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French Philosopher Maurice Blanchot on Writing, the Dual Power of Language to Reveal and Conceal, and What It Really Means to See

“To see is certainly always to see at a distance, but by allowing distance to give back what it removes from us… To see is to experience the continuous and to celebrate the sun, that is, beyond the sun: the One.”

French Philosopher Maurice Blanchot on Writing, the Dual Power of Language to Reveal and Conceal, and What It Really Means to See

“The job of the writer is to make us see the world as it is,” Susan Sontag asserted in considering the conscience of words. “Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her splendid meditation on the magic of real human communication. But this transformation has a dual power of helping us see the world more clearly and creating the illusion of seeing when we are in fact misperceiving, as Nietzsche well knew in contemplating how we use language to both conceal and reveal reality: “Is language the adequate expression of all realities?” he asked. Still, language is the mightiest tool we have for wresting meaning from reality. “We die. That may be the meaning of life,” Toni Morrison asserted in her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

That implicit duality of our linguistic conscience and the delicate, beautiful, dangerous relationship between storytelling and seeing is what the reclusive French writer, philosopher, and literary theorist Maurice Blanchot (September 22, 1907–February 20, 2003), whose ideas influenced such titanic thinkers as Foucault, Derrida, and Sontag, examined in his 1969 book The Infinite Conversation (public library), translated into English by Susan Hanson.

Maurice Blanchot, identity document, 1927.

Blanchot considers what writing is and is not:

— To write is not to give speech to be seen. The game of common etymology makes of writing a cutting movement, a tear, a crisis.
— This is simply a reminder that the proper tool for writing was also proper for incising: the stylet.
— Yes, but this incisive reminder still evokes a cutting operation, if not a butchery: a kind of violence — the word flesh if found in the family, just as graphy is a scratch. Higher and further back, to write is to curve meet. Writing is the curve that the turn of seeking has already evoked for us and that we find in the bending of reflection.

Three decades after Virginia Woolf proclaimed in the only surviving recording of her voice that “words belong to each other,” Blanchot weighs the duality of language as a medium capable of both connection and separation:

— In each word, all words.
— Yet, speaking, like writing, engages us in a separating movement, an oscillating and vacillating departure.

Illustration from The Little Golden Book of Words

In a sentiment of both complement and counterpoint to Le Guin’s incisive observation that “if you can see a thing whole… it seems that it’s always beautiful,” Blanchot writes:

— Seeing is also a movement.
— Seeing presupposes only a measure and a measurable separation: to see is certainly always to see at a distance, but by allowing distance to give back what it removes from us. Sight is invisibly active in a pause wherein everything holds itself back. We see only what first escapes us by virtue of an initial privation, not seeing things that are too present, and not seeing them if our presence to things is pressing.

In a caveat reminiscent of founding father Benjamin Rush’s insightful metaphor for our blindness to the truly visionary — Rush likened visionary people to “objects placed too near the eye,” whose genius is not properly apprehended by the age in which they live and is only appreciated with the distance of generations — Blanchot adds:

— But we do not see what is too distant, what escapes us through the separation of distance.
— There is a privation, an absence, precisely through which contact is achieved. Here the interval does not impede; on the contrary, it allows a direct relation. Every relation of light is an immediate relation.
— To see is thus to apprehend immediately from a distance.
— …immediately from a distance and through distance.

Two of the self-taught 17th-century artist and astronomer Maria Clara Eimmart’s stunning astronomical drawings.

A century after the great naturalist John Muir insisted that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” Blanchot concludes:

To see is to make use of separation, not as mediating, but as a means of immediation, as immediating. In this sense too, to see is to experience the continuous and to celebrate the sun, that is, beyond the sun: the One.

And yet, Blanchot reminds us, we never see everything — but perhaps that is a freedom rather than a limitation. He writes:

This is sight’s wisdom, though we never see only one thing, even two or several, but a whole: every view is a general view. It is still true that sight holds us within the limits of a horizon. Perception is a wisdom rooted in the ground and standing fixed in the direction of the opening; it is of the land, in the proper sense of the term: planted in the earth and forming a link between the immobile boundary and the apparently boundless horizon — a firm pact from which comes peace. For sight, speech is war and madness. The terrifying word passes over every limit and even the limitlessness of the whole: it seizes the thing from a direction from which it is not taken, not seen, and will never be seen; it transgresses laws, breaks away from orientation, it disorients.

— There is facility in this liberty. Language acts as though we were able to see the thing from all sides.

Couple this finite fragment of The Infinite Conversation with Le Guin on the power of language to transform and redeem, then revisit philosopher Martin Buber on what a tree can teach us about seeing the world clearly, Thoreau on being unblinded by our preconceptions, Georgia O’Keeffe on the art of seeing, and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on apprehending reality as it really is.

BP

Truth, Justice, and Public Good: Simone Weil on Political Manipulation, the Dangers of “For” and “Against,” and How to Save Thinking from Opinion

“True attention is a state so difficult for any human creature, so violent, that any emotional disturbance can derail it. Therefore, one must always endeavour strenuously to protect one’s inner faculty of judgment against the turmoil of personal hopes and fears.”

Truth, Justice, and Public Good: Simone Weil on Political Manipulation, the Dangers of “For” and “Against,” and How to Save Thinking from Opinion

At the age of nineteen, Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) placed first in France’s competitive exam for certification in “General Philosophy and Logic”; Simone de Beauvoir placed second. In her short life, Weil went on to become one of the most penetrating and far-seeing minds of her era. Albert Camus lauded her as “the only great spirit of our times.” The Polish poet and Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz considered her France’s “rare gift to the contemporary world.” She was an idealist who lived out her ideals. Born into a family of Jewish intellectuals, the 24-year-old Weil took a year off teaching to labor incognito in a car factory — despite a rare neuropathy that gave her frequent debilitating headaches — in order to better understand the struggles of the working poor. At twenty-seven, she enlisted as a soldier in the anarchist brigade during the Spanish Civil War. At only thirty-four, she died of starvation in an English sanatorium, where she was being treated for tuberculosis, having refused to receive more food than what her compatriots were rationed in Nazi-occupied France. Along the way, she wrote with uncommon insight and rhetorical rigor about such elemental questions as the essence of attention, the meaning of rights, how to make use of our suffering, and what it means to be a complete human being.

That Weil should languish so underappreciated and obscure today is a tragic function of the dual forces of collective amnesia and the systemic erasure of women’s ideas from the historical record. And yet her ideas, which influenced such luminaries as Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Iris Murdoch, Michel Foucault, Flannery O’Connor, and Cornel West, resonate with intense relevance today.

Simone Weil

In the final months of her life, as she watched the Nazis devastate humanity and fragment even the rational and the righteous into factions of increasingly divisive opinions, Weil composed a short, searing treatise titled On the Abolition of All Political Parties (public library). It was never published in her lifetime. Nearly a century later, it speaks with astonishing and terrifying precision to the underlying forces ripping our world asunder.

Weil begins by posing the foundational question of whether the apparent evils of political divisiveness can be compensated for by the alleged good of adopting the views of any given party. She writes:

First, we must ascertain what is the criterion of goodness.

It can only be truth and justice; and, then, the public interest.

Democracy, majority rule, are not good in themselves. They are merely means towards goodness, and their effectiveness is uncertain. For instance, if, instead of Hitler, it had been the Weimar Republic that decided, through a most rigorous democratic and legal process, to put the Jews in concentration camps, and cruelly torture them to death, such measures would not have been one atom more legitimate than the present Nazi policies (and such a possibility is by no means far-fetched). Only what is just can be legitimate. In no circumstances can crime and mendacity ever be legitimate.

With these three elemental criteria of truth, justice, and public interest in mind, Weil frames the core characteristics of all political parties:

  1. A political party is a machine to generate collective passions.
  2. A political party is an organisation designed to exert collective pressure upon the minds of all its individual members.
  3. The first objective and also the ultimate goal of any political party is its own growth, without limit.

Nearly a decade before Hannah Arendt composed her masterwork on the origins of totalitarianism, Weil draws the inevitable, devastating conclusion:

Because of these three characteristics, every party is totalitarian — potentially, and by aspiration. If one party is not actually totalitarian, it is simply because those parties that surround it are no less so. These three characteristics are factual truths — evident to anyone who has ever had anything to do with the every-day activities of political parties.

As to the third: it is a particular instance of the phenomenon which always occurs whenever thinking individuals are dominated by a collective structure — a reversal of the relation between ends and means.

Everywhere, without exception, all the things that are generally considered ends are in fact, by nature, by essence, and in a most obvious way, mere means. One could cite countless examples of this from every area of life: money, power, the state, national pride, economic production, universities, etc., etc.

Goodness alone is an end.

More than a century after Emerson admonished that “masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence,” Weil adds:

Collective thinking… is an animal form of thinking. Its dim perception of goodness merely enables it to mistake this or that means for an absolute good.

The same applies to political parties. In principle, a party is an instrument to serve a certain conception of the public interest. This is true even for parties which represent the interests of one particular social group, for there is always a certain conception of the public interest according to which the public interest and these particular interests should coincide. Yet this conception is extremely vague. This is true without exception and quite uniformly.

Illustration of the Trojan horse from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer for young readers

She examines how the second and third defining features of political parties — the determination to influence people’s minds and the ultimate goal of infinite growth — conspire to effect the total manipulation of truth and the corruption of justice:

Once the growth of the party becomes a criterion of goodness, it follows inevitably that the party will exert a collective pressure upon people’s minds. This pressure is very real; it is openly displayed; it is professed and proclaimed. It should horrify us, but we are already too much accustomed to it.

Political parties are organisations that are publicly and officially designed for the purpose of killing in all souls the sense of truth and of justice. Collective pressure is exerted upon a wide public by the means of propaganda. The avowed purpose of propaganda is not to impart light, but to persuade… All political parties make propaganda.

She frames the grim effect on the individual:

A man who has not taken the decision to remain exclusively faithful to the inner light establishes mendacity at the very centre of his soul. For this, his punishment is inner darkness.

With an eye to the three types of lies by which this manipulation occurs — “lying to the party, lying to the public, lying to oneself” — Weil examines the nature and paradoxes of truth:

Truth is all the thoughts that surge in the mind of a thinking creature whose unique, total, exclusive desire is for the truth.

Mendacity, error (the two words are synonymous), are the thoughts of those who do not desire truth, or those who desire truth plus something else. For instance, they desire truth, but they also desire conformity with such or such received ideas.

Yet how can we desire truth if we have no prior knowledge of it? This is the mystery of all mysteries. Words that express a perfection which no mind can conceive of — God, truth, justice — silently evoked with desire, but without any preconception, have the power to lift up the soul and flood it with light.

It is when we desire truth with an empty soul and without attempting to guess its content that we receive the light. Therein resides the entire mechanism of attention.

Perhaps due to her beautifully phrased belief that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” Weil suggests that protecting our attention from manipulation is our greatest and most generous contribution to public life and public good — something which human nature, so hopelessly governed by hope and fear, makes immensely challenging to achieve and therefore all the more triumphant when achieved:

True attention is a state so difficult for any human creature, so violent, that any emotional disturbance can derail it. Therefore, one must always endeavour strenuously to protect one’s inner faculty of judgment against the turmoil of personal hopes and fears.

Art by JooHee Yoon from The Tiger Who Would Be King by James Thurber

She considers the particular and supreme peril of what philosopher Martha Nussbaum would term, nearly a century later, our political emotions — the unthinking, affect-driven impulse toward belief and action, which politicians so deftly manipulate by playing on our hopes and fears. Weil terms this “collective passion” and writes:

When a country is in the grip of a collective passion, it becomes unanimous in crime. If it becomes prey to two, or four, or five, or ten collective passions, it is divided among several criminal gangs. Divergent passions do not neutralise one another… they clash with infernal noise, and amid such din the fragile voices of justice and truth are drowned.

[…]

Collective passion is the only source of energy at the disposal of parties with which to make propaganda and to exert pressure upon the soul of every member.

One recognises that the partisan spirit makes people blind, makes them deaf to justice, pushes even decent men cruelly to persecute innocent targets. One recognises it, and yet nobody suggests getting rid of the organisations that generate such evils.

Intoxicating drugs are prohibited. Some people are nevertheless addicted to them. But there would be many more addicts if the state were to organise the sale of opium and cocaine in all tobacconists, accompanied by advertising posters to encourage consumption.

The most toxic effect of collective passion, Weil argues, is that it narrows the locus of attention to particular points of heightened affect — isolated ideas we feel, or are made to feel, strongly for or against — to the exclusion of all attendant ideas that come bundled in that particular party ideology. People are impelled to join a party or a cause because it speaks to a few things they feel strongly about, but they rarely examine closely all the other ideas the party espouses — including many with which, upon reflection and examination, they might wholly disagree. (We have seen this, for instance, with the tidal shift in support by women who initially voted for Donald Trump, having been drawn to some of his economic campaign promises, either unwitting of or turning a willfully blind eye to his reckless misogyny until its undeniable evils came to eclipse any alleged economic goods promised them.)

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar

Weil admonishes that while this manipulative fragmentation of thought to the detriment of truth, justice, and public interest originates in our politics, it has permeated nearly every domain of human life:

People have progressively developed the habit of thinking, in all domains, only in terms of being “in favour of” or “against” any opinion, and afterwards they seek arguments to support one of these two options… There are broad-minded people willing to acknowledge the value of opinions with which they disagree. They have completely lost the concept of true and false.

Others, having taken a position in favour of a certain opinion, refuse to examine any dissenting view. This is a transposition of the totalitarian spirit.

When Einstein visited France, all the people who more or less belonged to the intellectual circles, including other scientists, divided themselves into two camps: for Einstein or against him. Any new scientific idea finds in the scientific world supporters and enemies — both sides inflamed to a deplorable degree with the partisan spirit. The intellectual world is permanently full of trends and factions, in various stages of crystallisation.

In art and literature, this phenomenon is even more prevalent. Cubism and Surrealism were each a sort of party. Some people were Gidian and some Maurrassian. To achieve celebrity, it is useful to be surrounded by a gang of admirers, all possessed by the partisan spirit.

However feasible Weil’s central insistence on the abolition of all political parties may be in reality, her deeper point — the importance of refusing to adopt divisive black-and-white opinions among and within us — may be the single most significant, most countercultural act of courage and resistance each of us can perform today. She concludes:

Nearly everywhere — often even when dealing with purely technical problems — instead of thinking, one merely takes sides: for or against. Such a choice replaces the activity of the mind. This is an intellectual leprosy; it originated in the political world and then spread through the land, contaminating all forms of thinking. This leprosy is killing us.

Complement On the Abolition of All Political Parties with Hannah Arendt on lying in politics, Bertrand Russell on our only effective self-defense against propaganda, Walt Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistance, and Rebecca Solnit on the culture-shifting power of calling things by their true names, then revisit Weil on the purest, most fertile form of thought and the key to discipline.

BP

The Life of the Mind: Oliver Sacks’s 121 Formative and Favorite Books from a Lifetime of Reading

From Descartes to Curie to the Oxford English Dictionary, a biblio-anatomy of an unrepeatable mind.

A Galileo of the mind and a Goethe of medicine, Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) considered his patients “more instructive than any book.” And yet he enchanted the world with their stories and turned the case study into a poetic form precisely because of his abiding love of books, the indelible exoskeleton that bolstered his enormous spirit. He read widely and voraciously since childhood, reaching for literature spanning an incredible range of eras, subjects, and sensibilities — the true mark of the prepared mind. Some he read in the course of specific research related to his own work, others through the sheer centrifugal force of unbridled curiosity radiating into the everythingness of everything.

Science was his constant companion — from its granular esoterica, particularly related to his obsessions with minerals, cephalopods, and ferns, to its masterworks on consciousness and the brain, to its meeting point with art in science fiction. As I recently learned from Kate Edgar, Dr. Sacks’s friend, assistant, and editorial collaborator of thirty years, he especially loved biographies of great scientists. But he also cherished philosophy and poetry. The slim, poignant autobiography Scottish philosopher David Hume penned in the last year of his life inspired Dr. Sacks’s own poignant farewell to the world. His friendship with the poet Thom Gunn deeply informed his understanding of creativity and his own magnificent autobiography — which crowned the best books of 2015 and remains one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — borrows its title from a Gunn verse.

Oliver Sacks by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

In his autobiography, Dr. Sacks traces his lifelong love of books to his childhood home:

Another sacred room was the library, which, in the evenings at least, was especially my father’s domain. One section of the library wall was covered with his Hebrew books, but there were books on every subject — my mother’s books (she was fond of novels and biographies), my brothers’ books, and books inherited from grandparents. One bookcase was entirely devoted to plays — my parents, who had met as fellow enthusiasts in a medical students’ Ibsen society, still went to the theater every Thursday.

In many ways, his uncommonly wide lens on the world reflected the fundamentally different animating motives of his parents — his father, the humanist; his mother, the scientist. Dr. Sacks writes in his autobiography:

My father’s quiet hours were all spent with books, in the library, surrounded by biblical commentaries or occasionally his favorite First World War poets. Human beings, human behavior, human myths and societies, human language and religions occupied his entire attention — he had little interest in the nonhuman, in “nature,” as my mother had. I think my father was drawn to medicine because its practice was central in human society, and that he saw himself in an essentially social and ritual role. I think my mother, though, was drawn to medicine because for her it was part of natural history and biology. She could not look at human anatomy or physiology without thinking of parallels and precursors in other primates, other vertebrates. This did not compromise her concern and feeling for the individual — but placed it, always, in a wider context, that of biology and science in general.

Outside the home, young Oliver found refuge in another sanctuary of books:

The Willesden Public Library was an odd triangular building set at an angle to Willesden Lane, a short walk from our house. It was deceptively small outside, but vast inside, with dozens of alcoves and bays full of books, more books than I had ever seen in my life. Once the librarian was assured I could handle the books and use the card index, she gave me the run of the library and allowed me to order books from the central library and even sometimes to take rare books out. My reading was voracious but unsystematic: I skimmed, I hovered, I browsed, as I wished…

In my years of devouring his writing, I was always fascinated by Dr. Sacks’s reading range — his voracious and unsystematic hoverings, which stayed with him for life. I kept extensive notes on the books he mentioned — some sentimentally, with the tenderness of one paying due homage to a formative influence, and some scholarly, as scientific beacons that lit the way for his own work with patients.

Having previously compiled similar lifelong reading lists for Patti Smith and Gabriel Garcia Márquez based on their respective autobiographical writings, I set out to do the same for Dr. Sacks — an undertaking much more labor-intensive by comparison, on account of his impressive body of work, and months in the making.

Gathered here for the first time are the books that informed, inspired, and invigorated one of the most radiant and unrepeatable minds of our time, culled from his own many books and including a few of his particularly delightful reflections on some of his favorites. Special thanks to Kate Edgar, who now spearheads the Oliver Sacks Foundation, for helping me fill in any crucial gaps.

Oliver Sacks in Oxford in 1953 (Photograph: David Drazin)
  1. The Sense of Movement (public library) by Thom Gunn (1957)
  2. Thom Gunn has written powerfully of the “occasions” of poetry. Science has its occasions no less than art: sometimes a dream-metaphor, like Kekulé’s snakes; sometimes an analogy, like Newton’s apple; sometimes a literal event, the thing-in-itself, which suddenly explodes into unimagined significance, like Archimedes’s “Eureka!” in his bath. Every such occasion is a eureka or epiphany.

  3. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (public library) by Stephen Jay Gould (1989)
  4. Speak, Memory (public library) by Vladimir Nabokov (1966)
  5. Childhood’s End (public library) by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
  6. Madame Curie (public library) by Eve Curie (1937)
  7. Eve Curie’s biography of her mother—which my own mother gave me when I was ten — was the first portrait of a scientist I ever read, and one that deeply impressed me.1 It was no dry recital of a life’s achievements, but full of evocative, poignant images — Marie Curie plunging her hands into the sacks of pitchblende residue, still mixed with pine needles from the Joachimsthal mine; inhaling acid fumes as she stood amid vast steaming vats and crucibles, stirring them with an iron rod almost as big as herself; transforming the huge, tarry masses to tall vessels of colorless solutions, more and more radioactive, and steadily concentrating these, in turn, in her drafty shed, with dust and grit continually getting into the solutions and undoing the endless work.

    […]

    I was particularly moved by the description in Eve Curie’s book of how her parents, restless one evening and curious as to how the fractional crystallizations were going, returned to their shed late one night and saw in the darkness a magical glowing everywhere, from all the tubes and vessels and basins containing the radium concentrates, and realized for the first time that their element was spontaneously luminous. The luminosity of phosphorus required the presence of oxygen, but the luminosity of radium arose entirely from within, from its own radioactivity. Marie Curie wrote in lyrical terms of this luminosity:

    “One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night when we perceived the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles and capsules containing our products… It was really a lovely sight and always new to us. The glowing tubes looked like faint fairy lights.”

    […]

    In 1998 I spoke at a meeting for the centennial of the discovery of polonium and radium. I said that I had been given this book when I was ten, and that it was my favorite biography. As I was talking I became conscious of a very old lady in the audience, with high Slavic cheekbones and a smile going from one ear to the other. I thought, “It can’t be!” But it was — it was Eve Curie, and she signed her book for me sixty years after it was published, fifty-five years after I got it.

  8. The Jungle Book (public library) by Rudyard Kipling (1894)
  9. A gentle founding myth that pleased my romantic side.

  10. The Geological Story Briefly Told (public library) by James Dwight Dana (1875)
  11. Humphry Davy: Science and Power (public library) by David Knight (1998)
  12. Ulysses (public library | free ebook) by James Joyce (1922)
  13. The Mind of the Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory (public library) by A.R. Luria (1968)
  14. The greatest neurological treasure of our time, for both thought and case description, is the works of A.R. Luria.

  15. Man with a Shattered World (public library) by A.R. Luria (1972)
  16. The Working Brain (public library) by A.R. Luria (1973)
  17. Higher Cortical Functions in Man (public library) by A.R. Luria (1966)
  18. Restoration of Function After Brain Injury (public library) by A.R. Luria (1963)
  19. The Nature of Human Conflicts; or Emotion, Conflict and Will (public library) by A.R. Luria (1932)
  20. The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge (public library) by Rainer Maria Rilke (1910)
  21. On Certainty (public library) by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1951)
  22. Forever Today: A True Story of Lost Memory and Never-Ending Love (public library) by Deborah Wearing (2005)
  23. When I asked Deborah whether Clive [Wearing’s amnesiac husband] knew about her memoir, she told me that she had shown it to him twice before, but that he had instantly forgotten. I had my own heavily annotated copy with me, and asked Deborah to show it to him again.

    “You’ve written a book!” he cried, astonished. “Well done! Congratulations!” He peered at the cover. “All by you? Good heavens!” Excited, he jumped for joy. Deborah showed him the dedication page (“For my Clive”). “Dedicated to me?” He hugged her. This scene was repeated several times within a few minutes, with almost exactly the same astonishment, the same expressions of delight and joy each time.

    Clive and Deborah are still very much in love with each other, despite his amnesia (indeed, the [first edition] subtitle of Deborah’s book is A Memoir of Love and Amnesia). He greeted her several times as if she had just arrived. It must be an extraordinary situation, I thought, both maddening and flattering, to be seen always as new, as a gift, a blessing.

    […]

    [It is] a remarkable book, so tender, yet so tough-minded and realistic.

  24. Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome (public library) by Darold Treffert (1989)
  25. British Botanists (public library) by John Gilmour (1944)
  26. The Discovery of the Elements (public library) by Mary Elvira Weeks (1934)
  27. One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest (public library) by Wade Davis (1996)
  28. Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest (public library) by Wade Davis (2011)
  29. Collected Poems (public library) by W.H. Auden (1976)
  30. Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Years 1799–1804 (public library | free ebook) by Alexander von Humboldt (1852)
  31. Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe (public library | free ebook) by Alexander von Humboldt (1849)
  32. Humboldt and the Cosmos (public library) by Douglas Botting (1973)
  33. Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein (public library) by Abraham Pais (1982)
  34. Niels Bohr’s Times: In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity (public library) by Abraham Pais (1991)
  35. J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life (public library) by Abraham Pais (2006)
  36. Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (2007)
  37. Einstein (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (1973)
  38. Three Degrees Above Zero: Bell Labs in the Information Age (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (1984)
  39. Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos: Writings in Science (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (1993)
  40. Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (2004)
  41. Chemical Recreations: A Popular Manual of Experimental Chemistry (public library) by J.J. Griffin (1860)
  42. Practical Chemistry (public library) by William George Valentin (1908)
  43. A workhorse of a book — straight, uninspired, pedestrian in tone, designed as a practical manual, but nevertheless, for me, filled with wonders. Inside its cover, corroded, discolored, and stained (for it had done time in the lab in its day), it bore the words “Best wishes and congratulations 21/1/1 — Mick” — it had been given to my mother on her eighteenth birthday by her twenty-five-year-old brother Mick, already a research chemist himself. Uncle Mick, a younger brother of Dave, had gone to South Africa with his brothers, and then worked in a tin mine on his return. He loved tin, I was told, as much as Uncle Dave loved tungsten, and he was sometimes referred to in the family as Uncle Tin. I never knew Uncle Mick, for he died of a malignancy the year I was born — he was only forty-five — a victim, his family thought, of the high levels of radioactivity in the uranium mines in Africa. But my mother had been very close to him, and his memory and image stayed vividly in her mind. The notion that this was my mother’s own chemistry book, and of the never-known, young chemist uncle who gave it to her, made the book especially precious to me.

  44. The Chemistry of Common Life (public library) by J.F.W. Johnston (1855)
  45. Very different in style and content, though equally designed to awake the sense of wonder (“The common life of man is full of Wonders, Chemical and Physiological. Most of us pass through this life without seeing or being sensible of them …”)

  46. The Chemical Pocket-Book or Memoranda Chemica (public library) by James Parkinson (1803)
  47. Antoine Lavoisier: Scientist, Economist, Social Reformer (public library) by Douglas McKie (1952)
  48. An Autobiographical Sketch (public library) by Justus von Liebig (1891)
  49. The Stars in Their Courses (public library) by James Jeans (1931)
  50. Auntie Len had given me [this book] for my tenth birthday, and I had been intoxicated by the imaginary journey Jeans described into the heart of the sun, and his casual mention that the sun contained platinum and silver and lead, most of the elements we have on earth.

  51. The Interpretation of Radium (public library) by Frederick Soddy (1922)
  52. Soddy’s book The Interpretation of Radium in the last year of the war, and I was enraptured by his vision of endless energy, endless light. Soddy’s heady words gave me a sense of the intoxication, the sense of power and redemption, that had attended the discovery of radium and radioactivity at the start of the century.

    But side by side with this, Soddy voiced the dark possibilities, too. These indeed had been in his mind almost from the start, and, as early as 1903, he had spoken of the earth as “a storehouse stuffed with explosives, inconceivably more powerful than any we know of.” This note was frequently sounded in The Interpretation of Radium, and it was Soddy’s powerful vision that inspired H.G. Wells to go back to his early science-fiction style and publish, in 1914, The World Set Free (Wells actually dedicated his book to The Interpretation of Radium).

  53. Beyond Good and Evil (public library | free ebook) by Friedrich Nietzsche (1886)
  54. The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness (public library) by Gerald M. Edelman (1989)
  55. The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten: An Anatomy of Consciousness (public library) by Israel Rosenfield (1992)
  56. A Collection of Moments: A Study of Involuntary Memories (public library) by Esther Salaman (1970)
  57. Vision: A Computational Investigation of Visual Representation in Man (public library) by David Marr (1982)
  58. Art of Memory (public library) by Francis Yates (1966)
  59. The Great Mental Calculators (public library) by Steven Smith (1983)
  60. Human Personality (public library | free ebook) by F.W.H. Myers (1961)
  61. Nadia: A Case of Extraordinary Drawing Ability in an Autistic Child (public library) by Lorna Selfe (1977)
  62. The Thread of Life (public library) by Richard Wollheim (1984)
  63. The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body (public library) by Steven Mithen (2006)
  64. Hereditary Genius (public library) by Francis Galton (1869)
  65. Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (public library | free ebook) by Francis Galton (1883)
  66. Synaesthesia: The Strangest Thing (public library) by John Harrison (2001)
  67. Consciousness Lost and Found (public library) by Lawrence Weiskrantz (1997)
  68. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (public library) by Umberto Eco (2005)
  69. I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self (public library) by Rodolfo Llinás (2001)
  70. Sound and Symbol (public library) by Victor Zuckerkandl (1956)
  71. Music and the Mind (public library) by Anthony Storr (1992)
  72. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (public library) by Merlin Donald (1991)
  73. Time and the Nervous System (public library) by William Gooddy (1988)
  74. Memoirs of Hector Berlioz: From 1803 to 1865, Comprising His Travels in Germany, Italy, Russia, and England (public library) by Hector Berlioz (1865)
  75. The Haunting Melody: Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life and Music (public library) by Theodor Reik (1953)
  76. Room for Doubt (public library) by Wendy Lesser (2007)
  77. The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music (public library) by Steve Lopez (2008)
  78. The (Strangest) Song: One Father’s Quest to Help His Daughter Find Her Voice (public library) by Teri Sforza (2006)
  79. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (public library) by Jean-Dominique Bauby (1997)
  80. Elegy for Iris (public library) by John Bayley (1999)
  81. The Anatomy of Melancholy (public library) by Robert Burton (1621)
  82. The Descent of Man (public library | free ebook) by Charles Darwin (1871)
  83. The Dance of Life (public library | free ebook) by Havelock Ellis (1923)
  84. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (public library) by Howard Gardner (1983)
  85. Measure of the Heart: A Father’s Alzheimer’s, a Daughter’s Return (public library) by Mary Ellen Geist ()
  86. Drumming at the Edge of Magic (public library) by Mickey Hart (1990)
  87. Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness (public library) by John Hull (1990)
  88. Why Birds Sing (public library) by David Rothenberg (2005)
  89. The World as Will and Representation (public library) by Arthur Schopenhauer (1818)
  90. Poetics of Music: In the Form of Six Lessons (public library) by Igor Stravinsky (1970)
  91. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (public library) by William Styron (1990)
  92. The Kreutzer Sonata, and Other Stories (public library | free ebook) by Leo Tolstoy (1889)
  93. Master and Man, and Other Stories (public library | free ebook) by Leo Tolstoy (1895)
  94. The Fountain Overflows (public library) by Rebecca West (1956)
  95. Essays in Biography (public library) by Maynard Keynes (1951)
  96. The Garden of Cyrus (public library) by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  97. The Perception of the Visual World (public library) by James Gibson (1950)
  98. Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard (public library) by Nora Ellen Groce (1985)
  99. The Complete Short Stories (public library) by H.G. Wells (1966)
  100. Suburban Shaman (public library) by Cecil Helman (2006)
  101. Life Itself (public library) by Francis Crick (1981)
  102. Of Molecules and Men (public library) by Francis Crick (1966)
  103. Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (public library) by Francis Crick (1994)
  104. An Essay on the Shaking Palsy (public library | free ebook) by James Parkinson (1817)
  105. The Lost World (public library | free ebook) by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)
  106. Earth Abides (public library) by George Stewart (1976)
  107. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (public library) by Erving Goffman (1961)
  108. Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life (public library) by C.M. Parkes (1972)
  109. The Basal Ganglia and Posture (public library) by James Purdon Martin (1967)
  110. From Being to Becoming: Time and Complexity in the Physical Sciences (public library) by Ilya Prigogine (1980)
  111. The Fractal Geometry of Nature (public library) by Benoit Mandelbrot (1982)
  112. When I first found that my patients’ reactions to L-DOPA were becoming erratic and unpredictable — that what had been clear was clear no longer, that something strange and unintelligible was gradually taking over — I felt fear, guilt, and a sort of revulsion.

    This attitude changed when I first read Prigogine and gained the sense that there could be a hidden order, a new sort of order, in the midst of disorder. A most vivid sense of this new order – new, but also old, because it is the order of trees, of landscapes, of innumerable natural features — was given to me, visually, when I saw Mandelbrot’s book.

  113. The Body in Question (public library) by Jonathan Miller (1978)
  114. The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness (public library) by Gerald M. Edelman (1989)
  115. Madness in Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (public library) by Michel Foucault (1965)
  116. The Principles of Psychology (public library) by William James (1890)
  117. The Varieties of Religious Experience (public library) by William James (1902)
  118. The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience (public library) by Robert E L Masters and Jean Houston (1966)
  119. Ants on the Melon: A Collection of Poems (public library) by Virginia Hamilton Adair (1996)
  120. Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way (public library) by Molly Brinbaum (2011)
  121. Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing — and Discovering — the Primal Sense (public library) by Bonnie Blodgett (2010)
  122. The World of Imagination: Sum and Substance (public library) by Eva Brann (1991)
  123. A Fever in Salem: A New Interpretation of the New England Witch Trials (public library) by Laurie Winn Carlson (1999)
  124. Meditations on First Philosophy (public library) by René Descartes (1641)
  125. Great Expectations (public library | free ebook) by Charles Dickens (1861)
  126. The Idiot (public library | free ebook) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1869)
  127. Brave New World (public library) by Aldous Huxley (1932)
  128. The Devils of Loudon (public library) by Aldous Huxley (1952)
  129. The Doors of Perception (public library) by Aldous Huxley (1954)
  130. Moby-Dick (public library | free ebook) by Herman Melville (1851)
  131. The Oxford English Dictionary (public library)
  132. My mother, a surgeon and anatomist, while accepting that I was too clumsy to follow in her footsteps as a surgeon, expected me at least to excel in anatomy at Oxford. We dissected bodies and attended lectures and, a couple of years later, had to sit for a final anatomy exam. When the results were posted, I saw that I was ranked one from bottom in the class. I dreaded my mother’s reaction and decided that, in the circumstances, a few drinks were called for. I made my way to a favorite pub, the White Horse in Broad Street, where I drank four or five pints of hard cider—stronger than most beer and cheaper, too.

    Rolling out of the White Horse, liquored up, I was seized by a mad and impudent idea. I would try to compensate for my abysmal performance in the anatomy finals by having a go at a very prestigious university prize — the Theodore Williams Scholarship in Human Anatomy. The exam had already started, but I lurched in, drunkenly bold, sat down at a vacant desk, and looked at the exam paper.

    There were seven questions to be answered; I pounced on one (“Does structural differentiation imply functional differentiation?”) and wrote nonstop for two hours on the subject, bringing in whatever zoological and botanical knowledge I could muster to flesh out the discussion. Then I left, an hour before the exam ended, ignoring the other six questions.

    The results were in The Times that weekend; I, Oliver Wolf Sacks, had won the prize. Everyone was dumbfounded — how could someone who had come one but last in the anatomy finals walk off with the Theodore Williams prize? I was not entirely surprised, for it was a sort of repetition, in reverse, of what had happened when I took the Oxford prelims. I am very bad at factual exams, yes-or-no questions, but can spread my wings with essays.

    Fifty pounds came with the Theodore Williams prize — £50! I had never had so much money at once. This time I went not to the White Horse but to Blackwell’s bookshop (next door to the pub) and bought, for £44, the twelve volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary, for me the most coveted and desirable book in the world. I was to read the entire dictionary through when I went on to medical school, and I still like to take a volume off the shelf, now and then, for bedtime reading.

Please join me in donating to the Oliver Sacks Foundation, whose mission is to extend Dr. Sacks’s legacy by bringing to life his unpublished writings and supporting the work of other writers animated by a shared ethos of illuminating the human mind and brain through narrative nonfiction.

For other notable selections of luminaries’ favorite books, see the reading lists of Carl Sagan, David Byrne, Joan Didion, Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

BP

Gaston Bachelard on the Meditative Magic of Housework and How It Increases the Human Dignity of Everyday Objects

“Consciousness rejuvenates everything, giving a quality of beginning to the most everyday actions.”

When faced with a poetic image, writes the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (June 27, 1884–October 19, 1962) in his 1957 classic The Poetics of Space (public library), “we are in the presence of a minuscule phenomenon of the shimmering consciousness.” Bachelard is himself the proprietor of a shimmering consciousness, but although he is one of the most wonderful — in the literal sense of “full of wonder” — minds of the twentieth century and a major influence for such luminaries as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, he remains thoroughly underappreciated.

Trained as a philosopher of science, Bachelard is palpably drawn to the Eastern spiritual traditions, his mind seemingly the self-contained scene of Einstein and Tagore’s famous conversation. There is a meditative quality to his writing, reflecting a deeply meditative mind. In his 1957 masterwork, he extends an invitation to embodied presence, triply timely amid our disembodied digital culture, and beckons the attention not by screaming but by seduction — nowhere more so than in the passages celebrating the enchantment of housework.

Three decades before Ursula K. Le Guin framed housekeeping as a “complex art [learned] only by methodical, repeated, long-continued practice,” Bachelard writes:

[The] daydreams that accompany household activities … keep vigilant watch over the house, they link its immediate past to its immediate future, they are what maintains it in the security of being.

What confers this imaginative dignity upon housework, Bachelard argues, is the quality of attention we bring to its simple tasks:

How can housework be made into a creative activity?

The minute we apply a glimmer of consciousness to a mechanical gesture, or practice phenomenology while polishing a piece of old furniture, we sense new impressions come into being beneath this familiar domestic duty. For consciousness rejuvenates everything, giving a quality of beginning to the most everyday actions.

Perhaps because he came from a family of shoemakers, Bachelard finds especial allure in the tactile transcendence of menial work:

How wonderful it is to really become once more the inventor of a mechanical action! And so, when [one] rubs a piece of furniture — even vicariously — when he puts a little fragrant wax on his table with the woolen cloth that lends warmth to everything it touches, he creates a new object; he increases the object’s human dignity; he registers this object officially as a member of the human household.

It bears noting that Bachelard’s use of “he” is what Le Guin calls “the generic he” in her spectacular essay on being a man. Here, too, “he” really means “she,” for it is the housewife — an inherently feminine archetype by both etymology and demographic distribution, especially in his era — that Bachelard celebrates as the chief practitioner of this creative activity:

Objects that are cherished in this way really are born of an intimate light, and they attain to a higher degree of reality than indifferent objects, or those that are defined by geometric reality. For they produce a new reality of being, and they take their place not only in an order but in a community of order. From one object in a room to another, housewifely care weaves the ties that unite a very ancient past to the new epoch. The housewife awakens furniture that was asleep.

Illustration by Yaroslava from ‘A Stocking for a Kitten’ by Helen Kay. Click image for more.

Bachelard considers “women’s construction of the house through daily polishing” and writes:

If we attain to the limit at which dream becomes exaggerated, we experience a sort of consciousness of constructing the house, in the very pains we take to keep it alive, to give it all its essential clarity. A house that shines from the care it receives appears to have been rebuilt from the inside; it is as though it were new inside. In the intimate harmony of walls and furniture, it may be said that we become conscious of a house that is built by women, since men only know how to build a house from the outside, and they know little or nothing of the “wax” civilization.

[…]

We can sense how a human being can devote himself to things and make them his own by perfecting their beauty. A little more beautiful and we have something quite different.

By tending and attending to objects in this way, Bachelard argues, we reawaken to their beauty, essentially reimagining them and creating them anew:

Through housewifely care a house recovers not so much its originality as its origin. And what a great life it would be if, every morning, every object in the house could be made anew by our hands, could “issue” from our hands. In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent van Gogh tells him that we should “retain something of the original character of a Robinson Crusoe.” Make and remake everything oneself, make a “supplementary gesture” toward each object, give another facet to the polished reflections, all of which are so many boons the imagination confers upon us by making us aware of the house’s inner growth. To have an active day I keep saying to myself, “Every morning I must give a thought to Saint Robinson.” … A dreamer can reconstruct the world from an object that he transforms magically through his care of it.

The Poetics of Space is an indispensable read in its entirety. Complement it with Bachelard’s followup, The Poetics of Reverie, then revisit the delightful 1935 proto-feminist children’s book The Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework.

For a living testament to Bachelard’s faith in the worldbuilding capacity of housework, see Carol Devine and Wendy Trusler’s magnificent The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning.

BP

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