Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

20 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Difference Between the Beautiful and the Sublime, Animated

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A 100-second anatomy of astonishment.

Britain’s Open University has previously given us some illuminating animated explainers of the history of the English language, the world’s major religions, philosophy’s greatest thought experiments, and the major creative movements in design. They have now partnered with BBC broadcaster and In Our Time host Melvyn Bragg on a series adapting Bragg’s BBC4 podcast A History of Ideas into short animations that synthesize some of humanity’s most influential ideas.

Among them is 18th-century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s exploration of the difference between the beautiful and the sublime, scrutinized in his 1757 treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (public library | IndieBound).

In one of the most powerful passages in the book, Burke describes the effect of the sublime in its highest degree — a psychic state we might, today, call awe:

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. 1 In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.

This, no doubt, is what Ptolemy meant when he beheld the heavens and what Carl Sagan felt two millennia later in encountering the cosmos.

Complement with Ursula K. Le Guin’s sublime meditation on what beauty really means, Susan Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness, and the evolutionary science of “beauty overload.”

HT Open Culture

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12 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Mirror and the Meme: A 600-Year History of the Selfie

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How glass, tin, and mercury converged on a Venetian island in the 15th century to fundamentally change the way we look at ourselves.

In 1977, long before the social web as we know it existed, Susan Sontag foresaw a new dawn of “aesthetic consumerism” sparked by photography’s social aspect. Today, nowhere is this phenomenon more glaring than in the ubiquitous selfie. But how did we end up with this peculiar Möbius strip of self-image, turning our gaze inward and outward at the same time?

In How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World (public library | IndieBound) — which also gave us the mind-stretching story of how Galileo invented timeSteven Johnson peels back history’s curtains to reveal the unsuspected causal chains of innovation behind “that iconic, early-twenty-first-century act: snapping a selfie on your phone.” We might be apt to celebrate innovations like the evolution of photography and the rise of the social web as the impetus for the selfie revolution — but these, Johnson points out with his penchant for the unexpected sociocultural twist, can’t hold a candle to the true breakthrough that makes it all possible: glass. He explains:

Glass supports this entire network: we take pictures through glass lenses, store and manipulate them on circuit boards made of fiberglass, transmit them around the world via glass cables, and enjoy them on screens made of glass. It’s silicon dioxide all the way down the chain.

We already know that glass is a remarkable material that planted the seed for the innovation gap between East and West, but the role of glass in the journey of our self-image extends beyond the technology and into how we think about the human countenance itself. Even though the self-portrait is a fixture of Renaissance art and early modernism, Johnson points out that it practically didn’t exist as an artistic convention until the beginning of the 15th century. “People painted landscapes and royalty and religious scenes and a thousand other subjects,” he notes. “But they didn’t paint themselves.”

And then something happened — glassmakers on the Venetian island of Murano figured out how to combine glass with a new technological breakthrough in metallurgy, which allowed them to coat the back of a piece of glass with a medley of tin and mercury, producing a highly reflective surface. The result was the mirror, which forever changed how we see ourselves. Johnson writes:

For the first time, mirrors became part of the fabric of everyday life. This was a revelation on the most intimate of levels: before mirrors came along, the average person went through life without ever seeing a truly accurate representation of his or her face, just fragmentary, distorted glances in pools of water or polished metals.

Mirrors appeared so magical that they were quickly integrated into somewhat bizarre sacred rituals: During holy pilgrimages, it became common practice for well-off pilgrims to take a mirror with them. When visiting sacred relics, they would position themselves so that they could catch sight of the bones in the mirror’s reflection. Back home, they would then show off these mirrors to friends and relatives, boasting that they had brought back physical evidence of the relic by capturing the reflection of the sacred scene. Before turning to the printing press, Gutenberg had the start-up idea of manufacturing and selling small mirrors for departing pilgrims.

But the most momentous impact of the mirror, Johnson argues, was a secular one — in revolutionizing the art of seeing, it invariably revolutionized art itself:

Filippo Brunelleschi employed a mirror to invent linear perspective in painting, by drawing a reflection of the Florence Baptistry instead of his direct perception of it. The art of the late Renaissance is heavily populated by mirrors lurking inside paintings, most famously in Diego Velázquez’s inverted masterpiece, Las Meninas, which shows the artist (and the extended royal family) in the middle of painting King Philip IV and Queen Mariana of Spain. The entire image is captured from the point of view of two royal subjects sitting for their portrait; it is, in a very literal sense, a painting about the act of painting. The king and queen are visible only in one small fragment of the canvas, just to the right of Velázquez himself: two small, blurry images reflected back in a mirror. As a tool, the mirror became an invaluable asset to painters who could now capture the world around them in a far more realistic fashion, including the detailed features of their own faces.

'Las Meninas' by Diego Velázquez, 1656

Even Da Vinci extolled the creative value of the mirror in his notebooks:

When you wish to see whether the general effect of your picture corresponds with that of the object represented after nature, take a mirror and set it so that it reflects the actual thing, and then compare the reflection with your picture, and consider carefully whether the subject of the two images is in conformity with both, studying especially the mirror. The mirror ought to be taken as a guide.

Johnson considers the role of this breakthrough as a sensemaking device in an era when we were using glass to orient ourselves to the cosmos and, thanks to the mirror, to orient ourselves to ourselves:

At the exact moment that the glass lens was allowing us to extend our vision to the stars or microscopic cells, glass mirrors were allowing us to see ourselves for the first time. It set in motion a reorientation of society that was more subtle, but no less transformative, than the reorientation of our place in the universe that the telescope engendered.

[…]

The mirror played a direct role in allowing artists to paint themselves and invent perspective as a formal device; and shortly thereafter a fundamental shift occurred in the consciousness of Europeans that oriented them around the self in a new way, a shift that would ripple across the world (and that is still rippling).

The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles Palace

This rippling, Johnson points out, was a perfect example of the hummingbird effect at work as various sociocultural forces converged to unleash its full potential for transformation:

The self-centered world played well with the early forms of modern capitalism that were thriving in places like Venice and Holland (home to those masters of painterly introspection, Dürer and Rembrandt). Likely, these various forces complemented each other: glass mirrors were among the first high-tech furnishings for the home, and once we began gazing into those mirrors, we began to see ourselves differently, in ways that encouraged the market systems that would then happily sell us more mirrors…

The mirror doesn’t “force” the Renaissance to happen; it “allows” it to happen.

[…]

Without a technology that enabled humans to see a clear reflection of reality, including their own faces, the particular constellation of ideas in art and philosophy and politics that we call the Renaissance would have had a much more difficult time coming into being.

Peering into the history of the mirror and the future of its modern progeny — which includes, notably, the selfie — Johnson leaves the trajectory of its sociocultural impact open-ended:

The mirror helped invent the modern self, in some real but unquantifiable way. That much we should agree on. Whether that was a good thing in the end is a separate question, one that may never be settled conclusively.

How We Got to Now is an illuminating read in its totality. Complement it with 100 ideas that changed art.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

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03 NOVEMBER, 2014

Found Meals of the Lost Generation: An Edible Time-Capsule of the Creative Scene of 1920s Paris

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James Joyce’s cocoa, Ernest Hemingway’s sausages, Gertrude Stein’s jugged hare, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s chicken, and more.

Given my voracious appetite for unusual cookbooks — particularly those at the intersection of literature, art, and cuisine, such as the vintage treasure Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, the recently released Modern Art Cookbook, those real recipes from Roald Dahl’s children’s books, Salvador Dalí’s erotic gastronomy, Andy Warhol’s little-known illustrated recipes, and Dinah Fried’s magnificent photographs of meals from famous fiction — I was delighted to chance upon the 1994 gem Found Meals of the Lost Generation: Recipes and Anecdotes from 1920s Paris (public library). This unusual compendium offers what author Suzanne Rodriguez-Hunter aptly calls “social history with recipes, a kind of edible time machine” transporting us to the Parisian creative coterie of the 1920s, which Hemingway termed a “movable feast.” Each chapter is devoted to a major literary or artistic figure from that era’s artistic ecosystem, cumulatively known as the Lost Generation — including Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Beach, James Joyce, Josephine Baker, and Isadora Duncan — and weaves together biographical anecdotes with recipes for an actual meal in which that person participated.

Rodriguez-Hunter writes of the Lost Generation’s singular allure:

They rebelled against their parents, danced to loud and shocking music, were disillusioned by war, flirted with cocaine, pushed the boundaries of sexual freedom, cut their hair geometrically and colored it with henna, loved abstract art, joined cults, flew in airplanes in a world grown small, drove fast cars, pondered their subconscious motivations, rejected conformism, and a lot of them drank or drugged too much… They were the Moderns — the first modern generation.

Zelda Fitzgerald's painting of Paris, one of her little-known watercolors. Click image for more.

These generational pioneers were born into a unique precipice of cultural change — the automobile had arrived, but it was clunky and expensive; phones were around, but far from common; the radio was yet to be invented; children worked in factories and most families lived in homes with outdoor toilets. During their heyday, the members of the Lost Generation witnessed and partook in remarkable social shifts — women’s right to vote, Freud’s liberation of the subconscious, the invention of the airplane, the rise of the cinema, and a seemingly uncontainable range of other innovations. Meanwhile, WWI had left millions disillusioned and dejected. Paris, emerging as the capital of Modernism, offered alluring respite from the breakage of the human spirit. In promising unparalleled creative refuge and revival, the city attracted a steady cohort of American expat artists and writers, who fused with the local community at literary salons, art exhibitions, parties, and various other social cross-pollinators.

The excitements and ambivalences of those changes became deeply embedded in how the Lost Generation lived and celebrated their lives — which invariably included their cuisine.

Here are a few favorites, beginning with hot chocolate, quaintly termed cocoa, à la James Joyce — one can easily envision him sipping it while sitting at his desk, careful not to drip any on his white writing coat.

COCOA

In a saucepan over very low heat combine 1 cup boiling water, ¼ cup of your favorite powdered cocoa, a dash of salt, and sugar to taste (approximately 3 tablespoons). Mix thoroughly. Add 3 cups scalded milk. Stir gently while mixture slowly heats, approximately 3 minutes. If desired, add 1 teaspoon vanilla near the end. Remove from heat, beat lightly with wire whisk, and pour into moustache cups or mugs.

Perhaps as James Joyce was warming up for his most revealing interview with a cup of hot chocolate, his interviewer, Djuna Barnes, was fortifying herself with a salad of winter lettuces.

A SALAD OF WINTER LETTUCES

In a small bowl combine 1 tablespoon walnut oil, 2 tablespoons high-quality olive oil, 1 tablespoon raspberry vinegar, and 1 finely minced shallot. Let flavors blend while preparing the salad.

Cut away and discard the stem of two large Belgian endives, removing whole leaves. Discard stems of 1 bunch watercress, breaking into sprigs. Tear 1 frisée endive into pieces (or equivalent amount of curly endive). Wash and dry all greens and place in salad bowl. Peel a small celeriac, slice it thinly, and cut slices into strips; add no more than ½ cup celeriac strips to greens. Pour dressing over salad and toss gently. Just before serving, sprinkle petals of 1 perfect red rose across the salad.

Even though Ernest Hemingway believed that “writing, at its best, is a lonely life,” it’s hard to imagine him feasting on these cervelas — short, fat sausages made of pork, usually seasoned with garlic — all by himself.

CERVELAS WITH MUSTARD SAUCE

Plunge 4 fresh cervelas or other pork/garlic sausages into a pot of boiling water, reduce heat, and let simmer for 5 minutes. Remove and rinse with cold water. In frying pan, melt small amount butter over moderate heat. Add sausages and cook until lightly browned. Serve with Mustard Sauce.

MUSTARD SAUCE

In a small mixing bowl combine 2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard and 3 tablespoons boiling water. Slowly add, drop by drop, 1/3 cup olive oil, beating constantly with a wire whip. The resulting sauce should be creamy. Add salt and pepper to taste, lemon juice if desired.

While Papa was a fan of pork, his buddy F. Scott Fitzgerald was partial to chicken.

CHICKEN MARYLAND

Cut a 3 ½ pound chicken into pieces. Dip each piece into milk, season with salt and pepper, dredge in flour, and let dry 30 minutes. In heavy skillet heat 3 tablespoons vegetable oil and sauté chicken on all sides until nicely browned. Add 1 cup hot water, ¼ teaspoon cumin, and ¼ teaspoon sage, and let come to boil. Immediately reduce heat, cover, and let simmer 45 minutes. Remove lid and simmer until all moisture has evaporated from pan. Serve.

A couple of decades before George Orwell concocted his 11 golden rules for the perfect cup of tea, Nina Hamnett and Jean Cocteau delighted Paris with their Formosa oolong tea, often considered the very best tea available — one would expect nothing less of Cocteau as a host.

FORMOSA OOLONG TEA

Bring a generous amount of very pure water to boil. Heat teapot by rinsing with boiling water. Put 1 teaspoonful of Formosa oolong or other tea into pot for each person; add an extra spoonful “for the pot.” Add boiling water approximately 1 cup per teaspoon of tea. Stir well. Let steep for 5 minutes. Serve.

And what would the era’s culinary scene be like without Parisian power couple Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, the former being the fairy godmother of the city’s creative community and the latter a culinary legend herself? Their jugged hare with red currant “found meal” is something Gertrude Stein recalls being served frequently by the wife of Henri Matisse, whose paintings became a centerpiece of Stein’s famed, generation-defining art collection.

JUGGED HARE

Cut a 5-pound rabbit or hare into pieces and place in deep (sic) bowl. In a separate bowl combine 1 cup red wine such as burgundy, 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, 1 large onion cut into quarters, 2 sliced carrots, 1 bay leaf, 12 whole peppercorns, 4 sprigs parsley, 1 ½ teaspoons salt, and 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper. Stir ingredients well and pour over rabbit. If rabbit is not covered by mixture, add more wine. Cover and let marinate in refrigerator overnight.

Two hours before serving, drain rabbit mixture through a colander reserving marinade. Heat a small amount of olive oil in a large frying pan; sauté rabbit until browned on all sides. Remove to covered casserole. Sauté onions and carrots until soft in the same pan, adding a little olive oil if necessary. Add vegetables to casserole. Deglaze the pan with 1 cup water and add reserved marinade to casserole. Place casserole, covered, preheated in 300 degree oven. Prepare a beurre manié by blending with a fork ¼ cup flour and 2 tablespoons softened butter; stir into the casserole after 1 hour. Return casserole to oven for another 30 to 45 minutes. Arrange rabbit on a serving platter, strain sauce over meat, and surround with boiled potatoes. Serve with red currant jelly-wine sauce.

RED CURRANT JELLY-WINE SAUCE

Slowly heat 1 cup red currant jelly over medium fire; when runny, add 1 cup good red wine and 1 tablespoon lemon juice; mix well and simmer gently, uncovered, 5 minutes. Thicken to taste with sauce from the rabbit casserole. Just before serving blend in 1tablespoon brandy.

Illustration of Gertrude Stein by Natacha Ledwidge from a rare 1993 edition of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. Click image for more.

And for dessert, it hardly gets more modernist than Stein’s “nameless cookies” — because, after all, a cookie is a cookie is a cookie.

NAMELESS COOKIES

Sift together ¼ cup powdered sugar and 2 cups white flour. Cream 1 cup butter and add the flour mixture slowly, little by little; this procedure, stirring rather than beating as flour is added, should take about 20 minutes. At midway point, add 1 tablespoon curaçao and 1 teaspoon brandy. When mixture has been combined, roll the dough into small “sausage” rolls about 2 inches long and ½ inch thick. Place on lightly oiled cookie sheet 1 inch apart in preheated 275º oven; bake 20 minutes. Remove gently with spatula, gently sifting powdered sugar over them while still hot. Kept in tightly closed container, cookies will last up to 3 weeks.

Found Meals of the Lost Generation is absolutely delicious in its entirety. Complement it with the era’s ultimate culinary time-capsule, The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, then revisit The Modern Art Cookbook and the Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook.

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