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The Great Czech Playwright Turned Dissident Turned President Václav Havel on Hope

“Hope… is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

“Mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself,” Rachel Carson exhorted the young in her final farewell to the world. “Therein lies our hope and our destiny,” she told the next generation, two generations before Rebecca Solnit insisted in her magnificent manifesto for resilience that “hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away.”

I too have long contemplated the question of hope — how it serves as a life-affirming antidote to the cowardice of cynicism, how its active and actionable nature differs from the laziness of passive optimism. Born into a communist dictatorship, one of my earliest memories is sitting atop my father’s shoulders, holding a candle into the night air alongside thousands of others gathered at the plaza before the Bulgarian Parliament in the protests that eventually brought down the dictatorship.

Months after I was born, a handful of longitude degrees north, the great Czech playwright turned dissident (turned, some years later, president) Václav Havel (October 5, 1936–December 18, 2011) addressed the vital role of hope in steering destiny in a series of interviews conducted shortly after his release from prison, where he had spent four years for composing an anti-communist manifesto in response to the imprisonment of the Czech psychedelic rock band The Plastic People of the Universe. Eventually published as Disturbing the Peace in 1990, his timeless insights into the inner life and civic purpose of hope were excerpted a quarter century later in Paul Loeb’s lucid and life-buoying posy of hope-strands, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear (public library).

Václav Havel

Imprisoned multiple times for upholding his ideals of justice and humanism, for his insistence on anti-consumerism and environmental responsibility, Havel, like Viktor Frankl, knew the value of hope with visceral intimacy, not as an intellectual pretension or a spiritual delusion but as a lifeline of sanity and survival, for the individual as well as for the constellation of individuals we call society. He writes:

The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.

A century after Walt Whitman, having lived and served and continued writing hope-giving, life-salving verses through a gruesome war, held up optimism as a mighty force of resistance, Havel adds:

Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.

Art from Trees at Night by the dissident political cartoonist Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

But what is this “elsewhere” and where does it reside? In the hearts of citizens, Havel argues — the individual hearts that harmonize into the symphonic pulse-beat of culture. Writing from the other side of unspeakable atrocities and terrors and oppressions, as the communist regime was beginning to topple after a decades-long rein, he examines the nature of power as a bidirectional valve, flowing not only top-down but bottom-up:

All power is power over someone, and it always somehow responds, usually unwittingly rather than deliberately, to the state of mind and the behavior of those it rules over… No one can govern in a vacuum. The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: Everyone has a small part of himself in both.

With an eye to the groundswells of hope and resistance he had begun witnessing — the very groundswells that would, before the decade’s end, topple the dictatorship — he writes in a passage of astounding prescience for his own time and vibrant resonance to ours:

New islands of self-awareness and self-liberation are appearing, and the connections between them, which were once so brutally disrupted, are multiplying… Something is happening in the social awareness, though it is still an undercurrent as yet, rather than something visible… And all of this brings subtle pressure to bear on the powers that govern society. I’m not thinking now of the obvious pressure of public criticism coming from dissidents, but of the invisible kinds of pressure brought on by this general state of mind and its various forms of expression, to which power unintentionally adapts, even in the act of opposing it.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from Mr. Gauguin’s Heart by Marie-Danielle Croteau.

Pointing to “the unstoppable development of independent culture” and the moral awakening of youth as the two greatest motive forces for the coming change, he writes:

[Young people are beginning] to seek, among the diffuse and fragmented world of frenzied consumerism…, for a point that will hold firm — all this awakens in them a longing for a genuine moral “vanishing point,” for something purer and more authentic. These people simply long to step outside the general automatic operations of society and rediscover their natural world and discover hope for this world.

I thought of Havel as I cycled across the Manhattan Bridge to join the breathtaking gathering of young people at the 2019 Climate Strike, the largest environmental protest in history — a magnificent mass of resistance to greed, to consumerism, to the capitalist exploitation of our irreplaceable planet’s oceans and rivers and rainforests and wildlife, whose preservation and administration, as Rachel Carson admonished in 1953 to unheeding ears, “is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.”

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s poems. (Available as a print.)

The future, Havel reminds us, is a mosaic built of these seemingly small yet combinatorially enormous acts of courage and resistance:

Isn’t the reward of all those small but hopeful signs of movement this deep, inner hope that is not dependent on prognoses, and which was the primordial point of departure in this unequal struggle? Would so many of those small hopes have “come out” if there had not been this great hope “within,” this hope without which it is impossible to live in dignity and meaning, much less find the will for the “hopeless enterprise” which stands at the beginning of most good things?

[…]

People who are used to seeing society only “from above” tend to be impatient. They want to see immediate results. Anything that does not produce immediate results seems foolish. They don’t have a lot of sympathy for acts which can only be evaluated years after they take place, which are motivated by moral factors, and which therefore run the risk of never accomplishing anything.

Unfortunately, we live in conditions where improvement is often achieved by actions that risk remaining forever in the memory of humanity… History is not something that takes place “elsewhere”; it takes place here; we all contribute to making it.

Complement the thoroughly inspiriting The Impossible Will Take a Little While — which also gave us Diane Ackerman on what working at a suicide prevention hotline taught her about loneliness and resilience — with Zadie Smith on optimism and despair and Iris Murdoch on art as a force of resistance to tyranny, then revisit Havel’s stirring 1995 Harvard commencement address.

BP

An Illustrated Ode to Attentiveness and the Art of Listening as a Wellspring of Self-Understanding, Empathy for Others, and Reverence for the Loveliness of Life

A sweet serenade to our shared belonging.

An Illustrated Ode to Attentiveness and the Art of Listening as a Wellspring of Self-Understanding, Empathy for Others, and Reverence for the Loveliness of Life

“To see takes time, like to have a friend takes time,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote as she contemplated the art of seeing. To listen takes time, too — to learn to hear and befriend the world within and the world without, to attend to the quiet voice of life and heart alike. “If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing,” Pablo Neruda wrote in his gorgeous ode to quietude, “perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves.”

This inspiriting, sanctifying power of listening is what writer Holly M. McGhee and illustrator Pascal Lemaître explore in the simply titled, sweetly unfolding Listen (public library) — a serenade to the heart-expanding, life-enriching, world-ennobling art of attentiveness as a wellspring of self-understanding, of empathy for others, of reverence for the loveliness of life, evocative of philosopher Simone Weil’s memorable assertion that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.”

Lemaître — who has previously illustrated the children’s book about kindness Toni Morrison co-wrote with her own son — brings McGhee’s buoyant words to life in his spare, infinitely tender lines and gentle washes of color.

Listen
to the sound of your feet —
the sound of all of us
and the sound of me.

The stars —
they are for you
and all of us.
They are for me.

The simple verses beckon the attention to envelop the whole world, from the immediacy of one’s own sensorial surroundings — the ground, the Sun, the air, the stars — to the widening awareness of our shared belonging and our intertwined fates. Radiating from them is Einstein’s notion of “widening circles of compassion” and Dr. King’s immortal insistence that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

Breathe.

Smell the air.
My air is yours and all of ours,
your air is mine.

Your heart can hold everything.

Including the world —
its darkness and its light.

Including your story,
including my story —
including the story
of all of us…

Complement Listen with The Sound of Silence — a kindred serenade to the art of listening to your inner voice amid the ceaseless noise of modern life — and Goodnight Moon author Margaret Wise Brown’s forgotten vintage gem The Quiet Noisy Book, then revisit the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm’s six rules of listening and unselfish understanding and composer Leonard Bernstein on why paying attention is a countercultural act of courage and resistance.

BP

Uncommon Wisdom from a Forgotten Genius: Olga Jacoby’s Extraordinary Letters on Love, Life, Death, Moral Courage, and Spiritual Purpose Without Religion

“Love, like strength and courage, is a strange thing; the more we give the more we find we have to give.”

Uncommon Wisdom from a Forgotten Genius: Olga Jacoby’s Extraordinary Letters on Love, Life, Death, Moral Courage, and Spiritual Purpose Without Religion

Half a century before Frida Kahlo made her impassioned case for atheism as a supreme form of freedom and moral courage, before Robinson Jeffers insisted that the greatest spiritual calling lies in contributing to the world’s store of moral beauty, before Simone de Beauvoir looked back on her life to observe that “faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly [while] the believer derives a sense of great superiority from this very cowardice itself,” a German-Jewish Englishwoman by the name of Olga Jacoby (August 15, 1874–May 5, 1913) — the young mother of four adopted children — took up the subject of living and dying without religion, with moral courage, with kindness, with radiant receptivity to beauty, in stunning letters to her pious physician, who had just given her a terminal diagnosis. These are more than letters — they are symphonies of thought, miniature manifestos for reason and humanism, poetic odes to the glory of living and the dignity of dying in full assent to reality.

First published anonymously by her husband in 1919 and hurled out of print by wartime want, the letters were discovered a century after their composition by the scholar Trevor Moore, who was so taken with them that he set about identifying their author. Drawing on the family dynamics unfolding in the letters and poring over the British census, he eventually uncovered Jacoby’s identity, tracked down her descendants, and teamed up with her great-granddaughter, Jocelyn Catty, to publish these forgotten treasures of thought and feeling as Words in Pain: Letters on Life and Death (public library).

Art by the English artist Margaret C. Cook from a rare edition of Whitman’s poems, published in the final year of Jacoby’s life. (Available as a print)

In 1909, at age thirty-five, Jacoby was diagnosed with a terminal illness she never names in her letters. Perhaps she was never told — it was customary at the time, and would be for generations to come, for doctors to treat female patients as children and to withhold the reality of their own bodies from them. But she refers to it in her characteristic good-natured humor as a disease of having loved so hard as to have strained her heart.

With their extraordinary intellectual elegance and generosity of spirit, her letters constellate into a masterwork of reason argued with a literary artist’s splendor of expression. Early into the correspondence with her doctor, Jacoby lays out her existential credo:

We always fear the unknown. I am not a coward and do not fear death, which to me means nothing more than sleep, but I cannot become resigned to leave this beautiful world with all the treasures it holds for me and for everyone who knows how to understand and appreciate them… To leave a good example to those I love [is] my only understanding of immortality.

A year into her diagnosis, she magnifies the sentiment with feeling:

Whatever we cannot know let us simply and truthfully agree not to know, but no one must be expected to take for granted what reason refuses to admit. More and more to me this simplest of thoughts seems right: Live, live keenly, live fully; make ample use of every power that has been given us to use, to use for the good end. Blind yourself to nothing; look straight at sadness, loss, evil; but at the same time look with such intense delight at all that is good and noble that quite naturally the heart’s longing will be to help the glory to triumph, and that to have been a strong fighter in that cause will appear the only end worth achieving. The length of life does not depend on us, but as long as we can look back to no waste of time we can face the end with a clear conscience, with cheerful if somewhat tired eyes and ready for the deserved rest with no hope or anxiety for what may come. To me all the effort of man seems vain, and his ideal thrown ruthlessly to the ground by himself, when, after a life of free and joyful effort, he stoops to pick up a reward he does not deserve for having simply done his duty.

Emanating from her letters is evidence of how Jacoby lived her values — her reverence for beauty, her devotion to generosity — in the minutest details of her life. One day, perturbed by the fact that her doctor didn’t have his own volume of Shelley’s poems, she spent two hours hunting the West End of London for the perfect copy that “can be put in your pocket when you go on a lonely ramble amongst the mountains.” Triumphant, with the perfect edition in tow, she told her doctor: “I don’t think any man or woman who has once been happy can read some of his small pieces without feeling all aglow with the beauty of them.” A dying woman, fully alive by the braided life-strands of beauty, generosity, and poetry.

Without the forceful self-righteousness with which fundamentalists impose their views on others, she came to see the fear of death as “only a misunderstanding of Nature.” She writes:

Not to be afraid when you are all alone is the only true way of being not afraid. Where does your courage come in, when you cannot find it in your own self but always have to grasp God morally?

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a the 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

When her doctor insists that she must turn to “God” for salvation, Jacoby responds with an exquisite manifesto for what can best be described as the secular spirituality of humanism and the reverence of nature:

My Dear Doctor,

Like you I believe in a higher power, but, unlike yours, mine is not a kind fatherly one. It is Nature, who with all its forces, beauties and necessary evils, rules our destinies according to its own irrevocable laws. I can love that power for the beauty it has brought into the world, and admire it for the strength that makes us understand how futile and useless it would be to appeal to it in prayer. But towards a kind and fatherly God, who, being almighty, prefers to leave us in misery, when by his mere wish he could obtain the same end without so much suffering, I feel a great revolt and bitterness. Nature makes us know that it cannot take into individual consideration the atoms we are, and for her I have no blame; no more than I could think of blaming you for having during your walks stepped on and killed many a worm (it was a pity the worm happened to be under your foot); but if during these walks your eyes were resting on the beauties of skies and trees, or your mind was solving some difficult problem, was that not a nobler occupation than had you walked eyes downwards, intent only on not killing. I think that Nature is striving towards perfection and that each human being has the duty to help towards it by making his life a fit example for others and by awaking ideals which will be more nearly approached by coming generations. In this way life itself offers enough explanation for living; and believing our existence to finish with death, we naturally make the most of our opportunities… Unable to appeal to a God for help, we find ourselves dependent only on our own strong will — not to overcome misfortune, but to try to bear it as bravely as possible. Religion having for an end the more perfect and moral condition of humanity, I truly think that these ideas are as religious as any dogmatic ones.

With a parent- or teacher-like magnanimity, Jacoby extends extraordinary patience to her doctor. To his self-righteous and patronizing remark that he pities her children on account of her atheism, she responds with a humble, generous reflection on how she hopes her nonreligious morality and spirituality would sculpt her children’s character:

I always feel that we, who are better off, are responsible for having let the poor get so low, and that it is duty, not charity, to help. Charles [her young son], the farmer that is to be, has promised always to keep a cow, to call it by my name, and let the milk of that cow go to the poor around his farm. Should he choose another profession, he will find that the idea of the cow can be worked differently. I hope he will follow my lead in living happy and dying content.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If… — a child’s vision for a kinder and more equitable world

Jacoby takes particular issue with the idea of original sin, with which young minds are so ruthlessly branded and scarred under Christian dogma:

Why start an infant’s life with ideas of fear and sin? Let love be their only religion — a love they can understand and handle. With so many people hungering for love, why give so great a part up to Deity? Acknowledge, Doctor, if you had not had your good share of human love, a mother’s, a wife’s, and your children’s, you would not so well understand the other. A child, I think, is taught untruthfulness when you make him say that he loves God.

[…]

Have you ever come across a baby whose eyes were not all innocence and inquiry? And from the first you crush that innocence with those terrible biblical words. Mind you, they are words only. A sincere man will never agree to them when it comes to his own children, and a generous heart must repel them as strongly when they apply to others.

One of William Blake’s rare illustrations for Paradise Lost

She turns to another damaging aspect of religious dogma — its stunting of children’s natural curiosity about how the world works by keeping certain scientific truths from them or deliberately displacing those truths with mythic fictions:

As to children’s inquiries, they are often wrongly answered, and the higher the subject, the more you think yourself justified in lying to them. From these same children you expect in return truly felt love, good acts, truthfulness and a desire to learn… You absolutely cripple a child by not allowing him to think clearly on all subjects — and no dogmatic religion will stand thinking.

Illustration from Flashlight by Lizi Boyd

Jacoby proceeds to offer a lucid and luminous vision for what our moral and spiritual life could look like without religious delusion:

My idea is not a life without religion; it is a nobler religion I want. Of course, very good men have lived and are living, to whom your religion has been a help, but science is progressing daily, and in harmony with it our moral standard should be higher — high enough to do right simply because it is right. A religion that has helped mankind to get somewhat better should be resigned to let a still better one take its place. Like a growing child, humanity must outgrow its infancy, must stand alone one day and be able to stand straight without support.

In a sentiment our modern spiritual elder Parker Palmer would echo a century later in his lovely insistence that “wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life,” she adds:

To me a good man with his failings seems a better ideal than a perfect God. We feel nearer to him and nearer to the possibility of attaining his standard. This kind of ideal actually helps people to improve, and is therefore of more value to the world.

I do believe strongly in universal good, but not in individual good. As I ask for no help from God, I ask for no explanation from him of my sufferings. I just try to suffer the least possible, and still get a fair part of my aim in life — happiness. You see, I am not ashamed to say that to be happy seems to me a reason for living — as long as you don’t make others unhappy.

When her doctor condemns and insults her credo as a weakness, she responds with a passionate defense of what the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell termed our native “hunger of the mind,” which is the supreme strength of our species:

It is knowledge we want, the better and better understanding of magnificent Nature with its powerful laws that forces our soul to love, admire and submit. That is religion! My religion! How can you call it a weak and godless one?

[…]

Science is turning on the light, but at every step forward dogmatic religion attempts to turn it out, and as it cannot succeed it puts blinkers on its followers, and tries to make them believe that to remove them would be sin. This is the only way in which I can understand their continual warning against knowledge.

Illustration from Flashlight by Lizi Boyd

Four years after her terminal diagnosis, as two world wars staked on religious ideology lay in wait for her children, after four savaging surgeries and a heart attack had left her in constant acute pain, the 38-year-old Olga Jacoby died by self-induced euthanasia, intent to “go to sleep with a good conscience,” a pioneer of what we today call the right-to-die movement — another fundamental human right stymied only by the legal residue of religiosity. Inscribed into her letters is the beautiful source-code of a moral and spiritual alternative to religion — a courageous case for the right to live by truth, beauty, and altruism rather than by dogma and delusion, the heart of which beats in a passage from a letter she penned in the dead of winter two years into her diagnosis:

Charles may have to suffer from too tender a heart, but the world will be the richer for it, and because of that for his life.

[…]

Love, like strength and courage, is a strange thing; the more we give the more we find we have to give. Once given out love is set rolling for ever to amass more, resembling an avalanche by the irresistible force with which it sweeps aside all obstacles, but utterly unlike in its effect, for it brings happiness wherever it passes and lands destruction nowhere.

Complement the thoroughly inspiriting Words in Pain with Jacoby’s contemporary Alice James — William and Henry James’s brilliant younger sister — on how to live fully while dying, then revisit Tolstoy and Gandhi’s forgotten correspondence from the same era about love as humanity’s only real spiritual foundation.

BP

Chaos, Time, and the Origin of Everything: Stephen Fry on How Ancient Greek Mythology and Modern Science Meet to Illuminate the Cradle of Being

Inside the “grand cosmic yawn” that gave us everything we’ve ever known (including the word “cosmos” itself).

Chaos, Time, and the Origin of Everything: Stephen Fry on How Ancient Greek Mythology and Modern Science Meet to Illuminate the Cradle of Being

“Time is the substance I am made of,” Borges wrote in his sublime meditation on the most elemental and paradoxical dimension of existence. But what was there before there was time, before there was substance? Before, in the lovely words of the poet Marie Howe, “the singularity we once were” — “when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was liquid and stars were space and space was not at all”?

Since the dawn of human consciousness, this question has gnawed at the insouciance of our species and animated the most restless recesses of our imagination. It is the foundation of our most ancient origin myths and the springboard for our most ambitious science. It is also — curiously, thrillingly — where these two seemingly irreconcilable strains of our hunger for truth and meaning entwine.

So argues Stephen Fry in the opening of Mythos (public library) — his gloriously imaginative, erudite, warmhearted, and subversively funny retelling of the classic Greek myths.

“Chaos” by George Frederic Watts, circa 1875. (Tate Museum)

Millennia before James Gleick wrested chaos theory from the obscure annals of meteorology to make it a locus of magnetic allure for modern science and a fixture of the popular imagination, the ancient Greeks placed chaos at the center of their cosmogony. (So enduring and far-reaching is their civilizational sway that we owe even the word cosmogony to them, from kosmos, Greek for “world” or “order,” and their suffix -gonia, “-begetting.”) Fry writes:

Was Chaos a god — a divine being — or simply a state of nothingness? Or was Chaos, just as we would use the word today, a kind of terrible mess, like a teenager’s bedroom only worse?

Think of Chaos perhaps as a kind of grand cosmic yawn.

As in a yawning chasm or a yawning void.

Whether Chaos brought life and substance out of nothing or whether Chaos yawned life up or dreamed it up, or conjured it up in some other way, I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Nor were you. And yet in a way we were, because all the bits that make us were there. It is enough to say that the Greeks thought it was Chaos who, with a massive heave, or a great shrug, or hiccup, vomit, or cough, began the long chain of creation that has ended with pelicans and penicillin and toadstools and toads, sea lions, seals, lions, human beings, and daffodils and murder and art and love and confusion and death and madness and biscuits.

Whatever the truth, science today agrees that everything is destined to return to Chaos. It calls this inevitable fate entropy: part of the great cycle from Chaos to order and back again to Chaos. Your trousers began as chaotic atoms that somehow coalesced into matter that ordered itself over eons into a living substance that slowly evolved into a cotton plant that was woven into the handsome stuff that sheathes your lovely legs. In time you will abandon your trousers — not now, I hope — and they will rot down in a landfill or be burned. In either case their matter will at length be set free to become part of the atmosphere of the planet. And when the sun explodes and takes every particle of this world with it, including the ingredients of your trousers, all the constituent atoms will return to cold Chaos. And what is true for your trousers is of course true for you.

So the Chaos that began everything is also the Chaos that will end everything.

There is, of course, the favorite question, that eternal fulcrum of human restlessness: What was there before the beginning? Before the Big Bang, before Chaos, before the everythingness of being? In consonance with Stephen Hawking’s wryly phrased and elegantly argued observation that “the universe is the ultimate free lunch,” Fry reminds us that before there was everything, there was, simply, nothing — not even the Borgesian substance we are made of:

We have to accept that there was no “before,” because there was no Time yet. No one had pressed the start button on Time. No one had shouted Now! And since Time had yet to be created, time words like “before,” “during,” “when,” “then,” “after lunch,” and “last Wednesday” had no possible meaning. It screws with the head, but there it is.

The Greek word for “everything that is the case,” what we could call “the universe,” is COSMOS. And at the moment — although “moment” is a time word and makes no sense just now (neither does the phrase “just now”) — at the moment, Cosmos is Chaos and only Chaos because Chaos is the only thing that is the case. A stretching, a tuning up of the orchestra…

Art by Ben Newman from A Graphic Cosmogony.

Tracing how Chaos “spewed up the first forms of life, the primordial beings and the principles,” Fry once again draws a parallel between mythology and science, wresting a kind of evolutionary biology of the Greek mythological universe. In an inspired passage that calls to mind evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis — known for advancing the Gaia hypothesis, named of course for the ancient Greek god-mother and mother-goddess — and her splendid reflection on the interconnectedness of life across time, space, and species, he writes:

As each generation developed and new entities were born and in turn reproduced, so complexity increased. Those old primordial and elemental principles were spun into lifeforms of ever greater diversity, variety, and richness. The beings that were born became endowed with nuanced and unique personalities and individuality. In computer language, it was as if life went from 2 bit to 4 bit to 8 bit to 16 bit to 32 bit to 64 bit and beyond. Each iteration represented millions and then billions of new permutations of size, form, and what you might call resolution. High definition character, such as we pride ourselves in having as modern humans, came into existence and there was an explosion of what biologists call speciation as new forms burst into being.

I like to picture the first stage of creation as an old-fashioned TV screen on which a monochrome game of Pong played. You remember Pong? It had two white rectangles for rackets and a square dot for a ball. Existence was a primitive, pixellated form of bouncing tennis. Some thirty-five to forty years later there had evolved ultra hi-res 3-D graphics with virtual and augmented reality. So it was for the Greek cosmos, a creation that began with clunky and elemental lo-res outlines now exploded into rich, varied life.

In the remainder of the thoroughly enchanting and elucidating Mythos, Fry goes on to trace the origins of so many of our present givens — the names of planets and constellations and chemical elements and diseases, the words “fraud” and “doom” and “enthusiasm,” our precepts of beauty, our taxonomies of love — to a complex, imaginative, and imperfect civilization that lived long ago, which imprinted cultures and civilizations to come with its layered legacy. Complement it with Jill Lepore on how the shift from mythology to science shaped the early dream of democracy, then revisit Italian artist Alessandro Sanna’s wordless existential cosmogony inspired by Pinocchio and this gorgeous 1974 Hungarian animated short film exploring the tragic heroism of hopefulness in the Greek myth of Sisyphus.

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