Brain Pickings

Bad Feminist: Roxane Gay on the Complexities and Blind Spots of the Equality Movement

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“Feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves.”

“Those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers,” science correspondent Shankar Vedantam wrote in his excellent exploration of our hidden biases. “Those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine.”

Roxane Gay, one of my favorite minds, has been swimming against the current in many ways — female, black, large, queer. She steps firmly ashore in Bad Feminist (public library) — a magnificent compendium of essays examining various aspects of “our culture and how we consume it,” from race and gender representations in pop culture to the way revolution and innovation can often leave us unfulfilled and unheard to the gaping blind spots of what we call “diversity.” To be sure, Gay isn’t writing to and for women only — what is perhaps her most piercing clarion call to men is made sidewise and subtly, as a comment about privilege in an essay about the class asymmetries of the education system, where she writes: “The notion that I should be fine with the status quo even if I am not wholly affected by the status quo is repulsive.”

Illustration from the 1970 book 'I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!' Click image for more.

In the introduction, Gay examines the state of feminism, half a century after Margaret Mead contemplated its future, and justifies her identification as a “bad” feminist:

The world changes faster than we can fathom in ways that are complicated. These bewildering changes often leave us raw. The cultural climate is shifting, particularly for women as we contend with the retrenchment of reproductive freedom, the persistence of rape culture, and the flawed if not damaging representations of women we’re consuming in music, movies, and literature.

[...]

Feminism is flawed, but it offers, at its best, a way to navigate this shifting cultural climate. Feminism has certainly helped me find my voice. Feminism has helped me believe my voice matters, even in this world where there are so many voices demanding to be heard.

“With more people, there are more voices to tune out,” the narrator in Susan Sontag’s short story Debriefing observed with hollowing poignancy. Gay’s greatest feat is precisely the ability — the willingness — to tune in what we as a culture chronically tune out, to expand the constantly constricting boundaries of our bubbles as we struggle to navigate an increasingly peopled world of growing complexity. She writes:

How do we reconcile the imperfections of feminism with all the good it can do? In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed. For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement…

Feminism, as of late, has suffered from a certain guilt by association because we conflate feminism with women who advocate feminism as part of their personal brand. When these figureheads say what we want to hear, we put them up on the Feminist Pedestal, and when they do something we don’t like, we knock them right off and then say there’s something wrong with feminism because our feminist leaders have failed us…

I openly embrace the label of bad feminist… I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying — trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.

I am a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal. People who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly. Then they get knocked off when they fuck it up. I regularly fuck it up. Consider me already knocked off.

“Feminist,” Gay admits, is a label to which she objected early and vigorously — a label that “felt like an insult”:

I disavowed feminism because I had no rational understanding of the movement. I was called a feminist, and what I heard was, “You are an angry, sex-hating, man-hating victim lady person.” This caricature is how feminists have been warped by the people who fear feminism most, the same people who have the most to lose when feminism succeeds.

'Feminist, adj' by MariNaomi, from 'The Big Feminist BUT: Comics about Women, Men and the Ifs, Ands & Buts of Feminism.' Click image for more.

And yet, as a kind of born-again “bad” feminist (elsewhere, in a different but fittingly resonant context, she observes that “being good is the best way to be bad”), Gay laments the backwardness of such dismissals and gets to the point — the difficult, complex, nuanced point — with remarkable elegance:

I get angry when women disavow feminism and shun the feminist label but say they support all the advances born of feminism because I see a disconnect that does not need to be there. I get angry but I understand and hope someday we will live in a culture where we don’t need to distance ourselves from the feminist label, where the label doesn’t make us afraid of being alone, of being too different, of wanting too much.

[...]

Feminism is a choice, and if a woman does not want to be a feminist, that is her right, but it is still my responsibility to fight for her rights. I believe feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves.

Noting what a poor job “the feminist project” has done of celebrating diversity and multiplicity — how it has largely failed to include women of color, queer women, transgendered women — Gay argues that these failures of inclusion, even if not deliberate exclusion, have resulted in a great deal of resistance on behalf of some women, including her own younger self:

For years, I decided feminism wasn’t for me as a black woman, as a woman who has been queer identified at varying points in her life, because feminism has, historically, been far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women to the detriment of all others.

But two wrongs do not make a right. Feminism’s failings do not mean we should eschew feminism entirely. People do terrible things all the time, but we don’t regularly disown our humanity. We disavow the terrible things. We should disavow the failures of feminism without disavowing its many successes and how far we have come.

We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.

And yet Gay lives up to her disclaimer of deeply human messiness and imperfection. In one of the essays, titled “Girls, Girls, Girls,” she examines Lena Dunham’s television series Girls — a “woman-oriented pop artifact being asked to shoulder a great deal of responsibility these days” — and launches at it critiques that, while measured and thoughtful and wonderfully nuanced, nonetheless fall victim to the very idea that feminism is a one-size-fits-all belief system that Gay herself so vehemently opposes. She writes:

I admire how Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, doesn’t have the typical body we normally see on television. There is some solidity to her. We see her eat, enthusiastically. We see her fuck. We see her endure the petty humiliations so many young women have to endure. We see the life of one kind of real girl and that is important. It’s awesome that a twenty-five-year-old woman gets to write, direct, and star in her own show for a network like HBO. It’s just as sad that this is so revolutionary it deserves mention.

It’s poignant sentiment on the surface, and no doubt a culturally necessary lament, but it also bespeaks a subtler dismissal of the notion — the fact, really — that a meritocracy could and should exist even within an ideological movement. (Surely, even the irreverent discussion of “bad” vs. “good” feminism acknowledges some layer of that.) Gay doesn’t allow for the fact that maybe, just maybe, the enthusiasm about Dunham’s work and its acclaim as “revolutionary” isn’t because of what she is but because of who she is — namely, that she is simply really good at what she does, and not because she’s doing it against the cultural current of the patriarchy but despite that.

Another critique jabs at Dunham’s casting choices, which include a number of her childhood friends:

People resent nepotism because it reminds us that sometimes success really is whom you know.

We are all the sum total of whom we know, with whom and what we have chosen to surround ourselves — those are the building blocks of what William Gibson termed our “personal micro-culture.” I, for one, would never have met my closest human beings — those whom I trust to be there when the sky crumbles and for whom I’d do the same in a heartbeat — were it not for what I do and what they do. People who have little separation between “life” and “work” — whose sense of purpose and identity is closely entwined with what they do for a living, which they do out of love — create a centripetal vortex that attracts kindred spirits and builds friendships that are both personally fulfilling and fertile ground for professional collaboration. NPR’s Robert Krulwich captured that importance of honoring this mutual indebtedness in his fantastic commencement address about “friends in low places.” It should be no different when those friends rise to “high” places like the popular television screen. To work with one’s friends isn’t a passive privilege but a hard-earned human gift (yes, a paradoxical phrase, because gifts are supposed to be given freely — but evidently not in this culture and not in this context) and one that should be celebrated rather than condemned.

And so it may seem easy to object that to call oneself a “bad feminist” is fair, but to call others the same is antithetical to the premise and precipitates a vortex of judgment, a kind of fractal finger-pointing reflective of Joseph Brodsky’s searing assertion that “a pointed finger is a victim’s logo.” But that, I trust, is not what Gay is doing — indeed, what lends her writing such poignancy is precisely her capacity for nuance and her ability to hold a multitude of perspectives in nonjudgmental consideration. Her rhetoric offers, above all, assurance for our ambivalences, consolation for the ripping of the psyche that happens when the vectors of the choices we make in real life and those made for us by millennia of cultural mythology and public policy pull us in opposite directions.

She is, in fact, remarkably self-aware of the limitations of these very criticisms:

The moment we see a pop artifact offering even a sliver of something different — say, a woman who isn’t a size zero or who doesn’t treat a man as the center of the universe — we cling to it desperately because that representation is all we have.

[...]

The incredible problem Girls faces is that all we want is everything from each movie or television show or book that promises to offer a new voice, a relatable voice, an important voice. We want, and rightly so, to believe our lives deserve to be new, relatable, and important. We want to see more complex, nuanced depictions of what it really means to be whoever we are or were or hope to be. We just want so much. We just need so much.

She echoes the same sentiment in a different essay, an intelligent critique of the “continued insensitivity, within feminist circles, on the matter of race” and the “willful disinterest in incorporating the issues and concerns of black women into the mainstream feminist project,” as she writes:

Is that my way of essentializing feminism, of suggesting there’s a right kind of feminism or a more inclusive feminism? Perhaps. This is all murky for me. . . .

Illustration from 'Gone Is Gone: or the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework,' a proto-feminist children's book by pioneering artist and writer Wanda Gág. Click image for more.

In another essay, titled “How We All Lose” — a survey of those rare examples of “writing about gender that is unapologetically sprawling, that reaches both backward and forward and tries to explode the vacuum of cultural conversations” — Gay considers the artificial and limiting nature of polarities:

Discussions about gender are often framed as either/or propositions. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus, or so we are told, as if this means we’re all so different it is nigh impossible to reach each other. The way we talk about gender makes it easy to forget Mars and Venus are part of the same solar system, divided by only one planet, held in the thrall of the same sun.

The most damaging belief at the root of such polarization, Gay argues, is that universal rights are a zero-sum game and equality is always at someone’s expense — a belief that blinds us to what Milton Glaser so memorably framed as the choice, the active daily choice, to perceive the universe as one of abundance rather than scarcity. Considering arguments that perpetuate such toxic mythology, namely Hanna Rosin’s questionable The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, Gay writes:

If women’s fortunes improve, it must mean men’s fortunes will suffer, as if there is a finite amount of good fortune in the universe that cannot be shared equally between men and women.

Touching on the unconscious biases even the best-intentioned of us hold, she adds:

In response to these limited ways in which we talk, write, and think about gender, these vacuums in which we hold cultural conversations, no matter how good our intentions, no matter how finely crafted our approach, I cannot help but think, This is how we all lose. I’m not sure how we can get better at having these conversations, but I do know we need to overcome our deeply entrenched positions and resistance to nuance. We have to be more interested in making things better than just being right, or interesting, or funny.

'The Hunger Games' by Suzanne Collins

In an essay titled “What We Hunger For,” Gay recounts the harrowing experience of being gang-raped in middle school (“Just because you survive something does not mean you are strong,” she remarks in one of the most haunting moments of honesty in the book) and points to The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins as one such unexpected example of bettering the cultural conversation, folding into it a beautiful meditation on the broader gift of reading:

Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds… The trilogy offers the tempered hope that everyone who survives something unendurable hungers for.

This tussle between remembering and forgetting, and the promise of better alternatives, bears a striking parallel to the feminist movement itself. In the penultimate essay, Gay circles back to the movement’s essential paradoxes and the dominant cultural narrative about womanhood itself:

This tension — the idea that there is a right way to be a woman, a right way to be the most essential woman — is ongoing and pervasive. We see this tension in socially dictated beauty standards — the right way to be a woman is to be thin, to wear makeup, to wear the right kind of clothes (not too slutty, not too prudish — show a little leg, ladies), and so on. Good women are charming, polite, and unobtrusive. Good women work but are content to earn 77 percent of what men earn or, depending on whom you ask, good women bear children and stay home to raise those children without complaint. Good women are modest, chaste, pious, submissive. Women who don’t adhere to these standards are the fallen, the undesirable; they are bad women.

[This] thesis could also apply to feminism. There is an essential feminism or, as I perceive this essentialism, the notion that there are right and wrong ways to be a feminist and that there are consequences for doing feminism wrong.

[...]

The most significant problem with essential feminism is how it doesn’t allow for the complexities of human experience or individuality.

She returns to her own resistance to the label “feminist” — a label, she keenly observes, “rarely offered in kindness” — and examines the inherent ambivalence many of us confront in deciding whether or not to identify with it:

I’m not the only outspoken woman who shies away from the feminist label, who fears the consequences of accepting the label.

Once again, she examines the impossible pressure on women — particularly successful women, particularly successful public women, or what Gay so elegantly terms “the dangers of public womanhood” — to reconcile the conflicting norms of female achievement:

I am a mess of contradictions. There are many ways in which I am doing feminism wrong, at least according to the way my perceptions of feminism have been warped by being a woman… I want to be in charge and respected and in control, but I want to surrender, completely, in certain aspects of my life.

[...]

My success, such as it is, is supposed to be enough if I’m a good feminist. It is not enough. It is not even close.

Because I have so many deeply held opinions about gender equality, I feel a lot of pressure to live up to certain ideals. I am supposed to be a good feminist who is having it all, doing it all. Really, though, I’m a woman in her thirties struggling to accept herself and her credit score. For so long I told myself I was not this woman — utterly human and flawed. I worked overtime to be anything but this woman, and it was exhausting and unsustainable and even harder than simply embracing who I am.

Maybe I’m a bad feminist, but I am deeply committed to the issues important to the feminist movement. I have strong opinions about misogyny, institutional sexism that consistently places women at a disadvantage, the inequity in pay, the cult of beauty and thinness, the repeated attacks on reproductive freedom, violence against women, and on and on. I am as committed to fighting fiercely for equality as I am committed to disrupting the notion that there is an essential feminism.

Illustration from the 1970 book 'I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!' Click image for more.

Doing that, Gay reminds us, is a matter of not buying into the myths of feminism — the myths that depict feminists as “militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, humorless” — and choosing to reclaim a pluralism of definitions rather than dismissing the notion of feminism altogether. In the concluding essay, she writes:

I don’t want to cavalierly disavow feminism like far too many other women have done. Bad feminism seems like the only way I can both embrace myself as a feminist and be myself… The more I write, the more I put myself out into the world as a bad feminist but, I hope, a good woman—I am being open about who I am and who I was and where I have faltered and who I would like to become. . . .

I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.

Therein lies the layered richness of Bad Feminist, which should be required reading for people of all genders — in Gay’s willingness to stand up as a critical optimist, inhabiting both meanings of “critical” fully and unflinchingly, and to remind us that the multitudes we each contain are not a cause of weakness but a source of our essential humanity, that embracing them in ourselves is the greatest act of personal bravery and embracing them in others the bravest political act.

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Ordering the Heavens: Hevelius’s Revolutionary 17th-Century Star Catalog and the First Moon Map

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How a visionary manuscript, completed by the first female astronomer of the Western world, survived three fires to become a beacon of scientific dedication.

On September 26, 1679, a fierce fire consumed the Stellaburgum — Europe’s finest observatory, built by the pioneering astronomer Johannes Hevelius in the city of Danzig, present-day Poland, decades before the famous Royal Greenwich Observatory and Paris Observatory existed. That autumn day, Hevelius — whose exquisite lunar engravings are considered the first true maps of the moon and who believed, long before it was established by scientific consensus, that the stars in the night sky were thousands of suns like our own — had retired to a garden outside the city, “feeling himself oppressed with great and unaccustomed troubles, as if presaging some disaster,” as a friend later recounted in a letter. In Hevelius’s absence, his coachman had left a burning candle in the stable and the wooden platform across the roofs of Hevelius’s three adjoining houses, upon which his fine brass instruments and telescopes were mounted, had caught aflame. As the fire raged on, the town’s people broke into the observatory trying to save Hevelius’s precious bound books, throwing them out the windows. Some survived, some were pilfered. His optical instruments and almost all of his bountiful unbound manuscripts perished.

Hevelius in his later years

Hevelius was sixty-eight when his observatory was destroyed. But despite having spent forty years building his own instruments, making groundbreaking observations with them, and engraving and printing his own books — fruits of labor most of which were consumed by the fire along with all his “worldly Goods and Hopes,” as he later wrote in a letter to the king of France — he refused to sink into bitterness and resignation. Instead, he set out to rebuild the observatory so he could return to observing the stars.

His resilience was in large part fueled by the miraculous salvation of one of his manuscripts — his fixed-star catalog, which contained the results of thousands of calculations of the positions of the stars made over decades of patient observation. The small leather-bound notebook was the sole manuscript to survive the fire, presumably saved by Hevelius’s 13-year-old daughter Katharina Elisabeth, the sole family member in Danzig at the time of the fire, who had a key to her father’s study. Half a millennium later, it was rediscovered. In 1971, it made its way to Utah’s Brigham Young University, becoming the one-millionth acquisition by the institution’s library. To mark the landmark event, the university published a slim volume titled Johannes Hevelius and His Catalog of Stars (public library) — an immeasurably engrossing chronicle of the life and legacy of Hevelius, the 300-year odyssey of his fixed-star catalog, and how it changed our world.

The manuscript of 'Catalogus Stellarum Fixarum,' Johannes Hevelius's fixed-star catalog

Hevelius was born in 1611, a year after Galileo had made his first observations with a telescope, at a time of blazing scientific breakthrough and controversy. His father, a successful merchant, pressed young Johannes to follow in his footsteps rather than pursue what he perceived to be the fool’s gold of the scientific revolution, and sent the nine-year-old boy to Poland to study Polish. (At the time, Danzig was part of the Prussian Confederation and Hevelius’s native language was German, something his father saw as an obstacle to doing trade.) When the boy returned at age sixteen, he pleaded with his father to allow him to continue his formal education. The old man eventually relented and young Hevelius quickly fell in love with mathematics, under the influence of his mentor, the acclaimed mathematician, astronomer, and polymath Peter Krüger. He also learned Latin, the language of most scientific publications and international correspondence, and under Krüger’s nurturing watch began learning to draw, engrave, and build rudimentary instruments out of wood and metal. As Krüger’s sight began deteriorating, he encouraged young Johannes to take an active part in the observation part of science.

When he was nineteen, Hevelius watched the total solar eclipse of 1630 and saw Saturn veil the moon in a rare lunar eclipse. He was filled with cosmic awe, but wasn’t ready, or didn’t yet know how, to translate this sense of purpose into a career in astronomy. Instead, he married the daughter of a distinguished businessman and settled into the comfortable life of a merchant. But in 1639, when Krüger was on his deathbed, he urged young Hevelius not to let his exceptional gift go to waste. Aware that his end was near, Krüger lamented that he would miss the rare solar eclipse about to occur later that year and exhorted Hevelius to take up the historic task of its observation.

Equipment used by Hevelius with a telescope to project an astronomical image onto a sheet of paper. This arrangement was used in his historic observation of the transit of Mercury on May 3, 1661.

His teacher’s dying words reawakened Hevelius’s forsaken but fiery love of astronomy. On June 1, 1639, he meticulously observed the solar eclipse, then decided to dedicate the rest of his life to understanding the cosmos. True to the notion that revolutionary discovery is the product of “the meeting of the right people at the right place with just the right problem,” Hevelius harnessed the fruitfulness of his timing — just as he chose to devote himself to astronomy, the telescope was revolutionizing the field and making possible discoveries never before imagined.

Hevelius's revolutionary map of the moon

Hevelius was particularly enchanted with the moon and made it the target of his first obsessive observations. Dissatisfied with the imprecise and vague drawings of its surface, he decided to complain the way all innovators do — by making something better. Turning his modest telescope to the moon and enlisting his talents as a draftsman and engraver, he set out to create a large, complete, delicately detailed map of its surface. But he quickly realized his telescope wasn’t up to the task — so he decided to build a better one himself. In 1647, after five years of methodical work fueled by this greatest talent — dogged patience — Hevelius published his magnificent maps under the title Selenographia.

One of Hevelius's exquisitely illustrated phases of the moon from 'Selenographia'

One of his first great admirers was the famed English traveler Mundy who, upon seeing the maps, marveled in his diary:

Of the Moone he hath Made above 30 large mappes, prints, or Copper peeces of the Manner of every daies encrease and decrease, deciphering in her land and sea, Mountaines, valleies, Ilands, lakes, etts., making in another little world, giving Names to every part, as wee in a mappe of our world.

Praise continued to pour in from all over Europe, but the greatest validation of the maps’ merit was the fact that they endured as the best moon maps for more than a century, despite the rapid progress of observational tools — assurance, perhaps, that what sets innovators apart from the rest aren’t their tools but their creative vision in using those tools and their unrelenting work ethic.

Encouraged, Hevelius set out to improve his observations, building bigger and better telescopes, with an unblinking eye on his most important project — the quest to revise the paltry star catalogs of the era. Star catalogs, Hevelius knew, were an essential tool for astronomers, enabling them to track the changes taking place in constellations — changes that would profoundly challenge the religious dogmas of the day, which depicted the universe as a static starscape laid out by a divine creator a long time ago. At a time when heliocentrism — the knowledge that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than vice-versa as the church claimed — was still a novel and controversial concept, proving that the universe was a dynamic ecosystem of bodies would be a major feat for science. But star maps had to be accurate and precise in order to reveal these changes.

So, in 1641, shortly after his thirtieth birthday, Hevelius began building his rooftop observatory. Three years into his work, the city of Danzig presented him with a gift — an astronomical instrument that had been stored in Danzig armory for many years, alongside firefighting equipment, the use and worth of which had remained unknown. A six-foot contraption known as an azimuthal quadrant, it had been envisioned by Krüger but remained uncompleted by his death. Once again, Hevelius’s mentor was shaping the course of his life, even from the grave — Hevelius completed the instrument, mounted it on his observatory tower, and began making observations with it. With its ability to measure the angular distances between neighboring stars, it became a key tool in the completion of his stellar catalog. Long before the invention of the meridian circle, Hevelius used his instrument to record coordinates according to what was essentially an equator line.

Hevelius and his large azimuthal quadrant, which he used to make many of the measurements in his fixed-star catalog

Over the sixteen years that followed, Hevelius expanded his observatory and equipped it with the best instruments he could build or acquire. His became Europe’s finest observatory.

But perhaps the most important event in Hevelius’s life and career was not one of science but of romance — or, rather, an exquisite fusion of the two. When he was 55, widowed for over a year, Hevelius married a young woman named Elisabeth Koopman, the daughter of an acquaintance of his, a Danzig merchant. Hevelius had known Elisabeth, many years his junior, since she was a child, when she had implored him to teach her astronomy. As a young woman, she had renewed her request, enveloping the now-revered astronomer with admiration and, soon, adoration. A German biography quotes her as exclaiming one night, while looking through Hevelius’s telescope:

To remain and gaze here always, to be allowed to explore and proclaim with you the wonder of the heavens; that would make me perfectly happy!

It was, essentially, a marriage proposal, which Hevelius gladly accepted. They were wedded at St. Catherine’s Church in 1663. Johannes was 52; Elisabeth was 17. Before recoiling in modern judgment, it’s important to note that such unions were far from uncommon at the time. But perhaps more importantly, they were often the only way for women, who were were barred from most formal education and scholarly work, to gain access to creative and intellectual pursuits through a kind of conjugal apprenticeship.

Hevelius and Elisabeth observing at the six-foot brass sextant

That is precisely what young Elisabeth, who had developed an active interest in astronomy at an early age, did. Hevelius saw in her a kindred mind, and they began making astronomical observations together as she mastered the craft. Nearly two centuries before Maria Mitchell, Elisabeth Hevelius essentially became the first Western female astronomer. All the while, she emboldened her husband — another biography cites her most frequent words of encouragement to him:

Nothing is sweeter than to know everything, and enthusiasm for all good arts brings, some time or other, excellent rewards.

In the years following their marriage, Elisabeth continued to observe the stars, but also gave birth to four children — a boy, who died in infancy, and three girls. All the while, she worked alongside Hevelius in completing the star catalog that had become the holy grail of his scientific career and his highest hope for a lasting legacy. In one of his books, Hevelius, who spoke highly of Elisabeth’s scientific skills and called her the “faithful Aide of [his] nocturnal Observations” in a letter to the king of France, included an engraving of the duo making an observation together.

With Elisabeth’s help, Hevelius published the first star maps in a planned series in 1673. The most extraordinary thing about them was that, as he explained in the preface, he had made most of the observations not with a telescope but with a naked eye — a practical method he favored, despite acknowledging the theoretical advantages of telescopes. It was a controversial statement in the golden age of telescopic studies, which caused a tumult among Europe’s astronomers, but Hevelius’s astounding accuracy spoke for itself and established him as the last and greatest of the naked-eye star observers.

Hevelius's comet drawings

Hevelius's comet drawings

But the fire that destroyed Hevelius’s observatory in 1679 nearly put a halt to his quest to catalog the stars. Desperate to resume his project, Hevelius wrote to French king Louis XIV, one of his longtime patrons, a lyrical and heartfelt plea for financial support. The letter stands as an exquisite exemplar of the art of asking, as well as the curious testament to how deeply religious piety permeated the minds of even the most dedicated scientists of the time:

Most Illustrious and mightiest King, most beneficent Lord: Your high Favour and incomparable Mercy have ever spurred me to scatter with diligence the Seeds of my Gratitude and to sow them in the Bosom of Urania, so that I have set in the Heavens nigh to seven hundred Stars which were not there aforetimes, and have named some of them after your Majesty. . .

But, alas, will this Fruit of the Labours of mine Age ever see the Light of Day? For no man knoweth what the Dark of Even bringeth. Woe and alas, how multitudinous the Misfortunes that embroil the Life of Man. All my worldly Goods and Hopes have been overturned in the Space of scarce an Hour.

Rumour of the dread Conflagration which hath destroyed my astronomical Tower hath no doubt already sped upon rapid Feet to Paris. Now I come myself hasting to Your Majesty as Herald of this great Woe, clad in Sackcloth and Ashes, deep distressed by this Visitation from Him Who judgeth all Things.

[...]

May the Windows of the Human Soul never again look upon such a conflagration as devoured my three Houses… if God had not commanded the Wind to turn in its Course, all of the Old City of Danzig would surely have burned to the Ground…

Saved by God’s Mercy were .. Kepler’s immortal Works, which I purchased from his Son, my Catalogue of Stars, my New and Improved celestial Globe, and the thirteen Volumes of my Correspondence with learned Men and the Crowned Head of all Lands.

But the cruel Flames have consumed all the Machines and Instruments conceived by long Study and constructed, alas, at such great Cost, Consumed also the Printing Press with Letters … consumed, finally my Fortune and the means which God’s Mercy had granted me to serve the Royal Science.

If such Damage should crush me to the Ground, I whose Locks are Hoary and who am not far from my Appointed End, could any reasonable Man cast Blame upon me therefor? Yet with the Aid of my many Friends I hope that I may restore my Specula observatoria, and implore you, Most Illustrious Monarch who have so often manifested Royal Munificence toward me, to breathe by some further Token of your Generosity new Life into the Work which may still lie before me. Then will I no longer bewail my cruel Misfortune, and yours, Noble Majesty, will be eternal Fame for all Posterity.

The king, moved, granted his request. But the most generous support came from the king of Poland, who granted Hevelius a yearly stipend of 1,000 Danzig gulden for the rest of his life. The astronomer thus went on to resume his observations and finish his publications.

In October of 1681, the French writer Jean-François Regnard visited the newly rebuilt observatory and marveled in his little-known diary not only at Hevelius’s prolific writings and his impressive proto-rolodex, but also at his sublime cross-pollination of art and science:

His works, the number of which exceeds all belief … are full of plates made with his own hand: he shewed us them all, besides fifteen large volumes, as thick as the Lives of the Saints, full of letters which the most learned men on the whole world had written to him on various subjects.

Map of the constellations from 'Prodromus Astronomiae'

But Hevelius remained preoccupied with the completion of his catalog of the stars, which had become his most consuming endeavor and his highest hope for legacy. Alas, he never fully attained it — at least not as a sole creator. On January 28, 1687 — the exact date of his 76th birthday — Hevelius died, having outlived the era’s life expectancy by decades. But Elisabeth, who had assisted him in the catalog all along, took it upon herself to finish Hevelius’s lifelong quest. She completed the book, dedicating it to the generous Polish monarch. The finished catalog included more than 600 new stars that Johannes and Elisabeth had observed, as well as a dozen new constellations, whose names, as given by Hevelius, astronomers still use today.

One of Hevelius's plates depicting a new constellation he discovered, the Lynx, named for the sharpness of vision required to see its faint stars

Hercules with the new constellation Cerberus

Elisabeth guarded the manuscript carefully until her death in 1693, at the age of 46. She left to each of her three daughters a complete set of Hevelius’s published works. The eldest, Katharina — who as a teenager had saved her father’s star catalog from the fateful fire — fittingly inherited a beautifully illuminated copy of the book, originally prepared as a gift for Louis XIV. But once Katharina married, her husband sold most of Hevelius’s prized books to a museum in Russia. The manuscript of the star catalog that had survived the fire was overlooked. Ironically, the greedy son-in-law didn’t think Hevelius’s magnum opus valuable enough to sell.

But the story of the star catalog and its miraculous survival doesn’t end there: In 1734, during the Saxonian-Russian siege of Danzig, artillery fire struck the son-in-law’s house and destroyed most of the property. One bomb fell directly into the room where Hevelius’s manuscripts and instruments were kept, destroying nearly all unbound manuscripts. But the star catalog somehow survived once more. Over the next two centuries, it made its way to the Danzig Institute of Technology. Then, as World War II broke out, the German administration evacuated the Institute’s library to a nearby village, where it was almost completely destroyed in the last days of the war. And yet the star catalog, by yet another stroke of mysterious fortune, survived its third assault by fire. This strange phoenix of science finally arrived at Brigham Young University in 1971, where it has remained safe from fire and brimstone in the decades since.

The manuscript of the fixed-star catalog featured in front of a copy of the posthumously published 'Prodromus Astronomiae' (1690), opened to the title page of the printed version of the printed star catalog

Complement engrossing out-of-print gem Johannes Hevelius and His Catalog of Stars with this modern-day field guide to naked-eye stargazing, then revisit pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell’s wisdom on education and women in science.

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Nietzsche’s 10 Rules for Writers

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“Style ought to prove that one believes in an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it.”

More than a century before Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing inspired similar sets of commandments by Neil Gaiman, Zadie Smith, and Margaret Atwood, one of humanity’s greatest minds did precisely that. Between August 8 and August 24 of 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche set down ten stylistic rules of writing in a series of letters to the Russian-born writer, intellectual, and psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé — a woman celebrated as the “muse of Europe’s fin-de-siècle thinkers and artists,” to whom Rainer Maria Rilke would later come to write breathtaking love letters. Smitten with 21-year-old Andreas-Salomé, Nietzsche decided to make her not only his intellectual protégé, but also his wife, allegedly proposing marriage at only their second meeting earlier that year. Despite Andreas-Salomé’s rejection of his romantic advances and the subsequent break in the friendship, she retained a lifelong respect for his mind and work. More than two decades later, she included his ten rules of writing in Nietzsche (public library) — her superb study of Nietzsche’s personality, philosophy, and psyche.

Collected under the heading “Toward the Teaching of Style,” they read:

  1. Of prime necessity is life: a style should live.
  2. Style should be suited to the specific person with whom you wish to communicate. (The law of mutual relation.)
  3. First, one must determine precisely “what-and-what do I wish to say and present,” before you may write. Writing must be mimicry.
  4. Since the writer lacks many of the speaker’s means, he must in general have for his model a very expressive kind of presentation of necessity, the written copy will appear much paler.
  5. The richness of life reveals itself through a richness of gestures. One must learn to feel everything — the length and retarding of sentences, interpunctuations, the choice of words, the pausing, the sequence of arguments — like gestures.
  6. Be careful with periods! Only those people who also have long duration of breath while speaking are entitled to periods. With most people, the period is a matter of affectation.
  7. Style ought to prove that one believes in an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it.
  8. The more abstract a truth which one wishes to teach, the more one must first entice the senses.
  9. Strategy on the part of the good writer of prose consists of choosing his means for stepping close to poetry but never stepping into it.
  10. It is not good manners or clever to deprive one’s reader of the most obvious objections. It is very good manners and very clever to leave it to one’s reader alone to pronounce the ultimate quintessence of our wisdom.

These commandments are obviously rather aphoristic. In fact, unlike Susan Sontag, who vehemently denounced it, both Nietzsche and Andreas-Salomé had a fondness for aphorism. Beneath the list, Andreas-Salomé reflects on Nietzsche’s style in light of his aphoristic predilection:

To examine Nietzsche’s style for causes and conditions means far more than examining the mere form in which his ideas are expressed; rather, it means that we can listen to his inner soundings. [His style] came about through the willing, enthusiastic, self-sacrificing, and lavish expenditure of great artistic talents … and an attempt to render knowledge through individual nuancing, reflective of the excitations of a soul in upheaval. Like a gold ring, each aphorism tightly encircles thought and emotion. Nietzsche created, so to speak, a new style in philosophical writing, which up until then was couched in academic tones or in effusive poetry: he created a personalized style; Nietzsche not only mastered language but also transcended its inadequacies. What had been mute, achieved great resonance.

Her Nietzsche is a magnificent read in its entirety. For more advice on writing, see Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing with style, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Susan Sontag’s synthesized wisdom, Chinua Achebe on the writer’s responsibility and the collected advice of great writers.

Thanks, Dan

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