Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

18 DECEMBER, 2014

How New York Became New York: A Love Letter to Jane Jacobs, Tucked Inside a Graphic Biography of Robert Moses

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How two titans faced off to shape the ideal of the modern metropolis.

Few people have done more to redefine the fate of a city — and, by a halo of influence, of cities in general — than Robert Moses (December 18, 1888–July 29, 1981), “master builder” of New York during the city’s astonishing growth spurt in the middle of the twentieth century. He envisioned and brought to life 658 playgrounds, which increased the city’s previous supply of these precious play-areas fivefold, 416 miles of parkways, 288 tennis courts, and 678 baseball diamonds, in addition to numerous major roads and bridges. A brilliant architect and fierce politician who denied doing politics, Moses possessed “an imagination that leaped unhesitatingly at problems insoluble to other people,” as Robert E. Caro wrote in his Pulitzer-winning, 1,200-page biography The Power Broker — one of the most impressive books ever written in the English language — tracing how Moses slowly changed from “the optimist of optimists, the reformer of reformers, the idealist of idealists” into a man who used “iron will and determination” to bend a city, perhaps the world’s greatest city, to his will. That uncompromising willpower and its fruits would eventually lead the great urbanist Lewis Mumford to proclaim that “the influence of Robert Moses on the cities of America was greater than that of any other person.”

Forty years after Caro’s classic, writer Pierre Christin and artist Olivier Balez offer a very differently delightful take on the legendary man’s life in the beautiful graphic biography Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City (public library) — the latest installment in the same series by British independent press Nobrow that also gave us the excellent graphic biography of Freud and that of Karl Marx, which was among the best history books of the year.

In gorgeous mid-century-inspired illustrations, the story chronicles Moses’s formative years, his rise to power, his many contradictions — the greatest urban planner who ever lived built revolutionary highways and freeway systems, but never learned to drive — and how he acted out that infinitely rare combination of dreamer and doer on one of the grandest stages the world has ever known.

But make no mistake — Moses was no holy hero. The deep flaws of his power-hungry character and the dehumanizing ruthlessness of his industrial vision reveal themselves gradually and crescendo midway through the book as his counterpoint emerges: Jane Jacobs, legendary patron saint of urbanism and the human-centered city, enters the scene, via the beloved bicycle on which she was known to roam the city.

By that point, Moses has developed “such arrogance that he started to think himself irreplaceable.” Jacobs, on the other hand, operates with equal determination but from a deep place of humility and compassion for the citizen’s experience. The two titans of urban planning soon clash over their differences, exposing the disquieting fact that no ideal is without its tradeoffs and that what is most effective, more often than not, comes at the expense of what is most ennobling.

Moses’s fertile and perhaps perverse imagination has no limits and a second, equally gargantuan project will bring the antagonism between him and Jane Jacobs to a climax….

Jane has no trouble denouncing the monstrous “Spaghetti Bowl” that will constitute the Lower Manhattan expressway, soon also to be known as the LOMEX.

All that constitutes New York’s heritage, but also the memory of the tenements crammed with new immigrants — the air laden with the smell of meat from the meatpacking district; the discarded fish of Fulton Street; the sewing workshops full of exploited girls — all of this, considered by Robert Moses as inefficient or worse, unhygienic, is destined to disappear under a ten-lane highway.

Jane Jacobs will personify the refusal of the systematic eradication of the human, done in the name of a hypothetical better world.

In fact, the entire book feels like a love letter to Jane Jacobs buried inside a biography of a man far less worthy of admiration, which begs the obvious question: Where is the graphic biography of Jacobs herself? And, more broadly, why is it that among all the major graphic biographies released in the past few years — Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, and Francis Bacon — there hasn’t been a single one of a female cultural icon? There are some lovely children’s books celebrating great women — such as those about Julia Child, Maria Merian, and Jane Goodall — but the graphic biography genre woefully remains gender-warped, to say nothing of the subtler implication that women’s stories are to be infantilized and men’s superheroized.

Even so, Robert Moses remains an excellent book and in many ways a necessary one, worthwhile not only for that love letter to Jacobs — though it, to me, was the highlight — but also for telling the complicated story of a complicated man who shaped a complicated city. In doing so, it disabuses us of the dangerous illusion that history’s most important narratives are simple and straightforward hero-myths.

Illustrations courtesy of Nobrow

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17 DECEMBER, 2014

Wendell Berry on Solitude and Why Pride and Despair Are the Two Great Enemies of Creative Work

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“True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible… In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.”

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary. Few writers have come to write about it — and to it — more directly than the novelist, poet, and environmental activist Wendell Berry, who describes himself as “a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts.” In his wonderful and wonderfully titled essay collection What Are People For? (public library), Berry addresses with great elegance our neophilic tendencies and why innovation for the sake of novelty sells short the true value of creative work.

Novelty-fetishism, Berry suggests, is an act of vanity that serves neither the creator nor those created for:

Works of pride, by self-called creators, with their premium on originality, reduce the Creation to novelty — the faint surprises of minds incapable of wonder.

Pursuing originality, the would-be creator works alone. In loneliness one assumes a responsibility for oneself that one cannot fulfill.

Novelty is a new kind of loneliness.

Wendell Berry (Photograph: Guy Mendes)

Berry paints pride and despair as two sides of the same coin, both equally culpable in poisoning creative work and pushing us toward loneliness rather than toward the shared belonging that true art fosters:

There is the bad work of pride. There is also the bad work of despair — done poorly out of the failure of hope or vision.

Despair is the too-little of responsibility, as pride is the too-much.

The shoddy work of despair, the pointless work of pride, equally betray Creation. They are wastes of life.

For despair there is no forgiveness, and for pride none. Who in loneliness can forgive?

Good work finds the way between pride and despair.

It graces with health. It heals with grace.

It preserves the given so that it remains a gift.

By it, we lose loneliness:

we clasp the hands of those who go before us, and the hands of those who come after us;

we enter the little circle of each other’s arms,

and the larger circle of lovers whose hands are joined in a dance,

and the larger circle of all creatures, passing in and out of life, who move also in a dance, to a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it except in fragments.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from 'Wild,' one of the best children's books of the year. Click image for more.

Echoing Thoreau’s ode to the woods and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s assertion that cultivating a capacity for “fertile solitude” is essential for creative work, Berry extols the ennobling effects of solitude, the kind gained only by surrendering to nature’s gentle gift for quieting the mind:

We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness…

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.

The return from such humanizing solitude, Berry cautions, can be disorienting:

From the order of nature we return to the order — and the disorder — of humanity.

From the larger circle we must go back to the smaller, the smaller within the larger and dependent on it.

One enters the larger circle by willingness to be a creature, the smaller by choosing to be a human.

And having returned from the woods, we remember with regret its restfulness. For all creatures there are in place, hence at rest.

In their most strenuous striving, sleeping and waking, dead and living, they are at rest.

In the circle of the human we are weary with striving, and are without rest.

Indeed, so deep is our pathology of human striving that even Thoreau, a century and a half ago, memorably despaired: “What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” But the value of such recalibration of our connectedness in solitude, Berry suggests, is that it reminds us of the artist’s task, which is to connect us to one another. He returns to the subject of despair and pride, which serve to separate and thus betray the task of art:

The field must remember the forest, the town must remember the field, so that the wheel of life will turn, and the dying be met by the newborn.

[…]

Seeing the work that is to be done, who can help wanting to be the one to do it?

[…]

But it is pride that lies awake in the night with its desire and its grief.

To work at this work alone is to fail. There is no help for it. Loneliness is its failure.

It is despair that sees the work failing in one’s own failure.

This despair is the awkwardest pride of all.

But Berry’s most urgent point has to do with the immense value of “thoroughly conscious ignorance” and of keeping alive the unanswerable questions that make us human:

There is finally the pride of thinking oneself without teachers.

The teachers are everywhere. What is wanted is a learner.

In ignorance is hope.

Rely on ignorance. It is ignorance the teachers will come to.

They are waiting, as they always have, beyond the edge of the light.

All of the essays in What Are People For? are imbued with precisely this kind of light-giving force. Complement it with Berry on what the poetic form teaches us about the secret of marriage, then revisit Sara Maitland on the art of solitude, one of the year’s best psychology and philosophy books.

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17 DECEMBER, 2014

Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress: A Tender Story of Gender Identity, Acceptance, and Overcoming Bullying

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How to swish, swish, swish one’s way into the spaceship of identity.

Of all the imprisoning polarities and stereotypes in our culture, none is more pervasive than the imprisoning gender expectations we instill in kids from an early age. Even young Mark Twain took issue with them in his irreverent 1865 gem Advice to Little Girls, and a New Yorker cartoonist satirized them brilliantly a century later. Today, the situation is improving only slowly, only modestly, thanks to the occasional children’s book encouraging young girls to transcend our gendered vocational stereotypes. But what about little boys who don’t relate to society’s prescription for how they should inhabit their own identity and don’t understand why they aren’t allowed to enjoy what little girls enjoy? As Erika Trafton wrote in her moving meditation on gender identity, “This culture wants little boys to dream only of baseball, trucks, and trains. This culture has no room for little boys who want to be gorgeous.” And yet Andrew Solomon put it best in his superb book on parents, children, and the search for identity: “Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.”

That exercise is what writer and anti-bullying champion Christine Baldacchino and illustrator Isabelle Malenfant explore with great warmth and tenderness in Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress (public library) — another belated but wholly worthy addition to the year’s best children’s books, which tells the story of a sweet but misunderstood little boy derided and ostracized by his classmates because he loves wearing the tangerine dress in his classroom’s dress-up center.

Imaginative and wildly creative, little Morris likes to paint and sing and do puzzles while humming to himself. He loves the tangerine dress because its color “reminds him of tigers, the sun and his mother’s hair”; he loves the sound it makes, too: “swish, swish, swish when he walks and crinkle, crinkle, crinkle when he sits down.”

When the boys make fun of him and the girls jeer at the pink nail polish on his fingers, he pretends not to notice them, but his heart aches with anguish.

His classmates even shun him from the spaceship they are building — “Astronauts don’t wear dresses,” they scoff.

One day, Morris is so crestfallen over the ceaseless bullying that he begins to feel physically ill. (Indeed, psychologists are now finding that “social pain” has biological repercussions.) He is sent home, where he dreams up a grand space adventure with his cat Moo.

The next day, Morris takes out his brushes and paints a wild, vibrant picture of his dream, complete with a shiny space helmet for Moo. In the drawing, Morris is wearing his beloved tangerine dress riding atop a big blue elephant.

On Monday, Morris went to school with his painting rolled up in his backpack.

When he had the chance, he put on the dress that reminded him of tigers and the sun and his mother’s hair.

Morris swish, swish, swished.
The tangerine dress crinkle, crinkle, crinkled.
His shoes click, click, clicked.
Morris felt wonderful.

The boys in his class are so enchanted by the space-world Morris dreamt up — a world into which he welcomes them — that they decide “it didn’t matter if astronauts wore dresses or not” because “the best astronauts were the ones who knew where all the good adventures were hiding.” With a quiet smile, Morris accepts their acceptance.

When snack time was over, Becky demanded the dress.
Morris told her she could have it when he was done with it.
“Boys don’t wear dresses,” Becky snipped.
Morris smiled as he swished, crinkled and clicked back to his spaceship.
“This boy does.”

Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress is immensely heartening from cover to cover. It comes from Canadian independent children’s-book powerhouse Groundwood Books, makers of such gems as Isabelle Arsenault’s Once Upon a Northern Night and Liniers’s What There Is Before There Is Anything There. Complement it with the rest of this year’s most wonderful children’s books, then revisit Jennifer Finney Boylan’s memoir of transgender parenting.

Illustrations courtesy of Groundwood Books

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16 DECEMBER, 2014

Margaret Mead on Myth vs. Deception and What to Tell Kids about Santa Claus

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How to instill an appreciation of the difference between “fact” and “poetic truth,” in kids and grownups alike.

Few things rattle the fine line between the benign magic of mythology and the deliberate delusion of a lie more than the question of how, what, and whether to tell kids about Santa Claus. Half a century ago, Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978) — the world’s most influential cultural anthropologist and one of history’s greatest academic celebrities — addressed this delicate subject with great elegance, extending beyond the jolly Christmas character and into larger questions of distinguishing between myth and deception.

From the wonderful out-of-print volume Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views (public library) — the same compendium of Mead’s answers to audience questions from her long career as a public speaker and lecturer, which also gave us her remarkably timely thoughts on racism and law enforcement and equality in parenting — comes an answer to a question she was asked in December of 1964: “Were your children brought up to believe in Santa Claus? If so, what did you tell them when they discovered he didn’t exist?”

Mead’s response, which calls to mind Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, is a masterwork of celebrating rational, critical thinking without sacrificing magic to reason:

Belief in Santa Claus becomes a problem mainly when parents simultaneously feel they are telling their children a lie and insist on the literal belief in a jolly little man in a red suit who keeps tabs on them all year, reads their letters and comes down the chimney after landing his sleigh on the roof. Parents who enjoy Santa Claus — who feel that it is more fun talk about what Santa Claus will bring than what Daddy will buy you for Christmas and who speak of Santa Claus in a voice that tells no lie but instead conveys to children something about Christmas itself — can give children a sense of continuity as they discover the sense in which Santa is and is not “real.”

With her great gift for nuance, Mead adds:

Disillusionment about the existence of a mythical and wholly implausible Santa Claus has come to be a synonym for many kinds of disillusionment with what parents have told children about birth and death and sex and the glory of their ancestors. Instead, learning about Santa Claus can help give children a sense of the difference between a “fact” — something you can take a picture of or make a tape recording of, something all those present can agree exists — and poetic truth, in which man’s feelings about the universe or his fellow men is expressed in a symbol.

Recalling her own experience both as a child and as a parent, Mead offers an inclusive alternative to the narrow Santa Claus myth, inviting parents to use the commercial Western holiday as an opportunity to introduce kids to different folkloric traditions and value systems:

One thing my parents did — and I did for my own child — was to tell stories about the different kinds of Santa Claus figures known in different countries. The story I especially loved was the Russian legend of the little grandmother, the babushka, at whose home the Wise Men stopped on their journey. They invited her to come with them, but she had no gift fit for the Christ child and she stayed behind to prepare it. Later she set out after the Wise Men but she never caught up with them, and so even today she wanders around the world, and each Christmas she stops to leave gifts for sleeping children.

But Mead’s most important, most poetic point affirms the idea that children stories shouldn’t protect kids from the dark:

Children who have been told the truth about birth and death will know, when they hear about Kris Kringle and Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas and the little babushka, that this is a truth of a different kind.

Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views is, sadly, long out of print — but it’s an immeasurable trove of Mead’s wisdom well worth the used-book hunt. Complement it with Mead’s beautiful love letters to her soulmate and the story of how she discovered the meaning of life in a dream.

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