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22 MAY, 2015

Spineless: Susan Middleton’s Mesmerizing Photographs of Marine Invertebrates

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Visual verses celebrating the glorious grandeur of life on our pale blue dot.

The mystery of marine life has compelled humanity for millennia, from ancient Indian mythology to Aristotle, who was the first to outline the distinction between invertebrates and vertebrates in his Historia Animalium. Perhaps because we ourselves sprang from the oceans, these creatures and their habitats have long lent themselves to our tendency toward thinking with animals. Even David Foster Wallace turned to the primordial seas of metaphor in his legendary Kenyon College commencement address, which came to be known as This Is Water after its central clarion call for “awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water. This is water.’”

In Spineless (public library), visual artist, educator, and explorer Susan Middleton turns her luminous lens to one particularly underappreciated aspect of these real and essential invisibilia: the exquisite and enigmatic world of marine invertebrates, which represent 98% of the known animal species in the oceans and are thus the backbone of life on our blue planet, on which 97% of the water is ocean. Indeed, this is water.

Red-eye medusa (Polyorchis penicillatus)

© Susan Middleton

Using a special photographic technique she developed, Middleton captures an astounding diversity of creatures, ranging from giant squid to tiny translucent jellyfish to two species so new to science — the Kanola squat lobster and the Wanawana crab — that they have been formally named based on the very individuals in the book. Her photographs are at once austere and deeply alive — against the plain black or white background, these creatures fill the frame with striking intimacy of presence.

Opalescent nudibranch (Hermissenda crassicornis)

© Susan Middleton

Stubby squid (Rossia pacifica)

© Susan Middleton

Middleton’s fascination with marine invertebrates began more than a quarter century earlier, while working on a project to photograph one hundred endangered species. One of them was the shrimp tadpole — a tiny, unassuming, yet utterly remarkable creature that lived on Earth long before fish evolved and has remained practically unchanged for 250 million years, developing clever strategies for survival despite its defenseless body. Middleton writes:

That was the beginning of my obsession with the world of invertebrates.

Ever since, I have been fascinated by the bizarre beauty and inherent mystery of this realm of life. The photographs herein are intended to reveal the exceptional shapes, patterns, textures, and colors of these remarkable creatures. Colorful, quirky, quivery, spindly, spiky, sticky, stretchy, squishy, slithery, squirmy, prickly, bumpy, bubbly, and fluttery, the invertebrates appear almost surreal, even alien.

Gold-banded hermit crab (Dardanus brachyops)

© Susan Middleton

Indeed, the most rewarding aspect of Middleton’s project extends far beyond its undeniable aesthetic mesmerism and into a more profound appreciation of not only the incredible diversity of these life forms but also the incredible diversity among them — each animal is revealed as an individual, with palpably distinctive likeness and behavior, even within a species. We are suddenly reminded that if we are to heed Jane Goodall and truly live our lives in Rilke’s widening circles by continuing to expand our circles of compassion to nonhuman animals, we cannot exclude these weird and wonderful beings.

Pink brittle star

© Susan Middleton

Orange-rimmed flatworm (Mayazoon orsaki)

© Susan Middleton

For Middleton herself, who has dedicated her life to capturing and conveying the realities of creatures quite different from ourselves — often ones gravely endangered by our human solipsism and the destructive entitlement it engenders — this has been a centerpiece of the project. To gaze at life forms with powers of perception so vastly different from — and often superior to — our own is to invariably ask what it’s like to experience the world in this alien way, what life is like for that being. Middleton puts this awareness beautifully:

This recognition has opened me to a larger world and a profound assemblage of energies beyond the human.

White phantom crab

© Susan Middleton

Hanging stomach jellyfish (Stomotoca atra)

© Susan Middleton

Pacific giant octopus

© Susan Middleton

It is almost inconceivable that a photograph could sing to the soul the way a Mary Oliver poem does, and yet embraced by Middleton’s compassionate curiosity, these marvelous creatures join together in a chorus exhorting us to begin belonging to this world immediately, because “There is so much to admire, to weep over. / And to write music or poems about.” Middleton emerges as a poet of photography, each image in Spineless a visual verse that renders us a little more awake to the glorious grandeur of this world we share with so many other beings, a little more reluctant to contribute to its destruction with our small everyday choices, which are the building blocks of our civilizational acts.

Complement this treasure of a book, which features a foreword by oceanic patron saint Sylvia “Her Deepness” Earle, with Jane Goodall on our human responsibility.

Photographs courtesy of Abrams

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22 MAY, 2015

Body, Soul, and the Elusive Seedbed of Our Identity: Lewis Carroll on the Material and Immaterial Forces of Life, in a Letter to a Little Girl

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The perplexity of why your identity endures even if all the cells in your body are wholly replaced every seven years.

“I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul,” Rilke wrote in a beautiful 1921 letter, “since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.” The relationship between the material and immaterial forces of life has occupied poets and physicists like for as long as we humans have been aware of our mortality and able to articulate that awareness. More recently, it has prompted philosophers to pose such fascinating questions as how we know who we are if our present selves are unrecognizably different from past ones.

That immutable inquiry is what mathematician and writer Charles Dodgson, better-known as Lewis Carroll (January 27, 1832–January 14, 1898), explores in one of the many witty and wise missives collected in The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (public library; free download) — the indispensable volume that also gave us Carroll on how to alleviate our discomfort with change and his three tips for overcoming creative block.

In the fall of 1885, one of Carroll’s “child-friends” — he had many largely epistolary friendships with children throughout his life, including the real-life little girl who inspired his Wonderland — wrote to him after reading Thomas Carlyle’s 1836 philosophical novel Sartor Resartus and finding herself particularly captivated by Carlyle’s treatment of the relationship between the body and the soul. The subject — perhaps unsurprisingly, given the profound transcendentalist undertones of Alice in Wonderland, published two decades earlier — was also of deep interest to Carroll, who wrote to his young friend:

My dear Edith, —

One subject you touch on — “the Resurrection of the Body” — is very interesting to me, and I have given it much thought (I mean long ago). My conclusion was to give up the literal meaning of the material body altogether. Identity, in some mysterious way, there evidently is; but there is no resisting the scientific fact that the actual material usable for physical bodies has been used over and over again — so that each atom would have several owners. The mere solitary fact of the existence of cannibalism is to my mind a sufficient reductio ad absurdum of the theory that the particular set of atoms I shall happen to own at death (changed every seven years, they say) will be mine in the next life — and all the other insuperable difficulties (such as people born with bodily defects) are swept away at once if we accept S. Paul’s “spiritual body ,” and his simile of the grain of corn. I have read very little of “Sartor Resartus,” and don’t know the passage you quote: but I accept the idea of the material body being the “dress” of the spiritual — a dress needed for material life.

Complement The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, which is nothing short of addictive in its totality, with Carroll on how to feed the mind, his four rules for digesting information, and his tips for making email more civil, then revisit Carl Sagan’s timeless treatise on science and spirituality and Rebecca Goldstein on the perplexity of why you and your childhood self are the same person despite a lifetime of material changes.

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21 MAY, 2015

Project 1 in 4: Drawings Illuminating the Everyday Realities of Life with Mental Illness

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A revelatory reality check and a clarion call for life-saving compassion.

“One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless,” Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother from the grip of mental illness. The great Dutch painter endures as one of the key figures we’ve enlisted in perpetuating the perilous “tortured genius” myth — a travesty of the the actual relationship between creativity and mental illness and among the many symptoms of our culture’s pathological delusions about what it’s really like to live with a mind that continually and uncompromisingly antagonizes, sabotages, and corrupts one’s wellbeing.

Project 1 in 4 by School of Visual Arts student Marissa Betley explores the everyday realities of life with mental illness — which affects one in four people in America and adds up to a societal cost of $300 billion per year — through a series of drawings based on the experiences, struggles, and coping strategies of people Betley interviewed, who had been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, PTSD, and a range of other disorders.

With elegant directness, she exposes the stigmas and misconceptions to which we continue to cling as we oscillate between the equally perilous poles of romanticizing and invalidating psychoemotional anguish. Beneath the mere relaying of these experiences, however revelatory in and of itself, is a deeper call for compassion — a reminder that, as Betley puts it, “love and support makes all the difference.”

Reminiscent in spirit of artist Bobby Baker’s courageous visual diary of mental illness and the breath-stopping Drawing Autism project, but substantially different in style, Betley’s deliberately unelaborate drawings capture the concrete and acute suffering that mental illness engenders — a piercing counterpoint to the epidemic of mistaken beliefs that mental illness amounts to something as vague as a sense or as light as a mood.

Project 1 in 4 is part of the annual 100 Days Project initiative by the SVA Masters in Branding program, which assigns students the task of envisioning a creative operation, performing it for one hundred consecutive days, and documenting the ongoing process publicly. It has previously sprouted such wonderful efforts as Randy Gregory’s 100 Ways to Improve the NYC Subway and Jennifer Beatty’s 100 Hoopties, and was originally inspired by legendary graphic designer Michael Bierut’s assignment to his students at the Yale School of Art.

Betley’s project is part public service, part private inquiry — a beautiful embodiment of Aristotle’s famous proclamation that one’s greatest potential for purposeful contribution lies at the intersection of one’s passions and the world’s needs. When I spoke with her about the project, she shared the personal motivation behind the dry statistics of mental illness:

I’ve seen firsthand how serious and debilitating these illnesses can be. They can be remarkably devastating. While professional help is key, what’s equally important is unwavering support from family and friends. I thought, if I could just find a real human way to raise greater awareness then maybe I could help break down the stigmas surrounding mental illness that are preventing people from getting the help they need. Maybe the project could even save lives.

See more on the project site, complement it with the fascinating research on the relationship between REM sleep and depression, and heed positive psychology founding father Martin Seligman’s simple exercise for bolstering mental health.

For some pause-giving perspective, revisit the story of how trailblazing journalist Nellie Bly forever changed our treatment of mental illness.

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21 MAY, 2015

Montaigne on “Curation,” the Illusion of Originality, and How We Form Our Opinions

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“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

I often think of reading not as the acquisition of static knowledge but as the active springboard for thinking and dynamic contemplation — hence the combinatorial, LEGO-like nature of creativity, wherein we assemble building blocks of existing knowledge into new formations of understanding that we consider our original ideas. But long before our contemporary conceptions of how creativity works, French Renaissance polymath and proto-blogger Michel de Montaigne (February 28, 1533–September 13, 1592) articulated this magpielike quality of the mind, so very central to ideation.

In Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays (public domain; public library) — the same indispensable volume that gave us the great philosopher’s ideas on death and the art of living — he writes:

A competent reader often discovers in other men’s writings other perfections than the author himself either intended or perceived, a richer sense and more quaint expression.

Portrait of Michel de Montaigne by Salvador Dalí, 1947. Click image for details.

Half a millennium before Mark Twain proclaimed that “substantially all ideas are second-hand” and long before we drained the term “curation” of meaning by compulsive and indiscriminate application, Montaigne observed:

I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.

But what makes Montaigne’s meditation so incisive — and such an urgently necessary fine-tuning of how we think of “curation” today — is precisely the emphasis on the thread. This assemblage of existing ideas, he argues, is nothing without the critical thinking of the assembler — the essential faculty examining those ideas to sieve the meaningful from the meaningless, assimilating them into one’s existing system of knowledge, and metabolizing them to nurture a richer understanding of the world. Montaigne writes:

We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make it our own. We are in this very like him, who having need of fire, went to a neighbor’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any with him home… What good does it do us to have the stomach full of meat, if it do not digest, if it be not incorporated with us, if it does not nourish and support us?

Three centuries later, Thoreau — another of humanity’s most quotable and overquoted minds — made a similar point about the perils of mindlessly parroting the ideas of those who came before us, which produces only simulacra of truth. The mindful reflection and expansion upon existing ideas and views, on the other hand, is a wholly different matter — it is the path via which we arrive at more considered opinions of our own, cultivate our critical faculties, and inch closer to truth itself. Montaigne writes:

Aristotle ordinarily heaps up a great number of other men’s opinions and beliefs, to compare them with his own, and to let us see how much he has gone beyond them, and how much nearer he approaches to the likelihood of truth; for truth is not to be judged by the authority and testimony of others; which made Epicurus religiously avoid quoting them in his writings. This is the prince of all dogmatists, and yet we are told by him that the more we know the more we have room for doubt.

Complement Montaigne’s Complete Essays — a timeless trove of wisdom on such diverse facets of existence as happiness, education, fear, and the imagination — with his enduring wisdom on how to live and Salvador Dalí’s rare and whimsical illustrations for his essays.

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