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Hello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition â€“ Toni Morrison on the artist's task in troubled times, Leonard Cohen on creativity, and more â€“ you can catch up right here. If you missed the special once-a-decade edition -- the 10 most important things I learned in the first 10 years of Brain Pickings -- read it 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.
But no one has articulated, nor lived, this liberating and salvational function of libraries more fully than Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928â€“May 28, 2014).
In the autumn of 2010, shortly before Dr. Angelou received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Harlemâ€™s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture â€” a research division of the New York Public Library â€” acquired her papers. She visited NYPL for a public event celebrating the occasion, during which she broke into song to illustrate the life-saving role libraries have always played in the lives of the people during the darkest of times. She went on to share the story of how a library had saved her own life as a child.
When it looked like the sun would not shine anymore God put a rainbow in the clouds
Look at that â€” look at that! Thatâ€™s a library â€” a library is a rainbow in the clouds.
We know that some, from the 19th-century, African-American lyricist and poet was inspired by a statement in the em>Genesis. In the Genesis we are told that rain persisted so unrelentingly that people thought it would never cease. And in an attempt to put the people at ease, God put a rainbow in the sky.
Thatâ€™s in Genesis. But in the 19th century, some African-American lyricist, a poet â€” probably a woman, I donâ€™t know â€” said, â€œNo. God didnâ€™t just put the rainbow in the sky.â€ We know that rainbows, suns, moons, stars â€” all sorts of illuminations â€” are always in the firmament, but clouds can so lower and lour so that the viewer cannot see the light. So God put the rainbow in the clouds themselves â€” in the worst of times, in the meanest of times, in the dreariest of times â€” so that at all times the viewer can see a possibility of hope.
Thatâ€™s what a library is.
It is amazing, for me, to have been taken to a library when I was eight. I had been abused and I returned to a little village in Arkansas. And a black lady â€¦ knew I wasnâ€™t speaking â€” I refused to speak â€” for six years I was a volunteer mute. She took me to library in the black school. The library probably had 300 books â€” maybe. The books were given to the black school from the white school and, often, there were no backs on the books. So we took shingles, cut them down to the size of the book, got some cotton and then pretty cloth, and covered those shingles and then laced them from the back, so that the books were beautiful. And those were the books she took me to see. She said, â€œI want you to read every book in this library.â€
It seemed to me thousands of books. I have now, in my home in North Carolina, a library of about 4,000 books. But at that time, I thought, â€œCan I get to it? Will I livelong enough?â€ I donâ€™t say I understood those books, but I read every book, and each time I [would] go to the library, I felt safe. No bad thing can happen to you in the library.
In an interview with the New York Public Libraryâ€™s Angela Montefinise to mark the occasion of the acquisition of her papers, Dr. Angelou added:
All information belongs to everybody all the time. It should be available. It should be accessible to the child, to the woman, to the man, to the old person, to the semiliterate, to the presidents of universities, to everyone. It should be open.
Information helps you to see that youâ€™re not alone. That thereâ€™s somebody in Mississippi and somebody in Tokyo who all have wept, whoâ€™ve all longed and lost, whoâ€™ve all been happy. So the library helps you to see, not only that you are not alone, but that youâ€™re not really any different from everyone else. There may be details that are different, but a human being is a human being.
â€œAmerica, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,â€Walt Whitman wrote in his timeless meditation on democracy. A century and a half later, as we find ourself amid the terrifying testing ground of Whitmanâ€™s wisdom, we would do well to remember that whatever redemptions democracy may have must also come from within, not without. Leonard Cohen captured this brilliantly in his unpublished verses about democracy, which produced one of his most beloved and beautiful lyric lines: â€œThere is a crack in everything, thatâ€™s how the light gets in.â€
In a sentiment that calls to mind Leonard Cohenâ€™s wonderful insistence that â€œa revelation in the heartâ€ is the only force that moves minds toward mutual understanding, Palmer considers the deeper rationale for his title:
â€œHeartâ€ comes from the Latin cor and points not merely to our emotions but to the core of the self, that center place where all of our ways of knowing converge â€” intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational, and bodily, among others. The heart is where we integrate what we know in our minds with what we know in our bones, the place where our knowledge can become more fully human. Cor is also the Latin root from which we get the word courage. When all that we understand of self and world comes together in the center place called the heart, we are more likely to find the courage to act humanely on what we know.
The politics of our time is the â€œpolitics of the brokenheartedâ€ â€” an expression that will not be found in the analytical vocabulary of political science or in the strategic rhetoric of political organizing. Instead, it is an expression for the language of human wholeness. There are some human experiences that only the heart can comprehend and only heart-talk can convey. Among them are certain aspects of politics, by which I mean the essential and eternal human effort to craft the common life on which we all depend. This is the politics that Lincoln practiced as he led from a heart broken open to the whole of what it means to be human â€” simultaneously meeting the harsh demands of political reality and nurturing the seeds of new life.
Framing his central inquiry into â€œholding the tension of our differences in a creative way,â€ Palmer â€” who has lived through some of the past centuryâ€™s most tumultuous and polarizing periods, from WWII to the Civil Rights movement to the plight of marriage equality â€” writes:
We engage in creative tension-holding every day in every dimension of our lives, seeking and finding patches of common ground. We do it with our partners, our children, and our friends as we work to keep our relationships healthy and whole. We do it in the workplace â€¦ as we come together to solve practical problems. Weâ€™ve been doing it for ages in every academic field form the humanities to the sciencesâ€¦
Human beings have a well-demonstrated capacity to hold the tension of differences in ways that lead to creative outcomes and advances. It is not an impossible dream to believe we can apply that capacity to politics. In fact, our capacity for creative tension-holding is what made the American experiment possible in the first placeâ€¦ Americaâ€™s founders â€” despite the bigotry that limited their conception of who â€œWe The Peopleâ€ were â€” had the genius to establish the first form of government in which differences, conflict, and tension were understood not as the enemies of a good social order but as the engines of a better social order.
A large part of that capacity for holding differences creatively, Palmer argues, comes down to all of us â€” â€œWe The People,â€ in our dizzying diversity â€” learning to tell our own stories and listen to each otherâ€™s. (Lest we forget, Ursula K. Le Guin put it best in contemplating the magic of real human communication: â€œWords are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.â€) Palmer himself awakened to the power of this simple, enormously difficult act of mutual transformation when he took part in the annual three-day Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage from Birmingham to Selma, led by Congressman John Lewis. Palmer encapsulates the story of one of humanityâ€™s greatest moral leaders:
On Sunday, March 7, 1965, six hundred nonviolent protesters, many of them young, gathered at the foot of Selmaâ€™s Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin a fifty-mile march to the Alabama State Capital in Montgomery, a protest against the ongoing exclusion of African Americans from the electoral process. When they reached the other side of the bridge, the marchers were brutalized by state and local police, mounted and on foot, with billy clubs and tear gas. This atrocity, witnessed on television by millions of Americans, scandalized the nation. It also generated enough political momentum in Congress that President Lyndon Johnson was able to sign a Voting Rights Act into law five months after the march.
John Lewis leads peaceful marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama, 1965
The twenty-five-year-old John Lewis and his age-mates in the Civil Rights movement were the descendants of generations of people who had suffered the worst America has to offer, but had not given up on the vision of freedom, justice, and equality that represents this country at its best. Those people nurtured that vision in their children and grandchildren at home, in the neighborhood, in classrooms, and especially in churches, creating a steady multigenerational stream of â€œundergroundâ€ activity that was largely invisible to white Americans until it rose up to claim our attention in the 1950s and 1960s.
John Lewis (front, right) being beaten by police, Selma, Alabama, 1965.
Decades later, on the bus to the airport after the endpoint of that commemorative Civil Rights Pilgrimage, Palmer found himself seated behind 71-year-old Lewis â€” a â€œhealer of the heart of democracy,â€ by then recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom â€” and overheard him telling a remarkable true story that stands as a powerful moral parable:
In 1961, [Lewis] and a friend were at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when several young white men attacked and beat them bloody with baseball bats. Lewis and his friend â€œdid not fight back, and they declined to press charges.â€ They simply treated their wounds and went on with their Civil Rights work.
In 2009, forty-eight years after this event, a white man about John Lewisâ€™s age walked into his office on Capitol Hill, accompanied by his middle-aged son. â€œMr. Lewis,â€ he said, â€œmy name is Elwin Wilson. Iâ€™m one of the men who beat you in that bus station back in 1961. I want to atone for the terrible thing I did, so Iâ€™ve come to seek your forgiveness. Will you forgive me?â€ Lewis said, â€œI forgave him, we embraced, he and his son and I wept, and then we talked.â€
As Lewis came to the end of this remarkable and moving story, he leaned back in his seat on the bus. He gazed out the window for a while as we passed through a coutnryside that was once a killing ground for the Ku Klux Klan, of which Elwin Wilson had been a member. Then, in a very soft voice â€” as if speaking to himself about the story he had just told and all of the memories that must have been moving in him â€” Lewis said, â€œPeople can changeâ€¦ People can changeâ€¦â€
Palmer reflects on the enormous legacy of Lewisâ€™s moral leadership:
During the three days of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, I was reminded time and again of the themes that are key to this book: the centrality of the â€œhabits of the heartâ€ that we develop in the local venues of our lives; the patience it takes to stay engaged in small, often invisible ways with the American experiment in democracy; the importance of faithfully holding the tension between what is and what might be, and creating the kind of tension that might arouse â€œthe better angels of our nature.â€
Palmer returns to the central premise that the act of listening to each otherâ€™s stories is our only vehicle to common ground, however small the patch. With an eye to his notion of â€œthe politics of the brokenheartedâ€ â€” a term particularly apt today â€” he writes:
Hearing each otherâ€™s stories, which are often stories of heartbreak, can create an unexpected bond [between those with opposing political views]. When two people discover that parallel experiences led them to contrary conclusions, they are more likely to hold their differences respectfully, knowing that they have experienced similar forms of grief. The more you know about another personâ€™s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy.
With an eye to what is often referred to as â€œpolitics of rageâ€ â€” topics of especially charged polarity â€” he adds:
Rage is simply one of the masks that heartbreak wears. When we share the sources of our pain with each other instead of hurling our convictions like rocks at â€œenemies,â€ we heave a chance to open our hearts and connect across some of our greatest divides.
In a sentiment of particular poignancy and resonance today, Palmer writes:
We do violence in politics when we demonize the opposition or ignore urgent human needs in favor of politically expedient decisions.
The democratic experiment is endless, unless we blow up the lab, and the explosives to do the job are found within us. But so also is the heartâ€™s alchemy that can turn suffering into community, conflict into the energy of creativity, and tension into an opening toward the common good. We can help keep the experiment alive by repairing and maintaining democracyâ€™s neglected infrastructureâ€¦ the invisible dynamics of the human heart and the visible venues of our lives in which those dynamics are formed.
It is well known and widely bemoaned that we have neglected our physical infrastructure â€” the roads, water supplies, and power grids on which our daily lives depend. Even more dangerous is our neglect of democracyâ€™s infrastructure, and yet it is barely noticed and rarely discussed. The heartâ€™s dynamics and the ways in which they are shaped lack the drama and the â€œvisualsâ€ to make the evening news, and restoring them is slow and daunting work. Now is the time to notice, and now is the time for the restoration to begin.
For those of us who want to see democracy survive and thrive â€¦ the heart is where everything begins: that grounded place in each of us where we can overcome fear, rediscover that we are members of one another, and embrace the conflicts that threaten democracy as openings to new life for us and for our nation.
Full engagement in the movement called democracy requires no less of us than full engagement in the living of our own lives. We carry the past with us, so we must understand its legacy of deep darkness as well as strong light. We can see the future only in imagination, so we must continue to dream of freedom, peace, and justice for everyone. Meanwhile, we live in the present moment, with its tedium and terror, its fears and hopes, its incomprehensible losses and its transcendent joys. It is a moment in which it often feels as if nothing we do will make a difference, and yet so much depends on us.
â€œSociety,â€ Emerson wrote in his timeless treatise on self-reliance and what it really means to be a nonconformist, â€œis a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.â€ In such a groupthink society, Emerson cautioned, conformity is the most prized virtue, but whoever wishes to be a true person â€œmust be a nonconformist.â€
â€œLife would be dull indeed without experimenters and courageous breakers-with-tradition,â€ wrote Marie Bullock, the courageous founder of the Academy of American Poets, a century later when she rose to defend E.E. Cummings from his detractors in 1951 â€” detractors who had attacked the Academy for awarding him their annual fellowship and accused Cummings, now one of the most beloved and influential artists of the past century, for being an â€œarch-poseur and pretenderâ€ and a â€œdisintegrator of languageâ€ who had dared to break with tradition, invent new creative forms, and, in sum, be a nonconformist.
Five years later, the great artist Ben Shahn (September 12, 1898â€“March 14, 1969) made what remains the most elegant case for the transformative power and sheer cultural necessity of nonconformity in one of his six lectures for Harvardâ€™s Charles Edward Norton Lectures, eventually published with original illustrations by Shahn as The Shape of Content (public library).
In the fourth of the six lectures, titled â€œOn Nonconformity,â€ Shahn writes:
The artist is likely to be looked upon with some uneasiness by the more conservative members of society. He seems a little unpredictable. Who knows but that he may arrive for dinner in a red shirtâ€¦ appear unexpectedly beardedâ€¦ offer, freely, unsolicited adviceâ€¦ or even ship off one of his ears to some unwilling recipient? However glorious the history of art, the history of artists is quite a different matter. And in any well-ordered household the very thought that one of the young men may turn out to be an artist can be a cause for general alarm. It may be a point of great pride to have a Van Gogh on the living room wall, but the prospect of having Van Gogh himself in the living room would put a good many devoted art lovers to rout.
Shahn illustrates the value of nonconformity as a catalyst of cultural evolution with the story of the tumult that took place in France when officials proposed that one of the pavilions of the prestigious 1925 Paris Exhibition be set up in the space belonging to the Society of Independent Artists â€” the collective of nonconformists whose annual exhibitions had been setting the tone for modern art since their formation in 1884. It was suggested that these innovators had done their job and there was no further need for their tradition-upending sensibility, so they should relinquish their space to the traditional art establishment.
Shahn considers the allegorical moral of the incident:
By fulfilling current standards drawn out of past art, the applicants [to the Prix de Rome] had won the approval of officials whose standards also were based upon past art, and who could hardly be expected to have visions of the future. But it is always in the future that the course of art lies, and so all the guesses of the officials were wrong guesses.
The very quality that prevents artists like the Independents from being lauded by the traditional establishment, Shahn argues, is the same quality that makes them capable of shaping the future, unencumbered by the past. He writes:
All art is based upon nonconformity [and] every great historical change has been based upon nonconformity, has been bought either with the blood or with the reputation of nonconformists. Without nonconformity we should have had no Bill of Rights or Magna Charta, no public education system, no nation upon this continent, no continent, no science at all, no philosophy, and considerably fewer religions. All that is pretty obvious.
But it seems to be less obvious somehow that to create anything at all in any field, and especially anything of outstanding worth, requires nonconformity, or a want of satisfaction with things as they are. The creative person â€” the nonconformist â€” may be in profound disagreement with the present way of things, or he may simply wish to add his views, to render a personal account of matters.
Shahn notes that while creative nonconformity is sometimes immediately recognizable as intransigence and deliberate rebellion, it isnâ€™t always predicated on sudden and total upending of tradition â€” it often happens that a series of artists each contribute systematic small steps that eventually add up to an unexpected cultural leap. (Steven Johnson has termed this type of incremental innovation in science â€œthe hummingbird effect.â€) And yet all nonconformity â€” whether it operates on a small or large scale, whether it occurs in an instant or over time â€” requires a dissatisfaction with the status quo or, at the very least, a disinterest in its dicta. In a sentiment that James Baldwin would come to echo just a few years later in his unforgettable assertion that â€œthe war of an artist with his society is a loverâ€™s war,â€ Shahn writes:
The artist occupies a unique position vis-Ã -vis the society in which he lives. However dependent upon it he may be for his livelihood, he is still somewhat removed from its immediate struggles for social status or for economic supremacy. He has no really vested interest in the status quo.
The only vested interest â€” or one might say, professional concern â€” which he does have in the present way of things rests in his ability to observe them, to assimilate the multifarious details of reality, to form some intelligent opinion about the society or at least an opinion consistent with his temperament.
That being the case, he must maintain an attitude at once detached and deeply involved. Detached, in that he must view all things with an outer and abstracting eye. Shapes rest against shapes, colors augment colors, and modify and relate and mingle mutually. Contrasts in life move constantly across the field of vision â€” tensions between the grotesque and the sad, between the contemptible and the much-loved; tensions of such special character as to be almost imperceptible; dramatic, emotional situations within the most banal settings. Only the detached eye is able to perceive these properties and qualities of things.
Within such contrasts and juxtapositions lies the very essence of what life is today, or any day. Whoever would know his day or would capture its essential character must maintain such a degree of detachment.
[The artist] must never fail to be involved in the pleasures and the desperations of mankind, for in them lies the very source of feeling upon which the work of art is registered. Feeling, being always specific and never generalized, must have its own vocabulary of things experienced and felt.
It is because of these parallel habits of detachment and of emotional involvement that artists so often become critics of society and so often become partisans in its burning causes. And also it is why they are so likely to be nonconformists in their personal lives.
It is an amusing contradiction of our time that we do applaud a sort of copy-book nonconformity. Everyone laments the increase in conformity; everyone knows that too much conformity is bad for art and literature and politics, and that it may deal the death-blow to National Greatness. The deadening effects of over-conformity are well understood. Yet, when it comes to the matter of just what kind of nonconformity shall be encouraged, liberality of view recedes. There seems to be no exact place where nonconformity can be fitted in.
Without the person of outspoken opinion, however, without the critic, without the visionary, without the nonconformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay. Its habits (let us say its virtues) will inevitably become entrenched and tyrannical; its controls will become inaccessible to the ordinary citizen.
Nonconformity is the basic pre-condition of art, as it is the pre-condition of good thinking and therefore of growth and greatness in a people. The degree of nonconformity present â€” and tolerated â€” in a society must be looked upon as a symptom of its state of health.
Shahn considers the primary species of conformity:
There is always an impressive number of artists who are overwhelmed by the nearest outstanding figure. They adopt his point of view and mannerisms and become a school; that is one kind of art conformity.
Another kind of conformity is derived from the wholly venal business of catering to a popular market. Still another results from trends and the yearning of artists â€” an almost irresistible yearning â€” to be in the forefront of things.
Writing half a century before the filter bubble of the social web, that ultimate generator of groupthink, Shahn adds:
All these kinds of conformity are inevitable and to be expected. But there has grown around us a vastly increased conformity. One could say â€œconformismâ€ here; for this is conformity by doctrine and by tribunal.
Shahn ends with a timeless and poignantly illustrative parable of the difference in motives driving the various conformists and the nonconformist â€” a parable a version of which the poet Sarah Kay, a true nonconformist of our time, likes to tell. Shahn writes:
I remember a story that my father used to tell of a traveler in thirteenth-century France who met three men wheeling wheelbarrows. He asked in what work they were engaged and he received from them the following three answers: the first said, â€œI toil from sunup to sundown and all I receive for my pain is a few francs a day.â€ The second said, â€œI am glad enough to wheel this wheelbarrow for I have been out of work for many months and I have a family to support. The third said, â€œI am building Chartres Cathedral.â€
I always feel that the committees and the tribunals and the civic groups and their auxiliaries harbor no misgivings about the men who wheel their wheelbarrows for however many francs a day; the object of their suspicions seems, inevitably, to be the man who is building Chartres Cathedral.