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Explainer, Elucidator, Enchanter: A Gradation of Great Writing

A visual taxonomy to illuminate the difference between information, knowledge, and meaning.

In a recent conversation with a friend, I found myself struggling to convey the hierarchy of good writing, particularly of good science writing — a hierarchy experienced so concretely in the act of reading but inexpressible as soon as one tries to dismantle the magic of enthralling prose. The difference between good writing and great writing is always palpable and rarely articulable, but the stakes are even higher in science writing, where the standards of truth and beauty are such that the precise and the poetic must converge in order to yield both comprehension and enchantment.

Since my recent diagrammatic taxonomy of platonic relationships had helped me map the multiple levels of friendship, I decided to use a similar visual taxonomy to concretize this intuitive gradation of writing.


Explainers make information clear and comprehensible. Good textbooks are the work of good explainers.

Elucidators go beyond explanation and into illumination — they transmute information into understanding by revealing the interconnectedness of the universe and integrating various bits of knowledge into a larger framework of comprehension. At their best, they embody what pioneering biochemist Erwin Chargaff addressed in his beautiful 1978 meditation on the poetics of curiosity, in which he discussed the crucial difference between explanation and understanding.

Enchanters do all of the above, but go beyond the realm of knowledge and into the realm of wisdom. They don’t work merely toward superior levels of understanding, but toward a wholly different order of meaning — an embodiment of Schopenhauer’s famous distinction between talent and genius, in which he asserted that talent hits a target no one else can hit, whereas genius hits a target no one else can see.

Enchanters bend the beam of illumination through a singular lens that furnishes something richer and greater than the sum total of knowledge — a kaleidoscopic view of previously hidden layers of reality, or an integration of previously fragmented insights and shards of awareness. The result is nothing less than a firmer grasp of one’s place in the universe, producing in turn a transcendent enlargement of being.

The greatest enchanters are creators of distinctive aesthetics — of writing, of storytelling, of thought itself. Among them are writers like Oliver Sacks, James Gleick, Diane Ackerman, Alan Lightman and Janna Levin, and trailblazing storytellers like Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of Radiolab.

Complement with Oliver Sacks on the curious psychology of writing and William Zinsser on the art of science communication, then revisit this growing library of celebrated writers’ advice on the craft.


Joseph Brodsky on the Greatest Antidote to Evil

“What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good.”

Joseph Brodsky on the Greatest Antidote to Evil

“One has to assume that every man is a thinking reed and a noble nature, even if only part-time,” Mary McCarthy wrote to Hannah Arendt in their poignant correspondence about good, evil, and human nature. Looking back on ten years of Brain Pickings and the ten most important things I learned in this decade of reading, writing, and living, I not only agree with McCarthy wholeheartedly, but would raise her and insist that we must assume a basic human goodness in everyone, as an existential imperative. And yet evil undeniably exists. So how do we reconcile these parallel truths and continue to live with radiance not only undimmed by the existence of darkness but defiantly intent on increasing the world’s store of light?

That’s what the Nobel-winning Russian poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky (May 24, 1940–January 28, 1996) explored when he faced the Williams College graduating class of 1984. A century after his compatriot Dostoyevsky made his case for why there are no bad people — a century that had seen two world wars and Russia’s descent into a communist dictatorship — Brodsky considers evil and its most powerful antidote. The speech, eventually included in the 1987 Brodsky anthology Less Than One: Selected Essays (public library), has only swelled in timeliness in the decades since, as we watch evil attempt to grab power and we strain every nasty nerve to counter it.

Joseph Brodskly
Joseph Brodskly

Brodsky addresses the next generation:

No matter how daring or cautious you may choose to be, in the course of your life you are bound to come into direct physical contact with what’s known as Evil. I mean here not a property of the gothic novel but, to say the least, a palpable social reality that you in no way can control. No amount of good nature or cunning calculations will prevent this encounter. In fact, the more calculating, the more cautious you are, the greater is the likelihood of this rendezvous, the harder its impact. Such is the structure of life that what we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good. You never see it crossing your threshold announcing itself: “Hi, I’m Evil!” That, of course, indicates its secondary nature, but the comfort one may derive from this observation gets dulled by its frequency.

In a sentiment informed in large part by his longing for a counterpoint to the dictatorial communist groupthink that had consumed his homeland, as it had mine, Brodsky adds:

The surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even — if you will — eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned impostor couldn’t be happy with. Something, in other words, that can’t be shared, like your own skin — not even by a minority.

Bearskin by Maurice Sendak, from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Brodsky believes the most robust mode of resistance to evil is what he irreverently refers to as “the famous business of turning the other cheek” — those verses from the Sermon on the Mount, which influenced the three titans of nonviolence: Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi, who discussed these principles in their fantastic forgotten correspondence about violence and human nature, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who built upon them his ethic of love and nonviolent resistance. In a passage of acute timeliness today, Brodsky considers why these timeless tenets of unrelenting goodwill have fallen out of favor in the modern world:

The fact that the world today is what it is suggests, to say the least, that this concept is far from being cherished universally. The reasons for its unpopularity are twofold. First, what is required for this concept to be put into effect is a margin of democracy. This is precisely what 86 percent of the globe lacks. Second, the common sense that tells a victim that his only gain in turning the other cheek and not responding in kind yields, at best, a moral victory, i.e., quite immaterial. The natural reluctance to expose yet another part of your body to a blow is justified by a suspicion that this sort of conduct only agitates and enhances Evil; that moral victory can be mistaken by the adversary for his impunity.

In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s incisive ideas on agency and victimhood, and one which Brodsky would expand upon four years later in what remains the greatest commencement address of all time, he adds:

The moral victory itself may not be so moral after all, not only because suffering often has a narcissistic aspect to it, but also because it renders the victim superior, that is, better than his enemy. Yet no matter how evil your enemy is, the crucial thing is that he is human; and although incapable of loving another like ourselves, we nonetheless know that evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another.

(Or, as the case has been in the overwhelming majority of human history, when one man starts to think that he is better than one woman — or, even more alarmingly, than the whole of womankind.)

Brodsky argues that such warping of intention and outcome arises from a misinterpretation and misapplication of the Sermon on the Mount. He cites three verses in particular, tied by moral and logical cohesion:

But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also

And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

Brodsky peers into the deeper implication:

The meaning of these lines is anything but passive for it suggests that evil can be made absurd through excess; it suggests rendering evil absurd through dwarfing its demands with the volume of your compliance, which devalues the harm. This sort of thing puts a victim into a very active position, into the position of a mental aggressor. The victory that is possible here is not a moral but an existential one.

Art by Shaun Tan from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy talesr

Writing two decades after Susan Sontag’s abiding admonition against interpretation, Brodsky considers the perils of our long cross-cultural history of misinterpreting these verses and reappropriating their intended meaning:

Ethics based on this faultily quoted verse have changed nothing in post-Gandhi India, save the color of its administration. From a hungry man’s point of view, though, it’s all the same who makes him hungry. I submit that he may even prefer a white man to be responsible for his sorry state if only because this way social evil may appear to come from elsewhere and may perhaps be less efficient than the suffering at the hand of his own kind. With an alien in charge, there is still room for hope, for fantasy.

Similarly in post-Tolstoy Russia, ethics based on this misquoted verse undermined a great deal of the nation’s resolve in confronting the police state. What has followed is known all too well: six decades of turning the other cheek transformed the face of the nation into one big bruise, so that the state today, weary of its violence, simply spits at that face. As well as at the face of the world.

Ever the master of nuance, Brodsky uses this cautionary tale of misconstruing the notion of turning the other cheek to returns to his central point about countering evil:

I must admit that I feel somewhat uneasy talking about these things: because turning or not turning that other cheek is, after all, an extremely intimate affair. The encounter always occurs on a one-to-one basis. It’s always your skin, your coat and cloak, and it is your limbs that will have to do the walking. To advise, let alone to urge, anyone about the use of these properties is, if not entirely wrong, indecent. All I aspire to do here is to erase from your minds a cliché that harmed so many and yielded so little. I also would like to instill in you the idea that as long as you have your skin, coat, cloak, and limbs, you are not yet defeated, whatever the odds are.

Complement this particular portion of Brodsky’s wholly terrific Less Than One with Maya Angelou on courage and facing evil and Plato’s abiding wisdom on how to negotiate our parallel capacities for good and evil, then revisit Brodsky on how to develop your taste in reading and his six rules for playing the game of life like a winner.

Find other enduringly ennobling commencement addresses in this ongoing archive, which includes masterpieces like Toni Morrison on the rewards of true adulthood (Wesleyan, 2004), George Saunders on the power of kindness (Syracuse University, 2013), Bill Watterson on creative integrity (Kenyon College, 1990), Teresita Fernandez on what it really means to be an artist (Virginia Commonwealth University, 2013), Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life (San Jose State University, 2013), Kurt Vonnegut on boredom, belonging, and our human responsibility (Fredonia College, 1978), Tom Wolfe on the rise of the pseudo-intellectual (Boston University, 2000), and Parker Palmer on the six pillars of the meaningful life (Naropa University, 2015).


Goethe’s Graphically Daring Diagrams of Color Perception

How a misguided refutation of Newton inspired artists and philosophers with a new visual aesthetic.

“To harmonize the whole is the task of art,” Wassily Kandinsky wrote in 1910 as he contemplated the spiritual element in art and the three tasks of the artist. This notion of harmony was more than a metaphor for Kandinsky — he argued for an actual sonic quality of color, in which he believed absolutely: “The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would try to express bright yellow in the bass notes, or dark lake in the treble.”

Kandinsky’s conviction was inspired by Goethe’s theory of color and emotion, published exactly a century earlier as part of the great German poet’s polymathic explorations of art and science. (A few years earlier, those explorations had led Goethe to use poetry to popularize the cloud classification system, which we continue to use today.)


Goethe’s ideas about color were an attempt to refute Newton’s theory. Although most of them were eventually invalidated by science, their creative value remained of intense interest to artists like Kandinsky and philosophers like Wittgenstein.


Perhaps most important, they paved the way for a new aesthetic of visual representations of scientific concepts and phenomena, soon reflected in visionary works like Popular Science founder Edward Livingston Youmans’s 1854 diagrams of how chemistry works and the eccentric Victorian mathematician Oliver Byrne’s graphic interpretation of Euclid’s elements.

Color wheel designed by Goethe in 1809

Goethe believed that there were only two pure colors, blue (“a darkness weakened by light”) and yellow (“a light which has been dampened by darkness”), but he was particularly interested in morphology — the study of forms. His theories of color were also heavily rooted in morphology — from his color wheel, a symmetrical arrangement of six colors against Newton’s asymmetry of seven, to his geometric diagrams of how the relationship between darkness and light shapes color.



More than a century before Fritz Kahn pioneered infographics and long before graphic design emerged as a discipline, Goethe’s diagrams, recently digitized by Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library and Sweden’s Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library, stand as a graphic voice far ahead of its time.


Complement with Goethe’s timely thoughts on the discipline of discernment in your media diet, then revisit the story of how contemporary color pioneer Josef Albers revolutionized visual culture and the art of seeing.

HT Open Culture


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