Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

30 JANUARY, 2013

Why Birds Sing

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Science vs. romance, or how evolutionary theory holds up against poetry and philosophy.

In How Music Works, David Byrne cites some scientifically controversial theories suggesting that music is a spontaneous rather than adaptive phenomenon and birds sing simply because they enjoy singing. At the front lines of the joy theory of bird song is new-age philosopher and jazz musician David Rothenberg, who argues that bird song has the formal properties of music and, just like human music, is motivated by pleasure — another manifestation of the emotional lives of animals. In the preface to his 2006 book Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Birdsong (public library; UK), Rothenberg writes:

As a philosopher, I have long been wrapped in the question of what humanity must do to find a home in the natural world. The seemingly innocent topic of bird song shows us that we need a combination of many visions of nature to make sense of the whole. … I hope to inspire more scientists and musicians in engaged interaction with the natural world.

In 2007, BBC set out to pit the two leading explanations evolutionary biologists have of why birds sing — to attract mates and repel rivals — against Rothenberg’s theories of pleasure-driven bird song. The result is this fascinating documentary, available online in its entirety, with some delightful surprise-cameos by Beth Orton, Jarvis Cocker, Laurie Anderson, and other celebrated musicians, artists and poets.

Why shouldn’t they be singing for pleasure? Who are we to assume that this kind of animal doesn’t experience joy?

Whether or not your fully subscribe to Rothenberg’s theories, his book comes with a twelve-track music compilation, which alone is more than worth it — a mesmerizing mashup of natural birdsong and virtuosic instrumentation.

Animal Madness @wendymac

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30 JANUARY, 2013

The Mahatma and the Poet: Tagore’s Letters to Gandhi on Power, Morality, and Science

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“Passive resistance is a force which is not necessarily moral in itself; it can be used against truth as well as for it.”

Between 1915 and 1941, Mahatma Gandhi — who was assassinated on January 30, 1948 — exchanged a series of letters with Indian poet, philosopher, and celebrated creative spirit Rabindranth Tagore, debating such subjects as truth, freedom, democracy, courage, education, and the future of humanity as India struggled for its independence. The correspondence, collected in The Mahatma and the Poet: Letters and Debates Between Gandhi and Tagore 1915-1941 (public library) is more than a mere addition to history’s notable epistolary exchanges. These letters are unique in that they were private in nature but public in manifestation — Tagore wrote in the Indian Nationalist intelligentsia forum Modern Review and Gandhi in his own political journal, Young India — and their spirit of mutual respect and measured response was antithetical to how such a debate might unfold today, if carried out in the public forum of blogs and online commentary. In the age of the “drunks in a barroom” model for political debate, these letters offer a poignant example of what it means to be both friends and intellectual adversaries, to stand by one’s convictions with equal parts dignity and respect for the other’s, to seek above all else to advance the public good rather than the private ego.

While he reposed his wholehearted faith in Gandhi as a leader, Tagore was critical of some of his tactics, chiefly his use of non-cooperation, which the poet saw as planting the seeds of intolerance. On April 19, 1919, Tagore writes:

Dear Mahatmaji,

Power in all its forms is irrational; it is like the horse that drags the carriage blindfolded. The moral element in it is only represented in the man who drives the horse. Passive resistance is a force which is not necessarily moral in itself; it can be used against truth as well as for it. The danger inherent in all force grows stronger when it is likely to gain success, for then it becomes temptation.

I know your teaching is to fight against evil by the help of good. But such a fight is for heroes and not for men led by impulses of the moment. Evil on one side naturally begets evil on the other, injustice leading to violence and insult to vengefulness. Unfortunately such a force has already been started, and either through panic or through wrath our authorities have shown us the claws whose sure effect is to drive some of us into the secret path of resentment and others into utter demoralization. In this crisis you, as a great leader of men, have stood among us to proclaim your faith in the ideal which you know to be that of India, the ideal which is both against the cowardliness of hidden revenge and the cowed submissiveness of the terror-stricken. You have said, as Lord Buddha, has done in his time and for all the time to come:

Akkodhena jine kodham, asadhum sadhuna jine [Conquer anger by the power of non-anger and evil by power of good.]

This power of good must prove its truth and strength by its fearlessness, by its refusal to accept any imposition which depends for its success upon its power to produce frightfulness and is not ashamed to use its machines of destruction to terrorize a population completely disarmed. We must know that moral conquest does not consist in success, that failure does not deprive it of its dignity and worth. Those who believe in spiritual life know that to stand against wrong which has overwhelming material power behind it is victory itself,- it is the victory of the active faith in the ideal in the teeth of evident defeat.

I have always felt and said accordingly, that the great gift of freedom can never come to a people through charity. We must win it before we can own it.

[…]

And you have come to your motherland in the time of her need to remind her of her mission, to lead her into the true path of conquest, to purge her present day politics of its feebleness which imagines that it has gained its purpose when it struts in the borrowed feathers of diplomatic dishonesty.

This is why I pray most fervently that nothing tends to weaken our spiritual freedom may intrude into your marching line, that martyrdom for the cause of truth may never degenerate into fanaticism for mere verbal forms, descending into the self-deception that hides itself behind sacred names.

With these few words for an introduction allow me to offer the following as a poet’s contribution to your noble work:

I

Let me hold my head high in this faith that thou art our shelter, that all fear is mean distrust of these.

Fear of man? But what man is there in this world, what king, King of kings, who is thy rival, who has hold of me for all time and in all time and in all truth?

What power is there in this world to rob me of my freedom? For do not thy arms reach the captive through the dungeon-walls, bringing unfettered release to the soul?

And must I cling to this body in fear if death, as a miser to his barren treasure/ has not this spirit of mine the eternal call to thy feast of everlasting life?

Let me know that all pain and death are shadows of the moment; that dark force which sweeps between me and thy truth is but the mist before the sunrise; that thou alone art mine for ever and greater than all pride of strength that dares to mock my manhood with its menace.

II

Give me the supreme courage of love, this is my prayer; the courage to speak, to do, to suffer at thy will, to leave all things or be left alone.

Give me the supreme faith of love, this is my prayer; the faith of life in death, of the victory in defeat, of the power hidden in the frailties of beauty, of the dignity of pain that accepts hurt, but disdains to return it.

Very sincerely yours,

Rabindranth Tagore

Compare and contrast with Susan Sontag on courage and resistance.

Though Tagore is often misconceived as a kind of Oriental mystic — a perception no doubt compounded by his big white beard and draping robes — he was in fact a proponent of rational thought and a champion of the liberating capacity of modern science, as evidenced by his famous conversation with Einstein. In 1934, after Gandhi made a public statement calling the Bihar earthquake divine retribution for India’s sins, an appalled Tagore wrote respectfully but assertively:

[I feel] compelled to utter a truism in asserting that physical catastrophes have their inevitable and exclusive origin in certain combination of physical facts. … We, who are immensely grateful to Mahatmaji for inducing, by his wonder working inspiration, freedom from fear and feebleness in the minds of his countrymen, feel profoundly hurt when any words from his mouth may emphasize the elements of unreason in those very minds — unreason, which is a fundamental source of all the blind powers that drive us against freedom and self-respect.

He argued for technology as a humanizing rather than dehumanizing force, something MoMA’s Paola Antonelli eloquently echoed more than a century later, writing in 1925:

If the cultivation of science by Europe has any moral significance, it is in its rescue of man from outrage by nature, not its use of man as a machine but its use of the machine to harness the forces of nature in man’s service.

Complement with Tagore and Einstein in dialogue about truth and beauty.

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29 JANUARY, 2013

How To Make Great Radio: An Illustrated Guide Starring Ira Glass

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“When correctly harnessed, radio can be as emotional, as funny and as satisfying as the best motion pictures or television shows.”

“The laws of narrative are the laws of narrative,” NPR’s Ira Glass once famously proclaimed. “What engages us is what engages us.” But, surely, there must more to radio — to great radio — than a passive surrender to some inscrutable law. And, if there is, then surely no one knows what that might be better than Glass himself — for, as Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad readily acknowledged, it was Glass who ushered in a new era of storytelling on the radio.

In 1999, the staff of This American Life invited cartoonist Jessica Abel to spend several weeks with them. The result was Radio: An Illustrated Guide (public library), in which Abel peeks inside the hood of the beloved radio show to reveal what makes it hum and teach us how “to lift Radio to its true potential” — a fine addition to other echelons of comics as nonfiction, most similar in ethos and sensibility to fellow public radio maven Brooke Gladstone’s The Influencing Machine.

When correctly harnessed, radio can be as emotional, as funny and as satisfying as the best motion pictures or television shows. But sadly, few radio programmers even shoot for that. … [N]o mass medium is cheaper to do, or easier to learn. In these few pages we show you all the tricks you need.

From the ins and outs of editing to the intricate art of the interview to how you can get yourself on the radio, the slim but potent 32-page zine-like book offers a surprisingly dimensional lens on what it takes to make great narrative radio.

Complement Radio: An Illustrated Guide, which is also available as an ebook for jus $2, with Ira Glass’s timeless wisdom on the secret of creative success.

Lest we forget: Public radio, like Brain Pickings, is made possible by, well, the public — contribute your possibility to This American Life here.

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29 JANUARY, 2013

Anton Chekhov on the 8 Qualities of Cultured People

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“In order to feel comfortable among educated people, to be at home and happy with them, one must be cultured to a certain extent.”

What does it mean to be “cultured”? Is it about being a good reader, or knowing how to talk about books you haven’t read, or having a general disposition of intellectual elegance? That’s precisely the question beloved Russian author Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) considers in a letter to his older brother Nikolai, an artist. The missive, written when Anton was 26 and Nikolai 28 and found in Letters of Anton Chekhov to his Family and Friends (public domain; public library), dispenses a hearty dose of tough love and outlines the eight qualities of cultured people — including honesty, altruism, and good habits:

MOSCOW, 1886.

… You have often complained to me that people “don’t understand you”! Goethe and Newton did not complain of that…. Only Christ complained of it, but He was speaking of His doctrine and not of Himself…. People understand you perfectly well. And if you do not understand yourself, it is not their fault.

I assure you as a brother and as a friend I understand you and feel for you with all my heart. I know your good qualities as I know my five fingers; I value and deeply respect them. If you like, to prove that I understand you, I can enumerate those qualities. I think you are kind to the point of softness, magnanimous, unselfish, ready to share your last farthing; you have no envy nor hatred; you are simple-hearted, you pity men and beasts; you are trustful, without spite or guile, and do not remember evil…. You have a gift from above such as other people have not: you have talent. This talent places you above millions of men, for on earth only one out of two millions is an artist. Your talent sets you apart: if you were a toad or a tarantula, even then, people would respect you, for to talent all things are forgiven.

You have only one failing, and the falseness of your position, and your unhappiness and your catarrh of the bowels are all due to it. That is your utter lack of culture. Forgive me, please, but veritas magis amicitiae…. You see, life has its conditions. In order to feel comfortable among educated people, to be at home and happy with them, one must be cultured to a certain extent. Talent has brought you into such a circle, you belong to it, but … you are drawn away from it, and you vacillate between cultured people and the lodgers vis-a-vis.

Cultured people must, in my opinion, satisfy the following conditions:

  1. They respect human personality, and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others. They do not make a row because of a hammer or a lost piece of india-rubber; if they live with anyone they do not regard it as a favour and, going away, they do not say “nobody can live with you.” They forgive noise and cold and dried-up meat and witticisms and the presence of strangers in their homes.
  2. They have sympathy not for beggars and cats alone. Their heart aches for what the eye does not see…. They sit up at night in order to help P…., to pay for brothers at the University, and to buy clothes for their mother.
  3. They respect the property of others, and therefor pay their debts.
  4. They are sincere, and dread lying like fire. They don’t lie even in small things. A lie is insulting to the listener and puts him in a lower position in the eyes of the speaker. They do not pose, they behave in the street as they do at home, they do not show off before their humbler comrades. They are not given to babbling and forcing their uninvited confidences on others. Out of respect for other people’s ears they more often keep silent than talk.
  5. They do not disparage themselves to rouse compassion. They do not play on the strings of other people’s hearts so that they may sigh and make much of them. They do not say “I am misunderstood,” or “I have become second-rate,” because all this is striving after cheap effect, is vulgar, stale, false….
  6. They have no shallow vanity. They do not care for such false diamonds as knowing celebrities, shaking hands with the drunken P., [Translator’s Note: Probably Palmin, a minor poet.] listening to the raptures of a stray spectator in a picture show, being renowned in the taverns…. If they do a pennyworth they do not strut about as though they had done a hundred roubles’ worth, and do not brag of having the entry where others are not admitted…. The truly talented always keep in obscurity among the crowd, as far as possible from advertisement…. Even Krylov has said that an empty barrel echoes more loudly than a full one.
  7. If they have a talent they respect it. They sacrifice to it rest, women, wine, vanity…. They are proud of their talent…. Besides, they are fastidious.
  8. They develop the aesthetic feeling in themselves. They cannot go to sleep in their clothes, see cracks full of bugs on the walls, breathe bad air, walk on a floor that has been spat upon, cook their meals over an oil stove. They seek as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct…. What they want in a woman is not a bed-fellow … They do not ask for the cleverness which shows itself in continual lying. They want especially, if they are artists, freshness, elegance, humanity, the capacity for motherhood…. They do not swill vodka at all hours of the day and night, do not sniff at cupboards, for they are not pigs and know they are not. They drink only when they are free, on occasion…. For they want mens sana in corpore sano [a healthy mind in a healthy body].

And so on. This is what cultured people are like. In order to be cultured and not to stand below the level of your surroundings it is not enough to have read “The Pickwick Papers” and learnt a monologue from “Faust.” …

What is needed is constant work, day and night, constant reading, study, will…. Every hour is precious for it…. Come to us, smash the vodka bottle, lie down and read…. Turgenev, if you like, whom you have not read.

You must drop your vanity, you are not a child … you will soon be thirty.
It is time!
I expect you…. We all expect you.

A. P. Chekhov (left) with Nikolai Chekhov (right), 1882; public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

For more epistolary notes on the building of character, complement with history’s finest letters of fatherly advice.

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