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Walt Whitman on the Splendor of Winter Beaches and How Art Imbues Life’s Bleakest Moments with Beauty

“This winter day — grim, yet so delicate-looking, so spiritual — striking emotional, impalpable depths, subtler than all the poems, paintings, music…”

Walt Whitman on the Splendor of Winter Beaches and How Art Imbues Life’s Bleakest Moments with Beauty

To view the world with a poet’s eyes is to see in it unseasonable splendor and unreasonable gladness where other eyes see only bleakness, only blankness. “Only an artist can tell,” James Baldwin wrote, “what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it. What it is like to die, or to have somebody die; what it is like to be glad.” Baldwin considered all artists poets — not for what they make, but for how they see. “The tree which moves some to tears of joy,” William Blake wrote two centuries before Baldwin in his most beautiful letter, “is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.”

Perched in time between Blake and Baldwin, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) stands as a supreme seer and instrument of gladness. Much of it he channeled in verse, but some of the richest remnants of his spirit survive the prose of Specimen Days (public library) — the sublime collection of his reflections, letters, and journal entries on such varied facets of being as the wisdom of trees, the singular power of music, and what makes life worth living.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

In one particularly beautiful entry penned as he was recovering from a paralytic stroke, Whitman contemplates how art feeds life so that life itself becomes a victual of the poetic. Writing in late November of 1876, he exults under the heading “A Winter Day on the Sea-beach”:

The attractions, fascinations there are in sea and shore! How one dwells on their simplicity, even vacuity! What is it in us, arous’d by those indirections and directions? That spread of waves and gray-white beach, salt, monotonous, senseless — such an entire absence of art, books, talk, elegance — so indescribably comforting, even this winter day — grim, yet so delicate-looking, so spiritual — striking emotional, impalpable depths, subtler than all the poems, paintings, music, I have ever read, seen, heard. (Yet let me be fair, perhaps it is because I have read those poems and heard that music.)

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly transcendent Specimen Days with Thoreau on the spiritual rewards of winter walks and Henry Beston — a rare twentieth-century descendant of Thoreau and Whitman — on the splendor of night, then revisit Whitman on why literature is central to democracy and his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

BP

Blob: An Irreverent and Insightful Modern Fable About Beauty, Ugliness, the Paths to Acceptance, and How Admiration Hijacks Our Sense of Self

A playful and profound tale about the struggle for belonging.

Blob: An Irreverent and Insightful Modern Fable About Beauty, Ugliness, the Paths to Acceptance, and How Admiration Hijacks Our Sense of Self

“Worshipped today, scorned or even crucified tomorrow,” Albert Einstein wrote in contemplating the fickleness of fame, “that is the fate of people whom — God knows why — the bored public has taken possession of.” And indeed the public itself often knows not why it has taken possession of those whom it inflates before deflating with the same rapaciousness and rapidity — such is the arbitrary and fleeting nature of popular favor in its gruesome modern guise of celebrity. “Success is the pageantry of genius,” Germaine de Staël wrote in her pioneering eighteenth-century treatise on happiness, but in the twenty-first century celebrity has become the simulacrum of success and visibility the simulacrum of genius.

An irreverent, insightful, and surprisingly touching parody of this vacant pageantry comes in Blob: The Ugliest Animal in the World (public library) by French writer-illustrator couple Joy Sorman and Olivier Tallec, translated by Sarah Klinger — the story of Blob the Fish, his unrelenting quest to win the world’s premier ugliness pageant, and his struggle to cope with the loneliness of celebrity and the suddenness with which fame courts and abandons its victims.

There is something charmingly subversive about the very premise, as paradoxical as the idea of trying to fail at failure. There is also something profound in the questions it raises about our civilizational fascination with beauty and its counterpoint — what does it really mean to be ugly, and was Emerson correct in asserting that “the secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting”? When ugliness itself becomes a point of interest, a point of contest, it begins to take on the superficialities reserved for the cult of beauty — a cult which, as Harvard cognitive scientist Nancy Etcoff has noted, is “entwined with our deepest conflicts surrounding flesh and spirit.”

With his unshapely flesh, Blob the Fish is decidedly unbeautiful. But he has spent his life trying to wrest from his ugliness a path to acceptance, even to adoration: Every year for many years, Blob has left his home in the deep coastal waters of Australia’s Pacific Ocean, boarded a boat to a train to a plane clad in a spy-like coat and brimmed hat “to avoid frightening the other passengers” with his ugliness, and journeyed to compete in the esteemed contest for the world’s ugliest animal.

Every year so far, Blob has lost.

Sorman writes:

The first time Blob entered the contest, he was upstaged by a frog from Lake Titicaca. The second time, he was beaten by a Kakapo parakeet — a bird so awkward and dumpy it couldn’t even fly. The third time, a Sea Pig won gold. And Blob, both proud and sensitive, was outraged at the injustice of it all.

It enraged Blob not to be recognized for his true worth. When a member of the jury called him “more darling and adorable than ugly and repulsive,” he felt even worse, and he almost blew his top at the judge’s offer to adopt him as a pet. How horrifying! How shameful!

The illustrations by Tallec, who has given us such immeasurably sympathetic treasures as Big Wolf & Little Wolf and This Is a Poem That Heals Fish, lend the humorous story a lovely dimension of tenderness. Blob comes alive as a sensitive creature of contradictions — full of determination yet easily given to dejection, a living fable of ego and insecurity, easy to fault but also easy to love.

Wearied by his many near-misses, Blob resolves to win the pageant this year. When the announcer introduces “his formidably formless physique, and his sad and sheepish demeanor,” Blob can feel he is about to have his moment. And so he does — he beats out the Bald Ukari Monkey, the Naked Mole Rat, and the Vietnamese Leaf-Nosed Bat, earning the crown of the “Ugliest Animal in the World.”

Thunderous applause erupts. Rose petals and confetti rain down. A young boy approaches Blob with a crown of diamonds, which squeaks quietly against his scaly head.

Immediately, Blob is elevated to the status of global celebrity and plunged into an unimagined life. He becomes the spokesperson for ugly animals, walks red carpets between bodyguards, and indulges hoards of autograph-hunters. Fans rub his body for good luck. Famous designers dress him, famous rappers pose with him. He carries the torch at the opening ceremony of the Olympics. The Queen of England invites him to tea.

In a wonderful stroke of cultural conscience, Sorman slips into the lighthearted fictional story a point of serious real-world significance:

Blob delivers a lengthy speech on climate change at the UN, arguing that it threatens humans as much as the world’s ugliest. He talks about the destruction of the seabed, where he makes his home.

But all of this attention begins to poison Blob’s character — he becomes a diva, makes outrageous demands for caviar and private jets, throws legendary tantrums. All the while, he is lonely and gnawed by the awareness that his fame is fleeting — since animals are allowed to compete only once, next year’s contest will confer the coveted title upon another, ejecting Blob from celebrity and returning him to his plain old self. “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” the young Tolstoy wrote in his diary — questions Blob no longer knows how to answer, having lost the essence of his self in his ephemeral public persona.

Under Tallec’s subtle brush, we see a difficult realization dawn on Blob — privilege is bestowed largely by chance and little of actual substance separates the most fortunate from the least fortunate.

Blob sinks into a deep depression.

When the day of the next contest arrives, his reign comes to its expected end — the cameras descend upon another ugly creature as Blob, uncrowned and unregarded, heads home to the deep seabed, this time unshrouded by hat and overcoat on his voyage, hoping some remnant fan would recognize him.

Looking back on his improbable ascent to celebrity from the remove of 3,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, Blob — whose ugliness remains his own even without the world’s prized distinction — can suddenly see that the trappings of fame are “far from beautiful.”

Blob comes from Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, publisher of such thoughtful and tender gems as Cry, Heart, But Never Break, The Lion and the Bird, Bertolt, and The Paper-Flower Tree.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books. Photographs by Maria Popova.

BP

The Human Mosaic of Beauty and Madness: Young Alan Watts on Inner Sanity Amid Outer Chaos

From the abyss of WWII, an elevating reminder that we each contain a universe within that contributes to the universe without.

The Human Mosaic of Beauty and Madness: Young Alan Watts on Inner Sanity Amid Outer Chaos

“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up,” John Steinbeck wrote to a friend on the first day of 1941. “It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”

Across the country, as WWII was engulfing the world, a young aspiring writer and budding philosopher by the name of Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973) was making sense of the terror and the tragedy in a kindred manner, striving to maintain what we most need yet most easily relinquish in dark times — the telescopic perspective.

Watts had left his native England for New York City at age twenty-three to begin Zen training — a decision he had made two years earlier, after meeting the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki in London. In New York, he toiled to publish his American debut — The Meaning of Happiness, a pathbreaking book bridging modern Western psychology and ancient Eastern philosophy — and set about establishing himself as a public speaker, giving talks about Zen to both adults and children at Riverside Church, Harlem’s mecca of spiritual inquiry. (The year Watts decided to move to New York, an inquisitive little girl from Riverside Church invited Albert Einstein’s wonderful answer to her question about whether scientists pray.) But just as Watts was finding his footing in America, Europe lost ground and plummeted into WWII, dragging the whole of humanity into an unprecedented moral and spiritual abyss.

In a beautiful letter from the spring of 1941, found in the altogether revelatory Collected Letters of Alan Watts (public library), the young philosopher considers the larger meaning of the meaningless terror of war. Addressing his parents as “Dear Mummy & Daddy,” the twenty-five-year-old Watts reflects on how an awareness of the reticulated nature of reality and the interconnectedness of all human experience casts any one experience — even the most terrifying — in a wider frame of reference that makes it somehow more bearable. Decades before he formulated his ideas on how learning not to think in terms of gain or loss enlarges life, Watts tells his parents:

I have faith that something good will come out of this in the end like the phoenix out of the fire. But in the meantime it’s almost impossible to know how to plan for the future. Things here are as good as can be expected, but under such strains you never know when people are going to go crazy! Sometimes I get the queerest feeling that things going on in the world around one, are in some odd way reflections of things happening in the depths of one’s own mind. It is almost as if the world gets calm as you keep calm yourself, and vice versa. Yet it would be absurd to imagine that one could actually control the course of events in that way because this would imply the belief that oneself alone is real and all else a figment of thought. But it convinces me more and more that there is a universe inside one, which contains Hitler and all forms of human madness as well as love and beauty.

Complement The Collected Letters of Alan Watts, lovingly edited by his daughters Joan and Anne, with Watts on how to live with presence, the antidote to loneliness, and what makes us who we are, then revisit Rebecca Solnit on our grounds for hope in the dark and Albert Camus on strength of character through difficult times.

BP

A Forgotten Poet Laureate of Nature on How Beauty Dissolves the Boundary Between Us and the World

“The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live, so that the longer we can stay among these things so much the more is snatched from inevitable Time.”

A Forgotten Poet Laureate of Nature on How Beauty Dissolves the Boundary Between Us and the World

“We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle,” the great philosopher of science and natural history writer Loren Eiseley observed in his 1960 masterpiece on what a woodland creature taught him about the meaning of life.

Eiseley belongs to that rare class of enchanter — a lineage of exceptional nonfiction writers stretching from lyrically consummate scientists like Rachel Carson, Oliver Sacks, and Janna Levin to poet laureates of nature like Henry Beston and Annie Dillard — writers whose lyrical sensibility can be traced to one forgotten, immensely influential progenitor: the British nature writer Richard Jefferies (November 6, 1848–August 14, 1887).

Richard Jefferies

Having dropped out of school at the age of fifteen, Jefferies educated himself by reading voraciously and wandering the wilderness of the English countryside, convinced that he was destined to become a writer — a career he pursued unrelentingly, first as a newspaper journalist, then as a novelist, and finally as a nature writer of tremendous poetic potency. Deeply inspired by Charles Darwin, Jefferies lauded him as a “great genius, who had not only untiring patience to observe and verify, but also possessed imagination, and could therefore see the motive idea at work behind the facts” — imaginative insight Darwin translated into “astonishing works of singular patience and careful observation.”

Jefferies bridged the sensibility of the great Romantic and Transcendentalist poets with the intellectual curiosity of the “natural philosophers” — as the professional observers of nature were known before the word “scientist” was coined for the mathematician Mary Somerville. He developed his own singular style of translating the inherent poetry of nature into uncommonly poetic prose, nowhere more enchantingly than in his 1884 book The Life of the Fields (public library | free ebook) — an exquisite eulogy for the way attentiveness to nature’s beauty dissolves the boundary between ourselves and the world.

Woodcut by Agnes Miller Parker from the 1947 edition of The Life of the Fields

In a section titled “The Pageant of Summer,” Jefferies writes:

Every blade of grass, each leaf, each separate floret and petal, is an inscription speaking of hope… My heart is fixed firm and stable in the belief that ultimately the sunshine and the summer, the flowers and the azure sky, shall become, as it were, interwoven into man’s existence. He shall take from all their beauty and enjoy their glory. Hence it is that a flower is to me so much more than stalk and petals.

Learning to attend to and savor these transcendent fragments of nature, Jefferies argues, is learning to inhabit our own wholeness:

I cannot leave it; I must stay under the old tree in the midst of the long grass, the luxury of the leaves, and the song in the very air. I seem as if I could feel all the glowing life the sunshine gives and the south wind calls to being. The endless grass, the endless leaves, the immense strength of the oak expanding, the unalloyed joy of finch and blackbird; from all of them I receive a little. Each gives me something of the pure joy they gather for themselves. In the blackbird’s melody one note is mine; in the dance of the leaf shadows the formed maze is for me, though the motion is theirs; the flowers with a thousand faces have collected the kisses of the morning. Feeling with them, I receive some, at least, of their fulness of life.

Photograph by Maria Popova

When Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement with her powerful and poetic exposé of the industrial assault on nature, reflected on becoming a writer, she pointed to this passage from Jefferies’s book as the perfect articulation of the credo by which she herself lived and wrote:

The exceeding beauty of the earth, in her splendour of life, yields a new thought with every petal. The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live, so that the longer we can stay among these things so much the more is snatched from inevitable Time.

[…]

These are the only hours that are not wasted—these hours that absorb the soul and fill it with beauty. This is real life, and all else is illusion, or mere endurance. Does this reverie of flowers and waterfall and song form an ideal, a human ideal, in the mind? It does; much the same ideal that Phidias sculptured of man and woman filled with a godlike sense of the violet fields of Greece, beautiful beyond thought, calm as my turtle-dove before the lurid lightning of the unknown. To be beautiful and to be calm, without mental fear, is the ideal of nature.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly resplendent The Life of the Fields with nineteen-year-old Sylvia Plath on how the beauty of nature transforms us and Rachel Carson’s lyrical and revolutionary 1937 masterpiece that ushered in a new aesthetic of science writing, then revisit Loren Eiseley on the relationship between nature and human nature.

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