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Genes and the Holy G: Siddhartha Mukherjee on the Dark Cultural History of IQ and Why We Can’t Measure Intelligence

“If the history of medical genetics teaches us one lesson, it is to be wary of precisely such slips between biology and culture… Genes cannot tell us how to categorize or comprehend human diversity; environments can, cultures can, geographies can, histories can.”

Genes and the Holy G: Siddhartha Mukherjee on the Dark Cultural History of IQ and Why We Can’t Measure Intelligence

Intelligence, Simone de Beauvoir argued, is not a ready-made quality “but a way of casting oneself into the world and of disclosing being.” Like the rest of De Beauvoir’s socially wakeful ideas, this was a courageously countercultural proposition — she lived in the heyday of the IQ craze, which sought to codify into static and measurable components the complex and dynamic mode of being we call “intelligence.” Even today, as we contemplate the nebulous future of artificial intelligence, we find ourselves stymied by the same core problem — how are we to synthesize and engineer intelligence if we are unable to even define it in its full dimension?

How the emergence of IQ tests contracted our understanding of intelligence rather than expanding it and what we can do to transcend their perilous cultural legacy is what practicing physician, research scientist, and Pulitzer-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee explores throughout The Gene: An Intimate History (public library) — a rigorously researched, beautifully written detective story about the genetic components of what we experience as the self, rooted in Mukherjee’s own painful family history of mental illness and radiating a larger inquiry into how genetics illuminates the future of our species.

Siddhartha Mukherjee (Photograph: Deborah Feingold)
Siddhartha Mukherjee (Photograph: Deborah Feingold)

A crucial agent in our limiting definition of intelligence, which has a dark heritage in nineteenth-century biometrics and eugenics, was the British psychologist and statistician Charles Spearman, who became interested in the strong correlation between an individual’s high performance on tests assessing very different mental abilities. He surmised that human intelligence is a function not of specific knowledge but of the individual’s ability to manipulate abstract knowledge across a variety of domains. Spearman called this ability “general intelligence,” shorthanded g. Mukherjee chronicles the monumental and rather grim impact of this theory on modern society:

By the early twentieth century, g had caught the imagination of the public. First, it captivated early eugenicists. In 1916, the Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman, an avid supporter of the American eugenics movement, created a standardized test to rapidly and quantitatively assess general intelligence, hoping to use the test to select more intelligent humans for eugenic breeding. Recognizing that this measurement varied with age during childhood development, Terman advocated a new metric to quantify age-specific intelligence. If a subject’s “mental age” was the same as his or her physical age, their “intelligence quotient,” or IQ, was defined as exactly 100. If a subject lagged in mental age compared to physical age, the IQ was less than a hundred; if she was more mentally advanced, she was assigned an IQ above 100.

A numerical measure of intelligence was also particularly suited to the demands of the First and Second World Wars, during which recruits had to be assigned to wartime tasks requiring diverse skills based on rapid, quantitative assessments. When veterans returned to civilian life after the wars, they found their lives dominated by intelligence testing.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Wild

Because categories, measurements, and labels help us navigate the world and, in Umberto Eco’s undying words, “make infinity comprehensible,” IQ metrics enchanted the popular imagination with the convenient illusion of neat categorization. Like any fad that offers a shortcut for something difficult to achieve, they spread like wildfire across the societal landscape. Mukherjee writes:

By the early 1940s, such tests had become accepted as an inherent part of American culture. IQ tests were used to rank job applicants, place children in school, and recruit agents for the Secret Service. In the 1950s, Americans commonly listed their IQs on their résumés, submitted the results of a test for a job application, or even chose their spouses based on the test. IQ scores were pinned on the babies who were on display in Better Babies contests (although how IQ was measured in a two-year-old remained mysterious).

These rhetorical and historical shifts in the concept of intelligence are worth noting, for we will return to them in a few paragraphs. General intelligence (g) originated as a statistical correlation between tests given under particular circumstances to particular individuals. It morphed into the notion of “general intelligence” because of a hypothesis concerning the nature of human knowledge acquisition. And it was codified into “IQ” to serve the particular exigencies of war. In a cultural sense, the definition of g was an exquisitely self-reinforcing phenomenon: those who possessed it, anointed as “intelligent” and given the arbitration of the quality, had every incentive in the world to propagate its definition.

With an eye to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s culture-shaping coinage of the word “meme”“Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs,” Dawkins wrote in his 1976 classic The Selfish Gene, “so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.” — Mukherjee argues that g became a self-propagating unit worthy of being thought of as “selfish g.” He writes:

It takes counterculture to counter culture — and it was only inevitable, perhaps, that the sweeping political movements that gripped America in the 1960s and 1970s would shake the notions of general intelligence and IQ by their very roots. As the civil rights movement and feminism highlighted chronic political and social inequalities in America, it became evident that biological and psychological features were not just inborn but likely to be deeply influenced by context and environment. The dogma of a single form of intelligence was also challenged by scientific evidence.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne

Along came social scientists like Howard Gardner, whose germinal 1983 Theory of Multiple Intelligences set out to upend the tyranny of “selfish g” by demonstrating that human acumen exists along varied dimensions, subtler and more context-specific, not necessarily correlated with one another — those who score high on logical/mathematical intelligence, for instance, may not score high on bodily/kinesthetic intelligence, and vice versa. Mukherjee considers the layered implications for g and its active agents:

Is g heritable? In a certain sense, yes. In the 1950s, a series of reports suggested a strong genetic component. Of these, twin studies were the most definitive. When identical twins who had been reared together — i.e., with shared genes and shared environments — were tested in the early fifties, psychologists had found a striking degree of concordance in their IQs, with a correlation value of 0.86. In the late eighties, when identical twins who were separated at birth and reared separately were tested, the correlation fell to 0.74 — still a striking number.

But the heritability of a trait, no matter how strong, may be the result of multiple genes, each exerting a relatively minor effect. If that was the case, identical twins would show strong correlations in g, but parents and children would be far less concordant. IQ followed this pattern. The correlation between parents and children living together, for instance, fell to 0.42. With parents and children living apart, the correlation collapsed to 0.22. Whatever the IQ test was measuring, it was a heritable factor, but one also influenced by many genes and possibly strongly modified by environment — part nature and part nurture.

The most logical conclusion from these facts is that while some combination of genes and environments can strongly influence g, this combination will rarely be passed, intact, from parents to their children. Mendel’s laws virtually guarantee that the particular permutation of genes will scatter apart in every generation. And environmental interactions are so difficult to capture and predict that they cannot be reproduced over time. Intelligence, in short, is heritable (i.e., influenced by genes), but not easily inheritable (i.e., moved down intact from one generation to the next).

And yet the quest for the mythic holy grail of general intelligence persisted and took us down paths not only questionable but morally abhorrent by our present standards. In the 1980s, scientists conducted numerous studies demonstrating a discrepancy in IQ across the races, with white children scoring higher than their black peers. While the controversial results initially provided rampant fodder for racists, they also provided incentive for scientists to do what scientists must — question the validity of their own methods. In a testament to trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer’s assertion that the way we frame our questions shapes our answers, it soon became clear that these IQ tests weren’t measuring the mythic g but, rather, reflected the effects of contextual circumstances like poverty, illness, hunger, and educational opportunity. Mukherjee explains:

It is easy to demonstrate an analogous effect in a lab: If you raise two plant strains — one tall and one short — in undernourished circumstances, then both plants grow short regardless of intrinsic genetic drive. In contrast, when nutrients are no longer limiting, the tall plant grows to its full height. Whether genes or environment — nature or nurture — dominates in influence depends on context. When environments are constraining, they exert a disproportionate influence. When the constraints are removed, genes become ascendant.

[…]

If the history of medical genetics teaches us one lesson, it is to be wary of precisely such slips between biology and culture. Humans, we now know, are largely similar in genetic terms — but with enough variation within us to represent true diversity. Or, perhaps more accurately, we are culturally or biologically inclined to magnify variations, even if they are minor in the larger scheme of the genome. Tests that are explicitly designed to capture variances in abilities will likely capture variances in abilities — and these variations may well track along racial lines. But to call the score in such a test “intelligence,” especially when the score is uniquely sensitive to the configuration of the test, is to insult the very quality it sets out to measure.

Genes cannot tell us how to categorize or comprehend human diversity; environments can, cultures can, geographies can, histories can. Our language sputters in its attempt to capture this slip. When a genetic variation is statistically the most common, we call it normal — a word that implies not just superior statistical representation but qualitative or even moral superiority… When the variation is rare, it is termed a mutant — a word that implies not just statistical uncommonness, but qualitative inferiority, or even moral repugnance.

And so it goes, interposing linguistic discrimination on genetic variation, mixing biology and desire.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

Intelligence, it turns out, is as integrated and indivisible as what we call identity, which the great Lebanese-born French writer Amin Maalouf likened to an intricate pattern drawn on a tightly stretched drumhead. “Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance,” he wrote, “and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” Indeed, it is to identity that Mukherjee points as an object of inquiry far apter than intelligence in understanding personhood. In a passage emblematic of the elegance with which he fuses science, cultural history, and lyrical prose, Mukherjee writes:

Like the English novel, or the face, say, the human genome can be lumped or split in a million different ways. But whether to split or lump, to categorize or synthesize, is a choice. When a distinct, heritable biological feature, such as a genetic illness (e.g., sickle-cell anemia), is the ascendant concern, then examining the genome to identify the locus of that feature makes absolute sense. The narrower the definition of the heritable feature or the trait, the more likely we will find a genetic locus for that trait, and the more likely that the trait will segregate within some human subpopulation (Ashkenazi Jews in the case of Tay-Sachs disease, or Afro-Caribbeans for sickle-cell anemia). There’s a reason that marathon running, for instance, is becoming a genetic sport: runners from Kenya and Ethiopia, a narrow eastern wedge of one continent, dominate the race not just because of talent and training, but also because the marathon is a narrowly defined test for a certain form of extreme fortitude. Genes that enable this fortitude (e.g., particular combinations of gene variants that produce distinct forms of anatomy, physiology, and metabolism) will be naturally selected.

Conversely, the more we widen the definition of a feature or trait (say, intelligence, or temperament), the less likely that the trait will correlate with single genes — and, by extension, with races, tribes, or subpopulations. Intelligence and temperament are not marathon races: there are no fixed criteria for success, no start or finish lines — and running sideways or backward, might secure victory. The narrowness, or breadth, of the definition of a feature is, in fact, a question of identity — i.e., how we define, categorize, and understand humans (ourselves) in a cultural, social, and political sense. The crucial missing element in our blurred conversation on the definition of race, then, is a conversation on the definition of identity.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly fascinating The Gene with young Barack Obama on identity and the search for a coherent self and Mark Twain on intelligence vs. morality, then revisit Schopenhauer on what makes a genius.

BP

An Artist’s Life Manifesto: Marina Abramović’s Rules of Life, Solitude, and Silence

“An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the stars in the night sky.”

An Artist’s Life Manifesto: Marina Abramović’s Rules of Life, Solitude, and Silence

“The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” E.E. Cummings wrote in his spectacular meditation on what it really means to be an artist. But if “all art is based upon nonconformity,” as the great artist Ben Shahn asserted, and if unlearning our cultural conditioning is essential to creative work, why do we have such a voracious appetite for the writings, daily routines, and manifestos of celebrated artists?

That tension between guidance and rebellion is what Marina Abramović (b. November 30, 1946) plays with in a piece titled “An Artist’s Life Manifesto,” which opens the twelfth chapter of Walk Through Walls (public library) — the magnificent memoir that gave us Abramović on art, fear, and taking risks.

The manifesto is divided into three parts — an old-fashioned list of rules of personal conduct, the kind which artists like Eugène Delacroix and André Gide kept in their diaries in the nineteenth century; a portion devoted to the artist’s relationship with silence, that ennobler of speech and fertilizer of the imagination; and a section dedicated to the relationship with solitude, that seedbed of self-discovery and supreme fuel for creative work.

To be sure, the manifesto itself bears the characteristic fusion of sincerity and subversion that marks Abramović’s work — although the tenets are rooted in the earnestness of her own experience, it is an undeniable contradiction for an artist who has spent half a century defying the dogmas of art by inventing new forms to prescribe a set of dicta for artists to follow. Out of that deliberate contradiction arises a testament to philosopher Jacob Needleman’s abiding assertion: “There is always something more than two opposing truths. The whole truth always includes a third part, which is the reconciliation.”

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present. Photograph by Marco Anelli.
Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present. Photograph by Marco Anelli.

Abramović writes:

AN ARTIST’S CONDUCT IN HIS LIFE:

An artist should not lie to himself or others
An artist should not steal ideas from other artists
An artist should not compromise for himself or in regards to the art market
An artist should not kill other human beings
An artist should not make himself into an idol…
An artist should avoid falling in love with another artist

AN ARTIST’S RELATION TO SILENCE:

An artist has to understand silence
An artist has to create a space for silence to enter his work
Silence is like an island in the middle of a turbulent ocean

AN ARTIST’S RELATION TO SOLITUDE:

An artist must make time for the long periods of solitude
Solitude is extremely important
Away from home,
Away from the studio,
Away from family,
Away from friends
An artist should stay for long periods of time at waterfalls
An artist should stay for long periods of time at exploding volcanoes
An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at fast-running rivers
An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the horizon where the ocean and sky meet
An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the stars in the night sky

During our recent public conversation in San Francisco, Abramović shared three more life-rules she borrowed from her dear friends Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson:

1. Have a good bullshit detector.
2. Fear nothing and no one.
3. Be tender.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly terrific Walk Through Walls with Mary Oliver on the third self and the artist’s task, James Baldwin on the artist’s struggle for integrity, and Sol LeWitt’s electrifying letter of advice on overcoming self-doubt, then revisit Abramović on pain as a focal lens for presence.

BP

C.S. Lewis on Equality and Our Core Misconception About Democracy

“The tempter always works on some real weakness in our own system of values: offers food to some need which we have starved.”

C.S. Lewis on Equality and Our Core Misconception About Democracy

“The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former,” wrote the great French philosopher Simone Weil shortly before her untimely and patriotic death as she contemplated the crucial difference between our rights and our obligations. “A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds.” Nowhere do we muddle these two notions more liberally than in our treatment of democracy and its foundational principle of equality — a basic right to be conferred upon every human being, but also something the upkeep of which demands our active participation and contribution.

That’s what C.S. Lewis (November 29, 1898–November 22, 1963) examines in a superb 1943 essay titled “Equality,” originally published in The Spectator three days after Weil’s death and later included in Present Concerns (public library) — a posthumous anthology of Lewis’s timeless and timely journalistic essays.

C.S. Lewis (Photograph: John Chillingworth)
C.S. Lewis (Photograph: John Chillingworth)

A generation before Leonard Cohen contemplated democracy’s foibles and redemptions, Lewis writes at the peak of WWII as history’s deadliest and most unredeemable failure of democracy is sweeping Europe:

I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure… The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Parker Palmer’s notion of democracy as the “politics of the brokenhearted,” Lewis expands upon his counterintuitive case for equality:

I do not think that equality is one of those things (like wisdom or happiness) which are good simply in themselves and for their own sakes. I think it is in the same class as medicine, which is good because we are ill, or clothes which are good because we are no longer innocent… Legal and economic equality are absolutely necessary remedies for the Fall, and protection against cruelty.

In a passage of chilling poignancy and timeliness today, as we witness tyrants rise to power by playing to people’s craving for supremacy as a hedge against insecurity and fear, Lewis writes:

There is no spiritual sustenance in flat equality. It is a dim recognition of this fact which makes much of our political propaganda sound so thin. We are trying to be enraptured by something which is merely the negative condition of the good life. That is why the imagination of people is so easily captured by appeals to the craving for inequality, whether in a romantic form of films about loyal courtiers or in the brutal form of Nazi ideology. The tempter always works on some real weakness in our own system of values: offers food to some need which we have starved.

Just as true generosity lies in mastering the osmosis of giving and receiving, true equality, Lewis argues, requires the parallel desires to be honored and to honor. He writes:

When equality is treated not as a medicine or a safety-gadget but as an ideal we begin to breed that stunted and envious sort of mind which hates all superiority. That mind is the special disease of democracy, as cruelty and servility are the special diseases of privileged societies. It will kill us all if it grows unchecked. The man who cannot conceive a joyful and loyal obedience on the one hand, nor an unembarrassed and noble acceptance of that obedience on the other, the man who has never even wanted to kneel or to bow, is a prosaic barbarian.

[…]

Every intrusion of the spirit that says “I’m as good as you” into our personal and spiritual life is to be resisted just as jealously as every intrusion of bureaucracy or privilege into our politics. Hierarchy within can alone preserve egalitarianism without. Romantic attacks on democracy will come again. We shall never be safe unless we already understand in our hearts all that the anti-democrats can say, and have provided for it better than they.

Complement Present Concerns with Lewis on why we read, the essence of friendship, what it really means to have free will in a universe of fixed laws, his ideal daily routine, and the key to authenticity in writing, then revisit Walt Whitman on how literature bolsters democracy.

BP

Hold Still: Sally Mann on the Treachery of Memory, the Dark Side of Photography, and the Elusive Locus of the Self

“Photographs economize the truth; they are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time’s continuum.”

Hold Still: Sally Mann on the Treachery of Memory, the Dark Side of Photography, and the Elusive Locus of the Self

“Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation,” pioneering researcher Rosalind Cartwright wrote in distilling the science of the unconscious mind.

Although I lack early childhood memories, I do have one rather eidetic recollection: I remember standing before the barren elephant yard at the Sofia Zoo in Bulgaria, at age three or so, clad in a cotton polka-dot jumper. I remember squinting into a scowl as the malnourished elephant behind me swirls dirt into the air in front of her communism-stamped concrete edifice. I don’t remember the temperature, though I deduce from the memory of my outfit that it must have been summer. I don’t remember the smell of the elephant or the touch of the blown dirt on my skin, though I remember my grimace.

For most of my life, I held onto that memory as the sole surviving mnemonic fragment of my early childhood self. And then, one day in my late twenties, I discovered an old photo album tucked into the back of my grandmother’s cabinet in Bulgaria. It contained dozens of photographs of me, from birth until around age four, including one depicting that very vignette — down to the minutest detail of what I believed was my memory of that moment. There I was, scowling in my polka-dot jumper with the elephant and the cloud of dust behind me. In an instant, I realized that I had been holding onto a prosthetic memory — what I remembered was the photograph from that day, which I must have been shown at some point, and not the day itself, of which I have no other recollection. The question — and what a Borgesian question — remains whether one should prefer having such a prosthetic memory, constructed entirely of photographs stitched together into artificial cohesion, to having no memory at all.

That confounding parallax of personal history is what photographer Sally Mann explores throughout Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (public library) — a lyrical yet unsentimental meditation on art, mortality, and the lacuna between memory and myth, undergirded by what Mann calls her “long preoccupation with the treachery of memory” and “memory’s truth, which is to scientific, objective truth as a pearl is to a piece of sand.”

Sally Mann as a girl
Sally Mann as a child

In a sentiment that calls to mind Oliver Sacks’s exquisite elucidation of how memory works, Mann writes:

Whatever of my memories hadn’t crumbled into dust must surely by now have been altered by the passage of time. I tend to agree with the theory that if you want to keep a memory pristine, you must not call upon it too often, for each time it is revisited, you alter it irrevocably, remembering not the original impression left by experience but the last time you recalled it. With tiny differences creeping in at each cycle, the exercise of our memory does not bring us closer to the past but draws us farther away.

I had learned over time to meekly accept whatever betrayals memory pulled over on me, allowing my mind to polish its own beautiful lie. In distorting the information it’s supposed to be keeping safe, the brain, to its credit, will often bow to some instinctive aesthetic wisdom, imparting to our life’s events a coherence, logic, and symbolic elegance that’s not present or not so obvious in the improbable, disheveled sloppiness of what we’ve actually been through.

Photograph: Sally Mann
Photograph: Sally Mann

Nearly half a century after Italo Calvino observed that “the life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself,” Mann traces this cultural pathology — now a full epidemic with the rise of the photo-driven social web — to the dawn of the medium itself. Reflecting on the discovery of a box of old photographs in her own family’s attic, she echoes Teju Cole’s assertion that “photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses” and writes:

As far back as 1901 Émile Zola telegraphed the threat of this relatively new medium, remarking that you cannot claim to have really seen something until you have photographed it. What Zola perhaps also knew or intuited was that once photographed, whatever you had “really seen” would never be seen by the eye of memory again. It would forever be cut from the continuum of being, a mere sliver, a slight, translucent paring from the fat life of time; elegiac, one-dimensional, immediately assuming the amber quality of nostalgia: an instantaneous memento mori. Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superimpositions, but I think that is a fallacy: photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories. As I held my childhood pictures in my hands, in the tenderness of my “remembering,” I also knew that with each photograph I was forgetting.

Sally Mann on her beloved horse as a girl
Young Sally Mann on her beloved horse

Mann, whose memoir is strewn with an extraordinary sensitivity to language, anchors into the perfect word the perfect analogy for how the living of life impresses itself upon our memory:

When an animal, a rabbit, say, beds down in a protecting fencerow, the weight and warmth of his curled body leaves a mirroring mark upon the ground. The grasses often appear to have been woven into a birdlike nest, and perhaps were indeed caught and pulled around by the delicate claws as he turned in a circle before subsiding into rest. This soft bowl in the grasses, this body-formed evidence of hare, has a name, an obsolete but beautiful word: meuse. (Enticingly close to Muse, daughter of Memory, and source of inspiration.) Each of us leaves evidence on the earth that in various ways bears our form.

Over and over, Mann returns with palpable unease to the parasitic relationship between photography and memory, culminating in this unadorned indictment:

I believe that photographs actually rob all of us of our memory.

More than that, photographs disquiet our already unnerving relationship with time — a relationship which Borges, the poet laureate of memory’s perplexities, captured with memorable brilliance. Mann writes:

Photographs economize the truth; they are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time’s continuum.

Photograph: Sally Mann
Photograph: Sally Mann

This dislocation of mnemonic truth into photographs is as rooted in time as it is in space. Mann, whose work is heavily animated by the life of landscape, once again draws on language to explore the nuances of the relationship between photography, memory, and place:

In an immigrant society like this one, we are often divided from our forebears less by distance than by language, generations before us having thought, sung, made love, and argued in dialects unknown to us now. In Wales, for example, Welsh is spoken by barely 20 percent of the population, so we can only hope that the evocative Welsh word hiraeth will somehow be preserved. It means “distance pain,” and I know all about it: a yearning for the lost places of our past, accompanied in extreme cases by tuneful lamentation (mine never got quite that bad). But, and this is important, it always refers to a near-umbilical attachment to a place, not just free-floating nostalgia or a droopy houndlike wistfulness or the longing we associate with romantic love. No, this is a word about the pain of loving a place.

[…]

Contemporary Welsh-speakers have continued that expression, linking memory and landscape most vividly in R. W. Parry’s sonnet in which the longed-for landscape communicates to the human heart, “the echo of an echo… the memory of a memory past.”

With an eye to her own heritage as a displaced Southerner, Mann adds:

Looking through my long photographic and literary relationship with my own native soil I can perceive a definite kinship with those fakelorish bards wailing away about their place-pain.

Photograph: Sally Mann
Photograph: Sally Mann

A generation after Susan Sontag admonished against the “aesthetic consumerism” of photography, Mann invites us to confront these commodifications of memory that we have come to take for granted:

Before the invention of photography, significant moments in the flow of our lives would be like rocks placed in a stream: impediments that demonstrated but didn’t diminish the volume of the flow and around which accrued the debris of memory, rich in sight, smell, taste, and sound. No snapshot can do what the attractive mnemonic impediment can: when we outsource that work to the camera, our ability to remember is diminished and what memories we have are impoverished.

Contemplating mortality, that ultimate end-point of memory, Mann writes in a Whitman-like meditation on the ever-elusive locus of the self:

Where does the self actually go? All the accumulation of memory — the mist rising from the river and the birth of children and the flying tails of the Arabians in the field — and all the arcane formulas, the passwords, the poultice recipes, the Latin names of trees, the location of the safe deposit key, the complex skills to repair and build and grow and harvest — when someone dies, where does it all go?

In a sentiment evocative of Meghan O’Rourke’s beautiful assertion that “the people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created,” Mann adds:

Proust has his answer, and it’s the one I take most comfort in — it ultimately resides in the loving and in the making and in the living of every present day.

Hold Still is an intensely beautiful and layered read in its totality. Complement this particular facet with Virginia Woolf on how memory threads our lives together, neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin on how the famous amnesiac H.M. illuminates the paradoxes of memory and the self, and Susan Sontag on how photography mediates our relationship with life and death.

BP

Stitching the Stars: Trailblazing Astronomer Maria Mitchell on the Needle as an Instrument of the Mind and Why Women Are Better Suited for Astronomy Than Men

“The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer.”

Stitching the Stars: Trailblazing Astronomer Maria Mitchell on the Needle as an Instrument of the Mind and Why Women Are Better Suited for Astronomy Than Men

In preparing for my conversation with the wonderful artist and philosopher of forms Ann Hamilton, I came upon a striking passage from one of her exhibition catalogs. In contemplating sewing as an act of listening — already a revelatory proposition — Hamilton writes:

The interval between stitches seaming two surfaces together is thinking at the pace of the body. Busy hands make a space that allows attention to wander. Productive wandering is how projects are made.

This beautiful passage reminded me not only of Rebecca Solnit’s parallel point about walking and the pace of the mind, but of the long history of such thinking-by-hand in the intellectual life of women. There was pioneering 18th-century astronomer Caroline Herschel, who spent her mornings in needlework as she revolutionized women’s role in science by night. There was physicist Lise Meitner, who opened up academia for women in the 19th century and who conducted her first empirical crusade against superstition as a little girl, with needle in hand.

But the most exquisite case for the needle as an instrument of the mind comes from the diaries of trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) — the first professional woman astronomer in America, the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the first woman hired by the United States federal government for a “specialized nondomestic skill” in her capacity as “computer of Venus,” a one-woman GPS guiding sailors around the world, and the tireless educator who paved the way for American women in science.

In a diary entry from 1878, her sixtieth year, Mitchell writes:

Nothing comes out more clearly in astronomical observations than the immense activity of the universe. “All change, no loss, ’tis revolution all.”

Observations of this kind are peculiarly adapted to women. Indeed, all astronomical observing seems to be so fitted. The training of a girl fits her for delicate work. The touch of her fingers upon the delicate screws of an astronomical instrument might become wonderfully accurate in results; a woman’s eyes are trained to nicety of color. The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer. Routine observations, too, dull as they are, are less dull than the endless repetition of the same pattern in crochet-work.

A girl’s eye is trained from early childhood to be keen. The first stitches of the sewing-work of a little child are about as good as those of the mature man. The taking of small stitches, involving minute and equable measurements of space, is a part of every girl’s training; she becomes skilled, before she is aware of it, in one of the nicest peculiarities of astronomical observation… The touch is a delicate sense given in exquisite degree to a girl, and her training comes in to its aid. She threads a needle almost as soon as she speaks… Then comes in the girl’s habit of patient and quiet work, peculiarly fitted to routine observations. The girl who can stitch from morning to night would find two or three hours in the observatory a relief.

Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866
Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866

Complement with the heartening story of how Mitchell herself applied this herculean patience and delicate skill in repairing a spider’s web, then revisit artist Judy Chicago’s iconic embroidered celebration of women’s place in creative culture.

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This Is Not a Picture Book: An Irreverent Illustrated Ode to Why We Read

Charming cartography for the emotional voyages on which books take us.

This Is Not a Picture Book: An Irreverent Illustrated Ode to Why We Read

“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful meditation on why we read and write. And yet while the seed may be fertilized by the reader’s imagination, the soil is tilled by the simple practical act of deciphering small marks on a page or screen and wresting from them meaning. Despite Hermann Hesse’s exquisite case for why the highest form of reading is non-reading, we can only non-read after we read — the willingness for reading is the seedbed of whatever potential the book may release in us.

But today, as the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture is displacing the contemplative intimacy of the written word, with nuanced texts reduced to Instagram images of out-of-context quotes, how are we to instill in the young the willingness to garden their own minds in the act of reading?

That’s what Brooklyn-based Italian comic artist Sergio Ruzzier explores with sympathetic warmth and levity in This is not a picture book! (public library).

The story begins with the androgynous duck protagonist stumbling upon a book with no pictures and being at first baffled, then thoroughly vexed by this strange and seemingly senseless object.

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But as the duck skeptically engages with the book, words — some difficult, some familiar — come alive into worlds.

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Entire emotional landscapes unfold — now joyful, now sorrowful, now wild — as the duck slowly surrenders to the book and lets it carry her away before depositing her into the familiar comfort of her own bed: a beautiful testament to C.S. Lewis’s notion that books both change us and make us more at home in ourselves.

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Complement This is not a picture book! with Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston’s spectacular A Child of Books, then revisit Proust on why we read and Neil Gaiman on what books do for the human spirit.

Illustrations © Sergio Ruzzier courtesy of Chronicle Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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Weather, Weather: Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler’s Lyrical Illustrated Celebration of the Elements

A dreamlike meditation on our elemental companion.

Weather, Weather: Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler’s Lyrical Illustrated Celebration of the Elements

Certain languages, including French and my native Bulgarian, have one word for both “time” and “weather.” Perhaps the conflation arises from an inescapable similarity — like time, which envelops the entirety of our conscious experience, the weather is the indelible backdrop against which our lives are lived, constantly coloring our state of mind and saturating our language with myriad metaphors.

The abiding mystery and magic of our elemental companion is what artist Maira Kalman and writer Daniel Handler celebrate in Weather, Weather — the third installment in their series of dreamlike picture-books for grownups in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art, following Hurry Up and Wait, which explored the delicate art of presence in the age of productivity, and Girls Standing on Lawns, a work of unconcretizable aboutness and absolute delight.

Once again, Kalman and Handler curate a selection of artworks from the museum’s collection around a theme — in this case, the weather. These photographs of physical environments from around the world pour forth their cascading meanings, relished differently with each contemplation. Handler’s poetic prose and Kalman’s original watercolors string the archival images together into a lyrical meditation on the role of the elements in the human experience. Art and life intersect with largehearted levity in the result of this imaginative and unusual collaboration.

Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Hatsuo Ikeuchi’s Snowflakes, c. 1950.  (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Hatsuo Ikeuchi’s Snowflakes, c. 1950. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)
László Moholy-Nagy: The Diving Board, 1931. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Anonymous gift. © 2016 Artists Rights Society, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)
László Moholy-Nagy: The Diving Board, 1931. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Anonymous gift. © 2016 Artists Rights Society, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Man Diving, Esztergom by André Kertész, 1917. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Man Diving, Esztergom by André Kertész, 1917. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)

I was in my room wondering what it was like somewhere else.

What’s the weather like?

It’s like summer. It’s like doing nothing.

Delicious.

Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Alfred Stieglitz's Apples and Gable, Lake George, 1922.  (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Alfred Stieglitz’s Apples and Gable, Lake George, 1922. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)
International News Photo: “The Portent of Coming Disaster: A Tornado, Photographed as It Moved across the Sky toward White, S.D., by a Cameraman Who Was the Only Person Who Did Not Take Shelter in a Cyclone Cellar. None of the Buildings Shown in the Picture Was Damaged, as They Were Not in the Direct Path of the Tornado,” 1938. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The New York Times Collection. © 2016 International News Photo)
International News Photo: “The Portent of Coming Disaster: A Tornado, Photographed as It Moved across the Sky toward White, S.D., by a Cameraman Who Was the Only Person Who Did Not Take Shelter in a Cyclone Cellar. None of the Buildings Shown in the Picture Was Damaged, as They Were Not in the Direct Path of the Tornado,” 1938. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The New York Times Collection. © 2016 International News Photo)

The newspaper said it would be nice today.

What does the newspaper know.

Carl T. Gosset Jr./ The New York Times: “This Photo Was Made Just before 4 P.M.  at Broadway and 43rd Street, Looking East across Times Square.” July 24, 1959. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The New York Times Collection. © 2016 The New York Times)
Carl T. Gosset Jr./ The New York Times: “This Photo Was Made Just before 4 P.M. at Broadway and 43rd Street, Looking East across Times Square.” July 24, 1959. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The New York Times Collection. © 2016 The New York Times)
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Barney Ingoglia’s photograph for the New York Times article “Rain Raises Fears of Flooding: Pedestrians in Times Square Wading through a Puddle as Heavy Rains Began Yesterday. The Rain Was Expected to Continue Today, Melting Much of the Snow and Causing Fears of Flooding,” January 25, 1978.  (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Barney Ingoglia’s photograph for the New York Times article “Rain Raises Fears of Flooding: Pedestrians in Times Square Wading through a Puddle as Heavy Rains Began Yesterday. The Rain Was Expected to Continue Today, Melting Much of the Snow and Causing Fears of Flooding,” January 25, 1978. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)
Clarence H. White: Drops of Rain, 1903. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. Mervyn Palmer. © Clarence H. White)
Clarence H. White: Drops of Rain, 1903. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. Mervyn Palmer. © Clarence H. White)
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Children Playing in Snow by John Vachon, 1940. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Children Playing in Snow by John Vachon, 1940. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Alberto Giacometti Going Out for Breakfast, Paris, 1963.
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Alberto Giacometti Going Out for Breakfast, Paris, 1963.

I can’t even say what it’s like. It’s perfect, the whole thing. Come with me, take me with you. Let’s go out together and have poached eggs.

Delicious.

Valery Shchekoldin: Uliyanovsk, 1978. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund. © 2016 Valery Shchekoldin)
Valery Shchekoldin: Uliyanovsk, 1978. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund. © 2016 Valery Shchekoldin)

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Complement the tiny fabric-bound treasure Weather, Weather with Kalman’s Beloved Dog, an illustrated homage to a constant companion of a very different sort, then revisit artist Lauren Redniss’s exquisite celebration of the weather.

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