Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 3

Journey to Mount Tamalpais: Lebanese-American Poet, Painter, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on Time, Self, Impermanence, and Transcendence

“When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive.”

Journey to Mount Tamalpais: Lebanese-American Poet, Painter, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on Time, Self, Impermanence, and Transcendence

“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote as she drew on her intimate enchantment with the Highlands in her masterpiece The Living Mountain. Having grown up at the foot of Mount Vitosha and spent swaths of my childhood in the Rila mountains of Bulgaria, I too have known the mind-sculpting power of mountains and felt the embers of that knowingness reignited by Journey to Mount Tamalpais (public library).

Written shortly after I was born, this uncommonly beautiful book-length essay by the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan (b. February 24, 1925), illustrated with 34 of her black-and-white sketches of the mountain, explores the themes that would animate Adnan through her nineties: time, self, impermanence, the nature of the universe, the spiritual dimensions of art, our belonging to and with the rest of the vast interwoven miracle we call nature.

Etel Adnan: Mount Tamalpais, 1985. (Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon)

Born in Beirut and trained in Paris — where she would return to spend much of her later life with her partner of more than forty years, the Syrian-born artist and publisher Simone Fattal — Adnan lived and taught in Northern California for more than a quarter century. There, she fell in love with Mount Tamalpais — the first vertebrae of the mountainous backbone of the Americas that stretches all the way to Tierra del Fuego. In its towering presence, she found herself “left with the sort of wonder that the sense of eternity always carries with it,” with a “feeling of latent prophesy.” The mountain became her abiding muse, which she celebrated and serenaded in a flood of paintings and poetic reverberations. Under Adnan’s gaze — generous, penetrating, benedictory — the mountain becomes both metaphor and not-metaphor, both object of reverent curiosity and sovereign subject unbeholden to human interpretation. Hers is a way of looking that embodies Ursula K. Le Guin’s distinction between objectifying and subjectifying the universe. Adnan writes:

Like a chorus, the warm breeze had come all the way from Athens and Baghdad, to the Bay, by the Pacific Route, its longest journey. It is the energy of these winds that I used, when I came to these shores, obsessed, followed by my home-made furies, errynies, and such potent creatures. And I fell in love with the immense blue eyes of the Pacific: I saw is red algae, its blood-colored cliffs, its pulsating breath. The ocean led me to the mountain.

Once I was asked in front of a television camera: “Who is the most important person you ever met?” and I remember answering: “A mountain.” I thus discovered that Tamalpais was at the very center of my being.

Half a century after philosopher Martin Buber considered the tree as a lesson in the difficult art of seeing essence rather than objectifying, Adnan considers the mountain’s essence:

This living with a mountain and with people moving with all their senses open, like many radars, is a journey… melancholy at times: you perceive noise and dirt, poverty, and the loneliness of those who are blind to so may things… but miraculous most of the way. Somehow what I perceived most is Tamalpais. I am “making” the mountain as people make a painting.

[…]

It is an animal risen from the sea. A sea-creature landed, earth-bound, earth-oriented, maddened by its solidity.

The world around has the darkness of battle-ships, leafless trees are spearbearers, armor bearers, swords and pikes, the mountain looks at us with tears coming down its slopes.

O impermanence! What a lovely word and a sad feeling. What a fight with termination, with lives that fall into death like cliffs.

O Sundays which are like vessels in a storm, with nothing before and nothing after!

Etel Adnan: Mount Tamalpais, 2000. (Callicoon Fine Arts, New York)

Out of the actuality of the mountain, Adnan draws an inner reality, rising too like a summit of self-transcendence:

I am at the window and Tamalpais looks back at me. I am in pain and it is not. But we are equals tonight.

[…]

I am amazed, but, more so, I am fulfilled. I am transported outside my ordinary self and into the world as it could be when no one watches.

But more than anything, Adnan finds in the mountain a vital counterpoint to the hubrises of the self. A supreme equalizer of being, it stands as an antipode to our habitual anthropocentrism and self-involvement, humbling us — in the proper sense of humility, with its Latin root in humus, “of the earth” — into recognizing that we are each just one creature among many, a tiny constellation of stardust whose ephemeral existence is no more significant than any other. Adnan writes:

The Pacific often sings a soft funeral march. It was most appropriate that they found a man hanging by a tree near the top of Tamalpais. It was not horrible. It was just one of the many events that happen up there following the death of birds or the growth of plants.

Again and again, she returns to this transcendent dance of the ephemeral and the eternal, played out in the life of the mountain as in the life of art:

A bird ran into the glass door of my deck and died. I rushed with paper and a pencil to make a drawing and realized I couldn’t draw death. The record player was playing a Koranic prayer recorded in Tunisia. The lamenting voice of the Prophet became a funeral song for the silenced animal. I came in and saw my Ray Bradbury book opened on these lines:

Robins will wear their feathery fire
whistling their whims on a low fence-wire
and not one will know of the war, not one
will care at last when it is done…

Through the long night of the species we go on, somehow blindly, and we give a name to our need for a breakthrough: we call it the Angel, or call it Art, or call it the Mountain.

Etel Adnan: Mount Tamalpais, 2000. (Callicoon Fine Arts, New York)

The singular power of the mountain both beckons us into absolute presence and catapults us into an awareness of time far beyond our ephemerality — a state of being predicated on a wholehearted embrace of our mortality. A century and a half after Kierkegaard asserted that a human being is “a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal,” Adnan writes:

When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive.

[…]

Between the sun and the moon, the restless desire to live and the restless desire to die, the mountain holds the balance.

From the daily rhythms and simple seasonality of the mountain, Adnan wrests insights of great subtlety, poignancy, and prescience:

It had snowed. Tamalpais was white as it rarely is. White is the color of the terror in this century: the great white mushroom, the white and radiating clouds, the White on White painting by Malevich, and that whiteness, most fearful, in the eyes of men.

Etel Adnan: Mount Tamalpais, 2000. (Callicoon Fine Arts, New York)

Recounting a hike up a steep trail with a few other members of the Perception Workshop — a collective of artists gathering “in peaceful parties with the seriousness of children at play” — Adnan reflects on what brought them together and took them to Tamalpais, seeking to discover the mountain and themselves:

We had with us no rite of passage. We had gone through no initiation, as we went into childhood and into adolescence with no warning. This is why we come to the mountain. We have no other elevation.

We slept under trees but in fact within the mountain’s vast sadness and we awoke very new.

The night freed us from our obsession with reason. It told us that we were a bundle of electric wires plugged into everything that came along. It was enough to be alive and around. The same was true of everything else.

Artists, she observes, have a deeper and more immediate grasp of this underlying interconnectedness of life. (Half a century earlier, Virginia Woolf had furnished the finest articulation of this awareness in her exquisite account of the epiphany in which she finally understood what it really means to be an artist: “Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”) Adnan writes:

Painters have a knowledge which goes beyond words. They are where musicians are. When someone blows the saxophone the sky is made of copper. When you make a watercolor you know how it feels to be the sea lying early in the day in the proximity of light.

Painters have always experienced the oneness of things. They are aware that there is interference and intervention between the world and ourselves.

[…]

I write what I see, paint what I am.

Etel Adnan: Mount Tamalpais, 2000. (Callicoon Fine Arts, New York)

In a testament to the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin’s insistence that painting trains the mind’s eye to see more clearly and live with a deeper sense of presence, Adnan seeks to understand the intense and abiding draw of the mountain as a subject matter for her painting:

I know by experience, by now, that no subject matter, after a while, remains just a subject matter, but becomes a matter of life and death, our sanity resolved by visual means. Sanity is our power of perception kept focused. And it is an open-ended endeavor.

[…]

A visual expression belongs to an order of understanding which bypasses word-language. We have in us autonomous languages for autonomous perceptions. We should not waste time in trying ordinary understanding. We should not worry, either. There is no rest in any kind of perception. The fluidity of the mind is of the same family as the fluidity of being. Sometimes they coincide sharply. We call that a revelation. When it involves a privileged “object,” like a particular mountain, we call it an illumination.

Etel Adnan and Mount Tamalpais. (Photograph courtesy of the artist.)

She ends by considering the mountain’s supreme gift to her and her fellow artists — a gift of awareness, risen from the deepest stratum of being:

In this unending universe Tamalpais is a miraculous thing, the miracle of matter itself: something we can single out, the pyramid of our own identity. We are, because it is stable and it is ever changing. Our identity is the series of the mountain’s becomings, our peace is its stubborn existence.

Complement the slim, sublimely beautiful Journey to Mount Tamalpais with Nan Shepherd on the mountain as a lens on our relationship with nature and Simone Weil on the mountain as a metaphor for the purest and most fertile form of thought, then revisit Adnan — writing three decades after she left the mountain, though it never left her — on memory, the self, and the universe.

BP

The More Loving One: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads W.H. Auden’s Sublime Ode to Our Unrequited Love for the Universe

“If equal affection cannot be, / Let the more loving one be me.”

The More Loving One: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads W.H. Auden’s Sublime Ode to Our Unrequited Love for the Universe

I wrote Figuring (public library) to explore the interplay between chance and choice, the human search for meaning in an unfeeling universe governed by equal parts precision and randomness, the bittersweet beauty of asymmetrical and half-requited loves, and our restless impulse to uncover the deepest truths of nature, even at the price of our convenient existential delusions of self-importance. (More about the book here.) These are vast, thickly interwoven themes, difficult to distill in a single sentiment, so I chose two dramatically different yet complementary epigraphs to open the book — one drawn from the trailblazing 18th-century philosopher and woman of letters Germaine de Staël’s treatise on the happiness of individuals and societies, and the other from one of our civilization’s most lucid and luminous poets laureate of the human spirit: W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973).

The Auden stanza comes from his stunning poem “The More Loving One,” originally published in his 1960 book Homage to Clio (public library) — a collection of shorter poems about history, a concept Auden defines in his own epigraph for the book:

Between those happenings that prefigure it
And those that happen in its anamnesis
Occurs the Event, but that no human wit
Can recognize until all happening ceases.

History, in other words, is not the objective chronicle of events but the subjective recognition of happenings sighted in the rearview mirror of being. (This is a question I explore throughout Figuring, in the prelude to which I wrote that history is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance.) Auden saw history — this selective set of remembrances constructed by human intention and choice — as both counterpart and antipode to nature, in which events unfold free of intent, governed by chance and the impartial physical laws of the universe. Curiously, “The More Loving One” appears among Auden’s poems about history, but it deals with nature and the disorienting necessity of learning to love a universe insentient to our hopes and fears, unconcerned with our individual fates — perhaps the least requited love there is, as well as the largest. It is an elegy, in the classic dual sense of lamentation and celebration, for our ambivalent relationship with this elemental truth and an homage to the supreme triumph of the human heart — the willingness to love that which does not and cannot love us back.

In this recording from the Academy of American Poets’ sixteenth annual Poetry & the Creative Mind, astrophysicist and author Janna Levin reads Auden’s sublime poem, with a lovely prefatory reflection on the bittersweet seductions and consolations of our unrequited love for the universe.

THE MORE LOVING ONE
by W.H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

Complement with Levin’s beautiful readings of Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Adrienne Rich’s tribute to the world’s first professional female astronomer, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s ode to time, then revisit Auden on writing, true and false enchantment, and the political power of art. For a different side to the poetics of asymmetrical yet profoundly beautiful love, savor Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert, excerpted from Figuring.

BP

The Great Naturalist John Burroughs on Art, the Courage to Defy Convention, and the Measure of a Visionary

“The new man makes room for himself, and if he be of the first order he largely makes the taste by which he is appreciated, and the rules of art by which he is to be judged.”

The Great Naturalist John Burroughs on Art, the Courage to Defy Convention, and the Measure of a Visionary

Art is both foreground and background to all social change, the fulcrum by which we raise our personal and political standards, the wheel that propels every revolution — in thought, in feeling, in the constellation of customs, beliefs, principles, power structures, and sensibilities we call culture. “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art,” Ursula K. Le Guin asserted in her superb National Book Award acceptance speech. It is hardly surprising, then, that at times of particular cultural tumult and social upheaval, the most visionary artists — the seers who imagine and insist upon alternative ways of viewing and navigating the cultural landscape — are met with tremendous tides of criticism and condemnation from the status quo. Albert Camus knew this when he observed in the thick of the Cold War that “to create today is to create dangerously.” And yet, again and again, artists embrace the danger and go on making art — this is the way the world changes, perhaps the only way it does.

The centrality of art in culture and the unstoppable momentum of true creative visionaries are what the great naturalist and nature writer John Burroughs (April 3, 1837–March 29, 1921) — Walt Whitman’s foremost biographer and spirited champion — explores in one of the myriad lyrical, sublimely insightful passages from his 1896 more-than-biography, Whitman: A Study (public library | free ebook).

John Burroughs

Art, Burroughs argues, is not an isolated region of culture but is culture; not an island, but the water that washes all shores. (Half a century later, the visionary marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson, recipient of the John Burroughs Medal for excellence in nature writing, would assert the same of science — “The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience.” Soon, her lyrical science writing would catalyze the environmental movement.)

Burroughs writes:

I shall deny at the outset that there are any bounds of art, or that art is in any sense an “enclosure,” — a province fenced off and set apart from the rest, — any more than religion is an enclosure, though so many people would like to make it so. Art is commensurate with the human spirit. I should even deny that there are any principles of art in the sense that there are principles of mechanics or of mathematics. Art has but one principle, one aim, — to produce an impression, a powerful impression, no matter by what means, or if it be by reversing all the canons of taste and criticism.

“It is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong,” the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman would assert in the following century. As in science, so in art — Burroughs argues that any celebrated aesthetic or creative convention is bound to be challenged, and it is in its sublimation and transcendence that the next true art is to be found. A great artist does not cater to taste but creates taste, and must therefore be endowed with what Goethe called “the courage to despair,” for this act of creation is invariably met with violent opposition. Wordsworth knew this when he asserted that “to create taste is to call forth and bestow power, of which knowledge is the effect; and there lies the true difficulty.”

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

In an era long before every woman ceased to be a “man,” Burroughs writes of the truly visionary “man”:

Name any principle, so called, and some day a genius shall be born who will produce his effects in defiance of it, or by appearing to reverse it. Such a man as [William] Turner seemed, at first sight, to set at defiance all correct notions of art. The same with Wagner in music, the same with Whitman in poetry. The new man is impossible till he appears, and, when he appears, in proportion to his originality and power does it take the world a longer or shorter time to adjust its critical standards to him. But it is sure to do so at last. There is nothing final in art: its principles follow and do not lead the creator; they are deductions from his work, not its inspiration. We demand of the new man, of the overthrower of our idols, but one thing, — has he authentic inspiration and power? If he has not, his pretensions are soon exploded. If he has, we cannot put him down, any more than we can put down a law of nature, and we very soon find some principle of art that fits his case. Is there no room for the new man? But the new man makes room for himself, and if he be of the first order he largely makes the taste by which he is appreciated, and the rules of art by which he is to be judged.

Whitman: A Study is a splendid read in its entirety. Complement it with Iris Murdoch on why revolutionary art is essential for democracy, James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe’s fantastic forgotten conversation about beauty, morality, and the political power of art, and Egon Schiele on why visionaries tend to come from the minority, then revisit Whitman — whose art was at first decried and derided by his contemporaries, before rendering him America’s greatest poet — on confidence through criticism and the “meaning” of art.

BP

Jane Goodall’s Lovely Letter to Children About How Reading Shaped Her Life

How a public library and a messy second-hand bookshop helped a small girl with no money and big dreams change the face of science.

Jane Goodall’s Lovely Letter to Children About How Reading Shaped Her Life

“Books feed and cure and chortle and collide,” Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in her 1969 ode to why we read. For Kafka, a book was “the axe for the frozen sea inside us”; for Galileo, nothing less than a source of superhuman powers. “Without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity,” Hermann Hesse wrote in his visionary 1930 meditation on “the magic of the book” and why we will always remain under its generous spell, no matter how the technologies of reading may change.

We read to remember. We read to forget. We read to make ourselves and remake ourselves and save ourselves. “I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life,” Mary Oliver wrote in looking back on how books saved her. Most of all, we read to become selves. The wondrous gift of reading is that books can become both the life-raft to keep us from drowning and the very water that sculpts the riverbed of our lives, bending it this direction or that, traversing great distances and tessellated territories of being, chiseling through even the hardest rock.

That life-steering power of books is what pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall articulates with great simplicity and sweetness in her contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a labor of love eight years in the making, comprising 121 illustrated letters to children about how books form and transform us by some of the most inspiring humans in our world: artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Original art by Christian Robinson for Jane Goodall’s letter from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Half a century after Simone de Beauvoir reflected on how chance and choice converge to make us who we are, Goodall tells young readers about her formative childhood experience, as much a product of her time and place as of her singular predilections:

Dear Children,

I want to share something with you — and that is how much I loved books when I was your age. Of course, back then there was no Internet, no television — we learned everything from printed books. We didn’t have much money when I was a child and I couldn’t afford new books, so most of what I read came from our library. But I also used to spend hours in a very small second hand book shop. The owner was an old man who never had time to arrange his books properly. They were piled everywhere and I would sit there, surrounded by all that information about everything imaginable. I would save up any money I got for my birthday or doing odd jobs so that I could buy one of those books. Of course, you can look up everything on the Internet now. But there is something very special about a book — the feel of it in your hands and the way it looks on the table by your bed, or nestled in with others in the bookcase.

I loved to read in bed, and after I had to put the lights out I would read under the bedclothes with a torch, always hoping my mother would not come in and find out! I used to read curled up in front of the fire on a cold winter evening. And in the summer I would take my special books up my favorite tree in the garden. My Beech Tree. Up there I read stories of faraway places and I imagined I was there. I especially loved reading about Doctor Doolittle and how he learned to talk to animals. And I read about Tarzan of the Apes. And the more I read, the more I wanted to read.

I was ten years old when I decided I would go to Africa when I grew up to live with animals and write books about them. And that is what I did, eventually. I lived with chimpanzees in Africa and I am still writing books about them and other animals. In fact, I love writing books as much as reading them — I hope you will enjoy reading some of the ones that I have written for you.

Jane Goodall

Pair this taste of A Velocity of Being, all proceeds from which benefit the public library system, with Patrick McDonnell’s lovely picture-book about how Jane Goodall turned her childhood dream into reality, then revisit two other moving letters from A Velocity of Being — Rebecca Solnit on how books solace and empower us and 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how a particular book saved particular lives.

Some of the original art from the book is available as prints, with all proceeds also benefiting the public library system. Find more about the project, and peek inside its lushly illustrated pages, here.

UPDATE: All copies of the book have fled to eager hands — it is currently sold out everywhere online, but the next batch is on the way. Meanwhile, some independent bookstores still have copies of the first edition, so go roam your neighborhood and make some new friends.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated. Privacy policy.