Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

05 MAY, 2015

The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning: The Extraordinary Edible Record of Two Women Explorers’ Journey to the End of the World

By:

“In Antarctica, everything is stripped down… It is only who you are and what you do that counts.”

“Housekeeping, the art of the infinite, is no game for amateurs,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in 1982 in a fictional piece full of truths, a New Yorker short story about an all-female crew of polar explorers titled “Sur: A Summary Report of the Yelcho Expedition to the Antarctic,” later included in the short story collection The Unreal and the Real.

The pioneering polar explorer Ernest Shackleton would’ve been well-advised to heed Le Guin’s admonition. In 1914, as he was readying to embark upon his heroic Antarctic expedition, he posted the following recruitment ad in the wanted section of a London newspaper:

MEN WANTED for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, nor and recognition in case of success.

Among the responses was one from a young woman named Peggy Pergrine, writing on behalf of a female trio:

We ‘three spotty girls’… beg for you take us with you on your expedition to the South Pole. We are … willing to undergo any hardships that you yourselves undergo. If our feminine garb is inconvenient, we should just love to don masculine attire… We do not see why men should have all the glory … especially when there are women just as brave and capable.

Shackleton replied dryly:

There are no vacancies for the opposite sex on the expedition.

Shackleton expedition photographer Frank Hurley working under the bows of the Endurance, 1915. Before abandoning the ship, Shackleton and Hurley chose 120 glass plates to keep, including this rare color one. They smashed 400 plates; Shackleton feared Hurley would endanger himself by even thinking of returning for them.

Whether the great explorer and his crew survived by merit or miracle remains unknown, but survive they did — however narrowly — not without attention to cuisine. (A year later, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his crew, who gave us the most enchanting photographic record of early polar exploration, weren’t so lucky — the entire crew perished in the grip of starvation and extreme cold.)

Menu prepared by Frank Hurley for Midwinter Day dinner, June 22, 1912

Courtesy Mitchell Library State Library of New South Wales

Shackleton’s return from Antarctica was the catalyst for a new era of polar exploration — over the course of the century since his voyage, countless expeditions have taken to this 90-percent glaciated island of mystery and magic, which occupies a tenth of our planet and holds most of the world’s fresh water but has remained unknown for most of human history. In the mere century that humans have inhabited the continent, several nations — including Russia, Chile, China, Uruguay, Poland, and Argentina — have set up research stations, which quickly sprouted the most prolific byproduct of our civilization: human mess.

Project Antarctica, VIEW Foundation pilot cleanup at the Polish research station, Carol Devine in center, 1995

In June of 1994, one woman was tasked with the very endeavor Shackleton had so bluntly denied young Peggy Pergrine exactly eight decades earlier: Humanitarian Carol Devine received a handwritten letter from the Polish Academy of Sciences, inviting her to spearhead what would become Project Antarctica — the world’s first major collaborative environmental initiative to clean up the debris that had accumulated since researchers first set foot on this icy wonderland.

It was a singular job that required the marriage of science and housekeeping, and it was — as Le Guin had observed a decade earlier — no game for amateurs.

Photograph by Jean-Baptiste Charcot from the first French expedition to the Antarctic, 1903–1905

As the expedition leader, Devine set out to recruit volunteers — in an era, it should be noted for perspective, when efforts of this sort were coordinated via fax and derailed by such disasters as blowing a slide projector. In addition to a program manager, an Antarctic veteran, and a biologist, she hired Wendy Trusler — a visual artist and chef renowned for cooking at tree-planting camps throughout Northern Canada.

So began a most unusual and vitalizing collaboration between the two women, which would become, twenty years later, The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning: A Polar Journey (public library) — an extraordinary tome blending the enchantment of Thoreau-like journaling (“A brilliant morning. Sun turns berg in bay into gold.”), the fascination of scientific observation and philosophical reflection (“[The Chilean Commandante] said you can’t write about something of which you are not a part. I disagreed, and agreed.”), and the pure delight of delicious, immensely inventive recipes for meals cooked with minimal ingredients and maximal imagination (“sea cabbage salad made with laminaria [fresh kelp]”).

Carol Devine (right) and Wendy Trusler, Bellingshausen, 1995

Photograph by Lena Nikolaeva

Devine writes in the introduction:

How do you start to clean up some 28 years worth of accumulated rubbish and encourage long-term commitment to cleanup?

[…]

This book is an invitation to experience our and others’ passions, doubts, victories, disasters, concerns, joys, heartbreaks, discoveries, recipes, warnings and encouragement for crossing stormy passages and being (or at least trying to be) good citizens of the world. It’s a call for earth stewardship. Why should future generations have to clean up our collective mess and inherit a planet depleted of biodiversity and resources?

Food is life, food is culture. It shaped old expeditions and shaped ours, and we’re going to use it to tell you this story.

And indeed Trusler’s recipes, written with great warmth and subtle humor, offer a living record of this singular experience.

Fisherman's Fish

Photograph by Sandy Nicholson

No dishes. No forks, You eat Fisherman’s Fish with your hands using your fingers to pull the tender flesh away from the bone. I make it at home using the whitefishes our local fishmonger brings in. Freshly caught bass, trout, pickerel or perch would be even more delectable.

2 whole fish about 1 pound each (whitefish, cleaned, with the skin on) // ¼ cup all-purpose flour // coarse salt // vegetable oil

Cut the fish into ½- to ¼-inch steaks and pat dry. Put the flour on a shallow plate and sprinkle with salt — a few pinches should do. Add enough oil to a large skillet to cover the bottom and place it over medium-high heat.

Dredge the fish steaks in flour on all sides and place them in the pan when the oil is hot, but not smoking. Cook until the fish is golden brown underneath, then turn the steaks and fry the other side until crisply. This should take about two minutes per side.

Serve straight from the pan with wedges of lemon, apples and pears. Have plenty of sweet lemony tea made (vodka shots if it is a special occasion) and be prepared for people to drop by once word gets out.

Makes a meal for six; more if you are serving it as a snack or starter.

The recipes pay homage to the national cuisines of the various research stations — Ukrainian cabbage rolls, Great Wall dumplings, spiced Russian tea. Tucked into them is also a taste of the changing legal and moral conventions surrounding our relationship with nature. Trusler offers a pause-giving appendix to the Fisherman’s Fish recipe:

We strongly encourage using sustainable seafood for this recipe. The Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection, signed in 1991 and entered into force in 1998, prohibits disrupting wildlife. While the kind of small-scale fishing a few of us did was not yet a breach in 1996, we are aware it was a grey zone and in hindsight are uncomfortable.

Rosemary Maple Borscht

Photograph by Sandy Nicholson

Vladimir the Russian cook made his borscht using a meat stock. My version kept the vegetarian volunteers in camp happy and even got the thumbs up from the Russians. To make vegan Rosemary Maple Borscht just substitute olive oil for butter and hold back on the dollop of crème fraiche or sour cream.

2 pounds beets (around 5 medium) // 3 medium potatoes // 2 tablespoons butter // olive oil // 2 onions // 2 cloves of garlic // 1 celery stalk // 2 large carrots // 1 small cabbage(about 5 cups chopped) // 1 tablespoon caraway seeds // 8 cups water // 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar // 3 tablespoons maple syrup // 1 can crushed tomatoes (28 ounces) // 1 tablespoons sea salt // pepper // fresh rosemary

Peel and cube the beets and potatoes and put them aside. Heat the butter in a large pot set over medium heat and add the beets and potatoes, tossing to coat them with butter. Reduce the heat and sauté, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon and being careful not to bruise or break the cubes. After about 5 minutes add enough water to cover the vegetables and gently simmer until tender, around 10 minutes.

While the beets and potatoes are cooking, mince the garlic and onions and chop the remaining vegetables. Put the caraway seeds into a large Dutch oven or stock pot and toast them over low heat, pushing them around the pan from time to tie so they don’t burn. When you begin to smell the aroma of the caraway add enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom of the pot. Stir in the onions, garlic and celery, sprinkle with salt and cook over medium heat until the vegetables are soft and translucent. Next mix in the carrots and cabbage and sauté for about 5 minutes before adding the remaining water. Bring briefly to a boil and reduce the heat before making the final additions.

Add the beets and potatoes in their cooking liquid, along with the vinegar, maple syrup, crushed tomatoes and a large sprig of fresh rosemary. Cover and simmer for at least 40 minutes to bring the flavors together. Season to taste and make adjustments to the thickness of the soup by adding water as you see fit. Garnish with rosemary and a dollop of crème fraiche or sour cream and sere with freshly baked bread.

Makes enough for ten to twelve people.

Cooking for small teams of volunteers on King George Island meant I had to scale back my recipes from my bush cook days, but only so far. I love that I can get a few meals from this soup. It keeps for five days and freezes well even if you aren’t in Antarctica.

All-In Pizza

Photograph by Sandy Nicholson

Pizza is a personal thing, so it’s often best to let people make their own. When I recognized the ice-breaking potential for this hands-on meal, I stated to serve it the first night of each camp.

I put out a stack of partially baked pizza crusts with a variety of toppings and let the volunteers and dinner guests do the rest. Make-your-own pizza night encourages creativity, shapes conversation (even when there is little) and is a fabulous way to turn around leftovers.

Pizza Bases

1 batch Honey Oatmeal Bread dough (page 81) made through the first rising // Cornmeal for the pan

When the dough has doubled in size, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface, punch it down and cut it into four equal pieces. Knead each piece a few turns, roll them into uniform balls, and set aside to rest, covered, for about 5 minutes while you grease your baking sheets and preheat your oven to 350° F.

To make pizza crusts that are the same shape and size, roll out a ball of dough into a 14×14 inch square about 1/4-inch thick. Cut four rounds from the dough using a 7-inch pot lid or a bread and butter plate as a template. Continue with the remaining dough. Sprinkle the prepared baking sheets with cornmeal. Transfer the rounds to the baking sheets.

Bake until the bases begin to brown slightly around the edges, 8–10 minutes. Turn out onto racks immediately to cool and repeat with the rest of the dough as baking sheets become available.

If you prefer the look of a more free-form pizza, divide your dough into sixteen pieces and shape each of them into a ball. Proceed with a rolling pin or use your hands to press and pull one of the balls of dough into a pleasing shape. Continue until you have formed and baked all of your pizza crusts.

If you are going to use your bases later that day, they can sit out. If not, airtight container or wrap them in plastic and freeze them until ready to use.

Makes bases for sixteen pizzas.

Paging through the journals of Shackleton and other pioneering explorers, Devine gasps at how they capture “the beauty of our shared humanity, records of the weather and heart, humor and hardship, the shifting inside and outside world, the value of knowledge transfer and a hearty stew” — all things that her own cookbook-cum-travelogue offers in ample portions.

Russian scientist Sasha Diesel serving tea in the watchman's room, Bellingshausen, 1996. 'Sasha Diesel made the best tea,' Trusler writes. 'He spoke less english than I did Russian so we'd default to Spanish, which was equally dubious. Mostly we'd sit in companionable silence making things.'

Photograph by Wendy Trusler

For much of the expedition, Devine and Trusler were the only women amid troves of male researchers — in one emblematic extreme, on the Russian station, they were surrounded by five Sashas and four Vladimirs. This often made for tragicomic encounters bespeaking at once how far we’ve come since Shackleton’s dismissal of the female trio and how far we have yet to go. Devine recounts one such experience on a Russian scientific ship in December of 1995:

Two ship staff were at a table beside us and three others at another, dining with the captain and first mate. We were shocked when the man selling red roses pushed two onto us. I looked over at Tomas’s table and he smiled. Tomas — the macho Polish-Argentinian penguin specialist. Who sent us the flowers? Adorable and ridiculous at the same time. Then Andy walked over to us and said, “Do you ladies want us to chaperone you home?” Was he serious? Is it still 1900?

Indeed, Devine points to the long tradition of pioneering women who had ventured to Antarctica since 1900 — botanist Jeanne Baret, who became the first woman to work in the region’s Falkland Islands in 1766, disguised as a man; Caroline Mikkelsen, a Norwegian whaler’s wife, the first woman to set foot on the actual continent in 1935; marine biologist Maria Klenova, the first Russian woman in Antarctica, who helped map the first Soviet Antarctic atlas in 1956 — the year Admiral George Dufek, the first commanding officer of the U.S. Operation Deep Freeze, declared that women would join the U.S. Antarctic program “over [his] dead body”; geochemist Lois Jones, who led the first all-female scientific team to the continent in 1969; retired nurse Barbara Hillary, who became the first African American woman to reach both poles — the North Pole at the age of 75 and the South Pole at 79.

Jackie Ronne, the first female working member of a U.S. expedition, and Sig Gutenko wrapping pemmican, 1947

Courtesy of Karen Ronne Tupek

Devine considers women’s evolving role in polar research, however glacial the pace of that evolution:

Women are respected scientists, artists, activists, explorers, support staff and more. Today they represent one-third of staff at Antarctic bases, lead and participate in game-changing research, such as Susan Solomon and team who helped identify the cause of the ozone hole. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were depleting the ozone layer protecting life from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet light. Scientists and politicians acted following the discovery: The Montreal Protocol (1987) was a landmark environmental treaty banning CFCs.

Devine and Trusler soon began to observe the questionable behaviors of the male scientists with an anthropologist’s detached fascination rather than with personal indignation. Devine writes in another journal entry:

Late at night: Sergey told Lena that the guys told Maxim and Yuri that they had to “stay away from our girls.” They had noticed them flirting with us. Group dynamics.

And yet, for all the limitations of extreme weather, paltry supplies, and dated gender norms, Devine and Trusler approached the expedition with an air of expansive possibility — something Trusler captures beautifully in a journal entry shortly after they cast off:

I have this feeling, a strange sense of something unfolding, opening in front of me.

Photograph by Sandy Nicholson

In an entry from the following day, Devine marvels at the gift of the experience:

It is a privilege to live here, get insight into the scientists’ and staff’s Antarctic life and routines.

In one particularly wonderful entry — wonderful for its fusion of science and humanity, for embodying how we think with animals, for its sheer exuberance of being-in-the-worldness — Devine writes:

The seal colony. They stared at us at first but carried on as if we were irrelevant. Scratching their “arms” with their cur-covered “hands.” Two seals were hugging each other. one put its arm over the other’s back and made like a kiss. Then some seals scrapped — males with teeth-marks in their skin, chopped-up fur. We are all seals perhaps.

We moved from the seal colony to a hut of the biologists. Another exquisite experience. The shack was a wagon-like trailer now held not on rocks, but whalebones! It was a shabby hut with green oil paint chipping off in big chunks — sundried cracks all over. Inside were two beds.

Nature mirrors nature. A rock sitting high on another rock looked like an elephant seal.

This is a lesson on minimalism. Every hut is a treasure, is useful. Recycled.

There is also an invigorating geopolitical peacemaking undertone to the project. In one of several wonderful essays accompanying the recipes and journal entires, Devine reflects on the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, which declared the continent “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science” and was signed by 49 countries by 2012. Remarking what “a rare achievement in a world beset by conflict” it is, she echoes Einstein on the common language of science and marvels:

I love that science is an Antarctic currency and tool of diplomacy.

In another essay, exploring where the garbage collected by the Antarctic cleanup volunteers goes, she examines our ambivalent attitudes toward earth-stewardship:

Maybe there is no morally superior place for garbage.

[…]

I had no idea exactly what we would be doing … but only that we were part of some kind of greater movement. All people who came on our project were willing to work but a few still thought nature was there for them. I had a volunteer from New York in the pilot cleanup at the Polish station the year before who wrote on her feedback form: “Not enough penguins.”

But perhaps most powerful of all is the almost allegorical quality of the project — the way it distills the human experience to its absolute essence, which Devine captures elegantly in the book’s postscript, written nearly twenty years after the expedition:

In Antarctica, everything is stripped down. You have what you have and even less than that materially. It is only who you are and what you do that counts.

Complement The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning, unsynthesizably dimensional and deeply gratifying in its totality, with Rachel Sussman’s photographic journey in Shackleton’s footsteps and this lovely illustrated chronicle of his famous expedition, then treat yourself to more unusual cross-disciplinary cookbooks: The Modern Art Cookbook, The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook, The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, The Futurist Cookbook, and Found Meals of the Lost Generation.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





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.

01 MAY, 2015

JFK on Poetry, Power, and the Artist’s Role in Society: His Eulogy for Robert Frost, One of the Greatest Speeches of All Time

By:

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”

In January of 1961, as John F. Kennedy’s inauguration approached, his would-be Secretary of the Interior suggested that the poet Robert Frost participate in the ceremony as the first inaugural poet. Eighty-six-year-old Frost telegrammed Kennedy with his signature elegance of wit: “If you can bear at your age the honor of being made president of the United States, I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration.” He proceeded to deliver a beautiful ode to the dream of including the arts in government, which touched Kennedy deeply.

Frost died exactly two years later, in January of 1963. That fall, Amherst College invited the President to speak at an event honoring the beloved poet. On October 26, Kennedy took the podium at Amherst and delivered a spectacular speech mirroring back to Frost that deep dedication to the arts and celebrating the role of the artist in society. Perhaps more than any other public address, it affirmed JFK as that rare species of politician who is equally a poet and prophet of the human spirit.

The speech was eventually included in the altogether superb Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time (public library) — a compendium of breathtaking adieus to cultural icons like Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King, Jr., Emily Dickinson, Keith Haring, Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Schulz, and Virginia Woolf, delivered by those who knew them best.

This original recording of the speech, while short in length, is endlessly ennobling in substance. Highlights below — please enjoy:

Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.

[…]

Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state… In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role…

If sometimes our great artist have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth… In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having “nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.”

Typed draft of the speech, edited in Kennedy's own hand (Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Library)

But as notable as the speech itself — for reasons both poetical and political — are the parts Kennedy edited out in his own hand, including this heartbreaking-in-hindsight passage from the second page:

We take great comfort in our nuclear stockpiles, our gross national product, our scientific and technological achievement, our industrial might — and, up to a point, we are right to do so. But physical power by itself solves no problems and secures no victories. What counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity. What counts is the purpose for which power is used — whether for aggrandizement or for liberation. “It is excellent,” Shakespeare said, “to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”

Three weeks later, one of history’s ugliest and most arrogant misuses of brute power took place as JFK was assassinated, prompting Leonard Bernstein to pen his timelessly moving address on the only true antidote to violence. But the message at the heart of Kennedy’s speech continued to resonate even as his voice was silenced by brutality. Less than two years later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, creating the National Endowment for the Arts — the very dream that Frost had dreamt up at JFK’s inauguration.

Complement with two more titans of poetry on the role of the artist in culture: E.E. Cummings on the agony and salvation of the artist and James Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society.

The JFK speech appears as the opening track on composer Mohammed Fairouz’s spectacular album Follow Poet — titled after a line from W.H. Auden’s beautiful elegy for W.B. Yeats — and can be heard in Fairouz’s wholly fantastic On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





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.

28 APRIL, 2015

Delacroix’s Rare Illustrations for Goethe’s Faust

By:

“Goethe … peered into the mysteries of human existence with a hope of solving the imponderables that hold the lives of men enmeshed.”

“Why not take advantage of those antidotes to civilization, good books? They give strength and peace of mind,” 25-year-old Eugène Delacroix urged himself in his journal in 1823 while trying to reconcile his social life with the solitude his work required — work that would eventually render him one of humanity’s most significant artists. Among the great books in which he found strength and peace of mind was Goethe’s Faust — so much so that he felt compelled to capture the beloved book’s spirit in his art.

In February of that year, he wrote in the journal:

The things that are most real to me are the illusions which I create with my painting. Everything else is quicksand.

In another entry from the same month, he envisioned Goethe as a creative catalyst for his own work:

Every time I look at the engravings of Faust I am seized with a longing to use an entirely new style of painting that would consist, so to speak, in making a literal tracing of nature. The simplest poses could be made interesting by varying the amount of foreshortening.

By 1825, he had accomplished just that in a series of black-and-white lithographs — an interesting choice, given Goethe’s writings on the psychology of color and emotion — which created a mesmerizing dialogue across disciplines between these two geniuses, half a century apart in age. The result was a fine addition to history’s greatest artistic interpretations of literary classics — including William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost, Maurice Sendak’s formative etchings for Blake’s “Songs of Innocence,” Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for Orwell’s Animal Farm, Tove Jansson’s take on Alice in Wonderland, and Salvador Dalí’s paintings for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne.

Upon seeing Delacroix’s drawings for his masterwork, 76-year-old Goethe wrote to his good friend Johann Peter Eckermann:

The more perfect imagination of such an artist forces us to think the situations as well as he has though them himself. I must now admit that M. Delacroix has surpassed my own conception in certain scenes!

In 1828, Delacroix’s lithographs were published in Paris as a rare large-format folio. For more than a century, these exquisite drawings remained virtually unknown. In 1932, New York’s Heritage Press finally resurrected them in Faust: A Tragedy (public library) — a gorgeous limited-edition slipcase volume, featuring reproductions of Delacroix’s eighteen lithographs restored through a collotype process.

Scholar Carl F. Schreiber captures Goethe’s transcendent genius in the introduction to this 1932 edition:

Toward noon on March twenty-second, 1832, Goethe closed his eyes forever on a world which he was privileged to understand as few human beings have been permitted to know it. For a period of eighty-two years those eyes … had observed the objects of this earth with a profound reverence; they had peered into the mysteries of human existence with a hope of solving the imponderables that hold the lives of men enmeshed. Goethe’s genius persevered, even in old age, a childlike wonderment and an untrammeled vision to a phenomenal degree. His reverence for all forms of life is a definite mark of his genius… Whatever Goethe was, he was first and foremost a devoted observer… Goethe was a seer.

Although this beautiful 1932 edition is deeply out of print, surviving copies can still be found with some luck and dedication. Complement it with Picasso’s illustrations for a racy Greek comedy and William Blake’s breathtaking drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, over which he labored until his dying day.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





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.

16 APRIL, 2015

Thinking with Animals: From Aesop to Darwin to YouTube

By:

How metaphors of nonhuman beings help us give shape to the human experience and make sense of our inner lives.

We think in metaphors — they are our bridge of meaning between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Anthropomorphism — the tendency to project human qualities onto nonhuman beings and objects — is perhaps the most common of all metaphorical modes. In our earliest conscious experiences, we are surrounded by toy animals and immersed in children’s books rife with animal characters — in fact, cognitive scientists now know that the development of metaphorical thinking in children is what gives rise to the imagination, so imagining animals as ourselves and projecting ourselves onto animals is a developmental achievement for the human mind. But using animals as a mode of clarifying the human experience is something that permeates every stage of life and every epoch of our civilization, from ancient creation myths to Aesop’s fables to Orwell’s allegorical masterwork Animal Farm to Lolcats and its conceptual predecessor. We are drawn to YouTube videos of animals not just because they are cute or comical, but because they are contextually cute or comical — implicit anthropomorphism juxtaposes their nonhumanness with the expectations of a human context, putting into practice Arthur Koestler’s pioneering biosciation theory of how humor works.

Art by Maira Kalman from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

The fascinating complexities and hidden dynamics of our human dance with nonhuman metaphors is what Max Planck Institute director Lorraine Daston and science historian Gregg Mitman explore in Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism (public library) — a wildly stimulating anthology of essays that began as a workshop at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for the History of Science held in May of 2001, exploring our metaphor-riddled relationship with animals from a variety of perspectives: philosophical, historical, anthropological, political, economic, scientific, and artistic, from ancient India to the Victorian laboratory to the internet.

Daston and Mitman write:

We are animals; we think with animals. What could be more natural? The children’s section of every bookstore overflows with stories about animal heroes and villains; cartoons and animated feature films show the adventures of Bambi, Mickey Mouse, and the Road Runner to rapt audiences… From Aristotle to Darwin down to the present, naturalists have credited bees with monarchies, ants with honesty, and dogs with tender consciences.

They go on to examine how thinking with animals in both senses of the phrase — on the one hand, the kinship of thought and feeling between us and other creatures; on the other, our tendency to use other animals in symbolizing and dramatizing aspects of the human experience — transforms us.

They trace the root of our paradoxical attitude toward thinking with animals — the automatic readiness with which we employ anthropomorphism despite continuing to view the term as one of intellectual and moral reproach:

Originally, the word referred to the attribution of human form to gods, forbidden by several religions as blasphemous. Something of the religious taboo still clings to secular, modern instances of anthropomorphism, even if it is animals rather than divinities that are being humanized.

[…]

In the sciences, to impute human thoughts or emotions to electrons, genes, ants, or even other primates is to invite suspicions of sloppy thinking.

One can’t help but think of the resistance Jane Goodall faced from the scientific establishment for naming rather than numbering the chimps she studied as she embarked on a career that would render her one of the most important scientists of the past century. Had Goodall not learned to think with animals as a child, thanks to her toy chimpanzee named Jubilee, she would have never dreamt the childhood dream that she spent her life turning into a reality.

Illustration by Patrick McDonnell from 'Me... Jane,' a picture book about Goodall's formative years. Click image for more.

Daston and Mittman capture the history of this paradox elegantly:

Despite the official ban on anthropomorphism in science, thinking with animals permeated practice in the field and the lab. Both animal and human were transformed in the process.

Of course, this stubborn resistance to letting other animals encroach on our status as self-appointed supreme beings isn’t limited to science — it has a long cultural history and is central to our understanding of what it means to be human. What Margaret Mead observed of our intraspecies divides — “The Northern identity is dependent upon whom you can keep out,” she told James Baldwin in their magnificent forgotten conversation on race and identity — is also true of the human identity, which is dependent upon enforcing the interspecies divide.

And yet, Daston and Mitman note, even though evolutionary theory has made it increasingly difficult to draw a hard-and-fast line between humans and other animals, there is more to our cultural conflictedness about anthropocentrism:

There is a moral as well an intellectual element to critiques of anthropomorphism. On this view, to imagine that animals think like humans or to cast animals in human roles is a form of self-centered narcissism: one looks outward to the world and sees only one’s own reflection mirrored therein. Considered from a moral standpoint, anthropomorphism sometimes seems dangerously allied to anthropocentrism: humans project their own thoughts and feelings onto other animal species because they egotistically believe themselves to be the center of the universe. But anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism can just as easily tug in opposite directions: for example, the Judeo-Christian tradition that humans were the pinnacle of Creation also encouraged claims that humans, being endowed by God with reason and immortal souls, were superior to and qualitatively different from animals. In this theological context, it made no sense to try to think with soulless animals.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

But even if, in an age when we’ve left behind Decartes’s notion of animals as mere soulless “automata” and we’re beginning to recognize the complexities of animal consciousness, there is a different kind of arrogance in projecting our own souls onto nonhuman animals:

Even if anthropomorphism is decoupled from anthropocentrism, the former can still be criticized as arrogant and unimaginative. To assimilate the behavior of a herd of elephants to, say, that of a large, middle-class, American family or to dress up a pet terrier in a tutu strikes these critics as a kind of species provincialism, an almost pathological failure to register the wondrous variety of the natural world — a provincialism comparable to that of those blinkered tourists who assume that the natives of the foreign countries they visit will have the same customs and speak the same language as at home.

At the heart of the matter seems to be a larger kind of arrogance: We tend to accept and honor otherness, be it in our fellow humans or in our fellow species, for as long as it’s convenient — as long as it doesn’t require us to reformulate our us-ness and revise our own way of being in the world. But once it does, all bets are off. This is why we’ve made such profoundly insufficient progress on enduring issues of racial justice and why we sign Facebook petitions for animal rights while buying products mired in animal testing and cruelty. Drawing that increasingly artificial hard-and-fast line between human and nonhuman consciousness is what allows us to continue considering ourselves moral beings; refusing to widen our circle of empathy and sympathy to other creatures is what allows us to go on fancying ourselves empathetic and sympathetic people even as we harm nonhuman animals, directly and indirectly, with our daily choices.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for a rare edition of Orwell's 'Animal Farm.' Click image for more.

Daston and Mitman capture this poignantly:

Should animals be treated as moral persons, with rights like those accorded to human beings? If so, would animal rights imply that humans ought to embrace vegetarianism, stop wearing fur and leather clothing, and abandon experiments on animals that do not serve the animals’ own interests, for the same reasons that cannibalism and instrumental experiments on humans should be rejected as ethically repugnant?

[…]

Since many (though not all) of the arguments pro and contra in this debate hinge upon the degree of analogy between humans and other animal species, and more particularly on the analogy between thoughts and feelings, the ancient and almost universal practice of thinking with animals has taken on new significance.

In a sentiment that calls to mind John Berger’s provocative 1980 essay Why Look at Animals, they add:

The question raises important issues of representation and agency. Thinking with animals is not the same as thinking about them.

[…]

The outcome of all of them depends crucially not only on how we think about animals but whether, and above all how, we think with them.

Illustration for Aesop's Fables by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for more.

To be sure, our motives for thinking with animals aren’t purely philosophical — they are often quite practical. Images of animals in visual communication create moods and, ultimately, sell products. Daston and Mittman write:

Pets enhance the health and happiness of their owners [and] animal personalities move the public and politicians more effectively than wildlife statistics… Striking images of animals are in great demand by global advertisers because — in contrast to equally striking images of humans — age, race, class, and culture do not interfere with identification and the desire to acquire… No wonder that anthropomorphism has been assiduously cultivated: money, love, and power are all to be had by thinking with animals.

And yet anthropocentrism isn’t always an act of solipsism — it can also be the very opposite: an effort at self-transcendence, evoking Alan Watts’s assertion that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others.” Daston and Mittman offer a counterpoint to the common critique of anthropocentrism:

In certain historical and cultural contexts, the longing to think with animals becomes the opposite of the arrogant egotism decried by critics of anthropomorphism. Instead of projection of one’s own way of thinking and feeling onto other minds, submersion of self in the genuinely other is fervently attempted—but never achieved. It is a virtuoso but doomed act of complete empathy… This extreme form of thinking with animals is the impossible but irresistible desire to jump out of one’s own skin, exchange one’s brain, plunge into another way of being.

Illustration by Bhajju Shyam from 'Creation,' a visual cosmogony of ancient Indian origin myths. Click image for more.

But whichever direction we lean isn, selfishness or self-transcendence, the allure of thinking with animals remains undeniable — something the authors argue is rooted in “the active reality of animals”:

Plants are beautiful, endlessly varied, and marvels of organic adaptation. Yet they radiate none of the magnetism animals do for humans. Even the most enthusiastic fancier of orchids or ferns rarely tries to think with them, in either sense of the phrase… Unlike dolls or robots or any other product of human skill, however ingenious, animals are not our marionettes, our automata (which originally meant “puppet” in Greek). They are symbols with a life of their own. We use them to perform our thoughts, feelings, and fantasies because, alone of all our myriad symbols, they can perform; they can do what is to be done. We may orchestrate their performance, but complete mastery is illusion. Eyes peer through the human mask to reveal another life, mysterious — like us or unlike us? Their animated gaze moves us to think.

Thinking with Animals is a tremendous read in its entirety, spanning from the curious “science” of medieval angelology to Kafka to how the Victorian elite sparked the fashion of pet ownership. Complement it with Laurel Braitman’s empathetic inquiry into the mental life of nonhuman animals, one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2014, and Jon Mooallem’s moving paean to wildlife, then treat yourself to one of the loveliest animal-charactered allegories of our time, Marianne Dubuc’s The Lion and the Bird.

Thanks, Laurel

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





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.

10 APRIL, 2015

The Illustrated Story of Harvey Milk, Humanitarian Martyr for Love

By:

How a little boy with big ears grew up to hear the cry for social justice and answered it with a clarion call for equality in the kingdom of love.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his indispensable 1963 letter from Birmingham City Jail. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” One rainy January Sunday fifteen years later, long before Edie Windsor catalyzed the triumph of marriage equality, Harvey Milk (May 22, 1930–November 27, 1978) was sworn into office on the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall and became the first openly gay elected city official in America. His assassination eleven months later devastated millions and rendered him modernity’s great secular martyr for love. His tenure, however tragically brief, forever changed the landscape of civil rights.

In The Harvey Milk Story (public library) — a wonderful addition to the best LGBT children’s books — writer Kari Krakow and artist David Gardner tell the heartening and heartbreaking story of how a little boy with big ears grew up to hear the cry for social justice and how he answered it with a groundbreaking clarion call for equality in the kingdom of love.

Harvey was Born the second child of a middle-class Jewish family in upstate New York. He was a boy at once brimming with joy, frequently entertaining the family by conducting an invisible orchestra in the living room, and full of deep sensitivity to the suffering of others.

He was deeply moved when his mother, Minnie, told him the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews who courageously defended themselves even as the Nazis outnumbered them — a story that imprinted him with a profound empathy for the oppressed even before he had a clear sense that he would grow up to be one of them.

Although Harvey was athletic and popular in school, he anguished under the burden of a deep wistfulness — by the time he was fourteen, he knew he was gay, but like many queer people of his time, he kept this centerpiece of identity a closely guarded secret for a great many years to come.

He came of age, after all, in an era when queer couples celebrated their love only in private and when geniuses as vital to humanity as computing pioneer Alan Turing were driven to suicide after being criminally prosecuted by the government for being gay.

After graduating from college, Harvey joined the Navy, becoming an expert deep-sea diver and ascending through the ranks until he came to head a submarine rescue vessel.

When he went to his bother Robert’s wedding, he looked so handsome in his navy uniform that his family and friends all wondered when he would settle down and get married to the “right girl.”

But instead, like the hero of the heartwarming King & King fairy tale, Harvey fell in love and settled down with the right boy, a young man named Joe.

They moved together to a little town in New York, where Harvey became a high school math and science teacher. But after six years, Harvey and Joe separated — as Krakow points out, the pressure to hide their relationship in fear of losing their jobs put an undue strain on their love. Weary of hiding his identity, Harvey moved to San Francisco’s gay-friendly Castro neighborhood — where queer couples walked down the street holding hands like any other couple would in any other city — and he fell in love again.

Together with Scott, his new partner, Harvey opened a small store called Castro Camera, which soon turned into a community center as Harvey became a one-man Craigslist, counseling neighbors on everything from finding apartments to applying for jobs.

The more Harvey listened to the people, the more he sensed that they needed a leader — not only an informal one, but one who fought on their behalf in the eyes of the law, standing up to the police who harassed them constantly and fighting against the daily indignities of discrimination, from which the political system failed to protect them. Harvey saw only one course of action — to apply for office. His customers and the community embraced his campaign and volunteered their time.

Eleven-year-old Medora Payne came every day after school to lick envelopes and hand out brochures for Harvey. She organized a fundraiser at her school, earning $39.28 for his campaign.

Bigots believed that it wasn’t right or even possible for an openly gay candidate to be elected. Indeed, Harvey lost three consecutive election cycles between 1973 and 1976, but didn’t lose faith. He remained emboldened by the unflinching conviction that the rights of minorities — not only the LGBT community, but also African Americans, Asian Americans, senior citizens, and the disabled — weren’t adequately represented in and protected by the government. His people loved him for the dedication.

At last, in 1977, he was elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors and sworn into office the following January as Supervisor Milk. He immediately set out to champion greater quality of life for the people of the city — a kind of Robert Moses without the evil genius, bolstering the city’s parks, schools, and police protection. Eventually, he introduced a pioneering gay bill of rights. After ten of the city’s eleven supervisors voted for it, Mayor George Moscone signed it into law, proclaiming with gusto as Milk stood by his side:

I don’t do this enough, taking swift and unambiguous action on a substantial move for civil rights.

It was a historic moment, marked by a moving speech Milk made in front of City Hall, calling for a gay rights march in Washington.

But as the city celebrated, one man sat consumed with hateful bigotry and personal jealousy — Dan White, the only Supervisor who hadn’t voted for Milk’s bill and who had resigned from office in a petty act of protest, only to ask for his job back ten days later. Sensing his ill will, Mayor Moscone had refused to hire him back.

On a gloomy November morning, White crept into City Hall through a basement window, with a loaded gun. He barged into Moscone’s office and shot the mayor, promptly reloading his gun and heading down the hall to Harvey Milk’s office. Five shots echoed through the marble building.

Harvey Milk was dead.

People everywhere were stunned by the news of the double assassination. They left their homes, jobs and schools to mourn the loss of these two great leaders. Crowds began forming in front of City Hall. By nightfall thousands filled the mile-long street and ran from the Castro to City Hall. They stood in silence, carrying candles. That night the people of San Francisco wept.

Harvey Milk was gone, but his legacy only gained momentum in the fight for civil rights. The following October, a hundred thousand people brought his dream to life and took to the streets of Washington in the capital’s first-ever Gay Pride March, many carrying portraits of the slain San Francisco hero.

Thirty-four years later, one brave woman picked up where he left off and made possible a dream even Milk didn’t dare to dream — one which the president himself proclaimed “a victory for American democracy,” the triumphant road to which Milk had paved.

Complement The Harvey Milk Story with marriage equality patron saint Edie Windsor on love and the truth about equality, these moving vintage photographs of queer couples, and history’s most beautiful LGBT love letters.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





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.