For the pioneering sculptor Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921–December 23, 2004), the revelation arrived one November day in 1961, midway through her fortieth year, when she was visiting New York with a friend for a weekend of art.
When we rounded into the lowest semi-circular gallery, I saw my first Barnett Newman, a universe of blue paint by which I was immediately ravished. My whole self lifted into it. “Enough” was my radiant feeling — for once in my life enough space, enough color. It seemed to me that I had never before been free. Even running in a field had not given me the same airy beautitude. I would not have believed it possible had I not seen it with my own eyes. Such openness wiped out with one swoop all my puny ideas. I staggered out into the street, intoxicated with freedom, lifted into a realm I had not dreamed could be caught into existence. I was completely taken by surprise, the more so as I had only earlier that day been thinking how I felt like a plowed field, my children all born, my life laid out; I saw myself stretched like brown earth in furrows, open to the sky, well planted, my life as a human being complete.
But rather than a passive completeness, the revelation seeded in Truitt a transcendent restlessness out of which she wrested the next chapter of her life as an artist:
I went home early … thinking I would sleep and absorb in self-forgetfulness the fullness of the day. Instead, I stayed up almost the whole night, sitting wakeful in the middle of my bed like a frog on a lily pad. Even three baths spaced through the night failed to still my mind, and at some time during these long hours I decided, hugging myself with determined delight, to make exactly what I wanted to make. The tip of balance from the physical to the conceptual in art had set me to thinking about my life in a whole new way. What did I know, I asked myself. What did I love? What was it that meant the very most to me inside my very own self? The fields and trees and fences and boards and lattices of my childhood rushed across my inner eye as if borne by a great, strong wind. I saw them all, detail and panorama, and my feeling for them welled up to sweep me into the knowledge that I could make them. I knew that that was exactly what I was going to do and how I was going to do it.
She left New York the following day to return home to Washington. First thing Monday morning, she bought the materials for the first of the thirty-seven sculptures she would make over the course of the year, which led to her first exhibition in New York the following year and became a cornerstone of her major retrospectives at the Whitney Museum and the Corcoran Gallery a decade later.
How a paragon of persistence in the face of hardship discovered eight comets and paved the way for women in science.
By Maria Popova
“If I were king,” the trailblazing mathematician Émilie du Châtelet wrote in the 1730s, “I would reform an abuse that cuts out, so to speak, half of humanity. I would allow women to share in all the rights of humanity, and most of all those of the mind.” It took a century for her fantasy to take on the first glimmer of reality.
In 1835, a quarter century before Maria Mitchell earned her place as America’s first woman astronomer and led the way for women in science, Caroline Herschel (March 16, 1750–January 9, 1848) became the world’s first professional woman astronomer. Together with the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville (for whom the word “scientist” had been coined a year earlier), 85-year-old Herschel became the first woman elected Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society for the eight comets she had discovered in her prolific life as a “sweeper” of the stars.
Herschel’s monumental legacy and her ninety-eight years of earthly perseverance — a lifespan that exceeded the era’s average life expectancy by decades and stretched through the French Revolution, the Civil War, the rise and fall of Napoleon, and the invention of the railroad and the telegraph — are all the more impressive against the backdrop of the inordinate hardships she had to overcome from a young age.
For several months after I was obliged to mount the stairs on my hands and feet like an infant; but here I will remark that from that time to this present day [at age 71] I do not remember ever to have spent a whole day in bed.
The illness damaged her left eye and stunted her growth. For the remainder of her life, this tiny woman of four feet and three inches swept the skies with her twenty-foot Newtonian telescope and one good eye.
But many more obstacles stood between her and astronomy, perhaps most crucially her mother — an illiterate woman who was determined to make Caroline useful in domestic duties and was adamant that the girl shouldn’t be distracted with education. It was the father, an admirer of astronomy, who secretly taught her music and science when his wife was “either in good humour or out of the way,” and who one frosty night took young Caroline out to make her “acquainted with several of the most beautiful constellations [and] a comet which was then visible.”
He eventually arranged for her to be tutored by a young woman whose parents lived in the same Hanover house as the Herschels. To receive her lessons, Caroline would rise before dawn, meet her tutor at daybreak, and study until 7 in the morning, at which point she would have to resume her duties as the household’s Cinderella. But this faint promise of scholarship barely lasted a few months — tuberculosis claimed her young tutor’s life.
The summer after Caroline’s sixteenth birthday, her father had a stroke, which paralyzed the entire left side of his body. He died several months later, leaving the young woman in stupefied grief. To alleviate her mourning, her brothers William and Alexander suggested that she join them in Bath, England, where William, to whom she was deeply and abidingly attached, had taken a position as an organist at a local church. William beseeched and beseeched, but the mother was unyielding. In a bout of desperation, Caroline knitted two years’ worth of stockings for the family to stave them off in her absence. Mrs. Herschel finally relented and Caroline set out for England.
Caroline joined William with the intention of training as a singer so that she could accompany him in concerts. But although she became an accomplished vocalist, her loyalty to William, at that point and ever after, was so great that when she was invited to perform at a prestigious festival, she declined on the grounds that she never wanted to sing in concerts where her brother wasn’t the conductor.
It was in Bath that William grew increasingly enamored with the cosmos, until he decided to limit his work as a music teacher and focus on his newfound love of astronomy. Too poor to afford instruments and too proud to ask for loans, he taught himself to make mirrors and build telescopes, and Caroline became his steadfast assistant in celestial observations.
I was obliged to read to him whilst he was at the turning lathe, or polishing mirrors, Don Quixote, Arabian Nights’ Entertainment, the novels of Sterne, Fielding, &c.; serving tea and supper without interrupting the work with which he was engaged … and sometimes lending a hand. I became in time as useful a member of the workshop as a boy might be to his master in the first year of his apprenticeship.
When I found that a hand was sometimes wanted when any particular measures were to be made with the lamp micrometer, &c., or a fire to be kept up, or a dish of coffee necessary during a long night’s watching, I undertook with pleasure what others might have thought a hardship.
William enlisted her assistance “to run the clocks, write down a memorandum, fetch and carry instruments, or measure the ground with poles.” When one of his telescope mirrors had to be cast in a mould of loam made from horse dung, Caroline faithfully pounded vast quantities of manure in a mortar and spent hours sifting it through a fine sieve.
When she learned to copy star catalogs — painstaking work that consumed countless days — she started to notice gaps in the data. Feeling compelled to remedy them, she began making her own observations. In the summer of 1782, at the age of thirty-two, Herschel embarked on her own catalog and made her first independent discoveries the following year — a nebula missing from the famous Messier catalog and, crucially, the dwarf elliptical galaxy now known as Messier 110, a companion to the Andromeda Galaxy.
Herschel not only devoted her life to astronomy but nearly lost it to the passion for observation. In a diary entry from the summer of her first discoveries, she recounts a most improbable incident, at once gory and glorious in its attestation to her selfless heroism in the name of science. She writes on July 8, 1783, shortly after she and her brother built a new Newtonian telescope:
My brother began his series of sweeps when the instrument was yet in a very unfinished state, and my feelings were not very comfortable when every moment I was alarmed by a crack or fall, knowing him to be elevated fifteen feet or more on a temporary cross-beam instead of a safe gallery. The ladders had not even their braces at the bottom; and one night, in a very high wind, he had hardly touched the ground before the whole apparatus came down. Some labouring men were called up to help in extricating the mirror, which was fortunately uninjured, but much work was cut out for carpenters next day.
That my fears of danger and accidents were not wholly imaginary, I had an unlucky proof on the night of the 31st December. The evening had been cloudy, but about ten o’clock a few stars became visible, and in the greatest hurry all was got ready for observing. My brother, at the front of the telescope, directed me to make some alteration in the lateral motion, which was done by machinery, on which the point of support of the tube and mirror rested. At each end of the machine or trough was an iron hook, such as butchers use for hanging their joints upon, and having to run in the dark on ground covered a foot deep with melting snow, I fell on one of these hooks, which entered my right leg above the knee. My brother’s call, “Make haste!” I could only answer by a pitiful cry, “I am hooked!” He and the workmen were instantly with me, but they could not lift me without leaving nearly two ounces of my flesh behind. The workman’s wife was called, but was afraid to do anything, and I was obliged to be my own surgeon by applying aquabusade and tying a kerchief about it for some days, till Dr. Lind, hearing of my accident, brought me ointment and lint, and told me how to use them.
That same Dr. Lind remarked that “if a soldier had met with such a hurt he would have been entitled to six weeks’ nursing in a hospital,” but Herschel soldiered on with complete composure and continued making observations despite her injury. She concludes the diary entry with charmingly matter-of-factliness that bespeaks her superhuman devotion to science:
To make observations with such large machinery, where all around is in darkness, is not unattended with danger, especially when personal safety is the last thing with which the mind is occupied.
The heroic incident was memorialized nearly two centuries later in a portion of Alfred Noyes’s lengthy poem “Sir John Herschel Remembers,” from his 1922 collection Watchers of the Sky. The poem’s protagonist — the great astronomer and inventor John Herschel, son of William, nephew of Caroline — remembers how his aunt’s intrepid devotion to astronomy inspired his own:
He saw her in mid-winter, hurrying out,
A slim shawled figure through the drifted snow,
To help him; saw her fall with a stifled cry,
Gashing herself upon that buried hook,
And struggling up, out of the blood-stained drift,
To greet him with a smile.
“For any soldier,
This wound,” the surgeon muttered, “would have meant
Six weeks in hospital.”
Not six days for her!
“I am glad these nights were cloudy, and we lost
So little,” was all she said.
“Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted.”
By Maria Popova
“Seeing the world from the position of the weak person is a great education,” Chinua Achebe observed as he contemplated how storytelling helps us survive history’s rough patches. “Stories,” Neil Gaiman wrote, “are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.” Some of our most important stories — those most responsible for our civilizational advancement — have to do with how we narrate humanity’s difficulties and the lives of the people most affected by them.
Considering how storytelling helps us transmute mere events into a sense of history and culture, West weighs the importance not only of the triumphant heroes in our stories but also of the tragic ones. (It is, after all, to a tragic hero and the long tail of history that we owe the greatest scientific discovery of our time.) She writes:
As we grow older and see the ends of stories as well as their beginnings, we realize that to the people who take part in them it is almost of greater importance that they should be stories, that they should form a recognizable pattern, than that they should be happy or tragic. The men and women who are withered by their fates, who go down to death reluctantly but without noticeable regrets for life, are not those who have lost their mates prematurely or by perfidy, or who have lost battles or fallen from early promise in circumstances of public shame, but those who have been jilted or were the victims of impotent lovers, who have never been summoned to command or been given any opportunity for success or failure.
Art, West argues, is not only what helps us survive history’s difficulties, but what transmutes mere existence into life, into vitality, into a meaningful story of being:
Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted. If one’s own existence has no form, if its events do not come handily to mind and disclose their significance, we feel about ourselves as if we were reading a bad book. We can all of us judge the truth of this, for hardly any of us manage to avoid some periods when the main theme of our lives is obscured by details, when we involve ourselves with persons who are insufficiently characterized; and it is possibly true not only of individuals, but of nations. What would England be like if it had not its immense Valhalla of kings and heroes, if it had not its Elizabethan and its Victorian ages, its thousands of incidents which come up in the mind, simple as icons and as miraculous in their suggestion that what England has been it can be again, now and for ever? What would the United States be like if it had not those reservoirs of triumphant will-power, the historical facts of the War of Independence, of the giant American statesmen, and of the pioneering progress into the West, which every American citizen has at his mental command and into which he can plunge for revivification at any minute? To have a difficult history makes, perhaps, a people who are bound to be difficult in any conditions, lacking these means of refreshment.
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