Brain Pickings

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.

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Willa Cather on Happiness: A Soulful and Deeply Alive Account of True Bliss

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“That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.”

The history of recorded thought is strewn with evidence that happiness lives in the most ordinary of moments. And yet no matter how universal a human aspiration it may be, articulating happiness in those rare moments when it is perfectly attained remains an elusive art. For Albert Camus, it was a moral obligation; for Mary Oliver, a kind of seizure; for Kurt Vonnegut, a sense of enoughness. But nowhere have I encountered an account of happiness more soulful and deeply alive than in a passage from Willa Cather’s first masterwork, the 1918 novel My Ántonia (public library) — the story of a spirited pioneer named Ántonia Shimerda, who settles as in Nebraska as a child and grows with the land, told through the loving and wakeful eyes of her childhood friend Jim Burden.

In this passage, Cather’s narrator is lying in his grandmother’s garden, drowsy and drunk with life under the warm autumn sun:

The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

The truth and beauty of this vignette never left the soul from which it sprang. Cather requested that her grave site, which she shared with her partner, bear the inscription: “…that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”

Photograph by Richard Schlecht

Complement with Cather’s moving letter to her brother about keeping one’s decency through difficult times and her only surviving letter to her partner, Edith Lewis, then revisit Gaston Bachelard on reverie and happiness.

Donating = Loving

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