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Mary Shelley on the Courage to Speak Up Against Injustice and the Power of Words in Revising the World

“Words have more power than any one can guess; it is by words that the world’s great fight, now in these civilized times, is carried on.”

Mary Shelley on the Courage to Speak Up Against Injustice and the Power of Words in Revising the World

“To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men*,” the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in her 1914 anthem against silence — a line Rachel Carson leaned on in summoning her epoch-making courage to speak inconvenient truth to power as she awakened the modern environmental conscience.

“In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality… what I most regretted were my silences… My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you,” Audre Lorde admonished a generation later in her blueprint to “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” — her own courageous and catalytic manifesto for another vital awakening.

One hundred years before Lorde’s birth, Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) — another woman of extraordinary vision, courage, and passion for justice — explored the actionable might of words in social change and the power of breaking silence in a tiny, potent fragment from her enormous penultimate novel, Lodore (public library | public domain).

Mary Shelley. Art from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

In a sentiment spoken by a heroine modeled on her own young self — a young woman of radiant intellectual beauty, educated in the classics, a survivor of great personal losses and misfortunes, endowed with a “singular mixture of mildness and independence”; a woman whom one approaches “without fear of encountering any of the baser qualities of human beings, — their hypocrisy, or selfishness”; a woman whose father (like Shelley’s own famous father) had taught her “to penetrate, to anatomize, to purify [her] motives; but once assured of [her] own integrity, to be afraid of nothing” — she writes:

Words have more power than any one can guess; it is by words that the world’s great fight, now in these civilized times, is carried on; I never hesitated to use them, when I fought any battle for the miserable and oppressed. People are so afraid to speak, it would seem as if half our fellow-creatures were born with deficient organs; like parrots they can repeat a lesson, but their voice fails them, when that alone is wanting to make the tyrant quail.

Shelley herself built her remarkable life upon the foundational ethos that words are not only our best instrument of change, but our best conduit of the intimacy and understanding which bind us to one another and from which every actionable impulse toward sympathy and solidarity arises. Elsewhere in Lodore, she writes:

That existence is scarcely to be termed life, which does not bring us into intimate connexion with our fellow-creatures.

Complement with Rebecca Solnit on breaking silence as our mightiest weapon against oppression and some excellent advice to a young activist from Mary Shelley’s father, the great radical philosopher William Godwin, then revisit Shelley, writing in an earlier novel about a world ravaged by a deadly pandemic, on what makes life worth living.

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The Stuff of Stars: A Stunning Marbled Serenade to the Native Poetry of Science and the Cosmic Interleaving of Life

A consummate celebration of the improbable loveliness of life amid the edgeless panorama of cosmic being.

The Stuff of Stars: A Stunning Marbled Serenade to the Native Poetry of Science and the Cosmic Interleaving of Life

“Before I was born out of my mother,” Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass, “my embryo has never been torpid… For it the nebula cohered to an orb.” Only by connecting our own birth, our own existence, to that of everything and everyone we know, to the birth of the universe itself, can we confidently and genuinely say with Whitman, who called himself a “Kosmos,” that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”; only then can we not only think but feel the elemental truth in his contemporary John Muir’s insistence that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” A century and a half after Whitman and Muir, a century and a half after staggering leaps in our scientific understanding of the life of the universe and the universe of life, the great evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis moored this poetic truth in the reality of science by observing that “the fact that we are connected through space and time shows that life is a unitary phenomenon, no matter how we express that fact.”

That atomic interleaving of existence across the sweep of space and time and individual selves is what author Marion Dane Bauer and artist Ekua Holmes celebrate in The Stuff of Stars (public library) — a serenade to the native poetry inside the science of life, inspired by the iconic Carl Saganism that “we’re made of star-stuff” (itself inspired by the legacy of the trailblazing astronomer Cecilia Payne, who discovered the chemical composition of the universe against the odds of her time and place).

Opening with a narrative verse evocative of Marie Howe’s stunning poem “Singularity,” the lyrical story begins before the beginning of time and unspools into the everythingness of everything. Bauer writes:

In the dark,
in the dark,
in the deep, deep dark,
a speck floated,
invisible as thought,
weighty as God.
There was yet no time,
there was yet no space.
No up,
no down,
no edge,
no center.

No Earth with soaring hawks,
scuttling beetles,
trees reaching for the sky.
There was no sky.
No you.
No me.
Only the speck,
waiting,
waiting…

Holmes’s illustrations, nebular and alive and animated by marbling — a technique of rich symbolism and cross-cultural history — furnish the perfect visual metaphor for the book’s elemental reminder that we live in a universe of constant flow, flux, and metamorphosis, and that we ourselves are but a speck of color floating into shape for a brief moment before being washed into the perpetually repatterned marbling of existence; that any one life, including our own, is as precious as it is improbable and transient, and all the more precious for its improbability and transience.

With a poet’s concision and precision of thought-in-image, Bauer chronicles the formation of our Solar System and the chance miracle of our own Pale Blue Dot, so improbably hospitable to life against the odds of an austere cosmos — a planet that orbits its star “from just the right distance and with just the right tilt to be sometimes warm, sometimes cool”; a planet ideally poised to foment the astonishing diversity and splendor of the marbling of matter we call life, “perfect for turning that starry stuff into mitochondria, jellyfish, spiders, into ferns and sharks, into daisies and galloping horses.”

Again and against
stardust
gave birth
to stardust.

Bauer goes on to trace the unstoppable rush of species and generations, fading in and out of the scene, restaging the next act with their own existence — the dinosaurs making room for the humans, our ancestors making room for us.

Leafing through the consummately illustrated story as it moves from the Big Bang with its near-instantaneous generation of all the matter that made everything we know to the slow, steady birth of stars and planets, of oceans and mountains, of all the creatures that tread and bloom and burrow and soar over and on and in them, I am reminded of Rachel Carson’s immortally poetic observation that “against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change”; I am reminded of James Baldwin’s impassioned insistence that “nothing is fixed… the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock… the sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us.”

Bauer ends this vignette of the panorama with the birth of the reader, addressing the child directly as a child of the universe, with the Whitmanesque recognition of how “the nebula cohered” to manifest this singular existence:

Then one day…
in the dark,
in the dark,
in the deep, deep dark,
another speck floated,
invisible as dreams,
special as Love.
Waiting,
waiting,
dividing,
changing,
growing.
Until at last,
YOU burst into the world.

Reminding the young reader that each breath they inhale is air once breathed by the woolly mammoths and each tear they cry is water that once lapped in the primordial seas, Bauer ends the story by inviting the voice of the parent to place the child into this glorious singularity of being — a splendid message that not only enlarges once’s own sense of being but, in celebrating this interbelonging with the rest of the living world, is the only viable seed for any real sense of the ecological responsibility that must bloom in the coming generations if this precious, precarious, shimmering world is to go on cohering into beauty and being.

You
and the velvet moss,
the caterpillars,
the lions.

You
and the singing whales,
the larks,
the frogs.

You,
and me
loving you.
All of us
the stuff of stars.

Couple The Stuff of Stars (not to be confused with the similarly titled grownup biography of trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, about whom there also happens to be a wonderful picture-book biography) with a gorgeous animated short film of Marie Howe’s kindred-spirited poem “Singularity,” then revisit Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, also inspired by Carl Sagan.

Reproductions courtesy of Candlewick Press. Photographs by Maria Popova.

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Snakes, Dragons, and the Power of Music: Strange and Wondrous 18th-Century Illustrations of Real and Mythic Serpents

“That there is not a wise Purpose in every thing that is made because we do not understand it, is as absurd as for a Man to say, there is no such thing as Light, because he is blind and has no Eyes to see it.”

In 1742, more than a century before Darwin parted the veil of creationist mythology to reveal the reality of nature, an English theologian by the name of Charles Owen published An Essay Toward a Natural History of Serpents — a curious artifact from the museum of sensemaking, a fossil from the tidal zone between ignorance and knowledge where the primordial waters of superstition are lapping at the slowly emerging terra cognita of science.

Available as a print and as a face mask.

Depicted as equally real alongside the common vipers familiar to every English child are the “poetick Griffins,” a “monstrous Serpent of four or five Yards long… very large and furious,” and the Ethiopian dragons, inherited from ancient Greek mythology and believed to kill elephants “by winding themselves about the Elephant’s Legs, and then thrusting their Heads up their Nostrils, fling them, and suck their Blood till they are dead.”

Available as a print and as a face mask.

What emerges is a kind of natural history tinted by supernatural inheritance — while Owen was inspired by the symbology of reptiles in a great many of the world’s religious traditions, he brought the mindset of a naturalist or “natural philosopher” (the word scientist was yet to be coined) to the endeavor. While his prefatory note to the reader is trapped in the mind and language of its time, speaking of the “Almighty Creator,” the “Divine Wisdom in the works of Nature,” and the immutability of species in their “Eternal Design,” he also advocates passionately for acknowledging the limits of our knowledge and savoring the rewards of observation, especially of looking more closely at what is commonly overlooked. Although his motive is theological, its end and effect are almost scientific:

That there is not a wise Purpose in every thing that is made because we do not understand it, is as absurd as for a Man to say, there is no such thing as Light, because he is blind and has no Eyes to see it.

For the Illustration of this, we may take a short View of Creatures, in vulgar account too diminutive and despicable as a Species, to deserve a close Attention.

Available as a print and as a face mask.

Even looking closely at the most “Noxious” of creatures, he suggests, brings us into more intimate contact with the consummate perfection of nature, for the more we consider them, the more we find not a particular reason why they should exist but no reason why they should not. A lovely notion to roll against the palate of the mind — a notion that sweetens a great many other contexts with its implications.

Available as a print and as a face mask.

Nestled between the serpents are other poison-wielding animals — spiders, scorpions, frogs, wasps, hornets, the tarantula (“a kind of an overgrown Spider, about the Size of a common Acorn,” against the deadly bite of which “the most effectual and certain Remedy is Musick.”)

Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.

And then, in one of those glorious metaphysical meanderings lacing pre-scientific works of “natural philosophy,” Owen turns to the belief that music mitigates the effects of poisons, physical and moral, and adds a reverie to the canon of great writers extolling the power of music:

Musick appears to be one of the most antient of Arts, and of all other, vocal Musick must have been the first kind, and borrowed from the various natural Strains of Birds; as stringed Instruments were from Winds whistling in hollow Reeds, and pulsatile Instruments (as Drums and Cymbals) from the hollow Noise of concave Bodies. This is the Conjecture.

Musick has ever been in the highest Esteem in all Ages, and among all People. Nor could Authors express their Opinions of it strongly enough, but by inculcating, that it was in Heaven, and was one of the principal Entertainments of the Blessed.

The Effects ascribed to Musick by the Antients, almost amount to Miracles; by means thereof Diseases are said to have been cured, Unchastity corrected, Seditions quelled, Passions raised and calmed, and even Madness occasioned.

Musick has been used as a Sermon of Morality… The Pythagoreans made use of Musick to cultivate the Mind, and settle in it a passionate Love of Virtue… made use of it, not only against Diseases of the Mind, but those of the Body. It was the common Custom of the Pythagoreans to soften their Minds with Musick before they went to sleep; and also in the Morning, to excite themselves to the Business of the Day.

This Cure of Distempers by Musick sounds odd, but was a celebrated Medicine among the Antients. We have already considered, how those wounded by the Tarantula were healed by Musick; the Evidence of which is too strong to be overturned.

Available as a print and as a face mask.

Couple with biologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer, writing a quarter millennium after Owen, on how the overlooked splendor of moss refines the art of attentiveness to all scales of existence, then savor other stunning scientific and natural history illustrations from Owen’s era: the consummate illustrations for the world’s first encyclopedia of medicinal plants, which the young self-taught artist and botanist Elizabeth Blackwell painted to bail her husband out of debtor’s prison; the self-taught German artist and astronomer Maria Clara Eimmart’s haunting blue-and-gold renditions of the Solar System as it was then known; Sarah Stone’s paintings of exotic, endangered, and now-extinct species; and some wondrous illustrations of owls from Darwin’s century.

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Drawing on Walls: An Wondrous Illustrated Homage to Keith Haring, His Irrepressible Art of Hope, and His Beautiful Bond with Children

“Children know something that most people have forgotten. Children possess a fascination with their everyday existence that is very special and would be very helpful to adults if they could learn to understand and respect it.”

Drawing on Walls: An Wondrous Illustrated Homage to Keith Haring, His Irrepressible Art of Hope, and His Beautiful Bond with Children

Growing in Bulgaria, one of my most cherished objects was also one of the first fragments of American culture to enter our home after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the Iron Curtain — a small square desk calendar in a clear plastic clamshell, containing twelve illustrated cards, each vibrantly alive with tiny black-contoured figures dancing in various jubilant formations amid a festival of primary colors. I would look up to savor its mirth between math equations and domestic disquietudes. However gloomy a day I was having, however sunken my child-heart, these figures would transport me to a buoyant world of sunlit possibility. I knew nothing about their creator beyond the name on the back of the clamshell: Keith Haring (May 4, 1958–February 16, 1990). I knew nothing about the bittersweet beauty of his courageous life, nothing about the tenacious activism behind his art, nothing about the enormous uninterrupted chain of human figures bonded in kinship, which he had painted on the remnants of the very wall whose collapse had placed this miniature monument to joy on my desk.

Nearly three decades later, having traded Bulgaria for Brooklyn by some improbable existential acrobatics, I encountered Haring’s work again in a magnificent mural he had painted for a young people’s club in New York City in the final year of his twenties, not long before his death, which my friends at Pioneer Works had resurrected and brought to our neighborhood. The same rush of irrepressible gladness poured into the grownup heart from the twenty-five-foot wall as had poured into the child-heart from the five-inch calendar. I grew attuned to the echoes of his sensibility bellowing down the corridor of time, reverberating strongly in the work of established artists in my own community.

Long before he moved to Brooklyn in pursuit of his own calling, poet Matthew Burgess had a parallel experience of Haring’s world-expanding art, which he first encountered on the cover of a Christmas record at fourteen, living behind the Golden Curtain of suburban Southern California as a budding artist and young gay man trying to find himself. “For those of us who grew up before the internet became ubiquitous, a bright fragment from the outer world can feel like an important discovery — and a call,” Burgess writes in the author’s note to what became his serenade to the artist who opened minds and world of possibility for so many.

A decade into teaching poetry in public schools, Burgess encountered Haring’s work afresh in a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. After mesmeric hours in the galleries, he wandered into the museum bookshop and went home with a copy of Haring’s published journals, which he devoured immediately. On its pages, he realized that the special native sympathy between children and Haring’s art is not an accident of his line and color but at the very center of his spirit. In an entry from July 7, 1986, Haring writes:

Children know something that most people have forgotten. Children possess a fascination with their everyday existence that is very special and would be very helpful to adults if they could learn to understand and respect it.

Having previously composed Enormous Smallness — the wondrous picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings, another artist who so passionately believed that “it takes courage to grow up and become who you really are” — Burgess was impelled to invite young people into Keith Haring’s singular art and the large heart from which it sprang. And so Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring (public library) was born — a splendid addition to the most inspiring picture-book biographies of cultural heroes.

Burgess’s tender words, harmonized by muralist and illustrator Josh Cochran’s ebullient art, follow the young Keith from his childhood in small-town Pennsylvania, drawing at the kitchen table with his dad and dipping his little sister’s palms in paint to make her a mobile of handprints, to his improbable path to New York City.

One fateful day, home for the holidays from Pittsburg, where he had gone to study commercial art but had grow disillusioned with the prescriptive form, hungry “to be spontaneous and free,” Haring chanced upon The Art Spirit — Robert Henri’s 1923 masterwork, which would go on to influence generation of artists as sundry as Georgia O’Keeffe and David Lynch. “Rise up if it kills you,” Henri had written to O’Keeffe’s best friend. “I’m for the person who takes the bit in his teeth & goes after what he believes in.” Henri’s book — an invitation, an incantation, to “do whatever you do intensely” — invigorated the young artist to take the bit of his own talent and unexampled creative vision in his teeth and go toward that intensity.

After hitchhiking across the country with his treasured copy of The Spirit of Art, he went to New York City.

At twenty, he enrolled in the School of Visual Arts. (Cochran, whose illustrations bring Haring’s life to life in a rare acrobatic triumph of honoring another artist’s art in art that is both deliberately referential and thoroughly original, now teaches at the School of Visual Arts — a lovely testament to Robert Henri’s conviction that “all any man can hope to do is to add his fragment to the whole.”)

One day, he foraged some rolls of paper lying in the gutter between the bustling New York sidewalk and the bustling New York street, and spontaneously “began making bigger and bigger pictures.”

Burgess writes:

Keith especially liked painting on the floor by the open door where the sunlight poured in.

People passing on the street would stop to watch or talk with him about what he was making. Keith loved it!

He didn’t believe that some people understand art while others don’t — or that art should be hidden away in galleries, museums, and private collections.

Keith wanted to communicate with as many people as possible. “The public has a right to art… Art is for everybody.”

Tracing Haring’s inviting self-discovery on vacant subway billboards and graffiti-populated walls, Burgess affirms this credo by spontaneously breaking into his own art-form — the delightful surprise of the book’s sole verse:

Maybe it makes them smile,
maybe it makes them think,
maybe it inspires them to draw
or dance or write or sing.

Meanwhile, we see the bower of the young artist’s imagination grow decorated with the experiences of a life fully lived — he falls in love, starts a club in a church basement on St. Mark’s Place with his friends, discovers the vibrant graffiti culture of Alphabet City, listens to his boyfriend’s music as he paints and they cook together.

Like artist Agnes Martin and the astonishing array of employments by which she sustained herself as she revolutionized art, he takes a series of odd jobs to survive in New York — bike messenger and sandwich-maker and gallery assistant in Soho and wildflower picker in Jersey and always, always his favorite: drawing with children at a Brooklyn daycare.

All the while, he keeps drawing on walls, savoring that small, enormous moment when a stranger pauses mid-stride in this unstoppable city for a colorful moment of unbidden wonder. Burgess writes:

For Keith, this was what art was all about — the moment when people see it and respond.

At last, four years after leaping into the glorious uncertainty of life as a young artist in New York City, his big breakthrough came — a major solo exhibition at a Soho gallery. It tipped a Rube Goldberg machine of opportunities and invitations, making the world his canvas — from the wall of an Italian monastery to the Berlin Wall to the wall.

Burgess writes:

But no matter how busy he became or where in the world he went, he always made time for children.

Keith understood kids and they understood him.
There was an unspoken bond between them.

And since children often asked him to draw on their t-shirts, skateboards, and jeans, he always kept a black marker handy.

In the remaining seven years of his life, as the art world grew to lavish Haring with recognition and plaudit, his drawings would come to cover the walls of orphanages and hospitals and daycare centers. When he spent five days painting the wall of a Chicago high school together with its 500 students, one walked up to him and said, with that special way children alone have of seeing into the heart of things and naming what is there without self-consciousness or pretense:

I can tell, by the way you paint, that you really love life.

Not long after that, Haring’s vivacity was stamped with the four letters that would spell certain death for so many young people of his generation. But even his AIDS diagnosis didn’t stifle his exuberant love of life — it only amplified it. Burgess quotes Haring’s diary:

I appreciate everything that has happened, especially the gift of life I was given that has created a silent bond between me and children. Children can sense this “thing” in me.

Keith Haring painting a wall at the Palaexpo Museum in Rome, 1984. (Photograph by Stefano Fontebasso de Martino; featured with permission.)

Drawing on Walls radiates that singular thingness with its sensitive, courageous homage to an artist whose short life cast a widening pool of light on so many, rippling across space and time. Complement it with Maya Angelou’s lovely verses of courage for kids, illustrated by Haring’s contemporary Jean-Michel Basquiat, and with the picture-book biographies of Wangari Maathai, Maria Mitchell, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, John Lewis, Frida Kahlo, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, and Nellie Bly, then revisit E.E. Cummings — the subject of Burgess’s first picture-book biography — on the courage to be yourself.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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