Brain Pickings

Maurice Sendak’s Weird and Wonderful Nutcracker

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“It is rare and genuine and does justice to the private world of children. One can, after all, count on the instincts of a genius.”

In addition to his beloved children’s books, Maurice Sendak vitalized the popular imagination with his equally innovative contributions to theater. In 1983, four years after he adapted Where the Wild Things Are for the stage, Sendak designed the set for the Pacific Northwestern Ballet’s production of Nutcracker. The iconic two-act ballet had originally premiered on December 18, 1892, with a score by Tchaikovsky and story based on Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 classic The Nutcracker and the Mouse King — but it was neither a critical nor a commercial success. And yet it went on to become one of the most culturally beloved and commercially successful productions of all time, as well as a singular object of secular worship and creative communion at Christmastime.

There has been no staging of the classic more imaginative and creatively daring than Sendak’s collaboration with PNB’s Founding Artistic Directors husband-and-wife duo Kent Stowell and Francia Russell — in large part because Sendak’s vision reclaimed and made even more wonderful Hoffmann’s essential weirdness, which the Dumas translation had cleaned up and tucked away for nearly a century. To Sendak, earlier versions of Nutcracker were invariably “smoothed out, bland, and utterly devoid not only of difficulties but of the weird, dark qualities that make it something of a masterpiece.”

So even though he at first turned down the theatrical project because its “fantastical subject mixed generously with children seemed, paradoxically, too suited” for his sensibility, he was eventually enchanted by it and dreamed up a set design with which audiences fell instantly in love, catapulting the fledgling ballet company into stardom. Sendak’s set emerged as so influential and beloved that it became a classic in its own right — so much so that when he died in 2012, PNB restaged the ballet and dedicated its entire season to the great author and artist.

A few months after the PNB production first premiered, Sendak reversed his usual direction of book-to-theater adaptation and illustrated the special companion volume Nutcracker (public library). Having brought the iconic E.T.A. Hoffmann characters to life on the stage, he now returned to his native medium — the page — which Sendak imbues with his signature gift for crafting a complex and realistic emotional experience within a wholly fantastical world that honors the light and darkness of the human experience in equal measure.

Even though Sendak’s illustrations for the book are beholden to the integrity of the Hoffman story, he is an artist who has built a career of folding his influences into his own wildly original work, beginning with his formative illustrations of William Blake, which remained a creative centerpiece for Sendak up until his final farewell to the world. To the Sendak fan, then, it is at once pleasantly unsurprising and wholly invigorating to spot among his Nutcracker illustrations both fragments of his existing creations and glimpses of his future ones: In one scene, a Wild Thing peeks from behind the turbulent horizon; the depiction of Hoffmann’s Mouse King throughout would return in near-replica a decade later in Sendak’s darkest, most controversial, yet most hopeful children’s book.

In the introduction to the book, Sendak recounts how his initial reservations about the project were resolved:

Most of my doubts and worries were put to rest when Kent and I met for the first time early in 1981 in New York City. I liked him immediately for not wanting me to do the Nutcracker for all the obvious reasons but rather because he wished me to join him in the leap into the unknown. He suggested we abandon the predictable Nutcracker and find a fresh version that did honor to Hoffmann, Tchaikovsky, and ourselves.

Sendak, a tireless champion of children’s ability to handle the dark, considers the chief redeeming quality of this sanitized take on the Hoffmann classic — Tchaikovsky’s defiant, visionary score:

Tchaikovsky … proceeded to compose a score that in overtone and erotic suggestion is happily closer to Hoffmann than Dumas. His music, bristling with implied action, has a subtext alive with wild child cries and belly noises. It is rare and genuine and does justice to the private world of children. One can, after all, count on the instincts of a genius.

Were it not for his lifelong humility, Sendak might well have been talking about himself — for it was his own rare and genuine genius that elevated the Hoffmann classic, and the Tchaikovsky score, to a new dimension of greatness.

Complement Sendak’s Nutcracker with his little-known and lovely vintage posters celebrating books and the joy of reading and his illustrations for Tolstoy.

Illustrations courtesy of Crown Publishing Group / Penguin Random House

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Wole Soyinka, the First African Writer to Win the Nobel Prize in Literature, on Faith, Medicine, and the Healing of the Human Spirit

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What a continent’s “rich tapestry of intuitive forces” can teach us about healing, of body and of soul.

Even though the term “placebo effect” was coined in 1920 and the phenomenon itself has been studied since the 18th century, only recently have scientists begun to understand the full extent to which our minds affect our bodies. Of course, long before Western medicine was able to define and demonstrate it empirically, the world’s ancient practitioners of traditional medicine have been reaping the benefits of this integrative mind-body approach to healing for centuries, if not millennia — under the dismissive, even scornful eye of the Western medical establishment. But in addition to betraying the very basic tenet of science as a discipline propelled not by the arrogance of what we know but by the humility of what we don’t — by the “thoroughly conscious ignorance” that transmutes curiosity into knowledge — such attitudes are mired in more complex sociocultural forces and power dynamics, especially in societies torn between two worlds by the soul-splitting aftermath of colonialism.

That’s precisely what Wole Soyinka — the first African writer awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature — explores in his altogether excellent collection Of Africa (public library).

Wole Soyinka (Photograph: Peter Badge)

Soyinka writes in the introduction:

What does the continent known as Africa possess that the rest — or a greater part — of the globe does not have already in superabundance? These, obviously, cannot be limited to material or inert possessions — such as mineral resources, touristic landscapes, strategic locations— not forgetting the continent’s centuries — old designation as human hatcheries for the supply of cheap labor to other societies, East and West. There also exist dynamic possessions — ways of perceiving, responding, adapting, or simply doing that vary from people to people, including structures of human relationships. These all constitute potential commodities of exchange— not as negotiable as timber, petroleum, or uranium perhaps, but nonetheless recognizable as defining the human worth of any people—and could actually contribute to the resolution of the existential dilemma of distant communities, or indeed to global survival, if only they were known about or permitted their proper valuation.

[…]

It is its humanity, the quality and valuation of its own existence, and modes of managing its environment— both physical and intangible (which includes the spiritual) — that remain the primary, incontestable assets to which any society can lay claim or offer as unique contributions to the attainments of the world.

In an essay titled “Not a ‘Way of Life,’ But a Guide to Existence” — particularly poignant in the wake of the world’s frantic response to the Ebola crisis — Soyinka examines the larger secular structures and functions surrounding traditional religion, focusing on those aspects of society that reside not “within the mysteries of the religion itself, but in those areas of mundane activities in which religion is implicated, however marginally, making our selection among the more pacific and unavoidable human occupation.” He considers the disorienting intersection between traditional African spiritual traditions — traditions that have shaped “social conduct, human relations, and survival strategies” — and their ambivalent disavowal by post-colonial society:

My mother was what we call a petty trader. Next to her shop was a traditional healer, a babalawo, whose clinic was the verandah of his mud house, under a lean-to, thus making it quite visible from the frontage of our own shop, where I often sat. My father was a schoolteacher, and it struck me that his, and the babalawo’s, operations appeared to share the activity of instruction, so I began to take an illicit interest in his methods. Illicit because, to a well-brought-up child from a Christian home, such activities were clearly the work of the devil. Beyond a neighborly good morning, there was hardly any social intercourse between the healer and our own corner of the block.

And yet despite this coolly detached public courtesy was only one half of the great ambivalence with which the community regarded the babalawo; the other half was enacted privately, in secret:

The babalawo’s clinic was the place for a more fascinating array of herbal concoctions dispensed for various illnesses—potions from barks and roots, bitter and astringent, oily and/or gritty, not too dissimilar from those that were dispensed by the bottle and spoon in western hospitals. I was also able to observe that the babalawo’s consulting shack was patronized by practicing Christians and Moslems — a number of them sneaking in after dusk or in the early morning on their way to white-collar duties… My superimposing eyes also remarked that, in our own home, apart from the pills and potions dispensed from the government hospitals, there were also jars, clay pots, and gourds whose contents were suspiciously like the ones I saw being provided by the babalawo.

With an eye toward the broader social and cultural implications of the community’s response to African traditional medicine, Soyinka writes:

One deduction emerged effortlessly from those childhood experiences: a distinction between the passive and the active (participatory) curative methods… The “return to source” with the full collaboration of western-trained doctors, is, however, making strides, perhaps propelled more by commercial stakes than conviction, but that return is on, and with full vengeance.

But perhaps the babalawo’s greatest appeal — to young Soyinka, as well as to us today — was his role as a living reminder that, per Carl Sagan’s memorable admonition, the closer we inch to the assumption that we know everything there is to know and have answered all the questions worth answering, the further we drift from our essential humanity. Soyinka writes:

The babalawo’s clinic intrigued me far more than the starched, white-overall western clinics, where a most impressive looking doctor hung a stethoscope around his neck, listened to heartbeats, took pulses, and wrote down prescriptions in indecipherable script. He looked intimidatingly omniscient, and he clearly was in touch with all the dialects of the human body. The babalawo also exuded knowledge and mystery, but somehow he appeared closer to his patients. For a start, he sat cross-legged on a floormat and appeared to consult his patient as much as they consulted him.

After recounting the babalawo’s process and his various divinations for patients, Soyinka considers the larger value of this practice — one remarkably similar to what Western medicine is only just beginning to discover about the role faith plays in the patient’s physical healing. He writes of the babalawo’s work with one woman from the community:

The therapeutic value of this was to ally the suppliant, psychically, to forces within the entirety of her healing culture — including the history of her own people.

In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s beautiful reflection on the poetics of reverie, Soyinka considers the healing power of poetic form itself — the common thread between the chants of the babalawo’s healing rituals and the liturgies of the world’s organized religions — independent from any religious message it may transmit:

Poetry in liturgy is common to most religions, perhaps the most powerful element, far more powerful than any alleged intrinsic truths of the religions themselves. Poetry, or, sometimes, sheer lyricism and mesmerizing rhetoric, these are tools that are natural to or cultivated by charismatic leaders in any culture, irrespective of the purpose to which such attributes are turned, secular or religious.

In essence, what Soyinka describes is a kind of invaluable social work, and yet its fate in the hands of colonial oppressors has been a dismal one, denying its vitalizing social function and reducing it to useless superstition to be replaced by more convenient but no less damaging dogmas:

This then is the binding network of mortals, deities, and nature that Christians and Moslems pronounced “pagan,” “infidel,” “demonic,” etc., and moved to proscribe and destroy on the African continent, substituting, often through violence, their own faiths, which are based no less on structures of superstition though are perhaps more elegant, architecturally imposing, or seductively packaged. At the heart of it all, however, is nothing more than an article of faith sustained by dogmatism.

Considering such dogmatic “world religions” and their practitioners who “press wafers to the lips of their followers to ingest the body of their sainted god,” Soyinka reflects on Africa’s enduring humanistic values and what it stands to teach all of humanity:

[There are] those who, centuries after the Age of Reason and its underlying spirit of enquiry, still deem a continent backward and satanic, that had proved itself capable of weaving and sustaining such a rich tapestry of intuitive forces. But then, did they know of, or seriously penetrate, such systems of belief? No, their sources remained missionary missives. Despite them all, however, Africa survives to teach the world — even without proselytizing.

Soyinka is careful to acknowledge — “without equivocation” — “the progress that has been made in medicine through scientific research” as he points to the broader cultural and creative importance of making visible the value of traditional African healing traditions:

Our interest here is simply to relate the science of healing to the holism of faiths, of which a most potent aspect is the Word, the lyricism and poetry of healing which acts both therapeutically and homeopathically.

[…]

It is from within such resources that not only the religion but the full richness of Africa’s literary wealth — oral, ancient and contemporary, of the continent and the Diaspora, written and rhetorical — can best be appreciated.

[…]

Insufficiently celebrated remains the fate of this continuity between such traditional resources and contemporary creative minds.

Of Africa is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement it with Beneath the Rainbow — a collection of ancient stories and poems from Kenya, illustrated by contemporary African artists.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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Van Gogh on Principles, Talking vs. Doing, and the Human Pursuit of Greatness

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“Principles are good and worth the effort only when they develop into deeds… The great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.”

Albert Camus memorably admonished that those who prefer their principles over their happiness remain unhappy, suggesting that such rigid personal dogmas at the expense of actionable happiness are a form of especially dehumanizing self-punishment. Nearly a century earlier, Vincent van Gogh explored this disconnect with great wisdom in a letter to his brother Theo, found in the recently released 800-page treasure trove Ever Yours: The Essential Letters (public library) — one of the year’s best biographies, memoirs, and history books, and the source of Van Gogh’s moving account of how he found his purpose.

'Self-Portrait with Straw Hat' by Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh begins the letter by describing some of the watercolors he is working on and includes a sketch of a beach scene before diving into a discussion of what success really means, prompted by Theo’s descriptions of reckless, debauched artists he had met in Paris. A century before Wendell Berry’s wise meditation on pride and despair as the two great enemies of creative work — two sides of the same coin — Van Gogh, only twenty-nine at the time, writes to Theo:

How many have become desperate in Paris — calmly, rationally, logically and rightly desperate? … All the more, all the more, I think every attempt in [the] direction [of success] is worthy of respect. I also believe that it may happen that one succeeds and one mustn’t begin by despairing; even if one loses here and there, and even if one sometimes feels a sort of decline, the point is nevertheless to revive and have courage, even though things don’t turn out as one first thought.

He considers the relationship between abstract principles and concrete actions — the disconnect between the two often produces self-righteous hypocrites who, despite their holier-than-thou air, are no better than those Parisian artists:

Don’t think that I look with contempt on people such as you describe because their life isn’t founded on serious and well-considered principles. My view on this is as follows: the result must be an action, not an abstract idea. I think principles are good and worth the effort only when they develop into deeds, and I think it’s good to reflect and to try to be conscientious, because that makes a person’s will to work more resolute and turns the various actions into a whole. I think that people such as you describe would get more steadiness if they went about what they do more rationally, but otherwise I much prefer them to people who make a great show of their principles without making the slightest effort to put them into practice or even giving that a thought. For the latter have no use for the finest of principles, and the former are precisely the people who, if they ever get round to living with willpower and reflection, will do something great. For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.

A letter from Vincent to Theo, October 22, 1882

Van Gogh considers how art transmutes that invisible impulse of principles into the bringing together of tangible greatness, a greatness that at once validates the principles and is sustained by them:

What is drawing? How does one get there? It’s working one’s way through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How can one get through that wall? — since hammering on it doesn’t help at all. In my view, one must undermine the wall and grind through it slowly and patiently. And behold, how can one remain dedicated to such a task without allowing oneself to be lured from it or distracted, unless one reflects and organizes one’s life according to principles? And it’s the same with other things as it is with artistic matters. And the great isn’t something accidental; it must be willed. Whether originally deeds lead to principles in a person or principles lead to deeds is something that seems to me as unanswerable and as little worth answering as the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg.

But I believe it’s a positive thing and of great importance that one should try to develop one’s powers of thought and will.

The remainder of Ever Yours offers a revelatory, unprecedented glimpse of one of the most extraordinary minds in history — a man who managed to create, despite an anguishing lifelong struggle with mental illness, some of the greatest art humanity has ever known and even to help explain the scientific mysteries of movement and light through his paintings.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by 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.