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Posts Tagged ‘history’

25 AUGUST, 2015

August 25, 1944: Picasso, the Liberation of Paris, and the Meaning of Heroism

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“It’s easy to be a hero when you’re only risking your life.”

“To be an artist,” Louise Bourgeois wrote in her diary, “is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer.” But how is an artist to be when the world itself becomes murderous? Nowhere is the wear and tear of living more trying for the creative spirit — for the human spirit — than in war. And yet generations of artists have not only persevered through some of the ugliest, most gruesome periods in our civilizational history but have helped the rest of us endure by bolstering the spirit of their fellow humans. Bourgeois herself lived through two world wars, as did the artist she considered the greatest master: Pablo Picasso (October 25, 1881–April 8, 1973), a man whose unflinching creative courage became nothing short of heroism under the duress of war.

Despite frequent harassment by the Gestapo, Picasso refused to leave Nazi-occupied Paris. He was forbidden from exhibiting or publishing, all of his books were banned, and even the reproduction of his work was prohibited — but he continued to make art. When the Germans outlawed bronze casting, he went on making sculptures with bronze smuggled by the French Resistance — a symbolic act which the deflated creative community saw as an emboldening beam of hope.

Portrait of Picasso by Brassaï

In Conversations with Picasso (public library) — the same vintage treasure that gave us the artist’s views on success, where ideas come from, and the glory of dust — Hungarian photographer Brassaï recounts a 1943 conversation with the French poet Jacques Prévert, another friend of Picasso’s. Brassaï, who had been visiting the artist’s studio and interviewing him for over a decade, reflects on the bravery with which Picasso had withstood the occupation of Paris since the Nazis had taken over three years earlier:

At the time of the invasion, he could have left if he had wanted, could have gone anywhere he wished, to Mexico, Brazil, the United States. He didn’t lack for money or opportunities or invitations. Even during the Occupation, the United States consul requested several times that he leave France. But he stayed. His presence among us is a comfort and a spur, not only for those of us who are his friends, but even for those who don’t know him.

Prévert agrees and considers the true meaning of heroism:

It was an act of courage. The man is not a hero. He is afraid, just like anyone who has something to say or defend. It’s easy to be a hero when you’re only risking your life. For his part, he could, and still can, lose everything. Who knows what turn the war will take? Paris may be destroyed. He’s got a bad record with the Nazis, and could be interned, deported, taken hostage. Even his works — “degenerate” art, “Bolshevik” art — have already been condemned and may be burned at the stake. No one in the world, not the pope or the Holy Ghost, could prevent such an auto-da-fé. And the more desperate Hitler and his acolytes become, the more dangerous, deadly, and destructive their rage may be. Can Picasso guess how they might react? He has assumed the risk. He has come back to occupied Paris. He is with us. Picasso is a great guy.

Picasso's Guernica (1937), one of history's most significant anti-war artworks, created three years after Hitler's rise to power and three years before the invasion of Paris.

But the city was not destroyed. On August 25, 1944, the Liberation of Paris took place after a seven-day coup, in which Hemingway himself participated. “JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY.” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary that day.

Brassaï reflects on the larger payoff of Picasso’s courageous resistance, recounting a very different kind of joyous invasion:

From one day to the next, Picasso’s studio was invaded. His courageous attitude made him a standard-bearer, and the whole world wanted to salute him as the symbol of recovered freedom. Poets, painters, art critics, museum directors, writers dressed in the uniform of Allied armies, officers or simple soldiers, climbed the steep staircase in a compact mob. There was a crush of people at his place. He has become just as popular in Red China, in Soviet Russia, as he was in the United States after his major exhibition in New York. And, for months, Picasso good-naturedly relished universal glory, graciously made himself available to journalists, to photographers, and even to the curious who wanted to see him “in the flesh.”

Conversations with Picasso is an indispensable read in its totality, full of the great artist’s ideas on every aspect of art and life, and strewn with cameos and recollections by some of his most influential contemporaries, including Henri Matisse, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Henry Miller.

Complement this particular portion with Hemingway’s first-hand account of the Liberation coup.

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14 AUGUST, 2015

Micromegas: Voltaire’s Trailblazing Sci-Fi Philosophical Homage to Newton and the Human Condition, in a Rare Vintage Children’s Book

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“Perhaps those who live here are not sensible people.”

When the great French Enlightenment philosopher and satirist Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778) was traveling in England as a young man, he met Catherine Barton, Isaac Newton’s niece, who enchanted him with the story of how the trailblazing scientist had discovered gravity. So began Voltaire’s lifelong love affair with Newton’s work.

A few years later, when he met the Marquise du Châtelet — the remarkable woman mathematician with whom he fell in love — he wrote of her: “That lady whom I look upon as a great man … understands Newton, she despises superstition and in short she makes me happy.” With help from his beloved, who had translated Newton’s Principia from Latin herself, Voltaire penned Elements of the Philosophy of Newton in 1738 — the first major work bringing Newton’s theories to a popular audience.

But his most unusual and wonderful celebration of Newton’s legacy came more than a decade later. In 1752, he penned Micromégas — a short story notable not only for being a seminal work of science fiction, but for addressing with astonishing prescience an equally astonishing array of issues enormously timely today: He envisions space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life two centuries before the word “astronaut” was coined; he champions animal consciousness a quarter millennium before we came to acknowledge it and study its complexities; above all, he speaks to the redemptive power of humility and critical thinking.

Voltaire tells the story of Micromegas, a brilliant giant from a distant planet, modeled after Newton and quite possibly a play on the great scientist’s famous proclamation: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Micromegas voyages across the universe with his slightly less gigantic friend and eventually ends up on Earth, at first unable to see its tiny human inhabitants, then skeptical of their intelligence, and at last amused by their incongruous self-importance. At the heart of the story is a poignant reminder that greatness is always relative and arrogance always misplaced, for however great we are, there is always someone greater out there; and that however much we may wish to outsource the ultimate task of existence, we must discern the meaning of life for ourselves.

In 1967, more than two centuries after Voltaire penned his clever and imaginative allegory, writer Elizabeth Hall adapted it for young readers in Voltaire’s Micromegas (public library) — a marvelous vintage “children’s” book relaying Voltaire’s timeless message for all ages, with breathtaking illustrations by artist Don Freeman.

On one of those planets which revolve around the star named Sirius, there was a very clever young man. He was called Micromegas, a name which suits all big men, for, though they may be huge in their own land, there is always another land where they will find themselves small.

So huge is Micromegas that he stands eight leagues tall, his head twenty miles away from his feet and his intellect commensurate with his size. By the time he reaches adolescence at the age of about 500, he begins conducting scientific experiments that challenge the dogma of the land. Once he publishes his theories, the great ruler of Sirius is so displeased — much like Isaac Newton’s theories had displeased the religious leaders of his day — that he banishes Micromegas from the court for eight hundred years.

Micromegas was only slightly upset at being banished from court. Instead of grieving, he began to travel from planet to planet in order to develop his mind and heart.

On Saturn, he meets the local “dwarves” — only a mile tall — and becomes fast friends with the Secretary of the Academy of Saturn, who joins him on the cosmic voyage. Together, they visit the other planets in the Solar System until they come across an aurora borealis that carries them to Earth and drops them on the northern coast of the Baltic Sea.

After snacking on two snow-capped mountains for breakfast, they set about exploring this tiny world, which they traverse in a matter of hours, looking for signs of life.

They see “the puddle called the Mediterranean” and “that other little pond which is known as the Atlantic Ocean,” but their enormous eyes remain blind to the tiny creatures inhabiting the planet — and so the dwarf concludes that there must be no life on this jagged, irregular piece of rock with its strange rivers, none of which flow in a straight line, and its odd-shaped lakes, neither round nor square. But Micromegas is unconvinced.

“What makes me guess there is no life here is that it seems to me that sensible people would not want to live here,” [said the dwarf].

“Well,” said Micromegas, “perhaps those who live here are not sensible people.”

Agitated over their argument, Micromegas accidentally breaks the string of his diamond necklace and discovers — another nod to Newton here — that because of how they are cut, the diamonds make excellent microscope lenses. With that makeshift microscope, the dwarf suddenly sees something moving under the water in the sea — a whale.

He lifted it up very skillfully with his little finger. He put it on his thumbnail. He showed it to the Sirian who began to laugh at the extreme smallness of the inhabitants of our globe.

The Saturnian, now certain that our world was inhabited, immediately imagined it was inhabited only by whales. Since he was a great reasoner, he wanted to guess from where so tiny a speck drew its movement and whether it had a mind and a will.

This upset Micromegas. He examined the animal very patiently. The result of the examination was that there were no reasons for believing that a soul inhabited the tiny whale. The two travelers therefore believed there was no intelligence on our earth.

But just as they’re drawing their conclusion, the two cosmic travelers spot something bigger than the whale floating on the Baltic Sea.

It is known that at this same time a flock of philosophers were returning from the Arctic Circle where they had been making observations. No one had noticed their expedition until that moment. The newspapers later said that their ship ran aground off the coast of Bothnia and that they had great difficulty in escaping.

Intrigued by this supposed new animal, Micromegas picks up the ship ever so gently, greatly alarming the ship’s still-invisible passengers. The commotion registers as a tickle — just enough for Micromegas to sense something moving. But his microscope, barely powerful enough to detect the whale, struggles to reveal these tiny human mites to his eye. Still, he stares intently until he begins to notice these tiny specks, not only moving but seemingly communicating with each other.

Inventive like Newton himself, Micromegas pulls out a pair of scissors — for who would travel the cosmos without one? — and clips off a piece of his nail, which he curls into a funnel to create a huge megaphone. Pointing it to his ear, he can suddenly hear the tiny creatures. Afraid that his great big voice would deafen them, he sticks a toothpick in his mouth to keep a safe distance from the ship, kneels, and lowers his voice to speak to the passengers softly.

After telling the earthlings how sorry he was that they were so tiny, he asked them if they had always been in such a wretched state, so near to not existing at all. The dwarf then asked them what they did on a world which belonged to whales, if they were happy, if they had souls, and a hundred other questions.

One reasoner in the crowd, more daring than the others, was shocked that the dwarf doubted he had a soul. Using his quadrant, he looked at the dwarf several times and said, “You believe, sir, because your head stretches a mile from your feet that you are a…”

The dwarf interrupts in astonishment. Impressed that the tiny human has been able to estimate his height, he concludes that they must surely have both a mind and a soul. Nearly two centuries before the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, in which some of Earth’s real-life leading scientists asserted that nonhuman animals have consciousness, Micromegas declares:

More than ever I see that we must not judge anything by size. If it is possible that there are being smaller than these tiny specks, it is also possible that they have minds superior to those splendid animals I have seen in the sky.

The more Micromegas comes to know Earth and its inhabitants, the more impressed he becomes with their merits — and yet he remains blind to their flaws:

Micromegas suggested that the tiny creatures on earth, having such fine minds and small bodies, must spend their lives in perfect happiness.

All the philosophers shook their heads.

One of them, more courageous than the rest, distills for the celestial visitor the absurdity of every war as Voltaire once again exerts his satirical genius of putting in perspective the grandiose pettiness of the human condition:

“For example,” he said, “do you know that as I am speaking to you, there are one hundred thousand fools wearing hats, who are killing one hundred thousand other animals wearing turbans, or in turn are being massacred by them? And that people have acted in this way for as long as man can remember?”

The Sirian shuddered. He asked what the reason could be for such horrible quarrels among such pitiful animals.

“They are fighting,” said the philosopher, “over a few piles of dirt as big as your heel. They slaughter one another, not for a single straw of the dirt piles, but to decide whether they will belong to a man called Sultan or to another called Caesar. Neither Sultan nor Caesar has ever seen the little bits of dirt.”

Appalled, Micromegas inquires how the philosophers, being among the few wise men who don’t kill others for a living, spend their time:

“We dissect flies,” answered the philosopher. “We measure lines. We study numbers. We agree on two or three points which we understand, and we disagree on two or three thousand which we don’t understand.”

But then, as Micromegas begins inquiring about the things on which the earthlings do agree, Voltaire throws his most piercing spear of cultural critique, satirizing the ludicrous religious dogma which Newton had to combat in his day:

Then, unfortunately, one of the puny earthlings said he knew the secret of the universe. He regarded the two celestial inhabitants from head to toe. Throwing back his head, the better to shout and make himself heard, he said that the visitors’ very selves, their worlds, their suns, their stars, all were made solely for man.

At this speech the two travelers fell on each other, choking with laughter. Their shoulders shook. Their bellies shook. In these convulsions, the ship that the Sirian was balancing on his nail tumbled into the pocket of the dwarf’s trousers.

Micromegas and the dwarf, being kindly and conscientious even in the face of such absurd arrogance, recover the ship from the pocket and gently place it back onto the sea. As a parting gift, before leaping onto another aurora borealis to return home, Micromegas offers the earthlings “a fine book of philosophy” to take to the Academy of Sciences in Paris.

But when the Secretary of the Academy — a Voltaire lookalike — opens the tome, he discovers a book of empty pages. Micromegas has delivered his message: Earthlings must learn philosophy — that is, the art of understanding how to live and how to die — for themselves.

How lamentable that a “children’s” book as imaginative and insightful and full of timeless, ageless wisdom as Voltaire’s Micromegas should go out of print — perhaps a publisher with a good heart and a good head on her shoulders would consider bringing it back for today’s young readers, who need Voltaire’s message of humility and critical thinking perhaps more than ever. In the meantime, used copies do exist and are very much worth the used-book hunt or the trip to the library.

Complement it with David the Dreamer, another unusual vintage children’s book illustrated by Freud’s eccentric niece, and The Hole, a contemporary Scandinavian counterpart that enchants young readers with existential questions, then revisit Voltaire on how to write well and stay true to your creative vision and the story of how he fell in love with the brilliant Marquise.

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13 AUGUST, 2015

Marianne Moore and the Crowning Curio: How a Poem Saved One of the World’s Rarest and Most Majestic Trees

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“It is still leafing; still there. Mortal though.”

That a tree can save a writer’s life is already miraculous enough, but that a writer can save a tree’s life is nothing short of magical.

In 1867, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, once an American Revolution battlefield, opened its gates to a community hungry for a peaceful respite of wilderness amid the urban bustle. So intense was public enthusiasm that local residents began donating a variety of wildlife to fill the 585-acre green expanse, from ducks to deer. But the most unusual and enduring gift turned out to be a tree, donated by a man named A.G. Burgess and planted in 1872.

This was no ordinary tree. Ulmus glabra “Camperdownii,” better-known as Camperdown Elm, is a species unlike regular trees in that it cannot reproduce from a seed. The rare elm carries its irregularity on the outside — its majestic, knobby branches grow almost parallel to the ground, “weeping” down. To ameliorate its reproductive helplessness, the Camperdown Elm requires outside help — a sort of assisted grafting, be it by accident of nature or intentional human hand.

This is how the species originated in the 1830s: The head forester of the Earl of Camperdown discovered a mutant branch of a Scots Elm growing along the ground at Camperdown House in Dundee, Scotland; he decided to graft it onto an ordinary Scots Elm. The result, to which every single Camperdown Elm in the world today can be traced, was an unusual-looking tree — a sort of giant bonsai with “weeping” branches. But this ugly duckling turned out to have a secret superpower — it was immune to the disease that killed all of its cousins, the Dutch Elms, across North America.

Unlike the world’s oldest living trees, which predate our civilization by millennia, the Camperdown Elm is a curious conduit between nature and humanity: Both human-made and gloriously wild, with its barbaric-looking bark and defiant branches, it stands as a poignant metaphor for the interdependence of all beings — nowhere more so than in the story of the Brooklyn tree.

The baby Camperdown Elm shortly after it was planted in Prospect Park on an elevated mound in order to give its branches additional room to clear the ground. (Photograph: New York Public Library archives)

As excitement over the novelty of Prospect Park began dying down, the Camperdown Elm came to suffer years of neglect. Suddenly, it became more than a metaphor for impermanence and mortality — its heavy branches were weeping into the precipice of death, the public deaf to its tears.

But then, in the 1960s, it was saved by a force even more miraculous than that by which its Scottish great-great-grandfather had been born — not by a botanist or a park commissioner or a policymaker, but by a poet fifteen years the tree’s junior.

The poet was Marianne Moore (November 15, 1887–February 5, 1972), who had been elected president of New York’s Greensward Foundation — an advocacy group for public parks — in 1965. This brilliant and eccentric woman, who never married and by all accounts never fell in love, found herself enamored with the old odd-looking tree. Under the auspices of the foundation, she created a citizen group called Friends of Prospect Park, aimed at protecting the Camperdown Elm and other endangered trees in the park.

In 1967, eighty at the time and with a Pulitzer Prize under her belt, Moore penned “The Camperdown Elm” — a beautiful ode to this unusual, dignified, yet surprisingly fragile life-form of which humans are the only bastions. The poem, animated by the same impulse undergirding Hermann Hesse’s sublime meditation on what trees teach us about belonging, was included in Moore’s Complete Poems (public library).

THE CAMPERDOWN ELM

I think, in connection with this weeping elm,
of “Kindred Spirits” at the edge of a rockledge
    overlooking a stream:
Thanatopsis-invoking tree-loving Bryant
conversing with Thomas Cole
in Asher Durand’s painting of them
under the filigree of an elm overhead.

No doubt they had seen other trees — lindens,
maples and sycamores, oaks and the Paris
street-tree, the horse-chestnut; but imagine
their rapture, had they come on the Camperdown elm’s
massiveness and “the intricate pattern of its branches,”
arching high, curving low, in its mist of fine twigs.
The Bartlett tree-cavity specialist saw it
and thrust his arm the whole length of the hollowness
of its torso and there were six small cavities also.

Props are needed and tree-food. It is still leafing;
still there. Mortal though. We must save it. It is
    our crowning curio.

A quarter century after a children’s book saved New York’s Little Red Lighthouse, Moore’s poem mobilized the Friends of Prospect Park to envelop the Camperdown Elm in attentive and nurturing care, which ultimately saved it. The group went on to identify and salvage other vulnerable, neglected trees throughout the park. In her will, Moore established a fund to protect Brooklyn’s beloved “crowning curio.”

Today, halfway into its second century, the Camperdown Elm’s majestic canopy is buoyed by the air of poetry and human grace. Complement its heartening story with an uncommonly beautiful Japanese pop-up book celebrating what a tree can teach us about the cycle of life and death.

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03 AUGUST, 2015

Simone Weil on True Genius and the Crushing Illusion of Inferiority

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“When one hungers for bread one does not receive stones.”

“Many of the tenets of sainthood are also to be cultivated in the committed writer,” Melissa Pritchard observed in her beautiful meditation on art as a form of active prayer. But for French philosopher, political activist, and mystic Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) — one of the most lucid, luminous, and gravely underappreciated thinkers in human history — sainthood was more than a metaphor for her approach to writing. Weil endures as a rare kind of modern saint — a person who lived with absolute conviction and lived that conviction absolutely, not merely as a detached intellectual abstraction but as practical concreteness into which she threw all of herself, frail body and formidable mind.

To better understand the struggles of the working class, 24-year-old Weil — who had graduated with a degree in philosophy after placing first in the competitive national university entrance exam; Simone de Beauvoir placed second — quit her teaching job and labored incognito in a car factory for more than a year, despite having a rare neuropathy that gave her frequent debilitating headaches. Although she was a proponent of nonviolence and was in poor health for the entirety of her short life, she volunteered in the Spanish Civil War and beseeched an anti-fascist commander to let her assist in a mission to rescue a political prisoner, knowing it might cost her her life. Upon returning to Paris, she continued to write passionately about war and peace, labor rights, the moral responsibilities of science, and countless other subjects the ultimate aim of which was a more exalted humanity.

As she lay dying of tuberculosis, exiled in a British hospital, she defied the doctors’ orders by refusing to eat more than the rations her compatriots in Nazi-occupied France were given — a solidary self-sacrifice akin to a saint’s, and one that accordingly resulted in her death. Albert Camus proclaimed her “the only great spirit of our times.” The influential Canadian philosopher George Grant considered her “the supreme teacher of the relation of love and intelligence,” a singular spirit marked by the rare combination of a “staggeringly clear intellect with something that is beyond the intellect — namely, sanctity.”

In the spring of 1942, a year before she fell mortally ill, Weil penned a long letter to a dear friend and confidante, the theologian Father Perrin, which she considered a sort of “spiritual autobiography.” It was later included in the posthumously published Waiting for God (public library) — one of the most ennobling texts our civilization ever produced.

In a particularly poignant passage from the letter, Weil looks back on her life and contemplates the nature of genius. Although she had a great reverence for giftedness — having witnessed it since a young age in her brother, the influential mathematician André Weil — she believed genius was not a passive function of talent but an active and transcendent search for truth:

At fourteen I fell into one of those fits of bottomless despair that come with adolescence, and I seriously thought of dying because of the mediocrity of my natural faculties. The exceptional gifts of my brother, who had a childhood and youth comparable to those of Pascal, brought my own inferiority home to me. I did not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides. I preferred to die rather than live without that truth.

In a sentiment that calls to mind young Vincent van Gogh’s touching letter on finding one’s purpose“Does what goes on inside show on the outside?” he wrote to his brother. “Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” — Weil adds:

After months of inward darkness, I suddenly had the everlasting conviction that any human being, even though practically devoid of natural faculties, can penetrate to the kingdom of truth reserved for genius, if only he longs for truth and perpetually concentrates all his attention upon its attainment. He thus becomes a genius too, even though for lack of talent his genius cannot be visible from outside…

Under the name of truth I also included beauty, virtue, and every kind of goodness, so that for me it was a question of a conception of the relationship between grace and desire. The conviction that had come to me was that when one hungers for bread one does not receive stones.

Complement the immeasurably enriching Waiting for God with Weil on making use of our suffering, science and our spiritual values, and how to be a complete human being.

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