Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 4

101-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Helen Fagin Reads Walt Whitman

“The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me, / The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.”

“Whitman is a projection into literature of the cosmic sense and conscience of the people, and their participation in the forces that are shaping the world,” the great naturalist and essayist John Burroughs wrote of Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) in his more-than-biography of this titanic poet whose verses continue to stir the hearts and minds of readers two centuries hence. Their sublimest, most enduring gift springs from Whitman’s resolute insistence on embracing our variegated, inconstant, polyphonous selves — on harmonizing the individualistic and the egalitarian, nature and culture, the body and the soul. “Do I contradict myself?” he asked unselfconsciously. “Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” His poems bellow the bold, countercultural assurance that in acknowledging the contradictions within us, we collapse the contradictions between us; that only by exploring the myriad facets of selfhood, from its brightest summits to its darkest recesses, can we begin to dissolve the illusion of separateness and the antagonisms of otherness that divide us from one another.

Nowhere is Whitman’s unflinching belief in the indivisibility of the human spirit distilled more exquisitely than in the opening verse of the twenty-first section of his poem “Song of Myself,” included in the self-published 1855 masterpiece Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain) and read here by 101-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin, who escaped Nazi-occupied Poland as a young woman, having embodied the most powerful testament to how literature saves lives. After arriving in America without speaking a word of English, this impassioned and devoted reader went on to earn a Ph.D. and to teach literature for decades, remaining to this day an ardent lover of poetry in general and of Whitman in particular. To hear Whitman’s humanistic and humanizing words channeled through a voice that has lived through humanity’s darkest hour, through a century of incalculable trials and triumphs of the spirit, is to be reminded of what it means to be alive, to be human, to be a pulsing, breathing, beautifully contradictory multitude.

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate
into a new tongue.

Couple with Fagin’s cousin Neil Gaiman reading to her Ursula K. Le Guin’s poem about timelessness on the eve of her 101st birthday, then revisit Whitman’s timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life, his wisdom on democracy, and his serenade to the universe.

BP

May 29, 1919: The Animated Story of How Eddington’s Historic Eclipse Expedition Confirmed Relativity, Catapulted Einstein into Celebrity, and United Humanity

How one of humanity’s greatest scientific achievements became one of humanity’s most humane moments, uniting a divided world under the same sky after its darkest hour.

May 29, 1919: The Animated Story of How Eddington’s Historic Eclipse Expedition Confirmed Relativity, Catapulted Einstein into Celebrity, and United Humanity

On May 29, 1919, the young English astronomer Arthur Eddington (December 28, 1882–November 22, 1944) catapulted Albert Einstein into celebrity by proving the most significant scientific model of the universe since Newtonian gravity: the general theory of relativity, completed four years earlier.

For a quarter millennium, Newton’s conception of space as static and absolute had gone unquestioned. According to his instantaneous-action-at-a-distance theory, gravity is a force that, like magnetism, acts through space but not on space, and light travels only in straight lines. According to Einstein’s theory, space and time are one entity — the foundational fabric of the universe — and gravity is a force caused by spacetime: Massive objects don’t merely draw small objects with their gravitational pull but bend the fabric of spacetime itself with their mass, pulling smaller objects into the depressions and bending light along the curvature.

Arthur Eddington (left) and Albert Einstein

At a time when very few scientists considered relativity plausible, and very few Englishmen would risk their reputation by defending a German’s ideas, Eddington set out to test Einstein’s theory against reality in an ingenious experiment nature herself had furnished. With his small team, he traveled to the remote island of Príncipe off the western coast of Africa to observe the longest total solar eclipse — 6 minutes and 51 seconds — in five centuries. When the Moon curtained the sun, Eddington hoped to see light of the Hyades cluster positioned directly behind the sun from Earth’s vantage point. If Einstein was right and Newton wrong, the sun’s massive gravitational field would warp spacetime itself, bending the path of the light to make it visible from Earth. The Hyades starlight would thus be deflected from its baseline nighttime position, which Eddington had recorded several months earlier.

It was an incredibly ambitious endeavor, both conceptually and practically. After days of heavy rains and overcast skies, resigned to failure, Eddington and his crew watched in awe as the clouds parted just in time for the eclipse, clearing the way for the telescope they had hauled to their cliffside encampment. As totality swept its otherworldly veil over the island, they took several photographic plates. All but two were ruined by the crude technology — but in those two, the Hyades clearly speckled the side of the Sun, matching Einstein’s theoretical prediction and disproving Newton.

One of Eddington’s photographic plate negatives.

“Dear Mother, joyous news today,” Einstein wrote upon receiving word of the triumphant results, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe and shaped the course of modern physics. “New theory of the universe,” the London Times soon proclaimed under the heading REVOLUTION IN SCIENCE, “Newtonian ideas overthrown.”

The scientific triumph was also a heartening, humane moment — just after the close of World War I, a pacifist English Quaker, who had refused to be drafted in the war at the risk of being jailed for treason, and a pacifist German Jew united humanity under the same sky, under the deepest truths of the universe. It was an invitation to perspective in the largest sense — one to which the third annual Universe in Verse was dedicated.

In this lovely short film, animated by English artist Hannah Jacobs and produced by Massive Science, astrophysicist, author, and my Universe in Verse co-conspirator Janna Levin elucidates the science behind the historic expedition and contextualizes the triumph of relativity, the legacy of which animates her sublimely beautiful book Black Hole Blues.

Eddington, unlike some of his compatriots, had no urge to denigrate Einstein’s accomplishments, although he was a citizen of a country so recently a bitter enemy — Einstein, born in Germany, and Eddington, in England. Out of the shadow of the War into the shadow of the Moon, they were citizens of the same Earth and relativity was heralded as one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

BP

“Little Prince” Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on Losing a Friend

“Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions.”

“Little Prince” Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on Losing a Friend

“Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship,” Seneca counseled in considering true and false friendship, “but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul.” To lose a friend who has earned such wholehearted admission into your soul is one of life’s most devastating sorrows. Whatever shape the loss takes — death, distance, the various desertions of loyalty and love that hollow out the heart — it is one of life’s most devastating sorrows. It is also one of life’s most absolute inevitabilities — we will each lose a beloved friend at one point or another, to one cause or another.

No one has articulated the disorientation of that inevitability more beautifully than Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (June 29, 1900–July 31, 1944) in Wind, Sand, and Stars (public library) — that endlessly rewarding collection of his autobiographical vignettes, philosophical inquiries, and poetic reflections on the nature of existence, published just as WWII was breaking out and four years before The Little Prince, which Saint-Exupéry would dedicate to his best friend in what remains perhaps the most beautiful book dedication ever composed.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

With an eye to his life as a pilot, Saint-Exupéry considers with unsentimental sweetness the common experience of losing fellow pilots to accident or war. In a passage that radiates universal insight into the loss of a friend, whatever the circumstance, he writes:

Bit by bit… it comes over us that we shall never again hear the laughter of our friend, that this one garden is forever locked against us. And at that moment begins our true mourning, which, though it may not be rending, is yet a little bitter. For nothing, in truth, can replace that companion. Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.

So life goes on. For years we plant the seed, we feel ourselves rich; and then come other years when time does its work and our plantation is made sparse and thin. One by one, our comrades slip away, deprive us of their shade.

One of Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince.

Three years later, Saint-Exupéry would offer the most poetic consolation there is, only consolation there is for this existential sorrow, in the final pages of The Little Prince — a book very much about reconciling the great unbidden gift of loving a friend with the inevitability of losing that friend. In the closing scene, the little prince, about to depart for his home planet, tells the heartsick pilot unwilling to lose him and his golden laugh:

All men have the stars… but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For other they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they were wealth. But all these stars are silent. You — you alone — will have the stars as no one else has them… In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night… And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content to have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure… And your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky!

Months later, much to the sorrow of his own friends and the millions of strangers who had come to love him through his books, Saint-Exupéry himself would become one of the lost pilots, vanishing over the Mediterranean Sea on a reconnaissance mission, his stardust silently returned to the stars that made him.

Couple with trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell on how we co-create one another and re-create ourselves through friendship, then revisit Saint-Exupéry on love and mortality, what the desert taught him about the meaning of life, and how a simple human smile saved his life during the war.

BP

The Healing Power of Gardens: Oliver Sacks on the Psychological and Physiological Consolations of Nature

“In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.”

The Healing Power of Gardens: Oliver Sacks on the Psychological and Physiological Consolations of Nature

“I work like a gardener,” the great painter Joan Miró wrote in his meditation on the proper pace for creative work. It is hardly a coincidence that Virginia Woolf had her electrifying epiphany about what it means to be an artist while walking amid the flower beds in the garden at St. Ives. Indeed, to garden — even merely to be in a garden — is nothing less than a triumph of resistance against the merciless race of modern life, so compulsively focused on productivity at the cost of creativity, of lucidity, of sanity; a reminder that we are creatures enmeshed with the great web of being, in which, as the great naturalist John Muir observed long ago, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe”; a return to what is noblest, which means most natural, in us. There is something deeply humanizing in listening to the rustle of a newly leaved tree, in watching a bumblebee romance a blossom, in kneeling onto the carpet of soil to make a hole for a sapling, gently moving a startled earthworm or two out of the way. Walt Whitman knew this when he weighed what makes life worth living as he convalesced from a paralytic stroke: “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.”

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener.

Those unmatched rewards, both psychological and physiological, are what beloved neurologist and author Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) explores in a lovely short essay titled “Why We Need Gardens,” found in Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (public library) — the wondrous posthumous collection that gave us Sacks on the life-altering power of libraries. He writes:

As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.

Oliver Sacks at the New York Botanical Garden. (Photograph by Bill Hayes from How New York Breaks Your Heart.)

Having lived and worked in New York City for half a century — a city “sometimes made bearable… only by its gardens” — Sacks recounts witnessing nature’s tonic effects on his neurologically impaired patients: A man with Tourette’s syndrome, afflicted by severe verbal and gestural tics in the urban environment, grows completely symptom-free while hiking in the desert; an elderly woman with Parkinson’s disease, who often finds herself frozen elsewhere, can not only easily initiate movement in the garden but takes to climbing up and down the rocks unaided; several people with advanced dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, who can’t recall how to perform basic operations of civilization like tying their shoes, suddenly know exactly what to do when handed seedlings and placed before a flower bed. Sacks reflects:

I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.

Art by Violeta Lopíz and Valerio Vidali from The Forest by Riccardo Bozzi

More than half a century after the great marine biologist and environmental pioneer Rachel Carson asserted that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Sacks adds:

Clearly, nature calls to something very deep in us. Biophilia, the love of nature and living things, is an essential part of the human condition. Hortophilia, the desire to interact with, manage, and tend nature, is also deeply instilled in us. The role that nature plays in health and healing becomes even more critical for people working long days in windowless offices, for those living in city neighborhoods without access to green spaces, for children in city schools, or for those in institutional settings such as nursing homes. The effects of nature’s qualities on health are not only spiritual and emotional but physical and neurological. I have no doubt that they reflect deep changes in the brain’s physiology, and perhaps even its structure.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener.

Complement this particular fragment of the altogether delicious Everything in Its Place with naturalist Michael McCarthy on nature and joy, pioneering conservationist and Wilderness Act co-composer Mardy Murie on nature and human nature, and bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer on gardening and the secret of happiness, then revisit Oliver Sacks on nature and the interconnectedness of the universe, the building blocks of identity, the three essential elements of creativity, and his stunning memoir of a life fully lived.

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.