Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

17 NOVEMBER, 2014

Leonardo’s Brain: What a Posthumous Brain Scan Six Centuries Later Reveals about the Source of Da Vinci’s Creativity

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How the most creative human who ever lived was able to access a different state of consciousness.

One September day in 2008, Leonard Shlain found himself having trouble buttoning his shirt with his right hand. He was admitted into the emergency room, diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer, and given nine months to live. Shlain — a surgeon by training and a self-described “synthesizer by nature” with an intense interest in the ennobling intersection of art and science, author of the now-legendary Art & Physics — had spent the previous seven years working on what he considered his magnum opus: a sort of postmortem brain scan of Leonardo da Vinci, performed six centuries after his death and fused with a detective story about his life, exploring what the unique neuroanatomy of the man commonly considered humanity’s greatest creative genius might reveal about the essence of creativity itself.

Shlain finished the book on May 3, 2009. He died a week later. His three children — Kimberly, Jordan, and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain — spent the next five years bringing their father’s final legacy to life. The result is Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding Da Vinci’s Creative Genius (public library | IndieBound) — an astonishing intellectual, and at times spiritual, journey into the center of human creativity via the particular brain of one undereducated, left-handed, nearly ambidextrous, vegetarian, pacifist, gay, singularly creative Renaissance male, who Shlain proposes was able to attain a different state of consciousness than “practically all other humans.”

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

Noting that “a writer is always refining his ideas,” Shlain points out that the book is a synthesis of his three previous books, and an effort to live up to Kafka’s famous proclamation that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” It is also a beautiful celebration of the idea that art and science belong together and enrich one another whenever they converge.

To understand Leonardo’s brain, Shlain points out as he proves himself once again the great poet of the scientific spirit, we must first understand our own:

The human brain remains among the last few stubborn redoubts to yield its secrets to the experimental method. During the period that scientists expanded the horizons of astronomy, balanced the valences of chemistry, and determined the forces of physics, the crowning glory of Homo sapiens and its most enigmatic emanation, human consciousness, resisted the scientific model’s persistent searching.

The brain accounts for only 2 percent of the body’s volume, yet consumes 20 percent of the body’s energy. A pearly gray, gelatinous, three-pound universe, this exceptional organ can map parsecs and plot the whereabouts of distant galaxies measured in quintillions of light-years. The brain accomplishes this magic trick without ever having to leave its ensorcelled ovoid cranial shell. From minuscule-wattage electrical currents crisscrossing and ricocheting within its walls, the brain can reconstruct a detailed diorama of how it imagines the Earth appeared four billion years ago. It can generate poetry so achingly beautiful that readers weep, hatred so intense that otherwise rational people revel in the torture of others, and love so oceanic that entwined lovers lose the boundaries of their physical beings.

Shlain argues that Leonardo — who painted the eternally mysterious Mona Lisa, created visionary anatomical drawings long before medical anatomy existed, made observations of bird flight in greater detailed than any previous scientist, mastered engineering, architecture, mathematics, botany, and cartography, might be considered history’s first true scientist long before Mary Somerville coined the word, presaged Newton’s Third Law, Bernoulli’s law, and elements of chaos theory, and was a deft composer who sang “divinely,” among countless other domains of mastery — is the individual most worthy of the title “genius” in both science and art:

The divergent flow of art and science in the historical record provides evidence of a distinct compartmentalization of genius. The river of art rarely intersected with the meander of science.

[…]

Although both art and science require a high degree of creativity, the difference between them is stark. For visionaries to change the domain of art, they must make a breakthrough that can only be judged through the lens of posterity. Great science, on the other hand, must be able to predict the future. If a scientist’s hypotheses cannot be turned into a law that can be verified by future investigators, it is not scientifically sound. Another contrast: Art and science represent the difference between “being” and “doing.” Art’s raison d’être is to evoke an emotion. Science seeks to solve problems by advancing knowledge.

[…]

Leonardo’s story continues to compel because he represents the highest excellence all of us lesser mortals strive to achieve — to be intellectually, creatively, and emotionally well-rounded. No other individual in the known history of the human species attained such distinction both in science and art as the hyper-curious, undereducated, illegitimate country boy from Vinci.

Artwork from Alice and Martin Provensen's vintage pop-up book about the life of Leonardo. Click image for more.

Using a wealth of available information from Leonardo’s notebooks, various biographical resources, and some well-reasoned speculation, Shlain sets out to perform a “posthumous brain scan” seeking to illuminate the unique wiring of Da Vinci’s brain and how it explains his unparalleled creativity.

Leonardo was an outlier in a number of ways — socially, culturally, biologically, and in some seemingly unimportant yet, as Shlain explains, notable ways bridging these various aspects of life. For instance:

Leonardo was a vegetarian in a culture that thought nothing of killing animals for food. His explanation for his unwillingness to participate in carnivory was that he did not want to contribute to any animal’s discomfort or death. He extended the courtesy of staying alive to all living creatures, and demonstrated a feeling of connectedness to all life, which was in short supply during a time that glorified hunting.

He was also the only individual in recorded history known to write comfortably backwards, performing what is known as “mirror writing,” which gives an important clue about the wiring of his brain:

Someone wishing to read Leonardo’s manuscripts must first hold the pages before a mirror. Instead of writing from left to right, which is the standard among all European languages, he chose to write from right to left — what the rest of us would consider backward writing. And he used his left hand to write.

Thoroughly confusing the issue was the fact that sometimes he would switch in mid-sentence, writing some words in one direction followed by other words heading in the opposite direction. Another intriguing neurological datum: Careful examination of two samples of his handwriting show the one written backward moving from right to left across the page is indistinguishable from the handwriting that is not reversed.

Leonardo’s quirks of penmanship strongly suggest that his two hemispheres were intimately connected in an extraordinary way. The traditional dominance pattern of one hemisphere lording it over the other does not seem to have been operational in Leonardo’s brain. Based on what we can extrapolate from the brains of people who share Leonardo’s ability to mirror-write, the evidence points to the presence of a large corpus callosum that kept each hemisphere well informed as to what the other was doing.

Further evidence that his corpus callosum — that thick bundle of fibers connecting the left and right hemispheres, consisting of more than 200 million neurons — was “afairly bursting with an overabundance of connecting neurons” comes from his unusually deft fusion of art and science. For instance, Shlain points out, no other artist in history labored so obsessively over perfecting the geometrical details of the science of perspective.

Before delving into Leonardo’s specific neuroanatomy, Shlain points out that because our brains have the maximum number of neurons at the age of eight months and because a dramatic pruning of our neurocircuitry unfolds over the next decade, those early years are crucially formative in our cognitive development and warrant special attention. (Tolstoy captured this beautifully when he wrote, “From a five-year-old child to my present self there is only one step. From a new-born infant to a five-year-old child there is an awesome distance.”)

Leonardo’s own childhood was so unusual and tumultuous that it calls for consideration in examining his brain development. The illicit child of a rich playboy from the city and a poor peasant girl from the picturesque Tuscan town of Vinci, he grew up without a real father — an ambitious notary, his father refused to marry Leonardo’s mother in order to avoid compromising his social status. The little boy was raised by a single mother in the countryside. Eventually, his father arranged for his mother to marry another man, and he himself married a sixteen-year-old girl. Leonardo was taken from his mother and awkwardly included in his father’s household as a not-quite-son. But the father-figure in his life ended up being his kindly uncle Francesco, whom the boy grew to love dearly. He remained in contact with his mother throughout his life and evidence from his notebooks suggests that, like Andy Warhol, he invited her to live with him as she became elderly.

Shlain to two perplexities that stand out in Leonardo’s upbringing: First, contemporary psychologists agree that removing young children from their mothers makes for substantial attachment and anxiety issues throughout life, producing emotionally distant adults. Secondly, Leonardo’s illegitimacy greatly limited his education options, as the Church, in one of its many strokes of gobsmacking lack of the very compassion it preaches, decreed that children born to unwed parents were not eligible for enrollment in its cathedral schools. Shlain writes:

Outside of the prohibitively expensive alternative of private tutors, admission to one of these schools was the only means to learning the secret code that opened the doors of opportunity.

That secret code was knowledge of Latin and Greek, without which it was practically impossible to participate in the making of the Renaissance. And yet Leonardo had an especially blistering response to those who dismissed his work due to his lack of education:

They will say that because of my lack of book learning, I cannot properly express what I desire to treat of. Do they not know that my subjects require for their exposition experience rather than the words of others? And since experience has been the mistress, and to her in all points make my appeal.

(More than half a millennium later, Werner Herzog would go on to offer aspiring filmmakers similarly spirited advice.)

Shlain writes:

Creativity is a combination of courage and inventiveness. One without the other would be useless.

So how did Leonardo muster the courage and inventiveness to turn the dismal cards he was dealt into the supreme winning hand of being history’s greatest genius? Shlain argues that while we can speculate about how much more remarkable work Leonardo may have done had he been able to command the respect, resources, and recognition “of one who claims noble blood, a university position, and powerful friends in high places,” there is an even more powerful counteragent to be made — one that resonates with Nietzsche’s ideas about the value of difficulty and bespeaks the immeasurable benefits of what Orson Welles called “the gift of ignorance,” or what is commonly known as “beginner’s mind”:

A strong counterargument can also be put forth that it was precisely his lack of indoctrination into the reigning dogma taught in these institutions that liberated him from mental restraints. Unimpeded by the accretion of misconceptions that had fogged the lens of the educated, Leonardo was able to ask key questions and seek fresh answers. Although he could not quote learned books, he promised, “I will quote something far greater and more worthy: experience, the mistress of their masters.” He disdained “trumpets and reciters of the works of others,” and tried to live by his own dictum: “Better a small certainty, than a big lie.” He referred to himself as omo sanza lettere — an “unlettered man” — because he had not received the kind of liberal arts schooling that led to the university. Somewhere in his late thirties and early forties, Leonardo made a concerted effort to teach himself Latin. Long lists of vocabulary words appear in his notebooks. Anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language in adulthood knows how difficult the task can be.

One silver lining to his lack of formal education and attentive parenting is that he was never trained out of his left-handedness as was the practice during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance — something that turned out to be crucial in the anatomy of his genius.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

But Leonardo’s social disadvantages didn’t end with education. Based on evidence from his notebooks and biographical accounts from a handful of contemporaries, he was most likely homosexual — at a time when it was not only a crime but a “sin” punishable by death. Even in his fashion and demeanor, Leonardo appeared to be the Walt Whitman of his day — in other words, a proto-dandy who “fell into the flamboyant set.” Shlain quotes Anonimo Gaddiano, a contemporary of Leonardo’s:

He wore a rose colored tunic, short to the knee, although long garments were then in fashion. He had, reaching down to the middle of his breasts, a fine beard, curled and well kept.

Leonardo was also unorthodox in his universal empathy for animals and philosophical stance against eating them — a complete anomaly in a carnivorous era when the poor longed for meat and the rich threw elaborate feasts around it, showcasing it as a status symbol of their wealth and power. Instead, Leonardo was known to buy caged birds whenever he saw them in the town’s shops and set them free.

But Leonardo’s most significant source of exceptionalism goes back to his handedness. Left-handedness might still be an evolutionary mystery, but it is also an enduring metaphor for the powers of intuition. For Leonardo, the physical and the intuitive were inextricably linked:

Leonardo intuited that a person’s face, despite appearing symmetrical, is actually divided into two slightly different halves. Because of the crossover in sensory and motor nerves from each side of the face within the brain, the left hemisphere controls the muscles of the right side of the face and the right hemisphere controls the muscles of the left side. The majority of people are left-brained/right-handed, which means that the right half of their face is under better conscious control than their left. In contrast, the left half of the face connects to the emotional right brain, and is more revealing of a person’s feelings. Right-handers have more difficulty trying to suppress emotional responses on the left side of their face.

In a recent psychology experiment, a group of unsuspecting college students were ushered into a photographer’s studio one at a time and informed that they were to pose for a picture to be given to members of their family. The majority of these right-handed students positioned themselves unaware that they were turning the left side of their face toward the camera’s lens. All of them smiled.

Brought back a second time, the researchers informed them that, now, they were to pose for a job application photo. In this case, they adopted a more professional demeanor, and the majority of right-handers emphasized the right side of their face. The results of this experiment, along with several others of similar design, strongly suggest that unconsciously, most people know that the right side of their face is best to present to the outside world. They are also subliminally aware that their left side is a more natural reflection of who they really are.

Leonardo understood these subtleties of expression. Mona Lisa is best appreciated by observing the left side of her face.

One of Leonardo’s great artistic innovations was his inclusion of the subject’s hands in a portrait. Up to that point, portraiture included only the upper chest and head, but Leonardo saw in the expressiveness of hands a gateway to the subject’s state of mind, his psychological portraiture implicitly invalidating the mind-body split and painting consciousness itself.

This brings us back to Leonardo’s own brain. Shlain’s most salient point has to do with the splitting of the brain into two functionally different hemispheres, an adaptation that catapulted us ahead of all other creatures in intellectual capacity and also accounted for Leonardo’s singular genius. Reflecting on findings from studies of split-brain patients, Shlain explains:

The most sublime function of the left hemisphere — critical thinking — has at its core a set of syllogistic formulations that undergird logic. In order to reach the correct answer, the rules must be followed without deviation. So dependent is the left brain on rules that Joseph Bogen, the neurosurgeon who operated on many of the first split-brain patients, called it the propositional brain: It processes information according to an underlying set of propositions. In contrast, he called the right hemisphere the appositional brain, because it does just the opposite: It processes information through nonlinear, non-rule-based means, incorporating differing converging determinants into a coherent thought. Bogen’s classification of the brain into two different types, proposition versus apposition, has been generally accepted by neuroscientists, and it appears often in neurocognitive literature.

The right brain’s contribution to creativity, however, is not absolute, because the left brain is constantly seeking explanations for inexplicable events. Unfortunately, although many are extremely creative, without the input of the right hemisphere, they are almost universally wrong. It seems that there is no phenomenon for which the left brain has not confabulated an explanation. This attribute seems specific for the left language lobe.

Artwork from Alice and Martin Provensen's vintage pop-up book about the life of Leonardo. Click image for more.

Echoing Hanna Arendt’s assertion that the ability to ask “unanswerable questions” is the hallmark of the human mind and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous aphorism that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” Shlain describes how this interplay illuminates the creative process:

The first step in the creative process is for an event, an unidentified object, an unusual pattern, or a strange juxtaposition to alert the right brain. In a mysterious process not well understood, it prods the left brain to pose a question. Asking the right question goes to the heart of creativity. Questions are a Homo sapiens forte. Despite the amazing variation in animal communication, there is only one species that can ask a question and — most impressively — dispute the answer. But Mother Nature would not have provided us with language simply to ask a question. She had to equip us with a critical appendage that could investigate those questions. That appendage was the opposable thumb. Thumbs have a lot to do with curiosity, which in turn leads to creativity

Building on previous research on the four stages of the creative process, Shlain outlines the role of the two hemispheres which, despite working in concert most of the time, are subject to the dominance of the left hemisphere:

Natural Selection gave the left hemisphere hegemony over the right. Under certain circumstances, however, the minor hemisphere must escape the control of the major one to produce its most outstanding contribution — creativity. For creativity to manifest itself, the right brain must free itself from the deadening hand of the inhibitory left brain and do its work, unimpeded and in private. Like radicals plotting a revolution, they must work in secret out of the range of the left hemisphere’s conservatives.

After working out many of the kinks in the darkness of the right hemisphere’s subterranean processes, the idea, play, painting, theory, formula, or poetic metaphor surfaces exuberantly, as if from beneath a manhole cover that was overlaying the unconscious, and demands the attention of the left brain. Startled, the other side responds in wonderment.

When a creative impulse arises in the right hemisphere, Shlain writes, it is ferried over to the left side of the brain via the mighty corpus callosum — the largest and most poorly understood structure in the human brain, and a significant key to the mystery of Leonardo’s extraordinary creativity in attaining the two grand goals of his life: to study and discern the truth behind natural phenomena, and to communicate that truth with astounding artistry.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

But Shlain’s most intriguing point about Leonardo’s brain has to do with the corpus callosum and its relation to the gendered brain. We already know that “psychological androgyny” is key to creativity, and it turns out that the corpus callosum has a major role in that. For one thing, Shlain points out, there are differences in the size of that essential bundle of fibers between right-handed heterosexual males, or RHHM, and all other variants of handedness, gender, and orientation — left-handed heterosexual males, heterosexual women of both hand dominances, and homosexual men and women.

The notion of the gendered brain is, of course, problematic and all sweeping statistical generalizations tend to exist on bell-shaped curves, with outliers on either side. Still, Shlain relays some fascinating findings:

The most dichotomous brain — that is, where the two hemispheres are the most specialized — belongs to a right-handed heterosexual male. Approximately 97 percent of key language modules reside in his left hemisphere, making it unequivocally his dominant lobe. This extreme skewing is not present to the same degree in women, both right- and left-handed; gays and lesbians; and left-handers of both sexes.

[…]

Females, right- or left-handed, have a more even distribution between the lobes regarding language and brain dominance. Right-handed women still have the large majority of their language modules in their left brains, but whereas an RHHM would most likely have 97 percent of his wordsmithing skills concentrated in the left lobe, a woman would be more likely to have a lesser percentage (about 80 percent) in the left brain, and the remaining 20 percent in the right brain.

Shlain cites MRI research by Sandra Witelson, who found that the anterior commissure, the largest of the corpus callosum’s anatomically distinct “component cables,” can be up to 30% larger in women than in men, and other studies have found that it is 15% larger in gay men than in straight men. Taken together, these two findings about the corpus callosum — that RHHMs have more specialized brains and slimmer connecting conduits between the two hemispheres — reveal important deductive insight about Leonardo’s multi-talented brain, which fused so elegantly the prototypical critical thinking of the left hemisphere with the wildly creative and imaginative faculties of the right.

Evidence from his notebooks and life strongly suggests that Leonardo was what scientists call an ESSP — an individual with exclusive same-sex preference. He never married or had children, rarely referenced women in his writings and whenever he did, it was only in the context of deciphering beauty; he was once jailed for homosexual conduct and spent some time in prison while awaiting a verdict; his anatomical drawings of the female reproductive system and genitalia are a stark outlier of inaccuracy amid his otherwise remarkably medically accurate illustrations. All of this is significant because ESSP’s don’t conform to the standard brain model of RHHM. They are also more likely to be left-handed, as Leonardo was.

In fact, Shlain points out, left-handers tend to have a larger corpus callosum than right-handers, and artists in general are more likely to be left-handed than the average person — around 9% of the general population are estimated to be left-handed, and 30-40% of the student body in art schools are lefties.

A left-handed ESSP, Leonardo was already likely to have a larger corpus callosum, but Shlain turns to the power of metaphor in illuminating the imagination for further evidence suggesting heightened communication between his two hemispheres:

The form of language that Leonardo used was highly metaphorical. He posed riddles and buried metaphors in his paintings. For this to occur, he had to have had a large connection of corpus callosum fibers between his right hemisphere and his left. The form of language based on metaphor— poetry, for instance—exists in the right hemisphere, even though language is primarily a left hemispheric function. To accomplish the task of the poet, a significant connection must exist between the parts of the right hemisphere, and, furthermore, there must be many interconnections between the two hemispheres. These fibers must be solidly welded to the language centers in the left hemisphere so that poetic metaphors can be expressed in language. Leonardo used the metaphor in his writings extensively— another example of connected hemispheres.

And therein lies Shlain’s point: The source of Leonardo’s extraordinary creativity was his ability to access different ways of thinking, to see more clearly the interconnectedness of everything, and in doing so, to reach a different state of consciousness than the rest of us:

His ESSP-ness put him somewhere between the masculine and the feminine. His left-handedness, ambidexterity, and mirror writing were indications of a nondominant brain. His adherence to vegetarianism at a time when most everyone was eating meat suggests a holistic view of the world. The equality between his right and left hemispheres contributed to his achievements in art and science, unparalleled by any other individual in history. His unique brain wiring also allowed him the opportunity to experience the world from the vantage point of a higher dimension. The inexplicable wizardry present in both his art and his science can be pondered only by stepping back and asking: Did he have mental faculties that differed merely in degree, or did he experience a form of cognition qualitatively different from the rest of us?

I propose that many of Leonardo’s successes (and failures) were the result of his gaining access to a higher consciousness.

Significantly, Leonardo was able to envision time and space differently from the rest of us, something evidenced in both his art and his scientific studies, from revolutionizing the art perspective to predating Newton’s famous action-reaction law by two centuries when he wrote, “See how the wings, striking the air, sustain the heavy eagle in the thin air on high. As much force is exerted by the object against the air as by the air against the object.” Shlain poses the ultimate question:

When pondering Leonardo’s brain we must ask the question: Did his brain perhaps represent a jump toward the future of man? Are we as a species moving toward an appreciation of space-time and nonlocality?

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

With an eye to Leonardo’s unflinching nonconformity — his pacifism in an era that glorified war, his resolute left-handedness despite concentrated efforts at the time to train children out of that devilish trait, his vegetarianism and holistic faith in nature amid a carnivorous culture — Shlain turns an optimistic gaze to the evolution of our species:

The appearance of Leonardo in the gene pool gives us hope. He lived in an age when war was accepted. Yet, later in life, he rejected war and concentrated on the search for truth and beauty. He believed he was part of nature and wanted to understand and paint it, not control it.

[…]

We humans are undergoing a profound metamorphosis as we transition into an entirely novel species. For those who doubt it is happening, remember: For millions of years dogs traveled in packs as harsh predators, their killer instinct close to the surface. Then humans artificially interfered with the canine genome beginning a mere six thousand years ago. No dog could have predicted in prehistoric times that the huge, snarling member, faithful to a pack, would evolve into individual Chihuahuas and lap-sitting poodles.

Leonardo’s Brain is a mind-bending, consciousness-stretching read in its totality. Complement it with Shlain on integrating wonder and wisdom and how the alphabet sparked the rise of patriarchy.

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14 NOVEMBER, 2014

Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag: Maira Kalman’s Sweet Design-History Alphabet Book about Embracing Uncertainty and Imperfection

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“Life is not a straight line. Life is a zig-zag.”

As a lover of imaginative and intelligent alphabet books and of absolutely everything Maira Kalman does, I find the letters of the alphabet and the words they make insufficient to express the boundless wonderfulness of Kalman’s Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag (public library | IndieBound) — the children’s-book counterpart of her magnificent My Favorite Things, which began as a companion to an exhibition Kalman curated to celebrate the anticipated reopening of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

In this ABC gem — which doubles as a design-history primer full not of snobbery and self-important art-speak but of a playful celebration of uncertainty and imperfection — Kalman culls thirty-one objects from the museum’s collection and strings them together into a tour of the alphabet, with her characteristic quirk, candor, and exuberant creative curiosity as the loving guide.

Her unusual selections, often of seemingly mundane artifacts, bespeak her extraordinary gift for finding magic in “the moments between the moments between the moments.” The accompanying words emanate from a beautiful wanderer’s mind and a spirit that is so clearly generous and kind.

There is the “itsy-bitsy nail” in I; the beautiful embroidered pocket in P, which offers the pause-giving factlet that “a long time ago, women didn’t have pockets in their clothes”; the clever play on continuity that offers “terrible news” in T as a painting of burnt toast accuses the antique toaster in Q (“Quite the toaster!) of malfunction.

The last letter winks at Kalman’s wonderful Principles of Uncertainty:

The final spread in the story offers a sweet message of embracing imperfection — a gentle reminder for all ages that, as Anne Lamott memorably put it, “perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people”:

But the end is not really the end — perhaps the most touching and empowering part of the book is its postscript of sorts. In the closing pages, Kalman tells the heartening story of Nellie and Sally Hewitt — the two young women who founded the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum:

They loved to sing and dance. They were just a little bit wild. A little bit.

They had sharp eyes. The kind of eyes that really LOOK at things.

One day they decided to collect the things they loved, and create a museum. And they really did it. Which is a lesson to be learned. If you have a good idea — DO IT.

Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag is an absolute delight in its entirety. Complement it with its indispensable grownup counterpart, then revisit Kalman’s children’s-book collaboration with Lemony Snicket and this fantastic short documentary about Kalman’s work and spirit.

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11 NOVEMBER, 2014

Showroom vs. Sanctuary: Rebecca Solnit on What Our Dream Homes Reveal about Our Inner Lives

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“The dream of a house can be the eternally postponed preliminary step to taking up the lives we wish we were living.”

Despite being a longtime believer in and reaper of the benefits of meditation, I only recently attended my first meditation retreat — and found myself confronting a strange disconnect. The workshops and dharma talks were imbued with tremendous production value, from the “set design” of the lecture podium to the cameras recording and projecting the talks onto a giant screen. The accommodation exuded equally conflicting aspirations — the rooms were small and otherwise spartan, but each featured an imitation Eames plastic chair. In the midst of this spiritual haven, there was a full-fledged gym. (To dispel any holier-than-thou impressions: I used it.) A sprawling gift shop offered everything from books to cosmetics to handmade Tibetan jewelry. The Buddha was on sale. (I debated buying one.)

True as it may be that “everything exists at once with its opposite” and that polarities only imprison us, there was something decidedly discomfiting about the situation, yet strangely comforting at the same time: To be human is to be embodied, which implies an inevitable relationship with materiality — and perhaps, if even the enlightened embrace it, that’s okay.

By one of those improbable yet frequent happenstances of the great cosmic accident that is life, the only book I took to the retreat was The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness (public library | IndieBound) — a sublime collection of essays by the wise and wonderfully talented Rebecca Solnit exploring place as “the intersection of many changing forces passing through, whirling around, mixing, dissolving, and exploding in a fixed location,” forces like culture, justice, ecology, democracy, art, and storytelling, which reveal things like “what environmentalists got wrong about country music and nearly everyone got wrong about Henry David Thoreau’s laundry.” (The getting wrong of Thoreau seems to be a recurring theme.)

One of the essays from the book, titled “Inside Out, or Interior Space,” examines with piercing precision of insight “the rising obsession with home ownership and home improvement” and the interplay between our interior lives and our interior decoration, which had manifested with such dissonance at the meditation retreat. As if she too had seen and pondered the car in the retreat parking lot bearing the bumper sticker “If you lived in your heart, you’d be home right now,” Solnit writes:

There are times when it’s clear to me that by getting and spending, we lay waste our powers, and times when, say, the apricot velvet headboard against the lavender wall of a room in an old hotel fills me with a mysterious satisfied pleasure in harmonies of color, texture, atmospheres of comfort, domesticity and a desire to go on living among such color and texture and space and general real estate. There are times when I believe in spiritual detachment, though there was a recent occasion when I bothered to go take a picture of my old reading armchair to the upholsterer’s around the corner to see if it can be made beautiful again and worry about whether charcoal velveteen would go with my next decor. There are times when I enjoy the weightlessness of traveling and wish to own nothing and afternoons when I want to claim every farmhouse I drive by as my own, especially those with porches and dormers, those spaces so elegantly negotiating inside and out, as though building itself could direct and support an ideal life, the life we dream of when we look at houses.

There is something deep, almost primal in how we project our metaphysical aspirations onto our material abodes. It is hardly coincidental that, in one of the most elegant metaphors for consciousness ever woven, John Keats compared the human mind to “a large Mansion of Many Apartments.” But Solnit suggests that the allure of houses as dream-vehicles for the self extends beyond the mind and into the very soul of who we are, which invariably includes who we would like to be:

Admiring houses from the outside is often about imagining entering them, living in them, having a calmer, more harmonious, deeper life. Buildings become theaters and fortresses for private life and inward thought, and buying and decorating is so much easier than living or thinking according to those ideals. Thus the dream of a house can be the eternally postponed preliminary step to taking up the lives we wish we were living. Houses are cluttered with wishes, the invisible furniture on which we keep bruising our shins. Until they become an end in themselves, as a new mansion did for the wealthy woman I watched fret over the right color of the infinity edge tiles of her new pool on the edge of the sea, as though this shade of blue could provide the serenity that would be dashed by that slightly more turquoise version, as though it could all come from the ceramic tile suppliers, as though it all lay in the colors and the getting.

Illustration by Jean-François Martin from 'The Memory Elephant' by Sophie Strady, a children's book for lovers of mid-century modern design. Click image for details.

These negotiations are constant and everywhere. Solnit recounts visiting the home of “a prodigal leftist” — the kind, it seems, who might have shared in Frida Kahlo’s revolutionary ideals of “transforming the world into a class-less one” — and being struck by his “infinitely intricate old Victorian sofa reupholstered in Indonesian ikat fabric.” What Solnit ponders about the sofa — “I didn’t know that revolutionaries were allowed to have such things.” — applies equally to the former revolutionary’s cat, an elegant purebred Abyssinian.

With a pause-giving twinge of meta, Solnit points out that this duality exists even in the reader’s relationship with the book itself, at once “a bundle of ideas and another twig to lay on the future fire of your home.” But there is duality even in the notion of materiality itself:

Maybe it’s important to make a distinction between what gets called material and what real materialism might be. By materialistic we usually mean one who engages in craving, hoarding, collecting, accumulating with an eye on stockpiling wealth or status. There might be another kind of materialism that is simply a deep pleasure in materials, in the gleam of water as well as silver, the sparkle of dew as well as diamonds, an enthusiasm for the peonies that will crumple in a week as well as the painting of peonies that will last. This passion for the tangible might not be so possessive, since the pleasure is so widely available; much of it is ephemeral, and some of it is cheap or free as clouds. Then too, the hoarding removes the objects — the Degas drawing, the diamond necklace — to the vault where they are suppressed from feeding anyone’s senses.

One of the top ninety-nine peculiarities about houses and homes is that they are both: real-estate speculation and sanctuary.

“The true artist is interested in the art object as an art process,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in her spectacular meditation on art, and indeed it is artists, Solnit argues, who best bridge — for themselves as well as us — the divide between objects and ideas, between the material and the metaphysical:

Artists have a different relation to the material, since, after all, the main animosity toward the realm of substances and solid objects is that they distract from the life of the mind or spirit; but it’s the job of artists to find out how materials and images speak, to make the mute material world come to life, and this too undoes the divide. Words of gold, of paint, of velvet, of steel, the speaking shapes and signs that we learn to read, the intelligence of objects set free to communicate and to teach us that all things communicate, that a spoon has something to say about values, as does a shoe rack or a nice ornamental border of tulips or freesias. But just as passion can become whoredom, a home becomes real estate, so the speaking possibility of the material world can degenerate into chatter and pitches… Desire is easy. And everywhere.

Illustration by Katharine Beverley from 'The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen.' Click image for details.

But Solnit’s most poignant point has to do with how we use materiality as a hedge against our terror of our own impermanence, a counterpoint to the constant and towering evidence that we live in a universe of constant change, where the cycles of life and death spare nothing and no one:

Maybe a house is a machine to slow down time, a barrier against history, a hope that nothing will happen, though something always does. But the materials themselves are sometimes hedges against time, the objects that change and decay so much more slowly than we do, the empire bed in which were conceived children who died a century ago, the old silverware from weddings several wars before that you can buy at the better garage sales, the ones held by people who seldom moved so that objects could drift down on them like muffling snow over the decades until death or dissolution obliged them to dig out.

This is what Anaïs Nin resisted when she wrote in her diary in 1944, “If one changes internally, one should not continue to live with the same objects.” But Nin was a woman who defied convention and lived life by her own rules, and perhaps this was precisely what fueled her philosophy of inner life and interior decor — that she was a woman, but a woman who rejected the norms of womanhood handed down to her by society. Gender, in fact, is something Solnit sees as central to the paradox of private space:

It often seems that the house is an extension of the female body, and the car, of the male body, for thus go the finicky and exacting arenas of self-improvement, the space that represents the eroticized self; and in these female interiors and male rockets lies the old literary division of labor, of travelers and keepers of the flame, of the female as a fixture in the landscape the male traverses and conquers. Certainly historically, men had far more mobility than women.

Illustration by Yaroslava from 'A Stocking for a Kitten' by Helen Kay, a vintage children's book about domestic life in Eastern Europe. Click image for details.

In one particularly outstanding passage, Solnit considers the ultimate modern female deity of the home: Martha Stewart, who built her empire by selling us “a vision of idealized life and instructions on the journey toward it.” She examines Stewart’s legacy as a potent metaphor for the broader cultural paradox of home and belonging:

Her empire’s putative subject is pleasurable leisure but its subtext is always labor, a labor redeemed or at least redecorated as pleasure, an interminable journey disguised as arrival… The moment of arrival is always delayed, for that is the moment of true idleness… The bride is always getting dressed, the hostess is always setting the table for the guests who have not yet arrived, like Penelope weaving and unweaving at her loom to forever delay the moment when she must choose a suitor to marry, only this Penelope seems to have skipped the suitors or forgotten them in favor of the loom.

Solnit returns to the central duality of the domicile:

The house is the stage set for the drama we hope our lives will be or become. And it’s much easier to decorate the set than to control the drama or even find the right actors or even any actors at all. Thus the hankering for houses is often desire for a life, and the fervency with which we pursue them is the hope that everything will be all right, that we will be loved, that we will not be alone, that we will stop quarreling or needing to run away, that our lives will be measured, gracious, ordered, coherent, safe. Houses are vessels of desire, but so much of that desire is not for the physical artifact itself.

That transference of desire owes much to the “aesthetic consumerism” of which Susan Sontag memorably accused photography. Solnit writes:

Maybe the problem is pictures, that we think in pictures, and we want to: the point of a wedding may be to reduce the weather-like volatility of a relationship into an authoritative picture of cake, happiness, lace, and rented tuxedo. Homes too are imagined as they should be — the Platonic version — before the mail begins to pile up on the table, before the collapsible pool dominating the yard leaves a round ring of brown on the grass, before our bodies leave their imprints in the furniture and their smudges on the walls, before the apple tree took on that strange lopsided shape, before the floor lost its sheen, before the last 117 purchases buried the architecture altogether. Dream homes are dreamt in pictures… Or maybe we want to be still as pictures, keep inserting ourselves into them, but find that we are too restless and active to stay in them. As though we wanted to be pressed flowers, but went on blooming and going to seed, decaying and regenerating.

Painfully incapable as we may be of living alone, we inadvertently end up designing and decorating toward that fear. Solnit contemplates the mansions of the wealthy, where countless private bathrooms and individualized furnishings provide not only “a retreat from society but also an isolation of each from each, a sort of minimum security — for breaking out, not for breaking in — solitary confinement system.” This, perhaps, is the strange disconnect Bertrand Russell foresaw a century ago in considering the conquest of leisure. Solnit writes:

The house is the picture of pleasure, while the amount of time it takes to earn it or make it or maintain it or even reach it from the office is just an idea correlated to clocks. It’s partly in pursuit of ever-larger homes — the average American home has doubled in the last half century — that Americans got so frantic.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for Alice in Wonderland. Click image for details.

In Solnit’s closing passage, the word “execution” shimmers with the same uncomfortable duality as the subject of the essay itself:

Maybe we all dream of being God, the god who breaches dams, moves houses suddenly, erects bridges, decides where forests will be and who will die; and we graduate from the dollhouse to our own house if we are lucky, where we assume a role somewhere between God the Creator and the chambermaid, choosing but carrying out more painfully the clean floor, the dinner for six, the potted plants, the framed prints. The execution is difficult. The dreaming is easy and unending.

Each of the 29 essays in The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness is a remarkable read. For more of Solnit’s elevating writing, see her explorations of what books do for the human spirit, why the sky and the ocean are blue, and how we find ourselves by getting lost.

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