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Astrophysicist and Author Janna Levin Reads “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin: Some of the Finest and Most Soul-Salving Advice on How to Stay Sane as an Artist

Tonic for living with that sacred, terrifying uncertainty with which all creative work enters the world.

Astrophysicist and Author Janna Levin Reads “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin: Some of the Finest and Most Soul-Salving Advice on How to Stay Sane as an Artist

To be an artist is to live suspended above the abyss between recognition and artistic value, never quite knowing whether your art will land on either bank, or straddle both, or be swallowed by the fathomless pit of obscurity. We never know how our work stirs another mind or touches another heart, how it tenons into the mortise of the world. We never know who will discover it in a year or a generation or a century and be salved by it, saved by it. “The worthiest poets have remained uncrowned till death has bleached their foreheads to the bone,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, not fully knowing — or perhaps not knowing at all — that she was revolutionizing the art of her time.

This is the perennial problem of the artist, for the crown bestowed or denied by the fickle tastes of a contemporary public has little bearing on how the work itself will stand the test of time as a vessel for truth and beauty, whether it will move generations or petrify into oblivion. Walt Whitman nearly perished in obscurity when his visionary Leaves of Grass was first met with scorn and indifference. Emily Dickinson, virtually unpublished in her lifetime, never lived to see her work transform a century of thought and feeling. Germaine de Staël captured this elemental pitfall of creative work in her astute observation that “true glory cannot be obtained by a relative celebrity.”

In our own culture, obsessed with celebrity and panicked for instant approval, what begins as creative work too often ends up as flotsam on the stream of ego-gratification — the countless counterfeit crowns that come in the form of retweets and likes and best-seller lists, unmoored from any real measure of artistic value and longevity. How, then, is an artist to live with that sacred, terrifying uncertainty with which all creative work enters the world, and go on making art?

That is what W.S. Merwin (September 30, 1927–March 15, 2019) explores in a stunning poem celebrating his mentor, the poet John Berryman, published in Merwin’s 2005 book Migration: New & Selected Poems (public library). At its heart is the single greatest, most difficult, most beautiful truth about creative work, enfolding a soul-salving piece of advice on how to stay sane as an artist.

John Berryman (Photograph: The Paris Review)

Berryman had co-founded Princeton’s creative writing program and was teaching there when Merwin enrolled as a freshman in 1944. The thirty-year-old professor immediately recognized an uncommon genius in the seventeen-year-old aspiring poet, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award — “the real thing,” Berryman’s then-wife would later recall his sentiment. Merwin himself would remember his mentor as “absolutely ruthless” — a quality he cherished. That constructive, edifying ruthlessness, for which Merwin was forever indebted, comes alive with unsentimental tenderness in this poem commemorating his formative teacher, read here by astrophysicist, literary artist, and poetry steward Janna Levin:

BERRYMAN
by W.S. Merwin

I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

Nearly three decades after he mentored Merwin, Berryman would encapsulate his advice to young writers:

I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.

Complement with artist Ann Hamilton’s lovely notion of “making not knowing” and this collection of timeless advice from some of humanity’s greatest writers, then revisit Levin’s gorgeous readings of Ursula K. Le Guin’s hymn to time, Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Adrienne Rich’s tribute to the world’s first woman astronomer, and W.H. Auden’s elegy for unrequited love.

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Art and the Nocturnal Imagination: Painter, Poet, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on Dreaming and Creativity

“The logic of dreams is superior to the one we exercise while awake. In dreams the mind at last finds its courage: it dares what we do not dare.”

Art and the Nocturnal Imagination: Painter, Poet, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on Dreaming and Creativity

Nietzsche saw dreams as an evolutionary time machine for the human mind. Dostoyevsky discovered the meaning of life in one. Mendeleev invented his periodic table in another. Neil Gaiman dreamt his way to a philosophical parable of identity. We are born dreaming. As we go through life, dream-sleep plays plays a major role in regulating our negative emotions.

When we dream, we are our most essential and sovereign selves — our shadows the starkest, our creativity the wildest, and all of it, crucially, ours alone. We build and unravel entire worlds, answering to no one but ourselves — and even that, only hazily. Graham Greene celebrated this sovereignty when he observed in his dream diary that “it can be a comfort sometimes to know that there is a world which is purely one’s own — the experience in that world, of travel, danger, happiness, is shared with no one else.”

Illustration by Tom Seidmann-Freud from a philosophical 1922 children’s book about dreaming

We still don’t know exactly why the human animal needs to sleep, much less to dream. But we do know that the mechanism churning our nocturnal fancies is closely related to the faculty we call creativity. Dreams may be the most populist art there is and the wellspring of our most visionary masterpieces.

That is what the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan (b. February 24, 1925) explores in a few meditative passages from Journey to Mount Tamalpais (public library) — the 1986 treasure that gave us Adnan on time, self, impermanence, and transcendence.

Adnan writes:

I always thought that dreaming was the honor of the human species. The logic of dreams is superior to the one we exercise while awake. In dreams the mind at last finds its courage: it dares what we do not dare. It also creates: from nightmares to fantastic calculations… and it perceives reality beyond our fuzzy interpretations. In dreams we swim and fly and we are not surprised.

[…]

Dreams spill over on our days. For some people they never stop spilling: the visionaries, the hobos, and all those who speak to themselves, aloud, in the big cities.

Illustration by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree

Adnan considers the parallels between dreaming and creative work:

Sometimes, while painting, something wild gets unleashed. Something of the process of dreams recurs… but with a special kind of violence: a painting is like a territory. All kinds of things happen within its boundary, equal to the discoveries of the murders or the creations we have in the world outside.

We translate our dreams on paper and cloth, subduing them, most of the time, fearing that moment of truth which has energy enough to blow up the world.

Couple with Adnan on the self and the universe, then revisit Mark Strand’s stunning poem about dreams and Billy Hayes on the science of sleep and sleeplessness.

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Nobel-Winning Physicist Wolfgang Pauli on Science, Spirit, and Our Search for Meaning

“It is only a narrow passage of truth (no matter whether scientific or other truth) that passes between the Scylla of a blue fog of mysticism and the Charybdis of a sterile rationalism. This will always be full of pitfalls and one can fall down on both sides.”

Nobel-Winning Physicist Wolfgang Pauli on Science, Spirit, and Our Search for Meaning

“The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer,” physicist and quantum mechanics pioneer Niels Bohr observed while contemplating the nature of reality five years after he received the Nobel Prize, adding: “But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.”

Bohr, who introduced the notion of complementarity, went on to influence generations of thinkers, including a number of Nobel laureates. Among them was the Swiss-Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli (April 25, 1900–December 15, 1958) — another pioneering figure of particle physics and quantum mechanics. Invested in the conquest of truth at the deepest strata of nature, Pauli took up this question of reality as a physical and metaphysical object of inquiry in a rather improbable arena: his friendship with the influential Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, whose entire body of work was centered on the conviction that “man cannot stand a meaningless life.”

Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli

Pauli’s longtime correspondence and collaboration with Jung occupies a small but significant portion of Figuring (public library) — an exploration of the tessellated facets of our search for meaning, from which this essay is adapted. Their unlikely friendship, which precipitated the invention of synchronicity, bridged the world of science and the world of spirit, entwining the irrepressible human impulses for finding truth and making meaning — a kind of non-Euclidean intersection of our parallel searches for understanding the reality within and the reality without.

Long before he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his exclusion principle — the tenet of quantum physics stating that multiple identical particles within a single quantum system cannot occupy the same quantum state at the same time — and around the time he theorized the neutrino, Pauli was thrust into existential tumult. His mother, to whom he was very close, died by suicide. His tempestuous marriage ended in divorce within a year — a year during which he drowned his unhappiness in alcohol. Caught in the web of drinking and despair, Pauli reached out to Jung for help.

Jung, already deeply influenced by Einstein’s ideas about space and time, was intrigued by his brilliant and troubled correspondent. What began as an intense series of dream analyses unfolded, over the course of the remaining twenty-two years of Pauli’s life, into an exploration of fundamental questions regarding the nature of reality through the dual lens of physics and psychology — a testament to Einstein’s assertion that “every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist.” Each used the tools of his expertise to shift the shoreline between the known and the unknown, and together they found common ground in the analogy between the atom, with its nucleus and orbiting electrons, and the self, with its central conscious ego and its ambient unconscious.

Art by Derek Dominic D’souza from Song of Two Worlds by Alan Lightman

While there is a long and lamentable history of science — physics in particular — being hijacked for mystical and New Age ideologies, two things make Jung and Pauli’s collaboration notable. First, the analogies between physics and alchemical symbolism were drawn not only by a serious scientist, but by one who would soon receive the Nobel Prize in Physics. Second, the warping of science into pseudoscience and mysticism tends to happen when scientific principles are transposed onto nonscientific domains with a false direct equivalence. Pauli, by contrast, was deliberate in staying at the level of analogy — that is, of conceptual parallels furnishing metaphors for abstract thought that can advance ideas in each of the two disciplines, but with very different concrete application.

Jung had borrowed the word “archetype” from Kepler, drawing on the astronomer’s alchemical symbolism. More than three centuries after Kepler’s alchemy, Pauli’s exclusion principle became the basic organizing principle for the periodic table. The alchemists had been right all along, in a way — they had just been working on the wrong scale: Only at the atomic level can one element become another, in radioactivity and nuclear fission. Even the atom itself had to transcend the problem of scale: The Greek philosopher Democritus theorized atoms in 400 BC, but he couldn’t prove or disprove their existence empirically — a hundred thousand times smaller than anything the naked eye could see, the atom remained invisible. It wasn’t for another twenty-three centuries that we were able to override the problem of scale by the prosthetic extension of our vision, the microscope.

What had originally attracted Pauli to the famous psychiatrist was Jung’s work on symbols and archetypes — a Keplerian obsession that in turn obsessed Pauli, who devoted various essays and lectures to how Kepler’s alchemy and archetypal ideas influenced the visionary astronomer’s science. In physics, he saw numerous analogies to alchemy: In symmetry, he found the archetypal structure of matter and in elementary particles, the substratum of reality that the alchemists had sought; in the spectrograph, which allowed scientists for the first time to study the chemical composition of stars, an analogue of the alchemist’s oven; in probability, which he defined as “the actual correspondence between the expected result… and the empirically measured frequencies,” the mathematical analogue of archetypal numerology.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s and a contemporary of Kepler’s, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

But Pauli recognized that the dawn of quantum physics, in which he himself was a leading sun, introduced a new necessity to reconcile different facets of reality. Nearly a century after the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell — a leading figure in Figuring — asserted that “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” Pauli reflected in one of his Kepler lectures:

It would be most satisfactory of all if physics and psyche could be seen as complementary aspects of the same reality. To us [modern scientists], unlike Kepler and Fludd, the only acceptable point of view appears to be one that recognizes both sides of reality — the quantitative and the qualitative, the physical and the psychical — as compatible with each other, and can embrace them simultaneously.

[…]

In my own view it is only a narrow passage of truth (no matter whether scientific or other truth) that passes between the Scylla of a blue fog of mysticism and the Charybdis of a sterile rationalism. This will always be full of pitfalls and one can fall down on both sides.

Illustration by Hugh Lieber from Human Values and Science, Art and Mathematics by Lillian Lieber

Four decades before the revered physicist John Archibald Wheeler, who popularized the term black hole, made his influential assertion that “this is a participatory universe [and] observer-participancy gives rise to information,” Pauli wrote to Jung:

Modern [particle physics] turns the observer once again into a little lord of creation in his microcosm, with the ability (at least partially) of freedom of choice and fundamentally uncontrollable effects on that which is being observed. But if these phenomena are dependent on how (with what experimental system) they are observed, then is it not possible that they are also phenomena (extra corpus) that depend on who observes them (i.e., on the nature of the psyche of the observer)? And if natural science, in pursuit of the ideal of determinism since Newton, has finally arrived at the stage of the fundamental “perhaps” of the statistical character of natural laws… then should there not be enough room for all those oddities that ultimately rob the distinction between “physics” and “psyche” of all its meaning?

And yet Pauli was careful to recognize that “although [particle physics] allows for an acausal form of observation, it actually has no use for the concept of ‘meaning’” — that is, meaning is not a fundamental function of reality but an interpretation superimposed by the human observer.

Complement with Carl Sagan on science and spirituality and Einstein’s historic conversation with the Nobel-winning Indian poet and philosopher Tagore, then revisit other excerpts from Figuring: Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert, Margaret Fuller on what makes a great leader, the story of how the forgotten pioneer Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art, Herman Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and astrophysicist Janna Levin’s stunning reading of the Auden poem that became the book’s epigraph.

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Trailblazing 18th-Century Artist Sarah Stone’s Stunning Natural History Paintings of Exotic, Endangered, and Extinct Species

Potoroos, birds of paradise, variegated lizards, and other wondrous creatures brought to vibrant life by a visionary woman in the golden age of scientific exploration.

Trailblazing 18th-Century Artist Sarah Stone’s Stunning Natural History Paintings of Exotic, Endangered, and Extinct Species

A century before Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter revolutionized mycology with her groundbreaking studies and illustrations of mushrooms, which she was banned from presenting at London’s Linnaean Society on account of her gender, another Englishwoman of uncommon acumen overrode the limitations of her time and place to become one of the most esteemed natural history illustrators in human history with her drawings of Pacific, African, American, and Australian fauna.

Sarah Stone (1760–1844) began painting professionally at the age of seventeen. Although she learned her outstanding coloring skills from her father — a fan painter — she was largely self-taught in her draughtsmanship technique. At only twenty-one, she was invited to exhibit four of her paintings — a peacock, two other birds, and a set of seashells — at the Royal Academy, closed to women at the time. Like trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, who became the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences with a certificate on which the word “Fellow” was crossed out and “an Honorary Member” was inscribed above it in pencil, Stone was admitted as an “Honorary Exhibitor.” (There is something crushing about the “honor” of being temporarily exempted from millennia of baseline dishonor bestowed upon all the rest of one’s kind, all the rest of the time.)

“Blue-Bellied Parrot.” Available as a print.
“Ribbon Lizard and Broad-tailed Lizard.” Available as a print.
“Cassowary of New South Wales.” Available as a print.

Stone was still in her late teens when commissions from prominent collectors flooded in — most notably, from Sir Ashton Lever, who hired her to illustrate the objects in his famed natural history and ethnography museum, the Holophusikon, including curiosities Captain Cook had brought back from his historic voyages. In her late twenties, Stone illustrated the 1790 book Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales and did for the animals of Australia what Maria Merian had done for the butterflies of South America in the previous century.

“Pennantian Parrot.” Available as a print.
“Pennantian Parrot, female.” Available as a print.
“Snake No. 1.” Available as a print.
“Snake No. 2.” Available as a print.

With extraordinary draughtsmanship, she painted animals she had never seen alive, native to places she had never been herself — the invention of photography was still more than half a century away, and exotic travel was available only to the wealthy and to the men of science voyaging on expeditions. (It would be several decades until the word scientist was coined for mathematician Mary Somerville, replacing man of science.) Stone’s stunning depictions of parrots, serpents, fishes, marsupials, and other living wonders of the natural world were drawn from her science-informed imagination — sometimes from specimens brought back to England, sometimes entirely from the field notes of scientists on the exploring expeditions.

“Banksian Cockatoo.” Available as a print.
“The Crested Cockatoo.” Available as a print.
Snakes. Available as a print.
“Great Brown King’s Fisher.” Available as a print.
“Sacred King’s Fisher.” Available as a print.
“The Pungent Chatedon and Granulated Balistes.” Available as a print.

In this golden age of scientific discovery, vast audiences poured into the Leverian Museum to savor the splendors of faraway fauna, transported by Stone’s drawings. A number of them are the first studies of the respective species, granting them a singular place in the social history of natural history. Some of them depict species now entirely extinct or gravely endangered, like the potoroo — a marsupial the size of a rabbit, with the posture of a kangaroo. Others portray strange, wondrous, and wondrously named creatures like the bird of paradise, the variegated lizard, and the doubtful sparus.

“A Poto Roo.” Available as a print.
“The Variegated Lizard.” Available as a print.
“White-Jointed Spider.” Available as a print.
“Fasciated Mullet and Doubtful Sparus.” Available as a print.
Fish and sea horse. Available as a print.
“The Fabian Parrot, female.” Available as a print.

As a child, Stone had learned a kind of folk chemistry, sourcing her pigments from local plants and household materials — brickdust, flower petals, the juices of leaves. When she became a professional painter, this awareness of pigment properties enabled her to choose colors she trusted to stand the assault of time more durably — striking colors like Chinese white, Prussian blue, and chrome yellow — which in turn lent her art an uncommon vibrancy.

“The Red-Shouldered Paroquet.” Available as a print.
“Superb Warblers”
“The White Fulica.” Available as a print.
“New Holland Creeper.” Available as a print.
Snake and Muricated lizard. Available as a print.
“The Shine-formed Lizard.” Available as a print.
“A Tapoa Tafa.” [brush-tailed phascogale]
“Snake No. 5.” Available as a print.
“The White Vented Crow.”
“The White Hawke”
“Yellow-Eared Fly Catcher”
“Golden-Winged Pigeon”
“Anamolous Hornbill”
“The Wattled Bee-Eater, female”

After her marriage in 1789, Stone began signing her art “Mrs. Smith.” In the first half of the 1790s, drawings of Lever’s collection — hers, as well as other artists’ — were published in the monograph Museum Leverianum, edited by the physician and Royal Society Fellow George Shaw, who labeled and described the specimens. (Stone’s art from the volume is sometimes misattributed to Shaw, who was not an artist.)

“The Greater Paradise Bird” from the Leverian collection. Available as a print.
“The Rock Manakin” from the Leverian collection. Available as a print.
“The Chameleon” from the Leverian collection. Available as a print.
“The Splendid Parrot” from the Leverian collection. Available as a print.

Little is known about Stone’s life. From her prolific body of work, only about 900 drawings survive, collected and contextualized in Christine Jackson’s noteworthy monograph Sarah Stone: Natural Curiosities from the New Worlds (public library).

Complement with the 17th-century astronomical art of Maria Clara Eimmart and the pioneering sea algae cyanotypes of Anna Atkins — the world’s first known woman to take a photograph and the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images — then revisit these masterpieces of natural history illustration, drawn from the rare book collection of the American Museum of Natural History.

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