Putting my experiences of Life In NYC in a more personal perspective, and checking in with international/national, tech and some other news
Translation from English
Sunday, April 30, 2017
Erich Fromm on what self-love really means, Amanda Palmer reads Neil Gaiman's feminist poem about science, astrophysicist Janna Levin reads Adrienne Rich's tribute to women in astronomy, Ursula K. Le Guin on writing, and more.
NOTE: This message might be cut short by your email program. View it in full. If a friend forwarded it to you and you'd like your very own newsletter, subscribe here â€“Â it's free.
donating = loving
I pour tremendous time, thought, love, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider supporting my labor of love with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:
You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:
And if you've already donated, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU.
Hello, Larry! This is the weekly email digest of brainpickings.org by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition â€“ Neil Gaiman on how to tell a great personal story, Meryl Streep sings her mother's lullaby, an anthem against the silencing of science, and more â€“ 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.
â€œWe especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry,â€ the great astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, wrote in her diary in 1871. Nearly a century and a half later, I hosted The Universe in Verse in collaboration with astrophysicist and writer Janna Levin and the Academy of American Poets â€” an evening of poetry celebrating science and the scientists who have taken us to where we are today, and a kind of symphonic protest against the silencing of science and the defunding of the arts, with all proceeds donated to the Academy and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
To our astonishment, eight hundred people poured into Brooklynâ€™s Pioneer Works and thousands watched the livestream of the sold-out show â€” a heartening testament to this seemingly unsuspected yet immensely fertile meeting point of science, poetry, and protest, featuring poems about Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, Oliver Sacks, Caroline Herschel, Euclid, neutrinos, and the number pi, by poets like Adrienne Rich, John Updike, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and WisÅ‚awa Szymborska, read by beloved artists and writers, including Rosanne Cash, Diane Ackerman, Ann Hamilton, Brandon Stanton, Jad Abumrad, and Elizabeth Alexander.
Amanda Palmer with her reading as the audience packs into Pioneer Works (Photograph by Amanda Palmer)
The readings concluded with something very special: â€œThe Mushroom Hunters,â€ a feminist poem about the dawn of science, written by the inimitable Neil Gaimanespecially for this occasion and read by his wife, the ferocious musician, artist, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer â€” what a generous gift and what a perfect finale, tying together an evening whose unspoken yet deliberate theme was the often untold history of women in science. (The image I chose as the backdrop for Amandaâ€™s reading of â€œThe Mushroom Huntersâ€ comes from childrenâ€™s book author Beatrix Potterâ€™s little-known yet revolutionary mycological work â€” another fragment in the canon of womenâ€™s underheralded contribution to science.)
In this excerpt from the show, I frame the significance of the poem in the context of the evening and Amanda tells the story of its composition. (The isolated audio of the poem appears below the video.) Please enjoy.
And the poem by itself:
THE MUSHROOM HUNTERS
Science, as you know, my little one, is the study of the nature and behaviour of the universe. Itâ€™s based on observation, on experiment, and measurement, and the formulation of laws to describe the facts revealed.
In the old times, they say, the men came already fitted with brains designed to follow flesh-beasts at a run, to hurdle blindly into the unknown, and then to find their way back home when lost with a slain antelope to carry between them. Or, on bad hunting days, nothing.
The women, who did not need to run down prey, had brains that spotted landmarks and made paths between them left at the thorn bush and across the scree and look down in the bole of the half-fallen tree, because sometimes there are mushrooms.
Before the flint club, or flint butcherâ€™s tools, The first tool of all was a sling for the baby to keep our hands free and something to put the berries and the mushrooms in, the roots and the good leaves, the seeds and the crawlers. Then a flint pestle to smash, to crush, to grind or break.
And sometimes men chased the beasts into the deep woods, and never came back.
Some mushrooms will kill you, while some will show you gods and some will feed the hunger in our bellies. Identify. Others will kill us if we eat them raw, and kill us again if we cook them once, but if we boil them up in spring water, and pour the water away, and then boil them once more, and pour the water away, only then can we eat them safely. Observe.
Observe childbirth, measure the swell of bellies and the shape of breasts, and through experience discover how to bring babies safely into the world.
And the mushroom hunters walk the ways they walk and watch the world, and see what they observe. And some of them would thrive and lick their lips, While others clutched their stomachs and expired. So laws are made and handed down on what is safe. Formulate.
The tools we make to build our lives: our clothes, our food, our path homeâ€¦ all these things we base on observation, on experiment, on measurement, on truth.
And science, you remember, is the study of the nature and behaviour of the universe, based on observation, experiment, and measurement, and the formulation of laws to describe these facts.
The race continues. An early scientist drew beasts upon the walls of caves to show her children, now all fat on mushrooms and on berries, what would be safe to hunt.
The men go running on after beasts.
The scientists walk more slowly, over to the brow of the hill and down to the waterâ€™s edge and past the place where the red clay runs. They are carrying their babies in the slings they made, freeing their hands to pick the mushrooms.
Photograph by Molly Walsh / Academy of American Poets
â€œWe are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,â€ Joan Didion famously wrote in making her case for the value of keeping a notebook. But many of us frequently find it hard enough to be on nodding terms even with the people we currently are. â€œWe have to imagine a world in which celebration is less suspect than criticism,â€psychoanalyst Adam Phillips wrote in contemplating the perils of self-criticism and how to break free from the internal critics that enslave us. And yet can we even imagine self-celebration â€” do we even know what it looks like â€” if we are so blindly bedeviled by self-criticism? Can we, in other words, celebrate what we cannot accept and therefore cannot love?
Fromm frames love as what he calls â€œthe productive orientationâ€ of the psyche, an â€œactive and creative relatedness of man to his fellow man, to himself and to nature.â€ He writes:
In the realm of feeling, the productive orientation is expressed in love, which is the experience of union with another person, with all men, and with nature, under the condition of retaining oneâ€™s sense of integrity and independence. In the experience of love the paradox happens that two people become one, and remain two at the same time. Love in this sense is never restricted to one person. If I can love only one person, and nobody else, if my love for one person makes me more alienated and distant from my fellow man, I may be attached to this person in any number of ways, yet I do not love.
If I can say, â€œI love you,â€ I say, â€œI love in you all of humanity, all that is alive; I love in you also myself.â€ Self-love, in this sense, is the opposite of selfishness. The latter is actually a greedy concern with oneself which springs from and compensates for the lack of genuine love for oneself. Love, paradoxically, makes me more independent because it makes me stronger and happier â€” yet it makes me one with the loved person to the extent that individuality seems to be extinguished for the moment. In loving I experience â€œI am you,â€ you â€” the loved person, you â€” the stranger, you â€” everything alive. In the experience of love lies the only answer to being human, lies sanity.
Fromm is careful to point out that in this â€œproductive orientation,â€ love is not a passive abstraction but an active responsibility. Shortly before Martin Luther King, Jr. made his abiding case for the respectful and responsible love of agape, Fromm writes:
Productive love always implies a syndrome of attitudes; that of care, responsibility, respect and knowledge. If I love, I care â€” that is, I am actively concerned with the other personâ€™s growth and happiness; I am not a spectator. I am responsible, that is, I respond to his needs, to those he can express and more so to those he cannot or does not express. I respect him, that is (according to the original meaning of re-spicere) I look at him as he is, objectively and not distorted by my wishes and fears. I know him, I have penetrated through his surface to the core of his being and related myself to him from my core, from the center, as against the periphery, of my being.
Caroline Herschel, the first professional woman astronomer, was a remarkable woman who lived a long and pathbreaking life. Her parents deemed her too ugly to marry and envisioned for her a life as a servant â€” she became the Cinderella of the household, tending to the domestic needs of her parents and her eleven siblings. But Herschel, though incredibly humble, had a tenacity of spirit that kept her quiet passion for the life of the mind burning. She went on to pave the way for women in science, becoming the first woman admitted into the Royal Astronomical Society â€” the eraâ€™s most prestigious scientific institution â€” alongside the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville (for whom the word â€œscientistâ€ was coined).
Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750â€“1848) astronomer, sister of William; and others.
A woman in the shape of a monster a monster in the shape of a woman the skies are full of them
a woman â€˜in the snow among the Clocks and instruments or measuring the ground with polesâ€™
in her 98 years to discover 8 comets
she whom the moon ruled like us levitating into the night sky riding the polished lenses
Galaxies of women, there doing penance for impetuousness ribs chilled in those spaces of the mind
â€˜virile, precise and absolutely certainâ€™ from the mad webs of Uranusborg
encountering the NOVA
every impulse of light exploding
from the core as life flies out of us
Tycho whispering at last â€˜Let me not seem to have lived in vainâ€™
What we see, we see and seeing is changing
the light that shrivels a mountain and leaves a man alive
Heartbeat of the pulsar heart sweating through my body
The radio impulse pouring in from Taurus
I am bombarded yet I stand
I have been standing all my life in the direct path of a battery of signals the most accurately transmitted most untranslatable language in the universe I am a galactic cloud so deep so invo- luted that a light wave could take 15 years to travel through me And has taken I am an instrument in the shape of a woman trying to translate pulsations into images for the relief of the body and the reconstruction of the mind.
A curious footnote I shared at the show: When I first encountered this poem years ago, I was struck by its searing beauty, but also puzzled by why, out of all possible cosmic phenomena, Rich chose to make a particular mention of pulsars. It wasnâ€™t until I devoured Levinâ€™s gorgeous book Black Hole Blues that I came to suspect why: The first pulsar, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe, was discovered in 1967 â€” less than a year before Rich wrote the poem â€” by a 23-year-old astronomer named Jocelyn Bell, who was subsequently excluded from the Nobel Prize for the discovery she herself had made.
This being an Adrienne Rich poem, Iâ€™ve always taken its dedication â€” to Caroline Herschel â€œand othersâ€ â€” to mean â€œand other unsung and undersung women in astronomy.â€ After reading Levinâ€™s book, Iâ€™ve come to suspect that Richâ€™s deliberate mention of pulsars â€” a completely nascent discovery at the time, and not at all common cosmic vocabulary â€” was a deliberate feminist bow to Jocelyn Bell (who, incidentally, went on to be an enormous champion of the common ground between poetry and science herself.)
â€œOnce a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,â€ young Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother as she reflected on her first poem. What is true of a poem is true of any work of art: Art transforms us not with what it contains but with what it creates in us â€” the constellation of interpretations, revelations, and emotional truths illuminated â€” which, of course, is why the rise of the term â€œcontentâ€ to describe creative output online has been one of the most corrosive developments in contemporary culture. A poem â€” or an essay, or a painting, or a song â€” is not its â€œcontentâ€; it transforms us precisely by what cannot be contained, by what is received and interpreted.
Reflecting on the framing questions her hosts had posed for the talk â€” â€œWhere is a writer to find strength and hope in this world? What is a writerâ€™s calling in this time and place? What work will make a difference? And how might we create a community of purpose?â€ â€” Le Guin writes:
Iâ€™m embarrassed because I come out with the same response to each question. Where am I to find strength and hope in this world? In my work, in trying to write well. Whatâ€™s a writerâ€™s calling, now or at any time? To write, to try to write well. What work will make a difference? Well-made work, honest work, writing well written. And how might we create a community of purpose? I canâ€™t say. If our community of purpose as writers doesnâ€™t lie in our shared interest in and commitment to writing as well as we can, then it must lie in something outside our work â€” a goal or end, a message, an effect, which may be most desirable, but which makes the writing merely a means to an end that lies outside the work, the vehicle of a message. And this is not what writing is to me. It is not what makes me a writer.
Le Guin notes that since our school days, weâ€™ve been taught that writing is a means to a practical end â€” the end of transmitting a message â€” which much writing indeed is, from memos to love letters to tweets. And yet, she argues, a work of art â€” be it written or otherwise â€” bequeaths a gift of meaning beyond messaging:
The kids ask me, â€œWhen you write a story, do you decide on the message first or do you begin with the story and put the message in it?â€
No, I say, I donâ€™t. I donâ€™t do messages. I write stories and poems. Thatâ€™s all. What the story or the poem means to you â€” its â€œmessageâ€ to you â€” may be entirely different from what it means to me.
The kids are often disappointed, even shocked. I think they see me as irresponsible. I know their teachers do.
They may be right. Maybe all writing, even literature, is not an end in itself but a means to an end other than itself. But I couldnâ€™t write stories or poetry if I thought the true and central value of my work was in a message it carried, or in providing information or reassurance, offering wisdom, giving hope. Vast and noble as these goals are, they would decisively limit the scope of the work; they would interfere with its natural growth and cut it off from the mystery which is the deepest source of the vitality of art.
A poem or story consciously written to address a problem or bring about a specific result, no matter how powerful or beneficent, has abdicated its first duty and privilege, its responsibility to itself. Its primary job is simply to find the words that give it its right, true shape. That shape is its beauty and its truth.
It is precisely in the lacuna between message and meaning that art is co-created by artist and audience, by writer and reader. This, of course, is what Susan Sontag had in mind when she presciently admonished, half a century ago, against what we stand to lose when we treat cultural material as â€œcontent.â€ Le Guin illustrates this notion with a simple, elegant analogy:
A well-made clay pot â€” whether itâ€™s a terra-cotta throwaway or a Grecian urn â€” is nothing more and nothing less than a clay pot. In the same way, to my mind, a well-made piece of writing is simply what it is, lines of words.
As I write my lines of words, I may try to express things I think are true and important. Thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m doing right now in writing this essay. But expression is not revelationâ€¦ Art reveals something beyond the message. A story or poem may reveal truths to me as I write it. I donâ€™t put them there. I find them in the story as I work.
And other readers may find other truths in it, different ones. Theyâ€™re free to use the work in ways the author never intended.
Looking to the great tragedies of ancient Greece, which continue to slake readersâ€™ thirst for meaning millennia later and to reveal different layers of moral truth to each generation, Le Guin observes that â€œthose works were written out of that mystery, the deep waters, the wellspring of art.â€ With an eye to Keatsâ€™s notion of â€œnegative capabilityâ€ and to the wisdom on Lao Tzu (whose Tao Te Ching Le Guin has amplified in an exquisite translation), she writes:
A poem of the right shape will hold a thousand truths. But it doesnâ€™t say any of them.
Always the artisan of nuance, Le Guin is careful to point out that she isnâ€™t advocating for the â€œArt for Artâ€™s sakeâ€ trope, which she considers flawed in its implication that art is solipsistic and without any responsibility to its audience. She writes:
Art does change peopleâ€™s minds and hearts. And an artist is a member of a community: the people who may see, hear, read her work. My first responsibility is to my craft, but if what I write may affect other people, obviously I have a responsibility to them too. Even if I donâ€™t have a clear idea of what the meaning of my story is and only begin to glimpse it as I write â€” still, I canâ€™t pretend it isnâ€™t there.
This sidewise glimpse of truth, Le Guin suggests, is far more effective than the blunt badgering of preaching. Of course, Emily Dickinson knew this when she famously exhorted her reader to â€œtell all the truth but tell it slant,â€ and astrophysicist and novelist Janna Levin knew this a century and a half later, when she wrote of truth obliquely illuminated in her stunning novel about Alan Turing, Kurt GÃ¶del, and the legacy of the Vienna Circle: â€œMaybe truth is just like that.
You can see it, but only out of the corner of your eye.â€ Le Guin considers the moral reason for letting the reader glimpse the truth out of the corner of her own eye:
What my reader gets out of my pot is what she needs, and she knows her needs better than I do. My only wisdom is knowing how to make pots. Who am I to preach?
No matter how humble the spirit itâ€™s offered in, a sermon is an act of aggression.
Drawing an elegant contrast between the Inner Preacher and the Inner Teacher â€” a contrast of excruciating necessity in our golden age of self-righteousness aggressively delivered â€” Le Guin adds:
â€œThe great Way is very simple; merely forgo opinion,â€ says the Taoist, and I know itâ€™s true â€” but thereâ€™s a preacher in me who just longs to cram my lovely pot with my opinions, my beliefs, with Truths. And if my subjectâ€™s a morally loaded one, such as Manâ€™s relationship to Nature â€” well, that Inner Preacherâ€™s just itching to set people straight and tell them how to think and what to do, yes, Lord, amen!
I have more trust in my Inner Teacher. She is subtle and humble because she hopes to be understood. She contains contradictory opinions without getting indigestion. She can mediate between the arrogant artist self who mutters, â€œI donâ€™t give a damn if you donâ€™t understand me,â€ and the preacher self who shouts, â€œNow hear this!â€ She doesnâ€™t declare truth, but offers it. She takes a Grecian urn and says, â€œLook closely at this, study it, for study will reward you; and I can tell you some of the things that other people have found in this pot, some of the goodies you too may find in it.â€
And yet, Le Guin notes, even the Inner Teacher isnâ€™t to be put in charge of meaning â€” for, â€œafter all, sheâ€™s the one who taught the kids to expect a message.â€ She considers instead the ultimate job and responsibility of the artist:
My job is to keep the meaning completely embodied in the work itself, and therefore alive and capable of change. I think thatâ€™s how an artist can best speak as a member of a moral community: clearly, yet leaving around her words that area of silence, that empty space, in which other and further truths and perceptions can form in other minds.