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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

03 JUNE, 2015

I, Pencil: An Ingenious Vintage Allegory for the Invisible Hand and How Everything Is Connected

By:

“If you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.”

For an object this seemingly simple, the pencil is not only an artifact with a remarkably fascinating history but also an enduring staple of creative culture — from John Steinbeck, who kept exactly twelve sharpened pencils on his desk at all times, to David Byrne, who captured the human condition in pencil diagrams. But although it is one of humanity’s humble masterpieces of design and ingenuity, we continue to underappreciate the pencil’s genius.

In 1958, libertarian writer and Foundation for Economic Education founder Leonard Read (September 26, 1898–May 14, 1983) set out to remedy this civilizational injustice in a marvelous essay titled “I, Pencil,” published in Essays on Liberty (public library). In a clever allegory, Read delivers his enduring point about the power of free market economy. Casting the pencil as a first-person narrator, he illustrates its astounding complexity to reveal the web of dependencies and vital interconnectedness upon which humanity’s needs and knowledge are based, concluding with a clarion call for protecting the creative freedom making this possible.

Drawing by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Read begins:

I am a lead pencil — the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write.

Writing is both my vocation and my avocation; that’s all I do.

You may wonder why I should write a genealogy. Well, to begin with, my story is interesting. And, next, I am a mystery—more so than a tree or a sunset or even a flash of lightning. But, sadly, I am taken for granted by those who use me, as if I were a mere incident and without background. This supercilious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is a species of the grievous error in which mankind cannot too long persist without peril. For, as a wise man observed, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”

Half a century before Thomas Thwaites set out to illustrate the complex interdependencies of what we call civilization by making a toaster from scratch, Read writes:

I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me — no, that’s too much to ask of anyone — if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because — well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.

Tracing the pencil’s journey from raw material — “a cedar of straight grain that grows in Northern California and Oregon” — to the hands of “all the persons and the numberless skills” involved in its fabrication, Read considers the rich cultural and practical substrata of all these skills and production mechanisms:

Consider the millwork in San Leandro. The cedar logs are cut into small, pencil-length slats less than one-fourth of an inch in thickness. These are kiln dried and then tinted for the same reason women put rouge on their faces. People prefer that I look pretty, not a pallid white. The slats are waxed and kiln dried again. How many skills went into the making of the tint and the kilns, into supplying the heat, the light and power, the belts, motors, and all the other things a mill requires? Sweepers in the mill among my ancestors? Yes, and included are the men who poured the concrete for the dam of a Pacific Gas & Electric Company hydroplant which supplies the mill’s power!

Don’t overlook the ancestors present and distant who have a hand in transporting sixty carloads of slats across the nation from California to Wilkes-Barre!

He goes on to delineate the global reaches of the production process — from the pencil’s lead derived from graphite mined in Ceylon to Mexican candelilla wax used used to increase its strength and smoothness to the rapeseed oil Dutch East Indies involved in the creation of its “crowning glory,” the eraser — ultimately pointing to the pencil as a supreme example of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” at work:

Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others… There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the only difference between the miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in Oregon is in the type of know-how. Neither the miner nor the logger can be dispensed with, any more than can the chemist at the factory or the worker in the oil field — paraffin being a by-product of petroleum.

Here is an astounding fact: Neither the worker in the oil field nor the chemist nor the digger of graphite or clay nor any who mans or makes the ships or trains or trucks nor the one who runs the machine that does the knurling on my bit of metal nor the president of the company performs his singular task because he wants me. Each one wants me less, perhaps, than does a child in the first grade. Indeed, there are some among this vast multitude who never saw a pencil nor would they know how to use one. Their motivation is other than me. Perhaps it is something like this: Each of these millions sees that he can thus exchange his tiny know-how for the goods and services he needs or wants. I may or may not be among these items.

Above all, Read suggests, the pencil attests to the godliness of the human capacity for connected imagination. In a sardonic dual jab at religious creationism and excessive government control, Read summons the last line from Joyce Kilmer’s 1918 poem “Trees” and writes:

It has been said that “only God can make a tree.” Why do we agree with this? Isn’t it because we realize that we ourselves could not make one? Indeed, can we even describe a tree? We cannot, except in superficial terms. We can say, for instance, that a certain molecular configuration manifests itself as a tree. But what mind is there among men that could even record, let alone direct, the constant changes in molecules that transpire in the life span of a tree? Such a feat is utterly unthinkable!

I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies — millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human master-minding! Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.

The above is what I meant when writing, “If you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.” For, if one is aware that these know-hows will naturally, yes, automatically, arrange themselves into creative and productive patterns in response to human necessity and demand — that is, in the absence of governmental or any other coercive master-minding — then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free men. Freedom is impossible without this faith.

Just a few years earlier, pencil-lover Steinbeck had written in East of Eden: “The free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.” Whether Read read Steinbeck and succumbed to cryptomnesia or arrived at this strikingly similar sentiment independently is only cause for speculation, but his larger point — one as pertinent to public policy as it is to the private creative endeavor — is what endures with its own timeless miraculousness:

If I, Pencil, were the only item that could offer testimony on what men can accomplish when free to try, then those with little faith would have a fair case. However, there is testimony galore; it’s all about us and on every hand. Mail delivery is exceedingly simple when compared, for instance, to the making of an automobile or a calculating machine or a grain combine or a milling machine or to tens of thousands of other things. Delivery? Why, in this area where men have been left free to try, they deliver the human voice around the world in less than one second; they deliver an event visually and in motion to any person’s home when it is happening; they deliver 150 passengers from Seattle to Baltimore in less than four hours; they deliver gas from Texas to one’s range or furnace in New York at unbelievably low rates and without subsidy; they deliver each four pounds of oil from the Persian Gulf to our Eastern Seaboard — half-way around the world — for less money than the government charges for delivering a one-ounce letter across the street!

The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let society’s legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Pencil, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.

Half a century after Read penned his brilliant essay, it was adapted into an animated film illustrating how the same “complex combination of miracles” plays out on various scales in our modern lives:

For an equally pause-giving contemporary counterpart, see The Toaster Project.

Perhaps Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer — and what, if not computing, is the height of Read’s miraculous web of know-hows? — put it best when she wrote that “everything is naturally related and interconnected.”

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02 JUNE, 2015

The Midwifery of Creativity: Denise Levertov on How Great Works of Art Are Born

By:

“Showing anyone anything really amounts to removing the last thin film that prevents their seeing what they are looking at.”

Few things gladden the heart, at least this heart, more than the immortal evidence of great friendships between artists — that mostly invisible scaffolding of goodwill and kinship of spirit upon which creative culture is built and without which the heavy lonesomeness of the creative life would crush the artist. An encouraging word from a friend or mentor can work, and has worked, wonders for the creative spirit — there is ample evidence in the epistolary friendship of Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, young James Joyce’s correspondence with Ibsen, Mark Twain’s emboldening exchange with Helen Keller, Emerson’s career-making letter to Walt Whitman, and Frida Kahlo’s beam of compassion to Georgia O’Keeffe.

Among the most beautiful of these spiritually sustaining friendships is that between the poets Robert Duncan (January 7, 1919–February 3, 1988) and Denise Levertov (October 24, 1923–December 20, 1997). It began with a fan letter Duncan sent to Levertov in May of 1953 and continued for more than a quarter century, over the course of which they exchanged nearly 500 letters, now collected in The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov (public library) — a formidable 800-page tome containing these two literary titans’ views on life, love, poetry, politics, family, fame, and the intricate machinery of creativity.

In one of the longest and most revelatory letters in the volume, penned between October 25 and November 2 of 1971, 48-year-old Levertov articulates her most fundamental creative credos more directly than in any of her public writings.

She considers what lends a poem — and any great works of art — its power:

I have always had a strong preference for works of art in which the artist was driven by a need to speak (in whatever medium) of what deeply stirred him — whether in blame or in praise. I’d sooner read Dubliners than Finnegans Wake. Beckett bores me. Most of Gertrude Stein bores me — she’s nice for tea but I wouldn’t want her for my dinner. I love George Eliot…

I should qualify the “deep stirring” I mean: I prefer … works where need to speak (in whatever medium was theirs) arose from experiences not of a technical nature but of a kind which people unconnected with that medium also shared (potentially anyway).

Illustrating this with an example that calls to mind Amanda Palmer’s assertion that “you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected,” Levertov writes:

A sculpture inspired by the potential of the piece of wood it is carved out of might move me by its beauty of proportion, texture, decorative qualities etc. but usually not as much as one behind which one can feel some other human experience, to which the artist-craftsman’s feeling for the wood contributes, so that the emerging inscape (the revealed inscape) is of the conjoining of some other life experience with the present experience of the wood, the material. Each grasped, revealed, by way of the other.

Elsewhere in the lengthy letter, she captures another aspect of this mutuality:

One can anyway only be shown something one knows already, needs already. Showing anyone anything really amounts to removing the last thin film that prevents their seeing what they are looking at.

Illustration by Ohara Hale for six rare recordings of Levertov reading her poetry. Click image to see more and listen.

But this “deep stirring” quality of great art, Levertov cautions, doesn’t arise from the rational appeal of the work’s subject matter, or what it is currently fashionable to call its “content” — a term I’ve long despised for implying the vacant filler of an unfeeling form. Rather, she argues in one of the most beguiling descriptions of the creative impulse, it comes from the artist’s sincere and insurmountable desire — need, even — to externalize a mysteriously moving interior experience, a private event of the psyche, into a public work of art:

I do not at all have a sense of luring anyone into the poetic by catching hold of them through my subject matter. The idea appalls me in fact. Some events — whether a tree in a certain light, a Mexican family looking at the movie stills outside the cinema, a dream, my own condition of being in or out of love, of some epiphany relating to husband, child, friend, cat or dog, street or painting, cloud or stone, a book read, a story heard, a life thought about, a demonstration lived through, a situation, historical and/or topical, (that’s to say known in the moment of its passing into history) — it doesn’t matter, the list is endless, but some events (selected by some interior mysterious process out of all the other minutes and hours of my life) begin to form themselves in my understanding as phrases, images, rhythms of language, demand to be further formed, demand midwifery is one way to put it. Not all that one feels most strongly makes this verbal demand, even if one is a poet — by poet here I mean prose writer too — … but whatever experiences do demand it are always strongly felt ones. That is my testimony.

She seals the sentiment with one final stab at the vanity of vacant form:

I understand that for some people something like problem-solving is in itself a stimulus — e.g. the challenge of how to tell a story as a poem, not prose, without sounding archaic or stilted, might stimulate someone to make up a story to see if it could be done. But I myself would never be interested unless I first had a story to tell.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly magnificent The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov with T.S. Eliot on the mystical quality of creativity and Jeanette Winterson on what grants great art its power, then revisit these wonderful archival recordings of Levertov reading her poetry.

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02 JUNE, 2015

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Illustrated Story of Eccentric Genius and Lovable Oddball Paul Erdos

By:

How a prodigy of primes became the Magician from Budapest before he learned how to butter his own bread.

The great Hannah Arendt called mathematics the “science par excellence, wherein the mind appears to play only with itself.” Few minds have engaged in this glorious self-play more fruitfully than the protagonist of The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdős (public library) by writer Deborah Heiligman and illustrator LeUyen Pham — a wonderful addition to the most intelligent and imaginative picture-book biographies of great artists and scientists, telling the story of the eccentric Hungarian genius who went on to become one of the most prolific and influential mathematicians of the twentieth century.

Tucked into Pham’s illustrations are a number of mathematical Easter eggs, such as the palindromic primes, dihedral primes, Leyland primes, and other prime varieties — a particular obsession for Erdős — she built into her Budapest cityscape.

Erdős was born in Budapest to Jewish parents who were both math teachers. His two sisters, ages three and five, died of scarlet fever the day of his birth and his father spent the first six years of little Paul’s life as a prisoner of war in Russia. It was his mother, Anna, who nurtured the young boy’s early love of math.

Even as a toddler — or an epsilon, a very small amount in math, as he would later come to call children — he was already doing complex calculations in his head.

One day, when he was 4, Paul asked a visitor when her birthday was. She told him.

What year were you born? he asked.
She told him.

What time?
She told him.

Paul thought for a moment.
Then he told her how many seconds she had been alive.

Paul liked that trick. He did it often.

But despite — or, rather, because of — his extreme intelligence, Paul didn’t do so well in school. His intellectual vigor paralleled his bodily restlessness — he simply couldn’t sit still in the classroom.

Paul told Mama he didn’t want to go to school anymore. Not for 1 more day, for 0 days. He wished he could take days away — negative school days! He pleaded with Mama to stay home.

Luckily, mama was a worrier. She worried about germs a lot. She worried Paul could catch dangerous germs from the children at school.

Anna finally relented and Paul was entrusted in the care of the stern Fraülein. She and his mother did everything for him — they cut his meat, buttered his bread, and dressed him. But while such attentive care gave the boy room to grow his genius — we do know, after all, that parental presence rather than praise is the key to a child’s achievement — it made for substantial social awkwardness later in life.

By the time time he was twenty, he was already a world-famous mathematician, known as The Magician from Budapest — but he still lived with his mom, who still did his laundry and cooked for him and buttered his bread.

Heiligman illustrates the magnitude of his everyday incapacity with an amusing anecdote:

When Paul was 21, some mathematicians invited him to go to England to work on his math.

[…]

They all went to dinner.

Everyone else talked and ate, but Paul stared at his bread. He stared at his butter. He didn’t know how to butter his bread.

Finally he took his knife, put some butter on it, and spread it on his bread. Phew. He did it! “It wasn’t so hard,” he said.

But the buttering of the bread was merely the trigger for a larger realization — young Paul saw that the traditional path of settling down in one place, with a wife and children, working at a nine-to-five job, wasn’t the right path for him, he who longed to do math for nineteen hours a day. Heiligman writes:

Here is what he did:

Paul would get on an airplane with two small suitcases filled with everything he owned — a few clothes and some math notebooks. He might have $20 in his pocket. Or less.

He flew from New York to Indiana and to Los Angeles. He flew across the world, from Toronto to Australia.

“I have no home,” he declared. “The world is my home.”

More than half a century before Airbnb, he began staying with mathematicians all over the world, who would take him into their homes and take care of him just like his mother had. He wasn’t the easiest of house guests — he would wake up at 4 in the morning to do math, and one time he caused a colorful kitchen explosion by stabbing a carton of tomato juice with a knife, having grown impatient with figuring out how to open it properly — but his friends around the world loved him dearly for his brilliant mind and generous collaborative spirit.

Indeed, for all his eccentricity — TIME famously called him “The Oddball’s Oddball” — Erdős was no lone genius. If Voltaire was the epicenter of the famous Republic of Letters, Erdős was the epicenter of a Republic of Numbers — over the course of his long life, he collaborated with more than 500 other mathematicians and greatly enjoyed his role as what Heiligman aptly terms a “math matchmaker,” introducing peers around the world to one another so they could cooperate in moving mathematics forward. These collaborations advanced the progress of computing and paved the way for modern search engines.

He became affectionately known as Uncle Paul and mathematicians came to talk of “Erdős numbers” to measure their collaborative distance from the beloved genius in degrees of separation — those who worked with him directly earned the number 1, those who worked with someone who had worked with him directly got 2, and so forth.

Paul said he never wanted to stop doing math. And he didn’t. To stop doing math, Paul said, was to die.

So Paul left this world while he was at a math meeting.

(His famous peer John Nash — who inspired the film A Beautiful Mind, was awarded the Nobel Prize, and bore the Erdős number 3 — wasn’t so lucky.)

Complement the warm and wonderful The Boy Who Loved Math with the illustrated life-stories of other celebrated minds, including Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, Ibn Sina, and Maria Merian. For a grownup biography of Erdős, see the excellent The Man Who Loved Only Numbers.

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01 JUNE, 2015

The Light of the World: Elizabeth Alexander on Love, Loss, and the Boundaries of the Soul

By:

“Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss.”

“I am not saying that we should love death,” urged Rilke in his clarion call for befriending our mortality, “but rather that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love.” Nearly a century later, Elizabeth Alexander — one of the greatest poets of our time, whose poem “Praise Song for the Day” welcomed Barack Obama into his presidency and made her only the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration, joining such legendary dyads as Robert Frost and John F. Kennedy — invigorates Rilke’s proclamation as she bears witness to the vertiginous tango of these odd companions, death and love.

This she chronicles with uncommon elegance in The Light of the World (public library) — her soul-stretching memoir of how Ficre, the love of her life and her husband of fifteen Christmases, an artist and a chef, a blueberries-and-oatmeal-eating yogi and proud self-proclaimed “African ox,” collapsed while running on the treadmill in their basement. He was dead before his body hit the ground, four days after his fiftieth birthday — a death that Alexander and her two young sons had to somehow comprehend and fold into their suddenly disorienting aliveness. What emerges is a remarkable atlas of loss — a violent remapping of inner life, which Alexander ultimately transmutes into a cartography of love.

From the very opening lines, her writing flows with undramatic weight and piercing precision of emotional truth:

The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.

Indeed, embedded in her remembrance is a meditation on love itself:

Each of us made it possible for the other. We got something done. Each believed in the other unsurpassingly.

What more beautiful a definition of love is there — in all of humanity’s centuries of seeking to capture its essence — than the gift of making life possible for one another? One of the most poignant aspects of the book, in fact, deals with the forcible disentwining of their two possibilities as the impossibility of death wedges itself between them.

Art from 'The Heart and the Bottle' by Oliver Jeffers, an illustrated fable about love and loss. Click image for more.

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf memorably admonished. “Looked at, it vanishes.” And yet under Alexander’s lucid and luminous sidewise gaze, the soul is summoned to reveal itself rather than vaporizing. She writes:

Henry Ford believed the soul of a person is located in their last breath and so captured the last breath of his best friend Thomas Edison in a test tube and kept it evermore. It is on display at the Henry Ford Museum outside Detroit, like Galileo’s finger in the church of Santa Croce, but Edison’s last breath is an invisible relic.

Ficre breathed his last breath into me when I opened his mouth and breathed everything I had into him. He felt like a living person then. I am certain his soul was there. And then in the ambulance, riding the long ride down to the hospital, even as they worked and worked, the first icy-wind blew into me: he was going, or gone.

A century and a half after Lewis Carroll marveled at this mystery, Alexander considers the boundary between the body and the soul:

When I held him in the basement, he was himself, Ficre.

When I held him in the hospital as they worked and cut off his clothes, he was himself.

When they cleaned his body and brought his body for us to say goodbye, he had left his body, though it still belonged to us.

His body was colder than it had been, though not ice-cold, nor stiff and hard. His spirit had clearly left as it had not left when we found him on the basement floor and I knew that he could hear us.

Now I know for sure the soul is an evanescent thing and the body is its temporary container, because I saw it. I saw the body with the soul in it, I saw the body with the soul leaving, and I saw the body with the soul gone.

She speaks to this evanescence beautifully, addressing Firce directly and in the same breath addressing everything that ever was and ever will be, the interconnectedness of all things, which is the very essence of the thing we call a soul:

Where are you? You are part of this storm, this wind, this rain, these leaves. Plants will one day grow from your bones in the Grove Street Cemetery, my empty dirt bed next to you.

I imagine your grave one day spontaneously covered with peonies, my favorite flower, the one you planted for me and which bloomed reliably on my birthday, May 30, every year.

[…]

Ficre in the bright leaves that have been falling from the trees in the afternoon light.

Ficre everywhere, Ficre nowhere.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from 'Jane, the Fox, and Me' by Fanny Britt. Click image for more.

The subject of the everywhere-and-nowhere soul reappears as Alexander recounts how Ficre’s mother exited her own life:

My mother-in-law’s last night on earth, a fox crossed our path in Branford, Connecticut, as we left the hospice. We knew somehow that it was her… Do I believe that? Yes, I do. Poetic logic is my logic. I do not believe she was a fox. But I believe the fox was a harbinger. I believe that it was a strange enough occurrence that it should be heeded.

Between the lines of a favorite poem — Lucille Clifton lyrical meditation on her own husband’s death, which includes the lines “rising and turning / through my skin, / there was all around not the / shapes of things / but oh, at last, the things / themselves” — Alexander rediscovers this transmutation of energies as life and death waltz across the expanse of existence:

Death itself is like a snake shedding its skin… A new self reveals itself when the old carapace has shed and died, as though we live in exoskeletons with something truer underneath… What we see with our eyes is different from what we know: “The things / themselves.”

The mirrored mutuality of love and loss reveals itself again as Alexander returns to this notion of invisible essences in reflecting on the calling that most animated Ficre:

To love and live with a painter means marveling at the space between the things they see that you cannot see, that they then make.

Among the most mesmerizing of these invisibilia is the irremediable enigma of nonexistence:

What a profound mystery it is to me, the vibrancy of presence, the realness of it, and then, gone. Ficre not at the kitchen table seems impossible.

It is in the silent solace of the peonies that Alexander finds the promise of reconciliation between this vibrancy of presence and the incomprehensible dullness of nonexistence. In a sentiment that calls to mind Thomas Mann’s assertion that “the perishableness of life … imparts value, dignity, interest to life,” she writes:

This year, the peonies are magenta and white, and they blow open as big as toddlers’ heads, and soon they are spent and rotten, their petals brown and withered in the ground. Over and done until next year.

[…]

Flowers live, they are perfect and they affect us; they are God’s glory, they make us know why we are alive and human, that we behold. They are beautiful, and then they die and rot and go back to the earth that gave birth to them.

[…]

What is left of Ficre has a different form now. It is less sharp, more permeating, more essence, more distilled. It is less his body here, his body there, and more, he is the ground beneath us and the air we breathe.

This dance between the difference and sameness of forms comes alive in another aspect of the book: Sprinkled throughout it are recipes for Ficre’s favorite meals from his chef days, emanating a beautiful resonance with Alexander’s own craft — for the recipe form and the poetic form both effect something miraculously beautiful and nourishing with a great economy of language and proportion.

'Man as Industrial Palace,' a 1926 diagram by Fritz Kahn. Click image for more.

Embedded in Alexander’s memoir is also a subtle but unshakable reminder that we know almost as little about the machinery of the body as we do about the mystery of the soul. She cites one cardiologist who explained Frice’s death by asserting that “the stress of growing up in war and being a refugee affected his heart.” (The Eritrean War of Independence broke out in Ficre’s homeland shortly before his birth.) How jarring to consider that this much spiritual speculation goes into the supposed exact science of Western medicine — speculation that not only exposes how little we know but borders on superstition, invoking Wole Soyinka’s memorable meditation on Western medicine and African mysticism. With an eye to this vast expanse of unknowns, Alexander writes:

The earth that looks solid is, in fact, a sinkhole, or could be. Half of things are as they seem. The other half, who knows.

Perhaps Western medicine’s pathological reliance on euphemism, particularly in the face of death, is one symptom of our troubled relationship with the unknown and the unknowable — a tenuous hedge against the mystery of it all. Alexander speaks to this with aching elegance:

He was probably dead before he hit the ground, the emergency room doctor and the coroner and a cardiologist I later speak with tell me. That is why there was no blood on the floor, despite his head wound and the scalp’s vascularity. He might have felt strange, the doctors told me, before what they call “the cardiac event,” but not for more than a flash. One tells me he is certain Ficre saw my face as he died. We are meant to take comfort in this knowledge, if knowledge it is.

The knowledge of truth, Alexander suggests, comes in many forms and if there is a membrane between the practical and the poetic at all, between the scientific and the spiritual, it is porous and permeable. Although neither she nor her husband had religion present in their adult lives, she finds herself unexpectedly corralled into the spiritual path by the squeeze of sorrow:

Sorrow like vapor, sorrow like smoke, sorrow like quicksand, sorrow like an ocean, sorrow louder and fuller than the church songs, sorrow everywhere with nowhere to go.

[…]

I did not grow up in the black church, nor with the Negro spirituals. Now I understand them as never before. Their poetry feels pure and profound. I been in sorrow’s kitchen and done licked out all the pots. Nobody knows the trouble I seen. Steal away to Jesus. I ain’t got long to stay here.

Art by William Blake for Dante's 'Divine Comedy.' Click image for more.

Half a century after Flannery O’Conner discerned the difference between religion and faith, Alexander considers the other role of religion — religion not as a public institution in the service of dogma but as a private institution in the service of the human quest for meaning:

What does it mean to grieve in the absence of religious culture? … Art is certainly my religion. I believe in the chosen family, especially as I get older. I believe in some kind of encompassing black culture that I am part of — “syncretic,” to use the word Ficre liked — but I am also aware of the romance behind that sense of belonging. I am feeling very Jewish, I keep hearing in my head, thinking not of my actual Jewish Jamaican great-grandfather but rather about a wish for a religious culture that reveres the word and tells you what to do: Rosh Hashanah. Days of Awe. Invite the dead to Sukkot. There seems to be a poetic ritual for everything… I want rules. I want the prayers to say every day for a year at dusk and I want them to be beautiful and meaningful. I want to sit shiva and have the neighbors come at the end of the week and walk my family around the block, to usher us into the sunlight.

She revisits the allure of the old gospel songs, particularly “How I Got Over” by Mahalia Jackson — one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorites. In fact, it was Jackson who, during a momentary lapse in his iconic speech, famously prompted Dr. King, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” (The daughter of politically active parents, Alexander grew up in Washington, D.C., and at the age of one stood at the Mall of Washington alongside her parents as Dr. King heeded Jackson and told the world about his dream.)

As she recounts an exchange with her younger son, Alexander returns once more to the question of the soul, shining her sidewise gleam on yet another dimension of it:

I hope you’re not turning all Christian, Simon says, when he comes home and finds me uncharacteristically blaring gospel music. I am not, but I am listening to Mahalia Jackson in a whole new way. How I got over, My soul looks back in wonder, I hear it for the very first time. The gratitude in that song is what washes over me, the word thank repeated over and over. My soul does indeed look back in wonder; I had Ficre; I have Ficre; I have these extraordinary children; I have a village; I have an art-form; I am black; we are African; we come from survivors and doers; my parents are wise and strong; my body is strong; I was loved without bound or condition; I exist in time and in context, not floating in space; my troubles are small compared to some; my troubles are not eternal; my days are not through.

[…]

Who we are as a people and how we make our way through sorrows that feel so profoundly intimate and personal but in fact exist on larger continuums, is what I hear in the song today.

[…]

In the absence of organized religion, faith abounds, in the form of song and art and food and strong arms.

Perhaps because children are still free from the adult world’s tyranny of labels, it is her young son who best captures this function of faith — a function that transcends the unimaginative designations of fact and fiction, serving instead as sacred communion with the most intimate truths of one’s inner life. Alexander writes:

One night at bedtime, Simon asks if I want to come with him to visit Ficre in heaven.

Yes, I say, and lie down on his bed.

“First you close your eyes,” he says, “and ride the clear glass elevator. Up we go.”

What do you see? I ask.

God is sitting at the gate, he answers.

What does God look like? I ask.

Like God, he says.

Now, we go to where Daddy is. He has two rooms, Simon says, one room with a single bed and his books and another where he paints. The painting room is vast. He can look out any window he wants and paint. That room has four views: our backyard, the dock he painted in Maine, Asmara, and New Mexico.

New Mexico? I ask.

Yes, Simon says, the volcano crater with the magic grass. Ah yes, I say, the caldera, where we saw the gophers and the jackrabbits and the elk running across and Daddy called it the veldt.

Yes. Do you see it?

And I do. The light is perfect for painting. His bed in heaven is a single bed.

Okay, it’s time to go now, Simon says. So down we go.

You can come with me anytime, he says.

Thank you, my darling.

I don’t think you can find it by yourself yet, he says, but one day you will.

Illustration by André François from 'Little Boy Brown' by Isobel Harris. Click image for more.

The book borrows its beautiful title from a Derek Walcott poem, a line from which — “Oh beauty, you are the light of the world!” — was etched onto the bench by the side of Ficre’s grave, for Ficre was a man animated by “an unshakeable belief in beauty, in overflow, in everythingness, the bursting, indelible beauty in a world where there is so much suffering and wounding and pain.” But it is another poetic enchanter of the psyche that ultimately lends Alexander the closest thing to an answer in this dance with the unknown. With an eye to Rilke’s famous line — “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror” — she writes:

When we met those many years ago, I let everything happen to me, and it was beauty. Along the road, more beauty, and fear and struggle, and work, and learning, and joy. I could not have kept Ficre’s death from happening, and from happening to us. It happened; it is part of who we are; it is our beauty and our terror. We must be gleaners from what life has set before us.

If no feeling is final, there is more for me to feel.

The Light of the World is an absolutely luminous read, the kind full of incompressible dimension best experienced in its totality. Complement it with Joan Didion on grief and another poet’s moving memoir of love and loss — Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye — then revisit these intelligent and imaginative children’s books that help kids make sense of death.

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