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Hermann Hesse on Hope, the Difficult Art of Taking Responsibility, and the Wisdom of the Inner Voice

“If you are now wondering where to look for consolation, where to seek a new and better God… he does not come to us from books, he lives within us, and all our knowledge of him is worthless unless he opens our inner eye. This God is in you too. He is most particularly in you, the dejected and despairing.”

Hermann Hesse on Hope, the Difficult Art of Taking Responsibility, and the Wisdom of the Inner Voice

“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Joan Didion wrote in her timeless essay on self-respect. And yet this willingness does not come naturally to the human animal. We glance left and right, we peer above and below, placing the responsibility for our suffering everywhere but at the center of our own being. We treat the unhandsome consequences of our actions as something that happens to us, at us, by some wretched external causality. In the process, the tick of our self-righteousness grows fatter and fatter on bloodthirsty blame.

The great German poet, novelist, and painter Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) offered an antidote to this all too human tendency in one of his least known pieces of writing, composed as the world was coming back to consciousness after the First World War.

The war had violently ejected Hesse from the exultations of his youth. But he never lost his idealism — he became an impassioned advocate for pacifism and its wellspring in the mindfulness of individuals. Over the next three decades, through the aftermath of one devastating war and the harrowing actuality of another, Hesse composed a series of remarkable, clear-minded, largehearted essays, letters, and pamphlets condemning his compatriots for the unthinking herd mentality that had allowed Hitler’s rise to power and inviting what he saw as the only salvation for them: a new ethos of responsibility, beginning at the personal level upon which the political rests. He was especially invested in invigorating the young — the next generations who had inherited a burden not their own and upon whose shoulders the task of redemption fell with spirit-crushing weight.

Hermann Hesse

These pieces were eventually collected in 1946 — the year Hesse received the Nobel Prize — and later published as If the War Goes On… (public library). Among them is the stirring “Letter to a Young German,” written to a dispirited youth in 1919 — a decade before the publication of Rilke’s almost spiritual classic Letters to a Young Poet, and brimming with kindred consolation for the transcendent traumas of living. This was a momentous year for Hesse. Having recently lost his marriage to the fallout of his wife’s acute mental illness, he had just left Berlin to settle alone in a small farmhouse in Switzerland. WWI had just ended, having begun as “the war to end all wars,” instead netting millions of deaths and laying the gruesome groundwork for future genocides. That year, Hesse signed Romain Rolland’s Declaration of the Independence of the Mind — the extraordinary manifesto for critical thinking and pacifism, co-signed by such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Rabindranath Tagore, Jane Addams, and Upton Sinclair.

Hesse addresses his despairing young correspondent while himself perched on this precipice between optimism and despair. Three years before Bertrand Russell made his timeless case for what he termed “the will to doubt,” Hesse writes:

You write me that you are in despair and do not know what to believe, what to hope. You do not know whether or not there is a God. You do not know whether or not life has any meaning, whether or not love of country has a meaning, whether, in the wretched condition of the world, it is better to strive for spiritual goods or merely to fill your belly.

I believe your state of mind and soul to be the right one. Not to know whether there is a God, not to know whether there is good and evil, is far better than to know for sure.

More than half a century before Jacob Bronowski admonished against the dark side of certainty, Hesse offers a sobering antidote to the destructive self-righteousness our certitudes delude us into:

Five years ago, if you remember, I should say you were pretty well convinced there was a God, and above all you had no doubt as to what was good and what was evil. Naturally you did what you thought was good and marched off to war. For five years now, the best years of your youth, you have kept on doing “good”: you have fired a gun, gone over the top, lounged about in barracks and mud holes, buried comrades or bandaged their wounds. And little by little you began to doubt the good, to suspect that the good and glorious occupation you were engaged in was fundamentally evil, or at the very least stupid and absurd.

And so it was. Evidently the good you were so sure of at the time was not the right good, the good that is indestructible and timeless; and evidently the God you knew in those days was not the right God… Hundreds of thousands of bloody battle sacrifices were offered up to him, and in his honor hundreds of thousands of bellies were slit open, hundreds of thousands of lungs torn to pieces; he was more bloodthirsty and brutal than any idol…

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar

With an eye to the tragic human tendency toward perpetrating wrong under the trance of self-righteousness — a tendency as devastating in the personal realm as it is in the political — he holds up a discomfiting mirror to the self-righteous:

Has anyone stopped to consider, and to wonder at the fact, that in those four years of war our theologians buried their own religion, their own Christianity? Committed to the service of love, they preached hatred; committed to the service of mankind, they mistook for mankind the authorities who paid them.

Decades before James Baldwin observed that “it has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within” and a century before Anne Lamott admonished against how self-righteousness syphons self-respect, Hesse contemplates “the disastrous art of putting the blame on others when we are in trouble” and exhorts for personal responsibility over self-righteous blamefulness:

We are all of us equally guilty and innocent of the fact that our faith was so weak and our officially patented God so ruthless, that we were so incapable of distinguishing war and peace, good and evil. You and I, the Kaiser and the priest, all played a part; we have no call to accuse one another.


It is childish and stupid to ask whether this one or that one is guilty. I propose that for one short hour we ask ourselves instead: “What about myself? What has been my share of the guilt? When have I been too loudmouthed, too arrogant, too credulous, too boastful? What is there in me that may have helped… all the illusions that have so suddenly collapsed?”

Echoing Emerson’s foundational ideas about nonconformity and self-reliance“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string,” the Sage of Concord, whom Hesse read and greatly admired, had written in the previous century — Hesse offers his young correspondent the only real and reliable source of comfort:

If you are now wondering where to look for consolation, where to seek a new and better God, a new and better faith, you will surely realize, in your present loneliness and despair, that this time you must not look to external, official sources, to Bibles, pulpits, or thrones, for enlightenment. Nor to me. You can find it only in yourself. And there it is, there dwells the God who is higher and more selfless… The sages of all time have proclaimed him, but he does not come to us from books, he lives within us, and all our knowledge of him is worthless unless he opens our inner eye. This God is in you too. He is most particularly in you, the dejected and despairing… Search where you may, no prophet or teacher can relieve you of the need to look within… Don’t confine yourself… to any other prophet or guide. Our mission is not to instruct you, to make things easier for you, to show you the way. Our mission is solely to remind you that there is a God and only one God; he dwells in your hearts, and it is there that you must seek him out and speak with him.

To hear and heed that inner voice — the sound-minded, pure-hearted critical thinking unmuffled by the shriek of self-righteousness, unlulled by herd mentality, unsullied by external manipulation or internal self-delusion — is perhaps the most consistent challenge we face throughout our lives, playing out in myriad forms across every realm of existence.

Complement with E.B. White’s lovely letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity and Seamus Heaney’s splendid advice to the young, then revisit Hesse on why we read and always will, the three types of readers, savoring the little joys of life, and what trees teach us about belonging and life.


The Fish in the Stone: Zoë Keating Reads Rita Dove’s Ode to Deep Time

“In the ocean the silence / moves and moves / and so much is unnecessary…”

The Fish in the Stone: Zoë Keating Reads Rita Dove’s Ode to Deep Time

In her arresting poem “Renascence,” Edna St. Vincent Millay elegized “the ticking of Eternity.” But while the notion of eternity has animated artists since the dawn of art, its precise ticking did not come to the forefront of scientific interest until the discovery of the first fossils — those emissaries of eternity, which revealed for the first time that the Earth was much older than previously thought. Instrumental in this new way of thinking about the age and nature of our planet were the discoveries of a self-taught Victorian fossil hunter named Mary Anning (May 21, 1799–March 9, 1847) — the first person to discover and correctly identify the skeleton of an ichthyosaur, an enormous prehistoric marine reptile.

This eternal question of eternity and the larger questions it unlatches in us is what Pulitzer-winning poet and former United States Poet Laureate Rita Dove explores in her poem “The Fish in the Stone,” found in her Collected Poems: 1974–2004 (public library).

At the second annual Universe in Verse, cellist, composer, and music revolutionary Zoë Keating — whose music has powered so much of my writing over the years and who has a personal connection to Mary Anning — read Dove’s poem, immediately following NASA astrophysicist Natalie Batalha’s electrifying reading of Millay’s “Renascence.” Enjoy:

by Rita Dove

The fish in the stone
would like to fall
back into the sea.

He is weary
of analysis, the small
predictable truths.
He is weary of waiting
in the open,
his profile stamped
by a white light.

In the ocean the silence
moves and moves
and so much is unnecessary!

Patient, he drifts
until the moment comes
to cast his
skeletal blossom.

The fish in the stone
knows to fail is
to do the living
a favor.

He knows why the ant
engineers a gangster’s
funeral, garish
and perfectly amber.
He knows why the scientist
in secret delight
strokes the fern’s
voluptuous braille.

To close The Universe in Verse, Zoë Keating joined fellow readers Amanda Palmer, Sean Ono Lennon, and John Cameron Mitchell for a stunning cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” in tribute to marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, to whom the show was dedicated.

For more highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop’s profound poem about the nature of knowledge, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell reading Walt Whitman, actor and activist America Ferrera reading Denise Levertov, and poet Marie Howe reading her stirring tribute to Stephen Hawking.


Emily Dickinson’s Electric Love Letters to Susan Gilbert

“Come with me this morning to the church within our hearts, where the bells are always ringing, and the preacher whose name is Love — shall intercede for us!”

Emily Dickinson’s Electric Love Letters to Susan Gilbert

Four months before her twentieth birthday, Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) met the person who became her first love and remained her greatest — an orphaned mathematician-in-training by the name of Susan Gilbert, nine days her junior. Throughout the poet’s life, Susan would be her muse, her mentor, her primary reader and editor, her fiercest lifelong attachment, her “Only Woman in the World.”

I devote more than one hundred pages of Figuring to their beautiful, heartbreaking, unclassifiable relationship that fomented some of the greatest, most original and paradigm-shifting poetry humanity has ever produced. (This essay is drawn from my book.)

Emily Dickinson at seventeen. The only authenticated photograph of the poet. (Amherst College Archives & Special Collections, gift of Millicent Todd Bingham, 1956)

Susan Gilbert had settled in Amherst, to be near her sister, after graduating from the Utica Female Academy — one of a handful of academically rigorous educational institutions available to women at the time. She entered Dickinson’s life in the summer of 1850, which the poet would later remember as the season “when love first began, on the step at the front door, and under the Evergreens.”

Poised and serious at twenty, dressed in black for the sister who had just died in childbirth and who had been her maternal figure since their parents’ death, Susan cast a double enchantment on Emily and Austin Dickinson. Sister and brother alike were taken with her poised erudition and her Uranian handsomeness — her flat, full lips and dark eyes were not exactly masculine, her unchiseled oval face and low forehead not exactly feminine.

Susan Gilbert (Harvard University, Houghton Library)

“Best Witchcraft is Geometry,” Emily Dickinson would later write. Now both she and her brother found themselves in a strange bewitchment of figures, placing Susan at one point of a triangle. But Emily’s was no temporary infatuation. Nearly two decades after Susan entered her heart, she would write with unblunted desire:

To own a Susan of my own
Is of itself a Bliss —
Whatever Realm I forfeit, Lord,
Continue me in this!

A tempest of intimacy swirled over the eighteen months following Susan’s arrival into the Dickinsons’ lives. The two young women took long walks in the woods together, exchanged books, read poetry to each other, and commenced an intense, intimate correspondence that would evolve and permute but would last a life- time. “We are the only poets,” Emily told Susan, “and everyone else is prose.”

By early 1852, the poet was besotted beyond words. She beckoned to Susan on a Sunday:

Come with me this morning to the church within our hearts, where the bells are always ringing, and the preacher whose name is Love — shall intercede for us!

When Susan accepted a ten-month appointment as a math teacher in Baltimore in the autumn of 1851, Emily was devastated at the separation, but tried to keep a buoyant heart. “I fancy you very often descending to the schoolroom with a plump Binomial Theorem struggling in your hand which you must dissect and exhibit to your uncomprehending ones,” she teased in a letter. Susan was science personified, capitalized — she would haunt Dickinson’s poems for decades to come as “Science.”

Pages from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium — a forgotten masterpiece at the intersection of poetry and science.

In a comet of a letter from the early spring of 1852, eight months into Susan’s absence, Emily hurls a grenade of conflicted self-revelation:

Will you be kind to me, Susie? I am naughty and cross, this morning, and nobody loves me here; nor would you love me, if you should see me frown, and hear how loud the door bangs whenever I go through; and yet it isn’t anger — I don’t believe it is, for when nobody sees, I brush away big tears with the corner of my apron, and then go working on — bitter tears, Susie — so hot that they burn my cheeks, and almost scorch my eyeballs, but you have wept much, and you know they are less of anger than sorrow.

And I do love to run fast — and hide away from them all; here in dear Susie’s bosom, I know is love and rest, and I never would go away, did not the big world call me, and beat me for not working… Your precious letter, Susie, it sits here now, and smiles so kindly at me, and gives me such sweet thoughts of the dear writer. When you come home, darling, I shan’t have your letters, shall I, but I shall have yourself, which is more — Oh more, and better, than I can even think! I sit here with my little whip, cracking the time away, till not an hour is left of it — then you are here! And Joy is here — joy now and forevermore!

That year, in a Prussian lab, the physician and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz measured the speed of nerve conduction at eighty feet per second. How unfathomable that sentiments this intense and emotions this explosive, launched from a mind that seems to move at light-years per second, can be reduced to mere electrical impulses. And yet that is what we are — biomechanical creatures, all of our creative force, all of our mathematical figurings, all the wildness of our loves pulsating at eighty feet per second along neural infrastructure that evolved over millennia. Even the fathoming faculty that struggles to fathom this is a series of such electrical impulses.

The electricity of Dickinson’s love would endure, coursing through her being for the remainder of her life. Many years later, she would channel it in this immortal verse:

I chose this single star
From out the wide night’s numbers —
Sue — forevermore!

But now, in the dawning fervor of early love, forevermore collides with the immediacy of want. Midway through her spring outpouring, Emily suddenly casts Susan in the third person, as if beseeching an omnipotent spectator to grant her desire in the drama of their impending reunion:

I need her — I must have her, Oh give her to me!

The moment she names her longing, she tempers its thrill with the lucid terror that it might be unspeakable:

Do I repine, is it all murmuring, or am I sad and lone, and cannot, cannot help it? Sometimes when I do feel so, I think it may be wrong, and that God will punish me by taking you away; for he is very kind to let me write to you, and to give me your sweet letters, but my heart wants more.

Here, as in her poetry, Dickinson’s words cascade with multiple meanings beyond literal interpretation. Her invocation of “God” is not a cowering before some Puritanical punishment for deviance but an irreverent challenge to that very dogma. What kind of “God,” she seems to be asking, would make wrong a love of such in nite sweetness?

Four years earlier, during her studies at Mount Holyoke — the “castle of science” where she crafted her stunning herbarium — Emily had begun giving shape to the amorphous doubt about the claims of religion that had been gnawing at her since childhood — doubt she would later immortalize in verse:

It troubled me as once I was —
For I was once a child —
Deciding how an atom — fell —
And yet the heavens — held.

Facing her desire for Susan, her deepest fear was not punishment from “God” but that her wayward heart was its own retribution — as well as its own reward. She writes plaintively that heated summer:

Have you ever thought of it, Susie, and yet I know you have, how much these hearts claim; why I don’t believe in the whole, wide world, are such hard little creditors — such real little misers, as you and I carry with us, in our bosom every day. I can’t help thinking sometimes, when I hear about the ungenerous, Heart, keep very still — or someone will find you out! . . . I do think it’s wonderful, Susie, that our hearts don’t break, every day . . . but I guess I’m made with nothing but a hard heart of stone, for it don’t break any, and dear Susie, if mine is stony, yours is stone, upon stone, for you never yield, any, where I seem quite be own. Are we going to ossify always, say Susie — how will it be?

There is palpable restlessness in Emily’s oscillation between resignation and demand, between love’s longing to be unmasked and the fear of being found out. Later that month, she exhorts Susan: “Loved One, thou knowest!” — an allusion to Juliet’s speech in Romeo and Juliet: “Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face.”

By June, anticipating Susan’s return from Baltimore in three weeks, Emily is pining with unbridled candor:

When I look around me and find myself alone, I sigh for you again; little sigh, and vain sigh, which will not bring you home.

I need you more and more, and the great world grows wider . . . every day you stay away — I miss my biggest heart; my own goes wandering round, and calls for Susie… Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say — my heart is full of you . . . yet when I seek to say to you something not for the world, words fail me… I shall grow more and more impatient until that dear day comes, for til now, I have only mourned for you; now I begin to hope for you.

She ends her letter with aching awareness of the dissonance between her private desire and the public norms of love:

Now, farewell, Susie . . . I add a kiss, shyly, lest there is somebody there! Don’t let them see, will you Susie?

Two weeks later, with Susan’s return now days away, her anticipatory longing rises to a crescendo:

Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to? . . . I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you — that the expectation once more to see your face again makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast — I go to sleep at night, and the first thing I know, I am sitting there wide awake, and clasping my hands tightly, and thinking of next Saturday… Why, Susie, it seems to me as if my absent Lover was coming home so soon — and my heart must be so busy, making ready for him.

Dickinson would frequently and deliberately reassign gender pronouns for herself and her beloveds, recasting her love in the acceptable male-female battery of desire. Throughout her life, she would often use the masculine in referring to herself — writing of her “boyhood,” signing letters to her cousins as “Brother Emily,” calling herself a “boy,” “prince,” “earl,” or “duke” in various poems, in one of which she unsexes herself in a violent transfiguration:

Amputate my freckled Bosom!
Make me bearded like a Man!

Again and again, she would tell all the truth but tell it slant, unmooring the gender of her love objects from the pronouns that be t their biology. Later in life, in flirting with the idea of publication, she would masculinize the pronouns in a number of her love poems — “bearded” pronouns, she called these — to fit the heteronormative mold, so that two versions of these poems exist: the earlier addressed to a female beloved, the later to a male.

That insufferable spring, she had already declared to Susan that her “heart wants more.” Twenty Augusts after they met, Dickinson would write:

Enough is so vast a sweetness, I suppose it never occurs, only pathetic counterfeits.

Emily Dickinson’s home, the Homestead. The poet’s bedroom — the “chamber facing West” where she composed nearly all of her poetry — is located in the right-hand corner above the porch. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

But when Susan returned from Baltimore on that long-awaited Saturday, something had shifted between them. Perhaps the ten-month absence, filled not with their customary walks in the woods but with letters of exponentially swelling intensity, had revealed to Susan that Emily’s feelings for her were not of a different hue but of a wholly different color — one that she was constitutionally unable to match. Or perhaps Emily had always misdivined the contents of Susan’s heart, inferring an illusory symmetry of feeling on the basis not of evidence but of willfully blind hope.

Few things are more wounding than the confounding moment of discovering an asymmetry of affections where mutuality had been presumed. It is hard to imagine how Dickinson took the withdrawal — here was a woman who experienced the world with a euphoria of emotion atmospheres above the ordinary person’s and who therefore likely plummeted to the opposite extreme in equal magnitude. But she seems to have feared it all along — feared that her immense feelings would never be wholly met, as is the curse of those who love with unguarded abandon. Five months earlier, she had written to Susan:

I would nestle close to your warm heart… Is there any room there for me, or shall I wander away all homeless and alone?

She suspected, too, that she might injure — and not only herself — with the force of her love:

Oh, Susie, I often think that I will try to tell you how dear you are . . . but the words won’t come, tho’ the tears will, and I sit down disappointed… In thinking of those I love, my reason is all gone from me, and I do fear sometimes that I must make a hospital for the hopelessly insane, and chain me up there such times, so I won’t injure you.

Even in her ardent anticipatory letter penned before Susan’s return, she questions for a moment whether the love that stands as the central truth of her daily being is real:

Shall I indeed behold you, not “darkly, but face to face” or am I fancying so, and dreaming blessed dreams from which the day will wake me?

Now she had been awakened — not rudely, but unmistakably and irreversibly. In the anxious insistence of her entreaty is the sorrowful sense that Susan is slipping away from her — and toward Austin, who commenced an open courtship of her.

That summer, Emily Dickinson cut off her auburn hair.

The following autumn, Susan Gilbert married Austin Dickinson, largely to be near Emily, and they moved into the Evergreens — the house erected for the newlyweds by Austin and Emily’s father, across the lawn from the Homestead, the house where the lovesick poet lived.

A corridor denuded of grass soon formed between the Homestead and the Evergreens as Emily and Susan traversed the lawn daily to see each other or to press into the other’s hand a letter unpinned from the bosom of a dress. A “little path just wide enough for two who love,” Dickinson called it. Over the next quarter century, 276 known poems would travel between their homes — some by hand and foot, but many by post. I have often wondered what prompted the poet to head for the mailbox and not the hedge, stuffing her sentiments into an envelope addressed to a house a stone’s throw from her own. And yet the heart is not a stone — it is a thing with feathers.

Emily Dickinson’s porch, facing the Evergreens. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

“She loved with all her might,” a girlhood friend of Dickinson’s would recall after the poet’s death, “and we all knew her truth and trusted her love.” No one knew that love more intimately, nor had reason to trust it more durably, than Susan. Where Austin’s love washed over her with the stormy surface waves of desire, Emily’s carried her with the deep currents of devotion — a love Dickinson would compare to the loves of Dante for Beatrice and Swift for Stella. To Susan, Dickinson would write her most passionate letters and dedicate her best-beloved poems; to Susan she would steady herself, to her shore she would return again and again, writing in the final years of her life:

Show me Eternity, and I will show you Memory —
Both in one package lain
And lifted back again —
Be Sue — while I am Emily —
Be next — what you have ever been — Infinity.

Something of the infinite would always remain between them. Thirty years into the relationship, Susan would give Emily a book for Christmas — Disraeli’s romance novel Endymion, titled after the famous Keats poem that begins with the line “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” — inscribed to “Emily, Whom not seeing, I still love.” Their uncommon relationship, the splendors and sorrows of which I explore further in Figuring, would become the pulse-beat of Dickinson’s body of work, which radicalized its era and forever changed the landscape of literature — a shimmering testament to the fact that love, longing, and the restlessness of the human heart are the catalyst for every creative revolution.


The Original Manifesto for Information Visualization and Pictorial Statistics: ISOTYPE Creator Otto Neurath’s Pioneering 1930 Visual Language

“Words divide, pictures unite!”

The Original Manifesto for Information Visualization and Pictorial Statistics: ISOTYPE Creator Otto Neurath’s Pioneering 1930 Visual Language

“Finding the words is another step in learning to see,” bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her lyrical love letter to moss — a poetic reminder that the history of science, which is the history of the human effort to fully see reality and describe what we see, rests upon foundations of linguistic description, from Galileo’s historic discovery and naming of Jupiter’s moons to Linnaean taxonomy and the classification system that gave the clouds their names to Werner’s pioneering nomenclature of color that inspired Darwin.

But what if shedding the words is a step in learning to see better, to apprehend more clearly?

Nearly a century before infographics and data visualization became the cultural ubiquity they are today, the pioneering Austrian sociologist, philosopher of science, social reformer, and curator Otto Neurath (December 10, 1882–December 22, 1945), together with his not-yet-wife Marie, invented ISOTYPE — the visionary pictogram language that furnished the vocabulary of modern infographics.

“How Long Do Animals Live?” from The Transformer — the first English-language history of ISOTYPE.

Several years earlier, Neurath had co-founded the Vienna Circle — the materialist parish of paradox that shaped the intellectual life of the twentieth century by introducing the philosophical movement known as logical positivism. While the Circle grew preoccupied with debating, almost to the point of rupture, the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein and his pictorial theory of language — “A proposition states something only insofar as it is a picture,” Wittgenstein proclaimed — Neurath set out to bypass language altogether and devise a system of communication based entirely on icons. But, invariably and rather ironically, he fell back on language, writing a series of slogans — words at their most pointed — to convey the urgency and necessity of this new visual language:

Words divide, pictures unite!

Whatever can be shown by a picture must not be told in words.

Remembering simplified pictures is better than forgetting exact numbers.

Whoever leaves the most out is the best teacher.

ISOTYPE chart by Otto Neurath from America and Britain, a now-rare book of visual statistics published a year after WWII, which ended weeks before Neurath’s death.
ISOTYPE chart by Otto Neurath from America and Britain

Anticipating Oxford economist Kate Raworth devised her visionary “donut economics” model of a more sustainable, equitable, and universally beneficial global economy by a century, Neurath insisted:

A pictorial survey of the world economy is not just a scholarly representation of important facts; it is also the first step toward a planned world economy.

ISOTYPE chart by Otto Neurath from America and Britain

Still, his words about the inferiority of words stand today as the founding ethos of a new golden age of conveying information, at the apogee of which we are now living. Neurath, who figures prominently into Karl Sigmund’s excellent biography of the Vienna Circle, Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science (public library), composed what remains the original manifesto for data visualization and the visual communication of information. In 1930, he wrote:

Contemporary people receive a great deal of their information and their general education through pictures, illustrations, slides, and films… Up till now, the method of pictorial representation has been underdeveloped. Our aim is to create pictures that can be understood without words, if possible… We have to create symbols that can be “read” by all of us, just as we all can read letters, and just as experts can read musical notes. This requires the creation of a set of “hieroglyphs,” which can be used internationally.

These “hieroglyphs” became the pictograms we know today — building blocks of the visual statistics by which so much information is now communicated, and to the art-science of which entire volumes are devoted.

Complement this thoroughly marginal fragment of the altogether fascinating Exact Thinking in Demented Times with W.E.B. Du Bois’s little-known, arresting modernist data visualizations of social statistics about black life, predating Neurath by three decades, and Neurath’s polymathic German contemporary Fritz Kahn’s pioneering visual metaphors for understanding the human body, then immerse yourself in the intellectually enchanting world of the Vienna Circle as reanimated by a true literary artist in A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.


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