Brain Pickings

Dare to Disturb the Universe: Madeleine L’Engle on Creativity, Censorship, Writing, and the Duty of Children’s Books

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“We find what we are looking for. If we are looking for life and love and openness and growth, we are likely to find them. If we are looking for witchcraft and evil, we’ll likely find them, and we may get taken over by them.”

On November 16, 1983 — just two weeks before her 65th birthday and twenty years after winning the prestigious Newbery Medal — Madeleine L’Engle, author of the timeless classic A Wrinkle in Time, delivered a magnificent lecture at the Library of Congress. To celebrate Children’s Book Week the following year — the year I was born — the Library’s Center for the Book and the Children’s Literature Center published L’Engle’s talk as a slim and, sadly, long out-of-print volume titled Dare to Be Creative! (public library) — a magnificent manifesto of sorts on writing, writers, and children’s books, as well as a bold and beautifully argued case against censorship.

L’Engle begins by making a point about children’s capacity for handling darker emotions that would’ve made Tolkien proud, one that Maurice Sendak has also asserted and Neil Gaiman has recently echoed. L’Engle observes:

The writer whose words are going to be read by children has a heavy responsibility. And yet, despite the undeniable fact that the children’s minds are tender, they are also far more tough than many people realize, and they have an openness and an ability to grapple with difficult concepts which many adults have lost. Writers of children’s literature are set apart by their willingness to confront difficult questions.

For that reason, L’Engle argues, editors and publishers often attempt to remove these difficult questions from the get-go — a form of preventative censorship, the kind the great Ursula Nordstrom meant in her witty and wise lament that children’s book publishing was run largely by “mediocre ladies in influential positions” unwilling to deviate from the safe route. L’Engle recounts her own brave resistance to such pressures, even in the face of repeated rejection:

Many years ago, when A Wrinkle in Time was being rejected by publisher after publisher, I wrote in my journal, “I will rewrite for months or even years for an editor who sees what I am trying to do in this book and wants to make it better and stronger. But I will not, I cannot diminish and mutilate it for an editor who does not understand it and wants to weaken it.”

Now, the editors who did not understand the book and wanted the problem of evil soft peddled had every right to refuse to publish the book, as I had, sadly, the right and obligation to try to be true to it. If they refused it out of honest conviction, that was honorable. If they refused it for fear of trampling on someone else’s toes, that was, alas, the way of the world.

Though she did eventually find a publisher who believed in the book heart and mind, this still left the question of the general public, where ignorant self-appointed censors lurk. Decades before the golden age of mindless online comments and TLDR-mentality, L’Engle recounts a tragicomic incident:

Recently I was lecturing in the Midwest, and the head librarian of a county system came to me in great distress, bearing an epistle composed by one woman, giving her all the reasons she should remove A Wrinkle in Time from the library shelves. This woman, who had obviously read neither Wrinkle nor the Bible carefully, was offended because she mistakenly assumed that Mrs. What, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which were witches practicing black magic. I scrawled in the margin that if she had read the text she might have noted that they were referred to as guardian angels. The woman was also offended because they laughed and had fun. Is there no joy in heaven! The woman belonged to that group of people who believe that any book which mentions witches or ghosts is evil and must be banned. If these people were consistent, they would have to ban the Bible: what about the Witch of End or and Samuel’s ghost?

The woman’s epistle went on to say that Charles Wallace knew things that other people didn’t know. “So did Jesus,” I scrawled in the margin. She was upset, because Calvin sometimes felt compulsions. Don’t we all? This woman obviously felt a compulsion to be a censor. Finally I scrawled at the bottom of the epistle that I truly feared for this woman.

In a sentiment that Milton Glaser would come to echo decades later in his beautiful meditation on the universe, L’Engle drives home the point of this parable:

We find what we are looking for. If we are looking for life and love and openness and growth, we are likely to find them. If we are looking for witchcraft and evil, we’ll likely find them, and we may get taken over by them.

She adds an important disclaimer on the difference between censorship and discernment:

We all practice some form of censorship. I practiced it simply by the books I had in the house when my children were little. If I am given a budget of $500 I will be practicing a form of censorship by the books I choose to buy with that limited amount of money, and the books I choose not to buy. But nobody said we were not allowed to have points of view. The exercise of personal taste is not the same thing as imposing personal opinion.

With a riff on T.S. Eliot’s famous line from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” — “Do I dare disturb the universe?” — L’Engle reflects on the role of reading, and taste in reading, in her own life:

The stories I cared about, the stories I read and reread, were usually stories which dared to disturb the universe, which asked questions rather than gave answers.

I turned to story, then, as now, looking for truth, for it is in story that we find glimpses of meaning, rather than in textbooks. But how apologetic many adults are when they are caught reading a book of fiction! They tend to hide it and tell you about the “How-To” book which is what they are really reading. Fortunately, nobody ever told me that stories were untrue, or should be outgrown, and then as now they nourished me and kept me willing to ask the unanswerable questions.

She offers another autobiographical anecdote that sheds light on how our righteousness works:

One time I was in the kitchen drinking tea with my husband and our young son, and they got into an argument about ice hockey. I do not feel passionate about ice hockey. They do. Finally our son said. “But Daddy, you don’t understand.” And my husband said, reasonably, “It’s not that I don’t understand, Bion. It’s just that I don’t agree with you.”

To which the little boy replied hotly, “If you don’t agree with me, you don’t understand.”

I think we all feel that way, but it takes a child to admit it.

That righteousness — which bears the markings of the fundamentalism Isaac Asimov memorably bemoaned — is what L’Engle believes flattens culture and robs us of its richness:

We need to dare disturb the universe by not being manipulated or frightened by judgmental groups who assume the right to insist that if we do not agree with them, not only do we not understand but we are wrong. How dull the world would be if we all had to feel the same way about everything, if we all had to like the same books, dislike the same books…

Perhaps some of this zeal is caused by fear. But as Bertrand Russell warns, “Zeal is a bad mark for a cause. Nobody had any zeal about arithmetic. It was the anti-vaccinationists, not the vaccinationists, who were zealous.” Yet because those who were not threatened by the idea of vaccination ultimately won out, we have eradicated the horror of smallpox from the planet.

L’Engle examines the heart of zeal, often driven by our failure to grant ourselves the “uncomfortable luxury” of changing our minds. She agrees with Bertrand Russell’s assertion that we are zealous when we aren’t completely certain we are right, in a reflection that brings it all back to children’s books and the art of disturbing the universe:

When I find myself hotly defending something, wherein I am, in fact, zealous, it is time for me to step back and examine whatever it is that has me so hot under the collar. Do I think it’s going to threaten my comfortable rut? Make me change and grow? — and growing always causes growing pains. Am I afraid to ask questions?

Sometimes. But I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and the best children’s books ask questions, and make the reader ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone’s universe.

Like Asimov, who found in science fiction a way to make points he otherwise couldn’t, L’Engle sees in fiction a sandbox, a safe place for asking those uncomfortable questions:

Writing fiction is definitely a universe disturber, and for the writer, first of all. My books push me and prod me and make me ask questions I might otherwise avoid. I start a book, having lived with the characters for several years, during the writing of other books, and I have a pretty good idea of where the story is going and what I hope it’s going to say. And then, once I get deep into the writing, unexpected things begin to happen, things which make me question, and which sometimes really shake my universe.

L’Engle makes a heartening case for the presently accepted idea that what makes science interesting — what makes it meaningful and culturally significant — isn’t its certitude and all-knowingness, but its “thoroughly conscious ignorance,” the very not-knowing that Donald Barthelme memorably argued was also at the heart of writing. L’Engle reflects:

I’m frequently asked about my “great science background,” but I have no science background whatsoever. I majored in English Literature in college. We were required to take two languages and one science or two sciences and one language, so of course I took two languages and psychology. Part of my reluctance about science was that when I was in school, science was proud and arrogant. The scientists let us know that they thought they had everything pretty well figured out, and what they didn’t know about the nature of the universe, they were shortly going to find out. Science could answer all questions.

[…]

Many years later, after I was out of school, married and had children, the new sciences absolutely fascinated me. They were completely different from the pre-World War II sciences, which had answers for everything. The new sciences asked questions. There was much that was not explainable. For everything new that science discovered, vast areas of the unknown were opened. Sometimes contemporary physics sounds like something out of a fairy tale: there is a star known as a degenerate white dwarf and another known as a red giant sitting on the horizontal branch. Can’t you imagine the degenerate white dwarf trying to get the red giant of the horizontal branch?

L’Engle ties this not-knowing back to the question of censorship in writing for children:

Perhaps one of the most important jobs of the writer whose books are going to be marketed for children is to dare to disturb the universe by exercising a creative kind of self-censorship. We don’t need to let it all hang out. Sure, kids today know pretty much everything that is to be known about sex, but we owe them art, rather than a clinical textbook. Probably the most potent sex scene I have ever read is in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary where Emma goes to meet her lover, and they get in a carriage and draw the shades, and the carriage rocks like a ship as the horses draw it through the streets. How much more vivid is what the imagination can do with that than the imagination-dulling literal description!

I do not believe that any subject is in itself taboo, it is the way it is treated which makes it either taboo or an offering of art and love.

It is the writer’s duty, L’Engle argues, to continue reclaiming complex ideas from the grip of simplistic taboo:

The first people a dictator puts in jail after a coup are the writers, the teachers, the librarians — because these people are dangerous. They have enough vocabulary to recognize injustice and to speak out loudly about it. Let us have the courage to go on being dangerous people.

[…]

So let us look for beauty and grace, for love and friendship, for that which is creative and birth-giving and soul-stretching. Let us dare to laugh at ourselves, healthy, affirmative laughter. Only when we take ourselves lightly can we take ourselves seriously, so that we are given the courage to say, “Yes! I dare disturb the universe.”

The whole of Dare to Be Creative!, should you be so luck to track down a surviving copy, is a masterpiece of thought and spirit more than worth a read. Complement it with famous writers on censorship and Voltaire’s thoughts on the subject.

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The Science of Smell: How the Most Direct of Our Senses Works

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Why the 23,040 breaths we take each day are the most powerful yet perplexing route to our emotional memory.

“Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes,” Anna Quindlen advised in her indispensable Short Guide to a Happy Life. Susan Sontag listed “linen” and “the smell of newly mown grass” among her favorite things. “A man may have lived all of his life in the gray,” John Steinbeck wrote in his beautiful meditation on the meaning of life, “and then — the glory — so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose.” Why is it that smell lends itself to such poetic metaphors, sings to us so sweetly, captures us so powerfully?

That’s precisely what science historian Diane Ackerman explores in A Natural History of the Senses (public library), her 1990 prequel to the equally fantastic A Natural History of Love. Ackerman, who also happens to be a spectacular poet and the author of the gorgeous cosmic verses that Carl Sagan mailed to Timothy Leary in prison, paints the backdrop of this perplexing and unique sensory experience:

Our sense of smell can be extraordinarily precise, yet it’s almost impossible to describe how something smells to someone who hasn’t smelled it… We see only where there is light enough, taste only when we put things into our mouths, touch only when we make contact with someone or something, hear only sounds that are loud enough to hear. But we smell always and with every breath. Cover your eyes and you will stop seeing, cover your ears and you will stop hearing, but if you cover your nose and stop smelling, you will die.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from 'The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert.' Click image for more.

In fact, every breath we take in order to live is saturated with an extraordinary amount of olfactory information — a fact largely a matter of scale:

Each day, we breathe about 23,040 times and move around 438 cubic feet of air. It takes us about five seconds to breathe — two seconds to inhale and three seconds to exhale — and, in that time, molecules of odor flood through our systems. Inhaling and exhaling, we smell odors. Smells coat us, swirl around us, enter our bodies, emanate from us. We live in a constant wash of them. Still, when we try to describe a smell, words fail us like the fabrications they are…

The charm of language is that, though it is human-made, it can on rare occasions capture emotions and sensations that aren’t. But the physiological links between the smell and language centers of the brain are pitifully weak. Not so the links between the smell and the memory centers, a route that carries us nimbly across time and distance.

Indeed, that route is a greater shortcut to our cognition and psychoemotional circuitry than any of our other senses can offer. Ackerman outlines the singular qualities of our smell-sensation that set it apart from all other bodily functions:

Smell is the most direct of all our senses. When I hold a violet to my nose and inhale, odor molecules float back into the nasal cavity behind the bridge of the nose, where they are absorbed by the mucosa containing receptor cells bearing microscopic hairs called cilia. Five million of these cells fire impulses to the brain’s olfactory bulb or smell center. Such cells are unique to the nose. If you destroy a neuron in the brain, it’s finished forever; it won’t regrow. If you damage neurons in your eyes or ears, both organs will be irreparably damaged. But the neurons in the nose are replaced about every thirty days and, unlike any other neurons in the body, they stick right out and wave in the air current like anemones on a coral reef.

Illustration by Tomi Ungerer from 'The Cat-Hater's Handbook.' Click image for more.

That’s also what makes perfumes so powerful — if you’ve ever walked into a crowded room and instantly experienced a pang of emotion as you thought you smelled your ex, or your mother, or your third-grade teacher, you’ve had a first-hand testimony to the potency of smell as a trigger of emotional memory. Ackerman explains:

A smell can be overwhelmingly nostalgic because it triggers powerful images and emotions before we have time to edit them… When we give perfume to someone, we give them liquid memory. Kipling was right: “Smells are surer than sights and sounds to make your heart-strings crack.”

What’s perhaps most extraordinary is that scent lodges itself largely in the long-term memory system of the brain. And yet, we remain inept at mapping those links and associative chains when it comes to describing smells and their emotional echoes. To shed light on how perfumery plays into this paradox, Ackerman offers a taxonomy of the basic types of natural smells and how they became synthetically replicated, unleashing an intimate dance of art, science, and commerce:

All smells fall into a few basic categories, almost like primary colors: minty (peppermint), floral (roses), ethereal (pears), musky (musk), resinous (camphor), foul (rotten eggs), and acrid (vinegar). This is why perfume manufacturers have had such success in concocting floral bouquets or just the right threshold of muskiness or fruitiness. Natural substances are no longer required; perfumes can be made on the molecular level in laboratories. One of the first perfumes based on a completely synthetic smell (an aldehyde) was Chanel No. 5, which was created in 1922 and has remained a classic of sensual femininity. It has led to classic comments, too. When Marilyn Monroe was asked by a reporter what she wore to bed, she answered coyly, “Chanel No. 5.” Its top note — the one you smell first — is the aldehyde, then your nose detects the middle note of jasmine, rose, lily of the valley, orris, and ylang-ylang, and finally the base note, which carries the perfume and makes it linger: vetiver, sandalwood, cedar, vanilla, amber, civet, and musk. Base notes are almost always of animal origin, ancient emissaries of smell that transport us across woodlands and savannas.

And so we get to the actual science of smell — what actually makes us have an olfactory experience, and why we often confuse those with taste:

We need only eight molecules of a substance to trigger an impulse in a nerve ending, but forty nerve endings must be aroused before we smell something. Not everything has a smell: only substances volatile enough to spray microscopic particles into the air. Many things we encounter each day — including stone, glass, steel, and ivory — don’t evaporate when they stand at room temperature, so we don’t smell them. If you heat cabbage, it becomes more volatile (some of its particles evaporate into the air) and it suddenly smells stronger. Weightlessness makes astronauts lose taste and smell in space. In the absence of gravity, molecules cannot be volatile, so few of them get into our noses deeply enough to register as odors. This is a problem for nutritionists designing space food. Much of the taste of food depends on its smell; some chemists have gone so far as to claim that wine is simply a tasteless liquid that is deeply fragrant. Drink wine with a head cold, and you’ll taste water, they say. Before something can be tasted, it has to be dissolved in liquid (for example hard candy has to melt in saliva); and before something can be smelled, it has to be airborne. We taste only four flavors: sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. That means that everything else we call “flavor” is really “odor.” And many of the foods we think we can smell we can only taste. Sugar isn’t volatile, so we don’t smell it, even though we taste it intensely. If we have a mouthful of something delicious, which we want to savor and contemplate, we exhale; this drives the air in our mouths across our olfactory receptors, so we can smell it better.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from 'The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert.' Click image for more.

The rest of A Natural History of the Senses is just as fascinating a read, diving deeper into the mysteries and miracles of smell and our other sensory faculties. Complement it with Ackerman’s A Natural History of Love and her impossibly wonderful love letter to the Solar System, The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral.

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Mary Oliver on the Mystery of the Human Psyche, the Secret of Great Poetry, and How Rhythm Makes Us Come Alive

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“Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, it grows sweeter.”

“Poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world,” James Dickey wrote. “The way to develop good taste in literature,” Joseph Brodsky advised, “is to read poetry.” Wordsworth believed the poetic form to be “the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge.”“a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity.” But hardly anyone has captured the mesmerism of poetry more perceptively and, well, poetically than the inimitable Mary Oliver — winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, once described by The New York Times as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet,” and nothing less than a secular modern mystic of the written word. In her altogether magnificent 1994 book A Poetry Handbook (public library), Oliver teases apart the mechanisms by which poetry enchants us, exploring the magic of rhythm as not only the fire in the belly of poetry but also a gateway into a profound human longing.

Mary Oliver (b. 1935, right) with her partner of over forty years, photographer Molly Malone Cook (1925–2005) at the couple's home in Provincetown, Massachusetts

Oliver considers the intricate courtship between poetry and the soul:

If Romeo and Juliet had made their appointments to meet, in the moonlight-swept orchard, in all the peril and sweetness of conspiracy, and then more often than not failed to meet — one or the other lagging, or afraid, or busy elsewhere — there would have been no romance, no passion, none of the drama for which we remember and celebrate them. Writing a poem is not so different—it is a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart (that courageous but also shy factory of emotion) and the learned skills of the conscious mind. They make appointments with each other, and keep them, and something begins to happen. Or, they make appointments with each other but are casual and often fail to keep them: count on it, nothing happens.

The part of the psyche that works in concert with consciousness and supplies a necessary part of the poem — the heart of the star as opposed to the shape of a star, let us say — exists in a mysterious, unmapped zone: not unconscious, not subconscious, but cautious. It learns quickly what sort of courtship it is going to be. Say you promise to be at your desk in the evenings, from seven to nine. It waits, it watches. If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself — soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes and are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.

Why should it? It can wait. It can stay silent a lifetime. Who knows anyway what it is, that wild, silky part of ourselves without which no poem can live? But we do know this: if it is going to enter into a passionate relationship and speak what is in its own portion of your mind, the other responsible and purposeful part of you had better be a Romeo. It doesn’t matter if risk is somewhere close by — risk is always hovering somewhere. But it won’t involve itself with anything less than a perfect seriousness.

For the would-be writer of poems, this is the first and most essential thing to understand. It comes before everything, even technique.

Mary Oliver in 1964 (photograph by Molly Malone Cook)

She goes on to explore the spellbinding power of rhythm:

The reader, as he or she begins to read, quickly enters the rhythmic pattern of a poem. It takes no more than two or three lines for a rhythm, and a feeling of pleasure in that rhythm, to be transferred from the poem to the reader. Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, it grows sweeter. When it becomes reliable, we are in a kind of body-heaven.

And yet, as in life itself, much of the vitality in poetry comes from artfully disrupting the smooth cadence of that steady, predictable rhythm:

Lines of good poetry are apt to be a little irregular. A prevailing sense of rhythm is necessary, but some variation enhances the very strength of the pattern. The singsong poem is a dull poem. Variation wakes us up with its touch of difference, just as a cadence of drums in a marching band keeps two things going at the same time: a strict and regular beat and a few contrapuntal accents, flourishes, and even silences… Within the poem, irregularities may occur for the sake of variation; they may also occur because of stresses required by the words themselves, for accuracy, for emphasis, etc.

Rather than opposing forces that tear asunder the aesthetic experience, Oliver reminds us that these seeming polarities of rhythm and irregularity actually exist in the osmotic synchronicity that lends poetry its power:

The name itself — free verse — implies that this kind of poetry rose out of a desire for release from the restraints of meter, or the measured line, and strict rhythmic patterns… Free verse is not, of course, free. It is free from formal metrical design, but it certainly isn’t free from some kind of design. Is poetry language that is spontaneous, impulsive? Yes, it is. Is it also language that is composed, considered, appropriate, and effective, though you read the poem a hundred times? Yes, it is.

Mary Oliver with one of her beloved dogs (photograph by Rachel Brown)

Above all, however, Oliver advocates for poetry as a sandbox for exercising that elusive yet essential willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery (a subject of which she has written beautifully) and make peace with the ambiguity of the unresolved — a concept John Keats famously termed “negative capability.” Oliver, with a spectacular simile, riffs on Keats:

Poetry cannot happen without it, and no one has talked about it more usefully and marvelously than Keats; his commentary is as up-to-date as a sunrise.

A Poetry Handbook is a fantastic read in its entirety, with ample wisdom not only on poetry itself but on all writing, the essence of which applies to just about every field of creative endeavor. Complement it with Oliver’s soul-stirring Dog Songs, one of 2013′s most wonderful books celebrating animals.

Hand-lettered illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

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