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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Brain Pickings


Hermann Hesse on why we read and always will, John Cage's love letters, artist Lia Halloran's beautiful cyanotype tribute to women in astronomy, Anne Lamott on the life-expanding power of great teachers, and more.Email formatted oddly or truncated?
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WelcomeHello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition – Walt Whitman's advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life, Neil Gaiman on storytelling, physicist Sean Carroll on our search for meaning, and more – you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation â€“ I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.

The Magic of the Book: Hermann Hesse on Why We Read and Always Will

I recently decided to teach myself to write with my left hand. This unorthodox pastime was sparked in part by rereading the vintage treasure Essays for the Left Hand by the pioneering Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner, one of the loveliest and most underappreciated books written in the twentieth century. Since it was National Poetry Month, every day for the month of April I wrote out a poem a day with my left hand. 
Beyond to the tangible satisfaction of mastery painstakingly acquired, the endeavor had one unexpected and rather magical effect — it opened some strange and wonderful conduit through space and time, connecting me to the version of myself who was first learning to read and write as a child in Bulgaria. Generally lacking early childhood memories, I was suddenly electrified by a vividness of being, a vibrantly alive memory of the child’s pride and joy felt in those formative feats of the written word, of wresting boundless universes of meaning from pages filled with lines of squiggly characters. 
Somehow, as we grow up and learn to read, the thrill of mastery hardens into habit and we let the magical slip into the mundane. We come to take this wondrous ability for granted. 
No one has restored the transcendence of the written word more beautifully than Nobel-winning German-born Swiss writer and painter Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) in a sublime 1930 essay titled â€œThe Magic of the Book,” found in his posthumously published treasure trove My Belief: Essays on Life and Art (public library).
Hesse writes:
Among the many worlds that man did not receive as a gift from nature but created out of his own mind, the world of books is the greatest… Without the word, without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity. And if anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space, in a single house or a single room, the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books.
The question of what books do and what they are for is, of course, and abiding one. For Kafka, books were â€œthe axe for the frozen sea within us”; for Carl Sagan, â€œproof that humans are capable of working magic”; for James Baldwin, a way to change our destiny; for Neil Gaiman, the vehicle for the deepest human truths; for Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska, our ultimate frontier of freedom. Falling closest to Galileo, who saw reading as a way of having superhuman powers, Hesse considers the historical role of the written word:
With all peoples the word and writing are holy and magical; naming and writing were originally magical operations, magical conquests of nature through the spirit, and everywhere the gift of writing was thought to be of divine origin. With most peoples, writing and reading were secret and holy arts reserved for the priesthood alone.
[…]
Today all this is apparently completely changed. Today, so it seems, the world of writing and of the intellect is open to everyone… Today, so it seems, being able to read and write is little more than being able to breathe… Writing and the book have apparently been divested of every special dignity, every enchantment, every magic… From a liberal, democratic point of view, this is progress and is accepted as a matter of course; from other points of view, however, it is a devaluation and vulgarization of the spirit.
Hermann Hesse’s typewriter (Photograph by Patti Smith from M Train)
And yet Hesse offers an optimistic counterpoint to the techno-dystopian narratives that have continued to spell out the death of the book in the almost-century since his essay. Writing just a few years after Virginia Woolf’s spirited admonition against the evils of cinema, Hesse argues that new media forms — radio and film then, the internet now — pose no threat to the book, for the book is singular in its spiritual value to human life:
We need not fear a future elimination of the book. On the contrary, the more that certain needs for entertainment and education are satisfied through other inventions, the more the book will win back in dignity and authority. For even the most childish intoxication with progress will soon be forced to recognize that writing and books have a function that is eternal. It will become evident that formulation in words and the handing on of these formulations through writing are not only important aids but actually the only means by which humanity can have a history and a continuing consciousness of itself.
In a remarkably prescient passage, he adds:
We have not quite reached the point where younger rivals like radio, film, and so forth have taken everything away from the printed book, but only that part of its function which is dispensable.
[…]
What the crowd does not yet suspect and will perhaps not discover for a long time has already begun to be decided among creators themselves: the fundamental distinction between the media through which an artistic goal is attempted. When this divorce is final, to be sure, there will still be sloppy novels and trashy films, whose creators are unstable talents, freebooters in areas in which they lack competence. But to the clarification of concepts and the relief of literature and her present rivals this separation will contribute much. Then the cinema will be no more able to damage literature than, for example, photography has hurt painting.
What lends the book this unshakable stability, Hesse argues, is precisely its magical character — a character immutable and irreplaceable however much our media might change. He writes:
The laws of the spirit change just as little as those of nature and it is equally impossible to “discard” them. Priesthoods and astrologers’ guilds can be dissolved or deprived of their privileges. Discoveries or poetic inventions that formerly were secret possessions of the few can be made accessible to the many, who can even be forced to learn about these treasures. But all this goes on at the most superficial level and in reality nothing in the world of the spirit has changed since Luther translated the Bible and Gutenberg invented the printing press. The whole magic is still there, and the spirit is still the secret of a small hierarchically organized band of privileged persons, only now the band has become anonymous.
Illustration from Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds by Jim Stoten
In a tremendously poignant sentiment that illustrates today’s culture-making, culture-breaking difference between artists and writers, on the one hand, and “content-creators” on the other — that is, presaging our vacant contentification of cultural material — Hesse adds:
Leadership has slipped out from the hands of priests and scholars to some place where it can no longer be called to account and made responsible, where, however, it can no longer legitimatize itself or appeal to any authority. For that stratum of writers and intellectuals which seems from time to time to lead because it shapes public opinion or at least supplies the slogans of the day — that stratum is not identical with the creative stratum.
That creative stratum, he argues, consists of timeless works that continue to enchant the public imagination decades or centuries or millennia after their creation, be they the ancient Eastern philosophies newly embraced by the West or the works of Nietzsche, “unanimously rejected by his people, after fulfilling his mission for a few dozen minds, became several decades too late a favorite author whose books could not be printed fast enough.” Hesse uses the word “poet” in that largest James Baldwian sense and in the very act of reaching us from beyond the finitude of his own lifetime, he stands as a testament to his own point: 
We can observe every day how completely marvelous and like fairy tales are the histories of books, how at one moment they have the greatest enchantment and then again the gift of becoming invisible. Poets live and die, known by few or none, and we see their work after their death, often decades after their death, suddenly rise resplendent from the grave as though time did not exist.
And what they give us upon rising is precisely that magic of the book, so perennial and inextinguishable, yet so easily forgotten and taken for granted:
If today the ability to read is everyone’s portion, still only a few notice what a powerful talisman has thus been put into their hands. The child proud of his youthful knowledge of the alphabet first achieves for himself the reading of a verse or a saying, then the reading of a first little story, a fairy tale, and while those who have not been called seem to apply their reading ability to news reports or to the business sections of their newspapers, there are a few who remain constantly bewitched by the strange miracle of letters and words (which once, to be sure, were an enchantment and magic formula to everyone). From these few come the readers. They discover as children the few poems and stories … and instead of turning their backs on these things after acquiring the ability to read they press forward into the realm of books and discover step by step how vast, how various and blessed this world is! At first they took this world for a little child’s pretty garden with a tulip bed and a little fish pond; now the garden becomes a park, it becomes a landscape, a section of the earth, the world, it becomes Paradise and the Ivory Coast, it entices with constantly new enchantments, blooms in ever-new colors. And what yesterday appeared to be a garden or a park or a jungle, today or tomorrow is recognized as a temple, a temple with a thousand halls and courtyards in which the spirit of all nations and times is present, constantly waiting for reawakening, ever ready to recognize the many-voiced multiplicity of its phenomena as a unity. And for every true reader this endless world of books looks different, everyone seeks and recognizes himself in it… A thousand ways lead through the jungle to a thousand goals, and no goal is the final one; with each step new expanses open.
Walking library, London, 1930s (VSW Soibelman Syndicate News Agency Archive)
Half a century before Bob Dylan asserted that â€œthe world don’t need any more songs [because] there’s enough songs for people to listen to, if they want to listen to songs,” Hesse makes the same point — a point with which, as any regular reader would know, I very much agree — about books:
Every true reader could, even if not one new book were published, spend decades and centuries studying on, fighting on, continuing to rejoice in the treasure of those already at hand.
What lends reading its ultimate magic, Hesse asserts, is that this vast body of the written word is at once immensely varied and reducible to the simplest, most universal human truths:
The great and mysterious thing about this reading experience is this: the more discriminatingly, the more sensitively, and the more associatively we learn to read, the more clearly we see every thought and every poem in its uniqueness, its individuality, in its precise limitations and see that all beauty, all charm depend on this individuality and uniqueness — at the same time we come to realize ever more clearly how all these hundred thousand voices of nations strive toward the same goals, call upon the same gods by different names, dream the same wishes, suffer the same sorrows. Out of the thousandfold fabric of countless languages and books of several thousand years, in ecstatic instants there stares at the reader a marvelously noble and transcendent chimera: the countenance of humanity, charmed into unity from a thousand contradictory features.
My Belief remains a boundless treasure of Hesse’s genius, aglow with his luminous wisdom on everything from art to happiness to old age to the legacies of creative titans like Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Walt Whitman, Hans Christian Andersen, D.H. Lawrence, and Carl Jung. Complement it with Hesse’s beautiful correspondence with Thomas Mann, E.B. White on the future of reading, and Neil Gaiman on why we read and tell stories.

Your Body is a Space That Sees: Artist Lia Halloran’s Stunning Cyanotype Tribute to Women in Astronomy

“We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us,” astronomer Maria Mitchell observed as she paved the way for women in science. We are sensorial creatures, of course, and however little of the infinite we may seize, we do so through our powers of bodily perception. Squinting into her two-inch telescope to differentiate the colors of the stars, Mitchell marveled in her diary“There is something of the same pleasure in noticing the hues that there is in looking at a collection of precious stones, or at a flower-garden in autumn. Blue stars I do not yet see, and but little lilac except through the telescope.”
Around the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, that dreamsome blue — the color of distance and desire â€” was tinting the world of another remarkable woman working in another branch of science. In 1843, English botanist Anna Atkins became the first female photographer and a pioneer of scientific illustration with her revolutionary cyanotypes of sea algae
A century and a half later, LA-based artist Lia Halloranserenades the spirit of science-inspired art through this early imaging technique in a poetic project titled Your Body is a Space That Sees â€” a cyanotype celebration of women in astronomy, whose discoveries and contributions to understanding the universe date back to antiquity yet remain largely obscure. 
PSR 1919 (after Jocelyn Bell Burnell)
Horsehead Nebula (after Williamina Fleming)
Drawing on historical images and texts, Halloran, who holds an MFA in painting and printmaking from Yale, pays homage to astronomers ranging from Hypatia of Alexandria to Caroline Herschel (whose nephew John, incidentally, invented the cyanotype mere months before Anna Atkins pioneered its use in scientific illustration) to the team of women â€œcomputers” at the Harvard Observatory known as Pickering’s Harem. 
Leavitt Crater
Crater Hypatia
Magallenic Clouds (after Cecila Payne)
Magallenic Cloud
Globular Cluster (after Williamina Fleming)
Barred Spiral (after Henrietta Leavitt)
From craters to constellations, the images fuse a piercing intensity with an enigmatic subtlety that, like the universe itself, draw us into a beguiling mystery the full meaning of which remains enticingly beyond our reach. 
Amplifying the mystery and magic of the final art is the gritty, hands-on nature of Halloran’s process:
More of Halloran’s immensely beautiful and thoughtful work at the intersection of art, science, and human life can be found on her site. Complement this particular project with artist Lauren Redniss’s cyanotype celebration of Marie Curie and trailblazing astronomer Vera Rubin on women in science, dark matter, and our never-ending quest to know the cosmos.

Anne Lamott on the Life-Giving Power of Great Teachers

“You try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone,” the great civil rights leader John Lewis insisted. A century earlier, Helen Keller, a supreme optimist of the human spirit, asserted that “the highest result of education is tolerance.” It can be said, then, that if we are bent on building an ennobled world of dignity for all, nowhere is the urgency of not giving up on any human being greater than in education.
That’s what Anne Lamott explores in a beautiful passage from Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair (public library) — the miraculous little book that gave us Lamott on how we endure with sanity in a crazy world and the essential difference between routine and ritual.
Anne Lamott
Lamott writes:
People who teach others to read or to navigate a library, who don’t give up on slow or challenged students, will get the best seats in heaven. I don’t know a lot, but I know this to be true.
My brother teaches special education at a local high school. I think he will be seated near the Godiva chocolate fountain on the other side of eternity. Our father taught English and writing to the prisoners at San Quentin in the fifties and sixties. All good teachers know that inside a remote or angry person is a soul, way deep down, capable of a full human life — a person with hope of a better story, who has allies, and can read.
Echoing Parker Palmer’s luminous wisdom on education as a spiritual practice, Lamott adds:
To me, teaching is a holy calling, especially with students less likely to succeed. It’s the gift not only of not giving up on people, but of even figuring out where to begin. 
You start wherever you can. You see a great need, so you thread a needle, you tie a knot in your thread. You find one place in the cloth through which to take one stitch, one simple stitch, nothing fancy, just one that’s strong and true. The knot will anchor your thread. Once that’s done, you take one more stitch — teach someone the alphabet, say, no matter how long that takes, and then how to read Dr. Seuss, and Charlotte’s Web, and A Wrinkle in Time, and then, while you’re at it, how to get a GED. Empathy is meaning.
Complement this fragment of the wholly magnificent Stitches with John Dewey on the proper purpose of education, Nietzsche on its true value, and the beautiful letter of gratitude Albert Camus sent to his childhood teacher shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize, then revisit Lamott on how perfectionism kills creativitythe greatest gift of friendship, and how we keep ourselves small with people-pleasing.

John Cage’s Intensely Beautiful Love Letters to Merce Cunningham

Composer, writer, artist, and Zen Buddhist John Cage(September 5, 1912–August 12, 1992) pioneered the aesthetics of silence, but he was animated by a clamorous inner life. When he was twenty-two, while dating another young man, Cage met artist Xenia Kashevaroff — the Alaskan-born daughter of a Russian priest. He fell instantly in love — perhaps with Xenia herself, perhaps with the promise of life that conformed to social convention and appeased his inner conflictedness about his orientation, perhaps with some combination of the two. They were married in the spring of 1935. But as Cage continued to discover his voice creatively, he had no choice but to make room for his whole self. By the early 1940s, the couple had begun to grow apart and their marriage soon ended in divorce.
John Cage age his piano, 1947 (Photograph courtesy of the John Cage Trust / Berliner Festspiele)
It was around the same time that Cage met the dance prodigy Merce Cunningham, who would go on to become one of the most innovative and influential choreographers of all time. Then in his early twenties, Cunningham was one of several choreographers with whom Cage had begun working in his quest to explore the physical dimension of sound. Although their relationship began as a creative collaboration, a vitalizing romantic electricity developed between them as they got to know each other. Cunningham became Cage’s great love and remained his spouse for the remainder of the composer’s life. 
The correspondence from the dawn of their uncommon and intensely beautiful romance, found in The Selected Letters of John Cage (public library), is on par with Nabokov’s love letters â€” that gold standard of this most intimate genre of the written word — and makes a crowning addition to history’s greatest LGBT love letters.
John Cage and Merce Cunningham at Black Mountain College, 1948 (Photograph courtesy of the John Cage Trust)
In their first surviving romantic correspondence, postmarked June 28, 1943, Cage writes:
Dear Merce,
Saturday night nearly went crazy, because, not solving my problems until they occur, I ever suddenly realized you were gone. Fly away with you but was in a zoo.
[…]
I don’t know when it was that I found out how to let this month go by without continual sentimental pain. It’s very simple now, because I’m looking forward to seeing you again rather than backward to having seen you recently. That’s a happy way to be.
In a sublime testament to the interplay of frustration and satisfaction in love, Cage adds:
I’m unsentimental but I’m sitting at one of our tables and looking in a mirror where you often were.
[…]
I don’t know: this gravity elastic feeling to let go and fall together with you is one thing, but it is better to live exactly where you are with as many permanent emotions in you as you can muster. Talking to myself.
Your spirit is with me.
The following day, Cage writes:
Rain finally came + it’s beautifully cool. Wonder how long it will last. It was marvelous because it started suddenly and then was alternately terrific and gentle. 
I think of you all the time and therefor have little to say that would not embarrass you, for instance my first feeling about the rain was that it was like you.
[…]
Love you.
In this letter, Cage encloses a poem he has written for his new love:
POEM. CAUSE: I LOVE YOU.
As leaf with tree, I long to be
With you. A twig connection
If no other, would satisfy.
Sap from your trunk to vivify
My tissues; my one election:
On food you give to have satiety.
Will leaf turn dry and dead? My
Deep need to pale affection
Fade? Will snail transform to tree?
If leaf dies, Spring will mystify
The Winter. No death for tree:
Leaf adorned, ’twill live in ev’ry
section.
Three days later, on July 2, Cage writes from the pit of longing:
I get terribly lonesome for you.
[…]
I nearly left this earth a few minutes ago — ecstasy — word from you. Pretty soon I’ll write music for you.
Scene from Beach Birds by Cunningham at the Lyon Opera Ballet, with music by Cage (Photograph: Michael O’Neill)
Later that month, while Cunningham was in residence with the Martha Graham Dance Company at Bennington College in Vermont, Cage beseeches from New York with affectionate impatience:
Please be lonesome enough to come back in not too distant time.
[…]
I love you and often think of fancy reasons why: spirit is very close to me and mine, I sent it, close to you.
[…]
My whole desire is to run up and down the sea coast looking for you.
Love
Over the year that followed, their love only intensified. In a particularly poetic and picturesque letter from July of 1944, Cage writes:
your letters i just plain love: they bring you so close that at any moment i expect the door will open and you will see me camouflaged in enigmatic home, built on shoes you made.
[…]
Country was beautiful, and lying on the grass so that i could sometimes see the net a tree is against the sky or turning make a space for eyes between two trees and watch bird-movements across and in it. Beautiful daisies and a jungle of tiger lilies. Multitudinous lakes and canoes. I could tell how distinctly happy you would be in country wherever; and i really need not be with you for me or for you, because there was facility in inventing your presence and knowing that just then you were merely not visible or not audible.
Nine days later, Cage writes:
your last letter is so beautiful i cannot answer it, only read it and lie on it.
[…]
i am often in deep pain; i am afraid i am not human being
i talk to you all day long but when i start to write i cannot
Later that month, many decades after Van Gogh articulated how love catalyzes creative work, Cage speaks to this all-consuming muse:
today is beautiful and i am dreaming of you and enigma and how we are together today: your words in my ears making [me] limp and taut by turns with delight. oh, i am sure we could use each other today.
i like to believe that you are writing my music now: god knows i’m not doing it, because it simply seems to happen. the pretissimo is incredible the way you are and is perhaps a description and song about you.
[…]
pardon the intrusion: but when in september will you be back? i would like to measure my breath in relation to the air between us.
Cage and Cunningham continued to fill the air between them with love until the composer’s final breath.
John Cage and Merce Cunningham, 1986 (Photograph: Jack Mitchell / Getty Images)
The Selected Letters of John Cage, edited by Bard College professor and John Cage Trust director Laura Kuhn, is a beautiful read in its hefty totality. Complement it with Cage on human nature and Kay Larson’s sublime cartography of his interior life, then revisit the love letters of John KeatsHannah ArendtJames JoyceIris MurdochVladimir NabokovMargaret MeadCharlotte BrontëOscar WildeLudwig van BeethovenJames ThurberAlbert EinsteinFranz Kafka, and Frida Kahlo.