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07 DECEMBER, 2012

The Best Illustrated Children’s Books and Picturebooks of 2012

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From Indian folk art to neuroscience, by way of Saul Bass, James Joyce, and die-cut Cold War allegories.

On the heels of this year’s best science books, art books, design books, and philosophy and psychology books, the 2012 best-of reading lists continue with the annual roundup of the year’s ten-or-so most delightful children’s and picturebooks. (Catch up on last year’s roundup here.)

HENRI’S WALK TO PARIS

Saul Bass (1920-1996) is considered by many — myself included — the greatest graphic designer of all time, responsible for some of the most timeless logos and most memorable film title sequences of the twentieth century. In 1962, Bass collaborated with former librarian Leonore Klein on his only children’s book, which spent decades as a prized out-of-print collector’s item. This year, exactly half a century later, Rizzoli reprinted Henri’s Walk to Paris — an absolute gem like only Bass can deliver, at once boldly minimalist and incredibly rich, telling the sweet, aspirational, colorful story of a boy who lives in rural France and dreams of going to Paris.

In his wonderful essay on Bass’s talent, Martin Scorsese observed, as if thinking of this book in particular:

Saul’s designs…speak so eloquently that they address all of us, no matter when, or where, you were born.”

For a related treat, don’t miss the excellent recent Saul Bass monograph, one of the 11 best art and design books of 2011.

Originally featured in February.

BIG QUESTIONS FROM LITTLE PEOPLE

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch,” Carl Sagan famously observed in Cosmos, “you must first invent the universe.” The questions children ask are often so simple, so basic, that they turn unwittingly yet profoundly philosophical in requiring apple-pie-from-scratch type of answers. To explore this fertile intersection of simplicity and expansiveness, Gemma Elwin Harris asked thousands of primary school children between the ages of four and twelve to send in their most restless questions, then invited some of today’s most prominent scientists, philosophers, and writers to answer them. The result is Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds (public library) — a compendium of fascinating explanations of deceptively simple everyday phenomena, featuring such modern-day icons as Mary Roach, Noam Chomsky, Philip Pullman, Richard Dawkins, and many more, with a good chunk of the proceeds being donated to Save the Children, and also one of the best science books of 2012.

Alain de Botton explores why we have dreams:

Most of the time, you feel in charge of your own mind. You want to play with some Lego? Your brain is there to make it happen. You fancy reading a book? You can put the letters together and watch characters emerge in your imagination.

But at night, strange stuff happens. While you’re in bed, your mind puts on the weirdest, most amazing and sometimes scariest shows.

[…]

In the olden days, people believed that our dreams were full of clues about the future. Nowadays, we tend to think that dreams are a way for the mind to rearrange and tidy itself up after the activities of the day.

Why are dreams sometimes scary? During the day, things may happen that frighten us, but we are so busy we don’t have time to think properly about them. At night, while we are sleeping safely, we can give those fears a run around. Or maybe something you did during the day was lovely but you were in a hurry and didn’t give it time. It may pop up in a dream. In dreams, you go back over things you missed, repair what got damaged, make up stories about what you’d love, and explore the fears you normally put to the back of your mind.

Dreams are both more exciting and more frightening than daily life. They’re a sign that our brains are marvellous machines — and that they have powers we don’t often give them credit for, when we’re just using them to do our homework or play a computer game. Dreams show us that we’re not quite the bosses of our own selves.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins breaks down the math of evolution and cousin marriages to demonstrate that we are all related:

Yes, we are all related. You are a (probably distant) cousin of the Queen, and of the president of the United States, and of me. You and I are cousins of each other. You can prove it to yourself.

Everybody has two parents. That means, since each parent had two parents of their own, that we all have four grandparents. Then, since each grandparent had to have two parents, everyone has eight great-grandparents, and sixteen great- great-grandparents and thirty-two great-great-great-grandparents and so on.

You can go back any number of generations and work out the number of ancestors you must have had that same number of generations ago. All you have to do is multiply two by itself that number of times.

Suppose we go back ten centuries, that is to Anglo-Saxon times in England, just before the Norman Conquest, and work out how many ancestors you must have had alive at that time.

If we allow four generations per century, that’s about forty generations ago.

Two multiplied by itself forty times comes to more than a thousand trillion. Yet the total population of the world at that time was only around three hundred million. Even today the population is seven billion, yet we have just worked out that a thousand years ago your ancestors alone were more than 150 times as numerous.

[…]

The real population of the world at the time of Julius Caesar was only a few million, and all of us, all seven billion of us, are descended from them. We are indeed all related. Every marriage is between more or less distant cousins, who already share lots and lots of ancestors before they have children of their own.
By the same kind of argument, we are distant cousins not only of all human beings but of all animals and plants. You are a cousin of my dog and of the lettuce you had for lunch, and of the next bird that you see fly past the window. You and I share ancestors with all of them. But that is another story.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman explains why we can’t tickle ourselves:

To understand why, you need to know more about how your brain works. One of its main tasks is to try to make good guesses about what’s going to happen next. While you’re busy getting on with your life, walking downstairs or eating your breakfast, parts of your brain are always trying to predict the future.

Remember when you first learned how to ride a bicycle? At first, it took a lot of concentration to keep the handlebars steady and push the pedals. But after a while, cycling became easy. Now you’re not aware of the movements you make to keep the bike going. From experience, your brain knows exactly what to expect so your body rides the bike automatically. Your brain is predicting all the movements you need to make.

You only have to think consciously about cycling if something changes — like if there’s a strong wind or you get a flat tyre. When something unexpected happens like this, your brain is forced to change its predictions about what will happen next. If it does its job well, you’ll adjust to the strong wind, leaning your body so you don’t fall.

Why is it so important for our brains to predict what will happen next? It helps us make fewer mistakes and can even save our lives.

[…]

Because your brain is always predicting your own actions, and how your body will feel as a result, you cannot tickle yourself. Other people can tickle you because they can surprise you. You can’t predict what their tickling actions will be.

And this knowledge leads to an interesting truth: if you build a machine that allows you to move a feather, but the feather moves only after a delay of a second, then you can tickle your- self. The results of your own actions will now surprise you.

Particle physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss explains why we’re all made of stardust:

Everything in your body, and everything you can see around you, is made up of tiny objects called atoms. Atoms come in different types called elements. Hydrogen, oxygen and carbon are three of the most important elements in your body.

[…]

How did those elements get into our bodies? The only way they could have got there, to make up all the material on our Earth, is if some of those stars exploded a long time ago, spew- ing all the elements from their cores into space. Then, about four and a half billion years ago, in our part of our galaxy, the material in space began to collapse. This is how the Sun was formed, and the solar system around it, as well as the material that forms all life on earth.

So, most of the atoms that now make up your body were created inside stars! The atoms in your left hand might have come from a different star from those in your right hand. You are really a child of the stars.

But my favorite answers are to the all-engulfing question, How do we fall in love?. Author Jeanette Winterson offers this breathlessly poetic response:

You don’t fall in love like you fall in a hole. You fall like falling through space. It’s like you jump off your own private planet to visit someone else’s planet. And when you get there it all looks different: the flowers, the animals, the colours people wear. It is a big surprise falling in love because you thought you had everything just right on your own planet, and that was true, in a way, but then somebody signalled to you across space and the only way you could visit was to take a giant jump. Away you go, falling into someone else’s orbit and after a while you might decide to pull your two planets together and call it home. And you can bring your dog. Or your cat. Your goldfish, hamster, collection of stones, all your odd socks. (The ones you lost, including the holes, are on the new planet you found.)

And you can bring your friends to visit. And read your favourite stories to each other. And the falling was really the big jump that you had to make to be with someone you don’t want to be without. That’s it.

PS You have to be brave.

Evolutionary psychologist and sociologist Robin Dunbar balances out the poetics with a scientific look at what goes on inside the brain when we love:

What happens when we fall in love is probably one of the most difficult things in the whole universe to explain. It’s something we do without thinking. In fact, if we think about it too much, we usually end up doing it all wrong and get in a terrible muddle. That’s because when you fall in love, the right side of your brain gets very busy. The right side is the bit that seems to be especially important for our emotions. Language, on the other hand, gets done almost completely in the left side of the brain. And this is one reason why we find it so difficult to talk about our feelings and emotions: the language areas on the left side can’t send messages to the emotional areas on the right side very well. So we get stuck for words, unable to describe our feelings.

But science does allow us to say a little bit about what happens when we fall in love. First of all, we know that love sets off really big changes in how we feel. We feel all light-headed and emotional. We can be happy and cry with happiness at the same time. Suddenly, some things don’t matter any more and the only thing we are interested in is being close to the person we have fallen in love with.

These days we have scanner machines that let us watch a person’s brain at work. Different parts of the brain light up on the screen, depending on what the brain is doing. When people are in love, the emotional bits of their brains are very active, lighting up. But other bits of the brain that are in charge of more sensible thinking are much less active than normal. So the bits that normally say ‘Don’t do that because it would be crazy!’ are switched off, and the bits that say ‘Oh, that would be lovely!’ are switched on.

Why does this happen? One reason is that love releases certain chemicals in our brains. One is called dopamine, and this gives us a feeling of excitement. Another is called oxytocin and seems to be responsible for the light-headedness and cosiness we feel when we are with the person we love. When these are released in large quantities, they go to parts of the brain that are especially responsive to them.

But all this doesn’t explain why you fall in love with a particular person. And that is a bit of a mystery, since there seems to be no good reason for our choices. In fact, it seems to be just as easy to fall in love with someone after you’ve married them as before, which seems the wrong way round. And here’s another odd thing. When we are in love, we can trick ourselves into thinking the other person is perfect. Of course, no one is really perfect. But the more perfect we find each other, the longer our love will last.

Big Questions from Little People is a wonderful complement to The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science and is certain to give you pause about much of what you thought you knew, or at the very least rekindle that childlike curiosity about and awe at the basic fabric of the world we live in.

Originally featured in November.

WATERLIFE

I’ve been a longtime fan of independent Indian publisher Tara Books, who for the past 16 years has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books, including I Like Cats, Do!, and Tara’s crown jewel, The Night Life of Trees. But now comes what’s positively the most exquisite book I’ve ever held in my hands: Waterlife by artist Rambharos Jha, who explores the marine wonderland through vibrant Mithila art, a form of folk painting from Bihar in eastern India.

'The Lobster's Secret'

'Crocodile Smile'

'Snake Festival'

Jha writes:

I was born in the culture-rich district of Darbanga, in the Mithila region. But my father moved along with all of us to Madhubani, where he started work in a government-supported art and cultural project. This project sought to breathe new life into local art traditions and also to help artists earn a living. Since women had traditionally decorated walls and courtyards, they participated in this project in large numbers…

Living as we did in Madhubani, I had a chance to look at what they were painting. I would spend hours watching them work. I had not known of this art earlier and wondered why I was drawn to it, and what purpose there could be in my being attracted to these lines and shapes? Mixing colours and ideas, the women drew pictures that took hold of my mind.

Jha eventually learned to draw himself, initially drawing on stories from Hindu mythology and eventually moving on to more secular subjects, pursuing his own creative impulse but remaining deeply inspired by tradition.

Mithila art was originally painted on the walls of houses during festival season, but in the late 1970s, it migrated from walls to paper.

The book comes in a limited edition of 3,000 hand-numbered copies and, like all handmade Tara gems, is screen-printed by local artisans in Chennai using traditional Indian dyes, whose earthy scent you can smell as you leaf through the thick, textured pages.

Originally featured in April and part of my 2012 TED Bookstore selections.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Two more gems from Tara Books, The Great Race and Drawing from the City, also among the best art books of the year.

BEAR DESPAIR

From my friends at Enchanted Lion Books, who previously brought us such gems as Blexbolex’s People and Albertine’s Little Bird, comes Bear Despair (public library) by French illustrator Gaëtan Dorémus — an utterly lovely wordless story about what happens when you take a bear’s teddy bear.

Beneath the exquisite cross-hatched line drawings for young readers lies a familiar twinge of the all-consuming obsession we’ve all experienced, at one time or another, while grasping after a fixation.

Bear Despair is the final installment in ELB’s wonderful Stories Without Words series, which also includes Ice and The Giant Seed by Arthur Geisert and The Chicken Thief, Rooster’s Revenge and Fox and Hen Together by Béatrice Rodriguez.

Originally featured in August.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

VIRGINIA WOLF

Virginia Wolf (public library) by creative duo Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault is loosely based on the relationship between beloved author Virginia Woolf and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell. The tenderly illustrated and hand-lettered little gem tells the story of Virginia, who finds herself in a “wolfish” mood, restlessly growling and howling around the house. Vanessa industriously tries to cheer her up, but to no avail, until Virginia mentions an imaginary utopia called Bloomsberry. Inspired, Vanessa sets out to paint Bloomsberry on the bedroom walls, transforming the house into a whimsical garden. Soon, Virginia finds herself wrapped up in the drawing and a curious metamorphosis fills her world.

WATERLOO & TRAFALGAR

Waterloo & Trafalgar (public library) by French illustrator extraordinaire Olivier Tallec, also from my ceaselessly wonderful neighbor Enchanted Lion Books, is a thoughtful, minimalist Cold War allegory that tells the story of two characters who watch each other observantly through the seasons across the narrow walls that separate them. As they move between day and night, glued to their binoculars and brimming with suspicion over even the most mundane of activities, they stubbornly refuse to bridge the gap between them — until, one day, a snail shows up, followed by a bird and then, suddenly, they find themselves face to face, realizing that having differences doesn’t mean they have to be foes.

Tallec’s stunning, expressive duotone illustrations capture the intricate frictions of passive-aggressive conflict with equal parts wit, poignancy, and contained eloquence. A thick, beautiful die-cut cover and cleverly placed interior die-cuts add Waterloo & Trafalgar to the kinds of books that make ebooks pale in comparison.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

THOUGHTFUL ALPHABETS

Having a soft spot for all things Edward Gorey and unusual alphabet books, I was thrilled by Pomegranate’s new edition of Thoughtful Alphabets: The Just Dessert and The Deadly Blotter (public library) — a collection of two cryptic 26-word stories, in which the word begin with the letters of the alphabet in order and the story progresses as the alphabet does in parallel.

The stories belong to a mid-90s “Thoughtful Alphabets” series, the first six volumes of which were released as hand-lettered posters illustrated with clip-art. Then, several years ago, stories numbers XI and XVII emerged as signed limited-edition books featuring Gorey’s original drawings — but the books quickly went out of print. In this beautiful resurrection, Gorey’s signature blend of wit and dark whimsy shines in each of the micro-vignettes — a fine complement to his beloved alphabet classic, The Gashlycrumb Tinies.

HONORABLE MENTION: Also from Pomegranate, Gorey’s fantastic Donald box set.

Originally featured in September.

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust, courtesy Pomegranate. All rights reserved.

HIPPOPPOSITES

In Hippopposites (public library), her children’s book debut, French graphic designer Janik Coat teaches the progeny of the design-inclined about opposites and basic spatial, dimensional, and aesthetic vocabulary through a minimalist red hippo-hero, who remains charmingly catatonic throughout the book. Blending Blexbolex’s unexpected parallels and contrasts with Paul Rand’s simple semiotic sensibility, Coat explores fundamental concepts in simple yet refreshing ways.

For a touch of tactile whimsy, Coat adds a delightful show-rather-than-just-tell element:

Originally featured, with more images, in May.

LITTLE BIRD

The finest picturebooks have this magical quality of speaking to young hearts with expressive simplicity, but also engaging grown-up minds with subtle reflections on what it means to be human. Such is the case of Little Bird (public library) by Swiss author-illustrator duo Germano Zullo and Albertine, published by the wonderful Enchanted Lion Books. Illustrated in Albertine’s signature style of soft, colorful minimalism, this little gem is like a beautiful silent film, only in vibrant hues and on paper.

It tells the tender story of a big-hearted man who halts his truck at a cliff’s edge. Unable to go any further, he opens the back door of his truck and a flock of birds spills out into the air, leaving behind a tiny, timid black bird. Surprised and delighted by the little loyalist, the man befriends the bird.

The two have lunch together and, eventually, the man tries to encourage the bird to fly off and join the others by attempting a comic demonstration of flight himself.

The humorous situation deepens the tenderness between the two creatures and soon the bird departs, the man drives away, and the story seems to end — but! — just as the truck trails off into the distance, we see the little black bird come back after it, followed by his colorful friends in a lyrical moment of belonging lost and found. “The small things are treasures,” writes Zullo. “True treasures.”

There are no greater treasures than the little things.

The entire story unfolds with few words and primary colors, but mesmerizes with its evocative honesty and gentle sophistication, inviting readers of all ages to look again and again as we rediscover our inner child’s gift for finding infinite beauty and curiosity in the little things.

A lovely quote from an e. e. cummings poem graces the first page:

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living

Korean designer Young-jun Kim created this charming animation based on the book:

UPDATE: Sadly, the Swiss publisher of the book (not Enchanted Lion Books, the U.S. publisher) has had the video removed. Remix culture still fares poorly in the old world…

Little Bird was originally written in French and translated by my brilliant friend Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Enchanted Lion Books.

Originally featured in May.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books / Albertine

THE CATS OF COPENHAGEN

As a connoisseur of little-known children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups, I already knew that James Joyce had penned the charming 1965 picture-book The Cat and the Devil, based on a 1936 letter to his most beloved audience, his grandson Stephen. So imagine my delight at the news of a posthumous Joyce children’s release, The Cats of Copenhagen (public library) — a never-before-published short story also based on a letter to Stephen.

In August 1936, Joyce mailed his grandson “a little cat filled with sweets” — a sort of candy mule designed to outwit Stephen’s parents. “Alas! I cannot send you a Copenhagen cat because there are no cats in Copenhagen,” Joyce wrote Stephen from Denmark a month later in a wonderfully playful, mischievous letter that unfolded into a whimsical tale. The short story, illustrated by Casey Sorrow in a style reminiscent of Edward Gorey and beautifully typeset by book artist Michael Caine, was only recently rediscovered and makes an offbeat but characteristically masterful addition to Joyce’s well-known body of work.

The preface speaks to Joyce’s love of cats, a kind of bonding agent for him and his grandson — because, after all, what great writer doesn’t know the creative power of a cat:

Exquisite, minuscule, and with strong, almost anarchic subtext, The Cats of Copenhagen is a slightly younger twin sister to The Cat and the Devil, the only other known example of James Joyce’s writing a story for young children. Both works, written within a few weeks of each other, are in letters posted to stephen James Joyce, his only grandchild. Clearly, cats were a common currency between them: cats, and their common need to have somebody around to help them cross the road.

[…]

Like many otherwise sensible people, James Joyce detested, even loathed, dogs; but he thought the world of cats. In the first chapter of Ulysses in which Leopold Bloom appears, the very first conversation is between a hungry feline and a kind-hearted Bloom.

Originally featured in November.

BONUS: KUSAMA’S ALICE

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass endure as some of history’s most beloved children’s storytelling, full of timeless philosophy for grown-ups and inspiration for computing pioneers. The illustrations that have accompanied Lewis Carroll’s classics over the ages have become iconic in their own right, from Leonard Weisgard’s stunning artwork for the first color edition of the book to Salvador Dali’s little-known but breathtaking version. Now, from Penguin UK and Yayoi Kusama, Japan’s most celebrated contemporary artist, comes a striking contender for the most visually captivating take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland yet — and one of the year’s best art books.

Since childhood, Kusama has had a rare condition that makes her see colorful spots on everything she looks at. Her vision, both literally and creatively, is thus naturally surreal, almost hallucinogenic. Her vibrant artwork, sewn together in a magnificent fabric-bound hardcover tome, becomes an exquisite embodiment of Carroll’s story and his fascination with the extraordinary way in which children see and explore the ordinary world.

Originally featured, with more photos and a trailer, in April.

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07 DECEMBER, 2012

Henry Miller on Creative Death

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“One aspect of our nature cannot be exalted above another, except and the expense of one or the other.”

From The Wisdom of the Heart (public library) — the same wonderful 1941 anthology of Henry Miller’s short stories, profiles, and literary essays that gave us his reflections on writing, the art of living, the future of mankind — comes a beautiful essay titled “Creative Death,” a fragment from Miller’s unfinished book on D. H. Lawrence, originally published in London’s literary journal Purpose.

Miller begins by celebrating the “livingness” that permeates Lawrence’s writing, this idea that “the sun itself will never become stale, nor the earth barren.” Like the true gift of the dog, at the heart of human life is a kind of crystalline awareness, something Jackson Pollock’s dad knew too well. Miller writes, adding to history’s famous definitions of art:

Strange as it may seem today to say, the aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware. In this state of god-like awareness one sings; in this realm the world exists as poem. No why or wherefore, no direction, no goal, no striving, no evolving. Like the enigmatic Chinaman one is rapt by the everchanging spectacle of passing phenomena. This is the sublime, the a-moral state of the artist, he who lives only in the moment, the visionary moment of utter, far-seeing lucidity. Such clear icy sanity that it seems like madness. By the force and power of the artist’s vision the static, synthetic whole which is called the world is destroyed. The artist gives back to us a vital, singing universe, alive in all is parts.

In a way the artist is always acting against the time-destiny movement. He is always a-historical. He accepts Time absolutely, as Whitman says, in the sense that any way he rolls (with tail in mouth) is direction; in the sense that any moment, every moment, may be the all; for the artist there is nothing but the present, the eternal here and now, the expanding infinite moment which is flame and song. And when he succeeds in establishing this criterion of passionate experience (which is what Lawrence meant by ‘obeying the Holy Ghost’) then, and only then, is he asserting his humanness. Then only does he live out his pattern as Man. Obedient to every urge — without distinction of morality, ethics, law, custom, etc.

Articulating a sentiment 18-year-old Sylvia Plath echoed just a few years later and speaking to the beauty of not knowing, Miller observes:

[The artist] opens himself to all influences — everything nourishes him. Everything is gravy to him, including what he does not understand — particularly what he does not understand.

Somewhere between composer John Cage’s Zen influences and legendary graphic designer Saul Bass’s vintage animation on why man creates, Miller finds the richness of the artist’s struggle:

To be is to have mortal shape, mortal conditions, to struggle, to evolve. Paradise is, like the dream of the Buddhists, a Nirvana where the is no more personality and hence no conflict. It is the expression of a man’s wish to triumph over reality, over becoming. The artist’s dream of the impossible, the miraculous, is simply the resultant of his inability to adapt himself to reality. He creates, therefore, a reality of his own…

[…]

It is not that he is incapable of living. On the contrary, his zest for life is so powerful, so voracious that it forces him to kill himself over and over. He dies many times in order to live innumerable lives.

And therein lies the crux of “creative death”:

[T]he artist in man is the undying symbol of the union between his warring selves. Life has to be given a meaning because of the obvious fact that it has no meaning. Something has to be created, as a healing and goading intervention, between life and death, because the conclusion that life points to is death and to that conclusive fact man instinctively and persistently shuts his eyes. The sense of mystery, which is at the bottom of all art, is the amalgam of all the nameless terrors which the cruel reality of death inspires. Death then has to be defeated — or disguised, or transmogrified. But in the attempt to defeat death man has been inevitably obliged to defeat life, for the two are inextricably related. Life moves on to death, and to deny one is to deny the other. The stern sense of destiny which eery creative individual reveals lies in this awareness of the goal, this acceptance of the goal, this moving on towards a fatality, one with inscrutable forces that animate him and drive him on.

Miller offers a poetic definition of history:

All history is the record of man’s signal failure to thwart his destiny — the record, in other words, of the few men of destiny who, through the recognition of their symbolic role, made history. All the lies and evasions by which man has nourished himself — civilization, in a word — are the fruits of the creative artist. It is the creative nature of man which has refused to let him lapse back into that unconscious unity with life which characterizes the animal world from which he made his escape. As man traces the stags of his physical evolution in his embryonic life, so, when ejected from the womb, he repeats, in the course of his development from childhood to old age, the spiritual evolution of man. In the person of the artist the whole historical evolution of man is recapitulated. His work is one grand metaphor, revealing through image and symbol the whole cycle of cultural development through which man has passed from primitive to effete civilized being.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Miller uses the rainbow — a metaphor for consciousness — to return to the osmosis of life and death:

[T]he way to escape death is to escape life. … This, then, is the Rainbow — the bridge which the artist throws over the yawning of reality. … He works out, in his art, the unreal triumph — since it is neither a triumph over life nor over death. it is a triumph over an imaginary world which he himself has created. The drama lies entirely in the realm of the idea. His war with reality is a reflection of the war within himself.

[…]

In order to accomplish his purpose, however, the artist is obliged to retire, to withdraw from life, utilizing just enough of experience to present the flavor of the real struggle. If he chooses to live he defeats his own nature. He must live vicariously. Thus he is enabled to play the monstrous role of living and dying innumerable times, according to the measure of his capacity for life.

Ultimately, it comes down to completeness and cohesion in one’s self — that notion that, as David Foster Wallace put it half a century later, “what goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected” — which becomes a foundation for our mutuality and intertwinging, an idea Miller’s longtime lover Anaïs Nin once poignantly phrased as “A man who lives unrelated to other human beings dies.” Miller writes:

The trinal division of the body, mind and soul becomes a unity, a holy trinity. And with it the realization that one aspect of our nature cannot be exalted above another, except and the expense of one or the other.

[…]

In the rush upward the ‘individual’ aspect of one’s being was the imperative, the only obsession. But at the summit, when the limits have been felt and perceived, there unfolds the grand perspective and one recognizes the similitude of surrounding beings, the inter-relationship of all forms and laws of being — the organic relatedness, the wholeness, the oneness of life.

And so the most creative type — the individual artist type — which had shot up highest and with the greatest variety of expression, so mush so as to seem ‘divine,’ this creative type of man must now, in order to preserve the very elements of creation in him, convert the doctrine, or the obsession of individuality, into a common collective ideology. This is the real meaning to the Master-Exemplar, of the great religious figures who have dominated human life from the beginning. At their further peak of blossoming they have but emphasized their common humanity, their innate, rooted, inescapable humanness. Their isolation, in the heavens of thought, is what brings about their death.

The Wisdom of the Heart is a ceaselessly sublime treasure chest of Miller’s most timeless and passionately argued ideas at the intersection of literature and philosophy — highly recommended.

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06 DECEMBER, 2012

What’s a Dog For?

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“If you resist too much the power of the big primary-color emotions that surround the dog, you’re missing the experience.”

It must be the season of the dog, from the recent treasure chest that is The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (one of the the best art books of 2012) to the history of rabies to Fiona Apple’s stirring handwritten letter about her dying dog. But what is it about dogs, exactly, that has us so profoundly transfixed?

That’s exactly what former New York magazine executive editor John Homans explores in What’s a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend (public library) — a remarkable chronicle of the domestic dog’s journey across thousands of years and straight into our hearts, written with equal parts tenderness and scientific rigor.

In a chapter on reconciling the inevitable pain we invite into our lives when we commit to love a being biologically destined to die before we do and the boundless joy of choosing to love anyway, Homans cites John Updike’s heartbreaking poem “Another Dog’s Death” about the last days of one of his beloved animals:

For days the good old bitch had been dying, her back
pinched down to the spine and arched to ease the pain,
her kidneys dry, her muzzle white. At last
I took a shovel into the woods and dug her grave

in preparation for the certain. She came along,
which I had not expected. Still, the children gone,
such expeditions were rare, and the dog,
spayed early, knew no nonhuman word for love.

She made her stiff legs trot and let her bent tail wag.
We found a spot we liked, where the pines met the field.
The sun warmed her fur as she dozed and I dug;
I carved her a safe place while she protected me.

I measured her length with the shovel’s long handle;
she perked in amusement, and sniffed the heaped-up earth.
Back down at the house, she seemed friskier,
but gagged, eating. We called the vet a few days later.

They were old friends. She held up a paw, and he
injected a violet fluid. She swooned on the lawn;
we watched her breathing quickly slow and cease.
In a wheelbarrow up to the hole, her warm fur shone.

But rather than agonizing over the morbidity of it, Homans celebrates the remarkable Zen-ness of it all, somewhere between John Cage and the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi:

This state of being-in-the-moment is what’s so compelling about dogs. It’s hard for a human to get to it. Even in the most difficult times, dogs are cheerful and ready for experience. A dog can’t figure out that it’s being measured for its grave. The three-legged chow that walks on my street every day doesn’t know the number three or have any sense that anything is wrong with her at all (and as I write, the dog is sixteen and still fit). It’s not that a dog accepts the cards it’s been dealt; it’s not aware that there are cards. James Thurber called the desire for this condition ‘the Dog Wish,’ the ‘strange and involved compulsion to be as happy and carefree as a dog.’ This is a dog’s blessing, a dim-wittedness one can envy.

He considers the warm tackiness of loving a dog:

Loving a dog means, among other things, making peace with kitsch, if you haven’t already. You don’t have to make goo-goo eyes at every puppy picture you see in a magazine or bake your dog birthday cakes. But if you resist too much the power of the big primary-color emotions that surround the dog, you’re missing the experience. … Dogs are a national religion with a catechism composed by Hallmark, so heresy is necessary. I suspect some people resist the dog culture with such passion precisely to avoid the kitsch, the appalling melodrama: if you give in to it, you’re trapped in a narrative you can’t control. You feel like a dope, buying into it. The emotions around the dog can be as neotenized as the animal itself.

Rather than an end, kitsch can be a starting point. … Much as I’d like to think that kitsch has no purchase in my world, it’s found its way in — and it’s sleeping on my rug.

Beautifully written and absolutely engrossing, What’s a Dog For? goes on to examine such fascinating fringes of canine culture as how dogs served as Darwin’s muse, why they were instrumental in the birth of empathy, and what they might reveal about the future of evolution.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

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