Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

13 MARCH, 2013

Three Poems by James Joyce

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“Lightly come or lightly go … Lightly, lightly — ever so”

On a recent trip to Austin, I tickled my soft spot for rare vintage literary treasures and indulged my guilty travel pleasure: A trip to the finest local rare-books seller, in this case the lovely South Congress Books, where I discovered a fortunate first edition of James Joyce’s Collected Poems (public library). It was originally published in 1937 by The Viking Press as a limited edition of 1,000 copies and features a signed portrait of Joyce by Welsh painter and etcher Augustus John.

Here are three sublime poems, one from each of the book’s three sections.

From the first section, titled “Chamber Music” and containing 36 untitled, numbered love poems:

XXV

Lightly come or lightly go:
Though thy heart presage thee woe,
Vales and many a wasted sun,
Oread let thy laughter run,
Till the irreverent mountain air
Ripple all thy flying hair.

Lightly, lightly — ever so:
Clouds that wrap the vales below
At the hour of evenstar
Lowliest attendants are;
Love and laughter song-confessed
When the heart is heaviest.

From the second section, titled “Pomes Penyeach” — a play on the French words for apples, offered at “a penny each” — and containing 13 short poems written over the course of 20 years between 1904 and 1924:

SIMPLES

O bella bionda,
Sei come l’onda!

Of cool sweet dew and radiance mild
The moon a web of silence weaves
In the still garden where a child
Gathers the simple salad leaves.

A moondew stars her hanging hair
And moonlight kisses her young brow
And, gathering, she sings an air:
Fair as the wave is, fair, art thou!

Be mine, I pray, a waxen ear
To shield me from her childish croon
And mine a shielded heart for her
Who gathers simples of the moon.

From the final section, containing a single poem written in 1936 and previously unpublished in America:

ECCE PUER

Of the dark past
A child is born;
With joy and grief
My heart is torn.

Calm in his cradle
The living lies.
May love and mercy
Unclose his eyes!

Young life is breathed
On the glass;
The world that was not
Comes to pass.

A child is sleeping:
An old man gone.
O, father forsaken,
Forgive your son!

Collected Poems was eventually reissued as a much more affordable mass-market paperback. Complement it with Joyce’s little-known children’s book and this rare 1935 edition of Ulysses featuring exquisite etchings by Henri Matisse.

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12 MARCH, 2013

Alexander Graham Bell on Success, Innovation, and Creativity

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“It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.”

Success is one of those grab-bag terms — like happiness — that defies universal definition. Thoreau saw it as a matter of greeting each day with gratitude and for designer Paula Scher, it’s about the capacity for growth; for Jad Abumrad, it comes after some necessary “gut churn”; for Jackson Pollock’s dad, it was about being fully awake to the world. But the best kind of success is the kind you define yourself.

And yet, those who share a certain culturally agreed-upon degree of success might have some timeless and widely relevant tips. Take, for instance, Alexander Graham Bell — father of the telephone, romantic, proponent of remix culture. In the 1901 volume How They Succeeded: Life Stories of Successful Men Told by Themselves (public library; public domain) — which also gave us novelist Amelia E. Barr’s 9 rules for success — writer Orion Swett Marden interviews Bell, at the time 54, about his life’s learnings regarding the secrets of what we call “success.”

Marden writes of Bell with deep admiration:

Extremely polite, always anxious to render courtesy, no one carries great success more gracefully than Alexander G. Bell the inventor of the telephone. His graciousness has won many a friend, the admiration of many more, and has smoothed many a rugged spot in life.

When asked about the key factors of success, Bell sides with Ray Bradbury and replies:

Perseverance is the chief; but perseverance must have some practical end, or it does not avail the man possessing it. A person without a practical end in view becomes a crank or an idiot. Such persons fill our insane asylums. The same perseverance that they show in some idiotic idea, if exercised in the accomplishment of something practicable, would no doubt bring success. Perseverance is first, but practicability is chief. The success of the Americans as a nation is due to their great practicability.

And yet he recognizes, to borrow Bertrand Russell’s words, that “every opinion now accepted was once eccentric” and leaves room for the usefulness of useless knowledge:

But often what the world calls nonsensical, becomes practical, does it not? You were called crazy, too, once, were you not?

Bell affirms the role of “unconscious processing” — what T. S. Eliot called the “long incubation” of ideas — in the creative process:

I am a believer in unconscious cerebration. The brain is working all the time, though we do not know it. At night, it follows up what we think in the daytime. When I have worked a long time on one thing, I make it a point to bring all the facts regarding it together before I retire; and I have often been surprised at the results. Have you not noticed that, often, what was dark and perplexing to you the night before, is found to be perfectly solved the next morning? We are thinking all the time; it is impossible not to think.

Paralleling Thomas Edison’s sleep habits, Bell offers a fine addition to other famous daily routines:

I begin my work at about nine or ten o’clock in the evening, and continue until four or five in the morning. Night is a more quiet time to work. It aids thought.

When Marden asks whether everyone can become an inventor, Bell is adamant:

Oh, no; not all minds are constituted alike. Some minds are only adapted to certain things. But as one’s mind grows, and one’s knowledge of the world’s industries widens, it adapts itself to such things as naturally fall to it.

Echoing Thoreau, Bell advocates for the creative stimulation of nature and makes a strong case for physical health:

I believe it to be a primary principle of success; ‘mens sana in corpora sano’ — a sound mind in a sound body. The mind in a weak body produces weak ideas; a strong body gives strength to the thought of the mind. Ill health is due to man’s artificiality of living. He lives indoors. He becomes, as it were, a hothouse plant. Such a plant is never as successful as a hardy garden plant is. An outdoor life is necessary to health and success, especially in a youth.

Bell, like John Dewey, believes that ideas can’t be willed and aren’t the product of the fabled Eureka! moment — rather, he advocates for slow creative gestation, echoing Thomas Edison’s insistence on singularly focused effort and Polaroid inventor Edwin Land’s conception of the 5,000 steps to success:

You cannot force ideas. Successful ideas are the result of slow growth. Ideas do not reach perfection in a day, no matter how much study is put upon them. It is perseverance in the pursuit of studies that is really wanted.

Next must come concentration of purpose and study. That is another thing I mean to emphasize. Concentrate all your thought upon the work in hand. The sun’s rays do not burn
until brought to a focus.

[…]

Man is the result of slow growth … The most successful men in the end are those whose success is the result of steady accretion. That intellectuality is more vigorous that has attained its strength gradually. It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider, and progressively better able to grasp any theme or situation, persevering in what he knows to be practical, and concentrating his thought upon it, who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.

Bell offers a poignant, if overly violent, metaphor for how the factory model of education stifles the creative spirit and the capacity for success:

In Paris, they fatten geese to create a diseased condition of the liver. A man stands with a box of very finely prepared and very rich food beside a revolving stand, and, as it revolves, one goose after another passes before him. Taking the first goose by the neck, he clamps down its throat a large lump of the food, whether the goose will or no, until its crop is well stuffed out, and then he proceeds with the rest in the same very mechanical manner. Now, I think, if those geese had to work hard for their own food, they would digest it better, and be far healthier geese. How many young American geese are stuffed in about the same manner at college and at home, by their rich and fond parents!

Alexander Graham Bell's telephone patent drawing and oath, March 7, 1876

In considering the different mindsets towards innovation in Europe vs. the United States, Bell applauds the American gift for embracing the unfamiliar and remaining open to the new, pointing to risk-aversion as a killer of the culture of innovation:

It is harder to attain success in Europe. There is hardly the same appreciation of progress there is here. Appreciation is an element of success. Encouragement is needed. My thoughts run mostly toward inventions. In England, people are conservative. They are well contented with the old, and do not readily adopt new ideas. Americans more quickly appreciate new inventions. Take an invention to an Englishman or a Scot, and he will ask you all about it, and then say your invention may be all right, but let somebody else try it first.

Take the same invention to an American, and if it is intelligently explained, he is generally quick to see the feasibility of it. America is an inspiration to inventors. It is quicker to adopt advanced ideas than England or Europe. The most valuable inventions of this century have been made in America.

When asked about the roles of heredity and environment in creativity — the good old nature-vs.-nurture debate — Bell offers a biological spin on John Locke’s “blank slate” theory and ultimately extols the American spirit of innovation as an enormously fertile environment for nurturing great minds:

Environment, certainly; heredity, not so distinctly. In heredity, a man may stamp out the faults he has inherited. There is no chance for the proper working of heredity. If selection could be carried out, a man might owe much to heredity. But as it is, only opposites marry. Blonde and light-complexioned people marry brunettes, and the tall marry the short. In our scientific societies, men only are admitted. If women who were interested especially in any science were allowed to affiliate with the men in these societies, we might hope to see some wonderful workings of the laws of heredity. A man, as a general rule, owes very little to what he is born with. A man is what he makes of himself.

Environment counts for a great deal. A man’s particular idea may have no chance for growth or encouragement in his community. Real success is denied that man, until he finds a proper environment.

America is a good environment for young men. It breathes the very spirit of success. I noticed at once, when I first came to this country, how the people were all striving for success, and helping others to attain success. It is an inspiration you cannot help feeling. America is the land of success.

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12 MARCH, 2013

The Green Beads: Edward Gorey and the “Disturbed Person”

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“How it knocks my heart!”

Mid-century illustrator extraordinaire Edward Gorey has a wealth of gems under his belt — his legendary grim alphabet, exquisite letters, illustrations for H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, fairy tale adaptations, naughty adult entertainment, and then some. But hardly do any of Gorey’s magnificent stories get more tender, heartening, and heartbreaking than The Green Beads (public library). Originally published in 1978 as a limited edition of 426 signed copies — 400 numbered copies for sale and 26 lettered A-Z reserved for Gorey’s inner circle — it tells the story of Little Tancred who, en route to the store to buy tapioca, meets “a disturbed person whose sex is unclear, wearing a string of green beads around “its” neck. A characteristically grim adventure involving the beads ensues.

But what makes the book particularly poignant is that it’s hard not to see a piece of Gorey himself — old, eccentric, a defiant spirit and sensitive soul, an oft-speculated gay man — in the Disturbed Person, whom only Little Tancred truly sees and who inhabits that elusive neverland between the real and the imagined.

I was fortunate enough to hunt down one of the surviving copies — number 136, to be precise — and have preserved it here for shared enjoyment:

Complement The Green Beads with the charming The Shrinking of Treehorn and consider supporting the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust with a donation to the Edward Gorey House.

Donating = Loving

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