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Hello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition â€“ an illustrated homage to Frida Kahlo, Oliver Sacks on death and the redemptive radiance of a life fully lived, Salvador DalÃâ€™s rare illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, Eudora Welty on friendship, and more â€“ 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.
What is it that gives the human spirit wings to soar above the trenches of tradition, above the flatlands of convention, above even the highest peaks of the probable into ever-greater altitudes of possibility?
Thatâ€™s what the great journalist and essayist Walter Lippmann (September 23, 1889â€“December 14, 1974) explores in a beautiful piece published in his New York Herald Tribune column, Today and Tomorrow, on July 8, 1937 â€” six days after Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean, leaving behind a decades-long comet tail of courage that has since inspired generations.
I cannot quite remember whether Miss Earhart undertook her flight with some practical purpose in mind, say, to demonstrate something or other about aviation which will make it a little easier for commercial passengers to move more quickly around the world. There are those who seem to think that an enterprise like hers must have some such justification, that without it there was no good reason for taking such grave risks.
But in truth Miss Earhart needs no such justification. The world is a better place to live in because it contains human beings who will give up ease and security and stake their own lives in order to do what they themselves think worth doing. They help to offset the much larger numbers who are ready to sacrifice the ease and the security and the very lives of others in order to do what they want done.
Writing on the cusp of World War II, Lippmann admonishes against mistaking force for fortitude and argues that â€œsynthetic heroesâ€ and â€œmen in bulletproof vests surrounded by squads of armed guardsâ€ are the measure not of humanityâ€™s strength but of our weakness. Heroes like Amelia Earhart offer a different, truer conception of courage. He writes:
It is somehow reassuring to think that there are also men and women who take the risks themselves, who pit themselves not against their fellow beings but against the immensity and the violence of the natural world, who are brave without cruelty to others and impassioned with an idea that dignifies all who contemplate it.
The best things of mankind are as useless as Amelia Earhartâ€™s adventure. They are the things that are undertaken not for some definite, measurable result, but because someone, not counting the costs or calculating the consequences, is moved by curiosity, the love of excellence, a point of honor, the compulsion to invent or to make or to understand. In such persons mankind overcomes the inertia which would keep it earthbound forever in its habitual ways. They have in them the free and useless energy with which alone men surpass themselves.
Such energy cannot be planned and managed and made purposeful, or weighted by the standards of utility or judged by its social consequences. It is wild and it is free. But all the heroes, the saints, the seers, the explorers and the creators partake of it. They do not know what they discover. They do not know where their impulse is taking them. They can give no account in advance of where they are going or explain completely where they have been. They have been possessed for a time with an extraordinary passion which is unintelligible in ordinary terms.
No preconceived theory fits them. No material purpose actuates them. They do the useless, brave, noble, the divinely foolish and the very wisest things that are done by man. And what they prove to themselves and to others is that man is no mere creature of his habits, no mere automaton in his routine, no mere cog in the collective machine, but that in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lighted now and then by great winds from the sky.
â€œThere are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout,â€Henry David Thoreau observed in contemplating how silence ennobles speech. A year earlier, he had written in his journal: â€œI wish to hear the silence of the night, for the silence is something positive and to be heard.â€ Itâ€™s a sentiment of almost unbearable bittersweetness today, a century and a half later, as we find ourselves immersed in a culture that increasingly mistakes loudness for authority, vociferousness for voice, screaming for substance. We seem to have forgotten what Susan Sontag reminded us half a century ago â€” that â€œsilence remains, inescapably, a form of speech,â€ that it has its own aesthetic, and that learning to wield it is among the great arts of living.
Of the nine kinds of silence that Sontagâ€™s contemporary and friend Paul Goodman outlined, â€œthe fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soulâ€ is the kind we seem to have most hastily forsaken â€” and yet it is also the one we most urgently need if we are to reclaim the aesthetic of silence in the art of living.
That ennobling, endangered kind of silence is what writer Katrina Goldsaito and illustrator Julia Kuo celebrate in The Sound of Silence (public library) â€” the story of a little boy named Yoshio, who awakens to the elusive beauty of silence amid Tokyoâ€™s bustle and teaches himself its secret language.
Conceptually, the book is a trans-temporal counterpart to In Praise of Shadows â€” that magnificent 1933 serenade to ancient Japanese aesthetics, lamenting how excessive illumination obscures so many of lifeâ€™s most beautiful dimensions, just as todayâ€™s excessive noise silences lifeâ€™s subtlest and most beautiful signals.
Goldsaitoâ€™s lyrical writing, part ballad and part haiku, and Kuoâ€™s illustrations, midway between manga and Chris Ware yet thoroughly original, carry the story with effortless poetic enchantment.
We follow Yoshio as he leaves home one rainy morning and steps into the symphony of urban sounds cascading through the city â€” â€œraindrops pattering on his umbrella,â€ â€œboots squishing and squashing through the puddles.â€
As he makes his way through this aural wonderland, he is suddenly enthralled by a most magical sound. He follows it to discover a koto player tuning her instrument.
Then the koto player played. The notes were twangy and twinkling; they tickled Yoshioâ€™s ears! When the song finished, Yoshio said, â€œSensei, I love sounds, but Iâ€™ve never heard a sound like that!â€
The koto player laughed, and it sounded like the metal bell that swayed in the wind in Mamaâ€™s garden.
â€œSensei,â€ Yoshio said, â€œdo you have a favorite sound?â€
â€œThe most beautiful sound,â€ the koto player said, â€œis the sound of ma, of silence.â€
â€œSilence?â€ Yoshio asked. But the koto player just smiled a mysterious smile and went back to playing.
Puzzled and vitalized by the cryptic message, the little boy sets out to find the sound of silence.
He goes to the quietest place he knows, the bamboo grove behind the playground, but even there silence is ushered out by the sound of the living world.
The bamboo made a takeh-takeh-takehsound as the wind banged its stalks together. He closed his eyes and heard the swish-swish-swish of the wind making the leaves talk. It was beautiful, but it wasnâ€™t silence.
As Yoshio makes his way home through the city, he continues to look for silence â€” at the train station, at the dinner table, in the bath.
Even at night, while the rest of the family is sleeping, he listens for the silence only to hear the faint hum of a distant radio.
The next morning, he arrives at school before everyone else and sits down to read a story, which absorbs him so wholly that he is transported to the elusive place he had been searching for all along.
Suddenly, in the middle of a page, he heard it.
No sounds of footsteps, no people chattering, no radios, no bamboo, no kotos being tuned.
In that short moment, Yoshio couldnâ€™t even hear the sound of his own breath. Everything felt still inside him. Peaceful, like the garden after it snowed. Like feather-stuffed futons drying in the sun.
Silence had been there all along.
In that moment, he learns what we so easily forget: that silence is not the absence of sound but the presence of an inward-listening awareness, an attunement of the mindâ€™s ear and an orientation of the spirit toward a certain inner stillness â€” perhaps the positive counterpoint to loneliness, which so often thrives amid the crowd.
Coates reflects on the transformative experience of his first visit to Paris â€” a perspective-reorienting pilgrimage he made from West Baltimore, by way of Harlem, as soon as he received his first adult passport:
It occurred to me that I really was in someone elseâ€™s country and yet, in some necessary way, I was outside of their country. In America I was part of an equation â€” even if it wasnâ€™t a part I relished. I was the one the police stopped on Twenty-third Street in the middle of a workday. I was the one driven to The Mecca. I was not just a father but the father of a black boy. I was not just a spouse but the husband of a black woman, a freighted symbol of black love. But sitting in that garden, for the first time I was an alien, I was a sailor â€” landless and disconnected. And I was sorry that I had never felt this particular loneliness before â€” that I had never felt myself so far outside of someone elseâ€™s dream.
Loneliness â€” particularly the loneliness familiar to those of us who are immigrants or alien in any other way, the kind that comes from being in a culture but not of it â€” is a paradoxical emotion, stretched between longing and fear: we long for inclusion, acceptance, and equal belonging, but fear weâ€™d be hurt, rejected, or violated in the vulnerable-making act of making our longing manifest. The fear takes over â€” especially if it carries the momentum of previous violations, be they personal or inherited â€” and erects a protective wall that only further separates us from the very thing we long for.
With an eye to that divisive fear, Coates addresses his young son:
We came back to Paris that summer, because your mother loved the city and because I loved the language, but above all because of you.
I wanted you to have your own life, apart from fear â€” even apart from me. I am wounded. I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next. I think of your grandmother calling me and noting how you were growing tall and would one day try to â€œtest me.â€ And I said to her that I would regard that day, should it come, as the total failure of fatherhood because if all I had over you were my hands, then I really had nothing at all. But, forgive me, son, I knew what she meant and when you were younger I thought the same. And I am now ashamed of the thought, ashamed of my fear, of the generational chains I tried to clasp onto your wrists. We are entering our last years together, and I wish I had been softer with you. Your mother had to teach me how to love you â€” how to kiss you and tell you I love you every night. Even now it does not feel a wholly natural act so much as it feels like ritual. And that is because I am wounded. That is because I am tied to old ways, which I learned in a hard house. It was a loving house even as it was besieged by its country, but it was hard. Even in Paris, I could not shake the old ways, the instinct to watch my back at every pass, and always be ready to go.
â€œInformation is what our world runs on: the blood and the fuel, the vital principle,â€James Gleick wrote in his indispensable history of how the age of data and human consciousness shaped one another. A generation earlier, the great theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler proclaimed in what remains the most resonant chorus to our age: â€œAll things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universeâ€¦ Observer-participancy gives rise to information.â€ What we measure, monitor, record, and attend to is what colors our view of life. And so it is that â€œobserver-participancyâ€ has become the hallmark â€” the chief currency, the focal lens â€” of our Information Age: The quality of our attention and the nature of its recorded representation have become the informational infrastructure of our reality.
In the spring of 2015, I wrote aboutDear Data â€” a wonderful project addressing this dependency with uncommon lyrical elegance. In their yearlong correspondence, Giorgia Lupi, an Italian woman living in New York, and Stefanie Posavec, an American woman living in London, chose a weekly locus of attention, visualized their respective data points on the back of a postcard, and mailed these self-portraits in data across the Atlantic.
I ended the piece about the project with a beckoning: â€œPublishers, nota bene â€” this is the kind of project begging to be a beautiful book.â€
Princeton Architectural Press took note and Dear Data(public library) is now a book, for which I had the pleasure of writing the foreword. Experiencing the project anew, in this beautiful analog form, only amplifies its deeply humane ethos of reclaiming the living texture of â€œdataâ€ in our everyday lives from the wordâ€™s unfeeling, algorithmic, non-human connotations.
And, indeed, the â€œdataâ€ which Posavec and Lupi record are of the humanist, humanest kind â€” kindnesses (thanks paid, compliments received, smiles beamed at strangers), grievances (vanities, envies, self-criticisms), creaturely joys and vices (solitude savored, distractions succumbed to, beauty relished).
Here is my foreword essay, as it appears in the book:
â€œMy experience is what I agree to attend to,â€ William James wrote at the dawn of modern psychology. And yet however perennial this insight may be, it is only a partial truth. Our experience is shaped as much by what we agree to take in as it is by what we refuse â€” what we choose to leave out â€” and both are only partly conscious choices. Our attention filters in a fraction of what goes on around us at any given moment and filters out, thanks to millions of years of evolution, the vast majority of the shimmering simultaneity with which the life of sensation and perception unfolds. This highly subjective, selective, imperfect filtration of reality guarantees that however many parallels two human beings may have between their lives, however much common ground, the paths by which they navigate their respective landscapes of experience will be profoundly divergent.
In their yearlong visual correspondence project, Giorgia Lupi, an Italian woman living in New York, and Stefanie Posavec, an American woman living in London, capture the inherent poetry of that subjective selectivity. Each week, they jointly select one aspect of daily life â€” from sleep to spending habits to mirror use â€” and depict their respective experience of it in a hand-drawn visualization on the back of a postcard, then mail it to the other. Out of these simple diurnal observations emerges the complexity of the human experience â€” nonlinear, contradictory, and always filtered through the discriminating yet imperfect lens of attention.
The creative constraint of the unifying themes only amplifies the variousness of possibility within each parameter. Despite the substantial similarities between the two women â€” both are information designers known for working by hand, both are only children, both have left their respective homeland to move across the Atlantic in pursuit of creative fulfillment, and they are the exact same age â€” their attentional orientation toward each weekâ€™s chosen subject is completely different, both in substance and in style. They deliberately use different visual metaphors and information design techniques for each weekâ€™s theme, producing is an immensely pleasurable duet of sensibilities â€” side by side, Posavecâ€™s signature spatial poetics and Lupiâ€™s mastery of shape and color elevate one another to a higher plane of meaning and delight.
A twenty-first-century testament to Virginia Woolfâ€™s celebration of letter-writing as â€œthe humane art,â€ the project radiates a lovely countercultural charm. Ours is the golden age of Big Data, where human lives are aggregated into massive data sets in the hope that analysis of the aggregate would yield valid insight into the individual â€” an approach no more effective than taking an exquisite poem in English, running it through Google Translate to render into Japanese, and then Google-translating it back into English; the result may have the vague contours of the original poemâ€™s meaning, but none of its subtle magic and vibrant granular beauty.
Lupi and Posavec reclaim that poetic granularity of the individual from the homogenizing aggregate-grip of Big Data. What emerges is a case for the beauty of small data and its deliberate interpretation, analog visualization, and slow transmission â€” a celebration of the infinitesimal, incomplete, imperfect, yet marvelously human details through which we wrest meaning out of the incomprehensible vastness of all possible experience that is life.