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Posts Tagged ‘books’

12 JULY, 2013

The Kinship of Creativity: Robert Henri on How the Art Spirit Binds Us Together

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“Through art mysterious bonds of understanding and of knowledge are established among men.”

American realist painter and educator Robert Henri (June 24, 1865–July 12, 1929) is best-remembered for his philosophical reflections on the nature and purpose of art, collected by his former pupil Margery Ryerson in the 1923 volume The Art Spirit (public library), which went on to inspire and influence creators for generations to come. (Including David Lynch, who cites it as a major influence in the introduction to his treatise on meditation and creativity.)

One of the central premises in the book is the recognition that all creativity builds on what came before and that art is woven of circles of influence which, like life itself, require a delicate osmosis of giving and receiving. Henri writes:

Every student should put down in some form or other his findings. All any man can hope to do is to add his fragment to the whole. No man can be final, but he can record his progress, and whatever he records is so much done in the thrashing out of the whole thing. What he leaves is so much for others to use as stones for step on or stones to avoid.

The student is not an isolated force. He belongs to a great brotherhood, bears great kinship to his kind. He takes and he gives. He benefits by taking and he benefits by giving.

This “brotherhood” (let’s not fault Henri for being a product of his time — remember this was written half a century before the age of gender-neutral language), he argues, is as applicable to the realm of learning as it is to that of art, for, as we know, connections are the key to creativity.

Through art mysterious bonds of understanding and of knowledge are established among men. They are the bonds of a great Brotherhood. Those who are of the Brotherhood know each other, and time and space cannot separate them.

The Brotherhood is powerful. It has many members. They are of all places and of all times. The members do not die. One is member to the degree that he can be member, no more, no less. And that part of him that is of the Brotherhood does not die.

The work of the Brotherhood does not deal with surface events. Institutions on the world surface can rise and become powerful and they can destroy each other. Statesmen can put patch upon patch to make things continue to stand still. No matter what may happen on the surface the Brotherhood goes steadily on. It is the evolution of man. Let the surface destroy itself, the Brotherhood will start it again. For in all cases, no matter how strong the surface institutions become, no matter what laws may be laid down, what patches may be made, all change that is real is due to the Brotherhood.

Henri reminds us that we often let these surface storms — of institutions, of public opinion, of the ephemera that surround the essence of the art spirit — cloud the fundamentals of the creative life, but because art is but an imitation of the forces of nature, it endures even in the face of these superficial surges:

In these times there is a powerful demarcation between the surface and the deep currents of human development. Events and upheavals, which seem more profound than they really are, are happening on the surface. But there is another and deeper change in progress. It is of long, steady persistent growth, very little affected and not at all disturbed by surface conditions. The artist of today should be alive to this deeper evolution on which all growth depends, has depended and will depend. On the surface there is the battle of institutions, the illustration of events, the strife between peoples. On the surface there is propaganda and there is the effort to force opinions. The deeper current carries no propaganda. The shock of the surface upheaval does not deflect it from its course. It is in search of fundamental principle; that basic principle of all, which in degree as it is apprehended points the way to beauty and order, and to the law of nature.

And, indeed, the members of the Brotherhood do not die. Henri’s The Art Spirit lives on as a timeless and necessary read, brimming with insightful additions to history’s finest definitions of art and complementing these essential reads on fear and the creative process.

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12 JULY, 2013

Thoreau on Friendship, Sympathy, and Animal Consciousness

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“A man [is] commonly a locked-up chest to us, to open whom, unless we have the key of sympathy, will make our hearts bleed.”

What better way to complement Maurice Sendak’s lovely vintage illustrated ode to friendship than with a related reflection from one of modern history’s most beloved thinkers? In The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 (public library) — which also gave us, for a piece of appropriate meta-irony, Thoreau on why not to quote Thoreau — the beloved transcendentalist, born on July 12, 1817, considers the essence of friendship, what it means to be human, and how inextricably connected we are to our fellow non-human beings, who are just as worthy of our sympathy and respect as our human friends.

On July 13, 1857 — the day after his 40th birthday — Thoreau awakens to a resolution for celebrating capital-F friendship as a centerpiece of the good life:

I sometimes awake in the night and think of friendship and its possibilities, a new life and relation to me, which perhaps I had not experienced for many months. Such transient thoughts have been my nearest approach to realization of it, thoughts which I know of no one to communicate to. I suddenly erect myself in my thoughts, or find myself erected, infinite degrees above the possibility of ordinary endeavors, and see for what grand stakes the game of life may be played. I catch an echo of the great strain of Friendship played somewhere, and feel compensated for months and years of commonplace. It is as if I were serenaded, and the highest and truest compliments were paid me. The universe gives me three cheers. Friendship is the fruit which the year should bear; it lends its fragrance to the flowers, and it is in vain if we get only a large crop of apples without it.

For Thoreau, the essence of friendship was the cultivation of true sympathy. On a “stern, bleak, inhospitable” January day in 1856, with the temperature a cruel “5° at noon and at 4 P.M.,” Thoreau observes a closed pitch pine cone he had gathered three days prior, which had just opened in his chamber. From this seemingly mundane occurrence he extracts a profound meditation on existence and the ties of sympathy, by way of a squirrel — that uncanny gift from translating the minutia of the physical world into timeless wisdom on the metaphysical is the defining characteristic of his journal:

If you would be convinced how differently armed the squirrel is naturally for dealing with pitch pine cones, just try to get one off with your teeth. He who extracts the seeds from a single closed cone with the aid of a knife will be constrained to confess that the squirrel earns his dinner. It is a rugged customer, and will make your fingers bleed. But the squirrel has the key to this conical and spiny chest of many apartments. He sits on a post, vibrating his tail, and twirls it as a plaything.

But so is a man commonly a locked-up chest to us, to open whom, unless we have the key of sympathy, will make our hearts bleed.

In fact, this combined sensitivity to other living beings and exaltation of sympathy as a defining duty of what it means to be human emerges again and again throughout the diary as Thoreau touches on insights predating the modern science of animal consciousness by more than a century. On March 31, 1842, in the last entry before his three-year journal hiatus that ended when Thoreau moved to Walden, he contemplates our interconnectedness with the rest of the living world and the joyous humility that springs from its recognition:

All parts of nature belong to one head, as the curls of a maiden’s hair. How beautifully flow the seasons as one year, and all streams as one ocean!

[…]

It is the saddest thought of all, that what we are to others, that we are much more to ourselves, — avaricious, mean, irascible, affected, — we are the victims of these faults. If our pride offends our humble neighbor, much more does it offend ourselves, though our lives are never so private and solitary. How many young finny contemporaries of various character and destiny, form and habits, we have even in this water! And it will not be forgotten by some memory that we were contemporaries. It is of some import. We shall be some time friends, I trust, and know each other better. Distrust is too prevalent now. We are so much alike! have so many faculties in common! I have not yet met with the philosopher who could, in a quite conclusive, undoubtful way, show me the, and, if not the, then how any, difference between man and a fish. We are so much alike! How much could a really tolerant, patient, humane, and truly great and natural man make of them, if he should try? For they are to be understood, surely, as all things else, by no other method than that of sympathy. It is easy to say what they are not to us, i.e., what we are not to them; but what we might and ought to be is another affair.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 is sublime in its entirety, the kind of lifelong companion to be revisited regularly and voraciously for a wholehearted existence.

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11 JULY, 2013

Do Scientists Pray? Einstein Answers a Little Girl’s Question about Science vs. Religion

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“Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man.”

Whether in their inadvertently brilliant reflections on gender politics or in their seemingly simple but profound questions about how the world works, kids have a singular way of stripping the most complex of cultural phenomena down to their bare essence, forcing us to reexamine our layers of assumptions. Take, for instance, the age-old tension between science and religion, which has occupied the minds of luminaries from Galileo to Carl Sagan, as well as some of today’s most renowned scientific minds. The enormous cultural baggage of the question didn’t stop a little girl from New York named Phyllis from posing it to none other than the great Albert Einstein in a 1936 letter found in Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children (public library | IndieBound) — the same delightful collection that gave us Einstein’s encouraging words to women in science.

The Riverside Church

January 19, 1936

My dear Dr. Einstein,

We have brought up the question: Do scientists pray? in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men, to try and have our own question answered.

We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?

We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis’s class.

Respectfully yours,

Phyllis

Only five days later, Einstein wrote back — isn’t it lovely when cultural giants respond to children’s sincere curiosity? — and his answer speaks to the same spiritual quality of science that Carl Sagan extolled decades later and Ptolemy did millennia earlier. Six years prior, Einstein had explored that very subject, in far more complicated language and mind-bending rhetoric, in his legendary conversation with the Indian philosopher Tagore.

January 24, 1936

Dear Phyllis,

I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer:

Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.

However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.

But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

With cordial greetings,

your A. Einstein

Complement this with the difference between curiosity and wonder when it comes to science and scripture and Einstein on the secret to learning anything, then treat yourself to Dear Professor Einstein in its heart-warming entirety.

Portrait of Einstein by Yousuf Karsh

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10 JULY, 2013

Edward Gorey’s Vintage Book Covers for Literary Classics

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Melville, Conrad, Colette, Chekhov, Chaucer, Gogol, Kafka, Shaw, Pushkin, and more.

The great Edward Gorey, mid-century master of the macabre and darkly delightful, was a prolific illustrator of his own irreverent books like The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Curious Sofa: A Pornographic Work by Ogdred Weary , The Shrinking of Treehorn, among countless others, and would occasionally illustrate existing literature, like classic fairy tales, H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, and T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. But Gorey, unbeknownst to many, also designed dozens of book covers, including a number for some of literary history’s greatest classics during the paperback revolution, primarily while working at the Doubleday art department between 1953 and 1960. Here are his finest such masterpieces:

'Lafcadio's Adventures' by André Gide (Doubleday, 1953)

'The Black Girl in Search of God' by Bernard Shaw (Capricorn, 1959)

'Redburn: His First Voyage' by Herman Melville (Doubleday, 1957)

'My Mother's House and the Vagabond' by Colette (Doubleday, 1955)

'Come Back, Dr. Caligari' by Donald Barthelme (Doubleday, 1964)

'Picture of Millie' by P. M. Hubbard (London House & Maxwell, 1964)

'Pleasures and Days and Other Writings' by Marcel Proust (Doubleday, 1957)

'The Secret Agent' by Joseph Conrad (Doubleday, 1953)

'Victory' by Joseph Conrad (Doubleday, 1957)

'Chance' by Joseph Conrad (Doubleday, 1957)

'War of the Worlds' by H. G. Wells (Doubleday, 1960)

'St. Peter's Day and Other Tales' by Anton Chekhov (Doubleday, 1959)

'Troilus & Criseyde' by Geoffrey Chaucer (Vintage, 1966)

'Tales of Good and Evil' by Nikolai Gogol (Doubleday, 1957)

'Selections from the Writings of Kierkegaard' translated by Lee M. Hollander (Doubleday, 1960)

'Lady Barberina and Other Tales' by Henry James (Grosset & Dunlap, 1961)

'The Ambassadors' by Henry James (Doubleday, 1958)

'The Awkward Age' by Henry James (Doubleday, 1958)

'What Maisie Knew' by Henry James (Doubleday, 1954)

'Amerika' by Franz Kafka (Doubleday, 1955)

'The Masters' by C. P. Snow (Doubleday, 1959)

'The Captain's Daughter and Other Stories' by Alexander Pushkin (Vintage, 1957)

'The Romance of Tristan and Iseult,' as retold by Joseph Bédier (Doubleday, 1953)

'The Web and the Rock' by Thomas Wolfe (Grosset & Dunlap, 1939)

'Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats' by T. S. Eliot (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982)

Find more Gorey gold in the Brain Pickings archive — including some rare, limited-edition vintage gems — and swing by my Pinterest collection of Gorey art.

Metafilter; portrait of Gorey via Vol. 1 Brooklyn

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