Brain Pickings

Neil Armstrong’s Heartbeat and the Sound of Venus in a Beautiful Cover of Lennon’s “Oh My Love”

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A cosmic serenade to the human heart’s capacity for uncontainable emotion.

Music, Carl Sagan asserted as he sent the Golden Record into space, is “a creditable attempt to convey human emotions” — a sentiment at the heart of an uncommonly enchanting project by Berlin-based artist and space-lover Louise Gold. In the orchestration for her beautiful cover of John Lennon’s “Oh My Love,” she used a NASA recording of Neil Armstrong’s heartbeat during his trailblazing moon walk and the sound of Venus’s orbit, as captured by the Voyager spacecraft. Gold originally intended to transform the archival audio into a purely instrumental track — something that would capture what Armstrong must have felt upon stepping onto this unvisited world, a kind of serene elation she imagined to be “a bit like being in love with someone and finding out that this person loves you back.” But as she was working on the track, the universe winked — “Oh My Love” came on the radio. Although she had heard the song many times before, in that instant of creative receptivity, it came alive in a new way — as Lennon sang “everything is clear in my heart,” Gold instantly recognized the very feeling she was hoping to channel through Armstrong’s heartbeat.

There is something astoundingly poetic in the result, far beyond the sheer mesmerism of the music: Armstrong’s famous 1969 lunar proclamation — “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — bears the inexorable gendered language of an era that folded women into the universal “he,” and yet here is a woman reimagining the Lennon classic, reaching across time and space, by way of Venus, to add her voice to humanity’s musical legacy that the Voyager carried into the cosmos.

Complement with a breathtaking chamber orchestra arrangement for the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf, then revisit the story of Carl Sagan and the Golden Record.

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Gustave Doré’s Hauntingly Beautiful 1883 Illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”

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“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing…”

Something uncommonly beautiful takes place when a great artist brings a great writer’s words to life, doubly so when those words transmit the inherent enchantment of poetry — that special cross-pollination of spirits seen in rare masterpieces like William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Maurice Sendak’s formative etchings for Blake’s “Songs of Innocence,” and Milton Glaser’s drawings for Lord Byron’s “Don Juan.”

More than a century before Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti created his beautiful illustrations for Lou Reed’s reimagining of “The Raven,” the great French illustrator, sculptor, printmaker, and engraver Gustave Doré (January 6 1832–January 23, 1883) took to the Edgar Allan Poe classic. Having previously illustrated works by such literary titans as Dante, Balzac, Milton, Coleridge, Tennyson, and Lord Byron, Doré created a series of stark, beautifully haunting steel-plate engravings for a special edition of The Raven (public library | free ebook). It became his final legacy — Doré died shortly after completing the illustrations, at the age of fifty-one, and this exquisite edition was posthumously published in 1884.

Prefacing the poem is Poe’s magnificent instruction on how to enjoy poetry — for, lest we forget, the willing reader’s communion with the poetic spirit is itself an art form:

The secret of a poem, no less than a jest’s prosperity, lies in the ear of him that hears it. Yield to its spell, accept the poet’s mood: this, after all, is what the sages answer when you ask them of its value. Even though the poet himself, in his other mood, tell you that his art is but sleight of hand, his food enchanter’s food, and offer to show you the trick of it, — believe him not. Wait for his prophetic hour; then give yourself to his passion, his joy or pain… The vision has an end, the scene changes; but we have gained something, the memory of a charm.

What we gain in this particular interpretation of Poe’s joy and pain is a vision triply more powerful than the words alone — Doré’s engravings capture with piercing precision the heart of Poe’s poem, that bewitching interplay between the light toward which we reach in the grip of longing and the darkness into which longing plunges the psyche when it becomes a nightmarish fixation.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘T is some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this, and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.

Eagerly I wished the morrow:—vainly I had sought to borrow

From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—

For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“‘T is some visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door
Some late visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is, and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore!”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping, somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
‘T is the wind and nothing more!”

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—

Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore,—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”

But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered, “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said, “Nevermore.”

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘Never—nevermore.'”

But the Raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o’er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o’er
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—

Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above, us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—

“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!

Complement Doré’s visual interpretation of The Raven with his compatriot Delacroix’s rare illustrations for Goethe’s Faust and Salvador Dalí’s paintings for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne.

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Nobel Laureate André Gide on What It Really Means to Be Original and Goethe’s Paradoxical Model of Creativity

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“If one does not absorb everything, one loses oneself completely. The mind must be greater than the world and contain it…”

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own,” Montaigne wrote in pondering the illusion of originality half a millennium before our contemporary theories of how creativity works. Mark Twain was equally derisive of the conceit that anything we create is truly original, while Henry Miller bluntly asked, “And your way, is it really your way?” And yet there exists in the human spirit a strange and immutable impulse to answer with a wholehearted, indignant “YES!” as we continue holding the nebulous notion of creative originality as one of our highest ideals.

That nebulous notion is what the great French writer André Gide (November 22, 1869–February 19, 1951), who received the Nobel Prize for his “fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight,” explores with precisely such keen psychological insight throughout The Journals of André Gide (public library) — the most cherished of young Susan Sontag’s favorite books, and the same indispensable volume that gave us Gide on the vital balance of freedom and restraint and what it really means to be yourself.

Gide was one of history’s many celebrators of the creative benefits of keeping a diary, but what makes his journals particularly compelling is his dedicated discourse with the nature of the mind itself, constantly contemplating the inner workings of our highest human faculties — originality, the imagination, and the machinery of the creative process.

In a diary entry from September of 1893, under the heading “Rule of Conduct,” 24-year-old Gide writes:

RULE OF CONDUCT

Originality; first degree.

I omit the lower degree, which is mere banality; in which man is merely gregarious (he constitutes the crowd).

Therefore: originality consists in depriving oneself of certain things. Personality asserts itself by its limitations.

But, above this, there is still a higher state, to which Goethe achieves, the Olympian. He understands that originality limits, that by being personal he is simply anyone. And by letting himself live in things, like Pan, everywhere, he thrusts aside all limits until he no longer has any but those of the world itself. He becomes banal, but in a superior way.

It is dangerous to achieve too early that superior banality. If one does not absorb everything, one loses oneself completely. The mind must be greater than the world and contain it, or else it is pitifully dissolved and is no longer even original.

Whence the two states: first the state of struggle, in which the world is a temptation; one must not yield to things. Then the superior state … which Goethe entered at once and hence, refusing himself nothing, could write: I felt myself god enough to descent to the daughters of men.

Complement this particular passage from the wholly excellent The Journals of André Gide with legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks on the curious psychology of originality and poet Mark Strand on the heartbeat of creativity.

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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.

Blair Sets Emily Dickinson’s “Farewell” to Song Shortly Before His Death

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“And kiss the hills for me, just once…”

Perhaps because poetry, in the shimmering words of Elizabeth Alexander, “is the human voice,” something magical happens when musicians set beloved poems to song — from Natalie Merchant’s adaptations of Victorian nursery rhymes to Tin Hat’s songs based on e.e. cummings to The Wraiths’ musical celebration of William Blake.

One of the most unusual and wonderful such reimaginings comes from the late and great poet, musician, and activist David Blair, better known as Blair and aptly anointed by GLAAD as “a gay black Renaissance man.” Blair set Emily Dickinson’s poem “Farewell,” found in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (public library), to song — acapella, no less — live at the Detroit Institute of Arts, filmed by Erik Proulx. Blair’s sudden death of heat stroke shortly after this performance, at the age of only forty-three, lends the poem a new solemn poignancy.

FAREWELL

Tie the strings to my life, my Lord,
Then I am ready to go!
Just a look at the horses—
Rapid! That will do!

Put me in on the firmest side,
So I shall never fall;
For we must ride to the Judgment,
And it’s partly down hill.

But never I mind the bridges,
And never I mind the sea;
Held fast in everlasting race
By my own choice and thee.

Good-by to the life I used to live,
And the world I used to know;
And kiss the hills for me, just once;
Now I am ready to go!

Complement with a very different musical adaptation of Dickinson by Israeli singer-songwriter Efrat Ben Zur and these lovely illustrations of the celebrated poet’s work.

Thanks, Jonathan

Donating = Loving

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