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02 JUNE, 2014

William Shakespeare, Astronomer: How Galileo Influenced the Bard

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A stanzaic vision for Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings.

William Shakespeare — to the extent that he existed at all — lived during a remarkable period in human history. Born the same year as Galileo, a founding father of the Scientific Revolution, and shortly before Montaigne, the Bard witnessed an unprecedented intersection of science and philosophy as humanity sought to make sense of its existence. One of the era’s most compelling sensemaking mechanisms was the burgeoning field of astronomy, which brought to the ancient quest to order the heavens a new spirit of scientific ambition.

In The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe (public library), science journalist Dan Falk explores the curious connection between the legendary playwright and the spirit of the Scientific Revolution, arguing that the Bard was significantly influenced by science, especially by observational astronomy.

'A Comet Lands in Brooklyn,’ an installation designed by StudioKCA and David Delgado of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the 2014 World Science Festival

Of particular interest is what Falk calls “one of the most intriguing plays (and one of the most overlooked works) in the entire canon” — the romantic tragedy Cymbeline. Pointing to a strange and highly symbolic scene in the play’s final act, where the hero sees in a dream the ghosts of his four dead family members circling around him as he sleeps, Falk writes:

Shakespeare’s plays cover a lot of ground, and employ many theatrical tricks — but as for gods descending from the heavens, this episode is unique; there is nothing else like it in the entire canon. Martin Butler calls the Jupiter scene the play’s “spectacular high point,” as it surely is. But the scene is also bizarre, unexpected, and extravagant — so much so that some have wondered if it represents Shakespeare’s own work.

[…]

If anything in Shakespeare’s late plays points to Galileo, this is it: Jupiter, so often invoked by characters in so many of the plays, never actually makes a personal appearance — until this point in Cymbeline. And of course Jupiter is not alone in the scene: Just below him, we see four ghosts moving in a circle. . . . Could the four ghosts represent the four moons of Jupiter, newly discovered by Galileo?

The timeline, Falk points out, is right — Cymbeline is believed to have been written in the summer or fall of 1610, mere months after the publication of Galileo’s short but seminal treatise on his initial telescopic observations, Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger). Falk finds more evidence in an earlier scene, where Jachimo meets the married Imogen, having been introduced by her husband, Posthumus, who has dared Jachimo in a wager to try seducing Imogen — a feat Posthumus deems unattainable. Mesmerized by her beauty, Jachimo decides to win the wager by convincing Imogen that Posthumus had been unfaithful to her on his travels, implying that her best recourse of revenge would be to be unfaithful in turn — of course, by sleeping with Jachimo himself. Lo and behold, his ploy backfires — Imogen is infuriated. To salvage the situation, Jachimo makes a U-turn, claiming to have made everything up as a way of testing her and extolling Posthumus’s virtues. And yet, even though Imogen forgives him, Jachimo is struck by the sketchiness of his own story. Falk cites the following passage spoken by Jachimo:

Thanks, fairest lady.
What, are men mad? Hath Nature given them eyes
To see this vaulted arch and the rich crop
Of sea and land, which can distinguish ’twixt
The fiery orbs above and the twinned stones
Upon th’unnumbered beach, and can we not
Partition make with spectacles so precious
’Twixt fair and foul?

First atlas of the moon, 1647, from 'Ordering the Heavens.' Click image for more.

Falk writes:

The passage seems to allude, at least in part, to the sights one might see in the heavens; at the very least, it has something to do with distinguishing different kinds of objects (including, it would seem, stars) from one another. But the context is crucial: The first line is spoken to Imogen; the remaining lines are clearly an aside, spoken only to the audience. He seems to be saying, My story is unbelievable; why would Posthumus stoop so low, when his own wife is so beautiful? After all, he reasons, the eye gives one the power to tell the stars apart, and even to distinguish one stone on the beach from another; can’t Posthumus see the difference between his wife and a common whore? [Penn State University astronomer Peter] Usher passes over the sexual aspect of these lines, however, and focuses on the astronomical: The “vaulted arch” is surely the sky; the “fiery orbs above” must be the stars. Could the precious “spectacles” be a reference to a telescope-like device?

In the remainder of The Science of Shakespeare, a wonderfully dimensional read in its entirety, Falk goes on to explore a number of other allusions to astronomy throughout the play, from Imogen’s oblique wink at the English mathematician and astronomer Thomas Digges to Shakespeare’s potential reference to the structure of Saturn’s rings. At the heart of his argument is an ambitious effort to offer empirical assurance for what we all intuit — that art and science need each other, inform and inspire one another, and are branches from the same tree of the human longing in a universe that is more like a mirror of meaning than a window of understanding, beaming back at us whatever imagination we imbue it with.

How right pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell was when, two and a half centuries later, she marveled at the shared sensibility of science and poetry:

We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.

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30 MAY, 2014

The Art of Neil Gaiman

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Irreverent self-portraits, naughty love letters, and other ephemera of a wildly creative mind at work.

Neil Gaiman is one of the most successful and celebrated authors of our time, not only for his beloved books, but also for his un-self-righteous and widely resonant wisdom on the creative life, the psychology of storytelling, the secret of genius, what it takes to be a successful writer, and writing itself.

In The Art of Neil Gaiman (public library), English journalist Hayley Campbell peers into Gaiman’s creative conscience through the wide lens of the author’s personal archive, from his drawings and comic sketches to youthful photographs and musings to never-before-revealed original manuscripts for his most famous works as well as a number of abandoned projects. What emerges is a panoramic picture of a visionary creative mind contained in a deeply human human.

Seventeen-year-old Gaiman in a photo booth

From The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell | NG Archive | Image copyright © Neil Gaiman.

Campbell writes in the introduction:

Neil Gaiman describes his job as making stuff up and writing it down. He has managed to avoid getting up in the morning by writing the kinds of stories that people fall in love with so hard that they lend them to friends and lovers and friends never give them back, or they disappear into the suitcase of an ex-girlfriend as she closes the door on a relationship. Gaiman’s work, like life, is sexually transmitted.

Like a number of other writers with a penchant for the visual arts — including J.R.R. Tolkien’s drawings, Sylvia Plath’s ink illustrations, Richard Feynman’s sketches, Zelda Fitzgerald’s watercolors, William Faulkner’s Jazz Age art, and Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons — Gaiman’s pain isn’t reserved for writing only. He dabbles quite regularly in the seemingly irresistible authorial self-portrait category:

Self-portrait of the cartoonable Gaiman, in shades and leather jacket. Date unknown.

From The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell | drawing by Neil Gaiman, NG Archive | Image copyright © Neil Gaiman.

Other sketches are self-portraits not just of likeness but of style and spirit:

Gaiman's four-panel strip on sunglasses to artist Steve Bissette, 1991

From The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell | drawing by Neil Gaiman, NG Archive | Image copyright © Neil Gaiman.

Hi Steve.

Well, inspired by your 24 page / 24 hour strip, I decided to draw my own strip. First since I was 15. Just four panels, mind you, and no hands. I draw crappy hands…

My strip’s about sunglasses.

You know. Shades…

People sometimes ask why I wear shades. I avoid answering — say something about having light-sensitive eyes. You know the kind of thing.

What I don’t say is this:

What the people who don’t wear shades don’t know is that some of us wear shades because they’re all that stop us being eye-naked — forced to gaze, unprotected, at the wet and bleeding face of reality as it squirms and pulses and writhes like a razor slicing a child’s eyeball or the sight of something dead, twitching, just once before collapsing and bloating [words missing]

… It’s all that stands between me and the pit.

Three pieces of moulded plastic, two lenses, and a couple of screws.

Best,

Neil

Also included is a treasure trove of artwork — sometimes weird, always wonderful — by artists who contributed to Gaiman’s most popular comic book series:

Dream on a Lobster, from the Sandman Gallery, by Eddie Campbell, 1994

From The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell | drawing by Eddie Campbell, NG Archive | Image copyright © Neil Gaiman.

Gaiman has also illustrated some of his own comics:

Two-page comic Gaiman wrote and drew for the Chicago Comicon 1994 ashcan called 'Harlan & Me'

From The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell | drawing by Neil Gaiman, NG Archive | Image copyright © Neil Gaiman.

Design sketches for 'Harlan & Me'

From The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell | drawing by Neil Gaiman, NG Archive | Image copyright © Neil Gaiman.

But among the book’s most delightful treats are Gaiman’s personal ephemera that bespeak how admirably he has mastered the elusive integration of the public writerly persona and the private person. Take, for instance, this irreverent and loving “appreciation” penned for his wife, Amanda Palmer:

A poem Neil wrote for Amanda and read aloud at her concert at the Sydney Opera House in 2011

From The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell | writing by Neil Gaiman, NG Archive | Image copyright © Neil Gaiman

For Amanda, an appreciation
(After Christopher Smart. Sort of.)

For I shall enumerate my lady’s charms, although they are numberless.

For FIRSTLY, she has a smile like a beam of sunlight breaking through a cloud in a medieval painting.

For SECONDLY she moves like cats and panthers and also she can stand still.

For THIRDLY she has eyes of a color that no two people can agree on, which I remember when I close my eyes.

For FOURTHLY she laughs at my jokes, sings unconcerned on the sidewalk and gives money to buskers as a religious act.

For FIFTHLY she fucks like wild cats in thunderstorms.

For SIXTHLY her kisses are gentle.

For SEVENTHLY I would follow her, or walk behind her, or in front of her, wherever she wished to go, and being with her would ease my mind.

For EIGHTHLY I dream of her and am comforted.

For NINTHLY there is no one like her, not that I’ve ever met, and I’ve met so many people, no-one at all.

For lastly she squeals when I say “waste-paper basket” and also in the morning, eyebrowless and waking, she always looks so perfectly surprised.

[signed] Neil Gaiman
(for the fireflies)

Complement The Art of Neil Gaiman with Gaiman’s 8 rules of writing, his advice to aspiring authors, insight on where ideas come from, and his wonderfully soul-affirming counsel on the doggedness of making good art.

All images courtesy of Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

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29 MAY, 2014

Alan Watts on Money vs. Wealth

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“The moral challenge and the grim problem we face is that the life of affluence and pleasure requires exact discipline and high imagination.”

“What would you do if money was no object?” pioneering British philosopher Alan Watts, who popularized Zen teachings in the West, asked in one of his most memorable lectures. And yet, despite our best efforts not to worry about it, money is an object — so much so that it renders the question all the more urgent and pressing today, in our age of growing corporate greed coupled with increasing income inequality. Watts revisits the issue in greater depth in an essay titled “Wealth Versus Money,” found in the altogether fantastic 1970 anthology Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality (public library) — a poignant exploration of our tendency to confuse money with wealth, a manifestation of our more general inclination to mistake symbol for reality, which Watts considers “the peculiar and perhaps fatal fallacy of civilization.”

Watts writes:

Civilization, comprising all the achievements of art and science, technology and industry, is the result of man’s invention and manipulation of symbols — of words, letters, numbers, formulas and concepts, and of such social institutions as universally accepted clocks and rulers, scales and timetables, schedules and laws. By these means, we measure, predict, and control the behavior of the human and natural worlds — and with such startling apparent success that the trick goes to our heads. All too easily, we confuse the world as we symbolize it with the world as it is.

Alan Watts, early 1970s (Image courtesy of Everett Collection)

Among our most toxic symbol-as-reality tricks springs from the concept, use, and pursuit of money:

Money is a way of measuring wealth but is not wealth in itself. A chest of gold coins or a fat wallet of bills is of no use whatsoever to a wrecked sailor alone on a raft. He needs real wealth, in the form of a fishing rod, a compass, an outboard motor with gas, and a female companion. But this ingrained and archaic confusion of money with wealth is now the main reason we are not going ahead full tilt with the development of our technological genius for the production of more than adequate food, clothing, housing, and utilities for every person on earth.

Watts goes on to make a prediction — idealistic at the time, bittersweetly naive in retrospect — that “if we get our heads straight about money,” by the year 2000 “no one will pay taxes, no one will carry cash, utilities will be free, and everyone will carry a general credit card.” It’s worth noting that while some of it came true, and some might soon as we shift away from traditional currency, we have simply replaced one monetary currency with another, rather than evolving to embody Watts’s vision of redefining wealth altogether. He returns to the vital distinction:

Money is a measure of wealth, and we invent money as we invent the Fahrenheit scale of temperature or the avoirdupois measure of weight… By contrast with money, true wealth is the sum of energy, technical intelligence, and raw materials.

Considering the question of the national debt — “a roundabout piece of semantic obscurantism” — Watts argues that we go into debt, as individuals and as nations, precisely because we confuse money with wealth, the worst symptom of which is war:

No one goes into debt except in emergency; and therefore, prosperity depends on maintaining the perpetual emergency of war. We are reduced, then, to the suicidal expedient of inventing wars when, instead, we could simply have invented money — provided that the amount invented was always proportionate to the real wealth being produced…

If we shift from the gold standard to the wealth standard, prices must stay more or less where they are at the time of the shift and — miraculously — everyone will discover that he has enough or more than enough to wear, eat, drink, and otherwise survive with affluence and merriment.

Illustration from 'How People Earn and Use Money,' 1968. Click image for details.

And yet, Watts recognizes, there is enormous cultural resistance to such an awareness, one reinforced by our material monoculture:

It is not going to be at all easy to explain this to the world at large, because mankind has existed for perhaps one million years with relative material scarcity, and it is now roughly a mere one hundred years since the beginning of the industrial revolution. As it was once very difficult to persuade people that the earth is round and that it is in orbit around the sun, or to make it clear that the universe exists in a curved space-time continuum, it may be just as hard to get it through to “common sense” that the virtues of making and saving money are obsolete.

Understanding the distinction between money and wealth, Watts argues, would help us realize that “there are limits to the real wealth that any individual can consume” — that we can’t really “drive four cars at once, live simultaneously in six homes, take three tours at the same time, or devour twelve roasts of beef at one meal.” Acknowledging the semi-serious facetiousness of this picture, he writes:

I am trying to make the deadly serious point that, as of today, an economic utopia is not wishful thinking but, in some substantial degree, the necessary alternative to self-destruction.

The moral challenge and the grim problem we face is that the life of affluence and pleasure requires exact discipline and high imagination.

Illustration from 'How People Earn and Use Money,' 1968. Click image for details.

Reflecting on how easily we become habituated to comfort, affluence, and pleasure, Watts echoes Bertrand Russell’s lament — “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” — and notes:

Affluent people in the United States have seldom shown much imagination in cultivating the arts of pleasure.

He paints an alternative picture for cultivating the art of leisure in its proper form — an idea glimmers of which we begin to see in the groundswell of today’s maker culture:

A leisure economy will provide opportunity to develop the frustrated craftsman, painter, sculptor, poet, composer, yachtsman, explorer, or potter that is in us all — if only we could earn a living that way. Certainly, there will be a plethora of bad and indifferent productions from so many unleashed amateurs, but the general long-term effect should be a tremendous enrichment of the quality and variety of fine art, music, food, furniture, clothing, gardens, and even homes — created largely on a do-it-yourself basis.

And yet what prevents us from truly cultivating such an economy is a fundamental disconnect. He admonishes:

Here’s the nub of the problem. We cannot proceed with a fully productive technology if it must inevitably Los Angelesize the whole earth, poison the elements, destroy all wildlife, and sicken the bloodstream with the promiscuous use of antibiotics and insecticides. Yet this will be the certain result of the technological enterprise conducted in the hostile spirit of a conquest of nature with the main object of making money.

Illustration from 'How People Earn and Use Money,' 1968. Click image for details.

While this problem has been tragically exacerbated since Watts’s day, it’s worth remembering that our choices — our individual, everyday choices — matter. But equally important, Watts points out, are the choices made by those who hold power in the world, both commercial and political. Noting that “many corporations — and even more so their shareholders — are unbelievably blind to their own material interests,” Watts writes:

It is an oversimplification to say that this is the result of business valuing profit rather than product, for no one should be expected to do business without the incentive of profit. The actual trouble is that profit is identified entirely with money, as distinct from the real profit of living with dignity and elegance in beautiful surroundings…

To try to correct this irresponsibility by passing laws (e.g., against absentee ownership) would be wide of the point, for most of the law has as little relation to life as money to wealth. On the contrary, problems of this kind are aggravated rather than solved by the paperwork of politics and law. What is necessary is at once simpler and more difficult: only that financiers, bankers, and stockholders must turn themselves into real people and ask themselves exactly what they want out of life — in the realization that this strictly practical and hard–nosed question might lead to far more delightful styles of living than those they now pursue. Quite simply and literally, they must come to their senses — for their own personal profit and pleasure.

What it takes to return to our senses, Watts argues, is to reconsider our illusion of the separate ego and acknowledge our interconnectedness with the world in all its material and metaphysical manifestations:

Coming to our senses must, above all, be the experience of our own existence as living organisms rather than “personalities,” like characters in a play or a novel acting out some artificial plot in which the persons are simply masks for a conflict of abstract ideas or principles. Man as an organism is to the world outside like a whirlpool is to a river: man and world are a single natural process, but we are behaving as if we were invaders and plunderers in a foreign territory. For when the individual is defined and felt as the separate personality or ego, he remains unaware that his actual body is a dancing pattern of energy that simply does not happen by itself. It happens only in concert with myriads of other patterns — called animals, plants, insects, bacteria, minerals, liquids, and gases. The definition of a person and the normal feeling of “I” do not effectively include these relationships. You say, “I came into this world.” You didn’t; you came out of it, as a branch from a tree.

It all comes full circle as we begin to see that this notion of the artificial ego is at the root of our mistaking money for wealth and symbol for reality:

The greatest illusion of the abstract ego is that it can do anything to bring about radical improvement either in itself or in the world. This is as impossible, physically, as trying to lift yourself off the floor by your own bootstraps. Furthermore, the ego is (like money) a concept, a symbol, even a delusion — not a biological process or physical reality.

Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality is a wonderful and soul-expanding read in its entirety. Complement it with Watts on happiness and how to live with presence, our media gluttony, and how the ego keeps us from becoming who we really are.

Donating = Loving

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