Brain Pickings

A Solitary World: A Breathtaking Homage to H.G. Wells from a New Genre of Cinematic Poetry

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“What is this spirit in man that urges him forever to depart from happiness, to toil and to place himself in danger?”

From my friends at PBS Digital Studios and filmmaker James W. Griffiths comes A Solitary World — a breathtaking homage to H.G. Wells, with text adapted from five of his most celebrated works: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The First Men in the Moon (1901), In The Days of the Comet (1906), The World Set Free (1914). Read by Terry Burns and featuring an appropriately haunting score from the young British composer Lennert Busch, the film belongs to — pioneers, perhaps — an emerging creative genre: the cinematic poem.

A horrible feeling of desolation pinched my heart. I listened rigid but heard nothing but the creep of blood in my ears. Great and shadowy and strange was the world and I drifted solitary through its vast mysteries.

A remote faint question, where I might be, drifted and vanished again in my mind. I found myself standing astonished, my emotions penetrated by something I could not understand.

I felt naked. I felt as perhaps a bird may feel in the clear air knowing the hawk wings above and will swoop.

I began to feel the need of fellowship. I wanted to question, wanted to speak, wanted to relate my experience. What is this spirit in man that urges him forever to depart from happiness, to toil and to place himself in danger?

It was this restlessness, this insecurity perhaps that drove me further and further afield in my exploring expedition. As the hush of the evening crept over the world, the sun touched the mountains and became very swiftly a blazing hemisphere of liquid flame, and sank.

Then, slow and soft and wrapping the world in fold after fold of deepening blue, came the night. And then, the splendor of the sight — in the sky, one bright planet shone kindly and steadily like the face of an old friend. The full temerity of my voyage suddenly came upon me. At last I began to feel the pull of the earth upon my being, drawing me back again to the life that is real, for men.

For a wholly different homage to Wells, see Edward Gorey’s vintage illustrations of The War of the Worlds. For a deeper dive into Wells’s own narrative magic, the works used in the film are in the public domain and thus available as free ebooks here, here, here, here and here.

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An Illustrated Field Guide to Mythic Monsters, from Gremlins to Zombies to the Kraken

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A vibrant dance across the global spectrum of the popular imagination.

“Legendary lands … have only one characteristic in common: whether they depend on ancient legends whose origins are lost in the mists of time or whether they are an effect of a modern invention, they have created flows of belief,” Umberto Eco wrote in his illustrated meditation on imaginary places. But as much as fictional lands might hold enduring allure, what captivates our shared imagination even more are the fictional and mythic creatures of our cultural folklore, both ancient and modern. That’s precisely what writer Davide Cali and illustrator Gabriela Giandelli explore in Monsters and Legends (public library) — a vibrant and whimsical volume from independent British children’s book press Flying Eye Books, which also gave us the illustrated chronicle of Shackleton’s historic expedition. From mermaids and unicorns to Cyclops and giant squid to vampires and zombies, Giandelli’s breathtaking illustrations and Cali’s illuminating stories about the origin of each mythic creature bring to life the beings that haunt our collective conscience, as well as those we secretly fear — or hope — exist in some mystical corner of what we concede is reality.

The Mapiguari

In South America, we meet the stinky Mapiguari, a giant nocturnal animal with long arms and claws, the skin of a reptile, and bright red hair, believed to roam the Amazon jungle. Legend has it, the creature avoids water, which might account for its smell. Some locals and other believers think it’s a giant sloth — a species that disappeared more than 10,000 years ago. Skeptics, meanwhile, consider it the mistaken mashup of a regular sloth and an armadillo, which terrified nighttime travelers in the jungle somehow remixed in their frightful imagination.

The Dragon

But one of the most common species-mashups is the dragon, a mythic being that appears in various incarnations in many cultures, with powers ranging from the destructive to the divine.

In every culture, there is a creature resembling a Dragon. It often appears as a symbol of life and power, a creative or protective spirit closer to a god than an actual animal. That’s certainly true in the case of Huang Long in Chinese mythology, or Quetzalcoatl, the Aztecs’ feathered serpent.

Commonly depicted with a snake’s body, lizard’s legs, eagle’s talons, crocodile’s jaws, lion’s teeth and bat-like wings, the Dragon is a combination of several different animals. Among the Dragon’s many portrayals is the Hydra of Greek mythology — a vicious sea monster with seven heads. Two of the most famous Hydras are the Lernaean Hydra, which was killed by Hercules, and Scylla, which was rumored to live in the depths of the strait in Messina.

Gustave

In Africa, we find a legendary 20-foot-long Nile Crocodile that haunted Lake Tanganyika, the world’s second-largest freshwater lake, for years. Named Gustave by the locals and alleged to have eaten at least 300 people, the giant croc lived for sixty years and survived countless capture attempts, until hunters managed to slay him in 2005. Once measured, Gustave turned out to be just a regular Nile Crocodile, 13 feet long — not that unusual for a species that can grow up to 16 feet in length.

In the same region, the dinosaur-like Mokele-mbembe awaits us:

The Mokele-Mbembe

800 kilometers north of Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, is a vast, swampy area where rumors tell of a frightening creature — the Mokele-mbembe. Described for the first time by a French missionary in the 18th century, he claimed the Mokele-mbembe was as big as an elephant, with a small snake-like head, a 2 to 3 meter long neck, hippopotamus feet and a crocodile tail.

The description sounds remarkably similar to the Sauropods, a group of animals that disappeared 65.5 million years ago! From 1913 onwards, expeditions set out in search of the Mokele-mbembe. But they returned with little more than a few pictures and some vague footage. According to some theories the Mokele-mbembe might be an unknown species of monitor lizard.

Others say it’s a softshell turtle whose long neck, small head and aggressive attitude match the description of the monster. The softshell turtle isn’t as big as the legendary Mokele-mbembe but skeptics still argue that it is possible that Pygmies, terrified of an animal that they didn’t know, got the measurements wrong. They claim that this situation is far more likely to be the case than that a dinosaur is living quietly in Africa without anybody ever having taken its picture.

Then comes a mythic creature that has enjoyed a resurgence as a visual meme of the social-web era:

The Kraken

The Kraken is a gigantic legendary sea monster. Its name comes from the Norwegian word krake, meaning “a twisted or crooked animal.” The origin of the Kraken myth goes back to the 13th century, but it’s not until the 18th and 19th centuries that sailor stories about the Kraken really start multiplying! Stories were told of ships being attacked and destroyed by a creature with tentacles over a kilometer long. Carl Linnaeus … mentioned the Kraken in his first book in 1735, under the scientific name of Microcosmus marinus, but it doesn’t appear in his following books, as he couldn’t prove its existence.

Roald Dahl's Gremlins

One of the most charming entries highlights a tiny mischievous creature from Irish folklore, the Gremlin, brought back into the popular imagination by beloved children’s book author Roald Dahl. In 1942, long before he made a name for himself with this children’s stories, Dahl was a pilot in the Royal Air Force, flying a B-25 Mitchell bomber. A mechanical malfunction on one of his flights resulted in a forced landing, after which Dahl took it upon himself to inform the unsuspecting public that Gremlins had been terrorizing the Royal Air Force for months — pilots had created their own folklore, blaming the legendary creatures for the high rate of breakdowns. The myth, of course, was just a sandbox for Dahl’s imagination as a storyteller — the following year, he published The Gremlins, his first children’s book.

The Chupacabra

As we move closer to the present day, we meet the Chupacabra, a creature that preys on chickens and goats, named after the Spanish for “goat sucker.” Witness accounts from Latin America and Florida describe it as a hairless kangaroo with the head of a dog, which acts like a vampire coyote that sucks its prey dry of blood. Some suspect it was the progeny of genetic experiments, while others abandon all attempts at plausibility and say it came from outer space. The Chupacabra is also believed to possess several paranormal superpowers, such as the ability to change color and hypnotize its prey via telepathy.

Mythic as this sounds, certain species of real animals have recently been found to employ a kind of “mind control” over their prey — perhaps proof that all myth, including religion, for that matter, is a tapestry woven of our greatest immaterial fears and hopes, with a few threats of material reality.

Indeed, Cali takes care to balance the mythology with a healthy dose of myth-busting that would make Carl Sagan proud. Each myth is followed by a “What We Know” section that grounds us with reality-based evidence:

The videos of the Chupacabra, often blurry and hard to follow, and the pictures, usually faked, don’t help much with identifying the creature. But if you trust the descriptions, the Chupacabra looks a lot like a rare species of Mexican hairless dog called Xoloitzcuintle.

DNA tests on dead specimens have proven that it is an ordinary dog with nothing extraterrestrial about it at all.

And of course no taxonomy of modern folklore would be complete without everyone’s favorite pop culture meme:

The Zombie

Zombies, or Walking Dead, [are] regular actors in horror movies… But Zombie stories, like Werewolf stories or Vampire stories, have their roots in reality. Well, almost… In Haiti people practice a religion called Voodoo that holds magic and superstition in high regard. It is thought that a Bokor — a Voodoo sorcerer — can steal someone’s soul, wake him or her from the death and turn them into a slave — a Zombie.

Cali once again contrasts the myth with the empirical evidence:

A study conducted in the 1980s found that the Bokor probably controlled people using a neurotoxin created from the poison of the fugu, a type of pufferfish. The neurotoxin causes a state of apparent death and the supposed complete obedience of the “exhumed corpse.” In reality, Zombies are just drugged slaves forced to work in sugar plantations. Obedient workers that never go on strike!

Monsters and Legends is bound to tickle the imagination and poke a friendly stick at superstition, all while enchanting us with irresistibly gorgeous illustrations. For a different octave of the siren song of the mythic, complement it with Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands and Codex Seraphinianus, history’s most bizarre and beautiful encyclopedia of the imaginary.

Images courtesy of Flying Eye Books

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Brian Eno’s Reading List: 20 Essential Books for Sustaining Civilization

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Deconstructing a magnificent mind through his reading diet for intellectual survival.

UPDATE: The folks from the Long Now have kindly asked me to contribute to the Manual for Civilization library — here is my own reading list.

There is something inescapably alluring about the reading lists of cultural icons, perhaps because in recognizing that creativity is combinatorial and fueled by networked knowledge, we intuitively long to emulate the greatness of an admired mind by replicating the bits and pieces, in this case the ideas found in beloved books, that went into constructing it.

After the reading lists of Carl Sagan, Alan Turing, Nick Cave, and David Bowie, now comes one from Brian Eno — pioneering musician, wise diarist, oblique strategist of creativity — compiled for the Long Now Foundation’s Manual for Civilization, a collaboratively curated library for long-term thinking. Eno, one of the Long Now’s founding board members, contributes twenty titles to the project’s intended collection of 3,500 books most essential for sustaining or rebuilding civilization:

  1. Seeing Like a State (public library) by James C. Scott (1998)
  2. The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (public library) by David Lewis-Williams (2002)
  3. Crowds and Power (public library) by Elias Canetti (1962)
  4. The Wheels of Commerce (public library) by Fernand Braudel (1982)
  5. Keeping Together in Time (public library) by William McNeill (1995)
  6. Dancing in the Streets (public library) by Barbara Ehrenreich (2007)
  7. Roll Jordan Roll (public library) by Eugene Genovese (1974)
  8. A Pattern Language (public library) by Christopher Alexander et al (1977)
  9. The Face of Battle (public library) by John Keegan (1976)
  10. A History of the World in 100 Objects (public library) by Neil MacGregor (2010)
  11. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (public library) by Richard Rorty (1989)
  12. The Notebooks (public library) by Leonardo da Vinci (1952 ed.)
  13. The Confidence Trap (public library) by David Runciman (2013)
  14. The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin (1983)
  15. Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection (public library) by Sarah Hrdy (1999)
  16. War and Peace (public library) by Leo Tolstoy (1869)
  17. The Cambridge World History of Food (2-Volume Set) (public library) by Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas (2000)
  18. The Illustrated Flora of Britain and Northern Europe (public library) by Marjorie Blamey and Christopher Grey Wilson (1989)
  19. Printing and the Mind of Man (public library) by John Carter and Percy Muir (1983)
  20. Peter the Great: His Life and World (public library) by Richard Massie (1980)

One interesting observation: The majority of Eno’s favorite books were published in the 1970s and 1980s, when he was in his mid-twenties to late thirties — indication, perhaps, that this is the golden age within a lifetime, when we have transcended the know-it-all arrogance of youth, haven’t yet entered the know-it-old complacency of old age, and live with that wondrous combination of receptivity to new ideas and just enough not-yet-calcified intellectual foundation with which to integrate and contextualize them.

Join me in supporting the Manual for Civilization, then revisit Eno’s insights on art.

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