Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 4

The Telling: An Unusual and Profound 1967 Manifesto for Truth

“The task of truth is divided among us, to the number of us… We must grasp the Subject with the tongs of our individual littleness; take the measure of it with what we are.”

The Telling: An Unusual and Profound 1967 Manifesto for Truth

“Teller and listener, each fulfills the other’s expectations,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her beautiful meditation on the magic of real human communication. “The living tongue that tells the word, the living ear that hears it, bind and bond us in the communion we long for in the silence of our inner solitude.” But what exactly is this act of telling that transfigures our isolation into communion — how, why, and what do we actually tell, and to whom do we tell it?

That’s what the poet Laura Riding (January 16, 1901–September 2, 1991) set out to explore half a century ago.

Eleven years after she composed her extraordinary letters of life-advice to an eight-year-old girl, Riding renounced her vocation, feeling that she had “reached poetry’s limit” as a means of probing human truth and that there existed “something better in our linguistic way of life than we have.” She fell in love with TIME magazine poetry critic Schuyler B. Jackson and became Laura (Riding) Jackson. The Jacksons went on to live a humble yet intensely intellectual life in Florida, working as citrus farmers to fund their work on an ambitious, unorthodox dictionary that distilled each word into a single definition.

But Jackson, animated by her intense love of language, remained restless about the problem of truth’s articulation. It took her a quarter century to formulate just why she had abandoned poetry and what greater frontiers of truth-telling there may be. Her formulation first appeared in the New York magazine Chelsea in 1967 and later became the small, immensely profound book The Telling (public library) — an unusual manifesto for the existential necessity of living for truth.

Laura (Riding) Jackson

Jackson frames the promise of the book in a prefatory note:

Life of the human kind has been lived preponderantly so far according to the needs of the self as felt to be the possession of itself. This self-claiming self is a human-faced creature, existing in the multiple form of a loose number reckonable only as “the human aggregate.” The needs of this self issue from a diffuse greed, which is imparted from one to the other in garrulous sociality.

There is an alternative self, a human-faced soul-being, a self conscious of ourselves who bear in manifold individualness, each singly, the burden of the single sense of the manifold totality. This self is implicated in the totality as a speaking self of it, owing it words that will put the seal of the Whole upon it. On what we each may thus say depends the happiness of the Whole, and our own (every happiness of other making being destined to disappear into the shades of the predetermined nothingness of the self-claiming self, which encircle it.)

The book is structured like Pascal’s Pensées and Descartes’s The Passions of the Soul — as a series of short meditations each presented in a numbered paragraph. In the first, Jackson considers our primal hunger for the telling of core human truths yet untold:

There is something to be told about us for the telling of which we all wait. In our unwilling ignorance we hurry to listen to stories of old human life, new human life, fancied human life, avid of something to while away the time of unanswered curiosity. Many of the lesser things concerning us have been told, but the greater things have not been told; and nothing can fill their place. Whatever we learn of what is not ourselves, but ours to know, being of our universal world, will likewise leave the emptiness an emptiness. Until the missing story of ourselves is told, nothing besides told can suffice us: we shall go on quietly craving it.

Art by Sydney Pink from Overcoming Creative Block

In the fourth fragment, she suggests that at the heart of the pervasive sense that our stories are unheard lies the fact that they are first and foremost untold:

Everywhere can be seen a waiting for words that phrase the primary sense of human-being, and with a human finality, so that the words themselves are witness to what they tell… In the eyes of all (in the opaque depths in them of unacknowledged presentness to one another) are mirrored (but scarcely discerned) concourses where our souls ever secretly assemble, in expectation of events of common understanding that continually fail to occur. We wait, all, for a story of us that shall reach to where we are. We listen for our own speaking; and we hear much that seems our speaking, yet makes us strange to ourselves.

She considers how our cultural modes of truth-telling fragment rather than unify our truths:

How our story has been divided up among the truth-telling professions! Religion, philosophy, history, poetry, compete with one another for our ears; and science competes with all together. And for each we have a different set of ears. But, though we hear much, what we are told is as nothing: none of it gives us ourselves, rather each story-kind steals us to make its reality of us.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s prescient admonition that “information will never replace illumination,” Jackson adds:

The time, in love with easy knowledge and fast knowledge, has created a new materialism to minister to the appetites of the intellect. Human things are broken up into unreal pieces by this hasty learning-lust, studied in their supposed particulars at scientific remove; and in their reality they are far less visible through science’s glass than with the naked eye of human selfhood.

[…]

How can it be that there is both a waiting, everywhere, for true words of ourselves, and a not-waiting? … a hunger both kept pure, unprofaned by false satisfaction, and stilled with the state of expedient alternatives to our truth? We are both purely and impurely ourselves: … purely, in that we are ourselves, and impurely, in that we do not know our whole nature, and live much in misknowledge of ourselves, part-corrupted into what we are not. Thus has it ever been with us. But we have reached the end of the possibility of self-ignorance, and can no longer draw on innocence to purge us of self-mistaking.

Art by Isol from Daytime Visions

Truth, Jackson suggests, is a quietly self-propagating organism, the ultimate corrective:

Truth rings no bells. When we have corrected ourselves with ourselves, joined that of us which sustained us in false notions of our truth to that of us which sustained us in our waiting for our truth itself, we shall have the force of truth in us, and immediately begin to speak true. Later, we shall know that we have begun to speak true by an increased hunger for true-speaking; we shall have the whole hunger only after we have given ourselves the first taste of it.

In a passage of particular prescience amid our age of oppression by untruth, and in resonance with Hannah Arendt’s timeless inquiry into how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, Jackson considers the vital self-protection and self-liberation which the telling of our truths makes possible:

We can best defend ourselves against those who would crowd us all into a prison of shrunken-destiny … by knowing our missing story, and dwelling in it, as in the home of our thought. Let them move us to take our souls fully unto ourselves, and to speak from soul-self to one another as ourselves in truth: that speaking will be our story, and it will silence them. To defeat them we need only to tell our truth, which is theirs also.

Our truth cannot be all-told, from the beginning told, unless we tell it to one another.

Such a commitment to mutual truth-telling, Jackson asserts, is the only real force of unity across our innumerable differences, which cannot and should not be eradicated but can be and must be understood. In her closing paragraphs, framed in extended parentheses, she writes:

Among human beings there are true differences of understanding, come of their having spoken so little with one another as beings of the one life-story. By speaking out of their different story-sense of human-being to one another, the differers can learn their life-sameness, and the different understandings be loosed to join.

In a sentiment of chilling relevance to our climate of “alternative facts” wielded by exploitive politicians as a weapon of separation and polarization, Jackson adds:

But — yes — there are also false differences of understanding. There are inventors of difference, bent greedily on having their own to say… Those of false-different understanding who might press forward to have a part in the making of our truth, stealing the name of it for their inventions, could do nothing other than follow the trace of old falsity, drawing the false circles that turn back upon themselves half-way. There is nothing new of false truth to suffer from. It will be repeated to the extinction of its capability of seeing new, true; we shall suffer from it only to the extinction of our capacity for being deceived.

A decade later, Jackson wrote in piece titled “A Preface for a Second Reading” accompanying the 1972 edition of the book:

My purpose is to remind us that there remain still to be told the fundamentals of our being, and that we are the natural tellers of them — each a natural teller of a story of which we and Everything, together, are the Subject, the story of ourselves and everything that touches on us, everything we touch on… The task of truth is divided among us, to the number of us — however large truth’s subject is, truth can be no more than the speaking of an exact self, a being exactly one (nor can it be less). We must grasp the Subject with the tongs of our individual littleness; take the measure of it with what we are.

The Telling is a beautiful, pleasantly challenging and thought-expanding read in its entirety. Complement it with Le Guin’s “Telling Is Listening,”, Toni Morrison on how to be your own story, and Hannah Arendt on thinking vs. knowing and the crucial difference between truth and meaning.

BP

Artist Anne Truitt on the Transcendent Sense of “Enough” and the Epiphany That Revealed to Her the Purpose of Art

“I saw myself stretched like brown earth in furrows, open to the sky, well planted, my life as a human being complete.”

Artist have different ways of arriving at their life’s purpose. Some, like Van Gogh, illuminate it with a slow-burning fire. Others awaken to it with the jolt of an epiphany in a single moment: Virginia Woolf found hers in the garden, James Baldwin in a puddle, Patti Smith at the park pond, and Pablo Neruda by reaching his hand through the fence.

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.

Anne Truitt in Vogue, 1968

In Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library) — the trove of insight that gave us Truitt on compassion, the parallels between being an artist and being a parent, and the vital difference between doing art and being an artist — she recounts a formative epiphany she had at the Guggenheim Museum:

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.

Barnett Newman, Cathedra, 1951

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.

Daybook remains a remarkable read in its totality, in large part because Truitt was trained as a psychologist before she became an artist and is able to put her extraordinary powers of introspection in the service of unveiling universal insight into the creative life. Complement it with Truitt on what sustains the creative spirit, how parenting shapes our capacity for solitude, and the syncopation of grief and gladness, then revisit Teresita Fernández’s spectacular commencement address on what it really means to be an artist.

BP

Hooked on the Heavens: How Caroline Herschel, the First Professional Woman Astronomer, Nearly Died by Meathook in the Name of Science

How a paragon of persistence in the face of hardship discovered eight comets and paved the way for women in science.

Hooked on the Heavens: How Caroline Herschel, the First Professional Woman Astronomer, Nearly Died by Meathook in the Name of Science

“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.

Caroline Herschel

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.

Of her ten siblings, four died in early childhood. At the age of eleven, Caroline contracted typhus fever, which nearly killed her. She would later recount the aftermath of the attack in Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel (public library):

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.

Hand-embroidered runner for Caroline Herschel by Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party.
Hand-embroidered runner for Caroline Herschel from artist Judy Chicago’s 1979 project The Dinner Party, a celebration of women’s legacy in creative culture

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.

William and Caroline Herschel polishing a telescope lens. Lithograph by Alfred Diethe, 1896.

She recounts:

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.

Painting of Messier 110 by Lia Halloran from Dark Sky Companion

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.

Lunar crater after Caroline Herschel by Lia Halloran from Your Body Is a Space That Sees

Complement Herschel’s Memoir and Correspondence with trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell on the art of knowing what to do with one’s life, this illustrated celebration of trailblazing women in science, and the story of how Harvard’s unsung 19th-century female astronomers revolutionized our understanding of the universe decades before women could vote.

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