Brain Pickings

Michael Rosen’s Sad Book: A Beautiful Anatomy of Loss, Illustrated by Quentin Blake

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“Sometimes I’m sad and I don’t know why. It’s just a cloud that comes along and covers me up.”

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion wrote after losing the love of her life. “The people we most love do become a physical part of us,” Meghan O’Rourke observed in her magnificent memoir of loss, “ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created.” Those wildly unexpected dimensions of grief and the synaptic traces of love are what celebrated British children’s book writer and poet Michael Rosen confronted when his eighteen-year-old son Eddie died suddenly of meningitis. Never-ending though the process of mourning may be, Rosen set out to exorcise its hardest edges and subtlest shapes five years later in Michael Rosen’s Sad Book (public library) — an immensely moving addition to the finest children’s books about loss, illustrated by none other than the great Quentin Blake.

With extraordinary emotional elegance, Rosen welcomes the layers of grief, each unmasking a different shade of sadness — sadness that sneaks up on you mid-stride in the street; sadness that lurks as a backdrop to the happiest of moments; sadness that wraps around you like a shawl you don’t take off even in the shower.

What emerges is a breathtaking bow before the central paradox of the human experience — the awareness that the heart’s enormous capacity for love is matched with an equal capacity for pain, and yet we love anyway and somehow find fragments of that love even amid the ruins of loss.

This is me being sad.
Maybe you think I’m happy in this picture.
Really I’m sad but pretending I’m happy.
I’m doing this because I think people won’t like me if I look sad.

Sometimes sad is very big.
It’s everywhere. All over me.

Then I look like this.
And there’s nothing I can do about it.

What makes me most sad is when I think about my son Eddie. I loved him very, very much but he died anyway.

With exquisite nuance, Rosen captures the contradictory feelings undergirding mourning — affection and anger, self-conscious introspection and longing for communion — and the way loss lodges itself in the psyche so that the vestiges of a particular loss always awaken the sadness of the all loss, that perennial heartbreak of beholding the absurdity of our longing for permanence in a universe of constant change.

Sometimes this makes me really angry.
I say to myself, “How dare he go and die like that?
How dare he make me sad?”

Eddie doesn’t say anything,
because he’s not here anymore.

Sometimes I want to talk about all this to someone.
Like my mum. But she’s not here anymore, either. So I can’t.
I find someone else. And I tell them all about it.

Sometimes I don’t want to talk about it.
Not to anyone. No one at all.
I just want to think about it on my own.
Because it’s mine. And no one else’s.

But what makes the story most singular and rewarding is that it refuses to indulge the cultural cliché of cushioning tragedy with the promise of a silver lining. It is redemptive not in manufacturing redemption but in being true to the human experience — intensely, beautifully, tragically true.

Sometimes because I’m sad I do crazy things — like shouting in the shower…

Sometimes I’m sad and I don’t know why.
It’s just a cloud that comes along and covers me up.
It’s not because Eddie’s gone.
It’s not because my mum’s gone. It’s just because.

Blake, who has previously illustrated Sylvia Plath’s little-known children’s book and many of Roald Dahl’s stories, brings his unmistakably expressive sensibility to the book, here and there concretizing Rosen’s abstract words into visual vignettes that make you wonder what losses of his own he is holding in the mind’s eye as he draws.

Where is sad?
Sad is everywhere.
It comes along and finds you.

When is sad?
Sad is anytime.
It comes along and finds you.

Who is sad?
Sad is anyone.
It comes along and finds you.

Complement the absolutely breath-stopping Michael Rosen’s Sad Book with Oliver Jeffers’s The Heart and the Bottle and the Japanese masterpiece Little Tree, then revisit Joan Didion on grief.

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Goethe on Beginner’s Mind and the Discipline of Discernment in Your Media Diet

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“One must be something in order to do something.”

By the turn of the 19th century, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (August 28, 1749–March 22, 1832) was not only the world’s most celebrated poet, “the Olympian” of literature, but also a polymath of varied interests, from his fascination with the science of clouds to his psychological theory of color and emotion.

In 1822, the German writer Johann Peter Eckermann met and befriended 73-year-old Goethe, who became his mentor and even let the young man, barely thirty at the time, live at his house for a while. For the remaining nine years later of his life, Goethe met regularly with Eckermann, who recorded their wide-ranging conversations and published them in three volumes between 1836 and 1848. They were eventually released in the single, spectacular tome Conversations of Goethe (public library) — the most direct glimpse into the beloved poet’s mind, spanning his views on art, science, poetry, philosophy, and the practicalities of life.

Goethe at age 79 (Oil painting by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828)

Eckermann writes in the introduction

That which we call the True, even in relation to a single object, is by no means something small, narrow, limited; rather is it, even if something simple, at the same time something comprehensive, which like the various manifestations of a deep and widely reaching natural law, cannot easily be expressed. It cannot be disposed of by a sentence, or by sentence upon sentence, or by sentence opposed to sentence, but, through all these, one attains just an approximation, not the goal itself… Goethe’s [remarks are] indeed often of manifest contradiction.

But all these contradictions are single sides of the True, and, taken together, denote the essence of truth itself, and lead to an approximation to it.

Among the many seeming contradictions by which Goethe so elegantly approximates the True — the same elusive art that Cheryl Strayed would capture two centuries later in extolling the value of holding two opposing truths in two hands and walking forward — is his simultaneous insistence on the fruitfulness of “beginner’s mind” on the one hand and the importance of a rich mental reservoir of carefully selected influences on the other.

Art by Delacroix for a rare edition of Goethe's Faust. Click image for more.

Over a cheerful dinner conversation with his young friend in early January of 1824, Goethe considers the creative paralysis that comes from comparing oneself to the great masters of one’s craft. He argues instead for the advantages of being an amateur, or what Orson Wells would come to call “the gift of ignorance” nearly a century and a half later. What Goethe tells Eckermann comes remarkably close to the Buddhist notion of “beginner’s mind”:

A dramatic talent of any importance … could not forbear to notice Shakespeare’s works, nay, could not forbear to study them. Having studied them, he must be aware that Shakespeare has already exhausted the whole of human nature in all its tendencies, in all its heights and depths, and that, in fact, there remains for him, the aftercomer, nothing more to do. And how could one get courage only to put pen to paper, if one were conscious in an earnest appreciating spirit, that such unfathomable and unattainable excellences were already in existence!

Legendary artist Louise Bourgeois experienced something quite similar after visiting a major retrospective of Picasso, whom she considered the “greatest master.” Indeed, Goethe suggests that having come of age in Germany, without exposure to the foundational classics of English literature, was to the advantage of his developing craft:

On and on I went in my own natural development… But had I been born an Englishman, and had all those numerous masterpieces been brought before me in all their power, at my first dawn of youthful consciousness, they would have overpowered me, and I should not have known what to do. I could not have gone on with such fresh light-heartedness, but should have had to bethink myself, and look about for a long time, to find some new outlet.

Art by Delacroix for a rare edition of Goethe's Faust. Click image for more.

In another conversation with Eckermann at the end of the same year, Goethe revisits the subject from a different angle. Long before the age of information overload, he stresses the importance of being incredibly selective of the material with which the creative person fills her or his mental catalog of influences:

Generally, beware of dissipating your powers, and strive to concentrate them.

But — and here is the seemingly contradictory yet, upon closer inspection, deeply complementary point to his “beginner’s mind” assertion — concentrating one’s powers is not achieved by avoiding all cultural influence wholesale; rather, it’s about being thoughtful and discerning in choosing what to allow into one’s mental catalog:

The great point is to make a capital that will not be exhausted. This you will acquire by the study of the English language and literature… Concentrate your powers for something good, and give up everything which can produce no result of consequence to you, and is not suited to you.

Four years later, in a conversation from October of 1828, Goethe circles back to the subject of seeing oneself as, to borrow Pete Seeger’s term, a link in the chain of creative culture. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing that everything builds on what came before and fortifying one’s creative toolkit with the most elevated works of the past upon which to build one’s own contribution:

One must be something in order to do something. Dante seems to us great; but he had the culture of centuries behind him. The house of Rothschild is rich; but it has taken more than one generation to accumulate such treasures… Whoever will produce anything great, must so improve his culture that, like the Greeks, he will be able to elevate the mere trivial actualities of nature to the level of his own mind, and really carry out that which … either from internal weakness or external obstacles, remains a mere intention.

Complement Conversations of Goethe with Goethe’s beautiful cloud poems and André Gide on the great poet’s paradoxical model of creativity, then revisit other noteworthy conversations with creative geniuses: Jorge Luis Borges, Susan Sontag, Pablo Picasso, Robert Graves, and Agnes Martin.

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The Iron Giant: The 1968 Classic Celebrating Humanity’s Capacity for Harmony, Reimagined in Gorgeous Illustrations by Artist Laura Carlin

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A parable of peace, a love letter to the cosmos, and a reminder of the vulnerable and vivacious humanity that unites us beneath our surface squabbles.

“The Iron Giant came to the top of the cliff. How far had he walked? Nobody knows. Where had he come from? Nobody knows. How was he made? Nobody knows. Taller than a house, the Iron Giant stood at the top of the cliff, on the very brink, in the darkness. The wind sang through his iron fingers. His great iron head, shaped like a dustbin but as big as a bedroom, slowly turned to the right, slowly turned to the left. His iron ears turned, this way, that way. He was hearing the sea.”

So begins the extraordinary 1968 novel The Iron Man by English poet laureate Ted Hughes (August 17, 1930–October 28, 1998), published in North America as The Iron Giant — a magnificent modern-day fairy tale for all ages. Written at the height of the Cold War and two years after Umberto Eco’s similarly-spirited children’s book about tolerance, the story is a parable of peace, a warning against warfare, and a reminder of the vulnerable and vivacious humanity that unites us beneath our surface squabbles. Burning with the cosmic enthusiasm of the Space Age, it is also a love letter to astronomy and space exploration.

Hughes dedicated the book to his children, Frieda and Nicholas, for whom their tragically fated mother, Sylvia Plath, had written a very different children’s book a decade earlier.

In 2010, the immensely talented London-based illustrator Laura Carlin was commissioned to illustrate a special edition of The Iron Giant (public library), imbuing with new life the Hughes classic that, half a century later, continues to bear rattling relevance to our divisive world.

Carlin’s artistic style, while unmistakable, evokes the aesthetic of mid-century illustration and the die-cut surprises inside the book call to mind legendary graphic artist Bruno Munari’s vintage “interactive” children’s books.

Hughes tells the story of the Iron Giant, who emerges mysteriously and begins devouring tractors and plows in a small farming town, to the great terror and dismay of the farmers. They enlist a little boy named Hogarth, a farmer’s son, to befriend the giant and lure him into a giant pit. But as soon as the giant is trapped and silently buried, Hogarth begins to feel intense remorse.

When spring comes, the giant unburies himself as if awaking from a long slumber. In an act of redemptive kindness, Hogarth leads him to a local junkyard where the Iron Giant can feast himself back to life. Just then, astronomers announce some terrifying news — a space-monster, a “nameless, immense bat-angel,” is headed for Earth. As all nations declare futile war on the menacing space invader, the Iron Giant comes to the rescue — only he has the caliber to stand up to the monster.

But when the Iron Giant defeats the “space-bat-angel-dragon” and orders the strange creature to become Earth’s slave for perpetuity, the monster answers that he’d be of no use in any earthly labor. “All we do in space is fly, or make music,” he laments. Curious, the Iron Giant inquires about the music and the story takes a turn for the even more poetic:

“Haven’t you heard of the music of the spheres?” asked the dragon. “It’s the music that space makes to itself. All the spirits inside all the stars are singing. I’m a star spirit. I sing too. The music of the spheres is what makes space so peaceful.”

Perplexed, the Iron Giant asks what could possibly possess such a peaceful creature to want to eat Earth. Here, Hughes reminds us that there are contradictory impulses in everything and the parts of us that prevails are the parts we feed through the ideas and people we surround ourselves with, or what William Gibson has elegantly termed our “personal micro-culture.” After a moment of wistful contemplation, the dragon answers that he overheard the warring cries of earthlings and got caught up in the collective intoxication of destruction, so he simply wanted to join in — a sentiment that calls to mind Nobel laureate Elias Canetti’s enduring ideas on crowds and power.

The Iron Giant then suggests that instead of slaving for the Earth, the space-bat-angel-dragon could sing to earthlings instead. And so he does:

The whole world could hear him, a strange soft music that seemed to fill the whole of space, a deep weird singing, like millions of voices singing together.

Meanwhile the Iron Man was the world’s hero. He went back to his scrap-yard. But now everybody in the world sent him a present. Some only sent him an old car. One rich man even sent him an ocean liner. He sprawled there in his yard, chewing away, with his one ear slightly drooped where the white heat of that last roasting had slightly melted it. As he chewed, he hummed in harmony to the singing of this tremendous slave in heaven.

And the space-bat-angel’s singing had the most unexpected effect. Suddenly the world became wonderfully peaceful. The singing got inside everybody and made them as peaceful as starry space, and blissfully above all their earlier little squabbles. The strange soft eerie space-music began to alter all the people of the world. They stopped making weapons. The countries began to think how they could live pleasantly alongside each other, rather than how to get rid of each other. All they wanted to do was to have peace to enjoy this strange, wild, blissful music from the giant singer in space.

Complement Carlin’s terrific take on The Iron Giant with Hughes’s moving letter to his son on the universal inner child and the story of his fateful first meeting with Sylvia Plath.

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Hegel on Knowledge, Impatience, the Peril of Fixed Opinions, and the True Task of the Human Mind

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“Impatience asks for the impossible, wants to reach the goal without the means of getting there.”

I frequently lament a particularly prevalent pathology of our time — our extreme impatience with the dynamic process of attaining knowledge and transmuting it into wisdom. We want to have the knowledge, as if it were a static object, but we don’t want to do the work of claiming it — and so we reach for simulacra that compress complex ideas into listicles and two-minute animated explainers.

Two centuries before our era of informational impatience, the great German idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (August 27, 1770–November 14, 1831), who influenced such fertile minds as Nietzsche and Simone de Beauvoir, addressed the elements of this pathology in a section of his masterwork The Phenomenology of Mind (public library).

Hegel writes:

The goal to be reached is the mind’s insight into what knowing is. Impatience asks for the impossible, wants to reach the goal without the means of getting there. The length of the journey has to be borne with, for every moment is necessary; and again we must halt at every stage, for each is itself a complete individual form, and is fully and finally considered only so far as its determinate character is taken and dealt with as a rounded and concrete whole, or only so far as the whole is looked at in the light of the special and peculiar character which this determination gives it. Because the substance of individual mind, nay, more, because the universal mind at work in the world (Weltgeist), has had the patience to go through these forms in the long stretch of time’s extent, and to take upon itself the prodigious labour of the world’s history, where it bodied forth in each form the entire content of itself, as each is capable of presenting it; and because by nothing less could that all-pervading mind ever manage to become conscious of what itself is — for that reason, the individual mind … cannot expect by less toil to grasp what its own substance contains.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Robert Graves's little-known children's book. Click image for more.

Our mistaken conception of knowledge as a static object is also the root of our perilous self-righteousness and the tyranny of opinions. (“When you come right down to it,” Borges observed, “opinions are the most superficial things about anyone.”) Knowledge, Hegel argues, isn’t a matter of owning a truth by making it familiar and then asserting its ideal presentation, but quite the opposite — an eternal tango with the unfamiliar:

The form of an ideal presentation … is something familiar to us, something “well-known,’ something which the existent mind has finished and done with, and hence takes no more to do with and no further interest in. While [this] is itself merely the process of the particular mind, of mind which is not comprehending itself, on the other hand, knowledge is directed against this ideal presentation which has hereby arisen, against this “being familiar” and “well-known;” it is an action of universal mind, the concern of thought.

What is “familiarly known” is not properly known, just for the reason that it is “familiar.” When engaged in the process of knowledge, it is the commonest form of self-deception, and a deception of other people as well, to assume something to be familiar, to give assent to it on that very account.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Errol Morris’s magnificent New York Times essay series on the anosognostic’s dilemma, Hegel adds:

Knowledge of that sort, with all its talk, never gets from the spot but has no idea that this is the case. Subject and object, and so on, God, nature, understanding, sensibility, etc., are uncritically presupposed as familiar and something valid, and become fixed points from which to start and to which to return. The process of knowing flits between these secure points, and in consequence goes merely along the surface. Apprehending and proving consist similarly in seeing whether everyone finds what is said corresponding to his idea too, whether it is familiar and seems to him so and so or not.

True understanding, Hegel argues, requires that we demolish the familiar, overcome what psychologists have since termed the “backfire effect,” and cease clinging to the fixed points of our opinions:

The force of Understanding [is] the most astonishing and great of all powers, or rather the absolute power.

[…]

The life of the mind is not one that shuns death, and keeps clear of destruction; it endures death and in death maintains its being. It only wins to its truth when it finds itself utterly torn asunder.

The Phenomenology of Mind remains one of the most mind-stretching treatises ever written. Complement this particular passage with E.F. Schumacher on the art of adaequatio and how we now what we know and Hannah Arendt, who was heavily influenced by Hegel, on the life of the mind.

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Amanda Palmer’s Extraordinary BBC Open Letter on the Choice to Have a Child as a Working Artist

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“We’re artists — not art factories.”

“Being an artist is not just about what happens when you are in the studio,” Teresita Fernández wrote in her devastatingly beautiful meditation on being an artist. “The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote, the words that come out of your mouth … will also become the raw material for the art you make.” And yet we continue clinging to limiting ideas about what it means to be an artist. Our bipolar culture renders the choice not to have children a controversial act of courage while at the same time pitting parenthood against other aspects of personhood, including the identity of being a creative warrior, and insisting that there is an inescapable tradeoff.

In April of 2015, musician Amanda Palmer received a letter from a self-proclaimed “fan” affirming one of every artist’s worst nightmares — the “fan,” also a woman, argued that Palmer’s newly announced pregnancy would be to the grave detriment of her art; that, what’s more, it was a form of perpetrating fraud on her fanbase by accepting Patreon micro-patronage (I myself am a proud supporter) for art bound to devolve into motherly mediocrity. The “fan” seemed unaware that the history of creative culture is strewn with brilliant women who had children without compromising their genius — from Susan Sontag, who entered motherhood at the age of nineteen and went on to become one of the greatest intellectual titans of the twentieth century, to Patti Smith, who became a mother at forty-one and has continued to bestow her brilliant badassery upon the world in the decades since, often performing with her daughter.

At a live recording of BBC’s excellent Four Thought, Palmer addressed the “fan” in a vulnerable, courageous, and unflinchingly loving open letter that speaks to the mire of cultural complexities in reconciling one’s new identity as a parent with one’s lifelong identity as a working artist.

When you’re a crowdfunding artist, it shouldn’t matter what your choices are — as long as you’re delivering your side of the bargain: the art, the music. It shouldn’t matter whether you’re spending money on guitar picks, rent, printer paper, diapers, college loans, or the special brand of organic absinthe you use to find your late-night muse — as long as art is making it out the other side and making your patrons happy.

We’re artists — not art factories. The money we need to live is often indistinguishable from the money we need to make art.

[…]

I’m just about to jump into this net that I’m praying will appear to catch me, my art, and this baby — all at the same time.

A full transcript of the reading can be found here. Join me in weaving that art-affirming, life-affirming net under Amanda by supporting her on Patreon — the payoff is reliably magical.

For a complement and a counterpoint, see some equally courageous perspectives on the choice not to have children, then revisit Amanda’s suddenly triply poignant reading of Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Life While-You-Wait” and her fierce performance art piece for the New York Public Library’s children’s book donation drive.

Donating = Loving

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