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Rebecca West on Survival, the Redemption of Suffering, and the Life-Saving Will to Keep Walking the Road to Ourselves

“If during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe.”

Rebecca West on Survival, the Redemption of Suffering, and the Life-Saving Will to Keep Walking the Road to Ourselves

In a 1928 letter to her sister, Virginia Woolf described the great English writer Rebecca West (December 21, 1892–March 15, 1983) as “hard as nails, very distrustful, and no beauty … a cross between a charwoman and a gipsy, but as tenacious as a terrier, with flashing eyes, very shabby, rather dirty nails, immense vitality, bad taste, suspicion of intellectuals, and great intelligence.” (Because Woolf regarded her with such amused admiration, she was pleased when West lauded Orlando as “a poetic masterpiece of the first rank” in her New York Herald Tribune review later that year.)

It was this great and rugged intellect that West poured into Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (public library) — her remarkable 1941 account of her three visits to Yugoslavia. Published at the peak of WWII and exploring a country made by WWI, the book accomplished with unparalleled poignancy West’s aim of revealing “the past side by side with the present it created.”

Dame Rebecca West

While recovering from surgery in an English hospital in the fall of 1934, West heard on the radio that Yugoslavia’s King Alexander I had been assassinated — the first monarch of a young country born out of the horrors of WWI, murdered by the same fascist forces that would pave the way for WWII. She recognized instantly, with a sorrowful urgency, that such local crises of inhumanity never exist in isolation from the whole of humanity. A quarter century before Martin Luther King urged us to see that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality [and] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” West reflected on hearing the radio announcement:

I had to admit that I quite simply and flatly knew nothing at all about the south-eastern corner of Europe … that is to say I know nothing of my own destiny.

And indeed, from West’s regional focus on my native Balkans radiates a larger inquiry into the collective fate of humanity, with all its tragedy and tenaciousness, and the ultimate resilience of the human spirit — nowhere more so than in a passage describing her encounter with a woman on a mountain road in Montenegro. West relays the woman’s response to being asked how she had ended up there, across the country from her hometown of Durmitor:

She laughed a little, lifted her ball of wool to her mouth, sucked the thin thread between her lips, and stood rocking herself, her eyebrows arching in misery. “It is a long story. I am sixty now,” she said. “Before the war I was married over there, by Durmitor. I had a husband whom I liked very much, and I had two children, a son and a daughter. In 1914 my husband was killed by the Austrians. Not in battle. They took him out of our house and shot him. My son went off and was a soldier and was killed, and my daughter and I were sent to a camp. There she died. In the camp it was terrible, many people died. At the end of the war I came out and I was alone. So I married a man twenty years older than myself. I did not like him as I liked my first husband, but he was very kind to me, and I had two children of his. But they both died, as was natural, for he was too old, and I was too old, and also I was weak from the camp. And now my husband is eighty, and he has lost his wits, and he is not kind to me any more. He is angry with everybody; he sits in his house and rages, and I cannot do anything right for him. So I have nothing.”

To the question of where she is headed on that mountain road, the woman responds:

“I am not going anywhere. I am walking about to try to understand why all this has happened. If I had to live, why should my life have been like this? If I walk about up here where it is very high and grand it seems to me I am nearer to understanding it.” She put the ball of wool to her forehead and rubbed it backwards and forwards, while her eyes filled with painful speculation. “Good-bye,” she said, with distracted courtesy, as she moved away, “good-bye.”

Public domain photograph via Swedish National Heritage Board

With this, West delivers her stroke of genius in revealing the animating force of human existence, that which gives rise to all art and all science and the irrepressible roving curiosity that has given us everything we call culture:

This woman [was] the answer to my doubts. She took her destiny not as the beasts take it, nor as the plants and trees; she not only suffered it, she examined it. As the sword swept down on her through the darkness she threw out her hand and caught the blade as it fell, not caring if she cut her fingers so long as she could question its substance, where it had been forged, and who was the wielder. She wanted to understand … the mystery of process.

I knew that art and science were the instruments of this desire, and this was their sole justification, though in the Western world where I lived I had seen art debauched to ornament and science prostituted to the multiplication of gadgets. I knew that they were descended from man’s primitive necessities, that the cave man who had to hunt the aurochs drew him on the rock-face that he might better understand the aurochs and have fuller fortune in hunting and was the ancestor of all artists, that the nomad who had to watch the length of shadows to know when he should move his herd to the summer pasture was the ancestor of all scientists. But I did not know these things thoroughly with my bowels as well as my mind. I knew them now, when I saw the desire for understanding move this woman. It might have been far otherwise with her, for she had been confined by her people’s past and present to a kind of destiny that might have stunned its victims into an inability to examine it. Nevertheless she desired neither peace nor gold, but simply knowledge of what her life might mean. The instrument used by the hunter and the nomad was not too blunt to turn to finer uses; it was not dismayed by complexity, and it could regard the more stupendous aurochs that range within the mind and measure the diffuse shadows cast by history. And what was more, the human will did not forget its appetite for using it.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s timelessly incisive perspective on the only effective antidote to evil, found in the fact that “one man will always be left alive to tell the story,” West considers the essential quality of spirit which the Montenegrin woman modeled:

If during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe. We shall discover what work we have been called to do, and why we cannot do it. If a mine fails to profit by its riches and a church wastes the treasure of its altar, we shall know the cause: we shall find out why we draw the knife across the throat of the black lamb or take its place on the offensive rock, and why we let the grey falcon nest in our bosom, though it buries its beak in our veins. We shall put our own madness in irons.

Complement this particular portion of the densely illuminating Black Lamb and Grey Falcon with Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering and Viktor Frankl, who was deported to a Nazi concentration camp just after the publication of West’s classic, on the human search for meaning and the key to spiritual survival.


How a Synesthete Experiences Bach: An Empathic Journey into Sound Through Minimalist Motion, Shape, and Color

An animated invitation to inhabit a rare neurological crossing of the senses.

“Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts,” Susan Sontag wrote in one of the most beautiful meditations on the power of music, “and the most sensual.” Indeed, music beckons to multiple of our senses, which is why Helen Keller, deaf and blind, was able to exult in “hearing” Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with her hand and Aldous Huxley wrote so beautifully of listening in the dark for “some exquisite soft harmony apprehended by another sense.”

There is, in fact, a special class of people who, quite literally, apprehend music by another sense: synesthetes.

Synesthesia is a peculiar neurological condition, in which the senses cross-wire to render ordinary such seemingly psychedelic experiences as seeing sound and hearing color. Nabokov was a famous synesthete — in his autobiography, he writes of having “a fine case of colored hearing,” perceiving each letter of the alphabet as corresponding to a specific color:

The yellows comprise various e’s and i’s, creamy d, bright-golden y, and u, whose alphabetical value I can express only by “brassy with an olive sheen.”

At age seven, Nabokov was greatly distraught upon receiving a set of colored alphabet blocks and complained to his mother that “their colors were all wrong.” To his surprise, she confessed that she shared synesthetic perception of the alphabet — some of her letter-colors even matched his — and that, furthermore, she was also “optically affected by musical notes.”

In his indispensable book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (public library), Oliver Sacks devotes an entire chapter to synesthesia and writes:

For centuries, humans have searched for a relationship between music and color. Newton thought that the spectrum had seven discrete colors, corresponding in some unknown but simple way to the seven notes of the diatonic scale. “Color organs” and similar instruments, in which each note would be accompanied by a specific color, go back to the early eighteenth century… For most of us, the association of color and music is at the level of metaphor. “Like” and “as if” are the hallmarks of such metaphors. But for some people one sensory experience may instantly and automatically provoke another. For a true synesthete, there is no “as if” — simply an instant conjoining of sensations. This may involve any of the senses — for example, one person may perceive individual letters or days of the week as having their own particular colors; another may feel that every color has its own peculiar smell, or every musical interval its own taste.


Synesthesia seems to go with an unusual degree of cross-activation between what, in most of us, are functionally independent areas of the sensory cortex — such cross-activation could be based on an anatomical excess of neural connections between different areas of the brain.

Israeli musician, artist, synesthete, and old friend Michal Levy has created a beautiful, minimalist animation as a sort of empathic device to help others experience chromesthesia — her particular form of synesthesia, in which sounds become associated with colors. Sixteen years after animating her visual experience of listening to John Coltrane, she is bringing Bach’s most famous prelude to multi-sensory life in a mesmerizing voyage into sound through shape, motion, and color, with an unexpected elegiac sidebar of love and loss.

Michal details her impetus, her creative process, and the haunting serendipitous discovery she made while working on the piece:

One day when I was sixteen, I realized that I could see music. The saxophone I played and the jazz I loved listening to came to life before my eyes, or perhaps behind my eyes, in shape and color — little animated characters at first, then something more abstract. By the time I was nineteen, I perceived even letters, numbers, and days of the week to have distinct colors. 5 is blue, 3 is red, without a shade of doubt. It was years until I learned that I was not alone — I had a rare neurological condition called synesthesia, a sort of crossing of sensory channels in which stimulation in one channel produces a response in another. Synesthetes can thus hear colors, see sounds, or taste smells, depending on the variety of synesthesia they have.

As a child playing the piano, long before my first conscious synesthetic experience, I was fascinated by how even the tiniest alteration in the position of my fingers could change the harmony completely. These shape-shifting harmonies had emotional undertones for me — I felt like they were taking me on a journey, telling me a story, nowhere more powerfully than in the most famous Bach prelude. It became a dream of mine to create an animation that conveyed this emotional voyage of harmony.

During my recent maternity leave, I embraced this challenge with the help of my dear friend Hagai Azaz, an animator. My guiding question was whether I could show the cascading flow of emotion, to make the feeling contagious, by using only color, the basic shape of circles, and minimalist motion, assigning to each musical chord the visual elements that correspond to it synesthetically. For me, music is a multidimensional experience — an ever-changing flow of shape, form, and color moving through space. Dance of Harmony seeks to bring this experience to life for those who can’t experience synesthesia directly.

There is also a private requiem buried in the piece: The Bach recording I had chosen features an extra bar, which another composer — the editor of a sheet music publishing company — had added a few decades after Bach composed it. People seemed to like it, so his version survived. When I chose this recording and made the film, I knew none of the backstory — but I did feel that one bar was amiss, somehow tensed. I called it “the bleeding heart.” It became the only part of the animation where the circles stop moving and pump in place against a rich red background. “The bleeding heart” falls between bars 22 and 23. My brother died between the ages of 22 and 23 during an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. Although it came about by chance, this synchronicity now lends a new layer of meaning to the animation as an abstract representation of my family’s story — configured one way growing up, then having to reconfigure as we incorporate the heartbreak of the loss into our lives.

Complement with great writers on why music moves us, then revisit this fascinating documentary about what it’s like to live with synesthesia.


Beautiful Brain: The Stunning Drawings of Neuroscience Founding Father Santiago Ramón y Cajal

“A graphic representation of the object observed guarantees the exactness of the observation itself.”

Oliver Sacks insisted that “ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing,” which he considered “a special, indispensable form” of talking to himself. Unusual creature though he was, the beloved neurologist was not the only scientist who turned to other forms of creative expression as a clarifying force for scientific inquiry. The Spanish histologist, onetime bodybuilder, selfie pioneer, and Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal (May 1, 1852–October 17, 1934), widely considered the founding father of modern neuroscience, used drawing the way Dr. Sacks used writing — as a vital way of thinking out loud, of giving form to ideas, of making arguments and fleshing out theories around the skeleton of observations.

Cajal — who, given the magnitude of his contributions, ought to be as much of a household name as Darwin and Pasteur — created hundreds of exquisite, exceptionally skilled drawings to illustrate his scientific papers. In them, he laid out the basic architecture of the nervous system and tackled the grand unanswered question of his era: How do nerve impulses travel between separate cells, or, what is the neurological basis of reflexes? Art became the sandbox for testing his theories, which in turn became a centerpiece of modern science.

The best of his drawings, ranging from the iconic to the never-before-published, are now collected in Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal (public library) — astonishingly detailed and deft illustrations, some reminiscent of Johannes Hevelius’s 17th-century comet drawings and others of the tree diagrams of medieval manuscripts.

Glial cells of the cerebral cortex of a child

Cajal was drawn to art from an early age, to a point of compulsion — as a boy, he was frequently possessed by what he called “manias” to draw everything in sight, and even drew his dreams. At sixteen, he fell in love with photography, particularly with the photographic process Daguerre had invented three decades earlier, and taught himself how to take, develop, and print daguerrotypes. A century and a half before the selfie, he produced a lifelong series of remarkably artful photographic self-portraits.

Self-portrait by Cajals at his library in his thirties
Self-portrait by Cajals at his laboratory in his thirties

But Cajal’s father, a physician, was unthrilled by his son’s artistic pursuits and hoped the boy would instead follow in his own footsteps. In an attempt to gently steer his course away from art and toward science, he persuaded young Santiago to help him teach anatomy at the local medical school. The plan was both a success and a failure — it only amplified Cajal’s passion for art, but it also kindled a lively interest in science. Like Leonardo, who made porous the membrane between art and science and who was a prescient anatomist, Cajal became enchanted by the mysteries of the human body and used his meager savings to build a home laboratory where he could undertake histology — the study of body tissues through a microscope.

The medial geniculate nucleus in the thalamus of the cat

Both in scope and in promise, histology fell partway between anatomy, which had been a staple of medicine for centuries, and microbiology, which Pasteur had rendered a research field du jour. The obscure discipline was in its infancy, its growth only recently accelerated by innovations in optical technology in the 1830s, but Cajal saw it as full of possibility. He would later write his poetic autobiography, Recollections of My Life:

I finally chose the cautious path of histology, the way of tranquil enjoyments. I knew well that I should never be able to drive through such a narrow path [as microbiology] in a luxurious carriage; but I should feel myself happy in contemplating the captivating spectacle of minute life in my forgotten corner and listening, entranced, from the ocular of the microscope, to the hum of the restless beehive which we all have within us.

Calyces of Held — synapses made by axons carrying auditory information and contacting neurons in a brainstem structure called the trapezoid body

It was from this transfixed vantage point at the eyepiece of the microscope that Cajal, who always considered himself “a visual type,” first saw the potential of fusing science with art in advancing discovery. At the University of Barcelona, he learned of the Golgi method — a technique pioneered by the Italian physician Camillo Golgi, using potassium dichromate and silver nitrate to stain neurons in black. It worked beautifully but unpredictably — there was no control over which neurons would be stained and which wouldn’t, rendering the results uneven and unreliable.

The pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex
A Purkinje neuron from the human cerebellum

Cajal toiled tirelessly to improve the technique until its scientific reliability was as spectacular as its aesthetic splendor — a feat he accomplished in 1888, which he considered his “year of fortune,” his very own pre-Einsteinian annus mirabilis. In a passage that calls to mind Alan Lightman’s beautiful writings about the creative sympathies between scientific and artist breakthrough, Cajal would later write:

The new truth, laboriously sought and so elusive during two years of vain efforts, rose up suddenly in my mind like a revelation… Realizing that I had discovered a rich field, I proceeded to take advantage of it, dedicating myself to work, no longer merely with earnestness, but with a fury.

In the grip of that fury, he worked fifteen-hour days and in a single year published fourteen scientific articles on the nervous system, which at the time was an enigmatic terra incognita.

An astrocyte in the human hippocampus
Pyramidal neurons of the central cortex and their axon pathways
The embryonic spinal cord

But even through his most groundbreaking scientific discoveries, Cajal remained at heart a Renaissance man. His books included a treatise on the technology and art of color photography, a compendium of aphorisms à la Oscar Wilde, a book of advice to young scientists à la Rilke, and a collection of science fiction short stories. He deliberately divided his autobiography into two parts, one exploring his artist passions and the other his scientific career.

Superior colliculus of the kitten
Diagram illustrating how information from the eyes might be transmitted to the brain

There was an almost daredevil aspect to Cajal’s choice to study the brain — the often controversial and infinitely challenging Everest of science at the end of the nineteenth century. Bodies fell along the way as some of the world’s most ambitious scientists attempted to reveal its mysterious inner workings. In one of the essays in the monograph, curator Lyndel King and editor Eric Himmel consider the visionary approach that elevated Cajal above the rest:

At best, a brain slice seen through a microscope is notoriously difficult to interpret. To borrow one of Cajal’s favorite metaphors, imagine entering a forest with a hundred billion trees armed only with a sketchbook, looking each day at blurry pieces of a few of those trees entangled with one another, and, after a few years of this, trying to write an illustrated field guide to the forest. You won’t get anywhere if you simply draw what you see every day; you’re going to have to build up a mental inventory of rules for the forest, and then scrupulously try to fit what you see into that framework, or be flexible enough to allow what you see to reshape your stock of ideas.

A generation earlier, the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin had argued that drawing cultivates the art of observation and helps one see the world more clearly. Cajal brought this ethos to his scientific work, using his illustrations — which he preferred to do freehand, rather than tracing images projected from a microscope — to deduce the framework of how the brain works. He would later write:

A graphic representation of the object observed guarantees the exactness of the observation itself.

But Cajal also cared deeply about the aesthetic quality of the art itself — he took great pains with his draughtsmanship and, at the start of his career, pooled his meager resources to pay for high-quality printing.

The labyrinth of the inner ear
The olfactory bulb of the dog

King and Himmel consider the integral role of Cajal’s art in his ultimate legacy as a scientist:

As with Einstein’s theories, it has taken many decades for those of us who are not scientists to catch up with Cajal’s brain. It wasn’t until 1946, twelve years after Cajal’s death, that the first electronic computer flickered into life, hinting that a machine could be built that behaved like a brain. That day may be (infinitely) far off, but since then, the concepts that Cajal discovered, explained, and illustrated have burrowed into the world’s technology, economy, popular myths, moral dilemmas, philosophical debates, and art and literature. Since Cajal, we have seen mounting evidence that the idea of the brain being as vast and mysterious as the universe — for centuries a trope for poets — may contain some literal truth. When we look at his drawings today, we see not diagrams or arguments, but the first clear pictures of that remote frontier, drawn by the man who traveled farthest into its endless reaches.

Complement the scrumptious Beautiful Brain, annotated with fascinating background on each of Cajal’s drawings, with Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter’s little-known mycological illustrations and Leonardo da Vinci’s visionary anatomical drawings, centuries ahead of medicine, then revisit this modern-day graphic novel about how the brain works, built upon Cajal’s legacy.

Images courtesy of Abrams Books


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