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This Is a Poem That Heals Fish: An Almost Unbearably Wonderful Picture-Book About How Poetry Works Its Magic

“A poem … is when you are in love and have the sky in your mouth.”

“Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire,” Adrienne Rich wrote in contemplating the cultural power of poetry. But what is a poem, really, and what exactly is its use?

Every once in a while, you stumble upon something so lovely, so unpretentiously beautiful and quietly profound, that you feel like the lungs of your soul have been pumped with a mighty gasp of Alpine air. This Is a Poem That Heals Fish (public library) is one such vitalizing gasp of loveliness — a lyrical picture-book that offers a playful and penetrating answer to the question of what a poem is and what it does. And as it does that, it shines a sidewise gleam on the larger question of what we most hunger for in life and how we give shape to those deepest longings.

Written by the French poet, novelist, and dramatist Jean-Pierre Simeón, translated into English by Enchanted Lion Books founder Claudia Zoe Bedrick (the feat of translation which the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska had in mind when she spoke of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes … a second original”), and illustrated by the inimitable Olivier Tallec, this poetic and philosophical tale follows young Arthur as he tries to salve his beloved red fish Leon’s affliction of boredom.

Arthur’s mommy looks at him.
She closes her eyes,
she opens her eyes…

Then she smiles:

— Hurry, give him a poem!

And she leaves for her tuba lesson.

Puzzled and unsure what a poem is, Arthur goes looking in the pantry, only to hear the noodles sigh that there is no poem there. He searches in the closet and under his bed, but the vacuum cleaner and the dust balls have no poem, either.

Determined, Arthur continues his search.
He runs to Lolo’s bicycle shop.
Lolo knows everything, laughs all the time, and is always in love.
He is repairing a tire and singing.

So begins the wonderful meta-story of how poetry comes into being as a tapestry of images, metaphors, and magpie borrowings. Each person along the way contributes to Arthur’s tapestry a different answer, infused with the singular poetic truth of his or her own life. Lolo offers:

— A poem, Arthur, is when you are in love and have the sky in your mouth.

— Oh…? Okay.

Next, he visits his friend the baker, Mrs. Round, who echoes Thom Gunn’s insistence that “poetry is of many sorts and is all around us,” rather than something reserved for the special formal class of “poets.”

Mrs. Round tells Arthur:

— A poem? I don’t know much about that.
But I know one, and it is hot like fresh bread.
When you eat it, a little is always left over.

— Oh…? Okay.

Arthur turns to his neighbor next, “old Mahmoud who comes from the desert and waters his rhododendrons every morning at 9 o’clock.”

Mahmoud offers his answer with easeful conviction:

— A poem is when you hear the heartbeat of a stone.

— Oh…? All right.

Arthur hastens home to check on poor Leon, who appears to be asleep, “floating gently amidst the seaweed as if thinking.” And because this is the sort of story in which a canary can only be named after an Ancient Greek comic playwright, Arthur next seeks an answer from his canary named Aristophanes, “who is no bird brain.”

Our imagination is left to ponder why, on the next page, the cage contains not the yellow canary but a red-haired woman, who sings Aristophanes’s answer. Perhaps she is a visual allusion to Aristophanes’s play Assemblywomen, or perhaps she represents a muse, whom Tallec invokes to remind us that the muse hides in many guises and reveals herself in the most improbable of places.

— A poem is when words beat their wings.
It is a song sung in a cage.

— Oh…? Okay.

Just then, Arthur’s grandmother arrives and is met with the same question, which she answers after thinking hard, evidenced by the way “she always smiles a silly smile when thinking.”

— When you put your old sweater on backwards or inside out, dear Arthur, you might say that it is new again.
A poem turns words around, upside down, and — suddenly! — the world is new.

But grandma encourages Arthur to ask his grandfather, too, who “often writes poems … instead of repairing pipes.”

— A poem? grandpa says, tugging on his mustache and looking worried. A poem, well… it’s what poets make.

— Oh…? All right.

— Even if the poets do not know it themselves!

Frustrated with the multitude of confounding answers, Arthur returns to Leon’s fishbowl only to find him sound asleep beneath his large stone, enveloped in seaweed.

— I’m sorry, Leon, I have not found a poem. All I know is this:

A poem
is when you have the sky in your mouth.
It is hot like fresh bread,
when you eat it,
a little is always left over.

A poem
is when you hear
the heartbeat of a stone,
when words beat their wings.
It is a song sung in a cage.

A poem
is words turned upside down
and suddenly!
the world is new.

Leon opens one eye, then the other, and for the first time in his life he speaks.

— Then I am a poet, Arthur.

— Oh…?

Complement the almost unbearably wonderful This Is a Poem That Heals Fish with other poetic and profound Enchanted Lion treasures: Cry, Heart, But Never Break, a Danish illustrated meditation on loss and life, What Color Is the Wind?, a French serenade to the senses inspired by a blind child, and Pinocchio: The Origin Story, an Italian inquiry into the grandest questions of existence, then revisit poet Elizabeth Alexander on what poetry does for the human spirit.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

BP

The Sane Society: The Great Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on How to Save Us From Ourselves

“The whole life of the individual is nothing but the process of giving birth to himself; indeed, we should be fully born, when we die.”

The Sane Society: The Great Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on How to Save Us From Ourselves

“Every advance of intellect beyond the ordinary measure,” Schopenhauer wrote in examining the relationship between genius and insanity, “disposes to madness.” But could what is true of the individual also be true of society — could it be that the more so-called progress polishes our collective pride and the more intellectually advanced human civilization becomes, the more it risks madness? And, if so, what is the proper corrective to restore our collective sanity?

That’s what the great German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) explores in his timely 1956 treatise The Sane Society (public library).

Fifteen years after his inquiry into why totalitarian regimes rise in Escape from Freedom, Fromm examines the promise and foibles of modern democracy, focusing on its central pitfall of alienation and the means to attaining its full potential — the idea that “progress can only occur when changes are made simultaneously in the economic, socio-political and cultural spheres; that any progress restricted to one sphere is destructive to progress in all spheres.”

Erich Fromm

Two decades before his elegant case for setting ourselves free from the chains of our culture, Fromm weighs the validity of our core assumption about our collective state:

Nothing is more common than the idea that we, the people living in the Western world of the twentieth century, are eminently sane. Even the fact that a great number of individuals in our midst suffer from more or less severe forms of mental illness produces little doubt with respect to the general standard of our mental health. We are sure that by introducing better methods of mental hygiene we shall improve still further the state of our mental health, and as far as individual mental disturbances are concerned, we look at them as strictly individual incidents, perhaps with some amazement that so many of these incidents should occur in a culture which is supposedly so sane.

Can we be so sure that we are not deceiving ourselves? Many an inmate of an insane asylum is convinced that everybody else is crazy, except himself.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Fromm notes that while modernity has increased the material wealth and comfort of the human race, it has also wrought major wars that killed millions, during which “every participant firmly believed that he was fighting in his self-defense, for his honor, or that he was backed up by God.” In a sentiment of chilling pertinence today, after more than half a century of alleged progress has drowned us in mind-numbing commercial media and left us to helplessly watch military budgets swell at the expense of funding for the arts and humanities, Fromm writes:

We have a literacy above 90 per cent of the population. We have radio, television, movies, a newspaper a day for everybody. But instead of giving us the best of past and present literature and music, these media of communication, supplemented by advertising, fill the minds of men with the cheapest trash, lacking in any sense of reality, with sadistic phantasies which a halfway cultured person would be embarrassed to entertain even once in a while. But while the mind of everybody, young and old, is thus poisoned, we go on blissfully to see to it that no “immorality” occurs on the screen. Any suggestion that the government should finance the production of movies and radio programs which would enlighten and improve the minds of our people would be met again with indignation and accusations in the name of freedom and idealism.

Art by Edward Gorey from The Shrinking of Treehorn

Less than a decade after the German philosopher Josef Pieper made his beautiful case for why leisure is the basis of culture, Fromm adds:

We have reduced the average working hours to about half what they were one hundred years ago. We today have more free time available than our forefathers dared to dream of. But what has happened? We do not know how to use the newly gained free time; we try to kill the time we have saved, and are glad when another day is over… Society as a whole may be lacking in sanity.

Fromm points out that we can only speak of a “sane” society if we acknowledge that a society can be not sane, which in turn requires a departure from previous theories of sociological relativism postulating that “each society is normal inasmuch as it functions, and that pathology can be defined only in terms of the individual’s lack of adjustment to the ways of life in his society.” Instead, Fromm proposes a model of normative humanism — a redemptive notion that relieves some of our self-blame for feeling like we are going crazy, by acknowledging that society itself, when bedeviled by certain pathologies, can be crazy-making for the individual.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Bearskin from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

One key source of that tension between sanity and insanity, Fromm argues, is our misconception of “human nature” as a single, static monolith, when in fact the nature of the human experience is varied and dynamic. In a sentiment which Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert would echo half a century later in his famous aphorism that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” Fromm writes:

Just as man* transforms the world around him, so he transforms himself in the process of history. He is his own creation, as it were. But just as he can only transform and modify the natural materials around him according to their nature, so he can only transform and modify himself according to his own nature. What man does in the process of history is to develop this potential, and to transform it according to its own possibilities. The point of view taken here is neither a “biological” nor a “sociological” one if that would mean separating these two aspects from each other. It is rather one transcending such dichotomy by the assumption that the main passions and drives in man result from the total existence of man, that they are definite and ascertainable, some of them conducive to health and happiness, others to sickness and unhappiness. Any given social order does not create these fundamental strivings but it determines which of the limited number of potential passions are to become manifest or dominant. Man as he appears in any given culture is always a manifestation of human nature, a manifestation, however, which in its specific outcome is determined by the social arrangements under which he lives. Just as the infant is born with all human potentialities which are to develop under favorable social and cultural conditions, so the human race, in the process of history, develops into what it potentially is.

The most pernicious effect of any given social order, Fromm suggests, is that it breeds a culture of truth by consensus rather than truth by evidence, truth relative to collective opinion rather than absolute truth — the sort of relativism which Karl Popper memorably admonished is “a betrayal of reason and of humanity.” In another passage of astounding pertinence today, as we witness a global groupthink elect destructive ideas to the status of truth and therefore power, Fromm observes something as true of religious delusions as it is of ruinous political ideologies:

What is so deceptive about the state of mind of the members of a society is the “consensual validation” of their concepts. It is naively assumed that the fact that the majority of people share certain ideas or feelings proves the validity of these ideas and feelings. Nothing is further from the truth. Consensual validation as such has no bearing whatsoever on reason or mental health… The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.

Art by Ben Shahn from On Nonconformity

More than a century after Kierkegaard contemplated the individual vs. society, why we conform, and the power of the minority, Fromm writes:

For a minority, the pattern provided by the culture does not work… There are also those whose character structure, and hence whose conflicts, differ from those of the majority, so that the remedies which are effective for most of their fellow men are of no help to them. Among this group we sometimes find people of greater integrity and sensitivity than the majority, who for this very reason are incapable of accepting the cultural opiate, while at the same time they are not strong and healthy enough to live soundly “against the stream.”

He considers what a sane society actually means:

A sane society is that which corresponds to the needs of man — not necessarily to what he feels to be his needs, because even the most pathological aims can be felt subjectively as that which the person wants most; but to what his needs are objectively, as they can be ascertained by the study of man. It is our first task then, to ascertain what is the nature of man, and what are the needs which stem from this nature.

A decade after Abraham Maslow placed self-actualization atop his foundational hierarchy of needs, Fromm illustrates our ultimate need as analogous to the development of children:

Physical birth, if we think of the individual, is by no means as decisive and singular an act as it appears to be… In many respects the infant after birth is not different from the infant before birth; it cannot perceive things outside, cannot feed itself; it is completely dependent on the mother, and would perish without her help. Actually, the process of birth continues. The child begins to recognize outside objects, to react affectively, to grasp things and to co-ordinate his movements, to walk. But birth continues. The child learns to speak, it learns to know the use and function of things, it learns to relate itself to others, to avoid punishment and gain praise and liking. Slowly, the growing person learns to love, to develop reason, to look at the world objectively. He begins to develop his powers; to acquire a sense of identity, to overcome the seduction of his senses for the sake of an integrated life. Birth then, in the conventional meaning of the word, is only the beginning of birth in the broader sense. The whole life of the individual is nothing but the process of giving birth to himself; indeed, we should be fully born, when we die — although it is the tragic fate of most individuals to die before they are born.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being

A sane society, Fromm suggests, is one which helps the individual continually give birth to herself, whereas a society which is not sane stymies that ongoing rebirth and renders the individual in a state of alienation. He outlines the consequences:

The psychological results of alienation are [that] man regresses to a receptive and marketing orientation and ceases to be productive; that he loses his sense of self, becomes dependent on approval, hence tends to conform and yet to feel insecure; he is dissatisfied, bored, and anxious, and spends most of his energy in the attempt to compensate for or just to cover up this anxiety. His intelligence is excellent, his reason deteriorates and in view of his technical powers he is seriously endangering the existence of civilization, and even of the human race.

[…]

Reason deteriorates while their intelligence rises, thus creating the dangerous situation of equipping man with the greatest material power without the wisdom to use it. This alienation and automatization leads to an ever-increasing insanity. Life has no meaning, there is no joy, no faith, no reality.

Throughout history, Fromm observes, various thinkers have attempted to identify the root of alienation and to propose alternatives — while Marxists pointed to economic factors, thinkers like Tolstoy pointed to the spiritual and moral impoverishment of humanity. Fromm himself points to “robotism” — the mindless automation of our lives — as the seedbed of modern alienation, and proposes what he calls “humanistic democratic socialism” as the antidote. He writes:

The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots.

Art by Laura Carlin for The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes

Noting that the gravest dangers of his time — which are equally the dangers of our time — are war and robotism, Fromm offers his best recipe for a sane society:

[The alternative is] to get out of the rut in which we are moving, and to take the next step in the birth and self-realization of humanity. The first condition is the abolishment of the war threat hanging over all of us now and paralyzing faith and initiative. We must take the responsibility for the life of all men, and develop on an international scale what all great countries have developed internally, a relative sharing of wealth and a new and more just division of economic resources. This must lead eventually to forms of international economic co-operation and planning, to forms of world government and to complete disarmament. We must retain the industrial method. But we must decentralize work and state so as to give it human proportions, and permit centralization only to an optimal point which is necessary because of the requirements of industry. In the economic sphere we need co-management of all who work in an enterprise, to permit their active and responsible participation. The new forms for such participation can be found. In the political sphere, return to the town meetings, by creating thousands of small face-to-face groups, which are well informed, which discuss, and whose decisions are integrated in a new “lower house.” A cultural renaissance must combine work education for the young, adult education and a new system of popular art and secular ritual…

Holding up what he calls “humanistic communitarianism” as our only hope for protecting ourselves from the alienation of robotism, Fromm writes:

Man can protect himself from the consequences of his own madness only by creating a sane society which conforms with the needs of man, needs which are rooted in the very conditions of his existence. A society in which man relates to man lovingly, in which he is rooted in bonds of brotherliness and solidarity, rather than in the ties of blood and soil; a society which gives him the possibility of transcending nature by creating rather than by destroying, in which everyone gains a sense of self by experiencing himself as the subject of his powers rather than by conformity, in which a system of orientation and devotion exists without man’s needing to distort reality and to worship idols.

[…]

Man today is confronted with the most fundamental choice; not that between Capitalism or Communism, but that between robotism (of both the capitalist and the communist variety), or Humanistic Communitarian Socialism. Most facts seem to indicate that he is choosing robotism, and that means, in the long run, insanity and destruction. But all these facts are not strong enough to destroy faith in man’s reason, good will and sanity. As long as we can think of other alternatives, we are not lost; as long as we can consult together and plan together, we can hope. But, indeed, the shadows are lengthening; the voices of insanity are becoming louder. We are in reach of achieving a state of humanity which corresponds to the vision of our great teachers; yet we are in danger of the destruction of all civilization, or of robotization. A small tribe was told thousands of years ago: “I put before you life and death, blessing and curse — and you chose life.” This is our choice too.

Complement Fromm’s stimulatingly sane-making The Sane Society with H.L. Mencken on reclaiming democracy from the mob mentality that masquerades for it and Hannah Arendt on our only effective antidote to the normalization of evil, then revisit Fromm on the art of living, the art of loving, and how to transcend the common laziness of optimism and pessimism.

BP

The Measure of All Things: How Two French Astronomers Nearly Lost Their Lives Revolutionizing the World with the Invention of the Meter

“The fundamental fallacy of utopianism is to assume that everyone wants to live in the same utopia.”

The Measure of All Things: How Two French Astronomers Nearly Lost Their Lives Revolutionizing the World with the Invention of the Meter

In her memoir, the trailblazing astronomer Caroline Herschel recounted frequently having to “measure the ground with poles” when she first began making astronomical observations in the 1780s. It seems odd that something as grand and lofty as studying the heavens would necessitate something this humble and earthbound, but this seemingly mundane task is important for two reasons — it reminds us that astronomers were the original measurers of everything we know, but it also raises the question of what the ground was measured in. For it wasn’t until a generation later that the measures of the world were standardized, thanks to the French astronomers Pierre Méchain and Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre, who set out to unite humanity by creating a single measure: the meter, arguably the most impactful mathematical concept since the invention of zero, central to everything from the speed of light and our basic understanding of the universe to the daily practicalities of shoe sizes, doorframe dimensions, and driving speed limits. Over and over during their seven-year quest for peace through mathematical perfection, they stumbled and fell and got back up, nearly losing their heads to the guillotine on multiple occasions as they toiled to create an equalizing measurement that would “encompass nothing that was arbitrary, nor to the particular advantage of any people on the planet.”

Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre and Pierre Méchain

Historian Ken Alder tells the story of Delambre and Méchain’s ambitious, improbable, and heroic feat in The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World (public library). He casts the stakes:

In June 1792 — in the dying days of the French monarchy, as the world began to revolve around a new promise of Revolutionary equality — two astronomers set out in opposite directions on an extraordinary quest. The erudite and cosmopolitan Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre made his way north from Paris, while the cautious and scrupulous Pierre-François-André Méchain made his way south. Each man left the capital in a customized carriage stocked with the most advanced scientific instruments of the day and accompanied by a skilled assistant. Their mission was to measure the world, or at least that piece of the meridian arc which ran from Dunkerque through Paris to Barcelona. Their hope was that all the world’s peoples would henceforth use the globe as their common standard of measure. Their task was to establish this new measure — “the meter” — as one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator.

The meter would be eternal because it had been taken from the earth, which was itself eternal. And the meter would belong equally to all the people of the world, just as the earth belonged equally to them all. In the words of their Revolutionary colleague Condorcet — the founder of mathematical social science and history’s great optimist — the metric system was to be “for all people, for all time.”

Indeed, there was a larger kind of idealism beneath the quest for mathematically precise measurement:

To do their job, standards must operate as a set of shared assumptions, the unexamined background against which we strike agreements and make distinctions… Our methods of measurement define who we are and what we value.

When Einstein spoke of “the common language of science,” he was animated by a similar humanistic vision of shared values. But in the eighteenth century, measures differed so widely from nation to nation that they produced practically the same stumbling block for cooperation, communication, and commerce as different languages. Worse yet, the discrepancies made it impossible for scientists — or “savants,” as scholars of nature were known in that era — to compare notes and build upon one another’s work.

Alder considers the monumental legacy of Delambre and Méchain’s troubled triumph:

For seven years Delambre and Méchain traveled the meridian to extract this single number from the curved surface of our planet. They began their journey in opposite directions, and then, when they had reached the extremities of their arc, measured their way back toward one another through a country quickened with revolution. Their mission took them to the tops of filigree cathedral spires, to the summits of domed volcanoes, and very nearly to the guillotine. It was an operation of exquisite precision for such violent times. At every turn they encountered suspicion and obstruction. How do you measure the earth while the world is turning beneath your feet? How do you establish a new order when the countryside is in chaos? How do you set standards at a time when everything is up for grabs? Or is there, in fact, no better time to do so?

[…]

The results of their labors were then enshrined in a meter bar of pure platinum. It was a moment of triumph: proof that in the midst of social and political upheaval, science could produce something of permanence. Accepting the fruit of their labor, France’s new supreme ruler made a prophesy. “Conquests will come and go,” Napoleon Bonaparte declared, “but this work will endure.”

And yet no idyll is ever complete — although, two centuries later, more than 95% of humanity uses the metric system, the world’s alleged greatest superpower does not. Thomas Jefferson was the first to attempt persuading Congress to adopt the meter, which would’ve made the United States the second country after France to pioneer the universal measurement. He failed, as did every reformer since. The costs of that failure are many, but none more tragicomically obvious than the 1999 loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter — the $125-million space probe that went missing, literally lost in translation, after one team of engineers used the metric system and another American units.

Perhaps the central paradox of all progress is that we are a species bedeviled by inescapable ambivalence. Science, after all, is “a truly human endeavor,” susceptible the same human folly of ambivalence even in its quest for objective truth. Alder reflects:

Behind the public triumph of the metric system lies a long and bitter history. The fundamental fallacy of utopianism is to assume that everyone wants to live in the same utopia.

In the remainder of the thoroughly fascinating The Measure of All Things, Alder goes on to chronicle the inadvertent errors, deliberate deceit, and other fragments of fallible humanity that marked this monumental quest for scientific perfection. What emerges is less a story about pure science than one about a central foible of being human — about why we make mistakes, about our moral vacillation between covering them up and amending them, and about how we reconcile our idealism with our imperfection.

HT It’s Okay To Be Smart

BP

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