth, they couldnâ€™t be sure the satellite would stay up. Everyone was on edge as they waited for the confirmation of a few faint beeps, proof that theyâ€™d made it. The pounding of the Teletype filled her ears. The numbers came in. Suddenly the satelliteâ€™s signal came through loud and clear, breaking its long silence. She confirmed her calculations before marking down the updated position on the graph paper.
â€œShe made it!â€ she said triumphantly, twisting around in her seat to see the reaction. Behind her, a room of her colleagues, almost all men, broke into cheers. Ahead of her, the future stretched out, as limitless as space itself.
But where science saw boundless possibility, culture presented a number of limits seeded by a failure of the imagination â€” a failure of even the most fertile imaginations. Barby and her generation of scientists had come of age at a time when rocket-building was considered a borderline ludicrous endeavor â€” even by the great Vannevar Bush, who headed Americaâ€™s Office of Scientific Research and Development during WWII and envisioned the Internet in 1945. Holt quotes him to have once scoffed:
I donâ€™t understand how a serious scientist or engineer can play around with rockets.
The early rocket-builders at Caltech â€” a small group of dreamers and daredevils known as the Suicide Squad â€” had gotten the first installment of their first $1,000 funding in crumpled up one- and five-dollar bills delivered by bicycle. But the few women who bought into this improbable dream â€” women with wonderfully old-fashioned names like Macie, Melba, and Virginia â€” became instrumental in making it a reality.
Macie Roberts (standing right, near window) and her computers at work, 1955. (Photograph courtesy of NASA/ JPL-Caltech)
Macie Roberts was a particularly pivotal figure in this growing groundswell of women computing the cosmos. Holt captures her character:
Macie, perhaps because she was twenty years older than her fellow computers and obsessed with using precise terminology, would get annoyed if someone mistakenly called a rocket propellant â€œfuel.â€ She had come to engineering late in life, after working as an auditor for the Internal Revenue Service, and so had taken her lessons in rocket science to heart. In her strict and proper way she would gently remind the transgressor that a propellant is not composed of fuel alone. It also includes an oxidizer, an element such as oxygen that is able to accept an electron, thus setting in motion a powerful oxidation-reduction reaction, often called a redox reaction. These reactions, in which electrons are transferred, create energy whether they occur in a rocket engine or in a cell in the human body.
With Macie to lead them, a group of young women were about to leave the lives expected of them. Each would go from being an oddity in school, one of only a few girls who flourished in calculus and chemistry classes, to joining a unique group of women at JPL. The careers they were about to launch would be unlike any other.
What these women went on to launch was something larger than their own careers. Holt writes:
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to tread on another planetary body. The computersâ€™ fingerprints were all over the historic mission. Their legacy began with the rocket that flew the men up there. It blasted off in stages, a technique made possible by the womenâ€™s computations for the worldâ€™s first two-stage rocket, JPLâ€™s Bumper WAC.
The following year, as women celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the right to vote, a massive movement called the Womenâ€™s Strike for Equality broke out across forty states. Women marched down New Yorkâ€™s Fifth Avenue bearing signs that read WE ARE THE 51% MINORITY and HOUSEWIVES ARE SLAVE LABORERS. Holt conveys the tumult of the times:
Although the changes prompted confusion for some, the effects of womenâ€™s liberation were spreading everywhere, even to the offices of JPL.
The womenâ€™s titles were shifting. Known as computers since the labâ€™s inception, they were now officially engineers. It was a breakthrough as big as landing on the moon.
But this gave rise to a new Catch-22: While the original â€œhuman computersâ€ at JPL were grandfathered in â€” or, to amend yet another culturally accepted use of gendered language, grandmothered in â€” as engineers, new recruits were required to have actual university degrees in engineering. This, Holt points out, at first contracted rather than expanding the opportunities for women at JPL â€” major universities had only just begun to accept women into their engineering programs, something Caltech itself had done that very year, and women accounted for 1% of the countryâ€™s engineering degrees in 1970.
And yet JPL had become an oasis of meritocracy for the women who had by then proven themselves as brilliant scientists. Holt writes:
The women at JPL had created their own equality. They had formed the lab in their own image, building an environment welcoming to women, where their work and contributions were every bit as valued as those of their male counterparts.
â€œHope is a gift you donâ€™t have to surrender, a power you donâ€™t have to throw away,â€ Rebecca Solnit wrote in her magnificent manifesto for hope in times of despair. â€œAnd though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isnâ€™t enough reason to hope.â€
In considering how we ought to view human nature, Fromm distinguishes between rational faith in the human spirit, which is â€œbased on the clear awareness of all relevant data,â€ and irrational faith, â€œan illusion based on our desires.â€ He writes:
Optimism is an alienated form of faith, pessimism an alienated form of despair. If one truly responds to man and his future, i.e., concernedly and â€œresponsibly,â€ one can respond only by faith or by despair. Rational faith as well as rational despair are based on the most thorough, critical knowledge of all the factors that are relevant for the survival of man. The basis of rational faith in man is the presence of a real possibility for his salvation: the basis for rational despair would be the knowledge that no such possibility can be seen.
The statement, â€œHuman nature is evil,â€ is not a bit more realistic than the statement, â€œHuman nature is good.â€ But the first statement is much easier to make: anyone who wants to prove manâ€™s evilness finds followers most readily, for he offers everybody an alibi for his own sins â€” and seemingly risks nothing. Yet the spreading of irrational despair is in itself destructive, as all untruth is; it discourages and confuses. Preaching irrational faith or announcing false Messiahs is hardly less destructive â€” it seduces and then paralyzes.
This, indeed, is why cynicism is so seductive in our present culture â€” a particularly pernicious form of defeatist resignation masquerading as empowered critical thinking. Fromm captures this brilliantly:
The attitude of the majority is neither that of faith nor that of despair, but, unfortunately, that of complete indifference to the future of man. With those who are not entirely indifferent, the attitude is that of â€œoptimismâ€ or of â€œpessimism.â€ The optimists are the believers in the dogma of the continuous march of â€œprogress.â€ They are accustomed to identifying human achievement with technical achievement, human freedom with freedom from direct coercion and the consumerâ€™s freedom tochoose between many allegedly different commodities. The dignity, cooperativeness, kindness of the primitive do not impress them; technical achievement, wealth, toughness doâ€¦
The optimists live well enough, at least for the moment, and they can afford to be â€œoptimists.â€ Or at least that is what they think because they are so alienated that even the threat to the future of their grandchildren does not genuinely affect them. The â€œpessimistsâ€ are really not very different from the optimists. They live just as comfortably and are just as little engaged. The fate of humanity is as little their concern as it is the optimistsâ€™. They do not feel despair; if they did, they would not, and could not, live as contentedly as they do. And while their pessimism functions largely to protect the pessimists from any inner demand to do something, by projecting the idea that nothing can be done, the optimists defend them selves against the same inner demand by persuading them selves that everything is moving in the right direction anyway, so nothing needs to be done.
What we need in order to transcend this dual hapless helplessness, Fromm argues, is â€œrational faith in manâ€™s capacity to extricate himself from what seems the fatal web of circumstances that he has createdâ€ â€” something at the center of his philosophy of humanist radicalism:
Humanist radicalism â€¦ seeks to liberate man from the chains of illusions; it postulates that fundamental changes are necessary, not only in our economic and political structure but also in our values, in our concept of manâ€™s aims, and in our personal conduct.
To have faith means to dare, to think the unthinkable, yet to act within the limits of the realistically possible; it is the paradoxical hope to expect the Messiah every day, yet not to lose heart when he has not come at the appointed hour. This hope is not passive and it is not patient; on the contrary, it is impatient and active, looking for every possibility of action within the realm of real possibilities.
The situation of mankind today is too serious to permit us to listen to the demagogues â€” least of all demagogues who are attracted to destruction â€” or even to the leaders who use only their brains and whose hearts have hardened. Critical and radical thought will only bear fruit when it is blended with the most precious quality man is endowed with â€” the love of life.