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Posts Tagged ‘books’

31 OCTOBER, 2012

A Visual History of New York City’s Destruction in 200 Years of Fiction

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What visions of the magnificent city’s destruction reveal about American ideology and the dominant social issues of each era.

This week, Hurricane Sandy struck New York to become one of the city’s most devastating natural disasters on record. Officials from both energy monolith Con Edison and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have called it “the worst” in their respective 189- and 108-year histories. I feel incredibly lucky to have survived with virtually no damage and no power loss, but thousands of people across the river in Manhattan, including many friends, haven’t been so fortunate. How jarring it is to see this magnificent city, always so proudly imbued with its own myth, brought uncomfortably close to the scenes and landscapes we’re so used to seeing in apocalyptic fictions.

A ghostly Manhattan, hauntingly devoid of people and cars, prepares for Sandy. October 29, 2012.

Gotham braces itself for the superstorm. October 29, 2012.

Around my neighborhood after Sandy. October 30, 2012.

Around my neighborhood after Sandy. October 30, 2012.

Indeed, the destruction of New York City has a prolific history in fiction, revisiting which feels strangely cathartic in the face of this all-too-real disaster.

In 2001, Amherst architecture and history professor Max Page began working on an exhibition proposal in partnership with the New York Historical Society, exploring all the gory, fantastical, fanciful ways in which New York City had been destroyed in fiction over the years. He wrapped up the proposal on September 10, 2001. What happened the following day, an event so terrifyingly real many eyewitness accounts described it as “surreal,” was to remain forever etched into modern history in chilling detail — but it left Page all the more convinced that his study of apocalyptic fictions was an important piece of the city’s narrative. In The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction (public library), Page collects two centuries’ worth of chronologically arranged fictional devastation — floods, fires, monsters, aliens, nuclear explosions — lavishly illustrated with images from vintage posters and pamphlets, graphic novels, book and album cover art, video game packaging, and more.

Page writes:

America’s writers and imagemakers have pictured New York’s annihilation in a stunning range of ways. Earthquake, fire, flood. Meteor, comet, Martian. Glacier, ghosts, atom bomb. Class war, terrorism, invasion. Laser beams for space ships, torpedoes from Zeppelins, missiles from battleships. Apes, wolves, dinosaurs. Environmental degradation, nuclear fallout, ‘green death.’ American culture has been obsessed with fantasizing about the destruction of New York. It is fascinating to explore the most common methods American culture makers have intended for the city’s end — floods and fires, bombs and ice. Why has the watery death had such staying power, along with the image of the city left physically intact but stripped of its people by a mysterious disaster? The recurrence of similar modes of death across time stands out.

[…]

Visions of New York’s destruction resonated with some of the most longstanding themes in American history: the ambivalence toward cities, the troubled reaction to immigrants and racial diversity, the fear of technology’s impact, and the apocalyptic strain in American religious life. Furthermore, these visions of the city’s end have paralleled the city’s economic, political, racial, and physical transformations. Projections of the city’s end reflected and refracted the dominant social issues. Each era in New York’s modern history has produced its own apocalyptic imagery that explores, exploits, and seeks to resolve contemporary cultural tensions and fears.

Thomas Nast, 'Something That Did Blow Over,' Harper's Weekly, 1871.

That Liberty Shall Not Perish From the Earth,Buy Liberty Bonds, ca. 1918

The cleansing action of the apocalypse, as pictured in 'Amazing Stories' from 1920

Page argues there are two main reasons New York City holds such high destruction appeal — one conceptual, because it has become a symbol-city that stands for urbanity itself, and the other conceptual, because New York, with its glorious skyscrapers and perfect grid, simply looks better than any other city while being destroyed.

Louis Guglielmi, Mental Geography, 1938.

Danny Shanahan, cartoon representation of Godzilla and King Kong in Manhattan © The New Yorker Collection 1997

Little Nemo in Slumberland, 1907, reproduced in In The Shadow of No Towers, 2004

The trope of New York’s destruction, Page observes, is the proto-narrative of American ideology:

New York’s death is a story line that plays through every type of fiction American culture has produced. As varied as the media are, the narratives play in two consistent if harmonically different keys. One is the dark, minor key of alarm and warning, lessons and political arguments, fear and premonition of real disaster. The other is the key of celebration and entertainment, homage and love for the city. These two registers mark the two ends of the American ideological composition: a persistent embrace of progress and modernism, utopia and ascent, but also a suspicion of failure, and the harsh truth of the jeremiad. American identity has been built on ‘a culture of calamity.’ That culture has been built on imagining our greatest city’s end.

Eric Drooker, 'Turtle Island' in FLOOD! A Novel in Pictures, 1992

The Twin Towers are attacked in Challenge of the Superfriends, 1978

Page goes on to argue that there’s an evolutionary basis for the appeal of fear imaging: it produces a rush of adrenaline, coming down from which triggers a feeling somewhere between relief and joy — the same mechanism that drives us to seek out haunted houses, horror movies, and bungee-jumping. And yet, he says, it’s bigger than that — and who better than Susan Sontag to articulate it through?

But there is something more, beyond the desire of advanced society to recapture what was once a regular experience of heightened fear and response. Susan Sontag wrote in her 1966 essay ‘The Imagination of Disaster’ that ‘we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.’ Sontag was writing in the 1960s, under the fear of worldwide nuclear holocaust and William Whyte’s nightmare of the deadened ‘organization man.’ The fears today are somewhat different. Rightly or wrongly, we don’t fear nuclear world war the way we once did. But we have our fears of dramatic catastrophe — terrorism, West Nile virus, avian flu, global warming and the angry natural phenomena it is producing. And through we don’t worry about the banality of everyday life, we do fear the insecurity of work, and the powerful, invisible forces of globalization. The workings of the global economy — moving capital and jobs dramatically around the globe according to decisions made on the Internet and in corporate headquarters — feel as inevitable and unstoppable as bad weather.

Ralph E. Lapp, 'before; and 'after' illustrations from Must We Hide?, 1949.

Alexis Rockman, Washington Square, 2004

Stuart Leeds, New Yorker cartoonist parodying meteor hysteria, 1992 © The New Yorker Collection

In 1949, E. B. White wrote a now-legendary passage uncomfortably prescient of 9/11:

A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

Harry Belafonte, as Ralph Burton, in a deserted Times Square in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, 1959

Paul Sahre graphic for the Week in Review section of The New York Times, July 10, 2005

But, ultimately, what makes the scenes in The City’s End appealing is precisely their fictionality, their unreality, their permission to fantasize as catharsis rather than grapple with the devastating results of real disaster — and the implicit affirmation of a contrast reminding us that, in real life, this phoenix of a city always manages to shake off the dust, stamp out the fires, swallow the waters, and rise with its inextinguishable brilliance once more.

Page images courtesy of Yale University Press; Instagram photos by Maria Popova

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30 OCTOBER, 2012

Grapefruit: Yoko Ono’s Poems, Drawings, and Instructions for Life

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“A dream you dream alone may be a dream, but a dream two people dream together is a reality.”

In 1964, more than a decade after the publication of her tender story An Invisible Flower, Yoko Ono collected a selection of her poetic meditations on life in a small but whimsical book published in Tokyo in a limited edition of 500. More than thirty years later, Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings by Yoko Ono (public library) — part irreverent activity book for grown-ups, part subversive philosophy for life — was republished, with a new introduction by Ono herself. Here’s just a small taste of this immensely delightful tiny treasure:

A dream you dream alone may be a dream, but a dream two people dream together is a reality.

AIR TALK

It’s sad that the air is the only thing we share.
No matter how close we get to each other,
there is always air between us.

It’s also nice that we share the air,
No matter how far apart we are
the air links us.

from Lisson Gallery brochure ’67

MIRROR PIECE

Instead of obtaining a mirror,
obtain a person.
Look into him.
Use different people.
Old, young, fat, small, etc.

1964 spring

MAP PIECE

Draw an imaginary map.
Put a goal mark on the map where you
want to go.
Go walking on an actual street according
to your map.
If there is no street where it should be
according to the map, make one by putting
the obstacles aside.
When you reach the goal, ask the name of
the city and give flowers to the first
person you meet.
The map must be followed exactly, or the
event has to be dropped altogether.

Ask your friends to write maps.
Give your friends maps.

1962 summer

CITY PIECE

Step in all the puddles in the city.

1963 autumn

COLOR PIECE

Visual world not exactly shaped —
Sense of smell, anticipation, senses that
are not exactly shaped —
Dark shadows casted —
Rat colors with faint hairly smells and pale
dark spots like those on a transparent sheet
of celluloid —
Rose color with a glitter and softness that
is cool and motional —
The kind of color that does not exist by
itself but only when it is casted between
two moving objects —
The color like a remaining stain of illusion
on a moving object —
The color that only happens when movements
cut the air in a certain way and go immediately.
Use such color to tint your absent thoughts.
Have absent thoughts for a long time.

1964 summer

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30 OCTOBER, 2012

Mind and Cosmos: Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s Brave Critique of Scientific Reductionism

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How our hunger for definitive answers robs us of the intellectual humility necessary for understanding the universe and our place in it.

“The purpose of science is not to cure us of our sense of mystery and wonder,” Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky famously noted, “but to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate it.” And yet, we live in a media culture that warps seeds of scientific understanding into sensationalist, definitive headlines about the gene for obesity or language or homosexuality and maps where, precisely, love or fear or the appreciation of Jane Austen is located in the brain — even though we know that it isn’t the clinging to answers but the embracing of ignorance that drives science.

In 1974, philosopher Thomas Nagel penned the essay “What It’s Like To Be A Bat?”, which went on to become one of the seminal texts of contemporary philosophy of mind. Nearly four decades later, he returns with Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (public library) — a provocative critique of the limits of scientific reductionism, exploring what consciousness might be if it isn’t easily explained as a direct property of physical interactions and if the door to the unknown were, as Richard Feynman passionately advocated, left ajar.

To be sure, Nagel is far from siding with the intellectual cop-outs of intelligent design. His criticism of reductive materialism isn’t based on religious belief (or on any belief in a particular alternative, for that matter) but, rather, on the insistence that a recognition of these very limitations is a necessary precondition for exploring such alternatives, “or at least being open to their possibility” — a possibility that makes mind central to understanding the natural order, rather than an afterthought or a mere byproduct of physical laws.

He writes in the introduction:

[T]he mind-body problem is not just a local problem, having to do with the relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living animal organisms, but that it invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history.

[…]

Humans are addicted to the hope for a final reckoning, but intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole.

As a proponent of making the timeless timely again through an intelligent integration of history with contemporary culture, I find Nagel’s case for weaving a historical perspective into the understanding of mind particularly compelling:

The world is an astonishing place, and the idea that we have in our possession the basic tools needed to understand it is no more credible now than it was in Aristotle’s day.

[…]

The greatest advances in the physical and biological sciences were made possible by excluding the mind from the physical world. This has permitted a quantitative understanding of the world, expressed in timeless, mathematically formulated physical laws, But at some point it will be necessary to make a new start on a more comprehensive understanding that includes the mind. It seems inevitable that such an understanding will have a historical dimension as well as a timeless one. The idea that historical understanding is part of science has become familiar through the transformation of biology by evolutionary theory. But more recently, with the acceptance of the big bang, cosmology has also become a historical science. Mind, as a development of life, must be included as the most recent stage of this long cosmological history, and its appearance, I believe, casts its shadow back over the entire process and the constituents and principles on which the process depends.

Ultimately, Nagel echoes John Updike’s reflection on the possibility of “permanent mystery”:

It is perfectly possible that the truth is beyond our reach, in virtue of our intrinsic cognitive limitations and not merely beyond our grasp in humanity’s present stage of intellectual development.

Though Mind and Cosmos isn’t a neat package of scientific, or even philosophical, answers, it’s a necessary thorn in the side of today’s all-too-prevalent scientific reductionism and a poignant affirmation of Isaac Asimov’s famous contention that “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.”

Image: Orion Nebula; public domain courtesy of The Smithsonian

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29 OCTOBER, 2012

Stunning Black & White Engravings by Ian Hugo from Anaïs Nin’s Hand-Printed Under a Glass Bell, 1944

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Stunning artwork from a hand-made book that presages modern self-publishing entrepreneurship.

Anaïs Nin may have become best-known and celebrated for her remarkable diaries and letters spanning more than six decades, but she also published a number of short stories and novels. It wasn’t until the publication of the short-story collection Under a Glass Bell (public library) in 1944 that Nin’s work began to garner attention from the literary pantheon, propelled by a favorable review in The New Yorker by Edmund Wilson, whom Nin qualified in her diary as “the highest authority among the critics.”

But the book’s story itself is a fascinating piece of cultural history and a heartening, timely exemplar of everything from self-publishing to woman-led entrepreneurship to the maker movement.

In 1942, when Nin couldn’t find a publisher for the book in an industry bent under the weight of wartime financial pressures, she started her own publishing house, Gremor Press, in a small loft on Macdougal Street in New York. She taught herself typesetting and fell in love with the letterpress. Her husband, banker-turned-artist Hugh Parker Gulier, who went by the artistic pseudonym Ian Hugo, created all the line-on-copper engravings for the book, and Nin herself set the type by hand. She eventually printed 300 copies in the first edition, sold via an innovative subscription model, which sold out in three weeks, and another 100 a second edition.

I was recently fortunate enough to hunt down one of the few surviving original hand-printed copies and have scanned Hugo’s stunning engravings for your viewing pleasure:

The book comes complete with an endearing typo in the endnote, a souvenir of the humanness that brought this handmade book to life:

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