Brain Pickings

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The Unfinished Story of the World: Richard Powers’s Advice on Life and the Antidote to Cynicism

“This fluke, single, huge, cross-indexed, thermodynamic experiment of a story that the world has been inventing to tell itself at bedtime is still in embryo. It’s not even the outline of a synopsis of notes toward a rough draft yet.”

The Unfinished Story of the World: Richard Powers’s Advice on Life and the Antidote to Cynicism

Perhaps the gravest violence we can do to ourselves is to live out our lives believing the world to be a fixity handed down to us by the authorities of history and life to be a matter of taking immutable givens. Daring to believe otherwise — to believe that even our smallest purposeful action alters the monolith of reality in some subtle, meaningful way — is an act of courage and resistance, an act of immense vulnerability to the possibility of disappointment, vulnerability the commonest cowering from which is cynicism.

James Baldwin knew this when he issued his lyrical and impassioned insistence that “nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed,” that “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”

Hannah Arendt knew this when she considered how we invent ourselves and reinvent the world, observing that “the smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.”

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Richard Powers knew this when he made his contribution to Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two (public library) — artist and writer James L. Harmon’s wonderful 2002 anthology of wisdom from stellar minds, a decade in the constellating, envisioned as an eclectic contemporary counterpart to Rilke’s timeless Letters to a Young Poet, which had moved Harmon deeply when he first encountered it as a young man.

Two decades before Powers won the Pulitzer Prize for his sylvan symphony The Overstory, he echoes Seamus Heaney’s exhortation to always remain “true to your own secret knowledge” and writes:

Never forget what you were born knowing. That this fluke, single, huge, cross-indexed, thermodynamic experiment of a story that the world has been inventing to tell itself at bedtime is still in embryo. It’s not even the outline of a synopsis of notes toward a rough draft yet. Buy the plot some time.

19th-century Solar System quilt by Ellen Harding Baker, embroidered over the course of seven years as a teaching tool in an era when women were barred from higher education in science and a fraction of the presently known Solar System objects were known. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

We buy the plot time with the currency of our conscious choices, the grand and the mundane alike — the daily actions that make us what we are, the people who make the world what it is. Powers writes:

Take in more, consume less, recycle everything; book-keep all hidden costs; find out where you have been set down; lobby for a smaller market; get rid of your car and travel as widely as you can (yeah, walk: what the hell); try to say a little more than you mean; carry a pocket encyclopedia (ask for one without packaging) and when the entry on “Diffusion Constant” says, “for more information, see ‘Pastry War,'” see “Pastry War.”

This latter sentiment might at first appear dated in the hindsight of two decades, in the epoch of Wikipedia. But it is actually all the more insightful and urgent today, for the quiet act of resistance at its heart has grown all the harder. What I most rue about the internet is that, for all its riches of readily accessible information, it has altered the texture of human curiosity, vanquishing that wondrous encyclopedic feeling of learning about the thing you hadn’t known you didn’t know but now greatly enjoy knowing. Somewhere along the way of choices being made for us by an insular tribe of technologists, discovery was sacrificed at the altar of search as algorithms perfected the mechanics of giving us more and more of what we already knew we wanted and believed, rendering the mind itself more and more a fixity. Would you be Googling “Pastry War” now had I not made this point about a point Richard Powers made long ago on the pages of a yellowing book I pulled from my bookshelf by some incomputable human impulse this morning?

Those choices matter, Powers reminds us, even at the smallest scale. There is no fulcrum too small for the lever of change to lift from, but the lift must begin with lucidity. He writes:

Take a full look at the worst. Acknowledge the figures: the runaway birthdates, the irreversible extinctions and ruined habitats, the meaningless economies fueled by waste, the exported shooting wars and their cover causes… Then work at whatever comes to hand. Useful or not, it makes no difference. Jumping in is the only calculus that emergency ever allows.

Complement with Rebecca Solnit on rewriting the world’s broken stories with our actions, then revisit What If — a wondrous French picture-book about daring to imagine and build a different world for the children of tomorrow.

BP

Bridging the Island Universes of Our Experience: Aldous Huxley on Making Sense of Ourselves and Each Other

“To see ourselves as others see us is a most salutary gift. Hardly less important is the capacity to see others as they see themselves.”

Bridging the Island Universes of Our Experience: Aldous Huxley on Making Sense of Ourselves and Each Other

Conversing with a symphonic-minded physicist and a science-spirited musician on a small boat off the coast of a small island, I express my skepticism that the swell of digital records would improve posterity’s ability to know us better than we know our antecedents. A life, my companions argue as a thousand tiny waves scatter the late-summer sun into a shimmering constellation around us, is immensely easier to reconstruct from the mass of emails and text messages we will each leave behind than it is from a handful of faded letters in a Victorian desk-drawer.

There is a surface logic to this reasoning. Despite my years-long immersion in the totality of Emily Dickinson’s surviving archives, I — and you, and she — will never have a final theory of who this person, this flickering constellation of poetic conceits and personal contradictions, really was. But even as an archive-dwelling scholar frequently forestalled by the dearth of surviving records of bygone lives, I doubt that more information equals more illumination. We can hardly fathom our own depths, much less another’s — no matter the count of waves.

Painting by Oliver Jeffers from his series Measuring Land and Sea
Painting by Oliver Jeffers from his series Measuring Land and Sea

It is less a problem of records than a problem of reckonings. We habitually see ourselves not as we are but as we aspire to be or fear we might be. Too readily, too unconsciously, we absorb who the world tells us we are, then live into — up to, or down to — that image, tender porous creatures that we are. (That, of course, is the most toxic effect of bigotry — we come to internalize our own devaluation by society, even if we consciously believe otherwise.) All the while, half-opaque as we are to ourselves, we keep trying to communicate to others what we want, what we mean, what it is like to be us. Even at their most honest and self-aware, these transmissions are irresolute and incomplete. Often, they are warped by our yearning to appear a certain way to the receiver, to achieve a certain effect with the signal — ripples on the surface of the self, catching the light depending on the position of the observer and the fleeting weather system of the observed. The Victorian love letter and the text message, the memoir and the Instagram selfie — they are all fragments of self-expression frozen in time, expressing a self fragmentary and discontinuous across the sweep of a life, fragments that can never reconstitute for posterity a complete and cohesive portrait of a person, because to be a person is to be perpetually contradictory and incomplete.

There is strange consolation in this, in knowing ourselves and each other only incompletely — a mercy that saves us from the tyranny of a final verdict on who and what we are.

The conversation on the boat reminded me of a passage by Aldous Huxley (July 26, 1894–November 22, 1963), exquisitely illustrative of these ambiguities and ambivalences of personhood.

Aldous Huxley

In his 1954 classic The Doors of Perception (public library), which explores a particular biochemical method for plumbing those unfathomed depths of personhood far beneath the surface waves of the self, he makes this astute general observation:

Human beings are immensely complicated creatures, living simultaneously in a half dozen different worlds. Each individual is unique and, in a number of respects, unlike all the other members of the species. None of our motives is unmixed, none of our actions can be traced back to a single source and, in any group we care to study, behavior patterns that are observably similar may be the result of many constellations of dissimilar causes.

The confusion only deepens when two complexities try to make sense of each other, as we do whenever we connect with one another:

To see ourselves as others see us is a most salutary gift. Hardly less important is the capacity to see others as they see themselves.

Such clarity of vision across the abyss of subjective experience is inherently challenging — we inhabit, in Huxley’s lovely poetic image, “island universes.” He writes:

We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies — all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.

Most island universes are sufficiently like one another to permit of inferential understanding or even of mutual empathy or “feeling into.” Thus, remembering our own bereavements and humiliations, we can condole with others in analogous circumstances, can put ourselves (always, of course, in a slightly Pickwickian sense) in their places. But in certain cases communication between universes is incomplete or even nonexistent.

Art from the 1750 book An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe by Thomas Wright, who originated the “island universes” concept. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

In certain cases, Huxley observes, those other minds appear to “belong to a different species and inhabit a radically alien universe” — none among us can be anything more than a bewildered visitor to the wonderlands which Bach and Blake called home. Even in less extreme cases, even in the everyday wonderlands we ourselves inhabit, the limitations of language — our primary instrument for outrospection — keep us from inviting others into the place where we live. Drawing on that timeless line from Milton’s Paradise Lost — a line that might just be the most succinct summation of all philosophy and all psychology — Huxley writes:

The mind is its own place… Words are uttered, but fail to enlighten. The things and events to which the symbols refer belong to mutually exclusive realms of experience.

Complement with James Baldwin, writing in the same era, on “the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are” and a sweeping Borges-infused reflection on chance, the universe, and the fragility of knowing who we are, then revisit Huxley on the power of music and the antidote to our existential helplessness.

BP

The Blue Horses of Our Destiny: Artist Franz Marc, the Wisdom of Animals, and the Fight of Beauty Against Brutality

Tragedy and transcendence in the search for the spiritual in nature.

“Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going?” wrote Mary Oliver in one of the masterpiece from her suite of poems celebrating the urgency of aliveness, Blue Horses (public library).

In the bleak winter of 1916, in the thickest darkness of World War I, several enormous canvases dappled in pointillist patterns of color appeared across the French countryside, as if Kandinsky or Klee had descended upon the war-torn hills to bandage the brutality with beauty. But no. The painted tarps were military camouflage, designed to conceal artillery from aerial observation — the work of the young German painter, printmaker, and Expressionist pioneer Franz Marc (February 8, 1880–March 4, 1916), who had devoted himself to parting the veil of appearances with art in order to “look for and paint this inner, spiritual side of nature.”

Deer in a Monastery Garden, 1912. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Conscripted into the German Imperial Army at the outbreak of the war, midway through his thirties and just after a period of extraordinary creative fecundity, Marc found this improbable outlet for his artistic vitality during his military service. Unlikely to have had any practical advantage over ordinary camouflage, his colossal canvases are almost certain to have served as a psychological lifeline for the young artist drafted into the machinery of death.

Within a month of painting them, Marc was dead — a shell explosion in the first days of the war’s longest battle sent a metal splinter into his skull, killing him instantly while a German government official was compiling a list of prominent artists to be recalled from military service as national treasures, with Marc’s name on it.

The Fate of the Animals, 1913.

Among the paintings he produced in those two ecstatically prolific years just before he was drafted was The Fate of the Animals — an arresting depiction of the interplay of beauty and brutality, terror and tenderness, in the chaos of life. An inscription appeared under the canvas in Marc’s hand: “And all being is flaming agony.”

Destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1916, The Fate of the Animals was restored by Marc’s close friend Paul Klee, who painstakingly recreated the oil canvas from surviving photographs.

The Tiger, 1912. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)
The Foxes, 1913. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Animals, Marc felt, were in many ways superior to humans — more honest in their expression of their inner truths, in more direct contact with the inner truths of nature:

Animals with their virginal sense of life awakened all that was good in me.

The Little Monkey, 1912. (Available as a print.)
The Large Blue Horses, 1911. (Available as a print.)

In 1910, just before he turned thirty, Marc became a founding member of The Blue Rider — a journal that became an epicenter of the German Expressionist community that included artists like Kandinsky, who had just formalized his thinking on the role of the spiritual in art, and Klee. At the end of that year, Marc began corresponding with the twenty-two-year-old writer and pianist Lisbeth Macke, who was married to one of the Blue Rider artists, about the relationship between color and emotion through the lens of music. Exactly a century after Goethe devised his psychology of color and emotion, Macke and Marc created a kind of synesthetic color wheel of tones, assigning sombre sounds to blue, joyful sounds to yellow, and a brutality of discord to red. Marc went on to ascribe not only emotional but spiritual attributes to the primary colors, writing to Macke:

Blue is the male principle, stern and spiritual. Yellow the female principle, gentle, cheerful and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour which must be fought and vanquished by the other two!

Further exploring the analogy between music and color, Marc envisioned the equivalent of music without tonality in painting — a sensibility where “a so-called dissonance is simply a consonance apart,” producing a harmonic effect in the overall composition, in color as in sound.

The Tower of Blue Horses, 1913. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Twenty years after Marc’s death on the battlefields of the First World War, when the forces of terror that had fomented it festered into the Second, the Nazis declared his art “degenerate.” Many of his paintings went missing after WWII, last seen in a 1937 Nazi exhibition of “degenerate” art, alongside several of Klee’s paintings. Marc’s art is believed to have been seized by Nazi leaders for their personal theft-collections. An international search for his painting The Tower of Blue Horses has been underway for decades. In 2012, another of his missing paintings of horses was discovered in the Munich home of the son of one of Hitler’s art dealers, along with more than a thousand other artworks the Nazis denounced as “degenerate” in their deadly ideology but welcomed into their private living rooms as works of transcendent beauty and poetic power.

The Dreaming Horses, 1913. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

The title poem of Mary Oliver’s Blue Horses embodies the original meaning of empathy, which became popular in the early twentieth century as a term for projecting oneself into a work of art. The poet projects herself into Marc’s painting The Large Blue Horses, running her hand gently one animal’s blue mane, letting another’s nose touch her gently, as she reflects on Marc’s tragic, tremendous life that managed to make such timeless portals into beauty and tenderness in the midst of unspeakable brutality:

I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.
Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.
Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
is the piece of God that is inside each of us.

BP

The Music of Trees: Improvisation, Iteration, and the Science of Immortality

“Potentially, every tree is immortal.”

The Music of Trees: Improvisation, Iteration, and the Science of Immortality

Hermann Hesse believed that if we could learn to listen to the trees, we would achieve profound perspective on our human lives by grasping the deepest meaning of aliveness. He used listening in the metaphorical sense. But the great existential gift of trees — to us in the metaphors they furnish, and to themselves in the materiality of survival — might indeed be a kind of musicality, accounting for their virtuosity at resilience: beyond “the blind optimism” of a tree’s poetic enchantment lies a supersense for listening to the world and responding with inspired ingenuity, encoded with singular wisdom on how to live and how to die.

So suggests arborist William Bryant Logan in his contribution to Old Growth — a wondrous anthology of essays and poems about trees, culled from the decades-deep archive of Orion Magazine, with contributions as varied as Ursula K. Le Guin and Michael Pollan, and a foreword by the poetic bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Perspective by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In an essay titled “The Things Trees Know,” Bryant writes:

To study how trees grow is to admire not only their persistence but also their imagination. Live wood just won’t quit. Every time you knock it down, it comes back again, but when a plant sprouts back, it is not a random shot, like some finger simply raised to make a point. Rather, the growing tip of any stem — what botanists call the meristem — answers with an inborn, complex pattern, like a musical tune.

He draws out the musical analogy, reflecting on Charlie Parker’s famous advice to young musicians on the steps to becoming a true jazz artist: learn the instrument, learn the tunes, and only then soar with the skilled freedom of improvisation that makes jazz. Pointing to Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” as a perfect embodiment of that three-step triumph, Bryant writes:

It begins with a perfectly clean statement of the tune, beautiful in itself for the richness of its tone, notes that are almost solid, so you could build a house out of them. Within three minutes, the tune has modulated into completely unexpected shapes, sizes, rising and falling glissades, stops and starts, pianissimos to fortes, but it never loses the thread of that original tune. Every tree is a jazz player, in just this way, although where a long Coltrane piece might last a quarter hour, a tree’s performance may go on for half a millennium or more.

Understanding a particular tree, Bryant argues, is a matter of discerning “its notes, its scales, its sharps, its flats, and its time signatures.” In the 1970s, the botanists Francis Hallé, Roelof Oldeman, and P. B. Tomlinson identified six sets of choices, which serve as the chords that every tree combines to compose its particular tune: to branch (most trees) or not to branch (palms); if branching, to branch only at the base of the stem or all along it; to grow new branches only upward (staghorn sumac), only outward (pagoda dogwood), or in some combination of the two; to grow each branch in a continuous upward or downward direction determined at its outset, or to change direction as it grows; to flower at the tips of branches (staghorn sumac) or along their sides (maple); to grow the trunk and branches continuously without rest or to have a dormant season.

Winter Moon at Toyamagahara by Hasui Kawase, 1931. (Available as a print.)

Bryant writes:

Out of these six choices, each plant plays its tune, the phrase that has characterized its kind for millions of years. No matter where its seed sprouts, each will try to play its melody.

The tree does this by a process of deft improvisation attuned to the myriad chance-conditions and events of its environment, changing the scale of its melody as needed. (This reminds me of Coltrane’s own observation that jazz musicians are born with a certain feeling “that just comes out no matter what conditions exist.”) Botanists call the tree’s responsive improvisation reiteration. Bryant writes:

It is jazz: take the tune, stretch it, cut it into pieces, put them back together, transpose it up or down, flatten it out, or shoot it at the sky. Each tree gets its chops, gets its charts, and then throws them away. It knows the chart by heart, and so can repeat it with a thousand variations for hundreds of years, as it grows to its full stature, lives among its peers, and grows back down to the ground. Positive and negative morphogenesis, they dubbed the cycle: growing up and growing down.

As soon as the tune is played, the initial reiteration is the first major branch. As a leafy tree grows, it will generate what arborists call scaffold branches. These are the few — maybe five to eight — very large stems upon which the tree will hang most of its crown — that is, most of its smaller branches and their millions of leaves… The skill of the tree as an organism is like Coltrane in his vamping: it brings the variations back to the persisting theme.

In his classic love letter to trees, penned long before the science of reiteration was understood, Hesse observed that trees “struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws” — that is, to play their tune. But as much as they might be, in Hesse’s words, “the most penetrating preachers” in the art of living, they have at least as much to teach us about the art of dying. Beyond the already disorienting science of why a tree, like a human being, is partly dead throughout life, trees are living testaments to Richard Dawkins’s wonderful perspective on the luckiness of dying, virtuosos at the art of letting life go with the same purposeful poise with which it is lived.

Possible Certainties by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Citing a common saying about oaks — “Three hundred years growing, three hundred years living, three hundred years dying.” — Bryant considers the third stage of a tree’s life, known as negative morphogenesis, or “growing down”:

Growing down is not just decay. It is as active and improvisational as was the building up. Roots are damaged or die. Branches are lost to storms. Hollows open up on the trunk and are colonized by fungi like the wonderful and aptly named dryad’s saddle. The tree’s solid circulation system resolves itself back into discrete pathways, some living and some dead. It becomes obvious that scaffold branches were once separate trees, as they become so again, some maintaining their root systems and others losing them. Now the tips of the higher branches begin to die back. Instead of growing new reiteration branchlets on their undersides, as they did in their youth, they now sprout perfect little trees of their species on the tops of the branches, between the trunk and the dead tips. It is a complete restatement of the thematic tune, happening dozens of times among the still-living branches.

What unfolds in this dying stage is a process known as Phoenix regeneration:

Little by little, a tree loses its crown, first small branches, then larger ones. Roots decay. The circulation system that carries water aloft to the leaves starts to break down. When no leaves emerge on a branch, it can no longer feed itself. It dies and falls to the ground, but the tree does not give up. When a giant that was once ninety feet tall has shrunk to a height of twenty feet, little images of itself may sprout from the lower trunk or even from the root flare, wherever a living connection between root and branch survives… It is not impossible that one or the other of those last sprouts — if only they can generate their own stable root systems — may grow once again to ninety feet tall… Potentially, every tree is immortal.

The Leaf Tree of indigenous Gond mythology, from The Night Life of Trees.

Recounting his encounter with a colossal long-fallen Osage orange tree, from the dead trunk of which two miraculous former branches had risen vertically as new trunks lush with life, Bryant returns to his musical improvisation analogy:

It is as though a person rested her arm on the dirt, spread out her palm, and two perfect new arms emerged from her lifeline, complete with all the muscles and tendons and circulation, the hands, palms, fingers, and fingernails. Or perhaps more accurate, as though a person lay down at night and had two new people overnight sprout from his torso, complete from toenails to cowlicks. I think John Coltrane would have loved phoenix regeneration. It is like those moments in “My Favorite Things” where the whole piece seems about to jump off the top end of the soprano sax register, but suddenly the tune takes up again.

Old Growth is a trove of wonder and wisdom in its entirety. Complement this fragment with Dylan Thomas’s short, splendid poem about trees and the wonder of being human, Thoreau on the true value of a tree, and forester and biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus on how the astonishing science of “tree islands” illuminates the key to resilience.

BP

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