Brain Pickings

Flannery O’Connor on Art, Integrity, and the Writer’s Responsibility to His or Her Talent

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“Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.”

Four years before E.B. White counseled in his advice on how to write for children that “you have to write up, not down” — a reflection of his general conviction that the writer “should tend to lift people up, not lower them down” — another literary titan made an even more piercing case for the writer’s duty to society and what true art should aim to do for its audience.

That’s what Flannery O’Connor (March 25, 1925–August 3, 1964) explores in a meditation triply timely today, found in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (public library) — the same compendium that gave us her enduring insight on why the grotesque appeals to us.

Flannery O'Connor by De Casseres

Writing a few months before her untimely death, O’Connor considers the responsibility that comes with the gift of natural talent:

It is well to remember what is obvious but usually ignored: that every writer has to cope with the possibility in his given talent. Possibility and limitation mean about the same thing. It is the business of every writer to push his talent to its outermost limit, but this means the outermost limit of the kind of talent he has.

She shines a sidewise gleam of admonition, as if peering across time into our present era where intelligent people pour their talent into optimizing cat listicles:

Every day we see people who are busy distorting their talents in order to enhance their popularity or to make money that they could do without.

Three decades before Jeanette Winterson’s elegant opprobrium of “the arrogance of the audience,” O’Connor arrives at her central, searing point about the artist’s responsibility to uphold the integrity of his or her art above the demands of his or her audience:

There are those who maintain that you can’t demand anything of the reader. They say the reader knows nothing about art, and that if you are going to reach him, you have to be humble enough to descend to his level. This supposes either that the aim of art is to teach, which it is not, or that to create anything which is simply a good-in-itself is a waste of time. Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it. We hear a great deal about humility being required to lower oneself, but it requires an equal humility and a real love of the truth to raise oneself and by hard labor to acquire higher standards… Ignorance is excusable when it is borne like a cross, but when it is wielded like an ax, and with moral indignation, then it becomes something else indeed.

Complement Mystery and Manners with O’Connor on the difference between belief and faith, her little-known cartoons, and this rare recording of her reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” then revisit JFK on the artist’s role in society and James Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to culture.

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Mr. Gauguin’s Heart: The Beautiful and Bittersweet True Story of How Paul Gauguin Became an Artist

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What an invisible dog knows about the tenacity of the human spirit and the healing power of art.

Many great artists have in common the ability to transform trauma into creative power. Among them is the great French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (June 7, 1848–May 8, 1903), whose work influenced such legendary artists as Picasso and Matisse.

A wonderful addition to both the best children’s books about making sense of loss and the finest children’s books celebrating cultural icons, Mr. Gauguin’s Heart (public library) by writer Marie-Danielle Croteau and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault tells the bittersweet, unbelievably beautiful story of Gauguin’s early childhood and how, after his father’s death, the young boy sought solace in art and transmuted his grief into his first painting.

In this 2004 debut, Arsenault — whose genius has produced such subsequent treasures as Jane, the Fox & Me, Virginia Wolf, and Migrant — once again reveals herself to be one of the most gifted and evocative visual storytellers of our time.

We meet young Paul, a little boy who lives with his beloved parents, his sister Marie, and a dog he adores — “an odd-looking, little orange dog” with whom Paul goes everywhere, plays constantly, and even has conversations.

But the oddest thing about the little orange dog is that is that only Paul can see it.

One day, the Gauguins depart for Peru, and Paul’s imaginary companion boards the ship with the rest of the family. The other passengers find the bond between the boy and his invisible friend endearing — a testament not to his strangeness but to his boundless imagination.

It is a joyous journey, until Paul finds his mother in tears one afternoon.

She told Paul and his sister that their daddy had been carried away.

“How?” the children cried.

“It was his heart,” Mrs. Gauguin answered.

Marie threw herself, wailing, into her mother’s arms. Paul said nothing. He didn’t understand what it all meant. He didn’t see how being carried away by one’s heart could be such a tragedy.

Unable to make sense of it all, the boy perches on the ship’s bridge with his dog and peers into the ocean. All of a sudden, he sees a giant red balloon floating over the horizon. Holding onto its string is his father. As the other passengers gasp at the breathtaking sunset, Paul watches them point to his father’s big red heart.

The days wear on and every time the sun sets, Paul begins to cry all over again, saying goodbye to his father’s heart anew — a tender testament to the waves in which grief always seems to come.

When they finally reach Peru, Paul refuses to leave the ship, unwilling to part with the daily encounter with his father’s heart over the horizon. It takes an old man — a fellow passenger who had been watching the boy play with his invisible companion during the journey — to convince him to disembark the ship, on the pretext that his little orange dog needs to get out and run. So heartbroken is the little boy that he has stopped seeing his imaginary friend. All he wants is to be left alone, to scream that he never had a dog — but the old man seems to believe in the dog so staunchly that Paul doesn’t have the heart to disappoint him.

Leading Paul to the entrance of a great big park, the old man instructs the boy to meet him there next morning, with his little orange dog in tow. Paul complies and finds the old man painting quietly by the pond the next day, so immersed in his art that he doesn’t even notice the boy and his dog.

Eventually, he encourages Paul to join him at the easel and shows him how to mix red and yellow in order to make orange. More than that, he initiates the future painter in the incredible power of art:

“Painting is magic,” he said to Paul. “You can start with next to nothing and still do anything you want.”

The little boy looked the old man straight in the eye. “Even bring something to life?”

“Yes, you can bring things to life,” he replied. “Or prolong the life they had.”

The old man took a paintbrush and drew a picture of an orange on the white canvas. Then he peeled his own orange and ate it. “You see, my orange is gone and yet it isn’t. I still have this one.”

That evening, Paul goes home and shuts himself in his room. His mother, somewhat worried, hears rustling but the boy insists that she leave him alone. After a prolonged silence, he lets her in — and there, on a makeshift easel, is a painting of the ocean, with a giant red circle floating above the horizon.

Mrs. Gauguin’s face lit up. Seeing his mother’s smile, Paul realized that he wanted to be a magician.

Many people came to visit the Gauguin family in Peru. And all who came admired the little boy’s painting. Since they knew nothing about affairs of the heart, they assumed he had painted a picture of Japan’s national flag.

Years later, Paul would become one of the greatest painters of his time. It is said that his art resembles that of Japan. But what no one knows — other than you and Mrs. Gauguin — is that the red sun he painted all those years ago does not represent the flag for a faraway nation. The little boy’s painting of the big red sun is really a picture of Mr. Gauguin’s heart.

Mr. Gauguin’s Heart, originally published in French and translated into English by Susan Ouriou, is the kind of treasure that breaks your heart, then breaks it open. Complement it with an equally moving fictional counterpart in Oliver Jeffers’s The Heart and the Bottle, then revisit the illustrated stories of other luminaries’ childhoods: artist Henri Matisse, mathematician Paul Erdos, and primatologist Jane Goodall.

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Why the Sky Enchants Us: Our Longing for Transcendence and How Myths Elevate Human Life

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“Human beings have always been mythmakers… We are meaning-seeking creatures.”

“We have such a young culture that there is an opportunity to contribute wonderful new myths to it,” Kurt Vonnegut said in a forgotten 1974 interview. Indeed, we have always used myths both to make sense of the world and to codify our civilizational intentions toward it, by building frameworks of good and evil.

A generation after Joseph Campbell’s trailblazing work on the power of myth in human life, religion historian Karen Armstrong — who studies the secular, psychological, and philosophical underpinnings of religion, like compassion and the true meaning of the Golden Rule — offers a magnificent complementary perspective in A Short History of Myth (public library).

Armstrong writes:

Human beings have always been mythmakers… We are meaning-seeking creatures. Dogs, as far as we know, do not agonize about the canine condition, worry about the plight of dogs in other parts of the world, or try to see their lives from a different perspective. But human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.

The Unborn Fish of ancient Indian mythology, from 'Creation' by Bhajju Shyam. Click image for more.

One of the most fascinating expressions of mythmaking in our search for meaning has to do with the sky, the sweeping mystery of which has enchanted human beings since the dawn of our species. Ancient astronomers tried to interpret it, Goethe wrote breathtaking poems for it, and Georgia O’Keeffe captured its mesmerism perfectly in a letter to her best friend: “There is something wonderful about the bigness and the lonelyness and the windyness of it all.”

Armstrong traces the origin of the sky’s ancient allure:

Some of the very earliest myths, probably dating back to the Paleolithic period, were associated with the sky, which seems to have given people their first notion of the divine. When they gazed at the sky — infinite, remote and existing quite apart from their puny lives — people had a religious experience. The sky towered above them, inconceivably immense, inaccessible and eternal. It was the very essence of transcendence and otherness. Human beings could do nothing to affect it. The endless drama of its thunderbolts, eclipses, storms, sunsets, rainbows and meteors spoke of another endlessly active dimension, which had a dynamic life of its own. Contemplating the sky filled people with dread and delight, with awe and fear. The sky attracted them and repelled them. It was by its very nature numinous, in the way described by the great historian of religion, Rudolph Otto. In itself, without any imaginary deity behind it, the sky was mysterium tremendum, terribile et fascinans [the terrible, fascinating, and fearsome mystery].

Illustration from 'The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina.' Click image for more.

This, Armstrong argues, sheds light on an essential element of our mythical and spiritual consciousness: We often assume that people turn to religion because they want to enlist some higher power in bending the world to their will, to persuade a god or goddess to grant them health and wealth and immortality — but beneath this impulse lies a deeper longing for transcendence all the more resonant amid our secular culture. She writes:

This very early hierophany shows that worship does not necessarily have a self-serving agenda. People did not want anything from the sky, and they knew perfectly well that they could not affect it in any way. From the very earliest times, we have experienced our world as profoundly mysterious; it holds us in an attitude of awe and wonder, which is the essence of worship… The experience of pure transcendence was in itself profoundly satisfying. It gave people an ecstatic experience by making them aware of an existence that utterly transcended their own and lifted them emotionally and imaginatively beyond their own limited circumstances. It was inconceivable that the sky could be “persuaded” to do the will of poor, weak human beings.

And yet, paradoxically, in any successful mythology transcendence exists on a bell curve of satisfaction — too little, and we feel spiritually bereft; too much, and we feel cut off from the reality of life. Armstrong explains:

The sky would continue to be a symbol of the sacred long after the Paleolithic period. But a very early development showed that mythology would fail if it spoke of a reality that was too transcendent. If a myth does not enable people to participate in the sacred in some way, it becomes remote and fades from their consciousness.

The element of air in ancient Indian mythology, from 'Creation' by Bhajju Shyam. Click image for more.

At some point in human history, we did to the sky what we did to animals — we personified it in order to better understand its mystery and relate it to human life. Cultures around the world began praying to various versions of a “Sky God” or “High God” who was believed to have created heaven and earth out of nothing. But the underlying longing remained the same:

When people aspired towards the transcendence represented by the sky, they felt that they could escape from the frailty of the human condition and pass to what lies beyond. That is why mountains are so often holy in mythology: midway between heaven and earth, they were a place where men such as Moses could meet their god. Myths about flight and ascent have appeared in all cultures, expressing a universal desire for transcendence and liberation from the constraints of the human condition.

In order to reap the richness of these myths and their ability to elevate everyday human life, Armstrong argues, it’s important to see them as what they are — not factual accounts of real events but powerful metaphors for transcendence:

When we read of Jesus ascending to heaven, we are not meant to imagine him whirling through the stratosphere. When the Prophet Muhammad flies from Mecca to Jerusalem and then climbs up a ladder to the Divine Throne, we are to understand that he has broken through to a new level of spiritual attainment. When the prophet Elijah ascends to heaven in a fiery chariot, he has left the frailty of the human condition behind, and passed away into a sacred realm that lies beyond our earthly experience.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.' Click image for more.

How we’ve sought to transcend the fragility of the human condition is what Armstrong explores in the remainder of the wholly fascinating A Short History of Myth. For a more playful counterpart, treat yourself to a visual field guide to monster myths and a beautiful illustrated cosmogony of ancient Indian origin myths, then revisit Bertrand Russell on immortality and why religion exists.

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The Invention of Clouds: Goethe’s Poems for the Skies and His Heartfelt Homage to the Young Scientist Who Classified Clouds

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“Most pioneers are at the mercy of doubt at the beginning, whether of their worth, of their theories, or of the whole enigmatic field in which they labour.”

If I should ever cease to be amazed and enraptured by the magic of clouds, I should wish myself dead. And I am hardly alone — since the dawn of our species, the water cycle’s most visible expression in the skies has bewitched artists, poets, and scientists like as a beautiful natural metaphor for the philosophy that there in an inherent balance to life, that what we give will soon be replenished. More than two millennia before poet Mark Strand and painter Wendy Mark joined forces on their breathtaking love letter to clouds, before Georgia O’Keeffe extolled the beauty of the Southwest skies, before scientists figured out why cloudy days help us think more clearly, the great ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote: “They are the celestial Clouds, the patron goddesses of the layabout. From them come our intelligence, our dialectic and our reason.” Indeed, there is a singular quality of prayerfulness to clouds — a certain secular reverence undergirding their allure to both art and science.

No poetic titan was more enchanted by the prayerful art-science of clouds than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote:

To find yourself in the infinite,
You must distinguish and then combine;
Therefore my winged song thanks
The man who distinguished cloud from cloud.

By the beginning of the 19th century, Goethe was Europe’s most celebrated intellectual icon and Luke Howard — the man who “distinguished cloud from cloud,” a young amateur meteorologist who pioneered a classification system for humanity’s favorite atmospheric phenomena — was the only Englishman whom Goethe ever addressed as “Master.” The verses the elderly Goethe penned for the young Howard endure as the most beautiful homage ever paid by one extraordinary mind to another — sentiments rendered in words even more moving than Thomas Mann’s tribute to Hermann Hesse and JFK’s eulogy for Robert Frost.

In The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies (public library), English writer and historian Richard Hamblyn chronicles Howard’s journey from a humble young Quaker and insecure chemist to a reluctant scientific celebrity who warranted the ebullient admiration of Goethe and forever changed our relationship with the weather.

Painting by Wendy Mark from '89 Clouds.' Click image for more.

In 1803, Howard self-published and distributed to friends a 32-page pamphlet titled On the Modifications of Clouds, &c — a classification system equal parts poetic and practical. Dusting off his schoolboy Latin, he came up with names for the three main categories of clouds — cumulus, stratus, and cirrus — and their various sub-taxonomies and combinations.

With his earnest enthusiasm for organizing the skies and imposing human order upon their ancient mystery, Howard rather unexpectedly captured the popular imagination — half a century before the telegraph became the first widespread medium of instant communication and long before contemporary social media, his essay, so to speak, went viral: Ardently discussed and passed hand to hand across the scientific and Quaker communities at a speed unprecedented in that era, it soon found its way to the prestigious journal Annual Review.

Soon, Howard was catapulted into the status of a scientific celebrity — but his feelings about fame and success, like Steinbeck’s, were ambivalent: Mired in self-doubt, he was embarrassed by the praise he received but was gladdened to see his labor of love make a lasting imprint on culture. Hamblyn captures the root of this ambivalence:

Most pioneers are at the mercy of doubt at the beginning, whether of their worth, of their theories, or of the whole enigmatic field in which they labour.

Howard was at the mercy of all these pernicious forces — some of his peers criticized his use of Latin words instead of ordinary English language in naming the clouds, while others got busy pirating and plagiarizing his popular essay for profit. But his classification system stuck and took off — two centuries before Kevin Kelly coined his famous 1,000 true fans theory, Howard benefited from precisely this potency of a handful of dedicated supporters, who ensured that his morphology was included in the Encyclopedia Britannica and carried over into other European languages.

But no true fan was more crucial to the success and enduring legacy of Howard’s work than Goethe.

Goethe at age 79 (Oil painting by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828)

Around the time of Howard’s rise to fame, Goethe had grown increasingly interested in science in general and morphology, the study of forms, in particular — a rigorous fascination that produced, among many other things, his theory of the psychology of color and emotion. But meteorology, perhaps because it was a science of contemplation celebrating the inherent poetics of nature, enchanted the great German philosopher and poet more than any other scientific field.

When Howard came under criticism for using Latin rather than the spoken English of the era in his classification system, Goethe penned a passionate defense, insisting that Howard’s Latin cloud names “should be accepted in all languages; they should not be translated, because in that way the first intention of the inventor and founder of them is destroyed.” As Hamblyn points out, Goethe was “an arbiter of cultural and civilized value” and his word “was enough to settle any matter” — and so it did, ensuring Howard’s Latin terms were henceforth the names by which we call the clouds.

But then something even more extraordinary happened — Goethe sent Howard fan mail.

So effusive was the letter, so full of ardent admiration — it even claimed that the cloud classification system had inspired Goethe to write poetry about Howard — that the humble young meteorologist immediately assumed it was a hoax, a cruel joke by one of his critics or a prank by a facetious friend looking to check the scientific starlet’s ego. But it was all true — Goethe was a great admirer of Howard’s work, and had written and published poems inspired by it and even celebrating it directly. Hamblyn explains:

Goethe’s encounter with the classification of clouds … had given him enormous pleasure. For some time he had been speaking of little else, and all in all it seemed as if the old man of letters had been granted a new lease of life.

Eventually, Howard copied Goethe’s words into one of his notebooks — perhaps to assure himself that he hadn’t dreamt the glowing praise, or to immortalize its gladdening effects on the spirit:

How much the Classification of the clouds by Howard has pleased me, how much the disproving of the shapeless, the systematic succession of forms of the unlimited, could not but be desired by me, follows from my whole practice in science and art.

Painting by Wendy Mark from '89 Clouds.' Click image for more.

Hamblyn traces the origin of Goethe’s enchantment with the classification system some years earlier:

Howard’s theories of cloud formation thus enhanced the development of Goethe’s own view of the ‘wholeness’ of nature, the wholeness of its ’mind’, as it were, and in his essay ‘Wolkengestalt nach Howard’ (‘Cloud-shapes According to Howard’) he praised the achievements and evident humanity of the brilliant young English meteorologist. But this was only the beginning. Goethe’s admiration and his sense of indebtedness to Howard’s meteorological theories did not rest there, but led on to one of the most extraordinary personal homages ever paid by one scientific worker to another.

The great German poet set out to adapt Howard’s essay into a series of short musical poems, one for each of the major classes of clouds, together titled Howards Ehrengedächtnis (In Honor of Howard) — a beautiful celebration of the eternal dialogue between art and science in the shared enterprise of illuminating nature’s mystery, and an immensely heartwarming homage from one great illuminator to another.

STRATUS

When o’er the silent bosom of the sea
The cold mist hangs like a stretch’d canopy;
And the moon, mingling there her shadowy beams,
A spirit, fashioning other spirits seems;
We feel, in moments pure and bright as this,
The joy of innocence, the thrill of bliss.
Then towering up in the darkening mountain’s side,
And spreading as it rolls its curtains wide,
It mantles round the mid-way height, and there
It sinks in water-drops, or soars in air.

CUMULUS

Still soaring, as if some celestial call
Impell’d it to yon heaven’s sublimest hall;
High as the clouds, in pomp and power arrayed,
Enshrined in strength, in majesty displayed;
All the soul’s secret thoughts it seems to move,
Beneath it trembles, while it frowns above.

CIRRUS

And higher, higher yet the vapors roll:
Triumph is the noblest impulse of the soul!
Then like a lamb whose silvery robes are shed,
The fleecy piles dissolved in dew drops spread;
Or gently waft to the realms of rest,
Find a sweet welcome in the Father’s breast.

NIMBUS

Now downwards by the world’s attraction driven,
That tends to earth, which had upris’n to heaven;
Threatening in the mad thunder-cloud, as when
Fierce legions clash, and vanish from the plain;
Sad destiny of the troubled world! but see,
The mist is now dispersing gloriously:
And language fails us in its vain endeavour —
The spirit mounts above, and lives forever.

Hamblyn considers what impelled Goethe to transmute Howard’s classification into his high art of poetry:

For Goethe the identification and naming of the clouds had done nothing less than transfigure mankind’s relationship with aerial nature. The clouds had been released into the scientific consciousness, from where they could reach further, into the realm of the pure intellectual spirit, as addressed in the last line of ‘Nimbus.’ The greatness of Howard’s classification, for Goethe, was that it accounted for the material forces of cloud formation while allowing for the immaterial forces of poetic response to be heard. And his poems, like the essay which preceded them, took the form of just such a response. Art could answer science, it could find within it not only a source of subject matter but a source of real inspiration. Goethe’s cloud poems, as reactions to an energizing scientific insight, were heartfelt, joyous and sincere.

In yet another testament to the power of creative culture’s unsung sidekicks, the four cloud poems Goethe wrote in 1817 would have remained little more than a private delight for the German luminary — were it not for a young translator at London’s Foreign Office who was so captivated by the poems that he took it upon himself to translate them into English and give them a wider audience. That young clerk, Johann Christian Hüttner, was the one who translated and transmitted Goethe’s admiration to Howard himself — a dedicated cross-pollinator of greatness.

But Hüttner’s vision extended beyond the mere translation of the verses — feeling that the poems would greatly benefit from a richer context for readers who may not have encountered Howard’s original essay, he convinced Goethe to write a few introductory remarks about Howard and his work. The poet was happy to oblige and penned the following verse in just a few days:

When Camarupa, wavering on high,
Lightly and slowly travels o’er the sky,
Now closely draws her veil, now spreads it wide,
And joys to see the changing figures glide,
Now firmly stands, now like a vision flies,
We pause in wonder, and mistrust our eyes.

Then boldly stirs imagination’s power,
And shapes there formless masses of the hour;
Here lions threat, there elephants will range,
And camel-necks to vapoury dragons change;
An army moves, but not in victory proud,
Its might is broken on a rock of cloud;
E’en the cloud messenger in air expires,
Ere reach’d the distance fancy yet desires.

But Howard gives us with his clearer mind
The gain of lessons new to all mankind;
That which no hand can reach, no hand can clasp,
He first has gain’d, first held with mental grasp.
Defin’d the doubtful, fix’d its limit-line,
And named it fitly. — Be the honour thine!
As clouds ascend, are folded, scatter, fall,
Let the world think of thee who taught it all.

It was an astonishing gesture of intellectual generosity and remains among history’s most touching intersections of notable lives. So intensely interested was Goethe in the mind behind the cloud classification system that, with Hüttner’s help, he soon convinced Howard to write a short memoir chronicling the development of his scientific ideas and the circumstances of his life that fertilized the soil for his invention. Howard sent back an earnest text of irrepressible humility, in which he wrote:

I am a man of domestic habits and very happy in my family and a few friends, whose company I quit with reluctance to join other circles.

This made Goethe all the more enamored with the young meteorologist’s sincerity of spirit. Well into his seventies, he wrote in a letter to Hüttner:

For a long time nothing has given me so much pleasure as the autobiography of Mr. Howard, which I received yesterday and have been thinking of ever since. In truth nothing more pleasant could have happened to me than to see the tender religious soul of such an excellent man opened out to me in such a way that he has been able to lay bare for me the story of his destiny and development as well as his innermost convictions.

How Howard developed his sensitive soul and how it sprouted his trailblazing scientific contribution is what Hamblyn explores in the remainder in the beautifully written, rigorously researched, wholly fascinating The Invention of Clouds. Complement it with the very differently but equally bewitching 89 Clouds and the science of how clouds actually stay up in the sky, then revisit Goethe’s taxonomy of color and emotion.

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