Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

04 AUGUST, 2011

Driving with Plato: Life Lessons from History’s Greatest Minds

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“Life is hard,” the actress Katherine Hepburn once quipped, adding, “after all, it kills you.” Given the unavoidable end to the enterprise, then, it’s a good thing we can draw courage from the intelligence of the ages.

We’ve long been interested in the hard-won wisdom of our elders. Earlier this year, in fact, we put together a list of life advice from luminaries, which contained a great read called Breakfast with Socrates. Now its author, Robert Rowland Smith, has returned with a sequel of sorts. Bearing its own catchy title, Driving with Plato: The Meaning of Life’s Milestones, Smith’s latest provides an equally entertaining and insightful consideration of what the greats might have to say about such passages of life as going to school.

Where Breakfast with Socrates took as its structural unit a typical (Western) day, Driving with Plato considers the benchmarks of an entire life — both biological and culturally constructed — from birth onward. One chapter, for example, examines the challenge of first learning to ride a bike:

You have to embrace what in Kierkegaardian philosophy is the madness of decision, the vertiginous split second when reason must, in the name of action, go into suspense. In this critical instant of changeover, success arises only if you go at a considerable speed, if you seize the challenge of creating your own forward momentum… As Einstein (whom we’ll come to later) put it, when comparing riding a bicycle with life, “To keep your balance you have to keep moving!”

A cynic might say that Smith and his publishers were looking to exploit a clever conceit, but the book’s research and writing belie this charge. In fact, it’s altogether to the author’s credit that he creates a coherent narrative out of such disparate cultural, literary, and philosophical material.

Driving with Plato selects an appealingly wide range of sources, from Noam Chomsky to Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Smith’s prose smoothly carries the reader over the road he’s delineated. On the bain of human experience — moving — he offers this:

Probably the worst accidents at home must be those involving fire, but they’re not always such a bad thing. Rumi, the great thirteenth-century Sufi mystic, has a poem in which his house burning down makes him grateful. Why? It affords a better view of the rising moon.”

From losing one’s virginity to the ultimate loss of life itself, Driving with Plato is delightful proof of how wisdom provides ballast amidst the chaos we all have no choice but to confront.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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02 AUGUST, 2011

Rare Early Photographs of Musicians Around the World

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Playing the hurdy-gurdy, or why African-American jazz bands were banned in Australia until 1954.

Music is one of humanity’s oldest and strongest forms of social glue, yet our collective memory has retained precious little of music’s communal history outside the Western tradition and before the days of rock concerts. Collected here are some fascinating archival images of music-making from around the world and across time, culled from several excellent Flickr sets compiled by musician Sam Bennett.

Quartet of Musicians in Meiji-era Japan

Okinawa Soba posted several CC licensed stereoimages by T. Enami and others documenting life in late 19th and early 20th century Japan (the Meiji period). The original image, circa 1901 and by an unknown photographer, is presented for parallel viewing and depicts a quartet of Japanese musicians. It is but one of many fascinating stereo compositions. This animated gif version exploits motion parallax to give a stereo illusion without eyestrain, to see what the photographer envisioned.

Dancing Dervishes, Cairo

Half of a stereoview (NPG, Berlin ca. 1910)

Village orchestra of Ruthenian and Jewish musicians

Verecke, Bereg County, 1895

Chinese band postcard

Hari Dasu, India. c. 1900?

Hand captioned 'Indian Juggler,' but subsequently identified as Hari Dasu

Egypt

NYPL photographs and prints of Egypt and Syria

Hungary

Photograph by Buchsbaum Gyula - Debrecen

Mexican picnic

Photo by Hugo Brehme, Mexico, D.F.

Street musicians

Photograph shows two men, sitting on bales of hay and playing instruments outside a barn or stable. One man plays guitar and the other plays a bowed instrument similar to a cello; both men simultaneously play kazoos.

Real photo postcard

Verso reads: 'This is myself and my youngest brother Bert. We had our heads clipped and then shaved and look like old men. The side view is my self.'

Fi. Musician? (LOC), ca. 1910-1915

Street musician playing a hurdy-gurdy

St. Marks Place

Photograph by James Jowers, 1968

The Colored Idea Band of Sonny Clay arrives in Sydney, 1928 / Sam Hood

The band entered Sydney Harbour playing their newly composed 'Australian Stomp' on deck, with their dancers performing. After good reviews, the Truth newspaper organised for the band to be raided. They were found with Australian women and deported. African American bands were banned from visiting until 1954. The Library has photographs of the Louis Armstrong tour, the first Afro-American entertainer to visit after the ban was lifted, and of the Harlem Blackbirds in 1955, the first Afro-American group to visit.

For more archival fascination, be sure to see these collections of vintage photographs of ballet dancers from the 1930s-1950s, lantern slides of Egypt in the early 1900s, and hand-colored images of life in early-20th-century Japan.

via MetaFilter

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02 AUGUST, 2011

Kooky Cookery: Retro Recipes for Culinary Frankensteining

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Betty Draper’s favorite tomato aspic, or what boiled bologna has to do with marshmallows.

We’ve previously explored some fantastic quirky cookbooks and, this season, there’s a fine new addition to the omnibus: Kooky Cookery: A campy archive of irregular recipes from yester-year by Bryan Ballinger, who concocted a playful parody of and humorous archive America’s penchant for bizarre food combinations, harking back to the Golden Age of peculiar creations. (Baked-beans pizza, anyone? Great, you’ll want a side of tomato gelatin with that.) A retro-lover’s dream, the volume features a selection of odd recipes from vintage magazines and cookbooks, complete with the era’s retrotastic illustrations and analog photographs, bound to give you a good gaggle. (That’s a gag and a giggle, for the uninitiated.)

Consider Kooky Cookery for your next dinner party — for a coffeetable laugh, of course, rather than a dining table feast. Then again, who are we to judge a marshmallow fruit loaf.

via How To Be A Retronaut

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