Brain Pickings

A Vintage Love Letter to NYC’s Heat as the Ultimate Class Equalizer

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How the extremities of the thermometer bridge the most insurmountable of social barriers.

As New York enters a record-breaking heat wave this week, I was reminded of a wonderful passage from Manhattan ’45 (public library), titled thusly because it sounds “partly like a kind of gun; and partly like champagne,” by the Welsh historian and prolific travel writer Jan Morris* — easily the most beautifully written love letter to New York City since E. B. White’s iconic Here Is New York, one of my all-time favorite texts. Morris paints a portrait of the city as it was on June 25, 1945 — the day 14,000 American servicemen and women, the first contingent returning from the victory over Nazi Germany, sailed into New York aboard the British liner Queen Mary — reconstructed in 1987, when the book was originally published. In this excerpt from the closing of Chapter 4, “On Class,” Morris captures the remarkable unifying force of New York City heat, something to quietly celebrate as we brush up against sweaty strangers on the subway and exchange wistfully knowing nods.

[W]hen a heat wave left the whole city gasping and sweating, a powerful fellowship blunted the edge of the common misery, bridging the most insuperable linguistic barriers, or the most unclimbable social barricades, if only with a wink or a grimace.

Morris goes on to extend this amalgamation of difference into fellowship, driven by the forces of the city’s circumstance, to the very fabric of citizenship:

And anyway citizenship of this city in itself made for a bond beyond class. To be a citizen of Manhattan was an achievement in itself — it had taken guts and enterprise, if not on your own part, at least on your forebears’. The pressures of the place, its competition, its pace, its hazards, even the fun of it, demanded special qualities of its people, and gave them a particular affinity for one another. They were all an elite!

*Morris herself is very much a character worthy of New York City’s colorful spirit. Born as James Morris in 1926, the father of five children and a WWII vet, she had gender reassignment surgery in 1972 after eight years of medical transition. She had to travel to Morocco to have the procedure performed, since British doctors wouldn’t agree to do it unless Morris divorced the children’s mother, Elizabeth Tuckniss, which she refused to do. The two eventually divorced, but remained close and were legally reunited in a civil partnership in 2008, when Morris was 82. You can hear Morris in conversation with NYPL’s Paul Holdengräber.

Thanks, Chel

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Bill Plympton’s Quirky Animated Guides to Kissing and Making Love

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“Here’s to every him and miss who loves a pure and sunny kiss.”

In 1896, Thomas Edison scandalized society with the very first kiss in cinema. Nearly a century later, in 1989, animation legend Bill Plympton created a charming short film for Rolling Stone, titled How to Kiss, examining with equal parts pragmatism and delightfully violent irreverence the art of the smooch, and laying out the technical components of the different kinds of kisses in his signature colored-pencil technique.

The face is the jewel in the crown of desire.

In 1995, Plympton upped the ante with the equally quirky and much more NSFW How to Make Love to a Woman, an animated guide to “the slippery and challenging path to true [heterosexual] romance”:

For more on and of these classic Plymptoons, see The Complete Early Works of Bill Plympton (1987) and The Classic Works of Bill Plympton (1985).

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A Rare Glimpse of Leonardo da Vinci’s Anatomical Drawings

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How one of history’s greatest artists almost became history’s greatest anatomist.

Though Leonardo da Vinci endures as the quintessential polymath, the epitome of the “Renaissance Man” dabbling in a wide array of disciplines — art, architecture, cartography, mathematics, literature, engineering, anatomy, geology, music, sculpture, botany — his interest in science was anything but cursory. In Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist (public library), Martin Clayton, senior curator of the Royal Collection, looks well beyond his iconic Vitruvian Man to explore Leonardo’s remarkably accurate anatomical illustrations that remained hidden from the world for nearly 400 years after Da Vinci’s death.

A study of a man standing facing the spectator, with legs apart and arms stretched down, drawn as an anatomical figure to show the heart, lungs and main arteries.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Three studies, one on a larger scale, of a man's right arm and shoulder, showing muscles; three studies of a right arm; a diagram to illustrate pronation and supination of the hand.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

An anatomical study of the principal organs and the arterial system of a female torso, pricked for transfer.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Springing from the “true to nature” ethos of his paintings, Leonardo’s fascination with the human body took him to the morgues and hospitals of Florence, where he performed dissections of corpses, often of executed criminals. His greatest feat was understanding the workings of the heart. After discovering a bulb-shaped swelling at the root of the aorta, he came strikingly close to uncovering the mechanisms of blood circulation more than a century before formal science arrived at it. In fact, he injected melted wax into the heart of an ox, then a glass model of the cast and pumped it with water with a suspension of grass seeds in order to observe the vortexes at work. He then concluded that the swelling made the aortic valve close after each heartbeat, a proposition which cardiologists didn’t arrive at until the early 20th century and didn’t fully confirm until the 1980s.

Large drawing of an embryo within a human uterus with a cow's placenta; smaller sketch of the same; notes on the subject; illustrative drawings in detail of the placenta and uterus; diagram demonstrating binocular vision; a note on relief in painting and on mechanics.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

A study of a man's left leg, stretched forward; beside it, a man's legs seen from behind; below is a man standing, turned in profile to the left, with his left leg advanced; to the right are two studies of the bones of human left legs and thighs, and one of an animal; with many notes on the muscles.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

A study of the dissection of the lower leg and foot of a bear, viewed in profile to the left. To the left there is also a slight drawing of the leg.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Perhaps his most famous anatomical drawing was of a 100-year-old man, who had reported being in excellent health mere hours before his death. When Leonardo dissected him to see “the cause of so sweet a death” and found cirrhosis of the liver and a blockage of an artery to the heart, producing the first-ever description of what is now known as coronary vascular occlusion.

As a great artist, Leonardo had two advantages over his contemporary anatomists. First of all, as a sculptor, engineer, architect, he had an intuitive understanding of form — when he dissected a body, he could understand in a very fluid way how the different parts of the body fit together, worked together. And then, having made that understanding, as a supreme draftsman, he was able to record his observations and discoveries in drawings of such lucidity, he’s able to get across the form, the structure to the viewer in a way which had never been done before and, in many cases, has never been surpassed since.

Drawing of external genitalia and vagina, with notes; notes on the anal sphincter and diagrams of suggested arrangement of its fibers and its mode of action.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Five studies of the bones of the leg and foot; a drawing of the knee joint and patella; two studies of the bones of a right leg with the knee flexed; the muscles of a right buttock, thigh and calf.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Leonardo intended to publish his drawings as an illustrated treatise on human anatomy, but when he died in 1519, his anatomical papers were buried amongst his private possessions and vanished from public sight. In the early 1600s, around 600 of his surviving drawings were bound in a single collection and by the end of the century, they mysteriously made their way to the Royal Collection. Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist gathers 90 of these seminal drawings, contextualized in a discussion of their anatomical significance. Accompanying the books is an iPad app, presenting 268 pages of Leonardo’s notebooks in magnificent high resolution.

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