Brain Pickings

Art as a Form of Active Prayer and What Writers Really Labor For

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“Immerse yourself in the common ground of the universe so that your true voice — not the egoistic voice that clamors vainly for power (for it will ruin you if you listen to it) — your authentic voice … may be heard.”

Why do we humans create — why do artists make art, why do writers write? Pablo Neruda gave a beautiful answer in his metaphor of the hand through the fence. For Joan Didion, the impulse is a vital gateway to her own mind. David Foster Wallace saw it as a mode of fun-having and truth-telling. For Italo Calvino, it was a matter of belonging to “a collective enterprise.” William Faulkner simply believed it to be “the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet.” But even more important, perhaps, is the question of why — and how — artists continue to make art in the face of the rejection, ridicule, and indifference with which their society often meets them.

That immutable inquiry is what novelist, short story writer, and journalist Melissa Pritchard explores with unparalleled luminosity in an essay titled “Spirit and Vision” from her altogether magnificent first nonfiction collection, A Solemn Pleasure: To Imagine, Witness, and Write (public library). The piece — a sort of open letter to writers and, by extension, all artists — bears that cynicism-disarming quality of a commencement address and enchants the psyche like an incantation.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from 'Enormous Smallness' by Matthew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

Pritchard writes:

Great writers are witnesses to the spirit of their age. They need not be accepted by their times; they rarely are. Speaking the truth, they may go unheard, be misunderstood or criticized. Later, posthumously, it is said they were ahead of their time.

This she illustrates with a supreme example of the posthumously anointed literary genius: Walt Whitman, whose exquisite serenade to the soul, Leaves of Grass, fell on deaf ears — the same unfeeling audience that had been wholly nonplussed by Thoreau’s wholly plussing Walden and had snubbed Moby-Dick, leaving Melville to die in embittered poverty. Where the public was indifferent, reviewers were downright hostile — one famously advised Whitman to simply commit suicide. Middle-aged and penniless, the poet was friendless in an artless world — save for Emerson, who alone found Leaves of Grass to be full of “incomparable things said incomparably well” and declared it “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”

Art from 'Whitman Illuminated' by Allen Crawford. Click image for more.

And yet Whitman didn’t give up writing, buoyed by the same mysterious force that has kept countless artists from throwing in the brush or pen or lyre when met with mockery or, worse, indifference. Pritchard considers his plight:

Walt Whitman had violated all the polite norms of his age, and Leaves of Grass was on a collision course with conventional literature. He had assaulted the institution of literature, had torn apart language and invented his own. In fact, Whitman laid the groundwork for much modernist writing from Kafka and Beckett to Borges.

With this, Pritchard arrives at the central inquiry, addressing writers with grounding yet elevating directness:

Why write? Why add to the tumult of the world? Your competition is fierce … from television, film, video, all social media, from the books of other writers living and dead. There currently exists in America an insidious numbness to literature. It is increasingly difficult to publish what is called “literary fiction”; even the best-seller market is not what it was. Stacks of books are returned to warehouses every day, even those blockbuster books publishing houses rely upon to finance more serious, less lucrative books. And how have we, as writers of that literature, become increasingly alienated from the soul of our culture? How have we become so nearly unnecessary? In other parts of the world, to be a writer is to place yourself in physical peril; your words might invite your own death. In other parts of the world, to be a writer is a heroic vocation, for which you may be imprisoned, tortured, “disappeared.” On the other hand, thousands of people may assemble to listen to you; as a poet you may be elected to the highest political office. In parts of this world, the power of language is still deeply connected to the soul of the people. Whitman’s work was initially met with indifference. By the time of his death he was regarded as a genius and a saint or a derelict and degenerate, depending on your stand. He was in no way dismissible.

In a sentiment that calls to mind poet Mark Strand’s memorable meditation on the artist’s task and Annie Dillard’s assertion that “writers serve as the memory of a people,” Pritchard adds:

We are in danger, I believe, of becoming accustomed to indifference, of being kept within writing workshops, conferences, and seminars where we write and read to a dwindling, closed circle of admirers. Nearly resigned to this peripheral fate, we are then tempted to take ourselves too seriously as far as ego recognition goes, in terms of literary prizes, grants, and publications in journals, yet not seriously enough as essential witnesses to our time.

But make no mistake — Pritchard’s is not a complaint but a clarion call, issued from the depths of a chest that cages a heart emanating uncontainable love for art and its spiritual rewards:

All great literature has an uncreeded and luminous theology behind it… Art [is] a form of active prayer.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'The Big Green Book' by Robert Graves. Click image for more.

For writers, Pritchard argues — especially writers like Whitman, who stay true to their art in the face of repeated rejection — literature is a “sacred vocation”; there is no preciousness or pretense about its sanctity — only earnest and inexorable purposefulness. She exhorts writers to contact this invisible theology of their craft and elevate it to its height:

Many of the tenets of sainthood are also to be cultivated in the committed writer: selflessness, the death of the little self, purity of spirit leading to intensity of vision, a suspension of judgment in regard to your fellow human beings, an intimate acquaintance with ecstasy, sorrow, and revelation. Consider for a moment your work as analogous to intimate prayer in which you address God, and thereby divineness, in all matter.

[…]

We can begin with a metaphysic that recognizes a divine reality substantial to the world of things, lives, and minds, a psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine reality, an ethic placing humanity’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent ground of all being. This is a universal, immemorial idea put forth by all religions, much folklore, and, uncounted times, by great artists. Whitman believed in the poet as agent of transcendent power; he was literal when he referred to his ecstasies, his illuminations.

This divine reality is of such a nature that it cannot be understood directly except by those who choose to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and rich in spirit. I am talking about mystics, saints, prophets, sages, enlightened ones, the Sufis of Islam, the gurus of India, the Catholic mystics, the Quakers’ tradition of inner light that so influenced Walt Whitman, the shamans, and medicine women and men of the Native American tribes. It is from these people and others that we learn of the detachment, charity, and humility essential to being immersed in the one divine reality. It is my assertion that as writers, we bring as many of these same qualities to bear in our work as we possibly can… This consciousness, supernatural consciousness, is what transformed Whitman from an ordinary hack writer to a composer of transcendent works.

The shining of this inner light onto the outer world, Pritchard asserts, is the task of the artist and the source of that mysterious force that carries the creative spirit forward, however glib the external reception of that art:

Enduring literature is suffused with compassion and love. And because we then act in the foolish, vain, mad, self-destructive, and sometimes criminal ways we do, all so characteristically human, this is much of what our stories and poems and novels concern themselves with. And just as the author labors in solitude but is never alone, so the artist, the author, is never poor.

Our one great Promethean labor is to reconcile humanity to itself and to reconnect, through language, humankind to the universe. If we begin with this ambition, then all the techniques, the seminars and workshops to promote confidence and craftsmanship make sense, are valid and valuable.

Art from 'Whitman Illuminated' by Allen Crawford. Click image for more.

This, indeed, is Pritchard’s most piercing point — however radiant that source of inner light, it cannot exist in isolation from the rest of the universe and must be emanated outward, shone in the direction of universal Truth. With an eye to iconic champions of truth-telling like Nadine Gordimer and Grace Paley, Pritchard addresses the writers of our own time:

If your commitment isn’t to truth, then you are in the wrong line of work. The poetics of silence still exist in America, but as writers I feel we have a responsibility to engage in history, in painful history, to be responsible witnesses to our own time. We are not separate; we are not an indulgent elite. We are not blind to suffering. We are, in fact, aware of our intimate relation to all other beings, and are thus accountable, deeply responsible. We must connect the personal with the political, the political with the spiritual. And though we can only work from our particular place, our given spot in the world, the particular can be a place of great power — the cry of the human heart and the yearning of the human spirit are, after all, universal.

She ends the piece like one might a commencement address — and if this were one, it would certainly be among the greatest commencement addresses of all time — urging writers:

What you have chosen is a profound vocation of healing, and your stories and poems are as sacraments, as visible blessings. Be at the heart and soul of your time, not resigned to what is safe or peripheral. Try to free yourself from attachment to results, to awards, publications, praise, to indifference, rejection, and misunderstanding. Immerse yourself in the common ground of the universe so that your true voice — not the egoistic voice that clamors vainly for power (for it will ruin you if you listen to it) — your authentic voice, supported by sacred reality, may be heard. May your words illuminate your vision, find you compassionate, attuned to human suffering and committed to its alleviation.

Complement A Solemn Pleasure, seriously pleasurable in its entirety, with Susan Sontag’s advice to writers, Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, and Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense wisdom on the craft, then revisit this evolving archive of great writers’ advice on writing.

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Beatrix Potter, Mycologist: The Beloved Children’s Book Author’s Little-Known Scientific Studies and Illustrations of Mushrooms

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“Imagination is the precursor to policy, the precondition to action. Imagination, like wonder, allows us to value something.”

Beatrix Potter (July 28, 1866–December 22, 1943) is one of the most beloved and influential storytellers of all time. The Tale of Peter Rabbit and her other gloriously illustrated children’s books tickle the human imagination through the fantastical aliveness of nature and its creatures, in a spirit partway between Aesop and Mary Oliver, between Tolkien and Thoreau. At a time when women had no right to vote and virtually no access to higher education, very rarely owned property and were themselves considered the property of their husbands, Potter became a commercially successful writer and artist, using the royalties from her books to purchase her famed Hill Top Farm, where she lived simply and with great love for the land for the remaining four decades of her life. Potter’s art was a formative influence for Maurice Sendak, who collected her books, traveled to her farm, winked at her famous costumed mice in his reimagining of Nutcracker, and incorporated some of her work into his illustrations for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves. Her 1913 book The Tale of Pigling Bland was a childhood favorite of George Orwell’s and became one of the key inspirations for his allegorical masterwork Animal Farm. (In addition to her extraordinary achievements and far-reaching creative legacy, I have always held special affection for Potter for the absurdly human reason that we share a birthday.)

Teenage Beatrix Potter with her pet mouse Xarifa, 1885 (Princeton University Library, Rare Books and Special Collections)

But no aspect of Potter’s kaleidoscopic genius is more fascinating than her vastly underappreciated contribution to science and natural history, which comes to life in Linda Lear’s altogether magnificent Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (public library) — by far the best book on Potter and one of the finest biographies ever written, Lear’s prose itself a supreme work of art.

The pervasive Victorian enthusiasm for natural history produced quite a few female amateur scientists, including ornithologist Genevieve Jones, lepidopterist Maria Merian, and fossil-hunter Mary Anning — “amateur” being not a reflection of their scientific rigor and dedication, which were formidable, but of the fact that a formal scientific education was virtually inaccessible to women, except for the rare Ada Lovelace or Maria Mitchell, and membership in scientific societies was strictly reserved for men. But Potter’s scientific work was exceptional in that she deliberately tried to penetrate the very institutions that dismissed women’s scientific labor solely on the basis of gender.

Flammulina velutipes (Armitt Museum and Library)

By her early twenties, Potter had developed a keen interest in mycology and began producing incredibly beautiful drawings of fungi, collecting mushroom specimens herself and mounting them for careful observation under the microscope. In the winter months, she frequented London’s Natural History Museum to study their displays. Lear writes:

Beatrix’s interest in drawing and painting mushrooms, or fungi, began as a passion for painting beautiful specimens wherever she found them. She never saw art and science as mutually exclusive activities, but recorded what she saw in nature primarily to evoke an aesthetic response. She was drawn to fungi first by their ephemeral fairy qualities and then by the variety of their shape and colour and the challenge they posed to watercolour techniques. Unlike insects or shells or even fossils, fungi also guaranteed an autumn foray into fields and forests, where she could go in her pony cart without being encumbered by family or heavy equipment.

Hygrophorus puniceus (Armitt Museum and Library)

There is also something quite poetic about Potter’s obsession with fungi — in her later children’s books, she bridged real life and fantasy by transmuting the animals and plants she observed in nature into whimsical characters and stories, and mushrooms have long symbolized this very transmutation, perhaps most prominently in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, which first captured the popular imagination the year Potter was born.

But her interest went far beyond the mere aesthetics or symbolism of mushrooms — she was studious about their taxonomy, taught herself the proper technique for accurate botanical illustration, and worked tirelessly to get an introduction to the eminent mycologist Charles McIntosh. With his help and encouragement, she continued advancing her microscopic observations, which kindled in her an intense fascination with how mushrooms reproduced — something poorly understood at the time. Potter soon began conducting her own experiments with spores she had germinated herself. She was particularly captivated by lichens, considered at the time the “poor peasants of the plant world,” in the words of the great botanist Linnaeus — a statement itself belying the dearth of scientific understanding at the time, for lichens are not plants but a hybrid of fungi and algae.

Himeola auricula (Armitt Museum and Library)

This hybrid nature, first proposed by the Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener in 1869 and believed by no one else for decades, seemed so laughable a concept that “Schwendenerist” became a term of derision. But young Beatrix’s experiments convinced her that Schwendener was on to something with his “dual hypothesis.” She set down her theories and empirical findings in a paper titled “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae,” accompanied by her breathtakingly detailed illustrations.

Strobilomyces strobilaceus (Armitt Museum and Library)

But between her and the acceptance of the truth stood formidable sociocultural forces: London’s Linnean Society, the bastion of Victorian botany, was exclusively male and barred women from membership, denied them access to the research library, and wouldn’t even allow them to attend the presentations of scientific papers. One of the Society’s most influential gatekeepers was William Turner Thiselton-Dyer, the despotic director of the famed Kew Gardens and a man of particularly misogynistic conviction — and it was he whom thirty-year-old Potter had to sway in order for her paper to be presented at the Society. His response was blatantly patronizing — he called her ideas unimportant “mares’ nests” that couldn’t possibly measure up to a subject this “profound” and dismissed her drawings without even looking at them.

That night, an indignant and furious Potter wrote in her diary:

I informed him that it would all be in the books in ten years, whether or no, and departed giggling.

Lepiota friesii (Armitt Museum and Library)

Hydrocybe coccinea (Armitt Museum and Library)

Amanita excels (Armitt Museum and Library)

Potter’s uncle, a respected scientist himself, was equally appalled by Thiselton-Dyer and took it upon himself to see to her paper’s presentation at the Society. Lear writes:

The general membership of the Society met at seven o‘clock on Tuesday evening, 1 April 1897 with President Albert C. L. G. Gunther in the chair. The business of the meeting was the reading of a paper, “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae by Miss Helen B. Potter,” and the presentation of several exhibits by five distinguished fellows, including Thiselton-Dyer and George Murray. Since women were not allowed to be members or to participate in the meetings, Beatrix was not present… Afterwards, together with any slide drawings as exhibits, it was ‘laid on the table’ where it could be examined… “Laid on the table” had the specialized meaning in Linnean Society parlance of the time of “received but not seriously considered in open forum.” In short, while Beatrix’s paper was read at least in part, no substantive notice was given to it… Like other women at the time who attempted to gain a hearing for their scientific research at the Linnean, Beatrix’s theories were never seriously considered.

So the paper never even got to the point of peer-reviewing Potter’s actual reproduction hypothesis to determine whether it was correct — she (any “she”) was, it was made clear, not a peer and thus not worthy of such consideration.

A century later, the Linnean Society issued an apology of sorts for its historic sexism — its executive secretary formally acknowledged that Potter’s research had been “treated scurvily.” And yet to this day, Potter’s remarkable fungi illustrations are studied for their scientific accuracy and consulted by mycologists all over the world in identifying mushroom species. And, who knows, perhaps one day a kindly mycologist will discover a new species and name it after Potter.

Clitocybe ampla (Armitt Museum and Library)

But Potter wasn’t too perturbed by the rejection — she channeled her genius and creative energy in a different direction. Only five years later, the self-published first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit sold out before the next commercial edition was even printed, and Potter became one of the most famous and successful children’s book artists and writers of her time, and soon of all time. The same reverent fascination with nature that had fueled her scientific work now appeared in a new guise in her stories, full not of the fantastical beings of fairy tales but of the realistic animals and plants native to the very woods in which she had collected her mushroom specimens.

Lepitoa procera (Armitt Museum and Library)

In the epilogue to the book, Lear captures Potter’s larger legacy as a naturalist, environmentalist, and singular artisan who dedicated her life to weaving a profound reverence for nature into the very fabric of culture:

Beatrix Potter brought nature back into the English imagination with her books and her illustrations. She wrote most of them at a time when nature was viewed as something of little value, when the plunder of nature was more popular than its preservation. After her marriage [to William Heelis] in 1913 the emphasis of her imaginative work shifted more and more away from literature towards the land and the animals it sustained. Beatrix cared about the old ways, and about what was necessary to live simply in nature.

Imagination is the precursor to policy, the precondition to action. Imagination, like wonder, allows us to value something. Imagination allowed Beatrix Potter to value the natural world and to share the treasures she found in the Lake District and its culture. As a far-sighted businesswoman she understood that their preservation was inherently linked to the success of fell farming.

Beatrix Heelis’s stewardship created a singular moment in the recovery of nature in the twentieth century; a paradigm of environmental awakening.

Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature is a glorious read in its entirety, detailing Potter’s creative evolution, her era-defying development as a businesswoman and entrepreneur, her intimate relationship with place and landscape, and much more. Complement it with the butterfly drawings of entomological illustrator Maria Merian and the bird eggs of self-taught artist Genevieve Jones, then revisit Jon Mooallem’s magnificent modern-day appeal to the environmental imagination.

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A Zen Master Explains Death and the Life-Force to a Child and Outlines the Three Essential Principles of Zen Mind

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“Zen practice … requires great faith, great courage, and great questioning.”

If death is so enormous a mystery that we remain unable to wrap our grownup minds around it, despite comfort from our great poets and consolation from our great philosophers, how are tiny humans to make sense of it all? Although there exist some exceptional children’s books about loss and grief, explaining death to a child remains one of the most challenging tasks for a human being to undertake.

Because the language of Zen, holding great complexity of experience in great simplicity of expression, is so organically suited to the child — children, after all, have a way of leaning their minds toward the profound by way of the simple — it is perhaps the best language we have in offering a befitting explanation, as much to ourselves as to our young ones.

That’s what the great Korean-born Zen teacher Seung Sahn Soen-sa (August 1, 1927–November 30, 2004) offers in one of the chapters in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn (public library) — a tiny treasure of a book originally published in 1976, irreverent yet immensely spiritually invigorating, collecting his correspondence and conversations with Zen students in the West.

Soen-sa recounts his conversation with Gita, the seven-year-old daughter of one of his students at the Cambridge Zen Center, after the death of the center’s beloved cat, cleverly named Katz. (“KATZ!” is the transcription of the famous Buddhist belly-shout, used as a way of focusing energy and intention during Zen practice.) Katz had died after a long illness and was given a traditional Buddhist burial, but the little girl remained troubled by his death. One day after practice, she came to the great Zen teacher for an explanation. He relays the exchange:

“What happened to Katzie? Where did he go?”

Soen-sa said, “Where do you come from?”

“From my mother’s belly.”

“Where does your mother come from?” Gita was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Everything in the world comes from the same one thing. It is like in a cookie factory. Many different kinds of cookies are made — lions, tigers, elephants, houses, people. They all have different shapes and different names, but they are all made from the same dough and they all taste the same. So all the different things that you see — a cat, a person, a tree, the sun, this floor — all these things are really the same.”

“What are they?”

Illustration by Edward Gorey from 'Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats' by T.S. Eliot. Click image for more.

With an eye to our tendency to mistake a thing’s name for its thingness, Soen-sa answers by urging the little girl to contact the universal life-force of the metaphorical cookie dough:

“People give them many different names. But in themselves, they have no names. When you are thinking, all things have different names and different shapes. But when you are not thinking, all things are the same. There are no words for them. People make the words. A cat doesn’t say, ‘I am a cat.’ People say, ‘This is a cat.’ The sun doesn’t say, ‘My name is sun.’ People say, ‘This is the sun.’

So when someone asks you, ‘What is this?’, how should you answer?”

“I shouldn’t use words.”

Soen-sa said, “Very good! You shouldn’t use words. So if someone asks you, ‘What is Buddha?’, what would be a good answer?”

Gita was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Now you ask me.”

“What is Buddha?”

Soen-sa hit the floor.

Gita laughed.

Soen-sa said, “Now I ask you: What is Buddha?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is God?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is your mother?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What are you?”

Gita hit the floor.

“Very good! This is what all things in the world are made of. You and Buddha and God and your mother and the whole world are the same.”

Gita smiled.

Soen-sa said, “Do you have any more questions?”

“You still haven’t told me where Katz went.”

Soen-sa leaned over, looked into her eyes, and said, “You already understand.”

Gita said, “Oh!” and hit the floor very hard. Then she laughed.

Soen-sa ends the anecdote with an exchange intended to be funny, but in fact a tragic testament to contemporary Western education being a force of industrialized specialization, deliberately fragmenting the unity of all things and deconditioning our inner wholeness:

As she was opening the door, she turned to Soen-sa and said, “But I’m not going to answer that way when I’m in school. I’m going to give regular answers!” Soen-sa laughed.

Illustration from 'The Book of Memory Gaps' by Cecilia Ruiz. Click image for more.

In another section of the book, Soen-sa examines the principles and practices that help us cultivate the pre-thinking mind necessary for truly tasting the metaphorical cookie dough of the universal life-force. Responding to a letter from a Zen beginner, a young woman named Patricia who had trouble grasping the value and very notion of “don’t-know mind,” he writes:

Throw away all opinions, all likes and dislikes, and only keep the mind that doesn’t know… Your before-thinking mind, my before-thinking mind, all people’s before-thinking minds are the same. This is your substance. Your substance, my substance, and the substance of the whole universe become one. So the tree, the mountain, the cloud, and you become one… The mind that becomes one with the universe is before thinking. Before thinking there are no words. “Same” and “different” are opposites words; they are from the mind that separates all things.

A few months later, in another letter to Patricia, he explores the three pillars of Zen’s don’t-know mind:

Zen practice … requires great faith, great courage, and great questioning.

What is great faith? Great faith means that at all times you keep the mind which decided to practice, no matter what. It is like a hen sitting on her eggs. She sits on them constantly, caring for them and giving them warmth, so that they will hatch. If she becomes careless or negligent, the eggs will not hatch and become chicks. So Zen mind means always and everywhere believing in myself…

Great courage … means bringing all your energy to one point. It is like a cat hunting a mouse. The mouse has retreated into its hole, but the cat waits outside the hole for hours on end without the slightest movement. It is totally concentrated on the mouse-hole. This is Zen mind — cutting off all thinking and directing all your energy to one point.

Next — great questioning… If you question with great sincerity, there will only be don’t-know mind.

Complement Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, indispensable in its entirety, with the great D.T. Suzuki on how Zen can help us cultivate our character, Alan Watts on death, and beloved Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn on how to do “hugging meditation.”

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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Michelangelo on Poverty, Integrity, and the Right Not to Be Interrupted During Creative Labor

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“I do not know which is better, the ill that helps or the good that harms.”

Italian Renaissance sculptor, painter, poet, architect, and engineer Michelangelo (March 6, 1475–February 18, 1564) is celebrated as one of the greatest and most influential artists of all time. In 1505, thirty-year-old Michelangelo was commissioned to build a tomb for the newly elected Pope Julius II in Rome. It was an arduous process marred by constant interruption and interference by the pope, a bona fide micro-manager. Today, as scientists are finding that it takes our brains 23 minutes to recover from an interruption, Michelangelo’s tenacity and his ability to carry out his creative vision despite the maddening meddling seems triply worthy of awe.

Indeed, he knew value of undisturbed creative labor and protected it fiercely, unafraid to stand up to the most powerful man in Europe. Unable to bear the interruptions any longer and determined to do his work on his own terms, he left Rome and returned to Florence, where he could work on his sketches and sculptures for the project in peace. In one of the missives collected in Poems and Letters: Selections, with the 1550 Vasari Life (public library) — an invaluable glimpse of the inner workings of Michelangelo’s genius, from his daily struggles to his most elemental creative credos — he writes to the pope’s head architect, defending his departure:

If I stayed in Rome, my own tomb would be made before the pope’s. And this was why I left so suddenly.

Now you write to me on the pope’s behalf, so you can read the pope this: let His Holiness understand that I am more willing than ever to carry on with the work; and if he wants the tomb come what may, he shouldn’t be bothered about where I work on it, provided that, at the end of the five years we agreed on, it is set up in St Peter’s, wherever he likes; and that it is something beautiful, as I have promised it will be: for I’m sure that if it’s completed, there will be nothing like it in the world.

Michelangelo makes an impassioned, even indignant, case for what we now call remote work, half a millennium before cars and commuter rail and Skype:

Now if His Holiness wants to go on with it, he should place the deposit for me here in Florence and I’ll write to tell him where. And I have many marbles on order in Carrara which I shall have brought here along with those I have in Rome. Even if it meant a serious loss to me, I shouldn’t mind so long as I could do the work here; and I would forward the finished pieces one by one so that His Holiness would enjoy them just as much as if I were working in Rome — or even more, because he would just see the finished pieces without having any other bother. For the money and for the work I shall pledge myself as His Holiness desires and give him whatever security he requires here in Florence. Whatever it is, I’ll give him that security before all Florence. Enough.

Although the project was scheduled to last five years, Michelangelo labored at it for four decades and never completed the tomb to his satisfaction — no doubt in large part due to the pope’s unrelenting meddling. But as is often the case in creative culture, a small side project assigned to him shortly after the original tomb commission ended up becoming Michelangelo’s most timeless legacy and one of the greatest works of art ever created: the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, on which he worked almost incessantly between 1508 and 1512. And as is also often the case in art, Michelangelo’s compensation was a pittance compared to the magnitude of his enduring gift to humanity.

In a letter to his father penned in September of 1512, as the Sistine Chapel project was drawing to a close, he writes:

I must warn you that I don’t have a penny and that I’m barefoot and naked, so to speak, and I can’t get the balance owed to me until I’ve finished the work; and I suffer the worst of hardships and toil. So, when you have to put up with some hardship yourself, don’t be distressed, and as long as you can help yourself with your own money.

A month later, he sends his father a most understated, matter-of-fact, even wistful report on what is substantially one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of art:

I have finished the chapel I was painting: the pope is very happy with it, but other things haven’t turned out as well as I hoped. I blame the times, which are so unfavorable to our art… I don’t have what I need in order to do what I want to do.

Later that month, he writes to his father again:

I live in penury and think nothing of life or honors, that is of the world; and I live with immense toil and a thousand cares. And I have been like this for about fifteen years, without an hour of joy… I’m ready to do the same again for as long as I live or as long as I can.

It should be noted that Michelangelo tended to dramatize his poverty — he was actually made quite a lot by the era’s standards. The Pope agreed to pay him 3,000 ducats for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Even though Michelangelo was to buy his own materials, which cost about 1,000 ducats, the remaining 2,000 was a substantial amount — historians equate it to about $52,000 in today’s money. (For a comparative reference point, his contemporary Leonardo — who died with 600 ducats in the bank — kept a careful log of expenditures in his notebooks and often listed the prices of common commodities: 11 ducats for a haircut, 13 for a shirt, 20 for a pair of glasses, 1 for a salad.)

Still, in the relative context of his cultural contribution, Michelangelo was practically robbed — consider, for instance, the exorbitantly greater sums contemporary architects are paid to build, say, a World Cup stadium where a very different form of modern worship takes place.

Separation of Light from Darkness: Michelangelo's fresco of The First Day of Creation, located above the altar of the Sistine Chapel

In a supreme twist of irony, Pope Julius II died just a few months later and was succeeded by a pope from the Medici family, history’s greatest patrons of the arts — and yet Michelangelo’s most enduring and beautiful work was done under financial strain and creative limitation. One is reminded of Kierkegaard, who observed that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.” Indeed, despite his complaints, Michelangelo was unperturbed by practical constraints and was carried forward by the truth of his creative vision, an “agent of transcendent power.” He captured this universal credo of creative geniuses with simple sincerity in another letter:

What counts is that I shall do what I promised, come what may, and with God’s help, I shall create the finest work ever made in Italy.

To be able to do that, Michelangelo continued to defend his creative autonomy. In 1524, while still working on the tomb, he wrote directly to the Medici pope Clement VII. However piously and humbly worded, his letter is essentially a telling-off, insisting on freedom from interference and interruption in his creative process:

Since intermediaries often cause serious misunderstandings, I make bold to write directly to Your Holiness about the tombs here in San Lorenzo. I must say I do not know which is better, the ill that helps or the good that harms. Witless and unworthy I may be, but I am certain that if I had been allowed to carry on as I started, all the marbles for these works would be in Florence today, blocked out as I need them and costing much less than they have so far; and they would be of admirable quality like the others I brought here.

Now I see that it is set to be a long business and I do not know how it will go on. If, therefore, something happens that displeases Your Holiness, I beg pardon, for I do not feel that I can be guilty where I have no authority. And if Your Holiness wants me to achieve something, I beg that you should not set other men over me in my own art, but have faith in me and give me a free hand; then Your Holiness will see what I can do and what account of myself I shall render.

That power of the artist’s free hand, and the resoluteness with which Michelangelo defended it all his life, remains his greatest legacy. Befittingly, he depicted God separating light from darkness with his hands on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — and what is the artist’s role in human life if not to separate, with his free hand, light from darkness?

Michelangelo’s Poems and Letters is a magnificent read in its totality. Complement it with the illustrated life of Leonardo, Picasso on not compromising in your art, Jane Austen on defending your creative vision against commercial pressures, and Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson on creative integrity.

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Neil Gaiman’s Philosophical Dream, in a Whimsical Animation Narrated by Amanda Palmer

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A weird and wonderful journey into the woodland of the subconscious.

“A dream can be so strange that it seems that another subject has come to dream with us,” philosopher Gaston Bachelard observed in his reflection on dreams and reverie. And yet our dream-selves and our waking selves are somehow the same person, linked by an even more mysterious continuity of consciousness than that between our childhood selves and our present selves. As scientists continue to probe the enigma of why we dream, we continue dreaming and interpreting our dreams, hoping to find in them answers to our greatest existential perplexities.

Beloved writer Neil Gaiman may be a sage of storytelling in his wakeful life and one of the most interesting people alive, but he is also a masterful weaver of whimsical, intensely interesting stories while asleep. Over the years, his wife — musician, patronage crusader, and friend-of-Brain-Pickings Amanda Palmer — has been his dutiful dreamkeeper. She regularly amuses herself by engaging half-asleep Neil in semi-sensical conversation, plunging into this unguarded rabbit hole into the surreal wonderland of his mind and writing down the best such conversations in a notepad.

One day, when she didn’t have paper on hand, Amanda slipped into the bathroom and quietly recounted a particularly fantastic dream of Neil’s in a voice memo. A year later, she discovered the recording on her phone. Newly enchanted by its whimsy, she decided to bring it to life in a short film, enlisting the help of her Patreon supporters, of whom I am proudly one. (All of Amanda’s work is freely offered and, like Brain Pickings, relies on audience support.)

She composed an original score and teamed up with animator Avi Ofer to create something utterly magical — something weird and whimsical and strangely philosophical, partway between that curious vintage children’s book about dreaming, illustrated by Freud’s eccentric cross-dressing niece, and Mark Strand’s beautiful poem “Dreams.” Please enjoy:

Complement with the science of dreams and why we have nightmares and the story of how Dostoyevsky discovered the meaning of life in a dream, then revisit Ofer’s wonderful animations of the fluid dynamics of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and Jane Goodall’s remarkable life-story.

Join me in supporting Amanda on Patreon, where she has written about how this piece of magic came to be.

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Hunter S. Thompson on Violence, Vengeance, and the Only True Fix for Our Destructive Impulses

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“One of the most important things is to recognize that we do have this mounting violence in us, and then to find the reasons.”

More than half a century after Tolstoy’s little-known correspondence with Gandhi on violence, human nature, and why we hurt each other, as the civil rights movement was being built on a philosophy of nonviolence and Leonard Bernstein was making his moving case for the only true antidote to violence, twenty-something Hunter S. Thompson (July 18, 1937–February 20, 2005) became fascinated by a subculture that seemed to embody the most violent and vengeful aspects of human nature and society: Hell’s Angels. Although Thompson was on his way to becoming a counterculture icon himself and would struggle with addiction for the remainder of his life, he was at heart an idealist — from the remarkably precocious letter of life-advice he sent to a jaded friend at the age of only twenty to his unrelenting advocacy of integrity in the media. He viewed lawlessness, violence, and vengeance not as an intelligent and productive act of political dissent but as a moral failing and a vile indulgence of our basest nature, and saw Hell’s Angels as a grotesque microcosm of society’s larger tendencies toward such pointless, lawless violence.

In the mid-1960s, Thompson took a magazine assignment profiling the infamous motorcycle gang of proud “outlaws” and, true to the integrity code of the gonzo journalism movement he founded, he embedded himself with the Angels for more than a year, all the while being upfront with them about his intentions as a journalist. The resulting article became the basis for his first book, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (public library), published in 1966, which launched his career as a writer.

In 1967, legendary broadcaster Studs Terkel interviewed Thompson — who was about to turn thirty — about his experience with the Hell’s Angels and the deeper themes in the book. Nearly half a century later, the always delightful Blank on Blank has brought a particularly poignant segment of this interview to animated life:

One of the most important things is to recognize that we do have this mounting violence in us, and then to find the reasons — and then once you find that, it’s like curing a boil… The same venom that the Angels are spitting out in public, a lot of people are just keeping bottled up in private.

I think this technological science of obsolescence — the fact that people are becoming obsolete — the people who are most affected by this technological obsolescence are the ones least capable of understanding the reasons for it. So the venom builds up much quicker — it feeds on their ignorance. Until you recognize what’s happening, what makes you do these wild things … it’s like an albatross around your neck.

Complement with Thompson on living a meaningful life and this graphic biography of the famed gonzo journalist, then revisit some favorite Blank on Blank masterpieces: Ray Bradbury on storytelling, John Lennon and Yoko Ono on love, David Foster Wallace on ambition, Jane Goodall on life, and Richard Feynman on the most important thing.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.