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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

16 JANUARY, 2014

The Gorgeous Art of Norah Borges, Jorge Luis Borges’s Younger Sister

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Soulful drawings by a little-known pioneer of modern art.

Few people know that literary titan Jorge Luis Borges had a sister, and even fewer that Leonor Fanny Borges Acevedo (1901–1998), better-known under the pseudonym Norah Borges, was an acclaimed artist in her own right, who emerged in the 1920s as one of the female pioneers of modern art. (In many regards, Norah was to Jorge Luis what the acclaimed Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell was to her sister, Virginia Woolf.) During her lifetime, Borges illustrated close to eighty books, including some of her brother’s, in addition to editorial illustrations for a number of avant-garde magazines belonging to ultraísmo — the first major avant-garde movement in Spain, comprising an eclectic group of writers and artists influenced by Italian futurism.

Norah (age 7) and Jorge Luis (age 9) at the Buenos Aires zoo, 1908

Her soulful paintings and drawings, the earliest of which is collected in the out-of-print Spanish-language volume Norah Borges: Obra Gráfica [Norah Borges: Graphic Work] (public library; AbeBooks), spans more than seven decades and is nothing short of breathtaking:

Complement these with MoMA’s Modern Women, a celebration of pioneering women in modern art.

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16 JANUARY, 2014

Indira Gandhi’s Father on Power, Privilege, and Kindness: Letters to His 10-Year-Old Daughter

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Notes on the moral foundations of becoming a great leader and a great human, bittersweet in history’s hindsight.

As a hopeless lover of timeless letters, especially ones of sage fatherly and motherly advice, I was thrilled to come across Letters from a Father to His Daughter (public library). In 1928, when his only daughter was ten and spent the summer in the Himalayas while he was in the plains below, Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of India’s struggle for independence from British rule, sent the young girl a series of short letters seeking to explain how the world came to be as it is. That daughter was Indira Gandhi, who would become India’s first and only female Prime Minister, tragically assassinated in 1984.

What makes these letters, which cover everything from the Big Bang to the ancient civilizations to the rise of the division of labor and trade, so spectacular is that Nehru speaks to young Indira both lovingly and with clear respect for her intelligence, treating a ten-year-old child as the future leader she would become. Indeed, we see in these letters the foundation of that becoming — a foundation of moral values for peace and justice, respect for those different from us, and immeasurable, indiscriminate kindness, a message rather bittersweet in history’s hindsight, given the context of Gandhi’s political reputation. Above all, Nehru takes great care to show the little girl that power is not a right but a privilege, one that ought to be used wisely and benefit those whom it is designed to protect and serve rather than the selfish interests of those who hold it.

Young Indira Gandhi

In one of the first letters, Nehru reminds his daughter that we need to consistently step outside of our biases and boundaries, be those ones of geography or of culture, in order to fully understand the world:

England is only a little island and India, though a big country, is only a small part of the earth’s surface. If we want to know something about the story of this world of ours we must think of all the countries and all the peoples that have inhabited it, and not merely of one little country where we may have been born.

In a letter exploring the origin of different races, Nehru dispels the irrational beliefs that lie at the heart of racism by telling Indira the story of how early humans migrated across the earth and developed into different races based on the conditions of the lands they lived in:

We find that people’s complexions are the result of the climate they live in. They have nothing to do with the worthiness or goodness or beauty of a person.

Reflecting on the different complexions of people in different regions of India — fairer in the north where it is cooler and darker in the hotter south — and on the flawed cultural beliefs that associate fairer with better, Nehru adds a disclaimer about privilege:

Of course, it may be that some people, even though they may live in a hot country, do not work in the open and are rich enough to live in big houses and take care of themselves and their complexions. A rich family may live like this for generations and may thus not be affected by the climate very much. But not to work oneself and to live on the work of others is nothing to be proud of.

In another letter, he addresses the conceits of nationalism and the perils of stereotyping in equally simple yet poignant terms:

You will also see that most of us now living in different countries far from each other long ago were one people. We have changed greatly since then and many of us have forgotten our old relationships. In every country people imagine that they are the best and the cleverest and the others are not as good as they are. … This is all conceit. Everybody wants to think well of himself and his country. But really there is no person who has not got some good in him and some bad. And in the same way there is no country which is not partly good and partly bad. We must take the good wherever we find it and try to remove the bad wherever it may be.

He adds a prescient note on India’s own geopolitical destiny — a country that, nearly a century after Nehru’s letters, is emerging as a global force of innovation:

If we find anything good in other countries, we should certainly take it.

As Indians we have to live in India and work for India. But we must not forget the world and the people living in other countries are after all our cousins. It would be such an excellent thing if all the people in the world were happy and contented. We have therefore to try to make the whole world a happier place to live in.

Jawaharlal Nehru with young Indira and niece Chanderlekha Pandit, 1925. (Image courtesy of JMMI, New Delhi)

In a letter exploring the origin and social purpose of religion, Nehru explores the inner contradictions of religion, which haunt us to this day:

This seems horrible but a man who is afraid will do anything.

This must have been the beginnings of religion. So religion first came as fear, and anything that is done because of fear is bad. Religion, as you know, tells us many beautiful things. When you grow up, you will read about the religions of the world and of the good things and the bad things that have been done in their name. . . . We see even today that people fight and break each other’s heads in the name of religion. And for many people it is still something to be afraid of. They spend their time trying to please some imaginary beings by making presents in temples and even sacrifices of animals.

In a letter on the origin of agriculture, which created a surplus of food beyond a tribe’s daily needs, Nehru ties this development to the invention of money and questions the warped dynamics of surplus:

If you think about it, you will see that this money is all surplus, that is people do not want to spend it all at one time and so they keep it in banks. The rich people today are those who have plenty of this surplus, the poor have none at all. … It is not so much because one person works more than another, but nowadays a person who does not work at all gets the surplus, while the hard worker often gets no part of it! This seems a very silly arrangement. Many people think that it is because of this stupid arrangement that there are so many poor people of the world.

In a related letter on the origin of the rich-poor divide, Nehru traces the rise of the patriarch — “the time when complications first began” — and how power structures developed, speaking with timeless prescience to present predicaments ranging from the everyday expressions of entitlement of the privileged in society to the large-scale issues that precipitated the Occupy movement:

Everything in [the early] days belonged to the whole tribe and not to each member separately. Even the patriarch had nothing special to himself. As a member of the tribe, he could only have a share like any other member. But he was the organizer and he was supposed to look after the goods and property of the tribe. As his power increased, he began to think that these goods and property were really his own and not the tribe’s. Or rather he thought that he himself, being the leader of the tribe, represented the tribe. So we see how the idea of owning things for oneself began.

[…]

But as soon as the patriarch started grabbing at the things belonging to the tribe and calling them his own, we begin to get rich people and poor people.

In the next letter, Nehru traces how patriarchs swelled into kings, once again presaging with tragic foresight the state of politics and politicians today:

When the patriarch’s office became hereditary, that is son succeeded father, there was little difference between him and a king. He developed into a king and the king got the strange notion that everything in the country belonged to him. He thought he was the country. … Kings forgot that they were really chosen by the people in order to organize and distribute the food and other things of the country among the people. They forgot that they were chosen because they were supposed to be the cleverest and the most experienced persons in the tribe or country. They imagined that they were masters and all the other people in the country were their servants. As a matter of fact, they were servants of the country.

Later on … kings became so conceited that they thought that people had nothing to do with choosing them. It was God himself, they said, that had made them kings. They called this the “divine right of kings.” For long years, they misbehaved like this and lived in great pomp and luxury while their people starved.

But Nehru reminds young Indira that even in republics, which have democratically elected officials rather than hereditary kings, things are bound to go awry once the entitlement of power poisons a ruler’s soul. He offers an example from India, a country — and by far not the only one — plagued by enormous political corruption to this day:

In India, we have still many rajas and maharajas and nawabs. You see them going about with fine clothes, in expensive motor cars and spending a lot of money on themselves. Where do they get all this money from? They get it in taxes from the people. The taxes are given so that the money may be used to help all the people in the country — by making schools and hospitals and libraries and museums and good roads and many other things for the good of the people. But our rajas and maharajas still think as the French king did of old L’etat c’est moi — “the state, it is I.” And they spend the money of the people on their own pleasures. While they live in luxury, their people, who work hard and give them the money, starve and their children have no schools to go to.

In another letter, Nehru traces the origin of trade and offers an observation on the downside of globalization that presciently speaks to today’s tendency to increasingly celebrate and prioritize locally made goods as a token of more conscious consumer choices:

Consider a piece of foreign cloth that is sold in the bazaar here. The cotton grew in India and it was sent to England. A great factory took it and cleaned it and made it into yarn or cotton thread and then into cloth. This cloth then came back again to India and was sold in the bazaar. How many thousands of miles it traveled backwards and forwards before it was offered for sale! It seems rather silly that the cotton that is grown in India had to go all the way to England to be made into cloth and then come back again. This seems such a waste of money and energy.

Mahatma Gandhi fasting in 1924, with the young Indira dressed in a khaddar garment shortly after Gandhi began advocating that khaddar be worn by all Indians instead of British-made textiles.

Once again, we see how young Indira’s father instilled in her from an early age the personal and political beliefs that would come to shape her. He writes:

You know that we do not buy or wear foreign cloth. We wear khaddar because it is more sensible to buy things, as far as we can, made in our own country. We also buy and wear khaddar because in this way we help the poor who spin and weave.

In one of the final letters, he returns to the question of money with a sentiment reminiscent of Alan Watts’s philosophy, reminding Indira that money in and of itself is meaningless:

We must remember that money is no good by itself. It only helps us to get other things that we want. It helps us to exchange goods. . . . Some foolish people imagine that money itself is a good and they collect and hoard it, instead of using it. This shows that they do not know how money came to be used and what it really is.

In one of the best letters, considering the question of what civilization is, Nehru pulls into question the power dynamics of our culture and the flawed baseline assumptions underlying them:

How can we find out if a person or a society is barbarous or civilized? Many people in Europe think that they are very civilized and the people of Asia are quite barbarous. Is this because the people of Europe put on more clothes than the peoples of Asia and Africa? But clothes depend on the climate. In a cold climate men put on more clothes than in a hot climate. Or is it because a man with a gun is stronger than the man without a weapon and is therefore more civilized than him? Whether he is more civilized or not, the man who is weak dare not tell him that he is not or else he might get shot!

Writing shortly after WWI, Nehru relates this issue of civilization vs. barbarism to the concept of war, posing a rhetorical question that rings equally, if not even more, true today:

Do you think it was a very civilized or sensible thing for people to kill each other like this? If two men fight in the streets the policeman separates them and everybody thinks how silly they are. But how much sillier and more foolish it is for great countries to fight each other and kill thousands and millions. It is just like two savages fighting in the jungles. And if the savages are called barbarous, how much more barbarous are the countries that behave in that way?

Ultimately, he tells his daughter that civilization is not a matter of external material evidence but of internal spiritual disposition:

Fine buildings, fine pictures and books and everything that is beautiful are certainly signs of civilization. But an even better sign is a fine man who is unselfish and works with others for the good of all. To work together is better than to work singly, and to work together for the common good is best of all.

Letters from a Father to His Daughter is at once enormously heartening and a vital reminder for readers of all ages and eras about how we shape the world we live in through our understanding of it and the choices we make in it.

Thanks, Saneel

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15 JANUARY, 2014

Godliness in the Known and the Unknowable: Alan Lightman on Science and Spirituality

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“Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand… the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.”

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his timeless meditation on science and religion, “we will have failed.” It’s a sentiment that dismisses in one fell Saganesque swoop both the blind dogmatism of religion and the vain certitude of science — a sentiment articulated by some of history’s greatest minds, from Einstein to Ada Lovelace to Isaac Asimov, all the way back Galileo, and one that Sagan echoed a decade later, three months before his death, writing: “The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.” Yet centuries after Galileo and decades after Sagan, humanity remains profoundly uneasy about reconciling these conflicting frameworks for understanding the universe and our place in it.

That vital discomfort is precisely what physicist Alan Lightman — celebrated author of both nonfiction and novels, one of the finest science essayists writing today, the very first person to receive dual appointments in science and the humanities at MIT, an extraordinary storyteller, and one of my favorite minds — explores in one of the essays in his entrancing new anthology, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (public library).

Alan Lightman (Photograph courtesy of MIT)

In the foreword, Lightman recounts attending a lecture by the Dalai Lama at MIT, “one of the world’s spiritual leaders sitting cross-legged in a modern temple of science,” and hearing about the Buddhist concept of sunyata, translated as “emptiness” — the notion that objects in the physical universe are vacant of inherent meaning and that we imbue them with meaning and value with the thoughts of our own minds. From this, Lightman argues while adding to history’s finest definitions of science, arises a central challenge of the human condition:

As a scientist, I firmly believe that atoms and molecules are real (even if mostly empty space) and exist independently of our minds. On the other hand, I have witnessed firsthand how distressed I become when I experience anger or jealousy or insult, all emotional states manufactured by my own mind. The mind is certainly its own cosmos. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “[The mind] can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.” In our constant search for meaning in this baffling and temporary existence, trapped as we are within our three pounds of neurons, it is sometimes hard to tell what is real. We often invent what isn’t there. Or ignore what is. We try to impose order, both in our minds and in our conceptions of external reality. We try to connect. We try to find truth. We dream and we hope. And underneath all of these strivings, we are haunted by the suspicion that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the whole.

[…]

Science does not reveal the meaning of our existence, but it does draw back some of the veils.

This tension between internal and external reality is also what lies at the root of the age-old tension between science and religion. In one of the best essays in the collection, titled “The Spiritual Universe,” Lightman sets out to lift the veil of this immutable inquiry. He cites a discussion that took place at a monthly gathering of scientists and artists at MIT, aimed at exploring the interplay of science and art, wherein a playwright proposed that science is the religion of our century. Lightman considers the inherent challenges to this notion:

If science is the religion of the twenty-first century, why do we still seriously discuss heaven and hell, life after death, and the manifestations of God? Physicist Alan Guth, another member of our salon, pioneered the inflation version of the Big Bang theory and has helped extend the scientific understanding of the infant universe back to a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after t = 0. A former member, biologist Nancy Hopkins, manipulates the DNA of organisms to study how genes control the development and growth of living creatures. Hasn’t modern science now pushed God into such a tiny corner that He or She or It no longer has any room to operate—or perhaps has been rendered irrelevant altogether? Not according to surveys showing that more than three-quarters of Americans believe in miracles, eternal souls, and God. Despite the recent spate of books and pronouncements by prominent atheists, religion remains, along with science, one of the dominant forces that shape our civilization. Our little group of scientists and artists finds itself fascinated with these contrasting beliefs, fascinated with different ways of understanding the world. And fascinated by how science and religion can coexist in our minds.

As a scientist and self-professed humanist himself, Lightman exorcises his lifelong struggle to reconcile these conflicting worldviews by proposing a set of criteria for the kind of religious belief that would be compatible with rather than contradictory to science:

The first step in this journey is to state what I will call the central doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe. Although scientists do not talk explicitly about this doctrine, and my doctoral thesis adviser never mentioned it once to his graduate students, the central doctrine is the invisible oxygen that most scientists breathe. We do not, of course, know all the fundamental laws at the present time. But most scientists believe that a complete set of such laws exists and, in principle, that it is discoverable by human beings, just as nineteenth-century explorers believed in the North Pole although no one had yet reached it.

[…]

Next, a working definition of God. I would not pretend to know the nature of God, if God does indeed exist, but for the purposes of this discussion, and in agreement with almost all religions, I think we can safely say that God is understood to be a Being not restricted by the laws that govern matter and energy in the physical universe. In other words, God exists outside matter and energy. In most religions, this Being acts with purpose and will, sometimes violating existing physical law (that is, performing miracles), and has additional qualities such as intelligence, compassion, and omniscience.

Starting with these axioms, we can say that science and God are compatible as long as the latter is content to stand on the sidelines once the universe has begun. A God that intervenes after the cosmic pendulum has been set into motion, violating the physical laws, would clearly upend the central doctrine of science. Of course, the physical laws could have been created by God before the beginning of time. But once created, according to the central doctrine, the laws are immutable and cannot be violated from one moment to the next.

With these criteria in mind, he offers a taxonomy of religious beliefs, based on the degree of control they assign to their highest deity: At the extreme end, denying the existence of a God, is atheism; up the sliding scale of faith is deism, whose God created the universe but has not interfered since that initial spark — a favorite model in the 17th and 18th centuries, with such prominent proponents as Voltaire; then comes immanentism with yet more divine intervention, which holds that God created the physical universe and its laws, and continues to propel it but only through the stringent and consistent application of these permanent laws; at the other extreme end, opposite atheism, is interventionism — God created the universe and its laws, and can occasionally interfere with their predictable function to produce unpredictable results, commonly called miracles. Because most major religions — including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism — are built upon an interventionist view of God, Lightman points out that they are incompatible with science and observes the logical conclusion:

Except for a God who sits down after the universe begins, all other Gods conflict with the assumptions of science.

The situation is further muddled by the fact that the majority of laypeople who are both religious and understand the value of science don’t subscribe to its central doctrine — that same logical foundation that renders an interventionist God impossible. Lightman cites a sociological study which found that 25% of scientists at elite American universities believe in the existence of God and don’t consider science the only framework for explaining the world. Lightman, who considers himself an atheist, illustrates the conundrum with his own beliefs and points to the humanities — that essential anchor of the human experience — as the spiritual complement to science:

I completely endorse the central doctrine of science. And I do not believe in the existence of a Being who lives beyond matter and energy, even if that Being refrains from entering the fray of the physical world. However, I certainly agree with [such scientists] that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations. Obviously, vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analyzed by science. The humanities, such as history and philosophy, raise questions that do not have definite or unanimously accepted answers.

This is where Lightman’s exquisite touch as both an essayist and a humanist springs so vibrantly alive:

There are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof. We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us. We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child. We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.” We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but in the end we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing. The previous questions are questions of aesthetics, morality, philosophy. These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion.

Reflecting on his early days as a physics grad student, where he was taught that the concept of a “well-posed problem” — a question stated so clearly that it would guarantee an answer — he turns to Rilke’s famous wisdom and considers both the difference and the margin of complement between art and science:

At any moment in time, every scientist is working on, or attempting to work on, a well-posed problem, a question with a definite answer. We scientists are taught from an early stage of our apprenticeship not to waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers.

But artists and humanists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions. Ideas in a novel or emotion in a symphony are complicated with the intrinsic ambiguity of human nature. … For many artists and humanists, the question is more important than the answer. As the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a century ago, “We should try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Then there are also the questions that have definite answers but which we cannot answer. The question of the existence of God may be such a question.

As human beings, don’t we need questions without answers as well as questions with answers?

Indeed, this tolerance for the unanswered — and possibly the unanswerable — is not only at the heart of creativity and the secret of happiness, but also, Lightman argues, the essence of faith:

Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.

Adult and baby ospreys in nest, Maine, 2007. (Photograph courtesy of Alan Lightman)

Once again, Lightman envelops us in his enchanting storytelling to make this point as dimensional as it is when it manifests in life: He tells the story of a family of ospreys that nested near his home in Maine for many years, arriving from South America each spring to lay eggs, then raising their babies until the little ones took their first flight in late summer. Lightman and his wife recorded these cycles of life obsessively year after year in their “osprey journals” filled with notes, photographs, and lovingly collected data on that “small part of the universe.” But while Lightman might describe himself as a humanist, this final anecdote exposes him as a true “creaturist” who lives with remarkable respect for non-human beings and our shared existence:

One August afternoon, the two baby ospreys of that season took flight for the first time as I stood on the circular deck of my house watching the nest. All summer long, they had watched me on that deck as I watched them. To them, it must have looked like I was in my nest just as they were in theirs. On this particular afternoon, their maiden flight, they did a loop of my house and then headed straight at me with tremendous speed. My immediate impulse was to run for cover, since they could have ripped me apart with their powerful talons. But something held me to my ground. When they were within twenty feet of me, they suddenly veered upward and away. But before that dazzling and frightening vertical climb, for about half a second we made eye contact. Words cannot convey what was exchanged between us in that instant. It was a look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we shared the same land. After they were gone, I found that I was shaking, and in tears. To this day, I do not understand what happened in that half second. But it was one of the most profound moments of my life.

Adult osprey, 2012. (Photograph by courtesy of the Dyfi Osprey Project)

Lightman closes the chapter with a beautiful meditation on where all of this leaves us:

Some people believe that there is no distinction between the spiritual and physical universes, no distinction between the inner and the outer, between the subjective and the objective, between the miraculous and the rational. I need such distinctions to make sense of my spiritual and scientific lives. For me, there is room for both a spiritual universe and a physical universe, just as there is room for both religion and science. Each universe has its own power. Each has its own beauty, and mystery. A Presbyterian minister recently said to me that science and religion share a sense of wonder. I agree.

The Accidental Universe is a sublime, mind-bending, soul-expanding read in its entirety, exploring such magnificent mysteries of our world and the cosmos as dark matter, multiverses, and the arrow of time, all considered through the dimensional lens of a mind at once voracious for knowledge and at peace with the unknown. Complement it with Dorion Sagan, son of Carl, on why science and philosophy need each other.

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