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Why We Like What We Like: Poet and Philosopher George Santayana on the Formation and Confirmation of Our Standards and Sensibilities

“Half our standards come from our first masters, and the other half from our first loves.”

Why We Like What We Like: Poet and Philosopher George Santayana on the Formation and Confirmation of Our Standards and Sensibilities

In the 1850s, Emily Dickinson’s passionate first love shaped her uncommon body of work for a lifetime to come, shaped the spare and searing poems that would go on animating lives for generations to come.

In the 1950s, Rai Weiss fell in love with a pianist, fell in love with his lover’s passion for music, and went on to invent the colossal instrument that captured the sound of spacetime, revolutionizing our understanding of the universe and earning him the Nobel Prize in Physics.

In 1957, after becoming the second-youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Albert Camus hastened to send his childhood teacher a tender letter of gratitude for shaping the spirit and sensibility of the boy that made the man that made the work that won humanity’s highest accolade.

With uncommon insight into these joint fomentations of heart and mind, the great Spanish-American philosopher, poet, essayist, and novelist George Santayana (December 16, 1863–September 26, 1952) takes up the question of how our sensibilities are formed in a portion of Reason in Art — the fourth volume, nestled between Reason in Religion and Reason in Science, of his five-volume 1906 masterwork The Life of Reason; or, the Phases of Human Progress (public domain | public library).

George Santayana, 1880s

Considering the formative infrastructure of our frames of reference and our standards, our likes and dislikes, our aesthetic and moral judgments — that colossal compass of sensibility we call “taste,” by which we orient ourselves to the world, for we only ever orient by our yeas and nays — Santayana writes:

Taste is formed in those moments when aesthetic emotion is massive and distinct; preferences then grown conscious, judgments then put into words, will verbal reverberate through calmer hours; they will constitute prejudices, habits of apperception, secret standards for all other beauties. A period of life in which such intuitions have been frequent may amass tastes and ideals sufficient for the rest of our days. Youth in these matters governs maturity, and while men may develop their early impressions more systematically and find confirmations of them in various quarters, they will seldom look at the world afresh or use new categories in deciphering it. Half our standards come from our first masters, and the other half from our first loves. Never being so deeply stirred again, we remain persuaded that no objects save those we then discovered can have a true sublimity.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

In consonance with the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell’s observation that “whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware,” and with an eye to our criteria for beauty — which apply to beauty in the broad Robinson Jeffers sense of not only aesthetic beauty but intellectual and moral beauty — Santayana adds:

It may be some eloquent appreciations read in a book, or some preference expressed by a gifted friend, that may have revealed unsuspected beauties in art or nature; and then, since our own perception was vicarious and obviously inferior in volume to that which our mentor possessed, we shall take his judgments for our criterion, since they were the source and exemplar of all our own. Thus the volume and intensity of some appreciations, especially when nothing of the kind has preceded, makes them authoritative over our subsequent judgments. On those warm moments hang all our cold systematic opinions; and while the latter fill our days and shape our careers it is only the former that are crucial and alive.

More than a century later, The Life of Reason remains an intellectual lavishment. Complement this particular fragment with Joseph Brodsky on how to develop your taste in reading, W. I. B. Beveridge on the cultivation of scientific taste, and Wordsworth on the artist’s responsibility of elevating taste.

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Child of Glass: A Soulful Italian Illustrated Meditation on How to Live with Our Human Fragility

A subtle celebration of the terrifying tenderness that makes life barely survivable but also makes it worth living.

Child of Glass: A Soulful Italian Illustrated Meditation on How to Live with Our Human Fragility

“To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum observed in contemplating how to live with our human fragility. The monumental challenge, however, is that of sculpting such trusting openness from the messy elemental vulnerability of being human, at times too tender to bear the world with all the uncontrollable invasions of its chaos and uncertainty, invasions that so often make us feel like we are about to shatter beyond repair.

To be a complete human being is to befriend the fear of fragility, intimate and menacing as it is — the work of a lifetime that begins in those most formative and fragile years when we first become aware of a world separate from ourselves, a world we must live in, a separateness we must live with, and somehow remain whole.

How to befriend that fear is what Italian artist and children’s book author Beatrice Alemagna explores with great allegorical deftness and tenderness in Child of Glass (public library) — a long-belated addition to the loveliest children’s books of its year.

With its undertone of magical realism, the story, translated and published in English by the indefatigable Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Enchanted Lion, begins in a small European village, with the astonishing birth of a child of glass — a baby girl named Gisele.

With her large, lovely eyes, the luminous Gisele learns to live with her strange condition of total transparency, blending into the landscape and the city, changing color with the setting sun “and shimmering like a thousand mirrors beneath the moon.”

As word of this living marvel spreads throughout the village and beyond, people make pilgrimages from all over the world — to see her, to touch her, to ask the well-meaning, rude questions about whether her parents have insured her and how she can be patented.

But Gisele’s own deepest fear is not about the fragility of physical breakage — it is the savage vulnerability of being completely transparent, her inner world completely unprotected from the ceaseless invasions of the outer world, her thoughts and feelings, even the most disquieting anxieties and most private terrors, visible like a colossal ever-changing collage.

Here, the genius of the physical book, untranslatable to a screen, steps in to magnify the sensitivity of the story with a syncopation of translucent and solid pages. Transparencies of Gisele’s face layer different mood-states to render the composite confusion of her being (as we all are) half-opaque to herself but her also being (as we only imagine ourselves to be) wholly transparent to the world.

Alarmed by the visible darkness flitting across her mindscape as it flits invisibly through all of ours, the villagers turn on Gisele, begin scolding and shaming her. Unable to take the abuse, Gisele, “sparkling and luminous, sensitive and transparent,” packs her suitcase, kisses her goodbye parents, and leaves.

But wherever she goes, carrying her fragile transparency and the unbearable cargo of the attendant vulnerability, she encounters the same.

Eventually, she realizes that her only salvation lies not in changing the world’s orientation to her but in changing her own orientation to her condition, which in turn changes her interchange with the world.

The story resolves in a soulful reminder that there is no cure for our fragility — there is only the courage of not merely living with it but embracing it as a wellspring of the tenderness that makes life worth living.

Couple Child of Glass, the touching and tactile loveliness of which the screen only diminishes, with Alemagna’s wondrous illustrated celebration of the rewards of nature and solitude in the age of screens, then revisit her visual serenade to the joy of reading accompanying Adam Gopnik’s letter to children in A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Illustration by Beatrice Alemagna courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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Toni Morrison on the Body as an Instrument of Joy, Sanity, and Self-Love

“Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them… Love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up… Love your heart. For this is the prize.”

Toni Morrison on the Body as an Instrument of Joy, Sanity, and Self-Love

Thinking lately about what it means to have the right heart, which intimates the question of what it means to tend to one’s own heart rightly, I was reminded of a passage from what may be the loveliest, truest, most quietly transcendent thing ever written about the art of growing older: “The main thing is this,” Grace Paley wrote in 1989, “when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands. You must do this every morning.”

I was reminded, too, of a kindred passage penned two years earlier by another titan of thought and feeling in language: Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931–August 5, 2019), writing in her 1987 masterpiece Beloved (public library) — the novel that soon made her the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize, which she received with a speech of staggering insight into the human heart.

Toni Morrison. Jacket photograph for her debut novel, 1970.

From within the story’s broader meditation on the deepest meaning of freedom and the body as the locus of liberation, Morrison unspools this splendid sentiment from the lips of her protagonist:

In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard.

A century after Walt Whitman declaimed in Leaves of Grass that “the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern and includes and is the soul,” composing his reverent catalogue of body-parts — “head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears… mouth, tongue, lips, teeth… strong shoulders… bowels sweet and clean… brain in its folds inside the skull-frame… heart-valves…” — Morrison writes:

Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face… Love your mouth… This is flesh… Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms… Love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver — love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts… love your heart. For this is the prize.

The Human Heart. One of French artist Paul Sougy’s mid-century scientific diagrams of life. Available as a print.

Beloved remains the rare sort of masterpiece that gives the English language back to itself and your conscience back to itself. Complement this particular fragment with , then revisit Morrison on literature as rebellion and redemption, wisdom in the age of information, the artist’s task in trying times, and the little-known, lovely children’s book about kindness she wrote with her son.

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The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story

A love story, a time story, an invitation not to mistake difference for defect and to welcome, across the accordion scales of time and space, diversity as nature’s wellspring of resilience and beauty.

The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story

Great children’s books move young hearts, yes, but they also move the great common heart that beats in the chest of humanity by articulating in the language of children, which is the language of simplicity and absolute sincerity, the elemental truths of being: what it means to love, what it means to be mortal, what it means to live with our fragilities and our frissons. As such, children’s books are miniature works of philosophy, works of wonder and wonderment that bypass our ordinary resistances and our cerebral modes of understanding, entering the backdoor of consciousness with their soft, surefooted gait to remind us who and what we are.

This is something I have always believed, and so I have always turned to children’s books — classics like The Little Prince, which I reread once a year every year for basic soul-maintenance, and modern masterpieces like Cry, Heart, But Never Break — as mighty instruments of existential calibration. But I never thought I would write one.

And then I did: The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story (public library) is a labor of love three years in the making, illustrated by the uncommonly talented and sensitive Ping Zhu, whom I asked for the honor after she staggered me with the painting that became the cover of A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

While the story is inspired by a beloved young human in my own life, who is living with the same rare and wondrous variation of body as the real-life mollusk protagonist, it is a larger story about science and the poetry of existence, about time and chance, genetics and gender, love and death, evolution and infinity — concepts often too abstract for the human mind to fathom, often more accessible to the young imagination; concepts made fathomable in the concrete, finite life of one tiny, unusual creature dwelling in a pile of compost amid an English garden.

At the heart of the story, excerpted below, is an invitation not to mistake difference for defect and to recognize, across the accordion scales of time and space, diversity as nature’s fulcrum of resilience and wellspring of beauty.

Long ago, before half the stars that speckle the sky were born and before the mountains rose reaching for them, a giant ocean covered the Earth. One day, something strange happened in the giant ocean — a change so mysterious and magnificent that it was given a special name: mutation.

From this mutation, life was born from non-life: The first living creatures — tinier than a grain of sand, tinier than the tip of the eyelash of a mouse — came into being.

Time tended to them kindly —
they grew bigger and bigger,
curiouser and curiouser.

Soon — which in cosmic time means millions and millions of years — they crawled out of the ocean and onto the land. Not knowing whether they would find a home there, some of these brave early explorers carried their homes on their backs. 

And so snails took to the Earth.

Soon — more millions and millions of years later — humans were walking the Earth alongside them.

One autumn afternoon a cosmic blink ago, a human — a retired scientist from the London’s Natural History Museum — stopped mid-stride on his walk when he noticed a most unusual garden snail in a pile of compost. It was smaller than the other snails. Its shell was darker than theirs. One of its tentacles had trouble unspooling. And because the snail’s tentacles are both its fingers and its eyes, this little snail didn’t feel and see the world the way most snails do.  

But the strangest thing was something else still: The spiral of its shell coiled in the opposite direction from other snails — it spiraled left instead of right, the same direction the Earth crawls around the Sun.

The old man picked up the little snail tenderly and marveled at it.

It just so happened (isn’t chance lovely?) that a few days earlier, he had heard on the radio an interview with a snail researcher from an important university. Doctor Angus Davidson was his name. So he decided to send this unusual little snail to Doctor Angus’s laboratory. Maybe its strangeness held some beautiful secret waiting to be unlocked.

Carefully, the elderly scientist packed the little snail into a cozy box and sent it on its way.

When it arrived at the famous snail laboratory, Doctor Angus named it Jeremy, after the English politician Jeremy Corbyn. (Grownups believe that this big round world has sides, so they divide their politics into left and right, like shoes or gloves. Because Jeremy Corbyn belongs to the left, Doctor Angus thought it would be funny to name the little lefty snail after him.)

But although Jeremy the snail was given a boy name, Jeremy the snail was neither a he nor a she — Jeremy, like all land snails, was both.

Jeremy was a they.

One of the wonders of snails is that they can make babies without a mate, because every snail has a body that is both male and female. Such a wondrous body is called a hermaphrodite.

If a hermaphrodite makes babies alone, they are almost exactly like their parent. But when two parents make a baby together, the baby is partly like each of them.

And because diversity is always lovelier than sameness, and because it makes communities stronger and better able to adapt to change, snails prefer to make babies in pairs.

This is how it happens: When a snail finds a partner, the two face each other, gently touching their tentacles together to feel if they like each other. And if they do, they glide their bodies alongside one another in a slow double embrace, until their baby-making parts fit together like puzzle pieces. Then, they gently pierce each other with tiny spears called “love darts,” which contain their genes — the building blocks of bodies.

Genes are like tiny seeds your parents plant in the garden that becomes your body — your special combination of seeds is what makes you you, what makes your body-garden unlike anyone else’s. Genes are how life talks to the future. Your genes decide things like how tall you grow, what color your eyes are, and how your thumbs are shaped.

Many of your gene-seeds come abloom in your own body-garden — you get to see, to be the flowers they become. But not every one of your seeds will bloom — some only sprout when they are near other seeds just like them. These shy seeds may lay dormant in the soil and only bloom in generations of gardens down the line — in your children, or your children’s children, or your children’s children’s children. Those seeds are called recessive genes.

Jeremy was so unusual because in their body, a rare recessive gene came abloom — one of Jeremy’s great-great-grand-parents must have passed this dormant seed on, until it awakened to make Jeremy’s shell coil in the opposite direction.

Jeremy’s shell was just the most obvious expression of that mutation, but the entire soft body hidden inside was also a mirror-image of almost every other snail’s body — a condition known as situs inversus, Latin for “inverted internal organs.”

In his twenty years of working with snails, Doctor Angus had never before seen a lefty. He believes that situs inversus is rarer than one in 10,000, probably one in 100,000, possibly even one in a million.

Some humans, too, have such wondrous mirror-image bodies — it is just as rare in us as it is in snails. If you had situs inversus, your heart would be on the right side — which is the wrong side, because almost everyone’s heart is on the left side.

Jeremy’s heart was also on the right-wrong side, as were all his vital body parts — which meant that Jeremy could only do the double-embrace dance with another snail with situs inversus, or else the puzzle pieces wouldn’t fit together to make baby snails.

Life can be lonesome when your mate is one in a million. And Doctor Angus didn’t want Jeremy to be lonesome. He also knew that if Jeremy had babies with another lefty snail, scientists could study this very rare gene and better understand situs inversus not only in snails, but in humans.

So, he went on the radio again and made an appeal to the whole world to help find Jeremy a lefty mate.

Moved by Jeremy’s story, people far and wide got on their knees amid gardens and grasslands and compost piles, determined to find Jeremy’s inverted puzzle piece. Within weeks, not one but two potential mates were found — one by a young Englishwoman who kept snails as pets, and another by a snail farmer in Spain. 

The whole round world rejoiced when Lefty, the English snail, and Tomeu, the Spanish snail, were sent to Doctor Angus’s lab to meet Jeremy.

But…

But — that three-letter twist of fate that can so instantly take the trajectory of any story, any expectation, any life and coil it in the opposite direction.

Before the watercolor sun sets beneath the endpapers, the story ends the same way life lives itself through us — unpredictable, heartbreaking, and redemptive, forever planting dormant seeds to come abloom in some future garden, maybe tomorrow, maybe long after the stars that speckle this sky are gone and new stars are born to shine upon new hearts beating to the same primeval pulse-beat of cosmic chance.

The Snail with the Right Heart, out on February 2, came alive thanks to the invaluable stewardship of my longtime friend, neighbor, and collaborator Claudia Zoe Bedrick — the one-woman powerhouse behind Brooklyn-based independent children’s publisher Enchanted Lion.

I have chosen to donate all my author’s proceeds from the book to the Children’s Heart Foundation, whose quarter-century devotion to funding research and scientific collaborations is shedding light on congenital heart conditions to help young humans with unusual hearts live longer, wider lives.

Special thanks to my biologist pal Joe Hanson for assaying the solidity of the science, to my former partner and darling friend Debbie Millman for hand-lettering the cover text, and to the fine journalists at The Guardian for reporting the true story on which this labor of love is based.

Illustrations by Ping Zhu courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; story and page photographs by Maria Popova

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