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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

29 DECEMBER, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson Selects the Eight Books Every Intelligent Person on the Planet Should Read

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How to “glean profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world.”

In December of 2011, Neil deGrasse Tysonchampion of science, celebrator of the cosmic perspective, master of the soundbite — participated in Reddit’s Ask Me Anything series of public questions and answers. One reader posed the following question: “Which books should be read by every single intelligent person on the planet?” Adding to history’s notable reading lists — including those by Leo Tolstoy, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, and Carl Sagan — Tyson offers the following eight essentials, each followed by a short, and sometimes wry, statement about “how the book’s content influenced the behavior of people who shaped the western world”:

  1. The Bible (public library; free ebook), to learn that it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself
  2. The System of the World (public library; free ebook) by Isaac Newton, to learn that the universe is a knowable place
  3. On the Origin of Species (public library; free ebook) by Charles Darwin, to learn of our kinship with all other life on Earth
  4. Gulliver’s Travels (public library; free ebook) by Jonathan Swift, to learn, among other satirical lessons, that most of the time humans are Yahoos
  5. The Age of Reason (public library; free ebook) by Thomas Paine, to learn how the power of rational thought is the primary source of freedom in the world
  6. The Wealth of Nations (public library; free ebook) by Adam Smith, to learn that capitalism is an economy of greed, a force of nature unto itself
  7. The Art of War (public library; free ebook) by Sun Tzu, to learn that the act of killing fellow humans can be raised to an art
  8. The Prince (public library; free ebook) by Machiavelli, to learn that people not in power will do all they can to acquire it, and people in power will do all they can to keep it

Tyson adds:

If you read all of the above works you will glean profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world.

(What has driven it, evidently, is also the systematic exclusion of the female perspective. The prototypical “intelligent person” would be remiss not to also read, at the very least, Margaret Fuller’s foundational text Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which is even available as a free ebook, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. But, of course, the question of diversity is an infinite one and any list is bound to be pathologically unrepresentative of all of humanity — a challenge I’ve addressed elsewhere — so Tyson’s selections remain indispensable despite their chromosomal lopsidedness. My hope, meanwhile, is that we’ll begin to see more such reading lists by prominent female scientists, philosophers, artists, or writers of the past and present; to my knowledge, none have been made public as of yet — except perhaps Susan Sontag’s diary, which is essentially a lifelong reading list.)

Complement with Nabokov on the six short stories every writer should read, then revisit Tyson on genius and the most humbling fact about the universe.

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23 DECEMBER, 2014

Wole Soyinka, the First African Writer to Win the Nobel Prize in Literature, on Faith, Medicine, and the Healing of the Human Spirit

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What a continent’s “rich tapestry of intuitive forces” can teach us about healing, of body and of soul.

Even though the term “placebo effect” was coined in 1920 and the phenomenon itself has been studied since the 18th century, only recently have scientists begun to understand the full extent to which our minds affect our bodies. Of course, long before Western medicine was able to define and demonstrate it empirically, the world’s ancient practitioners of traditional medicine have been reaping the benefits of this integrative mind-body approach to healing for centuries, if not millennia — under the dismissive, even scornful eye of the Western medical establishment. But in addition to betraying the very basic tenet of science as a discipline propelled not by the arrogance of what we know but by the humility of what we don’t — by the “thoroughly conscious ignorance” that transmutes curiosity into knowledge — such attitudes are mired in more complex sociocultural forces and power dynamics, especially in societies torn between two worlds by the soul-splitting aftermath of colonialism.

That’s precisely what Wole Soyinka — the first African writer awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature — explores in his altogether excellent collection Of Africa (public library).

Wole Soyinka (Photograph: Peter Badge)

Soyinka writes in the introduction:

What does the continent known as Africa possess that the rest — or a greater part — of the globe does not have already in superabundance? These, obviously, cannot be limited to material or inert possessions — such as mineral resources, touristic landscapes, strategic locations— not forgetting the continent’s centuries — old designation as human hatcheries for the supply of cheap labor to other societies, East and West. There also exist dynamic possessions — ways of perceiving, responding, adapting, or simply doing that vary from people to people, including structures of human relationships. These all constitute potential commodities of exchange— not as negotiable as timber, petroleum, or uranium perhaps, but nonetheless recognizable as defining the human worth of any people—and could actually contribute to the resolution of the existential dilemma of distant communities, or indeed to global survival, if only they were known about or permitted their proper valuation.

[…]

It is its humanity, the quality and valuation of its own existence, and modes of managing its environment— both physical and intangible (which includes the spiritual) — that remain the primary, incontestable assets to which any society can lay claim or offer as unique contributions to the attainments of the world.

In an essay titled “Not a ‘Way of Life,’ But a Guide to Existence” — particularly poignant in the wake of the world’s frantic response to the Ebola crisis — Soyinka examines the larger secular structures and functions surrounding traditional religion, focusing on those aspects of society that reside not “within the mysteries of the religion itself, but in those areas of mundane activities in which religion is implicated, however marginally, making our selection among the more pacific and unavoidable human occupation.” He considers the disorienting intersection between traditional African spiritual traditions — traditions that have shaped “social conduct, human relations, and survival strategies” — and their ambivalent disavowal by post-colonial society:

My mother was what we call a petty trader. Next to her shop was a traditional healer, a babalawo, whose clinic was the verandah of his mud house, under a lean-to, thus making it quite visible from the frontage of our own shop, where I often sat. My father was a schoolteacher, and it struck me that his, and the babalawo’s, operations appeared to share the activity of instruction, so I began to take an illicit interest in his methods. Illicit because, to a well-brought-up child from a Christian home, such activities were clearly the work of the devil. Beyond a neighborly good morning, there was hardly any social intercourse between the healer and our own corner of the block.

And yet despite this coolly detached public courtesy was only one half of the great ambivalence with which the community regarded the babalawo; the other half was enacted privately, in secret:

The babalawo’s clinic was the place for a more fascinating array of herbal concoctions dispensed for various illnesses—potions from barks and roots, bitter and astringent, oily and/or gritty, not too dissimilar from those that were dispensed by the bottle and spoon in western hospitals. I was also able to observe that the babalawo’s consulting shack was patronized by practicing Christians and Moslems — a number of them sneaking in after dusk or in the early morning on their way to white-collar duties… My superimposing eyes also remarked that, in our own home, apart from the pills and potions dispensed from the government hospitals, there were also jars, clay pots, and gourds whose contents were suspiciously like the ones I saw being provided by the babalawo.

With an eye toward the broader social and cultural implications of the community’s response to African traditional medicine, Soyinka writes:

One deduction emerged effortlessly from those childhood experiences: a distinction between the passive and the active (participatory) curative methods… The “return to source” with the full collaboration of western-trained doctors, is, however, making strides, perhaps propelled more by commercial stakes than conviction, but that return is on, and with full vengeance.

But perhaps the babalawo’s greatest appeal — to young Soyinka, as well as to us today — was his role as a living reminder that, per Carl Sagan’s memorable admonition, the closer we inch to the assumption that we know everything there is to know and have answered all the questions worth answering, the further we drift from our essential humanity. Soyinka writes:

The babalawo’s clinic intrigued me far more than the starched, white-overall western clinics, where a most impressive looking doctor hung a stethoscope around his neck, listened to heartbeats, took pulses, and wrote down prescriptions in indecipherable script. He looked intimidatingly omniscient, and he clearly was in touch with all the dialects of the human body. The babalawo also exuded knowledge and mystery, but somehow he appeared closer to his patients. For a start, he sat cross-legged on a floormat and appeared to consult his patient as much as they consulted him.

After recounting the babalawo’s process and his various divinations for patients, Soyinka considers the larger value of this practice — one remarkably similar to what Western medicine is only just beginning to discover about the role faith plays in the patient’s physical healing. He writes of the babalawo’s work with one woman from the community:

The therapeutic value of this was to ally the suppliant, psychically, to forces within the entirety of her healing culture — including the history of her own people.

In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s beautiful reflection on the poetics of reverie, Soyinka considers the healing power of poetic form itself — the common thread between the chants of the babalawo’s healing rituals and the liturgies of the world’s organized religions — independent from any religious message it may transmit:

Poetry in liturgy is common to most religions, perhaps the most powerful element, far more powerful than any alleged intrinsic truths of the religions themselves. Poetry, or, sometimes, sheer lyricism and mesmerizing rhetoric, these are tools that are natural to or cultivated by charismatic leaders in any culture, irrespective of the purpose to which such attributes are turned, secular or religious.

In essence, what Soyinka describes is a kind of invaluable social work, and yet its fate in the hands of colonial oppressors has been a dismal one, denying its vitalizing social function and reducing it to useless superstition to be replaced by more convenient but no less damaging dogmas:

This then is the binding network of mortals, deities, and nature that Christians and Moslems pronounced “pagan,” “infidel,” “demonic,” etc., and moved to proscribe and destroy on the African continent, substituting, often through violence, their own faiths, which are based no less on structures of superstition though are perhaps more elegant, architecturally imposing, or seductively packaged. At the heart of it all, however, is nothing more than an article of faith sustained by dogmatism.

Considering such dogmatic “world religions” and their practitioners who “press wafers to the lips of their followers to ingest the body of their sainted god,” Soyinka reflects on Africa’s enduring humanistic values and what it stands to teach all of humanity:

[There are] those who, centuries after the Age of Reason and its underlying spirit of enquiry, still deem a continent backward and satanic, that had proved itself capable of weaving and sustaining such a rich tapestry of intuitive forces. But then, did they know of, or seriously penetrate, such systems of belief? No, their sources remained missionary missives. Despite them all, however, Africa survives to teach the world — even without proselytizing.

Soyinka is careful to acknowledge — “without equivocation” — “the progress that has been made in medicine through scientific research” as he points to the broader cultural and creative importance of making visible the value of traditional African healing traditions:

Our interest here is simply to relate the science of healing to the holism of faiths, of which a most potent aspect is the Word, the lyricism and poetry of healing which acts both therapeutically and homeopathically.

[…]

It is from within such resources that not only the religion but the full richness of Africa’s literary wealth — oral, ancient and contemporary, of the continent and the Diaspora, written and rhetorical — can best be appreciated.

[…]

Insufficiently celebrated remains the fate of this continuity between such traditional resources and contemporary creative minds.

Of Africa is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement it with Beneath the Rainbow — a collection of ancient stories and poems from Kenya, illustrated by contemporary African artists.

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08 DECEMBER, 2014

On “Beauty”: Marilynne Robinson on Writing, What Storytelling Can Learn from Science, and the Splendors of Uncertainty

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“We are part of a mystery, a splendid mystery within which we must attempt to orient ourselves if we are to have a sense of our own nature.”

Since 1984, Portland-based nonprofit Literary Arts has been inviting some of the world’s most celebrated authors to share their ideas on the craft — ideas like Ursula K. Le Guin’s spectacular meditation on where creativity comes from and the “secret” to great writing. To mark the 30th anniversary of the series, Literary Arts has collected some of the best such lectures — including Le Guin’s aforementioned piece, as well as contributions by Margaret Atwood, E.L. Doctorow, Chimamanda Adichie, and Jeanette Winterson — in the magnificent anthology The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write (public library | IndieBound).

In one particularly fantastic piece titled On “Beauty,” Pulitzer-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson (b. November 26, 1943) explores that elusive concept we are so deeply wired to desire, even to dangerously overdesire, yet so profoundly conflicted about that desire and, on occasion, brilliantly self-aware of its paradoxes.

Robinson writes:

It has seemed to me for some time that beauty, as a conscious element of experience, as a thing to be valued and explored, has gone into abeyance among us. I do not by any means wish to suggest that we suffer from any shortage of beauty, which seems to me intrinsic to experience, everywhere to be found. The pitch of a voice, the gesture of a hand, can be very beautiful. I need hardly speak of daylight, warmth, silence.

Reflecting on her own journey as a writer, Robinson observes the enduring sense that she “must try to be an interpreter of the true and absolute world, the very planet,” and considers how the paradoxes of “beauty” bristle amid that quest:

The word beauty has always seemed to me unsatisfactory. I have often felt there is an essential quality for which we have no word, and that therefore I am driven back on beauty, or elegance, which has the same problem. It is interesting that both these words are French, that they displaced Old English precursors. In any case, the word beauty has never seemed to me quite suited to the uses I have had to make of it, as though it were never really naturalized into my interior language, or what I might call my aesthetic experience, if that did not oblige me to use the word aesthetic. Why this awkwardness? Why must we lapse into French or Greek to speak of an experience that is surely primary and universal? Perhaps the awkwardness of the language refers to the fact that the experience of beauty is itself complex. We all know we can be conditioned to see beauty where our culture or our generation tells us to see it… And we know beauty can be fraudulent, compromised. Whenever power or privilege wishes to flaunt itself, it recruits beauty into its service, or something that can at least pass as beauty and will achieve the same effect. So it is entirely appropriate to regard beauty with a critical eye. But the point should be to discover an essential beauty, not to abandon the intuition altogether.

In a remark of terrific timeliness in the context of today’s news landscape, Robinson laments the loss of the nineteenth-century reverence for the dignity of ordinary language, the language of the people, and its ability to “do as much as the mind can ask of it, and do it with extraordinary integrity.” With an eye to journalism, publishing, and the media, which “are no true gauge of what public feeling is, or what it could be if it formed under other influences or had other choices,” she writes:

What we have lost with this awareness is respect for people in general, to whom we condescend, as though we were not all ourselves members in good standing of people in general. We explain others to ourselves without reference to what were once called their souls, to their solitary and singular participation in this mystery of being. We are not much in awe of one another these days. We do not hesitate to deprive each other of dignity or privacy, or even to deprive ourselves of them.

Echoing Dostoyevsky’s case for the human spirit, she adds:

What reason can there be for protecting the privacy and freedom of the conscience, or even the franchise, of anyone, if we assume nothing good about those whom we are protecting and enfranchising?

Reflecting on the political and social polarizations afflicting contemporary culture, she laments:

Neither [side] acts in a way that acknowledges the beauty and complexity of individual human experience. Neither treats the public—the people—with real respect.

One recurring such toxic polarization, particularly as it pertains to the deeper questions of beauty, is that between physical and metaphysical pursuits of truth, between science and spirituality — an age-old tension that has spurred such famous reflections as Carl Sagan on science and religion, Flannery O’Connor on dogma, belief, and the difference between religion and faith, Alan Lightman on science and spirituality, Albert Einstein on whether scientists pray, Ada Lovelace on the interconnectedness of everything, Alan Watts on the difference between belief and faith, C.S. Lewis on the paradox of free will, and Jane Goodall on science and spirit. Robinson adds to this lineage of wisdom:

There are those who believe we have outlived every beautiful notion about what human life must be, because this is the age of science. These people must not have been paying attention. Science, being one of the unequivocally human undertakings, describes humanity to itself, for weal and woe, in everything it does. Mathematicians and physicists have a habit of using the words beautiful and elegant to endorse theories that are likelier to cleave to the nature of things because of their efficiency and soundness of structure. I would like to see language brought to a similar standard. If this were at all a philosophic age, we might be wondering why it is that beauty can test reality and solve its encryptions in the modest, yet impressive, degree our humanity allows. For me, this is a core definition of beauty: that it is both rigorous and dynamic and that it somehow bears a deep relationship to truth.

Echoing Sagan’s deep conviction in embracing rather than eradicating our ignorance and Hannah Arendt’s celebration of unanswerable questions, Robinson adds:

We are part of a mystery, a splendid mystery within which we must attempt to orient ourselves if we are to have a sense of our own nature… I believe that there is a penumbra of ignorance and error and speculation that exceeds what might be called the known world by a very large factor indeed. I believe this penumbra is as beautiful in its own way as what I have called truth because it is the action of the human consciousness. It is most human and most beautiful because it wants to be more than consciousness; it wants to be truth.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Donald Barthelme’s notion of writing as an art of not-knowing, Robinson contemplates the mesmerizing mysteries of science — mysteries like the “great spiral structures in space so vast that no account can be made of them” — and makes a beautiful case for why science and the humanities belong together:

To what can we compare these things but to the mind that discovered and described them, the human mind, which, over the centuries, has amassed by small increments the capacity for knowing about them. Planet earth is not even a speck of dust in the universe, and how uncanny it is that we have contrived to see almost to the edge of what time and light will allow, to look back billions of years and see suns forming. When I read about such things, I think how my own heroes would have loved them. What would Melville have done with dark energy, or Poe with spooky action at a distance? Whitman could only have loved the accelerating expansion of the universe. Dickinson probably knew already that our sun is atremble with sound waves, like a great gong. It is a loss of the joy of consciousness that keeps us from appropriating these splendors for the purposes of our own thought.

Marilynne Robinson by Danny Wilcox Frazier

Robinson considers the wisdom of the ancients, who “recognized a special destiny for humankind, when grueling labor and early death would have consumed most of them,” as she returns to the question of beauty:

The destiny we have made for ourselves may well be the end of us; we all know that, and they seem to have known it too. Still, there is magnificence in it all. So the supposed conflict of science and religion is meaningless, because these two most beautiful ventures of expression of the human spirit are reduced to disembodied fragments of themselves with no beauty about them at all, which is a great pity, since their beauty should have been the basis for harmony between them.

Like science, she argues, writing deals in the potentialities of reality, weaving similar “webs of possibility fashioned from conjecture and observation” — and language, style, and form are the essential tools of this observation, inseparable from the possibilities conjectured:

To approach any utterance as if its meaning were separable from its presentation is to disallow art in every positive sense of that word. It is to strip away the individuation that might make a work a new witness, and it is to violate the bond of reader and writer. The essence of our art lies in creating a lingering dream, good or bad, that other souls can enter. Dreaming one’s soul into another’s is an urgent business of the human mind: the dreaming itself, not whatever agenda can supposedly be extracted from it. As art, it plays on the nerves and the senses like a dream. It unfolds over time like a dream. It makes its own often disturbing and often inexplicable appeal to memory and emotion, creating itself again in the consciousness of the reader or hearer.

The abeyance of beauty, Robinson suggests, can be attributed in no small part to the rift between dreams and agendas upon which the news-media industrial complex — be it CNN or Buzzfeed, it’s worth adding — is built:

Everything we are asked to look at is abrupt, bright, and loud in the visual sense of the word, especially the evening news. We are expected to react to it, not to consider it. It is addressed to our nervous systems, never to our minds.

And yet Robinson is no techno-dystopian — she fully accounts for the role of choice and personal responsibility in reclaiming our higher potentialities:

There is no inevitability in any of it. The visual technologies are blamed, but in fact no more beautiful studies of the human face exist than those made in film while it was still possible for the camera to pause for a moment.

Revisiting “the epic battle between parody science and parody religion,” Robinson finds similar parody in the institutions and industries purporting to represent public life:

Anything stripped of the beauty and dignity proper to it is a parody. Public life itself is now entirely too vivid an instance of this phenomenon. We are losing an atmosphere that is necessary to our survival. We are losing the motive and the rationale that supported everything we claim to value. But the solution is everywhere around us and is as simple as seeing and hearing. We are a grand and tragic creature, humankind, and we must see ourselves as we are … alone in our capacity for awe, and in that fact altogether worthy of awe… Now, because we have devoted so much ingenuity to the project, we have devised more ways to tell ourselves more stories, which means only that an ancient impulse is still so strong in us as to impel the invention of new means and occasions for telling and hearing to satisfy this appetite for narrative. At the most fundamental level, narrative is how we make sense of things — that is, our experience of ongoing life is a story we tell ourselves, more or less true, depending on circumstance. I believe this narrative is the essential mode of our being in the world, individually and collectively. Maintaining its integrity — maintaining a sense of the essentially provisional or hypothetical character of the story we tell ourselves — is, I will suggest, our greatest practical, as well as moral and ethical, problem.

This crucial role of the hypothetical is also what makes the parallel between science and storytelling so apt:

I tend to draw analogies from science because I believe that our sense of the world is always hypothesis, and we are sane in the sense that we understand this.

In sentiment that evokes the essence of Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit and Jacob Bronowski’s admonition about the dark side of certainty, she adds:

All thought always inclines toward error. The prejudices that would exclude one tradition of thought, be it science or be it theology, from this tendency are simply instances of the tendency toward error… The mind is prolific in generating false narrative. Like the immune system, it can turn against itself, defeat itself.

[…]

We have all forgotten what ought to be the hypothetical character of our thinking… We are inappropriately loyal to our hypotheses, rather than to the reality of which they are always a tentative sketch. This is a special problem in a climate of urgency and anxiety.

But in this very tendency lies the greatest promise of storytelling as a tool of questioning and a hedge against the paralyzing modern notion that “the great questions are closed.” Inviting us to “participate in the mystery of these facts as surely as Shakespeare ever did” — Shakespeare, lest we forget, was inspired by Galileo’s scientific discoveries — Robinson writes:

There is no reason to suppose the invention of narrative is in any way a marginal activity. Narratives define whole civilizations to themselves, for weal or woe.

[…]

The human situation is beautiful and strange. We are in fact Gilgamesh and Oedipus and Lear. We have achieved this amazing levitation out of animal circumstance by climbing our rope of sand, insight, and error — corrective insight and persistent error. The working of the mind is astonishing and beautiful.

[…]

Meaning is essentially a new discovery of the joy of consciousness—and, of course, the perils of it. We live in uncertainty, which means that we are always exposed to the possibility of learning more, for weal and woe. I would call this awareness humanism, an ultimate loyalty to ourselves that we are all too ready to withhold.

The World Split Open is an emboldening read in its entirety and a remarkable addition to the collected wisdom of great authors.

For more perspectives on why writers write, see George Orwell’s four universal motives, Mary Gaitskill’s six creative impulses, Joan Didion on writing as access to her own mind, David Foster Wallace on the fun of it, Michael Lewis on how it exorcises the the necessary self-delusions of creativity, Joy Williams on how it offers a gateway from the darkness to the light, and Italo Calvino on its assurance of belonging to a collective enterprise.

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In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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