Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

22 MAY, 2015

Spineless: Susan Middleton’s Mesmerizing Photographs of Marine Invertebrates

By:

Visual verses celebrating the glorious grandeur of life on our pale blue dot.

The mystery of marine life has compelled humanity for millennia, from ancient Indian mythology to Aristotle, who was the first to outline the distinction between invertebrates and vertebrates in his Historia Animalium. Perhaps because we ourselves sprang from the oceans, these creatures and their habitats have long lent themselves to our tendency toward thinking with animals. Even David Foster Wallace turned to the primordial seas of metaphor in his legendary Kenyon College commencement address, which came to be known as This Is Water after its central clarion call for “awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water. This is water.’”

In Spineless (public library), visual artist, educator, and explorer Susan Middleton turns her luminous lens to one particularly underappreciated aspect of these real and essential invisibilia: the exquisite and enigmatic world of marine invertebrates, which represent 98% of the known animal species in the oceans and are thus the backbone of life on our blue planet, which is itself 97% water. Indeed, this is water.

Red-eye medusa (Polyorchis penicillatus)

© Susan Middleton

Using a special photographic technique she developed, Middleton captures an astounding diversity of creatures, ranging from giant squid to tiny translucent jellyfish to two species so new to science — the Kanola squat lobster and the Wanawana crab — that they have been formally named based on the very individuals in the book. Her photographs are at once austere and deeply alive — against the plain black or white background, these creatures fill the frame with striking intimacy of presence.

Opalescent nudibranch (Hermissenda crassicornis)

© Susan Middleton

Stubby squid (Rossia pacifica)

© Susan Middleton

Middleton’s fascination with marine invertebrates began more than a quarter century earlier, while working on a project to photograph one hundred endangered species. One of them was the shrimp tadpole — a tiny, unassuming, yet utterly remarkable creature that lived on Earth long before fish evolved and has remained practically unchanged for 250 million years, developing clever strategies for survival despite its defenseless body. Middleton writes:

That was the beginning of my obsession with the world of invertebrates.

Ever since, I have been fascinated by the bizarre beauty and inherent mystery of this realm of life. The photographs herein are intended to reveal the exceptional shapes, patterns, textures, and colors of these remarkable creatures. Colorful, quirky, quivery, spindly, spiky, sticky, stretchy, squishy, slithery, squirmy, prickly, bumpy, bubbly, and fluttery, the invertebrates appear almost surreal, even alien.

Gold-banded hermit crab (Dardanus brachyops)

© Susan Middleton

Indeed, the most rewarding aspect of Middleton’s project extends far beyond its undeniable aesthetic mesmerism and into a more profound appreciation of not only the incredible diversity of these life forms but also the incredible diversity among them — each animal is revealed as an individual, with palpably distinctive likeness and behavior, even within a species. We are suddenly reminded that if we are to heed Jane Goodall and truly live our lives in Rilke’s widening circles by continuing to expand our circles of compassion to nonhuman animals, we cannot exclude these weird and wonderful beings.

Pink brittle star

© Susan Middleton

Orange-rimmed flatworm (Mayazoon orsaki)

© Susan Middleton

For Middleton herself, who has dedicated her life to capturing and conveying the realities of creatures quite different from ourselves — often ones gravely endangered by our human solipsism and the destructive entitlement it engenders — this has been a centerpiece of the project. To gaze at life forms with powers of perception so vastly different from — and often superior to — our own is to invariably ask what it’s like to experience the world in this alien way, what life is like for that being. Middleton puts this awareness beautifully:

This recognition has opened me to a larger world and a profound assemblage of energies beyond the human.

White phantom crab

© Susan Middleton

Hanging stomach jellyfish (Stomotoca atra)

© Susan Middleton

Pacific giant octopus

© Susan Middleton

It is almost inconceivable that a photograph could sing to the soul the way a Mary Oliver poem does, and yet embraced by Middleton’s compassionate curiosity, these marvelous creatures join together in a chorus exhorting us to begin belonging to this world immediately, because “There is so much to admire, to weep over. / And to write music or poems about.” Middleton emerges as a poet of photography, each image in Spineless a visual verse that renders us a little more awake to the glorious grandeur of this world we share with so many other beings, a little more reluctant to contribute to its destruction with our small everyday choices, which are the building blocks of our civilizational acts.

Complement this treasure of a book, which features a foreword by oceanic patron saint Sylvia “Her Deepness” Earle, with Jane Goodall on our human responsibility.

Photographs courtesy of Abrams

Donating = Loving

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.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

21 MAY, 2015

Montaigne on “Curation,” the Illusion of Originality, and How We Form Our Opinions

By:

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

I often think of reading not as the acquisition of static knowledge but as the active springboard for thinking and dynamic contemplation — hence the combinatorial, LEGO-like nature of creativity, wherein we assemble building blocks of existing knowledge into new formations of understanding that we consider our original ideas. But long before our contemporary conceptions of how creativity works, French Renaissance polymath and proto-blogger Michel de Montaigne (February 28, 1533–September 13, 1592) articulated this magpielike quality of the mind, so very central to ideation.

In Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays (public domain; public library) — the same indispensable volume that gave us the great philosopher’s ideas on death and the art of living — he writes:

A competent reader often discovers in other men’s writings other perfections than the author himself either intended or perceived, a richer sense and more quaint expression.

Portrait of Michel de Montaigne by Salvador Dalí, 1947. Click image for details.

Half a millennium before Mark Twain proclaimed that “substantially all ideas are second-hand” and long before we drained the term “curation” of meaning by compulsive and indiscriminate application, Montaigne observed:

I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.

But what makes Montaigne’s meditation so incisive — and such an urgently necessary fine-tuning of how we think of “curation” today — is precisely the emphasis on the thread. This assemblage of existing ideas, he argues, is nothing without the critical thinking of the assembler — the essential faculty examining those ideas to sieve the meaningful from the meaningless, assimilating them into one’s existing system of knowledge, and metabolizing them to nurture a richer understanding of the world. Montaigne writes:

We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make it our own. We are in this very like him, who having need of fire, went to a neighbor’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any with him home… What good does it do us to have the stomach full of meat, if it do not digest, if it be not incorporated with us, if it does not nourish and support us?

Three centuries later, Thoreau — another of humanity’s most quotable and overquoted minds — made a similar point about the perils of mindlessly parroting the ideas of those who came before us, which produces only simulacra of truth. The mindful reflection and expansion upon existing ideas and views, on the other hand, is a wholly different matter — it is the path via which we arrive at more considered opinions of our own, cultivate our critical faculties, and inch closer to truth itself. Montaigne writes:

Aristotle ordinarily heaps up a great number of other men’s opinions and beliefs, to compare them with his own, and to let us see how much he has gone beyond them, and how much nearer he approaches to the likelihood of truth; for truth is not to be judged by the authority and testimony of others; which made Epicurus religiously avoid quoting them in his writings. This is the prince of all dogmatists, and yet we are told by him that the more we know the more we have room for doubt.

Complement Montaigne’s Complete Essays — a timeless trove of wisdom on such diverse facets of existence as happiness, education, fear, and the imagination — with his enduring wisdom on how to live and Salvador Dalí’s rare and whimsical illustrations for his essays.

Donating = Loving

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.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

19 MAY, 2015

Arts of the Possible: Adrienne Rich on Writing, Capitalism, Freedom, and How Silence Fertilizes the Human Imagination

By:

“The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence.”

“When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” John F. Kennedy proclaimed in his piercing eulogy to Robert Frost, contemplating the artist’s role in society and urging us to “never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” More than three decades later, another of humanity’s greatest poets and custodians of dignity explored this enduring relationship between art, power, and truth more closely and dimensionally than anyone before or since.

The poet was Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) and the exploration a remarkable 1997 lecture that became the title piece in Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (public library) — the same anthology that gave us the spectacular letter with which Rich became the only person to decline the National Medal of Arts in one of creative culture’s most courageous acts of political dissent.

Rich begins by considering the perilous interplay of the market and the mind in capitalist culture:

We have become a pyramidic society of the omnivorously acquisitive few, an insecure, dwindling middle class, and a multiplying number of ill-served, throwaway citizens and workers [resulting in] a kind of public breakdown, with symptoms along a spectrum from acute self-involvement to extreme anxiety to individual and group violence.

Exactly two decades after E.F. Schumacher’s ennobling case for reimagining capitalist society to prioritize people over products and creativity over consumption, Rich laments “the self-congratulatory self-promotion of capitalism” around the world and considers “the corruptions of language employed to manage our perceptions of all this” — for, lest we forget, the space between words and their true meanings is vast and filled with the fog of confusion. She writes:

In the vocabulary kidnapped from liberatory politics, no word has been so pimped as freedom.

[…]

Capitalism presents itself as obedience to a law of nature, man’s “natural” and overwhelming predisposition toward activity that is competitive, aggressive, and acquisitive. Where capitalism invokes freedom, it means the freedom of capital. Where, in any mainstream public discourse, is this self-referential monologue put to the question?

Illustration by Anne Simon from Corinne Maier's graphic biography of Karl Marx. Click image for more.

Perhaps it is the poet in Rich most riled by this propagandic corruption of language — for what is a poet if not one who remedies “the feeling that the contemporary language is not equivalent to the contemporary fact”? But the legacy of this disconnect, Rich reminds us in a sentiment tenfold more urgent today, transcends the poetic and bleeds into the practicalities of civic life:

Our past is seeded in our present and is trying to become our future.

These concerns engage me as a citizen, feeling daily in my relationships with my fellow citizens the effects of a system based in the accumulation of wealth — the value against which all other values must justify themselves. We all feel these effects, almost namelessly, as we go about our individual lives…

But these are also my concerns as a poet, as the practitioner of an ancient and severely tested art. In a society in such extreme pain, I think these are any writer’s, any artist’s, concerns: the unnamed harm to human relationships, the blockage of inquiry, the oblique contempt with which we are depicted to ourselves and to others, in prevailing image making; a malnourishment that extends from the body to the imagination itself. Capital vulgarizes and reduces complex relations to a banal iconography.

Lamenting that terms like “consumers” and “baby boomers” feed the dual demon of contempt and self-contempt — one reduces people to their acquisition of commodities and the other “infantilizes and demeans an entire generation” — Rich examines how this collapse of language into shallowness impacts the artist’s responsibility to tussle with human relationships, which she has long considered the raw material of our private truths. She writes:

Any artist faces the necessity to explore, by whatever means, human relationships — which may or may not be perceived as political. But there are also, and always, the changing questions of the medium itself, the craft and its demands.

That craft, Rich argues, is honed in the sacred space of silence. In a sentiment that calls to mind Paul Goodman’s nine types of silence, she writes:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes its way — certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice any art at its deeper levels. The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence, and the first question we might ask any poem is, What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?

Although silence externally enforced, Rich notes, is a tool of oppression and censorship, silence willfully elected is a force of growth. She writes:

Silence … can be fertilizing, it can bathe the imagination, it can, as in great open spaces — I think of those plains stretching far below the Hopi mesas in Arizona — be the nimbus of a way of life, a condition of vision. Such living silences are more and more endangered throughout the world, by commerce and appropriation.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Echoing Wendell Berry’s conception of silence as a sanctuary where “one’s inner voices become audible [and], in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives,” Rich places the extinction of such fertilizing silence in its cultural context:

Even in conversation, here in North America, we who so eagerly unpack our most private concerns before strangers dread the imaginative space that silence might open between two people or within a group. Television, obviously, abhors such silence.

I am reminded here of a wonderful 19th-century guide to the art of conversation, which asserted that “the power of preserving silence is the very first requisite to all who wish to shine, or even please in discourse.” The writer, Rich argues, is one who honors the silence while creating a space for connection and conversation:

Whatever her or his social identity, the writer is, by the nature of the act of writing, someone who strives for communication and connection, someone who searches, through language, to keep alive the conversation with what Octavio Paz has called “the lost community.” Even if what’s written feels like a note thrust into a bottle to be thrown into the sea.

But the successful transmission of the bottle requires a benevolent sea, which brings us back to the political dimension of art as a technology of freedom. Rich captures the true measure of democracy:

The survival of a great diversity of books … depends on diverse interests having the means to make such books available.

It also means a nonelite but educated audience, a population who are literate, who read and talk to each other, who may be factory workers or bakers or bank tellers or paramedicals or plumbers or computer consultants or farmworkers, whose first language may be Croatian or Tagalog or Spanish or Vietnamese but who are given to critical thinking, who care about art, an intelligentsia beyond intellectual specialists.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451.' Click image for more.

Nearly three decades after James Baldwin remarked that the whole capitalist system “is standing on the back of some black miner in South Africa,” Rich considers the prerequisite for such a nonelitist, democratic landscape of thought and imagination:

If we are writers writing first of all from our own desire and need, if this is irresistible work for us, if in writing we experience certain kinds of power and freedom that may be unavailable to us in other ways — surely it would follow that we would want to make that kind of forming, shaping, naming, telling, accessible for anyone who can use it. It would seem only natural for writers to care passionately about literacy, public education, public libraries, public opportunities in all the arts. But more: if we care about the freedom of the word, about language as a liberatory current, if we care about the imagination, we will care about economic justice.

For the pull and suck of Capital’s project tend toward reducing, not expanding, overall human intelligence, wit, expressiveness, creative rebellion.

[…]

Writing and teaching are kinds of work, and the relative creative freedom of the writer or teacher depends on the conditions of human labor overall and everywhere.

For what are we, anyway, at our best, but one small, persistent cluster in a greater ferment of human activity — still and forever turning toward, tuned for, the possible, the unrealized and irrepressible design?

Arts of the Possible is a trove of lucid idealism in its entirety. Complement it with Rich on what “truth” really means, her superb 1977 commencement address on the real value of education, and her homage to Marie Curie.

Donating = Loving

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.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

19 MAY, 2015

Beware the Rise of the Pseudo-Intellectual: Tom Wolfe’s Boston University Commencement Address

By:

“We live in an age in which ideas, important ideas, are worn like articles of fashion.”

Few things bypass our culture’s codified shell of cynicism more elegantly and powerfully than the commencement address — that singular mode of intravenous wisdom-delivery wherein an elder steps onto a stage and plugs straight into what Oscar Wilde called the “temperament of receptivity,” so elusive in all hearts and doubly so in the young. History’s greatest commencement addresses — masterworks like Joseph Brodsky’s “Speech at the Stadium” and David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” — deliver not vacant platitudes but hard-earned, life-tested insight into the beliefs, behaviors, and habits of mind that embolden us to live good, rewarding, noble lives.

That is what celebrated writer Tom Wolfe (b. March 2, 1931) delivered when he took the podium at Boston University in 2000 with a magnificent address included in Way More than Luck: Commencement Speeches on Living with Bravery, Empathy, and Other Existential Skills (public library).

Tom Wolfe by Henry Leutwyler

Wolfe begins by putting in perspective the value — the gift — of an education:

As someone who grew up in the Great Depression of the 1930s, I know that a commencement is a family triumph. Forget money. Aside from love, the cardinal virtues, and time, there is no greater gift parents can give a child than an education.

And yet much of the true value of education, Wolfe argues, is being eclipsed by what he calls “pernicious enlightenment” — our idea-fetishism, continually fueled by the challenge of finding wisdom in the age of information, which leads us to mistake surface impressions for substantive understanding. Wolfe writes:

We live in an age in which ideas, important ideas, are worn like articles of fashion — and for precisely the same reason articles of fashion are worn, which is to make the wearer look better and to feel à la mode.

He examines the role of the middle class in the dissemination and uptake of ideas:

The truth is that there is a common bond among all cultures, among all peoples in this world … at least among those who have reached the level of the wheel, the shoe, and the toothbrush. And that common bond is that much-maligned class known as the bourgeoisie — the middle class… They are all over the world, in every continent, every nation, every society, every culture, everywhere you find the wheel, the shoe, and the toothbrush, and wherever they are, all of them believe in the same things. And what are those things? Peace, order, education, hard work, initiative, enterprise, creativity, cooperation, looking out for one another, looking out for the future of children, patriotism, fair play, and honesty. How much more do you want from the human beast? How much more can you possibly expect?

I say that the middle class around the world … is the highest form of evolution. The bourgeoisie! — the human beast doesn’t get any better! The worldwide bourgeoisie makes what passes today for aristocrats — people consumed by juvenility who hang loose upon society — look like shiftless children.

Perhaps with an eye to Virginia Woolf’s legendary rant against the malady of middlebrow, Wolfe notes:

We writers spent the entire twentieth century tearing down the bourgeoisie! … We in the arts have been complicit in the denigration of the best people on earth. Why? Because so many of the most influential ideas of our time are the product of a new creature of the twentieth century, a creature that did not exist until 1898 — and that creature is known as “the intellectual.”

The true enemy of the assimilation of substantive ideas, Wolfe argues, isn’t the middlebrow person but the pseudo-intellectual or, even, the “intellectual” — for anyone who describes himself as an “intellectual” (to say nothing of a “public intellectual”) already implies the “pseudo” by the very act of such self-description. (You know the type — perhaps he has an exaggerated “European accent” of unidentifiable Germanic origin, perhaps he quotes Voltaire excessively, perhaps he slips one too many French words into ordinary speech where a perfectly good English option exists.) Wolfe makes an important distinction:

We must be careful to make a distinction between the intellectual and the person of intellectual achievement. The two are very, very different animals. There are people of intellectual achievement who increase the sum of human knowledge, the powers of human insight, and analysis. And then there are the intellectuals. An intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others. Starting in the early twentieth century, for the first time an ordinary storyteller, a novelist, a short story writer, a poet, a playwright, in certain cases a composer, an artist, or even an opera singer could achieve a tremendous eminence by becoming morally indignant about some public issue. It required no intellectual effort whatsoever. Suddenly he was elevated to a plane from which he could look down upon ordinary people. Conversely — this fascinates me — conversely, if you are merely a brilliant scholar, merely someone who has added immeasurably to the sum of human knowledge and the powers of human insight, that does not qualify you for the eminence of being an intellectual.

Art by Maira Kalman from 'And the Pursuit of Happiness.' Click image for more.

Having often thought about the role of cynicism in our culture — how we use its self-righteous hubris to mask our insecurity and vulnerability — I find myself nodding vigorously with Wolfe’s observation about the use of “moral indignation” in public discourse:

One of the things that I find really makes it worth watching all the Academy Awards, all the Emmys, all those awards ceremonies, is to see how today’s actors and television performers have discovered the formula. If you become indignant, this elevates you to the plane of “intellectual.” No mental activity is required. It is a rule, to which there has never been an exception, that when an actor or a television performer rises up to the microphone at one of these awards ceremonies and expresses moral indignation over something, he illustrates Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “moral indignation is a standard strategy for endowing the idiot with dignity.”

Wolfe leaves graduates with a clarion call for cultivating the critical discernment necessary for making up one’s own mind in the face of such wearable intellectualism:

You’re not going to find many traditional judges who can lead you any longer, since they now wander helplessly, bemused by the willful ignorance of that bizarre twentieth-century organism, the intellectual. You’re going to have to make the crucial judgments yourselves. But you are among the very handful of those who can do it.

Way More than Luck, which also includes advice from Bradley Whitford, Debbie Millman, Nora Ephron, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Safran Foer, is an elevating read in its entirety. Complement it with this evolving archive of the greatest commencement addresses of all time, then revisit Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking.

Donating = Loving

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.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

18 MAY, 2015

Bertrand Russell on Love, Sex, the Good Life, and How Moral Superstitions Limit Our Happiness

By:

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge. Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.”

Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) endures as one of humanity’s most lucid yet luminous thinkers, his ideas tracking between the timeless and the prophetic. A century before our age of distraction and restless productivity, Russell admonished against its perilous effects and championed the role of boredom and stillness in our conquest of happiness. His ten commandments of teaching remain some of the most succinct tenets of education ever committed to words. His insight into human nature illuminates everything from our impulse for destruction to our longing for grace. But nowhere does Russell’s blazing brilliance warm the mind and spirit more thoroughly than in What I Believe (public library) — his 1925 catalog of credos, a kind of moral ecology that also gave us Russell on immortality and why religion exists.

After establishing his definition of the good life — “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” Russell writes. “Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.” — he turns to the more essential of these two ingredients, the one humanity has spent centuries trying to define and dedicated entire philosophies to mastering. Russell writes:

Although both love and knowledge are necessary, love is in a sense more fundamental, since it will lead intelligent people to seek knowledge, in order to find out how to benefit those whom they love. But if people are not intelligent, they will be content to believe what they have been told, and may do harm in spite of the most genuine benevolence.

Once again, Russell’s prescience reveals itself — many decades later, the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanhs would come to write that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.” But Russell is careful to note that knowing how to love first requires that we come to know love’s many dimensions:

Love is a word which covers a variety of feelings; I have used it purposely, as I wish to include them all. Love as an emotion — which is what I am speaking about, for love “on principle” does not seem to me genuine — moves between two poles: on one side, pure delight in contemplation; on the other, pure benevolence. Where inanimate objects are concerned, delight alone enters in; we cannot feel benevolence towards a landscape or a sonata. This type of enjoyment is presumably the source of art. It is stronger, as a rule, in very young children than in adults, who are apt to view objects in a utilitarian spirit. It plays a large part in our feelings towards human beings, some of whom have charm and some the reverse, when considered simply as objects of aesthetic contemplation.

Illustration by Oliver Jeffers from 'The Heart and the Bottle.' Click image for more.

The alchemy of a complete love, Russell argues, fuses these two elements of delight and benevolence in beholding the beloved:

Love at its fullest is an indissoluble combination of the two elements, delight and well-wishing. The pleasure of a parent in a beautiful and successful child combines both elements; so does sex-love at its best. But in sex-love benevolence will only exist where there is secure possession, since otherwise jealousy will destroy it, while perhaps actually increasing the delight in contemplation. Delight without well-wishing may be cruel; well-wishing without delight easily tends to become cold and a little superior. A person who wishes to be loved wishes to be the object of a love containing both elements.

The imbalance between the two is, perhaps, what unnerved Susan Sontag as she contemplated “love, sex, and the world between half a century later. For Russell, this two-legged love is inseparable from the second element of the good life: knowledge. But he is careful to note that this knowledge is scientific — a knowledge of the world in its full fact and glimmering reality — rather than ethical. Morality, he argues, is a wholly different matter — and yet, strangely, it too circles back to a psychological force we’ve come to associate with love: desire. In a sentiment that calls to mind the crossroads of Should and Must, he writes:

All moral rules must be tested by examining whether they tend to realize ends that we desire. I say ends that we desire, not ends that we ought to desire. What we “ought” to desire is merely what someone else wishes us to desire. Usually it is what the authorities wish us to desire — parents, school-masters, policemen, and judges. If you say to me “you ought to do so-and-so,” the motive power of your remark lies in my desire for your approval — together, possibly, with rewards or punishments attached to your approval or disapproval. Since all behavior springs from desire, it is clear that ethical notions can have no importance except as they influence desire. They do this through the desire for approval and the fear of disapproval. These are powerful social forces, and we shall naturally endeavor to win them to our side if we wish to realize any social purpose.

Desire, Russell insists, is a driver so potent that it can’t be legislated against or controlled via any other sticks-and-carrots system — it can only be harnessed and cultivated:

There is no conceivable way of making people do things they do not wish to do. What is possible is to alter their desires by a system of rewards and penalties, among which social approval and disapproval are not the least potent. The question for the legislative moralist is, therefore: How shall this system of rewards and punishments be arranged so as to secure the maximum of what is desired by the legislative authority? … Outside human desires there is no moral standard.

Thus, what distinguishes ethics from science is not any special kind of knowledge but merely desire.

And yet our conception of morality, Russell argues, seems completely divorced from the realities of the human experience:

Current morality is a curious blend of utilitarianism and superstition, but the superstitious part has the stronger hold, as is natural, since superstition is the origin of moral rules. Originally, certain acts were thought displeasing to the gods, and were forbidden by law because the divine wrath was apt to descend upon the community, not merely upon the guilty individuals. Hence arose the conception of sin, as that which is displeasing to God. No reason can be assigned as to why certain acts should be thus displeasing.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

This, of course, calls to mind not only Mark Twain’s general lament about how we’ve used religion to justify injustice but also the particular superstition with which homosexuality has been historically regarded. But even as early as 1925, Russell — a conscientious critic of religion — recognizes the absurdity of such thinking and points to the critical thinking required for making up one’s own mind in evaluating the alleged dangers of what such superstition condemns as “immoral”:

It is evident that a man with a scientific outlook on life cannot let himself be intimidated by texts of Scripture or by the teaching of the Church. He will not be content to say “such-and-such an act is sinful, and that ends the matter.” He will inquire whether it does any harm or whether, on the contrary, the belief that it is sinful does harm. And he will find that, especially in what concerns sex, our current morality contains a very great deal of which the origin is purely superstitious. He will find also that this superstition, like that of the Aztecs, involves needless cruelty, and would be swept away if people were actuated by kindly feelings towards their neighbors. But the defenders of traditional morality are seldom people with warm hearts… One is tempted to think that they value morals as affording a legitimate outlet for their desire to inflict pain; the sinner is fair game, and therefore away with tolerance!

How remarkable to consider that Russell’s admonition comes two decades before those same heartless defenders of so-called morality drove computing pioneer Alan Turing, one of humanity’s most magnificent and significant minds, into the grave and nearly a century before the equality of love triumphed over DOMA. Many decades later, Oliver Sacks would remark in his moving autobiography that “sex is one of those areas — like religion and politics — where otherwise decent and rational people may have intense, irrational feelings.” Indeed, Russell addresses this matter directly:

It should be recognized that, in the absence of children, sexual relations are a purely private matter, which does not concern either the State or the neighbors. Certain forms of sex which do not lead to children are at present punished by the criminal law: this is purely superstitious, since the matter is one which affects no one except the parties directly concerned.

Much of this, he argues, is the task of education, something at least as urgent today, when creationism — the most standardized mode of superstition — is still being taught in classrooms:

In all stages of education the influence of superstition is disastrous. A certain percentage of children have the habit of thinking; one of the aims of education is to cure them of this habit. Inconvenient questions are met with ‘hush, hush’, or with punishment.

Half a century before The Little Red Schoolbook and before Italo Calvino made his passionate case for reproductive rights, Russell points ever so elegantly at the misogynistic “morality” espoused by the church:

At puberty, the elements of an unsuperstitious sexual morality ought to be taught. Boys and girls should be taught that nothing can justify sexual intercourse unless there is mutual inclination. This is contrary to the teaching of the Church, which holds that, provided the parties are married and the man desires another child, sexual intercourse is justified however great may be the reluctance of the wife. Boys and girls should be taught respect for each other’s liberty; they should be made to feel that nothing gives one human being rights over another, and that jealousy and possessiveness kill love. They should be taught that to bring another human being into the world is a very serious matter, only to be undertaken when the child will have a reasonable prospect of health, good surroundings, and parental care. But they should also be taught methods of birth control, so as to insure that children shall only come when they are wanted.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Returning to the relationship between morality and the two pillars of the good life, Russell — predating Martin Luther King’s famous proclamation that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” by several decades — writes:

Moral rules ought not to be such as to make instinctive happiness impossible.

[…]

The good life, we said, is a life inspired by love and guided by knowledge… [But] in all that differentiates between a good life and a bad one, the world is a unity, and the man who pretends to live independently is a conscious or unconscious parasite.

[…]

To live a good life in the fullest sense a man must have a good education, friends, love, children (if he desires them), a sufficient income to keep him from want and grave anxiety, good health, and work which is not uninteresting. All these things, in varying degrees, depend upon the community, and are helped or hindered by political events. The good life must be lived in a good society, and is not fully possible otherwise.

What I Believe is a timeless trove of wisdom from cover to cover. Complement it with Russell on the power of “fruitful monotony” and why science is essential to democracy.

Donating = Loving

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.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.