Brain Pickings

The Island of Knowledge: How to Live with Mystery in a Culture Obsessed with Certainty and Definitive Answers

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“We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.”

“Our human definition of ‘everything’ gives us, at best, a tiny penlight to help us with our wanderings,” Benjamen Walker offered in an episode of his excellent Theory of Everything podcast as we shared a conversation about illumination and the art of discovery. Thirty years earlier, Carl Sagan had captured this idea in his masterwork Varieties of Scientific Experience, where he asserted: “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.” This must be what Rilke, too, had at heart when he exhorted us to live the questions. And yet if there is one common denominator across the entire history of human culture, it is the insatiable hunger to know the unknowable — that is, to know everything, and to know it with certainty, which is itself the enemy of the human spirit.

The perplexities and paradoxes of that quintessential human longing, and how the progress of modern science has compounded it, is what astrophysicist and philosopher Marcelo Gleiser examines in The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning (public library).

Partway between Hannah Arendt’s timeless manifesto for the unanswerable questions at the heart of meaning and Stuart Firestein’s case for how not-knowing drives science, Gleiser explores our commitment to knowledge and our parallel flirtation with the mystery of the unknown.

Artwork from 'Fail Safe,' Debbie Millman's illustrated-essay-turned-commencement address on courage and the creative life. Click image to read/listen.

What emerges is at once a celebration of human achievement and a gentle reminder that the appropriate reaction to scientific and technological progress is not arrogance over the knowledge conquered, which seems to be our civilizational modus operandi, but humility in the face of what remains to be known and, perhaps above all, what may always remain unknowable.

Gleiser begins by posing the question of whether there are fundamental limits to how much of the universe and our place in it science can explain, with a concrete focus on physical reality. Echoing cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz’s eye-opening exploration of why our minds miss the vast majority of what is going on around us, he writes:

What we see of the world is only a sliver of what’s “out there.” There is much that is invisible to the eye, even when we augment our sensorial perception with telescopes, microscopes, and other tools of exploration. Like our senses, every instrument has a range. Because much of Nature remains hidden from us, our view of the world is based only on the fraction of reality that we can measure and analyze. Science, as our narrative describing what we see and what we conjecture exists in the natural world, is thus necessarily limited, telling only part of the story… We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery… It is the flirting with this mystery, the urge to go beyond the boundaries of the known, that feeds our creative impulse, that makes us want to know more.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, from Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that bridges Philip K. Dick’s formulation of reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” with Richard Feynman’s iconic monologue on knowledge and mystery, Gleiser adds:

The map of what we call reality is an ever-shifting mosaic of ideas.

[…]

The incompleteness of knowledge and the limits of our scientific worldview only add to the richness of our search for meaning, as they align science with our human fallibility and aspirations.

Gleiser notes that while modern science has made tremendous strides in illuminating the neuronal infrastructure of the brain, it has in the process reduced the mind to mere chemical operations, not only failing to advance but perhaps even impoverishing our understanding and sense of being. He admonishes against mistaking measurement for meaning:

There is no such thing as an exact measurement. Every measurement must be stated within its precision and quoted together with “error bars” estimating the magnitude of errors. High-precision measurements are simply measurements with small error bars or high confidence levels; there are no perfect, zero-error measurements.

[…]

Technology limits how deeply experiments can probe into physical reality. That is to say, machines determine what we can measure and thus what scientists can learn about the Universe and ourselves. Being human inventions, machines depend on our creativity and available resources. When successful, they measure with ever-higher accuracy and on occasion may also reveal the unexpected.

[…]

But the essence of empirical science is that Nature always has the last word… It then follows that if we only have limited access to Nature through our tools and, more subtly, through our restricted methods of investigation, our knowledge of the natural world is necessarily limited.

And yet even though much of the world remains invisible to us at any given moment, Gleiser argues that this is what the human imagination thrives on. At the same time, however, the very instruments that we create with this restless imagination begin to shape what is perceivable, and thus what is known, marking “reality” a Rube Goldberg machine of detectable measurements. Gleiser writes:

If large portions of the world remain unseen or inaccessible to us, we must consider the meaning of the word “reality” with great care. We must consider whether there is such a thing as an “ultimate reality” out there — the final substrate of all there is — and, if so, whether we can ever hope to grasp it in its totality.

[…]

Our perception of what is real evolves with the instruments we use to probe Nature. Gradually, some of what was unknown becomes known. For this reason, what we call “reality” is always changing… The version of reality we might call “true” at one time will not remain true at another.

[…]

As long as technology advances — and there is no reason to suppose that it will ever stop advancing for as long as we are around — we cannot foresee an end to this quest. The ultimate truth is elusive, a phantom.

Artwork by Marian Bantjes from 'Beyond Pretty Pictures.' Click image for more.

To illustrate this notion, Gleiser constructs the metaphor after which his book is titled — he paints knowledge as an island surrounded by the vast ocean of the unknown; as we learn more, the island expands into the ocean, its coastline marking the ever-shifting boundary between the known and the unknown. Paraphrasing the Socratic paradox, Gleiser writes:

Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination — whose existence is nothing but a hopeful assumption anyway — but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.

Echoing Ray Bradbury’s poetic conviction that it’s part of human nature “to start with romance and build to a reality,” Gleiser adds:

This realization should open doors, not close them, since it makes the search for knowledge an open-ended pursuit, an endless romance with the unknown.

Gleiser admonishes against the limiting notion that we only have two options — staunch scientism, with its blind faith in science’s ability to permanently solve the mysteries of the unknown, and religious obscurantism, with its superstitious avoidance of inconvenient facts. Instead, he offers a third approach “based on how an understanding of the way we probe reality can be a source of endless inspiration without the need for setting final goals or promises of eternal truths.” In an assertion that invokes Sagan’s famous case for the vital balance between skepticism and openness, Gleiser writes:

This unsettled existence is the very blood of science. Science needs to fail to move forward. Theories need to break down; their limits need to be exposed. As tools probe deeper into Nature, they expose the cracks of old theories and allow new ones to emerge. However, we should not be fooled into believing that this process has an end.

I recently tussled with another facet of this issue — the umwelt of the unanswerable — in contemplating the future of machines that think for John Brockman’s annual Edge question. But what makes Gleiser’s point particularly gladdening is the underlying implication that despite its pursuit of answers, science thrives on uncertainty and thus necessitates an element of unflinching faith — faith in the process of the pursuit rather than the outcome, but faith nonetheless. And while the difference between science and religion might be, as Krista Tippett elegantly offered, in the questions they ask rather than the answers they offer, Gleiser suggests that both the fault line and the common ground between the two is a matter of how each relates to mystery:

Can we make sense of the world without belief? This is a central question behind the science and faith dichotomy… Religious myths attempt to explain the unknown with the unknowable while science attempts to explain the unknown with the knowable.

[…]

Both the scientist and the faithful believe in unexplained causation, that is, in things happening for unknown reasons, even if the nature of the cause is completely different for each. In the sciences, this belief is most obvious when there is an attempt to extrapolate a theory or model beyond its tested limits, as in “gravity works the same way across the entire Universe,” or “the theory of evolution by natural selection applies to all forms of life, including extraterrestrial ones.” These extrapolations are crucial to advance knowledge into unexplored territory. The scientist feels justified in doing so, given the accumulated power of her theories to explain so much of the world. We can even say, with slight impropriety, that her faith is empirically validated.

A 1617 depiction of the notion of non-space, long before the concept of vacuum existed, found in Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

Citing Newton and Einstein as prime examples of scientists who used wholly intuitive faith to advance their empirical and theoretical breakthroughs — one by extrapolating from his gravitational findings to assert that the universe is infinite and the other by inventing the notion of a “universal constant” to discuss the finitude of space — Gleiser adds:

To go beyond the known, both Newton and Einstein had to take intellectual risks, making assumptions based on intuition and personal prejudice. That they did so, knowing that their speculative theories were necessarily faulty and limited, illustrates the power of belief in the creative process of two of the greatest scientists of all time. To a greater or lesser extent, every person engaged in the advancement of knowledge does the same.

The Island of Knowledge is an illuminating read in its totality — Gleiser goes on to explore how conceptual leaps and bounds have shaped our search for meaning, what quantum mechanics reveal about the nature of physical reality, and how the evolution of machines and mathematics might affect our ideas about the limits of knowledge.

For a fine complement, see Hannah Arendt on thinking vs. knowing and the crucial difference between truth and meaning and astrophysicist Janna Levin on whether the universe is infinite or finite, then treat yourself to Gleiser’s magnificent conversation with novelist Marilynne Robinson — herself a thinker of perceptive and nuanced insight on mystery — on the existentially indispensable On Being:

GLEISER: To think of science as separate from spirituality to me is a big mistake… There is nothing that says that science should be dispassionate about the spirit or the life of the spirit. And to me it’s quite the opposite. It’s exactly because I feel very spiritually connected with nature that I am a scientist. And to write equations on a blackboard and to come up with models about how nature works is, in a sense, a form of worship of that spirituality.

[…]

ROBINSON: One of the things that is fascinating is that we don’t know who we are. Human beings in acting out history describe themselves and every new epic is a new description of what human beings are. Every life is a new description of what human beings are. Every work of science, every object of art is new information. And it is inconceivable at this point that we could say anything final about what the human mind is, because it is demonstrating … in beautiful ways and terrifying ways, that it will surprise us over and over and over again.

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How Ursula Nordstrom, the Greatest Patron Saint of Modern Childhood Stood, Up for Creativity Against Commercial Cowardice

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“Oh hell, it just boils down to: you just can’t explain this sort of basic wonderful stuff to some adults.”

Hardly anyone has raised more conscientious, imaginative children than legendary Harper & Row children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom (February 2, 1910–October 11, 1988), who brought to life such multi-generational classics as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947), E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952), Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963), and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1964). Nordstrom was more than an editor to her authors and artists — she was often their therapist, confidante and friend, and always their creative guardian and greatest champion. Above all, Nordstrom was a fearless custodian of the child’s world and imaginative experience, to which unimaginative grownups so often lay perilous claim, and of the artist’s creative integrity in the face of growing commercial pressures toward marketable conformity and safe, commodified, politely pedestrian storytelling. Modern childhood’s most benevolent patron saint turned out to be a childless gay woman living through the height of consumerism in America and yet managing to envision, publish, and defend children’s books that were not forgettable commodities but masterpieces that stood the test of time and enchanted generations.

Her deeply lovable spirit blossoms in the pages of Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — an endlessly rewarding volume by children’s book historian Leonard Marcus, which also gave us Nordstrom’s heartening New Year’s resolution, her feisty response to a conservative librarian who had tried to censor Maurice Sendak, and her witty, wise, and prescient lament about the state of publishing.

In July of 1966, twelve years before Isaac Bashevis Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Nordstrom corresponded with the author about his book Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, which she was about to publish with illustrations by a young Maurice Sendak — an artist whom she nursed out of insecurity and into genius, perhaps more so than with any of the other now-legendary artists and authors who came of age under Nordstrom’s wing. She writes to Singer:

To see Zlateh the Goat taking shape, becoming a book children (and their parents) will read and love for generations has been a tremendous experience for me. I think your stories have inspired some of Maurice Sendak’s very finest work. All of us in the department love your book… I think it’s going to bring you a special sort of happiness too.

Half a century before Sendak, already a cultural icon, scoffed at the artificial divide between “children’s” and “adult” books in his final interview, Nordstrom adds:

You’ve wondered why Sendak didn’t do adult books. And once you asked me if I wouldn’t rather be an editor of adult books. But most adults are dead and beyond hope after the age of thirty, and I think with Zlateh you will find a new and marvelous audience. God knows too many children’s books are routine, cynically produced, coarsely promoted. But Zlateh is a complete success artistically.

But her most fierce and emboldening defense of creative integrity against commercial cowardice came more than a decade earlier, shortly after her famous lament that what children read, and thus what shapes their minds, is being decided by “mediocre ladies in influential positions.” In February of 1954, Nordstrom received a letter from a Harper & Row West Coast salesman named Jim Blake, reporting of an unpleasant encounter with a “cross buyer” who had complained about How to Make an Earthquake — a sweet, irreverent faux-activity book by the uncommonly original Ruth Krauss, in the vein of How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself, featuring such how-to activity ideas as making a “tunnel of love for kittens without a mother” and balancing a peanut on your nose. The indignant buyer had found some of the activities inappropriate, betraying a profound inability to comprehend the subtle humor of Krauss’s book and her deep respect for the child’s imaginative freedom.

Nordstrom, a lifelong guardian of childhood’s imaginative inner world, replied to Blake with an exquisite defense of Krauss — an author whose magnificent collaborations with young Sendak are among my all-time favorite children’s books — and of the broader spirit the buyer had failed to understand, let alone appreciate. More than seven decades later, in an age when so many writers and artists are being squeezed out of their creative vision and vigor by “mediocre ladies in influential positions,” Nordstrom stands as our most heartening example of what it means to stand — and stand up — for all the right things.

She writes:

I am crushed to the ground and I bleed at every pore when I read your plaintive statement to the Sales Manager: “I wonder if the book couldn’t stand a little editing if it isn’t too late.” It is too late for any changes and lateness aside, if we want to publish Ruth Krauss AND WE DO we have to publish 100% pure Krauss. She knows something we don’t know … and most grownups don’t know. As for “a little editing,” well, Ruth has written a lot of books for us and it has been an exciting and rewarding experience for me, as an editor, to watch her grow and grow and develop and go deeper and deeper. I respect her instinct and her final judgments and when she decides that there is nothing more she can honestly do to a book I have to respect her knowledge and trust her. Because she is the one with the talent — and I’m only someone who recognizes and loves creative talent.

Of course — and this is both the great gift and the great tragedy of this letter — Nordstrom’s ability to recognize creative talent and stand behind it, wholeheartedly and resolutely, is itself a monumental talent of increasing rarity. Those who possess it are few and far between, but when books are born out of it, it shows and never fails to delight.

And yet Nordstrom, a woman of unrelenting compassion, recognizes that her West Coast colleague is just trying to do his job and “sell a few books,” so she offers:

Can’t you tell some of those rather limited and thoroughly grown up adults that it is about time THEY accepted and trusted Krauss? … What does Ruth have to do to convince some of your customers that she knows something about children they don’t?

Nordstrom is especially adamant about not dulling Krauss’s creative edge by forcing her — or any of her authors — to conform to a template that has proven successful in the past:

She doesn’t do the same thing over and over and if she ever starts she won’t be Ruth Krauss. She’ll always be good but when she stops blazing new trails … she won’t be the writer she is now.

Most of all, however, Nordstrom stands up for Krauss’s ability to bridge the child’s world and the adult’s:

Grown-ups and children together with a Ruth Krauss book can be closer than they can be without a Ruth Krauss book… I don’t know how important adults and children feeling closer together is but I guess it wouldn’t do adults and children any harm not to feel far apart for a little while, just long enough to enjoy a Krauss book together.

Oh hell, it just boils down to: you just can’t explain this sort of basic wonderful stuff to some adults… Just look at the last line of the How to Entertain Telephone Callers — which ends “or whatever is your talent.” Believe me, this is so close to children, so exactly right, so damn warm and perfect that any little child can’t help but feel happier at the moment when it is read to him. “Happier” isn’t the right word. I guess I mean that “or whatever is your talent” can’t help but make any child warmed and attended to and considered. And, believe me, not many children’s books make children feel considered.

[…]

Krauss books can be bridges between the poor dull insensitive adult and the fresh, imaginative, brand-new child. But of course that only will work if the dull adult isn’t too dull to admit that he doesn’t know the answers to everything.

Nordstrom’s point — like so much of the enormous warmth and wisdom collected in Dear Genius — transcends this particular incident and even the general question of creative integrity in children’s books, and reminds us that being bewitched by wonder in any of its permutations requires precisely such an admission of not having the answers to everything. Just ask an astrophysicist.

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Carl Jung’s Delightfully Disgruntled Review of Ulysses and His Letter to James Joyce

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“You may gather from my article what Ulysses has done to a supposedly balanced psychologist.”

“Stop! I cannot think this fast! Or rather I cannot grow this fast!” young Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating the pleasures of rereading. One of the literary canon’s least common candidates for rereading is James Joyce’s sprawling 735-page novel Ulysses, serialized in installments between 1918 and 1920, and eventually published in its totality by legendary literary steward Sylvia Beach on Joyce’s fortieth birthday: February 2, 1922. It is a book that few people begin, even fewer finish, and fewer still reread. (Marilyn Monroe did all three — a fact that might surprise the judgmental and those who subscribe to limiting beliefs about the false divide between pop culture and “high” culture.) With its protracted stream-of-consciousness narrative, which stretches a single day across 735 pages, Ulysses can be particularly challenging and frustrating for a mind longing for speed of thought.

This frustration is what led legendary Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung — founding father of modern analytical psychology, and a great champion of the human spirit — to write a blistering review of Ulysses a decade after the novel’s release, published in the German journal Europäische Revue in September of 1932. Found in the second volume of Robert Deming’s James Joyce: The Critical Heritage (public library), the review is intriguing and even irresistibly delightful — especially for me, as someone who believes that the “critic” better serves the public as a celebrator rather than eviscerator — because Jung’s disgruntlement seems directed at his own exasperation, almost as though he was more upset with his own response to reading the book than with Joyce for writing it. It is the experience that Jung criticizes — well capable of admitting Joyce’s artistic genius, he remains nonetheless amusingly aggravated by the book’s effect on him. But this strange and all too human duality is best exemplified by a curious letter Jung sent to Joyce shortly after the review was published, reproduced below.

Jung writes in his review:

Ulysses is a book which pours along for seven hundred and thirty-five pages, a stream of time of seven hundred and thirty-five days which all consist in one single and senseless every day of Everyman, the completely irrelevant 16th day of June 1904, in Dublin — a day on which, in all truth, nothing happens. The stream beings in the void and ends in the void. Is all of this perhaps one single, immensely long and excessively complicated Strindbergian pronouncement upon the essence of human life, and one which, to the reader’s dismay, is never finished? Perhaps it does touch upon the essence of life; but quite certainly it touches upon life’s ten thousand surfaces and their hundred thousand color gradations. As far as my glance reaches, there are in those seven hundred and thirty-five pages no obvious repetitions and not a single hallowed island where the long-suffering reader may come to rest. There is not a single place where he can seat himself, drunk with memories, and from which he can happily consider the stretch of the road he has covered, be it one hundred pages or even less… But no! The pitiless and uninterrupted stream rolls by, and its velocity or precipitation grows in the last forty pages till it sweeps away even the marks of punctuation. It thus gives cruelest expressions to that emptiness which is both breath taking and stifling, which is under such tension, or is so filled to bursting, as to grow unbearable. This thoroughly hopeless emptiness is the dominant note of the whole book. It not only begins and ends in nothingness, but it consists of nothing but nothingness. It is all infernally nugatory.

Of course, this outrage over hopelessness and nothingness is only natural for a man who believed that “man cannot stand a meaningless life” and that “the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” Jung, indeed, is self-aware enough to separate his deep disappointment in the book’s substance from the genius of Joyce’s style, adding a reluctant recognition of the latter:

If we regard the book from the side of technical artistry, it is a positively brilliant and hellish monster-birth.

And yet this creative merit does nothing in the way of alleviating Jung’s escalating irritation, which he goes on to articulate ever more floridly:

I had an uncle whose thinking was always to the point. One day he stopped me on the street and asked, “Do you know how the devil tortures the souls in hell?” When I said no, he declared, “He keeps them waiting.” And with that he walked away. This remark occurred to me when I was ploughing through Ulysses for the first time. Every sentence raises an expectation which is not fulfilled; finally, out of sheer resignation, you come to expect nothing any longer. Then, bit by bit, again to your horror, it dawns upon you that in all truth you have hit the nail on the head. It is actual fact that nothing happens and nothing comes of it, and yet a secret expectation at war with hopeless resignation drags the reader from page to page… You read and read and read and you pretend to understand what you read. Occasionally you drop through an air pocket into another sentence, but when once the proper degree of resignation has been reached you accustom yourself to anything. So I, too, read to page one hundred and thirty-five with despair in my heart, falling asleep twice on the way… Nothing comes to meet the reader, everything turns away from him, leaving him gaping after it. The book is always up and away, dissatisfied with itself, ironic, sardonic, virulent, contemptuous, sad, despairing, and bitter…

But what lends Jung’s indignation and bitterness great humanity, integrity, and even sweetness is the letter he sent to Joyce on September 27, 1932 — almost immediately after the review was published. A testament to the admirable civility of letter-writing at its best, it was a missive that both irked Joyce and validated him — one of which he was reportedly rather proud.

Jung writes:

Dear Sir,

Your Ulysses has presented the world such an upsetting psychological problem that repeatedly I have been called in as a supposed authority on psychological matters.

Ulysses proved to be an exceedingly hard nut and it has forced my mind not only to most unusual efforts, but also to rather extravagant peregrinations (speaking from the standpoint of a scientist). Your book as a whole has given me no end of trouble and I was brooding over it for about three years until I succeeded to put myself into it. But I must tell you that I’m profoundly grateful to yourself as well as to your gigantic opus, because I learned a great deal from it. I shall probably never be quite sure whether I did enjoy it, because it meant too much grinding of nerves and of grey matter. I also don’t know whether you will enjoy what I have written about Ulysses because I couldn’t help telling the world how much I was bored, how I grumbled, how I cursed and how I admired. The 40 pages of non stop run at the end is a string of veritable psychological peaches. I suppose the devil’s grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn’t.

Well, I just try to recommend my little essay to you, as an amusing attempt of a perfect stranger that went astray in the labyrinth of your Ulysses and happened to get out of it again by sheer good luck. At all events you may gather from my article what Ulysses has done to a supposedly balanced psychologist.

With the expression of my deepest appreciation, I remain, dear Sir,

Yours faithfully,
C.G. Jung

For his part, Joyce must have appreciated the integrity of Jung’s gesture and his ability to both criticize the novel and celebrate its capacity to produce fruitful friction in the reader, thus achieving the hallmark of great art — transforming us by unsettling us. Two years later, Joyce sent his daughter, Lucia, to be treated by Jung, who was the first to correctly diagnose the troubled girl’s symptoms as schizophrenia and to get her the proper psychiatric treatment.

Complement James Joyce: The Critical Heritage with Joyce’s most revealing interview, conducted by Djuna Barnes shortly after Ulysses was published, his recently discovered children’s book, and his humorous morphology of the many myths about him.

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Cassandra Austen’s Drawings of English Royalty for Teenage Jane Austen’s Parodic History of England

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“By a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian.”

“At fifteen, she had few illusions about other people and none about herself,” Virginia Woolf once wrote of Jane Austen. Indeed, the future author of Sense and Sensibility was an early master of dispelling cultural illusions through parody, satire, and general wryness. In 1791, decades before she offered writing advice to her own teenage niece, fifteen-year-old Austen penned The History of England — a short manuscript of 34 pages, subtitled “By a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian,” featuring thirteen ink-and-watercolor drawings of English royalty by Austen’s sister, Cassandra. (Austen was not the only prominent writer with an artistically gifted, lesser-known sibling — Virginia Woolf’s sister was the prominent Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell, who illustrated some of Woolf’s work, and Jorge Luis Borges’s sister, Norah Borges, was one of the female pioneers of modern art.)

A play on Oliver Goldsmith’s 1764 classic of the same title, Austen’s book was a parody of the general trend toward reducing history to mere trivia and educational factlets designed for quick, easy digestion — in other words, a proto-parody of the listicle, Austen’s contempt for which one can only imagine.

Young Jane had a similar distaste for the reduction of complex stories into simple facts, another favorite trope of contemporary media. Her outrage over history’s demolition of nuance and dimension began in her marginalia on the pages of Goldsmith’s history. Next to a passage about the Stuart family, she scoffed in pencil: “A family who were always ill used Betrayed or neglected — whose virtues are seldom allowed while their errors are never forgotten.”

After Austen’s death in 1817, Cassandra kept her manuscripts until her own death in 1845. For more than a century thereafter, the notebooks were nearly forgotten and quietly made their way down the family tree, until they ended up in the hands of Cassandra’s great-granddaughter’s niece, who sold them at Sotheby’s in July of 1977. The British Library purchased the notebooks and Austen’s parodic history was published in facsimile for the first time as Jane Austen’s The History of England (public library), including all of the original drawings.

Cassandra’s depictions of English royalty parallel her sister’s parodic tone — there is a lumberjackish Henry VIII, a hipsterly bedraggled Henry VII, and a witchlike Elizabeth I.

Henry IV

Henry V

Henry VI

Henry VII

Henry VIII

Richard III

Edward IV

Mary Queen of Scots

Edward VI

Mary Tudor

Queen Elizabeth I

James I

Charles I

Complement Jane Austen’s The History of England with the author’s advice on writing and some delectable recipes inspired by her novels, then revisit Queen Victoria’s own drawings and Virginia Woolf’s quirky family newspaper, illustrated by her teenage nephews.

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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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