Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

14 MAY, 2014

Joyce Carol Oates on Wonder, Consciousness, and the Art of Beholding Beauty

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“How lovely this world is, really: one simply has to look.”

Perhaps counterintuitively, the diaries of celebrated artists, writers, and scientists, private as they are, are often reminders not only of their humanity but of our own, brimming with deeply and widely resonant insights on our shared struggles and yearnings. Such is the case of The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates (public library) — a chronicle of Oates’s characteristically self-reflexive, sometimes self-conscious, but always intensely intelligent and perceptive meditations on literature and life.

One of her most beautiful reflections, penned on a cold December morning in 1977 — a pivotal time in Oates’s life, shortly before her 40th birthday and a few months prior to her admission into the American Academy of Arts and Letters — falls somewhere between Thoreau and Annie Dillard. Snowed in at her home in Windsor, Oates contemplates the “blue wild snow-glaring world outside” and marvels:

How lovely this world is, really: one simply has to look.

She watches a “puffy-feathered female cardinal” rustle in the bush outside the window, picking at the bright red berries in a coat of her own colorful plumage as “the male hits the eye like a sudden manifestation of grace, or even of God.” Witnessing this whimsical vignette, Oates pauses to consider her very capacity — our human capacity — to behold such beauty:

Queer, in fact maddening, to think that “beauty” in nature is for us alone: for the human eye alone. Without our consciousness it doesn’t exist. For though the birds and other creatures “see” one another they don’t, I assume, “see” beauty. And what of certain mollusks that secrete extraordinarily beautiful shells which they themselves never see, since they have no eyes; how on earth can one comprehend that phenomenon…?

…The patterns exist in our mind’s eye, in our human calculating consciousness. Yes, but: they do exist, they are quite real, one is surely not deluded in assuming that seashells do have exquisite patterns. And what is their purpose? Not for camouflage, certainly. In fact they stand out, their colors and designs are so striking.

She ends with a “tentative conclusion” that echoes young Virginia Woolf and shares in Richard Feynman’s awe at the glory evolution, considering the marvels of our consciousness:

All of nature, all of the given “world,” is in fact a work of art. Only the human consciousness can register it. But all of creation participates. Is this a sentimental notion, is it perhaps romantically far-fetched? I really don’t think so: it’s the only possible conclusion. And that certain creatures evolved their forms of beauty before the world actually had eyes… before it had any “eyes” at all… seems to me evidence (poetic if nothing else) that evolution, or whatever is meant by evolution, already included the highest form of consciousness at the very start: anticipated it, I mean.

The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates is a richly rewarding read in its entirety. Complement it with Oates’s 10 tips on writing and her exploration of the divided self of the creative person.

For more beloved writers’ diaries, peek inside those of Anaïs Nin, Albert Camus, Virginia Woolf, William S. Burroughs, Hans Christian Andersen, Henry James, Henry David Thoreau, Sylvia Plath, and Susan Sontag.

Photograph of Joyce Carol Oates by Marion Ettlinger

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04 APRIL, 2014

Young Hans Christian Andersen Climbs Mount Vesuvius During an Eruption and Lives to Tell About It in a Beautiful, Dramatic Account

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“The sea raised its great wings, coal black smoke arose from Vesuvius into the blue sky…”

Hans Christian Andersen revolutionized storytelling with his timeless fairy tales, driven by a cinematic sensitivity to beauty. In mid-February of 1834, while touring Europe, 29-year-old Andersen arrived in Naples just as the mighty Mount Vesuvius was in the midst of one of its then-regular and dramatic eruptions, three centuries after the first of them had drowned dozens of Italian villages in hot lava and killed an estimated 3,000 people. The flamboyant mesmerism of the event cast a spell that would stay with him for the rest of his life. In The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen (public library) — the same obscure yet remarkable volume that gave us Andersen’s little-known and lovely sketches — comes his breathtaking account of his visit to Vesuvius and his crazy quest to climb the mount as it was erupting.

18th-century painting of Vesuvius erupting by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797)

In a diary entry from February 18, Andersen — a true enchanter with a penchant for cinematic storytelling — recounts his first breathtaking impressions of the fiery marvel:

I bought some drawings, walked by the sea pounding against the rocks. — It was the world’s great pulse beat that I heard. The sea raised its great wings, coal black smoke arose from Vesuvius into the blue sky… Such shades of colors on the mountains! Just as the sun went down, the red lava was glowing. Some boys played soldiers on the beach, and tramps in their brown hooded coats sat on the rocks watching them.

It may seem like a wild and rather unsafe notion today, but the eruption of Vesuvius, a regular occurrence since the middle of the 17th century, was quite the tourist attraction in Andersen’s time — so much so, that tour guides hustled for visitors’ attention. Andersen writes on February 21:

They were literally chasing me, underbidding each other… I had to say, in order to get away, that I would come back tomorrow. Then they all asked me to write down their names, and I got away by scribbling something down, and so I walked around in a small side street that seems to have been constructed entirely by lava debris.

But unperturbed by this brush with the materialistic exploitation of such a wonder, he goes on to marvel at nature’s might ablaze before him:

Smoke swirled thickly up out of Vesuvius, and the lava gave off a cloud of steam… At dusk I walked down to the sea. Vesuvius spewed great streams of lava; it blazed into the air; it was like tongues of fire flaring up. This is the most violent I have seen it.

Hans Christian Andersen's diary drawing of the Vesuvius eruption, 1834

Four days later, on February 22, Vesuvius quiets down as Andersen paints another breathtaking vignette:

The moon was shining on the dark blue water, and the waves breaking on the shore looked like a glimmering piece of embroidery. Fire was running in great streams down Vesuvius, but there was almost no smoke to be seen. — I walked out to the lighthouse and saw then in the moonlight a handsome frigate coursing under full sail into the harbor.

But then, two days later, Vesuvius reaches its climax and Andersen beholds it in breathtaking detail as he and a small group of fellow Danes set out to climb the mountain, now shaken by Vesuvius’s frequent huffs and puffs of smoke and lava:

The evening was so infinitely beautiful; the sun set like a ball of fire; the sky was a glimmering gold that shaded over into the ether-blue. The sea was like indigo, and the islands were lying like pale blue clouds on it. It was a magic world that had manifested itself… The mountains were shining so splendidly with the white snow; they lay far off in the blue sky, and close to us we could see all the red lava of Vesuvius.

Nocturnal Eruption of Vesuvius with Bay of Naples by Michael Wutky (1739–1822)

By the time Andersen and his crew reached the hermitage in the mountain, it was almost dark — a perilous detail that only added to the inspired insanity of their expedition. Andersen recounts:

The wind was so biting cold that I had to get off my donkey and walk… Soon the donkeys couldn’t take us any further. We stood before the mountain itself, whose rounded contours were covered with blocks of lava and ash. We were now ascending a fairly steep grade, sinking up over our knees into ash. With every other step we slid backward by one. Large, loose rocks went sliding downward when we stepped on them.

[…]

An hour passed and we were on some sort of plain under the cauldron. Here we caught a sudden glimpse of the moon right over the crater. Coal-black smoke swirled upward; then a ball of fire and gigantic, glowing boulders rolled down onto the plain that we had to cross to get to the lava flow… There was no path at all; we had to walk and crawl between huge pieces of lava… With every eruption the moon was entirely hidden by the pitch-black smoke.

Andersen was a man at once keenly sensitive to beauty, as both his fairy tales and his travel writing attest, and afflicted by great vanity, which reared its head even in these grueling circumstances: “I sang loudly to show how little it was tiring me,” he confesses in the diary. Indeed, the entire endeavor was perhaps a manifestation of youthful vanity for a band of twenty-something men — an exercise to conquer danger for no good reason, except the vainglory of living to tell about it. And their bravado only accelerated as the danger got more intense:

After a while we could feel the heat coming up from underneath us. In order to see the new lava flow we had to cross one that had been flowing the night before; only the outermost crust was black and hard, and red fire was burning in the cracks. We stepped out onto it; it burned our feet through the soles of our shoes. If the crust had broken, we would have sunk into a sea of fire. Then we saw the monstrous stream of fire pouring slowly, thick and red like porridge, down the mountains. The sulphur fumes were so strong; the fire was burning our feet, so that after two minutes we had to go back. All around we saw fissures of fire. There was a whooshing sound coming from the crater, like when all at once a flock of birds starts up from a forest.

Eruption of Vesuvius by Johan Christian Dahl (1788–1857)

Ultimately, however, one has to give Andersen the benefit of the doubt and trust that the hazardous undertaking was for the sake of beauty, driven by a longing to get as close as humanly possible to nature’s source, to that fiery frontier of life and death, of beauty and suffering, from which true awe springs. It was beauty, ultimately, that Andersen took away:

The lava looked like colossal, fallen stars. — We rode again over the black lava field. I hung back from the others in order to watch the matchless play of nature.

The voyage to Vesuvius is but a sliver of the richness found in The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen, an exquisite read in its entirety — a treasure trove that blends breathtaking travel writing with rare insight into the great storyteller’s soul. Complement it with the most beautiful illustrations from 150 years of Andersen fairy tales.

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21 FEBRUARY, 2014

Happy 111th Birthday, Anaïs Nin: The Famous Diarist on Love and Life, Illustrated

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“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

I believe that most things worth knowing about life can be learned from the sixteen volumes of diaries that Anaïs Nin (February 21, 1903–January 14, 1977) began keeping at the age of eleven and continued until she died at seventy-four — things that have to do with why emotional excess is essential to creativity, why inviting the unknown helps us live more richly, how our objects define us, personal responsibility, the elusive nature of joy, writing, and the meaning of life.

But most enchanting of all are the timeless insights on love and life that Nin — a woman who made her own rules for living as expansively as possible in a society that kept trying to contain her — spilled into the pages of her diaries. Over the past couple of years, those have come to life in a series of collaborations from the Brain Pickings artist series, as I’ve asked artists and illustrators to capture some of my favorite highlights from years of reading Nin’s diaries.

Writer, artist, and frequent collaborator Debbie Millman created a duo of hand-lettered typographic artworks based on Nin’s meditations on love. Both are available as prints here and here, with 100% of proceeds benefiting A Room of Her Own, a foundation supporting women writers and artists.

San-Francisco-based illustrator Lisa Congdon created a trio of black-and-white hand-lettered artworks based on my highlights from the third volume of Nin’s diaries.

In fact, out of this series sprang my yearlong collaboration with Lisa, highlighting women who changed our understanding of the world, which kicked off with Nin:

Explore more of Nin’s wisdom in the archive, including a recording of her reading from the famous diaries, then treat yourself to the recently released Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939–1947 (public library).

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