The Best History Books of 2012
From Mark Twain’s diary to the visual history of evolution, by way of Vonnegut, Sontag, and Klimt.
By Maria Popova
Following this year’s best science books, art books, design books, philosophy and psychology books, and children’s books, the 2012 best-of reading lists continue with the annual roundup of the year’s ten-or-so most fascinating history books. (Catch up on last year’s roundup here.)
NEW YORK DIARIES
For the past four centuries, New York City has been courted, confabulated, and cursed, in public and in private, by the millions of citizens who have called it home. New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 (UK; public library) is a remarkable feat of an anthology by Teresa Carpenter, culled from the archives of libraries, museums, and private collections to reveal a dimensional mosaic portrait of the city through the journal entries of the writers, artists, thinkers, and tourists, both famous and not, who dwelled in its grid over the past 400 years — easily the most dynamic and important depiction of the city since E. B. White’s timeless Here Is New York.
In an ingenious touch, Carpenter arranges the entries by day of the year, rather than chronologically, which brings to the foreground certain common patterns of daily life that appear to shape our experience of the city, be it in 1697 or 1976. At its heart, however, the collection exudes a certain unflinching quality of the city, unshakable solid ground that stands tenacious beneath the tempestuous weather patterns of great wars and great loves and great losses that swirl over.
Every century produces a diarist who laments, ‘This is the worst catastrophe ever to befall New York!’ Surely it seems that way at the moment. The city takes the blow, catches its breath, then moves along to the insistent rhythm of the tides. New York, as it emerges from these pages, is by turns a wicked city, a compassionate city, a muscular city, a vulnerable city, an artistic wonder, an aesthetic disaster, but forever a resilient city — and one loved fiercely by its inhabitants.
From the voyeuristic glimpses of famous lives (Edison, Kerouac, Twain, Roosevelt, de Beauvoir) to the textured anonymous masses (businessmen, clergymen, Victorian teenagers) that constitute the intricate living fabric of the city, the diary entries are at once engrossingly intimate and strikingly prototypical of the human condition.
On May 20, 1948, Jack Kerouac reflects on a general sociocultural peculiarity of New York, folded into the particular peculiarity of the writer’s life as he considers his first novel, The Town and the City:
No word from Scribner’s. Their silence and businesslike judicious patience is driving me crazy with tension, worry, expectation, disappointment — everything. And the novel is yet unfinished, really, and the time has come to start typing it and straightening it out. What a job in this weary life of mine, this lazy life. But I’ll get down to it. The news that Jesse James is still alive is very thrilling news to me, and my mother too, but we’ve noticed that it doesn’t seem to impress the New York world at all — which does bear out, in its own way, what I say about New York, that it is a heaven for European culture and not American culture. I don’t get personally mad these things any more, because that is overdoing things in the name of culture and at the expense of general humanity, but still, I get personally mad at those who scoff at the significance of Jesse James, bandit or no, to the regular American with a sense of his nation’s past.
Just the previous year, on November 19, a wholly different, more private side of Kerouac emerges:
Dark Eyes came to my house tonight and we danced all night long, and into the morning. We sat on the floor, on the beautiful rug my mother made for me, and listened to the royal wedding at six in the morning. My mother was charming when she got up and saw us there. I made Dark Eyes some crêpes suzette. We danced again, & sang.
On February 18, 1867, a 32-year-old Mark Twain paints a portrait in stark contrast with recent portrayals of the NYPD:
The police of Broadway seem to have been selected with special reference to size. They are nearly all large, fine-looking men, and their blue uniforms, well studded with brass buttons, their jack boots and their batons worn like a dagger, give them an imposing military aspect. They are gentlemanly in appearance and conduct… I hear them praised on every hand for their efficiency, integrity and watchful attention to business. It seems like an extravagant compliment to pay a policeman, don’t it? I am charmed with the novelty of it.”
On March 2, 1842, Charles Dickens writes:
Once more in Broadway! Here are the same ladies in bright colours walking to and fro, in pairs and singly; yonder in the very same light blue parasol which passed and repassed the hotel-window twenty times while we were sitting there. We are going to cross here. Take care of the pigs. Two portly sows are trotting up behind this carriage, and a select part of half-a-dozen gentlemen-hogs have just now turned the corner…
And who knew Thomas Edison had such a penchant for the poetic? On July 12, 1885, he captures beautifully a morning experience all too familiar:
Awakened at 5:15 A.M. — My eyes were embarrassed by the sunbeams — turned my back to them and tried to take another dip into oblivion — succeeded — awakened at 7 A.M. Thought of Mina, Daisy, and Mamma G — Put all 3 in my mental kaleidoscope to obtain a new combination à la Galton. Took Mina as a basis, tried to improve her beauty by discarding and adding certain features borrowed from Daisy and Mamma G. A sort of Raphaelized beauty, got into it too deep, mind flew away and I went to sleep again.
And on the following day, a deadpan blend of dark humor and entrepreneurship:
Went to New York via Desbrosses Street ferry. Took cars across town. Saw a woman get into car that was so tall and frightfully thin as well as dried up that my mechanical mind at once conceived the idea that it would be the proper thing to run a lancet into her arm and knee joints and insert automatic self-feeding oil cups to diminish the creaking when she walked.
During the night, New York was covered with snow. Central Park is transformed. The children have cast aside their roller skates and taken up skis; they rush boldly down the tiny hillocks. Men remain barehanded, but many of the young people stick fur puffs over their ears fixed to a half-circle of plastic that sticks to their hair like a ribbon — it’s hideous.
On October 29, 1985, a little over a year before his death, Andy Warhol meditates:
I broke something and realized I should break something once a week to remind me how fragile life is. It was a good plastic ring from the twenties.
2:30 p.m. The first blast jolted me out of bed!!!! My apartment shook and I heard all these people on the street screaming. Dashed outside – Armageddon??? WTC on fire! Both towers! I watched them burning from the Williamsburg Bridge. Unsure why – no one around me spoke english! Run back inside my apartment no phone – all TV stations static – cell doesn’t work – modem does – weird – quickly listen to news on my little battery operated transistor alarm clock radio. Terrorists! Hear first tower COLLAPSED right outside my window – freak! On radio – radio news people are freaking out. – run outside with my bike and camera. Everyone I see on the street is saying shit like “Oh my fucking God!” – everyone is in weird shock. No one is not effected.
In a chaotic Chinatown. Looking at only ONE WTC tower – on fire – so surreal. Just one – superbizarre! Was on cell phone with Bryan – only person I could get through to – weird) , camera in hand, as 2nd tower COLLAPSED right in front of me!! You could feel the dull roar in the concrete. Will never forget it – EVER. It was like a blooming grey daffodil that bloomed big and then dissipated into dust. An unbelievable image I will never forget. People on street – totally edgy. Super razor blade vibe everywhere – no traffic. EVERYONE – MOBS walking AWAY from disaster. I can’t believe I am looking up and there are no twin towers – like a fever dream.
My favorite entry comes on November 29, 1941, from a 19-year-old Jack Kerouac — at once a living testament to the richness of life as a college-dropout-turned-lifelong-learner (cue in Kio Stark’s new project) and a poignant meditation on the most fundamental tension of the human condition:
I returned to college in the Fall, but my mind wasn’t at rest. My family was not any too well fixed; I felt out of place, the coaches were insulting, I was lonely; I left and went down to the South to think things over. Since then, on my own, I have been learning fast, writing a lot, reading good men, and have been slowly making up my mind, seriously & quietly. Either I am loathsome to others, I have decided, or else I shall be a beacon of rich warm light, spreading good and plenty, making things prosper, being a cosmic architect, conquering the world and being respected, myself grinning surreptitiously. Either that, Sirs, or I shall be the most loathsome, useless, and parasitical (on myself) creature in the world. I shall be a denizen of the Underground, or a successful man of the world. There shall be no compromise!!! I mean it.
My only lament? Susan Sontag, one of my greatest intellectual heroes and a formidable New York diarist, didn’t make it into the collection. Omission notwithstanding, New York Diaries is an absolute masterpiece blending a curator’s discernment, an archivist’s obsessive rigor, a writer’s love of writing, and a New Yorker’s love of New York — the ultimate celebration of the city’s tender complexity and beautiful chaos.
Originally featured, with more excerpts, in January.
THE ORIGINS OF SEX
The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution (UK; public library) by Oxford University historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala offers a masterfully researched, absorbing, eloquent account of how, contrary to the modern mythology of the 1960s, today’s permissive sexual behavior first developed, seemingly suddenly, some three hundred years earlier, in 17th-century Western Europe. What emerges is a new lens for understanding the Enlightenment as a cultural phenomenon, by connecting this critical sexual transformation to the intellectual, political, and social forces that shaped the period.
The history of sex is usually treated as part of the history of private life, or of bodily experience. Yet that is itself a consequence of the Enlightenment’s conception of it as an essentially personal matter. My concern, by contrast, is not primarily to enter into the bedrooms and between the sheets of the past. It is to recover the history of sex as a central public preoccupation, and to demonstrate that how people in the past thought about and dealt with it was shaped by the most profound intellectual and social currents of their time.
The sexual revolution demonstrates how far and how quickly enlightened ways of thinking spread, and what important effects they had on popular attitudes and behavior.
These new norms of behavior, Dabhiowala is careful to point out, didn’t affect everyone equally — like other kinds of liberty, they “primarily benefited a minority of white, heterosexual, propertied men.” He goes on to explore how urbanization placed the enforcement of sexual discipline under increasing pressure, making London — the largest metropolis in the world at the time, a hub of political power, literature, culture, and innovation — the epicenter of these shifts. Regulating the newly sexually awakened masses, however, was another matter:
The principle that illicit sex was a public crime was asserted with increasing vigor form the early middle ages onwards.
Indeed, since the dawn of history every civilization had prescribed severe laws against at least some kinds of sexual immorality. The oldest surviving legal codes (c. 2100-1700 BCE), drawn up by the kings of Babylon, made adultery punishable by death, and most other near eastern and classical cultures also treated it as a serious offence: this was the view taken by the Assyrians, the ancient Egyptians, the Jews, the Greeks, and, to some extent, the Romans. The main concern of such laws was usually to uphold the honour and property rights of fathers, husbands, and higher-status groups.
The laws of Ethelbert (c. 602), the Anglo-Saxon king of Kent, stipulate the different fines payable ‘if a man takes a widow who does not belong to him’; for lying with servants or slave women of different classes; and for adultery with the wife of another freeman — in which case, as well as a heavy fine, the offender was ‘to obtain another wife with his own money, and bring her to the other’s home’.
The code of Alfred the Great (c. 893) made it lawful for any man to kill another if he found him ‘with his wedded wife, within closed doors or under the same blanket, or with his legitimate daughter or his legitimate sister, or with his mother’. That of King Cnut (c. 1020-23) forbade married men even from fornicating with their own slaves, and ordered that adulteresses should be publicly disgraced, lose their goods, and have their ears and noses cut off.
If these sound barbaric, the ethos of the dominant Christian tradition was — and remains — hardly different:
‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ was the seventh of [God’s] Ten Commandments, and every adulterer and adulteress, he had ordered, ‘shall surely be put to death’. The same fate was to be imposed upon anyone guilty of incest or bestiality, as upon men who had sex with each other: all such people defiled themselves and the community. If the daughter of a priest were to fornicate, she should be burned alive. If a man lay with a menstruating woman, ‘both of them shall be cut off from among their people’. If any man should lie with a betrothed maid, God’s will was that ‘ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of the city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die’ — ‘so thou shalt put away evil from among you’.
The centuries that followed brought little change and instead further developed what Dabhoiwala calls “this essentially negative view of sex.” Among the most powerful proponents of this view was Saint Augustine (354-430), bishop of the town of Hippo on the north African coast, who Dabhiowala argues has had a more profound impact on Christian attitudes towards sexuality than any other person. He came to see lust as the most dangerous of all human drives and, in a letter to another bishop, summed up his philosophy thusly:
For it intrudes where it is not needed and tempts the hearts of faithful and holy people with its untimely and even wicked desire. Even if we do not give in to these restless impulses of it by any sign of consent but rather fight against them, we would nonetheless, out of a holier desire, want them not to exist in us at all, if that were possible.
The church took these moral matters into its own hands with the establishment of is permanent courts around 1100, catapulting sexual offenses from the realm of private confession into the increasingly powerful system of public inquisition. The rise of towns and cities imposed yet another layer of punishment, giving rise to new civic penalties against adultery, fornication, and prostitution. By the later 13th century, such sexual and marital legal cases accounted for anywhere between 60 and 90 percent of all litigation. But despite the development of a formal system, punishments a remained crude violation of modern human rights:
In London, Bristol, and Gloucester, they constructed a special public ‘cage’ in the main market-place, in which to imprison and display prostitutes, adulterers, and lecherous priests; elsewhere, cucking-stools were used to punish whores… There also became established elaborate rituals of civic punishment for convicted whores, bawds, and adulterers. Serious offenders were taken on a long public procession through the city, dressed in symbolically degrading clothes and accompanied by the raucous clanging of pans and basins. Sometimes they would also be whipped, put in the pillory, have their hair shaved off, or be banished from the city.
But, by the 16th century, these punishments seemed insufficient to a moral-extremist cohort as the Protestant movement began to vocally condemn the Catholic Church — nicknamed the Whore of Babylon — for a lax attitude towards sexual morality, from its lecherous priests who took the ideal of clerical celibacy as a joke to the toleration of prostitution. And yet, the church was thriving in its hypocrisy:
[A]s the morals of the people were left to decay, the church itself grew rich on the proceeds of fines, indulgences, and other tricks it imposed on its hapless flock. In short, there was a direct connection between the spiritual and sexual corruption of the papacy and its followers.
The Origins of Sex goes on to reverse-engineer how modern ideas about sexual freedom and gender equality coalesced out of the stormy sexual attitudes and behaviors of 17th, 18th, and 19th-century England, exposing a rich new layer of understanding humanity’s most intimate mechanism for relating to self and other.
Originally featured in June.
HONORABLE MENTION: Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire.
TREES OF LIFE
Since the dawn of recorded history, humanity has been turning to the visual realm as a sensemaking tool for the world and our place in it, mapping and visualizing everything from the body to the brain to the universe to information itself. Trees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution (UK; public library) catalogs 230 tree-like branching diagrams, culled from 450 years of mankind’s visual curiosity about the living world and our quest to understand the complex ecosystem we share with other organisms, from bacteria to birds, microbes to mammals.
Though the use of a tree as a metaphor for understanding the relationships between organisms is often attributed to Darwin, who articulated it in his Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, the concept, most recently appropriated in mapping systems and knowledge networks, is actually much older, predating the theory of evolution itself. The collection is thus at once a visual record of the evolution of science and of its opposite — the earliest examples, dating as far back as the sixteenth century, portray the mythic order in which God created Earth, and the diagrams’ development over the centuries is as much a progression of science as it is of culture, society, and paradigm.
Theodore W. Pietsch writes in the introduction:
The tree as an iconographic metaphor is perhaps the most universally widespread of all great cultural symbols. Trees appear and reappear throughout human history to illustrate nearly every aspect of life. The structural complexity of a tree — its roots, trunk, bifurcating branches, and leaves — has served as an ideal symbol throughout the ages to visualize and map hierarchies of knowledge and ideas.
(More on Haeckel’s striking biological art here.)
Originally featured, with more images, in May.
AS CONSCIOUSNESS IS HARNESSED TO FLESH
It’s no secret Susan Sontag’s journals have been on heavy rotation here this year. As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (UK; public library), the second published volume of her diaries and also one of the best psychology and philosophy books of the year, offers an intimate glimpse of the inner life of a woman celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable intellectuals, yet one who felt as deeply and intensely as she thought. Oscillating between conviction and insecurity in the most beautifully imperfect and human way possible, Sontag details everything from her formidable media diet of literature and film to her intense love affairs and infatuations to her meditations on society’s values and vices. The tome includes her insights on art, love, writing, censorship, boredom, and aphorisms.
Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.
“The painter constructs, the photographer discloses,” Susan Sontag famously asserted in On Photography. But in the quarter century since, the rise of digital photography and image manipulation software has increasingly transmogrified the photographer into a constructor of reality, a reality in which believing is seeing. Still, image manipulation dates much further back — in fact, to the dawn of photography itself. Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop (UK; public library), the companion book to the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition of the same title, traces the evolution of image manipulation from the 1840s to the 1990s, when computer software first began to revolutionize the alteration of photographs.
These images — artful, subversive, unapologetic in their unreality — serve sometimes to amuse and entertain, sometimes to deliberately deceive, sometimes to comment on social and political issues, and always to give pause with how they tease and taunt our assumptions of optical reality and visual representation.
Met curator Mia Fineman writes in the introduction:
Over the past twenty years, photography has undergone a dramatic transformation. Mechanical cameras and silver-based film have been replaced by electronic image sensors and microchips; instead of shuffling through piles of glossy prints, we stare at the glowing screens of laptops, tablets, and mobile phones; negative enlargers and chemical darkrooms have given way to personal computers and image-processing software. Digital cameras and applications such as Photoshop have create, look at, and think about photographs. Among the most profound cultural effects of these new technologies has been a heightened awareness of the malleability of the photographic image and a corresponding loss of faith in photography as an accurate, trustworthy means of representing the visual world. As viewers, we have become increasingly savvy, even habitually skeptical, about photography’s claims to truth.
Originally featured in October.
KURT VONNEGUT: LETTERS
Abidingly yet impatiently awaited by Vonnegut fans everywhere, Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (UK; public library) finally arrived this year and is just as fantastic as expected. What makes the anthology particularly sublime is that strange, endearing way in which so much of what Vonnegut wrote about to his friends, family, editors, and critics appears at first glance mundane but somehow peels away at the very fabric of his character and reveals the most tender boundaries of his soul.
For a taste: In the mid-1960s, Vonnegut was offered a teaching position at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. His role as long-distance father and husband was propelled by voluminous correspondence with his family, who remained in their Cape Cod residence. In a letter to his wife, Jane, dated September 28, 1965, he outlines his daily routine:
In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me. I’m just as glad they haven’t consulted me about the tiresome details. What they have worked out is this: I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach of prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit-ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not. Last night, time and my body decided to take me to the movies. I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heart-breaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.
Originally featured in November.
THE MEDICAL BOOK
Last year, Clifford Pickover brought us The Physics Book — a lavish chronology of physics milestones, from the Big Bang (13.7 billion BC) to Quantum Resurrection (> 100 trillion), and one of the 11 best science books of 2011. This year, he follows up with The Medical Book: From Witch Doctors to Robot Surgeons, 250 Milestones in the History of Medicine (UK; public library) — an equally impressive tome inviting us on “a vast journey into the history of medicine that includes eminently practical topics along with the odd and perplexing.” From practical inventions like eyeglasses (1284), condoms (1564), and cochlear implants (1977) and to era-defining innovations like
Pickover writes in the introduction:
When colleagues ask me what I feel are the greatest milestones in medicine, I usually offer three events. the first involves the use of ligatures to stem the flow of blood during surgeries, for example, as performed by the French surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510-1590). he promoted ligature (e.g., tying off with twine) of blood vessels to prevent hemorrhage during amputations, instead of the traditional method of burning the stump with a hot iron to stop bleeding. The second key milestone includes methods for decreasing pain through general anesthetics such as ether, attributed to several American physicians. The third breakthrough concerns antiseptic surgery, which was promoted by British surgeon Joseph Lister (1827-1912), whose use of carbolic acid (now called phenol) as a means of sterilizing wounds and surgical instruments dramatically reduced postoperative infections.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Hidden Treasure, which explored 10 centuries of visualizing the human body in medicine, and The Art of Medicine, a 2,000-year visual journey into our collective corporal curiosity.
Originally featured in September.
Boredom has never enjoyed an admirable reputation, and in the age of the internet’s incessant on-demand stimulation, it seems at once anachronistic and antithetical — a particularly pathetic condition to profess, a personal failure of sorts. But in Boredom: A Lively History (UK; public library), classics scholar Peter Toohey examines boredom as an adaptive mechanism. From Madame Bovary to fMRI, he explores the roots, symptoms, and symbolism of boredom across art history, psychology, and neurochemistry to examine what it reveals about us both as individuals and as a culture.
Boredom is, in the Darwinian sense, an adaptive emotion. Its purpose, that is, may be designed to help one flourish.
Toohey argues that boredom, unlike primary emotions like happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, or disgust, takes a secondary role, alongside “social emotions” like sympathy, embarrassment, shame, guilt, pride, jealousy, envy, gratitude, admiration, and contempt. He delineates between two main types of boredom — simple boredom, which occurs regularly and doesn’t require that you be able to name it, and existential boredom, a grab-bag condition that is “neither an emotion, nor a mood, nor a feeling” but, rather, “an impressive intellectual formulation” that has much in common with depression and is highly self-aware, something Toohey calls the most self-reflective of conditions.
Toohey examines the relationship between boredom and disgust, the former being a mild derivation of the latter — boredom is to disgust what annoyance is to anger. Boredom is also connected to surfeit — surfeit, coupled with monotony, predictability, and confinement, produces boredom.
Boredom is an emotion usually associated with a nourished body: like satiety, it is not normally for the starving.
But our reflexive means of alleviating boredom — novelty-seeking, drugs, extreme behaviors — are, as most of us are intellectually aware but have at some point been experientially blind to, remarkably ineffective. Toohey observes:
As fast as the new is experienced…it is liable to become boring. The new becomes a variant of the infinite. It recedes infinitely.
This touches on what’s perhaps the most transfixing aspect of boredom — its relationship with time:
Infinity is of course temporal as well as spatial. Time has a very interesting relationship with boredom and its representations. We have all experienced the sluggishness of time when we have been confined in boring situations. According to one of the late Clement Freud’s famous witticisms, ‘if you resolve to give up smoking, drinking and loving you don’t actually live longer, it just seems longer.’
In this way, boredom appears to be the polar opposite of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has famously termed flow — a state of intense focus you enter whilst absorbed in an enthralling task, when you lose track of time.
And yet, our tendency to seek a cure for boredom in the new and shiny appears to be a fundamental part of being human, a deep-seated cultural phenomenon:
Popular culture is littered with examples of this process of rule breaking as a way to escape the chronic boredom of modern life. The problem with this rule breaking is that it so quickly becomes predictable, prosaic and boring. Avant-garde art and rock’n’roll, to take two examples, both staged revolts against the status quo precisely by way of dazzling, intense novelty, but both quickly became as predictable as corn niblets.
Rule breaking, if it’s done regularly, quickly becomes just another element in the edifice of the middle-class boredom that it was designed to replace. Worse still, rule breaking becomes confused with fashion and being modern and that quickly becomes old-fashioned too. Remember what Oscar Wilde had to say? ‘Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern; one is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly.
Originally featured, with a boredom threshold self-test, in June.
LEONARDO DA VINCI: ANATOMIST
Though Leonardo da Vinci endures as the quintessential polymath, the epitome of the “Renaissance Man” dabbling in a wide array of disciplines — art, architecture, cartography, mathematics, literature, engineering, anatomy, geology, music, sculpture, botany — his interest in science was anything but cursory. In Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist (UK; public library), Martin Clayton, senior curator of the Royal Collection, looks well beyond his iconic Vitruvian Man to explore Leonardo’s remarkably accurate anatomical illustrations that remained hidden from the world for nearly 400 years after Da Vinci’s death.
Springing from the “true to nature” ethos of his paintings, Leonardo’s fascination with the human body took him to the morgues and hospitals of Florence, where he performed dissections of corpses, often of executed criminals. His greatest feat was understanding the workings of the heart. After discovering a bulb-shaped swelling at the root of the aorta, he came strikingly close to uncovering the mechanisms of blood circulation more than a century before formal science arrived at it. In fact, he injected melted wax into the heart of an ox, then a glass model of the cast and pumped it with water with a suspension of grass seeds in order to observe the vortexes at work. He then concluded that the swelling made the aortic valve close after each heartbeat, a proposition which cardiologists didn’t arrive at until the early 20th century and didn’t fully confirm until the 1980s.
Perhaps his most famous anatomical drawing was of a 100-year-old man, who had reported being in excellent health mere hours before his death. When Leonardo dissected him to see “the cause of so sweet a death” and found cirrhosis of the liver and a blockage of an artery to the heart, producing the first-ever description of what is now known as coronary vascular occlusion.
As a great artist, Leonardo had two advantages over his contemporary anatomists. First of all, as a sculptor, engineer, architect, he had an intuitive understanding of form — when he dissected a body, he could understand in a very fluid way how the different parts of the body fit together, worked together. And then, having made that understanding, as a supreme draftsman, he was able to record his observations and discoveries in drawings of such lucidity, he’s able to get across the form, the structure to the viewer in a way which had never been done before and, in many cases, has never been surpassed since.
Tough Leonardo intended to publish his drawings as an illustrated treatise on human anatomy, but when he died in 1519, his anatomical papers were buried amongst his private possessions and vanished from public sight. In the early 1600s, around 600 of his surviving drawings were bound in a single collection and by the end of the century, they mysterious made their way to the Royal Collection. Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist gathers 90 of these seminal drawings, contextualized in a discussion of their anatomical significance. Accompanying the books is an iPad app, presenting 268 pages of Leonardo’s notebooks in magnificent high resolution.
Originally featured in July.
THE AGE OF INSIGHT
Something unusual defined Vienna between 1890 and 1918, something that shaped more of Western culture than we dare suspect — artists, writers, thinkers and scientists across biology, medicine, and psychoanalysis came into regular contact and, in the process of these interactions, steered the course of modern art and science. In The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present (UK; public library), Nobel laureate Eric Kandel traces the spark of this ongoing dialogue between art and science through three key elements: the exchange of insights between seminal modern artists and the members of the Vienna School of Medicine; the Vienna School of Art History’s exploration of the interaction between art and the cognitive psychology of art in the 1930s; and modern science’s relatively nascent preoccupation with an emotional neuroaesthetic, bridging cognitive psychology and biology to examine our perceptual, emotional, and emphatic responses to works of art.
Kandel argues — much like physicist Lawrence Krauss has suggested — that science and art share the same fundamental questions, but go about answering them in different ways. While brain science is concerned with the mental life that arises from the activity of the brain, including how perception and memory work, and what defines consciousness, art offers insight into the more experiential qualities of mind, like the subjective measures of what certain experiences feel like. Kandel observes:
A brain scan may reveal the neural signs of depression, but a Beethoven symphony reveals what that depression feels like. Both perspectives are necessary if we are to fully grasp the nature of mind, yet they are rarely brought together.
(Cue in Jonah Lehrer’s articulate case for “a fourth culture of knowledge” that brings together the sciences and the humanities for a necessary dialogue that enriches both.)
But among Kandel’s greatest feats is the eloquent, rigorous debunking of the popular myth that bringing the lens of science to art would somehow detract from our enjoyment of the latter. (In the process, he slips in a fine addition to this recent omnibus of definitions of science.)
Science seeks to understand complex processes by reducing them to their essential actions and studying the interplay of those actions — and this reductionist approach extends to art as well. Indeed, my focus on one school of art, consisting of only three major representatives, is an example of this. Some people are concerned that a reductionist analysis will diminish our fascination with art, that it will trivialize art and deprive it of its special force, thereby reducing the beholder’s share to an ordinary brain function. I argue to the contrary, that by encouraging a dialogue between science and art and by encouraging a focus on one mental process at a time, reductionism can expand our vision and give us new insights into the nature and creation of art. These new insights will enable us to perceive unexpected aspects of art that derive from the relationship between biological and psychological phenomena.
He goes on to argue that, rather than reducing the complexity and richness of the art experience, the scientific understanding of the brain and its responses might help us better understand the very impulses and aims of creativity and would “contribute to a broader cultural framework for art history, aesthetics, and cognitive psychology.”
To keep this dialogue between the arts and sciences coherent and maximally meaningful, Kandel focuses his lens on one particular form of art. Portraiture lands itself to scientific exploration uniquely, thanks to a long legacy of studies of human facial emotional expression, shaped by Darwin’s photographic experiments, and a sufficient scientific understanding of how we respond to the facial expressions and body language of others, perceptually, emotionally, and empathically.
Kandel further focuses the discussion on three specific modernist artists — Gustav Klimt, Oscar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele — who “emphasized that the function of the modern artist was not to convey beauty, but to convey new truths.”
Klimt, for instance, read Darwin and became fascinated by the structures of the cell, which permeated his work. In his iconic portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the small iconographic images on Adele’s dress aren’t mere decoration — they symbolize male and female cells, with rectangles representing sperm and ovals eggs. Kandel writes:
These biologically inspired fertility symbols are designed to match the sitter’s seductive face to her full-blown reproductive capabilities.
(In heartening evidence for the cultural potency of such cross-pollination of disciplines, Adele’s portrait fetched Klimt $135 million — the most ever paid for an individual painting by that point in history, and in stark contrast with Klimt’s otherwise unremarkable career prior.)
Meanwhile, a chain of influential scientists on the Vienna scene, stretching from Second Vienna School of Medicine founder Carl von Rokitansky to Freud, built a new dynamic framework of the human psyche, which radically changed the understanding of the human mind. Through conversations with artists that took place in museums, opera houses, theaters, and coffee houses — the same Enlightenment epicenters Steven Johnson points to as crucial for innovation in Where Good Ideas Come From — these ideas entered the scope of artistic concern and were soon translated onto canvases.
Kandel brings it all together for the modern reader by outlining our current understanding of the science of perception, memory, emotion, empathy, and creativity — in short, what makes us human — and how it shapes our experience of art, making The Age of Insight not just fascinating but necessary.
Originally featured in April.
BONUS: A GLORIOUS ENTERPRISE
The institution is conceived for the purposes of rational, free, literary and scientific conversation… We meet also to compare the advances of the sciences in the rest of the world with our own… We are lovers of science.
So began the story of a small group of amateur scientists, who gathered in an equally small apartment on the corner of Second and Market streets in Philadelphia one chilly Saturday evening on January 25, 1812, several blocks away from a rival group — the American Philosophical Society, founded by Benjamin Franklin some seventy years prior. Our heroes had been excluded from APS for “social reasons” — immigrants and self-made men, they had been shunned by the APS, a place for the socially prominent American gentry. But, passionate in their love for science and natural history, they remained undeterred and on March 21 of the same year they named their gathering the “Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia,” which stands today as the oldest natural history museum in the Western Hemisphere.
To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Academy, University of Pennsylvania Press at my alma mater has published A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science (UK; public library) — a magnificent, epic tome that tells in 464 lavishly illustrated pages, weighing in at nearly 10 pounds and over a foot tall, the story of the Academy and its quest to acquire and disseminate knowledge of the natural world.
And what a story it is — from how Ernest Hemingway shaped the field of ichthyology to what Edgar Allan Poe was doing in the oldest-known photograph taken inside a museum, it’s a story brimming with rare glimpses of strange specimens and obscure images, laced with tales of scientific rivalry, boundless inspiration, ruthless pursuits of scientific immortality, and perseverance in the face of terrible odds, with cameos by Thomas Jefferson and James Bond, among other unlikely heroes.
Magnificent in both its scope and its ambitious physicality, A Glorious Enterprise is a fascinating miniature museum in and of itself, exploring the cultural history of natural history with equal parts rigor and romanticism — the hallmark of great science.
Originally featured, with more images, in April.
Published December 10, 2012