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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Brain Pickings

Rachel Carson's brave and prescient 1953 letter against the government's assault on science and nature, May Sarton on the artist's task in troubled times, Beethoven on how music saved his life, Alan Lightman's ode to science, the unknown, and the human search for meaning, and more.NOTE: This message might be cut short by your email program.
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WelcomeHello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition – Simone de Beauvoir on optimism, pessimism, and the real meaning of hope; a 1914 protest anthem against silence that could've been written today, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation â€“ each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.

In case you missed them:

Rachel Carson’s Brave and Prescient 1953 Letter Against the Government’s Assault on Science and Nature

In 1953, nearly a decade before she catalyzed the environmental movement with the publication of Silent Spring, trailblazing biologist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) found herself with no choice but to embody the ethos that would come to animate her life: â€œTo sin by silence, when we should protest makes cowards out of men.”
After Eisenhower took office, the Republican administration swiftly began instituting policies that effected the destruction of nature in the name of business. The Fish and Wildlife Service — of which Carson was editor in chief — was atop their target list. (Remember, there was no Environmental Protection Agency at the time; the EPA was created in 1970, largely on the wings of Carson’s work — a triumph tragic in its timing, for cancer took her life before she could savor its fruits.)
Since its inception in 1938, the Fish and Wildlife Service had been the government agency responsible for the protection and preservation of nature. Albert M. Day — a trained field scientist and a passionate conservationist — had been with the agency since the very beginning and became its visionary director in 1946. After appointing a businessman as Secretary of the Interior, the Republican government removed Day and replaced him with a nonscientist political pawn, who would sign off on removing hard-won environmental protections in order to turn natural resources into a profitable commodity — a decision Carson believed “should be deeply disturbing to every thoughtful citizen.” She poured her splendidly sobering rhetoric into a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, which was picked up by the wire of the Associated Press, syndicated widely across the country, and reprinted in Reader’s Digest â€” the era’s equivalent of going wildly viral. By that point, Carson had already surmounted the towering cultural odds against her gender and her underprivileged background to become the most respected science writer in the country. Her voice was a booming clarion call for resistance. 
Rachel Carson
Later included in Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (public library), the letter emanates astonishing pertinence to our present predicament as we are reminded of history’s cycles in the face of another administration ready to exploit the fragility of nature and the precious finitude of its resources for ruthless commercial and political gain. 
With an eye to what it would really take to make America great again, as it were, Carson writes:
The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife. To utilize them for present needs while insuring their preservation for future generations requires a delicately balanced and continuing program, based on the most extensive research. Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.
By long tradition, the agencies responsible for these resources have been directed by men of professional stature and experience, who have understood, respected, and been guided by the findings of their scientists.
For many years public-spirited citizens throughout the country have been working for the conservation of the natural resources, realizing their vital importance to the Nation. Apparently their hard-won progress is to be wiped out, as a politically minded Administration returns us to the dark ages of unrestrained exploitation and destruction.
A century after Walt Whitman remarked in his abiding treatise on democracy that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” Carson adds a remark of searing prescience:
It is one of the ironies of our time that, while concentrating on the defense of our country against enemies from without, we should be so heedless of those who would destroy it from within.
Although Carson’s courageous outcry made little political difference in the immediate term, it adrenalized and awakened the public consciousness in a powerful way — a germinal wakefulness she would further fertilize a decade later with Silent Spring, which became a catalyst not only for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency but for the modern environmental conscience that is our only hope for the long-term survival of our Pale Blue Dot. Carson’s legacy is a reminder that the payoffs of courage and resistance aren’t always immediately obvious, but they work as a mighty tectonic force that can shift the future in fundamental ways.
There is an indispensable trove of Carson’s timeless, timely wisdom collected in Lost Woods. Complement it with the courageous story of why and how Carson wrote Silent Spring, the powerful 1914 protest poem that emboldened her to speak inconvenient truth to power, and her touching, deeply humane farewell to her dearest friend, then revisit Carl Sagan on science as an invaluable tool of democracy.

May Sarton on the Artist’s Duty to Contact the Timeless in Tumultuous Times

“I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence,” Toni Morrison wrote in her electrifying piece on the artist’s duty at times of crisis. That refusal can take many forms, but at its richest, it is more than mere resistance — it is, rather, a commitment on behalf of the artist to serve not only truth but beauty by remaining in contact with the timeless and the eternal; to fortify us against the urgencies of a turbulent present and embolden us to transcend our primal reflex of fear, so that we may lift not only our spirits but the whole of our consciousness and continue to evolve toward a more humane humanity. This has always been the duty of the artist, and fragments of it can be found in every single work of art that has endured and has helped humanity endure over millennia of tumult. James Baldwin captured this memorably in his beautiful essay on the poet’s role in a divided society“It is said that [Shakespeare’s] time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.”
We tend to forget this sometimes, besieged by the news and blinded by media’s marketable myopia. 
The inaugural issue of The Criterion
On January 7, 1939, as the seething Nazi cauldron of hate and destruction was coming to a boiling point in Europe on the cusp of WWII, the great British poet, essayist, playwright, and publisher T.S. Eliot announced in the Timesthat he was shutting down The Criterion â€” his influential literary journal, in which he had first published The Waste Land seventeen years earlier and which had grown to be a unifying force for the creative and intellectual life of Europe. This is what Eliot wrote:
In the present state of public affairs — which has induced in myself a depression of spirits so different from any other experience of fifty years as to be a new emotion — I no longer feel the enthusiasm necessary to make a literary review what it should be. This is not to suggest that I consider literature to be at this time, or at any time, a matter of indifference. On the contrary I feel that it is all the more essential that authors who are concerned with the small part of “literature” which is really creative — and seldom immediately popular — should apply themselves sedulously to their work, without abatement or sacrifice of their artistic standards or any pretext whatsoever.
Across the Atlantic, the young poet, novelist, essayist, and diarist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) was stirred by Eliot’s words, which gave voice to what so many were feeling, and deeply troubled by the demise of The Criterion, which, as she wrote to a literary kindred spirit, gave her “a deathly shiver — as much as the end of a world — small perhaps but containing an essential grain of the human spirit — as, let us say, the fall of Barcelona.”
May Sarton
A week after the news, Sarton decided to contribute what she could and helped organize an auction in New York for an organization devoted to caring for refugees from Germany. â€œNever has there been a year when one needed more to be born again,” Sarton wrote to none other than Virginia Woolf — who had published the first English edition of Eliot’s The Waste Land in book form under her independent Hogarth Press — in a letter found, in the immensely enlivening and poetic May Sarton: Selected Letters, 1916–1954 (public library). Sarton asked if Woolf would be willing to donate one of her manuscripts for the action, because she believed that “people would almost sell their souls for a single page of [Woolf’s].” â€œIt would be a good deed in a naughty world,” Sarton wrote, and closed the letter with her disarming self-conscious sincerity: 
Dear Virginia Woolf… I wish you were near and that I could send you the primroses that I saw in a shop and gave to my mother instead.
Two weeks later, still grieving the death of The Criterion, Sarton found solace in the existence of the literary journal Virginia Quarterly Review, edited at the time by the young idealist Lawrence Lee. In a letter to Lee from January 26, she offers a most exquisite articulation of the artist’s duty, to herself and to her audience, in troubled times:
I find my position as a poet today a curious one… For a long time I have maintained that the poet’s affair was the individualhuman soul, the story of it in one man, in my case the transforming of personal emotions into written events. Now it has become impossible to guard one’s soul — death to do it — we are forced to read the papers, and yet I still believe that our job is somehow or other to be above the mêlée, or so deeply in it that one comes through to something else, something universal and timeless.
She adds that while there is a place for poets who deal with the pressing political realities of the day — poets like her contemporaries Muriel Rukeyser and W.H. Auden (who mere months later would write his timeless and tragically timely masterpiece â€œSeptember 1, 1939”) — “there is an even greater need perhaps for Rilke, for Blake.” 
Sarton held particular gratitude and reverence for Rilke, which she had articulated beautifully in that earlier letter to Virginia Woolf: 
Rilke… is like a dense forest into which one disappears, penetrating slowly and often in the dark, but always with a sense of awe and imminent discovery. There are few writers whom one must in some way become before reading. I think he is one and so reading him is more than reading; it can become the most absorbing part of one’s life for a time. I am so grateful that he was there this year — just this year and no other where the spirit is towered over by the world horror, where it seems like a blade of grass pushing through a pavement (not less miraculous).
May Sarton: Selected Letters is just as gorgeous a read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with Denise Levertov on making art amid chaos, then revisit Sarton on the cure for despair and the function of anger.

Song of Two Worlds: Alan Lightman’s Poetic Ode to Science, the Unknown, and Our Search for Meaning, Illustrated by an 18-Year-Old Boy in India

“You will not concede me philosophical poetry,” Ada Lovelace — the world’s first computer programmer, maverick daughter of the poet Lord Byron — wrote to her mother, a mathematician bent on eradicating the father’s “poetical” influences on the girl. Young Lovelace exhorted: â€œInvert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?”
Two centuries later, the physicist, novelist, and essayist Alan Lightman â€” MIT’s only professor with dual appointment in the sciences and the humanities, and one of the most enchanting writers of our time — furnished the world with a masterwork at the intersection of “poetical philosophy” and “poetical science” in an epic poem exploring life’s largest questions, some answerable and some not: questions about existence and nonexistence, free will, the nature of time and reality, the paradox of nothingness, and the human search for meaning amid an indifferent universe. 
Song of Two Worlds was published in 2009 as a small, enormous book, the lyrical profundity of which rippled across the globe. Five years later, Lightman received a letter from Ajai Narendran, a teacher at the Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology in Bangalore, India — a longtime fan of Lightman’s, who had assigned the verse book to the students in his “Conceptual Science in Art and Design” class. One of them — an 18-year-old boy named Derek Dominic D’souza, a gifted self-taught artist — had been so inspired by Lightman’s book that he created a series of pen-and-ink drawings in response to the verses. Lightman was in turn so touched by the imaginative splendor of the boy’s drawings that he approached Red Hen Press — an independent publisher devoted to celebrating diverse voices in creative literature — to work together on a special edition of Song of Two World (public library), featuring D’Souza’s art. 
Inspired by the Indian philosopher Tagore — who himself explored many of these monumental questions in his famous 1930 conversation with Einstein, the protagonist of Lightman’s first novel â€” the poem roams across the canon of human knowledge, Western and Eastern, through the existential struggle of its narrator. He is, the reader gathers, a writer who has suffered a great personal tragedy that has rendered him unable to write and is now exiled from his native land, living somewhere in the Middle East, where he is bearing witness to an elderly friend’s passage into nonexistence. 
From the vortex of the narrator’s personal experience spins out an expansive inquiry into the nature of reality, synthesizing in verse the legacies of giants like Newton, Galileo, Einstein, Lao Tzu, and Darwin, and paying homage to insufficiently celebrated heroes like physicist Lise Meitnerand Persian polymath Omar Khayyam. What emerges is an ode to science as our finest instrument of knowledge, but also an elegy — in the proper sense of lamentation and celebration — for its limitations in the face of questions of meaning, best answered by philosophy and best savored in their unanswerableness by poetry. 
It all begins at the boundary of wakefulness and dream, of known and unknown:
Awake —
What are these quick shots of warmth,
Fractals of forests
That wind through my limbs?
Fragrance of olive and salt taste of skin,
Razz-tazz and clackety sound?
Figures and shapes slowly wheel past my view,
Villas and deserts, distorted faces,
Children, my children —
Distant, the pink moons of my feet.
What rules do they follow?
I think movement, they wondrously move,
Moons flutter and shake.
I probe the hills and the ruts of my face —
Now I grow large, now
I grow small, as the waves
Of sensation break over my shore.
There, a gnarled tree I remember,
A stone vessel, the curve of a hill.
What is the hour?
Some silence still sleeps
In my small sleeping room —
Is it end or beginning?
I take up my pen, dry for some years.
What should I write?
What should I think?
I knock on the door of the universe.
Here, this small villa, this table, this pen.
I ask the universe: What? and Why?
Now weakened, I must remake the world,
One grain at a time.
I knock on the door of the universe, asking:
What makes the light of the stars?
What makes the heat of my flesh?
What makes the tear shape of rain?
So much I’ve lost,
I have nothing
Except a fierce hunger
To fathom this world.
Naked, I knock on the door,
Wearing only my questions.
Great Newton, you hid in your rooms,
Outcast like me,
Careless of meals, stockings untied,
Drinker of rosewater, olive oil, beeswax —
You found the force
Between planets and sun,
Pattern of cosmic attraction,
Heard clearly the music of spheres.
You gauged the distance to stars
And the vast rooms of space,
Which were naught to the space of your mind.
You struck the door of the universe.
What raging night seized you
And screamed that the world
Must be number and rule?
This is the world of the ticking of clocks,
Menses of women and tides
Of the moon. Orbits of planets,
The swing of the pendulum, spin of the earth,
Cycles of seasons.
This is the cosmos of time and of space,
And of light rays that travel twelve billion years,
And the whale-raptured sprawl of the galaxies.
But is this not also the cosmos of life,
That rare cluster of atoms and forms,
A few grains on the beach of nonlife?
One thousand questions, and each gives
An answer, which then forms a question.
The questions and answers will meld with each other
Like colors of light,
Like the light rays that once crossed the space
Of the cosmos
And rest now in the small warmth of a hand.
I knock on the doors of the universe,
Asking: What makes the swirl
Of ghazali love songs?
And the parallel singing of loss?
And the choice to live life alone?
I surrender my calipers, rules, and clocks,
Microscopes, diodes, transistors,
Glass flasks. For how can I measure
The stroke of a passion? Or dissect a grief
With the digits of pi?
Thus, I stand naked, with nothing
Except a fierce hunger to fathom this world,
To embark on this road
Without length without breadth.
Complement Song of Two World, an immensely beautiful invitation to contemplation, with Lightman on science and spirituality and the creative sympathies of art and science, then revisit Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning and physicist Sean Carroll on how “poetic naturalism” helps us find meaning in an impartial universe.
All illustrations © Derek Dominic D’souza, courtesy of Alan Lightman

The Joy of Suffering Overcome: Young Beethoven’s Stirring Letter to His Brothers About the Loneliness of Living with Deafness and How Music Saved His Life

“Blessed and blessing, this music is in some sort the equivalent of the night, of the deep and living darkness,”Aldous Huxley wrote of Beethoven’s Benedictus in his exquisite meditation on why music enchants us so. But he could have well been writing about Ludwig van Beethoven(December 16, 1770–March 26, 1827) himself — a creator suffused with darkness yet animated by the benediction of light. 
Like Frida Kahlo, Beethoven sublimated a lifetime of unbearable bodily suffering to the irrepressible vitality of his creative spirit. Bedeviled by debilitating physical illness all his life — the anguishing pinnacle of which was his loss of hearing at the age of twenty-eight — he nonetheless became a servant of joy. Even Helen Keller, herself deaf and blind, conveyed the timeless transcendence of his music in her moving account of “hearing” his Ode to Joy
The source of Beethoven’s deafness remains an enigma. Some biographers have speculated lead poisoning and others auto-immune disease, while Beethoven himself attributed it to a mysterious accident induced by rage — according to a second-hand account reported to his first serious biographer, a tenor interrupted Beethoven’s creative flow during a fit a fervent composition, which sent him into fury so violent that he, upon leaping from his desk, sustained a seizure, collapsed to the floor, and was deaf by the time he rose. 
Given the mysterious onset of his hearing loss and the rudimentary state of medicine at the time, Beethoven worried that his sudden deafness might be the symptom of a fatal disease. A brilliant and ambitious young man just beginning to blossom into his genius, he was uncertain whether he would live or die — ambiguity enough to hurl even the stablest of minds into maddening anxiety.
Beethoven by Christian Hornemann, 1803
But despite his constant struggle with physical pain and the torment of his deafness — particularly painful since until its loss his exceptional hearing had been a point of pride for him — Beethoven experienced as his greatest malady his bone-deep melancholy and its sharpest flavor of loneliness. He found his deafness “less distressing when playing and composing, and most so in intercourse with others.” Loneliness, indeed, was his basic condition from a young age, only amplified by his deafness. But it was also, as for Blake, inseparable from his genius. The feat of becoming an artist who continues to stir the human heart centuries after his own has ceased beating is all the grander against the backdrop of what Beethoven had to overcome as a creature of flesh and blood in order to serve the creative spirit.
Nowhere does that singular spirit come to life more vibrantly than in the 1927 masterwork Beethoven the Creator (public library) by the great French dramatist, novelist, essayist, and art historian Romain Rolland — not so much a standard biography but a passionately poetic portrait of the great composer and his inner world.
Beethoven in 1805 by the French painter and portraitist Louis Letronne
Adding to literature’s most beautiful writings on the power of music, Rolland channels Beethoven’s singular transcendence:
Music develops in its own elect that power of concentration on an idea, that form of yoga, that is purely European, having the traits of action and domination that are characteristic of the West: for music is an edifice in motion, all the parts of which have to be sensed simultaneously. It demands of the soul a vertiginous movement in the immobile, the eye clear, the will taut, the spirit flying high and free over the whole field of dreams. In no other musician has the embrace of thought been more violent, more continuous, more superhuman.
Rolland — who some years earlier had rallied the world’s greatest intellectuals, from Albert Einstein to Bertrand Russell to Jane Addams, to co-sign the Declaration of the Independence of the Mind â€” considers the independence of mind and spirit at the heart of Beethoven’s superhuman genius:
In painting his portrait, I paint that of his stock — our century, our dream, ourselves and our companion with the bleeding feet: Joy. Not the gross joy of the soul that gorges itself in its stable, but the joy of ordeal, of pain, of battle, of suffering overcome, of victory over one’s self, the joy of destiny subdued, espoused, fecundated… And the great bull with its fierce eye, its head raised, its four hooves planted on the summit, at the edge of the abyss, whose roar is heard above the time.
Beethoven belongs to the first generation of those young German Goethes … those Columbuses who, launched in the night on the stormy sea of the Revolution, discovered their own Ego and eagerly subdued it. Conquerors abuse their power: they are hungry for possession: each of these free Egos wishes to command. If he cannot do this in the world of facts, he wills it in the world of art; everything becomes for him a field on which to deploy the battalions of his thoughts, his desires, his regrets, his furies, his melancholies.
The prime condition for the free man is strength. Beethoven exalts it; he is even inclined to over-esteem it. Kraft über alles! [Power over everything!] There is something in him of Nietzsche’s superman, long before Nietzsche.
That superhuman ability to rise above malady and misfortune comes alive in a spectacular letter to Beethoven’s brothers Carl and Johann, whom he had practically raised after their father succumbed to alcoholism. Found in Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations (public library), the missive — known as the Heiligenstadt Testament — was written in early October of 1802 but intended to be read and fulfilled after his death. Thirty-two-year-old Beethoven — who, in a testament to elemental hardships of the era the absence of which we now take for granted, didn’t know his own date of birth at the time and believed he was twenty-eight — writes shortly after the completion of his Second Symphony:
Oh! ye who think or declare me to be hostile, morose, and misanthropical, how unjust you are, and how little you know the secret cause of what appears thus to you! My heart and mind were ever from childhood prone to the most tender feelings of affection, and I was always disposed to accomplish something great. But you must remember that six years ago I was attacked by an incurable malady, aggravated by unskilful physicians, deluded from year to year, too, by the hope of relief, and at length forced to the conviction of a lasting affliction (the cure of which may go on for years, and perhaps after all prove impracticable).
Born with a passionate and excitable temperament, keenly susceptible to the pleasures of society, I was yet obliged early in life to isolate myself, and to pass my existence in solitude. If I at any time resolved to surmount all this, oh! how cruelly was I again repelled by the experience, sadder than ever, of my defective hearing! — and yet I found it impossible to say to others: Speak louder; shout! for I am deaf! Alas! how could I proclaim the deficiency of a sense which ought to have been more perfect with me than with other men,–a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, to an extent, indeed, that few of my profession ever enjoyed! Alas, I cannot do this! Forgive me therefore when you see me withdraw from you with whom I would so gladly mingle. My misfortune is doubly severe from causing me to be misunderstood. No longer can I enjoy recreation in social intercourse, refined conversation, or mutual outpourings of thought. Completely isolated, I only enter society when compelled to do so. I must live like an exile. In company I am assailed by the most painful apprehensions, from the dread of being exposed to the risk of my condition being observed… What humiliation when any one beside me heard a flute in the far distance, while I heard nothing, or when others heard a shepherd singing, and I still heard nothing! Such things brought me to the verge of desperation, and wellnigh caused me to put an end to my life. Art! art alone, deterred me. Ah! how could I possibly quit the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?
The original Heiligenstadt Testament in Beethoven’s hand
In a passage that calls to mind the wisdom of Galway Kinnell’s beautiful and life-giving poem â€œWait,”written for a young friend contemplating suicide, Beethoven adds:
It is decreed that I must now choose Patience for my guide! This I have done. I hope the resolve will not fail me, steadfastly to persevere till it may please the inexorable Fates to cut the thread of my life. Perhaps I may get better, perhaps not. I am prepared for either. Constrained to become a philosopher in my twenty-eighth year! This is no slight trial, and more severe on an artist than on any one else… Oh! ye who may one day read this, think that you have done me injustice, and let any one similarly afflicted be consoled, by finding one like himself, who, in defiance of all the obstacles of Nature, has done all in his power to be included in the ranks of estimable artists and men.
After beseeching his brothers to enlist, after his death, an army surgeon of their acquaintance in describing the nature of his malady, he ends:
It was Virtue alone which sustained me in my misery; I have to thank her and Art for not having ended my life by suicide. Farewell! Love each other.
I joyfully hasten to meet Death. If he comes before I have had the opportunity of developing all my artistic powers, then, notwithstanding my cruel fate, he will come too early for me, and I should wish for him at a more distant period; but even then I shall be content, for his advent will release me from a state of endless suffering. Come when he may, I shall meet him with courage. Farewell! Do not quite forget me, even in death.
When Beethoven wrote this impassioned and anguished letter to his brothers, his greatest work was ahead of him. It would unfold over the decades to come, culminating in his crowning achievement — his ninth and final symphony, known for reasons one feels in one’s bones as the â€œOde to Joy,” which gives musical form to what Rolland so memorably called “the joy of suffering overcome.” 
That rebellious refusal of Beethoven’s to resign himself to his fate is what Rolland celebrates over and over in his intensely lyrical more-than-biography. In a passage that may or may not deliberately invoke the tiny bone in the ear known as the anvil — perhaps a clever play on the composer’s deafness and perhaps linguistic happenstance aided by translation — Rolland captures Beethoven’s strength of character: 
The hammer is not all: the anvil also is necessary. Had destiny descended only upon some weakling, or on an imitation great man, and bent his back under this burden, there would have been no tragedy in it, only an everyday affair. But here destiny meets one of its own stature, who “seizes it by the throat,” who is at savage grips with it all the night till the dawn — the last dawn of all — and who, dead at last, lies with his two shoulders touching the earth, but in his death is carried victorious on his shield; one who out of his wretchedness has created a richness, out of his infirmity the magic wand that opens the rock.
Complement Rolland’s altogether magnificent Beethoven the Creator with Alfred Kazin on Blake, Beethoven, and the tragic genius of outsiderdom, then revisit Rolland’s contemporary and compatriot Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering.