Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

13 MARCH, 2012

The Lady Anatomist: The Wax Sculptures of 18th-Century Artist-Scientist Anna Morandi Manzolini

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In eighteenth-century Italy, the “medical Venus” becomes the professor.

For 2,000 years of medical history, the human body has been inked out, penciled in, the nervous system mapped, the gut lovingly rendered, and the brain lit up in color. To make these renderings, doctors-in-training would for hundreds of years dissect the corpse of criminals, the insane, or the unknown, sometimes even digging up the body themselves or buying one from the black market.

In the eighteenth century, a less gross form of anatomy marked the beginning of a scientific enlightenment in Italy: the anatomical wax model. The Specola collection of anatomical waxes opened to the public in 1775, and with the blessing of a scientifically-minded Pope, societies and lectures opened up new opportunities for public education across class and gender lines. Wax anatomists had to be both incredibly well-versed in medicine and incredibly skilled at sculpture, and few were as talented as Anna Morandi Manzolini (1714-1774, whose extraordinary life and work have been recently collected in Rebecca Messbarger‘s The Lady Anatomist.

Anna Morandi, mouth and tongue (University of Bologna)

Anna Morandi, a set of wax eyes (University of Bolonga)

When she married at twenty-six, Morandi had been trained as a professional artist and could also read and write Latin, the language of academia. She entered into the world of the university as the wife of a professor of anatomy, and when he died of tuberculosis in 1755, Anna, a widow with two children, stepped into her husband’s former teaching position at the University of Bologna, continuing his studies and establishing an anatomical laboratory that even caught the attention of Russia’s Catherine the Great.

Modern anatomical hall at La Specola

Clemente Susini, anatomical Venus (University of Bologna)

“Medical Venuses” were a popular attraction among the anatomical wax models of the day, life-size figures of reclining, naked women, sometimes wearing pearls, whose stomachs were flayed to reveal the female reproductive system. Instead, Morandi tore away the fig leaf of the opposite sex, mastering the anatomy of the male reproductive system.

Anna Morandi, self-portrait in wax (University of Bologna)

Morandi was bold enough to cast her own wax portrait as “The Lady Anatomist,” a richly dressed lady, fingers hovering over a freshly opened brain like it was a breakfast of hard boiled egg.

Anna Morandi and Giovanni Manzolini, muscles of the forearm (University of Bologna)

The Lady Anatomist reveals the life of Anna Morandi Manzolini as one of influence, intelligence, and rigor; a woman who was born into a circumstance and age that allowed her to take hold of the narrative of her life and define herself as a professional scientist.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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12 MARCH, 2012

Six Tips on Writing from John Steinbeck

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On the value of unconscious association, or why the best advice is no advice.

If this is indeed the year of reading more and writing better, we’ve been right on course with David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, and various invaluable advice from other great writers. Now comes John Steinbeck — Pulitzer Prize winner, Nobel laureate, love guru — with six tips on writing, culled from his altogether excellent interview it the Fall 1975 issue of The Paris Review.

  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

But perhaps most paradoxically yet poetically, twelve years prior — in 1963, immediately after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception” — Steinbeck issued a thoughtful disclaimer to all such advice:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that make a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”

If you feel bold enough to discount Steinbeck’s anti-advice advice, you can do so with these 9 essential books on more and writing. Find more such gems in this collection of priceless interviews with literary icons from half a century of The Paris Review archives, then see the collected wisdom of great writers.

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

12 MARCH, 2012

The Laws of Thermopoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science

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What Charles Dickens has to do with equilibrium and entropy.

In Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, a young girl at the turn of the nineteenth century turns to her tutor, Septimus Hodge, and subtly describes the second law of thermodynamics while examining her breakfast:

When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backwards, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?”

Perhaps it is odd for a twelve-year-old girl to consider the state of entropy decades before its invention, but in Stoppard’s play, all of its characters seem to obey some property of physics, bouncing around like molecules in two closed systems, heating up, dissipating, and eventually reaching equilibrium.

That’s not thermophysics, that’s thermopoetics.

Energy is eternal delight.” ~ William Blake

Professor Bari J. Gold takes this very idea, that characters and plots can obey the laws of physics, and extends it into nineteenth-century literature in ThermoPoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science. The result is an extraordinary reconsideration of Victorian novels, plays, and poems pierced by time’s arrow, in which the works of Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde are bound up with energy conservation, the paradox of heat, engines, the grand unified theory, and of course, entropy.

Entropy is the measure of randomness in a system, also commonly used to describe an inevitable decline into social disorder. A closed system, like the worlds of Dickens novels, will develop towards a state of total entropy — disorder will never decrease, unless acted upon by forces from the outside.

What is life but organized energy?” ~ Arthur C. Clarke

The most familiar example of this in Victorian literature is Dickens’ Bleak House, where the endless Jarndyce case grinds on steadily, mixing its characters like jam into pudding. To survive the Courts of Chancery one must embrace entropy, and those that were caught up in its system had a “loose way of letting bad things alone take their own bad course, and a loose belief that if the world could go wrong, it was in some offhand manner, never meant to go right.”

Another Dickens work, A Tale of Two Cities, might also be recognized as a thermopoetic novel of equilibrium, in which the best of times are balanced by the worst of times, each character has a spiritual double. Or consider that Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray has created in this painting a heat sink, which absorbs the degrading age of its main character, allowing Dorian to remain a youthful constant.

All of this isn’t to say that Charles Dickens had entropy on the brain when be was writing A Tale of Two Cities in 1859 — the concept wouldn’t be developed thoroughly until five or six years later. Instead, ThermoPoetics creates a new kind of law, one that recognizes that science and art are not two separate systems, but instead that the rules that govern both fiction and physics are borne out of the same world — something beautifully aligned with Jonah Lehrer’s concept of “the fourth culture” of knowledge.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.