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Einstein on the Political Power of Art

“Nothing can equal the psychological effect of real art — neither factual descriptions nor intellectual discussion.”

Einstein on the Political Power of Art

“Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Iris Murdoch wrote in her arresting 1972 address on art as a force of resistance. “Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art,’” Chinua Achebe told James Baldwin in their superb forgotten conversation at the close of that decade, “are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.”

A generation earlier, in the final years of his life, Albert Einstein sat down at his desk in Princeton, New Jersey, to compose a letter of consonant sentiment — a stirring letter of appreciation and assurance to the Polish Jewish artist Si Lewen (November 8, 1918–July 25, 2016), who had just quietly released a staggering work of art and resistance.

Si Lewen

Born days before Armistice Day, Si was five when he decided to become an artist — or rather (as such elemental self-awarenesses tend to bubble up) when he knew that he was one. In those formative years, his family fled from place to place as the situation for Jews in Europe was darkening by the minute. During a period of refuge in Berlin, while ostracized and bullied at school for being Jewish, he began receiving his first formal art lessons from a disciple of Paul Klee’s. His young imagination and his understanding of the world were being imprinted as much by his refuge in art as by the thickening political atmosphere of animosity that would soon erupt into the world’s grimmest war yet.

Art by Si Lewen from The Parade

Lewen was still a teenager when his family fled to America as Hitler usurped power. When he arrived in New York, he was at first elated at the prospect of a new life full of art and free of persecution. He began taking drawing classes and going to the Metropolitan Museum every day. But when an antisemitic policeman beat him nearly to death, the terrifying thought that he would never be free from bigoted brutality and that the life of art could never be separate from the troubled life of the world drove him to a suicide attempt. And yet, like Lincoln, Lewen rose above the self-destructive impulse and turned the darkness into a motive force for action, for revising this broken and brutal world with his particular light.

Art by Si Lewen from The Parade

He enlisted in the American Army, in a secret intelligence unit of German-speaking immigrants who were flown into Germany for the invasion of Normandy that backboned D-Day, the liberation of France, and the ultimate defeat of the Nazis. There to do translation work and to illustrate posters and pamphlets rallying the troops, Lewen walked into one of the major concentration camps the day after it was liberated and saw what had happened to countless people who looked like him, who spoke the same language and dreamt kindred dreams — saw the would-be destiny he had narrowly escaped by making it to America as a refugee.

Art by Si Lewen from The Parade

When he returned to New York with a wounded body and a scarred soul, he spent six months recovering at the VA hospital, then poured his surviving spirit into a stirring narrative suite of fifty-five drawings titled The Parade — a wordless, intensely emotional, consummately illustrated black-and-white charcoal meditation on the grim and abiding paradox of armed antagonism: that every war appeals to some primal part of the human spirit in order to gain its destructive momentum, and every war ends up destroying what is most buoyant and beautiful in that spirit.

Art by Si Lewen from The Parade

Einstein, who had spent the years between the two wars making an emphatic case for the interconnectedness of our fates and corresponding with Freud about violence and human nature, saw The Parade — unclear how, but very probably through the trailblazing photographer Lotte Jacobi, who was soon to exhibit them in her New York gallery. Einstein had sat for her more than a decade earlier and remained in touch.

Albert Einstein by Lotte Jacobi, 1938. (University of New Hampshire Museum of Art.)

And yet despite how stirred those who saw it were by Lewen’s work, it fell into obscurity until it was rediscovered more than half a century later and resurrected in the final year of Lewen’s life in the stunning accordion volume Si Lewen’s Parade: An Artist’s Odyssey (public library), envisioned and edited by Art Spiegelman. It opens with the letter Einstein wrote to Lewen on August 13, 1951 — his most direct and impassioned statement on the political power of art:

I find your work The Parade very impressive from a purely artistic standpoint. Furthermore, I find it a real merit to counteract the tendencies towards war through the medium of art. Nothing can equal the psychological effect of real art — neither factual descriptions nor intellectual discussion.

It has often been said that art should not be used to serve any political or otherwise practical goals. But I could never agree with this point of view.

In consonance with his contemporary and fellow humanist Anaïs Nin’s ardent case for the centrality of emotional excess in creativity — “great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them,” she wrote to a seventeen-year-old aspiring author whom she was mentoring — Einstein adds:

It is true that it is utterly wrong and disgusting if some direction of thought and expression is forced upon the artist from the outside. But strong emotional tendencies of the artist himself have often given birth to truly great works of art. One has only to think of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Daumier’s immortal drawings directed against the corruption in French politics of his time. Our time needs you and your work!

Lewen died days before Spiegelman’s gorgeous resurrection of The Parade was published, in the politically precipitous months leading up to the 2016 American election. He never lived to see the country that had given him refuge crumble into a republic of racism and xenophobia for four years, but also never lived to see the redemption of the republic in the subsequent election of a President who, in another time and another place, would have perished in a concentration camp.

Couple with another Nobel-winning Albert, Camus, on the artist as a voice of resistance and an instrument of freedom, then revisit Adrienne Rich on the political power of poetry.


Dotspotting Expressionist Science: What the Mysterious Color-Markings on Storm Drains Have to Do with Rachel Carson’s Legacy and the War on a Deadly Virus

Strange signals from the lacuna between street art and microbiology.

I noticed them first in my neighborhood — dots of paint hovering over the grate of the storm drain in a blue-green spectrum punctuated by white. I noticed them probably because I had been writing about the wondrous science of the color blue and my brain had formed, as brains tend to, a search image for its present preoccupation.

At first I took them for mindless spray-can tests by a street artist getting ready to graffiti a nearby wall. But no surface in sight was emblazoned with these colors.

And then I started seeing them all over Brooklyn: Red Hook, Greenpoint, even the alleys of the Green-Wood Cemetery — quiet ecstasies of color amid the bleak grey-brown of winter, chromatic macaw cries in the concrete jungle, the ghost of Alma Thomas risen from the dead through the New York City sewer system.

With some stubborn sleuthing through various city agency logs, street art blogs, conspiracy theory fora, and health department reports, I discovered that they are not surreptitious art.

They are science.

They are war paint on humanity’s countenance as we combat our great eternal enemy: the mosquito.

Mosquito in biting position. (National Library of Medicine.)

When it rains, when the city washes the streets, water rushes into the drain along with all the debris it carries. To prevent downstream clogging, a catch basin resides just beneath the metal grate to sieve the debris before releasing the water into the drainage pipe. Mosquitos love nesting in these cozy, soggy chambers, where the air is warm enough for the females to survive the winter and where the water doesn’t freeze, so that their eggs — around 200 laid by each female mosquito — can float freely while preparing to become a bloodthirsty army that goes on replicating the 1:200 reproductive ratio ad infinitum.

Mosquitos have always plagued cities, but when the deadly West Nile virus arrived in America in 1999, landing in Queens, cities grew serious about defense. The expressionist markings indicate catch basins where the war has been waged. Modeled on the inspired pedal-powered program the City of San Francisco pioneered in 2005, the colorful dots across Brooklyn signal the particular treatment applied to that drain, with each color corresponding to one of the larvicides administered by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. (Yes, that is its name — a curious poetic inversion of the more expected syntax “department of hygiene and mental health.”)

Having devoted two hundred pages of Figuring to Rachel Carson and her epoch-making exposé of the assault on the natural world with DDT — an act of courage and resistance she paid for dearly, not living to see it awaken humanity’s ecological conscience, lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and catalyze the modern environmental movement — I was naturally keen to find out what substances the city uses to attack those curbside mosquito mansions.

Rachel Carson at work.

When Carson published Silent Spring, the ruthless forces she had unmasked — the $800 million chemical pesticide industry, the corporate interests of Big Agriculture, and a complicit government bankrolled by them — set out to tear down this scientist of uncommon courage and competence. Their commonest line of attack, launched everywhere from the pages of Monsanto Magazine to any national station that would give them share of voice, was based on a deliberate misconstrual of the book: Employing the classic tactic of the opinion-manipulator — refuting arguments the opponent hasn’t actually made — they disregarded Carson’s explicit caveat that there are certain lifesaving uses of chemical controls in typhoid and malaria outbreaks, accusing her of advocating for a total ban on pesticides that would cost countless human lives to malaria. Some warped the facts of biochemistry so egregiously that they called her work antiscientific. The grave irony is that Carson opposed not science but the most unscientific stance there is: the arrogance of false certitude unsupported by evidence and the dangerous delusion of pretending to have answers we don’t actually have — an arrogance radiating from the indiscriminate use of DDT, with which the government was hosing down acres of forests and which agricultural airplanes were raining down upon children lunching in the schoolyard amid cornfields.

Pesticide crop duster. (Photograph: Charles O’Rear, The Environmental Protection Agency.)

But Carson’s most visionary proposition, decades ahead of science, was the development of biological controls that would curtail the reproduction of a particular species without harming other organisms. In consonance with her vision, the City of New York uses larvicide that relies not on toxic chemicals to vanquish mosquito larvae but on rod-shaped aerobic bacteria commonly found in soil. Bacillus sphaericus and Bacillus thuringiensis produce proteins toxic to mosquitos and harmless to mammals, for we lack the enzymes to activate and digest them. But when a mosquito larva ingests the bacterium, the protein in it catalyzes the release of a digestive enzyme in the larva’s gut that binds to a particular receptor, causing mortal damage to the cell membranes.

Because this entire drama of life and death unfolds in the catch basin beneath the drain grate, both the dead larvae and the bacteria never enter the human world overground — they vanish into the ductile catacombs of the city sewer system to land at the local waste treatment plant along with all the other sewer-stuff, leaving only the colorful expressionist markings on the drain as notation of this silent symphony of science.


Loops, the Limits of Language, the Paradoxical Loneliness of “I Love You,” and What Keeps Love Alive

“The very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.”

Loops, the Limits of Language, the Paradoxical Loneliness of “I Love You,” and What Keeps Love Alive

When I walk — which I do every day, as basic sanity-maintenance, whether in the forest or the cemetery or the city street — I walk the same routes, walk along loops, loops I often retrace multiple times in a single walk. This puzzles people. Some simply don’t get the appeal of such recursiveness. Others judge it as dull. But I walk to think more clearly, which means to traverse the world with ever-broadening scope of attention to reality, ever-widening circles of curiosity, ever-deepening interest in the ceaselessly flickering constellation of details within and without. In this respect, walking is a lot like love — for one human being to love another is to continually discover new layers of oneself while continuously discovering new layers of the other, and in them new footholds of love.

This renders the exchange of I love you’s — that coveted contract of mutuality — a strange sort of transaction, currency encrypted with change, with the loneliness and loveliness of change: In any love worthy of the name, the I and the you are ever-changing, so that the love binding the two is ever-renewing. But perhaps the strangest and most lonely-making aspect of I love you is that it traps the boundlessness of love in the limits language, as narrow and straining a conduit of love as the crack in the wall between Pyramus and Thisbe.

Thisbe by John William Waterhouse, 1909. Available as a print.

Thinking about this on one of my cemetery loops, because the act of walking is also a mighty machete for clearing the pathways of memory overgrown with life, I suddenly remembered a passage by the French semiotician and philosopher Roland Barthes (November 12, 1915–March 26, 1980) from his superb 1977 part-autobiography, part-rebellion against the conventions of life and of the telling of life-stories, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (public library) — the playful, profound, blazingly original self-interrogation that gave us his existential catalogue of likes and dislikes.

A hundred pages into the book’s larger meditation on the limits of language — our primary tool for narrating our inner lives so that we can understand ourselves and be understood — Barthes writes:

Does not this whole paroxysm of love’s declaration conceal some lack? We would not need to speak this word, if it were not to obscure, as the squid does with his ink, the failure of desire under the excess of affirmation.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene by Simeon Solomon, 1864. (Tate Britain.)

With an eye to the limitation of these words — of all words — as “the primary and somehow insignificant expression of a fulfillment,” Barthes adds with a conspiratorial wink:

There’s no help for it: I love you is a demand: hence it can only embarrass anyone who receives it, except the Mother — and except God!

Unless I should be justified in flinging out the phrase in the (improbable but ever hoped-for case when two I love you‘s, emitted in a single flash, would form a pure coincidence, annihilating by this simultaneity the blackmail effects of one subject over the other: the demand would proceed to levitate.

All (romantic) poetry and music is in this demand: I love you, je t’aime, ich liebe dich! But if by some miracle the jubilatory answer should be given, what might it be? What is the taste of fulfillment?

Art by Harry Clarke from a rare 1933 edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. (Available as a print.)

But then Barthes considers “a delicate way out of the maze.” In an allusion to the Ship of Theseus — the brilliant ancient Greek thought experiment exploring what makes you you — he intimates that the only thing which makes love love is its self-renewal in the consciousness of the lover despite the self-exhausting loops of its declaration:

I decide that [the declaration of love], though I repeat and rehearse it day by day through the course of time, will somehow recover, each time I utter it, a new state. Like the Argonaut renewing his ship during his voyage without changing its name, the subject in love will perform a long task through the course of one and the same exclamation, gradually dialecticizing the original demand though without ever dimming the incandescence of its initial address, considering that the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.

Crochet mural by street artist NaomiRAG, Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Photograph by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Complement with Robert Browning — one of those rare romantic poets who rose above Barthes’s indictment — on saying I love you only when you mean it and Rainer Maria Rilke — one of those rare post-romantic poets who refused to treat romance as a transaction of conveniences — on what it really means to mean it, then revisit philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s Proust-fomented litmus test for how you really know you love somebody and Adrienne Rich on earning the right to use the word love.


The Blue Hour: A Stunning Illustrated Celebration of Nature’s Rarest Color

“The day ends. The night falls. And in between… there is the blue hour.”

The Blue Hour: A Stunning Illustrated Celebration of Nature’s Rarest Color

Blue, Rebecca Solnit wrote in one of humanity’s most beautiful reflections on our planet’s primary hue, is “the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here… the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world,” a world of many blues — a pioneering 19th-century nomenclature of colors listed eleven kinds of blue, in hues as varied as the color of the flax-flower and the throat of the blue titmouse and the stamina of a certain species of anemone. Darwin took this guide with him on The Beagle in order to better describe what he saw. We name in order to see better and apprehend only what we know how to name, how to think about.

But despite Earth’s distinction as the Solar System’s “Pale Blue Dot,” this planetary blueness is only a perceptual phenomenon arising from how our particular atmosphere, with its particular chemistry, absorbs and reflects light. Everything we behold — a ball, a bird, a planet — is the color we perceive it to be because of its insentient stubbornness toward the spectrum, because these are the wavelengths of light it refuses to absorb and instead reflects back.

In the living world beneath our red-ravenous atmosphere, blue is the rarest color: There is no naturally occurring true blue pigment in nature. In consequence, only a slender portion of plants bloom in blue and an even more negligible number of animals are bedecked with it, all having to perform various tricks with chemistry and the physics of light, some having evolved astonishing triumphs of structural geometry to render themselves blue: Each feather of the bluejay is tessellated with tiny light-reflecting beads arranged to cancel out every wavelength of light except the blue; the wings of the blue morpho butterflies — which Nabokov, in his spree of making major contributions to lepidoptery while revolutionizing literature, rightly described as “shimmering light-blue mirrors” — are covered with miniature scales ridged at the precise angle to bend light in such a way that only the blue portion of the spectrum is reflected to the eye of the beholder. Only a handful of known animals, all species of butterfly, produce pigments as close to blue as nature can get — green-tinted aquamarines the color of Uranus.

In The Blue Hour (public library), French illustrator and author Isabelle Simler offers a stunning joint celebration of these uncommon blue creatures and the common blue world they inhabit, the Pale Blue Dot we share.

The book opens with a palette of blues strewn across the endpapers — from the delicate “porcelain blue” to the boldly iconic “Klein blue” to the brooding “midnight blue” — hues that come alive in Simler’s vibrant, consummately cross-hatched illustrations of creatures and landscapes, named in spare, lyrical words. What emerges is part minimalist encyclopedia, part cinematic lullaby.

The day ends.
The night falls.
And in between…
there is the blue hour.

We meet the famed blue morpho butterfly spreading its wings against the blue morning glory, the Arctic fox traversing the icy expanse in its blue-tinted coat, the blue poison dart frogs croaking at each other across the South American forest, the silvery-blue sardines glimmering beneath the surface of the blue ocean, the blue racer snake coiled around a branch, the various blue birds silent or singing in the gloaming hour.

Given my uncommon love of snails, I was especially pleased to find the glass snail gracing this menagerie of blue-tinted living wonders.

In the final pages, as the black of night drains the blue hour from the day, all the creatures grow silent and motionless, the hint of their presence consecrating the apparition of this blue world.

Couple The Blue Hour — a large-scale splendor of paper and ink untranslatable to this small blue-reflecting screen — with Maggie Nelson’s love letter to blue, then find a kindred painted celebration of the natural world in The Lost Spells.

Illustrations by Isabelle Simler; photographs by Maria Popova


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