Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

17 APRIL, 2015

The Storm Whale: A Tender Illustrated Story of Loneliness, Loss, Single-Parenting, and the Redemptive Power of Love

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A sweet celebration of what it takes to feel at home in one’s own life.

Psychologists have found that presence is the key to great parenting and yet also maintain that growing a capacity for fertile solitude is a developmental achievement for the child.

London-based illustrator and animation director Benji Davies reconciles these two contradictory demands with enormous tenderness and thoughtfulness in The Storm Whale (public library) — a beautiful belated addition to the best children’s books of 2014. A quiet meditation on what happens when solitude becomes loneliness, the story welcomes the challenges and rewards of single-parenting, celebrating the redemptive power of attentive love.

Noi is a little boy who lives by the sea with his fisherman-father and their six cats. Like in the touching Davey McGravy and My Father’s Arms Are a Boat — two of the most unusual and wonderful books that help children grieve — there is no mother in the picture. With great subtlety, Davies invites the reader to sense the presence of loss in the salty air of this small and sensitive child’s life.

Every day at dawn, Noi’s father departs for a long day of work on his fishing boat and doesn’t come home until dark.

One morning, after a violent storm sweeps the island, Noi goes down to the beach and spots something curious in the distance.

As he got closer, Noi could not believe his eyes. It was a little whale washed up on the sand.

Knowing that the whale can’t live out of the water but unsure how he can help, Noi decides to cart the stranded creature to his house and make it feel at home — in the bathtub.

He told stories about life on the island. The whale was an excellent listener.

But Noi knows the secret companionship won’t last long and fears that his dad, upon coming home, would be furious about the whale in the bathroom.

The little boy manages tho keep the secret all through the evening, even sneaking a few fish from the dinner table to the tub, but the father eventually discovers his son’s betubbed friend — a moment dramatic not for its volatility but for the quiet wistfulness to which it awakens the fisherman.

Noi’s dad wasn’t angry.

He had been so busy, he hadn’t noticed that Noi was lonely.

But he said they must take the whale back to the sea, where it belonged.

Despite knowing it was the right thing to do, Noi has a hard time saying goodbye but is glad to have his loving father there.

As the two return to their daily lives, the little boy keeps thinking about his whale-friend, hoping to see him again.

In the final scene, Noi and his father head to a picnic atop the cliff and the little boy’s wish comes true — he spots the baby animal alongside a grown whale in the ocean, waving a friendly tail. But the joyful moment is underpinned by subtle solemnity — one can’t help the pensive awareness that the little boy watching the two tails on the horizon, the larger most likely the whale-mother’s, is about to return to his own motherless home.

The ending motif calls to mind two of the best children’s books of our century, Marianne Dubuc’s The Lion and the Bird and Marla Frazee’s The Farmer and the Clown: a bittersweet separation — bitter, for the protagonist says farewell to his unlikely new friend; sweet, for each world is restored to its natural order — followed by a redemptive partial reunion, allowing the two worlds that had intersected for a blink to continue moving along their autonomous orbits while bowing to each other’s gladdening gravity.

Complement the infinitely warm and wonderful The Storm Whale with a vintage counterpart — the 1949 treasure Little Boy Brown, perhaps the greatest ode to loneliness ever written. For a different kind of homage to single-parenting, see Jacqueline Woodson’s lovely Pecan Pie Baby, illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

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16 APRIL, 2015

A Questionnaire for the Immodest and Curious: Clever Puzzles, Riddles, and Word Games from Nabokov’s Love Letters to His Wife

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“Kisses, my love, from your eyebrows down to your knees and back.”

Despite his enormous intellectual and creative achievements, Vladimir Nabokov (April 22, 1899–July 2, 1977) considered one private event the most significant of his life: meeting 21-year-old Véra Slonim in 1923. For the remaining half-century of his life, she became not only his beloved wife but also one of creative history’s greatest unsung heroes, acting as Nabokov’s editor, assistant, administrator, agent, archivist, chauffeur, researcher, stenographer in four languages, and even his bodyguard, famously carrying a small pistol in her purse to protect her husband from assassination after he became America’s most famous and most scandalous living author.

Found in Letters to Véra (public library) — that spectacular collection of Nabokov’s passionate love letters to his wife, which also gave us literature’s most entertaining account of food poisoning and was among the best biographies of 2014 — are a number of riddles, quizzes, and word puzzles the young author devised and included in his missives to Véra in the summer of 1926 as she was recovering from illness at a sanatorium in Germany. Their existence is a testament to the many dimensions of great love — intense passion coupled with creative communion, intellectual stimulation, and a shared capacity for delight.

Véra and Vladimir Nabokov, Montreaux, 1968 (Photograph: Philippe Halsman)

Since the couple corresponded in Russian, most of the word riddles and crossword puzzles are hard to appreciate in English and require transliteration to grasp Nabokov’s almost mathematical genius of language. But in a letter from mid-July of that year — which he ends with his characteristic epistolary fervor: “Kisses, my love, from your eyebrows down to your knees and back.” — 27-year-old Nabokov includes this universally delightful hand-drawn visual riddle:

You must find in this person:

  1. another face
  2. a mouse
  3. a bunny
  4. a chick
  5. a pony
  6. Mrs. Tufty in a new hat
  7. a little monkey

In another letter from early July, he offers the following list of words for a riddle:

Riddle in transliteration:

Lomota, igumen, tetka, Kolya, Maron, versifikator, Leta, chugun, tropinka, landysh, Ipokrena

Riddle in English:

Aching, abbot, aunt, Kolya, Maro, versifier, Lethe, cast iron, little path, lily of the valley, Hippokrene

He then gives the following instruction:

Make ten new words out of the syllables of the words above, with these meanings:

  1. A place where science meets ignorance
  2. an engine
  3. a city in Russia
  4. a historic personage
  5. a good woman
  6. a part of a cart
  7. beatitude of the diaphragm
  8. the first architect (see the Bible)
  9. a lazybones
  10. a woman’s name

In a testament to what a perfect intellectual match Véra Nabokov was for her brilliant husband, Penguin editor Gennady Barbtarlo writes:

With few exceptions, Véra Nabokov seems to have solved them all by return post.

But what posed little trouble for [her] in 1926, who likely had no reference books to consult, proved quite a challenge to his beGoogled editors next century. it took putting together three heads to crack these puzzles, with some solutions remaining questionable.

Barbtarlo and his team offer the following solution to the riddle:

Answers in transliteration:

  1. universitet
  2. motor
  3. Kremenchug
  4. Napoleon
  5. matrona
  6. dyshlo
  7. ikota
  8. Kain
  9. gulyaka
  10. Filomena

Answers in English

  1. university
  2. motor
  3. Kremenchug
  4. Napoleon
  5. Matron
  6. pole [of a carriage]
  7. hiccups
  8. Cain
  9. idler
  10. Philomena

Young Vladimir and Véra Nabokov by Thomas Doyle from 'The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History.' Click image for more.

But the most delightful of all is a “questionnaire for the immodest and curious” Nabokov sent in a letter from mid-July — a kind of personality test partway between the famous Proust Questionnaire of the late 19th century and the chain-email quizzes of the early 21st century:

A questionnaire for the immodest and curious
(not obligatory for anyone)

  1. Name, patronymic, last name
  2. Pen-name, or a preferred pen-name
  3. Age and preferred age
  4. Attitude to marriage
  5. Attitude to children
  6. Profession and preferred profession
  7. What century would you like to live in?
  8. What city would you like to live in?
  9. From what age do you remember yourself and your first memory?
  10. Which of the existing religions is closest to your world-view?
  11. What kind of literature do you like the most? What literary genre?
  12. Your favorite books
  13. Your favorite art
  14. Your favorite artwork
  15. Your attitude to technology
  16. Do you appreciate philosophy? As a form of scholarship, as a pastime
  17. Do you believe in progress?
  18. Your favorite aphorism
  19. Your favorite language
  20. On what foundations does the world stand?
  21. What miracle would you perform if you had a chance?
  22. What would you do if you suddenly got a lot of money?
  23. Your attitude to modern woman
  24. Your attitude to modern man
  25. What virtue and vice do you prefer and disapprove of in a woman?
  26. What virtue and vice do you prefer and disapprove of in a man?
  27. What gives you the keenest pleasure?
  28. What gives you the keenest suffering?
  29. Are you a jealous person?
  30. Your attitude to lies
  31. Do you believe in love?
  32. Your attitude to drugs
  33. Your most memorable dream
  34. Do you believe in fate and predestination?
  35. Your next reincarnation?
  36. Are you afraid of death?
  37. Would you like man to become immortal?
  38. Your attitude to suicide:
  39. Are you an anti-Semite? Yes. No. Why?
  40. “Do you like cheese”?
  41. Your favorite mode of transportation
  42. Your attitude to solitude
  43. Your attitude to our circle
  44. Think of a name for it
  45. Favorite menu

That Véra’s response is not included in the otherwise delicious Letters to Véra is a pity but understandable — some of the non-binary questions, like those about attitude to suicide, solitude, marriage, and immortality, would take any sensitive and intelligent person thousands of words and many hours to answer with the appropriate nuance. Still, one can’t help fantasizing about both Véra’s answers and the prospect of deploying this questionnaire on some of the most fascinating minds of our time.

Complement with Nabokov’s affectionate bestiary of nicknames for Véra, then revisit the celebrated author on inspiration, censorship and solidarity, what makes a great storyteller, the attributes of a good reader, and the story of what his butterfly studies reveal about the nature of creativity.

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16 APRIL, 2015

Thinking with Animals: From Aesop to Darwin to YouTube

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How metaphors of nonhuman beings help us give shape to the human experience and make sense of our inner lives.

We think in metaphors — they are our bridge of meaning between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Anthropomorphism — the tendency to project human qualities onto nonhuman beings and objects — is perhaps the most common of all metaphorical modes. In our earliest conscious experiences, we are surrounded by toy animals and immersed in children’s books rife with animal characters — in fact, cognitive scientists now know that the development of metaphorical thinking in children is what gives rise to the imagination, so imagining animals as ourselves and projecting ourselves onto animals is a developmental achievement for the human mind. But using animals as a mode of clarifying the human experience is something that permeates every stage of life and every epoch of our civilization, from ancient creation myths to Aesop’s fables to Orwell’s allegorical masterwork Animal Farm to Lolcats and its conceptual predecessor. We are drawn to YouTube videos of animals not just because they are cute or comical, but because they are contextually cute or comical — implicit anthropomorphism juxtaposes their nonhumanness with the expectations of a human context, putting into practice Arthur Koestler’s pioneering biosciation theory of how humor works.

Art by Maira Kalman from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

The fascinating complexities and hidden dynamics of our human dance with nonhuman metaphors is what Max Planck Institute director Lorraine Daston and science historian Gregg Mitman explore in Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism (public library) — a wildly stimulating anthology of essays that began as a workshop at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for the History of Science held in May of 2001, exploring our metaphor-riddled relationship with animals from a variety of perspectives: philosophical, historical, anthropological, political, economic, scientific, and artistic, from ancient India to the Victorian laboratory to the internet.

Daston and Mitman write:

We are animals; we think with animals. What could be more natural? The children’s section of every bookstore overflows with stories about animal heroes and villains; cartoons and animated feature films show the adventures of Bambi, Mickey Mouse, and the Road Runner to rapt audiences… From Aristotle to Darwin down to the present, naturalists have credited bees with monarchies, ants with honesty, and dogs with tender consciences.

They go on to examine how thinking with animals in both senses of the phrase — on the one hand, the kinship of thought and feeling between us and other creatures; on the other, our tendency to use other animals in symbolizing and dramatizing aspects of the human experience — transforms us.

They trace the root of our paradoxical attitude toward thinking with animals — the automatic readiness with which we employ anthropomorphism despite continuing to view the term as one of intellectual and moral reproach:

Originally, the word referred to the attribution of human form to gods, forbidden by several religions as blasphemous. Something of the religious taboo still clings to secular, modern instances of anthropomorphism, even if it is animals rather than divinities that are being humanized.

[…]

In the sciences, to impute human thoughts or emotions to electrons, genes, ants, or even other primates is to invite suspicions of sloppy thinking.

One can’t help but think of the resistance Jane Goodall faced from the scientific establishment for naming rather than numbering the chimps she studied as she embarked on a career that would render her one of the most important scientists of the past century. Had Goodall not learned to think with animals as a child, thanks to her toy chimpanzee named Jubilee, she would have never dreamt the childhood dream that she spent her life turning into a reality.

Illustration by Patrick McDonnell from 'Me... Jane,' a picture book about Goodall's formative years. Click image for more.

Daston and Mittman capture the history of this paradox elegantly:

Despite the official ban on anthropomorphism in science, thinking with animals permeated practice in the field and the lab. Both animal and human were transformed in the process.

Of course, this stubborn resistance to letting other animals encroach on our status as self-appointed supreme beings isn’t limited to science — it has a long cultural history and is central to our understanding of what it means to be human. What Margaret Mead observed of our intraspecies divides — “The Northern identity is dependent upon whom you can keep out,” she told James Baldwin in their magnificent forgotten conversation on race and identity — is also true of the human identity, which is dependent upon enforcing the interspecies divide.

And yet, Daston and Mitman note, even though evolutionary theory has made it increasingly difficult to draw a hard-and-fast line between humans and other animals, there is more to our cultural conflictedness about anthropocentrism:

There is a moral as well an intellectual element to critiques of anthropomorphism. On this view, to imagine that animals think like humans or to cast animals in human roles is a form of self-centered narcissism: one looks outward to the world and sees only one’s own reflection mirrored therein. Considered from a moral standpoint, anthropomorphism sometimes seems dangerously allied to anthropocentrism: humans project their own thoughts and feelings onto other animal species because they egotistically believe themselves to be the center of the universe. But anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism can just as easily tug in opposite directions: for example, the Judeo-Christian tradition that humans were the pinnacle of Creation also encouraged claims that humans, being endowed by God with reason and immortal souls, were superior to and qualitatively different from animals. In this theological context, it made no sense to try to think with soulless animals.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

But even if, in an age when we’ve left behind Decartes’s notion of animals as mere soulless “automata” and we’re beginning to recognize the complexities of animal consciousness, there is a different kind of arrogance in projecting our own souls onto nonhuman animals:

Even if anthropomorphism is decoupled from anthropocentrism, the former can still be criticized as arrogant and unimaginative. To assimilate the behavior of a herd of elephants to, say, that of a large, middle-class, American family or to dress up a pet terrier in a tutu strikes these critics as a kind of species provincialism, an almost pathological failure to register the wondrous variety of the natural world — a provincialism comparable to that of those blinkered tourists who assume that the natives of the foreign countries they visit will have the same customs and speak the same language as at home.

At the heart of the matter seems to be a larger kind of arrogance: We tend to accept and honor otherness, be it in our fellow humans or in our fellow species, for as long as it’s convenient — as long as it doesn’t require us to reformulate our us-ness and revise our own way of being in the world. But once it does, all bets are off. This is why we’ve made such profoundly insufficient progress on enduring issues of racial justice and why we sign Facebook petitions for animal rights while buying products mired in animal testing and cruelty. Drawing that increasingly artificial hard-and-fast line between human and nonhuman consciousness is what allows us to continue considering ourselves moral beings; refusing to widen our circle of empathy and sympathy to other creatures is what allows us to go on fancying ourselves empathetic and sympathetic people even as we harm nonhuman animals, directly and indirectly, with our daily choices.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for a rare edition of Orwell's 'Animal Farm.' Click image for more.

Daston and Mitman capture this poignantly:

Should animals be treated as moral persons, with rights like those accorded to human beings? If so, would animal rights imply that humans ought to embrace vegetarianism, stop wearing fur and leather clothing, and abandon experiments on animals that do not serve the animals’ own interests, for the same reasons that cannibalism and instrumental experiments on humans should be rejected as ethically repugnant?

[…]

Since many (though not all) of the arguments pro and contra in this debate hinge upon the degree of analogy between humans and other animal species, and more particularly on the analogy between thoughts and feelings, the ancient and almost universal practice of thinking with animals has taken on new significance.

In a sentiment that calls to mind John Berger’s provocative 1980 essay Why Look at Animals, they add:

The question raises important issues of representation and agency. Thinking with animals is not the same as thinking about them.

[…]

The outcome of all of them depends crucially not only on how we think about animals but whether, and above all how, we think with them.

Illustration for Aesop's Fables by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for more.

To be sure, our motives for thinking with animals aren’t purely philosophical — they are often quite practical. Images of animals in visual communication create moods and, ultimately, sell products. Daston and Mittman write:

Pets enhance the health and happiness of their owners [and] animal personalities move the public and politicians more effectively than wildlife statistics… Striking images of animals are in great demand by global advertisers because — in contrast to equally striking images of humans — age, race, class, and culture do not interfere with identification and the desire to acquire… No wonder that anthropomorphism has been assiduously cultivated: money, love, and power are all to be had by thinking with animals.

And yet anthropocentrism isn’t always an act of solipsism — it can also be the very opposite: an effort at self-transcendence, evoking Alan Watts’s assertion that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others.” Daston and Mittman offer a counterpoint to the common critique of anthropocentrism:

In certain historical and cultural contexts, the longing to think with animals becomes the opposite of the arrogant egotism decried by critics of anthropomorphism. Instead of projection of one’s own way of thinking and feeling onto other minds, submersion of self in the genuinely other is fervently attempted—but never achieved. It is a virtuoso but doomed act of complete empathy… This extreme form of thinking with animals is the impossible but irresistible desire to jump out of one’s own skin, exchange one’s brain, plunge into another way of being.

Illustration by Bhajju Shyam from 'Creation,' a visual cosmogony of ancient Indian origin myths. Click image for more.

But whichever direction we lean isn, selfishness or self-transcendence, the allure of thinking with animals remains undeniable — something the authors argue is rooted in “the active reality of animals”:

Plants are beautiful, endlessly varied, and marvels of organic adaptation. Yet they radiate none of the magnetism animals do for humans. Even the most enthusiastic fancier of orchids or ferns rarely tries to think with them, in either sense of the phrase… Unlike dolls or robots or any other product of human skill, however ingenious, animals are not our marionettes, our automata (which originally meant “puppet” in Greek). They are symbols with a life of their own. We use them to perform our thoughts, feelings, and fantasies because, alone of all our myriad symbols, they can perform; they can do what is to be done. We may orchestrate their performance, but complete mastery is illusion. Eyes peer through the human mask to reveal another life, mysterious — like us or unlike us? Their animated gaze moves us to think.

Thinking with Animals is a tremendous read in its entirety, spanning from the curious “science” of medieval angelology to Kafka to how the Victorian elite sparked the fashion of pet ownership. Complement it with Laurel Braitman’s empathetic inquiry into the mental life of nonhuman animals, one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2014, and Jon Mooallem’s moving paean to wildlife, then treat yourself to one of the loveliest animal-charactered allegories of our time, Marianne Dubuc’s The Lion and the Bird.

Thanks, Laurel

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15 APRIL, 2015

Creation: Ancient Indian Origin Myths, Brought to Life in a Breathtaking Illustrated Cosmogony

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Consummate visual storytelling about life, death, the rhythms of time, and the beginning of art.

“We don’t need to credit an all-seeing God with the creation of life and matter,” Douglas Rushkoff wrote in contemplating consciousness, “to suspect that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality.” And we don’t have to believe in such a god to appreciate the beautiful and imaginative ways in which the origin myths of the world’s various spiritual traditions capture this wonderful strangeness — from our earliest depictions of the universe to the marvelous mythic creatures that populate our legends. In advising parents on what to tell kids about Santa Claus, Margaret Mead made the crucial distinction between “fact” and “poetic truth,” and this is precisely what origin myths offer — an invitation to celebrate these ancient masterworks of storytelling, even if we recognize that they aren’t rooted in scientific fact.

Nowhere does this celebration come more vibrantly alive than in Creation (public library) by Bhajju Shyam — the best-known artist of India’s Gond tribe and the talent behind the extraordinary London Jungle Book. Shyam captures ten origin myths from Gond folklore in absolutely breathtaking illustrations.

Air

A master of the traditional folk art style for which his tribe is known, Shyam conveys the core symbols and stories of Gond cosmogony in this simple yet enormously evocative masterpiece of visual storytelling. There are the blue crows, “whirling out from the eye of a storm, from the center of creation” to bring the birth of air; the seven types of earth that arise from the mud — sand, clay, loam, rock, chalk, silt, and marsh; the Sacred Seed, which “holds a miraculous possibility within itself, and when the time is right, lets it unfold.”

The Unborn Fish

Hand-bound in a limited edition of 5,000 numbered copies and silkscreened on handmade paper with traditional Indian dyes, this beautiful book comes from South Indian independent publisher Tara Books. For the past two decades, founder Gita Wolf and her team have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on books handcrafted by local artisans in their fair-trade workshop in Chennai — treasures like The Night Life of Trees, Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit, and Waterlife.

Death and Rebirth

Life exists because there is death — one contains the other. Just as joy has no meaning without sorrow, a beginning must have an end. But every end makes a new beginning possible.

In Gond villages, when you see smoke rising from a house, you know someone has passed away. Everyone gathers in the house of mourning, bringing the family food and comfort. There is no food cooked in the bereaved household until the third day, when they invite the whole village to a meal of fish. This signals the beginning of normal life again. You cannot accompany the dead, and in the course of time, will have to return to your own life.

One can’t help but notice the intriguing parallels with other spiritual traditions and secular philosophies: The fish, also found in Christian scripture, is the Gond symbol for water — Shyam depicts this “fish-shaped emptiness, bubbling in the water,” the first something that appeared out of the nothingness as the world was born, not unlike how evolution unfolded; the duality of day and night, sun and moon, symbolizing the male and female — two inextricably linked parts of one whole — call to mind Virginia Woolf’s notion of the androgynous mind; the Egg of Origins, “from which all life emerges,” mirrors the science of reproduction; the notion of life and death as complementary counterpoints evokes Rilke on mortality as a vitalizing force.

Time

Day and night, beginning and end, life and death — creation is made of opposites. For human beings, life is measure din time.

Time for human beings is made up of day and night. Each is a half of one whole. Human beings themselves are made up of two halves: man and woman. A man is associated with the sun, and a woman with the moon — together, they stand in for day and night. They are opposites that make the whole.

The most delicate timekeepers are insects. Their short lives measure time in hours and days.

The project itself has a most heartening origin story: Over the course of numerous collaborations with Shyam through the years, Wolf found herself so enchanted by the tales from Gond folklore he was telling that she offered to transcribe and translate the stories — reading and writing are not part of Shyam’s orally-driven tribal culture — turning them into a beautiful book celebrating both Gond mythology and the Gond folk art tradition.

She writes in the afterword:

The Gonds were originally forest-dwellers, with settlements spread across the dense jungles of Madya Pradesh. With the large scale destruction of forests, they’ve since become peasants and farmers — many have moved to the city in search of work. This is the fate of many tribal groups, but the Gonds are unique in that they have managed to preserve a memory of older times when their community was close to the forest and the rhythms of nature. They have kept this heritage alive — at least in the last few decades — primarily through their art. From its humble beginnings as patterns decorating the walls and floors of village homes, Gond art has now evolved into a highly complex aesthetic.

[…]

Typically, a Gond painting condenses a long and complex oral tale into a single intricate image. The best artists are highly conceptual, using symbols and metaphors to draw out meanings which connect the lives of human beings to the workings of the cosmos.

The Potter of the World

There can be no earth, and no life, without mud. It is more precious than gold. We call the earthworm the King of the Underworld. He burrows deep under the ground, kneading and churning, until he emerges again, bearing perfectly formed mud. I’ve thought of him as a potter, who softens and moulds the clay into a pot that can hold water and food.

Couple Creation, the tactile mesmerism of which these pixels on a screen profoundly fail to convey, with the contemporary Western counterpart A Graphic Cosmogony, then treat yourself to other favorite gems from the Tara Books family.

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