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Perception and the Power of the Critical Imagination: Alfred Kazin on Embracing Contradiction and How the Sacredness of Human Attention Shapes Our Reality

“The day, the living day, the actual moment, the pang of real life, — to be faithful to this, one must always pay attention, one must never dismiss anything a priori as too trivial.”

Perception and the Power of the Critical Imagination: Alfred Kazin on Embracing Contradiction and How the Sacredness of Human Attention Shapes Our Reality

“Reality is what we take to be true,” pioneering physicist David Bohm asserted in 1977. “What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.”

How our perception shapes our experience of reality, and how that can be a source of power, is what the great Jewish-American writer and literary critic Alfred Kazin (June 5, 1915–June 5, 1998) explored twenty years earlier in a series of entires from Alfred Kazin’s Journals (public library) — an immensely rewarding trove of wisdom in the tradition of the journals of Thoreau, André Gide, Anne Truitt, and Susan Sontag, which endure as a sort of secular scripture and to which I return for comfort, consolation, and emboldenment in trying times.

Radiating from Kazin’s unrelenting introspection is uncommon insight into the human spirit and a willingness to contact, even to embrace, all of its dimensions — the awe and the anguish, the exultant and the exasperating, all of it riding acrest an ebbing undercurrent of imperfection.

Alfred Kazin, 1946 (Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum)
Alfred Kazin, 1946 (Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum)

Three days before his forty-second birthday, Kazin writes:

Trust to the contradictions and see them all. Never annul one force to give supremacy to another. The contradiction itself is the reality in all its manifoldness. Man from his vantage point can see reality only in contradictions. And the more faithful he is to his perception of the contradiction, the more he is open to what there is for him to know. “Harmony” as an absolute good is for the gods, not for man.

Cautioning against chasing the myth of harmony — a myth advanced, perhaps most famously, by Emerson and woven into the fabric of modern culture in tyrannical ideals like “work/life balance” — Kazin writes:

A thinker (like [Ralph Waldo Emerson]) misleads us as soon as he promotes harmony as the exclusive goal, and especially misleads us when he preaches harmony as a method. Man’s life is full of contradiction and he must be; we see through a glass darkly — we want more than we can have; we see more than we can understand. But a contradiction that is faced leads to true knowledge… Contradictions are on the surface, the symbols of deeper and more fertile forces that can unleash the most marvelous energy when they are embraced. Never try to achieve “order,” sacrifice symmetry — seek to relate all these antagonistic forces, not to let the elimination of one to the other. The idea of “God” as perfect order is perilous to man as an ideal, for us to follow…

"Everything Exists Simultaneously With Its Opposite" by Maria Popova
“Everything Exists Simultaneously With Its Opposite” by Maria Popova

The same perilous resistance to contradiction, Kazin observes in another entry penned the following month, is what undergirds our cult of self-improvement. Half a century before the heyday of self-help books and websites, which commodify human life as a problem to be solved rather than a glorious mystery to be savored, he writes:

The other day … I suddenly realized, with a shudder almost … how easy it is to fall into the other-imposed trap of trying endlessly to correct and reform oneself, in accordance with this and that, one’s idea of the right person to be, when all the time, one is not merely “stuck” with oneself, as one is rightly enough, but one suffers from constrictedness, from reaction, from the million-and-one reasons, so boringly personified around one in one’s contemporaries and half-friends and stupid, genteel colleagues, who are always telling us over again that man is bad and sinful!

Kazin’s journal is strewn with this restless search for self-generated sacredness — for a source of goodness and meaning not imposed from without, be it by spiritual mythology or by secular society, but synthesized from within. It comes most acutely alive in an entry penned earlier that year, in which Kazin reflects on Auden’s notion of “sacred objects” — catalysts for awe, which inspire the basic impulse to make art — and writes:

Without worship, without respect, without wonder, without the great work with which our wonder and awe plunge us, what is there — what?

But the “modern” epoch is precisely that in which each of us must discover our gods for ourselves. This is why so much in our language reverts to the idea of a fall, a descent. As Satan fell, to rise again as a prince of life, so we fall into this maelstrom, this madness — this world in which nothing any longer is given to us — to discover, in pain and awe, our own sacred objects.

"Under the Third Avenue El" by Weegee, 1943-1945 (International Center of Photography)
“Under the Third Avenue El” by Weegee, 1943-1945 (International Center of Photography)

Like those of us who choose to live with what philosopher Erich Fromm termed rational faith in the human spirit, Kazin was a resolute humanist who knew that beauty and goodness don’t merely befall us but come into being in the very act of our looking for them — nowhere more so than when it comes to our fellow human beings. In a diary entry from August of 1957, he contemplates an image by the legendary New York street photographer Weegee — who was doing half a century ago what Humans of New York‘s Brandon Stanton is doing now — and writes:

It is so important to keep the eye glued to the reality of the actual holiness! When I saw those Times Square faces in Weegee’s pictures yesterday, the women with that horrible fat and those indriven eyeglasses, I suddenly saw the beauty of the actual living hour in the human struggle of those faces — and of those faces alone. Somehow only the human being tells the story, only the human breath counts. The honor only the human heart ever knows… And even when the lonely transcendental heart stands poised upon an empty rock looking out to sea, it is this man, this mind, that makes the scene — not the rock and the sea, but the human eye that alone has united them. The human mind alone makes the radius to every point on the circumference, the great wheel on which we ride. The human eye alone unites the world — by perception…

Several weeks later, Kazin revisits the reality-shaping power of perception and suggests that how we choose to perceive the world is a centerpiece of our critical faculty; that a benevolent curiosity about our fellow humans is how we hold on to our own humanity. In an entry from September 28 of 1957, which resounds with remarkable timeliness amid our present cultural and political climate, he writes:

The critical imagination is distinguished by its voracious curiosity.

[…]

This retreat from curiosity, from interest in the outside world as continuously interesting, comes from our lack of politics, our lack of faith in the possibility of change.

That possibility, Kazin argues, must “start from the observer” — from the idea that one cannot “pretend [to be] a disembodied intelligence coolly reading the times.” Echoing Susan Sontag’s timeless assertion that in order to be a good writer and a moral human being one must “pay attention to the world,” Kazin considers yet another contradiction:

The problem, of course, is not to go too far the other way into introversion. And probably the safest path is always to think of the observer as a developing, living, growing agent, so that the self that is engaged in thinking out the world will feel itself growing only as the thoughts grow.

But meanwhile, the day, the living day, the actual moment, the pang of real life, — to be faithful to this, one must always pay attention, one must never dismiss anything a priori as too trivial. Nothing is too trivial, for what the writer may make of it.

“Summer on the Lower East Side” by Weegee, 1937 (International Center of Photography)
“Summer on the Lower East Side” by Weegee, 1937 (International Center of Photography)

Exactly two months later, he records his joyful surrender to this living, breathing world in an exultant counterpoint to our urban loneliness:

How alive the city is, how alive, how alive, how alive. Each of those windows has someone behind it, each of these streets is a current under my feet. A network of people, a living field — each grass a soul, each grass alive. So let us give thanks after all, and be glad, and rejoice. To be in life with so many people!

Alfred Kazin’s Journals is a tremendously vitalizing read in its six-decade totality. Complement it with Kazin on loneliness, the immigrant experience, and how reading liberates us, then revisit Emerson on how to live with maximum aliveness.

BP

Alfred Kazin on Loneliness, the Immigrant Experience, the Economics of Love, and How Reading Liberates Us

“Every book I read re-stocked my mind with those great friends… They came into my life proud and compassionate, recognizing me by a secret sign, whispering through subterranean channels of sympathy.”

Alfred Kazin on Loneliness, the Immigrant Experience, the Economics of Love, and How Reading Liberates Us

One beautiful summer evening just before sundown, I was walking along the Brooklyn Promenade with my partner, who comes from a family of Orthodox Jews. We passed two young mothers of the same tradition, one pushing a triple stroller and the other a double, both clad in neat but no doubt sweltering attire, their heads covered in lush wigs. I lamented how sad I felt for them — barely out of their teens and without what one might call a proper secular education, they had already strolled and strollered far down a life path that led in a single predetermined direction. These young mothers were among the countless women in the history of the world who have been denied intellectual achievement and creative self-actualization, reduced instead to one primary existential purpose by their culture — a procreational purpose which, if given more options, some may still have chosen for themselves but many would not have.

My partner countered this lamentation with the more compassionate possibility that they might, quite simply, be happy — a possibility out of which arises a larger and more elemental question: What is happiness, really, and what grants any of us the hubris to judge another’s?

Still, there was something deeply disquieting about the notion of being assigned one’s happiness rather than choosing it freely. Tussling with this seemingly unanswerable perplexity, I was reminded of several passages from A Walker in the City (public library) — the wonderful 1951 memoir by the great Jewish-American writer and literary critic Alfred Kazin (June 5, 1915–June 5, 1998), in which he recounts his boyhood in Brooklyn’s densely Jewish Brownsville neighborhood, a place both in New York and magnitudes away.

Alfred Kazin, 1946 (Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum)
Alfred Kazin, 1946 (Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum)

Kazin paints the vast socioeconomic and cultural divide:

When I was a child I thought we lived at the end of the world. It was the eternity of the subway ride into the city that first gave me this idea. It took a long time getting to “New York”; it seemed longer getting back.

[…]

I saw New York as a foreign city. There, brilliant and unreal, the city had its life, as Brownsville was ours. That the two were joined in me I never knew then… We were the end of the line. We were the children of the immigrants who had camped at the city’s back door, in New York’s rawest, remotest, cheapest ghetto… “New York” was what we put last on our address, but first in thinking of the others around us. They were New York, the Gentiles, America; we were Brownsville — Brunzvil, as the old folks said — the dust of the earth to all Jews with money, and notoriously a place that measured all success by our skill in getting away from it.

But nowhere was the cultural rift more gaping than in Brownsville’s attitude toward love and its role in happiness. Like the rest of the community, Kazin’s parents were hardworking immigrants — his mother was a seamstress in a dressmaking sweatshop and his father a house painter. They had a practical, sensible marriage predicated on survival and bound by tradition. But his mother had a cousin with an outlook so radically different that it sparked in young Alfred the sense that love could be something larger and freer than survivalist pragmatism. Along with two friends of similar disposition, the cousin would visit Kazin’s childhood home on Fridays, importing the promise of a wholly different, more wholehearted and liberated life. He recounts:

Our cousin and her two friends were of my parents’ generation, but I could never believe it — they seemed to enjoy life with such outspokenness. They were the first grown-up people I had ever met who used the word love without embarrassment. “Libbe! Libbe!” my mother would explode whenever one of them protested that she could not, after all, marry a man she did not love. “What is this love you make such a stew about? You do not like the way he holds his cigarette? Marry him first and it will all come out right in the end!” It astonished me to realize there was a world in which even unmarried women no longer young were simply individual human beings with lives of their own.

This formative realization that romantic liberty is an essential form of human agency upended all the givens on which Kazin had been nursed. But it was also, he realized, a luxury reserved for those not toiling for survival. He marvels at the contrast between the three women’s disposition and that of typical Brownsville families:

Our parents, whatever affection might offhandedly be expressed between them, always had the look of being committed to something deeper than mere love. Their marriages were neither happy nor unhappy; they were arrangements. However they had met — whether in Russia or in the steerage or, like my parents, in an East Side boarding house — whatever they still thought of each other, love was not a word they used easily. Marriage was an institution people entered into — for all I could ever tell — only from immigrant loneliness, a need to be with one’s own kind that mechanically resulted in the family. The family was a whole greater than all the individuals who made it up, yet made sense only in their untiring solidarity. I was perfectly sure that in my parents’ minds libbe was something exotic and not wholly legitimate, reserved for “educated” people like their children, who were the sole end of their existence. My father and mother worked in a rage to put us above their level; they had married to make us possible. We were the only conceivable end to all their striving; we were their America.

So far as I knew, love was not an element admissible in my parents’ experience. Any open talk of it between themselves would have seemed ridiculous. It would have suggested a wicked self-indulgence, a preposterous attention to one’s own feelings, possible only to those who were free enough to choose. They did not consider themselves free. They were awed by us, as they were awed by their own imagined unworthiness, and looked on themselves only as instruments toward the ideal “American” future that would be lived by their children. As poor immigrants … in their lives combined to make them look down on love as something they had no time for.

jewishnewyear

Time, of course, was the currency of survival in working-class life — long hours at the sweatshop were what earned Kazin’s mother the wage with which she fed her children. To invest time in love seemed like a reckless use of resources — a gratuitous warping of priorities that rendered love a luxurious function of economic freedom. Kazin writes of his parents’ attitude:

Love, they could have said, was not serious. Life was a battle to “make sure”; it had no place, as we had no time, for whims.

[…]

To my mother riches alone were the gateway to romance, for only those who had money enough could afford the freedom, and the crazy boldness, to give themselves up to love.

In stark contrast to this mindset stood Kazin’s cousin and her two friends, whom he came to admire greatly. These “women, grown-up women … talking openly” impressed upon him the idea that a different kind of life was possible — a life where liberty and love coexisted, where one was free to choose one’s own path, and where the path to happiness and freedom was paved, above all, with a deep love of literature:

They had a great flavor for me, those three women: they were the positive center of that togetherness that always meant so much to me in our dining room on Friday evenings… Those Friday evenings, I suddenly found myself enveloped in some old, primary Socialist idea that [people] could go beyond every barrier of race and nation and language, even of class! into some potential loving union of the whole human race. I was suddenly glad to be a Jew, as these women were Jews — simply and naturally glad of those Jewish dressmakers who spoke with enthusiastic familiarity of Sholem Aleichem and Peretz, Gorky and Tolstoy, who glowed at every reminiscence of Nijinsky, of Nazimova in The Cherry Orchard, of Pavlova in “The Swan.”

Kazin was especially taken with the titans of Russian literature — writers like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, whose works entwined the difficult realities of daily life with a romantic view of the human spirit. He recounts:

The heroes of the Russian novel — our kind of people — would walk the world, and I — still wearing a circle-necked Russian blouse “à la Tolstoy” — would live forever with those I loved in that beautiful Russian country of the mind. Listening to our cousin and her two friends I, who had never seen it, who associated with it nothing but the names of great writers and my father’s saying as we went through the Brooklyn Botanic Garden — “Nice! but you should have seen the Czar’s summer palace at Tsarskoye-Selo!” — suddenly saw Russia as the grand antithesis to all bourgeois ideals, the spiritual home of all truly free people. I was perfectly sure that there was no literature in the world like the Russian; that the only warm hearts in the world were Russian, like our cousin and her two friends; that other people were always dully materialist, but that the Russian soul, like Nijinsky’s dream of pure flight, would always leap outward, past all barriers, to a lyric world in which my ideal socialism and the fiery moodiness of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique would be entirely at home with each other… How many millions would be with us! China was in our house those Friday evenings, Africa, the Indian masses. And it was those three unmarried dressmakers from the rank and file who fully wrapped me in that spell, with the worldly clang of their agate beads and the musky fragrance of their face powder and their embroidered Russian blouses, with the great names of Russian writers ringing against the cut-glass bowl under the black lamp. Never did the bowl look so laden, never did apples and tea smell so good, never did the samovar pour out with such steaming bounty, as on those Friday evenings when I tasted in the tea and the talk the evangelical heart of our cousin and her two friends, and realized that it was we — we! — who would someday put the world on its noblest course.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis from Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown

Kazin encountered another defiant model of love entwined with literature in his unusual neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Solovey, who were both exceedingly worldly and utterly destitute. The husband was a writer, a man who not only read but created books, and the wife a scientist — occupations equally foreign to the Brownsville community. He writes:

The Soloveys had been very puzzling; from the day they had come to our tenement, taking over the small dark apartment on the ground floor next to his drugstore, no one had been able to make them out at all. Both the Soloveys had had an inaccessible air of culture that to the end had made them seem visitors among us. They had brought into our house and street the breath of another world, where parents read books, discussed ideas at the table, and displayed a quaint, cold politeness addressing each other. The Soloveys had traveled; they had lived in Palestine, France, Italy. They were “professional” people, “enlightened” — she, it was rumored, had even been a physician or “some kind of scientist,” we could never discover which.

The greatest mystery was why they had come to live in Brownsville. We looked down on them for this, and suspected them. To come deliberately to Brownsville, after you had lived in France and Italy! It suggested some moral sickness, apathy, a perversion of all right feelings. The apathy alone had been enough to excite me. They were different!

But what made the couple most intriguing was that the husband and wife were bound by a love they had elected themselves — a passionate, impractical love which magnetized them with a strange and alluring fusion of absolute devotion and absolute despair. Kazin writes:

Whenever I saw the strange couple together, the gold wedding ring on his left hand thick as hers, I felt they were still lovers… And there was that visible tie between them, that wedding ring even a man could wear, some deep consciousness of each other, that excited me, it seemed so illicit.

[…]

The lovers, though their love had been spent, still lived only for each other. And it was this that emphasized their strangeness for me — it was as strange as Mr. Solovey’s books, as a Brownsville couple speaking Russian to each other, as strange as Mrs. Solovey’s delightfully shocking blondness and the unfathomable despair that had brought them to us. In this severe dependence on each other for everything, there was a defiance of the family principle, of us, of their own poverty and apathy, that encouraged me to despise our values as crude and provincial. Only in movies and in The Sheik did people abandon the world for love, give themselves up to it — gladly. Yet there was nothing obviously immoral in the conduct of the Soloveys, nothing we could easily describe and condemn. It was merely that they were sufficient to each other; in their disappointment as in their love they were always alone. They left us out, they left Brownsville out; we were nothing to them. In the love despair of the Soloveys something seemed to say that our constant fight “to make sure” was childish, that we looked at life too narrowly, and that in any event, we did not count. Their loneliness went deeper than our solidarity.

And so I loved them.

These encounters with his cousin, her friends, and the Soloveys expanded Kazin’s scope of possibility beyond what his community could imagine and provided the springboard for his leap from the small and separate life that Brownsville had predestine for him to a connected and expansive life as one of the world’s finest literary critics.

But while these insurgent role models had inspired in young Kazin a deep desire to rebel against the norms of his community and transcend its limiting life-possibilities, he had no idea how to build the bridge between his small world and that other, expansive world of love and liberty. There was another essential building block. In a passage that calls to mind the heartening story of how James Baldwin read his way out of Harlem and into literary greatness, Kazin recounts how literature unlocked for him the gates to freedom:

I did not know where or how to begin. I knew only that I could dream all day long while pretending to be in the world, and that my mind was full of visions as intimate with me as loneliness. I felt I was alone, that there were things I had to endure out of loyalty but could never accept, and that whenever I liked, I could swim out from the Brownsville shore to that calm and sunlit sea beyond where great friends came up from the deep. Every book I read re-stocked my mind with those great friends who lived out of Brownsville. They came into my life proud and compassionate, recognizing me by a secret sign, whispering through subterranean channels of sympathy: “Alfred! Old boy! What have they done to you!” Walking about, I learned so well to live with them that I could not always tell whether it was they or I thinking in me… Sometimes I was not sure which character I was on my walks, there were so many in my head at once; or how I could explain one to the other; but after an afternoon’s reading in the “adults’” library on Glenmore Avenue, I would walk past the pushcarts on Belmont Avenue … proud and alien as Othello, or dragging my clubfoot after me like the hero of Of Human Bondage, a book I had read to tatters in my amazement that Mr. W. Somerset Maugham knew me so well.

Illustration from The Book of Memory Gaps by Cecilia Ruiz

Although his dear friend Hannah Arendt would come to write beautifully about outsiderdom as a source of power and privilege, for Kazin the sense of being in America and yet outside it was a source of only loneliness and anguish. It was in books that he found himself and his place in the larger world, a world of which he was a part as equal and deserving as any other. The love of reading was his liberation. It eradicated his sense of separateness and granted him permission to love life rather than merely survive it. He writes:

I read as if books would fill my every gap, legitimize my strange quest for the American past, remedy my every flaw, let me in at last into the great world that was anything just out of Brownsville.

So that when, leaving the library for the best of all walks, to Highland Park, I came out on Bushwick Avenue, with its strange, wide, sun-lit spell, a thankfulness seized me, mixed with envy and bitterness, and I waited against a hydrant for my violence to pass. Why were these people here, and we there? Why had I always to think of insider and outsider, of their belonging and our not belonging, when books had carried me this far, and when, as I could already see, it was myself that would carry me farther — beyond these petty distinctions I had so long made in loneliness?

A Walker in the City is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with Ursula K. Le Guin on how libraries unlock freedom and Rebecca Solnit on the solitary connectedness of reading, and the Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska on how books liberate the human spirit.

BP

Esperanza Spalding Performs William Blake’s Short Existential Poem “The Fly”

A centuries-old, timeless meditation on chance, suffering, and the improbable glory of life.

Esperanza Spalding Performs William Blake’s Short Existential Poem “The Fly”

All artists know that the deeply personal is the only real gateway to the universal; that we are only free to see to the farthest horizons after we have closely examined our most intimate landscapes. Some swing these doors of perception with virtuosity orders of magnitude greater than others, as did William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827). “It is the mark of a genius like Blake,” Alfred Kazin wrote, “that what is purest and most consistent in his thought burns away his own suffering and fanaticism, while his art speaks to what is most deeply human in us.”

Is it any wonder that the man who saw the universe in a grain of sand should see the improbable beauty and tragedy of human existence in the ephemeral life of a fly?

In this beautiful performance from The Academy of American Poets’ annual Poetry & the Creative Mind — which also gave us Meryl Streep reading “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath and Regina Spektor reading “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand — musician extraordinaire Esperanza Spalding performs Blake’s poem “The Fly,” originally published in his 1794 masterpiece Songs of Experience and later included in his indispensable Complete Poems (public library).

THE FLY
by William Blake

Little fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

Spalding’s performance of “The Fly”” also appears on her album Chamber Music Society.

William Blake’s original illustration for “The Fly” from Songs of Experience, 1794 (Yale Center for British Art)

Complement with Blake’s most beautiful letter — a spirited defense of the imagination and the creative spirit — and his haunting illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost, then revisit other great performances of great poems: Amanda Palmer reads “Having It Out with Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, Janna Levin reads “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, Cynthia Nixon reads “While I Was Fearing It, It Came” by Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Boorstein reads “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda, and Rosanne Cash reads “Power” by Adrienne Rich.

BP

How We Bridge the Real and the Ideal: Frederick Douglass on Art as a Tool of Constructive Self-Criticism and a Force of Cultural Progress

“The process by which man is able to posit his own subjective nature outside of himself … is at [the] bottom of all effort and the germinating principles of all reform and all progress.”

How We Bridge the Real and the Ideal: Frederick Douglass on Art as a Tool of Constructive Self-Criticism and a Force of Cultural Progress

“True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in her arresting meditation on how art transforms us. That transformation is one of the most powerful personal experiences a human being can have, but it is also one of the most powerful motive forces of progress for humanity as a whole. In art, we depict our ideals and, in depicting them, we challenge ourselves to face the gap between aspiration and actuality, which in turn challenges us to stretch ourselves and close that gap. “All great art contains at its center contemplation, a dynamic contemplation,” young Susan Sontag wrote in her diary, and the object of that contemplation, directly or obliquely, is precisely that discomfiting disconnect between the ideal and the real that drives us to strive for reform. Art, argued the Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Penn Warren, “is the process by which, in imagining itself and the relation of individuals to one another and to it, a society comes to understand itself, and by understanding, discover its possibilities of growth.”

A century earlier, the pioneering social reformer and writer Frederick Douglass (c. February 1818–February 20, 1895) made the most exquisite and enduring case for this function of art in an essay titled “Pictures and Progress,” penned in the mid-1860s and found in the indispensable The Portable Frederick Douglass (public library).

Frederick Douglass

Douglass writes:

To the eye and spirit, pictures are just what poetry and music are to the ear and heart.

[…]

Man is the only picture-making animal in the world. He alone of all the inhabitants of earth has the capacity and passion for pictures.

Reason is exalted and called Godlike, and sometimes accorded the highest place among human faculties; but grand and wonderful as is this attribute of our species, still more grand and wonderful are the resources and achievements of that power out of which come our pictures and other creations of art.

This faculty of the imagination, Douglass argues, isn’t merely the source of aesthetic stimulation but the inner hand outstretched toward our highest ideals — the one which gives us, to borrow Susan Sontag’s penetrating phrase, “the model of self-transcendence.” He writes:

Art is a special revelation of the higher powers of the human soul. There is in the contemplation of it an unconscious comparison constantly going on in the mind, of the pure forms of beauty and excellence, which are without to those which are within, and native to the human heart. It is a process of soul-awakening self-revelation, a species of new birth, for a new life springs up in the soul with every newly discovered agency, by which the soul is brought into a more intimate knowledge of its own Divine powers and perfections, and is lifted to a higher level of wisdom, goodness, and joy.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

This power of the critical imagination, Douglass argues, becomes our mightiest means of bridging the real and the ideal, which is at the heart of all progress:

The process by which man is able to posit his own subjective nature outside of himself, giving it form, color, space, and all the attributes of distinct personality, so that it becomes the subject of distinct observation and contemplation, is at [the] bottom of all effort and the germinating principles of all reform and all progress… It is the picture of life contrasted with the fact of life, the ideal contrasted with the real, which makes criticism possible. Where there is no criticism there is no progress, for the want of progress is not felt where such want is not made visible by criticism. It is by looking upon this picture and upon that which enables us to point out the defects of the one and the perfections of the other.

Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers — and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.

But, writing with an eye to photography as a new technology of picture-making, Douglass adds an admonition that applies to every new technology that ever was and ever will be:

This picture-making faculty is flung out into the world like all others, capable of being harnessed to the car of truth or error: It is a vast power to whatever cause it is coupled. For the habit we adopt, the master we obey, in making our subjective nature objective, giving it form, color, space, action and utterance, is the one important thing to ourselves and our surroundings. It will either lift us to the highest heaven or sink us to the lowest depths, for good and evil know no limits.

Art, he cautions, should harness beauty but must always be governed by truth above all else:

Truth is the soul of art, as of all things else.

[…]

With the clear perception of things as they are, must stand the faithful rendering of things as they seem. The dead fact is nothing without the living expression.

Complement this portion of The Portable Frederick Douglass, a timelessly rewarding read in its totality, with James Baldwin on the artist’s role in society’s progress, Alfred Kazin on the power of the critical imagination, and Walt Whitman on how art bolsters democracy.

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Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated

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