It is hardly surprising, then, that animals have figured into our cosmogonies and mythologies since the human mind first inclined toward understanding its own existence. That ancient, abiding relationship comes alive with uncommon splendor in Beasts of India (public library) — an extraordinary illustrated menagerie of indigenous animals, painted by indigenous artists in a variety of tribal art traditions and screen-printed by hand with traditional Indian dyes onto handmade paper. The result is another stunning handmade masterpiece from Tara Books — the terrestrial counterpart to their beautiful Waterlife, depicting marine creatures from the Indian fauna — printed in a limited edition of 3000 numbered copies, each including a framable screen-print of one animal from the book.
Tiger, lion, deer, snake, bull, boar, ant-eater, buffalo, monkey, elephant, crocodile, and dog leap from the pages in wildly different representations in India’s major tribal art styles, the vibrancy of which no screen can adequately convey — some drawn in pen and ink, some traditionally painted onto palm leaves with natural earth colors, others onto cotton fabric using sharp bamboo socks padded with hair or cotton. What emerges is a portrait of the millennia-old dialogue between nature and culture, emanating Oliver Sacks’s conviction that nature is our gateway into deep time.
The beautiful and disorienting science of why we are mostly restlessness and empty space.
By Maria Popova
In his timeless elegy for time, T.S. Eliot wrote of “the still point of the turning world” — one of the most beautiful and arresting phrases ever composed in the English language. “Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, / But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, / Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, / Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, / There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”
We are woven of contradictions, few more sundering than the polar pull of this dance — our longing for stillness in a universe of unceasing motion, which the painter Joan Miró captured in the notion he placed at the center of his creative ethos: “motionless movement.”
Reading through the journals of the pioneering Arctic explorer Robert Edwin Peary, who retired on a neighboring island off the coast of Maine in the early twentieth century after discovering the North Pole, or at least what was then believed to be the North Pole — “so simple + common place,” Peary wrote in elated astonishment upon arriving at “the prize of 3 countries, my dream + ambition for 23 years” — Lightman reflects:
I try to imagine the “common place” experience of standing exactly at the pole of the earth (even if Peary was not quite there). I see myself perched on a glistening ball in space spinning about an imaginary axis through its center, and I am standing at the precise point where that axis emerges from the interior and punctures the ice. All other points on this ball, except at the opposite pole, are in motion. But I am still. You could say I am locally at rest. I am at rest relative to the center of the earth. But that center is itself in motion. As I stand here, that center hurtles around its central star at a speed of 65,000 miles per hour, and that central star, in turn, revolves around the center of the galaxy, the Milky Way, at a speed of 500,000 miles per hour. Do I know too much, or too little? I look up into space, as the cave dwellers did, and am transfixed by the infinite. Although I cannot touch it, I feel that I’m there. This resting yet unresting pole is quite a spot for viewing the universe.
This illusion of absolute rest plays out as much on the largest scale as it does on the smallest. Millennia after the ancient Greeks first hypothesized the atom as a perfect and indivisible entity — atomos, Greek for uncuttable — a cascade of discoveries unveiled the true nature of matter, and of us: The atom is not a unit of stuff, but a tiny center of matter swarmed by nearly weightless electrons orbiting at a great distance and a great speed. We are mostly restlessness and empty space.
Lightman frames the ancient conception of matter as a vessel for the illusion of the absolute:
Atoms were the ultimate Oneness of the material world. Perfect in their indivisibility, perfect in their wholeness and indestructibility. Atoms were the embodiment of absolute truth. Atoms, along with stars, were the material icons of the Absolutes.
Atoms prevent us from falling forever into smaller and smaller rooms of reality. When we reach atoms — so the thinking went — the falling stops. We are caught. We are safe. And from there, we begin our journey back up, building the rest of the world.
The hard nut at the center of each atom, the “atomic nucleus,” is a hundred thousand times smaller than the atom as a whole. To use an analogy, if an atom were the size of Fenway Park, the home stadium of the Boston Red Sox, its dense central nucleus would be the size of a mustard seed, with the electrons gracefully orbiting in the outer bleachers. In fact, 99.9999999999999 percent of the volume of an atom is empty space, except for the haze of nearly weightless electrons. Since we and everything else are made of atoms, we are mostly empty space. That vast emptiness is perhaps the most unsettling consequence of dividing the indivisible.
With an eye to the menagerie of subatomic particles discovered in the century-some since — quarks, pions, kaons, rhos, sigmas, xis — Lightman adds:
Are we falling and falling without end? Are there unlimited infinities on all sides of us, both bigger and smaller?
A timeless serenade to finding light amid the “Evenings of the Brain.”
By Maria Popova
How do we survive the unsurvivable? What is that inextinguishable flame that goes on flickering in the bleak, dark chamber of our being when something of vital importance has been lost? “All your sorrows have been wasted on you if you have not yet learned how to be wretched,” Seneca’s timeless insight into the key to resilience bellows from antiquity, echoed by the contemporary social science finding that psychological “grit” is the single most significant predictor of triumph over hardship and success in life. “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us,” the Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön offered in exploring how to thrive when things fall apart.
Loss visits every human life. The degree of our acceptance and the grace with which we adapt to the sudden descent of darkness — that is, to borrow the splendid term William James borrowed from Margaret Fuller, “the manner of our acceptance of the universe” — may be the greatest measure of skillful living.
That is what Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) addresses in a stunning poem titled — like all of her poems, which the poet herself always left untitled — after the first line: “We grow accustomed to the Dark,” composed during a time of personal loss and immense transformation for Dickinson, while the Civil War rages about her. Included in the indispensable Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (public library), it comes to life in this lovely short film animated by Hannah Jacobs and produced by Massive Science founder Nadja Oertelt for Harvard’s eight-part series Poetry of Perception, exploring representations of sensation and perception through the literary and visual arts.
We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —
A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —
And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —
The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —
Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.
A decade later, and a decade before he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Steinbeck turned this abiding tug of war between good and evil into a literary inquiry in East of Eden (public library) — the 1952 novel that gave us his beautiful wisdom on creativity and the meaning of life, eventually adapted into the 1955 film of the same title starring James Dean.
Steinbeck opens the thirty-fourth chapter with a meditation on the most elemental question through which we experience and measure our lives:
A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?” And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”
I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?
At the most fundamental level, the triumph of good over evil presupposes an openhearted curiosity about what is other than ourselves and a certain willingness for understanding — the moral choice of fathoming and honoring the reality, experience, and needs of persons and entities existing beyond our own consciousness. Steinbeck, too, saw the centrality of empathic understanding in the choice of goodness. Perhaps unsurprisingly — since he used his private journal as a creative sandbox for his novels — this sentiment originated in a diary entry.
In every bit of honest writing in the world… there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.
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