Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

15 APRIL, 2015

Creation: Ancient Indian Origin Myths, Brought to Life in a Breathtaking Illustrated Cosmogony

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Consummate visual storytelling about life, death, the rhythms of time, and the beginning of art.

“We don’t need to credit an all-seeing God with the creation of life and matter,” Douglas Rushkoff wrote in contemplating consciousness, “to suspect that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality.” And we don’t have to believe in such a god to appreciate the beautiful and imaginative ways in which the origin myths of the world’s various spiritual traditions capture this wonderful strangeness — from our earliest depictions of the universe to the marvelous mythic creatures that populate our legends. In advising parents on what to tell kids about Santa Claus, Margaret Mead made the crucial distinction between “fact” and “poetic truth,” and this is precisely what origin myths offer — an invitation to celebrate these ancient masterworks of storytelling, even if we recognize that they aren’t rooted in scientific fact.

Nowhere does this celebration come more vibrantly alive than in Creation (public library) by Bhajju Shyam — the best-known artist of India’s Gond tribe and the talent behind the extraordinary London Jungle Book. Shyam captures ten origin myths from Gond folklore in absolutely breathtaking illustrations.

Air

A master of the traditional folk art style for which his tribe is known, Shyam conveys the core symbols and stories of Gond cosmogony in this simple yet enormously evocative masterpiece of visual storytelling. There are the blue crows, “whirling out from the eye of a storm, from the center of creation” to bring the birth of air; the seven types of earth that arise from the mud — sand, clay, loam, rock, chalk, silt, and marsh; the Sacred Seed, which “holds a miraculous possibility within itself, and when the time is right, lets it unfold.”

The Unborn Fish

Hand-bound in a limited edition of 5,000 numbered copies and silkscreened on handmade paper with traditional Indian dyes, this beautiful book comes from South Indian independent publisher Tara Books. For the past two decades, founder Gita Wolf and her team have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on books handcrafted by local artisans in their fair-trade workshop in Chennai — treasures like The Night Life of Trees, Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit, and Waterlife.

Death and Rebirth

Life exists because there is death — one contains the other. Just as joy has no meaning without sorrow, a beginning must have an end. But every end makes a new beginning possible.

In Gond villages, when you see smoke rising from a house, you know someone has passed away. Everyone gathers in the house of mourning, bringing the family food and comfort. There is no food cooked in the bereaved household until the third day, when they invite the whole village to a meal of fish. This signals the beginning of normal life again. You cannot accompany the dead, and in the course of time, will have to return to your own life.

One can’t help but notice the intriguing parallels with other spiritual traditions and secular philosophies: The fish, also found in Christian scripture, is the Gond symbol for water — Shyam depicts this “fish-shaped emptiness, bubbling in the water,” the first something that appeared out of the nothingness as the world was born, not unlike how evolution unfolded; the duality of day and night, sun and moon, symbolizing the male and female — two inextricably linked parts of one whole — call to mind Virginia Woolf’s notion of the androgynous mind; the Egg of Origins, “from which all life emerges,” mirrors the science of reproduction; the notion of life and death as complementary counterpoints evokes Rilke on mortality as a vitalizing force.

Time

Day and night, beginning and end, life and death — creation is made of opposites. For human beings, life is measure din time.

Time for human beings is made up of day and night. Each is a half of one whole. Human beings themselves are made up of two halves: man and woman. A man is associated with the sun, and a woman with the moon — together, they stand in for day and night. They are opposites that make the whole.

The most delicate timekeepers are insects. Their short lives measure time in hours and days.

The project itself has a most heartening origin story: Over the course of numerous collaborations with Shyam through the years, Wolf found herself so enchanted by the tales from Gond folklore he was telling that she offered to transcribe and translate the stories — reading and writing are not part of Shyam’s orally-driven tribal culture — turning them into a beautiful book celebrating both Gond mythology and the Gond folk art tradition.

She writes in the afterword:

The Gonds were originally forest-dwellers, with settlements spread across the dense jungles of Madya Pradesh. With the large scale destruction of forests, they’ve since become peasants and farmers — many have moved to the city in search of work. This is the fate of many tribal groups, but the Gonds are unique in that they have managed to preserve a memory of older times when their community was close to the forest and the rhythms of nature. They have kept this heritage alive — at least in the last few decades — primarily through their art. From its humble beginnings as patterns decorating the walls and floors of village homes, Gond art has now evolved into a highly complex aesthetic.

[…]

Typically, a Gond painting condenses a long and complex oral tale into a single intricate image. The best artists are highly conceptual, using symbols and metaphors to draw out meanings which connect the lives of human beings to the workings of the cosmos.

The Potter of the World

There can be no earth, and no life, without mud. It is more precious than gold. We call the earthworm the King of the Underworld. He burrows deep under the ground, kneading and churning, until he emerges again, bearing perfectly formed mud. I’ve thought of him as a potter, who softens and moulds the clay into a pot that can hold water and food.

Couple Creation, the tactile mesmerism of which these pixels on a screen profoundly fail to convey, with the contemporary Western counterpart A Graphic Cosmogony, then treat yourself to other favorite gems from the Tara Books family.

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15 APRIL, 2015

Virginia Woolf on Why the Best Mind Is the Androgynous Mind

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“In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female… The androgynous mind is resonant and porous… naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.”

In addition to being one of the greatest writers and most expansive minds humanity ever produced, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) was also a woman of exceptional wisdom on such complexities of living as consciousness and creativity, the consolations of aging, how one should read a book, and the artist’s eternal dance with self-doubt.

So incisive was her insight into the human experience that, many decades before scientists demonstrated why “psychological androgyny” is essential to creativity, Woolf articulated this idea in a beautiful passage from her classic 1929 book-length essay A Room of One’s Own (public library).

A year after she subverted censorship and revolutionized the politics of gender identity with her novel Orlando, Woolf writes:

The mind is certainly a very mysterious organ … about which nothing whatever is known, though we depend upon it so completely. Why do I feel that there are severances and oppositions in the mind, as there are strains from obvious causes on the body? What does one mean by “the unity of the mind”? … Clearly the mind has so great a power of concentrating at any point at any moment that it seems to have no single state of being. It can separate itself from the people in the street, for example, and think of itself as apart from them, at an upper window looking down on them. Or it can think with other people spontaneously, as, for instance, in a crowd waiting to hear some piece of news read out.

Long before cognitive scientists were able to tell us exactly how the mind does this, Woolf concludes:

Clearly the mind is always altering its focus, and bringing the world into different perspectives.

Illustration from 'I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!,' a 1970 picture-book satirizing limiting gender norms. Click image for details.

Since male and female are the very first categories of experience into which we are placed as newborns and which continue to shape society’s expectations of us throughout our lives, the perspectives attached to each gendered experience are among the most profound and persistent sources of difference in human culture. But Woolf argues that the most fertile mental and spiritual landscape is one where there is ample cross-pollination between the two:

When I saw the couple get into the taxicab the mind felt as if, after being divided, it had come together again in a natural fusion. The obvious reason would be that it is natural for the sexes to co-operate. One has a profound, if irrational, instinct in favour of the theory that the union of man and woman makes for the greatest satisfaction, the most complete happiness. But the sight of the two people getting into the taxi and the satisfaction it gave me made me also ask whether there are two sexes in the mind corresponding to the two sexes in the body, and whether they also require to be united in order to get complete satisfaction and happiness? And I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain the woman predominates over the man. The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating. If one is a man, still the woman part of his brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her.

Illustration by Yang Liu from 'Man Meets Woman,' a pictogram critique of gender stereotypes. Click image for details.

Turning to Samuel Taylor Coleridge for ratification — “The truth is,” the celebrated poet and philosopher wrote in 1832, “a great mind must be androgynous.” — she adds:

Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine, I thought. But it would be well to test what one meant by man-womanly, and conversely by woman-manly, by pausing and looking at a book or two.

Coleridge … meant, perhaps, that the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided. In fact one goes back to Shakespeare’s mind as the type of the androgynous, of the man-womanly mind… And if it be true that it is one of the tokens of the fully developed mind that it does not think specially or separately of sex, how much harder it is to attain that condition now than ever before… No age can ever have been as stridently sex-conscious as our own…

A Room of One’s Own remains one of the most rewarding and rereadable books ever written. Complement this particular point of genius with Ursula K. Le Guin’s spectacular essay on being a man and the contemporary cognitive science of psychological androgyny, then revisit Woolf on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, the malady of middlebrow, her little-known children’s book, and the only surviving recording of her voice.

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14 APRIL, 2015

Outstanding in the Rain: A Die-Cut Adventure in Words and Meaning

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How to turn an ice man into a nice man.

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf asserted in the only surviving recording of her voice, and out of that belonging sometimes spring miraculous surprises. In Outstanding in the Rain (public library), illustrator, graphic designer, and MTA subway artist Frank Viva takes us on a trip to Coney Island — but it is no ordinary trip. Rather, it’s a most unusual adventure in wordplay and meaning.

Partway between Italian graphic designer Bruno Munari’s pioneering vintage “interactive” picture-books, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer’s mashup masterwork Tree of Codes, and Indian artist Ramsingh Urveti’s imaginative die-cut adaptation of a 17th-century trick poem, the story — sweet, warm, and just the right amount of mischievous — is punctuated by cleverly placed die-cut holes through which one word peeks into another as the narrative progresses. Each turn of the page delights with its unexpected twist of word-wielding and meaning-morphing.

At its heart is a wondrous celebration of words and how we arrange those strange symbols called letters to make sense of the world and how that sense changes when we rearrange those symbols even slightly — something that calls to mind the unusual alphabet book Take Away the A. And yet, conceptual parallels and influences aside, Viva’s work is wholly original in both style and sensibility — vibrant and honest and full of joy.

Complement Outstanding in the Rain with the die-cut wonder I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tale.

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14 APRIL, 2015

Chinua Achebe Reads His Little-Known Poems

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“We called him visionary missionary revolutionary and, you know, all the other naries that plague the peace…”

Although Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930–March 21, 2013) is one of the greatest writers of the past century and his 1958 debut novel Things Fall Apart is still the single most widely read book in African literature, few people are familiar with his lesser-known yet no less powerful poetry — so much so, that Achebe himself joked in a 1998 lecture at Portland’s Literary Arts that there is a conspiracy theory against his poetry. (Achebe’s ardent love of poetry dates back to the dawn of his career as a writer — the title of his magnum opus is borrowed from a line in Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.”)

In this edited excerpt from his nearly two-hour Literary Arts lecture, Achebe reads three of his poems, later published in the 2004 anthology Collected Poems (public library).

Complement with Achebe on the meaning of life and the writer’s responsibility to society, then treat yourself to other beautiful recordings of authors readings their own work: Mary Oliver, Sylvia Plath, Denise Levertov, Frank O’Hara, Susan Sontag, T.S. Eliot, Dorianne Laux, Maya Angelou, Seamus Heaney, and Dorothy Parker.

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