Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

26 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

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From Shakespeare to Einstein via Lucretius, or how a long-lost Roman poem gave rise to the Renaissance.

Poggio Bracciolini might just be the most important man you’ve never heard of.

One cold winter night in 1417, the clean-shaven, slender young man pulled a manuscript off a dusty library shelf and could barely believe his eyes. In his hands was a thousand-year-old text that changed the course of human thought — the last surviving manuscript of On the Nature of Things, a seminal poem by Roman philosopher Lucretius, full of radical ideas about a universe operating without gods and that matter made up of minuscule particles in perpetual motion, colliding and swerving in ever-changing directions. With Bracciolini’s discovery began the copying and translation of this powerful ancient text, which in turn fueled the Renaissance and inspired minds as diverse as Shakespeare, Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, Einstein and Freud.

In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, acclaimed Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of Bracciolini’s landmark discovery and its impact on centuries of human intellectual life, laying the foundations for nearly everything we take as a cultural given today.

This is a story [of] how the world swerved in a new direction. The agent of change was not a revolution, an implacable army at the gates, or landfall of an unknown continent. […] The epochal change with which this book is concerned — though it has affected all our lives — is not so easily associated with a dramatic image.

Central to the Lucretian worldview was the idea that beauty and pleasure were worthwhile pursuits, a notion that permeated every aspect of culture during the Renaissance and has since found its way to everything from design to literature to political strategy — a worldview in stark contrast with the culture of religious fear and superstitions pragmatism that braced pre-Renaissance Europe. And, as if to remind us of the serendipitous shift that underpins our present reality, Greenblatt writes in the book’s preface:

It is not surprising that the philosophical tradition from which Lucretius’ poem derived, so incompatible with the cult of the gods and the cult of the state, struck some, even in the tolerant culture of the Mediterranean, as scandalous […] What is astonishing is that one magnificent articulation of the whole philosophy — the poem whose recovery is the subject of this book — should have survived. Apart from a few odds and ends and secondhand reports, all that was left of the whole rich tradition was contained in that single work. A random fire, an act of vandalism, a decision to snuff out the last trace of views judged to be heretical, and the course of modernity would have been different.

Illuminating and utterly absorbing, The Swerve is as much a precious piece of history as it is a timeless testament to the power of curiosity and rediscovery. In a world dominated by the newsification of culture where the great gets quickly buried beneath the latest, it’s a reminder that some of the most monumental ideas might lurk in a forgotten archive and today’s content curators might just be the Bracciolinis of our time, bridging the ever-widening gap between accessibility and access.

Hat tip My Mind on Books

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22 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Communist Threat: A Trip Through America’s Ideological Wayback Machine

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From Walt Disney to Stalin, or how 1952 America interpreted the Soviet regime.

During World War II, some of the West’s greatest filmmakers — including Frank Capra, John Huston, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock — put their Hollywood films on hiatus and started producing propaganda films on behalf of the U.S. government. Even Walt Disney did his part. Eventually, when the war drew to a close, these iconic filmmakers went back to making commercial films. But propaganda films kept right on going. The Cold War was getting underway, and because the danger was more potential than actual, the U.S. government felt an extra need to paint a picture for its citizens.

Just what was the existential threat coming out of the Soviet Union? A series of films made it clear. Some , like Communism (1952), offered a brief overview of the historical and ideological foundations of Communism and its point men — Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and the rest. Others, like the famous Duck and Cover educational video, gave young Americans and their parents every reason to fear the atomic bomb. And others still talked about the superiority of capitalism and the American way of life.

The fact that the Soviet regime (which produced its own Cold War propaganda) was repressive, no one doubts. But whether the regime truly posed an existential threat to the U.S. has remained somewhat open to debate. Just watch Noam Chomsky speaking on the matter in 1985.

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University. You can find Open Culture on Twitter and Facebook

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21 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Tales for Little Rebels: Radical Politics in Famous Children’s Books

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What Dr. Seuss has to do with gender politics, or how Carl Sandburg carried out anti-war propaganda.

I have a soft spot for beautiful and thoughtful children’s books, especially children’s literature with timeless philosophy for grownups. Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature explores how the political beliefs of famous mid-century American authors shaped their cherished stories, teaching children to question rather than obey authority, to stand up and out rather than conform, to develop critical thinking skills rather than seek redemption through prayer.

Featuring 43 mostly out-of-print stories, comic strips, poems, primers, and other illustrated literary ephemera for pre-teen readers, the collection spans work by such icons as Dr. Seuss, Syd Hoff, Norma Klein, Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg, as well as lesser-know authors, many of whom blacklisted at the time. The stories cover everything from civil rights to gender politics to environmental responsibility to dignity of labor, and each piece is prefaced by an introduction and a biographical sketch of the author.

Editor Julia Mickenberg offers an instantly sensible explanation for the project’s proposition:

People interested in changing the world have to be looking towards the future and are therefore interested in children.”

Jack Zipes writes in the book’s introduction:

The very idea of ‘radical children’s literature’ may be surprising, because we do not commonly think about the connections between children’s literature and politics. But children’s literature has always been ideological. Consider an ABC from the 1680s: ‘A. In Adam’s Fall / We Sinned all.’ And, next to a picture of a Bible, ‘B. Thy Life to Mend / This Book Attend.’ The New England Primer teaches more than just literacy.”

Zipes points out the perplexing paradox in how we tend to think about what the appropriate and inappropriate subjects of children’s literature are, arguing that morality and politics are both embedded in

From the Puritans to the present day, the didactic tendency of books for young children suggests that adults have no problem prescribing a moral framework for the young. Yet there is the tendency to fear that ‘political propaganda’ will taint a young child’s ‘innocence.’ […] Teaching children to obey a moral authority can be understood as a moral lesson, but it can also be understood as a political lesson.”

Tales for Little Rebels made me think of the subtle ideological messages in some of my favorite recent children’s books — in Blexbolex’s People, a meditation on human duality challenging commonly held stereotypes; in Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing, a reflection on our search for belonging in an ever-confusing world; in Fani Marceau’s Panorama, a passionate case for biodiversity conservation; in Christoph Niemann’s That’s How!, a playful prompt to question the accepted explanations we’re given about how the world works.

via Meta Filter; images courtesy of NYU Press

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20 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Dime-Store Alchemy: Joseph Cornell’s Surrealist Shadow Boxes

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Finding surrealist inspiration in found objects, or what a parrot has to do with aesthetic theory.

Joseph Cornell is often considered the first and greatest American surrealist, said to have influenced creators as diverse as iconic French dadaist Marcel Duchamp and beloved speculative-fiction novelist William Gibson. An artist and filmmaker, he is perhaps best-known for the intricate, mysterious boxes he created druing the 1930s through 1960s — bizarre and beautiful assemblages of dime-store tchotchkes and remnants of once-beautiful objects, placed in meticulously hand-crafted small cabinets. Today marks the paperback release of Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell — a fascinating long-out-of-print book that explores the eccentric genius of the artist through the insightful and often obsessive lens of the poet Charles Simic, who examines eight of Cornell’s most remarkable boxes. It is, more than anything, a meditation on beauty and the art of imagination. Simic’s writing itself is a metaphor for Cornell’s thoughtful collages, stitching together elements of texts by some of the artist’s favorite poets and authors. (Sound familiar?)

When it comes to his art, our eyes and imagination are our best guides. In writing the pieces for the book, I hoped to emulate his way of working and come to understand him that way. It is worth pointing out that Cornell worked in the absence of any aesthetic theory and previous notion of beauty. He shuffled a few inconsequential found objects inside his boxes until together they composed an image that pleased him with no clue as to what that image would turn out to be in the end. I had hoped to do the same.” ~ Charles Simic

L'Egypte de Mlle Cleo de Merode, cours élémentaire d'histoire naturelle, 1940

Untitled (Pink Palace), ca. 1946-1948

Untitled (Bebe Marie), early 1940s

Untitled (Soap Bubble Set), 1936

Untitled (The Hotel Eden), 1945

What makes Dime-Store Alchemy most exceptional is the elegant parallel between the poetry of Cornell’s work and that of Simic’s narrative interpretation of it, at once an embodiment of and commentary on the power of remix in creation.

Images via WebMuseum, Paris

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