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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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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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

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Simone Weil on True Genius and the Crushing Illusion of Inferiority

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“When one hungers for bread one does not receive stones.”

“Many of the tenets of sainthood are also to be cultivated in the committed writer,” Melissa Pritchard observed in her beautiful meditation on art as a form of active prayer. But for French philosopher, political activist, and mystic Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) — one of the most lucid, luminous, and gravely underappreciated thinkers in human history — sainthood was more than a metaphor for her approach to writing. Weil endures as a rare kind of modern saint — a person who lived with absolute conviction and lived that conviction absolutely, not merely as a detached intellectual abstraction but as practical concreteness into which she threw all of herself, frail body and formidable mind.

To better understand the struggles of the working class, 24-year-old Weil — who had graduated with a degree in philosophy after placing first in the competitive national university entrance exam; Simone de Beauvoir placed second — quit her teaching job and labored incognito in a car factory for more than a year, despite having a rare neuropathy that gave her frequent debilitating headaches. Although she was a proponent of nonviolence and was in poor health for the entirety of her short life, she volunteered in the Spanish Civil War and beseeched an anti-fascist commander to let her assist in a mission to rescue a political prisoner, knowing it might cost her her life. Upon returning to Paris, she continued to write passionately about war and peace, labor rights, the moral responsibilities of science, and countless other subjects the ultimate aim of which was a more exalted humanity.

As she lay dying of tuberculosis, exiled in a British hospital, she defied the doctors’ orders by refusing to eat more than the rations her compatriots in Nazi-occupied France were given — a solidary self-sacrifice akin to a saint’s, and one that accordingly resulted in her death. Albert Camus proclaimed her “the only great spirit of our times.” The influential Canadian philosopher George Grant considered her “the supreme teacher of the relation of love and intelligence,” a singular spirit marked by the rare combination of a “staggeringly clear intellect with something that is beyond the intellect — namely, sanctity.”

In the spring of 1942, a year before she fell mortally ill, Weil penned a long letter to a dear friend and confidante, the theologian Father Perrin, which she considered a sort of “spiritual autobiography.” It was later included in the posthumously published Waiting for God (public library) — one of the most ennobling texts our civilization ever produced.

In a particularly poignant passage from the letter, Weil looks back on her life and contemplates the nature of genius. Although she had a great reverence for giftedness — having witnessed it since a young age in her brother, the influential mathematician André Weil — she believed genius was not a passive function of talent but an active and transcendent search for truth:

At fourteen I fell into one of those fits of bottomless despair that come with adolescence, and I seriously thought of dying because of the mediocrity of my natural faculties. The exceptional gifts of my brother, who had a childhood and youth comparable to those of Pascal, brought my own inferiority home to me. I did not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides. I preferred to die rather than live without that truth.

In a sentiment that calls to mind young Vincent van Gogh’s touching letter on finding one’s purpose“Does what goes on inside show on the outside?” he wrote to his brother. “Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” — Weil adds:

After months of inward darkness, I suddenly had the everlasting conviction that any human being, even though practically devoid of natural faculties, can penetrate to the kingdom of truth reserved for genius, if only he longs for truth and perpetually concentrates all his attention upon its attainment. He thus becomes a genius too, even though for lack of talent his genius cannot be visible from outside…

Under the name of truth I also included beauty, virtue, and every kind of goodness, so that for me it was a question of a conception of the relationship between grace and desire. The conviction that had come to me was that when one hungers for bread one does not receive stones.

Complement the immeasurably enriching Waiting for God with Weil on making use of our suffering, science and our spiritual values, and how to be a complete human being.

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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.